Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Walking Dead, Volume 9: Here We Remain by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2010)

In The Walking Dead, Volume 9: Here We Remain by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2010), the bloodbath of Volume 8 really pays off. After their escape from the fighting at the prison, Rick and his son Carl spend an unusually long time as the only characters in the comic. This section of the book, with Rick getting sick and Carl coming into his own, has been one of my favorite parts of the series so far, and the heartbreaking surprise of the dead telephone topped it off perfectly. Eventually they rejoin some of our old friends, but the character list has been greatly reduced from the community at the prison. The arrival at the end of the book of three new characters with an intriguingly hard-to-believe proposition points to the possibility of some interesting doings a'transpiring in Volume 10.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin (2011)

The always amazing J.Lowe kindly loaned me A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin (2011), the fifth (and last published) book in the Song of Ice and Fire series and even though it took me a while to attack this monster of a novel, I'm so glad he did.

You might remember that in the fourth book, Martin cut his cast of characters in half and only focused on part of the world of the novel. This fifth book picks up what the other half of our characters were doing and runs concurrently to the fourth book for the first two thirds or so of the novel and then brings everything together and moves into the future. Since Martin added several new important characters this time around and only killed off (or did he?) a few of our old buddies, he is going to have quite the menagerie to deal with in book six.

Like many others, I enjoyed this book more than the one before (although that one had its moments) not the least because my favorite character, Tyrion, is back in the spotlight in this volume. I can't get enough of that guy. And, without busting out any spoilers, I think that is about as far as I can get with this review. [This series and the Walking Dead comics are really stretching my ability to talk about something without talking about it in detail...]

Now that I'm caught up with Martin, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with myself while I wait for the 6th book to be release. Watch the TV series, I guess?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Walking Dead, Volume 8: Made to Suffer by Robert Kirkman, Charlies Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2010)

The promise of rough chuckles for Volume 8 after the calm of Volume 7 was no joke: in The Walking Dead, Volume 8: Made to Suffer by Robert Kirkman, Charlies Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2010) things get pretty real pretty fast. The Governor, the most uncomplicatedly evil creation in the entire book, has set his eyes (well, eye) on our heroes who are trying to build a community behind the safety of their prison walls. That community is blasted apart quickly, although the group is much more of a match for The Governor and his crew of duped townlings than they expected. Heroes die. Attackers die. A bunch of zombies die. In fact, only a handful of our named characters appear to survive to walk the pages of Volume 9. I get the feeling that Kirkman had played out the prison scenario and needed to inject some excitement into his narrative, so he went all Game of Thrones, killed off some unexpectedly major characters, and waited to see what would happen next. And it got my attention, I'm definitely ready to follow him into the next volume.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Householder's Survival Manual: How to Take Care of Everything in Your Home, edited by Nancy Shuker (1999)

I bought this copy of the Reader's Digest Householder's Survival Manual: How to Take Care of Everything in Your Home, edited by Nancy Shuker (1999) at Half Price Books as an impulse buy shortly after we bought our new house. There are a few drawbacks: since it was written in 1999, it is pretty dated (particularly the section on buying electronics and anything that mentions computers); it is geared towards a Reader's Digest audience that I am not a part of (old people?); and the writing style is often clunky and choppy (and sometimes just odd: "The choices available in home flooring today are wide and wonderful.") Still, I am a huge pushover for helpful hints and basic reference, and this book covers everything from electricity and plumbing to stain removal and major appliance selection. Much of the information here can be found with a quick internet search, but when you want a simple explanation it is often more satisfying to consult an index. At least for me! I think I'll hang on to this one until a better general house repair reference book comes along...

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Walking Dead, Volume 7: The Calm Before by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn (2010)

As you might guess from the title of The Walking Dead, Volume 7: The Calm Before by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn (2010), things are relatively calm in this volume and look to get rather hairy in volume 8. At the beginning of the volume, everyone is reunited at the prison and Lori is ready to give birth to her baby any day. Luckily they brought a woman with some medical training back from Woodbury, and she gets to setting up the prison infirmary as a birthing center. To make things even more calm and happy, the crops are coming in, they get a bunch of food from an abandoned Walmart (not without some trouble, though), and Glen and Maggie are married by Maggie's father in the prison cafeteria. All so happy! And even though some rough things come (zombie attack, amputation, suicide by zombie), we are reminded of how calm things are by the characters constantly remarking on how nice things have been lately. It is no surprise that after all this niceness and treading of water, a big bucket of evil shows up on their doorstep at the end of the volume. To be continued....

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Neil Sperry's Complete Guide to Texas Gardening by Neil Sperry (1991)

This is one I actually finished quite a while ago, but since it took me so long to read it I completely forgot to write up a post. My long reading time has nothing to do with the quality or usefulness of Neil Sperry's Complete Guide to Texas Gardening by Neil Sperry (1991), but more to do with the fact that I checked it out from the library twice, renewed it twice, and mostly read it while I was eating my cereal in the morning.

This is a good basic reference to Texas gardening -- particularly the extensive encyclopedias of flowers, plants, shrubs, and trees, complete with photographs, identifying traits, and general care. This second edition was published in 1991 and could probably stand an update to incorporate some more organic and water-conscious gardening techniques. Still, there is a lot to love here and I could see myself buying a reference copy of this book someday as my gardening aspirations grow.

Oh yes, I have gardening aspirations! Right now they are very small and mostly contained in a small metal tub that I've been using to grow a winter garden of lettuce, cilantro, and parsley. Check out my first mini-harvest! Everything I know I learned from my awesome friend Joolie, and beyond her tutelage, most of my techniques have been trial and error. Still, I have managed to grow edible food from seeds in dirt I put into a container by myself and I'm pretty excited to have gotten this far. Maybe in the spring I'll go crazy and try some herbs!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Walking Dead, Volume 6: This Sorrowful Life by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2010)

I had to take a brief break from The Walking Dead series after the last volume, but I couldn't stay away from those crazy zombies for long, so I'm back with The Walking Dead, Volume 6: This Sorrowful Life by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2010). I'm in too deep for plot summaries, and you wouldn't want me to spoil it for you anyway, so instead I'll work with some broad themes. Revenge. Reunion. Hope. Murder. Morality. And honestly, almost zero zombies in this one. I'm not always the biggest fan of revenge as motivation, but after the horribleness of the last volume, this was pretty darn tolerable (even though equally as horrible). Read on, friends, read on!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal (1948)

My book club (go DAFFODILS!) had the smart idea of reading a book from a decade that we hadn't read anything from yet as a group. Happily for me we ended up with the 1940s, one of my favorite literary periods. Many many many books were suggested, but the final scientifically voted in winner was The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal (1948).

Vidal's third novel is infamous for being one of the first mainstream novels to portray a sympathetic gay man who was a regular "All-American" guy. Jim Willard and Bob Ford are one year apart in high school, both athletes, and best friends. Bob goes with a lot of girls, but Jim is more attracted to Bob. One night after Bob's graduation, and just before he goes off to join the Merchant Marine, Jim and Bob go camping at an isolated cabin and after a day of skinny dipping and a night of wrestling by the fire, the two of them have sex. Bob leaves, promising that he will write and that Jim will join him at sea after he graduates the next year, but after a couple of letters the notes from sea dry up.

Jim graduates and disappoints his parents by ditching his college plans and heading to New York to join the Merchant Marine and find Bob. He doesn't find his friend, but he does find a position on a ship, which he later abandons for California. He has a lot of casual sex and a few more serious relationships (one with a famous actor, and one with a semi-famous writer), but in the back of his mind he is always waiting for Bob. When, at the end of the book, he finally gets to spend another night alone with his best friend, things do not turn out the way he planned.

