Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson (2015)

Now this was a pleasant surprise.  I checked this out from the library's e-book collection solely because I liked the stark, modern cover - reminiscent of poster art from the 1920s and 1930s.   I didn't expect to even like it, let alone devour it.  It was a National Book Award nominee (longlist) for Young People's Literature  but didn't win, and I understand why. It's a superb work of nonfiction.  One of my biggest complaints about nonfiction for youth is that it dumbs-down nonfiction, babytalks to young readers and treats them like they can't understand complexity or difficult language, or ideas that command and demand attention.  And that's just not true.  A young person who is passionate about a subject will read anything they get their hands on about that subject, whether it be baseball or whales or First Ladies (that was a favorite of mine when I was in grade school).  Symphony for the City of the Dead on first glance might seem like a non-starter for a teen reader, and for most it probably would be.  But there are young readers who may like to read about Russia, or World War II,  or the early 20th century, or gross and gory stories of survival (complete with cannibals) and even maybe classical music. This book has all of that, in spades.  And as an adult reader, I kept forgetting I was reading a book nominally written for youth - because there was no babytalk, no dumbing-down, no quashing of complexity.

Books about World War II are often - I hate to say always, but it seems that way - from very specific points of view.   British or American, or Jewish, or perhaps from a nation occupied by Germany or Japan, and occasionally even from a German point of view.  But rarely have I read, and certainly not for children, a book from the Russian point of view.  Andersen doesn't hold back here; the Russians lost the most military and civilians in their fight against the Nazis.  Anderson's story is about Shostakovich, but it's also about the early heady days of Communism, the terrible and terrifying purges of Stalin, and why a people who hated their government so very much would fight invaders for that government.  Anderson paints a picture of slowly dawning horror and the destructive and evil follies of the totalitarianism of Stalin, the cult of personality that surrounded the leader, and how that paranoia and suspicion, and a false brotherhood of dictators, led the near defeat of the Soviet Union, and the murder and death of millions and millions of people over a 20 year span.

Anderson has written a scary and absorbing true story.


Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of LeningradSymphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my biggest complaints about nonfiction for youth is that it dumbs-down nonfiction, babytalks to young readers and treats them like they can't understand complexity or difficult language, or ideas that command and demand attention. And that's just not true. A young person who is passionate about a subject will read anything they get their hands on about that subject, whether it be baseball or whales or First Ladies (that was a favorite of mine when I was in grade school). Symphony for the City of the Dead on first glance might seem like a non-starter for a teen reader, and for most it probably would be. But there are young readers who may like to read about Russia, or World War II, or the early 20th century, or gross and gory stories of survival (complete with cannibals) and even maybe classical music. This book has all of that, in spades. And as an adult reader, I kept forgetting I was reading a book nominally written for youth - because there was no babytalk, no dumbing-down, no quashing of complexity. Anderson has written a scary, absorbing true story here, elegantly and perfectly plotted. His book is about Shostakovich, but it's also about the early heady days of Communism, the terrible and terrifying purges of Stalin, and why a people who hated their government so very much would fight invaders for that same government. Anderson paints a picture of slowly dawning horror and the destructive and evil follies of the totalitarianism of Stalin, the cult of personality that surrounded the leader, and how that paranoia and suspicion, and a false brotherhood of dictators, led the near defeat of the Soviet Union, and the murder and death of millions and millions of people over a 20 year span.


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The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall (2005)

I listened to The Penderwicks on audio, narrated by an actress and excellent narrator named Susan Denaker, who is quite marvelous.  Her voice nicely matches the setting and characters of The Penderwicks.

Amazon called The Penderwicks "perfect for fans of Noel Streatfield or Edward Eager."  I can't speak to Noel Streatfield (an author on my always growing list of things to read), and I have read and liked Edward Eager.  But I think The Penderwicks reminded me more of Eleanor Estes's Pye family, and even more so of Little Women.  I've never actually read Little Women - I know, that's a sacrilege, that I hope (see above:  Noel Streatfield) to remedy someday (I'm thinking of listening to it on audio).  But one of my favorite movies of all time is Little Women starring Wynona Ryder.  Additionally, the story is really in the American cultural consciousness after almost 150 years; we all know a little bit about the book and its four sisters.  I don't think this makes me expert on Little Women by any means, but from what I know, I can pick out some of the similarities between the two works.

There are four sisters in both novels.  Although Little Women has both parents living, the father is absent; in The Penderwicks the absent parent is the deceased mother.  The oldest sister is both novels is a gentle caretaker; in Little Women she falls for an older man who lives next door to them; in The Penderwicks, Rosalind falls for Cagney (although there are definitely different outcomes).  The four sisters in both books are very close knit and have their own set of inside jokes and  slang. There is a rich boy who lives next door to both sets of sisters (Jeffery and Laurie).  Skye Penderwick has some Jo March characteristics (tom boyish, opinionated); Jane Penderwick also shares some Jo March characteristics (imaginative writer).  No Penderwick is like Beth (and no sister dies, at least in the first book); and the only commonality I can find between Amy March and Batty Penderwick is a funny bit where Jefferey saves Batty's life, and their father jokes that in some cultures, that means the savior is tied to the person he's saved, and Batty remarks that Jeffrey can marry her -  very similar to Laurie and Amy in Little Women.  There are other characters who revolve around the Penderwick sun who don't have Alcott doppelgangers,  Mrs. Tifton and Aunt March have snobbery in common.

