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The Rule of Four: 07/31/08
I am a voracious reader but not one who will stay up past my bedtime to finish a book. It is a very rare book that will keep up to the wee hours. The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason is one of those rare books.
The first half of this decade seems to have inspired a number of mystery books set around books and art. I don't think it's a Dan Brown phenomena even though his Angeles & Demons comes at the head of this trend in 2000. I think his novels are part of something bigger which includes The Rule of Four, and the mysteries by Matthew Pearl among others.
The Rule of Four centers around a Princeton undergraduate's project to decode the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499). The story could have just as easily been about a fictional tome. The four main characters: Thomas (the narrator), Paul (the protagonist), Charlie and Gil drive the story more than this enigmatic book does. Knowing that the book does exist and their discussions of its history is based on fact does add an extra layer of interest to this mystery but it's really just icing.
The novel reminds me most of A Separate Peace by John Knowles (1959). Tom's friendship with Paul parallel's Gene's devotion to Finny. Where Tom has long since given up on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (his father having tried and failed to crack the book's secrets), Paul has that something extra that's needed to understand the hidden truth. It is Paul's connection to Finny that made me go from liking the book to loving it.
Enfant Terrible: 07/30/08
The next story in the July issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is "Enfant Terrible" by Scott Dalrymple. It's his debut fiction story although the next issue has another story by him.
"Enfant Terrible" looks at the possible cause for extreme giftedness in some school aged children. The explanation comes after a trip to an elementary school for observation at Mrs. Lipsig's class. Poor Mrs. Lipsig who seems completely overwhelmed by her students.
Although I enjoyed the story and thought the ending was both humorous and clever, I found Dalrymple's writing style uneven. Nouns and verbs don't always match. Tenses change randomly. The second person point of view grated on me.
Dancing Above the Waves: 07/29/08
Dancing Above the Waves by Susan Wallerstein reminds me of a mixture of Out of the Fog by Joseph C. Lincoln (1940) and The Player by Michael Tolkin (1991). The "Player" this time is Jack "Scooter" McCalister, the owner of a Boston magazine. Like Griffin Mill who has the death of a writer hanging over him, Jack McCalister has the hit and run death of Carrie Roberts haunting him.
It's the location, Clary's Cove, along the cove near Boston and being somewhat like any number of fictional spots between Boston and Cape Cod that reminds me of Lincoln's mystery (also based around a hit and run).
Set during the late fall and early winter, Dancing Above the Waves takes full advantage of Boston's weather. The angry sea and turbulent winds play such a strong role in this romantic thriller.
Although the main focus of the novel is the fall out from Jack's crime, Dancing Above the Waves also looks at how the accident affects his mistress, Erica. She is one of a number of witnesses to his hit and run but decides to protect him even though his actions puts her feelings for him into doubt.
Dancing Above the Waves is a short, 213 pages, but intricate and intelligently written book.
The Minister's Wooing: 07/28/08
Although I had learned about Harriet Beecher Stowe's most famous book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, in high school, the first book I read was The Pearl of Orr's Island (1862): a delightful novel set in a fishing village in Maine. It's also vastly different from her most famous novel. Last February when I had $100 to spend at Powell's, I made a bee-line to for Stowe's novels and found a lovely 1883 edition of The Minister's Wooing (1859).
The Minister's Wooing is a mixture of the political evangelizing of Uncle Tom's Cabin and the sentimental romance of The Pearl of Orr's Island. The Wikipedia article compares Stowe's novel to The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850) but the similarities are superficial at best. Hawthorne's historical fiction set in the 1600s exposes the inhumane consequences of theocracy. While Mary, the heroine of The Minister's Wooing is raised as a devout Christian, she never has the opportunity to sin. Mary Scudder is about as Mary Sue a character as one can get in a book.
Since Mary Scudder is really secondary to the plot even though her adult life is being plotted by everyone else in the novel, Stowe pads out the novel with a number of treatises ranging from thoughts on Calvinism, slavery, abolitionism, faith, family, marriage, and gender equality. These lengthy asides are fairly common in novels of the time; think of the many chapters on whaling in Moby Dick (1851).
The Roberts: 07/27/08
Michael Blumlein has had a number of his stories published in Fantasy & Science Fiction but I'm still a relatively new subscriber. "The Roberts" by Blumlein is the cover story of the July 2008 issue.
"The Roberts" reminds me of a mixture of The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold and Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House with a little Philip K. Dick (take your pick) thrown in for good measure.
Robert, the original one, is an architect. He finds his calling working with a new material called Pakki-flex and he has trouble balancing love and work. When a relationship with his human girl friend fizzles, he opts for a man made woman crafted to be someone he can love; who will love him, inspire him and won't be hurt by him.
In Robert's love life, he's still not finding the time to spend with Grace even though he does love her and she does inspire him. In his work life, the Pakki-flex material didn't turn out to be the great new thing everyone hoped it would be. At home he's competing with himself as he and Grace have both created duplicate Roberts to ease his burdens. Somehow all of these troubles come together and inspire Robert to his greatest architectural masterpiece and at last true happiness with Grace.
"The Roberts" is a strange and beautiful story. It's set against the excesses of life in southern California. I think it extrapolates well from present day much as the way that Dick's novels often describe a near future Bay Area.
My Pet Virus: 07/26/08
I associate books with places and events. My Pet Virus by Shawn Decker will always remind me of horses. Decker never mentions horses but I read the first half of his memoir while parked at the start of Bort Meadow Staging Area while three horses were being saddled up for a ride.
