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.


View all my reviews



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.


View all my reviews

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.


View all my reviews

Sunday Sketching by Christoph Niemann (2016)

Books entertain me, keep me from feeling bored, they educate me, but they don't always inspire me.  Christoph Niemann's book Sunday Sketching inspired.  I first encountered Niemann in the Netflix documentary Abstract: The Art of Design.  I fell in love with Neimann's work, aesthetic and philosophy there, and ended up following his Instagram.  When I discovered he had published a book, I could not resist.  I first thought it was just going to be a retread of his Instagram, but instead its an artbook crossed with a biography crossed with a manifesto on how to be an artist - actually, not how to BE an artist, but how to thrive as a person who creates.  I'm someone who dabbles in writing, art and music.  I'm hardly an artist.  Christoph Niemann is An Artist.  But he has great advice for us all, regardless of our artistic abilities.  For he is plagued by what plagues us all whenever we want to create, which he has broken down into "three grand themes" : 1. I'm not good enough.  2.  My work is irrelevant and soon I'll be broke.  3.  I'm out of ideas.  He then goes on to explore each of these themes through a bit of (dare I say) inspirational writing, and a lot of really quirky, vivid, and mind blowing art.  A jealous person (certainly never me) may look at Niemann and think "he has everything: New Yorker covers galore, he's in demand as a commercial artist, he lived in New York City and now lives in Berlin, he's doing exactly what he wants with this life.  But Sunday Sketching is his raw truth and proof that everything takes hard work, and everyone has buckets of self doubt about their work and place.  We are only as successful as our brains allow us to be on given day.

A terrific book for artists, but I think the non-artist, and certainly art appreciators, can glean much from this book.


Sunday SketchingSunday Sketching by Christoph Niemann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Christoph Niemann was featured on a Netflix documentary called Abstract: The Art of Design, which is where I fell in love with his work and philosophy. If you are literate, you've probably run across his work; he's illustrated many New Yorker covers; you may not read the New Yorker, but you might recognize some of them, as they have become somewhat iconic. The documentary was good; his book is great. It's partly a coffee table art book of his quirky, vivid, and mind blowing art work (some of which appeared on his rad Instagram), but this book is also a biography of his life, and manifesto on how to be an artist - no, not to "be" and artist, but how to survive and maybe even thrive as someone who creates. He divides his journey into what he calls "three grand themes" : 1. I'm not good enough. 2. My work is irrelevant and soon I'll be broke. 3. I'm out of ideas. He then goes on to explore each of these through stories of his life and much extraordinary art. If you only look at the illustrations and skip the text, you are still in for a treat. But be sure and read the book too. I think you will come away inspired; he has much to say to artists, but also much to say to art appreciators and non-artists as well.


View all my reviews

A Passion for Life: The Biography of Elizabeth Taylor by Donald Spoto; read by C.M. Herbert (1995)

I just finished listening to a biography of Elizabeth Taylor, that arch serial monogamist, the most beautiful woman in the world at one time, the most scandalous woman in the world on several other times, and always a fascinating read.  Now, one of my favorite podcasts, if not my favorite, is You Must Remember This, which, in its own words, is "a storytelling podcast about the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood's first century" a "heavily researched work of creative nonfiction."  It's amazing.  Karina Longworth, the host, narrates/storytells each episode, occasionally with other actors playing the parts of various celebrities, but most often, it's just her.  And she is also amazing.

Donald Spoto's A Passion for Life: The Biography of Elizabeth Taylor is most definitely NOT creative nonfiction.  At first I wanted to describe Spoto's biography as antiseptic, but rather, it's manicured, like a Beverly Hills garden. His writing is as clipped and shaped as topiary.   Spoto psychoanalyzes Elizabeth (never, ever Liz) Taylor to her small toe and back again (according to him, ad nauseum, she had daddy issues).  He many times compares her and her many loves to various characters in mythology.  Elizabeth Taylor is an over the top, lust  for life character; she lived big, worked big, ate big, drank big, married big, divorced big, acted big, swore big, was big.  Spoto's book never quite catches that passion; he tries to box her in too much.  A far better biography is William J. Mann's How To Be A Movie Star   (one of the first books I wrote about here) if you plan on READING about Elizabeth Taylor, start there.  

