Saturday, March 30, 2013

Mud Flat April Fool by James Stevenson (1998)

The Mud Flat series of easy reading books for children are a mix of droll wit and deadpan humor, which isn't everyone's cup of tea.  That kind of humor, particularly in children's books, is my favorite kind though.  Mudflat April Fool, which I'm sure I first read years ago, is one of the best in the series.  Just in time for April Fools Day too!  The ten short, easy-to-read chapters are dryly humorous vignettes, short and sweet, usually with some sort of punchline at the end.  This isn't Shakespeare or Mark Twain we are talking about here, but all the stories are really cute.  Chapter 3 "The Daffodil" is my absolute favorite, and I laughed out loud - it's dreadpan with a slapstick ending that I don't want to give away.

Another witty part of the Mud Flat series is the characters - all animals or birds of some sort.  Some wear clothes, others do not, all very surreal but totally acceptable.  The universe Stevenson has created makes no sense and perfect sense all at once.  The animals all have plain Jane names too - a duck named Megan, a fox named George, a quail named Dorothy (with no clothes) talking to an alligator named Newt (with no clothes) and a pig named Ashley (in clothes) trying to trick a bear (or a dog?) named Mr. Hawley, who is only wearing a sports coat (but no pants - although the only way we know he's a mister is from the story - he has much genitalia as Ken or Donald Duck).  That's the surreal place known as Mud Flat, a place Alice (of Wonderland fame) would feel quite at home in.

Mud Flat April FoolMud Flat April Fool by James Stevenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Maybe Mud Flat is acquired taste.  Maybe it's some sort of boy humor (I noticed all the other reviewers were female). Maybe deadpan, droll humor is appreciated by some and not by others.  Whatever.  I really love Mud Flat, and Chapter 3 "The Daffodil" made me laugh out loud.  Mud Flat is next door to Wonderland and Oz, what with all the animals - some wearing clothes and others not, where a quail with no clothes named Dorothy and a pig in clothes named Ashley have a conversation with an alligator with no clothes named Newt about playing a trick on a bear (or a bulldog?) named Mr. Hawley who is wearing a red sport coat and nothing else (like Donald Duck or Ken, he has no noticeable genitalia and we only know he's a mister by the text).  Why doesn't this warrant more stars?  It's surreal nonsense of the best kind, but funny.

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Easter Story (from Matthew)

On Friday night, my church choir sang The Seven Last Words of Christ composed by Theodore DuBois, and there is this awesome extraordinary part at the end, where the choir sings, straight from the book of Matthew: "And it was about the sixth hour; and the sun was darkened, and darkness covered the earth, until about the ninth hour; and the veil of the temple was rent, and all the earth did quake; and the rocks were rent, and all the graves were opened wide."  What?!  The graves were opened wide?  WTH?  I discussing this, we figured we didn't really know all that much about the Passion story, except the bare basics.  So I decided to read each version of the Passion from the four Gospels before Easter.  Well, I failed miserably -- I only read the version from Matthew.  But it was still interesting, and sort of weird.  It's amazing the things you remember from Sunday School and the things they skipped.

For example, I didn't know Pontius Pilate had a wife, and that she warned Pilate not to have anything to do with Jesus.  Matthew 27:19 When he was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, "Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him."  What dream did she have?  Did she tell him later "I told you so?"  You know that scene in Miracle on 34th Street where William Frawley is trying to warn the judge at the trial not to rule on Santy Claus - in my mind, she makes those same kind of faces.  And Pilate looks like the judge.

I didn't know that Barabbas, the revolutionary that Pilate freed instead of Jesus, was also named Jesus!  That's why Pilate says "Jesus who is called Christ" to distinguish him from "Jesus who is called Barabbas."

My absolute favorite part is that end, with the graves opening wide.  Here is the King James Version, in all it's poetic glory:  

Matthew 27:51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; 52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, 53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

Zombie invasion of Jerusalem!  Wow!  Who knew?!  Why is this cool part left out? It's like a really great zombie disaster movie.  And you know, Pilate's wife is all wry about this, and pissed off, because she told him to stay the fuck out of this mess, and he (like all men) didn't listen to her, and now see where they've ended up!  To be honest, that's an exciting story, and beats the hell out of easter bunnies and colored eggs!

Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole (2012)

I'm not a huge fan of wordless picture books; I don't think of myself as a  particularly visual person and I'm really tied to the written word.  Unfortunately, because that sometimes limits my appreciation of graphic novels.  It has much to do with how I process information.  I can process writing easily - can bury my attention in a book and ignore almost everything around me. Visual art, though, I need minimal distraction. Appreciating visual art for me is best one in a museum, where I can concentrate on that particular painting, sculpture, etc.  In order to really appreciation picture book illustration, I need to be in a quiet place, without any distraction.  (Graphic novels tend to present a different problem for me - I don't know which to pay attention to, the art or the writing, and usually end up short-shrifting both).  So it's sort of rare picture book without words that can really enchant me or grab my attention.

Unspoken falls into that category.  Part of it probably has to do with the historical content of the Underground Railroad.  I recently found out my ancestors on my paternal grandmother's side were active in the Underground Railroad in Michigan, so this could have been a story from my family history.  In fact, because it had no words, nobody was named, so they could have been the McGee family of  Jackson County, Michigan.  Another reason I liked it was the illustrations were simple but memorable, and their almost old fashioned quality matched the story really well.  Cole's afterword added some extra punch to the story, and made it story - but again, it was broad enough to be my family story too.

There is no way to actually tell this story without a little background first - you need to know about the Underground Railroad and at least have an inkling of what it is.

I think this book had some controversy surrounding the use of the quilt, as they now have some dubiousness regarding historical accuracy verses legend.  But who cares - it makes a nice touch.  

It's interesting to think about how that changes the plot though.  If the quilt left hanging to dry on first page is intended to be an Underground Railroad quilt marker, then the girls' family knows that a fugitive slave is hiding in their corn crib and they are all complicit in helping him (or her; we only ever see an eye) escape to freedom.  If the quilt is just a visual touch, then only the girl knows, and that makes her bravery even more stunning and moving.

From what I've read (see The Horn Book , the galley of this book included some information about these quilts, but was taken out prior to publication.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm not usually a fan of wordless picture books, and its a rare one that can grab my attention - but Henry Cole's Unspoken did the trick for me.  Subject matter probably paid a large part in this; I recently found out my distant ancestors, the McGees of Jackson County, Michigan, were active in the Underground Railroad, and the wordless aspect of this simple, beautifully illustrated story lends itself well to making it "my" family story.  Henry Cole's afterword is excellent as well, making it "his" story too.  The wordless plot is incredibly done; and his illustrations are superb.  One scene is particularly moving; slave hunters have shown up, and the family are all gathered around them looking at a wanted poster.  The slave hunters look haggard, sort of dirty, and mean (as they should) and the family looks tired and sad, as they probably would - they were tired, sad times.

Three Books I Didn't Finish

The Decline and Fall of Nearly Everybody by Will Cuppy (1950).  I don't even remember now why I put this one on my list.  Tongue in cheek history just isn't as interesting - or funny - as it was when I was twenty-something.  It had illustrations by William Steig though, which were cute.  What is a real pisser is that I bought this online, although at least it was a used book.

The Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir Lady Trent by Marie Brennan (2013).  Completely disappointed by this one - I so wanted to like it.  It wasn't badly written by any means, but I just didn't see the point of it.  I made it a little over half way through, and finally just didn't care any more.  I remember buzz about this over at, which is why I put it on my list.  What wasn't it just set in an alternate Europe?  Why give all the places cheesy fantasy names if the people all have real names, and they all act like they are straight out of Jane Austen?

Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 by George Chauncey (1994).  I actually came at this one from a couple of different directions.  Somewhere on , either on the Cultural Gabfest or in a recent series, I heard or read (or both?) June Thomas talking about Downton Abbey  and the likelihood of Thomas the evil gay footman of being opening gay at the turn of the last century.  She mentioned Gay New York as a historical account of gay men during this time period (albeit in New York).  I was discussing this with one of my Goodread friends, Nick, who (unknown to me at the time) is a college professor who used this book in teaching a class.  The double whammy of two people I respect mentioning the same book, one in person to me, put Gay New York at the top of my list.  My feelings about the book end up being kind of mixed.  I learned quite a bit, and quite frankly, I thought "Wouldn't it be neat if someone made a movie, or better, a mini-series out of this book."  Sort of like Mean Girls came from that book on girl bullies.  I learned quite a bit too - it would have been both fun to live back then and a huge pain in the ass all at once (sort of like living now); and that people's sexuality wasn't so binary - you weren't straight or gay, because those terms really didn't exist yet (at least in popular culture).  I wonder if I would have been a "fairy" or a "queer?"  Probably a fairy.  Anyway, I got about half way through, and just got bored.  It was very scholarly, and a little repetitive, and there just wasn't enough hook for me (I guess I need some sort of love story through the ages, which a movie would gladly provide).  It maybe a book I would come back and finish at some time in the future, but I was ready to move on.  (Taking this class from my Goodreads friend Nick could be an option, but he lives and works in San Francisco).

Three books in as many days that I couldn't finish, for a various reasons.

Easter Bunny's Assistant by Jan Thomas (2012)

The Easter Bunny's assistant is a goofy, smelly skunk.  And the Easter Bunny himself is the Abbott to the the skunk's Costello.  Great big Easter fun.

The Easter Bunny's AssistantThe Easter Bunny's Assistant by Jan Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Easter Bunny's assistant is a goofy, smelly skunk; both are explaining how to make easter eggs.  It's like a classic comedy duo - think Abbott and Costello or Desi and Lucy - with the Easter Bunny playing the straight man.  Fractured Fairy Tales come to mind as well.  Great big Easter fun.

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sticks and Stones: Defeating The Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Emily Bazelon (2013)

I listen to Emily Bazelon on the Slate Political Gabfest almost every week, so much so that I feel like I know her personally.

But I was kind of dreading reading her book.  Bullying is sort of sore subject, because I feel like I was bullied in school, particularly during 8th and 9th grades, and I don't particularly like thinking about it, even all these years later.  I was afraid the book would bring back bad memories.  Plus, I remember doing some bullying as well, or at least standing by watching people being bullied without doing anything about it, and who wants to be reminded of their past cowardliness or dickiness?

I heard Emily on Fresh Air, and I enjoyed it so much that I encouraged our library to buy a copy, and when it came, checked it out.  And then absolutely plowed through it - it was so good!  She's a terrifically good writer.

I can't even imagine being a teenager today.  Jesus Christ, it must suck to the nth degree.  We had it good.  That's one thing I learned from the book.

The other thing I learned is that Facebook is now a beastly beast.   I think when I want to describe the essence of douchiness, I'm going to use the term "Zuckerbergian."  Emily also had an interesting concept about Facebook as a mall rather than the public space it touts itself as:  "Facebook does not style itself as the public square, where people can say anything they want, short of libel or slander. It’s much more like a mall, where private security guards can throw you out."  In other words, you don't have any rights on Facebook - they hold all the cards.  The machinations and inner machinery of Facebook was probably the most interesting part of the book, and apparently they allowed Bazelon to go where no journalist has gone before, and now regret it.  Good for her.

Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and EmpathySticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Emily Bazelon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Emily Bazelon is a terrifically good writer;  I plowed through her book in one glorious afternoon, unable to put it down, horrified and fascinated by the horrible, awful terrible things kids are able to do to one another now-a-days.  Has it ever sucked so much to be a teenager?  And I thought we had it bad.  Also, Facebook is really beastly. I'm on it, I can't get off, but I'm becoming more an dmore convinced it's not a social network but a social Frankenstein's monster.  

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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham (1930)

Heard on Golden Girls rerun last night:

Sophia: This Rose Bob Hope thing reminds me of a similar situation back in my village. Florence Pontevecchio used to fantasize that Alberto Bolognese was her brother.
Blanche: Who was Alberto Bolognese?
Sophia: He was the boot maker in the village.
Dorothy: What’s so special about that?
Sophia: Did I say it was special? I said it was similar. I’m having a cup of tea, talking. You two have a look on your face like you paid for Phantom of the Opera tickets. Excuse me for not being Somerset Maugham! Better I should say nothing from now on and sit here like a pincushion!

Pretty funny.  

" Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?"  From Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.  A perfect title for a book about morality.  For her times, Rosie Driffield certainly isn't a virtuous woman - she's a slut.  But what gives people like the second Mrs. Driffield or Mrs. Barton Trafford to force their sense of sexual morality on Rosie Driffield - they aren't any better or worse than her at the end, now are they?  Certainly the second Mrs. Driffield feels morally superior - but how superior can a gold digging nurse be?  And Mrs. Barton Trafford thought that she was going to catch Driffield, divorcing her husband (or so the rumor went).  

I thought the narrator William Ashenden (although I don't think we even knew his name until well into the story, and then it was sort of casually dropped, which I liked) was gay, although that was never specifically stated.  And then he (SPOILER!) slept with Rosie.  I guess he never married because he was pining for her?  Mmm.  I doubt it.  Roy Kear must have been gay though; he's based on Hugh Walpole (who Maugham must have hated) who was gay.  As was Somerset Maugham himself.  Of course, 1930s sexuality was far more fluid than the binary sexuality of the 21st century, where everyone is either straight OR gay without a whole lot of wiggle room.  

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It was nonlinear, which I sometimes dislike, but for this book felt fresh and new and interesting.  It was a witty book, without being downright funny.  I loved Ashenden's take on everything, often very droll; his descriptions of Roy Kear are pretty mean, and if he's a stand-in for Somerset Maugham's view of Hugh Walpole, then he really must have disliked him.  I wonder why? 

They were actually friends!  Oh, girls, you're both pretty! 

The plot(s):  Alroy Kear (based on Hugh Walpole) has been asked by Amy Driffield to write a biography of her husband, Edward Driffield, a well known and well respected author who has just died (in the 1930s; he's based on Thomas Hardy).  Willie Ashenden is a friend Kear's who knew Driffield well at two vital points in the author's life; Willie is the narrator, and he tells of both of those times and his life with Driffield and his first wife, Rosie as well as the present time.  As a young man, Willie Ashenden lived with his uncle, a vicar of a small Kentish village by the sea, and his aunt, who is related in some way to the German nobility.  Within the same town live "Lord" George Kemp, called so by the bitchy townspeople because he's so clearly not; Driffield, a local who is just starting his writing career, and the lovely, fresh, sexually adventurous wife, Rosie.  Rosie is having an affair with George Kemp, on which some major plot points later hinge.  At first, Willie is a complete snob to Driffield and his wife, but he (and some others in the village) soon discover their charms.  The Driffields eventually skip town, owing plenty of money.  A few years pass, and Willie runs into them in London, where Driffield has become part of an intellectual salon hosted by Mrs. Barton Trafford.  Driffield is starting to change, but Rosie is still the same; she's now surrounded by three other artists (a painter, an actor, and a "connoisseur of the arts") who worship her. Willie soon becomes a fourth, and they start an affair.  Driffield apparently is aware of his wife's infidelities, and it seems that part of her charm and attraction to him may have been her free love attitudes towards sex, love and marriage.  Eventually, Rosie leaves Driffield for George Kemp, who she has been seeing all along.  George and Rosie run away together to America, where they can reinvent themselves.  When Willie sees her years later, George is dead, her appearance has changed, but her free and easy sexuality remains.  Driffield, on the other hand, become trapped in the world that wants to ban "cakes and ale", and as a result, his work suffers.  Nothing he ever writes again is as good as that which he wrote in his sexually charged and carefree youth with Rosie.  The other plot  - there really are two - hinges on the fact that Kear will never write the true story, the one that Willie knows, about Driffield and his life.   I read this on someone else's blog post (  "Cakes and Ale is the reverse image, the book that Kear has no intention of writing."  

