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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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J Ryan Stradal (2015)

Kitchens of the Great Midwest reminded me of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.  Not in subject matter or writing style:  Strout's book was starker and darker than Kitchens; rather it in form and style. Like Olive,  Kitchens  as a novel is really more a group of short stories with interconnecting characters, traveling forward through time.  Once I wrapped my head around that, and stopped trying to find a narrative thread, I was able sit back and enjoy the book much more.  Each chapter is sort of a little gemstone.  A character, Eva, is the straight line through all the stories, but each chapter isn't necessarily about her.  Related characters skate back and forth through the novel.  It's about foodie culture, and sometimes the food is a bit precious (just like real foodie culture).  The chapter about bars made me my sweet tooth whine.  Stradal is terrific at creating memorable characters.  This isn't always a light book either; although never as dark as Olive Kitteridge, there are still some awful things happening to these people.  But Stradal approaches them with a gentler, often humorous touch.  

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In form, I was reminded of Olive Kitteridge, in that similarly as a novel this book is really more a group of short stories with interconnecting characters, traveling forward through time. Once I wrapped my head around that, and stopped trying to find a narrative thread, I was able sit back and enjoy the book much more. Stradal tackles some dark themes here - but does so with a light touch and a gentle humor. The chapter on bars made my sweet tooth ache. I don't know if Stradal is skewering foodie culture or honoring it, or both; sometimes it feels a bit precious - but then foodie culture always feels enormously precious too. 

Grass by Sherri S. Tepper (1989)

I re-read Grass for my book club; I've read it at least twice before.  I don't remember when I first read it; but I imagine I checked it out from a library.  This is all conjecture, but I probably had never read anything quite like it before.  Tepper wasn't a writer of hard science fiction; she often explored issues of women's exploitation, usually under the guise of other worlds, plants, aliens, and ideas.   I always call her a feminist science fiction writer, and a quick google search proves that I'm right about that.  She died almost exactly a year ago.

Grass is a strange book, but not in a bad way.  The characters are a bit wooden at times; they pontificate on occasion.  Tepper is great at coming up with characters - all of them in Grass are fascinating; but dialogue isn't one of her strong suits.  She has them say and explain a lot, instead of using plot and character to define their actions and their world.  That is not something I ever noticed before, but it definitely a weakness in the book.

The setting of Grass is unique.  I think I have always liked and appreciated Grass most for its unusual setting.  There is a touch of dystopia (before the genre had even been defined); Tepper also creates a future version of the LDS church that's scary and fascinating.  Grass is definitely about religion, and particularly about religion's treatment of women.  The monstrous Hippae in the book could easily stand in for the brutish patriarchy, trampling over everything, taking and raping young girls both physically and metaphorically, taking them and making them into something else.

The Hippae, in my head, have become velociraptors, which shows the power of film to influence the mind.  The last half or so of the book also reminds me of Jurassic Park because of that - there is a lot of people escaping and Hippae rampaging with intent.

Grass is still an engaging story, and for me at least, it's a novel that I can't read in small chunks; once I start, I have to keep reading until the end.  This latest re-read was enjoyable, and I'm exciting to discuss it in bookclub.

Grass (Arbai, #1)Grass by Sheri S. Tepper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tepper has created a unique and memorable setting; her future building and world building are spot on. If you are looking for hard science fiction, shy away - there are space ships, but technology porn isn't her goal here. She uses a strange world full of aliens to explore ideas of patriarchy, what we now call rape culture, and religion's role in the empowerment or repression of women. Somehow, she does all this, and still tells a gripping story with some plot twists and excitedly harrying adventures. Tepper probably isn't for everyone; but I know I've enjoyed several of her books. None more than this one. This is her finest work.

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Adam in Blunderland by Bob Teague (1971)

Well, I found it.  After years of searching the internet, asking librarians and others with expertise in "stumpers", combing through old libraries and junk stores, I finally found it.  This a book I vividly remembered reading, checked out from my elementary school library, loving it so much that scenes stuck in my head for almost 40 years.  The book whose title I couldn't remember, with characters whose names I couldn't recall, a cover I couldn't remember.  I knew nothing other than this for sure:  it was a world without adults, run by children, who were magically transported there, but not by a wardrobe.  It wasn't Narnia, and it wasn't a dystopia.

