Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey (2017)

I read The Wanderers because it was my book club book; it also came highly recommended from one of my most extraordinary colleagues.  We discuss tomorrow morning (brunch!) and I'm curious as to why she loves it so.  I can't say I hated this book, but I wasn't immediately in love with it.  My colleague  put it in a similar box to The Martian, which I haven't read.   The tale in a nutshell:  set in the very near future, a private company is sending humankind to Mars, but first runs a simulation that's as much psychological as physical.  They want to test three astronauts - in this case Helen, a 50 something widowed American woman and mother of one adult daughter, Yoshi, a 40(?) something married but childless Japanese man, and Sergei, the cosmonaut captain, a 40(?) something divorced Russian father of two teenaged boys - in a seventeen month case study of the science behind the expedition but also how to best manage a small crew on a long journey in a scienced-up tin can. Chapters alternate, are told in third person present-tense, and also feature Helen's daughter, Mirielle, a young actress; Yoshi's (very weird) wife Madoka, and Sergei's sixteen year old son Dmitri, who is coming to terms with his homosexuality.  One of the set pieces that point toward the future rather than now are Madoka's profession, which is working for a robotics company - in this case robots that are caretakers for the elderly and provide companionship for lonely parents of busy adult children (another set piece are starving Arctic polar bears, which as of yesterday became a tragic and frightening "now" rather than the near future).  Each of the chapters reads like it is told by one of these robots, in an emotionless voice - but that hides some deep emotional chasms and fissures that are present in these six people (there is a seventh narrator, one of the psychologist types monitoring the simulation, who is falling in love with Helen's daughter).  These people have some problems, and perhaps that is what the book is about - hiding problems is tough work, and we are all sort of fucked up whether we want to be or not.  Helen thinks she has been chosen because she is not sexually attractive to the men; she also realizes her deceased husband didn't love her and was sarcastic and mean; and that Yoshi is mean too.  Sergei knows his son is gay (we find out at the end) and doesn't want to be the awful dick his father was to him; he also thinks a SPOILERY type of thing about the mission that may or may not be true.  Yoshi has these issues with his wife, particularly about whether they should have a baby or not.  Madoka is maybe mentally ill and fantasizes a lot about death and destruction in weird ways (is the dog a stand in for a her husband or a baby or ? ).  Mirielle is both jealous of her mother's success and hates her mother and loves her mother (as do we all); she refers to Helen as ASPy at one point, which is slang term for a person with Asperberger's, which shone an immediate light on Helen.  Dmitri is having anonymous sex with older men, who think he's older than sixteen; he meets a college student who figures him out pretty quickly; his relationship issues with this college student were, to me, the most interesting part of the book, and I wanted to keep coming back to that - Dmitri's story was the most relatable.  All of there stories have a quality of unreliability to them:  they think things that may or may not be true; they have perceptions that are true to them but may not be true to the world at large.  That ties in with the story arc as a whole, as there is something fishy going on - or we are led to believe that, have this perception, but that may or may not be true.  It's a mystery that is not quite ever solves (or I missed it).  It's also an arc that I saw coming - if you read murder mysteries as puzzles, you become adept at picking up clues, and Howrey drops hints throughout that things aren't all that they seem to be.  Perception is a shifting thing, and what the three astronauts (and us) think about their mission and themselves at the beginning of the novel aren't necessarily what they think at the end - or what the truth is.  It's an interesting concept that to me doesn't always hold water (the "why" behind the spoiler is weak tea and seems forced and convenient rather than foreshadowing).  It kept me reading though (plus, I liked Dmitri's part of this soap opera).



The WanderersThe Wanderers by Meg Howrey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ostensibly this is about three astronauts - Helen, Yoshi, & Sergei - who are on a simulated seventeen month mission to Mars and back, in a sciended-up tin can, set in the very near future, and what physically, emotionally, and psychologically happens to them and three of their loved ones left behind (Helen's adult daughter Mirielle, Yoshi's wife, and Sergei's sixteen year old son) during that long journey. But Howrey's book is also about the shifting nature of perception verses reality. All three astronauts and their loved ones all believe certain things to be true; any or all of those things could also be false. You, dear reader, have to sift through the flat, emotion-less third person present tense voice to figure out that out. What does emerge at the end is the portrait of six people who have it all together on the outside, and are full of dark crevices and fissures just below that pristine surface. We get to see both the snow covered beauty of their lives, and the bottomless dark caverns that lie just beneath, and wonder as the book progresses if and when any of them will fall through. Hard science lovers may or may not enjoy this (I don't have enough background in astrophysics and rocketry to know); lovers of psychological studies of the human beings and their interactions will probably love this more.


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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir (1999)

Eleanor of Aquitaine's light continues to burn brightly across (almost) 900 years ago.  She's been portrayed in so many ways over all this time - mother of all mothers, political savage, noble prisoner, wanton slut.  Alison Weir tries to scrape away all the detritus and muck that has clung to her over the years; she also injects some of her own theories into the mix (e.g. some of Eleanor's sexual peccadilloes may have been more than just 12th century monkish gossip).  What remains is still an interesting study; but truly getting to know Eleanor is difficult.  She's not a character in a movie or a book; but she's also not the character you usually find in a (pop?) historical narrative or biography either.  Records on women, even royal women, were scarce in  middle ages (and beyond); trying to go back that far, Weir must necessarily tell Eleanor's story often through the eyes and deeds of others:  her two husbands, her children, her enemies.  What we can know, still, is that Eleanor was more of a lion than her lion-hearted son (that spoiled favorite of hers that quite frankly sounds as bad as bad King John); she was sometimes politically savvy, but often impetuous.  She wasn't going to play by the rules for the time - but was also sometimes forced to.  She was pious when she needed to be; impious at other times.  She would not have made a good 21st century mother - she wasn't a helicopter parent, and definitely played favorites among her offspring.  She was (probably) sexually adventurous (and also impetuous).  She was a teenager (15!) when she married her first husband, Louis the king of France; when she married Henry, she was 30 - eleven years his senior.  She outlived him (and most of her kids).  She was rebellious.  She was one of the most famous women - perhaps THE most famous woman - of her time, of which the troubadours sang.  She's maybe the most famous woman of the middle ages; if asked to name a famous female from that time, I think her name would pop up first almost every time. 

And yet, we still don't even know exactly what she looked like.  We don't know what color her hair was, or the color of her eyes.  This wasn't a time of portraiture, so there is no pictures that are definitely her; and what little murals or stonework that do survive do really show a likeness.  She was described as one of the most beautiful women; I would bet she was quite bewitching.  

Very little writing even survives from this time, outside of religious chronicles, so her voice is also still - as is the voice of so many others.  We don't really know what she thought about her husbands other than conjecture.  But it seems as if Henry and Eleanor had a passionate marriage:  they made lots of babies together, and fought beautifully as well.    Henry II imprisoned her for 16 years for being a kickass rebel (in this, Eleanor was probably a lot like his mother Empress Matilda, who was also a kick ass rebel), but, unlike his ancestor, another Henry (the VIII), he didn't execute her.  That says something about the two Henrys; something about the two time periods; but also something about Eleanor:  Henry, at some level, thought the world was a better place with Eleanor in it rather than absent from it.  