I liked this book. The straightforward prose is misleadingly simple, and hides a interesting structure and some good character development. Although Jim is our protagonist, we never get a really good sense of him as a character, and I think that is deliberate. Instead, the side characters are filled with details and dimensions that end up teaching us about Jim.

Vidal revised this novel in the mid-1960s and his biggest change was altering the climactic last chapter. It is still dark and dramatic, but different. I'll be interested to talk that out with my fellow DAFFODILS...

[You can read a bit about the reception of the book and Vidal's views on writing it here.]

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Walking Dead, Volume 5: The Best Defense by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2010)

Whew. The Walking Dead, Volume 5: The Best Defense by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2010) is a fast read, but not an easy one. A subset of our heroes watch a helicopter fly over them and then crash, and things to real bad real fast when they go explore the crash site. Once again zombies aren't really the problem, humans are. I can take a little violence and cruelty, but this one was about at my limit. I shall power through, guys.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Beyond the Farthest Star by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1964)

Beyond the Farthest Star by Edgar Rice Burroughs was published in 1964 by his estate, fourteen years after his death. It consists of two related novellas -- the first, "Adventure on Poloda" had been published in a magazine in 1942, but while the second, "Tangor Returns," was probably written at about the same time, it wasn't published until it was found in Burroughs papers. It seems likely that Burroughs intended this story to take off into a series, and it has the same hallmarks as the John Carter or Pellucidar novels (through extraordinary circumstances, an all-American guy finds himself in a strange world and is initially threatened but ends up taking care of business).

In Beyond the Farthest Star, our American hero is shot down over Germany during WWII, feels himself dying, and then wakes up on another planet, completely naked. He stands up and sees a beautiful woman in a crazy glittery jumpsuit. She screams and runs and then five men run out from under a small hill and take him captive. He has somehow been transported to Poloda, a planet so far away from Earth that it really is "beyond the farthest star," and a planet that has been at war for over 100 years.

Our hero had the good luck to magically appear in the country of Unis, the good guys in the war, and the Unisians give him the name of Tangor. The Unisians would love to have peace, but they are stuck defending themselves against the ever-more-aggressive Kapars who have subjugated the rest of the planet. Over the last century of warfare, the Unisians have dug out underground cities with buildings that can be raised up to the surface and then lowered when there is a raid by the Kapars. Lucky for Unis, Tangor was a good soldier and excellent pilot back on Earth and he quickly joins the forces defending Unis from the air, and proves himself a mega-hero.

In the second novella, Tangor is approached by a Unisian woman who sympathizes with the Kapars and wants to defect to their country and double-cross the Unisians. Tangor tells his superiors, who have him go along with her plan and work as a double-agent in Kapar. Kapar is an extremely repressive society, ruled by a secret police and torn apart by fear with neighbors and family informing on one another. Naturally, Tangor gets into some tough spots in Kapar, but ultimately gets the job done.

These aren't the most polished Burroughs stories, but they are an interesting product of the war years and come off as more political than much of his other work. The anti-war sentiments and the theme of fighting against a Stalinesque dictatorship are hard to miss. You should definitely read these if you are a Burroughs completest, or if you just like old science fiction novels with naked men on the cover.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Walking Dead, Volume 4: The Heart's Desire by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn (2010)

Things are still hopping in The Walking Dead, Volume 4: The Heart's Desire by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn (2010). After narrowly escaping a mutiny that would have kicked them out of their prison sanctuary, the group settles in and begins planting crops to help supplement their diet of canned food and peanut butter. A new woman enters the scene, having fought her way alone through zombies for much longer than anyone else, and she quickly shakes things up by bypassing Carol and making moves on Tyreese. In a small group like this, little conflicts quickly explode and by the end it is hard to tell who is actually more dangerous: the humans or the zombies. Some nice moral quandaries in this one as well -- this is great stuff!

Friday, November 02, 2012

Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez (2011)

I'm endeavoring to catch up on my backlog of books from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program before I ask for more (just three more to go!), and the latest one on the pile is the beautifully written novel Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez (2011).

Purgatory is right up my alley -- Latin American fiction with a historical basis and just a hint of that magical realism stuff. This is Martínez's final novel, published before died in 2010, and written in Argentina where he had returned after 30 years in exile. Our main characters are also exiles -- Emilia, the daughter of a powerful man in charge of propaganda under the dictatorship, and Simón, her husband and fellow cartographer, who has been a desaparecido (one of the disappeared) for 30 years.

Emilia has left her homeland, and left behind her decades-long search for her husband, who she refuses to believe was killed by the military, and gone to work in the United States. One day at lunch she sees her lost husband in the restaurant. Oddly enough he looks just like he did the day she last saw him 30 years ago. They leave the restaurant together and she is embarrassed that she has aged into a 60 year old woman, but Simón doesn't seem to mind.

The novel then leisurely moves between Emilia and her friend, an Argentinian writer who is also living in the U.S., and between the present and the past. Things are explained, confused, reworked, and thought through, and Martínez does a masterful job of bringing the reader through Emelia's journey through the non-sequential paths of memory, imagination, and hope.

Very recommended -- this is a well-paced, moving, and enjoyable read.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Walking Dead, Volume 3: Safety Behind Bars by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2009)

Holy shit, guys. This one was the best one yet.

In The Walking Dead, Volume 3: Safety Behind Bars by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2009), our team finds an abandoned prison complex (well abandoned except for a whole ton of zombies), and decide to clean it up and make it their home. The place has everything: the security of multiple fences, a huge store of canned food, beds aplenty, and the unexpected bonus of a few surviving hardened criminals holing up in the cafeteria. Everyone becomes one big group, including some survivors from the farm in the last volume, and then things get freaking crazy.

This volume is certainly filled with human on zombie, zombie on human, and human on human violence, but beyond that our characters begin really exploring their boundaries and their relationships with one another. This is the most morally complex entry in the series so far, and if this combination of complex morality and unexpected violence keep up, then sign me up for 13 more volumes!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (2011)

A while ago (like before we bought our house), my lovely friend Corie lent me a copy of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson (2011), and I lamely have just gotten around to reading it. I really like history books, and I've been interested in reading Larson for quite some time. In fact, I might be one of the only people in the world who hasn't read The Devil in the White City yet (but I will someday soon, I swear!).

In the Garden of Beasts covers the Dodd family's time in Berlin in the mid-1930s, right at the start of Hitler's chancellorship and the increasing power of the Nazi party. William Dodd was a history professor at the University of Chicago who thought an ambassadorship would be a good way to get a break from the hectic academic lifestyle so that he could focus on his multi-volume history of the South. Through an odd series of events, including the fact that no one else wanted it, he was assigned by Roosevelt to be the Ambassador to Germany and he and his wife and two adult children, Martha and Bill, packed up house and moved to Berlin.

As you might expect, he got very little time to work on his book.

The Nazi's already had quite a bit of power in Germany at the time and reports of attacks on Jews and other groups of people, including American citizens, were rampant. The US was feeling very isolationist after WW1, and didn't want to get involved, plus they were pretty sure that Germany would eventually pay all the debt they owed the US as long as we didn't poke them too hard about the Nazi issue. Dodd, a man with no diplomatic experience, and who didn't fit the wealthy, well-traveled, high society ambassadorial model, was an interesting choice for the job.

Dodd vows to live within his salary in solidarity with his fellow Depression-era Americans, and quickly rubbed his ambassadorial staff the wrong way with his penny pinching ways. He hated state dinners, mandatory cocktail parties, and the complicated rituals of calling on members of the Nazi party and foreign dignitaries.

Dodd's daughter, Martha, on the other hand, loved the social life in Berlin and quickly became the talk of the town. Martha was in her 20s, had had several passionate affairs, and had recently been secretly married. When the break-up of her marriage and her father's appointment to Berlin coincided, she easily made the decision to go with him. Once there she embraced every part of the Berlin social scene, including all those blond, handsome Nazis.