I did a search a series of search on Worldcat - I don't now remember the exact search terms, but it was some combination of words found in this online catalog description:  "Blaming adults for the evils of their society, a black boy, a Chinese boy, and a Puerto Rican girl wish themselves to a land populated exclusively by kids, only to find it plagued by the same evils for which they must now accept responsibility."  I knew I read the book (unless I had actually experienced it; a little bit of me was hoping for that) sometime in the late 1970s; 1980 at the latest.  I did a search year by year.  I think I had tried this type of search before, but finally gave up.  But this time had the charm, and my search returned a result:  Adam in Blunderland by Bob Teague.  It sounded right.   I ordered a copy online.  And then, when it arrived, I waited a while to read it.  I didn't just pick it up and jump right in. Something felt weird.  

Maybe because ?  this was the almost last stumpers and the most important one too; I had solved all the others.  Takers and Returns (which I now own).  The Big Joke Game (I don't yet own this, because it is really expensive; I guess other people feel about the book the same way I do).  The Cookie Tree (now own it).  The Bernard Evelin book of free myths.  There is still one stumper left - a book my fourth grade teacher read us, that had basenji dogs who could climb trees, and some sort of mystery; still looking for that one).  This was the book I had been looking for, for years and years and years, in used book shops, antique stores.  One time, I found Castaways from Lilliput sitting on a shelf in a Goodwill type junk shop for $3 (I snatched it right up).  I kept hoping I would find this book, even though I didn't even know the name.

Maybe because when I starting leafing through pages, I could tell right way that at the book wasn't all that good.  And once I finally read it, I knew it wasn't very good.  What about the book back then did I like so much that I remembered it for nearly 40 years?  Some of the details I remembered were wrong (Jack O'Lantern Street was Pumpkin Plaza).  I remembered an illustration that didn't exist too (although the scene was in the book, just not illustrated).  There wasn't a red-headed gang like I thought either.  

I guess after all these years, there was the book I had imagined and written in my head, which was exciting and life changing and amazing; and the actual book, which was none of those things.  Memory is a strange beast that lives inside our heads.  We tell ourselves stories that are truer than actuality.  

Adam in BlunderlandAdam in Blunderland by Bob Teague

This was a book I had originally read in fourth or fifth grade. I couldn't remember the title, and had been searching for it for nearly 40 years. I finally found it doing a year by year search with some specific keywords that fit in Worldcat. I can't even being to guess what it was about this book that appealed to my 9 year old self so much that I remember details from it for so many years, and through thousands of books read. I hate to say it, but the book I wrote in my head for all of these years is better than the actual book. Memory is a strange beast, rampaging through your mind, changing things. making things better (or maybe worse). That's certainly true for Adam in Blunderland. It's still an interesting concept, but oh wow, not very well written.

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Monday, October 2, 2017

Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective by Agatha Christie (1934)

My cool vintage copy
It is obvious after reading nearly fifteen Agatha Christie novels published between her first novel in 1920 and this book of connected short stories in 1934 that while the good dame wanted to stick to detective fiction as a genre, she had no intention of writing the same book over and over again. In fourteen (or so) years, Christie had already written books featuring a variety of detectives:  Mr. Quin, Tommy and Tuppence, Miss Marple, and (of course) Hercule Poirot.  She also experimented with different kinds of form, expertly taking the genre and shaking it up in various ways.  I’m not a voracious reader of golden age detective novelists; I’m aware of Marsh, Sayers and so on, but really I’ve only read Christie; I imagine though that all of them were doing the same sort of thing, so I don’t know how original Christie was being.  I would guess she was being VERY original - after all, they did name an award after her.  It is clear that no publisher or editor, particularly after 14 years of success, was going to force her write anything she didn't want to write..  She wasn’t going to only write about Hercule Poirot, at least at this stage in her career.