It wasn't ready for Cakes and Ale to end, because I so enjoy the feeling of a really, really good book  - but I was satisfied at the end. The story felt complete.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was a scandalous book in its day, not because of the plot - which is sexy as hell - but because Maugham based one character on the revered English writer Thomas Hardy, and another character on one of his best friends Hugh Walpole - and both portrayals were really lethal and catty.  This is a book where there are essentially two plots woven together in time and space, connected by a narrator in the present who is remembering the past.    Roy Kear, a respected, dull, but socially ambitious writer has been asked to write a biography of Edward Driffield, a sainted and hallowed, recently deceased English writer who critics have placed reverentially with awe into the canon.  Amy Driffield, the second wife, much younger and very respectable wants Kear to write the biography, but they have a small problem - the first Mrs. Driffield, who abruptly vanishes at the peak of Driffield's career.  Enter William Ashenden, a sort of friend of Kear's who knew Edward and Rosie (the first Mrs.) Driffield back in the day -- when Edward was an up-and-coming writer and Rosie was a sensuous and sexually free muse for her husband.  Willie relates the story of the Driffield's rise and fall.  There's much to say about art and literature; there's also much to say about "cakes and ale" and who gets to decide what's morally acceptable or not.  All of this sounds awfully heavy and isn't at all - the book is jaunty and witty, a little brash and brassy, and completely full of incredibly memorable characters and enough droll quotes to fill Bartlett's.  Read on!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

On Being Different: What It Means to Be A Homosexual by Merle Miller (1971)

So in 1971, Merle Miller - who wrote this awesome book about Harry Truman called Plain Speaking - reads this disgusting piece in Harper's by this douchebag named Joseph Epstein (who is still writing today, and totally gets a free pass for this past piece of douchebaggery), and in the article Epstein wishes all homosexuals off the earth.  What a cow.  Miller gets totally pissed off, and decides to come out of the closet, very publicly, in New York Times Magazine with this piece "What It Means to Be A Homosexual."  The magazines gets 2,000 pieces of mail in response, much of it positive (maybe still the most mail received by the NYT, but I'm not sure that's true).  Reading it today, 42 years later, it's really great piece, and very moving to read.  I'm reading Gay New York the same time, so I'm getting quite swath of gay history all at once.

Little baby gays should read this (it's short, so that is in it's favor) to remind them that the world in which we live is a far, far easier place than it's ever been for gays, except maybe for Ancient Greece or Roman times.  There are definitely still asshats like Joseph Epstein, and homophobes like Justice Scalia and his ilk, and the mean crazies of Westboro Baptist Church.  There are still bullies, and a need for "It Gets Better." But it is better for gays now than in 1971.   The closet is more of a personal choice and less of a necessity; in 1971 being "out" was a lot more dangerous.

On Being Different: What It Means to Be a HomosexualOn Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual by Merle Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every baby gay read this, and reflect on the ghost of gay liberation past (know your history, girl).  There may indeed be closets and bullies and asshats like Justice Scalia and mean crazies like the Westboro Baptists.  But it does indeed get better, and Merle Miller reminds everyone of that not so distance time (in the grand drama of history) when being in the closet wasn't a personal choice but a necessity, and when publicly coming out wasn't a big deal - it was enormous.  Thank the gay gods for people like Merle Miller and all those who came before, who paved the yellow brick road.

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The Conglomeroid Cocktail Party by Robert Silverberg (1984)

I re-read The Conglomeroid Cocktail Party by Robert Silverberg; I probably last read this book of science fiction short stories ten years ago or so, although I know I've read it multiple times.

I can't say that my opinions of the book have changed all that much; my tastes have changed, but I still found some of the stories really engaging and fun to read.  Although maybe not as thought provoking at age 43 than they were at age 19 or 20.   The same stories I disliked many years ago, I still didn't care for, and to be honest, I skipped them after a few sentences.  They were still unappealing.

There is something very Playboy about Robert Silverberg; most of these stories were written in the late 70s or early 80s, and they have that feeling.  Robert Silverberg clearly thought that monogamy wasn't going to last, and the futures he creates are full of men with multiple girlfriends and lovers, or poly-amorous quads who are married to each other. There is plenty of 70s sex.  An exception is the story The Trouble with Sempoanga, about the guy who contracts the sexually transmitted parasite and ends up having to live on the tropical paradise planet forever in quarantine, written at the very beginning of the AIDs epidemic, seems very (scarily) prescient.  That's a sign of good science fiction, I suppose.

I was reading The Conglomeroid Cocktail, I was listening to Stephen Sondheim's Company, which was from 1970.  It also has that swinging-70s "and then there's Maude" sort of quality.  Some of the stories in The Conglomeroid Cocktail Party feel like that too. Not Maude or All in the Family, but more like Hugh Hefner and Burt Reynolds and mustaches and masculine sex.  No gays though, which is a shame.

