Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minomoto Yoshitsune by Pamela S. Turner; illustrated by Gareth Hinds (2016)

WTF is wrong with me and nonfiction lately?

Are we breaking up?

For most of my adult life, nonfiction has been my rock, my lighthouse, the place I go to forget my troubles, come on get happy.  Of course, I haven't liked every single work of nonfiction I've ever read; if you've read any of my other posts, you know I'm not a reading robot.  For me, all reading is sort of like wine tasting.  Some books I greedily slurp and beg for more, others I spit out in disgust.  A few books I savor for a while, then let the flavor overwhelm me and envelope me.  

But more than lately, for a year or so, almost all nonfiction has left me flat.
Death in Florence took me six weeks to finish; a book I used to plow through in a week, I found a tedious slog, with only a few high points, and a mass confusion of people whose names I couldn't keep straight.

The Reconnaissance by Paul Johnson, left me flat.  That could because I find Paul Johnson sort of repugnant; but still.

Fortune's Children, about the Vanderbilts, was the last nonfiction I read I even halfway enjoyed, and that was a book I'd read once before, many years ago.

Louisa May Alcott by Susan Cheever - enjoyed that one immensely.  That was back in June.

In January, I read (and gave 5 stars on Goodreads) to Jacob Weisberg's short biography of Ronald Reagan.  That was the only nonfiction in eight months I've loved.  

There may have been other forgettable works on nonfiction I didn't even bother blogging about or recording on Goodreads, because I started them but then quickly put them down.  Samurai Rising is going into the "put down" pot, although it wasn't quickly.  I gave this 10 days.  

It was a slog.  I thought the writing was quite good actually.  The audience is children (I saw the cover while walking through a children's section of a library, and thought the cover looked rad).  The illustrator, Gareth Hinds, is really well known; he did a kick ass Beowulf graphic novel, among others.

So what happened?  Like I whined above, WTF?  Why couldn't I get into this, or any other nonfiction since January?  

I thought about what it was that gradually turned me off this book.  One thing was the aspects of military history. I'm not a fan of the minutiae of battles, and this book seemed to be battle after battle. I like social history mixed with political history; I like history that's people driven as well.  This book seemed to be people driven, but for me that started to fall apart - I just couldn't latch on to any of the people in the book.

And, there were so many names. I kept mixing up who was who; I would forget and have to page backwards to figure out which samurai was which.  

In the end, I was just sort of bored.  Just like Death in Florence.  Just like Jay Winik's book about 1944.  Just like quite a few other books of nonfiction I've read in the last year or so.

My love affair with nonfiction may be over.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Design for Dying by Renee Patrick (2016)

Design for Dying (Lillian Frost & Edith Head, #1)Design for Dying by Renee Patrick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A pretty good first book in a series. It drags a bit in the beginning - origin story, origin story, origin story, which is necessary (I guess) but can be dull if you are a lover of solving mysteries and outsmarting authors and their detectives. MGM was billed as having "more stars than there are in heaven" and that's the moxie of this book. While it had a large cast of fictional characters that were occasionally hard to keep track of, it also had a top billing of whose who of 1930s Hollywood, starting of course with Edith Head. Barbara Stanwyk and Bob Hope are major minor characters with an important part to play. About mid-way through, I really started to become engrossed by the "whodunnit." I think I like the murderer and ending I came up with in my head better than Renee Patrick's actual one, but hey - I didn't write the book.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer (1962)

In a recent Slate article about this book, a father and mother disagree on the appropriateness of this book to read aloud to their young child.  The argument stems from the moral ambiguity of the story.  Three robbers  hold up stagecoaches and steal untold treasures, which they hoard, causing fear and mayhem in the process (I would imagine some murder took place as well, although the book doesn't go that far).  In one particular stagecoach, they find a beautiful blonde orphan girl named Tiffany - an unusual name in 1962 -  who is on her way to live with a wicked aunt (or so she says; we never meet said aunt, who may be pining away for her, n'est ce pas?).  They take Tiffany back to their lair, and, like three men and a baby, they all become a family, which in turn causes the robbers to adopt more and more lost and orphaned children, until a whole village of lost children grows up around them, to honor them for all time.  

Interestingly, TIFFANY comes to us in English by way of French, and is a version of Epiphany.  Of course, if you believe names have meaning in literature, an epiphany is "a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience"  - as Tiffany was to the three robbers; her appearance was an epiphany to them, which ultimately changed their lives.

Except they don't actually return the money they've stolen.  Instead, they use it to help other people.  Which on one hand is honorable, but on the other hand, would leave Aesop making a sour face.  

