Monday, November 28, 2016

The King's Curse by Philippa Gregory (2014)

Philippa Gregory sort of tells the same story over and over again.  This is definitely her mold, and at least at this point, she is far from breaking it.  Telling the Tudor story over and over through different eyes.  In  this case, the eyes of Margaret Pole, who Gregory (rightfully) argues was in the thick of things her whole life, but hasn't really had her story told before.  Of course, historical fiction is conjecture, and while Gregory's conjecture can sometimes fall flat, in The King's Curse it  (mostly) rings true and is rather breathtakingly dramatic.  I say "mostly" because the end is well known (if you know your Tudors):  Margaret Pole gets her head chopped off at age 67, an old woman unjustly executed by a mad tyrant.

Was Henry VIII a brilliant political king, or a mad tyrant?  Or both?  Gregory skates into the mad tyrant arena in all her books, and then sits firmly down, unmovable.  In a Gregory book, Henry VIII isn't some moony 47 year old going through a mid life crisis; he's an insane monster without a conscience who will do anything to keep his throne, including kill a defenseless old lady.  How defenseless that old lady actually was is an argument that Gregory takes on as well; in a large part of this book, Margaret Pole is both in the light and in the shadows, saying one thing publicly but saying and encouraging treason in privately.

Hilary Mantel writes much of this same story in a more literary style; I think when Gregory began writing, her style felt more literary as well.  Okay,  literary lite - but she wasn't a writer of bodice rippers or potboilers either.  Her best books still have this quality, and while The King's Curse isn't among her best, it still has some beautifully written sections.  I was never bored, and often on the edge of my seat.


The King's Curse (The Cousins' War, #6)The King's Curse by Philippa Gregory
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think if Philippa Gregory had a time machine, one thing she'd definitely want to do is hop in and zoom back to 1509 or thereabouts, and smack Henry VIII a good one upside the head. She wholeheartedly despises this man, and has spent eight novels letting us know that in no simple terms. In some books by other authors, Henry VIII gets a pastel tone; in straight-up histories, he can come across as dry and matter of fact, or politically cunning. He can even be construed as a romantic; and sometime's he is a moody, moony, lovesick 40-something going through the most politically influential mid-life crisis of all time. Philippa Gregory's Henry VIII is always the brilliantly scarlet, blood-red, monstrous, murderous, frightening tyrannical mouldwarp, set again and again through the eyes of his various helpless victims. In this book, it is the eyes of his cousin Margaret Pole who, as Gregory writes, was always in the thick of these Tudor things, but also basically ignored by historians. Via the pen of Gregory, she is far from basic, but a complicated and complex woman who was always a hair's breath away from treason and execution, tightrope walking those delicate times, until... but no spoilers here!


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Birdology: Adventures with a Pack of Hens, a Peck of Pigeons, Cantankerous Crows, Fierce Falcons, Hip Hop Parrots, Baby Hummingbirds, and One Murderously Big Living Dinosaur by Sy Montgomery (2010)

This is the second time I’ve read Birdology and it is as charming and engaging this time around as it was the first time.  

“When animals can manage to live with us, we hate them for that.  We consider them less than animals.  But what does that say about us?  That any animal that chooses to live with us can’t be any good?”  Montgomery quotes a “thoughtful young woman” from San Jose State University, who wrote a paper for a class called Sociology of the Environment on our hatred of crows. That’s true about so many wild creatures that now live with us:  coyotes (despised), skunks (despised), opossums (feared and despised); rats (beyond despised); spiders (despised); deer (intense dislike for many people); wild turkeys (feared); mountain lions (feared); black bears (we are more annoyed by bears than fear or despise them; annoyed and bemused actually); pigeons (despised); squirrels (usually get a pass, but feared for disease); bats (despised and feared); gophers and moles (despised because they disrupt the order of our lawns); mice (hated - but written about in countless children’s books); raccoons (feared and despised); lizards (feared but also kind of ignored).  Snakes can essentially go without saying.

Some animals that live with among us get a free pass, as long as they stay out of our house.  These tend to be small and pretty - butterflies; hummingbirds; other songbirds (although I know many people who curse mockingbirds); owls and hawks; ladybugs; grasshoppers and crickets (for the most part); turtles; frogs and toads.

Of course, domestic animals don’t count.  We love our dogs and cats.  


Any book is a good book that provides some food for thought.


