Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)

Over on Tor.com, they are doing a re-read of The Hobbit; here is one of the interesting comments (among many interesting comments) that I wanted to save:

One thing that I recently realized about The Hobbit is that as the characters go further and further east, they're journeying back in time– not in a wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey sense, but in a literary sense. 

I mean, think about it. When we start The Hobbit, we're very comfortably located in Edwardian children's literature (I don't know if Tolkien was influenced by it at all, but the initial descriptions of Bag End are so incredibly Wind-in-the-Willows). As the dwarves keep moving east, they start encountering earlier forms of storytelling: the chapters with the goblins are incredibly George MacDonald. Beorn is a little problematic in this schema, but I feel that he works well as a fairy-tale character of the kind that Perrault or the Grimms would have written about, especially with his house all alone in the middle of the woods. (There's a touch of Robert Southey there, too, with the house in the middle of the woods actually being inhabited by bears– or one bear, of a sort.)

When we get to the scenes in Mirkwood, we've reached medieval romance, of the mortals-meeting-the-fairies kind such as Tam Lin or Thomas the Rhymer. And by the time we've reached the Lonely Mountain, we're firmly in the territory of the ancient Anglo-Saxon and Norse legends. (When Bilbo steals the cup from Smaug's hoard, causing Smaug to go into an unspeakable rage, it's a direct lift from Beowulf, and the scene where Bilbo enters Smaug's chamber and has a long conversation with him has unmistakeable echoes of the legend of Sigurn and Fafnir.) 

It's incredibly interesting how Bilbo's story isn't just a journey in space, but in time, all the way through the history of English and Western European fantastic literature. Or at least, I thought it was cool.

(I want to give credit where credit is due - http://www.tor.com/community/users/IanPJohnson - wrote this post. I just copied and pasted it because I thought it was cool and wanted to keep it handy; like putting it on a post it).

Saturday, November 24, 2012

American's First Families by Carl Sferrazza Anthony (2000)

In the chapter about health and wellness, Anthony tells about Eleanor Roosevelt's daily horse ride at 7 a.m.  I had this thought.  120 years ago, only rich people had  both horses cars; everyone else had just horses.  Now, only rich people have horses.

I finished this book, but I have to admit - I scanned some of it.  That wasn't too much of a problem, because essentially the book was like bags of buttons that were the same color but different styles.  Little tidbits in each chapter based around a theme, very, very loosely connected.  I don't think Carl Anthony used a single transition - perhaps he cut them to make the book shorter.  Many paragraphs were sentences about different presidents and what they have done, strung together, without anything connecting them saving the overarching theme of each chapter.

I'm sure I learned some new things, and I know I saw some new photographs - quite a few were previously unpublished.  The photos were excellent too.  I wish I had been Nancy Reagan and Betsy Bloomingdale's hair stylist.

The entire book was the near side of "meh."  Not bad, but certainly not life changing.  Trivia, a good way to pass the time between good books.

America's First Families: An Inside View of 200 Years of Private Life in the White HouseAmerica's First Families: An Inside View of 200 Years of Private Life in the White House by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not brilliantly written, not going to change your life, but a great way to pass the time between books you actually care about.

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart D. Ehrman (2012)

Did Jesus Exist is a a polemic against a group of scholars (although Ehrman deftly  picks apart their claims to even call themselves that) called mythicists who insist that Jesus never actually existed.  It would probably have helped if I'd been familiar with their arguments from their points of view, although Erhman  does explain in detail what they actually believe and why, before annihilating their theories one by one.  What's interesting about Erhman is that he's a very well known Biblical scholar and Jesus expert (or so he says) and kind of infamous as well, because he's also an agnostic who teaches in the south.  This book exists as kind of a duck hunt, in which Erhman takes careful aim at each and every mythicist claim and carefully shoots each one out of the sky. His guns are logic and history.  He can be kind of cutting as he does it, which is great.  It's like watching a drag queen throw shade.   And just in case you think he's full of crap, he starts out comparing the research of he and his colleagues to that of biologists and the theory of evolution.  Almost all biologists believe in evolution, but because they are scientists, it's called a theory.  The fringe biologists who don't believe in evolution are considered just that, fringe nutjobs.  The same holds true for Biblical study.  Since the dawn of history, much work has gone into Jesus study, and none of it has proven that Jesus doesn't exist.  Only a fringe element - and not an academic one - think he doesn't exist.  Of course, historians can't know that Jesus exist from personal experience.  But Erhman really lays out the rules of historical research in a completely understandable way, and to my mind proves that whatever you think Jesus did (that's probably for another book, I guess), he definitely exists.