My Pet Virus is the memoir inspired by the blog of Shawn and later, his wife, Gwen. Take away the virus, HIV, and it's an up beat memoir. For its humor and tone, it reminds me of Alan Alda's first memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed if Alda had written the book when he was forty years younger.
Decker's memoir is also about hemophilia. His life as a "thin blood" as his calls it an his dependency on blood derived products is how at the age of 11 he was infected with HIV. His infection came at a time when HIV was still a new disease with all the paranoia and prejudice that goes along with something unknown. My Pet Virus addresses that prejudice: both Decker's and how he has been judged by others for being infected by the virus.
Blog to book seems to be a popular subgenre now of memoirs. It's the second one I've read and in both cases, I read the book without having heard of the blog. The other one was Blood, Sweat and Tea by Tom Reynolds.
Reader's Guide: 07/25/08
Tonight I am doing something I rarely do. I am paring down my planned reviews by three children's books. I read them very quickly back April when I was coordinating a book drive for my son's school. My problem is two fold: I read them too quickly and too long ago. None of them made enough of an impression on me to be able to review them now, three months later. If I kept them in my roster, they would just get in the way of much better books and stories I want to review.
The second story Fantasy & Science Fiction is a humorous look at those ubiquitous "readers guides" that have been cropping up at the back of books in recent years. The story also called "Reader's Guide" is by Lisa Goldstein who swears her story wasn't inspired by her own book being re-released in a young adult edition with an unexpected reader's guide at the back.
"Reader's Guide" reminds me favorably of Ruth Nestvold's "Mars: A Traveler's Guide" from the January 2008 issue. The story starts off like any reader's guide with a series of questions. Except these questions get snarkier as they progress. Then things get weird and funny and a bit reminiscent of "Silence in the Library" (Doctor Who, series four) but minus the Vashta Nerada. There's also a bit of The Well of Lost Plots in this short story too except funnier.
Virus Games: 07/24/08
Books have a funny way of grouping together in unexpected ways. For instance, Virus Games by G. L. Sheerin reads like a prequel to Unholy Domain except aimed at children ages nine to twelve.
Virus Games is the first book in the "Peter's Packets" series. Peter Dempsey hates computers until a freak accident gives him the ability to see packets described a bit like animated icons. With their help, Peter ends up being the star of the computer class in his school.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of the "Thanksgiving Virus" created by one of the most interesting and believable antagonists I've come across in my reading this year and certainly among the novels aimed at younger readers. Terry's motivation is not evil even though his actions end up being costly and destructive. He is restless and looking for attention.Tery's part of the story shows how easily pranks can get out of hand.
My only quibble with the book is with its ending. Sheerin works hard to make the packets characters in equal standing with his human characters and after giving some of them noble deaths in their quest to help Peter, one of the lot is saved with a rather hokey ending. I suppose he'll go onto the a co-star with Peter in future books in the series but it would have been more poignant without that last minute Hail Mary.
Spiders and Scorpions: A Look Inside Series: 07/24/08
From birds to creepy crawlies, Sean is now interested in books about invertebrates. He started off with Spiders and Scorpions by P. D. Hillyard. It's part of the Look Inside Series.
The book's main selling point is its illustrations. They show cutaways of a tarantula and a scorpion labeled with the different parts of the anatomy.
Along with the pictures, the book has descriptions of the spider's and scorpion's biology and life cycle. The book describes how spiders weave webs and how scorpions can glow when exposed to blacklight.
As the creatures are drawings rather than photographs, they aren't as off putting as some of the invertebrate books I've read with Sean. The book is interesting and engaging, a good balance between text and diagrams.
Red as Blood: 07/23/08
For the last couple of years I have been focusing on including more short fiction in my reading routine. Likewise, I have been trying to go back to reading more fantasy and science fiction, two genres I devoured in my teens and early twenties but have gotten away from in recent years. Red as Blood by Tanith Lee fits both categories as it's a collection of retold fairy tales, each one with a dark twist.
The stories are based on the Grimm brothers' tales but given a feminist focus. The Grimm stories do tend to boil down to fantastic and supernatural things happening to young women who then often (though not always) need rescuing by a male hero. They can do with a good turning inside out but the ways in which that's done in this collection feels too gimmicky.
The other major problem with these stories is the emphasis on evil. So many of the female characters are doing evil deeds that the positives of giving the old stories a feminist spin are undone. I didn't come away with a favorite story. I found the whole process of reading this book tedious, although the discomfort was quick as the book is short.
Fullbrim's Finding: 07/23/08
The month of July is nearly over and I'm only now getting to reviewing the stories from the July issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I read far more books in June than I could possibly review in a sane amount of time. Working through that backlog has delayed my fun reading: namely, this magazine!
The first story in the July issue is "Fullbrim's Finding" by Matthew Hughes. It's the second story of his I've had the pleasure of reading. Back in January I enjoyed and reviewed "Petri Parousia." Henghis Hapthorn sets out to help a wife find her missing husband and ends up having the mysteries of the universe revealed to him.
I needed about two pages to lose myself in the story. "Fullbrim's Finding" starts with Hapthorn describing his role in life as a "freelance discriminator of Old Earth." As I'm not familiar with his Hapthorn novels, I'm still not sure what it is he does. In this story, he seems to do the job of a private investigator. With the help of an "integrator" which seems to be a hand held device with some limited AI capabilities, Hapthorn follows Fullbrim's trail when he starts off on some unknown quest.