But lets say you are in between seasons for You Must Remember This, and you are hungry for old movie star glamor, then Spoto's book as narrated by C.M. Herbert is pretty good.  I don't know who she is or how she does it, but she sounds JUST LIKE ELIZABETH TAYLOR (not so much like Richard Burton, though).  Spoto's precise writing was actually a perfect match for Herbert's Elizabeth impersonation.  You may call bullshit on the daddy issues (among other things) but you won't call bullshit on Herbert's narration.  She's superb.

Will there EVER be a start like Elizabeth Taylor ever again?  I doubt it.


A Passion for Life: The Biography of Elizabeth TaylorA Passion for Life: The Biography of Elizabeth Taylor by Donald Spoto
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are better biographies of Elizabeth Taylor, that arch serial monogamist famed for being at one time the most beautiful in the world, and also the most scandalous woman in the world, and mostly at the same time. How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood comes to mind. If you want read a book, check this one out. Spato's book is as manicured as a Beverly Hills garden and his writing is as clipped as the finest topiary. But that weighs against the book at times; Elizabeth Taylor is an over the top, lust for life character; she lived big, worked big, ate big, drank big, married big, divorced big, acted big, swore big, was big. Spato's book is anything but. HOWEVER, if you are inbetween seasons on You Must Remember This, the podcast that explores "the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood's first century" (if you are reading a movie star biography and haven't yet listened to Karina Longworth's glamorous and fabulous podcast, you need to go download and listen NOW), then LISTEN to C.M. Herbert read this book. She's incredible, mostly because SHE SOUNDS JUST LIKE ELIZABETH TAYLOR (Richard Burton, not so much). I was hooked into this audio within a few minutes, and love almost every single minute of it. Herbert's rich narration more than makes up for Spato's psychoanalyzing (and sometimes bullshit).


View all my reviews

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Wish, Come True by Mary Q. Steele (1979)

About six months ago, I re-read The Magic Grandfather by Jay Williams (who, incidentally, wrote the first "hard" book I can remember reading by myself, The King With Six Friends).  It was one of those Weekly Reader paperbacks I ordered in fourth or fifth grade, about a schlubby grandson who discovers his grandfather is a wizard, and then a mostly forgettable, bland story ensues.  I suppose I liked the book in fifth grade, because I have warm memories of reading it - but we also didn't have Harry Potter back in the day.  And you can only re-read Narnia so many times.  When I re-read it, I wasn't impressed (certainly not as impressed as I continue to be by The King With Six Friends).  

Wish, Come True by Mary Q. Steele is also a Weekly Reader paperback I ordered in fourth or fifth grade.  I also remembered this book fondly.  And unlike The Magic Grandfather, I actually enjoyed this re-read.  Wish, Come True is a better book all around.  It's not Harry Potter either; I guess we didn't want to read epics back in fourth grade.  It should be longer.  It's derivative of E. Nesbit and Edward Eager too (Nesbit is far superior to both).  But it was still cute.  Meg is an interesting character, and today she'd be part of a longer series of adventures, four books at least.   She's the younger sister, but she's also the more strong-willed leader of the two, which is unusual in children's literature.

Wish, Come TrueWish, Come True by Mary Q. Steele
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This vintage children's fantasy from 1979 is still an enjoyable read after all these years. it's certainly no Harry Potter, but it is has some sharp humor. Meg, the younger sister, leads her slightly older brother on their magical adventures, which is unusual in children's literature (it seems that older siblings are always the leaders in some way, especially male older siblings). The book could be longer (it would be longer if written today, and also part of a never ending series), and the modern young reader is going to be left longing for more adventures that never come. You could lead that young readers who want more to E. Nesbit, as Wish Come True is derivative of Nesbit's Five Children and It, or Edward Eager, Nesbit's American knock-off. But it holds up really well; other than the children walking by themselves to a nearby park in a big city (I can't see that happening now), I don't think anything really sticks out as 1979 (except maybe the illustrations?). 



View all my reviews

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Life on Mars by Jon Agee (2017)

I was already digging this picture book, and then along came this illustration towards the end.

First of all, the look on that monster's face, a sort of disdainful side-eyish look of pure puzzlement mixed with "what kind of fuckery is this."

Then those arms (or whatever appendages Martians have) akimbo, which adds to the whole attitude of perplexity and batshittery.

I love this monster.

I loved this book.  Boring picture books are legion.  Nestled among them are gems like this.  It's a science fiction picture book, which makes it all the more kick ass.


