Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Coll and His White Pig by Lloyd Alexander (1965)

I know I've read this before, but this re-read was disappointing, and a little bit sappy,  to me.  Coll seen through Taran's eyes is a warm, grandfatherly figure, gentle, wise, kind... but the Coll of this picture book seems really flat to me.  I usually like Evaline Ness too, but I didn't care for these illustrations as much as others I've seen.  Interestingly, Coll and His White Pig was written and illustrated in 1965 - after The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron but before the rest of the series.  Both of these mention Coll's adventures in Arawn; both Hen-Wen and Coll are based on characters in the folklore of Wales, found in the Welsh triads; Coll is one of three powerful swineherds of the island of Britain.  That bit of information alone is quite frankly as interesting as the whole picture book.

Coll and His White PigColl and His White Pig by Lloyd Alexander
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

None of the magic of The Black Cauldron or The Castle of Llyr; Coll and Hen-Wen are quite flat, and the story is sappy rather than exciting and dramatic.  I usually like the illustration of Evaline Ness too (although they are very old fashioned) but in this case they were equally uninteresting.  Coll is based on a character from Welsh folklore who was known as one of the three powerful swineherds of the island of Britain; that fact is as interesting as the whole book.  Very disappointing.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)

Wow, a great book that packed quite a punch.  I had read some good reviews of the book somewhere - I think on - so I added it to my list.  I was not disappointed. I vaguely remember bits and pieces of the film from childhood; I don't think I have ever seen the entire thing, and kind of remember a woman screaming in that 1950s creature feature Them sort of way, and of course, the giant shuffling asparagus that were more funny and campy than scary.  The Day of the Triffids book, however, isn't some campy Little Shop of Horrors monster book.  The triffids themselves aren't actually all that frightening - it's the idea of the triffid, a man-made horror, an invasive species, the botanical experiment gone wrong - as well as the hidden threat, waiting patiently to take advantage of  societal or human weakness.  Much room for allusion and metaphor there.

I actually kept wondering why the triffids were included in the book at all.  The whole idea that the majority of the world - including animals! - goes blind in one feel swoop and the aftermath of this is an incredible interesting plot point (and horrifying thought).  But what makes the book quite brilliant is that Wyndham (in true classic science fiction mettle), uses the triffids as a plot vehicle to force the characters into situations that they wouldn't otherwise have gotten into.  Bill, the main character, is forced by the triffids to examine what constitutes the best kind of social contract that can be made when a society is under siege.  And while Wyndham could have used other humans as the siege engine, the idea of something alien forcing social change is much, much more interesting.

Dies the Fire and that whole series is a descendent, I think, of The Day of the Triffids.  Stirling's world without electricity explores some of the same topics about social contracts and society as Triffids, only without the blind people (and the triffids).   World War Z is also an evolutionary cousin, with zombies as a stand in for triffids, in some respects.    Both of these, which I liked (Dies more than Z) are not as subtle in their exploration as Triffids though.  Triffids is quiet horror.  The first person narrative allows you the reader to read between the lines and come to some realizations that Bill hasn't yet.  He's worried about the triffids, but the dear reader realizes sooner than Bill that plants that produce millions of seeds are going to take over the world.

The Day of the TriffidsThe Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Subtle, quiet horror; that's the brilliance of this book.  The triffids aren't Little Shop of Horrors glam camp -- this isn't a creature feature. In fact, the triffids themselves and their lumbering gait and poisonous stingers aren't really that scary.  It's idea of the triffid as the man-made horror and  the genetically modified botanical experiment - or scarier, the triffid as fifth column patient watcher, waiting for to exploit a weakness.  Books like Dies the Fire and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War are certainly descendants (or at least evolutionary cousins) of The Day of the Triffids; while Triffids has some violence, the scare doesn't come from blood and guts. Wyndham uses the plot vehicle of the triffids to explore some sociology as well; namely, what happens to a well ordered society under siege. He could have used fellow humans as the siege engines; but it was far more interesting to use something alien to do that job.  Is there a genre of science fiction crossed with horror?  Triffids fits that bill.    

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Monday, July 29, 2013

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004)

This was quite an amazing book and quite enjoyable for me, even if most of the time I was lost as hell. The writing is so dense, almost impenetrable (for me at least) but really quite beautiful.  It was slightly disconcerting to be reading about a time period in which I grew up, but could barely remember; Nick Guest, the protagonist, is probably around 50 years old now, seven years older than me.  The first Alan Hollinghurst book I read, I felt the same way - lost lost lost, but loved it.  I think reading Hollinghurst requires much more attention to detail than I'm able to usually muster in a book (which made me a terrificly awful English major in college - I don't know how to "deep read").