Fullbrim is your typical eccentric. He's fascinated with patterns and the bell curves of life. Something drives him from looking at the micro to the macro. The last thing he says to his wife is "Ahah!" before jumping on a ship to parts unknown. Like Marlow on the trail of Kurtz, Hapthorn's search for Fullbrim takes him not only on a journey to a remote location but one that also forces him to look inward too.
What Hapthorn finds at the end of his journey makes my inner geek smile. Anyone who has beta tested anything or bodged together something in order to make progress on a larger project will nod at the ending.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: 07/22/08
I've been reading Agatha Christie's mysteries on and off for twenty years. The recent series four episode "The Unicorn and the Wasp" of Doctor Who piqued my interest in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). It is her third Hercule Poirot mystery and one of her most controversial novels for its twist ending.
Like many early detective novels, the Hercule Poirot isn't the narrator of the mystery. Just as Sherlock Holmes has Dr. John Watson, Hercule Poirot in this mystery has Dr. James Sheppard. As they are strangers, Sheppard's insights into Poirot are flawed. At first he mistakes the man for a hair dresser. He even gets his name wrong, rendering it as Porrott until he is later corrected. Sheppard tells an interesting story and seems likeable but he's terrible at getting to the facts of case.
With Sheppard being too unreliable of a narrator, the role of confidant and partner falls on the shoulders of the reader. It's the formula of Columbo andCriminal Intent. Even if you spot the twist early on, like I did, the book is still an interesting psychological drama between the hunter and his prey.
The Frog Prints: 07/21/08
A few months ago I asked for book donations for my son's kindergarten. Among the books donated, was The Frog Prints by B. L. Harwick.
The illustration on the cover by Andrea Eberbachart reminded me of Tommy and Sarah Dress Up (1972) by Gunilla Wolde, a favorite book from my childhood and a contemporary with Frog Prints.
Bruce starts to see mysterious frog prints in his room and he can't figure out why. He enlists Melinda who has a detective kit. Together they manage to solve the case.
The story is silly and simplistic but oddly entertaining. My favorite part of the story though is artwork. The book is out of print but there are copies available online.
Sea Gift: 07/20/08
I have a thing for nautical stories: whether just near or actually on the sea. Sea Gift by John Ashby caught my attention at my local library for the painting of a boy dangling on a rope over the ocean.
When the book starts off with a lengthy chapter about a hockey game with the two lead characters against rivals from the other side of Cape Breton Island (off the coast of Nova Scotia) I was worried that my choice was based on cover art by an artist who hadn't read the book. Fortunately though, the hockey game is confined to that first chapter.
Sea Gift is mostly a coming of age tale set against lobster fishing and treasuring hunting. The treasure in question is presented as an old scrap of parchment found in an old tar sealed bottle under a cairn. The note inside describes a pirate treasure and a doctor's meeting with members of the Mi'kmaq Nation, years before recorded settlement by Europeans.
The parchment sparks the boys' interest in Cape Breton's history and a friendship with their old rival, Maurice aka "Moose" who is Mi'kmaq. I liked following along with Lauchie and Angus as they learn about their home and its rich history. Watching their perceptions of Moose change felt real.
The Penthouse Mystery: 07/20/08
My grandmother turned me onto the Ellery Queen mysteries when I was a kid. Ellery Queen, the author, was actually join pseudonym of two cousins, Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who collaborated on the books. Two years ago I received a bunch of Ellery Queen mysteries as library rescues and I have been enjoying them this year during my son's swim lessons.
The first book I finished is The Penthouse Mystery which started actually as a film and was novelized and sold as a "junior mystery." Ellery's secretary cons him into working on the mystery of a missing ventriloquist famous for his act in China. He has come back to New York on business but never makes it out of his penthouse.
Some of these Ellery Queen mysteries hinge on now outdated cultural norms. The Penthouse Mystery holds up fairly well and any attentive reader will be able to figure out the twist behind the mystery.
Many of the Ellery Queen mysteries are written as "Encyclopedia Brown for grownups" as my husband describes them. They will often stop at the point where all the clues have been laid and then Ellery (who is a character as well as an "author") will address the reader directly to ask if he has solved the mystery before going through the final summary chapters. The Penthouse Mystery, perhaps because it was a film first, doesn't break the fourth wall. For that reason alone, it's a better than average Ellery Queen.
Copies of the book can be readily found online for a few bucks. The film, though, doesn't seem available.
Unholy Domain: 07/19/08
I remember in mid 1998, businesses were being warned about the upcoming chaos that would be caused when the computer clocks ticked over to 2000 and all those older programs that only had two digits stored would assume it was 1900. We were told to expect a mortgage meltdown (that came later but not from computer error), massive power outages and other chaos. None of that materialized except maybe in small isolated cases. Y2K as it came to be known was a source of stories, including a funny episode of Sports Night for those last couple of years.
Unholy Domain by Don Ronco feels like a bit like a Y2K story even though the year 2000 is never mentioned. It has many of the same themes: our dependence on computer technology, the potential dangers if our modern technology suddenly failed, how dependent our economy is on technology to name the three main ones. There is truth to all three of those observations but what's missing is just how much legacy technology we still have in our day to day lives. The world of Unholy Domain, though terribly broken, is too far advanced to be only twelve years in the future.
In fact, the book's timeline its biggest flaw. For a world with AIs, human looking robots, lasers, pocket computers and holograms to be fully developed and destroyed between now and 2020 requires a huge suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. Had the book taken place in 2120 instead of 2020 (much as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fast Forward takes place in 2105 and has all of the same technology and urban problems), I would have spent a lot less time shaking my head and saying "No way!" every time a date was mentioned.