She was also a awesome old lady.  She was 51 when Henry put her in prison for stirring up trouble; when he died and she got out, she was 67 years old.  Age was just a number to her; she acted as regent for Richard I, traveled all over Europe  (remember, this was by horse) up until her death.  She was really quite extraordinary.


Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life (Ballantine Reader's Circle)Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Eleanor of Aquitaine's light continues to burn brightly across (almost) 900 years ago. She's been portrayed in so many ways over all this time - mother of all mothers, political savage, noble prisoner, wanton slut. Alison Weir tries to scrape away all the detritus and muck that has clung to her over the years; she also injects some of her own theories into the mix (e.g. some of Eleanor's sexual peccadilloes may have been more than just 12th century monkish gossip). What remains is still an interesting study; but truly getting to know Eleanor is difficult. Records on women, even royal women, were scarce in middle ages (and beyond); trying to go back that far, Weir must necessarily tell Eleanor's story often through the eyes and deeds of others: her two husbands, her children, her enemies. What we can know, still, is that Eleanor was more of a lion than her lion-hearted son (that spoiled favorite of hers that quite frankly sounds as bad as bad King John); she was sometimes politically savvy, but often impetuous. She wasn't going to play by the rules for the time - but was also sometimes forced to. She was pious when she needed to be; impious at other times. She would not have made a good 21st century mother - she wasn't a helicopter parent, and definitely played favorites among her offspring. She was (probably) sexually adventurous (and also impetuous in this regard as well). She was a teenager (15!) when she married her first husband, Louis the king of France; when she married Henry, she was 30 - eleven years his senior. She outlived him (and most of her kids). She was rebellious. She was one of the most famous women - perhaps THE most famous woman - of her time, of which the troubadours sang. She's maybe the most famous woman of the middle ages; if asked to name a famous female from that time, I think her name would pop up first almost every time. Weir doesn't perhaps bring her to living, breathing life - but with what little actual knowledge we have about her, that is always going to be difficult (we don't even know exactly what she looked like). But Weir still writes a strong book.


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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Murder in Three Acts by Agatha Christie (1934)

Murder in Three Acts, a.k.a. Three Act Tragedy, almost kept me guessing until the very end.  It's a rare Christie I had not read (of if I read it, it was only once, and so long ago I didn't remember anything about it).  It was a trip down memory lane in two senses:  what it must have been like in 1934 to have bought this brand new, and also what it was like in seventh grade to be reading an Agatha Christie for the first time myself.  I still remmeber the sense of horror I felt about And Then There Were None or the pleasant completeness of Murder on the Orient Express.  The multiple red herrings made guessing the whodunnit  deliciously difficult.  At various times, I thought the murderer was everyone but Hercule Poirot (and if you know your Christie, even that's a possibility - I think there is one at the very end of her career where he is the whodunnit).  The motive stinks though - really disappointing.  The U.K. edition had a completely different motive, which made far more sense (and was one I thought of, only about another character).  They always change the Christie titles for reasons I can't fathom; changing the motive makes no sense (some sense of it was made here, but it's still a dumb reason to change the motive).

Murder In Three ActsMurder In Three Acts by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dame Agatha kept me guessing the murderer almost to the very end. A sea of red herrings made me change my mind about whodunnit several times; the only one I didn't suspect was Hercule Poirot himself. I will quibble a bit about the ending - no spoilers though. The American edition and the U.K. edition have slightly different endings (thank you Internets); the U.K. ending sounds way more plausible. Still, I was happy. I read a vintage paperback that smelled of attic, with a cool artistic cover, and neat-looking old font.


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Monday, November 27, 2017

Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book by Jomny Sun (2017)

I first heard about this book from a podcast on language.  They were discussing the unique spelling and grammar  in the book with the author, and why he chose to the particular spelling and grammar he did.  I was fascinated and decided to read the book.

It's a quick read, but really quite wonderful.  It's sort of graphic novel, and sort of a comic strip, and sort of of one of those daily calendars.  It's also really lovely, thought provoking and moving.  There are some beautiful philosophical musings on death, depression, being alone, friendship, and what it means to be a stranger in a strange land.  It's a book that should be read slowly, and thoughtfully, and more than once. 

Everyone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A BookEveryone's a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too: A Book by Jomny Sun
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A big, hulking WOW followed by a pleased SIGH was my visceral reaction upon finishing this book. I initially listened to The World in Words podcast talking to Jonathan Sun about the unique grammar and spelling he used in the book, and the reasoning behind it. It sounded so fascinating, I wanted to read the book. It's an artistic endeavor, a graphic representation of topics ranging from depression to delight, from friendship to art and so very much more. You will muse, you will think deeply, you will laugh to yourself, you will feel. The whole book resonated with me, feeling so familiar. A lovely, lovely book.


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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones; narrated by Gerard Doyle (1977)

I have read Charmed Life at least twice before; this time I listened to Gerard Doyle's narration.  Gerard Doyle is a top notch narrator, too.  He's not overzealous with "voices" but adds just the right touch to every character (particularly a witch towards the very end; if you listen, you will know who I'm talking about).  He narrated Witch Week as well, and I think he's got the perfect voice for Diana Wynne Jones's work.

Charmed Life is an orphan story, but Jones does something really quite brilliant.  There is an orphan trope that goes like this:  the orphan gets adopted by a family, but is a total brat.  This may be because the orphan does not fit in yet; this may be because the orphan was raised in a tough orphanage or on the streets and doesn't have the etiquette or know how (yet) to make it in the Warbucks household.  The orphan may act up; the orphan may get teased and tease back; the orphan almost always at least once tries to run away.  The family with whom the orphan lives has a heart of gold, and there is always redemption of some sort  Orphan stories end all fuzzy wuzzy and warm.  Little House on the Prairie - the television show, not the books - was awash with orphans.  Albert Ingalls fits neatly into this trope.

Because we are trained to think certain things about orphans in books, we think Gwendolyn Chant is going to be this kind of orphan.  From the moment she arrives at Chrestomanci Castle, she's a total brat.  She causes havoc.  She breaks rules.  She summons apparitions.  She's terrible.  And we have been trained to be on her side because she's an orphan.  She can't be all bad, right?  At some point, she's going to realize that the loving family who has adopted her loves her very much; there is going to be a warm and fuzzy ending.  That's one of the shining brilliance of Charmed Life.  Jones turns this particular orphan trope over on its head.  Because Gwendolyn Chant is not going have a warm and fuzzy ending, because she's not a heart warming, misunderstood orphan.  She's really evil.  She's not just a bad girl, she's actually poisonously evil. It's rare to meet a purely evil character in a children's book, and she's also a doll like little girl.  The best kind of evil character - completely unexpected!  She has killed her nine-lived brother five times, and wants to see his throat slit another four times at the end.  She's a sociopath.  AND SHE ESCAPES at the end too!  She's done all of these horrid things, and she's gets away with it at the end.  She is truly one of the most memorable and comic (but disturbing too) characters in fantasy and children's literature, right up there with villainesses like Cruella DeVil, sitting at the same table with Veruca Salt. 