Once again, I was reminded much of E.M. Forster.  But I'm also going to hazard a guess that I'm supposed to be reminded of Henry James as well (Nick Guest is a James scholar, or at least scholarling).   I don't know enough about Henry James to catch any Jamesian allusions though.  Except maybe that like James, Nick was a guest in rich people's houses and observed them, and like James, Nick was gay.  Penny asks Nick early in the novel what Henry James would have thought of these 80s ladies and men and Nick answers:  ''He'd have been very kind to us, he'd have said how wonderful and how beautiful we were, he'd have given us incredibly subtle things to say, and we wouldn't have realized until just before the end that he'd seen right through us.''  

So Nick Guest, a character I disliked more and more as I fell deeper and deeper into the book.  For starters, he's definitely a courtier to these people; his bowing and scraping to them really made him quite ugly in my mind, particularly as it became clear that he was taking advantage of their hospitality by having sex and doing drugs in their home.  He's such a parasite.  I've read some reviews that compared him to a character I don't know from a series of books by Anthony Powell, and to Nick Carraway, of Gatsby fame.  I haven't read Gatsby since high school, and I hate to make allusions based on seeing the recent movie.  But at least superficially, the two Nicks have quite a bit in common.  

So is Nick the villain of the piece?  He has lots of unprotected sex in these people's several homes, does cocaine (one of the "lines of beauty" ) in their house, finally exposes them to ruin.  And yet, the most devastating scene in the book, he's being thrown out of the Fedden's house for causing scandal, and you also start to realize he's a scapegoat for other sinister things going on in the house, and he's still being his oily self, all suck-up, and his last hope is the (long suffering, I'm sure) Italian housekeeper, talking with her about his first day with the Feddens, and she's cuts him dead and tells him she thought he was no good from the very start.  Ohhhh snap.  So, so awful.  So crushing.  Suddenly, you feel sorry for the villain.  And you are totally thrown for a loop.  It's a great book like that.

His name is cool too.  Even I caught that - Nick Guest.  He's always a guest.  Never quite belongs.  Of course, they finally ask him to leave too.  He's not really part of their family or their world.  They suck that way too - they are parasites as much as he is.  They use him too.  Everyone is villainous.

Wani, his multi-millionaire boyfriend, is one of those despicable rich boy gays who, to protect their precious money, keep their homosexuality a secret.  He reminded me of someone I went to high school with; also nouveau-riche and conservative.  He definitely villainous.

I'm still not exactly sure why the book is called The Line of Beauty which makes feel all the more stupid.  I think one would have to read everything, forever, to completely understand literary fiction.  Oh well.  I had to look it up in Wikipedia, and it's the double S of the ogee shape, a shape which swings both ways, described by Hogarth in The Analysis of Beauty.  I also read that this could also refer to cocaine, and a man's back and ass.  Both are beautiful to Nick (one is quite beautiful to me).  That's still over my little old head though.

I have to admit, I kept waiting and waiting for Patsy and Edina of AbFab to pop out, but they never did.  Margaret Thatcher finally showed up.

AIDS is as much a character at Margaret Thatcher.  

So the sex that was missing from the last book I read, Gore Vidal's Empire, is alive and well in this book.  Some very hot literary sex.  

The setting seems to be a series of parties or get together, connected by what happens before and after.  A birthday party, a party for Margaret Thatcher, a fete, and finally ends with a wedding that Nick can't attend because of what happens.  For as rich as everyone is, no one ever actually does any work.  They just go to parties.  

The Line of BeautyThe Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dense, practically impenetrable, absolutely beautiful prose.  Hollingsworth adds layer after layer of character, plot, and setting; sometimes I was absolutely lost, had no idea what was going on, but continued to read, completely under the spell of this book.  I could not put it down.  It's Forsterish at times.  It's also probably quite Jamesian, although I don't know enough about Henry James to judge that.  Henry James floats over the book like a fairy godfather... The protagonist, the oily parasitical Nick Guest, is a James scholar-to-be, and I wondered more than once if Nick is what Henry James might have been if he'd lived in 1980s England rather than turn of the last century England.  Margaret Thatcher is the wicked stepmother of the piece; I suppose if I want to continue down that path of allusion, AIDs, is the fairy's curse, almost a character in the book.  Character-wise overall, be prepared to be thrown for a loop.  My feelings for various characters, Nick most of all, changed as I fell deeper and deeper into the stream of the book; a last devastating scene left me feeling pity for a villain, completely throwing me for a loop.  I still shudder a bit thinking about it.  It's a book like that.

