Monday, July 10, 2017

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2017)

 Horowitz has written this perfectly Christie-n murder mystery, heavily shaded with the Golden Age of Detective fiction, but also with a delightfully modern twist.  Horowitz obviously loves a good old fashioned murder mystery, and in Magpie Murders he pulls out all the stops.  Red herrings abound, the characters could give the passengers on the Orient Express a run for their money, the plot is devilishly twisty.

Horowitz has his narrator say this about three fourths of the way through, which surely sums up his love for and appreciation of the genre:

"I've always loved whodunnits... I've read them for pleasure throughout my life, gorging on them actually.  You must know the feeling when it's raining outside an the heating's on and you lose yourself, utterly, in a book.  You read and you read and you feel the pages slipping through your fingers until suddenly there are fewer in your right hand than there are in your left and you want to slow down but you still hurtle on towards a conclusion you can hardly bear to discover.  That is the particular power of the whodunnit which has, I think, a special place within the general panoply of literary fiction because, of all characters, the detective enjoys a particular, indeed a unique, relationship with the reader.

"Whodunnits are all about truth:  nothing more, nothing less.  In a world full of uncertainties, is it not inherently satisfying to come to the last page with every i dotted and every t crossed?  The stories mimic our experience in the world.  We are surrounded by tensions and ambiguities, which we spend half our life trying to resolve and we'll probably  be on our own deathbed when we reach that moment when everything makes sense. Just about every whodunnit provides that pleasure.  It is the reason for their existence..."

This book he has written embodies this sentiment:  I, too, found myself wanting it to go and on; I didn't want it to end, and in fact, slowed down my reading so it would last longer.

I love a good whodunnit, and this is more than a good whodunnit - it's perfect.  Perfect plot, perfect characters, perfect detective.  The Mystery Muse (Christie?) smiled up on this book.


Magpie MurdersMagpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Horowitz has written this exquisitely Christie-n murder mystery, heavily shaded with the Golden Age of Detective fiction, but also with a delightfully modern twist (I won't spoil what it is). Horowitz obviously loves a good old fashioned murder mystery, and in Magpie Murders he pulls out all the stops. Red herrings abound, the characters could give the passengers on the Orient Express a run for their money, and the plot is devilishly twisty. If you are in the mood for a good old fashioned murder mystery, you can't go wrong with this one. It comes with a Hercule Poirot Seal of Approval.


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Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory; narrated by Biaca Amato (2016)


So Philippa Gregory draws water from the wells of the Tudors once again.  For her,  springs are literarily plentiful, but they definitely aren't as nourishing every time we drink.

I read lots of mediocre reviews of  this book prior to starting in. I'm listening to it - Bianca Amato is a superb narrator, so no shade thrown her way - and at the beginning I was really enjoying.  But about a fourth of the way through, I realized what all the "meh-ness" was about.  I only kept listening for as long as I did - I even renewed it - because Amato is a charming and adept narrator.  She was able to bring this pile of shit to life, like Frankenstein's monster, and for that she should be commended.

The Margaret Tudor of a Wikipedia is a kickass warrior woman, a typical passionate Tudor.  She was married three times.  She was a teen-aged bride for her first marriage (just 13!) and a teen mother who lost multiple children.  She was a stranger in a strange land, forced to live among the traditional enemies of her people.  Her first husband, James, handed the keys to the kingdom over to her upon his death; she lost them and then later took them back.  The woman was a bad ass.  Queen Elizabeth I and her granddaughter Mary, Queen of Scots surely looked at her from a distance and though "That's who I want to be like."  

Reading about her exploits made me want to read a book about her.  Just not this one.

Gregory's Margaret Tudor is so disjointed that it's like we are reading about three or four different characters.  That's problematic here, because the book is (in Gregorian fashion) in first person.  With interesting characters - Mary Boleyn, for example, that first person viewpoint is juicy and interesting and unique.  Margaret Tudor's view point could have been the same, but Gregory turns her into this "three faces of Eve" type of character, - sometimes complaining, sometimes strong-willed, sometimes petulant and snobby, and all the time annoying. Gregory captures her teen snottiness - she's a mean girl, that's for sure - but it never seems to actually go anywhere. This makes her sound far more interesting than she actually is portrayed (or should have been portrayed).  Actually, she's little more than a ghost of a character,  barely there.  Gregory never quite convinces us of Margaret's motivations for any of the actions she takes.  That's what fiction is supposed to do, particularly historical fiction - you get to make up stuff about characters from history, fill in gaps using your imagination.  Gregory takes those gaps, and fills them with marshmallow fluff.  Nothing substantial or even interesting.