So here comes Mr. Parker Pyne, detective, into this mix of detectives and forms.  He’s the least clearly drawn of Christie’s detectives - Tommy and Tuppence have the madcap bright young things attitude of the 1920s; Mr. Harley Quin had a strange, supernatural bent; Poirot and Marple are, well, Poirot and Marple.  But Mr. Parker Pyne doesn’t jump off the page in such a strong way.  He is a bit like Harley Quin, without the supernatural; he shares a secretary and Mrs. Ariadne Oliver with Hercule Poirot, and also a penchant for using the powers of the mind, the little grey cells, only in a different, less subtle way (and frankly, less convincing).  Mr. Parker Pyne seems to be some sort of brilliant but retired government worker of some sort, a civil servant, but we never really find out much about him or why he should be considered so brilliant. The short stories at the beginning of the book feel redundant of one another; they aren’t really mysteries (another playing around with form), as Mr. Parker Pyne (always referred to as such) works to make unhappy people happy.  Several of these stories involve unhappy wives or husbands, and the solutions (no spoilers) are often sort of sexist.  
First UK edition

Mr. Parker Pyne does not really succeed as a character; it does not appear that Agatha Christie ever really considered writing a complete novel with him as a main character; he appears in two more short stories and that is it for him.   (There are only 14 total short stories featuring Mr. Parker Pyne, and most appeared somewhere else before being collected in one volume; that shows).  There just isn’t enough there, I think.  It’s interesting that Christie liked Miss Lemon and Ariadne Oliver so much that she used them again in the future, but with Hercule Poirot.  She may have ended up hating Hercule Poirot (I don’t know this to be true, but I suspect she tired of him after so many years) but he was a far more interesting character, and giving Poirot two of her most interesting supporting characters makes literary sense.  

In addition to the characters, Christie recycles a title - there is a short story called “Death on the Nile” in this collection; she goes on to write another Death on the Nile as a Hercule Poirot novel; this time far more successfully.  There wasn’t any punch to the whodunnit of her short story, while the longer, different novel is far more exciting.  

Mr. Parker Pyne, DetectiveMr. Parker Pyne, Detective by Agatha Christie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Agatha Christie only published 14 total short stories featuring Mr. Parker Pyne, and ten of them are found here. These ten were published in pulp and mystery magazines first, then gathered in one volume, unstitched. That "unstitching" shows; Mr. Parker Pyne is the least developed of all Christie characters, without any identifying characteristics; he's certainly no Marple or Poirot. Even at her worst, Christie is writer who likes experimentation with the form, and Mr. Parker Pyne is definitely an experiment in setting (if not plot or character). In most of these short stories, he's not really even a detective or an investigator, but rather an instigator and fixer. He advertises in The Times with "Are you happy? If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne" and his clients all come to him seeking cures for their unhappiness (sort of a grown up Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, actually). His secretary is Miss Lemon, who apparently quits Mr. Parker Pyne to go work for Hercule Poirot; another character who makes an appearance is Ariadne Oliver, the renowned mystery writer. Christie liked these two characters enough that she later made use of them in more flushed out and interesting ways; but poor Mr. Parker Pyne is literarily doomed to only these ten stories plus four more and that was all. If Christie thought he was uninteresting as a character, not worth building upon - well, I have to agree.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

No Such Thing as a Witch by Ruth Chew (1971)

The only Ruth Chew I ever read as a child was The Witch's Buttons - which I loved and still love.  No Such Thing as A Witch isn't nearly as good as Buttons.  Maybe because Buttons also has nostalgia attached to it for me, I approach it with less of a critical eye.  But I think the characters are less developed and less interesting, as is the magic.   This wasn't boring; it just wasn't very interesting either.

No Such Thing as a WitchNo Such Thing as a Witch by Ruth Chew
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My favorite Ruth Chew book is still The Witch's Buttons. Chew wrote this book earlier in her writing career (her sophomore book); the characters and plot aren't very well developed. Neither is the magic.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Turkey Red by Esther Loewe Vogt (1975)

If you know me, you know that I was a fan of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I’m not exactly sure why I loved them so much as a kid.  In fourth or fifth grade (I think it was fifth), Mrs. Stoppel, our fifth grade / social studies teacher, told me that the books took place in Kansas, and I remember being amazed by that. She either told me - or I misunderstood - that On the Banks of Plum Creek took place in Kansas; I now know that Little House on the Prairie took place on the Kansas / Oklahoma state line. I had most likely already at least the first few books in the series at least once by this point.