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

The High King by Lloyd Alexander (1968)

The last book in a series is never my favorite; it's usually not the critic's favorite either.    The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis is the grand high example of this - the worst ending to a beloved series in all series-dom.  Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper is also pretty stinky, at least compared to The Dark Is Rising and Greenwitch (my favorite).  I also am not a huge fan of The Return of the King by J..R.R.Tolkien; in fact, I can distnictly remember starting and stopping that particular book many, many times.  I have a vision of the paperback stuck open in the back seat window of my parent's 1970s Ford, yellowing in the sun. Harry Potter and the Whatever similarly had some end of series issues (it was the Deathly Hallows but I had to go look that up, that's how memorable it was).  Return of the Jedi was the weakest in the three initial Star Wars until JarJar Binks and Co. came along.  

The High King suffers from last-in-the-series-itis as well.  It's not a bad book by any means; Lloyd Alexander doesn't write bad books.  But it doesn't have the mix of dark and humor found in the delightful The Black Cauldron; it doesn't have the adventuresome quality of The Castle of Llyr.  It's moving, but not soul searching, like Taran Wanderer.  Even The Book of Three is a more interesting book (although compared to Taran Wanderer, The Book of Three seems very immature).  The High King spends much time wrapping up loose ends.  It's like Alexander wanted a cameo for each beloved side character - Medwyn, the gwythaint; and there were some loose ends that needed to be tied up from Castle and Taran (Magg, Dorath).  The entire plot, of all the books, seems to be the most derivative of The Lord of the Rings, although I still think the argument can be made that Tolkien and Alexander were drawing water from similar, if not the same, wells.  Arawn and Annuvin are much, much too similar to Sauron and Mordor, except Tolkien has thousands of pages and a gargantuan backstory that develops the character of Sauron and the Mordor setting.  Alexander's Annuvin doesn't feel anywhere as near developed and flushed out.  Arawn  never ripens into the rich evil of Sauron; the Cauldron Born and Huntsmen similarly are great ideas but never have any depth to them (although orcs and trolls don't have much more depth).  Alexander introduces at least one new character, Pryderi, who reminded me too much of at least two other Alexander bad guys from books past - the Horned King and Morgant).  That's another end-of-series problem; the plots are often re-workings of earlier plots, and never quite as successfully.

All good things must come to an end though, and The Chronicles of Prydain are no exception. Some people like neverending stories, but I'm not one of those people.  A series with five or six books is quite enough (Harry Potter is maybe the exception?).  Like The Lord of the Rings, Prydain  has some backstory published in another book (in this case, a book of short stories).  But that's enough.   The High King isn't great or award winning (oh snap - it did win a Newbery Honor; must have been a slowwww year), but it ties up some loose ends, and leaves much to the reader's imagination.  And that's good.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
All good things must come to end, and The Chronicles of Prydain is no exception.  The High King,if not great, is satisfying.  All the beloved characters are back for one last adventure, including some cameos; loose ends from previous books are tied up (some a little clumsily).  Funny how the last book in some series are usually at best ho-hum (and at worst, The Last Battle).  The High King is missing some of the quirky humor of previous books.  And this book in particular, of all the books in the series, seems highly derivative of The Lord of the Rings.  Although I would argue that Tolkien and Alexander are drawing water from the same well, it's still quite obvious that Arawn and Annuvin are Welsh stand-ins for Sauron and Mordor, and not as fully flushed out stand-ins at that.  All that said, some people like reading neverending series.  I'm not one of those people.  The High King isn't great or award winning, (oh snap - it did win a Newbery Honor!  Must have been a slowwwww year) but it ends nicely and exactly where it should, leaving the reader to daydream about the further (marriage?) adventures  of Taran and Eilonwy. And that's fine with me.  

Monday, July 22, 2013

Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander (1967)

Taran Wanderer is probably my least favorite book in the Prydain series - which, considering my deep love for this series and these characters, isn't really saying much.  Taran Wanderer is the heaviest of the five books, I think (although The High King is far sadder) and feels really episodic in spots.  There is a lot going on in a shorter amount of time.  That said, the chapters where Taran tests his luck, learns at the forge, learns to weave, and learns about shaping clay are among my favorite in the entire series.  And any time the Three Wise Women make an appearance, I'm happy; they are some of the most memorable characters in children's literature.

I decided that Taran reminds me of Luke Skywalker.  I'm sure there is some Joseph Campbell theory behind why I think that and I don't really care.  He just does.  Taran grows more Jedi-like in each successive book.

Taran Wanderer (The Chronicles of Prydain, #4)Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can't decide whether I think this is the weakest or the strongest in the series.  It's a heavy book;  the seriousness of Taran's quest almost weighs the book down with a potential to collapse in on itself.  Even without Eilonwy (she's sorely missed) though, the book has some of Alexander's flippant humor, particularly in the earlier chapters.  The middle part of the book is dark and sad.  It's the end that's the strongest and most beautiful.  Taran's apprenticeships with the weaver, the smith, and the potter - as well as his delightful toil at gambling on life and luck to deliver - are among the most memorable and wonderful in the whole series.  Good reading all around.

