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...