Of course, we all love Robin Hood, but at the very least, he stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and that was his idea from the very beginning.  The Three Robbers have other ideas, more Smaug-like than Hood-like.  They steal from everyone they can, and hoard it.  It's not until Tiffany shows up that they decide to do some good. 

Gangster movies from the 1930s often had similar plots.

If the story is morally ambiguous, the illustrations are kick ass.  They are heavy, colorful illustrations, almost but not quite cartoons.  Lots of black and blue, with bright splashes of color here and there - a huge red axe, a big full yellow moon, the blonde Tiffany.  The text is sparse but not in a poetic way; more blunt and colorful - a perfect match for the illustrations.

The illustration of the orphans all in red with a dark, upright figure leading them on, has to be a play on the more famous similarly dressed orphans of Madeleine, led by their own dark, upright figures (in this case nuns rather than robbers).   He's definitely the right age and nationality to have at the very least been aware of the first Madeleine, which was published in 1939.   NOTE:  I always thought Madeleine was an orphan.  She's not!  She's in boarding school.  So that diverges from The Three Robbers.  But I still think the picture is on purpose.

The Three RobbersThe Three Robbers by Tomi Ungerer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Robin Hood story of sorts, in which a little orphan girl turns the hearts of three robbers. It's the kind of story that on one had has an honorable ending - the three robbers use their ill gotten gains to adopt more and more orphans - but Aesop is rolling over in his grave somewhere in the mountains of Greece. What's the moral here? Robbing from the rich - or this case everyone -to give to the poor is a good thing? But it's a morally ambiguous story with kick-ass illustrations. They are heavy and colorful, with lots of black and blue in the background, and bright splashes of color here and there - a huge red axe, a big full yellow moon, the blonde Tiffany. It's almost but not quite a cartoon; given a bit of a makeover, Rocky and Bullwinkle could easily walk into this book. The text is sparse but not in a poetic way; more blunt and colorful - a perfect match for the illustrations. Little villains and villainesses to be might enjoy this book; I know I did.

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Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City by Paul Strathern (2015)

We went to Italy in 2013, and spent two days in Florence.  It was not enough.  I can't ever decide which city in Italy was my favorite - Rome, Sienna, Pisa, Lucca, Colodi - but Florence was the place I did not want to leave; if I had been a younger man, I don't think I would have ever come home.  I'm certain I was enmeshed in the tourist trap, but I also suddenly understood the appeal of Italy.  I've been hooked ever since.

Which brings me to six weeks of reading the same book about Florence in the Renaissance.  Death in Florence is a good book, with many details, particularly towards the end of the book.  Strathern has taken a slice of time, the birth of the Florentine Renaissance (and hence the rest of the movement throughout Europe) and the backlash to it that was Savonarola and his literal and figurative Bonfire of the Vanities, and created a detailed narrative that includes all of the players and their actions, both major and minor.  This minutiae can be both interesting and overwhelming.  As books go, I may have given this up because of that overwhelming feelings of too much information packed into one book - but see above.  I love Florence.  I love reading about Florence. I love the history and art and people of Florence.  So six weeks of reading - a long time for me to read any book, let alone a relatively short one like this (371 pages!), and I'm finished.  To give some perspective, I've reading/or listened to 9 books of fiction in that same time.  

Strathern does best when he's talking about the Medicis; he should, as he's written an entire book about them before this.  I've put that book on my list; Lorenzo in particular sounds like a fascinating figure that I want to know more about.  I know the name of course, but I have to admit, I didn't know many details.  He's a fascinating man - poet, strongman, democrat, bisexual, man of learning, man of religion, patron of the arts.  It seems silly and trite to refer to him as a "true Renaissance man" but that is exactly what he was.  He also seems quite attractive too; a historical character I would have liked to have met in person.

The Borgia pope, Alexander VI, makes several appearances in the book, and his sinister machinations and political dark magic are fascinating; I had never thought of the Borgias as particularly interesting; I always thought they were some sort of folkloric cross between urban legend and a historical thriller/horror novel, akin to someone like Lizzie Borden or Jeffery Daumer, larger than life in true crime sort of way; I won't make that mistake again.  They are as fascinating as the Medicis.

It's when Savonarola enters the picture that, for me, the book bogs down.  In a larger sense, and a political sense, he's quite interesting.  He appears to have led the first, true cultural revolution, the same type of revolutions led in later centuries, particularly the 20th century, by Mao and Stalin and Hitler.  He was a cultish figure, who inspired devotion, but couldn't create enough momentum to sweep the world.  Imagine a Savonarola with a radio audience, a televised audience, an Internet audience.  Savonarola is ISIS, and North Korea.  Savonarola is (maybe) Donald Trump.  

