Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Solitary Reaper (1803) and The Tables Turned (1798) by William Wordsworth

Two more cool poems by William Wordsworth, but there is no way I've giving up my books.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798 by William Wordsworth

I'm still listening to a poem a day!   I listened to "Tintern Abbey" here.

This was the longest poem I've listened to yet - nearly 8 minutes, but it was really quite beautiful.  I have to admit - I looked up some information on the poem after I listened to it because I didn't understand all of it. According to Shmoop, "is about the ways we change over time, and the ways we try to figure out just when  and how and why we've changed."  I don't think I could say it any better.

Like the other poem I listened to him by him, I liked this one because it was about a city dweller who used the memory of nature in the past to get through some tough times and survive the tough city.  That's cool.

"While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with the pleasing thoughts
That in this moment  there is life and food
For future years."

Everything awesome and beautiful and wonderful in life is that indeed.

Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 by William Wordsworth (1802)

I'm trying to listen to / read more poetry.  I think poetry is good for the soul (generally) but it's also frustratingly enigmatic; it's not always obvious, and takes thought, and frankly, just plain doesn't make sense sometimes, especially without some background or pre-knowledge.  I am pretty sure I will fail at this endeavor - I've tried this before.  But I thought if I found one to listen to every day on the Internet, that might make it easier.

I also was listening to a podcast - In Our Time - about the year without a summer, 1815.  And during that summer, Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Byron (maybe Keats too?  I dont' remember) all went to Switzerland, only they could never go outside because of the awful weather, and they ran out of books to read and got tired of talking to me another, so they told each other ghost stories they had written - which is turn led to Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein.  Someone on the pod mentioned Wordsworth - I do not know why. I remember studying all of these poets in college, but I didn't recall much about them.  I know they were all romantics, I know they wrote about nature.  I started thinking how sad it was that I was never going to be in college again, and never have someone to explain Wordsworth and company to me - I was on my own.  I would never understand these poets then. But I could try.  So I decided to read and then listen to some Wordsworth poetry.

I first started with the daffodils poem, which I remembered  and liked immensely.  Very beautiful.  

But then because I'm reading a book about the descendants of Queen Victoria (re-reading, actually),line of whom was Marie of Romania, I detoured (already) into a poem by Dorothy Parker I recalled that had the line "and I am the Queen of Roumania."  It's called Comment, it's as snarky as you would expect from Dorothy Parker.

So randomly this morning, I find Composed upon "Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802", being read aloud HERE (PUT LINK HERE). I always thought Wordsworth was a nature poet, but this poem is really about how beautiful London is in the morning.  I guess Wordsworth is trying to tell us that you can find beauty anywhere, you just have to stop and look for it.  Also, he says "Dull would he be of soul who could pass by / A sight so touching in its majesty" which means "only a dullard could not look upon this and see beauty" which is how I feel sometimes about a segment of my fellow humankind; it's interesting to note that dullards have lived among us at least since 1802.  As a city dweller who appreciates and often missed the countryside (an aside:  I hate camping; as much a I love nature, I want to go home when at the end of the day and cook in a kitchen and sleep in a bed), I felt like Wordsworth was talking to me - look for the beauty.  I try, I think - appreciating flowers, small birds, crows, etc.  You take beauty where you can find it.


Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (2006)

The realistic language did me in.  I really, really enjoyed The Bone Clocks; it was one of my favorite books our book club has read so far.  Not so much this one; I made it through a couple of chapters.  But the "dialect" and slang was quite difficult to comprehend, and I just didn't want to read about adolescent boyhood - not very interesting.  I did think the Hugo Lamb character from The Bone Clocks making an appearance was interesting.  But that was all - I gave up.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Lord Valentine's Castle by Robert Silverberg (1980, 2008)

I don't recall the last time I read Lord Valentine's Castle, but it must have been many years ago.  I listened to the audio version, narrated by Stefan Rudnicki, who has a rich, deep voice.  It took only  a few moments to become accustomed to his reading style; he transported me immediately back to Majipoor.  I remembered why this novel and its two sequels were among my favorites in my late teens and early 20s.  Silverberg has created a world that matches Rudnicki's voice:  deep and rich, full and wonderful.  I recently read an article here in which Charlie Jane Anders exposed the seven sins of world building.  In short, those sins are:

 Not thinking about basic infrastructure.
Not explaining why events are happening now.
Creating fictional versions of real-life human ethnic groups, that never go beyond one dimension
Creating monolithic social, political, cultural and religious groups.
Inventing a history that is totally logical
Not really giving a strong sense of place, like what it smells like after it's been raining.
Introducing some superpower, like magic or insane tech, without fully accounting for how it would change society.

