Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 17: Something to Fear by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2012)

I've finally caught up with the end (so far) of the Walking Dead series with The Walking Dead, Volume 17: Something to Fear by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2012) [thanks, Dan!]. Luckily after the disappointment of Volume 16, the series comes back to violent life in this most recent addition. The Saviors are more than just a hypothetical target in this volume as they strike out against Rick and his community multiple times, even after being beaten back by Andrea's sharp-shooting. They prove that they have nothing to lose and the unexpected violence and death of beloved characters that we have grown to love over the past 17 volumes is in high form here. Great twist ending and none of the hacky dialogue of the last volume. Now, write another!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson (2003)

People had been telling me that I would love The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson (2003) for years, but a copy never came into my grasp until the lovely Dr. M bought me my very own copy for my birthday. Thanks, dude!

The Devil in the White City tells the parallel stories of Daniel Burnham, a prominent Chicago architect, and his quest to create a successful World's Fair in Chicago in 1893 (one that would even top the Paris World's Fair that unveiled the Eiffel Tower a few years before), and Herman Webster Mudgett (aka Dr. H. H. Holmes), a charming and successful psychopathic serial killer who preyed, among others, on the single women who came to enjoy Burnham's fair.

While these two men and their dedication to their very different passions is fascinating, the best part for me are the two non-human characters that lean over everything, the city of Chicago and the fair itself. The fair introduced widespread use of electric light, the Midway, the Ferris wheel, a resurgence in classical architecture, the "there's a place in France where the naked ladies dance" tune, and tons more. And Chicago: the most American of all American cities, trying to prove it's own worth against the diamond of New York City by hosting a gigantic fair that seems to be doomed to failure almost from the start.

Larson's novelistic writing style makes this the perfect history book for people who don't like history, but his extensive and diligent research, documented in pages and pages of footnotes, will make archivists and historians happy as well. Last year, my good friend Corie lent me Larson's most recent book, In the Garden of the Beasts, and I liked that one quite a bit, but I liked this one even more. Where Larson's narrative lost steam a bit towards the end of the more recent book, here the parallel stories keep the pace moving steadily all the way through.

People, you were right: I did love this book!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 16: A Larger World by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2012)

In The Walking Dead, Volume 16: A Larger World by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2012) Carl is doing better and a relative peace has come to the Alexandria Safe-Zone, but everyone can see that they are running out of food and pickings in the zombie-infested areas around the safe-zone are getting slim. Enter Jesus. Yep: Jesus. Could he be the group's savior? He certainly thinks so. After many suspicions are aired and tests are given a small group goes with him to the Hilltop community, a large group of over 200 survivors who also have their own farm. Cha ching! Jesus wants to open up a trade route between his colony and Rick's group, but a dirty secret is soon revealed: the Hilltop gang gives half of their harvest as a tariff to the mysterious and threatening gang called The Saviors (wait, who was the savior again?). Rick, naturally, decides to throw himself in the middle of everything.

I can see the need to expand the story, and when starting up a new arc there is nothing to be done but a bunch of exposition, but this volume was particularly heavy on the set-up and light on the pay off. In addition, the dialogue was hokier than usual and the drawing often seemed a little sloppy. Here is hoping for a return to form in Volume 17!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The New Central Texas Gardener by Cheryl Hazeltine and Barry Lovelace (1999)

The extremely lovely Joolie lent me her copy of The New Central Texas Gardener by Cheryl Hazeltine and Barry Lovelace (1999) shortly after I started attempting to put plants in the ground and keep them alive. I have a personal history of not being particularly great with plants (although a friend gave me some bulbine almost a year ago and it is so alive that it recently started making happiness flowers), and this book helped make the idea of gardening not quite so scary.

This book is logically organized into the big topics of gardening (climate / soil / trees / shrubs / fruits & veggies / flowers / pests / etc.), and the writing is a comfortable mix of friendly and authoritative. I really appreciated having a book where everything was geared to the hot, dry, rocky, clay-filled challenges of central Texas -- in so many gardening books and magazines half of the suggestions won't really work here since they are designed for the gardening paradise to our north.