But the many smaller details of Savonarola and his followers during this time, spread throughout many chapters; Strathern draws the narrative thin.  What could have been distilled into several exciting chapters instead is half of the book.  Obviously this isn't a novel, but there were too many characters without enough distinguishing characteristics.  The narrative rose an fell during the latter half of the book; never quite plummeting into pure boredom and reference-book-land (where good ideas for nonfiction books go to die), butalso always drawing the mind's eye back to the minutiae away from the action.  That's a problem for many nonfiction books for me; a good story - and Strathern is a really good writer - is spread too thin.  

A word about the Bonfire of the Vanities, the most famous incident to come out of the life and times of Savonarola.  All revolutionaries, no matter how twisted and evil, have some sort of intent that they think is for the greater good.  The Cultural Revolution was supposed to purge unsavory elements out of the Chinese communist party; Lenin was purging the aristocratic excesses out of Russia; even Hitler thought he was doing something good for his people.  Savonarola was no Hitler; his intentions were really quite noble.  He saw a corrupt government and church which he thought needed to be changed.  The Renaissance is a bridge between medieval thought and the Enlightenment; Savonarola was a Renaissance man in the sense that he lived and thought on that bridge, a believer in both angels and prophecies and democracy (in a sense) and the common man. Don't all revolutions have some sort of bonfire of the vanities ?  One one hand, you can admire Savonarola (and pity him) but so many revolutions burn out in the same way - a tyrant appears, in this case a moral tyrant (but aren't they all?).  To replace one form of tyranny with another, does that ever work? 

That said, the common folk didn't really turn again Savonarola, and if he had truly been able to find inroads in other parts of Italy, then perhaps he could have swept Italy and then Europe with a revolutionary purging of the church and state - something Martin Luther did more successfully a few years later, right?  The downfall of Savonarola was not that his followers lost faith in him, but that the powers that be - the pope above all - still were stronger, and once they started flexing their muscles, Savonarola didn't stand a chance.

Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonorola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance CityDeath in Florence: The Medici, Savonorola, and the Battle for the Soul of a Renaissance City by Paul Strathern
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strathern's historical narrative of "the battle for the soul" of Florence certainly has modern parallels. Strathern intricately covers Savonrola's will to power, his seductive messaging, his cult of personality, and his political abilities to sway one class of people against another; the reader is definitely able to draw a neat line from Savonrola's Bonfire of the Vanities up through various other revolutions, including those of Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin, Mao, Isis, North Korea - maybe even Donald Trump. Strathern's account is very comprehensive to a fault; he's actually at his best when writing about the Medici. The book bogs down at some points, under the weight of names and details. The narrative rose an fell during the latter half of the book; never quite plummeting into pure boredom and reference-book-land (where good ideas for nonfiction books go to die), but also always drawing the mind's eye back to the minutiae away from the action. That's a problem for many nonfiction books for me; a good story - and Strathern is a really good writer - is spread too thin.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall (2008)

Big, contented SIGH.  If The Penderwicks was a perfect little book, then The Penderwicks on Gardam Street is a perfect little sequel.  I'm still reminded of Little Women  - with four sisters, one of who is a tomboy, one a caretaker, one a writer, one the baby of the family - I don't see how you can't be reminded of them.  The Penderwick sisters still aren't the March sisters; they are related like zebras and horses are related, not the same animals, but similar, and each delightful in their own ways.

There is an old fashioned feel to the Penderwicks as well.  It's both obviously set in the very near past, and also makes a reader - at least this adult reader - long for simpler times.  Birdsall's description of Halloween, for example, nearly brought tears to my eyes, with memories of my own Halloweens of long ago:

"Halloween was for candy and being out later than you usually were allowed, and for showing your new dinosaur costume to the neighbors... she liked being all wrapped up up inside this costume, for it was warm and safe in here, even if she still couldn't see very well.  She tipped the dinosaur head this way and that, catching peeks of carved pumpkins lit with flickering candles, dry leaves blowing in the wind, and -- oh! what was that? -- spooky figures flitting up and down Gardam Street.  Batty shuddered happily.  This was a scary night, just as Halloween should be."