I think the success of Majipoor, why it feels so real and alive, is that Silverberg had the kenning of a great writer in avoiding those sins.

Not thinking about basic infrastructure.  Silverberg went to great lengths, particularly in LVC, to explain how Majipoor worked:  it's people and cultures, the structure of the government (vitally important to this novel about a fallen king), the economics of various industries (agriculture, hunting of sea dragons, traveling entertainers); I know that further on in the series, we get even more of a glimpse into the everyday lives of real people on Majipoor.  His infrastructure tends to not contradict itself, and the continuity is strong; he remembers from chapter to chapter (and I think from book to book, although I haven't yet started the second book).  My only quibble on infrastructure is distances; I'm not sure how a planet as vast and big as Majipoor is governed without some sort of method of communication (although I guess there are dreams); ruling over such an enormous place would be difficult too. It took 9 weeks to go from the Isle of Sleep to Alhanroel; that's a long fucking time to be at sea, over two months.  That bothered me - but in thinking about that, England governed its colonies for a couple of hundred years that were 9 weeks or more from the motherland.  But not all that successfully at the end.  The time period of 14,000 years bugged me a bit too; that's a long time to remember, considering our own history on earth doesn't even go back that far very successfully, not enough to have legendary figures or remember where we came from.  Although maybe in 14,000 years we'll remember the 21st century because we have the written word and a method to store it.  Who knows.  That's problematic though.

Not explaining why events are happening now.  Actually, you could say this is the theme of the whole book, and towards the end Silverberg used Deliamber to spell it out:  the sins of the father are being visited on the son (I won't spoil why though).  The reasons for what is happening are really valid too.

Creating fictional versions of real-life human ethnic groups, that never go beyond one dimension.  I think Silverberg created believable aliens that weren't necessarily modeled after real-life human ethnic groups; or if he did, he did such a bad job of it that they were unrecognizable.  The metamorpahs as aborigines come closest, and even they didn't necessarily remind me of Native Americans or other groups oppressed by colonists, other than in a very general way.  

Creating monolithic social, political, cultural and religious groups. He occasionally skates very close to this (all Skandars are like this, all Vroons are like this) but then throws in a Hjort like Admiral Asenhart who isn't culturally like his Hjort brethren.  The natives of various parts of Majipoor, human and otherwise, also have distinct cultures - the farmers of Falkynip are different culturally than the residents of the archipelago (and each island seems to have a unique culture as well).  Because is this is, at its heart, a political novel, the politics of the world are wild and weird, like a column of army ants - both a juggernaut, but individual as well.

Inventing a history that is totally logical.  The timeline of Majipoor isn't completely logical to me; in the same time period on earth that Majipoor was colonized to the usurpation of Valetine's throne, we went from being hunter and gatherers and the last ice age to the world wide web.  I don't think Silverberg successfully frees himself from time and distance here;  that was always a niggling thought as I listened.  That a world could go without war for 14,000 years seems illogical to me as well.  That's one fail, but for some reason, this doesn't detract from the book at all.

Not really giving a strong sense of place, like what it smells like after it's been raining. If he's done anything else it's this.  Majipoor is more than just a collection of aliens and human thrown together,  or plants and animals and places with strange names.  Silverberg really goes out of his way to let you know what dwikka fruit tastes and feels like, or how the forest brethren sound, or what the metamorphs smell like (sharp and pungent, if I remember correctly).  You are overwhelmed by all the senses here.  

Introducing some superpower, like magic or insane tech, without fully accounting for how it would change society. So that superpower would have to be the power of dreams in the society of Majipoor.  Silverberg more than accounts for how it changes society, I think; it's clear from beginning to end that dreams are how Majipoor controls is crime and takes the place of some aspects of religion.  If power is centered in the coronal and bureaucracy in the pontifex, then crime and punishment and compassion are the Lady of the Isle and the King of Dreams.  This power of dreams in the society is made more and more clear as the novels progress.  

