Tuesday, May 16, 2017

American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad (2017)

A character towards the end of this book says "Everyone fights an American war", which is the sort of sledgehammer Omar El Akkad uses to pound this particular theme into our heads.  I rarely - if ever - read for anything other than pure pleasure.  Often (always?) I gain knowledge; I learn.  Sometimes themes seep in, but I'm usually a dummy when it comes to anything literary.  However,   American War is chock full of themes, and they are so obvious they even oozed drip by drip into my dense skull.  

The United States has devolved into a second civil war, in a post climate change world (Florida has been completely obliterated by the rising seas).  The same cast of characters who fought the first civil war are at it again, only this time divided into Blues vs. Reds (that sledgehammer again).  It's an engaging story, incredibly well written, with a gripping, disturbing plot and superbly drawn characters.  El Akkad certainly sets a time and place that chillingly may exist (except for a strange lack of smart phones and the internet) in the very near future.  He's done his research on what may happen to a world torn apart by climate change (huge, damaging storms, millions of refugees from rising sea levels).  He also isn't just re-telling Mad Max or The Hunger Games or any other apocalyptic dystopias.  His world feels real.  And that's scary.  

He weaves his themes throughout; they flow through the novel like the rivers he writes about (Mississippi and Savannah).  This could be a textbook on how terrorists and insurrectionists  and fanatics are made; he's also giving us a grim lesson on how American policy creates these fanatics world-wide.  A chilling (I keep using this word because it is so apt) description of how an empire outside the United States in fostering instability in the country reminded me uncomfortably of what is going on right now.  

I didn't mind those sledgehammer themes; I thought it gave the book extra punch, and it was already really gripping and good.  

I started this Goodreads review:  "You can't read a book about a second American civil war, between the North and South (here called Reds and Blues, as in "red states" and "blue states"), with a female protagonist, and NOT think about that other great American work of fiction about the first civil war with a female protagonist.  [book:Gone with the Wind|18405] this ain't (the main character is bi-racial, for starters) but the ghost of Margaret Mitchell occasionally said "boo."  Imagine Scarlett O'Hara trained to be an assassin.  That, however, makes"  and then erased it because it was way too flippant, and this book wasn't flippant at all.  I was making it sound like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter or something, which is definitely was not.  

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The United States has devolved into a second civil war with the same cast of characters who fought the first civil war, only this time around we are divided into Blues vs. Reds (as in, "red states" and "blue states"). It is little bits of setting like this that exemplify why this book is so good and so extraordinarily disturbing, and so memorable (it will stay with you long after you close the book). El Akkar indirectly references the instability of the last fifteen years and the impact it may have on us in the near future; this is mirror being held up to the current domestic and foreign policy of the United States that doesn’t show a pretty reflection. He's also done his research on what may happen to a world torn apart by climate change (huge, damaging storms, millions of refugees from rising sea levels; Florida being completely swallowed by the waters). He also isn't just re-telling Mad Max or The Hunger Games or any other apocalyptic dystopias; gladly and luckily this isn’t a carbon copy, but an original tale. He’s written a war novel, a text book almost on how fanaticism and terrorism can be nurtured, and chillingly homegrown. This feels so frighteningly real because he's written such an engaging, incredibly well written novel, with a gripping plot and superbly drawn characters. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Witch's Buttons by Ruth Chew (1974)

Somehow, my well loved Scholastic Book Services childhood copy of The Witch's Buttons has been lost, and I was forced to buy another one.  It came to me with a big bar code stuck right in the middle of the incredible cover of the two girls in front of the bubbling cauldron, in their seventies attire, and when I tried to take it off, IT RIPPED THE COVER.  What kind of monster puts a sticker on the front of a book like that?

To this affront, I say, six times:

I ordered a new copy.

I loved this book when I was growing up (even the space ship button).  Witches were VERY important in the pretend world I created, either with friends, on paper, or in my imagination.  Witches from literature always hold spots dear to my heart.  The White Witch (I know she's evil, but she's so BEAUTIFUL).  Samantha Stevens (although who am I kidding, it was ALWAYS Endora.  Always.).  Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Mary Poppins, and even  Cruella De Vil all were witch-adjacent.  Later, Diana Wynne Jones captured my heart (Witch Week was first); and of course, much later there was Harry Potter.  

I don't ever remember playing or pretending this book with my friends, probably because they never read it.  But certainly, my ideas of what constitutes a good fantasy novel in part comes from The Witch's Buttons.  The idea that witches live among us, practicing magic in an urban or "muggle" setting, is still a trope I love.  Here, the setting is Brooklyn, although as a child, it never even occurred to me that Brooklyn was part of New York City or urban; these girls don't seem very urban to me.  Reading it now, as an adult, I was realized where they actually lived.  Probably some hipster Brooklynites are dressing the way she is on the cover even now, and collecting (or making their own) buttons.
The button seller behind the counter is Jewish!  All I ever noticed before was how much witch Betsy resembled a very young Agnes Moorhead.

I still love the illustration of the little black kitten running across the gutter at the bottom:

Ruth Chew never gives ages for Sandy or her new friend Janet, but when I was reading the book for the first time, I'm sure I thought Janet and Sandy were the same age as me (third or fourth grade). I , too, had a baby sister I had to occasionally babysit as well!

The book was published in 1974, so I can't be the baby in the book (I was four) but my brother could have been that baby!  

Love the bell bottom pant suit on the cover.  Very, very much.

In my original review on Goodreads, I commented that "I hoped Ruth Chew would make a come back."  Guess what - she has!  They are republishing her books with new covers.  No more bell bottoms (too bad) but still great books!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Definitely an early chapter book straight out of nostalgia for me (we didn't call them chapter backs in my school library in the 1970s; we just called them "books"). I think this book holds up remarkably well 40 years or so after being published. Other than the groovy, far out bell bottom pants suit on the cover, the magical adventures of Sandy and Janet are still quite fun. Perhaps not as rollicking as J.K. Rowling, but Ruth Chew weaves a pretty tight and exciting story. Truly urban fantasy; the book takes place in Brooklyn (although I don't think many Brooklynites of today would recognize it as such). I've had a love affair with witches of fiction for most of my reading life, which most likely germinating in books like this, read and re-read over and over in third, fourth and fifth grade. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Quiet Life in the Country by T.E. Kinsey (2014)

A Quiet Life In The Country (Lady Hardcastle Mysteries #1)A Quiet Life In The Country by T E Kinsey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The ghost of Agatha Christie haunts the various halls and county lanes of this cozier than cozy murder mystery, but Kinsey definitely has a writing style all of his own. This book is anything but quiet; it's actually quite dense, with a constant patter of dialogue that would have made the writers of screwball comedy quite proud (is there such a thing as a screwball murder mystery?). The two detectives, the nominal Lady Hardcastle, and her lady's maid and BFF Flo, are a dynamic duo; Kinsey populates his St. Mary Mead with just the right amount of unusual suspects to keep you going right until the very end. If some of it's gobsmackingly unbelievable (Flo knows martial arts, picked up in China) - we're all in on the joke (what cozy murder mystery isn't chock full of tongue and cheek; did we really believe a murder happened overtime Jessica Fletcher showed up?). Bollocks of fun.

