Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria's Youngest Daughter by Matthew Dennison

I tried to read The Last Princess: The Devoted Life of Queen Victoria's Youngest Daughter by Matthew Dennison. BIG YAWN. I guess when you try to write a biography who essentially accomplished nothing useful or interesting but tending to the needs of one of history's neediest and most self absorbed mothers, then the biography itself is going to be pretty non-useful and uninteresting. The first fourth of the book - that's all I could stomach reading, people -- was completely devoted to Princess Beatrice's childhood - and unless you are a kid, reading about the lives of kids is particularly unenthralling. It appears as if this is Dennison's first book and it is kind of like a scarecrow: bits and pieces gleaned from here and there, but without any blood or meat -- or brains. If a writer of nonfiction has a boring subject, is he doomed to write a boring book? Certainly I think that if not much is known about your subject, and much is known about the cast of characters who interact with your subject, the danger (which I think is clearly illustrated here) is that the cast of characters overshadows who you are writing about. Mother, father, brother and sisters - even servants - are far more entertaining subjects than Princess B. Another, about Roman Empress Livia, appears to be coming out in April 2010 (perhaps he has written some English books I can't find on Let's hope, unlike Princess B., that Livia has some guts to it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Random House, 2005)

Ugh, Snow Flower is one sad damn book. Madam Lu, Lily, is a completely unreliable narrator too. She leads you to believe several things about herself and Snow Flower that just aren't true. She ends up being the bitch, even though she spent most of the book making Snow Flower out to be the hateful one (she does redeem herself at the end and set the record straight).

I'm glad there wasn't some sort of super hero ending either. Life was brutal and awful for Chinese women at that time period, and Lisa See didn't try to make the women's lives seem to be more or less than they were.

I was sobbing outloud when Lily is reunited with her husband - I'm such a big baby. But then later, when you find out the truth about everything, I felt kind of manipulated.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Random House, 2005)

I am reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Random House, 2005).

Madame Lu, the narrator, has just found out her best friend and "same", Snow Flower, has been living a fear-ridden, poverty scarred life; Snow Flower has lied to her friend for years. Snow Flower's family is starving, and Madame Lu describes Snow Flower's genteel mother's first real meal in a long time:

"She had been raised to be a fine lady and, as hungry as she was, she did not tear into the food as someone in my family might. She used her chopsticks to pull apart slivers of the pork and lift them delicately to her lips. Her restraint and control taught me a lesson I have not strayed from to this day. You may be desperate, but never let anyone see you as anything less than a cultivated woman." (italics mine)

Restraint and control through desperation. Never let them see you sweat.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede (Scholastic, 2009)

I tried to read Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede (Scholastic, 2009) but failed. Whatever happened to the Patricia C. Wrede I loved in The Sorcery and Cecelia? Perhaps it's all Caroline Stevermer. I understand and applaud what Wrede was trying to do here - an alternative magical world set in the American frontier - I usually LOVE this kind of stuff. But in addition to a great idea, you have to have a plot and interesting characters, and this book just didn't seem to want to go anywhere. A great and grave disappointment.

Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn by William Mann (Henry Holt, 2006).

Katharine Hepburn the book is great.. but Katharine Hepburn the actress gets a Bronx cheer from me. Wow, what an insufferably self absorbed, mean spirited, ugly person William Mann paints in Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn (Henry Holt, 2006). I'm not exactly sure this was Mann's intention (whatever did Kate Hepburn do to you Mr. Mann?) but that's certainly the impression I took away from the book. That, and also how Katharine Hepburn was a typical actor (how many synonyms for self absorbed can I come up with: egocentric, egomaniacal, narcissistic, pompous... you get the drift).

Katharine Hepburn was only a good actress when she was playing herself. That was another truism of the book. Can someone be called a great actress when the only roles they ever play are themselves (both on and off screen).

A great biography though. The frank explorations of Hepburn's sexuality were really interesting, and Mann does an excellent job of illustrating what is was like to be gay or lesbian in Hollywood in the 1930's. Certainly, it affected who Hepburn was in public, but she definitely lived her life regardless.

Spencer Tracy was gay?! That was kind of a revelation.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

I stopped everything to read Game Change (it was due back at the library), and boy was it an exhilerating ride. Thank god John McCain did not win - he's a doddering old douchebag without a clue on anything BUT foreign policy. I was reminded again why we voted for Barack Obama and wanted him to win. I felt a little bit sorry for Hilary Clinton (just a little bit, not too much), a little bit sorry for Sarah Palin (she was definitely in over her head and very poorly served by the McCain people, although I can't imagine she's electable after reading about her foibles and complete lack of knowledge), and not at all sorry for the Edwards (they are definitely pieces of work and completely from fantasy land). Obama isn't perfect, but I think he comes across as well meaning, not particularly likable, but honest. I had forgot that there was a time, not long ago, when Michelle Obama was unpopular (that probably will never happen again, although you never know).

Friday, February 5, 2010

Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

I am reading Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the scandalous book of the past month.