The end isn't all fuzzy wuzzy and warm (ish, but not completely).  It's really quite a brilliant book.

Jones knows her fantasy; she has sat at the feet of the masters that came before her and learned from them.  She pays them a bit of homage, I think, in Charmed Life.  When Cat and Janet meet the dragon in Michael's office, Janet falls under the dragon-spell, just like Smaug was able to do to Bilbo in The Hobbit (although Jones doesn't use Tolkien's term, the implication is there).  And at the end, when the evil witches are going to kill Cat, they are going to do it in a stone, reminiscent of C.S. Lewis. This homage though; Jones, in my opinion, towers up there with Tolkien and Lewis.  She's not a copy cat. 

Charmed LifeCharmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a treat to listen to Gerard Doyle interpret the marvelous Diana Wynne Jones on audio. I've already read Charmed Life (several times), but (as always) listening to it was a rich, fulfilling, different experience. Jones takes some of the familiar tropes of the orphan story, and turns them on their heads (to say more would be to spoil too much) in her usual quirky, witty, very smart way. I never want Jones books to end.


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The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown; illustrated by Christian Robinson (1938, 2016)

Another picture book I picked up because of Bruce Handy’s marvelous book.  He wrote lovely things about the book and made it sound intriguing.  It was indeed.  Brown copyrighted the text in 1938; Remy Charlip illustrated it in 1958, which was after Brown had died.  Christian Robinson published this newly illustrated version in 2016, and really does the text justice.  Charlip’s original illustrations (note:  I’ve only seen google’d images; I haven’t read the original version, so I’m basing my review not that) seemed very flat and of their time.  I think Robinson’s illustrations also seem of their time as well; I wonder if in 50 years, someone else will create new illustrations for that time?  Because I do think this book is lovely enough to be reissued again and again for a new generation of kids.  I remember finding dead birds, and being sad, and burying them, and then forgetting about them, just like in the book.  Playing “funeral” which is what the kids in this book are doing (I also remember digging one bird back up, and being unpleasantly surprised at the results).  Brown is commenting on death for kids, and also commenting on death and kids for adults.  Robinson’s illustrations are vibrant.  I particularly like the kids who runs around in a fox mask and tail.  Because I would like to be able to do the same.  Handy specially mentioned the multicultural kids, which is very modern, but feels a bit like one of those World War II movies where all the buddies are a different color and ethnicity.  But how you make a multicultural book feel natural is always tricky, and that certainly didn’t bother me about the book.


The Dead BirdThe Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was originally written by Margaret Wise Brown in 1938; published posthumously and illustrated by Remy Charlip in 1958; and the reissued in 2016 with new, updated (and far more colorful and eye catching) illustrations by Christian Robinson. I googled some of Charlip's original illustrations (the older edition is out of print), and I thought this update was well worth it; those older illustrations were pretty flat. This book, which has a poetic feel to it, needed these more vibrant pictures to make it sing an even brighter song. I did wonder if in 50 years, someone else will re-illustrate this again; Brown's book is worth reissuing over and over for a new generation. It's that good. 



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Monday, November 20, 2017

A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E.L. Konigsburg (1973)

A Proud Taste for Scarlet and MiniverA Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E.L. Konigsburg
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

What an odd book. I’m not sure I would have even finished it if I hadn’t also been reading Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life I wasn’t exactly sure who the audience for this book even was. It’s in the children’s section, by a writer for children, but the subject matter was quite adult. Would an eleven year old want to read about Eleanor of Aquitaine? In 1973, maybe? In 2017, farther from maybe, leaning towards no. I don’t remember this book at all as a child. I adore Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. This one, not so much.

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The Cat in the Hat (1957) & The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958) by Dr. Seuss

The Cat in the Hat
Bruce Handy wrote this rad as fuck book about children's literature which I adored (see here).  There was this entire chapter on Dr. Seuss, particularly The Cat in the Hat, and how revolutionary it was.  I'm not going to go into a whole bunch of detail on this - just go read his book.  If you are reading this right now, you will like it.  If you don't, let me know.  I will lose respect for you though. I may have to compare you to that bitch kangaroo from Horton Hears A Who.  She's the worst Dr. Seuss character.  She's one of the worst characters in children's literature.  She terrified me as a kid.  Not liking Bruce Handy's book is not as bad as that.  So you, hater, will not be a bitch kangaroo.  Just stupid.

My mom didn't like Dr. Seuss.  She's said so more than once.  She hated reading the books aloud.  I have to agree:  they are horrible read-alouds.  Kids may love them, and there may be some children's librarians who love them too.  I was not one of those librarians.  The sing-songy pattern of Dr. Seuss makes for some excruciating reading aloud.  


I don't remember the last time I actually sat down and read either The Cat in the Hat or The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.   I think as a kid, I liked the sequel better; there was something about all of those little cats, and the pink snow, that appealed to me.  I don't think I ever liked The Cat in the Hat part I as well as part II.  The entire book is sort of terrifying.  Part II takes place mostly outside; Part I is inside their home - essentially, it's the story of home invasion. Also, the cat doesn't really look like a cat.  Garfield looks like a cat.  Heathcliff looks like a cat.  My pet cat looked like a cat.  The Cat in the Hat looks like a monster.  He's creepy looking, sort of like something from the island of Dr. Moreau.  


Plus, he's a crazy maker. I took a class called The Artist's Way, and we learned all about crazymakers.  I'm not sure I buy everything Julia Cameron wrote about in the artist's way, but I definitely bought into the concept of the crazy maker. I hope to fuck I'm not one.  Here is part of a blog post she wrote on crazy makers:


-Crazymakers spend your time and money

-Crazymakers break deals and destroy schedules-Crazymakers expect special treatment-Crazymakers discount your reality-Crazymakers triangulate those they deal with (So, your crazymaker might say “Everyone really hates you at the office” so that you’re thinking “Who hates me at the office?” instead of “Who is this horrible person saying this to me?”)-Crazymakers are expert blamers-Crazymakers create drama, but seldom where it belongs-Crazymakers hate schedules-- except their own. (Your deadline becomes an excuse for them to ask you for something time consuming.)-Crazymakers hate order (You clear a place in the house so you can work, and your crazymaker comes along and messes it up before you can begin.)-Crazymakers deny that they are Crazymakers

All of these things describe the cat in the hat.  He comes in, disrupts these kids' lives, destroys their schedules (and their house), spends their time, triangulates (makes them lie to their mom), creates drama, hates order.    He's fucking crazy.  He's a chaos god; he's not good natured, he's not a coyote or Pan figure.  He's fucking crazy, and he's out to destroy.  "I know some new tricks" he says, one of which is gotterdammerung.


