Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Selected Verse of Ogden Nash (The Modern Library, 1945)

I got this absolutely lovely copy of The Modern Library's collection of The Selected Verse of Ogden Nash (1945) at the book sale at my library this year, and I've found it to be an instant cure for the blues.

Nash is known for his light, comedic, rhyming poetry. His most famous poem might be the very brief "Reflections on Ice-Breaking" (Candy / Is dandy / But liquor / Is quicker), but his longer poems are just as perceptive and satisfying. While some of the verses have rather dated gender and racial views, most of them are just as enjoyable as they were when they were written.

And you are really missing out if you don't read them out loud.

Here is one of my favorites (long, but quick):

The Life of the Party

Lily, there isn't a thing you lack,
Your effect is simply stunning.
But Lily, your gown is low in the back,
So conduct yourself with cunning.
Some of your charm is charm of face,
But some of your charm is spinal;
Losing your looks is no disgrace,
But losing your poise is final.
Ridicule's name is Legion,
So look to your dorsal region.

For Artie,
Old Artie,
The life of the party,
Is practically perfect tonight;
He's prettily, properly tight;
He's never appeared so bright.
Have you ever seen Artie
Enliven a party?
You've never seen Artie --
Why Lord love a duck!
At present old Artie is running amuck.
There's a wink in his eye
And a smile on his lips
For the matron he tickles,
The waiter he trips.
There's a rubber cigar,
And a smoking-room jest,
To melt the reserve
Of the clerical guest.
There's a pin for the man who stoops over,
And a little trained flea for Rover.
So Lily, beware of your back!
More daring than duller and older blades,
Artie is hot on the track.
I've noticed him eying your shoulder blades.
And maybe it's salad,
And maybe it's ice,
But I fear he has planned
Some amusing device,
For the laughter is slack
And he's taking it hard --
He's eying your back --
And Artie's a card --
He's forming a plan --
May I fetch you a shawl?
That inventive young man --
There is one in the hall.
Though your back is divine
In its natural state,
May I curtain your spine? --
Dear Heaven, I'm late!
Aren't you glad that you came to the party?
And weren't you amused by Artie?

Horace, the moment that you appeared,
I admired your manly beauty,
But I feel that a word about your beard
Is only my bounden duty.
Your tailor's craft is a dandy's dream,
Your suavity leaves me lyrical,
But escaping tonight with your self-esteem
Will require a minor miracle.
Fun is a gay deceiver,
So look to your kingly beaver.

For Artie,
Old Artie,
The life of the party,
Is hitting his stride tonight.
No bushel obscures his light.
He's knocking them left and right.
Have you ever seen Artie
Enliven a party?
You've never seen Artie --
My lad, you're in luck,
For Artie, old Artie, is running amuck.
At Artie's approach
Lesser wags droop.
Have you seen the tin roach
He drops in your soup?
Is a spoon in your pocket?
Or gum on your chair?
It's Artie, old Artie,
Who magicked them there.
And of those who complain, there's a rumor
That they're lacking in sense of humor.
So Horace, beware of your beard!
I sense some fantastic flubdubbery!
Old Artie has just disappeared
And I've noticed him eying your shrubbery.
And maybe it's syrup,
And maybe it's mice,
But I fear he has planned
Some amusing device.
His conceptions are weird,
And nothing is barred --
He was eying your beard --
And Artie's a card --
When Artie returns,
The fun will begin --
May I fetch you a bag
To put on your chin?
Just a small paper bag
To envelop the bait?
For Artie's a wag --
Dear Heaven, I'm late!
Aren't you glad that you came to the party?
And weren't you amused by Artie?

As always, the Modern Library put out a wonderful copy of these poems. The book is just the right size, nicely printed, and sturdily bound. This one will go into the permanent collection, to be pulled out on occasions when I'm taking myself too seriously.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mudd's Angels by J.A. Lawrence (1978)

It should be no real surprise that I bought this copy of Mudd's Angels by J.A. Lawrence (1978) for the cover. Just look at it! Who could resist Mudd and his bevy of beauties?

This book consists of adaptations of two Star Trek episodes ("Mudd's Women" and "I, Mudd") and an original novella featuring Mudd and the Star Trek crew ("The Business, as Usual, During Altercations"). I've seen some Star Trek movies and the occasional episode of the original show, but I've never been a super fan. The character of Harvey Mudd, a sloppy, selfish, con-man who doesn't fit at all into the neat regulations of the Starship Enterprise, however, could make me change my mind.

When they first meet Mudd, he is charging along in an unregistered spaceship and gets beamed up, along with his crew, just before their ship is hit by an asteroid. Mudd's crew is nothing but three extremely beautiful ladies that quickly entrance the Enterprise crew (except for Spock). Mudd plans to wed the ladies to three lonely space miners (for a small fee), but his secret is soon revealed by Captain Kirk: he's been giving the ladies a drug that makes them irresistible to men. It's unclear why that matters so much to the three lonely space miners, and in the end the main lady learns that she is just as beautiful without taking the drug, ala Dumbo's feather.

In the next story, Mudd is back, and this time he has found a planet of abandoned high-tech androids that have been waiting for a human to serve for over a million years. He quickly molds them to his liking (including hundreds of identical fem-bots "programmed for pleasure"). The bots, however, want more humans to study and serve, so Mudd sneakily gets the Enterprise crew onto the planet, where they find it very difficult to leave. When the bots' plan to take over the universe and enslave humanity in a web of pleasure is revealed, Kirk and his crew use illogic (even Spock!) to get the bots' circuits to lock up so they can escape (there might be an ad at the start of this video, but it is worth it):

In the final novella, Mudd has gotten even more creative with his androids and his conning and has stolen the galaxy's supply of dilithium crystals, needed to power the starships. The Enterprise is in charge of finding out where the crystals went, and follow Mudd and his rogue ship out of the galaxy, bending space and time when they return. There is a slightly dull trial of robots vs. humans in this one, but ultimately it stays true to all the characters and involves some fun time travel.

This isn't high literature by any means, but as a non-Star Trek sci-fi fan, I found the stories nicely thought out and well written. If I was more sensitive to that kind of thing, the objectification of the ladies might get to me a bit, but somehow in the context of Mudd, I didn't mind. Also, J.A. Lawrence is a woman, the widow of James Blish, another Star Trek novelist. Sometimes the characterizations were hammered in a little too hard (Spock's raised eyebrow, Scotty's accent, McCoy's bickering), but overall the book lives up to its cover.

Life long and prosper!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Other People's Money by Justin Cartwright (2011)

My latest read from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program is Other People's Money by Justin Cartwright (2011), a look at the recent financial crisis through the eyes of one of Britain's oldest banking families.

The patriarch of the family, Sir Harry Trevelyan-Tubal, has had a stroke and no one can understand him but his devoted old maid secretary, Estelle. The bank has been put in the hands of the younger son, Julian, as his older brother took off to find himself in the world of international adventure after the death of their mother. Julian and his right-hand-man, Nigel, both got caught up in hedge fund mania, and the Trubal bank is in just as much trouble as all the "new money" banks in London. They can't let anyone know about it because they hope to sell the bank to an American conglomerate and get out while the getting is good. In the meantime, Fleur, Harry's much younger trophy wife, is on unsteady footing with the family; Artair MacCleod (playwright, director, and Fleur's ex-husband) has stopped receiving his long-term "grant" from the Trubal estate (which was basically a pay off for letting Fleur go); and Melissa Tregarthen, a young Cornish journalist, is sent off to interview MacCleod about his new play but ends up uncovering a major banking scandal.

This is a very readable (and very British) book, which is also often very funny: "[MacCleod's] grand project is to produce a five-hour play based on the life and novels of Flann O'Brien. But today he has taken a break to start hand-writing his manuscript, because he has heard that a university in Texas will pay good money for original manuscripts; his is, in fact, mostly a cut-and-paste job from the work of O'Brien, with stage directions added in marker pen." -- archives humor!. Cartwright is at his best when he shows us how the interior view of a person contrasts with how they are seen by others, but the clunky dialogue can put a wrench in the action and the book occasionally gets dragged down in predictability and cliche. There are also a couple of weirdly sexualized descriptions of Julian's four-year-old daughter that made me uncomfortable, and didn't seem to serve any real purpose.

The book makes for a quick and satisfying read despite these reservations, and while its explorations of class and morality might not be as in-depth as I would have liked, there was enough here to keep me interested until the nicely drawn conclusion.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 1 (1792)

My latest dip into the western canon is the first of twelve volumes of the Works of Samuel Johnson, as compiled and edited by his contemporary and friend, Arthur Murphy, in 1792, eight years after Johnson's death.