Life on MarsLife on Mars by Jon Agee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The world library is filled to the brim with berenstainy picture books. This, my friends, isn't one of those books. I loved this book. Boring picture books are legion. Nestled among the boring books are little gems like this. It's a science fiction picture book, which makes it all the more kick ass. Plus it has this magnificent Martian monster with a constant stream of "what kind of fuckery IS this" facial expressions that left me gleeful and grinning.


View all my reviews



Tuesday, August 29, 2017

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith; narrated by Emelia Fox (1949, 2010)

I Capture the Castle is a sort of cult classic by the author of (the far-more famous) The Hundred and One Dalmatians.  If you've read and loved Dalmatians, you probably are not going to like Castle.  Although both are very English, there are no talking dogs, and especially no Cruella deVil, although I'm pretty sure some of the characters would wear Cruella's infamous absolutely simple white mink coat, and maybe even drive a car with the "loudest horn in London."  That is the kind of detail that the two books certainly share in common.  Castle reminded me of The Princess Diaries (the charming book, not the dreary treacly Anne Hathaway movie of long ago) in tone, and also sometimes of Nancy Mitford in tone too, although Castle was never as enjoyable as either of those.   What is it about this book that makes it so popular?  The audio by Emelia Fox, who sounds like she looks like the young contralto voiced stepmother of the two sisters in Castle, was the only reason I kept at this book; I think if I'd been reading it, I would have give it up.

I Capture the CastleI Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Emelia Fox was the narrator of this audio book, and I think she sounds like she looks like Topaz, the very young contralto voiced stepmother of the two sisters in the book. I think Fox is probably the only reason I kept going; her storyteller's voice is voluptuously perfect. If I'd been reading this, I think it likely I would have given up about half way through. If you have read and loved The 101 Dalmatians, I'm not sure you are going to like this one - although who I am to judge what you will like? You may love Castle. I, however, did not. There are no talking dogs, and certainly no Cruella deVil. There are some tonal similarities between Smith's description of the Dalmations' DeVils and Dearlys and the characters in Castle (for example, Cruella always wears her absolutely simple white mink coat, which is something I could see several characters in Castle wearing), Bright Young Things for children (or teens). Tonally as well, Castle reminded me most of The Princess Diaries (the charming book not the dreary movie), and maybe a little bit of Nancy Mitford only never, ever as bitchy. But I just wanted Castle to be far more humorous than it ended up being. I guess the book is witty - but it always felt like the book KNEW that it was being witty, and it felt forced at times.


View all my reviews

Monday, August 21, 2017

PIcture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang (1991, 2016)

 I love art.  I'm in a foursome (I'm a very modern guy) with literature, visual art and music.  Literature is my true love, but I have to say, without art, I may have ended up on the trash heap in high school.  It was art that saved my life, made me feel whole and alive and accomplished and talented and special (I had a tremendously good art teacher, the same brilliant woman from second through twelfth grade).  I toyed around with being an art major for my first semester of community college. Although I also studied music in elementary and junior high school, I have a different kind of relationship with music than I do with art and literature.  I still love all three.

But I'm also really bad at all three.

I feel like I know next to nothing about literary criticism.  I can't originally think my way out of a wet paper bag when it comes to deep reading a book.  I like read.  I like reading what other people have written about what I have liked reading.  Outside of this blog, I do not write about what I read.  This blog is not literary criticism.

I know more about music, because I have sung in a choir for about five years.  Much of what I learned about music during elementary and junior high school was tucked back in the far reaches of my pointed little head, just waiting to come out.  Some of it did.  A lot of it didn't.   I still need plenty of help with music.

I know nothing about art.  I shouldn't be so emphatic; I do know some things, because i had that kick ass heroine of an art teacher.  But whenever I look at a painting or an illustration, I can tell you if I like it or not, but really, that's it.

This book, Picture This was amazing.  Because it tries - and I think succeeds- in teaching you how to look at a painting or picture, and really understanding what it going on.  Not necessarily the intention of the painter or illustrator - although that is still certainly true - but also why, when you look at a painting, certain things going on in the painting make you feel and react the way you do.

I would need to re-read this book several times for all that Molly Bang is trying to say to sink in to my thick skull.  But I still really enjoyed this.  More than enjoyed - it's a valuable book that can satisfy intellectual hunger.