At one house, Batty and her sisters were given "homemade butterscotch brownies" and I thought of the cookies and popcorn balls I got for Halloween when I was six.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street also, perhaps more than The Penderwicks, has the flavor of a sitcom. Not in a bad or negative way (perhaps there is a literary term for this type of book, but I don't know what it is nor can I find it anywhere).  But I found a definition on The Free Dictionary online that described a sitcom as "a humorous drama based on situations that might arise in day-to-day life" and another definition says the words "light" and "humorous."  All of these words - including drama in the sense of an emotional effect rather than a play or screen play - describe The Penderwicks on Gardam Street to a t.

I once again listened to this novel rather than read it, and the reader Susan Denaker is again magnificent.

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street (The Penderwicks, #2)The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The streaming audio of The Penderwicks on Gardam Street is a homey, pleasant experience, read and performed superbly by Susan Dunaker. The Penderwicks (I've now listened to books 1 and 2 in this series) feel very old fashioned, and I kept thinking how "they just don't write books like this anymore" which makes me feel and sound like "old man yells at cloud" but I think it's true statement. The other thing I kept thinking about The Penderwicks on Gardam Street is how much it felt like a sitcom. I don't mean that in a negative way - it's like a definition I found -- Sitcom: a humorous drama based on situations that might arise in day-to-day life; another definition included the words "light" and "humorous." The Penderwicks, particularly this second book in the series, is dipped in this definition, seeped in it, until it drips humor and light, and day-to-day life. It's like that perfect, comfortable sitcom you remember from childhood, the kind you watched and loved, that made you feel safe and warm and good about the world. Nothing ever happens on Gardam Street and everything that matters in life happens on Gardam Street. The drama is light, the humor is light, and Birdsall's characters are captured perfectly, especially the four sisters from Massachusetts who resemble so closely another set of famous sisters from the same general area, only 150 years before. The first Penderwick book had a bit of madcap comedy to it; this is more about family, friends, and warm love.

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Friday, August 12, 2016

The Magic World by E. Nesbit (1912)

I listened to the book The Magic World by E. Nesbit on streaming audio; it was narrated wonderfully by Johanna Ward - who I definitely want to hear read aloud other books and stories.  The Magic World  is a set of short stories that are all quite amazing.  I don't know what they were called in 1912, but today they would definitely be filed under a "fantasy" story.  They all have a modern feel, and none of them feel outdated.  Nesbit's world is never overly sweet or moralistic; in face, one story, "The Mixed Mine," ends like this:  "There is no moral to this story, except... but no - there is no moral."  This line is classic Nesbit too; her narrator is often third person omniscient, but with a wryly droll and humorous grown up with the heart of a child's voice.

The first story is "The Cat-hood of Maurice" about a boy who torments a cat, and the cat's revenge on him - they switch places.  I am sure that having a boy or girl turn into a cat or other animal wasn't first created by Nesbit; but I do think she does it with such modern flair.    Nesbit makes sure that Maurice's experience being a cat feels like if you or I turned into a cat.  Interestingly, as I was listening to this story in the car, I passed a billboard for a movie (that looks excruciating) called Nine Lives about a man who turns into a cat.  This trope will go on forever, but I think it's probably Nesbit who first gave it the modern twist it has today.  The cat also has all these "catty" exchanges with Maurice.  When Maurice realizes with horror that the cat has tricked him into trading bodies, he tells the cat:  "I didn't agree to your being me."  To which the cat deliciously replies:  "That's poetry, even if it isn't grammar" which I'm going to use on someone sometime.  The cat THEN goes on to spout the most modern of explanations, that fantasy and science fiction writers still use today.  "Why, my good cat, don’t you see that if you are I, I must be you? Otherwise we should interfere with time and space, upset the balance of power, and as likely as not destroy the solar system."  Diana Wynne Jones could have written that.  J.K. Rowling could have written that.  In the best fantasy worlds, there are laws and rules that cant' be broken; Nesbit was thinking about this and writing it into her stories.

There is also this idea of trading bodies in "The Cat-hood of  Maurice" that I think is something new.  Alice was always shrinking and growing bigger, but she never traded bodies with the white rabbit.    But Nesbit is, I think, doing this first.  This idea would be repeated later, although not with animals, in books like Freaky Friday.

 "Accidental Magic" is another story in the collection I enjoyed immensely.  The boy who has to go to the rotten boarding school - always, always C.S. Lewis has shades of Nesbit - and how he ends up going someplace else via magic, I loved this story, even if Nesbit's history of Stonehenge was probably way off.  This had the best quote at the end too: " Anyhow she" - the boy's mother -  took him to Egypt with her to meet his father, and, on the way, they happened to see a doctor in London who said: ‘Nerves’ which is a poor name for accidental magic, and Quentin does not believe it means the same thing at all."  Of course it doesn't, and every child knows that.  It's adults who forget about magic - that sharing of secrets between the narrator and the reader, which C.S. Lewis did so well later as well.