About half of this first volume is dedicated to Murphy's lengthy biographical essay on Johnson, in which he sets the record straight on Johnson's life after the publication of a previous biography that he felt misrepresented his friend. Murphy's biography sometimes goes a little overboard with praise, but for the most part seems to be a fair impression of Samuel Johnson as a man and doesn't hide all his warts and flaws. Johnson's slow and often poverty-striken rise from the son of a bookseller to England's most well-known man of letters makes for interesting reading, and Murphy hits all the literary high points of Johnson's career, including the extended Dictionary project.

Johnson comes through in the biographical essay mostly through quotes from his letters and publications. Here, for example, is Johnson's take on having to write a regular column in one of his magazines (advice which may also apply to the occasional blogger): "He that condemns himself to compose on a stated day, will often bring to his task an attention dissipated, a memory embarrassed, an imagination overwhelmed, a mind distracted with anxieties, a body languishing with disease: he will labour on a barren topic, till it is too late to change it; or, in the ardour of invention, diffuse his thoughts into wild exuberance, which the pressing hour of publication cannot suffer judgement to examine or reduce."

The rest of this first volume is dedicated to Johnson's poetry, including two longer poems, a five act tragedy in verse, and a series of shorter poems and epitaphs (including about 30 pages of poems in Latin). The strongest section for me was the tragedy, Irene, which is beautifully written and appropriately tragic. Definitely something worth reading out loud.

And as someone who recently had her 35th birthday, this jaunty poem really spoke to me:

To Mrs. Thrale on completing her thirty-fifth year
Oft in danger, yet alive,
We are come to thirty-five;
Long may better years arrive,
Better years than thirty-five.
Could philosophers contrive
Life to stop at thirty-five,
Time his hours should never drive
O'er the bounds of thirty-five.
High to soar, and deep to dive,
Nature gives at thirty-five;
Ladies, stock and tend your hive,
Trifle not at thirty-five;
For, howe'er we boast and strive,
Life declines from thirty-five;
He that ever hopes to thrive,
Must begin by thirty-five;
And all who wisely wish to wive
Must look on Thrale at thirty-five.

My copy of this book is a direct reproduction of the 1792 edition, so it includes archaic typographic conventions like the long s (those s's that look like f's), which take some getting used to (and also makes the word sun-beams look like fun-beams, which never stops making me laugh). My only problem with this edition is that in some cases the text in this reproduction is very light, and that combined with the old typography can make certain lines very difficult to read.

My first dip into the life and works of Samuel Johnson was a success -- only 11 more volumes to go! (Hopefully containing a little less Latin.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Galíndez by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1992)

I bought this copy of Galíndez by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1992) a looooooooong time ago when it was a super bargain book while I worked at Barnes and Noble. I've moved it around with me for years but never read it, mostly, I think, because the cover is particularly ugly and indistinct. I've been trying to weed my bookshelves a bit to make room for more books, so I decided to get rid of old Galíndez, but I have a hard time getting rid of a book I owned for years but never read. I'm still letting Galíndez go, but I'm very glad I read it and I'm interested in checking out some more Montalbán in the future.

This is a novelization of the true story of Jesús Galíndez, a Basque nationalist and Spanish exile after the civil war who ended up in the Dominican Republic for several years before moving to the United States. After writing a thesis exposing the violence behind the Trujillo dictatorship in in the Dominican Republic, Galíndez disappeared from the streets of New York in 1956 and his body was never found.

In Montalbán's novel, an ex-Mormon American graduate student named Muriel Colbert takes up the life of Galíndez for her doctoral thesis in the late 1980s and begins to interview people in New York and Madrid who knew him. Chapters alternate between the intertwining of Muriel's research and personal life, flashbacks to the last hours of the life of Galíndez, and the present-day work of two FBI agents who want Colbert to stop her digging before she uncovers too much and disrupts relations between the U.S. and the Dominican Republic during the not-entirely-frozen Cold War.

The prose style veers between experimental chapters with pages of text unbroken by paragraphs or quotation marks to snappy dialogue and fast-paced action worthy of a spy novel. In Agent Robards, Montalbán has created one of the most creepy and hilarious salmon-paste eating drunken characters ever put to the page (the scene where he pisses on the hot rocks in a sauna is particularly evocative of his nature). But even in the experimental sections, Montalbán never loses his readers' attention or the suspicious mood of the book. This is the kind of book that could be weakened by the wrong ending, but Montalbán doesn't let us down: The ending is brutal but perfect, and tightly snaps together the structure of the novel.

I'm not sure why this famous Barcelonaean novelist slipped through the cracks of my reading pile, but I'm glad he eventually found his way to the top. This is a nice very Spanish feeling novel, and worth a read despite the ugly cover.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

As You Like It: edited with a life of Shakespeare, an account of the theatre in his time, and numerous aids to the study of the play by William Shakespeare, Samuel Thurber, Jr. and Louise Wetherbee (1599, 1922)

In my continuing quest to read all of the books I won in a big giveaway from the Forgotten Bookmarks blog, I recently finished reading the epically titled As You Like It: edited with a life of Shakespeare, an account of the theatre in his time, and numerous aids to the study of the play by William Shakespeare, Samuel Thurber, Jr. and Louise Wetherbee (1599, 1922).

This nicely constructed little book consists of the text of the play, extensive schoolmarmish notes (Rosalind: "Thou losest thy old smell." Note: "Remember that Rosalind's vulgarity was very common at the time."), a glossary, discussion questions for each scene, a selection of literary criticism from the 19th century, a biographical sketch of Shakespeare, and a discussion of Elizabethan theatre.

But, better than all that, the book contains extensive annotations made by a certain schoolboy named Edward R. Scudder in 1929. How do I know his name? Because he wrote it about 200 times throughout the book.
This is the inside back cover, but you can see a larger selection of the annotations here. Note that one of the drawings is pretty racially insensitive, but it seems that kind of thing flew at Oneonta High School in 1929.

How did I know Mr. Scudder lived in Oneonta? Why because I am an amazing information professional, that's why! I noticed that he put "OHS '29" on the inside back cover of his book, which told me that he lived in a town that started with an "O" and that he graduated from high school in 1929. A little searching on the Social Security Death Index showed me an Edward Scudder who was born in 1911 and who died in Oneonta, New York in 1981. That would make him 18 in 1929, and a perfect candidate for our book. Further research showed that this Edward Scudder's middle initial was R., which sealed the deal.

Other random facts: In 1938 Edward visited Mr.and Mrs. Edgar Boyce in Kingston, NY in the company of Mr. and Mrs. Lee D. Crouch and their daughter Dorothy (as reported in The Kingston Daily Freeman, February 25, 1938); in 1953 he served on the Oneonta Chamber of Commerce election committee (as reported in The Binghamton NY Press, February 7, 1953); and he was a member of the Men’s Chorus in Oneonta in 1957 (as reported in a flashback feature in the Oneonta Daily Press, December 7, 2007).

I won't deny that I have amazing search skills, but it also helped that Mr. Scudder had a very googleable name. It seems that Mr. Scudder did get married, although I wasn't able to find the names of any of his children. If by some chance a relative comes across this post and would be interested in the book, just let me know and I'd be happy to mail it to you. Otherwise I'm going to keep this little gem forever -- it is a nice copy of a great play, with some wonderful history inside!

[Curious how Edward felt about "As You Like It"? He didn't really like it.]

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin (1998)

It doesn't usually take me over two weeks between books and posts, but I've been spending my time reading the exceedingly hefty, 1,000+ page, A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin (1998) -- the second addition to his exceedingly popular Song of Ice and Fire series. In A Clash of Kings Martin continues his fantasy series that satisfies the non-fantasy reader.

At the start of the book, the formerly united kingdom of Westeros is divided into factions supporting four or five different kings. Who can keep track! The children of Ned Stark are equally divided: His oldest son, Robb, is leading an army as the King of the North; Sansa is locked away at King's Landing and still betrothed to the evil Joffery Lannister; Asha is posing as an orphan boy and on the run from the Lannisters; Jon Snow, the bastard son, is becoming an invaluable member of the Night Watch; and the crippled Bran and young Rickon are holding Winterfell.

Martin doesn't seem to be much of one for happy reunions or easy solutions, so things generally get more complicated for all our characters as the book progresses instead of easing up. But we wouldn't have it any other way, George!