Probably my favorite stories in the book deal with time travel of various sorts.  The Far Side of the Bell Shaped Curve, Needle in a Timestack.

One of the stories - and now I can't remember which one - is set in a "future" 2012, which I thought was funny.

The Palace at Midnight, about a future dystopian California, seems to be a pre-cursor to Majipoor, only set in San Francisco.  Living in California, I appreciated that one much more now than when I had read it before.  The Pope of the Chimps and Our Lady of the Sauropods have the same kind of feeling to them, and I think when I read them as a twenty-something, I was far more in awe of the ideas than I am now; they both seemed interested but more than a bit heavy handed.  Not very subtle.

Waiting for the Earthquake is a classic science fiction story, sort of Ray Bradbury-esque, and definitely has a Majipoorian feel to it as well.  Jennifer's Lover is was annoying - and it first appeared in Penthouse - I didn't even know they published short stories.  Who knew?!

The Conglomeroid Cocktail PartyThe Conglomeroid Cocktail Party by Robert Silverberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even though these short stories were all originally published between 1980-1984, there is something sort of Playboy Mansion circa 1976 about most of them.  The men in these books tend have multiple girlfriends and female lovers; there are some poly-amorous relationships. I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but you keep expecting everyone to end up at Studio 54, or for Maude to suddenly show up and go all feminist on some these guy's asses.  They are all very pre-AIDs too, except a biting little story called "The Trouble with Sempoanga" about a sexually transmitted parasite that dooms people to quarantine to the most beautiful planet in the universe.  Sort of prescient, to say the least; and very Twilight Zone too.  I particularly liked the short stories featuring time travel (and the perils of time travel).  Overall this is a good collection, and although some of the stories can feel a little dated, they are all mostly quite fun to read.  One is set in the "future" of 2012; I'm not sure all the cool (and sexy) things Robert Silverberg imagined the future to be have actually happened.  He must be quite disappointed.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village by Serge Schmemann (1997)

I am not usually a fan of Russian history, but this book was marvelous.  A childhood friend suggested it to me; when she read it, she said it reminded her of our home town.  I will have to ask her which part reminded her - a sad part of the book reminded me.  The end is about this particular Russian village around 1996 - already history now - and how urban centers are swallowing up rural youth, leaving nothing behind but drunks and no-goodniks.
Alexandra Nikitchna pointed to various houses. "Look:  Over there, Olya lives alone.  There, their son is leaving for the army, and they're drunk all the time.  Next is a drunk.  In that listing house, she's a pensioner who makes moonshine.  Next is Lyuda, who drinks.  The next one is an 87 year old woman.  This whole settlement, there's no one young.

Maybe Wilson isn't that bad, but it's headed there, as are many rural towns.  Rural poverty is a killer.  Who will grow our food when these small towns disappear?  It's a frightening thought.

Schemann most definitively skewers the Soviet system, and rightly so.  Most of the book seems almost idealized, a picture of village life with his mother's family at the center, going back two centuries.  But he does finally agree that the peasant's lives were incredibly difficult and barren, and that it was understandable that something was bound to happen to change this, that this idealized life wasn't shared by the peasants who labored beneath it.

I'm definitely more interested in Russian history now.  Very, very fascinating. A nice companion to Catherynne Valente's Deathless.

I read this described somewhere as a memoir, which I totally disagree with it.  Or at least qualify it - it's a family memoir, or the memoir of this particular small village in Russia, but it's certainly not a personal memoir.  A genealogical memoir, perhaps.

Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian VillageEchoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village by Serge Schmemann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Schemann uses the small Russian village from which came his mother's family, the Osorgins, as microcosm of Russian history over the last 200 years.  His genealogical and village memoir is sweet, idyllic, poignant, almost idealized, but with cold steel just waiting beneath to slice it all up into pieces.  A culture or society may seem to suddenly collapse in revolution or chaos, but Schemann's village society more unravels, like knitting gone bad.  Lenin and Stalin only grabbed onto strings that were already loose and pulled hard.  Even when the book ends in 1996, the unraveling continues, as urban life consumes the rural young of what is left of the Orsogin's village.  I'm curious as to what has happened since then.  Beneath the sleighs and snow and vodka, and fur hats and beech trees and wild mushrooms and summer twilight, Russian history is hard, sad stuff.