Birdology: Adventures with a Pack of Hens, a Peck of Pigeons, Cantankerous Crows, Fierce Falcons, Hip Hop Parrots, Baby Hummingbirds, and One Murderously Big Living DinosaurBirdology: Adventures with a Pack of Hens, a Peck of Pigeons, Cantankerous Crows, Fierce Falcons, Hip Hop Parrots, Baby Hummingbirds, and One Murderously Big Living Dinosaur by Sy Montgomery
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An absolute delight. Montgomery's "adventures with a pack of hens, a peck of pigeons, cantakerous crows, fierce falcons, hip hop parrots, baby hummingbirds, and one murderously big living dinosaur" will keep you interested and learning the entire way through. Who knew that chickens were so smart, that crows and humans had so much in commons, that parrots are the only other species besides us that can shake their booties in time to the music, that cassowaries are so elusive, that falcons never forget, that hummingbirds are little murderers... in wide-eyed wonder I kept on learning new facts every few pages. (2010)

(2016) Second time I've read this book, and found it just as charming and engaging as the first time. Any book that can provide food for thought not once but twice is a strong and good book for me. Montgomery is a great writer.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (1925)

An audio book is a different animal than a book. While plots and settings remain (mostly) the same in the hands of a narrator - or rather, in his or her voice  - characters become whoever the narrator wants them to be.  The narrator can use her voice, inflections, pauses, accents, subtly or otherwise, to create the character.  This is her job.  They must have an understanding of what the author was intending; but even then, I imagine there lies a bit of danger:  the character in your head may sound and act differently than the character in the voice of a storyteller, even though the words are the same.

I’ve never read The Painted Veil before, knew nothing about it actually.  So I don’t know what Maugham intended for Kitty Fane.  Looking at the variety of covers over the years, artists and publishers seem to have that same trouble.  She’s a sinner, that much is obvious.  But how guilty is she?  How guilty should she be?  Should she be punished?  Is she the lady in red?  A madonna to be, or always a whore?  Maugham calls her a slut at one point, slut shames her towards the end.  Does she deserve to be shamed?


The reader, Kate Reading, makes Kitty a sympathetic character.   And sad, so very, very sad.  It’s a sad story anyway; she’s a victim of her time and place (this story doesn’t work quite as well in a modern setting,  and although relationships can still trap people in various ways, I imagine the Fanes would have quickly divorced, as would have the Townsend, if Maugham were writing this today; of course, that doesn’t make nearly as interesting a story.).  How does Maugham want us to feel about Kitty Fane?  She is never particularly likable - but no one in the entire book is likable (except, for perhaps, Mrs. Charlie Townsend, at the end).   But Kate Reading at least makes us feel for Kitty Fane; we don’t necessarily understand her all the time, but we feel her loneliness, the inevitabilities of her life, her shame and agony.

__________________________________


"I'm looking for something and I don't quite know what it is. But I know that it's very important for me to know it, and if I did it would make all the difference. Perhaps the nuns know it; when I'm with them I feel that they hold a secret which they will not share with me."  

_____________________________________

Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread,--behind, lurk Fear
And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.
I knew one who had lifted it--he sought,
For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
The world contains, the which he could approve.
Through the unheeding many he did move,
A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

Percy Bysshe Shelley


_____________________________________


These covers from previous editions of The Painted Veil are everything wonderful about books.

First U.K. edition.  There isn't one evil Chinese person in the entire book, so what this sinister looking Chinese woman is up to hiding behind - I don't even know what, a blanket? a flag?  a bolt of cloth?  Kitty Fane looks right though.  I think she's probably just found out she's pregnant.  She didn't cry when Walter died.










First edition, U.S.  What the hell is even going here?  Kitty very elegant.  I love her dress.














This is a 1949 paperback and it's wonderful.  It's deliciously pulpy.  It slut shames Kitty Fane as only the covers of pulp fiction could do, back in the day.  She looks like she's a late 1940s pin up rather than the 1920s rather vulgar, almost but not quite flapper that she is.  The whole cover, including that Buddha, smacks of Exotic.













The copy I listened too.  It's boring, but her face certainly captures Kitty's hopelessness.  Not sure where she is in this picture, but the wraught iron looks like the porch of a 1970s mobile home.