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Empire by Gore Vidal (1987)

Bluntly, especially for someone writing in 1987, Gore Vidal is a big pussy when it comes to writing about sex.  If Empire had been written by John Jakes or Judith Krantz, Caroline Sanford would have not only fucked William Randolph Hearst and John Hay, she probably would have fucked her half-brother Blaise, and THEN fucked him over.  As it was, she only slept with the Representative Jim Day from an unnamed state (who looks like Jimmy Stewart from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in my head), and that was really, really boring.  Quite frankly, Blaise should have been buggered by Jim Day as well - instead, he just admires him in the shower (where Vidal implies that Jim has a big dick).  I'm not hating the book (a little maybe) but I do think for something written in the steamy, sexy 80s, there could have been a little more sex.  Caroline and Blaise Sanford are only in their early 20s; they act like their are in their 40s (or more likely Vidal's age, which was probably sixties).  Shouldn't twenty-somethings be bumping like bunnies?

So Blaise and Jim do have sex, at least once, but it's off camera and only alluded to.  Sheesh.

I did a little more research on this series.  I had mixed this book up, apparently, with another book I read about Clover Adams.  I now have no idea what that other novel was - I read it long long long ago in a galaxy far away -- but I know more about this "Narratives of Empire" series.  The first book in the series was Washington D.C. ; it's set later than Empire, and features Blaise and Jim.  Do they have sex in that book?  Maybe, but I doubt it.  The series chronologically (which in not the order in which it was written) begins with Burr, continues on through Lincoln (I've read most of that book), 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington D.C., and finally The Golden Age.

I do want to, at some point in my reading life, read the rest of this series.

"When history starts to move underneath you, you'd better figure how you're going to ride it, or you'll fall off."

"There is nothing so boring as people who are always bored." Said by Mrs. Jack Astor (who, accordingly to Wikipedia, eventually divorced her Astor husband and moved to England in 1909, where she married into the British aristocracy).

"The republic is dead; long live the empire."  Henry Adams says this towards the end of Empire.

EmpireEmpire by Gore Vidal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Towards the end of the book, Gore Vidal's fictionalized Henry Adams says, "The republic is dead; long live the empire" which is a succinct way of summing up the last 100 years of American policy; Vidal fictionally traces the rise of the American Empire and the imperial presidency, especially how the media can create not only a war, but a president as well.  History has been far kinder to Theodore Roosevelt (and Taft, too, actually) than Gore Vidal was to them in Empire.  The line is also reminds me of something Cicero might have said 2,000 years ago, which I suppose is the point.  There is quite a bit going on in this wonderfully, dense, rich books. It's occasionally bitchy, sometimes pointed, and contains a cast of characters, historically based or otherwise, that only occasionally come across as cardboard characters.  The sex is in this awful - particularly since it was written in the heyday of Judith Krantz and John Jakes, you'd think Vidal could have spiced it up just a bit; that's certainly when the characters feel like paperdolls in Edwardian dress.  But when history is happening, when the Republic is fading, that's when Henry Adams and John Hay and Alice Roosevelt and William Randolph Hearst feel the most alive; to be trite, it's like you were there (or at the very least Gore Vidal).  This book probably isn't for everyone (you're going to need at least a partial understanding of American History, or be prepared to wikipedia much) but it's quite good.

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Horace Paraphrased by Isaac Watts (1799)

Horace Paraphrased
 by Isaac Watts

There are a number of us creep
Into this world to eat and sleep,
And know no reason why they're born
But merely to consume the corn,
Devour the cattle, fowl and fish,
And leave behind an empty dish.
The crows and ravens do the same,
Unlucky birds of hateful name;
Ravens or crows might fill their place,
And swallow corn and carcases.
Then if their toombstone when they die
Ben't taught to flatter and to lie,
There's nothing better will be said
Than that "They've up and eat all their bread,
Drank up their dring and gone to bed.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mah Jong All Day Long (2005) and Auntie Yang's Great Soybean Picnic (2012) by Ginny Lo; illustrations by Beth Lo

From the copyright page:  "The illustrations were created by painting with ceramic underglazes on handmade porcelain plates."  That was the most amazing part of these books.  So cool!

I liked Mahjong All Day Long slightly better than Auntie Yang's Great Soybean Picnic.    Soybean was a bit too long, although interesting.  Mahjong was very short.  Both are very culturally specific, I think, although I guess they could be used as introductory to Chinese American culture.  Certainly if I had young family members who were Chinese American, these would make nice read-alouds or gifts.