I'm not trying to say that The Penderwicks  is a direct re-telling of Little Women (and for example, any more than The Graveyard Book is a direct re-telling of The Jungle Book).  I think The Penderwicks serves an example of Birdall's admiration for Alcott's novel; she's not trying to make an exact copy, but she does inject some of what makes Little Women so great - the delightful sisterhood, the funny episodes - but definitely writes a unique and incredible novel all her own.  In other words, this isn't a remake; these four sisters aren't carbon copies of the four March sisters.  Rather, they are literary descendants of the March (and Alcott) ideal.

Mrs. Tifton alone proves that it isn't a remake.  Superficially, she's a bitter bug in the ointment like Aunt March.  But she's actually a fully developed adult character, often a rare bird in children's literature.  There is this scene where Mrs. Tifton, angry at her son's devotion to the Penderwicks rather than her (that in itself a very adult thing) and in a litany of Penderwick faults, says that Rosalind is mooning around after Cagney, and that she will be disappointed by him in the end and lose her innocence: a very telling and adult thing to say in a children's book; it's psychologically and emotionally revealing in a way that adult characters in children's literature usually aren't.  She's old fashioned in her snobbery (this whole book is old fashioned though), and really a quite horrible and unlikable character (hearing her being acted out even makes it worse; Denaker captures all of Mrs. Tifton's flaws).  I called her several bad words at various times in the narrative - aloud.  She's awful.

Believably small adventures, often in the form of embarrassments, is what this book is made up of.  First love, a younger sister who wanders off into a field with a not-so-mad bull, a soccer ball kicked into the middle of a fancy garden party, an awful formal birthday party that require new dresses.  It's also a lot about doing and especially saying the wrong things at the wrong time, and the chaos that often follows the impulsiveness of youth.

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy (The Penderwicks #1)The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Delightful and believable small adventures, often in the form of embarrassments, is the meat and potatoes (or perhaps the gingerbread with whipped cream) of this book, and wonderfully so. First love, a younger sister who wanders off into a field with a not-so-mad (but still scary) bull, a soccer ball kicked into the middle of a fancy garden party, an awful formal birthday dinner that requires new dresses. Lots of impulsively doing and especially saying the wrong things at the wrong time, and the gentle chaos that ensues. The Penderwick sisters are the descendants of several old fashioned children's novels and series of old - The Pyes (Ginger Pye and The Saturdays (The Saturdays), but especially Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy - and Laurie too (Little Women. There are shades of Alcott in the corners and cubbyholes of this story, but only in the very best of ways.

I listened to the audio version of this book, which is excellently narrated by Susan Denaker.





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Monday, May 23, 2016

Valentine Pontifex by Robert Silverberg (1983)

I finished listening to the third Majipoor book this weekend, and ideas whirled and whirled around
my head.  Unfortunately, most of them whirled themselves out of existence, but a few stuck.  Although, again unfortunately, most of what stuck were problems I had with the novel.  Problems that the seventeen or twenty-one year old Shawn didn't notice, but that bugged 46 year old Shawn.

Before I dive into those problems, let me say that I don't hate this book.  I enjoyed each and every minute of all three books, and not just for nostalgic reasons.  I think some aspects of Robert Silverberg's world building is problematic, but he's still created this huge, incredibly interesting, lush world.

If I understand my Majipoori history correctly, there have been humans on Majipoor for at least at least 10,000 years (and maybe 14,000 -- since I listened to this series as a streaming audio from Los Angeles Public Library,  I can't go back and double check).  Since 1066, and including the George Cambridge, there will have been 43 English monarchs.  Let's say that means about 40 coronals every 1000 years.  That's about 400 Coronals.  I find it hard to believe that in 10,000 years not one woman has ever risen to be coronal.  Not one.  And this is also a planet of various races.  Not one of them has risen to be coronal either.  What the what?   Even if you take into account that up until Valentine, coronals (and thus pontifexes) were chosen from just a few families on Castle Mount, you'd think at least one time, they'd chose a woman.  That's some rampant sexism, and something never addressed in the book.

I think a hole in the book is "alien" race as well.  After these "aliens" have lived on Majipoor for 10,000 years, you'd think they would no longer be "alien."  And you'd think at least one of them could have risen to power to become coronal.  That doesn't bother me quite as much as the sexist charges, as aliens don't really exist (or if they do, not these particular aliens).  But women do exist, they are strong and smart and powerful; even in times of human history when women didn't have nominal power, they created it for themselves anyway (the she-wolves of England, or the Empresses of Rome, for example).

Silverberg  knows how to create interesting female characters too:  Majipoor Chronicles was full of them.  So why can't Castle Mount be populated with women?  Where are the duchesses and mayoresses?  How could a patriarchy exist on this planet when women like Lisamon Hultin exist to kick ass?  Or talented and creative types of Inyanna Forlana or even Carabella (who becomes the flattest, most boring, simpering dull character in Valentine Pontifex).

(A younger female friend, who is reading LVC for the first time, scoffed at the sex scenes written from a male point of view and said they are highly unrealistic; but aren't all sex scenes?).