Probably because my family watched the television show together was when I started reading the books (much of my early reading was based on television shows:  The Hobbit, Narnia, Little House, Miss Switch).  Actually, I don’t even know if that is true.  I remember watching the show. I suppose my mom was watching too.  My brother, was he watching with us?  We only had one television, so I guess so.  My father was probably not even home, as Little House aired on Monday nights; he was probably at school coaching some sport.

Our public library was really small - Lang Memorial Library.  I don’t know who Lang was; some old Wilsonian who left a bunch of money or land for the library, I guess.  The football field at the high school was Lang Memorial Field.  Richest man in town? The Old Man Potter of Wilson, Kanass,  Dead long before I was born.  The library was - and is - a square red brick building, not imposing, but not particularly comfortable either.  The librarian was Mrs. Stadelman and she wore a wig.  Her husband taught shop at the school and was friends with my dad (I later took wood shop from him, and drafting; I sucked at both). I read everything I could get my hands on in that library.  We had no books in our house, or very few I wanted to read.  My mom bought us books, and I had a small personal library that grew over time.  I spent money on books when I could, and sometimes got books as gifts.  We got free books from the school library, Reading is Fundamental books, or library discards (some of which I still have). I ordered books from the Weekly Reader too.  I have those books as well, or most of them.

I don’t remember being afraid of Mrs. Stadelman, but I also don’t recall being all that close to her and well.  It was old fashioned library land - the books were still stamped (maybe they still are?) and there was a beautiful card catalog.  Everything always smelled so good in there: old, musty book smell that only strange people don't like.  I read all the Little House Books for summer reading club one summer - either before or after fifth grade.  Summer reading was some sort of map that you got stamps on for reading books; I suppose we got some sort of prize.  I still have it somewhere (note to self:  go look for this !).  

I bet this was the summer that Mrs. Stadelman suggested I read Turkey Red by Esther Loewe Vogt.  Maybe she asked me what I liked about Little House on the Prairie.  I sincerely doubt I asked her.  I rarely remember discussing books I was reading with adults; certainly when it happened they initiated the conversation.  Reading was (and maybe is) a very private thing, something I had to do (like drinking water or eating) but not something to be shared.  For one thing, no one read as much as I did.  I would check out huge stacks of books, often the same ones, and then return the next day and check out more (at one point, I must have been asked if I had actually read them, but I had - I was a fast reader, actually faster then than I am now, although I can still read a children’s book in less than an hour).  I never, ever wanted to be caught without a book, so I made sure I had a large selection.  

Mrs. Stadelman said - I'm paraphrasing here - “If you like the Little House books, we have this new book, Turkey Red.  It’s about a pioneer girl from Kansas.  I think you will like it.”  

I did like it, in spite of myself and what it was. Because it was a Christian fiction book. Christianity disguised as a book (like Narnia was!). Plus,  Martha Friesen, the main character, was no Laura Ingalls.  Laura Ingalls was bad ass, and she knew it, even if she felt guilty about it.  Nelly Olsen was her nemesis, and sometimes she got even with her.  In better ways on the show (pushing her down that hill in her wheelchair, for example) but in gross ways in the book too (leeches).  Martha was more of a cardboard character than Laura, who is far better edited and written and thus feels more real.  But I still liked Turkey Red.  You could only read Little House so many times, and Turkey Red was fun.  It was about Kansas in the olden days, the days when my grandparent’s parents were little kids.  I also knew about Mennonites too, and the Amish.  My dad grew up near Amish farms and we would go eat at a restaurant called The Dutch Kitchen (Pennsylvania Dutch, Deutsch, Germans) when we visited my grandma and grandpa.  The women all wore white lace caps, and I’m sure my brother or I rudely asked aloud what those women were wearing.  At some point, I even understood that the Mennonites and Amish were related but not the same thing; that the Amish drove buggies (always exciting to see) and the Mennonites drove cars (not exciting to see).  

In The Dutch Kitchen was this paperback rack of books for sale, and I always looked at these  books whenever we went there.  They were Christian fiction and inspirational fiction, from Mennonite and other publishers.  My other grandmother gave me a set of this Christian fiction by Janette Oke one time (later than this, but not too much later); I don’t quite understand why she thought I would like these books. They were prairie love stories about Jesus.  Not really my cup of tea.  Yet I kept them for years, even though I never read them.  They looked way too be mushy.  Maybe those Janette Oke heroines kicked ass like Laura Ingalls, but somehow, I doubt it.  Laura Ingalls was religious, but she didn’t wear her religion on her sleeve.