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Monday, March 11, 2013

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 6 edited by Jonathan Strahan (2012)

As with all collections of short stories, some treasures and some disappointments.  It seemed like the book ran out of steam towards the end - or perhaps the reader did.  My favorite stories are probably the first two in the book, Neil Gaiman's Sherlock Holmes story "The Case of Death and Honey" and E. Lily Yu's fascinating, fantastical and excellent "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" (I wanted this to be much longer so I could become even more lost in its delight).  Stephen Baxter's "The Invasion of Venus" was also great, and a little sad.  "White Lines on a Green Field" by Catherynne M. Valente was a sexy updated piece of folklore that will stick with you.  "The Dala Horse" by Michael Swanwick was wonderful and weird; I'd read this last year on Tor but re-read it again, just to fall back into the dystopia he'd created.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 6The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 6 by Jonathan Strahan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with all short story collections, there is a mix of wonderful and wise and WTF.  If you are skimming, my absolute, hands down favorites in the book are "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees" by E. Lily Yu - I wasn't ready for this one to end.  Catherynne M. Valente's "White Lines on a Green Field" is what happens when folklore comes to the 21st century; it's really sexy too.  And Michael Swanwick's "The Dala Horse" is incredible, folklore of the future.  Paul McAuley's "The Choice" is also really good.

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Friday, March 8, 2013

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

The Dark is Rising was - and I suppose still is - one of my favorite series, books that were instrumental in creating the "me" I am today.  Greenwitch in particular, was my favorite as a young adult; I was drawn in by the lyrical language, and haunting sense of foreboding that hangs over the book.  It's quite short, which I didn't realize until re-reading it this week; and relative to The Dark Is Rising it moves quickly.  The Dark is Rising is sluggish and drags considerably in parts, something I didn't remember.  I suppose when you are eleven or twelve, reading about another eleven year old who has great powers and knows things the adults don't know, has a great secret he must keep, is a powerful thing and can make a book seem magical and mystrical and wonderful.  Parts of The Dark is Rising is still magical and mystical and wonderful, but taken as entirety it's a long haul to get to the end.  The entire series seemed like that to me, more the pity.

My mom was a weight watchers leader, and we had to travel to another town twenty minutes away for her to go to her meetings.  They met at the public library in Ellsworth, Kansas.  I sat in the children's room and read which if I remember correctly, was closed already for the day.  By this time, I was a young adult and reading some adult books.  But in there I found both The Dark is Rising and Greenwitch and fell in love with the language and power of the book (they also had a more complete collection of my old favorite, Trixie Belden).  The adult Shawn might find this series slow going, but the I'm not going to discount its power over a twelve year old, lonely and feeling separated from everyone else, sort of like Will Stanton.  I'm not going to tear these books apart - they were important to me back then, and the memory of them is still important.  I still sometimes think to myself, in times of eerie trouble "Watch for the Greenwitch."

Interestingly, it wasn't until years and years later that I actually read Over Sea and UnderStone, and I wasn't impressed.  I'm wasn't all that big a fan of The Grey King either, and still don't know why it won a Newbery Award.  I tried to read The Grey King but gave up; and as for Silver on the Tree, I just skimmed it.

The Dark Is Rising (The Dark Is Rising, #2)The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When you are eleven or twelve years old, a little bit lonely and feeling different from everyone else, and you find a book about another eleven year old who discovers he's magic, is different from everyone else, has to keep it a secret... that's powerful stuff.  I could pick this apart as a cynical grownup, but I'm going to remember back to my 11 or 12 year old self, reading about Will Stanton for the first time, not exactly sure what was going on, unfamiliar with some of the legends and mythology and even some of the words, but gobbling it up all the same.  Harry Potter and Will Stanton come from that same place, but unlike Harry (as great as he is), Will was an Old One, and that was even mysterious and special.  And still, quite frankly, lacks some narrative definition; which is probably what made the book even better and made the possibility of real Old Ones fighting off the forces of the Dark even more tantalizing.