The government of Majipoor is a weird one too.  It's pure capitalist, almost fascist, neo-religious.  A strange place that I don't think would quite work in the real world.  Although I'm reading about Stalinist U.S.S.R. right now, and that's also a strange, strange land that shouldn't have worked, and didn't really work, but still survived for longer than it should.  That said, the U.S.S.R. didn't even make it a century, and Majipoor has been under the same type of government for 10,000 years.  Majipoor is a dictatorship, and an oligarchic one at that; with a form of punishment that's both benevolent (no death penalty) but creepily extreme (mind control).

Something Silverberg did so well in Majipoor Chronicles he repeated in Valentine Pontifex, playing around with narrative point of view and time.  A particular scene at the beginning is told from several viewpoints, and not always in a linear fashion; the plagues and misery effecting Majipoor is told from many different third person viewpoints throughout the book. This worked particularly well in the audio version I listened to, as chapters were narrated by different actors (that was the same with Majipoor Chronicles).

One of my main problems with all three Majipoor books is something even Hissune, a main character, comments on towards the end of this book:  "Our task would be three times as simple I think, if this world were half as big."  It's an impossibly big place for a centralized government to truly be able to hold sway and power for so very, very long.  The British Empire can provide an example of how easy it is to keep peoples throughout a large area in check:  that lasted about 200 years, and there were revolutions and mutinies throughout that time period, one at least very successful.  Silverberg added communication to Valentine Pontifex that didn't seem to exist in Lord Valentine's Castle; but there is still that problem of moving about in a world so big.  It was nine weeks from the Isle to Alhanroel; Hissune had to move a million men or more from Alhanroel to Zimroel, and I'm not sure how he did it.  Silverberg made Majipoor gargantuan and wrote himself into some problems that just can't be easily fixed and remain in a world without some sort of super technological advances.

 Note:  I reflected a bit on why I  probably first bought these books, and I decided it had to be the covers.  Specifically, that Valentine is hot on both covers (in an 80s way), and on the LVC cover in particular, he looks like he's hung.  


Valentine Pontifex (Lord Valentine, #3)Valentine Pontifex by Robert Silverberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like he did in Majipoor Chronicles, Silverberg plays around with narrative point of view (although it's always in third person in Valentine Pontifex) and even non-linear storytelling (the first part of the book isn't in a specific order, and a scene is told from several view points). The plot moves more slowly than Lord Valentine's Castle, and by book 3 in this series, I think the reader is able to poke some holes in the balloon that is Majipoor. These holes won't necessarily take away from the enjoyment of the book (it's a nice enough end to this part of the trilogy), but I did come away thinking that as fantasy worlds go, Majipoor seemed very sexist (there are no women in any real positions of power, certainly not wielding power in a political way) and alienist (after 10,000+ years, no alien or woman has ever become ruler of this world); the denizens of this planet also seems to have somehow conquered the problems that face enormous empires (British, U.S.S.R.) but without really giving the reader a clue as to how this was done. This book in particular doesn't stand up to a lot of scrutiny; that said, it was fun to hear it read aloud on audio, narrated by many different voice actors. If you like your fantasy with a dash of science fiction, or your science fiction with a spice of fantasy, then Robert Silverberg's Majipoor is for you; just don't start here.


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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)

A Little LifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara


Embarrassingly, I couldn't (or wouldn't?) finish this book. I only got to about page 54, then gave up. The good, glowing reviews made me want to read it, but in the end, reading it felt like a chore; perhaps more interesting than washing dishes, but just. The writing was exquisite and layered. I wasn't particularly enamored by the characters or setting; I've finished books with these perceived flaws before though. It was the length that did it for me in the end; I wasn't willing to give up a month of my reading life when other far more intriguing books were calling, calling my name. Enough said.


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Two other things:  by "setting" above, I mean New York.  New York settings don't always bother me (read: Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler) but this one seemed "too New York" to be anything but annoying, insder-y, and slightly pretentious.

Also, the cover.  Every time I picked up the book and saw that guy crying... it made me think something really, really awful was going to happen to these sort of awful people, and that eventually made me not want to read the book anymore.  

Friday, May 20, 2016

"Darkness" by Lord Byron (1816)


The poem is intense and frightening; bleak and dark.  Its apocalyptic visions fit right into our Hunger Games - World War Z - end times-end of the world Armageddon culture.  

It's read aloud brilliantly here:  Darkness by Lord Byron read by Tom O'Bedlam.    Take five minutes to listen; I promise you won't be disappointed.

It was written, fittingly, in 1816 - the year without a summer.  A podcast I listened to (In Our Time) had an episode about this very summer, and actually started me on this quest to read the Romantic poets.  That year was dark and cold and bleak and frightening, and although it was not as bad as Lord Byron depicts in his poem, it was still pretty dismal.  

Another thing that kept coming to my mind was the old cartoon from 1939 in which the animals gather to talk about the war that killed off all mankind.  It's on youtube here:  Peace on Earth.  

It's that last line though, that made me love this poem.  So fucking brilliant.  I have felt very so-so about the poetry of Lord Byron, but now I understand his rock start status.








  

"Merlin" by David St. John (1991)

I made a copy of this poem sometime back in the early 1990s, and it's been hanging around my files, rising to the top periodically to interest and charm me anew.  It's copied from The Best American Poetry 1991.