I like Bible study, particularly that of the New Testamant, when it's like this.  Erhrman loves and respects the New Testament; he's not here disproving it but studying it rationally, trying to figure out why it's written the way it is.  When you get over the fundamentalist bullshit of the Bible is God's word but rather a book written by fallible men, it's interesting to study. It's one of the few documents to survive from that time period.

Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of NazarethDid Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart D. Ehrman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth is a a polemic against a group of scholars (although Ehrman deftly  picks apart their claims to even call themselves that) called mythicists who insist that Jesus never actually existed.  It would probably have helped if I'd been familiar with their arguments from their points of view, although Erhman  does explain in detail what they actually believe and why, before annihilating their theories one by one.  What's interesting about Erhman is that he's a very well known Biblical scholar and Jesus expert (or so he says) and kind of infamous as well, because he's also an agnostic who teaches in the south.  This book exists as kind of a duck hunt, in which Erhman takes careful aim at each and every mythicist claim and carefully shoots each one out of the sky. His guns are logic and history.  He can be kind of cutting as he does it, which is great.  It's a real mix of scholarships and writing for us hoi polloi.

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom and Science by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos (2010)

I usually hate children's and young adult nonfiction in a very personal way.  Adjectives and descriptive phrases that come to my mind when thinking about juvenile nonfiction include "dumbed down" and "illustration heavy" and "inaccurate" and "why?"  But a rare juvenile nonfiction book comes along that peaks my interest and keeps my attention without annoying me so much that I have to throw it down in disgust.  Sugar Changed the World was one of those books.  It didn't change my life but it did make me think in a new way about something -- in this case, the country of Haiti.  After the United States, Haiti was the next country to declare independence based on the same principles of liberty and justice for all.  And because it was based upon a slave rebellion, and our country was controlled by southerners like Thomas Jefferson whose livelihood depended upon slave labor, we didn't recognize the country until Abraham Lincoln.  And really haven't given it much help even then.  Pretty sad.  Haiti could have been another America, modeled after us, rich and prosperous, but because of racism, it remains in poverty.  Sad, sad, sad.

Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and ScienceSugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science by Marc Aronson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm not usually a fan of nonfiction written for youth, most of which is considerably dumbed-down to the point of inanity, too heavy on the visuals without much put into the writing, and (as a colleague described it once) "report fodder."  Sugar Changed the World wasn't any of those things.  It told a clear, interesting story about where sugar came from and how it conversely fostered a slave cultured and created of a culture of liberty, particularly in the United States but also for Haiti (both started out as a reaction against something sugar-related, although very sadly Haiti's story doesn't end as prosperously and well as the USA's story).  There were many old photos and maps, not all of which directly related to the text (a complaint of mine with most juvenile nonfiction) but Aronson and Budhos were certainly not writing something for a child to copy for their fourth grade report.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Encounter Near Venus by Leonard Wibberly, illustrated by Alice Wadowski-Buk (1967)

I don't know when I first read this book, but it was in Wilson as a child - I think it was Lang Memorial Library, but I can't be sure.

I think I liked it so much because of Ka the Smiler.  Although he's so underdeveloped, I'm not sure why.   He wasn't all that great a villain.  He occupies very little of this book, which is disappointing. And when he does finally appear, he doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.