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Caesar and Christ by Will Durant (1944)

Another bulky big (but delightfully so) Durant door stopper is put to bed.  The Durants are able to speak knowledgeably about everything and anything, which I find most impressive.  As I read these tomes, I am struck by their reading, research and reasoning that went into these books.  70 some years before the internet and databases, the Durants traveled the globe, spent 14 hours a day researching and writing, and were able to synthesize all that they learned into this incredible work of history; a true story of civilization (western, though).  

I love Durant's writing style; he is quite adept at elegant, often witty, always thoughtful turns of phrase. His books are full of sentences that can be taken out of context and used in various memes, with or without kittens. Maybe even dogs. Definitely gladiators. All kidding aside, I love collecting meaningful little bon mots and quotes like these:

"Life’s final tragedy is unwilling continuance—to outlive one’s self and be forbidden to die."  Describes the poor sad years of Augustus, with scheming relatives and a slutty daughter, plus a famous poet to exile to a cold, dark island.  But also a personal fear of mine, and I suppose of many middle aged people and older.  I don't think young people ever think of this.

"No nation is ever defeated in its textbooks."  Clearly written before the advent of revisionist history.  Now aren't all nations defeated in their textbooks?  Except in Texas, of course.  

This is a sentence that doesn't have any meaning other than what it says, but it says it in such a witty, wonderfully written way, that says everything:  "The Gauls believed in a variety of gods, now too dead to mind anonymity."  That last phrase is fantastic, a witty aside.

Whenever one reads about Rome, one always thinks about the Decline and Fall of the United States, right?  We are Rome (except, of course, when we aren't Rome).  Durant was writing 70 years ago, but he occasionally injects some 1944 worthy commentary throughout:  

"But antiquity took slavery for granted, and would have contemplated with horror the economic and social effects of a wholesale emancipation, just as the employers of our time fear the sloth that might come from security."  Class struggle always plays a part in anything Durant is writing; he was also writing in a time when class struggle had just come to a big, bad fruition in the form of World War II.  Employers of OUR time fear the same thing; so not much has changed.

"Contentment is as rare among men as it is natural among animals, and no form of government has ever satisfied its subjects."  Someone is always complaining about the government, and probably someone is always plotting, no matter how silently and in small ways, to overthrow it.

Durant isn't just interested in the strong men and this isn't a military history.  His story of civilization, at least for 1944, seems to stretch out to include the rising power of women in Roman society; and he once again has pretty nice things, if brief, to say about the gays of yore.  Well, perhaps not nice things, but he was cruel or dismissive or brushed them under the carpets of history.  They - like women - existed.  On race, at least African Americans, he's not a inclusive; Mary Beard's thoroughly modern takes fix some of Durant's errors.

I think this is what Durant is aiming at though, and occasionally he succeeds:  "We must not think of such banquets as the customary end of a Roman day, or as more frequent in a Roman’s life than the dinners-cum oratory so popular today. History, like the press, misrepresents life because it loves the exceptional and shuns the newsless career of an honest man or the quiet routine of a normal day. Most Romans were like our neighbors and ourselves: they rose reluctantly, ate too much, worked too much, played too little, loved much, seldom hated, quarreled a bit, talked a great deal, dreamed waking dreams, and slept."  He does spend much of the book talking about the banquets, but common people do walk through his pages, as much as he is able in this large tome.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I bought his entire set at a used book sale, sans the last volume (which had not yet been read) and I'm making my way through them. I love Durant's style of writing, which is this wonderful combination of academic and witty. It's sometimes like being a cocktail party with a really smart professor of history who tells great stories, but is also full of amazing pithy bits of wisdom that you want to remember forever, or maybe even make a poster out of it. "Life’s final tragedy is unwilling continuance—to outlive one’s self and be forbidden to die" he says of Augustus, alone and friendless in old age, surrounded by scheming family and an adulterous daughter (not to mention her disreputable friends like Ovid the poet); he also is writing to you 70 years in the future, contemplating old age. Or this one: "The Gauls believed in a variety of gods, now too dead to mind anonymity." That's historian wit; perhaps not slap your knees laugh out loud, but still humorous enough to make you smile and your eyes gleam because you've just read such a great line of prose. The book is full of too many of them. It's also full of great stories of Caesar, Cleopatra, Jesus and his apostles, the early martyrs, the various pagans, Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians, Gauls, Germans, the whole cast of characters spanning a thousand years. Especially interesting are the lessons of Roman government and politics, which is haunting the world today; imperial autocracy doesn't take all that long to burrow in and take hold. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Crosstalk by Connie Willis (2016)

CrosstalkCrosstalk by Connie Willis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I shudder about this, but I'm going to give a Connie Willis book a less-than-stellar review. Something was missing. It seemingly had all of what Willis known for: small details, quirky characters, a mystery (of sorts); some cleverly shocking plot points a la The Sixth Sense. It also has an interesting premise (it reminded me a lot of Inside Job). Perhaps it was the "rom com"ishness of the book that has thrown me for a loop? (Although that's not a genre I usually have strong feelings about). It definitely took a long time for this engine to get up and go, but once it did, I have to admit, I couldn't put it down. Yet it took most of the book for this to actually happen; a lot of revving of the engine before I became invested in the characters and started to care about what was going to happen to them. I did like them by the end (that was hard, because the main character, at least to me, was so very unlikable). But that pleasant feeling I usually get when I sigh and put down a Connie Willis just wasn't there this time.

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Pompeii by Robert Harris; narrated by John Lee (2003)

I read this book once before; I'm downgrading my review considerably.  On Goodreads, I had called this book "excellent" and marked it as "fiction I have loved" - but I think the auditory experience wasn't kind to Robert Harris's Pompeii.  I thought the plot was ridiculous in a disaster movie kind of way.  When Time Ran Out was this volcano disaster movie from 1980 (I had to Wikipedia the title) and all I could think of while I listened to John Lee narrate was Pat Morita of Happy Days fame falling into a lava pit.  The plot is remarkably similar, and that's not a good thing.  Harris hit all the tropes of the disaster movie; all that's missing is Shelley Winters.  Titanic came to mind several times too.  Why we needed a cheeseball love interest was beyond me, other than the fact that sometimes authors write books with movies in mind, and having Pompeii as a backdrop to a cheeseball love story makes a pretty film treatment.  I read this book before I blogged, so I have no idea why I liked it so much, but this time around, I was overwhelmed by underwhelmingness.  John Lee made several characters sound like Jason Statham, which drove me nuts too.