Both William and Martha were initially charmed by Berlin and believed that the reports of violence and oppression were exaggerated. Naziism to them seemed like a mix of good health, love of country, and comradery. As the family became more involved in day-to-day life in Germany, however, the attractive facade quickly faded.

This book is well written and nicely researched, and it draws extensively on archival collections of correspondence as well as Martha's published and unpublished memoirs. The first chunk of the book moves more quickly than the last third or so, where things start to run out of steam, but overall the pacing is good. Having learned so much about WWII and the Holocaust, it was interesting to read a close study of the early years of Hitler's rule. Definitely worth a read. And don't skip the footnotes!


I just discovered that a film version of the book is in pre-production starring Tom Hanks and (possibly) Natalie Portman. With the French guy who directed The Artist directing! Very interesting....

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Walking Dead, Volume 2: Miles Behind Us by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn (2009)

The fun continues!

In the second volume of the series, The Walking Dead, Volume 2: Miles Behind Us by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn (2009), the struggle for survival of Rick Grimes, his wife and son, and their random group of road companions continues. Kirkman doesn't let anyone get too comfortable: pregnancy, gun shot wounds, sex (and lack of sex), and human nature all influence our characters, and unexpected zombie attacks lurk around every corner. Of particular note in this volume is the affect of the inflexible moral code of a farmer who helps the group but ends up hurting his own family.

Lots to love here -- can't wait for Volume 3!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Words in Stone / Pierre écrite by Yves Bonnefoy (1965)

A Stone

A fire goes before us.
For a moment I glimpsed your nape, your face,
And then only the torch,
Only the massive fire, the surge of the dead.

Ember, you who fall away from the flame
In the evening light,
O presence:
Gather us under your furtive arch
For a dark celebration.

(Yves Bonnefoy, Words in Stone / Pierre écrite, p. 97)

My next taste of Harold Bloom's Western Canon list is Yves Bonnefoy's book of poetry, Words in Stone / Pierre écrite (1965, Translated by Susanna Lang, 1976).

Bonnefoy's poems use deceptively simple, repetitive words to explore a world that is natural and mysterious, open and hidden. While I don't speak French, Lang's translation has a smooth rhythm and having the French original on facing pages gives even a non-speaker a sense of Bonnefoy's original metre and rhyme.

I've said this before, but I really do need to become a better poetry reader. I took this one in in small chunks in the mornings, and re-read most of the poems at least three times, and I still feel like large chunks of Bonnefoy's meaning slipped through my fingers. I guess I just need more canonical practice...

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore (2007)

My amazing friend Dan recently lent me the first half of The Walking Dead comics series by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore, and I just finished The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye (2007). I'm having to pace myself and not just drop everything else I'm reading to dive in to zombieland.

In this first volume (which contains issues #1-6 of the original comics), our hero, Officer Rick Grimes, is shot in the line of duty and taken to the hospital. Some time later he wakes up in his hospital bed, and there isn't anyone else there -- anyone else still alive, that is. Grimes is a survivor who quickly assesses the situation, finds a couple of other survivors, and heads for home. When he learns that his wife and son aren't at his house, he suspects the worst, but hopes that they might have gone to Atlanta where the government promised safety from the zombie epidemic. What follows is a horse-riding, zombie killing, creeptastic ride through the early part of the zombie apocalypse.

The Walking Dead doesn't take the easy route of gory zombie action (although there is some of that) and instead provides a meaty, character-driven plot line. People here do things for a reason, even when that reason is an unexpected one. The plot is crisp, the drawings amazing, and I'm excited to read more!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Threats by Amelia Gray (2012)


The latest pick for my amazingly wonderful book club (Go DAFFODILS!) is Amelia Gray’s 2012 novel, Threats. None of us really knew anything about the novel or Gray, except that the book was recommended on a list of new fiction, and the plot sounded interesting. Having read the book and several reviews, the novel is definitely divisive (which I think will make for some good discussion), but I fall on the side of really liking it.

David has a box on his kitchen table. It contains the cremated remains of his wife, Franny. Something mysterious and violent and deadly happened to her and she died (probably). It quickly becomes clear that David is not mentally stable and hasn’t been for a very long time (if ever). Officer Chico is trying to figure out what happened to Franny, which isn’t particularly easy. And then David starts finding typewritten threats in unusual places around the house and seeing Franny and a man who looks exactly like him around town. Did Franny leave the notes before she died? Is she actually dead? What is really happening and what is part of David’s increasingly complicated set of delusions?

As the book moves forward things both escalate and slow down and everything becomes very physical and disturbing.

This isn’t an easy book, especially if you are feeling sad or unhinged or fragile, but I think it is ultimately a rewarding read with a good balance of literary technique and attention to plot. Plus it is often surprisingly hilarious.

Some choice random quotes, and another threat:

He was by no means attracted to the girls, who, with their unmarked faces, shared more features with ambulatory fetuses than with women.


It was clear that in a past life the detective had been a phone booth beside an empty highway.


“Everything Is Dead, but It’s Still Kind of Nice,” said a woman observing the frozen house plants on the porch.


There was a page in the sock, but he was tired of knowing how to read, so he opened his mouth and inserted the page.



On a related note, this is the first book I’ve ever read completely on an e-reader. I got a Nook as part of a study I’m helping with at work (we are looking at how students and faculty can use e-readers in an academic setting), and to help familiarize myself with all the options, I bought this book electronically and read it both on my Nook at work and using the Nook app on my phone while I was at home, in line, and basically anywhere else. At first I found it a little off-putting, and I missed being able to flip ahead and see how much was left in a chapter or section. As I stuck with it, though, I ended up enjoying the e-reading experience. I don’t think I’d want to use it for everything, but being able to read it anywhere, and being able to easily mark passages that I wanted to remember, and to quickly look up words in the built-in dictionary was pretty great. I thought the screen on the Nook was easy on my eyes, and the interface wasn’t distracting at all. The only downside is that I couldn’t loan my copy to another book club member after I finished it, and I won’t be able to sell it on Amazon or Half Price. Still, I’m intrigued by this whole e-reading thing, and I’m going to try and work it into my regular reading routine.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Once is Not Enough by Jacqueline Susann (1973)

Sometimes a girl just needs to read a trashy, goofy novel. While some might pick up the Twilight series or dip their toes into Fifty Shades of Gray, I prefer my trashiness to be slightly older than I am, and Jacqueline Susann never disappoints.

Following on the success of The Valley of the Dolls and The Love Machine, Once is Not Enough (1973) was the last book the rather fascinating Susann published before her death from cancer in 1974 (her Wikipedia article is worth a read).

There are so many plots and sub-plots in this baby that I could spend all day writing, but I'll try to hit the highlights via some character descriptions:

1. Mike Wayne is a famous, handsome, and rich movie producer. After his wife kills herself (depressed and lonely because of his constant affairs), he puts his young daughter in an elite boarding school and continues his playboy lifestyle. When his luck and money run out, he marries a rich woman so that he can keep up his lifestyle and provide for his daughter.

2. January Wayne is Mike's beautiful and naive daughter who grew up infatuated with her larger than life and often absent father. She has a serious Electra complex and no other man can compare to Mike in her eyes. After she graduates from boarding school she goes to Italy with Mike as he works on a movie. After a forward suitor nearly rapes her, she and he get a motorcycle accident that leaves her in a coma. She spends three years recovering and learning to walk again at an isolated hospital in Switzerland, and when she returns to New York the flower children have bloomed and she is unprepared to be thrown into a world of free love and open drug use.