Picture This: How Pictures WorkPicture This: How Pictures Work by Molly Bang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are wonderful books, and lovely books, and delightful books. There are also valuable books that satisfy intellectual cravings and hunger. Molly Bang's Picture This falls into that valuable category. I can admit that I know next to nothing about art and illustration; now I know a bit more. The book is really amazing because Bang tries - and I think succeeds- in teaching you how to look at a painting or picture, and really understanding what it going on. Not necessarily the intention of the painter or illustrator - although that is still certainly true - but also why, when you look at a painting, certain things going on in the painting make you feel and react the way you do. Bang does this cleverly and in such a way that you get it; she's never talking down, nor does she ever dumb anything down. A remarkable book!


View all my reviews



I Am Radar by Reif Larsen (2014)

What the hell just happened?  Where is the rest of the book? Mr. Larsen, you can't just end a book that way.  But I guess you can, because you just did.   Author's prerogative and all that.  But I don't have to appreciate it.

Lovely writing - Larsen's pen is damn good -  but so frustratingly meandering; the book winds here there and everywhere.   I don't feel like we stuck with any one character long enough to really get to know him or her.  That's a big complaint for a character-driven book.  The plot is way out there, so far out beyond Pluto that it's barely a plot.

The good fairies of genre kissed this book lightly upon the forehead, so sometimes the book feels like science fiction, other times fantasy (or magical realism); sometimes historical fiction roars through.  The princess (prince?) is named Literary Fiction.

I certainly don't hate this book (full disclosure though:  I HAD to finish it, because it's my book club book, otherwise, I dunno), but I'm certainly not in love with book either.  Still, I'd probably recommend it to Friends because hey - if I have to suffer that ending, I shouldn't have to suffer alone.

I Am RadarI Am Radar by Reif Larsen


The pen of Reif Larsen produced some damn fine writing here; this is enviable craftsmanship.

Also, the good fairies of genre one by one visited this piece of literary fiction and bestowed it with their gifts - a kiss from science fiction, a light kiss from fantasy (or magical realism), a big smack from historical fiction. And the bad fairy who wasn't invited to the christening gave it the curse of a ...

SPOILER


*
*
*
*
*
*
*

. . . truly "what-the-hell-just-happened" kind of ending. Where is the rest of the book? Mr. Larsen, you can't just end a book that way. But I guess you can, because you just did. Author's prerogative and all that. But I don't have to appreciate it.

I certainly don't hate this book (full disclosure though: I HAD to finish it, because it's my book club book, otherwise, I dunno), but I'm certainly not in love with book either. Still, I'd probably recommend it to Friends because hey - if I have to suffer that ending, I shouldn't have to suffer alone.


View all my reviews


Monday, August 7, 2017

The Best of Poetry: Thoughts that Breathe and Words that Burn (In Two Hundred Poems) compiled by Rudolph Amsel and Teresa Keyne (2014)

The Best of Poetry: Thoughts that Breathe and Words that Burn (In Two Hundred Poems)The Best of Poetry: Thoughts that Breathe and Words that Burn by Rudolph Amsel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are so many incredible poems gathered here. I discovered some new poems and poets (Charlotte Mew's The Call has stuck in my mind ever since I read it) and re-discovered some old favorites (John Donne, Wordsworth). My mother-in-law kept a button jar. She's had to move into a care home, and we found the jar when we were cleaning out her house. The button jar was full of old buttons, new buttons, strangely shaped buttons, buttons of all colors, shapes and sizes, fantasy button, plain old buttons. That's how I would describe this anthology: it's like a button jar. Not every button in the button jar was beautiful; not every poem in here was meaningful to me right now. Like those buttons, I may appreciate even the non-beautiful poem at some future point in my life. That what makes poetry so cool.


View all my reviews


Friday, August 4, 2017

Chesapeake by James A. Michener (1978)

At one point, a character towards the end of Chesapeake says "Oh Jesus... What a bad bargain we've made here."  That seems to be an underlying theme of much of James A Michener's work.  I've read quite a lot of Michener over the years:  Centennial, The Source, Hawaii, Tales of the South Pacific, Poland, The Covenant.  I've read all of these numerous times.  Texas, Alaska, Caribbean, Mexico I read at last once.  I had never read Chesapeake before this.  Actually, I had deja vu during some chapters, which made me think I'd read at least some of it (maybe condensed?  Both sets of grandparents had Reader's Digest Condensed Books which I would read at their house when I was out of my own stuff to read).  Nothing stuck though, so I'm going to count this as never read.

