Sunday, August 30, 2009

Amerigo The Man Who Gave His Name To America by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

This was something from the days when I was reading the New York Time Book Review every week, that I just got around to fairly recently.

There's definitely a trend towards writing contemporary-style biographies of figures from the past, ranging from Abraham Lincoln to Jesus. They feature modern scholarly research, which is good, but also an annoying tendency to try and place the ancient world in modern terms, a trend that might help sell a few more copies but frequently jars on my nerves when I'm looking for facts rather than analogs.

As a result, I almost gave this book right back to the library when the first words from the author's computer (I started to say "pen" but no one hand-writes things anymore) were describing how Vespucci "was a pimp in his youth and a magus in his maturity." It's a very provocative opening to a book that is startlingly conservative once it gets past the introduction, trying hard to stick to the limited facts of the subject's life while also providing enough material to fill a roughly 200 page book.

As far the research goes, there is nothing at all wrong with Fernandez-Armesto's work. He has taken great pains to exhaust all possible stores of knowledge on Vespucci and does not shy away from saying when the record is incomplete. His biographic detail of the books supposedly written by Amerigo during his lifetime is simply amazing and make this worth the read to anyone interested in the subject of early European literature.

But where the book falls down a bit, at least for me, is in the biography of Vespucci himself. He's a shadowy figure at best, who appears to have gotten really lucky and managed to find a way to sail to the New World, then come back and write some things convincingly enough that a publisher turned him into a scandal-free Christopher Columbus. Soon, people are naming continents after him and the rest is history. Except that, as Fernandez-Armesto notes by the end of the book, history has mostly forgotten Amerigo, and it's now too late to try and put the pieces together comprehensively.

As a result, this book ends up failing as a true biography because there simply is not enough material to go around. Fernandez-Armesto does the best he can with what he has, but the bold claims of Vespucci being both pimp and magus ring false in the text itself, where the cautious scholar takes over from promotional author and the book tries to sluce out the details of Vespucci's life, such as can be found. I am actually greatful for the lack of speculation and do not wish to fault him for it. But because the facts are slim, we end up with a lot of suggestions to think of Amerigo as a modern-styled man looking to climb the business ladder, a philosophy I don't think held as much sway in the 15th Century. I'd have rather let the facts, such as they are, speak for themselves and let the reader draw his or her own conclusions.

The real reason to read this book, and I'm pretty sure this is not the the author's main intention, is to show just how messed up the literary industry has always been. As book publishing grew in popularity, the desire to fictionalize the accounts of explorers grew. Fernandez-Armesto skewers travel writers in general (take THAT. bill Bryson!) for embellishing on the truth, but he is particularly hard on the early publishers for adding accounts of cannibalism, demon-like women, monsters, and all sorts of other fabrications to help the books move copies.

The chapters about Vespucchi's books and their probably inaccuracies fairly sing in comparison to those about the sketchy facts of the subject's life. Fernandez-Armesto is completely in his element dispelling the myths found in the travel writings of Vespucchi, including at least one fictional voyage, which is probably cribbed entirely out of poor Columbus's works.

If there's a problem with "Amerigo," it's that by the end, I came out convinced that Vespucchi himself is a charlitan fraud who happened to be a part of the merchant group that backed Columbus and used his knowledge of the voyages to forge accounts of his own derring-do. I do not see any compelling evidence that Vespucchi ever left Europe. While I do agree that he wrote at least some of the material in his books, I just don't see anything distinctive enough to be original. What I do see is a lot of plot summary, just like when I took a class with a Professor whose idea of a "test" was to see if you could re-write a 200 page book in 10 pages.

It is unlikely that we'll ever know the truth about Amerigo Vespucci. Fernandez-Armesto tries extremely hard to help us, but there's just not enough to go on. As a result, I'm left a bit cold about the subject at hand, especially since there appears to be so much deception (both publically and perhaps personally as well) in Vespucci's life. Unlike "Galileo's Daughter", which had similar factual scarcity but two believable protagonists, "Amerigo" features a man who never truly succeeded and ended up President of the United having his name applied to a land that really didn't belong to those who claimed it. And if that isn't proof that America was actually named accurately, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

This is a book that's probably better known for its author, who died at the hands of the Nazis, than the plot, which was to be a huge, five volume undertaking about the Nazi occupation of France. Why a biological Jew was writing a book about life in occupied France instead of getting the hell out of France is a mystery, one that probably will never be answered. While her husband, who was also killed, tried desperately to save them, Nemirovsky seemed fated to passing away.

Ironically, her last, unfinished book, uncovered after decades, seemed to be more favorable to the Germans who would kill her than her own countrymen. This is probably partly due to hoping to stay alive and partly because she was not a native of France, and probably had some resentment of the natives.

At any rate, this book is really two books--an introduction to all the characters she'd intended to use, and also a second book, more readable than the first, concentrating on a small part of them, and in particular the relationship between a German officer and a French woman who does not particularly care for her missing husband or mother-in-law.

The main problem I have with this one is that, in wishing to respect the dead author, the editor made no attempt, especially in the first half, to make the book more legible. There are a lot of places where "he said" and "she said" dominate, and with so many characters passing through, I frequently had no idea who was speaking.

Even in the second part, this was a problem. There are also a few times where it's clear there was placeholder sections, and even a few, "this is what I'm going to do with X" passages. For some people, this makes it an impossible book for them to read. That's a fair argument, and I don't fault them for it. I fumbled with the first half for quite awhile, and considered giving up myself. The dense text and obvious need for revision do tend to make this something you read more for historical purposes than for pure enjoyment.