I like E. Nesbit the best when she takes normal everyday situations and infuses them with magic; or takes people from our world in puts them into magic worlds.  I'm not as big a fan of her fairy tales, although that's like saying I'm not as big a fan of strawberry jam verses marmalade, when in fact both are delicious in their own ways.  Her fairy stories "The Princess and the Hedge Pig" or "Belinda and Bellamant" are wonderful stories; they would make excellent read alouds.  "Hedge Pig" includes the phrase "alone among the oleanders" which I think would make a great title for something.

"The White Cat" is one of those magical stories set in the "real" world, about a lonely boy - the best kind of boys and girls in fantasy books are lonely boys and girls who discover magic in their world - The Children of Green Knowe, Charlotte Somtimes, Tom's Midnight Garden, The Secret Garden (although THAT magic sucked) - a lonely boy who is given a china cat who comes to life and takes him to a magical world.  No spoilers, but there was this fantastic end that I can quote without giving too much away:  

It was she, beyond a doubt, and that was why Tavy didn’t mind a bit about the China Cat being taken from him and kept under glass. You may think that it was just any old stray white cat that had come in by accident. Tavy knows better. It has the very same tender tone in its purr that the magic White Cat had. It will not talk to Tavy, it is true; but Tavy can and does talk to it. But the thing that makes it perfectly certain that it is the White Cat is that the tips of its two ears are missing—just as the China Cat’s ears were. If you say that it might have lost its ear-tips in battle you are the kind of person who always makes difficulties, and you may be quite sure that the kind of splendid magics that happened to Tavy will never happen to you.

Again, that cool grown up narrator talking to just you, the young reader, letting you in on a cool secret.  Of course, no one wants to ever be the kind of person who always makes difficulties!  I dont want to be that person.  But Nesbit knows that to children, especially imaginative, creative children, the world was and still is full of those kinds of people. Imaginative and creative children will identify and want to be Tavy.

"The Aunt and Amabel" is a good place to talk about C.S. Lewis, because so much of the story reminded me of Lewis.  I know that Lewis's favorite childhood author was E. Nesbit.  The Bastables make an appearance in The Magician's Nephew, if ever so briefly.  I've only read Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, but they are obviously patterned after Nesbit.  He uses the same close and personal narrative style, in which the narrator takes on the persona of a wise but cool grownup who sometimes drolly, but always respectfully, talks in asides to the young reader as if the two are sharing a cool secret.  His style is very derivative of Nesbit.  If she is the proto-writer of fantasy, and her characters and settings are the rich and teeming primordial sludge that certainly gave us Wynne Jones and Rowling, and T.H. White, and that copycat Edward Eager, and so many other fantasy writers for children and adults, then C.S. Lewis isn't far removed from that sludge.  "The Aunt and Amabel" isn't The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, but it DOES contain a wardrobe that takes our little heroine magically to another world.  I guess I should not have been surprised by this, but I was.  "The Magician's Heart" has a White Witch in it, but she's not evil like THE White Witch; there is an evil magician in this story too, and he's clearly but very, very distantly related to the magician of "The Magician's Nephew" although he had far more in common with some evil magicians in Diana Wynne Jones than C.S. Lewis.

The Magic WorldThe Magic World by E. Nesbit

I listened to an excellent audio streaming version of this, narrated perfectly by Johanna Ward. All E. Nesbit should be narrated by Johanna Ward; her voice encapsulates all that is droll and witty and excellent about Nesbit. Elsewhere, I've seen The Magic World described as "influential" and I have to agree. I'm not a scholar of either fantasy, or children's literature, but this collection of short stories seems to me to be the homo erectus from which all modern fantasy, particularly urban fantasy, sprang forth. Nesbit has a boy and a cat trading places, in a trope that became in various ways both The Sword in the Stone and Freaky Friday (and even Disney's The Shaggy Dog). In this story, she also talks about how the boy and cat have to follow magical laws, or destroy the universe, another concept that will come up in various ways again and again in modern fantasy (J.K. Rowling, Diana Wynne Jones) In "Accidental Magic" she has a lonely boy at a horrid boarding school use magic to travel back in time, to the building of Stonehenge, with a just a touch of horror; again, this trope will be used to great effect in novels of the future. Nesbit always uses the same narrative voice; it's a close, personal third person, in which the author injects herself again and again with drolly, witty asides that invite the reader, particularly a young reader, in, as if sharing really delicious secrets. It's this narrative voice that both makes Nesbit sound so modern, and also makes her so different and accessible from other fantasy or books for children around the same time; there are no morals either (see the end of "The Mixed Mine" for Nesbit thumbing her nose at morals at the end of stories). You can't read Nesbit and these stories, without thinking again and again of C.S. Lewis; it's obvious he patterned the narrative voice of his Chronicles after his favorite childhood author; there is even a wardrobe in Nesbit that magically takes a young girl to another world; and a White Witch in another story, although Nesbit's White Witch isn't as evil (and thus less interesting) as Lewis's scary White Witch. Nesbit has a magician as well, but Lewis's magician is more of a bumbler; I think you'd find more Nesbittian magicians in Diana Wynne Jones. If you love fantasy, particularly urban fantasy, then take a look at this collection of short stories.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