Once again this book is filled with impressive set pieces, and awesome kills, and Martin's famous disregard for killing off main characters gives every near-miss a hint of finality. Martin also continues to keep the magic reigned in -- and when he lets some sneak out it is used to such good effect that an anti-magic/dragon reader like me doesn't mind at all.

I'm going to take a little breather, but the wonderful John has already lent me the third volume, so A Storm of Swords is on the horizon. If I don't post for a couple weeks, you will know what's going on.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Hollywood Remembered: An Oral History of its Golden Age by Paul Zollo (2002)

I received a copy of the 2011 reprinting of Paul Zollo's 2002 release, Hollywood Remembered: An Oral History of its Golden Age through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Zollo clearly has a passion for the early days of Hollywood, and although the book has some flaws, that passion and the book's exhaustiveness make it a worthwhile read.

The book is divided into three parts: a history of Hollywood written by Zollo (going all the way back to the dinosaurs!), a collection of oral history "memoirs," and a written tour of existing and torn down hollywood landmarks. By far the most engaging section is the collection of memoirs. Zollo interviews stars (Steve Allen, Jonathan Winters, Karl Malden, Evelyn Keyes), extras, bartenders, secretaries, one of the munchkins from The Wizard of Oz, cinematographers, businessmen, housewives, and lingerie models. Coming at these memories from so many angles makes for an encompassing look at the city and the phenomenon called Hollywood, even if many of the memories are clouded with nostalgia, age, and sometimes bitterness and frustration.

Zollo's subjects are arranged by the year of their birth, ranging from 101 to 62 at the time of their interviews. Each subject is given a brief introduction by the author and then allowed to present his or her own story, without the inclusion of Zollo's questions. The memories include rosy pictures of streetcars, safe streets, and lots of orange groves; kiss-and-tell episodes of famous stars (apparently Anthony Quinn has a huge penis); and grumpy old men reactions to the way kids act these days. While some of the interviews are more interesting and informative than others, they all capture the voice of their subjects. And if they don't always shed light on the way old Hollywood really was, they certainly give a complicated picture of how it was remembered.

The book is nicely indexed (yay!) but has a few more typos than I could overlook, particularly for a reprinting. Still, if you are interested in Hollywood, oral history, and the world of yesteryear, this might just be the book for you.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

Before dark they encountered laboring up the western slope of the mountain a conducta of one hundred and twenty-two mules bearing flasks of quicksilver for the mines... The others of the company hardly turned to advise themselves of what had occurred. They fell from their mounts and lay in the trail or slid from the escarpment and vanished. The drivers below got their animals turned and were attempting to flee back down the trail and the laden packmules were beginning to clamber white-eyed at the sheer wall of the bluff like enormous rats. The riders pushed between them and the rock and methodically rode them from the escarpment, the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling burst of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites and all its forms grouping below and racing in the stone arroyos like the imbreachment of some ultimate alchemic work decocted from out the secret dark of the earth's heart, the fleeing stag of the ancients fugitive on the mountainside and bright and quick in the dry path of the storm channels and shaping out the sockets in the rock and hurrying from ledge to ledge down the slope shimmering and deft as eels. (194-195)

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985) is one of those books that it seems everyone on earth has read but me -- and I love reading! And Cormac McCarthy! And violence! So I made the executive decision to move it up to the top of my pile. And although this is the most densely violent and biblically overwhelming book I have ever read, I don't regret one word.

In the mid-19th century, a 14-year-old kid (known as "the kid") leaves his unhappy home in Kentucky and heads west. After a series of violent and drunken exchanges, he finds himself joining a gang of Indian hunters led by an ex-soldier named John Joel Glanton* and a freaky, well-educated, gigantic, hairless man named Judge Holden (who is possibly the best ambiguous villain in all of literature). Apart from sections at the beginning and ending of the book where we closely follow the kid, much of the novel gives us the experiences of the collective group of men and their fight against Indians, Mexicans, white people, each other, and more than anything else, nature.

The communal near-death slog across the harsh landscape of Northern Mexico and the (now) Southwestern United States is broken up with visceral explosions of violence against groups of Indians (lots of warriors, but also women, children, and old folks), who they scalp when they can; and groups of Mexicans (many of whom welcome them as heroes for killing the Indians that have been terrorizing their villages but soon learn that the gang are not the most well-mannered guests), and who they also scalp because other Mexicans pay them for every scalp they bring in and a Mexican scalp must look enough like an Indian scalp to get them paid.

Between the thirst-filled journeying and the blood-filled fighting, there is room for some philosophy, a small amount of extremely dry humor, and a whole boat-load of amazing descriptions of the Western landscape that make me want to put my English major hat on and start doing some linguistic studies.

This book probably isn't for everyone -- the violence can be off-putting and the style and language, alternating between seemingly straightforward descriptions and breathless spirals of clauses and vocabulary, is dense and tough to crack. For readers with a tough stomach and a little patience, though, the payoffs are amazing. Definitely one of the best things I've ever read.

*Archives note: I once did some research for a patron trying to find a mention of Glanton in historical records we have for an early Presbyterian church in San Antonio. The theory was that the pastor of the church spoke out against Glanton and his gang from the pulpit and had his house shot at in retaliation before the gang was run out of town. My research was sadly inconclusive -- I found several versions of that story, but none that mentioned Glanton.

**Personal note: This is 100% a book of dudes, and I think this is what happens to some men when there aren't any women around. You can see a slightly less intense version of the same behavior in Fraternity Houses and certain military actions.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter by Ambrose Bierce (1892)

I'd never read any Ambrose Bierce before, but how could I resist the cover of this collection featuring his novella The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter (1892) and seven other short stories from the 1880s and 1890s? I just couldn't. And I'm glad I couldn't because Bierce has an amusing cynicism, beautifully written prose, and a sense for the perfect twist that make his stories very readable 120 years after they were written.

In the title story, a young monk is sent with some of his brothers to an isolated village in the Alps. He soon encounters a beautiful young girl who is shunned by the villagers because her father is the hangman. The monk thinks this injustice is ungodly, and tries to comfort and protect the young girl but is reprimanded by his superiors. The monk is sent up a mountain to a lonely cottage to search his soul and rethink his attraction to the doomed girl, but his life is set on a tragic course and things don't end up turning out very well for anyone up on that mountain.

Bierce hates phonies and is at his best when his naive narrator reveals the hypocrisies he sees around him (and the double-sidedness of his own monkly nature):

I looked about me to see if the child of the hangman were present, but I could not see her anywhere, and knew not whether to rejoice that she was out of reach of the insults of the people or to mourn because deprived of the spiritual strength that might have come to me from looking upon her heavenly beauty.... The wheaten bread was brought in immense baskets, and as to drink, there was assuredly no scarcity of that, for the Superior and the Saltmaster had each given a mighty cask of beer. Both of these monstrous barrels lay on wooden stands under an ancient oak. The boys and the Saltmaster's men drew from the cask which he had given, while that of the Superior was served by the brother butler and a number of us younger monks. In honor of Saint Franciscus I must say that the clerical barrel was of vastly greater size than that of the Saltmaster...

At the table, surrounded by their beautiful wives and daughters, sat many knights, who had come from their distant castles to share in the great festival. I helped at table. I handed the dishes and filled the goblets and was able to see how good an appetite the company had, and how they loved that brown and bitter drink. I could see also how amorously the Saltmaster's son looked at the ladies, which provoked me very much, as he could not marry them all, especially those already married.

We had music, too. Some boys from the village, who practice on various instruments in their spare moments, were the performers. Ah, how they yelled, those flutes and pipes, and how the fiddle bows danced and chirped! I do not doubt the music was very good, but Heaven has not seen fit to give me the right kind of ears...

But the women seemed to dislike the beer, especially the young girls. Usually before drinking a young man would hand his cup to one of the maids, who barely touched it with her lips, and, making a grimace, turned away her face. I am not sufficiently acquainted with the ways of woman to say with certainty if this proved that at other times they were so abstemious.

The rest of the collected short stories are all perfectly crafted with biting twists. My favorite (and probably Bierce's best known work besides The Devil's Dictionary is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) -- a Civil War story about a prisoner being hanged that has some of the most visceral and beautiful descriptions of dying that I've ever read [and to save me doing a bunch more quoting, just read the whole thing here. It is very short and totally worth your time]. In fact, since all of Bierce's work was published before 1923 it is all in the public domain and readily available for your online reading pleasure!

[Book nerd alert: my copy is a 1955 Avon Publications book. If you think the front cover is cool, then just feast your eyes on the back cover.]