I think what Dr. Seuss wrote was sort of a bit of genius (again, read Handy's book) but in pondering the cat in the hat, now I know what disturbed me about him as a child.  I'm even more scared now.



The Cat in the HatThe Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What do stars even mean for a book? The Cat in the Hat is beloved. It was published long before I was born, and will be in print long after I die. I'm going to give it 5 stars for its genius (the story of Dr. Seuss and the writing of this book is pretty cool) and its longevity. I can remember being disturbed by this book, but it's been 40 years and I couldn't remember why. Now I know. This book is essentially the story of a home invasion by a cousin of Gremlins. Let's face it: he's not a cat. Garfield is a cat. Heathcliff is a cat. He looks like some sort of half-bred monkey creature from The Island of Dr. Moreau. He's a chaos god, who invades the home of two kids, and wreaks monumental havoc on their home and their psyches before cleaning up his mess and leaving - but not before he gets them to lie to their mom about it. So really, he leaves an even bigger mess behind emotionally speaking (plus PTSD). "I know some new tricks" he says, one of which is gotterdammerung. Every kid should read this.


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The Cat in the Hat Comes Back
The Cat in the Hat was a scary book.  A stranger who looks more like a monster than a cat essentially breaks into the home of little boy and girl while their mother is out, and wreaks the kind of havoc that could get them into deep shit when she returns.  Unlike this time of modern helicopter parenting, in my day (when we walked to school barefoot in the snow), we were left alone to fend for ourselves pretty frequently (plus I had a baby sister). The chances of a monster breaking into our house were slim (the chances of our neighborhood friends coming over and wreaking havoc were much greater.  Still, the idea of this was scary.  I don’t remember this being one of my favorite books, although I, like everyone else, was aware that it existed and had read it as least once.  

The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, however, I remember liking much more, at least as a child.  It was far less scary, and I think that’s because the action mostly moved outside.  Having a stranger invade your house and fuck everything up while your mother was out was frightening shit; having something show up in your front yard and turn the snow another color was loose dogs. When I re-read the book, I could remember being fascinated by the Little Cats.  I remember particularly liking how they kept taking off their hat to reveal another, even smaller, cat hidden underneath; and even though I knew it ended with Z, it made me wonder what was under Z’s hat (maybe the first concept of infinity).  I also loved playing in the ice and snow.

A snowy day never feels as cold, does it?  A windy, brisk day was always miserable.  A windy, snowy day was a new playground.  Those Little Cats understood exactly those sentiments.  (Shoveling walks never seemed like work; it seemed satisfying.  Mowing lawns seemed like work).  In the first book, it may have SEEMED like playing, but no one was having any fun.  They were just being bullies to that poor fish, scaring the crap out of the two kids, and just being assholes (I am especially talking about you, Thing One and Thing Two).  In the second book, at least in the outside scenes, I think all the Little Cats looked like a helluva lot of fun.

(I realize the cat did break into their house, but he was lured outside and didn’t really wreck their house at all, not like in the first book.  He’s still creepy).

The Cat in the Hat Comes BackThe Cat in the Hat Comes Back by Dr. Seuss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I always get the impression that no one likes The Cat in the Hat Comes Back as much as they like The Cat in the Hat. But as a kid I always liked the second book much better than the first one. In the first book, this monstrous "cat" invades and terrorizes the two kids - and their poor bullied fish - in their own home. Their place of safety was breached. I think that is what i always found so off putting as a little beginning reader forty years ago. But in the second book, tmost of the book takes place outside their home. The cat does do some fuckery inside the house - he makes a mess in the bathrub, almost ruins their mother's dress - but then all the action moves outside - and looks a helluva lot more fun than balancing a cake on a rake (or whatever). Thing One and Thing Two are demons; all of those Little Cats, while not exactly angels, look like they'd be fun to play with - who didn't like the play in the snow when they were seven years old, and with a bunch of little cats that have all sorts of snow related toys. Who gives a shit if the snow turns pink - dogs turned the snow yellow all the time, and that's much more disgusting (unless the pink had some sort of odd odor; I'm assuming not, but you never know).

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Roman Blood by Steven Saylor; narrated by Scott Harrison (1991, 2010)

Strong, good writing can overcome a mediocre audio book.  I did not care for the narrator of this at all but Steven Saylor's writing is so good, so crisp and clean; he is so good at plot and character, and historical detail that I forgave the narrator some faults (making Tiro sound like a 1980s surfer dude, for example; I can’t imagine this was on purpose, but once I got that picture in my head, I couldn’t shake it loose),  Saylor’s Ancient Rome has some noir-elements, which the audio (regardless of narrator) highlights even more - the mysterious gumshoe who’d definitely be packing heat if heat had been invented; several dames; a faithful female secretary/mistress;  a steadily growing sense of foreboding throughout the whole book.  Saylor’s historical series starring Gordianus the finder is one of my favorites; but if this narrator continues throughout the series, I will probably stick to old fashioned reading.

Roman Blood (Roma Sub Roma, #1)Roman Blood by Steven Saylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have read Roman Blood once before, about seven years ago, and started my love affair with Steven Saylor historical mysteries and historical fiction. He's a superb writer; this series only gets better as the books progress. For a similar, equally enjoyable take, John Maddox Roberts has a mystery series set during the same time period.

I listened to the audio version of this book, and Saylor's good, strong writing overcame the mediocre narrator. The narrator wasn't horrible (he could read), but he made some characters sound like Sean Penn in Fast Times in Ridgemont High, which annoyed me. But not enough to stop listening: that is how good Saylor writes. Ancient Rome during the time of Cicero and Sulla becomes a noirish place with dames, a gumshoe in a toga who isn't packing heat only because heat hasn't yet been invented, and that noiry sense of foreboding and intense build up towards an exciting climax.

If the same person narrates succeeding books, I will abandon listening in favor of re-reading.




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Monday, November 13, 2017

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy (2017)

I loved this book.  I love reading children's literature, and I love reading about he children's literature I loved as a child.  Handy has this apology at the beginning of the book for all of the authors and books that he missed when writing about this book - but I don't think he needed it.  He wrote about the perfect amount of authors and books.  Although I didn't want the book to end - I could have continued reading about his thoughts and research on children's literature for far longer than the book lasted.  Anyone who can  compared Portnoy's Complaint to Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny is a genius in my mind.  There are all sort of literary comparisons here, but not done in a glib way; Handy is as serious as hell about how terrific and literary the very best children's literature is.  He's not fucking around here. 

Bruce Handy feels the same way about so many books I loved as a child and still love as an adult.  He certainly has the same relationship to Narnia as I do. 

He compared The Giving Tree to Midnight Cowboy.  I love this man. I want to be at all the same cocktail parties as he is at, listening to his every word.

