Friday, March 25, 2016

A Pocket History of the United States by Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager with Jeffrey Morris (1942, 1986)

Found this book in the trash heap.  It's not something I usually would even glance at - it looked like a text book - but I thought it would make some good "in between" reading - something to glance at every once in a while.  At this very moment as I type this, I'm enjoying it immensely - it's really quite well written, with great turns of phrase, like this one:

"Here was a great, shaggy continent, its Eastern third covered with pathless forests; its mountains, rivers, lakes, and rolling plains all upon a grandiose scale; it's Northern stretches fiercely cold in winter, its Southern areas burning hot in summer; filled with wild beasts, and peopled by a warlike, cruel, and treacherous people still in the Stone Age of culture."

This paragraph says two things about this book.  The first is that beautiful word "shaggy" which instantly calls to mind (at least to my mind) wildness and crag, mountain upon mountain covered with pine trees.  This was on page 2 - a literary beginning that to me meant this wasn't report fodder or simply a text book; some love and care went into the writing of this book.  Fine writing, and that has continued to prove true (I've reached the Revolutionary War as of this point).

Two, the "Stone Age of culture", those cruel and treacherous Indians.   That's definitely something wrong with this book - it's portrayal of Native Americans.  I think newer research and theories about Native American life prior to the coming of European settlers have revealed many new things about Native Americans - the noble savage never existed, they were much, much move "civilized" than given credit, that writers and historians had themes in mind when writing that did not include Indians (or Mexicans, or Russians, or Vikings, or the Chinese).  The writers treatment of Native Americans definitely has to be taken with a large grain of salt.  Those pesky treacherous Indians one one had are teaching the earliest colonials about corn and turkey and pumpkins and potatoes, and then turning around and slaughtering them all.  If they were so stone age, how come they had to do all the teaching?

Another beautiful passage:  Talking about "the back country," essentially the entire range of the Appalachians from north to south.  The back country "produced the archetype of restless pioneers in Daniel Boone... who in 1769 passed through the magic door that pierced the wild Appalachian wall into Kentucky- the Cumberland Gap."  A beautifully piece of prose, using the words "magic door that pierced" is so evocative and haunting.


So I started this book months ago, and like I mentioned above, just read "in-between."  You can figure out what that means yourself.  I became far less enamored  of the book as time went on, but some reason, I couldn't put it down.  It definitely had a pro-labor slant, that would have made sense, coming from progressive historians of the 1940s.  At the same point, it was lousy when it came to writing about diversity and civil rights.  As the book grew - I imagine it was added to periodically - civil rights got more mention, but certainly earlier chapters, particularly those that mentioned Native Americans in "red man" type of terminology, weren't as palatable.  I wouldn't recommend this to anyone, but as a period piece of historical writing, taken with a somewhat jaundiced (and cynical) grain of salt, it was (mostly) engaging.

A Pocket History of the United StatesA Pocket History of the United States by Henry Steele Commager
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three months and hundreds of years later, I finished this pocket history of the United States. I literally found in a trash can. It was first published in 1942, and was renewed at various times since then; the edition I read is 1986, with Carter and Reagan getting scant coverage (although Carter's place in history already seemed to be firmly set in 1986). If you are looking for a modern history of the United States, this probably shouldn't be the book you pick up. What's interesting about this book is the study of history itself, and how over time, what's important to historians changes. The pro-labor slant of this book is evident again and again; the entire progressive era is one big chapter on the push Labor made against the Gilded Age plutocracy. If you are looking for diversity, you're going to be disappointed; there is much "red man" terminology when referring to Native Americans, also the empty new world concept (See1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus for a look how the world was neither new nor particularly empty). African Americans and civil rights get scant attention until the 1960s, and even then it's not as in depth as I think a modern history (or text book) would make. All that said, there is some beautiful passages here, particularly the beginning. These authors - Allan Nevins, Henry Steele Commager, Jeffery Morris (whoever they may be) clearly love the United States in that old fashioned, flag waving, admirable patriotic sort of way. You know they dressed up in tricorns and muskets in 1976 (and probably before). The writing becomes more factual and dryer as the book progresses, but there are still some stirring phrases every so often (democracy verses totalitarianism is one such passage). I would not recommend this to anyone other than a student of history, and perhaps I should say a student of historians. But if you want to see how writing about the United States has changed over the last 75 years or so, pop this in your pocket for some fun reading.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Great Detective by Delia Sherman (2016)

This is a short story I downloaded into my Kindle from  It's a clever (but not particularly witty) steampunk take on Sherlock Holmes.  There is a spunky, likable heroine, a Welsh ghost, a Victorian aristocratic inventor, and Mycroft Holmes.  Great fun.