PompeiiPompeii by Robert   Harris
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this book once before; I'm downgrading my review considerably. I previously had marked this book "excellent" and as "fiction I have loved" - but I think the auditory experience wasn't kind to Robert Harris's Pompeii. I thought the plot was ridiculous in a disaster movie kind of way. When Time Ran Out was this volcano disaster movie from 1980 (I had to Wikipedia the title) and all I could think of while I listened to John Lee narrating was Pat Morita of Happy Days fame falling into a lava pit. The plot is remarkably similar, and that's not a good thing. Harris hit all the tropes of the disaster movie; all that's missing is Shelley Winters.

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Friday, April 7, 2017

The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George (2017)

The first book Margaret George wrote was The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers (1986).  I probably first read this book in the early 1990s.  The last time I read it was in 2004; my Goodreads review (which was added later than that) reads:   "The ultimate story of a middle aged man's midlife crisis." I only include that because it's true, and it's funny in a pithy way.  I do not know if I read Alison Weir's Tudor histories (real stuff) or Margaret George's fictional account first.  I know that I wrote a (dumb) short story about Anne Boleyn's last night in prison before her beheading in my college creative writing class that is completely derivative.  So by fall of 1992, I was already a fan of the Tudors. That's in large part due to Margaret George.  I really enjoyed that first novel of hers, and I've read it multiple times.

I've never liked another Margaret George book since.

It's not the subject matter either.  My Tudorphilia isn't at the expense of all other genres and historical characters.  Margaret George has written now about two Roman figures - Cleopatra and now Nero.  Both of which I disliked.    I don't remember liking the book about Mary, Queen of Scots (although that's what, 25 years ago?).  I think what made Henry VIII so damn good was the narrative voice she created for him - so rich, and real, and always so selfish and unreliable, and the remarkable character of Will Somers, to pull the bloated balloon of pride and self absorption that was Henry VIII back to the earth, if only for us, the reader.  I'm not sure if it was great literature - I'm certainly not a good judge of that - but it made for great reading.  The very best kind of historical fiction.

The Confessions of Young Nero was a watered down version of what Margaret George created over 30 years ago.  It's almost like a template:  the inner monologue and first person of some historical character of importance, in this case Nero; and the casual asides or real truths of someone close that historical person; in this case a poisoner named Locasta, and Nero's girlfriend? mistress?  love interest? Acte.  The "might have beens" here, particularly those of Locasta, are astounding to think about.  Telling Nero's story through the eyes of his chief poisoner would have been a far, far more fascinating story than the confused and milquetoasty novel that George ultimately writes.  Not even the whole novel either; she has a part II coming (we didn't even get to the fire, or the castrated slave boy who becomes Nero's wife).  I understand what George is trying to do here, because she did it so very well with Henry VIII:  fictional rehabilitation.  And her afterword proved to me that if any historical character is due a rehabilitation, it's Nero, misunderstood for 2,000 years. It's just not this one.  Bad guy Nero is a lot more interesting than misunderstood angsty hot topic Nero, and that's Margaret George's fault.

The Confessions of Young Nero (Nero #1)The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Margaret George sets out to polish the 2,000 year old tarnished image of Emperor Nero, misunderstood for two millennia. But the Nero of fiddling fame ends up being far more interesting than the angsty hot topic emo Nero that lopes through these pages. That's not the fault of the erstwhile emperor; George never quite succeeds at bringing Nero and First Century A.D. Rome to life. She does try one literary trick I found clever - narrating some of Nero's life through the eyes of a female poisoner named Locasta; but this was never fully flushed out in a way that even made literary sense. According to his tutor and advisor (and murder victim) Seneca, Nero said "Vellem nescire literas" - which can be translated as "I wish I were illiterate." I wouldn't quite go that far, but I will say I wondered occasionally why I was trying to finish this book.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Why Didn't They Ask Evans by Agatha Christie (1934)

When this was published in the United States, it was sold as The Boomerang Clue.   I can't for the life of me figure out why.  No one is from Australia; the murder weapon is not a boomerang.  The word "boomerang" is never even mentioned.  Whose bright idea was this?  The UK title is so much better.  The download I checked out from the library for my Kindle was called the original British title, and God Save the Queen for it!

This was not a book I had ever read before.

Christie was certainly borrowing characters from the gossip columns, as Frankie is a dead ringer for any number of Bright Young People of the 1930s.  Her droll, upper class insouciance at the beginning of the book, and the her excited hijinks with Bobby the vicar's son all read "BYP" - in fact, her solicitor chides her in a fatherly way later in the novel as exactly that "Oh!  you Bright Young People - You Bright Young People," he murmurs, wagging a forefinger.  "What trouble you land yourselves in."

Indeed they do.  But the kind of trouble that Christie gives Frankie and Bobby isn't champagne fueled midnight parties and madcap practical jokes, but a really unbelievable murder/thriller that Scooby Doo would have been right at home in.  Don't read Why Didn't They Ask Evans for the mystery; although it's got some surprising twists and turns, it's also a Christie crime that relies heavily on the kind of coincidences that make you go "hmmmm..."  I wouldn't call them "lazy" coincidences - but I would say most of what happens in this book is highly implausible.  The coincidences are legion - but there is one, the big finish, that was absolutely delightful, and completely saved the book for me.  No spoilers though.

Note to self:  terraces are always something people in books hurry along.  And I'm not even sure what a terrace is.

This book is a grand tour of early 20th century automobiles, most of which I 've never heard of.  The various Essexes and Bentleys and other cars are all the sort of convertible roadster types that rich people drive in BBC costume dramas.

There are some very Mitford-y lines here.  Agatha Christie can't ever be as witty (and bitchy) and Nancy Mitford, but when she puts lines like this in her heroine's mouth - regarding gang murders - "That's a low taste... A single handed murder is much higher-class, Bobby."  That made me chortle with glee.  There are some things I didn't like about this book, but these kinds of lines made the enjoyment overshadow the bad things.

Frankie calls someone a bitch - and all I can say is "Wow!"