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an AdultWild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I were forced to be a stalker, you know, someone put a gun to my head and made me stalk someone, I would have to choose Bruce Handy. I want to follow him around like an imprinted gosling. I want to be at all the same cocktail parties he is at, hanging on his every word. I want him to read bedtime stories to me. I'm in literary love. If you continue to love children's literature as an adult (I do) and love reading about the children's literature you devoured as a book hungry child (that's me),m then you will also fall head over heels in love with Bruce Handy as well. He compared Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny to Portnoy's Complaint - in a way that isn't glib or mean, but brilliant and funny. He compared the characters in The Giving Tree - that hateful, awful book - to the characters in Midnight Cowboy. WTF? He loves Narnia. Charlotte's Web continues to make him weep. He made me re-read The Cat in the Hat for the first time in 40 years; he made me read Goodnight Moon for the first time ever. I did not want this book to end. I'm in literary love, until the next gobsmackingly brilliant author new to me rolls around. Until then, I will be thinking only of you, Mr. Bruce Handy.


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Thursday, November 9, 2017

Goodnight Moon (1947) and The Runaway Bunny ( 1942) by Margaret Wise Brown; illustrated by Clement Hurd.

I'm reading this truly fantastic new book called Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy.  It is all about how great children's literature is to read as adult, which I absolutely believe to be true, and advocate.  If you read my blog or follow my reviews on Goodreads, you know I read plenty of children's literature:  picture books, easy readers, early chapter books, novels.  (I'm not a huge fan of YA, preferring a middle grade reader over a YA any day).  Handy had a choice chapter on how fucking cool Margaret Wise Brown was (and how eccentric she was too).  Did you know that MWB was a lesbian?  I know I didn't!

Upon finishing that chapter (and moving on to fairy tales and Maurice Sendak), I realized that in all my years of reading children's literature, in all of my years of being a children's librarian, I had never actually read Goodnight Moon.  Recently I read Frankenstein for the first time, and found while I knew a few things about the book, I really knew nothing.  That was not true with Goodnight Moon.  When reading the book, I felt like I was re-reading it, even though I actually was only reading it for the first time.  

I have nothing unique or interesting to say about Goodnight Moon.  Read Brucy Handy's book - he's a far more interesting writer than me.  Clement Hurd's illustrations are so very, very 1940s, for some reason, to me at least, very aesthetically Miracle on 34th Street (1947 - same year!).  

The Runaway Bunny is from a genre of books I never really like all that well.  Perhaps this is the granddaddy of all those "I love you so much" books that parents get as baby shower gifts.  Anita Jeram's Guess How Much I Love You, Barbara Joose's Mama, Do You Love Me?, Robert Munsch's I Love You Forever.  I gave that particular book to my mom twenty years ago, so I'm not a hater on these books (I also know how this particular bookcreeps some people out).  I just don't think they are very interesting as books.  Bruce Handy makes a very, very good case for how interesting The Runaway Bunny is, and how it's also based on a (creepy stalkery) medieval folk song, which made Margaret Wise Brown ever more fucking cool in my mind.  This book also has 1940s stamped all over its style; it reminded me an Easter greeting card from that era that my father might have received from his grandmother.  Bruce Handy is right about many things, but what resonated for me about what he said about this book was how the mother rabbit became the wind and was going to "blow you where I want you to go."  That's mothering.  And perhaps smothering.  

The Runaway BunnyThe Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not a fan of these "I love you forever" types of books. I don't hate them, but they just leave me cold. Perhaps I have no heart. I definitely have no children (that I'm aware of), so maybe a baby would make me appreciate them more. I only picked this up because Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult had some really interesting things to say about it. I don't want to spoil Handy's book - go read it. Clement Hurd's illustrations are pure 1940s, although more like an Easter greeting card rather than - I dunno, wallpaper or the Thin Man's apartment or the Little Rascals or Benny Goodman's girl singer. 



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My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have nothing new or interesting to say about Goodnight Moon that probably hasn't been said before. There are some kick ass reviews here already. Go read them.

Note: I had never read this before now. I'm going to be 48 years old in a few months, and somehow, I missed out on Good Night moon. I knew of it, and reading it actually felt like re-reading it. But this was my first time. I think possibly it is my first Margaret Wise Brown book too. I can't recommend Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Literature as an Adult enough; his chapter on MWB made me read this and The Runaway Bunny.


The Middle Ages by Edwin S. Grosvenor (2016)

This was a collection of articles written for Horizon, a “bi-monthly hardback” published by American Heritage from 1958 to 1989, the year after I graduated from high school.  The front cover and title page imply that Edwin S. Grosvenor is the author; he is not - I suppose he is the editor, although I’m going to guess “gatherer” or “included” would be more correct (if not very scholarly or proper terms; I never claimed to be anything other than myself, and that is no scholar, and barely proper).  The articles are a mixed bag; short, some of them crisply so, others not so successfully.  Only one of the authors is a woman, Regine Pernoud, a French historian and archivist who died nine years ago.  As far as I can tell, every writer in the book was white.   1958-1989 wasn’t really a time of “woke-ness”, so this should come as no surprise.  I am glad we live in the time we do now, when more people are getting chances to express their opinions and share their research.  Or research.  I think in 1958, if you were a black graduate student interested in medieval history, finding a school to admit you was difficult, let alone finding a library or archive to do research in.

There were eleven articles - they aren’t essays - and they read as if they had pictures accompanying them.  Alas, no pictures in this book.  I liked Regine Pernoud’s article on Charlemagne - I never quite realized how closely he was aligned to the Roman Empire rather than being French; they were speaking a language closer to Latin than French even.  The French certainly that claimed Charlemagne as their own, but he’s really the first European?  That’s a very unscholarly guess.

Morris Bishop’s take on 1066 was interesting.  Frederic Grunfeld’s article about the troubadours, while good, still felt dated; he compared them to The Rolling Stones, which instantly put the article sometime long before now.  I liked Philip Ziegler’s article on the Black Death as well; Ziegler wrote a book about the subject that I may go look up; I imagine this is a minuscule version of his book.

The most interesting of all the articles was Alfred Duggan’s look at Richard I and Saladin.  Duggan was a best selling writer of historical fiction in the middle of the last century; I have some of his books on my list to read, as I think they’ve all been re-released as e-books with snazzy new covers.  He was known for his meticulous research.

I picked out these two descriptions of Richard I and Saladin to show how vile they both were:

"On August 20, recognizing that the agreed ransom would never be handed over, Richard killed the soldiers in the surrendered garrison, along with their wives and children, some 2,700 people in all, excluding some wealthy emirs who bought their survival through the payment of individual ransoms. Having gained one impressive victory..."  An impressive victory that he got through slaughtering children.  A true lion - male lions will slay the cubs of rivals.
 "The Muslims, while killing the unarmed citizens, also had killed all the pigs, and fragments of pork had been deliberately mingled with fragments of Christians, so burial was a slow process."  Saladin was no better.  What a monstrous thing to do.