3. Dee Milford Granger is one of the richest women in the world, and she wants Mike Wayne as her husband because it would look good for the cameras. She is determined to set January up with her nephew, David Milford, and isn't afraid to wield the power of her inheritance to push the two of them together.

4. Karla is a Greta Garbo / Marlene Dietrich hybrid -- a reclusive Polish beauty who has retired from an iconic film career. She is simultaneously having an affair with David and with Dee, although neither one knows about the other. An intense subplot follows her back to her tragic experiences WWII-era Poland.

5. Linda Riggs went to boarding school with January and is now the editor of a successful women's magazine. Since writing for women's magazines is a very popular pursuit for wealthy "career girls" of the 1960s, January naturally starts writing for Linda. Linda in turn introduces January to all the hip new attitudes, pursuits and pharmaceuticals of late-1960s New York.

6. Tom Colt (!) is the Jack Daniels guzzling Hemingway/Mailoresque author to whom January transfers all her unrequited father-figure lust.

January wants Mike, Mike doesn't seem to want anybody, Dee wants Karla, David wants Karla, Karla wants David and Dee, Linda wants everybody, January wants Tom, Tom ironically has a tiny dick and only sometimes wants January. And then people die! And January starts doing lots of drugs (starting with some "vitamin shots" [aka speed], and moving to crazy acid trips, including a hallucination-induced near jump out of a high window!).

The writing isn't great, but it isn't horrible either, and it has a fast pace with lots of sex and intrigue mixed in. This clip from the 1975 movie of the book is indicative of the very blatant psychology and "feminism" of the novel, but the trashy fun of the novel definitely loses something in the plodding literalism of the movie script.

If you were one of the dozen people who borrowed my copy of Wifey by Judy Blume, I'm pretty sure you would be interested in this one too. Although reading it once probably is enough.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin (2005)

Thanks to the always amazing JLowe, I have now read four of the five available Songs of Ice and Fire books (aka that Game of Thrones series), having just finished all 1000+ pages of A Feast for Crows (2005). I've yet to see any of the TV show, but I hear it is awesome and I'm rather excited to see scheming and ambitious Tommy Carcetti as the scheming and ambitious Petyr Littlefinger in what has to be one of the best casting decisions of all time.

Once again it is rather hard to write about this next installment in Martin's increasingly complicated and yet just as exciting series without giving away big chunks of the plot. I can tell you that here Martin focuses on the characters in Westeros and King's Landing and we don't hear much at all from the Wall or Daenerys. As fans of the series will guess, this takes away focus from the supernatural elements of the story, but it gives us plenty of time to further develop the political "game of thrones" and the complex motivations of our characters. While there is not nearly as much death and tragedy in this volume, there is plenty of darkness. And I'm guessing that when I borrow Book 5 from John (hey John, can I borrow book five from you?), I will get my fill of dragons and Others and (hopefully), Tyrion.

Oh, and if you are wondering what is taking so long between posts, I'm going to blame it on a combination of buying this new house, traveling for work, taking on very long books like this one, and these guys. Fern and Loretta are so cute that they make it hard to find time to read or write blog posts!

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O'Connor (1960)

The third and final book in the 3 by Flannery O'Connor collection that I've been working my way through is The Violent Bear it Away (1960), O'Connor's second and final novel.

Tarwater is a 14 year-old orphan who was born right after the car wreck that killed both of his parents and his grandmother. He is first taken in by his mother's brother, Rayber, but shortly afterward is kidnapped by his great-uncle, a man who lives in an isolated shack in the country and who believes he is a prophet who is destined to baptize baby Tarwater and raise him to carry on his prophecy after he dies. Oddly enough, the great-uncle did the same thing to Rayber back when he was seven, and although Rayber was only there for a few days before his father brought him back home, it greatly affected his childhood and led to him completely rejecting God as an adult. Rayber tries to get little Tarwater back, and brings a social worker with him, but the great-uncle shoots at them and they run away (and eventually get married and have a mentally handicapped son named Bishop). Rayber doesn't try to rescue his nephew again, and Tarwater isn't free of his great-uncle until he dies when Tarwater is 14. That sets off the action of the novel and the struggle of both men to reconcile their experiences with the crazy uncle, their mutual suspicion that they might actually be prophets, and their need for one another

Unlike Wise Blood, which was a novel made up of several mashed together short stories, only the first part of The Violent Bear it Away started as a discrete short story, the rest was written intentionally in the longer novel form. This makes for a more consistent and focused story, which I liked, but it takes away the wild side roads that come along in Wise Blood and O'Connor's short stories. Because the novel was so focused on just four characters, we miss out on many of the sad and funny and disturbing and awesome minor characters in O'Connor's other work. Still, the structure of the novel and the focused pursuit of its themes make this a worthwhile read.

Monday, July 16, 2012

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor (1955)

The second book in my 3 by Flannery O'Connor volume is her 1955 short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. I enjoyed Wise Blood, but where O'Connor is really at for me is in the short stories, and this collection did not disappoint.

The titular story is probably the most assigned work by O'Connor, and I think I've read it at least a dozen times in the course of my academic career. And yet, it does not for one second stop being totally and wonderfully perfect. I love that damn story. Who couldn't love "She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."?

Also included in this collection is the frequently read "Good Country People," which also helped seal my love for O'Connor back in college. Fake leg! Bible Salesman! Hulga!

Most of the other stories in this collection were new to me, and while some were stronger than others, they are all pretty great. Two of my new favorites are "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" and "A Circle in the Fire." I know that some of O'Connor's Catholic themes and theological implications are lost on me, but the parts I get I like, and her characters and dialogue are so perfect that I'd be happy reading every one of her stories at least a dozen times.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History (Second Edition) by William B. Jones, Jr. (2011)

It took me a while to get through my latest draw from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, not because Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History (Second Edition) by William B. Jones, Jr. (2011) wasn't an interesting book, but because I tried to read it while I was reading two other things and moving into a new house! Not really recommended practice if you are digging into a reference-y book on an unfamiliar topic.

In Classics Illustrated, Jones gives us a comprehensive history of a long-running series of stand-alone comics that illustrated great works of literature from around the world. The series began in the mid-1940s and had its ups and downs before fading away in the early 1970s, but not before expanding to dozens of countries and encompassing a huge number of adapted titles.

Jones leads us on a roughly chronological path through the history of the series, including detailed biographical sketches of the founders, artists, writers, owners, and even support staff that molded the comics over the decades. What could be a dull topic to any but the biggest fans of the comics kept my interest through Jones' enthusiasm for the topic and the extensive illustrations -- mostly black and white shots of comics panels, along with two sections of color plates of covers.

From the beginning the series had to defend itself against comics fans who thought it was too dull and educational and educators and defenders of public morals who thought it was too much like a regular comic book, but it always kept a solid fan base of the young boys and girls who grew up with the comics. And some of them, like Jones, grew up into the collectors that will find a book like this so valuable. For readers like me who hadn't ever read a Classics Illustrated adaptation, the illustrations and peek into comics history can definitely stand alone.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor (1952)

We are officially moved into our new house, and although I now have 10,000 new things to occupy my time, I'm finally getting back into my regular reading schedule. And just in time too, since my book club (go DAFFODILS!) is meeting next weekend to discuss Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor (1952).

My copy of Wise Blood is bound together with A Good Man is Hard to Find and The Violent Bear it Away in the conveniently titled 3 by Flannery O'Connor, but since the books were originally published separately, I've decided to give each one its own blog post.

Wise Blood is the story of Hazel Motes, a dissatisfied and theologically conflicted young veteran who returns from the war to Tennessee to find his whole family gone. He defects to the melodiously named Taulkinham where he runs into the 18-year-old and gregariously frantic Enoch Emery who basically is so excited to find someone else who will talk to him (or at least let him talk) that he can't leave Hazel alone.