Take away the unbelievable time line (where the hero, David Brown is only 3 years older than my son) and Unholy Domain is an entertaining techno-thriller set in a world struggling in the middle of a new great depression brought on by a destructive and deadly computer virus known as PeaceMaker. The son of man blamed with unleashing the virus goes on a quest to clear his father's name after receiving a mysterious message from him. In his search he finds himself in the middle of a three sided tug of war. Ignore the improbable set up and enjoy the ride.
Borders of Infinity: 07/18/08
I can't even begin to describe in this short entry how much I enjoyed Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold. This limited edition novel is actually made up of three novellas previously published in science fiction magazines. Then a few extra pages were written to wrap the stories together as a series of interviews between Miles Vorkosigan (the protagonist) and Simon Illyan.
The first story: "The Mountains of Mourning" was published in Analog in 1989. It covers Miles time back home after graduating from the military academy. He is sent by his Prime Minister father to investigate an infanticide case in a rural village 4 days walk away. It's a heart-wrenching story that also serves to build Miles as a character and to introduce readers to the world/universe in which he lives. There are spaceships, hover cars and other high tech conveniences. But there are also areas still living in extreme poverty who rely on horses and primitive technology to eke a living.
The second story: "Labyrinth" shows Miles as a mercenary. Although a lieutenant , he works under the pseudonym of Admiral Miles Naismith. He's sent to recover some data that's been implanted in what he's told is a medically enhanced soldier-monster. What Miles finds is nothing at all what he expected.
Another fantastic story!
The final story is the cover title "Borders of Infinity": Here Miles is a POW and must work the other POWs to gain his freedom. The prison, a dome, meets all the criteria to the letter for the IJC's rules but it's hell and inhumane nonetheless. In the process of figuring a way out, Miles lets himself be mistaken for a prophet.
So what does this mean for me... it means I must now read every Bujold book, especially the Vorkosigan Saga, that I can find.
Blue Hat, Green Hat: 07/18/08
Harriet is a bit of a prop comedienne. Her favorite joke involves putting something unlikely on her head and asking innocently, "Hat?" So when she saw Blue Hat, Green Hat by Sandra Boynton at the library, she had to check it out.
With many of Boynton's books, there is an animal who just doesn't fit in. In the case of Blue Hat, Green Hat, that animal is a turkey. All the other animals can get themselves dressed but not the turkey. He tries but somehow things never seem to end up on him correctly.
Besides being a charming story about the troubles of learning how to get dressed (or prop comedy 101 for preschoolers), the book teaches colors, animals, parts of the body and clothing. It's also charming and very funny. The turkey, by the way, looks charming in his purple socks.
The Dark is Rising: 07/17/08
I'm really terrible at reading series in sequence. That's why I like books that stand alone even if they build on an larger story sequence. The Dark is Rising (and the Series of the same name) is an excellent sample of a book that stands strongly on its own and contributes to an entertaining series.
Will Stanton gets a warning just before his 11th birthday (which happens to fall on Midwinter's day) that he must help defeat the Dark as he is the last of the Old Ones. Over the next many days he must collect the necessary signs to fend off the growing Darkness manifesting in the form of an endless blizzard.
The Dark is Rising brings together a mixture of Norse, Celtic, Arthurian legends along with time travel and contemporary fantasy. Cooper manages the blending of these elements well and the time travel is especially well done.
Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself: 07/17/08
Last month I read and enjoyed Never Have Your Dog Stuffed (2006), Alan Alda's first memoir. I eagerly dove into his second book, Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself. Unfortunately it didn't hold my attention as much as the first.
Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself starts with Alda contemplating his life after nearly dying from a bowel obstruction. So it begins promisingly as a sequel to the first book. Rather than following on the path of how he has continued to live his life, the book becomes a collection of speeches he has given and the reasons behind them. I suppose that's where the "talking to myself" part of the title comes into play.
As his speech giving is part of his public life, he also tries to discuss his role as a public figure and how disconcerting public perceptions versus his own internalized self are.
Had the book been more focused on the stories behind the speeches and less on the speeches themselves, Things I Overheard... would have been just as enjoyable as Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. Instead, the speeches, break up the natural flow of the memoir. The speeches, are by their very nature, very formal and very crafted. They lack the warmth and spontaneity of the first memoir. They are also typeset in a heavy calligraphic script that is hard on the eyes in long blocks of text.
Child of the Owl: 07/16/08
Laurence Yep has been a favorite author of mine since my teens. I have been reading his books when I've had the opportunity. My local library has a huge collection of his novels and I've decided to work my way through them as time permits. Child of the Owl (1977) is my first revisiting of Yep in about a decade and I'm currently reading Sea Glass (1979).
Child of the Owl is told in the first person perspective of a 12 year old girl named Casey. She's a native born Chinese American but doesn't even think of herself in terms of her Chinese heritage. Like many first generation native born Americans, she only speaks English. Just as Yep describes in his autobiography The Lost Garden (1996), Casey is "too American to fit into Chinatown, and too Chinese to fit in anywhere else." In fact, that turmoil of balancing cultures is a recurrent theme in Yep's books.
The book, though written in the 1970s, takes place in 1965. When Casey is forced to move in with her Grandmother, Paw-Paw, in Chinatown (San Francisco) we get to learn about Chinese culture as Casey does. All of Yep's descriptions of San Francisco have a delicate balance of Western and Chinese details. The Beatles, old time radio shows, and hamburgers coincide with Chinese opera, Kung fu movies and dim sum.
Bye-Bye, Big Bad Bullybug: 07/15/08
As a child I was nuts about drawing (still am) and one of my favorite authors was Ed Emberley. He has written a number of drawing books that make drawing just about anything simple. I spent hours of my childhood pouring over his books at my grandmother's dining room table.