This book is takes place in Scotland, but you'd never really know that.  It really takes place in Gregory-land, that fictional Tudor universe that the monstrous Henry VIII and his terrible relatives loom over.  Change Margaret's name to one of the other Tudor women that Gregory has written about, and you have almost the same story and inner monologue.  Philippa Gregory really, really hates Henry VIII.  He's the mouldwarp, we get it.  But Margaret's story in this book often seems to exist totally to tell Henry's story again, not her own.  for a bad ass woman, she never really leaves the pages of the book to grab us by the balls.

Note:  I thought maybe switching from listening to reading this book would make it more palatable.  Or at least make it go by more quickly.  It did not.


Three Sisters, Three QueensThree Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm going to give this two stars because Bianca Amato is a superb narrator; she took this very, very problematic book and shook out every last entertaining bit she could. She gets five stars; she's both amazing and a trooper.

Gregory again returns to the Tudor well, and while sometimes the water she draws nourishes us, this time the bucket is almost empty.

The Margaret Tudor of a real life history is a kickass warrior woman, a typical passionate Tudor. She was married three times. She was a teen-aged bride for her first marriage (just 13!) and a teen mother who lost multiple children. She was a stranger in a strange land, forced to live among the traditional enemies of her people. Her first husband, James, handed the keys to the kingdom over to her upon his death; she lost them and then later took them back. The woman was a bad ass. Queen Elizabeth I and her granddaughter Mary, Queen of Scots surely looked at her from a distance and though "That's who I want to be like."

Reading about her exploits made me want to read a book about her. Just not this one.

There are too many things I didn't like about this book, but Gregory's characterization of Margaret Tudor was the main one. She's a ghost of a character, barely visible in a literary way. It's never clear why Margaret takes the actions she does; Gregory never helps us learn who Margaret is internally. That's what fiction is supposed to do, particularly historical fiction - you get to make up stuff about characters from history, fill in gaps using your imagination. Gregory takes those gaps, and fills them with marshmallow fluff. Nothing substantial or even interesting.

If this is in the only Philippa Gregory book you've ever read, don't give up. She's usually a strong writer who takes historical characters and makes something rich and strange out of them. Just not this time, which is a shame.


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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson (1955)

I decided to subscribe to Poetry magazine, because I wanted to support poetry and poets.   Plus, I got a free canvas bag with a flying horse on it that is rad.   I used to think poetry - particularly new poetry - was mostly pretentious emperor's-new-clothes-ish bunkum.  Now after two months of the magazine, I will change "mostly" into "from time to time."  Each volume I've received in the mail has some poems that make me happy, and some poems that make me make a "what the fuck" face (that is, if someone were spying on my reading, which I assume they are not).  But I think that's poetry.  It's not always supposed to make sense, and it's not always supposed to speak to you in some meaningful way at that very moment.  Some poems have to age with you.  Other poems, you age out of.

In the first Poetry magazine, there were poems by  D. Gilson (here he is http://d.virb.com/ and he's really cute), he had two poems about children's literature and what happens to famous characters when they are all grown up.  One was about Where The Wild Things Are's Max, which was really funny and cute and interesting (although since roaring into American culture in 1963, Max has become ubiquitous, and perhaps less shocking as a choice for a poem;).  I liked that poem, but I also really liked his poem "Harold and the Purple Crayon" which you can find here:  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/118554.  You can read the poem yourself and come up with your own conclusions; I'm not here to debate the merits of the poem, other than to say I liked this one equally well (and thought Harold as subject matter was more interesting).  But I did suddnely realize that I had never, ever actually read Harold and the Purple Crayon.  Not as a child; not as a children's librarian. I knew the story, or at least an outline of the story - boy with purple crayon draws his world.  I vaguely sort of thought it was the same as Duck Amuck, the famous Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny cartoon.  But it's absolutely not.