Martha Friesen did, and re-reading this book almost 40 years later, I realize that Mrs. Stadelman essentially gave me one of those Christian fiction paperback spinner books (she wasn't Mennonite either, as far as I know she was Presbyterian).  Vogt stops to inject Jesus and his saving power and grace many times int eh book.  Always abruptly too.  She puts proselytizing it the mouths of Martha, her father, her cousin from the Ukraine.  There is a prodigal son in the book too, Martha’s brother Jake, who goes away to the big city (which one?  Wichita?  Kansas Ctiy?  Hays?  How did he get there?). because he hates Kansas.  SPOILER - he returns on the last chapter, on Christmas Day no less, and has found Jesus (although not from Mennonites, which was interesting).  You know what happened to Laura Ingalls brother Albert when HE went to the big city?  HE BECAME A DRUG ADDICT.  (As everyone knows, this was only in the television show).  Martha Friesen and her Mennonite life could never compare to Laura’s pioneer life.  Martha was a nice break between Little House books.  But Laura could always take Martha Friesen in a fight.  Actually, Nellie Olsen could take Martha Friesen in a fight too. I don't think Ma would have let Laura and Martha become friends either, although perhaps she would have (she did let a black doctor in their house to save them once).  

Turkey RedTurkey Red by Esther Loewen Vogt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In fourth or fifth grade, the children's librarian at our small town public library suggested I read this book because it took place in Kansas and I liked the Little House books. I liked it, in spite of myself, and in spite of it being pretty obvious Christian fiction. Jesus is everywhere in this plot, and in the most unlikely forced kinds of places. Every chance Vogt gets, she has someone talking about Jesus.
The clunkiness of this bothered me as an adult, and I suppose it annoyed me a young reader too - but not enough to forget the book. Re-reading it almost 40 years later, I still remember how exciting it was for Martha to see President Hayes (I wanted to see a president too) and the prairie fire (just like LIttle House!) and the tornado. And the Native American who appears mysteriously to save them all the time (which made me the modern reader squirm). I still think Laura Ingalls Wilder could take all of the girls AND boys in this book in a fight; Nellie Olsen could too. Little House will always be better, but way back in the day, I could only read and re-read the Little House books so much, especially if they were checked out when I went to the library, so Turkey Red would have to suffice.

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Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (2017)

I listened to the audio version. Twice in less than a week, the argument "is listening to an audiobook cheating" has been in my vicinity - once in an article shared at work, the other in a discussion on the Bookriot podcast. Listening to an audiobook is a different experience, but it's not cheating! I'm not taking a test, I'm listening to something for enjoyment. If the author didn't want us to listen to his or her work, then they would have said, don't make an audio!

In this case, Mur Lafferty narrates her own book, so she must be okay with those cheating audios.  Now I’m not a huge fan of the self-narrated audio boo - I love A Wrinkle In Time but didn’t care for Madeleine L’Engle’s narration of it. I think E.B. White reads Charlotte's Web poorly as well. I was unable to finish either of them when I tried.  Maybe I should try both of these again?  Because I started out not liking Mur Lafferty either. But a colleague had said this was one of the best books she had read so far this year, so I plugged on, and guess what?  I loved Mur Lafferty by the end.  Who knows her characters better than she?  Their vocal tics, what words coming out of a character's mouth need stress or emphasis , the motivations for what they are saying.  We all know that stressing different words in a sentence can completely change the meaning, and I imagine sometimes audiobook actors, even the best of them, will stray (accidentally or on purpose) from the writer’s true intent.  Mur Lafferty, however, knows the six people (seven if you count the AI) in her book intimately.  She lived with them for however long it took her to write the book (and however long they lurked in her head before that).  What she does is to make them sound scared, bemused, worldwide, world weary.  They are clones; they’ve lived for hundreds of years.  They don’t fear death.  They are also criminals, of various sorts, who have given the middle finger to authority at various times in their cloned lives.  The sassy tone that Lafferty gives Maria and Hiro, Joanna’s drollness, Katrina’s toughness, Wolfgang’s coldness, Paul’s gullible, stupid lug-ness, and Ian, the ship's AI, unique personality - Lafferty’s narration totally captures all of this.  The book is well-written anyway - Lafferty’s locked room mystery plot and her living, breathing characters are skillfully drawn out.    Any narrator would have great material to work with here; but Lafferty’s own narration really makes this audio book special.