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A feast for the senses as well as the intellect, Silverberg has created a vast world of wonder, part science fiction, part fantasy, part fairy tale, with a just enough of a touch of 1970s sci-fi sexiness. The audio is impeccably narrated by Stefan Rudnicki, whose deep, rich tones are the perfect pairing for a deep, rich novel. Silverberg is a master world builder; you will find few points to quibble on in his gigantic world. What's nice about this series (at least the first three in the series; I found his later Majipoor books to be less desirable) is that you can come back to it again and again; it's very re-readable. I'm always surprised this isn't a more beloved series of books. It had been many years, though, since I read this; I found this trip through Majipoor to be as fulfilling as the first time I read it as a teenager. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History by Jay Winik (2015)

1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History by Jay Winik
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don't understand the title of this book at all. It's nominally about 1944, but Winik bounces back and forth through time in narrative that didn't quite work. The Holocaust is front and center of this book as well - in fact, I think that it is the main thrust of the narrative, which isn't indicated in the title or subtitle. To be frank, in the end, I was sort of bored. Winik is a good writer, but the confused narrative did this one in for me.

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I also don't like reading about the Holocaust.  I care deeply about the Holocaust; I think it was a Depravity of the worst kind, the sort of acts of humanity that make one believe in the Devil, or something even worse than the devil, acts that mythology and religion can't even fathom a response too.  I've been to the Holocaust museum in Washington DC, I've seen Schindler's List, I've read The Winds of War and especially War and Remembrance.  I don't want to read about the Holocaust anymore; I don't need to be reminded about how beyond description it was.  It makes me too heartbroken, and too aware that the world is changing and forgetting again.  Books like this are important, should be written.  But not for me.  

Also, didn't Doris Kearns Goodwin write this story already?

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2012)

Some books are plot driven; My Brilliant Friend isn't one of these books.  The plot is secondary to the characters and setting.  Two Italian girls of Naples, 1958, whose threads of being sometimes come together, sometimes pulled far apart, but crossing and re-crossing, weaving a friendship.  Lila, the brilliant friend of the title, difficult, enigmatic.  Elena, Lenu, smart and pretty and nice, but always a known entity next to her mysterious friend.  I think they key to this book may lie in something Lila says to Lenu about the neighborhood bad boys (the Fonzies, in m 70s soaked brain), glamorous, shady, brutal, wealthy, the Solara brothers.  Lila's brother becomes close to them - a ruse by one brother to get to Lila, and Lenu asks her angry friend "What's wrong with it?"  "They're dangerous."  "Here everything is dangerous."  This setting and place that Ferrante creates, remimagines, is dangerous.  It's rough, full of violence, domestic  and otherwise.  Sad widows, murder, poverty, punishment. It's that time after the war but before the sixties, when a generation of youth are discovering rock and roll and sex; the generation before, the Fascist generation, had nearly destroyed everything.  Against this backdrop, Ferrante uses dark, ragged strokes to draw the families of this neighborhood in which these two friends live.  These are delicate little dolls; everyone is meaty, thriving characters.  It's for this that you keep reading; a character sucks you in and then spits you out, and another character does the same.  If Lenu and Lila are the main two threads, the dozens of minor characters who weave back and forth and in and out of their lives are what creates the the tapestry at the end.  I wasn't in love with this book; it feels unfinished (it's a trilogy); the lack of plot made it read like a personal memoir (and since no one knows who Elena Ferrante really is perhaps that's at least partly true) and I'm not a fan of the memoir.  But the strong writing kept me going.

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Definitely not plot driven; this reads more like a personal memoir (of someone with a very, very good memory of a long ago time). Which, considering the mystery of Elena Ferrante's identity, could very well be true. I'm not a fan of the personal memoir; what kept me reading was the characters, setting, place and time. I was drawn to the story of the two friends, whose lives intersect in both negative and positive ways; the heartache and wonderment and jealousy of teenage friendship. The foreign setting of Naples 1958, as a generation discovers rock and roll and sex. A violent, sexist society, one generation ruined, the next trying to survive trying to make it, someway. "Here everything is dangerous" says one of the friends, and that seems to be the (depressing) theme of the book. The story doesn't feel finished; it's part of a trilogy, so perhaps danger is left behind for richest untold.