"Merlin"

Italo Calvino (1923-1985)


     It was like a cave of snow, no...
More like that temple of frosted, milk-veined marble
                I came upon one evening in Selinunte,
Athena's white owl flying suddenly out if its open eaves.
       I saw the walls lined with slender black-spined
                 Texts, rolled codices, heavy leather-bound volumes
Of the mysteries.  Ancient masks of beaten copper and tin,
       All ornamented with rare feathers, scattered jewels.
His table was filled with meditative beakers, bubbling
                 Here and there like clocks; the soldierly
Rows of slim vials were labeled in several foreign hands.
         Stacks of parchments, cosmological recipes, nature's
Wild equivalencies.  A globe's golden armature of the earth,
              Its movable bones ringing a core of empty
       Space.  High above the chair, a hanging Oriental scroll,
Like the origami of a crane unfolded, the Universe inked
             So blue it seemed almost ebony in daylight,
The stars and their courses plotted along its shallow folds
       In a luminous silver paint.  On an ivory pole,
              His chameleon robe, draped casually, hieroglyphics
Passing over it as across a movie screen, odd formulas
        Projected endlessly -- it's elaborate layers of
Embroidery depicting impossible mathematical equations;
                Stitched along the hem, the lyrics
Of every song one hears the nightingale sing, as dusk falls
      On summer evenings.  All of our stories so much
                   Of the world they must be spoken by
A voice that rests beyond it... his voice, its ideal melody,
               Its fragile elegance guiding our paper boats,
                                   Our so slowly burning wings,
Toward any imminent imagination, our horizon's carved sunset
                   The last wisdoms of Avalon

                From Anteaus 

I can only imagine now, some twenty-five years later, what attracted me to this poem in the first place. I imagine it was the name "Merlin" and the fantasy imagery; reading this description of this wizard's "cave of snow" the words sort of begin hovering about you like thick, beautifully scented incense, until you are completely immersed.

In that pre-internet world, one didn't have the immediate capability to google the unfamiliar.  In re-reading this (and typing it out), I'm a bit amazed at what I don't know about the poem now, and apparently didn't enough about to look up then.  What was "Selinunte" (an ancient Greek city, now ruins, which I googled) and while I know who Italo Calvino is (in the vaguest way possible of someone well but not perfectly read or educated), I have no idea why this poem is dedicated to him or what it has to do with him (I know he wrote fantastical things, so perhaps that's it?).  I also never sought the source of this poem (Antaeus, a now defunct literary journal) or bothered to find out anything about David St. John.  Essentially, I read (and probably re-read the poem), fell under its spell, and (lazily?) left well enough alone.  

I think, at the very least, that makes me an aesthetic reader but a piss poor academic.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Red: A History of the Redhead by Jacky Collis Harvey (2015)


Red
#13 was on every playground teasing that
gay kid in plaid in the back while #21 laughed
and then tried to be the gay kid's friend later.
When I was five or six, my mother took my brother (dark hair, olive skin) and I to someone's house for a play date.  She probably did not call it that, but that's what it was.  I don't remember the name of these kids, only that they were slightly older, and there were at least two boys.  In my mind, they looked like typical 70s boys, with bowl blonde hair and large chomping teeth, and mean looks (see photo above) We were playing basketball (?) in their driveway, and they started teasing me and calling me a "red-headed freckle face hamburger."  I, being a sensitive lad, burst into tears and ran inside. I don't remember how this story ended. I don't ever remember playing with those boys again, but I also don't remember my mother running to my rescue (this never happened; 70s mothers didn't ever rescue their kids; it was a dog eat red-headed freckle-faced hamburger world).  That was probably the first time I realized, or had it brutally pointed out to me, that being "red-head" was a bad thing, something to be ashamed of.

As long as I could remember, people asked me about my hair.  They asked me where I got it. They admired it or made fun of it.  There were a couple of other red-heads around in my small town.  My sister was born when I was 9, and she was as red-headed as me.    I've been called Carrot and Carrot Top; I was told by a girl in my class that my hair was ugly.  "Ginger" is a new term; I only started hearing that a few years ago.

Sometime in my 30s, I realized my hair on my head had gone from red to dishwater blonde (and is turning snow white, slowly but surely).   The hair on the rest of my body has mostly retained the red though, so if I'm at the gym or the beach or pool, I'm still identifiably a "ginger."  (that hair, too, is slowly but surely turning white).

Harvey's book introduced me to quite a few new and unique things I possess as a red head.  I knew about the dental problems (anesthesia has trouble working on red-heads) but did not know about the "scent" problem (our skins are more acidic and don't hold perfume as well).  I loved the chapters on the origins of redheads, and briefly thought I must be mostly neanderthal (a cool thought) before she dashed that in the ground.    There was some long chapters on art (I guess I'm just not an art history fan, at least reading about it; it's much more fun to see art than read about it).  The information tying Parkinson's disease to melanoma and then back to redheads was a bit frightening.

Being a red-head - even a fake red-head - in a sea of brown haired people has been quite a heady experience this last sixteen years.  I haven't felt any embarrassment about being a red-head since at last puberty, but California has made me feel quite good about my freckled complexion and light (often red) hair.

Red: A History of the RedheadRed: A History of the Redhead by Jacky Colliss Harvey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A must read for real redheads, and those who love or live with one. As a true carrot (I never encountered the word "ginger" until a few years ago), I had picked some extra information here and there over the years about the genetic uniqueness of possessing red hair, as experienced the ribbing and attention and occasional malice that comes from other hair colors. Harvey added some extra and fun information to my pool of redhead knowledge, and also made me feel pretty damn special about being among the few and proud that are truly red. Perfectly well written and enjoyable.