I have bought copies of some of his books for my kids but Bye-Bye, Big Bad Bullybug! was Sean's choice. As you can imagine, I was thrilled when he picked that book out.
The book is part story and part drawing how-to. The bully bug describes to a smaller bug all the different ways he's equipped to eat the bug. In the course of his description he is drawn, shape by shape just as all Ed Emberley drawing books teach drawing from basic shapes.
Sean and I enjoyed reading the book and even drew our own bully bug for one of his Friday lunch bags. I've included a photograph to show our result.
Havana Letter: 07/15/08
With this entry, I conclude my jaunt through Havana: Tales of a City. The book closes with an 1849 letter by William Cullen Bryant that he later included in his Letters of a Traveller (1850).
Like Maturin M. Ballou, Bryant was fascinated by the ladies of Havana. His description of the ladies in their volantes matches Ballous, though he takes more time to describe how they used them in their day to day activities. He shows how the women would wait in their carriages for vendors to bring their wares out to them, somewhere between modern drive through and the street side service that posher places offer on Rodeo drive.
Of the recent pieces I read in Havana, Bryant's letter and Wallace's poem seemed the most genuine. I think much of that authenticity stems from them being intact, rather than being excerpts lacking the necessary context. Bryant's Letters of a Traveller is part of the Google Books but I think sometime I would like to hold a copy in my hand and curl up in a comfy chair to read it.
Here is the complete list of reviews from Havana: Tales of a City.
Academic Discourse at Havana: 07/14/08
I have two pieces left in Havana and I am glad to be nearing the end of my endeavor to review everything from this book. I have left out one, a excerpt from the screenplay of The Godfather. The omission was an accident but I've decided not to go back and add in a review of it.
The penultimate selection is the poem "Academic Discourse at Havana" by Wallace Stevens. He visited Cuba in 1923 and published the poem a year later.
As I am unqualified to review his poem beyond saying I enjoyed it as a mood piece about a restless night of looking for inspiration while in Havana, I will instead share this reading of the poem.
Three years ago I enjoyed The Corinthian by Georgette Heyer and I expected to like Arabella as well but I didn't.
In fairness to Heyer, I have to point first to the copy I was reading. It's an old, cheap paperback from 1971. The pages are yellowed which mae the tiny font harder to read. Tiny, faded text combined with Heyer's lengthy paragraphs and elaborate language made for difficult reading at my usual pace.
Then there's the plot. From reviews I've read Arabella is sometimes compared to Romeo & Juliet. I was reminded more of LoveHampton by Sherri Rifkin and both, if I were to pick a Shakespearian play, remind me of The Taming of the Shrew. Having so enjoyed Rifkin's novel, I just wasn't in the mood for such a similar story.
Sin in the Second City: 07/13/08
"I'm getting Everleighed tonight." (p. 22) That quote, part slogan and part red light district slang sums up Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott best.
This well researched book with an ample bibliography and notes section covers the rise and fall of the Everleigh Club in Chicago. As there are so many people of interest on both sides of the issue (those running the brothels and those trying to close them down) that the Abbot includes her own three page cast of characters.
At the start of each short chapter, Abbott includes a photograph or illustration from the time period. They are all captioned: either with the original caption or with relevant information for the upcoming chapter. These old pictures were my favorite part of the book. I wish the cover art could have been taken from one of these instead of being a stock photo of an unknown woman.
The strength and weakness of Sin in the Second City stems from the same source: its abundant information. As the timeline progresses and I'm guessing source material becomes more reliable and readily available, it becomes more difficult to keep track of the events while reading. As a source of research material Sin in the Second City will be very valuable. As pleasure reading, it needs to be taken slowly and passages reread for full comprehension.
If you haven't read Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, I suggest reading it as a companion book to Sin in the Second City. Although fiction, it helps fill in the gaps of what Chicago was like during the Everleigh sister's stay.
I can remember sitting in my car listening to a review of Salt: A World History and an interview with Mark Kurlansky. Four years later I have finally gotten around to reading the book. Perhaps I should have read it sooner because the book didn't live up to expectations. I think part of my disappointment stems from having just enjoyed The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson.
Salt is broken into three parts: the first covering why we need salt and how that need affected early civilizations; the second part focuses on the fishing industry; and the final part looks at how salt continues to affect society. Kurlansky has also written The Basque History of the World and Cod and he's clearly still interested in both topics. Large portions of Salt focus on both the Basque use of salt and the history of cod and salt. I am not all the interested in Basque history and The Zen of Fish is a more interesting take on the history of fish (and salt).
There are some interesting bits of Salt. I liked best the chapters about Italy that discuss prosciutto and Parmesan. I also liked the discussion of salt in China post revolution and the bit about how sugar is traditionally thought to balance the taste of salt. I had never heard of this old wives tale but it helps to explain why salt is always an ingredient in dessert recipes.
Nana Volume 1: 07/12/08
Nana Volume 1 by Ai Yazawa is a Shojo manga and quite a departure for me from my usual manga choices. I saw this volume reviewed on my of favorite book blogs but it was months ago and I can't remember where. Anyway, the cover art appealed to me as did the title and I was looking for a change.
There are actually two young women named Nana: Nana Komatsu, who is introduced on pages 3-104, and Nana Osaki who is introduced on pages 105-176. The first volume comes to a close with a coda dedicated to a character named Junko but her role here is more as a source of "coming attractions" than anything else. Both Nanas are drawn to Tokyo but the paths they take are very different.