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Monday, April 4, 2016

Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi (2005)

In high school, I owned this book Glory Lange,  I mostly likely purchased it because I loved the cover (my copy, I think, is long gone; I will have to go home and check).  To me, Agent to the Stars is one of those books that are a descendant of this kind of fun, humorous science fiction that I often read as a kid.  This book made me smile a lot, and laugh out loud occasionally.  The plot is a hoot; the characters are believable and really well written.   I also loved the mid-century modern paperback cover of the edition I read.

As a transplanted California who worked in the San Gabriel valley for many years, and lived in a block away from Pomona Valley Hospital for ten years, Scalzi's southern California completely rang true.  Although I don't know - if you weren't from the area, would any of that even make sense?  Probably, but I would be curious, if I read this in high school, would I just gloss over the locations I didn't quite understand (Azusa comes to mind).

Agent to the StarsAgent to the Stars by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thoroughly enjoyable, deftly plotted, with great characters and a unique, fun setting. Did I forget to mention that it's funny? Plenty of smiles; warn those around you that you may be chuckling out loud at several points. Special note to Angelenos: Scalzi's southern California roots are showing, and showing, and showing. His place names, his times of travel, is national forests and local (I mean local too) hospitals add an element that only those of us who live and work and play (and commute) in the southland will truly understand. My first Scalzi book is definitely not my last!

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Crown & Country: The Kings & Queens of England by David Starkey (2011)

This appears to be an omnibus of two books - two much shorter books.

I really enjoyed the earlier chapters on the Anglo-Saxon kings; and I also surprisingly enjoyed the chapters on the Georgian kings.  It made me want to read a biography of each king and queen separately.  I know I'm not going to do that though.  For one thing, I have enough reading challenges going on (Diana Wynne Jones, Agatha Christie, Terry Pratchett).  And each and every biography will not be as well written as this.

I found particular interest in the story of Titus Oates. I vaguely knew this story (in my mind it's connected to Guy Fawkes, which he totally was not).  Between 1678-1681, Oates made up this rumor that there was a Catholic conspiracy to kill King Charles II. It was completely created by Oates, and everyone became hystrical and believed it.  22 men were executed.  It flew hither and yon throughout England, and there was a severe backlash against Catholics in England.  What struck me was that this hysteria took place during a time when information traveled slowly; when long distance travel was expensive, slow and dangerous.  No telephones or telegraph.  Messengers by horse was the fastest way to get news from one end of the realm to the other.  There were roads with coaches.  But compared to the instantaneous mode of information being transferred today, this was like a the deepest night and the brightest day of difference.  We're always one internet rumor away from an uprising - that's what I thought of this story.

Crown and Country: A History of England Through the MonarchyCrown and Country: A History of England Through the Monarchy by David Starkey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Apparently, at one time this was two (much smaller) books that have been published as one. It's a lot to digest, but luckily Starkey is a rapid fire scribe who can (mostly successfully) condense years of material in pithy chunks of well-written prose. Whole books could be written on each and every king and queen, not to mention the multitude of lesser figures that dance across these pages; Starkey succeeds at a daunting task. I particularly liked his chapters on the Anglo-Saxon kings, and the Georgians (not a time period I tend to enjoy reading about, actually, which as least to me shows how well-written these chapters were). The last hundred or so years of the monarchy are squeezed together; I think he's overall less impressed from Victoria onwards (he calls Albert, later George VI, "second rate") but seems to have high hopes for a new kind of monarchy that Prince Charles may usher in. Great fun for those (like myself) who like reading about kings and queens.

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The Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim (2014)

This was quite possibly the worst book I've ever actually finished.  There aren't enough synonyms for insipid to adequately describe the plot and characters.  The book was also so fucking earnest in its badness too.

Yet, it was like reading a train wreck. I just couldn't help myself.  Curse you, Laila Ibrahim, for taking away the 3 hours or so of my life it took to read this little demon, drawing me in and not letting me go, you literary succubus.  I bought this book too (well, I downloaded a on sale Kindle version). So not only have you stolen a bit of my IQ away, you have my money too, you witch.