Mahjong looks like a fun game.  I wish I knew how to play.

Mahjong All Day LongMahjong All Day Long by Ginnie Lo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Short and very sweet.  Although at first glance this seems a bit culturally specific,I think the broader appeal lies in the warmth of a family gathering - many of us remember our parents and grandparents, their friends and relations, playing some sort of card game while younger children looked on longingly, waiting for the time when they were old enough to join.  The illustrations are unbelievably extraordinary - " created by painting with ceramic underglazes on handmade porcelain plates."  

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The amazing illustrations "created by painting with ceramic underglazes on handmade porcelain plates" make this book a special piece of art.  The storytelling is slightly flat though, almost but not quite didactic.  I wished the cousins had been a little more lively and felt as real in the story as they looked on the plates.  Still, it's interesting, and definitely a slice of time sort of work.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Florence, A Delicate Case by David Leavitt (2002)

I'm not sure what to call this book or how to descsribe it.  In essence, it is a little literary love letter to Florence.  Some of it was over my head, but all of it was lovingly and beautifully written.  I'm a gay man, who was reading it while traveling in Florence; it's by a gay man who lives in Florence; and it was about various gay men and women who have lived in Florence over the ages.  Florence made more sense to me after reading it, from a historical standpoint, and the English gardens of Fiesole, Forster, the romantic attraction of Florence for gay English men and women (not to mention Russians and Poles) was explained by the book (it was "easier" to be homosexual in Italy, and especially Florence, than it was in England; sounds like it was easier to pick up guys in Florence as well, who would do it for money).    Some other bits and pieces of Florentine history were explained as well (such as the Nazis blowing up the bridges over the Arno as they retreated, or the great flood of 1966 that destroyed so many works of art).  A sweet and interesting little book.

Florence: A Delicate CaseFlorence: A Delicate Case by David Leavitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not sure how to describe this book - it's a little bit of history, a little bit of literature, some art history - how about a little literary love letter to Florence? I'd definitely recommend finding a copy and reading it if you are visiting this most beautiful and romantic of cities.  Some of this was over my head, but all it was lovingly and beautifully written.

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The Adventures of a Brownie by Mrs. Craik (1872)

I read this book on my phone, although I own an old copy that I got for free in third grade (a discarded library book).  That is certainly the last time I read the book too.  A brownie is sort of like a cross between a rat, a borrower, and a gremlin.  This particular brownie lives in the basement of an English home full of nameless children, under a large piece of coal.  Basically, if you don't give him a bowl full of milk every night, he will play tricks on the household.  Essentially, each chapter is about the brownie playing tricks on the poor servants - the grumpy young cook who doesn't believe in the brownie, the grumpy gardener who hates the children of the house hold, and his grumpy wife who steals the coal.  Apparently, it was funny for high Victorian children to read about the comeuppance of surly servants.

This is sort of proto-Nesbit; a book like The Adventures of a Brownie evolves into Five Children and It, which evolves into The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which evolves into Harry Potter...  Brownie isn't as clever or funny as Nesbit, but there are touches of humor, and it's not all treacle and sweetness (the unnamed children have  sainted mother though, and an absent father, similar to Nesbit's Railway Children, I think).

Craik also wrote The Little Lame Prince; I own a copy of this as well from around that same time period.

The Adventures of a BrownieThe Adventures of a Brownie by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Adventures of a Brownie is sort of a proto-Nesbit; a book like this eventually evolved into Nesbit's Five Children and It which evolved into The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobewhich eventually becomes Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (with some stops and diversions along the way).  Brownie isn't as clever or funny as Nesbit, but there is some pointed humor.  Mainly aimed at the poor servants, who are always getting their comeuppance from the brownie.  Victorian upper class children probably had to put up with some abuse by servants (and vice versa, I'm sure), grumpy cooks and gardeners who had to take care of someone else's children, and Brownie surely appeased some of that.  This certainly isn't a great work of children's literature (the illustrations leave much to be desired) but when I was in third grade, I loved it so much when my elementary school library discarded a copy, I was given it.  It stayed in print for many, many years.

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I, Claudius by Robert Graves (1934)

I thought I had read this before (I've certainly seen parts of the mini-series from the 1970s) but I guess I hadn't; or only read parts.  To be perfectly honest, I skimmed a good chunk of this anyway.  It's well written and clever - but some of it is a little boring, drags, and feels long in parts.  Modern Library ranked this as 14th of its 100 best novels, which surprised me.  I didn't think it was all that good.  Maybe I missed something.  The book seems sort of smug and full of itself, if a book can be that.

With all those batshit crazy people running the show, I wonder why it took Rome another 500 years to fall?