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011)

My bookclub (go DAFFODILS!) decided to read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011) after reading the glowing review of the book on Boing Boing. We had been talking about reading something genre-y, and Cline is from Austin, so it seemed like a nice idea to support a first-time local author. I can't say I loved it as much as Boing Boing did, but although it has a few flaws, this is overall a solid piece of science fiction with nicely drawn characters and a fast-moving plot.

Ready Player One is set in a mid-century America (the 2050s not the 1950s) that is feeling the dire effects of a failing economy, environment, and social structure. Unemployment is off the charts, there is hardly any fuel, and crime and drugs are everywhere. No one seems to mind all that much, though, because everyone is plugged into the OASIS, an immersive virtual reality / Internet / gaming world that was invented by James Halliday. When Halliday dies in 2044, he surprises everyone by leaving his entire fortune and the control of the OASIS to whomever can solve the game he created (filled with references to the 1980s, the decade he grew up in) and find the Easter Egg he has hidden in the OASIS. People go crazy trying to solve his first riddle and find the first of the three keys, but years pass and soon most people lose interest or start to think that the whole thing is unsolvable. A sub-set of super nerd egg hunters (or "gunters") obsess over the puzzle and fill endless message boards with their research. And a giant evil corporation, Innovative Online Industries, puts together its own team of ringers to try and win the contest so it can subvert Halliday's intentions and use the OASIS for its own evil purposes. Then our hero, the 18-year-old orphan, Wade Watts, finds the first key.

Wade is a classic underdog: he has no parents, no money, lives with a mean aunt in a giant slum of stacked trailers outside of Oklahoma City, was beat up at school until he got hooked up with one of Halliday's projects to provide public education in the OASIS (and got free equipment to access his account), and spends most of his time in his hideout (a van deep inside a giant pile of abandoned cars). Wade focuses as little of his energy as possible on the real world and spends all of his time watching 80s movies, playing 80s video games, and reading about everything that James Halliday was ever interested in. He has one friend, Aech, who is a fellow gunter, and an unrequited crush on a girl gunter/blogger named Art3mis. When he finds the first key, his avatar becomes famous, and things really start rolling.

Cline does a good job of giving his reader enough context that even a non-geek can read through the reams of 1980s geek culture references in Ready Player One and keep up, but I think I would have gotten a lot more out of this book if I had that video game experience in my past, and if I had some kind of World of Warcraft-esque contemporary multi-player questing experience. I have a little bit of geekiness in my background -- my dad was always into computers and we had a VIC-20 while I was growing up that I would type programs into from a little book. As our computers got better, I got really into freeware games that I could order through the mail, especially text-based adventure games, and I spent many high school evenings logging into a local BBS (shout out to Cyperspace in Lincoln, NE!) that could host 20 people at a time on its message boards, chat rooms, and extremely popular trivia contests. No pictures back in those days, kiddies, just words! The local modemers would have midnight coffee meet-ups once a week, and once I was 16 with a job and a car, I would join the group. I was easily 10 years younger than everyone else there, and one of only a few women, but the modemers were always gentlemen and I got some more exposure to the world of the geek while watching them play Magic, prepare for Renaissance Faires, and have exhaustive debates about Star Trek. But while I was sitting right next to the ultra geek culture, I never really embraced it. I haven't really watched the shows and movies, I never played Dungeons and Dragons, and while I have sci-fi inclinations, they are rather unfocused. The big hole in my geek experience is video games -- beyond the text-based adventure games, I really have never played any video games seriously at any point in my life.

Beyond the slew of references, I don't always like Cline's writing style which sometimes seems to simple for his subject matter and can get a little ham-fisted when addressing larger social issues -- a friend mentioned that this might have worked better as a young adult novel, and I really agree with that. Cline also suffers from what I like to call Cory Doctorow-itis. I like Boing Boing too, but there is a certain holier-than-thou / know-it-all geekiness factor that oozes from those guys, and I can draw some parallels between the things that irked me about Cline's books with the things that irk me about the Doctorow I've read.

Style issues aside, Cline sets up a classic good vs. evil plot with a dash of young romance, coming of age, and rags to riches, that all builds to a satisfying conclusion. His vision of the future is inventive and smart, and as a reader I was never bored. Definitely recommended for science fiction fans, and fans of Cory Doctorow.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996)

The always amazing Corie lent me this copy of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996) quite some time ago, but even though I'd read it back in college, I decided I wanted to read it again. And I'm glad I did, because it is awesome and I didn't remember all that much about it. Atwood is an author that I read so much of in high school and college but not that much of for the past dozen or so years. I think I might need to rectify that...

In Alias Grace, Atwood gives us a literary true crime novel based on the real story of Grace Marks [archives connection: check out the neat interface on a digitized copy of their "true confessions" from the Toronto Public Library]. Marks was an Irish immigrant who came to Canada with her family when she was 12. Her mother died on the ocean voyage over, and her drunk father wasn't much of a provider for her and her many brothers and sisters. When she was almost 13 she took a job as a servant, her father and siblings eventually left Toronto for the west, and she was on her own. She worked through several positions, accepting an offer to serve as a maid at Mr. Thomas Kinnear's country home when she was almost 16. Mr. Kinnear was a wealthy bachelor, and something of a dark sheep in the neighborhood. His staff was very small, just Grace, the housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery (who was suspiciously close to Mr. Kinnear), and a recently hired man named James McDermott who saw to the horses and other outdoorsy chores.

Some facts are unarguable: in 1843 both Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear were murdered and their bodies hidden in the cellar. James McDermott and Grace Marks took valuables from the home and went to Toronto where they caught a ferry over to the United States. They were arrested the morning after they arrived, tried, and sentenced to death. McDermott was hanged, but Grace Marks had her sentence commuted to life in the Kingston Penitentiary. She also spent some time in the asylum.

In Atwood's book, we learn Grace's story through a mixture of contemporary newspaper clippings, the published confession, letters from the main characters, and Grace's own narrative, both inside her head and what she decides to say to Simon Jordon, a young psychiatrist who is studying her case. Grace claims that she has no memory of what happened during the time of the murders, and Simon hopes to cure her memory and find out the truth. Really, though, Simon is kind of a dilettante. He is an American who comes from money, and instead of taking over his father's company, he has decided to dabble in the emerging science of psychology. He spends some time in Europe, and then returns to North America but still can't face his clinging mother and her solitary goal of getting him to marry and settle down.

Grace is hard to figure out. By this time she has been in prison for 16 years and has learned how to read people and how to keep things to herself. She manages to seem both very innocent and straightforward and extremely dangerous and duplicitous. Atwood pitches Grace's voice just right so that even the reader (who is often inside her head) can't really tell what she has done and what she knows:

I am sitting in the sewing room, at the head of the stairs in the Governor's wife's house, in the usual chair at the usual table with the sewing things in the basket as usual, except for the scissors. They insist on removing those from within my reach, so if I want to cut a thread or trim a seam I have to ask Dr. Jordon, who takes them out of his vest pocket and returns them to it when I have finished. He says he does not feel any such rigmarole is necessary, as he considers me to be entirely harmless and in control of myself. He appears to be a trusting man.

Although sometimes I just bite the thread off with my teeth.
(p. 62)

Alias Grace is a satisfying fictionalization of a true crime and a well-researched piece of historical fiction, but it also engages issues of gender and class in meaningful ways, dips its toes into psychology, sex, the penitentiary system, mesmerism, quilting, journalism, immigration, and the occult. All that and it also manages to be a fascinating read that is hard to put down. Definitely one of my favorite of Atwood's novels, and a great place to start if you haven't read any of her books.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Baby Cat-Face by Barry Gifford (1995)

I bought this copy of Baby Cat-Face by Barry Gifford (1995) right after I finished an omnibus collection of Gifford's seven Sailor and Lula novels and read that this one also had some Sailor and Lula in it, even though it wasn't included in the collection. The wonderful Sailor and Lula are indeed in this novel, but more as a side show than the main attraction, so I can see why Gifford and his publishers don't include this one with the rest of the Sailor and Lula canon. But never fear: Baby Cat-Face is just as wild and weird and funny and awesome as the Sailor and Lula novels -- in fact, it might even be weirder.

Baby Cat-Face is a woman who has a cat-like face and who was nicknamed "Baby" since she was the baby of the family. Her real name is Esquerita Reyna, and she ends up in New Orleans hooked up with Jimbo Deal. One night while Jimbo is at work, Baby goes down to the Evening in Seville Bar on Lesseps Street to have a drink (rum and oj, which the bartender calls a "Rat Tango, as in 'I don't need no rat to do no tango at my funeral'") and ends up witnessing a murder. This freaks her out so much that she catches the first bus to North Carolina to get away from things for awhile and visit her aunt.