While Enoch is following Hazel around, Hazel starts following a blind preacher named Asa Hawks and his daughter Sabbath. Asa's religious message makes Hazel itch to spread his message of atheism, and he begins to hold forth on street corners about the Church Without Christ. And while Enoch's obsession with Hazel increases, so does Hazel's obsession with Asa. Things come to a head after the involvement of a man in an ape suit, a con man named Hoover Shoats ("He looked like an ex-preacher turned cowboy, or an ex-cowboy turned mortician."), and a car which should get its own novel enter the picture.

I'd read many Flannery O'Connor short stories before, but I'd never read either of her two novels. Wise Blood was her first, partially developed out of her Master's thesis and augmented by altered versions of some of her other stories. Knowing that it grew from a series of shorter pieces helps make the structure of Wise Blood fit together a little better. I really enjoyed this, but I think I tend to like O'Connor's short stories more. Much like when I read her short stories, I felt like I enjoyed this at a level of liking fun names, grotesque people, and Southern themes, but I feel like I only caught about a quarter of her theological intentions. Still, I'd recommend this novel to anyone who likes O'Connor or the other big names of Southern literature.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011)

Oh hey, remember me? I didn't die or forget how to read or anything, I just took on this 950 page book at the same time that I was buying a house and trying to read two other books. Not recommended for speedy reading times.

In fact, I think my extra slow reading schedule might have done Stephen King's 11/22/63 (2011) a disservice, because even though it is a very readable and exciting book, I was really really tired of reading it by the time I came to the end.

Like many people I was a big fan of King's horror novels when I was in junior high, but hadn't picked him up again as an adult. In fact, King hasn't really been on my radar at all for about 15 years, so I was surprised and intrigued when I heard that he had come out with a super long time-travel / alternate history tome. I figured I'd give it a shot.

Our narrator, Jake, who lives in present-day Maine, is a recently divorced high school teacher in his early 30s. One day his friend Al, who runs the local diner, reveals something odd to Jake. He has a portal in the back of his restaurant that spits you out into September 9, 1958 at 11:58 a.m. You can do whatever you want and stay as long as you want, and when you walk back through the portal only 2 minutes will have passed in the present day. You can change things in the past, but the next time you go back through the portal, everything will be reset (so if you want your changes to stick, you can never go through the portal again).

Al had been using the portal for years to buy meat at 1958 prices and sell it in his 2011 diner. When that got old he tried changing a few little things like stopping a hunting accident that paralyzed a young girl. Eventually he worked himself up into the idea that he could stop Oswald from shooting JFK, thereby keeping the US out of Vietnam and saving the world a lot of pain and suffering (I'd make the argument that all the ills of the world were not caused by the Kennedy assassination, but then I guess we wouldn't have much of a book). But Al gets cancer and can't fulfill his mission. He gives all his notes and ideas to Jake and convinces him to take over the project.

Jake starts small: the family of the janitor at his high school were all murdered by his drunken father when he was a kid. He decides to save them and then see how the present reacts. After he gets a little past-changing experience under his belt he moves down to Texas for the main course.

While the first time travel chunk was zippy and exciting, King gets a little bogged down once he gets to Texas. There is a long romantic / everyday life interlude in a small town outside of Dallas while he waits for Oswald to act, that definitely could have been tightened up a little. And King is so Maine-y that he doesn't really seem to like or understand Texas at all. And while he is definitely trying to be sensitive, race and gender issues are handled in such broad and irritating strokes that it might have been better for King to just ignore them altogether. The Oswald / JFK stuff is very engaging, but it takes awhile to make it to the payoff, and no spoilers here, but I thought that a little more time could have been devoted to the neat, but not fully explored, ending of the book.

11/22/63 isn't my favorite King novel, but it was fun to revisit a favorite author from my past. He really did handle the sometimes irritating conceit of time travel very nicely, and the book as a whole is engaging and probably more fun to read if you aren't spread as thin as I have been over the past month.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Death in Big Bend by Laurence Parent (2010)

Big Bend is one of the most beautiful and rugged places I've ever been, and I'd love to go back -- even after reading the harrowing and fascinating book Death in Big Bend by Laurence Parent (2010), lent to me by the lovely and awesome Joolie.

Parent emphasizes that the vast majority of park visitors have a great time and a smooth visit and are certainly never injured or killed. And yet, there are apparently a lot of ways to die in Big Bend. Some of them include: struck by lightning, being unprepared (like hiking for 15 miles in 100+ degree heat with no liquid except a Pepsi and some vodka), getting shot by unknown robbers, drowning in rapids, rope too short -- die hanging from a cliff, heat exhaustion makes you loopy and you lose the trail and wander into the desert, several flavors of suicide, pay someone to murder you, and freak snowstorm. I must admit I was a little surprised not to have any mountain lion / bear attacks in there, but apparently those are pretty rare.

Parent tells each story with a mixture of a ranger's "just the facts" narrative and a journalist's empathetic eye. By combining incident reports and investigations with after-the-fact interviews with survivors and their families, Parent almost always strikes just the right balance in bringing us these stories of mistakes, accidents, malice, and bad luck. Having personally experienced a death march through the desert in October brought me particularly close to the stories of the poor folks who died wandering in that hot and treeless expanse. [I might look fine in this picture, but I swear I felt like I was going to pass out and that I wasn't thinking very clearly.]

The book is peppered with a few stories of survival, and all the incidents give the reader a sense of the impressive skills and dedication of the park rangers and volunteers. Even when there is no chance that an individual has survived, the amount of work they put into finding the body, documenting what happened, and learning how to improve the safety of park guests is really amazing. Reading this book didn't make me any less eager to go back to Big Bend, but it did give me a sense of the risks and responsibilities any hiker or camper has when they take themselves out into the wilderness.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright by Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi (2011)

My library recently ordered a copy of Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright by Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi (2011), and since I am the copyright go-to-gal, I thought I ought to read it. It took me waaaaay longer to finish it than it should have since I made the questionable decision to read it during my "free time" at work (note to self: I don't really have any of that), but even though it took me a while, I'm very glad to have the knowledge from this book under my belt.

Copyright and fair use are often presented as impossibly complicated concepts that the ordinary person could never hope to understand without the help of a lawyer. In fact, most people are so unsure of when fair use applies and when it doesn't, that they don't do plenty of things that they could do because they are worried about misinterpreting the rules and getting sued. Aufderheide and Jaszi make the argument that fair use is a powerful right, and that if we don't start using it, it will slowly be legislated away from us by influential copyright-owning corporations.

The most powerful tool in their toolkit is the development of Best Practices in Fair Use for various communities (there are guides for documentary filmmakers, media literacy educators, and more -- including, most recently and excitingly, a guide for Academic and Research Libraries). These codes help ordinary users interpret the law as it applies to scenarios and best practices in their specific community. While it isn't a free pass to do whatever you want, these best practices documents have stood up in court and helped guide legal decisions that are fair to copyright owners and those who want to freely use copyrighted material in their work.

Aufderheide and Jaszi make the complicated world of fair use and copyright law downright entertaining and understandable, and include a whole host of "what if" scenarios that get the user used to thinking through the various elements of making a fair use decisions. I'd recommend this book to any librarian or archivist who deals with copyright issues, any professional who works with faculty or students in making fair use decisions, and all creators and academics who need to exercise fair use in their work and play.

Fair Use Forever!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre (1964)

I'm still slowly making my way through the 1500+ books on Harold Bloom's Western Canon list, and the next entry is The Words by Jean-Paul Sartre (1964).

The Words is Sartre's autobiography of his first ten years, written when he was 59 (and the same year he was awarded and refused to accept the Nobel Prize). This isn't a traditional autobiography in any sense, although we do get the trajectory of Sartre's childhood and a series of events from his life. Instead, The Words is sort of an explanation, or an apology. He tells the reader: "This is why I have written so much. This is why I think the way I do."