Nana K. is an emotionally scarred girl who is looking for love in all the wrong places, including having an affair with an older married man. She goes to Tokyo to follow a pair of men: the married one and a young artist who has transferred to a university there. Her time in Tokyo will probably be a rough one; she's unprepared for the big city and lacks the confidence to make the move work.
On the other hand, Nana O., a member of rock band, goes to Tokyo to follow her lover when he is offered a better gig. Although she is hurt by the break up she is strong enough and stubborn enough to charge into Tokyo and claim her piece of it.
The two Nanas will obviously meet in the future but in this volume they lead separate lives. There are enough similarities in their lives and in how they look that it is easy sometimes to accidentally confuse one for the other. In this regard, their parallel lives reminds me of a wonderful French/Polish film: La Double vie de Veronique / Dvojnaja zhizn Veroniki (1991).
All-of-a-Kind Family: 07/11/08
Back in April I read and reviewed All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown by Sydney Taylor. Having so enjoyed it I went back to read the first in the series, All-of-a-Kind Family.
This first novel introduces the family, five girls, who jokingly call themselves an "all-of-a-kind" family since they don't have any brothers. As with the Uptown novel, the is told as a series of vignettes over the course of a year. One can track the timeline by following the Jewish holidays they celebrate: Passover, Purim and so forth.
The book is more than just a primer for American Jewish culture and religion. It is a heartwarming story of a family facing the day to day struggles that any family faces: illness, finance, emotional upheaval and just the general chaos of parenting children.
The mother plays a more active role in this book. She comes up with an ingenious way to make the girls do their cleaning chores (something I plan to implement with my two children when they are a little older), the frustration of a child who suddenly refuses to eat (another thing I have in common with her), the personal sacrifices a parent will make when a child is ill and finally the exhaustion of parenting while pregnant. I really enjoyed getting to know her better.
All of these threads are woven through the fabric of Europe on the verge of WWI. Reading All-of-a-Kind Family will give one an appreciation for what life was like more than 90 years ago.
Creole Ladies, Marti the Smuggler, Bullfighting: 07/11/08
The next piece in Havana is a hack job from Maturin M. Ballou's History of Cuba published in 1854.
This three part selection is made up for pages 77-9 (the Creole Ladies section), 108-115 (Marti the Smuggler) and 132-135 (Bullfighting). As they are jumbled up together in this presentation they provide nothing more than a bizarre "local color" sketch of life in Cuba in the 1850s.
There honestly isn't enough here to write a review. The women of Cuba are simply described by their fancy shoes; Marti the Smuggler is shown making a deal with a former governor, and Bullfighting is briefly but inaccurately described. Taken out of the context of the full text Cuba comes across as a strange backwards place with naive designs on being an outpost of European high culture.
Here is the complete list of reviews from Havana: Tales of a City.
Native Tongue: 07/10/08
I've now read just over half of Carl Hiaasen's novels. I've come to the conclusion that I prefer his more recent work and always his juvenile fiction. The cut off point seems to be about 2000, although I did enjoy most of Lucky You (1997).
Native Tongue being one of the earliest of his novels (#4) has many of the same themes as his later ones: environmentalism, corruption, animal rights, and big business. The big business in this case is a mob run amusement park with a desire to be bigger than Disney no matter the cost.
On the other side of the fence are a pair of thugs working for a crazy environmentalist. Her cause may be just but her methods aren't much better than head of the Amazing Kingdom.
The book suffers from too large a cast of characters and too many side plots. I ended up skipping around to the characters who interested me the most.
A Grief Observed: 07/10/08
Until I read A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis was only an author who I knew through his Narnia series. As it's not one of my favorite series by far Lewis hasn't been on my radar when I'm looking for books to read. He did though have a long scholarly career and I think as time permits I would like to read more of his nonfiction.
Lewis wrote A Grief Observed as an emotional response to his wife's death. He and (Helen) Joy Davidman had a short and at the time unconventional relationship due to her status as a divorcee. It was clearly a loving and healthy relationship from the way he writes about her. The emotion are raw: anger, grief, depression, and despair.
In the final chapter Lewis describes how he wrote the book as a series of hand written notebooks, each one filled with his thoughts. Although by the close of the final notebook he feels the need to write more, he says that he has promised his family to set them aside and get on with his own life. What the four chapters don't say (how could they?) is that Lewis later died in 1963 after a lengthy illness.
Tori Miller's in a funk. She's lost her job and been dumped by her boyfriend. After a lengthy hiatus, her friends convince her to take a well needed vacation by sharing a house in the Hamptons for the summer weekends. To get her ready it, she is giving a makeover (which happens to be for a pilot of an upcoming reality show).
I have to admit that the set up to LoveHampton by Sherri Rifkin sounded hokey to me and if you stop long enough to think about the backstory, it does have a few holes, but what happens during "Millers" summer is entertaining enough to make the set up irrelevant.
Miller describes her weeks at the house through a series of unwritten house rules. Then Miller narrates her chapter as an illustration of how that rule either works or doesn't.
The plot follows a fairly standard screwball comedy structure where Miller goes from being the oddball, to the rising "It" girl, to almost loosing it all and finally coming to a happy compromise between the highest and lowest points. The book reminds me of Last Chance Saloon by Marian Keyes and Ralph's Party by Lisa Jewell.
Singing to Cuba (excerpt): 07/09/08
The next piece in Havana is an excerpt from the 1993 novel Singing to Cuba by Margarita Engle. The story is based on the author's own trip back to Cuba after years of trying to get permission to visit.