Things quickly veer out of control when Baby's bus is hijacked by a woman named Daylight DuRapeau who forces the passengers to watch an interpretive dance / poem performance put on by DuRapeau's spiritual leader. Baby and the friends she meets on the bus are rescued by a deus ex machina in the form of teenage Sailor and Lula out for a joy ride while Lula's mama is out of town. But it's when Baby goes back to New Orleans, sanctifies herself, and joins Mother Bizco's Temple of the Few Washed Pure by her Blood that things start getting really weird.

I won't give much more of the plot away since, in true Gifford fashion, the plot is a bit of a chaotic roller coaster and the meat of the story is the characters, the names, the one-sentence back stories, and the dialogue. Anyone who liked Wild at Heart or the other Sailor and Lula stories, who likes Southern literature and greasy gritty New Orleans, or who just likes to have a tornado of messy creativity bowl them over, should check out Baby Cat-Face and the rest of Gifford's novels.

[Gifford is apparently also an extensively published poet and non-fiction writer. I might have to get me some of those as well...]

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The World's One Hundred Best Short Stories, Volume 3: Mystery, edited by Grant Overton (1927)

I recently won this exciting pile of old books through a giveaway on the Forgotten Bookmarks blog (and if you don't follow that blog, you should, because it is awesome). And rather than just put them on my shelf and gaze at their pretty spines, I thought I'd read them. I know that is unusual behavior for me, but just bear with it.

Starting off the pile is one volume of a multi-volume collection of short stories edited by Grant Overton: The World's One Hundred Best Short Stories, Volume 3: Mystery (1927). The title page doesn't do this adorable 4"X6" book justice -- it was physically fun to hold and in great shape, with clear type and a nice binding. Oh, and the stories were pretty great too.

Overton's definition of mystery is broad and includes some authors who are still very well known today, and others that I'd never heard of. A very worthwhile collection, and most of the stories are available in full-text online since they were published before 1923 -- just Google them, fools!

Here's the line up:

"The Doomdorf Mystery," by Melville Davisson Post (1918)
A brain twister where two friends try to figure out how the town meanie was shot when he was locked in a room by himself that could only be opened from the inside. Everyone wanted him dead, but no one could actually have done it!

"The Three Strangers," by Thomas Hardy (1883)
During a christening celebration in an isolated cottage in rural England, a stranger comes knocking on the door to get out of the rain. A few minutes later, another stranger does the same. And while he entertains the company with a song about his profession, a third man comes to the door asking for directions, takes one look inside, and runs away as if his life depended on it.

"The Gold Bug," by Edgar Allan Poe (1843)
Probably the most famous story in this collection -- William Legrand and his former slave Jupiter live alone together on an island off the coast of South Carolina. While walking one day, they find an unusual gold colored bug that bites Legrand as he tries to catch it. Legrand soon starts acting very peculiarly, and sends Jupiter for his good friend, our unnamed narrator, who joins the pair on what turns out to be an extremely profitable expedition.

"The Guilty Secret," by Paul de Kock (1910)
A funny mystery of romantic misunderstandings, tobacco, and protective uncles who like to play backgammon.

"Out of Exile," by Wilbur Daniel Steele (1919)
Possibly my favorite story in the anthology -- a moody story of two brothers in love with the same young woman. When she makes a flippant comment at a party that the first to sail to the mainland and come back with a golden ring will be the one she marries, both brothers head out in a violent storm but only one returns. She refuses to believe that the missing brother has died, and won't marry until he can attend the wedding. Told through the eyes of a teenager in the village, and its the distanced but character-based narration that make this one so great. [Read it here -- do it!]

"The Knightsbridge Mystery," by Charles Reade (1896)
This is the most detective-y of all the stories in this collection. Tells the story of a British boarding house whose tenants include a down-on-his-luck retired Captain and a substantial business man. On a night when the Captain's fortunes have fallen further and the businessman has a bag full of all his collected rents, the businessman ends up murdered in his bed and all his money stolen. The murder is pinned on the drunken horsemaster, but a police detective finds too many doubts in the story and tests all the honest tenants with another irresistible set-up.

"Silence," by Leonid Andreyev (1910)
A heartbreaking story of a stern minister whose daughter kills herself without an explanation, and whose wife then has a stroke that leaves her unable to speak or move. Beautifully written, lonely, and harsh.

"The Doll's House," by Katherine Mansfield (1923)
Three young sisters receive a marvelously huge dollhouse from their aunt and savor the attention it brings them at school, hand selecting no more than two girls a day to come and see it. Everyone gets a turn except the little Kelveys, whose mother takes in laundry, and whose father is out of the picture. No respectable family will let their children play with the Kelveys! A wonderful balance between the open-minded excitement of the youngest sister (who really really loves the tiny lamp in the dollhouse) and the hilariously biting asides and descriptions of the "proper" adult society.

"A Terribly Strange Bed," by Wilkie Collins (1852)
An Englishman who has amazing luck at a seedy French casino soon finds himself exceptionally drunk and checked into a room at the gambling house for the night. But then he runs up against a terribly strange bed, and his night takes a turn for the worse. This one was great fun.

"The Bamboozling of Mr. Gascoigne," by E. Phillips Oppenheim (1925)
This one wins the award for most exciting title -- an American swindler in Monte Carlo hooks up with a local man and his niece when they try to swindle him out of the cost of their lunch. Together the three team up to bamboozle the titular Mr. Gascoigne.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann (2011)

The latest pick for me from the algorithms of the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program was The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann (2011).

Alfred Buber does indeed live a double life, but he lives each half of his life at such a distance from himself, that even his double life doesn't seem to equal a whole person. Buber was born in Rhodesia, the son of a Jewish Communist and a British woman. He was sent to the U.S. for college, first living with his uncle, then in a boarding house while he completed law school. He never wanted to be a lawyer, but found that he was pretty good at it, and got a position with a prestigious firm. He spent almost no money on anything except the dream house that he was building in a commuter town outside of the city. He fills the house with artwork, and has the grounds impeccably landscaped. Then he moves into it alone.

Buber is a lonely guy. He had a brief fling in law school, but the only other time he spends with members of the opposite sex are the lawyers and secretaries at work, who mostly respect but ignore him, and the prostitutes that he visits habitually. It is that second interest that leads Buber to tell his boss and uncle that he is going on a trip to Paris while he really boards a plane for an un-named city in Southeast Asia, well known for its prostitutes. Once he is there, however, he is disgusted with the whole procedure, locks himself in his hotel room, and books a flight for home. But not before venturing down an ally off the main street and making his way into a small bar filled with beautiful young women in open robes. There he "meets" Nok, a young girl from the country, as she gives him a perfunctory blow job. He buys her a book to help her learn English and promises he will come back to her. Then he heads back home, but he can't stop thinking about Nok.

Buber is a liar. He lies when it is important that no one find out the truth about his secret life, and he lies when it is of no importance at all. He lies to himself, and he lies quite a bit to his reader (who is us, obviously, but also someone quite specific in Buber's life). Many reviews have called The Double Life of Alfred Buber Nabakovian, and the combination of self-delusion, self-awareness, and isolation definitely owe a debt to Humbert Humbert. But where Humbert's obsession has a strength and power to it, Buber's seems to result in half-hearted actions, eternal doubt, and more inconsequential lies. Schmahmann brings it all together in a well-earned exhale of an ending that is satisfying for its utter Buberness. This slim character study is worth reading if you like you unreliable narrators mixed with a little humor and a lot of discomfort.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Works and Days by Hesiod, Translated by Richmond Lattimore (circa 700 BC)

My latest dip into Harold Bloom's Western Canon is the Ancient Greek poem The Works and Days by Hesiod (circa 700 BC). As Bloom suggests, I read Richmond Lattimore's translation (published together with Theogony and The Shield of Herakles, which I'm saving for later).

Hesiod was from a region in Greece called Boetia and may have been a younger contemporary of Homer. In The Works and Days, instead of getting the narrative journey of past warriors that we see in Homer's the Iliad or the Odyssey, we have a contemporary piece of writing addressed to Hesiod's brother, Perses. Hesiod and Perses' father was a farmer, and when he died his land and estate was distributed between the two brothers, but Perses used the influence of some local judges to take more than his fair share (at least that is Hesiod's story).