 That Daffy Duck cartoon was surreal; it's weird and disturbing and bizarre, and in the surprise end (SPOILER ALERT) Bugs Bunny, the trickster figure of the 20th century is God.  Conversely, in Harold, little bald headed Harold is master of his own fate.  He draws his own world; there is no trickster artist hovering over him, painting pratfalls and pitfalls.   Harold does not live in the same world as Bugs Bunny; rather, he lives in the same world as Invictus:  "I am master of my fate, I am captain of my soul." Harold creates a scary monster; he also creates friends. He creates a protector.  He creates beauty; he also creates danger.  He falls; he gets lost in the big city (how many artists have been lost in the big city, am I right?).  Following him, all along, is his first creation, the moon, a reminder of where he came from, and also there at the end when he returns home to the safety of his own bed.

Or - let's say I wanted to get really meta right here:  there is a God watching over Harold and directing his every move, and his name is Crockett Johnson; so the artist is god over his own work.; free choice doesn't really exist for Harold; his world, which is powered by illusion, is also an illusion.  Children's literature is neat.


Harold and the Purple CrayonHarold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In purple crayon, perhaps in another book, Harold writes "I am master of my fate, I am captain of my soul." Except he's not. That's an illusion. Crockett Johnson is in charge of Harold's fate. And that's art. Or religion. Or Nietzsche. Perhaps everything. And nothing.

As an intellectual exercise, it's an interesting book. As an exercise in storytelling, it's an interesting book. But as a children's book you want to read to your four year old nephew or a group of kindergartners, it is not a particularly interesting book. And who wants to discuss nihilism or art theory with your four year old nephew anyway?


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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli (2014)

The Watermelon SeedThe Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are a younger brother or sister, an older sibling - probably a brother - maybe told you if you swallowed a watermelon seed (or any other type of seed) that said seed would sprout and grow inside of you (I was the eldest brother; I'm sure some older neighbor enlightened me at some point, and then I in-turn told my younger siblings). The premise of this book is that a young crocodile loves to eat watermelon more than anything else (because: why not?), and then he (she? that is one of the many nice things about this book) swallows a seed and imagines the horrible result. I immediately went to the trickery of siblings (and older neighbors) -- although I will admit, the 70s were a different time to be a child. Terrific illustrations (watermelon colored!) accompany a short, fun to read (aloud) story; another famous seed The Carrot Seed has a similar comic/cartoonish feel; Ed Emberley sort of draws inspiration from this artist's well too.


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Monday, June 19, 2017

The Lost Child of Lychford by Paul Cornell (2016)

I had to go back and re-read some of Witches of Lychford but they are such good books that it was completely worth it.  They are so short though - truly novellas rather than novels.  But the novella format doesn't detract from the punch and beauty of these books; they are deliciously fun to read!


The Lost Child of Lychford (Lychford, #2)The Lost Child of Lychford by Paul Cornell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Paul Cornell's second venture into Lychford is as good as his first. The book is so short - it's another novella - that I'm afraid if I go to far into writing about it, I will give some important stuff away. Here's a list of important and intriguing things about the book: it's Christmas, a doppelganger (I've never encountered one in a book EVER, good job Mr. Cornell!), fairies (real fairies, not Tinkerbell), and three witches. If you've read this list and your eyes light up on each word, then this book's for you Read Witches of Lychford first; you can probably read both of them in about two hours or less. But I promise you, it will be two delightful, enchanting, gripping and wonderful hours.


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Friday, June 16, 2017

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco & Lauren Oyler (2017)

I don't like memoirs.  I can't think of one I've ever liked.  They are mostly unbelievable.  The more honest they get, the more unbelievable they are to me.

Alyssa Mastromonaco was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.  Maybe Terry Gross should have been the ghost writer.  Because the interview was far, far more interesting than the book.

Lots of things lately have made me miss the Obamas (pictures of them dancing with C3PO and R2D2; every thing His Grand Poobah of Orangeness and his Cronies and Family says and does).  This, however, was not one of them.  It's heavy on the memoir and light on the work in the White House.

Perhaps there are still too many confidential things that can't be put in the book.  Then wait.

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White HouseWho Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I will preface this with: I don't like memoirs. I really don't. I can't think of one memoir I've ever liked. If I'd known how "memoir-ish" this book was going to be, I would not have picked it up. I heard Mastromonaco talking with Terry Gross on NPR, and it was such a fascinating interview. Alas, perhaps Terry Gross should have written this book. Lots of things lately have made me miss the Obamas (pictures of POTUS and FLOTUS dancing with C3PO and R2D2; every single thing His Grand Poobah of Orangeness and his Cronies and Family says and does). This, however, was not one of them. It's heavy on the memoir and light on the work in the White House. Perhaps there is still too much classified information that can't yet be written. Then I say: wait.