Just a few items of note:

The Clintons certainly love their daughter, and continually strive to protect her from the harsh world of modern politics. One of the main reasons Hilary waffled on running is what is would do to her daughter's privacy. Granted, I'm not even a fourth of the way through the book. Perhaps they turn on her later. But I don't think so.

Also, that whole uproar about poor, stupid, bumbling Harry Reid calling Obama "a light skinned negro" seemed to be a tempest in a teapot. I think if Reid had said something like "Snoop Dog can not be president" no one would have said a damn thing. But he used some very old fashioned language (the man is in his sixties, and Negro was certainly a more progressive term than other words he probably heard to describe African Americans in his childhood), and that got him in trouble. And , like poor Alice in Wonderland, once you say something, you can't take it back.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander (1965)

I read The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander. I read it aloud today to a group of youth (it worked MUCH better than last week's Sword in the Stone).

I don't actually remember when I first read The Black Cauldron. I know I first owned this and The Castle of Llyr and for several years, this is all I knew of Prydain was these two books. Later, I bought three in the series on a family vacation to Colorado. Buried back in the depths of my mind are memories of the utter amazement and excitement when I found them in a spinning rack of a truck stop? (Certainly not a bookstore, as my parents would probably not have stopped at one.) I was starved for books - by this point having devoured and re-devoured everything I wanted to read in the small town of Wilson, KS, every time we left I took every chance I could to buy new books. Even later, I discovered The Foundling and Other Tales which filled in some gaps.

After reading The Black Cauldron so many times (more than any of the others in the series), and then reading the other books so many times as well, the characters no longer seem fictional to me. They seem real. I've never seen the movie version of The Black Cauldron, so the people I see in my head are still the same thirty years later. Taran, gawky and blonde, with a bad bowl haircut, eager. I never identified as much with Taran, but I always felt for him. Princess Eilonwy, strawberry blonde hair, holding her bauble, always in a Disney-esque peasant dress of varying shades of grey and blue (occasionally dark green). She was always my favorite character because she always always had the best lines, witty and sarcastic. I remember in Castle of Llyr hating the fact that Eilonwy didn't appear in most of the book, and when she finally re-appeared, she wasn't herself and didn't say anything funny (she was under a spell). Some of my sense of humor and turns of phrase may perhaps be based on those of Princess Eilonwy. Fflewddur Fflam - looks like Ichabod Crane. To this day, I have no idea what a bard's harp even looks like, but in my mind it looks like a lyre. Maybe it is. Gurgi is a hairy blob of grey with leaves sticking to the hair, and a big nose sticking out. Maybe a little bit like Captain Caveman. Whenever I imagined Aunt Beast from A Wrinkle in Time, I assumed that she came from the same family of strange fantasy beings as Gurgi. And good old Doli - both like and unlike all the dwarves of Tolkien and Lewis. Orwen, Orddu and Orgoch always fascinated me. Now that I know what I know, I know that they represent the Norns or the Fates. They also are reminiscent of the Witches of Macbeth. What they always look like in my head is what they looked like on the cover of the paperback edition I owned (see above). The Ness cover (see above) though is simple gorgeous - I would love to own that book cover as a piece of art.

These characters are like old friends. I can and have said the same thing about many books (and television characters and movies too). But there was a time when Taran and company felt like my only friends, when Prydain was one of those few fantasy worlds (like Narnia, or Pern, or Middle Earth) where I could enter and get lost and not have to really think about the world for a while. I could go on an adventure again and again with a group of plucky and interesting people, and always learn something valuable along the way. People are not always as they seem (Elidyr, King Morgaunt). Girls are different from boys, but are just as capable. Knowledge is power. Forgiving your enemies is a good thing. Sometimes we have to sacrifice things we love for something bigger than ourselves. Bragging and fighting lead to nothing good. The possibilities of learning something from Taran and Co. were endless. But the morals and platitudes and learning lessons were always subtle, never pounded into your head, and the story and excitement and adventure was always the main point. Which, to me, is what a good book should always be.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

I read The Color Purple by Alice Walker, which I first read, I don't know, 20-some years ago. I probably read it because of my love for the movie. The two are really almost synonymous in my mind now - all the characters in the book talk and walk and look like the actors from the film version in my head. The movie - as all movies are - is really a boiled down version of the book, far simpler. But the book was surprisingly early in the redemption of Albert, a fact I don't think I had ever noticed before. So I guess with each re-reading you learn something new, particularly after so long.

I have to admit with this go-round, I wasn't as in love with book as my twenty-something year old self. The lack of punctuation and the southern black dialect both seemed distracting and, well, a bit pretentious - is there a REASON for it that I too stupid to understand? (the black dialect I understand at least a little bit better than the punctuation).

Still, the wonderful lines about God being pissed off if you pass by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it (this quote is an amalgamation between movie and book, I'm sure) still resonated with me. I remember finding it profound before ("Celie is the color purple - we're surrounded by the color purple --open your goddamn eyes and appreciate what god has created around you") and still find the sentiment beautiful, and particularly needed in a crazy busy world.

Plus, any book that has me weeping at the end has my seal of approval. Amen.

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