In this poem to his brother, Hesiod responds to Perses by evoking the Gods and their justice, the story of Pandora's box, and the punishment in store for an unjust humanity that has strayed from its godly beginnings. He then goes on to list some practical advice: What time of year to plant your corn, what you should be doing in the winter (hint, it involves a lot of work preparing your equipment for the summer), what kind of woman you should marry, when you should harvest your grapevines, and the very small chunk of the year when you can relax. He also briefly touches on the best seasons for starting a sea voyage, and then ends the poetic advice with a listing of the lucky and unlucky days of the year for various pursuits.

If this sounds a little dull compared to the battles and characters of Homer, well, it kind of is, but there is a certain beauty in Hesiod's lists and advice, as well as some well placed jabs at his ne'er-do-well brother:

I mean you well, Perses, you great idiot, and I will tell you. Look, badness is easy to have, you can take it by handfuls without effort. The road that way is smooth and starts here beside you. But between us and virtue the immortals have put what will make us sweat. The road to virtue is long and goes steep up hill, hard climbing at first, but the last of it, when you get to the summit (if you get there) is easy going after the hard part.

Classics can be pretty fun, and The Works and Days only takes an hour or so to read, so embrace the listy advice and learn a thing or two from Hesiod!

Friday, August 26, 2011

4 for the Future, edited by Groff Conklin (1959)

In this science fiction anthology, 4 for the Future (1959), Groff Conklin, the prolific sci-fi editor (and possessor of an excellent name) brings together strong stories by Poul Anderson ("Enough Rope," 1953), Theodore Sturgeon ("The Claustrophile," 1956), Henry Kuttner ("The Children's Hour," 1944), and Eric Frank Russell ("Plus X," 1956).

While the stories run the gamut from an alien-filled space opera to a quiet story of love in a separate dimension, all four of the stories focus less on technology or exploration, and more on the humanness of the characters and the power of thinking your way out of a tight spot.

All four of these stories were very strong, but I particularly liked the family drama of personalities at the core of Sturgeon's "The Claustrophile," and the light touch of Henry Kuttner's very literary "The Children's Hour." The 1940s and 1950s are my favorite era of science fiction, and this collection doesn't disappoint. Also includes adorable anachronisms like an ink well tipping over in a futuristic office. If you like science fiction, you will like this.

[Equally awesome back cover available here if you are into that kind of thing.]

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Book of Negroes by Lawerence Hill (2007)

My lovely Aunt Charlotte loaned me a copy of Canadian author Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes [published in the US as Someone Knows My Name] (2007) an embarrassingly long time ago, and it just recently floated up to the top of my pile. Even though I had heard so many good things about the book, it was hard to make myself pick up what I imagined had to be a very sad and upsetting story of slavery. I was right that Hill's novel is sad and upsetting, but it is also moving, occasionally uplifting, and a surprisingly energetic read.

Hill gives us the first-person story of Aminata Diallo, who at the start of the book (in 1802) is an older woman, without any family, who was brought to London by abolitionists who want her to testify before Parliament in their fight to outlaw the slave trade. As part of her work with the abolitionists, Aminata decides to write her own life story, and that is the book we are holding in our hands.

Aminata starts with her life in a small African village with her parents. When she is 11 and walking home with her mother, a midwife, from assisting with a birth in another village, the two of them are attacked and Aminata is taken by the slave traders. The novel takes us through Aminata's brutal three month march to the sea, chained to other captured Africans, the putrid and deadly sea voyage, and her eventual purchase as a "refuse slave" by the owner of a South Carolina indigo plantation.

Through a series of coincidences, providence, and her own strong personality and aptitude for languages, Aminata survives these ordeals, learns both black and white English, and learns how to read and write. She also, at the age of 15, has a baby boy with a young man named Chekura who had been her companion since the long march in Africa. Chekura ends up on a nearby plantation and is able to sneak away once a month to visit Aminata. As with many slaves, their family is broken up.

I don't want to give away too much of the book, so I'll just say that through more coincidence and bravery, Aminata ends up with her freedom in New York City, and ultimately works with the British Loyalists during the Revolutionary War. The British promised freedom to any slaves that worked for them, and after the end of the war, Aminata is asked by the British to help them register all the blacks that served the Loyalist cause in "The Book of Negroes" so that they can be transported to Nova Scotia.

As you might imagine, things are not much better in Canada. The land promised to the former slaves is never given. They are forced to live in a separate town miles from the white settlement where they work, and when jobs become scarce, lynch mobs and arsonists attack the black settlement. A group of British abolitionists organize an exodus of former slaves to settle back in Africa in Sierra Leone, and Aminata Diallo, who by this point feels she has nothing to lose and who wants to see her home village again, decides to go.

This is obviously an epic and sweeping book that covers a lot of time, a lot of events, and a lot of countries. Keeping the entire narrative tied to the first person experiences of Aminata and allowing us to view these unimaginable actions on an individual scale allows the book to sink deeper than a birds-eye view of the topic. And Hill does a wonderful job with Aminata. Her narrative is straight forward and unflinching, very physical, pragmatic, and intelligent. She is a character that you admire much more than you pity.

The Canadian section of the book and the move to Sierra Leone was the part of the slave story that I wasn't that familiar with. The Book of Negroes is a real document (actually one of the most detailed and comprehensive archival records of individual slaves), and Hill definitely did his research -- there are dozens of recommended books for further reading at the end of the novel. Reading a story about slavery, showing all the horribleness of humanity, is never a fun endeavor, but Hill gives us something new in The Book of Negroes and something that we shouldn't look away from.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Wicked Heart by Christopher Pike (1993)

Hey, guess what, guys! I found another Christopher Pike book from my secret stash, and this one pretty much tops all the other ones in bad descriptions, far-fetched plots, and disturbing violence. I'm talking about The Wicked Heart (1993), the story of a teenage serial killer named Dusty Shame and his chemistry lab partner, Sheila, who helps solve the mystery and bring his story to an end. Let me say that again: Dusty Shame.

I'll just let Pike describe Dusty for you:

He was a handsome young man. His hair was light brown, soft and fine like that of an angel, his eyes green as grass in evening twilight. He was five ten, fit and muscular, but plagued by repeated heartburn. He had a tendency, when in social situations, to be jerky in his movements. But when he was alone, especially when he killed, he moved smoothly and gracefully as a dancer. Always, though, he was quiet. Had he been more talkative, he certainly could have had plenty of dates. And maybe if he had spoken to more girls and listened to their voices instead of the one [in] his head, he wouldn't have become a murderer....

Dusty was in many ways like his nickname, Dust, and viewed everything from the ground level, where the insects that crawled through the mud were the best friends of the flowers that scented the air with their perfume.

Here we go (spoilers follow, but I don't know that it matters much):

As the book begins, Dusty has killed two teenage girls and is about to kill a third. A voice in his head tells him he needs to kill six girls and bury them in an isolated cave in the California desert, where six other old graves already lie. The other girls Dusty killed lived in other towns, but for this third murder he picks Nancy, a girl from his chemistry class, who was talking about how her parents were going to be out of town for a couple days.

When Nancy doesn't show up for class the next day, her best friend (and Dusty's lab partner) Sheila, is worried. Sheila is also upset because her boyfriend Matt recently broke up with her. She runs into Matt after school and starts crying so hard that he offers to drive her home, but she insists that they stop at Nancy's house to check on her. When there is no answer, Matt breaks into the house and they notice nothing out of place except that Nancy and her purse are gone, and there is a white card with a hand-drawn swastika on the bed. They call Nancy's parents and then the police. Eventually they get put in touch with Lieutenant Black who has been tracking the other murders.

The ridiculousness level amps up as Lt. Black entrusts Sheila with details of the ongoing investigation and asks her for help in understanding how the Einstein computer network works (an adorably described Prodigy-like creation), since it appears that the killer finds his victims using the message boards. Sheila doesn't know much about Einstein, but her lab partner Dusty does! Uh oh! Dusty and Shelia go to Lt. Black's house and meet his cute teenage daughter Dixie. Uh oh!