I adore this cover, from 2009.  Kitty looks like a dream girl, and also looks like she feels like shit.  The mountains are vaguely Chinese.  Are those feathers or a fur?  The dress is everything.

















This looks like Jane Austen time traveled to the 1930s.  Or Mia Farrow, circa 1962.


















A German edition.  The two sides of Kitty Fane?  The woman in red again, slut shamed.  The other looks like Cruella deVil.













This Italian edition is weird as shit.  Kitty Fane looks way to 1930s film actress here, film actress at a 1930s health spa.



















This Arabic version is so wrong.  Wrong wrong wrong.  I assume that man is Charlie Townsend, only he looks like a character from a 1970s soap opera (like Dallas only cancelled after one season).  Kitty looks like a poor man's Brigitte Bardot or maybe Julie Christie.  Or maybe the older daughter from Lost in Space.






















The Painted VeilThe Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If it weren't for the audio narration of Kate Reading, I'm not sure I would have liked this book as much as I did. Reading brings some sympathy to the agonized and ashamed main character, Kitty Fane; I think if I were merely reading this, I would have felt that Kitty was a bit melodramatically written, and maybe slut-shamed at that. Certainly, regardless of the format, Kitty's sexuality is on trial here; she's being punished for being a sexual being - but that's a standard thing in many novels: the trials and tribulations of desire and acting upon it.


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"The Coming of the Cold" by Theodore Roethke (1941)

Autumn in Kansas looks like this
Living in a place where the seasons are muddied and blurred together is sometimes difficult for someone raised in a prairie climate.  On the Great Plains, in the land of four seasons, time has borders you cross into at regular intervals.  Here in southern California, the seasons we have are more muted; it's beautiful and warm most of the year, and windy for some of the year, and rainy and cool for a bit of the year, and those are seasons.  

Autumn in southern California looks like this

I miss autumn most of all, with a bit of winter thrown in.  I was recently in Sacramento, which had just experienced several days of rain prior to my arrival, and there it smelled and felt wonderfully like autumn.  Sacramento still had palm trees dotting the landscape, but there were also autumn leaves and the smell of damp rot that one associates with late October or November; turkeys and pilgrims; the first frost and migrating geese; when you were a little kid walking to school and seeing your breath and pretending you were smoking a cigarette; football games and Homecoming and hot apple cider, the promise of Christmas, soon but not TOO soon, because the waiting and suspense is most of the fun.

That is what I like most about Roethke's poem.  The sensual imagery and figures of speech that he crafts and employs to describe  autumn.  I love the phrase "the beak of frost" as if winter is some bird that flies in and starts pecking at everything until it is dead.  

I also think this poem is quite likely about the autumn of one's life too, a reminder that all things come to an end, with the snow of old age and death looming.  There is imagery of rotted fruit, thinning orchards, barrenness and bleakness.  Of course, no one wants to hear old age and death described in such stark terms. But there is some truth, at the core, that old age, like autumn and winter, take a bitter toll.

1

The late peach yields a subtle musk, 
The arbor is alive with fume 
More heady than a field at dusk 
When clover scents diminished wind. 
The walker’s foot has scarcely room 
Upon the orchard path, for skinned 
And battered fruit has choked the grass. 
The yield’s half down and half in air, 
The plum drops pitch upon the ground, 
And nostrils widen as they pass
The place where butternuts are found. 
The wind shakes out the scent of pear. 
Upon the field the scent is dry: 
The dill bears up its acrid crown; 
The dock, so garish to the eye, 
Distills a pungence of its own; 
And pumpkins sweat a bitter oil. 
But soon cold rain and frost come in 
To press pure fragrance to the soil; 
The loose vine droops with hoar at dawn, 
The riches of the air blow thin. 


The ribs of leaves lie in the dust, 
The beak of frost has picked the bough, 
The briar bears its thorn, and drought 
Has left its ravage on the field. 
The season’s wreckage lies about, 
Late autumn fruit is rotted now. 
All shade is lean, the antic branch 
Jerks skyward at the touch of wind, 
Dense trees no longer hold the light, 
The hedge and orchard grove are thinned. 
The dank bark dries beneath the sun, 
The last of harvesting is done. 
All things are brought to barn and fold. 
The oak leaves strain to be unbound,
The sky turns dark, the year grows old, 
The buds draw in before the cold. 