That was the main problem with the book - it didn't make any sense.  It felt like a whole bunch of ideas strung together without a plot or character development to attach them to one another.  Bones but no sinew or muscles.  And quite frankly, even those bones were pretty weak.

Uncle Bill is Leonard Wibberley.  That's made more clear by Wadowski-Buk's illustration of him that matches his photograph in Wikipedia.

A fairy tale, in the Wilde or Hans Christian Andersen sense, under the guise of science fiction.  Instead of a frog taking a princess somewhere, or even a wardrobe, it's a space ship.

Has the motif of a classic child fantasy, that touch of Nesbit, but more of C.S. Lewis - two brothers, two sisters, on a quest, both familiar and strange creatures, some of them from Greco-Roman mythology (mermaids, centaurs), a sinister evil one who is taking over the land.

What this also reminds me of, although published earlier (1962), is A Wrinkle in Time.  Surely Wibberley was at least aware of Wrinkle, and maybe this was some of either homage or answer to Madeliene L'Engle's book.  But Wrinkle is  far superior to Encounter Near Venus.  L'Engle's philosophy and religion are shot right through Wrinkle like an arrow; Wibberley is trying to say something, but I'm never quite sure what it is.

Lewis's children always had Aslan to ultimately guide them; L'Engle's had the three witches.  Uncle Bill isn't a very good guide, not like these other two books.

Superficially, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and A Wrinkle in Time are similar to Encounter Near Venus.  Other world, magical elements, strange and familiar creatures, talking animals, a villain of great power, siblings.  One child captured by the enemy.  Philosophical, a little allegorical.

All of these elements in common - so why is Lion and Wrinkle so superior?

For one thing, the set up is shorter in the two superior books.  A few pages into Lion and we've met the four characters, got a real sense of who they were, and were already in Narnia.  The same is true for Wrinkle, although it takes slightly longer to get into space.

Character development is quick in the two books and slow in the third.  You feel like you know Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy really well quite soon; Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin are familiar as well.  The four siblings in Encounter feel like cardboard characters from beginning to end.  Wibberley explained quite a bit about them, but they never felt particularly real, even with pages and pages of set up.

The "helpers" also are different.  In Narnia, the children have the Beavers, Mr. Tumnus, and ultimately Aslan.  Wrinkle has the witches, of course, but also Aunt Beast and the Happy Medium.  Encounter has helpers as well - Uncle Bill, and the lumens, but they all feel so forced.  And that Irish elephant - what the hell?  Why is an Irish elephant on another planet?

That's a real problem with the book - it can't decide whether it's fantasy or science fiction, and does a horrid job mixing the two up.  You can quibble about Narnia and it's mishmash world (Tolkien certainly did) but at least it was always a fantasy.  And while Wrinkle has some delightful fantasy elements, it is still at it's heart science fiction (everything is explained through science).  But Encounter feels so odd, like it can't quite decide what it wants to be, so just throws all the elements in together and hopes for the best.  And fails miserably.

The villains in Lion and in a Wrinkle in Time are real and memorable.  Ka the Smiler - who I remembered the best from childhood, has a great name.  But he's far too obviously modeled on something Kipling-esque.  I supposed he's the serpent from the Bible, but Kipling created a far better villain (and even better villainess) in Rikki-Tikki-Tavi in Nag (and Nagaina) - and Ka feels like a pale shadow of them (his name clearly echoes Kipling, although Ka is also the Egyptian essence or soul).  The White Witch and It the disembodied brain are two of the most memorable villains from children's literature.  They definitely leave Ka the Smiler in the dust.