Still, this was fun to read while in Rome, imaging Claudius and company in the Forum, etc.

I, Claudius (Claudius, #1)I, Claudius by Robert Graves
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 I enjoyed some of this, and other parts I thought really slogged and bogged.  It's certainly precisely written, and really clever. Claudius is definitely a fully realized character, and his view point is humorous and wry.

It's #14 on Modern Library's 100 best novels, which I don't understand - I didn't think it was that good.  I was visiting Rome while reading the novel, which did lend the book some local flavor; the ghost of Augustus (his will to power?) still floats over Rome and Italy to this day - SPQR.

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A Room With a View by E.M. Forster (1908)

Reading A Room With A View on the way to Florence is an amazing experience, such a treat.   I think only someone who has read and loved the book (and the loved the film) so much can truly understand what it's like to walk the footsteps of Lucy Honeychurch, Charlotte Bartlett, Eleanor Lavish, Reverends Beebe and Eager, and the Emersons.   I've now seen violets and cornflowers in Tuscany, and yes, they are beautiful.  I've walked across the Ponte Vecchio, seen Santa Maria Novella, and apparently was near enough to Piazza della Signoria to take pictures of the Palazzo Vecchio but didn't realize it.  Italy is kind of like that.  Oh well, next time I will talk through it and pretend to be Lucy Honeychurch.    Our room was across the road from the Arno, and yes, we had a view (wasn't all that beautiful though, but oh well).

George Emerson is still one of the sexiest men in literature.

"Life is easy to chronicle but bewildering to practice."  A quote that registered for the first time.

No better description of Florence in literature, at least in English, than this: “It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not; with a painted ceiling whereon pink griffins and blue amorini sport in a forest of yellow violins and bassoons. It was pleasant, too, to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and, close below, Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.”  Really, no matter where we stayed or what we did in Florence, this is the romantic (too romantic?!) image that will be stuck in my head.  No matter that our hotel was built in 1965, and that Vespas and tiny Fiats raced all over the place.  Florence is always A Room With A View.   It's the idea of the modern intertwined with the old.  The entire book is sort of the Renaissance, isn't it?  A rebirth, a re-awakening, a re-discovery of old things, in this case, the old idea that love conquers?  Perhaps.

A Room with a ViewA Room with a View by E.M. Forster
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This should be required reading before visiting Florence; hell, this should just be required reading period.  A tremendously beautiful, romantic book about fate and truth and love, the awesome power of the muddles to ruin everything, Renaissance and spring.  And it's quite funny too.  Charlotte Bartlett is one of the best comedic characters in literature, perfectly rendered, down to her passive aggressive coughs and boiler problems.  Lucy Honeychurch is always Pre-Raphaelite in my head; and George Emerson is just sexy.  A rare classic that I've re-read many times, growing better and better with each read.

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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander (1966)

The Castle of Llyr is just downright good storytelling, plain and simple.  It's a better book than The Book of Three, but I'm not sure why it's better - I think for me, probably because I owned this and The Black Cauldron long before I owned or even read the other four in the series.  It suffers from a lack of Eilonwy, but I like Prince Rhun.  And there's the wonderful Llyan.  And Achren too - I love those female villainesses!  Glew, though, I always found annoying." style="float: left; padding-right: 20px">The Castle of Llyr
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My rating: 5">">5 of 5 stars

Quite simply, great storytelling.  Alexander builds on the plot and characters of the earlier two novels, adding layers to the personalities of Taran, Flewddur and Eilonwy, while adding new characters like Prince Rhun.  There is a touch of romance to the book, but that never overshadows the rollicking adventure.  What's really amazing about Alexander is that there is simplicity to his novels, particularly the middle three (books 1 and 5 feel a little like bookends), that allows the reader to use his imagination to "fill in the gaps."  For example, Achren, the villainous enchantress, has a major back story that Alexander only hints at (in both this book and in The Book of Three).  The details of her previous relationship with Arawn the Death Lord are left to our imagination, which is far more engaging and interesting than having every last detail spelled out for us. 

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The Rennaissance by Will Durant (1953)

Webs that fly forth from the 14th century to nab the 20th century (and others):

[The Italian people] "oppressed by.. economic masters, and weary of faction, welcomed dictatorship in Florence in 1434, in Perugia in 1389, in Bologna in 1401, in Siena in 1477, in Rome in 1347 and 1922."  Or this one:  "We cannot hold the popes responsible for all the vice that gathered in papal Avignon.  The cause was wealth, which has had like results in other times - in the Rome of Nero, the Rome of Leo X, the Paris of Louis XIV, the New York and Chicago of today."  Or another, melancholy this time:  "Filippino was invited to Prato to paint a Madonna; Vasari praised it, the Second World War destroyed it."