Why Didn't They Ask Evans?Why Didn't They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Scooby Doo would be right at home in this novel, particularly towards the end - but so would Nancy Mitford (and several other Mitford sisters, but probably not Unity or Jessica). Christie paints in broad strokes the Bright Young People of the 1930s gossip columns, with droll, insouciant Frankie standing in for the champagne-addled aristrocratic youth of the time period. This certainly isn't Christie's best, but it's a screwball delight to read. You probably will have it all figured out by about half way through, but her crazy characters of Bobby and Frankie and their amateur sleuthing make you not even care. It's a shame Christie never wrote about them again. Favorite, favorite line: vicar's son Bobby is talking about how the murder might have been committed by a gang, and Frankie (drolly, Mitfordly) drawls "That's a low taste... A single handed murder is much higher-class, Bobby." There are several gems like this in the book, and any problems I encountered with plot, etc. are more than made up for by writing like this.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett; narrated by Eileen Atkins (1996, 1908)

I don't think this audio book could have been any better.  Eileen Atkins was a perfect, perfect narrator.  Her "voices" were just right.  She draws the reader gently but surely.  I was hooked within a few minutes, and did not want to stop listening.  Pure pleasure.

I was completely unfamiliar with this story of two sisters and their lives - one who elopes to Paris, the other who stays in her comfortable English industrial town.  I don't think  Bennett is doing anything revolutionary here, and I wasn't changed for the better after reading it.  I just enjoyed it, to the marrow of my bones.  Parts of it made me sad, parts of it made me smile, and towards the end, you are comfortably made aware of your own mortality.  It's a book I'd like to actually read rather than listen to, and may end up doing so.

I loved Bennett's description of a newly married couple's first fight.  I thought it really captured the moment when new couples have their first spat, and what potentially can happen.  It's great imagery too.

"Both of them suddenly saw that they were standing on the edge of a chasm, and drew back. They had imagined themselves to be wandering safely in a flowered meadow, and here was this bottomless chasm! It was most disconcerting."

Bennett, Arnold. The Old Wives' Tale (p. 104). Kindle Edition. 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I listened to Eileen Atkins read this on streaming audio, and it is one of the best audio experiences I've ever had. Atkins is an incredible narrator; her "voices" are perfect, and she gently but surely draws the listener in. I was hooked after just a few minutes. Bennett's story, of two sisters, one who elopes to Paris and one who stays behind in an industrial English town, is simple but quite lovely. Sophia (wisdom?) and Constance (constant) are well drawn; Sophia's reaction to being left high and dry by her ne'er-do-well husband in Paris have shades of E.M. Forster; one can imagine a character in one of his novels doing and saying similar things, or perhaps Cousin Charlotte telling this story to Miss Lavish (A Room with a View. I don't think Bennett is doing anything particularly revolutionary here; nor did I come away changed. I just enjoyed this novel, down to the marrow. 

Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn (2017)

Citizen of the Galaxy is the one Heinlein juvenile I've read ( actually, I listened to it on streaming audio ) and I came away from it less than enamored.  I feel the same way about Martians Abroad, which I have read (and agree with) is a homage to those young adult (before that was even a publishing term) novels of old.  At one point, I was all ready to quit reading and start on something else, but for some reason, I kept plugging away.  Perhaps if I'd listened to this rather than read it, I might have enjoyed it more.

Martians AbroadMartians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a two star book. It's not terrible, but it wasn't terribly interesting either. Two star books are books I finish (for whatever reason) but don't hate enough to give one star (and a scathing review), but don't like enough to really delve into the reasons for my dispassion. Often, I want two stars books to be something else entirely. So feeling that a book was merely "ok" is my fault, not the writer. I wanted more swashbuckling, or maybe interplanetary intrigue, or aliens. There was some of this (well, not aliens) but not in the way that I wanted.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock by Lucy Worsley and narrated by Anne Flosnik (2013, 2014)

I listened to this on streaming audio.

I love Lucy Worsley.  She is one of my favorite people on television. Wikipedia calls her "an English historian, author, curator, and television presenter."  She's charming, smart (in the sense of her clothing and style), intelligent, funny, and quite beautiful.  We are only able to watch her on YouTube (I think they are all bootleg too - bad us).

I loved her book, particularly the last half or so, which was about detective novels and murder mysteries.  I have so many things I want to read in the future, and listening to all of these great murder mysteries, made me want to read even more.  Sigh.  So many books, so little time.

I did not like the narrator; she sounded like Siri, which was annoying.  But even she could not mar Lucy Worsley's great writing.  This is pop history at it's very, very best.  Lots of scandal, plenty of trivia, famous people sprinkled throughout.
I don't know if the English have the monopoly on murder, but Worsley certainly made the case.  I thought Poe invented the murder mystery, but he was not to be found in this book!

The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred HitchcockThe Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock by Lucy Worsley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think if I were reading this the good old fashioned way, I would have given the book five stars, but because disliked Anne Flosnik's narrative style (she sounded an awful lot like Siri with an English accent), I'm going to go with Four. I love Lucy Worsley (I watch her on YouTube in America), and I think her writing style is great. This is what I call pop history, and pop history at its very, very best - great, accessible, smart writing that is not so academic to make you fall asleep while driving, but also not so dumbed down that you feel like an idiot even reading (or listening) to it; famous people sprinkled throughout (Agatha Christie) but enough new facts and stories to keep you engaged (all of those delicious old murders from the 1800s), lots of scandals, plenty of trivia, but all strung together like Christmas lights, bright and fun - and such a heavy subject too. My only quibble - I thought Poe invented the murder mystery; I know he's not English, but still. That's a minor quibble in a really fun book. The last half of this book is about the golden age of detective novels - I dare you to come away without at least adding one old fashioned mystery to your reading pile!

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Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth by Norman F. Cantor with Dee Ranieri (2005)

There were two very interesting things in this very short book.  First, there aren't very many biographies of Alexander the Great and this book actually has a section on that very thing, describing each book written about Alexander and what they do right and wrong.

Second, Cantor really calls a spade a spade.  He frankly refers to the ancient Greeks as pedophiles (they were) and also matter of factly refers to Alexander's homosexuality.  He might have slept with women, but he liked men way better.  He didn't like boys, he liked men.  I know that "gay" is a modern construct, but (at least in my head) Alexander starts skating close to a modern gay.

Other than those two things, this book had sort of a throwaway quality.

Side note:  who was Dee Ranieri?  She didn't score any mention on the cover, just on the title page.  This is kind a television show sort of thing to do (See this:  http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AndStarring).  I imagine Dee Ranieri was some sort of assistant who wrote a big chunk of this book.  But I can't find out anything about her (him).

Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the EarthAlexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth by Norman F. Cantor
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I liked two things about this book. First, there really aren't all that many biographies, scholarly or otherwise, about Alexander the Great, and that fact is a small section of this book. Cantor (or Dee Ranieri? Whoever Dee is) went through each of these books, what was bad and good about each. I thought that was fascinating, actually - sort of meta. And two, Cantor calls a spade a spade. He comes down on the ancient Greeks for their pedophilia (such an unpleasant and weird juxtaposition, the men who invented democracy also loved pubescent boys. Yuck.). He also is unabashed about Alexander's gayness. Alexander was not a pedophile like his fellow Greeks. He loved grown men. Women in Alexander's life were pretty much to be married as political pawns; it was men he wanted to be with. Perhaps that explains the dearth of biographies; the life of Alexander until very recently is a hot potato when it comes to his proclivities. Other than these two things (and the mystery of Dee), the book was sort of a throwaway (though not a "throw down").

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The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, And Breakthroughs in Modern Art by Sebastian Smee (2016)

Art history certainly is not one of my areas of expertise; I know just enough about art and artists to be slightly dangerous, or perhaps to answer a few questions in trivial pursuit without having to resort to say "Picasso" for every answer.  Smee's book was eye-opening, engaging, and at the end of the day, quite a good read.  The four sets of rivals were Matisse and Picasso, Manet and Degas, Pollack and de Kooning, and Freud and Bacon.  Their names were all familiar; but their lives (and quite frankly, their art) were not.

Matisse: revolutionary for his time.
Picasso:  really quite awful regarding women; a letch.  He sounds vile.
Manet:  revolutionary for his time, and, well, sort of forgotten I think.  People mix him up with "Monet" for sure, including me.
Degas:  I knew next to nothing about Degas, and before reading this, would have mixed him up with Gaugin.  Degas painted the ballerinas, but this was essentially about his early life, not that time period.
Pollock:  The worst kind of artist, in the sense that he was an awful drunk and mean as a snake.  After Picasso, the second biggest jerk in the book.
de Kooning:  I knew nothing about him, and come away knowing just a little bit more;  he was an illegal immigrant though, which was interesting.  This chapter was the weakest in the book.  It was primarily about Pollack, who is far more interesting.
Freud & Bacon:  both incredibly fascinating and the best chapter in the book.

If Smee's intent was to show how rivalry changed these artists, I am not totally sure he succeeded in each chapter.  To begin with, the four chapters read like four small books - or really, four pieces of long form journalism. They are very, very loosely connected, and "rivalry" certainly isn't one of those links (perhaps "art" and "artist" are the true links between the four).  Secondly, the rivalry between all of them seemed forced.  Like Smee set out with this in mind and then wrote his way through it, without having much evidence to back it up.

The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern ArtThe Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art by Sebastian Smee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Art history is certainly not one of my areas of expertise. I know just enough about art and artists to be able to answer trivial pursuit questions with answers other than "Picasso." So reading this book from the vantage point of learning something new was a great experience. Smee is a good writer; his book was neither terribly academic and dry, nor a vapid pop biography. If Smee's book was a meal, then it was rather well-cooked meat and potatoes, rather than a tv dinner or fancy French. But if his intent was to prove something about the power of rivalry vis-a-vis art and artists, I'm not so sure he succeeded. Almost, the book is an exercise in writing towards a theme; Smee wrote the art of rivalry into being, perhaps in a bit of an "emperor's new clothes" facade. Each of the four chapters centered on the "rivalry" between two artists, and in each of the four chapters, I learned a bunch about the artists, enough to find Picasso and Pollock to be sort of reprehensible (their art might be great, but their personalities are shit). Every chapter essentially reads like a piece of longform journalism though, and this unifying theme of "rivalry" just didn't hold water for me. If you can ignore that, you will enjoy this book (I was successful in that pursuit).

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Thursday, March 9, 2017

Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault (1969)

I stopped reading this to read Orwell's 1984 and I'm not going to back to it now - and probably not ever.  Mary Renault's writing is dense and elegant, but... to start with, there is a ton of assumed knowledge about Alexander the Great that Renault expects us to have, which I do not.  What the hell did we do before Google?  Because I know next to nothing about Alexander, often I was like "what the hell?"  Especially the idea that a 12 year old boy is flirting with grown men.  I'm reading up on the Greek world simultaneously, and as Norman Cantor writes in his (merely okay) mini-biography of Alexander the Great:  "Most Greek adult males would have regarded the body of a twelve-year-old pubescent boy as the most beautiful body image. There was plenty of physical contact between adult males and their young acolytes, who were raised and educated in their households." (Cantor, Norman F.. Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth (p. 15). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.).  Now that's the historic truth about Greek men.  And reading about it in a book of history is interesting (to put it lightly).  But I don't need to read a full account.  It's creepy.  I don't know what Mary Renault was up to, and nearly half of the way through the book, I don't think I care anymore.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (2014)

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsWhat If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The part of my brain that processes complicated math and physics has atrophied into a hard little shrunk up ball of gunk, kind of like what happens to elmer's glue when it's left in the sun, or a booger. If that part of my brain even existed it all; my memories of math classes are not pleasant. I always like science though. I never advanced any farther than the basics. So much of this book - MUCH - went over my head. As a humorous writer, Munroe is excellent - there is some great witty comedic writing on here, a direct descendant of Cecil Adams and The Straight Dope (a favorite of mine in time of yore). But each of these hypothetical questions seemed to work like this: Munroe writes something incredibly funny, then he goes hardcore in the answer (while most of the time remaining funny) then ends with something equally funny. The bookends were what I enjoyed the most; the hardcore stuff just made me feel dumb. In a good way though.

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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

1984 by George Orwell (1949)

Let's start with the fact that in seventh or eighth grade, I read Animal Farm by George Orwell thinking it was going to be like Narnia or Charlotte's Web for grownups, because it had talking animals in it, and it wasn't like those books AT ALL.  I mean, if instead of Edmund Lucy had betrayed Tumnus to the White Witch and Lucy herself made Tumnus into glue, then Animal Farm would have been like Narnia.  Just because animals talk doesn't mean a book is going to be enjoyable (sort of how I felt about The Magicians).

I don't think I ever read 1984, I imagine because of my Orwellian traumatization.   I have it in my head that I started it at some point in high school, made a face, and went back to Tolkien.

Jump to 2017, and I've at last read, and been thoroughly horrified and depressed by 1984.    It's my own damn fault I have to read it too.  I wasn't ever planning on reading it, but it's for my book club.  My book club book this month was supposed to be Connie Willis's Crosstalk (my choice) but I suggested we read 1984 because since the election of our current authoritarian-in-chief and the decline of our government, 1984 has been one of Amazon.com's bestsellers (it's current at 31).  And everyone agreed, and now here I am, depressed.