Encounter near VenusEncounter near Venus by Leonard Wibberley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Superficially Encounter Near Venus resembles The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and A Wrinkle in Time.  All three books have children (some or all of which are siblings), another world populated by strange and familiar creatures, some of whom are talking animals, helpers along the way, someone older and wiser as a spirit guide of sorts, and a malevolent evil.  Truth hangs over all three too, some sort of philosophical, allegorical, spiritual, or even religious Truth.  But Lion and : Wrinkle are blessed with great plots, quick character development, and action.  Encounter Near Venus takes forever to get started, the characters continue feelings like cardboard cutouts the entire way through, and a plot that isn't as much full of holes as it is one big hole.  Ka the Smiler, the malevolent antagonist, could have been a great villain, with his shades of Kipling (Kaa the snake, although Ka the Smiler resembles the cobras from Rikki Tikki Tavi far more); instead, he's a tack on at the end, hardly worth the storm and fear he's caused for most of the book.  Quite frankly, the White Witch and IT the disembodied brain, could kick the ass of Ka the Smiler pretty handily, even though Ka is a stand in for the Devil himself.  What a disappointment.  This was a book that I remembered from childhood as being sort of creepy and really good; it turns out to be creepy not because of the story but because it's just not very well written.  At least the illustrations were good; very, very 1960s paintings in a child's bedroom.

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On Fairy-Stories by J.R.R. Tolkien (1939)

I wanted a better grounding on what exactly "fantasy" means as a literary genre, and what better place to start with than the granddaddy of modern fantasy, Tolkien.  I had in my head that On Fairy-Stories was the definitive work on what constitutes fantasy, and lays out "the laws of fantasy" like some sort of check list, so that in the future, I could read a novel, go down the points, and at the end I would know if a book was fantasy or not.  This did not prove to be true.

Later, much later.  I tried to find some literary criticism that could help.  Nothing did.

I'm done.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (1957)

I just could not get into this.  What's wrong with me?  Ray Bradbury is a beloved author with some of the most intellectually stimulating and most adored novels of all time.  He almost had cult status.  People vocally and loudly sneered at Scott and I in a bookstore because we didn't immediately recognize him (he was there signing books).  But Dandelion Wine - I just couldn't care.  I didn't even make past a few pages into it.  I guess I need more narrative thread, I don't know.  Maybe at some point in the future I will (be force to perhaps) try it again...  although reading time is running out.  I'm 42  now; I've read approximately 2,000 books in the last dozen years.  Let's say I have another forty years left; that's what - another 8,000 books.  Okay, maybe time isn't running out after all

I'm validated!  My friend Bill's Goodread review was a 1 star!

Wow. This hurt my soul. I've never NOT enjoyed a Bradbury offering. This was just... boring. Sorry big guy. Love your SF. This nostalgic, rambling brain-dump was too mundane to plod through. Maybe if I'd grown up in a small town. Maybe if I'd grown up in the midwest. Maybe if I'd grown up in the early half of the 20th Century. Maybe then. I muddled through over 200 pages. But I just couldn't bear it any longer.Sigh. I think I better
go re-read The Martian Chronicles to restore my faith in humanity..

I've been reading some other reviews, and needed to clarify something.  Although I agree with haters of this book that it was boring as hell, the main reason I hated this book is that it felt pretentious and self aware in a very artsy fartsy affected way.  Floating in the air above the book was a Big Idea, and frankly, I didn't care enough about the Big Idea to keep on reading.

I had made this pact with myself that when I read a classic, I would finish it regardless.  But I just couldn't in this case.    

Monday, November 5, 2012

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked The Civil War by Tony Horowitz (2011)

I have liked Tony Horowitz's books in the past -- Confederates in the Attic and the one about Captain Cook and the one about Columbus - and really enjoyed them.  Well, I actually forgot I had read the one about Columbus and then read it again (I think I read it while we were in the Caribbean).  They were informational but journalistic, with Tony Horowtiz's point of view.  Midnight Rising is pure history, and just not that interesting (to me).

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil WarMidnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

John Brown's body may lie a-mouldering in the grave, and I'm going to throw this book in there with him.

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March Violets by Philip Kerr (1989)

I loved March Violets so much.  I'm falling in love with the whole "noir" genre - it's really fun to discover a new genre (new to me at least).  The writing was almost perfect, particularly the plethora of simile and metaphor.  As one followed another, I kept wanting to capture and keep them, like fireflies in a jar.  And, like capturing fireflies, you give up after a bit and just enjoy them.  But I did dogear a few pages (I know, anathema) so I could record them, and some other wonderful turns of phrase.