Describing Leonardo:  "Like every artist, every author, and every homosexual, he was unusually self-conscious, sensitive, and vain."  Ouch!

Like a wild bird, I'm going to set this one free.  I'm leaving on a plane trip tomorrow for Italy - why I'm reading this in the first place -- and I don't want to lug a 10 lb book on to the plane!  I'm not giving it up because I don't like it, because I love the Durants. 

I dogeared several pages - I know that's a sin, I'm anathema - for various reasons.

Parisina MalatestaWhat a fantastic name.  She sounds like some sort of drag queen.    OH GOODNESS, she has an opera written about her!  And a poem by Byron.  She should.  She committed adultery with her stepson, Ugo (who sounds like a Popeye character) and both were beheaded by Niccolo d'Este, the jealous husband.  I hope Ugo was worth it, Olive Oyl.

Describing the falsely maligned Lucrezia Borgia, and tying the present again to the past in another delightful turn of phrase:  She "was not offended when her father chose a husband for her; that was then normal procedure for all good girls, and produced no more unhappiness than our own reliance on the selective wisdom of romantic love."  Plus, her father was the Pope.

The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander (1965)

I last read - and posted - about The Black Cauldron in February 2010.

My feelings for it haven't changed one bit.  I still love this series.

After so many re-readings of the entire series, I've filled gaps that Lloyd Alexander may have inadvertently (or otherwise) left in the characters and plots - what the characters look like, sound like, etc.

Every time I re-read it, I think about something different,or catch something I didn't catch before.

Orwen, Orddu and Orgoch are the Norns or the Fates, spinning, weaving, and cutting the threads of our lives.  I don't remember when I found this out, or how I found this out.  I know about the Fates from Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series, where they are major characters. They also share some similarities with Chameleon, the heroine of another Anthony book, A Spell for Chameleon, in which one woman gradually changes throughout the month by magic into the different stages of youth, middle age, and old age.  Orwen, to my mind, is Clotho, the spinner; Orddu (who brings life into being), Lachesis, the measure of threads (who decides how long life lasts); Orgoch, Atropos, who cuts the threads (and hence life).  Of course, the three also are powerful witches, and their roles in the book are not simply as Fate.  What I noticed this time was that Orgoch wears a black cowl - like death - and talks about eating quite a bit - which is what death ultimately does to each and all of us.

The Huntsmen of Annuvin.  I know from multiple readings that if you kill one huntsman, the remaining grow stronger.  I didn't remember this passage describing that though:  After Ellidyr kills a huntsman (saving Taran's life):  "In the grove there was a sudden moment of silence. Then a long sigh rippled among the attackers as though each man had drawn breath.  Tran's heart sank as he remembered Gwydion's warning.  With a roar, the Huntsman renewed their attack with even greater ferocity, dashing themselves against the struggling companions in a surge of fury."  I always thought the Huntsman were just a powerful brotherhood of warriors, and the death of had a psychological effect on the brotherhood.  But clearly from this passage, it's a magical and physical thing. They also have red brands on their forheads, something I forgot.  At least this go around, they all looked like characters from the television show Vikings, which I'm hooked to right now.

Adaon says the most beautiful things.  In response to a typical Taran statement about earning glory and honor through battle:  "Is there not glory enough in living the days given to us?  You should know there is adventure in simply being among those we love and the things we love, and beauty, too."    I always long to be more of a Adaon. I don't think I'm a rash, passionate Taran.  I'm more of the practical yet sarcastic Eilonwy.  Or maybe we all have traits of Taran, Eilonwy, Gurgi and Flewddur in us.

Also, who exactly are the Sons of Don, and why don't they ever come to help Gwydion out?  In The Black Cauldron, Gwydion has to rely on King Smoit and King Morgant - the Sons of Don are nowhere to be found.  In The Castle of Llyr, which I'm reading now, Gwydion is skulking around, spying on Rhuddlum's castle, trying to protect Eilonwy - and once again, the Sons of Don are nowhere to be found.  If I remember correctly, they make an appearance in The High King at the end." style="float: left; padding-right: 20px">The Black Cauldron (The Chronicles of Prydain, #2)
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My rating: 5">">5 of 5 stars

 I have read The Black Cauldron so many times, the characters all seem like real people to me.  I love the entire series; it's beloved and important to me.  There is much of Tolkien and Middle Earth in Alexander and Prydain, although both were drawing rich water from the well of northern mythologies and legend.  I think, like Tolkien, Alexander took Welsh legends and spun them out in a unique and delightful way.  Alexander's works are simpler and shorter; they are written for children but I don't think they are dumbed down in the least.  Taran's adventures include big decisions about friendship, honor, loyalty, and death; the black beast gnawing at Ellidyr's soul isn't necessarily something you'd think to find in children's literature (although in the very best children's literature, those concepts and ideas are always there; it's what seperates storytelling and fiction from didacticism).  Alexander's humor and wit, particularly through characters like Eilonwy, Doli, and Flewddur Fflam is what I especially love about Alexander's work.  Nothing is so completely heavy and dark that a good laugh can't lighten up (Taran is the straight man to these three, plus characters like Gwystal and even occasionally Dallben).  Life is more joyful for me when re-reading The Chronicles of Prydain - they still make me laugh and cry.