I think I've read some Delia Sherman before - I certainly know the name - but what and when that was, I do not recall. She has a likable, uncomplicated style; her steampunk London has some rich details that bring it to life.  Also, the various nods to steampunk are both broad (automatons galore) and subtle (for example, Morris wallpaper called "Bird and Gear," which I had to google - it's a play on Morris wallpapers from the era called "Bird and Pomengranate").  There is quite possibly a longer novel at work behind the scenes here; without giving too much away, the ending seems  to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

For being such a fan of Sherlock Holmes, it continues  to amaze that I've never actually read a Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Many years ago, I read and enjoyed Laurie King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice.  I've loved the modern Sherlock, with the contemporary versions of the classic stories.  Last summer, I saw and liked the Ian McKellen vehicle Mr. Holmes.  I remember fondly Star Trek: The Next Generation holodeck Sherlock Holmes stories.  But actually reading an original story - still on my bucket list.

The Great DetectiveThe Great Detective by Delia Sherman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sherman has a likable, compact and uncomplicated writing style. Her steampunk London described in this short story was rich in detail, lively, and clever (but not witty). The various nods to steampunk are both broad (automatons galore) and subtle (for example, Morris wallpaper called "Bird and Gear," which I had to google - it's a play on Morris wallpapers from the era called "Bird and Pomengranate"). There is quite possibly a longer novel at work behind the scenes here; without giving too much away, the ending seems to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

View all my reviews

The Mysterious Mr. Quin by Agatha Christie (1930)

I found these stories really odd.  They were all previously published in the pulp magazines of the time, throughout the 1920s, then gathered together in a book in 1930.  Each story has sort of a supernatural tinge to it.  Mr. Harley Quin isn't really a detective in the sense that Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple are detectives.  Rather, he is like some sort of otherworldly influence on this older gentleman, Mr. Satterthwaite; he suddenly appears and give Mr. Sattertwaite clues as to how to solve rather strange mysteries. He's like something Neil Gaiman created, sort of like Batman crossed with Death.   It's all very weird, and quite definitely not my favorite Agatha Christie stories (although I've read that they were her favorites and Harley Quin was her favorite character about which to write).  The significance of the harlequin has evaded me; I think I would have to read up much more on the commedia dell'arte that I'm interested in doing for a book I found not exactly riveting.

What Agatha Christie does well in her short stories is simple character sketches, and she's definitely got some great ones in each and every story.  Her actresses, Duchesses, bright young things, American tourists, Russian ballerinas, etc. etc. are always so simply drawn, but stand out, like dark, black strokes on dazzling white paper.  Mr. Satterthwaite grows and changes as the years progress, and in thinking about it, becomes quite an interesting character.

Interestingly, these stories are far less slangy, and also contain very little French; I didn't have to look up nearly as much as usual.

The Mysterious Mr. Quin (Harley Quin, #1)The Mysterious Mr. Quin by Agatha Christie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Certainly not my favorite Agatha Christie stories, although I've read that Harley Quin was her favorite character about which to write. Dame Agatha wrote these stories throughout the 1920s and published them in various pulp magazines; they were gathered together in book form in 1930. There is a supernatural tinge; Mr. Harley Quin isn't really a detective, but sort of this cross between Batman and Death (or maybe Fate); it's all very Neil Gaimanish (perhaps Neil Gaiman's great-grandmother is a better description). "Wherever Mr. Quin showed himself - there lay drama" is a line from one of the stories, and that's basically the theme. Harley Quin is sort of the fulcrum by which another character, Satterthwaite, solves the mysteries presented in each story. Quin is based on the Harlequin character from the commedia dell'arte and English pantomime, but why that was significant enough to Christie to create this character really escaped me. The stories written in the latter part of the 1920s seem to be better; I imagine the longer Christie wrote, the more she honed her craft.

View all my reviews

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin (2016)

I haven't ever read a book or short story by Truman Capote.
I've never read In Cold Blood.  I've never read Breakfast at Tiffany's.  I hadn't read anything mentioned in The Swans of Fifth Avenue.
I have read To Kill A Mockingbird by Truman Capote's good childhood friend, Nell Harper Lee.  Which I loved.
I did see a movie about Truman Capote, the one starring that actor who died of a drug overdose (Philip Seymour Hoffman, thank you internet).  Which I enjoyed.
I did attempt to watch Breakfast at Tiffany's. Which I did not enjoy.
I have seen Murder by Death, multiple times.  Like author Melanie Benjamin, who wrote about this in the afterward, my teenage self thought this movie was the height of hilarity.  I still think it's cute.  Truman Capote, not so much.
I imagine when I was a kid in the seventies, Truman Capote existed, but I don't remember him.
I read Personal History Kay Graham, back in the late 1990s, when I was a little baby librarian and it was on the best seller list. So I came into this book with some pre-knowledge of the Black and White Ball.  I think maybe I've even read another book about the black and white ball, maybe.  Who knows.
I knew who Babe Paley was. I'd heard of C.Z. Guest.  I just heard about Slim Keith from one of my all time favorite podcasts, You Must Remember This, because it was about Lauren Bacall, who essentially was modeled after Slim Keith.
I also had read, several times, in high school and early college, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles by Dominick Dunne, and I probably even watched the miniseries (that's probably why I read the book, that and the sex scenes).  So I knew the story of Ann Woodward, only from that different angle (one thing that this book made me want to do is re-read The Two Mrs. Grenvilles).