To Say Nothing of the Dog: or, How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last by Connie Willis (1998)

Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog (which I read back to back) are tied together by a couple of common characters (Finch, Mr. Dunworthy, Badri) and (a whole new set of) time traveling history students from Oxford, but two literary roads diverge here, and I'm glad I was able to take both.  They aren't completely unalike:  Connie Willis is Connie Willis after all, and both contain her signature fine craftsmanship, her attention to detail both in the setting and her carefully chosen words and phrases, and her delightfully real yet unique characters (I always think quirky, but they are much more than manic pixie girls and boys).    Doomsday Book is a thriller (or at the very least thrilling), and while To Say Nothing of the Dog has some thrilling bits at the end, at its heart it is a drawing room comedy and an "Agatha Christie" (sans murder but complete with a wickedly good mystery) but with more than a polish of science fiction that lights up the whole thing and makes it shine.

There is this scene towards the end where three ladies of the 1930s in a bookshop who are described in various types of fox furs, discussing the latest Agatha Christie, and one says "There's this girl who someone is attempting to murder, or at least that's what one's supposed to think.  Actually --" and her friend cuts her short because of course everyone hates Spoilers.  But my little grey cells went "That's Peril at End House" which puts that bit of time travel to 1932 or at the latest 1933.

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Always difficult to write about Connie Willis without a meaningless cascade of words like "love" and "awesome" and "extraordinary" and "brilliant" and five hundred other superlatives. Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog exist in the same universe where time traveling historians from Oxford jaunt back and forth between their present (our near future) and the past, but the two books diverge in a literary wood, and I'm so glad I took both roads. To Say Nothing once again showcases the Willis's literary mastercraft, but this time she hones her sharp wit, creating a plot in which a screwball comedy and the very best of Agatha Christie have a science fiction baby on the banks of the Thames circa 1888. A Willis isn't a Willis without sparkling screwball dialogue that would sit well in the drawing room of the Lords of Philadelphia, with a tiger on a chain in tow, detailed and delightful settings and set pieces, madcap-ness, and some serious saving of the world as well. This may be her best?

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Monday, August 8, 2016

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (1992)

I often have difficulty writing knowledgeably about writers and books that I love, without using words like "love" or being gushing and hyperbolic.  Jo Walton is such a writer.  But Connie Willis is the worst for me. I have no idea how to intelligently talk about her writing.

I don't remember the first time I read Doomsday Book.  It was most definitely something I checked out from a public library; in 1992, I was still an undergraduate at Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina, Kansas - so I'm going to guess it was from the Salina Public Library.  I don't ever remember owning a copy, so I doubt I bought it (although I did work at Waldenbooks in college, and I may have bought it and lent it to a friend, who never returned it).  I now own an electronic copy.    It was my introduction to Connie Willis.  I have yet to read all her novels and short stories, but I'm working my way through them.

I apparently last read Doomsday Book in 2008 (my goodreads review says I read it in 2004 as well).  That's too long to go between re-reads. I should do the audio version next. As with the other times I've read it - I'm going to guess five times total - this time I was instantly hooked and could not put it down for love or money.  I am always sad to finish a Connie Willis book; I want them to go on forever.

The plot of Doomsday Book twists and turns - and travels through time.  Willis is great at this.  This is a thriller at its heart, and a medical thriller at that, but very smart.  Willis has a style of writing that is clever and zesty, and joyous, and also keeps you on the edge of your seat, but not in a movie script or dumbed down way.  This isn't the kind of book for readers looking for low Lexile scores - in fact for any kind of Lexile score.  This is for readers who like writers who choose words carefully and deliberately, writers who use words and phrases as clues that will matter to the plot and characters later, writers whose plots are intricate and woven and whose characters are witty and smart, writers who build a story carefully and quietly, and solidly.  Connie Willis isn't for everyone.