Note:  there is a book by Michener published in in 1979 called The Waterman and I bet I read this:  it's a condensed version of Chesapeake.  Not having it in front of me, I'm going to hazard that it includes the historical chapters but leaves out the last few chapters about Watergate, which to me were this combination of compelling and weak.  Strange combo, I know, but that's how I felt.

Chesapeake reminded me much of Hawaii and especially Centennial.  Both Chesapeake and Centennial had similar pacing and characters.  Both had an ending with a theme of environmental uncertainly and a clash between protectors of the environment and exploiters of the environment.  Michener books always have weird endings; I think that's because there isn't an  end to history, so Michener has to create some sort of end, and sometimes that end feels forced or false.  Chesapeake in particular has a false feeling ending; the descendants are all grappling with Watergate  and the environmental impact humankind was having on the Chesapeake Bay.  (The prior chapters were about the race riots of the late 1960s; that felt slightly less forced).  Here is what I mean about ringing false:  by the time the novel ends, three of the families have lived in the area since the times of Jamestown - and know intimate details about the life and times of their ancestors.  That makes for a great compare and contrast sort of ending, but I don't think it's really believable.  I don't know, maybe it is true: maybe the same families have lived in Maryland for five hundred years, and the current lot know all sorts of tales of their far flung ancestors.  But I'd like some proof.


ChesapeakeChesapeake by James A. Michener
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At one point, a character towards the end of Chesapeake says "Oh Jesus... What a bad bargain we've made here." That seems to be an underlying theme of much of James A Michener's work. The last chapter in a Michener book, Chesapeake is no exception, is some sort of clash of descendants that has been building up since the first chapter (in some cases, since the earth began): in Poland, it's the clash between the Poles and the Russians; in The Covenant it's the clash between defenders of apartheid and the heroes who fought against it. Chesapeake and Centennial have very similar clashes, protectors of the environment and exploiters of the environment (among others: in Chesapeake, Watergate is almost a character in this last chapter, which is strangely compelling and also weirdly told; I guess in 1978 Watergate was fresh in everyone's mind, and even Michener was writing about it). He is always bringing all of these disparate forces and folks he's loving detailed for 1,000 pages together in these last pages for some sort of Michnerian götterdämmerung - although the world never completely burns down. He has to end the books somehow, because history doesn't end.


View all my reviews

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt (2003)

Writing about people that have been dead for 2,060 years and making them inhale and exhale is tough work.   Probably the person we know the most about is Cicero, because he was not only a prolific writer, but (like modern politicians often are) a relentless self promoter who made sure every little thing he ever wrote was published for the world (at least the literate Latin-speaking world) to read.  But even a book about Cicero is padded with anecdotes and biographical information about the cast of characters who were players on the same stage as he - Caesar, Pompey, Clodius Pulcher, Catalina.  I guess they constitute the "times" of the title.  Not that I'm complaining - this group of men (and, even what little we know of them, women - Cleopatra, Fulvia) have come down through the annals of history as one of the most fascinating groups of political cutthroats in the history of the entire world.  Caesar and Cicero would run circles around Grand Poohbah of Orange and his court of flunkies.

Everitt certainly has a way of making each and every one of them sound like they could be currently serving in Congress; as if he were writing a modern piece of long form journalism on the Speaker of the House.

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest PoliticianCicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Everitt has great source material which he uses to his advantage: Cicero, like most politicians was a relentless self-promoter, and also a prolific writer. Most of what Cicero wrote was published in his lifetime or just afterwards; and has basically been in print ever since. (Everitt should light a candle of thanks and gratitude to all those nameless medieval monks.) He is able to weave this source material into nonfiction that is both informative and interesting. Of course, this group of men (and, even what little we know of them, women – such as Cleopatra or the fighting Fulvia) have come down through the annals of history as one of the most fascinating groups of political cutthroats in the history of the entire world. Everitt takes a 2,100 year old political saga and makes it seem quite modern. Caesar and Cicero could almost be in the halls of the United States Congress.


View all my reviews


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.


View all my reviews



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.


View all my reviews

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?


View all my reviews


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.


View all my reviews


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.


View all my reviews

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.


View all my reviews

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.


View all my reviews




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.


View all my reviews



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.


View all my reviews

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.


View all my reviews




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.


View all my reviews

Blog Archive

Followers