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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations by Mary Beard (2013)

Mary Beard is pretty fucking amazing.  I think this book was almost completely comprised of book reviews Beard wrote of a variety of other books - books about famous Romans and ancients (Augustus, Cleopatra), or books about classicists famous in their field, or even a graphic novel (a new Asterix).

I write book reviews too.  I now know they suck.  Beard is the master of book reviewing.  She is an excellent, sharp reviewer.  Her reviews are reviews, but they are also essays, informative, full of information.  And she knows her shit, and she isn't afraid to show it. Here she is writing a review about the Cleopatra book (I think it was the new one by Stacy Schiff:  "Cleopatra was born in 69 is just one of the many examples where modern biographers cherry - pick the parts of an ancient text that suit them and turn a blind eye to those that do not."  Beard is the hole puncher, the anti-cherry picker, she never avers; she always prefaces with "I have a hunch" and "I believe" with emphasis on the I.   She is utterly charming when she does so, and eviscerates with a twinkle in her eye.  She is professionally aware of the uncertainty of history that's 2,000 or so years old, and wants us to know that too

She doesn't just peck either.  Here is another review:  "Poetry is grilled for ‘ facts ’ that it could never yield . In one horribly memorable argument he takes a fragment of an epigram by the poet / historian Florus ( ‘ I don’t want to be the emperor / Strolling about among the Britons ’ ) as evidence to support his claim that Hadrian made his first inspection of Hadrian’s Wall on foot."

"One horribly memorable argument"  This is a take down.  Not mere pecking.

I love her.

Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and InnovationsConfronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations by Mary Beard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is primarily a book of book reviews that Mary Beard has done in various publications over the years.

I also write book reviews. I now know they suck.

Mary Beard is the master of book reviews. She is sharp and clever. Her reviews do actually review books she has read, but the writings found within this book are also so much, much more than mere book reviews. They are essays; they intellectually challenge; they are treats for the mind; they are all so damn good. She knows her shit, and she expects other authors and scholars and historians to know their shit too, and when they don't seem to know their shit, she calls them out on it. She is unafraid. Beard is the hole puncher, the anti-cherry picker, she never avers; she always prefaces with "I have a hunch" and "I believe" with emphasis on the I. She is utterly charming when she does so, and eviscerates with a twinkle in her eye. She is professionally aware of the uncertainty of history that's 2,000 or so years old, and wants us to know that too.


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Julian by Gore Vidal (1962)

I was sure I had read Julian before - maybe in college?  - but this so-called reread felt like a first time.  Nothing struck me as familiar; I didn't read a single passage that stuck out.  Only the bare bones of the story was familiar.

Gore Vidal's prose is dense but enjoyable, sort of like wading waste deep in chocolate.  Not that I've ever actually pulled an Augustus Gloop and waded into any sort of chocolate river, but hopefully you get my drift. I kept wondering "why Julian the Apostate?"  He's not exactly a character from history that rolls of the tongue in a game of charades.  I suppose in Julian's time, there existed this razor thin line between the western world becoming completely Christian on one side, and Julian succeeding in bringing back the old gods on the other.  Perhaps something about the late 1950s struck the same chord in Gore Vidal.  Julian ends up being a fascinating character all the same, and the structure of the book - two unpublished memoirs of the emperor, with notes and asides by two philosophers (it makes more sense when you read it).  Did Gore Vidal do this kind of thing first?  The Autobiography of Henry VIII with notes by his Fool Will Somers by Margaret George is another example of this type of historical fiction that I have read and enjoyed in the past.

I like his fiction about the United States - Lincoln, Empire - better than Julian.  I always mean to read more Gore Vidal and yet never do.  So many books, so little time. 

JulianJulian by Gore Vidal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Exceptionally good historical fiction; Gore Vidal's fiction is dense but enjoyable, sort of like wading waste deep in chocolate (not that I've ever actually pulled an Augustus Gloop and waded into any sort of chocolate river, but hopefully you get my drift). Julian is a fascinating character and Vidal certainly writes him into reality; this isn't paper doll historical fiction. It's also a fascinating setting and time period: the transfer of power from pagans to Christians was relatively fast paced; in less than a hundred years, the Roman Empire and its dominions completely switched religions and thence power structure. There was this brief time of Julian's reign that Christians sat on the thin edge of the wedge, but his untimely death changed that (literally) over night. Setting and character are important, but in this particular novel, it's Vidal's often witty and thick prose that truly and literarily delights.