I bet you're the sort that could find lice on a bald head.

I drove home feeling like a ventriloquist's mouth ulcer.

All you saw through the hole [in the door] were the points of his rodent's teeth , and the occasional glimpse of the ragged, grey-white oyster that was his tongue.

He shook me by the hand as I introduced myself.  If was like holding a cucumber.

He found me less amusing than a boxful of smoke.

He had mustard colored hair, coiffed by a competition sheepshearer, and a nose like a champagne cork.  His moustache was wider than the brim on a Mexican's hat.  

These aren't even the best ones - but, like fireflies, they blink and then disappear.

The setting was incredible; this wasn't a typical "Nazis before the war" type of book.  Everything was dark and gritty, but wonderful.  There was definitely a movie quality about the whole book, and I'd be interested to see it filmed.
How fun to find something new!


Incredibly well plotted, with a deliciously dark setting, and memorable characters.  I ate up the twist on noir, with the hardboiled detective being a German under the heel of the Nazis.  Kerr's Nazi Germany is like everything you knew about Berlin 1936, only turned on its side to reveal the even darker, uglier things lurking underneath.  We all know about Hitler and his merry band of demons, and Kerr certainly has the usual cameos from humanity's contest for worst person ever.  But Kerr's Berlin is populated by a noirish cast of gangsters and their madchens, floozies and hardboiled secretaries, sheeplike Nazis and sharp opportunists (called March Violets) using the Nazi party for their own personal gain (although it's clear by the end that they've helped created a Frankenstein's monster that quickly grows beyond their control). Beyond all though, the language is superb.  Kerr has some of the best, most creative use of simile, metaphor, description and turns of phrase that I've ever read.  It was like fireflies on a warm summer night, metaphor and simile blinking on and off.  You'll want to start capturing them and putting them in a jar, but like fireflies, they are only beautiful in context (my favorite:  "I drove home feeling like a ventriloquist's mouth ulcer.").  For language alone, this is a five star read - and add character, setting, a terrificly exciting and complicated mystery, and you have an almost perfect crime novel. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

All About "All About Eve" by Sam Staggs (2000)

The subtitle is "The Complete Behind-the-scenes- story of the Bitchiest Film Ever Made."  Which are both completely true.  All About "All About Eve" is extensively complete, and All About Eve is one of the, if not the bitchiest movie ever made.

I recently read a collection of Vanity Fair articles about Hollywood that included a very, very shortened version of this book.  I think I liked the very, very shortened version better.

Staggs book made me want to watch the movie again.

But the book got very long by the end. It's extensive.  So extensive and large that it collapses by the end from all the weight.  The first half is a page-turner (I mean, if you like this kind of behind the scenes book) but the last half, when it gets reflective and thoughtful and brainy, well, it's just not that interesting.  I think I'd rather hear Sam Staggs talk about it (granted that he's a good speaker).  Or better yet, sit around and dish about it after watching with a group of gay friends (maybe all in Bette Davis drag).

All About All About Eve: The Complete Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Bitchiest Film Ever Made!All About All About Eve: The Complete Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Bitchiest Film Ever Made! by Sam Staggs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first half of this book was a bitch-filled kiki to "the bitchiest film ever made."  It was extensively behind the scenes, a peak into Celeste Holm's closet and Bette Davis's  cigarette case.  A gossipy gas.  Into the second half, though, this became brainy and intellectually talky, and so "complete" it rose too tall and collapsed in on itself from too much weight.  I'd much rather watch the movie with a bunch of old drag queens (dressed as Margo, Eve, Karen and hopefully Birdie) swigging cocktails (in those teeny tiny 1940s movie martini glasses) and then dish about the movie until the wee hours, picking it apart and figuring out its social context.  I think that's what the latter half of this book was attempting to do, but it needed more drag queen.

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