I don't think Duggan came down hard enough on these two beasts.  The last paragraph in the article, while not a lovefest, was still admiration about their gallantry and peace-keeping abilities.  I don't feel they deserved.  King John and Richard III get bad, bad press - but Richard I deserves some too.

Edwin Grosvenor is the great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell - thank you Wikipedia!


The Middle AgesThe Middle Ages by Edwin S. Grosvenor
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a collection of articles written for Horizon, a “bi-monthly hardback” published by American Heritage from 1958 to 1989, the year after I graduated from high school. The front cover and title page imply that Edwin S. Grosvenor is the author; he is not - I suppose he is the editor, although I’m going to guess “gatherer” or “included” would be more correct (if not very scholarly or proper terms; I never claimed to be anything other than myself, and that is no scholar, and barely proper). The articles are a mixed bag; short, some of them crisply so, others not so successfully. Only one of the authors is a woman, Régine Pernoud, a French historian and archivist who died nine years ago. As far as I can tell, every writer in the book was white. 1958-1989 wasn’t really a time of “woke-ness”, so this should come as no surprise. I am glad we live in the time we do now, when more people are getting chances to express their opinions and share their research. Things aren't perfect, but they are better. Alfred Duggan's article on Saladin and Richard I was the most interesting (and eye opening: these guys were monsters). I also liked Pernoud's article about Charlemagne. Nothing of note here; feel comfortable skipping this book.


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Monday, October 30, 2017

A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley (1988)

When did I first read Judith Merkle Riley's A Vision of Light?  It had to have been back in college (I graduated high school in 1988), and I'm going to hazard a guess I checked it out from a public library (which one, I will never now know).  I probably checked it out because of the incredible, shining vision of light original cover, which is almost like an icon:  a good cover for a character like Margaret.  I'm nothing but a sucker for a good cover.  Incidentally, the new cover for this book is boring as f.  The cover pictured below doesn't glow like my personal copy at home!

When did I last read this book?  I'm going to guess ten years ago, at least.  But it continues to enchant.  Riley creates such incredibly memorable characters, who act, think and feel like real people, not medieval paper dolls.  The rich, brightly colored setting she creates for these characters to inhabit is often surprising and always wonderful.  Calling the medieval historical novel she's written a medieval tapestry is trite covered with mildew - but perhaps I can get away with an illuminated manuscript?  She writes (in gold ink) what's going on in the margins and in the middle of the O's and P's and under the A's. 

SPOILER...   There is a homosexual character who comes to a bad end, who is evil on top of that - I think if Riley (RIP) were writing today, she'd definitely get called out for having a character like this.  It definitely left a sour taste in my mouth that I don't remember having the last time or two I read this book.  However, gay men can be creepy villains too - having every gay in every book be a superhero is beyond the pale.

A Vision of Light (Margaret of Ashbury, #1)A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Calling this historical fiction novel a medieval tapestry would be trite, covered with mildew, clearly cliched, hokier than the hokey-pokey -but perhaps I can get away with illuminated manuscript, written in gold ink? Riley fills in all the illumined details along the margins, in the Os and Ps, under the As, sliding down the Ws and Vs. Those details include a rich, multi-colored stained glass setting, and memorable, soundly written living breathing characters that you soon grow to love (or hate, as the case may be). I've read this book several times, and each time I come away enchanted - and even though I know the ending already, I'm still biting my nails several times for Margaret's (unfair) plight. Spiritual, humorous, feminist. Pair this with Catherine, Called Birdy for a medieval faire.


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Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (2015)

Shhhhh... don't tell anyone... but....

I don't think I like fantasy anymore.

And maybe I never did.

Ken Liu came highly recommended by various review sources.  I read Tor on a pretty regular basis, and get reading recommendations from there frequently. That's probably where I read about The Grace of Kings and thought "that sounds really good."

Except, when I started reading, I just could not connect with it.  The writing was not bad (although I thought it was simplistic and stark).   But after only a few pages into it, I knew I was not going to ever fall head over heels into the book. In fact, reading it was a chore.  There were so many strange names of people and places, and history I had to remember, that I kept getting confused.

Perhaps my brain has grown rusty.  Also, research is (frighteningly) showing that smart phones are making us dumber.  Perhaps, like everyone else, I've become dumb.

But thinking back to my reading history, I've never, ever liked this type of fantasy.  Why did I suddenly think I would like it now?  

Tolkien was my launchpad into epic fantasy.  That is probably is true for many people my age and older.  I can't think of a single other epic fantasy, however, that I ever read and liked.  I belonged to a science fiction and fantasy bookclub for a while growing up, and I remember getting some of the Shannara series by Terry Brooks.  I would sit down and try to read the first book in that series (was it the Sword of Shannara?) every once in a while, and never be able to actually finish (granted, even then I thought Shannara was the poor man's LOTR, a cheap knockoff).  But I tried to read other epic fantasies too - usually suggested by other readers who swore I would like it.  My neighbor's dad tried to get me to read the Thomas Covenant series (nope).  Several friends my senior year of high school - my dungeons and dragons buddies (yes, I had those back then) - liked Roger Zelazny's Amber series (nope).  About 15 years ago, as a teen librarian one of my young adult customers got me to try to read George R.R. Martin (nope, and I don't really like Game of Thrones either).  Epic fantasy leaves me cold every time. I loved this book by Lawrence Watt-Evans called Ithalin's Restoration; but when I tried to read others in the epic series - nope.  Robert Jordan always looked too damn big - extra nope for that.  David Eddings - nope.  I had some of those Dragonlance books growing up as well, and never could get into them completely either.

Why Tolkien and not all of these other authors? Maybe Tolkien holds a nostalgic place in my reading history.  Actually, the more epic Tolkien gets, the less I like the books:  The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring (and parts of The Two Towers) are the least epic in the series.  It took me years to be able to get beyond the first book of The Two Towers and finish the entire series.  I know for a while, I was a mad Tolkien-phile - but that didn't change the fact that The Return of the King was always my least favorite and (gulp) sometimes felt like a slog.






Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier (1956)

In my memory, Miss Coralie Shull read this aloud to our fourth grade class.  I think that about quite a few books from my childhood, but I don't think that can be completely true.  That is all we would have done is read aloud all year long, the amount of books I "remember" her reading!  (I also designed another planet in her class as well, full of fantastic creatures; that in my mind are colorful crayon blobs of green and pink; that is probably where my love of science fiction and aliens started). 

I've read and re-read Serraillier's book too many times to county.  The picture above is one I found on the internet; that is what my original copy looked like - now long disappeared.  Why wasn't I more careful with my books?

I recently purchased a hard copy book club version from the 1950s with the original title The Silver Sword.  I didn't even know there were two titles for many years.  I wonder why they changed the title?  Escape from Warsaw sounds more exciting, I guess. 