Jesus, this book is depressing.  Orwell gives us no fucking hope whatsoever.  The world is going to de-evolve into a nightmarishly totalitarian place, and there doesn't seem to be a damn thing we can do about.  Fuck you Orwell.  Fuck you.

I completely ken why people are reading the book (again).  I would be arguing that he-who-must-not-be-named seems to have taken some of his raison d'etre right from the pages of 1984 except it's becoming more and more obvious that he-who-must-not-be-named is (insert word meaning "knows how to read but is too stupid to actually read anything other than a tweet about himself").  But the minions of he-who-must-not-be-named have clearly read this book; it's almost a like a playbook (along with Mein Kampf).   His and their mastery of Orwell's doublethink and doublespeak; his and their scary ability to manipulate the past to control the present (but hopefully and wishfully and prayerfully NOT the future); his and their use of the a modern medium ("let's all sing like the birdies sing... tweet, tweet tweet, tweet tweet...") to keep half the masses frothing and ranting and raving and on their side.  Additionally, there is Orwell's idea of a society based the retention of power rather than class that resonated as well.  I also keep thinking about "it was only a hopeless fancy," the essentially meaningless "prole" song of the moment created by Big Brother and Co. as part of an unending series of "bread and circuses" meant to dupe the ignorant public (Kardashian, anyone?).  And never ending wars the public gets all riled up and patriotic about periodically, but most of the time ignore (this isn't just a Trumpian thing though).  And a police state.  And everything being political (on both the left and the right).  And how what used to be orthodoxy has become the golden mean...

There is too much of a mirror here; too goddamned much.

The world is not 1984.  Yet.  I don't think we are being spied on through our t.v. screens.  Just our internet.


Orwell is obsessed with sex.  I guess he was writing in a more repressed time than our own, and sexual freedom and expression seemed like A Big Deal then.  Not so much now.


As a book, it's really pedantic.  I thought Orwell had A Point To Make, which was made at the expense of most of what makes up a story.  That said, some of the book was quite gripping.  I didn't particularly like anyone in the book, but they all had tough lives and had been molded into unpleasant people, so I can forgive them that.  

19841984 by George Orwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let's start with the fact that in seventh or eighth grade, I read Animal Farm thinking it was going to be like Narnia for grownups, because it had talking animals in it, and it wasn't like those books AT ALL. I mean, if instead of Edmund Lucy had betrayed Tumnus to the White Witch and Lucy herself made Tumnus into glue, then Animal Farm would have been like Narnia. Just because animals talk doesn't mean a book is going to be enjoyable (sort of how I felt about The Magicians). Because of my Orwellian traumatization, I've avoided 1984 until now, and now only because my book club is reading this (at my suggestion too, what a fool I was, what an addlepated fool). By the last page, I was morose as f&&& (thanks again Orwell). Lord, this book is depressing. Orwell gives us no f&&&ing hope whatsoever. The world is going to de-evolve into a nightmarishly totalitarian hell hole, and there doesn't seem to be a damn thing we can do about (side note: the polar bears are all going to die too). F&&& you Orwell. F&&& you. However, I completely understand why so many people (of a certain political bent) are reading this right now (again for most, I imagine) though; 1984 seems to be the playbook for our current national government. All that doublespeak and doublethink tweet tweet tweeting forth from he-who-must-be-named must have Orwell staring down (or up?) with bemused horror.

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich; read by Nicolle Littrell (1999)

"Sadness overwhelmed her when she tasted the sweetness."  Erdrich, in her beautiful, simple language, is describing the feelings of Omakayas, an Ojibwa girl from the 1840s.  Omakayas and her family are out "sugaring" from maple trees; spring is in the air, everything seems happy, gay, carefree.  But Omakayas is remembering the hard winter that was just ending, when smallpox struck, killing many, including her beloved baby brother and a dear friend.  This line could also be describing this incredible book.  It's a sweet book, but also tinged with sadness.  It's meta sadness too; we are sad for Omakayas and her family, but we are also sad because we know what is coming - hints of the "chimookoman," the white man eventually driving them away is present throughout the novel; also sadness for a lost way of life.  Not simple; this isn't a romantic view of the Enlightenment noble red savage.  The life of Omakayas is difficult, with much concentration on finding food and making a living.  Sickness and death is present from the very beginning as well.  But the sadness lies in this people and their ways, gone for over a hundred and fifty years.  A sweetness tinged with sadness.

An adult reader - and a particularly knowledgeable younger reader, can't help but to compare another little house in the woods of the upper midwest, that of Laura Ingalls Wilder.   Erdrich seems to be telling a mirrored story of Laura and her family; the setting is the similar (a little birchbark house); the narrative voice is similar (American plain style writing?); Wilder goes into detail about various day-to-day activities, so does Erdrich.  The Ingalls family and Omakayas's family both have "sugaring" parties, although with different outcomes. Both Laura and Omakayas describe in loving detail their cousins.     Both characters suffered a hard winter, although Laura was much older (both families nearly starved to death though).  

This isn't Little House though; you shouldn't dive into this book thinking that it's a carbon copy with Native Americans standing in.  For one thing, Laura Ingalls Wilder, like Omakayas, had a little brother who died; Erdrich decided to make that death one of the central points of action of the book; Wilder left her little brother completely out.  The Little House books are tinged (tainted?) with Rose Wilder Lane's Libertarian beliefs; the Ingalls are always headed west (happily so) and completely rely on themselves (which wasn't really true).  Omakayas and her family will eventually and unhappily head west, against their will; they also have a close knit and supportive community that helps one another.  Differences are celebrated as well; Old Tallow is one of my favorite characters, a woman who hunts bears and lives like man, breaking gender stereotypes (as well as Native American stereotypes, I think).  The family is also mixed race, with French as well as Ojibwa ancestry. 

 I still love the Little House books after all these years, although I can see their flaws.  I love The Birchbark House just as much.  

I would love to see Laura and Omakayas meet and exchange stories; let's add Caddie Woodlawn in there as well.  They can all go whoop Nellie Olsen's ass.