This is all to say that the plot points of this book are personally salient.  You'd think I would have loved this book.  Plus, that incredible and awesome cover.

 This book would appear to have everything I would love.  Society dames, mid-century fashion, a garden variety fag (Ann Woodward's words, not mine) done well for himself, scandal (but not too scandalous), famous people (Frank Sinatra! Rose Kennedy!).

But the writing.  Oh gawd, the writing.  It made my teeth hurt.  The many, many monologues.  The modern mixture of points of view; the always poignant and sad windows into Truman's mind or Babe's mind or Slim Keith's mind, or some other poor little rich woman's mind.

Why wasn't this just published as a non-fiction book?  Maybe Melanie Benjamin was trying to emulate In Cold Blood and write write a piece of narrative non-fiction (again, I haven't read In Cold Blood, and I'm really not interested in reading it either, so perhaps I'll never know).

Somewhere in the middle of the book - because I actually finished it, because, teeth grittingly annoying as the writing could be sometimes, I was still interested in the story.  I wanted to know what was going to happen, and I actually though Benjamin's written pictures of these women, this man, and the world in which they lived and drank and gossiped and partied and ultimately stabbed each other in the back was really, really well painted.  You were definitely there with them, sipping cocktails, buying a mask for the Black and White Ball, having your hair done next to Rose Kennedy.  Even dying with Babe Paley, as her husband grieves, and her last words are about Truman Capote.

Somewhere in the middle of this book, I wondered what Truman Capote would have thought about this book. He was such an awful, self absorbed person, I can imagine he would have been delighted to know a best selling fictional biographical account was at the top of the lists all about him and his swans.  But I also think there would be some cruel, snideness about the writing itself.  It comes across as occasionally pretentious.  Read it aloud, using a certain kind of voice, and you will soon see what I mean.  The kind of pretentiousness from college creative writing class.  I know, when I fancied myself a writer, I wrote a story about Anne Boleyn in the same way.  I guess the difference here is that Melanie Benjamin got her book published.  I'm writing stream of consciousness bool reviews on a blog about 16 people read.  So perhaps I should shut my fat mouth... or stop typing...

To read or not to read?  I would say yes. It's really deliciously bad, like Valley of the Dolls, only Benjamin doesn't change any of the names (plus, aren't all of these people dead now?  Harper Lee may have been the last person alive mentioned directly in the book, and she passed away last year.  Gloria Vanderbilt is still alive.  But everyone else is dead, I think).  

The Swans of Fifth AvenueThe Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

How do you "star" a book that you find both repellent and also delightfully fun; to steal a line from Charles Dickens, this is the best of books, this is the worst of books. Delightful, delicious sugary fun: Benjamin's written pictures of these women, this man, and the world in which they lived and drank and gossiped and partied and ultimately stabbed each other in the back was really, really well painted. You were definitely there with them, sipping cocktails, buying a mask for the Black and White Ball, having your hair done next to Rose Kennedy. Even dying with Babe Paley, as her husband grieves, and her last words are about Truman Capote. It occasionally reminded me of Valley of the Dolls, except Benjamin didn't bother changing the names. The writing is more disguised, but at its heart is as blunt as Valley of the Dolls too. Blunt, and teeth grittingly annoying. The internal monologues, the fraughtness, the poor little rich girls and guys, the switching points of view, the windows in the minds and souls of various wealthy socialites and the first pocket gay in history. Truman Capote was scandalous; I'm not sure this book was scandalous. I'm also not sure what he would have thought about the book, if he were alive to read it. He was completely narcissistic and self -absorbed, so the fact that people still want to read about him, even a half-assed fictionalized account (this would have made much, much better non-fiction), he would have been giddy as a schoolgirl. But I also think he would have been cruel as well; and aghast that anyone would even attempt to tell his story, as he would always be able to tell it best. To read it or not to read it - I say go pick it up. It's worth a few hours to be lost in this midcentury wonderland of yachts and fancy dress balls and bitchiness. But please don't try to find some sort of literary merit here, other than pure pleasure.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance by Ian Buruma (2006)

When Mohammed Bouyeri  killed controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004 (he shot him several times then  cut his throat, and kicked his corpse several times for good measure), he then "walked away, without hurry, easy as could be, as though he had done nothing more dramatic than fillet a fish.  Still calm, he made no attempt to escape.  While he reloaded his gun, a woman who happened by screamed 'You can't do that!' 'Yes, I can,' Bouyeri replied... 'and now you know what you people can expect in the future.'"