There was only one good part of this book.  It was the best part, and reminded me of reading and being horrified and sexually fascinated by Judith Krantz books as a teenager:  "She stared at the confusing sight before her. Her eyes took in the length of Edward’s body, his pants around his ankles, his knees slightly bent, his naked buttocks, his thighs covered in thick black hair. His entire body pounded up and down with his head arched back and his eyes closed tight, shutting out the world. He was mounted on a field hand, fiercely thrusting himself into her."  Those thighs covered in thick black hair... wow, Edward, you're hot AF.

Yellow CrocusYellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is quite possibly the worst book I've ever finished. There aren't enough to synonyms for insipid to describe the plot and characters. But this was also like reading a train wreck. I just couldn't stop. I wanted to know what happened, even as the clunky writing was occasionally the literary equivalent of someone rubbing a balloon in one corner of a classroom while someone else is running their nails across the chalkboard. I can't explain my finishing the book; perhaps it was because I bought it, so I wanted to get my money's worth (all $3.99). I don't know. I do know that's three hours I will never get back. One consolation: the main character (I can't even remember her name now, that's how BORING she was) caught her fiancé sleeping with one of the slaves, and Ibrahim lovingly described his ass going up and down, with his "thighs covered in thick black hair". That brought back pleasant teenage reader memories of John Jakes and Judith Krantz. Laila Ibrahim, add more hairy black thighs and luscious man butt to your next book and you may gain yourself a new fan.

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The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting (1920)

I knew that Doctor Dolittle had been re-written since I first read it as a little child reader in the 1970s, to remove the racist language and the ugly story of Prince Bumpo.  I know I've read a newer version, but I can't remember how it was changed, and I don't have the newer version.  The internet tells me the newer version may have Bumpo wanting to be a lion, that sort of rings true.  Anyway, the version I read as a voraciously reading fourth or so grader was that old time racist one, and those plot elements stuck in my head.  It didn't turn me into a racist; but I understand if I were a little African American voracious reader, those passages would be extremely hurtful.

I downloaded the book free, as it's in the public domain; the Canadian version even had the pictures by Lofting himself I love so much. 

I wrote about Judy Blume's Blubber sometime ago, a book that disturbed me greatly.  What did not disturb me, or that even recalled, was that the girls in Blubber call a teacher a "bitch" - as a kid, that didn't even register, but as an adult, it certainly did.  The Story of Doctor Dolittle, the unpurged 1920s version, goes one worse than Blubber:  it has the n-word in it.  Yes, the Queen of Lions tells her husband that he needs to go "work like a n*****" for the good doctor.  What the what?  I don't remember reading that AT ALL as a child.  I remember the story about Prince Bumpo wanting to become a white man; but not the n-word.  In another passage, Polynesia the parrot calls Bumpo another racial slur. Again, that never registered.  

I still love Doctor Dolittle, I just don't love those particular parts.  I'm glad they've been removed.  They aren't necessary to the plot, they detract from what is otherwise a great story.  

The first part of Story of Doctor Dolittle is the weaker part; up to and including his curing the monkeys. The last half or so, when the Dcotor is sailing home, those are actually the parts I like the best.  The other characters start to get developed more; the Doctor is always the Doctor, the whole way through. Polynesia is fully developed too.  But it's the latter part of the book where Jip, Dab-Dab, Gub-Gub, Too-Too and the white mouse all become fully developed and more enjoyable.  These are characters I grew up loving, and reading about them again brings them to life.  They are also really humorous characters too, something Lofting develops more fully in later books.  But hints of that delightful humor begin to show; for example, Jip referring to Gub-Gub the pig as "a stupid piece of warm bacon."

The Story of Doctor DolittleThe Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the origin story for Doctor Dolittle and company - how he learns the language of animals, the sickness of the monkeys in Africa, and then his exciting voyage home. The origin and Africa chapters are magical, but it is definitely the voyage home that the real Doctor Dolittle and his animal companions make their appearance. Caveat emptor: the free online versions are the horrible old racist versions; in my latest read of this classic, I downloaded one from the Canadian Project Gutenberg, which included every bit of the racist language and an awful racist detour (which some versions have changed while other have completely left out). If you have an interest in children's literature from an intellectual point of view, then by all means download and read the original. But if you're reading this aloud to your children, consider paying for it.

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