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Monday, May 16, 2016

Anglomania: A European Love Affair by Ian Buruma (1999)



I couldn't figure out what this was supposed to be about, so I finally gave up. Very literarily unsporting of me, I know - but so little time, so many books. 


Charles M. Schulz: Conversations edited by M. Thomas Inge (2000)

This is a collection of interviews done throughout the years, Charles Schulz talking to journalists from as disparate publications as The Saturday Evening Post to Penthouse (this is the part where emoji come in handy, as I need something visually to express my agaped agog-ness).  I cherish and revere Peanuts.  It's sort of like The Bible for me, and definitely my personal philosophy, conduct, morals, and even the way I react physically or emotionally to some things, has some basis in the my formative years reading and re-reading Peanuts comics, the newspaper and in the paperback books.

How complicated was Charles Schulz?  If you love Peanuts, you know that the comic strip is deceptively simple.  It's brilliantly deep, particularly in its golden years.  And you want the creator to espouse brilliant deepness, words of wisdom that you can transcribe and pin to your wall.  That's really not going to happen here - and possibly, probably rightly so - Charles Schulz pretty much saved all that deep brilliance and brilliant deepness for those four panels a day (more on Sunday).  And Charles Schulz was possibly, probably a complicated individual, but these interviews only scratch at that.

Each interview, by the way, sort of sounds exactly alike.  They all ask him the same questions, it seems like, a lot about his background, or really lack of artistic background, a lot about the name Peanuts, a lot about his religion.  Later about his politics.  Some of about his family, and how much his kids played a part in the comics.  His divorce rises up in the 1970s (his ex-wife ended up marrying the man who built the famous ice skating rink, which I thought was delightfully scandalous for someone as wishy-washy seeming as Charles Schulz.  I think that also proves he was complicated.

I don't think this could or should be read in one sitting or even ten sittings.  Something to occasionally grab, and then be occasionally intrigued or astounded by Charles Schulz; but those are the gems hidden in some  journalistic dregs.

Charles M. Schulz: ConversationsCharles M. Schulz: Conversations by M. Thomas Inge
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Was Charles Schulz complicated or not? And how do journalists interviewing him scratch enough away of his exterior to find that out? Everyone who loves Peanuts knows that the comic strips are deceptively simple; those four panels often contained complexity that was both deep and brilliant, particularly in the golden age of Peanuts (1960s/1970s). The words of Charles Schulz, at least those in this collection of interviews, aren't really very deep or brilliant. You want to be able to gather up his words, sort of like one of your favorite comic strips, and tack it on your wall; but at least to me, nothing really stuck out enough to do that. Possibly, probably, Charles Schulz saved up his brilliance and depth for the comics themselves, and rightly so. That's where he did his talking, and thinking, and philosophizing - not to journalists. That's not to say that these journalists from as disparate publications as The Saturday Evening Post to Penthouse (this is the part where emoji come in handy, as I need something visually to express my agaped agog-ness) didn't try to figure him out. I don't feel like they really did, although biographically speaking I learned a few things. The real question isn't "Is Charles Schulz Charlie Brown?" (asked several times in this book) but "Is Charles Schulz Peanuts?" I think the answer is yes.


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The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie (1931)

The Sittaford Mystery was published in the United States as The Murder At Hazelmoor; but the reason eludes the internet (and therefore, right at this very moment, me).  "Sittaford" is the community at which the murder (and the events leading up to it) took place while "Hazelmoor" was the name of the house where Captain Trevelyan was murdered.

Dame Agatha can be forgiven for the occasional dull murder mystery; she wrote so much and so often, and usually so well, that every so often a bad apple will turn up. These bad apples, unlike the proverb, don't ruin the barrel.  Christie's apple barrel is full of delicious mysteries, and even the so called bad apples aren't all that bad.

Unfortunately, Sittaford/Hazelmoor is a bad apple in the bunch (but not THAT bad; it's still enjoyable).   I think the main fault is the characters.  Usually Christie characters are delightfully well drawn and thought out, but that wasn't the case here.  There were too many of them for starters, which left little room for character development.  Well, let's be completely honest, Christie characters don't really develop in the literary sense; she paints with broad strokes and they are sometimes stereotypical.  But she usually is able to add some color to each character that brings them to life; the characters in Sittaford/Hazelmoor just never seemed anything other than stock characters in a run-of-the-mill murder mystery.

Plot-wise, I did not guess whodunnit, although the motive seemed really, really weak; that weak motive, I think, is tied to weak character development.

Agatha Christie is witty though, and her characters mouth things that will often make murder mystery lovers laugh.    When amateur detective Emily Trefusis, who is trying to clear the good name of her fiance who has been accused of murder, asks Dr. Warren about the time of the murder, the Dr. answers:  "You'll understand that contrary to the popular belief in novels it is extremely difficult to fix the time of death accurately." Christie is not only making fun of other murder mysteries, she's making fun of herself, because her books have scores of doctors who do just that.