 3 

The small brook dies within its bed; 
The stem that holds the bee is prone; 
Old hedgerows keep the leaves; the phlox, 
That late autumnal bloom, is dead. 
All summer green is now undone: 
The hills are grey, the trees are bare, 
The mould upon the branch is dry, 
The fields are harsh and bare, the rocks 
Gleam sharply on the narrow sight. 
The land is desolate, the sun 
No longer gilds the scene at noon; 
Winds gather in the north and blow 
Bleak clouds across the heavy sky, 
And frost is marrow-cold, and soon 
Winds bring a fine and bitter snow.


From Open House, 1941.  

I fear we as a people will all be missing autumn and winter sooner than we know.  

Friday, November 18, 2016

I am the Mummy Heb-Nefert by Eve Bunting; illustrated by David Christiana (1997)

Eve Bunting is one of the most prolific writers for children out there; at 87 she is still publishing books.  Wikipedia says she's published more than 250 books and who I am to argue with Wikipedia?  If you search "Eve Bunting" on Goodreads, you get 248 hits.

What is writing 250 books even like?  I can't even write one. I can barely write a poem a day (I'm up to about a poem every 2-3 days).  You may argue that they are picture books and they are short, but they still have to make sense, have a plot, be about something different, be interesting, be funny or moving, or both.

And they aren't all picture books.  She's written novels for children and teens as well.

Does she remember each and every book?

She's a writer, not an illustrator - but she's worked with everyone who is anyone in the children's illustration world.

She appears to publish around 2-3 books a year.

She churns them out.  Which sounds like shade, but if you think about it - butter is churned out, and who the fuck doesn't like butter?  I think the same thing could easily be said about Eve Bunting.  Only, because she is 87 years old and I don't personally know her, I will say "who the hell doesn't like Eve Bunting."  If you don't like Eve Bunting, you are a mean butthole.

So I haven't read each and every Eve Bunting book, nor do I plan to.

My favorite Eve Bunting book is one I recently rediscovered:  I Am the Mummy Heb-Nefert.  I first discovered this book as a baby librarian, I would imagine around 1999, when it was still fairly new. In a nutshell it is a mummy named Heb-Nefert telling her story from beyond the tomb.  But Bunting's Heb-Nefert uses poetic language to tell her story; essentially this is one long free verse lyric poem.  It's exquisite, especially read aloud.  The imagery is gorgeous; it has a story; and you even learn a few things about mummies along the way.

It's also personally important to me, because it's not just a poem about a mummy.  It's also about change.  Right from the start, Heb-Nefert reminds us that while she may be "black as night / stretched tight / as leather on a drum" she was once "the daughter of a monarch / favored, beautiful / but all things change."

They do indeed.  We are changing each and every second, with every breath we take and exhale.  The world is changing around us too.  Throughout the poem, Bunting, using the voice of Heb-Nefert, reminds us that "these things pass" and, most memorably of all, after 3,000 years "How foolish that they do not see / how all things change / and so will they / Three thousand years from now / they will be dust and bones."

But the mummy lives on.

So poignant.

I liked this book so much that I typed out the words and glued them into a book.  It's that good.

If you haven't yet read it, find a copy and do so.


I Am the Mummy Heb-NefertI Am the Mummy Heb-Nefert by Eve Bunting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is certainly one of my favorite picture books. I liked it so much the first time I read it almost twenty years ago that I typed out all the words and pasted them in a book of literary mementos. The illustrations are fine, but it's Bunting's words that stand out here. She's written a lovely and poignant lyric poem, that could share a spot with the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning. It's nominally about a mummy, a female ruler 3,000 years ago named Heb-Nefert, and you learn much about her life and death (and intricate preparations of her body after death). But Bunting is also writing about ever present change, and time, and existential knowledge of one's own demise. It's heavy stuff for a picture book, but her poetry is so beautiful that it counters the heaviness.


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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

California by Ina Coolbrith (1918)


Ina Coolbrith was the first poet laureate of California; she was actually the first poet laureate of any state in the United States.  She's utterly fascinating - she knew, befriended and supported writers and artists:  Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce (Bierce was acid towards her and their friendship soured) and Bret Harte).  She "terminated a youthful failed marriage" via a "sensational public trial" - an early divorcee!   She held literary salons.  She was cool.  And she was a librarian - one of my people.   In fact, it sounds like she was Jack London's librarian (he called her his literary mother).  She was also Isadora Ducan's librarian.   So in my mind she is extra cool.