Sartre's father died when he was only a year old, so he and his mother, Anne-Marie, went to live back with her parents. Cut off from the influence of a father, and surrounded by doting adults -- a sister-mother (who shared a room with him and was also treated like a child by her parents) and two indulgent and proud grandparents -- Sartre was rewarded for being precocious and treated like he was the smartest and cutest little boy on the planet.

Because he came from a literary family, his early interest in books was not surprising. He started by pretending to read (and then to actually read, but not understand) the serious literature in his grandfather's study. Later he indulged his passion for the pulpy westerns and adventure stories that his mother would buy for him behind his grandfather's back. And soon, as his imagination, isolation, and frustration grew, he began to write his own adventure stories. Reams and reams of them. At first he wrote for his adoring public ("Isn't Jean-Paul cute hunched over his notebook like that") and later in secret, for himself and his future admirers. In fact, at a certain point in his childhood, everything he did was in service of future fame and immortality. Because he knew he would be a famous and admired writer, he wrote. Because he was sure that every small decision he made as a child would be analyzed after his death, he spoke from a script and acted from a book that would be viewed in the best light by the people of the future.

The Words is divided into two sections: Reading, and Writing. The first section is the most enjoyable, the second, although just as simply and engagingly written, is often sad, ponderous, and pitiful. Although it is certainly based on the true experiences of Sartre's childhood, the narrative is told through the lens of a grown man, a successful philosopher and playwright, who is more than a little fed up with the world, writing, and himself.

Definitely worth reading if you like books, writing, philosophy, or Sartre. I've not read any of his plays and just a bit of his philosophy, but you don't have to be familiar with his works as a whole to get quite a bit out of this book.

And because I can't resist, here is a rather long passage describing Sartre's early relationship with his grandfather's and grandmother's books:

I began my life as I shall no doubt end it: amidst books. In my grandfather's study there were books everywhere. It was forbidden to dust them, except once a year, before the beginning of the October term. Though I did not yet know how to read, I already revered those standing stones: upright or leaning over, close together like bricks on the book-shelves or spaced out nobly in lanes of menhirs. I felt that our family's prosperity depended on them. They all looked alike. I disported myself in a tiny sanctuary, surrounded by ancient, heavy-set monuments which had seen me into the world, which would see me out of it, and whose permanence guaranteed me a future as calm as the past. I would touch them secretly to honor my hands with their dust, but I did not quite know what to do with them, and I was a daily witness of ceremonies whose meaning escaped me: my grandfather -- who was usually so clumsy that my grandmother buttoned his gloves for him -- handled those cultural objects with the dexterity of an officiant. Hundreds of times I saw him get up from his chair with an absent-minded look, walk around his table, cross the room in two strides, take down a volume without hesitating, without giving himself time to choose, leaf through it with a combined movement of his thumb and forefinger as he walked back to his chair, then, as soon as he was seated, open it sharply "to the right page," making it creak like a shoe. At times, I would draw near to observe those boxes which slit open like oysters, and I would see the nudity of their inner organs, pale, fusty leaves, slightly bloated, covered with black veinlets, which drank ink and smelled of mushrooms.

In my grandmother's room, the books lay on their sides. She borrowed them from a circulating library, and I never saw more than two at a time. Those baubles reminded me of New Year goodies because their supple, glistening leaves seemed to have been cut from glossy paper. White, bright, almost new, they served as pretext for mild mysteries. Every Friday, my grandmother would get dressed to go out and would say: "I'm going to return them." When she got back, after removing her black hat and her veil, she would take them from her muff, and I would wonder, mystified: "Are they the same ones?" She would "cover" them carefully, then, after choosing one of them, would settle down near the window in her easy-chair, put on her spectacles, sigh with bliss and weariness, and lower her eyelids with a subtle, voluptuous smile that I have since seen on the lips of La Gioconda. My mother would remain silent and bid me to do likewise. I would think of Mass, death, sleep; I would be filled with a holy stillness.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Fire Watch by Connie Willis (1985)

I am pretty sure I got this copy of Fire Watch by Connie Willis (1985) from the lovely St. Murse before his big move out of state. I am a little surprised I'd never read any Willis before -- she is a prominent and prolific author of just the kind of Ray Bradburyish, feminist without beating you over the head with it, science fiction that I really love. I'm so glad that I finally got this introduction to her!

The stories in this collection cover some familiar sci-fi tropes (time travel, other planets, apocalyptic futures) but with a focus on character and humanity that is missing in some science fiction. My favorite story might be "All My Darling Daughters," set in an extraterrestrial boarding school for the daughters of wealthy men who donate sperm to unknown surrogates in order to create heirs who they don't meet until they've grown up. Our narrator is a bad little rich girl (with a really great Clockwork Orange kind of vocabulary) who is used to getting high and having sex with all the boys, but who finds her sex life thwarted when the boys come back from vacation with freaky little ferret things with obscenely prominent vaginas. I'm not sure what you envision happening next, but I can pretty much guarantee that it isn't what you expect.

This is definitely the kind of science fiction that would appeal to readers who don't think that sci-fi is their thing. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011)

Erin Morgenstern's debut novel The Night Circus (2011) is extremely well written, and if all it took to make a great novel was to have a creative mind and a wonderful ability to describe the scenery, this would be at the top of my list. Unfortunately for Morgenstern, a great novel also needs well-formed characters, an interesting plot, and a connection with the reader. The Night Circus just didn't come through for me on those fronts.

In the late 1800s, two powerful magicians get together to start a game. They will take two children, teach them their secrets, and then pit them against each other in a test of their different forms of magic. One of the magicians puts his six-year-old daughter Celia into the competition. The other magician gets Marco, a young boy from an orphanage to train as his contestant.

A dozen or so years later, an artistic promoter in London comes up with the idea of a wonder-filled circus. He finds the best designers, performers, and creative minds and creates the Night Circus. It is only open at night. It appears in different locations around the world without announcement. Its performers are all silent. And all the sets and costumes are only in the colors black and white.

Celia is hired as a magician in the circus, and Marco is the assistant of the circus owner. The circus is their playing field.

And so it goes. Descriptions of the circus. Some romantic tension. More descriptions. Some additional characters. Rooms, tents, tricks, illusions. Description description description. All the description is really good, mind you, it just leaves room for little else.

I would be remiss in not also praising Morgenstern's sense of structure. The book moves back and forth between a chronological telling of the events starting in the 1870s and a second storyline beginning at the turn of the century. The "past" section moves more quickly than the "present" section and eventually catches up to and merges with it.

Pulling off a structure like that (much like pulling off a precisely designed circus) takes a lot of control, and control is what Morgenstern has in spades. For a book to really work as more than just a meditation on style, though, an author, or at least her characters, sometimes needs to lose a little bit of that control. Here's hoping that Morgenstern lets loose in her next novel and combines some of her wonderful descriptive skills with a little more feeling.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

One Thousand and One Nights (aka The Arabian Nights) by Anonymous (1706)

What have you been doing for the past 633 days? Me, I've been reading One Thousand and One Nights [aka The Arabian Nights aka The Arabian Entertainments] (first English translation, 1706) in 633 daily segments in my email through the wonder of DailyLit. I've been a fan of DailyLit for awhile, and although it takes almost two years to do it, One Thousand and One Nights might be the perfect book to have serialized in your email.