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Monday, July 1, 2013

The Borrowers Afield by Mary Norton (1955)

The Borrowers are sort of odd to begin with, and The Borrowers Afield is odder still.  I think what attracted me to the Borrowers as a child was their size; when you are little, your whole job in life is to be told what to do, when to do it, where to do it, and how to do it.  The Borrowers are little people who live in (relatively) familiar setting, and get away with pulling the wool over adults' eyes, and occasionally throwing the wool right into their eyes.  But the tone is also really dark, and the to me at least, the characters are really unlikable.  The Borrowers Afield is quite a lot about complaining (mostly Homily) and other people carping about the complaining (mostly Pod).  The whole book feels very in-between.  Pod may say that they are going to be living in the boot in the bush forever, and Arrietty may secretly wish that was true, but you the reader, who know there are other books in this series, know this is probably not true.  Really, NOTHING seems to ever happen to them that's exciting.  When I was ten or so, my aunt and uncle gave me a box of books that belonged to my much older cousin, and one of the books was a novelized version of the old television series Land of the Giants.  Quite frankly, the book was sort of stupid and boring (as fictionalized version of movies and television almost always are), but at least things happened to the little people - insects and lizards tried to eat them ALL THE TIME.  The Food of the Gods had giants animals - rats and wasps - who tried to eat people too.  Barely anything tries to eat the Clocks - a crow, a snake at some point slithers by.  At least the Littles had adventures.  The Borrowers just sit around and complain all the time about how their place in society has fallen.  At it's heart, the Borrowers are a Victorian comedy of manners.  That does give the Borrowers a different spin, although the three of them are still really, really sort of unpleasant.

The Borrowers Afield (The Borrowers #2)The Borrowers Afield by Mary Norton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I think the Borrowers series, at its heart, is dark and grim, and The Borrowers Afield is mostly about Homily complaining about their fall from (social?) grace.  It's almost a Victorian comedy of manners, minus servants.  The three Clocks aren't really all that likable as characters either; Homily complains too much and is a classicist snob, Pod is a chauvinist at the best of times and ineffectual at the worst of times, and there is something sly about Arrietty (she got them into this mess in the first place, which to give her parents some credit, they don't really bring up very much). Her curiosity is supposed to be admirable, but she also has a streak of independence that quite frankly should have had her eaten by a cat or a stoat long ago.   The book ends with her flirting with the new human boy, and that can certainly lead to no good.

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In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant (2006)

I'm traveling to Italy this week (for twelve days!), so the last few weeks I've read nothing but Italian history or novels set in Italy.  In the Company of the Courtesan was set in Venice -a  city I'm not visiting - during the end of the High Renaissance.  It is absolutely engaging and delightful, with expected main characters (basically a high class whore and her pimp, who is a dwarf), and some really interesting twists and turns. Two characters are actual historical figures (I'm not going to reveal which ones, only because I was so pleasantly surprised to find out their actual existence in history.  I think the history is dead on - Dunant's Venice seems incredibly dirty, vibrant and alive (and her sack of Rome scenes are the beginning are excruciatingly real.  Some of the plot frays out a bit, and isn't very even.  Who cares - the brilliant characters simply overpower the plot.  Dunant reminds me of a lustier, lewder Philippa Gregory.  Like Gregory's books, once you are hooked, you madly read until the end.

In the Company of the CourtesanIn the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A perfect summer read, especially if you (like me) are traveling to Italy.  Dunant's writing reminds me a lewder, lustier Philippa Gregory.  The main characters - a high class courtesan and her pimp, a dwarf who narrates the story - are delightfully real.  If she seems a bit shallow - that's probably because she's written that way; he seems more alive, but definitely a dark narrator.  So the plot frays a bit here and there; the dancing at the edge of soap opera characters simply overpower the plot with their presence.  Venice at the end of the High Renaissance is lovingly portrayed, with all its filth and money and glamor; Dunant's opening descriptions of the sack of Rome are brutally realistic and fascinating.  Like Philippa Gregory's best works, this is one you fall deeply into and keep madly reading until the very end.

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