The fire following the 1906 earthquake consumed most of her work.

I read a limited edition published in 1918 (only 500 copies) of California; she wrote the poem for University of California Commence Day, whatever that was.

In the introduction, she says this about our grand and great state:

After reading this, I felt so proud to live here.  It's a beautiful place, a poem indeed.
In any way, shape or form, Coolbrith's poem is not the greatest poem ever written. It's flowery and old-fashioned, and high falutin'.  But it contains some exquisite and moving phrases and words that make you proud to be a Californian.  Like this:
"The palm-tree and the pine
Strike hands together under the same skies"

She really captures the wonderful dichotomy of the state, from the ocean to the mountains to the desert to the farmlands and back and again and again.

The particular book I read is beautifully designed by an artist named Laurence B. Haste.  I imagine they were both part of the same artistic community in San Francisco.  

You can actually read the book itself, scanned completely online, here.  You should go do it.  

Here is another poem by her that's really quite lovely:





Monday, November 14, 2016

The Lost Daughters of China by Karin Evans (2001)

I read this book in 2003.  I remember nothing about it.

However, I liked a parable in it so well I copied it on a copy machine and pasted it in a book.

Here is the parable:










Very appropriate to run across this, after Last Week.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015)

In The Buried Giant, the land of England, sometime after the Romans left but before the Saxons completely took over, is under a curse - a mist that causes everyone to have short term memory.  

That's how I feel about the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro.  I'm under a misty curse that causes me to completely forget them once I'm finished.

I've read The Remains of the Day.  Twice.  I know it's about a butler in a manor house owned by Christopher Reeve, and Emma Thompson is the housekeeper.  I know this because I've seen the movie several times.  But I barely remember the book.  In fact, the second time I read the book, I had completely forgotten I'd read it once before until well into it.

I read Never Let Me Go.  Or maybe it's Never Let Them Go.  I know it's about clones, who are being harvested for their body parts.  In sort of a Harry Potter type boarding school, without the magic.  I don't really remember much beyond that.

And now we have The Buried Giant.  This was the book I chose for my book discussion club to read.  And I have no fucking idea what to even say about it, because the minute I put it down, I forgot most of it.  I jest, a bit.  I remember some of it.  But it was just not all that interesting.  

Ishiguro has this flat monotone of a narrative voice - and a first person storyteller that creeps in everyone so often with a comment, although why this is so is never made clear (Sir Gawain also has two chapters he narrates from first person, again, for no discernible reason other than Literature, said poshly).  His settings are flat; his characters are all related to Flat Stanley, although Flat Stanley is actually interesting.

Most of the time, I had no idea what the hell was even going on or what the whole point of this was.  

I read a review - that hated this book by the way - that said this was an allegory.  Pah.  If it was, I didn't get it.

If the book had been a rousing read, full of adventure and witty dialogue, I don't think would have cared about the Deeper Meaning.  Who gives a shit about Deep when you are having fun?  But alas, it was full of the opposite of adventure - doldrum reading - and the opposite of witty - plodding dialogue, put in the mouth of truly dull characters.

Let's hope the movie does this justice.

I may be done with Kazuo Ishiguro.  

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
In The Buried Giant, a mist of forgetfulness has cursed Dark Ages England, causing everyone to suffer from short term memory loss. That's how I feel about Kazuo Ishiguro books. The minute I finish them, the mist of forgetfulness attacks me, and I can barely remember what a read.

What I do remember about The Buried Giant is that I felt that the first person narrator, who makes an appearance a few times, had the same narrative voice as Stevens the butler from The Remains of the Day, as if he had gone back in time (or perhaps he has lived forever). That is the only little nugget of interest I took from this book, because other than that, I was bored silly and couldn't wait to finish the damn thing. The characters are all flatter than Flat Stanley; the plot plods; the setting is dull. Ishiguro tells story in monotone and monochrome; somewhere behind the grays is Deep Meaning, I'm sure. But I didn't care enough to dig for it.


The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (2000)

This is most likely the second time I've read The Amber Spyglass.  Like the other two in the series, I'm listening to rather than reading the book, once again excellently narrated by Philip Pullman himself. I can't recommend this experience enough; listening to some books is a chore, but this series has been a complete delight, although I was happy to see it end and move on to something else.