I was reminded much of Agatha Christie.  If the good dame had written science fiction, I think she would have crafted a book like this.  And Then There Were None kept hovering over the book; the idea that criminals are forced together, perhaps (in this case) to atone for their sins, to be judged.  Obviously the plots and characters are different, but that spirit was there.

Characters always look a certain way in my head; Hiro looked this Japanese film student I met online and who we tried to befriend (didn’t work) but this guy's scrawny 20something scruffiness was the perfect image in my head (Hiro, though, is far, far more interesting than that guy, who ended up being a dull as dishwasher).  The ship’s doctor, of course, looked like Beverly Crusher - how could she not?  But Lafferty - I’m positive - made sure that they weren’t exactly alike.

Six WakesSix Wakes by Mur Lafferty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And Then There Were None hovered over this book like a fairy godmother (dressed all in black). Like Agatha Christie's classic, all the characters in this book are marooned in some way (in this case on a spaceship) and all are criminals. The cast of baddies in And Then There Were None were all murdered (cleverly, brutally) and they all stayed dead at the end of her book; in Lafferty's book, they are all murdered, but they all wake up because they are clones who, through the miracle of modern science, can regenerate themselves over and over. They awake to find they have had their memories erased: so begins a modern science fiction take on the locked room mystery that I believe, if Christie had picked it up at her local library, would have made her as pleased as if she'd written it herself. The whodunnit will keep you guessing, and the ethics behind the universe Lafferty has created will make you squirmy uncomfortable and make you think hard about what it means to be human - because the kind of science fiction she's writing may not be all that far off. I listened to Mur Lafferty herself read this book, and it was a thrilling literary experience. Who knows her characters better than she? Their vocal tics, what words coming out of a character's mouth need stress or emphasis , the motivations for what they are saying? We all know that stressing different words in a sentence can completely change the meaning, and I imagine sometimes audiobook actors, even the best of them, will stray (accidentally or on purpose) from the writer’s true intent. Mur Lafferty, however, knows the six people (seven if you count the AI) in her book intimately. She lived with them for however long it took her to write the book (and however long they lurked in her head before that). She gives all of the voices you would image real clones would have - bemused by it all, world weary, excited, scared; she narrates the story matter-of-factly yet also makes you keep listening long after you've parked your car.

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Friday, September 22, 2017

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo (2007)

I usually have a harder time getting into (and finishing) books with highly unlikable characters, and I have to say, A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers has a pair of really unlikable main characters.  Chinese Z and her nameless, much older, bisexual (male) lover are quite the pair.  But her rudeness (lord, she is rude; she has "a famous" reputation at her English school for being the rudest student there, overhearing others talk about her lack of manners), her neediness, her unlovableness became - well not really likable (she's a sharp, angular character), but more intelligible as the book progresses.    Her lover, "you", is a terrible, selfish, depressed, Artistic (with a capitol A), lost wounded bird type.  Xiaolu Guo is so incredibly deft at creating and building characters, and you certainly feel like you have met Z and You before, although they are most definitely unique.   Guo hints at some unpleasantness in You's past (there was a hint of some older man/younger boy situations at a former teaching job).  Z is a wounded bird herself, and it's no wonder the two - fall in love?  Certainly she falls in love with him; he seems to careless and self-centered, and hurt, to ever really fall in love with anyone but his own depression.  Of course, she is no delicate little angel either; for example, reading his diaries and journals.  I think maybe you are supposed to think "well, this is just her cultural upbringing from Communist China" at least that's what Z wants you think!  But come on - Z is really, really clinging and needy.  This is her first lover after all, and she probably thinks this is the one true love her life - you and I knowing that this man is going to hurt her.  Two lost souls, coming together for a short amount of time, to love another and hurt one another.  

The book is really witty and humorous too.  And so well written - Guo writes the entire thing from Z's point of view, in the kind of English a Chinese speaking ESL student would use, which is just a masterly and enviable act of writing.  As Z learns more English, the English language in the book becomes better (never perfect).  (reading some reviews - some found this conceit annoying).