The only thing I could have asked for would be more pictures, because who wouldn't want even more lovely pictures of lovely plants, but the combination of descriptions, line drawings, and some selected color plates do an adequate job of illustrating the plants and techniques that the authors discuss. Definitely a solid reference book for those attempting to become what the title suggests.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 15: We Find Ourselves by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2011)

In The Walking Dead, Volume 15: We Find Ourselves by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2011) we get a breather after the hectically awesome events of Volume 14. Rick is nursing his son out of a coma, coordinating the reinforcement of their village, and taking over leadership of the community. And the community is adjusting to the big changes that Rick and his group have brought from the outside. Ordinarily the "treading water" volumes like this one haven't entirely done it for me, but in this case it seemed like it the characters (and readers) earned it, and while zombies weren't flying out on every page, the tension and pacing were still maintained.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

"...And Ladies of the Club" by Helen Hooven Santmyer (1982)

"Astonishing how attached one can become to a group of essentially incompatible women." (p. 625)

My Aunt Charlotte lent me her copy of "...And Ladies of the Club" by Helen Hooven Santmyer (1982) last fall and I started reading it a little after Christmas. At 1176 pages, Santmyer gives George R. R. Martin a run for his money in the longest-books-I've-read-lately category, and it took me (a fast reader) a couple months to move through this one. While it was slow going early on, like many epics, this one caught me up in the lives of its characters and now that I've finished reading it, I miss reading about what's going on in Waynesboro, Ohio.

Santmyer's epic novel follows the lives of the citizens of Waynesboro from just after the Civil War in 1868 up into the heart of the Depression in 1932. While the cast of characters is extensive (sometimes, to be honest, a little too extensive to keep track of), the main focus of the book is on Anne Alexander Gordon (the daughter of the old town doctor who marries the new town doctor, John Gordon, recently back from the war), and Sally Cochran Rauch (the daughter of the town banker who marries a German entrepreneur, Ludwig Rauch, who has recently purchased a rope factory in Waynesboro). At the start of the book, both Anne and Sally have just graduated from the Waynesboro Female College, the local high school for girls. By the time the book ends, both women have born children, watched their grandchildren grow up, lost their husbands, and ultimately, died themselves.

Providing a structure to the book and to the lives of the intellectual women of Waynesboro is the Waynesboro ladies literary society, colloquially known as "The Club." Started by the headmistress of the Female College, the club consists of local teachers, seminary professor's wives, minister's wives from the various congregations in town, and well-bred women with the time and means to pursue literary culture. The Club meets every two weeks, at which time a paper is given by one of the members on a topic chosen by the program committee. The number of members is limited by the bylaws, and when a member dies or moves away, the selection of a new member is a hot topic. The one unbreakable rule is that the women can not let politics, gossip, or personal grudges enter into the confines of the Club meeting. Everyone must get along.

For me the book was occasionally slow going, particularly as I plowed through Santmyer's loving but extensive descriptions of the town layout, architectural style of the houses, and the decoration of everyone's drawing rooms, but her talent for developing strong characters and the occasional shake to the plot (affairs! Illness! Unwed mothers! Protestants marrying Catholics!) quickly pick up the pace. As a lover of history, the opportunity to read these close observations of American life from the 1860s through the 1930s was wonderful, and I feel like I have a stronger grasp on the changes in the lives of ordinary women as the decades pass by.

Politics is also a big part of this book, both on the national and local level. Her characters and sympathies are distinctly Republican, initially because of the rift of the Civil War, and later because of their tendency to be pro-capitalists, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. A nod is given to Socialism and the importance of treating the workers well, but in this book all factory owners are benevolent Republicans and unions just aren't necessary. Also, while Santmyer's detailed knowledge of local Ohio Republican politics was impressive, it occasionally slowed the narrative down, for this reader at least.

Santmyer herself grew up in a town much like the fictional Waynesboro. She was born in 1895, published a couple of books in the 1920s, and then spent 50 years working on this epic novel. It was published in 1982 when she was 87 and didn't sell that well until it was selected as a Book-of-the-Month Club book in 1984 and quickly went on to be a bestseller, making Santmyer the oldest best selling author at the time.

While this book is quite an investment of time, its strength is in its length and if you have a little patience, it really pays off.