I was pleasantly surprised to re-read The Subtle Knife and find that I enjoyed it as much as The Golden Compass; I had originally remembered reading it and liking it but not quite as much as the first book.  I also remember reading The Amber Spyglass and coming away a little less impressed; this re-read, I'm even less impressed.

There is nothing wrong with the book.  But it lacks the wonder of the first book, and the power of the second book.  It's just - okay.  The first two stood out; they were tremendously powerful, but also subtle (no intent here).  The storytelling in each was superb.

Not so much in Spyglass.  For one thing, the narrative point of view just isn't as sharp.  Although each book has a third person omniscient point of view,  the first two were centered on what Lyra and Will were seeing and doing at any given moment.  What they were looking at was always filtered through their brain and experience.  Spyglass has a clunkier narrative voice.  Perhaps when you are listening, it really stands out; for example, in a huge battle scene towards the end, the children are watching it unfold from a semi-hiding place.  They see all of these creatures fighting one another, including minituature people who ride dragonflies.  They were able to see quite intricate details of the people and dragonflies - and Pullman was specific about the fact that they were seeing this; it was third person omniscient having a look-see.  I thought to myself - that's impossible for them to see all of that detail; they would have to have the best, sharpest eyesight in the world.  The book is lurches like this several times; I don't want to say this is lazy writing, but it's definitely not keen like the other two books.

The books is simply clogged with creatures and characters, causing the sink to overflow all over the floor.  Pullman apparently needed to plug in as many creatures as he could.  If the other two books had a slight coating of C.S. Lewis (certainly on purpose), I caught glimpses of Dorothy Gale and her adventures in Oz throughout Spyglass.  The Gallivespians would have felt quite at home Oz adjacent; and the journey through the land of the dead had the feel of Dorothy trekking through parts of Oz as well.

The book is also a hammer for Pullman's ideas, pounding away at our little pointed heads.  It's not a subtle hammer either (that was on purpose).  Occasionally pedantic, the book has Ideas galore.  In a book that is taking on organized religion, there has to be something that counters are fear of death and what happens next; one of the most beautiful scenes is a description of what will happen to our bodies when we die, our particles dissolving happily to become one with everything.  It's a comforting thought, to replace an equally comforting (at least for some) thought of playing harps with angels at God's feet.  Clever there, Pullman.

I'm happy I read this series again; deliriously happy I listened to it rather than read it the old fashioned way.  Pullman is still a creative genius and a strong writer.  But not every book is equally strong, and Spyglass suffers that fate.

The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3)The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why is it that the last books in a series are always the weakest or worst of the series? A bit too preachy, sort of unbelievable, bits of forced plot to make things happen. It is exquisitely written - Philip Pullman is a master writer - the storytelling fell a bit flat. (2007)

The second time around, I listened to the book rather than read it, but I came away feeling exactly the same way. To add to my earlier review: the narrative point of view just is not as sharp as it was in the first two. Lyra and Will seems more passive; the omniscient third person voice seems farther away and less interested in them than before. This may be on purpose; I don't know. But it made the book weaker and less interesting. The book is also clogged with characters and plot.

Even more than the other two, The Amber Spyglass is a hammer for Philip Pullman's ideas and ideals about religion, which he then pounds away at on our pointed little heads. This isn't a subtle hammer either (ha ha). The book has Ideas galore, and they often get in the way.

I'm not sorry I read The Amber Spyglass; I was sorry to wave goodbye to this trilogy. Pullman is still a creative genius and a strong writer. But not every book is equally strong, and Spyglass suffers that fate.



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Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird (2016)

A very strong first half.  I picked up this book thinking "what on earth is there new to read about Queen Victoria?" and then was more than pleasantly surprised - elated, intrigued - to find that Baird had spun out a lively and feminist point of view regarding the queen.  Princess Beatrice selectively edited her mother's journals and letters; King Edward VII burned the letters of some of the Victoria's sketchier companions; John Brown, the second great love of the queen's life after her beloved Albert, was mostly excised.  Male historians also selectively de-feminized the queen, thinking her letters to others about motherhood and childcare weren't of any importance; this erased some of the queen's feminity, and led future generations to think the queen hated children, her own children in particular (she did not; what she disliked was being pregnant nine times in a row).  Baird's re-imagining of the queen, at least in the first half or so, has my enthusiastic thumbs up.  I WAS amused.