The Sittaford MysteryThe Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Agatha Christie can be forgiven for the occasional dull murder mystery; she wrote so many mysteries, so often, and so well, that there are bound to be good ones and mediocre ones and amazingly awesome ones. Sittaford, also known as The Murder at Hazelmoor (I couldn't discover why the title was changed for American audiences, although to be honest, I didn't look very far), is a mediocre murder mystery at best. Too many characters who weren't developed very well, a meandering plot, and a whodunnit that was surprising (I have to admit, I had no idea) but with an anti-climatic motive. Even with a mediocre offering, Christie is still witty: When amateur detective Emily Trefusis, who is trying to clear the good name of her fiance who has been accused of murder, asks Dr. Warren about the time of the murder, the Dr. answers: "You'll understand that contrary to the popular belief in novels it is extremely difficult to fix the time of death accurately." That made me snort: I think Christie herself has used a doctor's uncanny ability to establish time of death in some of her own mysteries, and certainly she was thumbing her nose at other mystery writers. Well played, Dame, in an other wise ho-hum book.


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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

"To a Skylark" by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1820)

I chose to read this one because I love meadowlarks, particularly their songs.   One of my favorite pieces of orchestral music is Ralph Vaughan Williams's A Lark Ascending as well.  I listened to an audio version of the poem by the wonderfully named Algy Pug, who has a very poetic reading voice (who ARE you Algy Pug?).   You can listen to Algy Pug read this poem here.  I also listened to the song of a real skylark, and while I think meadowlark's have a prettier song, the skylark's song is still really, really lovely.  Particularly, I imagine, because the skylark does its singing as it flies above, in the sky - that's much referenced in the poem.  That must be quite something to behold, walking in a field, and hearing this song from above, like an "blithe spirit."

 




Monday, May 9, 2016

"A Lament" by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1821)




 A lament:  A passionate expression of sorrow or grief.

Oh world!  (such a sad place).  Oh, life (how short and brutish).  Oh, time (so short and then KAPUT you are snuffed out like a candle, you and all your friends, and your dog too).

On whose last steps I climb (we’re all walking the same steps, down or up, people and dogs and trilobites and camels and daffodils and amoebas and even the universe)
Trembling at that where I stood before (looking back at the past?)
When will return the glory of your prime… no more, o never more…
(this is a lament indeed.  And he was so young to already feel this way!)

Out of day and night, a joy has taken flight (it’s depressing to think about)
Fresh spring, and summer, and winter hoar, move my faint heart with grief but delight no more, no never more (wow, nothing will make him feel good ever again.  That’s certainly what depression feels like)

This is as good a description of depression as I've ever read.  Shelley has really described the emotional toil and anguish that someone who is thinking about their demise and the demise of everyone and everything they love goes through.  Wow.  Makes me weep.

Majipoor Chronicles by Robert Silverberg (1982)

Like Lord Valentine's Castle before this, I'm listening to an audio version of Majipoor Chronicles.  And really enjoying it.    Majipoor Chronicles is essentially a grouping of short stories set on and during various time periods of the lush and large world Robert Silverberg created.  Some of the stories were previously published.  They are all loosely connected by the character of Hissune, who we first met in LVC as a sassy street urchin (are there any other kinds in literature?) who meets Lord Valentine in the Labyrinth.  Silverberg has (conveniently) created a Register of Souls, that contains "memory readings" that one can access, essentially living someone's life, seeing events through their eyes.  I think various other authors have used this literary device, albeit in various forms)  including if I remember correctly J.K. Rowling.  This conceit could be considering somewhat lame, although perhaps Silverberg was the first to apply it.  The convenience of this device, however, is far overshadowed by the stories, some of them quite superior pieces of the science fiction / fantasy blend that Silverberg is really a master of writing.  LVC is that kind of mash-up (Anne McCaffrey's Pern does this quite well too), and some of these stories are little gems.

Each section is read by a different narrator, which has made this audio book a real treat.  Almost all the readers are outstanding, and even the not-so-outstanding ones are still quite good.  What sucks is I can't tell who narrates what!

"Thesme and the Ghayrog"  The first story is one of the best; you don't even really need any prior knowledge of Majipoor to dive in.  I think this short story made me weary of the Thesme's you run into throughout your life:  self absorbed, overly serious, tiresomely assured of their martyred status in society. The narrator of this one was excellent, by the way.

"The Time of the Burning"  A neither good nor bad story, but interesting.  Perhaps a commentary on Vietnam or other more recent wars.

"In the Fifth Year of the Voyage"  An adventure tale at its heart, this was good.

"Calintane Explains"  This was one of my favorite stories when I first read it, and it's still good. Arioc's solution to maintaing power while still beating off the mind-numbing and soul-stealing burden of beauracracy is the kind of story only science fiction can tell.

"The Desert of Stolen Dreams" So very, very long.  There is nothing more dull than hearing other people tell you their dreams; that's all this is, one long novella (novelette?) of Dekkeret's nightmares.  The bits in between the dreams were interesting though; I imagine actually reading this (and being able to skim the bits you don't like) as opposed to having to listen to is easier to manage; I must admit I fast forwarded a few times.

"The Soul Painter and the Shapeshifter"  I loved the narrator of this story, which made the story extra interesting.

"Crime and Punishment"  Decent.  

"Among the Dream Speakers"  Just fair; although the narrator made this story better than it probably actually was.