This excerpt follows the dark tone of "Cuban Sketches." Clearly this book seems aimed at ending on a critical note. The unnamed protagonist who is a stand-in for the author, is dismayed at how much things have decayed since the revolution. There is also discussion on the lack of choice: cheap state-run beer and plenty of ice cream but no regular sources of food. There are no supplies for repairing homes so the paint and plaster is peeling.
For many characters in the story the only way out is suicide and it is the talk of death that ends the excerpt. What this sudden change in the book's tone shows is just how volatile a subject Cuba still in here in the States. I wish though that the book had some discussion about the reasons behind the pieces chosen.
Here is the complete list of reviews from Havana: Tales of a City.
King Solomon's Mines: 07/08/08
There have been at least five straight forward film adaptations of H. Rider Haggard's novel King Solomon's Mines. I think my parents have seen three of them, the 1937 version being their favorite. The closest I've come to having seen a film adaptation is the parody version in The Road to Zanzibar (1941).
So although I always associate King Solomon's Mines with lengthy discussions between my parents, somehow the writer behind the story never came up. In fact, I first heard about H. Rider Haggard as a literary reference in the Rumpole series of books by John Mortimer. He refers to his wife as "She Who Must be Obeyed" which is from the novel She (1887). It's only in the last couple of years that I've started reading any of Haggard's books.
King's Solomon's Mines is one of Haggard's earliest novels. He apparently wrote it for a £1 wager against his brother. In it's haphazard changes of tone and the gaping plot holes, it does remind me of a modern-day nanowrimo.
That being said, I rather enjoyed the book except for the middle bit where Allan Quatermain and his companions help with the overthrow of a despot king. Here the book suffers from the same awful attempts at formal sounding dialogue. Anytime anyone of vaguely noble birth wanders onto the page of a Haggard book, the dialogue goes to crap. I basically had to skim this section to save myself from flinging the book across the room.
Fortunately though once Quatermain gets back on track of looting the mine and possibly finding his companion's brother the book recovers from its serious case of "thees and thous" and finishes with the same adventurous flare that it began with.
Everybody Needs a Rock: 07/07/08
My son takes after my grandmother. She loved to collect rocks of all shapes and sizes. She had them in her yard and in her house. Her kitchen window sill was covered in little jars full of the smallest rocks she had found over the years. Now my kitchen window sill if filling up with peanut butter jars of Sean's growing rock collection.
Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor and illustrated by Peter Parnall captures perfectly their love of rocks. The little girl in the book (shown on the cover) outlines a series of rules for finding the perfect rock. Rule #4, for example, is "Don't get a rock that is too big. It won't fit in your hand right and it won't fit in your pocket." My grandmother wasn't one to follow rule number 4 as the boulders in her front yard attested to. Sean though, does so far live by rule #4 and I have learned to always check his pockets before doing the laundry.
Every rule is beautifully illustrated by Peter Parnall's line drawings. They are colored with a limited range of earth tones. Mostly though, they are black and white. The girl, always blending into the rocks. Be the rock, she seems to be saying.
Charlotte Gray: 07/06/08
Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks is another of the many historical fictions I've been reading this summer. It follows a young British woman's trek through occupied France to find her RAF pilot boy friend after he's shot down during a mission. She is sent on a mission for a fictional "G Section" but chooses to stay after she complete her mission so that she can find the pilot.
Besides following Charlotte's path from receptionist to hero, Faulks includes a few members of the French resistance. They are probably there to round out the novel and perhaps flesh it out but I found these extra scenes distracting. It would have been more suspenseful to not know about Gregory's whereabouts during Charlotte's search.
On a side note, the book won the 1998 Bad Sex Award.
Cuban Sketches (excerpt): 07/05/08
The next piece in Havana is an excerpt from the 1881 book Cuban Sketches by James William Steele. The original book was 220 pages and I'm not convinced that this short selection is a good representation of the whole book. Steele wrote the book while serving as a United States Consul.
From the little bit that is included in Havana, "Cuban Sketches" comes off as not much more than a lengthy rant about how backwards the Spaniards living in Cuba were and how uncomfortable any civilized American will be when visiting.
The excerpt contains complaints against the colors of the buildings (described as "parti-colored"), the narrow streets, the windowless buildings, horrific food, uncomfortable beds, lack of proper gardens and trees, and so forth.
Coming so late in the book after numerous love letters about Cuba, this excerpt comes as a shock. It's a complete departure in tone but it does give a glimpse of what island life was like 120 years ago.
Here is the complete list of reviews from Havana: Tales of a City.
Zen of Fish: 07/05/08
I had planned to read The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson for the Spring Reading Thing but here it is summer, so I didn't quite make that deadline. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and will probably be giving copies of it as presents to my fellow sushi lovers.
Trevor Corson spent three months with the last class of the California Sushi Academy before it was force to shut down temporarily due to budget problems. His chosen protagonist is a woman named Kate who for a number of reasons would appear to be the least likely person to become a sushi chef. Corson shows why she is probably the forerunner of what may become the typical American sushi chef: someone trained in the traditions of sushi but born into American culture and willing an able to train American customers to be better sushi connoisseurs.
As Kate and her classmates learn different pieces of sushi making, Corson fills in the blanks with fascinating discussions of history, biology and culture and so forth. Besides coming away with a tremendous craving for nigiri and sashimi, I learned a ton about both, including the proper way of enjoying both.
To learn more about the Trevor Corson, check out his website.
Camp Buccaneer: 07/04/08
What's a girl to do when she's dragged along on a boring family vacation to a lake where Dad just wants to put his feet up and Mom has her nose in a book? She becomes a pirate, of course, thanks to the three week course at Camp Buccaneer.