Most people are familiar with the set up for these stories: A sultan thinks all women are promiscuous and unvirtuous, so he marries a new woman each day, and then has her killed the following morning so she can't cheat on him. No one really likes this system except the sultan, and one day his vizier's smart and beautiful daughter Scheherazade tells her father to offer her up to the sultan in marriage because she has a plan to stop the killing. As they are preparing to sleep, Scheherazade begins telling a story to the sultan that needs to be continued the next night. He spares her life for one day so he can find out what happens next. This goes on and on and on for one thousand and one nights until the sultan learns his lesson and starts trusting women again.

The stories include the very familiar (Ali Baba and the forty thieves, Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin and his lamp), and dozens and dozens that are just as good but that you've never heard. Some are very short, some are very long, and many of them repeat elements from the other stories. Sultans are constantly going out in disguise among the common people and overhearing things; men accidentally catch glimpses of women through their veils and fall so deeply in love that they become ill until they can have their beloved; sultans have no heirs and pray to God that they would do anything for a son, but their heir ends up coming with a catch; comeuppance is rampant; and people tell their stories, and within their stories more characters tell stories in a nesting box of creativity.

Just to give you a taste, here is a brief, half-remembered outline of one of my favorite stories: There was a prince in Persia and a princess in China who both refused all offers of marriage even though their fathers insisted that they marry soon. In punishment, they are securely locked in their respective rooms under guard. One night a genie plays a hilarious trick by transporting the prince into the princess's locked bedroom, where they quickly fall in love. In the morning, the prince is transported back to Persia but both the prince and princess insist that they have to marry the mysterious and beautiful stranger that appeared to them the night before with no warning. The prince goes off to find the princess and through a long and exciting series of adventures, he gets to China and they are married. After staying there awhile, they journey back to Persia, but the prince gets caught up in a mini-misadventure and can't get back to his caravan. The princess puts on his clothes and pretends to be him so that all his men aren't concerned and they make their way to the next town. While there, the princess of that kingdom falls in love with the new "prince" (who is really the Chinese princess) and through a series of events the two are married. On their wedding night, the Chinese princess reveals herself to her new wife and the two pledge to hold up the facade and rule until the original prince can find them and then they can both be his wives. That eventually happens, and the two princesses (and former spouses) both get pregnant at the same time and have two sons. The sons grow up strong and handsome, but spoiled, and each fall in love with the other one's mother. When the sultan is out, they try to seduce the women, who are too virtuous to succumb, and the princes are sent out to fend for themselves in punishment (which starts a whole new series of adventures).

Whew. I'm not even remembering all of that one (or even necessarily remembering it all correctly) and it is still the most complicated and awesome thing I have ever typed.

633 days may seem like a lot, but give it a shot -- I'm going to miss having my daily visit from Scheherazade, but now I have the fun of picking out my next DailyLit read.

Monday, March 05, 2012

For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films by Ric Meyers (Revised edition, 2011)

My latest selection from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films by Rick Meyers (revised edition, 2011) seemed like a natural fit -- I love exploitation movies (come on, I'm married to this guy), and I'm always down for a nice compendium. Sadly, while there is a lot to like in Meyers' exploitation exploration, the book ultimately just didn't work for me.

This book was originally written in 1982, but never properly distributed, so Meyers revised and re-released it this year. The films are divided into three rather arbitrary categories: Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n Roll; Violence; and Horror (never mind that most of the Violence movies are horror movies, and all the science fiction movies are put under horror). In each section, Meyers gives an alphabetical rundown of individual films, interspersed with longer essays focusing on a director or pivotal film. The write-ups of individual films are a little free form -- usually giving us a plot summary and some factoids, combined with information on similar films, other works by the same director or actors, and Meyers' own take on the movie.

And that is where the problem lies: Meyers just doesn't seem to like most exploitation movies. I understand that most of these movies are "so bad they're good," but I think you need to be someone who can eventually appreciate the good part if you are going to write an entire book about the genre. Some things Meyers really doesn't like include: gore, movies that resemble other movies, movies with titles that don't match the plot, and movies with ad campaigns that are better than the film itself. Stupid exploitation movies that don't need to be watched certainly exist, but there are so many out there that are funny, creative, gross, exciting, or hilarious, and Meyers doesn't seem to like any of them. He also uses the word "gorehound" way way way way way too much.

The book has a nice name and title index, but would have risen above its negative qualities if the publisher had sprung for more illustrations. There are black and white collages of movie posters before each section, but the posters are half the fun with exploitation movies, and it is too bad they couldn't include more of them. The longer essays on individual filmmakers are better written and definitely worth reading, but Meyers slapdash writing style and negative attitude really bring this book down.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman (2011)

My book club (go DAFFODILS!) has been exploring different kinds of genre fiction, and our latest selection is the contemporary horror novel Those Across the River by debut author Christopher Buehlman (2011).

It's 1935 and Frank and Eudora Nichols just moved from Chicago down to a small town in Georgia where Frank has inherited a house from an aunt he never met. In her will she warns him to just sell the house and take the money, but he lost his job at the University and Eudora was offered a teaching job at the local school, so with no other options they head south. Frank plans to write a history of his great-grandfather, a legendarily cruel slave owner who refused to free his slaves after the war and who was ultimately killed by them.

The people in the town are relatively welcoming to Frank, and even more welcoming to his witty and beautiful wife, but the town has been hit hard by the Depression and the people are weary. To save money, the town votes to stop the tradition of sending a group of pigs out into the creepy woods on the other side of the river once a month -- it's something that was started generations ago, and no one can remember why they do it. It seems silly to waste good and valuable pork on a silly tradition, right? Unfortunately for the town, there is something very hungry across the river, and if it doesn't get pigs, it will have to hunt something else.

The plot of Those Across the River is compelling and well paced, and while I figured some things out as I was reading, there were some satisfying twists that surprised me. The thing that kept this book from being really really good is Buehlman's dialogue, particularly between Frank and Eudora -- it is stilted, goofy, and irritating where his prose is engaging, descriptive, and propelling. It took a little work to get through the first dialogue-heavy chapters, but if you stick with it, it definitely gets better.

Overall this is an imaginative addition to the horror genre with some genuinely creepy scenes, a fast pace, and even some rather funny bits. One line in particular made me laugh out loud, although its a little spoiler-y so I'll put it after the jump:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Quentin Durward by Sir Walter Scott (1823)

I don't always make it a habit to read lesser-known 19th century novels by well-known novelists, but when the Forgotten Bookmarks blog sends you a prize-winning selection of old books (and you are weird like me) then you jump right in and start reading.

In Sir Walter Scott's Quentin Durward (1823) our titular hero is a young and handsome 15th century Scottish gentleman whose entire noble family was killed and who has gone off to France to make his fortune. His uncle is a member of the Scottish Archers, an elite guard of King Louis XI, and Quentin thinks he might try to find him, although he is wary of working for the King, who has a reputation for cruelty and dirty dealings.

All intentions aside, Quentin's life has a way of working out for the best, and he soon finds himself taken into the elite guard (after poaching on the Duke of Burgandy's land, losing his hawk, falling into a river, getting a free meal, spying on a lovely lady, cutting down a hanging man, and feeling the noose around his own neck). The king takes a liking to Quentin and assigns him a series of important tasks, culminating in escorting the beautiful young Countess of Croye and her aunt to the protection of the Bishop of Liège.

The two women left their lands and went to Louis XI for protection after the Duke of Burgandy proposed an undesirable marriage for the young Countess. Louis is more of the conniving type than protecting type, so he sends them to Liège as part of a big scheme to consolidate his power and diminish that of his upstart follower, the Duke of Burgandy.

No one, of course, counted on Quentin Durward and his old-school chivalry.

You might think a 19th century novel about a 15th century historical event would be dull, but Scott is known for his adventures, and this historical novel is no exception. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Game of Thrones, with much much much less sex. There is humor, love, fun, fighting, and some rather hateful stereotypes of gypsies. Something for everyone!