Doomsday Book has two related plots, really, that twist and turn and eventually merge; one is set in the middle ages, the other set in the (near) future (which draws nearer and nearer as the book ages), connected by time traveling historians and their students from Oxford.   Set in different times, I can't remember first reading it and realizing, like Kivrin does, that she's stuck in the middle of the time of the Black Death and can't and doesn't know how to get home; it's as horrifying to read the fifth time as the first.  I read a review that called the story that called the story in the past more interesting than the story set in the near future, but I disagree.  I think part of Willis's brilliance and genius in all her time travel books is now she plays the future and past off of one another, sometimes contrasting, but more often than not smudging them up. Doomsday Book does this particularly well, and as the chapters switch from the Middle Ages to the Time Traveling Future, I'm always as interested and excited to be in one era as the other, because she's keeping you on the edge of your seat in each.  You know something awful is happening just behind the curtains in each plot, and you are waiting with bated breath for Willis to take you there.

There are some common themes that run through Willis - well, I don't know whether they are officially "themes" in a literary sense of Connie Willis or not - perhaps I will call them "the flavors" of Connie Willis.  Agatha Christie and the golden age of murder mysteries.  Screwball comedies and old Hollywood.  World War 2.  And Christmas.  Connie Willis loves to use Christmas as a setting. This reading of Doomsday Book, I thought to myself - She uses bells throughout the book - the bellringers from Colorado, the bells of Carfax Tower playing constant Christmas carols, the bells of the Middles Ages, Agnes single sleigh bell at the end.  And I thought, someone who loves Christmas as much as Connie Willis surely knows that "every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."  Kivrin, the angel of mercy, sent from the future to comfort the sick, the contrast between the village where they died in the street, and Kivrin, an angel sent from God to minister to the dying villagers.  That's pretty damn clever, Willis,  to have hidden that in there, at least for me, for 25 years and five readings.  That's why I love you.

Doomsday Book (Oxford Time Travel #1)Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have a hard time not gushing over a Connie Willis book, or overusing the word "love." I always sound like I have a bad case of cow eyes whenever I try to talk or write about Connie Willis. So bear with me please.

Doomsday Book is a medical thriller - although I don't want to spoil anything for those of you who haven't read it five times like I have, so I won't say exactly how - and it's also a time travel book. There are two connected plots that twist and turn, and gradually grow more and more exciting, but in a smart and witty and clever way rather than the Being-Hit-Over-the-Head-With-It sort of way. That's what I think Willis always does best and why I love her - the honoring of the gradual. She's in no hurry, and you shouldn't be either. Her books are meant to be savored, and Doomsday Book is no exception. She's a careful, deliberate writer, a master of her craft; words and phrases are complexly woven like embroidery thread, and they all mean something, so watch out: she loves sprinkling clues and their uglier sisters, red herrings. You can always tell Connie Willis literarily sat at Agatha Christie's knee even though they write completely different genres.

I'm always sad to finish a Willis novel, because there isn't more of it left. It's the kind of reading I want to go on forever. Closing the a Willis book is like that feeling you had as kid at 10:00 p.m. on the night of Christmas Day.

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011)

I read this for my upcoming book club in September; I may have new insight after hearing others talk about the book.

There hasn't been a movie - oops, excuse me, I mean book, it's a book - like this since the great geek out movies of the 1980s (I don't need to list said movies, as they are all, each and every one, mentioned in the book; many times.  Many.  Times.).    Fat, be-zitted gamer saves the world and gets the girl.

Except, in Ready Player One ("Captain!  Spoilers ahead!) he doesn't really save the world (the girl part is right).  In fact, our overweight, zitty hero doesn't do anything meaningful in the book at all, other than win a video game.  Granted, the game comes with a billions-dollar grand prize, and the Willy Wonka-ish award of an entire company, the biggest in the world at that point in future, the company responsible for the virtual world of OASIS (read the blurb for more details; if you are reading this, you've most likely already read the book, and if you are reading this because you think you might want to read the book, do so, it's really fun, but I just spoiled the ending).  The playing and winning of the game is the whole plot of the book.  It's very exciting, as games and movies are supposed to be.  But it's not really about anything other than that.  Cline gives us hints about the world of the near future, and how shitty it is, and a few hints about how it maybe got this way, but you have to infer a whole lot.  The point is the game, and our hero Wade's "epic"struggles to win it.  There are other characters, who also seem like movie characters (a big reveal about the Secret history of one character is straight out of a movie).  Ernest Cline is a scriptwriter - and his script is showing.