Then things get really improbable:

Lt. Black sends Sheila out to another city to talk to a retired police officer named Gossick who has a theory about this case. She decides to take Matt with her and they hear the guy out. Here is the outline: Back in Nazi Germany, Heinrich Himmler had a girlfriend named Frau Scheimer. They were both empty evil beings without humanity that fed off of the suffering of others. Gossick was present when Himmler and Scheimer were caught and Himmler killed himself before being interrogated. Frau Scheimer and her young daughter (uh oh!) were released and ended up going to California. A similar set of murders of young women started up and Gossick started investigating. Through a deep meditation regimen, he connected in with the mysteries of the universe and realized that Frau Scheimer was responsible for the killings. Things happen, Gossick ends up shooting Scheimer, burying her in a secret grave, fostering her daughter for awhile, and then getting fired from the force, and losing custody of the daughter, who he had grown to love. The daughter's adopted parents end up dying and she changes her name and has a son of her own. She loses her mind to Alzheimer's when her son is a young man, but the evil voice of her mother is still able to talk to him and tell him to commit horrible acts. That's right: Dusty Shame is the grandson of Himmler!

And now he has Dixie and is driving her out to the desert with Sheila hot on their trail. Gossick and Matt are trying to find them! So is Lt. Black! What will happen!

So, this one was satisfyingly ridiculous, but also one of the worst written of all of Pike's books. The dialogue is horrible, the descriptions clunky, and the plot ridiculous. This was written in the heyday of Pike's career (it was the fourth book he published in 1993) and it reads like a poorly edited first draft. It is much much darker than other Pike books, but the ridiculous plot and poor writing do little to help the violence and tragedy to coalesce into anything suspenseful or engaging. If you love to hate Pike books, this is the one for you. If you are looking for a good murder mystery, then you should probably stay away.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (2011)

The next LibraryThing Early Reviewers book in my pile is The Tragedy of Arthur (2011) by Arthur Phillips. Spacebeer readers who pay even more attention than I do will remember that I read Phillips' first book, Prague way back in 2006 for the first meeting of the awesome, but now defunct/transmogrified Smarter Than You Book Club. I remember liking Prague but having some reservations, and I feel similarly towards The Tragedy of Arthur, although Phillips gets way more ambition points with the conceit of his most recent novel.

"The Tragedy of Arthur" in The Tragedy of Arthur is an undiscovered Shakespeare play that our narrator's father discovered and liberated from a wealthy manor house over thirty years ago. Of course, our narrator's father is a talented forger who has spent most of the intervening years in prison. And our narrator happens to be a novelist named Arthur Phillips who has written several books, including a debut novel titled Prague.

Although he is suspicious at first, all the experts agree that the 1597 edition of "The Tragedy of Shakespeare" that his father found are authentic, and Arthur enters into a contract with his publisher, Random House, to publish this unseen play. Arthur secures the right to write the introduction and annotate the play for modern audiences himself. But when his doubts of the play's authenticity increase and Random House refuses to stop publication, he bulks his introduction to the play up into a 250 page memoir / explanation of his life, his father, his twin sister, his failed relationships, and everything else.

And then, just in case you didn't think Phillips was the smartest guy in the room, we have the text of "The Tragedy of Arthur": a five-act, straight-faced, iambic pentameter-ed, credibly Shakespearean tragedy. Complete with annotations by Arthur and co/cross-annotations by a Shakespearean expert.

Setting the novel's weaknesses aside, you have to admire Phillips' ambition and dedication to pull this off. It's awfully, awfully, clever, and he does it well. The meditations on forgery and reality are well thought out, and the comments on the legacy of Shakespeare are all pretty accurate and difficult to argue with, whether you love or hate the Bard.

While the introduction is well written, I was often put off by Phillips' distancing word play ("disparate desperate adventures," "disoriented in the JFK holding area where counterterrorism shades into countertourism") and meta-ness (it's a character, with the name of the author, writing an introduction, to a fake play, that really exists, and the introduction's like a memoir, and he tells us it's like a memoir! And why he hates memoirs!). I don't think that the revelations of the narrator's intentions end up being as emotionally connecting as Phillips' hopes they will be, and the unsatisfying twist that leads to those revelations is an out of character reaction to Arthur on the behalf of every other character of the novel.

Arthur Phillips' "Arthur Phillips" owes some literary debt to Phillip Roth's "Phillip Roth," and like Roth's novels that I've read, the narrator of The Tragedy of Arthur is very self centered, has ridiculous relationships with women, and kind of turns me off with his overly dude-centered ways. And although Phillips is a good writer, he doesn't have the dark, neurotic, over-the-topness that keeps me reading Roth even though I find most of his characters pretty despicable. I think that both Roth and Phillips want their narrators to be unlikable, but Roth pulls it off in a way that Phillips does not.

Either way, this book obviously gave me a lot to think about, and although when I just re-read what I wrote about it I realize I had a lot of criticisms, I really did like the novel overall. Anyone with a sense of literary playfulness, and particularly any English nerds who have read a lot of Shakespeare, will get a lot of enjoyment from this book.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli (2010)

When my excellent friend Corie loaned me Tatjana Soli's debut novel, The Lotus Eaters (2010), I wasn't entirely sure I'd get into this story of a female American photojournalist in Vietnam. Of course, I should have remembered Corie's track record of book recommendations -- I was quickly engrossed in this one and was carried away by it until the end.

In 1965, after Helen Adams' brother is killed in Vietnam, she drops out of college and with a high school photography class under her belt, decides to travel to Vietnam and cover the war as a freelance photojournalist. A tall blond woman is a unique sight in Saigon, and particularly unusual in the boys club of foreign journalism. Helen makes her share of newbie mistakes, one of which initially appears to be falling into bed with the handsome Pulitzer prize winning bad boy of the bunch, Sam Darrow. After getting brushed off by Darrow, Helen regroups and quickly (honestly maybe a little too quickly) makes a name for herself as a natural photographer who is willing to take risks to bring in the shot. She gets a job as a Life staff photographer and is once again in the orbit of Darrow and his Vietnamese assistant, Linh.

Linh, like many of the Vietnamese assisting the Americans, has had a complicated and tragic life because of the complicated and tragic series of wars in his country. He keeps his feelings and history to himself, for the most part, but his story is slowly revealed over the course of the book, as is his hidden love for Helen that grows even as she and Darrow become inseparable.

Soli starts the book with the American evacuation of Saigon in 1975 as Helen and Linh struggle to escape with their lives and Helen's film, and then drops us back a decade. This structure gives us a unique perspective as we watch the characters move forward to the action at the beginning of the book, and deepens our understanding of their actions. In fact, throughout the book, Soli's biggest strength is her structuring of the plot and her hints and revelations of the past.

Helen Adams, Sam Darrow, and Linh are no cynical Thomas Fowlers, but there is a lot from this expatriate community of journalists that hearkens back to Graham Greene's The Quiet American (in fact, in an early scene, Helen throws her copy of Greene's book in the trash and then decides to read it one more time after it is rescued by her room boy). While Helen and the other characters do lose their idealism and optimism, they also become more a part of the Vietnamese culture than Fowler ever did and never entirely distance themselves from the events surrounding them -- to the extent that they are ultimately nearly destroyed by their inability to isolate themselves.

Soli is a beautiful writer, and this is a well researched and accurate-feeling novel about a country and a war that have been written about many times before. The characters, the romance, and the action are all believable and moving, but her descriptions of the environment and her compassion for all the components of her novel, even the smallest characters or briefest scenes, are part of what really make The Lotus Eaters stand out. Definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Huntington, West Virginia "On the Fly" by Harvey Pekar (2011)

I haven't read everything that Harvey Pekar (author of the American Splendor comics) has written, but what I've read I've really liked. So when Dr. M picked up the copy of his most recent (and final, since he sadly died about a year ago) book, the posthumously published and awesomely punctuated Huntington, West Virginia "On the Fly" (2011), I was happy to take a look.

Like his other work, this book consists of vignettes of Pekar's everyday life and some of the stories of people that Pekar has met. In this collection we have the story of "Hollywood Bob" (my favorite) who went from being a small time hood to the successful owner and driver of a limo business; the separate and then together stories of Tunc and Eileen (plus Eileen is a comic book archivist!); the drama behind a local toy store owner's purchase and renovation of a old timey diner; and Pekar's trip to the titular Huntington, West Virginia for a book festival.

Pekar's voice and presence melds with his subject in each story, and the perfectly ordinary events of regular life become a little more interesting through his eyes. This collection is beautifully illustrated by Summer McClinton. Definitely recommended for Pekar fans, and if you aren't a Pekar fan, then what have you been doing with your life?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000)

The always amazing Joolie lent me this copy of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (2000) after I raved so much about liking books with interesting structures like The Cloud Atlas. As always, Joolie was right on target with what I might like.