For a book I've read so many times, you think I would never get anything new out of it - but I realized this time that the children meet and are helped by a Russian soldier, a British soldier, a family whose German sons were killed in the fighting, and an American soldier.  One from each side of the war.  I don't know who I didn't catch that for all of these years. 

The Silver SwordThe Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first discovered this book, under a different title (Escape From Warsaw in fourth grade, and have loved it ever since. Re-reading it as an adult hasn't diminished that love. Ruth, Bronia, Edek and Jan make their way through a destroyed post World War II Europe from Poland to Switzerland, in search of their lost father and mother. Along the way, they are helped by soldiers and civilians from all sides of the conflict - a Russian, a British officer, a German farmer, and an American soldier and son of Polish immigrants. A message of peace, fellowship and humanity ring true throughout the book; if only Serraillier's faith in his fellow humans continued to ring true. I remember being enchanted and thrilled by scenes in the book as a child; I still was as a forty-something man.


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Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones; read by Gerard Doyle (1982)

I last read Witch Week in September 2010 - almost exactly seven years ago.  That seems to be too long to have gone without reading one of my favorite books of all time, by one of my favorite authors of all time.  There are few writers out there who engage my attention and sense of wonder than Diana Wynne Jones.  Neil Gaiman does occasionally; the Roman mysteries of Steven Saylor have in a different way.  The Sorcery and Cecilia by Caroline Stevermer and Patricia C. WredeConnie Willis.  Michener.  Rowling.  Of course, Tolkien and Lewis.  (I don't like and haven't read every single Tolkien or every single Lewis; the same actually holds true for Diana Wynne Jones).

I discovered Diana Wynne Jones later in life - but what is really funny is I can't remember the first time I read Witch Week.  I know I didn't read anything else by her for years after that even.

Jones nominally writes for children, but I know I certainly enjoy her books.

I listened to Witch Week, and plan on listening to the rest of the Chrestomanci series.  They are all on YouTube - boot-legged, I'm sure.  The YouTube audiobook experience isn't ideal; but I will put up with those small difficulties to listen.  Gerard Doyle is a top notch narrator; not as good as Jim Dale, but pretty close.

I wonder if Nan Pilgrim a stand-in for Jones herself?  She is romantic, tells stories, and seems to be headed for the author's life in the end.

Interestingly, the bullying girls at the end - Teresa Mullet and her crew - all have sad, drab lives at the end.  But the bully boys all become friends with the boys they were bullying.  I am going to hazard a guess that Jones got even with some girls she knew as a child in this book.

She perfectly captures what it's like to be an eleven year old, and that eleven year old world - at leas the world I remember, the world of Judy Blume's Blubber, the shifting alliances, the cliques, and the entire section on "real boys" and "real girls."  I wonder if this is still true for eleven year olds?

I realized that the kids in this book were the same age as me when the book was published.

Being a witch in a society than not only shuns you but kills you can stand in for many things - being a Jew under the Nazis comes to mind.  But as a gay male, this especially rang true.  Not wanting to be gay, trying to hide, realizing it at puberty and knowing you were different, that first crush seemed to magical, so dangerous, so empowering, and then the dread of the inquisitors rushing in to crush everything, wanting to run away, being teased for being different.

Larwood House - I read it was a take on Jane Eyre's Lowood House (I've never read Jane Eyre, so I can't vouch for this).  I was reminded more of Scrubb and Pole's school in Lewis's The Silver Chair.

Witch WeekWitch Week by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Witch Week is probably one of my favorite books of all time - I think it's perfectly written. The characters are really, really well drawn and fleshed out. And there is many of them, so that makes DWJ's writing skills even more amazing. She doesn't ever mince words; adults are always bumblers or fools (except for the good ones, and even they are often oblivious). Which, maybe, is how children really see adults to some extent. Characters have layers, even the evil ones (although their layers aren't usually as thick). The mean girls and bully boys in Witch Week seem so real. Theresa and Simon and the rest are all pulled right out of Blubber, but in a much more funny, less frightening way. Simon and Theresa are as evil as those awful mean girls in Blubber, but for some reason they seem less threatening. It probably helps that Charles and Nan had both their own magical powers and Chrestomanci to help them; poor old Blubber had no one (similarly, with the exception of Chrestomanci, who essentially made them solve the problem on their own, both books are full of bullies and the oblivious teachers who don't seem to notice or do notice but don't care).

10/19/17 I haven't re-read Witch Week in almost exactly seven years, far too long to have gone without reading it. I listened to Gerard Doyle's excellently narrated audio version; his voice was perfect (I particularly liked his elegant, deep-voiced Chrestomanci). I haven't changed my mind about Witch Week or DWJ. I wondered if Nan Pilgrim was a stand-in for DWJ herself?


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Monday, October 16, 2017

Speedy Death by Gladys Mitchell (1929)

Gladys Mitchell may have been of the grand dames of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but I came away from her first book unimpressed.  I thought the dialogue was terrible; the pace of the plot was strange, and I just could never quite grasp what was going on, and find the willingness to care.  This was her first book of 60 books; the public for sixty years clearly liked her writing style and kept her employed.  This was not listed as among her best works; and perhaps I should give her one more try.  But I'm not sure she's worth it for me. Quite frankly, I found the mystery ridiculous.


Speedy Death (Mrs. Bradley)Speedy Death by Gladys Mitchell


Although Gladys Mitchell is one of the grand dames of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, I didn't find this - her first book - all that compelling. I thought the dialogue was terrible, the pacing of the plot strange, and the mystery was a let down. The end was out there, which was one of the saving graces of the book - but otherwise, I was unimpressed. Mitchell wrote 60 books in her lifetime, from the 1920s through the 1980s, writing up until her death (her last book was published posthumously). Obviously, people liked her enough to keep her gainfully employed. That makes me think I should read another book in the series, a later one that comes with a good review. This one did not make me what to do that.


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The Age of Faith: A History of Medieval Civilization - Christian, Islamic, and Judaic - from Constantine to Dante: A.D. 325-1300 by Will Durant (1950)

I don't know enough about modern scholarship to question Will Durant's sources or his historiography in any meaningful way.  I like reading history; I don't write it, and what little I studied was nearing 30 years ago.  Modern historians still write in interesting ways (well, some of them) but Durant's style of writing, I think, has done out of style.  It's more flowering and really just beautiful.  He crafts prose that is quite stunning and memorable.  His books are long, but they are gardens filled with flowers he's carefully tended.  

My biggest complaint about this book - I think Durant tried to do too much.  There were four main parts:  about the rise of Christianity on the heels of Rome, the rise and triumph of Islam, the perseverance of Judaism, and finally medieval Christianity.  Each part was interesting.  His writing about Islam and Judaism was never done in a way to make the two religions less than Christianity.  But there was just so much of everything that it became muddled - there wasn't a clear narrative line or chronology to this, and I think it needed it. The shear size of it all made the entire thing occasionally unwieldy.  