Here's a taste:

Here the young lovers fall in love, thanks to a chivalrous injury / wound tending.

In modern times, gallants seldom or never take wounds for ladies' sake, and damsels on their side never meddle with the cure of wounds. Each has a danger the less. That which the men escape will be generally acknowledged; but the peril of dressing such a slight wound as that of Quentin's, which involved nothing formidable or dangerous, was perhaps as real in its way as the risk of encountering it.

We have already said the patient was eminently handsome; and the removal of his helmet, or, more properly, of his morion, had suffered his fair locks to escape in profusion, around a countenance in which the hilarity of youth was qualified by a blush of modesty at once and pleasure. And then the feelings of the younger Countess, when compelled to hold the kerchief to the wound, while her aunt sought in their baggage for some vulnerary remedy, were mingled at once with a sense of delicacy and embarrassment; a thrill of pity for the patient, and of gratitude for his services, which exaggerated, in her eyes, his good mien and handsome features.
(p. 205-206)

And check it out, even the end notes are great!:

The learned Monsieur Petitot, editor of the edition of Memoirs relative to the History of France, a work of great value, intimates that Philip des Comines made a figure at the games of chivalry and pageants exhibited on the wedding of Charles of Burgundy with Margaret of England in 1468... I have looked into Oliver de la Marcke, who, in lib. ii, chapter iv., of his Memoirs, gives an ample account of these "fierce vanities," containing as many miscellaneous articles as the reticule of the old merchant of Peter Schleml, who bought shadows, and carried with him in his bag whatever any one could wish or demand in return. There are in that splendid description, knights, dames, pages, and archers, good store besides of castles, fiery dragons, and dromedaries; there are leopards riding upon lions; there are rocks, orchards, fountains, spears broken and whole, and the twelve labours of Hercules. In such a brilliant medley I had some trouble in finding Philip des Comines... (from Note VI: Philip des Comines, p. 466-467)

I know this kind of thing isn't for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. Part of that enjoyment came from the physical book -- a lovely 1913 Everyman's Library edition (see the nice woodcut title page above). But you can enjoy it electronically, if you want, since it is in the public domain.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

10 Steps to Home Ownership: A Workbook for First-Time Buyers by Ilyce R. Glink (1996)

I bought this book six years ago (at the same time I bought and read this one). It finally looks like this home ownership thing might really happen (preapproved!), so I figured I'd better read it now or I'd miss my window of opportunity.

The first thing to note about this book is that it is waaaaaay out of date. It was written in 1996, so it was already ten years old when I bought it, and the information hasn't gotten any fresher. This was written before the housing bubble even got very bubbly, and definitely before it popped. Interest rate estimates are way out of whack compared to the super low rates we've seen lately. And most of all, there is hardly any information about house buying / mortgage investigating / real estate searching on the internet. None of the resources in the appendix list web addresses, online mortgage applications and banking are seen as "iffy," and there are awkwardly phrased sections that try to give some advice if you are "Wired" but end up falling flat. Obviously Glink couldn't predict the future, but the lack of internet information really dates this book, and makes it call out for an updated edition.

Setting all that aside, there is a good foundation here and I think the book is ultimately worthwhile if you can separate the timeless advice from the 1996-specific recommendations. Glink works through the major areas of the homebuying journey, and includes helpful worksheets to help the reader figure out what their priorities are and what they can afford. This is really designed for someone who is thinking of buying a home sometime in the next 6 months - 3 years, and not someone who has pulled the gun and is actively looking for houses (so maybe I should have read this one six years ago instead of the Dummies one...). Glink has written personal finance books and her recommendations for clearing up your credit and saving for a downpayment are sound. I also like that she walks through both the financial and the emotional issues of buying a home. I know I've already had 10 heart attacks and lost some sleep just applying for a loan, so there is definitely an emotional toil.

This isn't the most crisply written or up-to-date book out there, but if you are lazy and cheap like me and already have it on your shelves, it would be a worthwhile read.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Secret Boyfriend Addition: Jason Segel

Yes, everyone, it is time for us to revisit the ever-expanding list of Spacebeer's Secret Boyfriends! Our newest entry is the amazingly sexy and funny, Jason Segel. Just look at him over there. Don't be shy, Jason!

I dare anyone who has watched Freaks and Geeks not to just want to go take this guy home and love him for the rest of your life.

Plus: He is friends with muppets! (How have I not seen this movie yet?)

I know it is a surprise, Jason, but just sit back, relax and enjoy your new SB status.

P.S. It must be because we watched Undeclared recently, but I discovered this week that I find tall slightly rocking looking super competent copy shop workers a little bit sexy. I think the guy behind the desk at the Kinko's by campus knows what I'm talking about. Sorry, Dr. M...

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Touch and Go by Thad Nodine (2011)

My latest selection from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program is Thad Nodine's debut novel, Touch and Go (2011).

Our narrator, Kevin, is a struggling journalist and recovering junkie who has been clean for two years. He is also completely blind, having lost his sight in an accident when he was five. He lives in Burbank with a married couple, Isa (who Kevin is secretly in love with) and Patrick, who he met while they were all in rehab together. Isa and Patrick have two foster children, a 16-year-old black teen named Devon, and a 12-year-old Hispanic boy named Ray. Isa's estranged father is dying in Pensacola and the whole gang decides to pile into Patrick's shitty car and drive out to see him with an ornately carved wooded casket tied to the top of their car. Oh, and they've accidentally timed it so that they'll be on the gulf in Biloxi when a little hurricane called Katrina blows in.

The quirky dysfunctional family / road trip set up had me nervous at first, but this book really pulled me in. Telling the entire story from the perspective of a blind character was a risk, but Nodine pulls it off and the result is rewarding. Rarely do we have a book where we really don't know what any of the characters or locations look like, but we know how their footsteps sound and the smell of their perfume, or exactly the way their skin feels. The climactic scene in the hurricane is made even more harrowing because we can't see it, and characterizations and actions open up to the reader in unexpected ways when our primary sense is taken out of the narrative.

There are some mis-steps in the action, and the dialogue is occasionally a little off, but overall this is an energetic and well-written first novel. It's worth seeking this one out.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)

My good friend Dan gave me this copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962). At least I think he did -- it has been in my pile for so long that neither one of us can really remember how I got it. I do know that I have been excited to read more Shirley Jackson ever since Dan lent me The Haunting of Hill House, and I can't believe it took me so long to get to this one.

Six years ago, four members of the wealthy Blackwood family were killed at the dinner table after their sugar bowl was laced with arsenic. The younger sister, twelve-year-old Mary Katherine (known affectionately as Merricat), had been sent to bed without supper, and so avoided the deathly sugar bowl. The older sister, Constance, prepared the meal and didn't take any sugar on her berries, and so became the prime suspect, although she was eventually acquitted and sent back to live with Merricat and their Uncle Julian. Julian survived the arsenic, but was permanently disabled and weakened after the poisoning.

The Blackwoods are hated by the people in the village, both for their wealth and for getting away with murder. Constance refuses to leave the estate, and Merricat is teased and harassed on her twice-weekly trips to the village for food. Still the two women and the dotty old man are happy in their isolation and seem willing to continue on like that indefinitely, until Merricat senses that things are about to change. That change is the arrival of their estranged Cousin Charles, and what he sets into motion can never be undone.

This is a relatively simple story that is elevated by the decision to give us as a narrator the increasingly unreliable Merricat. Ordinary actions and coincidences take on a sinister meaning through her mystical mind, and anything that moves to disrupt the sanctuary of her home or the routines of her beloved sister is treated severely. Like The Haunting of Hill House, the mystery in We Have Always Lived in the Castle is secondary to the psychology of the characters. This was Jackson's last novel, and it should move its way up to the top of every reader's pile