If the second half falls a tad bit, I think that's simply because historians just have no idea what to do with Victoria once Albert is gone.  This is in large part due to the fact that much of the record from this time period has been purposely destroyed.  There is very little physical evidence of her relationship with John Brown, for instance; the queen's children all made sure of this.  As Miss Marple would say  "where there is smoke, there is fire."  Baird's baldly stating that the Queen was in love with John Brown, regardless of the physicality of that relationship, was a startling but also nice thing to see; she also has some proof about at least talk of the physicality (I won't spoil what that is though).  Baird also writes convincingly that Disraeli was homosexual, which I had never read before.  Quite intriguing!

"What exactly was the constitutional role of the queen?"  That seems to be the theme of the second half, to the exclusion of more intimate details.  I think these details must exist - the queen had ladies in waiting like Marie Mallet who later wrote books; grandchildren like Marie of Rumania who wrote books; there is plenty of sources in which to dig for treasure.  But Baird concentrates much on how, once Victoria emerged from mourning (when it was convenient, that is), she was a most unconstitutional monarch.  Although unlike her earlier pre-Albert blunders in which she acted out against her ministers, she was still quite an actor on the national stage of the United Kingdom and the world, particularly in foreign affairs.  This was not a surprise to me; I knew that in contrasting the modern monarchy with Victoria, power has evaporated and the current queen's ancestor was not only feisty, but also far more politically powerful.

The current queen's son sounds like he's going to push more boundaries - perhaps push the boundaries back to the time of his Great-Great-Great Grandmother.

Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an EmpireVictoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My initial instinct when I saw this book was "What more can we possibly learn about Queen Victoria?" Victoria and her family are one of my favorite subjects on which to read, but to be honest everything seems to be a rehash of everything else. But I came away from Baird's book pleasantly surprised! There are new new tidbits - I won't spoil - and Baird takes what I would call a feminist point of view on much of Victoria's life. She's proved beyond doubt (at least to me) that the Queen was a strong-willed, politically bent, unconstitutional monarch to her dying day, constantly trying to grab (back) power. Baird also argues that male historians (and the queen's descendants) have redacted some of Victoria's life, including her maternal instincts.

The first half of this book is the strongest, likely due to what plagues all Victorian scholars - most of the details of Victoria's life in mourning has been discounted or disappeared. But Baird makes the most of her material, and injects a few new discoveries.

If you've read everything there is to read on Victoria and are hungering for more, add this to your reading list. And if you are dying to start reading about the amusing queen, this is a terrific place to start.


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Thursday, November 10, 2016

"California Hills in August" by Dana Gioia (1986)



California Hills in August

I can imagine someone who found
these fields unbearable, who climbed
the hillside in the heat, cursing the dust,
cracking the brittle weeds underfoot,
wishing a few more trees for shade.

An Easterner especially, who would scorn
the meagerness of summer, the dry
twisted shapes of black elm,
scrub oak, and chaparral, a landscape
August has already drained of green.

One who would hurry over the clinging
thistle, foxtail, golden poppy,
knowing everything was just a weed,
unable to conceive that these trees
and sparse brown bushes were alive.

And hate the bright stillness of the noon
without wind, without motion,
the only other living thing
a hawk, hungry for prey, suspended
in the blinding, sunlit blue.

And yet how gentle it seems to someone
raised in a landscape short of rain –
the skyline of a hill broken by no more
trees than one can count, the grass,
the empty sky, the wish for water.



When I was sixteen years old, not even thinking about leaving my small Kansas town, let alone living in California, Dana Gioia was writing this poem.

Gioia is the poet laureate of California; I recently saw him read a few of his poems and talk about his quest to visit all 58 counties in California (at California Library Association 2016 conference in Sacramento).  I never knew there were so many counties in the state, with such interesting and romantic names.  "Del Norte" and  "Mariposa" and "Modoc" and "Tuolumne".

I think after this incredibly bizarre week, in which black swans crash landed all over the fucking place, and into the next four years of fear and loathing, we are going to need poet laureates like Gioia to lead us someplace, anyplace, other than where we are or are going to be.

Gioia perfectly captures the sensation overload of a walking in the hills of California.  They are lovely in barren and wild ways, these hills smelling of heat and dust and dried up grasses.  

He's quite a guy, and quite a poet.  We are lucky to have him as our laureate.


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