I less than 20 miles away when Farook and Malik committed mass murder at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino.  After finding out the acts were acts of terrorism, I immediately thought I wanted to re-read Burama's book about the killing of Theo Van Gogh.  Because what Bouyeri said was true:  "you people" - means Westernerns like me - "can expect" more acts like this in the future.  We've had many since Van Gogh's murder, and will probably have many more.  Buruma's exploration of these clashes of culture, between the European Enlightenment and a hatred of what it stands for, between multiculturalism and nationalism.  The world hasn't gotten and safer since Burman wrote  this book. France and the United States are the brink of electing fascists or proto-fascists, Great Britain is possibly voting to leave the European Union, there is a humanitarian / political crisis going on in Europe with more Muslim refugees from the war-torn, climate-change impacted Middle East.  This clash is even worse.

Buruma doesn't leave us with any solutions, and a dozen years later, there still aren't any easy solutions.

Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of ToleranceMurder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance by Ian Buruma
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wanted to re-read this book after the terrorism in San Bernardino. The world is neither safer nor saner since Buruma wrote this book. The Netherlands stands in for the West, as similar types of attacks, some small but deadly, other large and impactful, have occurred again and again since Theo Van Gogh was murdered in 2004. Buruma doesn't give us any answers here, but it still makes for fascinating and interesting reading on the clash between the Enlightenment and hatred for what it stands for, between nationalism and multiculturalism (prevalent now in France and the United States), the slip sliding of right and left into murkier areas of political thought. No one comes out perfectly clean in Buruma's book, perhaps because this is a dirty, messy issue without any clear, simple solutions.

View all my reviews

Crown of Dalemark by Diana Wynne Jones (1993)

I think this one should have percolated a bit longer in Diana Wynne Jones's head.  Or perhaps it percolated too long?  Regardless, not all of this made sense, and it certainly isn't my favorite book she's ever written.   What I did think she captured well was Mitt; often authors write lower class characters from a middle class point of view; Mitt's acts and reacts in a believable way of someone from his socio-economic class.  I don't think I need to read this one again.

The Crown of Dalemark (The Dalemark Quartet, #4)The Crown of Dalemark by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Unlike the first three books in this series of four, I didn't think this one worked quite a well. It still has the quirky charm of a DWJ book, but the plot zig-zagged all over the place, and not everything made complete sense. This maybe needed to percolate a bit longer in DWJ's head (or perhaps it percolated too long). I think reading and then re-reading the first three would definitely make this one easier going, but only just.

View all my reviews

The Spellcoats by Diana Wynne Jones (1979)

What were legends like when they were little kids?  Authors have explored this territory before - T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone is an example.  But that always felt very tongue in cheek; DWJ is trying to do something richer an deeper here.  She's created a Spellcoats of her own, this fantasy country of Dalemark.  In Cart and Cwidder, she was telling an adventure story, sort of Lloyd Alexander but without all the obvious Welsh; and Drowned Ammet, she was telling a very, very unique political story, that could have shades of modern terrorism woven throughout if you wanted to dig around in those corners. Both of those stories were still about people though, particularly youth verses the world (a story that DWJ is always, always an expert at telling).  The Spellcoats though, that's something different again.  She's made up this country, she's given it a political story, a revolution of sorts, an American Revolutuion sort of rebellion, with more than a touch of folklore magic, almost magical realism, complete with gods and goddesses of sorts, certainly demigods and goddesses, like the remnants of the oldest of old European religions from times before writing that still creep about in current strange festivals and rites and crossroad shrines.  Then she takes us back to the time before the strange festivals and shrines, when the gods and goddesses were just kids, stuck in a big bad world, trying to survive, and not very nice to each other on top of that.  It's a really, really interesting and incredibly cool premise; one I enjoyed immensely the first time I read it years ago, and enjoyed as much or more now.

The Spellcoats (The Dalemark Quartet, #3)The Spellcoats by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

DWJ has created, from whole cloth, this political world of Dalemark; in The Spellcoats she takes us back in time to its legends and mythology. One of the themes is when legends were little kids, what were they like? Some books have explored this before - The Sword in the Stone comes to mind. But DWJ's legendary children certainly act like real siblings, down to the pouting, teasing, bickering, and occasional fist fights that sisters and brothers get into. Overall, the tone of The Spellcoats is quite dark, but that adds to its mystery and charm. The Dalemark books are a strange bunch of books, and they aren't always completely successful, but The Spellcoats can stand alone as an interesting book.

View all my reviews

Blog Archive