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I would not call myself a fan of romance novels; I can't remember the last time I read one. This book is definitely not a romance novel, but it is most definitely a love story. A very, very unusual love story. That is part of what kept this book going, the incredibly unique relationship between the narrator Z an d her older lover, never named, but always called "you." Without getting into too many spoiler-y details, just know going in that the two of them bring to the table much strangeness and unlikability. Unlikable characters tend to bug me in books, but there was something about this pair of star-crossed lovers that turned this book into a salty, savory treat. That is also all due to Guo, who masterfully created and built these two characters bit by bit, like assembling two Frankenstein's monsters and letting them loose upon one another. By the end, you may not personally like either of them (they are porcupines) but I *think* you will understand them. I read two opposing Guardian reviews on this novel: Ursula LeGuin liked it, the other reviewer didn't get it. I'm on Ursula LeGuin's side here. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service by Rhys Bowen (2017

I've been reading Her Royal Spyness series since its very beginning - since 2007!  That's ten years of Georgie and company.  The quality of the series has waxed and waned; looking back, I've enjoyed a few of them in a five-star kind of way (particularly the first in the series), most in a "good book, next" kind of way - and at least one (the book before this one) was dull as dishwater.

On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service is a solid entry in the series.  It never completely bored me, but it also never really wowed me either.  The premise was strong and fit the tone of the 1930s - a secret meeting between Italy, Germany, and the Prince of Wales at a house party in Italy; nearby the actual Stresa conference between England, Italy and France was happening (which, interestingly, actually dates this to on or near Sunday, April 14, 1935).  This was eluded to several times in the book.

Mrs. Simpson and the Prince of Wales are both at the house party (less Cruella deVil than she's been in the past), as are Georgie's glamorous mother.  I don't recall ever before actually meeting Max, Georgie's mother's rich, German industrialist husband-to-be; he's a suspect in the book.  If I were a betting man, as the 1930s get darker, so will the plots of Her Royal Spyness; I imagine Max's Nazi ties will become more of a plot point in future novels.  I also wonder if the Mitfords or Oswald Mosley will ever make appearances - they would definitely run in similar social circles to Georgie and Darcy (the older Mitfords would, I imagine, be the same age as Georgie).

Once Bowen refers to Georgie's uncomfortable yoga pose, which threw me off; I wondered if Geogie would even know what yoga was?  It seems to me it would be a bit esoteric of Georgie to casually complain about being cramped under a table in a yoga pose - unlike girls of the 21st century, I don't think Georgie is going to yoga class every morning (maybe pilates; ha ha).  If I'm wrong about yoga and the 1930s, at the very least Bowen could have qualified the statement in some way.

On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service (Her Royal Spyness #11)On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service by Rhys Bowen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A solid entry in the series; I was never completely bored or completely bowled over. Certainly entertaining the whole way through. The setting is a house (more of a palace, actually) party in Italy with Italians, Germans, and the Prince of Wales (the always delightful to read about Mrs. Simpson leading him about by the ear) all having a international cloak and dagger meeting while the real-life Stresa Conference between Italy, France and England is going on nearby (alas, other real life historical characters like Ramsay Macdonald do not make an appearance). In using this setting, Bowen is definitely capturing some of the timbre of the times. Her Royal Spyness is certainly never going to be serious treatise of appeasement or the rise of fascism (nor would I want it to be)
-- but in a screwball comedy kind of way, Bowen is addressing some serious issues. The worldwide Depression was sort of a character in the earlier books; now I have a feeling that in future books in the series the Nazis will begin playing a bigger role in Lady Georgie's life. As they did in everyone's lives in the 1930s.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls by Paul Bannick (2016)

The photographs in this book are incredible.  These Jane Goodalls of the world who can sit and watch a creature for hours and hours are mighty laudable people and certainly have my respect and esteem. I can barely keep still for a ten minutes to meditate, let alone for six hours taking photographs of owls.  It's an ability I wish I possessed.  Is it something you can train yourself to do, practice makes perfect - or is it a superpower?  Is Paul Bannick an X-man?  It seems like a superpower to me.  Particularly because OWLS CAN FLY.  Paul Bannick, I assume, cannot fly.  Perhaps he builds blind perches in trees near where owls hang out.  Perhaps he has a drone (is that cheating) although I assume drones would be too noisy and freak owls the fuck out.