"A Thief in Ni-Moya"  So some of these stories I remembered quite well; I had totally forgotten about this story, about a swindled shopkeeper who becomes a thief, and then regains her fortune. As soon as it began, I was instantly transported back in time to when I first read it, and first enjoyed.  It's as enjoyable and thrilling, particularly as this narrator is maybe my favorite.  

"Voriax and Valentine" Continues to be my least favorite story in the entire collection; it serves a bridge between the conclusion and the next next book in the series, but it's still boring.  Creepily memorable, though, as the two brothers "couple" with a witch who then tells their fortune.  


Majipoor Chronicles (Lord Valentine, #2)Majipoor Chronicles by Robert Silverberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 Majipoor Chronicles is essentially a grouping of short stories set on and during various time periods of the lush and large world Robert Silverberg created. Some of the stories were previously published. They are all loosely connected by the character of Hissune, who we first met in LVC as a sassy street urchin (are there any other kinds in literature?) who meets Lord Valentine in the Labyrinth. Silverberg has (conveniently) created a Register of Souls, that contains "memory readings" that one can access, essentially living someone's life, seeing events through their eyes. I think various other authors have used this literary device, albeit in various forms) including if I remember correctly J.K. Rowling. This conceit could be considering somewhat lame, although perhaps Silverberg was the first to apply it. The convenience of this device, however, is far overshadowed by the stories, some of them quite superior pieces of the science fiction / fantasy blend that Silverberg is really a master of writing. LVC is that kind of mash-up (Anne McCaffrey's Pern does this quite well too), and some of these stories are little gems. I listened to an audio version; each story was narrated by a different reader, which I really enjoyed.


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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney (2011)

Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian ServantsLife Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants by Alison Maloney
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A colleague once referred to a book as "report fodder" - the type of disposal book that elementary-aged students use to write reports about presidents, or animals, or countries. They are almost always library books, written methodically and in a similar manner, easy to digest, baled together like straw in great sets ("mammals" or "California missions").

This book is report fodder, for adults. Probably, particularly, for three types of adults: 1. Adults like me who like reading fiction and nonfiction about Victorian and Edwardian England; 2. A similar group of folks who religiously watched Downton Abbey (I fell into this camp for two series); 3. Writers who are writing a book about Victorian and Edwardian England.

It's not poorly written. It's not well written. It's just written. With lots and lots of quotes from other, probably better, books.

These types of books are sort of like the "pink slime" that chicken nuggets are made out of. Essentially, this is a chicken nugget. It looks like a book, and it tastes like a book, but it's not really a book.

Or, as a friend called it on Goodreads: "kind of a pseudo-book."

Yep.

Exactly.

So did I read it? Yes. Did I enjoy it? When you eat chicken nuggets, you always enjoy them. I didn't throw it across the room in disgust (it was on my Ipad, so I wasn't going to do that anyway). Would I recommend it? To anyone that falls in those three groups.

But if I'm being completely honest, at least star-wise, it's a solid 2-star book.


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On Fame by John Keats (1818-1819)

So last week I read Wordsworth, and pretty much enjoyed all those poems.

This week, I'm reading / listening to one Keats poem every day - unfortunately not enjoying these complicated poems so much.

So Keats.  He was brilliant.  He died tragically young, at age 25 of tuberculosis.  He wrote all of these complicated poems in his early 20s.  You know what I had accomplished by age 25?  A college degree I wasn't really using at that point, and I had just met my wonderful husband.  That's it.  On the emoji scale, comparatively speaking Keats is the winky face, and I was the poop emoji (I'm not the poop emoji anymore though; if I have to choose an emoji for myself, perhaps I like the tsunami wave).  So Keats's story is pretty fucking amazing.

Egghead
But did I mention that his poetry was complicated?  What's a word that means "complicated- makes -you- think- really- hard- makes- you- have -to -google- every- third -word- and -I -thought- I -was- a- smart- guy- but- I -guess- I'm- not- as- smart- as- I- thought."  It's egghead poetry.  I mean all poetry is egghead poetry at some level and makes you think really hard, but Keats, man, this poetry makes you work.

Or Keats is trying very hard.  I know, from my English degree of long ago, that poetry went from being quite ornamental and baroque to romantic around this time, and Keats is some sort of bridge.

That ornamental crap  - see "Nilus-born" above - is what I don't like about Keats. Baroque music is one thing, baroque poetry is another.

And yet, "On Fame" is still a hoot.  The minute I started reading this poem, I started thinking about this 20something I know, who is rabidly desperate to be famous, but doesn't want to actually work at it.  He blathered on about this one night at our house for what seemed like hours (we'd had him over for dinner), a night which ended in me really disliking him intensely (hate is not a family value, I know, but I think I'm allowed a few people to actively dislike).

This poem's for you, boy, and all the other idiots out there swimming like little white mice in a bucket in their quest for fame.  Reality television stars. Vine folks.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (2012)

Sweet ToothSweet Tooth by Ian McEwan


A good start puttered off into nowhere; not even puttered off a cliff, but just into a Phantom Tollbooth type of doldrums reading, where I kept feeling like I had to be reading this, but just didn't want to pick it up. So I finally decided to give into to ennui, and slit the literary wrists of this mostly dull book.