It's a fun read, particularly (especially) if you were born and raised in the heart of the 1980s; it's a homage to that decade, particularly the early to mid 80s, the clothes, the hair, the music, the video games.  There were things mentioned in the book I had completely forgotten about (Buckeroo Banzai, anyone?).  I read this book in two sittings, beside a pool, in the 100 degree of a Palm Springs vacation, and it's the perfect book for that.  

Is it an intellectual read?  It's not stupid by any means.   Maybe Cline's video game movie ending that really doesn't solve a thing (the Wizard of Oz ending; at the end of of WOZ, Dororthy wakes up and the world she left is still the same; she's done nothing to save Toto, and Miss Gulch is still coming to take him away).  Maybe that's Cline's point, that in OASIS you can fight bad guys with giant robots and win, but real world problems are unsolvable - particularly the real world problems faced by our plucky hero in the dystopian near future.  The future is bleak.  

The wet dream of a gamer - and god knows, gamers and programmers are the kingpins of our society now, rolling in dough like Vanderbilts of old.  The whole book is the wet dream of a gamer though.  A fun wet dream.  Sort of a dream wrapped in a nightmare, if you think about it.

It was interesting reading this while the whole Pokemon Go phenomenon was happening.  Sort of surreal.

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mr. Cline, your script is showing.

I'm not taking a swipe at the book, although it is a fact that this was written by a screenwriter and another fact that the book is becoming a movie as I type this. Rather, I think the entire book read like a movie, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Many books, particularly books today, are written for folks who like movies. Several Harry Potters read like a movie. That does not detract from their enjoyability one bit.

Cline's book is incredibly enjoyable - in fact, it's a rollicking thrilling adventure. Children of the 80s especially will find much to love. If the entire book is about the search for series of easter eggs, the book itself is chockful of chocolate bunnies from the entire decade, including some things this raised-by-the-80s reader had (maybe thankfully?) forgot (Buckeroo Banzai anyone?). Cline can set scenes, but his characters have about as much depth as the each of The Goonies. His world building was also structurally weak; he had a great foundation going, but I thought spent far too much time imaging an online fantasy world (or rather myriad of worlds) without taking the trouble to create a believable world outside the virtual fantasy.

Read it - oh yes. But don't scratch at it very hard; the paint on these sets are still pretty fresh.

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Queen Victoria's Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gas Lamp Fantasyedited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (2013)

I think anthologies of short stories are always a mixed bag; "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is an apt phrase for collecting short stories in one place.    This bag, however, was more mixed than usual.  Delia Sherman's "Queen Victoria's Book of Spells" was the right story to begin with (and name the anthology for) because it was one of the best stories in the whole collection - charming and funny, the kind of story you want the author to expand into a novel and entire universe (although in just a few words, Sherman flushed out her gaslamp universe really quite well).  Jeffrey Ford's "Fairy Enterprise" ranked up there with Sherman's, and had a touch of creepy horror to it that made it fun to read.  I liked Maureen McHugh's "The Memory Book" (more fantasy crossed with horror) although I kept expecting someone to be "wished into tv land."

Kathe Koja's "La Feine d'Enfer" had incredible characters, and the end left me wanting more - and a so wanting something else (I didn't care for that end).  Elizabeth Wein's "For the Briar Rose" was almost magical realism; I came away wanting to read more about the pre-Raphaelites.

I loved Elizabeth Bear's "The Governess" and unlike Sherman's story for example, this was perfectly encapsulated - I didn't need to read more, or explore this universe more; it was perfect.   And so sad.  And scary too.   A touch of Jane Eyre here, with - but no spoilers.  

I didn't care for the latter half of this book, but hey - to each his own. 

Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp FantasyQueen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Upon reflection, I enjoyed this book of short stories far more than I thought I was doing while reading it. I think my main annoyance was that the title "gaslamp fantasy" meant one thing to me (Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones, Caroline Stevermer) but the majority of the stories weren't like that at all. There were some real stinkers (the plague of the anthology) but I ended up liking some of the stories immensely. Delia Sherman's story, from which the anthology took its name, was delightful; I wanted more from this universe. And conversely, I loved Elizabeth Bear's "The Governess" because it was perfectly encapsulated - I didn't need to read more, or explore this universe more; it was perfect. And so sad. And scary too. A touch of Jane Eyre here, with - but no spoilers. I can't say don't read this, just come in with no expectations.

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