I'm having this moment in my life where I love wildlife photography, and have started following numerous wildlife photographers on Instagram.  I love birds.  I've only ever seen one owl in the wild, and I was so moved by it, I wrote a poem commemorating the moment.  It's one of my favorite poems I've ever written.

As much as I love the wildlife photography, I'm less enamored with the overall structure of this book.  Bannick is a decent writer; there is certainly nothing wrong with his prose.  In his well written introduction, he tells us that he is going to "follow North American owls through their four annual life phases."  He also says that he is going to "primarily focus" his lens and "narrative on four" species.  But I never really felt he stuck to that part of it, and consequently the book felt overlapping and meandering.  It was hard to follow.

I was also geographically annoyed by his use of "North America" excluding Mexico.  I'm sure there were legitimate reasons he didn't explore Mexican owls as well as US and Canadian owls, but then I think he should have dropped the term "North America."  Perhaps using United States and Canada was too much of a mouthful; but if I were a Mexican owl, I would have been pissed off.

So stay through to the end for the photographs, but don't expect too much from the text.  Don't get me wrong - there is a lot to learn here; but I think a different kind of editing would have made a better book.

Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American OwlsOwl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls by Paul Bannick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wildlife photographers and Jane Goodall-ists are like superheroes to me, and their main superpower, their X ability, is to be able to sit quietly and patiently for hours on end, watching, or waiting for the perfect shot. I can do many things well, but waiting and watching patiently has never been one of those things (I'm working on that). Add to this that owls can fly, and it's not like Paul Bannick can flap his wings and fly after them. So just thinking about what it takes to get even a blurry, out of focus shot of anything, let alone something that can fly, blows my mind. These photographs are incredible. You, too, will come away with a mind imprinted with "Wow" and "How did he TAKE THAT PICTURE?" and "owls are beautiful" and "Owls are cool as f***." Bannick's prose is strong and good too. The structure of this book bothered me the most; it meanders around between bird species and it's not always clear (unless you are an owl expert) which species he is talking about or which photos match the prose. If this drives you nuts, just look at the extraordinary pictures.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The New Annotated Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; edited by Leslie S. Klinger (1818; 2017)

Just in time for the 200th anniversary of the (first) publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein comes this sumptuously annotated version.  I had never actually read the novel before.  I thought I knew the story; and while I had a grasp of the broader details; there was plenty I did not know - and Klinger was there by me all the way, sometimes holding my hand.  At least I knew that the monster was not called Frankenstein.  I did not know the monster spoke French.  Or that Victor Frankenstein was Swiss.  Or that the book is a whole bunch of letters from a Polar explorer named Walton to his sister back in England.  Or that Mary Shelley may have been writing about what it was like to go through postpartum depression after having a baby and perhaps thinking about destroying it (as Victor wanted to destroy HIS baby).  There was so much!  It's also, quite frankly, some times something of a slog.  The last third or so is the best part of the book - the murders of the monsters, the chase around Europe, and that part ended all too quickly (shhhh, don't tell anyone I got bored; that makes me sound like a cretin).  There are also lots of really great pictures in this book; and some incredible information about the Shelleys, who were very ahead of their time (and perhaps ahead of our time too).

The New Annotated FrankensteinThe New Annotated Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first time I've ever read Frankenstein (I've also never seen the old Boris Karloff movie), and I think I picked the right edition. Leslie S. Klinger was there with me the whole way through, annotating away, and I was very much glad for it. Frankenstein SEEMS like a short book, but it is a dense book. I think most people know a little bit about Frankenstein (I've seen Penny Dreadful AND Young Frankenstein, plus The Munsters, so I had that little dangerous bit of learning). I did not, however, know that the monster probably spoke only French; or that Victor Frankenstein and family was Swiss; or that the entire book is an epistolary novel (and an ingenious one at that). The book has incredibly good illustrations (including a really kick ass cover) and also has some great biographical information about the Shelleys at the beginning - who were very much ahead of their time (and perhaps ahead of our time too). There is a TERRIFIC essay by Frankenstein(ian?) professor Anne K. Mellor at the back too - be sure and do not skip it.

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