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Grandmama of Europe: The Crowned Descendants of Queen Victoria by Theo Aronson (1973)

As you may have surmised from this blog, I love reading about Queen Victoria and her progeny.  This book did not disappoint.  This is my second time to read it, and while it's not the most riveting account I've ever read, it's strong and interesting (if you like this sort of book).  If you aren't exactly at tea with Queen Marie or Queen Sophie or Queen Maud, you certainly are watching them having tea through the window of the palace.  Their farts and burps aren't necessarily evident; the lack of warts in this sketch is probably what allowed Aronson such close access to the Royal Family (that, and likely his gayness, which according to other things I've read, the royal palaces are full of more queens than the Queen).  

One of my favorite royalties makes cameo appearances all the time in various books:  Princess Augusta of Cambridge, Duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz.  Her letters to her niece, Queen Mary, are always peppery and sharp and absolute joy to read.  

Queen Marie Mignon of Yugoslavia was also a favorite.  It's pretty clear reading between the lines that she was a lesbian, but I suppose if Aronson came out and said thatin 1973, he would probably not have been given access to the royal archives for future books (in 1973, some of these people were still alive, or at the very least, just dead). 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Theo Aronson was a chronicler of royalty, and if you like reading about Queens and Kings of (almost) modern times, then you won't be disappointed by this book. Aronson does not make you feel as if you are sitting down to tea with Queen Maud or Queen Marie or Queen Sophie, which is disappointing at times; it's more like you are peering through a very clear window pane at them having tea or sitting with Grandmama learning how to be very English. Honestly, the book has some tedious points -- and the time line back and forth between kings and queens doesn't always make sense (those Danes and Swedes feel VERY tacked on) -- but overall, it's great fun. Royalty lovers won't be disappointed. 


Ronald Reagan by Jacob Weisberg (2016)

This is part of The American Presidents series, which are all very short sketches of U.S. presidents.  I've read quite a few of these, and liked some of them immensely; others I've found to be simply so-so.  This portrait of Ronald Reagan is really quite good; once I started it I had trouble putting it down.  The writing was crisp and interesting.

What I know about Reagan is what every child of the 80s knows about Reagan.  Movie star, with a iron dragon of a wife, had Alzheimers.  His presidency pretty much fills a memory backdrop to being in school:  he was president from the time I was 9 or 10 until I was a senior in high school.  I remember jokes we told about Russian presidents (tell Yuri to go a cliff "and drop off"  - get it); "jokes" he told about Russian presidents ("we will begin bombing Russia in five minutes"); I remember him getting shot (we weren't sent home early).  The names in this book - Deaver, Regan, Caspar Weinberger, Oliver North were names repeated on the evening news by John Chancellor or Tom Brokaw.  Bedtime for Bonzo.  My dad, a rabid democrat, didn't like him.  I lived in a Republican bastion which did.  Thinking about Ronald Reagan is like going through an old childhood scrapbook:  remember when Barbara Bush called Geraldine Ferraro a word "that rhymes with witch?"  Remember when Nancy Reagan was on Different Strokes?  Remember Joan Quigley?  Remember when we bombed Libya (I really thought that was the end of the world, quite frankly; that all out nuclear war had started), or when we invaded Grenada?

Was this book well-researched?  My knowledge of Reagan is mostly that scrapbook, so I can't really tell. You pick up bits and pieces over the years; but this was probably the first book I read about Ronald Reagan.  It was good, but I'd like to not make it my last.  The farther away you get from an event or a presidency, the less chance there is for bias there creeps into a biography or work of nonfiction (ideally, I guess; this isn't always true).  People who adore and worship Reagan definitely still exist, but that's more and more a caricature.  The people who despise Reagan still exist as well; when Nancy Reagan died recently, my Facebook feed was full of gay guys from that time period who wrote about how the Reagans ignored AIDs and were horrible people for doing so.  Yes, that's true.  But that kind of hatred has lessened over the years.

Ronald Reagan (The American Presidents, #40)Ronald Reagan by Jacob Weisberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know whether this was a well-researched book about Ronald Reagan or not. It seemed to be. What I do know is that I enjoyed reading it immensely. These short biographical portraits in the The American Presidents series have run the gamut from great to so-so (I don't think I've yet read an all out horrible one), but this one definitely swings towards the great end of the pendulum. I think that's partly because this was like opening a cultural and political scrapbook of my childhood. Nostalgia reigned supreme here; the names, places, and events scattered throughout the book were the NBC Nightly News of my life, ages 10-18. I remember jokes WE told about Russian presidents (tell Yuri to go a cliff "and drop off" - get it); "jokes" HE told about Russian presidents ("we will begin bombing Russia in five minutes"); I remember him getting shot (we weren't sent home early). The names mentioned in this book - Deaver, Regan, Caspar Weinberger, Oliver North were names repeated on the evening news by John Chancellor or Tom Brokaw. Bedtime for Bonzo. My dad, a rabid democrat, didn't like him. I lived in a Republican bastion which did. Remember when Barbara Bush called Geraldine Ferraro a word "that rhymes with witch?" Remember when Nancy Reagan was on Different Strokes? Remember Joan Quigley? Remember when we bombed Libya (I really thought that was the end of the world, quite frankly; that all-out nuclear war had started), or when we invaded Grenada? I'm sure you children of the 80s can think of more things than that. What is in the book (the death of three Russian leaders one after the other) will remind you of whatever isn't in the book (the fifth grade playground joke about Yuri Andropov, for example). For a history book, and a short one, this was great fun.


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