Marion spends her summer vacation learning the ropes with Peg Leg, Shark Bait, and William. Besides learning how to be a pirate, Marion gains well needed self confidence, something she is able to take with her to school where she has problems with a bully.
All of Marion's adventures on and off the lake are illustrated with cute black and white drawings. The book is aimed at readers in grades 1 through 3 but it's an entertaining story even if you're older.
Good Thing We Didn't Have Any Plans: 07/04/08
We didn't have any plans today for Independence Day. The weather is still pretty smoky and Harriet's too young to stay up late for fireworks. We didn't have any parties to go to either. Our only plan was to take it easy and have hot dogs and watermelon for desert.
At eleven this morning we got a telephone call from Ian's parents. We knew they should be en route to Japan but they were stuck on the tarmac at LAX waiting for the fog to clear at SFO. They wanted to know if they had any chance to still catch their connection. It looked doubtful.
When Ian went to get our hotdog's he bought extras just in case they missed their flight. At four we got the call; they were here and stuck in a hotel in Burlingame. They had missed their flight by two minutes. So Ian dashed over the bridge to pick them up for dinner while Sean, Harriet and I did a lick and a promise on the house.
So they're here watching season one, disc 2 of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fast Forward. Harriet is reading Flip and Flop to Judy. That reminds me, I should review Flip and Flop; I've read it enough times.
Flight of the Goose: 07/03/08
Flight of the Goose by Lesley Thomas is about a meeting of cultures: the good and the bad. The story is told from two points of view: Kayuqtuq Ugungoraseok (aka Gretchen) and Leif Trygvesen (aka Birdman).
Leif, an ornithologist, goes from being someone to be feared, to being an amusing oddity, to finally a respected member of the community. The process isn't easy for him or for Kayuqtuq who does most of the novel's narration.
Flight of the Goose takes its time. The story unfolds at its own pace and it is one to be read slowly and pondered over. Often times scenes will be played from both characters points of view: first one and the other. Other times both characters will sweep over huge chunks of time that were for one reason or another unimportant to them.
The novel is peppered with a number of Inupiaq words. There is a very useful glossary at the back of the novel. I liked having this resource on hand.
Overall I enjoyed the book. My only complaint is for the font chosen for Leif's diaries. It is a narrow sans-serif that is hard on the eyes compared to lovely font used for Kayuqtuq's parts.
Marlin off the Morro: 07/02/08
The next piece in Havana is an essay on fishing marlin by Ernest Hemingway. He originally wrote it for Esquire in 1933 and it was later republished it By-Line: Ernest Hemingway six years after his death.
"Marlin off the Morro" reads like a cheat sheet for Old Man and the Sea (1952). Hemingway describes a typical day of fishing for marlin including superstitions about breakfast and what to eat for lunch.
The remainder of the essay focuses on the marlin. It talks about where they swim, how they swim, and the different personality types Hemingway had run into while fishing.
Here is the complete list of reviews from Havana: Tales of a City.
In 1985, NBC aired a miniseries based on Belva Plain's novel Evergreen. I know I watched it and loved it. I also know that I read most of the book and loved it but wasn't able to finish it. I can't quite remember the order of events of whether I saw the movie first or read the book first but I can tell you that the book made enough of an impression on me that I've been wanting to re-read and finally finish the book for the last twenty-three years.
After re-reading it I have come to two conclusions: I still love the book and I want to read more books by Belva Plain. The book follows Anna Friedman and her children and grandchildren. Mostly though it is the changing decades as Anna grows and changes from the turn of the century through a time almost contemporary with the book's publication date.
Anna starts off as a classic Mary Sue character but as the book progresses her perfect character begins to tarnish. It is then that she becomes an interesting protagonist. She struggles with Old World traditions and New World temptations. She lies to protect her family from her own transgressions. She is both affected by prejudice and is prejudiced herself. In other words, she a fairly well realized character.
Although I did manage to tear through the book in the course of a day and a half, I don't recommend reading the book this fast. it's two pages shy of seven hundred pages. When I had finished I needed a mental breather from reading; normally I can finish one book and immediately pick up another one.
The Big Pony Race: 07/01/08
The third of my series of Dora the Explorer reviews is The Big Pony Race by Erica David. It's one of the more recent Dora books but it sticks pretty close to the formula.
In The Big Pony Race Dora and Boots help a lost horse named Jenny make her way back in time for a race. To get there, they must follow Map's path and cross two obstacles. The journey teaches Jenny the skills and confidence she needs to run the race.
At the back of the book the story asks parents to discuss happiness with their children. Apparently this book illustrates the emotion. Isn't Dora usually happy in her adventures? This "Play-to-Learn" Fundamental in the back seems pretty forced. Otherwise, though, it's a delightful book if your child is a fan of Dora.
If You Give a Pig a Pancake: 07/01/08
If You Give a Pig a Pancake is the third in series of books by Laura Numeroff and illustrated by Felicia Bond.
The book follows a series of what-ifs from the giving a hungry pig a pancake through all the consequences of such a gift. Each one is sillier than the next. Highlights include a bubble bath, posing for silly photos and building a tree house.
When I was preparing to review Felicia Bond's solo book The Halloween Play, I read a number of reviews that commented on how much her technique has improved since that book. I'm going to break with the pack and say that I think her illustrations were just as good then as they are in these later books. My only complaint is with the pig. I know pigs are in fact hairy but he looks positively furry in this book. All those little fluffy lines are a distraction.