The Birchbark HouseThe Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Sadness overwhelmed her when she tasted the sweetness." That's how Omakayas, the main character, felt when tasting spring maple sugar after a particularly brutal and deadly winter. That's also how I felt when reading this book. It's superbly simple story, but rich in character, plot and detail. It's also a sweet story, because Omakayas, her pet crow, her bratty little brother, her beautiful older sister, are all crafted so lovingly and carefully. But sadness will overwhelm you, dear reader - Erdrich doesn't let us look at 1840s Native American life with rose colored glasses. You are sad because of some plot points (which I won't spoil) and you are sad because Erdrich hints - and you know - that chimookoman, white people, are coming to drive Omakayas and her family away. You are sad because a way of life is going to disappear.

Erdrich seems to be taking another little house story, that of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and taking some of the themes found in those famous books, and skewing them in such a way to make you think, contrast and compare. Discerning lovers of the Little House books who also recognize their flaws will enjoy this book as much or more. Both have similar settings, simple writing styles, are family and "small adventure" driven, and contain many details of a past way of life. Even some of the scenes in the book are similar - both have maple sugaring parties, for example, although quite different. But Erdrich isn't giving us a carbon copy of the Little House books with Ojibwa stand-ins. Erdrich's character are more varied, and the addition of Old Tallow, a gender-norm breaking female bear hunter, as well as another female cousin who runs with the boys, gives girls like this some characters to relate to - the Little House books are always reminding poor Laura to be a regular girl, not herself (although Laura chafes at this throughout the series, and in real life too).

I've read this book at least twice, listened to it on audio once - and each time come away more impressed. It's a marvelous book. I would love to see Laura and Omakayas meet and exchange stories; let's add Caddie Woodlawn Caddie Woodlawn in there as well. And Nellie Olsen - we can see how these four very different girls from the same time period would interact. What a delight that would be!

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach; narrated by Emily Woo Zeller (2013)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Perhaps not everything you ever wanted to know about what happen from mouth to ass but (no pun intended) Roach includes enough details laced with humor about food, the tongue, the throat, the stomach, the intestines, and good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon shit and farts to keep you laughing, grossed out, and engaged the entire way through. I'm no scientist, but I do know Mary Roach is considered one of the best, most accessible, (and funniest) science writers out there. This is the first of her books I've experienced, and it will not be the last. Emily Woo Zeller was a great narrator - I did the audio version of this - only her English accent left me cringing. Other than that, for now (at least) Mary Roach sounds like Emily Woo Zeller in my head. 

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (2016)

This book was what the World War I season of Downton Abbey should have looked like, instead of the mostly forgettable season it turned out to be.  It had some bumpy spots - and a multitude of characters to keep track of.   Far above fluff though; mostly well written and quite enjoyable.  Some characters got their just desserts, and others got the rewards that you wanted them to get, and that made me a happy reader.

The Summer Before the WarThe Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is what the World War I season of Downton Abbey should have been but wasn't. A bumpy, occasionally meandering but engaging and fun plot, some drama (both romantic and otherwise), two different sets of homosexuals (perhaps they would have been called "uranians" in 1914?), a multitude of posh characters who did and said things that were completely television ready. Simonson's book isn't high literature and it's fluff - or perhaps it is marshmallow fluff, only name brand fluff rather than generic fluff. Great fun regardless; I was a happy reader.

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Ancient Greece: Everyday Life in the Birthplace of Western Civilization by Robert Garland (2008)

This seems to be some sort of publishing remaster of an older book.  The e-book, which I also checked out from the library, has a new publisher, a completely different cover and totally different illustrations, but exactly the same text.  The new illustrations are slick; the book looks quite modern; I like the cover.  

This is an uneven book with a writing style that veers back and forth between academic and very folksy. Sometimes it feels like an academic paper (many sections end with a concluding section with the heading "conclusions"  which felt like a college essay.  But then Garland drops words here and there that jar you out of that academic feeling:  "a pretty young girl cost much more than an old hag" or "Domitius, an ungrateful old sod."  Or this stumbling sentence:  "Plato established his school in the vicinity of the Academy.  The name, which derives from a local hero named Akademos, is the origin of our word academic. "  Um, actually, it's the origin of our word "academy" which you just referenced in the sentence before this one."  Strange.  

So Robert Garland isn't the best writer in the world, but I still learned quite a bit and was fascinated by quite a bit more.  Did you know that the Athenians spent more on staging theater productions than they did on their war with Persia?  At least that's what Plutarch said, and if it's true, these are my kind of people (their gayness makes them my kind of people as well."  The Greeks say cool stuff  like Hippocrates (or as Garland sort of pretentiously spells it, Hippokrates, and then there is Sokrates, but I will not say another word from here on about the spelling of various words) said:  Ars longa, vita brevis: which means "Life is short, art is long" and then Garland continues with "opportunity fleeting, experiment dangerous, judgment difficult."  

I still liked Will Durant far, far better - he wrote with a definite style and elegance.   

We don't know all that much about the Greeks actually.  That was surprising, for how famous they are.

Ancient Greece: Everyday Life in the Birthplace of Western CivilizationAncient Greece: Everyday Life in the Birthplace of Western Civilization by Robert Garland
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book see-saws between an academic style and a folksy style that is sometimes jarring. Garland can be writing along a bit dustily, and then refer to a woman as an "old hag" or a call someone "an ungrateful old sod." That lack of editorial control seemed to haunt this book. Robert Garland isn't the best writer in the world, but I still learned quite a bit and was fascinated by quite a bit more. NOTE: This appears to be a remastered version of a book published earlier, but from a different publisher. Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks is the same text, but the newer version is a slick publication with lots of great pictures and a fancy new cover. 

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Friday, February 10, 2017

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (2014)

Bad Feminist was my book club book; we are meeting on Sunday to discuss it.  Gay is obviously political, but she's also funny in a sharp, biting way.  I liked her best when she was writing about race and gender in regard to popular culture; The Help rightly gets skewered, a book (and especially movie) that time has soured in my mind (my Goodreads review doesn't reflect that though).  The essay on Fifty Shades of Grey was masterful.  I also thought her essay on Tyler Perry was at the very least provocative,  highly readable and interesting.  Gay touches on all the academic points of gender and race that have swirled around in the last few years - rape culture, trigger warnings, entitlement, microagressions.  I'm a white gay man; I will go down those paths with her, but I'm not doing to debate their cause and effects, other than to agree with her that they are challenges to modern society.  I have a very good (white, female) friend who loves to troll about gender and race.  I will spar with her about gender sometimes; about race, I I always shut the hell up.  I was brought up to never, ever mention someone's race; we are all the same, and should be treated that way.  Modern society, and modern youth, love the fuck out of not only talking about it, but baiting about it too.   It makes me uncomfortable.  Thus, large portions of Roxane Gay's book made me uncomfortable too.