Here are some passages I copied:

Describing the philosophy of John Scotus:  "Here is the Age of Reason moving in the womb of the Age of Faith."  Incredible metaphor.

"History seldom destroys that which does does deserve to die; and the burning of the tapes makes for the next sowing a richer soil."  Describing the Norse invasions of various parts of Europe; a harsh, sort of Darwinian sentiment.  On the heels of Nazi invasion and destruction of large swaths of Europe makes this line hard to swallow, although I also think he is describing a historic fact.  The phoenix is an apt metaphor for this.

"Every civilization is a fruit from the sturdy tree of barbarism, and falls at the greatest distance from the trunk."


"Institutions and beliefs are the offspring of human needs."


Some strong Byzantine women who ruled in their own right, usually as some sort of regents, but still kicked ass.  Two sisters Zoe and Theodora;
 Placidia who "for twenty five years ruled the Empire of the West with no discredit to her sex."  No one ever writes about these kick ass women.

Incarnadine:  Durant liked this word; he used it four times.  It means, as a verb form (which is how he used it) to color something red.  He was more using it as a word meaning "to give a special character or distinguishing quality to" "they had seen the masculine virtues incarnadine half the world"  "His path to power was less incarnadined than most of those what have opened new dynasties" "they incarnadined their capital with assassinations" "Feud revenge incarnadined their sagas."  All four uses are really clever and slightly different.  Masterful and interesting.


"A thousand years before Christ northern invaders had entered Italy, subdued and mingled with its inhabitants, borrowed civilization from them, and with them, through eight centuries, had built a new civilization.  Four hundred years after Christ the process was repeated; the wheel of history came full turn; the beginning and end were the same.  But the end was always a beginning."  Lovely, lovely passage; I love this idea of the end being the beginning.


Durant's reason for being:  "The Roman Empire had raised science, prosperity, and power to their ancient peaks.  The decay of the Empire of the West, the growth of poverty and the spread of violence, necessitated some new ideal and hope to give men consolation in their suffering and courage in their toil: an age of power gave way to an age of faith.  Not till wealth and pride should return in the Renaissance would reason reject faith, and abandon heaven for utopia.  But if, thereafter, reason should fail, and science should find no answers, but should multiply knowledge and power without improving conscience or purpose; if all utopias should brutally collapse in the changeless abuse of the weak by the strong: then men would understand why once their ancestors, in the barbarism of those early Christian centuries, turned from science, knowledge, power, and pride and took refuge for a thousand years in humble faith, hope and charity."  This is a dystopian warning from Durant; also it reminds me of the end of The Bone Clocks when civilization has collapsed and religion is once again Puritanically taking control.


"Civilization is a union of soil and soul - the resources of the earth transformed by the desire and discipline of men.  Behind the facade of and under the burden, of courts and palaces, temples and schools, letters and luxuries and the arts, stands the basic man: the hunter ruining game from the woods; the woodman fell in the forest, the herdsman posturing and breeding his flock; the peasant clearing, plowing, sowing, cultivating, reaping, tending the orchard, the vine, the hive, and the brood; the woman absorbed in the hundred crafts and cares of a functioning home; the miner digging in the earth; the builder shaping homes and vehicles and ships; the artisan fashioning products and tools; the pedlar, shopkeeper, and merchant uniting and dividing maker and user; the investor fertilizing industry with his savings; the executive harnessing muscle, materials, and minds for the creation of services and goods.  These are the patient yet restless leviathan on whose swaying back civilization precariously rides."


"Apparently there were village atheists then as now. But village atheists leave few memorials
"The power of Christianity lay in its offering to the people faith rather than knowledge, art rather than science, beauty rather than truth."


"It was a God-intoxicated age."  Unfortunately,  I think we also live in a God-intoxicated age, at least American public officials.  The mouthpiece is loud.



"And I wish that all times were April and May, and every month renew all fruits again, and every day fleur-de-lis and gillyflower and violets and roses wherever one goes, and woods in leaf and meadows green, and every lover should have his lass, and they to love each other with a sure heart and true, and to everyone his pleasure and a gay heart." From The Wandering Scholar.


"Those who cater to human vanity seldom starve."




"Next to bread and woman, in the hierarchy of desire, comes eternal salvation; when the stomach is satisfied , and lust is spent, man spares a little time for God."


Durant’s beautiful description of the Muslim's call to prayer:  “It is a powerful appeal, a noble summons to rise with the sun, a welcome interruption in the hot work of the day, a solemn message of divine majesty in the stillness of the night; grateful even to alien ears is this strange shrill chant of many muezzins from divers mosques calling the earthbound soul to a moment’s communion with the mysterious source of life and mind."


"Meanwhile, men loved life while maligning it and spent great sums to stave off death."


"So the continuity of history reasserts itself: despite earthquakes, epidemics, famines, eruptive migrations, and catastrophic wars, the essential processes of civilization are not lost; some younger culture takes them up, snatches them from the conflagrations, carries them on imitatively, then creatively, until fresh youth and spirit can enter the race.  As men are members of one another, and generations are moments in a finally line, so civilizations are units in a larger whole whole name is history; they are stages in the life of man.  Civilization is polygenetic - it is the cooperative product of many peoples, ranks and faiths; and no one who studies its history can be a bigot of race or creed.  Therefore the scholar though he belongs to his country through affectionate kinship, feels himself also a citizen of that Country of the Mind which knows no hatred and no frontiers; he hardly deserves his name if he carries into his study political prejudices, or racial discriminations, or religious animosities; and he accords grateful homage to any people that has born the torch and enriched his heritage."


"For that one death on the cross how many crucifixions!"


"The life of the mind is a composition of two forces: the necessity to believe in order to live, and the necessity to reason in order to advance. " 

"The isles of science and philosophy are everywhere washed by mystic seas.  Intellect narrows hope, and only the fortunate can bear it gladly. "


The Age of Faith (The Story of Civilization, #4)The Age of Faith by Will Durant
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not a scholar; I don't know the ins and out of modern historiography. I like reading history, and I know what I like. I like Will Durant. I'm sure he's considered old fashioned; I'm sure he can be picked apart for all sorts of modern sins of scholarship. I'm not interested in doing that. I like his writing style; he writes incredible and beautiful prose. That's enough for me. I will let scholars go to town on his research; I just know that I like reading his books and find them fascinating for the subject matter and moving for the prose. This particular book, although well written (as usual), was unwieldy. Durant is tackling something huge: the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire/Byzantium; the rise and successes of Islam; the perseverance of medieval Judaism; and finally medieval Christianity. The immensity of these themes are also the book's main downfall: because there is so much to cover, some things get muddled; the book feels like a whirlpool, with names and facts and figures all spinning around together, touching and then breaking apart. It can get confusing. Although some of the individual passages are amazing - this a quote factory for sure - the entirety was not completely successful. I'm not saying skipping it; but I am saying be prepared for a lot.

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