"The Blind Assassin" in The Blind Assassin is the title of a posthumously published novel by Laura Chase -- a woman who drives off a bridge and dies at the age of 25 on the first page of our book. Our narrator, Iris Chase, is Laura's older sister, and she had the book published after Laura's death. This book follows a young upper-class woman who is having an affair with a fascinatingly poor writer who is wanted by the police for his work with the labor unions. As they lay in bed together, the man spins a science fiction story about the blind assassins for his lover. The Blind Assassin alternates between sections of Laura Chase's novel, the current musings of the elderly Iris, and Iris's memoir of she and Laura's parallel lives.

The structure is obviously the star here, and Atwood expertly intertwines the different facets of the story, perfectly wrapping up all the loose strings by the end. The ending is a little predictable, but it hid itself long enough to be satisfying when it occurred to me. Beyond the structure we have Atwood's cold, distancing, unknowable, and fragile characters (and I mean all that in a good way). Our narrator, the character through whom we see everyone else, is tragically disconnected from everyone else in her life, and because of this distance, we can't ever know the other characters very well. And most of them come off as people I would prefer not to know anyway.

Part of the reason I think I responded so much to this book is that at its core it's about sisters -- I have two sisters (and no brothers) and sister stories have always gotten to me. The relationship between Iris and Laura is an exaggerated version of that combination of closeness and distance that any sisters share -- they are the people that are most like you and that you know better than anyone in the world, while at the same time being even more unknowable than a perfect stranger. This simultaneous closeness and distance between Iris and Laura drives the action of the book to its inevitably tragic (but ultimately satisfying) conclusion.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Just Kids by Patti Smith (2010)

The next book for the best book club in the U.S.A. (Go DAFFODILS!) is Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids (2010). I'm not the most informed on Patti Smith's musical career, and while I like Horses quite a bit, I find some of her music is a little too poetic and overtly political for my taste. This book, however, hardly gets into Smith's music at all. Instead it is a kind of dual coming of age story of Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in late-1960s / early-1970s New York City. It's a story of a foundational friendship and young artists finding their voice. But most of all, its a love story.

Smith and Mapplethorpe were both born in 1946 and moved to New York City in the late 1960s. Once they found each other, they quickly formed a life together that supported the two of them both personally and artistically, and which didn't end until Mapplethorpe's death in 1989.

I'm not the hugest fan of the memoir as a genre (they can occasionally be wonderful, but usually either try to out do other memoirists in a horrible experiences contest or fall into the the rose-colored nostalgia trap), but Smith has written a beautiful and readable book about her experience in New York City and her relationship with Mapplethorpe, both hard subjects to approach without falling into cliches or glossing over rough edges.

Smith's background as a poet sometimes bleeds too heavily into her prose for my taste (particularly when describing herself), but for the most part she maintains a straightforward style that works well with her subject matter. The large chapter of the book that covers the couple's time in the Hotel Chelsea gets a little namedroppy (does Smith really remember every person that was at Max's Kansas City or some party or poetry reading every time?), but I imagine many readers are coming to the book for that 1970s New York experience and will appreciate knowing all the details.

I'll save some of my comments for the book club, but be prepared for the final chapter to melt even the coldest of hearts. Worth reading regardless of your musical tastes.

Friday, July 08, 2011

The War Prayer by Mark Twain (1916)

I got this copy of The War Prayer by Mark Twain (1916) at the seminary library book sale this past year -- it just called out to me from in between all the theological tomes and philosophy books.

Twain wrote this poetic protest in response to the Spanish-American war but wouldn't let it be published during his lifetime out of respect for his family, who thought the sentiments too harsh. It was first published in Harper's in 1916, in the heart of World War I, and has been a perennial favorite whenever the nation goes to war.

The copy I have was published during Vietnam, in 1971. Here Twain's words are accompanied by the powerful and chaotic line drawings of John Groth. The combination of the words and images really help to twist Twain's knife. Definitely worth a read.

[And if you want to read it (without Groth's wonderful illustrations) it is all right here.]

Monday, July 04, 2011

The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-five Minutes in History and Imagination by Javier Cercas (2011)

I got a copy of The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-five Minutes in History and Imagination by Javier Cercas (published in Spain in 2009, and in an English translation in 2011) through the Library Thing EarlyReviewers program. I have to admit that even though I requested it and I do have some interest in modern Spanish politics, it took me awhile to bring this book about a failed 1981 coup d'etat up to the top of my list. And while it was slow going at first, this book really exceeded my expectations and turned into something very unique and exciting.

My first clue that this was no ordinary history or political science book should have been the first two blurbs on the back of the book: "The best history book of the year" and "A masterpiece of twenty-first century European literature." Cercas is an established novelist in Spain, and found himself moved by the half an hour of video footage of the attempted February 23, 1981 takeover of the government by a faction of the military (commonly referred to as 23-F). Although the vote of a new Prime Minister that was going on at the time was being broadcast live on the radio, a couple of cameras were in the room recording when the soldiers entered. They recorded, unmanned, for about half an hour before they were both shut off. This footage is played often in Spain on the anniversary of the coup, and the reactions of the participants, particularly the recently disgraced Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez, inspired Cercas to write a novel. After the novel was done, it just didn't work for him, so he translated his extensive research and endless thoughts into this non-fiction novel of the events of the coup and the men on either side of the standoff.

During the coup, when the soldiers, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero, entered the parliament floor and took the legislators hostage, three men refused to get down on the floor, even when the bullets started flying. I think wikipedia describes their reactions pretty well: "During the shooting of several machine gun rounds, whilst almost all deputies dropped terrified on the floor, three kept standing defiantly: acting Minister of Defense General Manuel Gutiérrez Mellado, who stood up and ordered Tejero to desist; acting President of the Government Adolfo Suárez, who remained sitting down instead of crouching on the floor; and Communist leader Santiago Carrillo, who, sitting down, calmly lit a cigarette and did not seem to be disturbed by the events." [You can get a hint of the coup here (and there is a lot more on You Tube -- search for "23 Febrero golpe de estado")]

But let's back up for a very tiny bit of Spanish history (feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if this is not your thing): In 1936, Francisco Franco led an unsuccessful coup against the left-wing Popular Front government. The coup started the Spanish Civil War, which pitted left against right and ended with Franco declaring himself the leader of Spain for life. And he lived for another 40 years. Knowing that he would need to take steps to carry on Francoism after his death, Franco allowed the heir of the Spanish monarchy, Juan Carlos, to return to Spain from Italy and be educated there. Franco was secure that Juan Carlos would continue his policies after his death and named him his official successor. He wasn't aware, however, that Juan Carlos had been meeting with political dissidents behind Franco's back, and when he came to power in 1975, he masterminded the transition of Spain from a dictatorship to a democracy.

The major creator of the new Spanish state was the first Prime Minister (who was initially appointed by the King but later elected democratically), Adolfo Suarez. Cercas describes Suarez as a "pure politician" and he did what seemed almost impossible -- got the Francoist legislature to vote their system out and a democratic one in, legalized political parties, including Communism, and extended autonomy to distinct regions of Spain. It was all going pretty great until Suarez leaned a little too far to the left from his centrist foundation, while international politics leaned heavily to the right (Thatcher, Reagan). Add in the oil crisis and increased terrorist activity from the ETA and you have a bunch of Spaniards who think that Franco wasn't so bad and another coup and a return to the right might not be a bad idea.

The background details and results of the coup (which are covered extensively in the book) are way too complicated to get into here, but I'll just say that Cercas does an amazing job of combining historical research with his novelist's eye for human psychology and emotion. The book has a wonderful structure -- each section starts with a detailed analysis of the existing video from inside the legislative chamber and ends with a step-by-step move through the action of the coup itself. In between we get the histories of all the major players, the cultural and political climate leading up to the coup, and the ultimate consequences of the military action.

Cercas' writing style takes a little getting used to, but as a lover of long sentences and multiple asides, I got into it pretty quickly. Here's a representative example: "I insist: I'm not saying that this was the only possible result of the coup for the monarchy if the King opposed it; what I'm saying is that, like any of the rest of the plotters, before joining the coup Cortina might have arrived at the conclusion that the risks the coup entailed for the monarchy were much fewer than the benefits it might bring in its wake, and that in consequence the coup was a good coup because it would triumph whether it triumphed or failed: the triumph of the coup would strengthen the Crown (that's at least what Cortina might have thought and what Armada and Milans were thinking); its failure would likewise do so."


Obviously this isn't the book for everyone, and I have a little background in this kind of thing, so I might be a special audience (I was a Spanish minor in college and took a class all in Spanish about modern Spain), but if you have a little patience and some interest in Spanish politics, try picking this one up. I've never read anything else like it.