Bad FeministBad Feminist by Roxane Gay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The essays of Roxane Gay are biting, sharp, humorous, academic without being boring, occasionally horrifying, often moving, and almost all quite engaging. The stuff I liked the best were about pop culture in regards to gender and race. She takes on The HelpThe Help and Fifty Shades of Grey, and most provocatively, Tyler Perry. She loves Sweet Valley High and Scrabble, two other essays I enjoyed. She also, often, made me extremely uncomfortable.

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Monday, February 6, 2017

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (2016)

I sort of devoured this book in two big gulps, reading as much as I could the first time I picked it up, and then finishing it the second time.  The plot, setting and characters are truly unique - I had never heard of anything like this before.  I'm a huge fan of books where children are magically lured or plucked into another world - Narnia, Oz, Alice - so I was really looking forward to reading this.  It's more of a novella than a novel, very short, but McGuire used her limited space quite well.  It didn't totally live up to my expectations (or the hype) - but it was still a good read. Although nominally a fantasy, it reminded me more of am 80s teen slasher movie (for reasons I won't get into to avoid spoilage).

Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children, #1)Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I devoured this novella in two rather rushed, big gulps; but the feeding frenzy didn't exactly fill me up. The premise attracted me - I'm a fan of Narnia, Oz, Alice - and the hype (awards!) drew me in as well. It's a novella rather than a novel, and McGuire put the limited space to good use. But its a good read rather than a great read; I would recommend it, but not heartily.

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Friday, February 3, 2017

Murder On the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (1934)

Original UK cover
 I read this beat up old Pocket paperback copy with a crazy cover and the original U.S. title - Murder in the Calais Coach.  The name was changed because Graham Greene had a similarly named book, The Orient Express (which was also a trans-Atlantic name change, the original being Stamboul Train:  hmm, the more you know...).

In my quest to read (or re-read) Christie, I think this is the best one I've read so far.  It does not come as a surprise to me; after all, this is one of the best murder mysteries ever written.  Everything about this book is perfect:  the plot, the pacing, the characters, the red herrings, the clues.  Even though I've read this book dozens of times, I'm still enchanted by how neatly and brilliantly Christie ties up all the loose ends.
Rescued from the rubbish bin

Murder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot, #10)Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've re-read Murder on the Orient Express dozens of times. I first discovered it in seventh or eight grade, and I've been a fan ever since. It may seem funny to some to hear that I've re-read a murder mystery so many times: after all, you may wonder, the puzzle is solved; I already know the identity of the murder (one of the most famous fictional murders of all time too). But I remain enchanted by this perfect little book. Christie is at the top of her form here, and many a writer could learn from her example of perfect plot, excellent pacing, clearly defined characters, and dialogue. She drops hints galore, and re-reading them, you get to notice how Hercule Poirot's line of questioning provides plenty of hints as to whodunnit. That wily old Belgian was on to it all along. Then she neatly ties everything up, with a bow on top, in a matter of five pages or so. Brilliant. This is one of those books that soar into new heights and break new ground; over the years, Christie drew lines in the sand for excellence and this was one of them.

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The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (2007)

Last week, I listened to a Guardian books podcast ("books" always pronounced like the American pronunciation of "dukes" i.e. "dooks").  featuring Alan Bennett reading from his diary, published in the fall. His diary entries were humorous and witty, and his narrative voice was much fun.   I had just finished my latest audio book (which I enjoyed) and saw that his book The Uncommon Reader was available for streaming from one of my five libraries for which I have cards.  Not only was it available, but Alan Bennett himself was the reader.    I remembered liking The Uncommon Reader; now, after listening to the podcast, I have a better idea of who Alan Bennett is and how he is sort of national literary treasure in the UK.

My liking The Uncommon Reader has remained unchanged; it's a strong little book, satirical but not in a bitter way.   Although nominally about Queen Elizabeth II, Bennett is really writing about what it means to be a reader, and also eventually, what it means to be a writer.  QEII picks up the habit of reading late in life, and it completely changes her personality and the way she views the world and other people.  Reading, the queen realizes, is a muscle, and the more you work that muscle, the stronger and better it gets.  Those around the queen are aghast at her new found love of books, and the descriptive passages of their varying degrees of annoyance, alarm, and sometimes disgust reflect the trials and tribulations of a true blue reader.  What happens to the queen has happened to us; we empathize with her plight; we get angry that those in her life don't understand her new passion, because we the reader have had that same passion for our entire lives, and sometimes to our detriment.  The queen likes reading better than her job as queen, even though (on paper at least) this might be the most enriching, glamorous job in the world.  Reading is even better than being queen.

Bennett is neither soppy nor sentimental about this message though.  He's sharp as a knife, a knife that occasionally cuts both ways.  I love Bennett's voice - both his narrative voice (a rare writer that reads his work as well as he writes) and his satirical writing voice.  This, however, was satire with a heart.

I would love to think readers who don't particularly like reading about the Royal Family would enjoy this book.  I think they would.  There is so much in this about being a reader, the joys and the troubles of reading books, the transformative power of reading.

The Uncommon ReaderThe Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read this book the old fashioned way once before; this time I listened to the audio version, which I checked out via streaming audio on one of my five library cards. Nominally, the uncommon reader is Queen Elizabeth II, who late in life has picked up the (to some, nasty) habit of reading books. As reading is wont to do (research has shown this lately), this completely changes her personality, the way she views herself, the world, and definitely other people. Reading, the queen soon realizes, is a muscle, and the more you work that muscle, the stronger and better it gets. However those aforementioned other people, as Bennett loving and satirically details, are to varying degrees annoyed, disgusted, and outraged. A chunk of this small volume is devoted to the other people laying roadblocks in the way of the queen's reading. Gentle hilarity ensues; this is not a laugh out loud book. I say nominally because Bennett is actually speaking to all of us uncommon readers out there in the world; it's a love letter to people who carry books in their handbag and can't wait until people stop talking so they can dive back into their latest novel, or whatever it is they are reading. The nonsense the queen endures from non-readers (or worse, the guilt stricken non-readers, the worst kind of non-reader) is the same nonsense all true blue readers, at one time or another in their lives, have to put up with. We empathize greatly with her plight. Like most of us, even this old librarian, the queen likes reading better than her job. Unlike us, the queen is supposed to lead a rich, enriching, glamorous life. Is Alan Bennett actually telling that reading books is even better than being queen? If he is, he's doing so in a manner that is neither soppily sentimental or educational poster-ish; he's a crisp, funny writer whose delivery is sharp as a tack. He reads his own book here too - the rare writer who reads aloud as well as he writes. This entire audio was a treat, one people who love to read should definitely take up and try. I suggest the audio over the physical book!

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