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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall (2011)

I continue to enjoy the Penderwick sisters, especially because of the narrative skills of audio reader Susan Denaker, but this was the weaker of the series so far. Three of the four sisters (plus their friend, Jeffrey Tifton, the Laurie Lawrence of this novel of sisterhood) head to Maine for a seaside vacation, but the promise of ocean adventure never materializes.  I suppose what makes the Penderwicks so charming is their series of insignificant perils, small accidents, and comedies of errors, but with a seaside setting, I was expecting more seaside circumstances.   Birdsall made different writing choices, and I won't fault her for that; the story is still charming, if a bit soap opera-ish towards the end.


The Penderwicks at Point MouetteThe Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Penderwicks under Birdsall's obviously loving pen are still the modern Marches; while never exactly paralleling those famous sisters, Jo and Co. are like the Penderwick sisters Roman lares. But this go round, the magic was just a bit faded. Like wearing a comfortable but worn part of blue jeans, you will enjoy the story, but it won't be as new and exciting as the first time you met them. The seaside setting is almost never used, and while I suppose the joy of the Penderwicks is their penchant for getting into small accidents and insignificant perils, and always experiencing the comedy of errors that is the life that precocious and smart young people of books inhabit, I was expecting more oceanic adventures that never materialized. The soap opera ending wasn't my favorite either. But definitely worth a listen (Susan Denaker as narrator is still ice cream), although not quite as good as the first two outings.


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Sunday, May 28, 2017

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015)

We recently discovered Mary Beard's most excellent documentaries on You Tube (pirated, I fear); there weren't very many of them (one about Rome itself, one about the Empire, one about Pompeii, and one about Caligula) and we quickly devoured them.  She's truly magnificent; interesting, passionate, earthy, a touch of Magna Mater about her.  I bet her classes are a hoot.

Discovering Mary Beard fit in nicely with my personal quest to read Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization book by book, interspersed with modern books about the same time period, plus a biography and fiction book to top them off.  My journey through Greece was, mostly uneventful; I feel like I learned quite a bit, but I didn't  discover any new authors.  Caesar and Christ , though, led to Mary Beard, and I'm quite giddy.  She's as strong a writer as she is a television presenter.


She's a revisionist, and she's always questioning what we believe to be true about the Romans, and whether that can all be proved or not.  I loved this about her book.  I also loved the fact that she points out many times that the ancient historians did exactly the same thing.  Livy and others were always questioning the origin stories of Rome, trying to poke holes in sacred balloons, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  But they were not just storytellers or gatherers of facts, or propagandists.  That was something I did not know.


She obviously has a tremendously good sense of humor, and that showed through her writing, such as here, when she is writing about "Boudicca, or Buduica (we do not know exactly how to spell the name, but neither, presumably, did she)."  That clever little aside made me so happy.


Her prologue talks about us "engaging" with the Romans rather than "learning" from them, which I thought was cool; "to learn" is far more passive than engaging, becoming involved in the lives of the Romans.


A small shiver went through me when I read this:  "The month Sextilis, next to Julius Caesar's July, should be named August -- and so Augustus became part of the regular passage of time, as he remains." The Romans are still with us; in major ways.  We still worship the Caesars, whether we want to or not.  I wonder why this wasn't ever changed?  It seems very blasphemous.


The Durants are not dry; neither is Mary Beard, but their styles are definitely different.  The Durants have a more romantic style, flowery without being purple (well... maybe occasionally purple).   Mary Beard definitely is never purple.  The Durants are champagne; Mary Beard is a really, really good beer.



SPQR: A History of Ancient RomeSPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An exceptional book of history. Mary Beard brings back the Romans from the land of the dead and bored they inhabit in various textbooks and curriculum-driven classroom activities. As she so eloquently writes in her epilogue, the study of the "first millennial Romans" have consumed 50 or so years of her life; you can tell from her passionate and loving writing Rome and all her characters aren't merely marble statues to her, but actual people inhabiting actual places, having lived real lives. She wants us to engage with the Romans as she has engaged with them for so many years, and because of her strong writing, we certainly do are able to do so. She is a revisionist in all the best ways (and points out numerous times how Livy and other ancient historians also questioned their own origin stories and propaganda-as-history). Beard isn't some reverent solemn don either; her book is injected with witty humor. I was never bored; once I started reading this, I never wanted to read anything else; and I never wanted it to end.


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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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