Greenwitch (The Dark Is Rising, #3)Greenwitch by Susan Cooper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 Greenwitch was (and still is) my favorite book in the  Dark is Rising series.  I love the mystery hanging over the entire book.  The encounter with Tethys, the female personification of the ocean, is still spectacular, as is the Greenwitch himself (herself? itself?).  I can't explain what it is about the book that grabbed me so long ago and kept hold, but it did and has been in my mind and heart ever sense.  The lyrical language, used so well to create a heightened sense of urgency in the fog of uncertainty surrounding the plot and characters is probably one reason; I am certainly drawn to that type of writing and plot.

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I sure do love Jo Walton.  Here's what she said about The Dark is Rising when she wrote about it in December 2009 at Tor:  "It’s always hard to leave behind earlier readings of any book, memories and contexts colour reactions, and I don’t know what I’d think of The Dark is Rising if somebody handed it to me now as a new book."  My sentiments exactly.

Tonight Will Be Bad

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Advent by James Treadwell (2012)

The front cover of Advent by James Treadwell says in stand-out yellow letters at the top:  "Magic is Rising."  I can't imagine this isn't in some reference to Susan Cooper and the Dark is Rising.  James Treadwell states that one of his influences was Susan Cooper's "Britain" and that much is quite obvious after reading the book.  It's not that Advent is blatantly derivative - I actually re-read The Dark is Rising immediately afterwards to check - but rather the flavor of Susan Cooper runs throughout Advent.   Treadwell's book is far, far more dark; but like Cooper, there is a sense of foreboding, of sadness and loss that hangs over the book.  The settings - Cornwall - are remarkably similar too.  Gavin/Gawain isn't Will Stanton - but he could be Bran Davies .  And let's be honest, there is this similarity to Cooper as well - often in The Dark is Rising, even after years of re-reading, there is still some sluggishness to the plot - lyrical language can cause drag; and I still wonder, sometimes, "What the hell going on?"  Advent felt like that as well.  I'm going to go ahead and re-read at least Greenwitch, which is my favorite in the whole Dark is Rising series; Advent reminded me the most of that book, more than The Dark is Rising; I wonder which book Treadwell liked best?

I certainly thought the many good-byes of Miss Grey took impossibly long and was impossibly drawn out; Cooper's pacing isn't always the best, but even she moved faster than Treadwell did.

Pacing aside, I still liked the book; I was drawn in almost immediately, and kept reading wanting to find out what was going on.

From his website:

"His current vocation can probably be blamed on reading Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen and Barbara Leonie Picard’s retellings of the Iliad and Odyssey at a formative age. Once exposed to such lethal doses of the faraway and the solemn and the strange, he inevitably found his way to Narnia and Middle Earth and Gormenghast and Earthsea and Pern and Britain (but it was Susan Cooper’s Britain)."  

As I explained above, the ghost of Susan Cooper hangs over the book, in a good way.  I've only read one Earthsea book, the first one, but I can see that LeGuin's use of lyrical, poetic language and pacing is similar to Treadwell's.  I don't see Narnia or Pern at all;  as for Middle Earth, there is a  ring of power, and some Tolkienites might find that annoying - but come on!  Rings of power existed before Tolkien; it's not like he made them up out of thin air.  I didn't find Treadwell's use of a ring all that off putting (although I too thought Tolkien); Treadwell's ring and Tolkien's ring are quite different (at least so far).  

The last chapter, which felt tacked on, was still pretty damn good, and made me want to know about how these characters are, particularly the demon/spirit woman at the end.  She's going to be a blast, I can see.  

AdventAdvent by James Treadwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The ghost of Susan Cooper hovers over Advent, and while not blatantly derivative, you can certainly get a flavor of her The Dark Is Rising (or more so Greenwitch) throughout Advent. (admittedly so - Treadwell claims Cooper as one of his influences).   That made the book all the more pleasurable to me; for although Advent has some of the same few flaws as Susan Cooper's beloved series (the sometimes drag of lyrical language and some parts of the move achingly slow), Treadwell's dark, foreboding novel has the same sense of wonderful magic brought into the "real" world that Susan Cooper does.  Gavin/Gawain is no Will Stanton; but he could be Bran Davies.  Treadwell's book is far more adult and certainly longer that Susan Cooper's works (and that's not always to its benefit).  But I enjoyed this book nonetheless, and that last blast of a chapter, more of a taste of things to come, made me excited for the next installment.  

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