It also doesn't help that Nemirovsky appears to be a tell, don't show type of writer. There's a lot of times where a lengthy piece of text stands in where dialog or a short scene could have done better. I haven't read any of her other work, so I don't know if this is a trait or just a quirk of being unedited, but for someone who really prefers the characters to just talk a lot, her endless scenes of telling us what her cast was intending, doing, or failing to do really just didn't grab me.

All in all, I feel like this is a book better suited for those looking for a historical oddity than a good story. It seems like the popularity of the work derives more from the tragedy of the writer's life than the quality of the work itself. Though I know it got a lot of buzz at the time, I just don't think this one is worth it unless you are looking it at from a cultural standpoint instead of a literary standpoint.

I appreciate those who want to read it as such, and I am glad Nemirovsky's family was able to get some closure with its publication. But it's obviously not something that was intended in this form for publication. I just don't really enjoy reading work that wasn't meant for/ready for publication--that's not what I want out of my fiction as a general rule. I read far too much non-fiction to analyze my fiction from a cultural standpoint. If you read fiction for fiction's sake, I think you're probably best served elsewhere. If you want to see a writer struggle with writing a narrative that expresses her frustrations but tries to keep the "winning" side happy, then give this a shot, but be prepared to read a story that wasn't even at workshop quality by the time it had to be abandoned.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd

The only Ackroyd I'd read prior to this was his first entry in the series of brief biographies he's doing, on Chaucer. I liked it quite a bit, and made a note to read some of his fiction at a later date.

This book was in the NYT Book Review a little while back, and I kept it in mind for future reference. I saw it on the shelf on a random book hunt, and figured it was time to read some Ackroyd.

I am very glad I did. Ackroy's prose in this book is engaging, sharp, and compelling. While I admit that the subject matter was not only of interest but of recent memory (I just finished a documentary on Troy), I do not think you have to be a fan of Homer to like this book.

Ackroyd sets up a fictional archaeologist with the same desires and complexities as his real life model. In real life, the finder of Troy was a relic-hunting thug who did almost anything to make the facts fit his theory--eventually destroying the real Troy in the process. Ackroyd uses that temple perfectly, adding his own sinister touches. Our protagonist is a man with many secrets, which he keeps from our other main character, his wife. She is basically sold to him in exchange for her parents to deal in the antiquities found at Troy. The more she realizes that something is wrong with her life, the more interesting the book becomes.

This is almost a mystery as Ackroyd allows the secrets of his characters to seep out into the pages like the secrets of Troy seeped out into the shovels, trowels, and sifters of the archaeological teams. We have to puzzle together the truth of these people with the myths of Homer echoing in the background. Ackroyd flavors the book with constant references to Homer, which I must tell you is a lit geek's dream. As the pages flew past (this was a very quick read for me) I was happily entertained by the combination of historical and literary references.

Within that framework, Ackroyd makes wonderful supporting characters. There is the mysterious assistant, willing to do anything for the archaeologist. A gossipy vicar is one of several visitors, including an American skeptic and a British linguist. A blind specialist in pottery uses his hands to feel the ages, while the Turkish supervisor lurks on. (This may be the best part of Ackroyd's crafting in this novel--the supervisor is given a harsh look on first blush, but as the story plays out, you begin to see that all is not as it appears. Like the reader, the supervisor must keep pushing for answers. It is, I think, a brilliant device.) I am again reminded of a good mystery--the supporting cast brings the main characters into sharp relief, but are more than just props.

It's hard to cover the plot of this one without giving too much away. The best I can tell you is that our "hero" is so driven to find his Troy that he will stop at nothing to get what he wants, leading to some rather suspicious circumstances and peril for those who disagree-even his wife. He will find Troy no matter what the cost. The other half of this coin is the wife, who, like the reader, must decide if she wishes to buy into his obsession-based logic or risk being crushed by its weight. The answer lies within the pages, which I strongly urge you to read!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Warriors of God by James Reston, Jr.

No, this is not about modern politics, though perhaps it is, indirectly. This is a book about King Richard the Lionheart and Saladin and their role in the Third Crusade. I grabbed it on impulse at the library, and was pleasantly surprised by its quality.

The book starts off with the early, pre-crusade careers of both leaders, highlighting parts of their lives that shadow their later exploits. This is the only part of the book that drags a bit--it's hard to do the whole "Adam begat Abel, and Abel began Pepcid AC and Pepsid begat Relief" thing in a compelling manner.

Once we get get going, however, this is a very engaging read, as Reston describes the battles that destroyed the fragile Kingdom of Jerusalem. My prior knowledge of this part of wold history is frighteningly small, but I wasn't shocked to learn at all that petty bickering combined with inept leadership left the Christians ripe for the picking once the Muslims had a good leader, and Saladin was most definitely that man. While the Christians allowed political wrangling and appeals to pride to rule them, leading to the terrible King Guy and the pirate Reginald (apparently, "Though Shalt Not Steal" does not apply to unbelievers, though that seems to be missing from my copy of the text...) and some really stupid ideas (such as attacking a well-fortified area with no supply line and no water--guess how that ended up!), Saladin bided his time, let patience rule him as much as possible, and slowly but surely pushed the Christians out of the Holy Land.

But make no mistake, Saladin wasn't perfect. Throughout the text, he has many crises of faith--being the standard bearer for a whole religion is taxing, and on the Christian side, the lack of unity almost helped keep the pressure off Richard a bit. He also had a hard time keeping the unity he worked so hard to set up in the Muslim world. Still, he was an amazing General, as the text reveals, and his behaviour towards his enemies and the few Jews in the Holy Land make the Christians look like barbarians. (While Saladin invited the Jews back to Jerusalem, the Christians were having bonfires with their Jews, not to mention that during the first Crusade, Jews were the first to be slaughtered when they reached the walls. Frankly speaking, no pun intended, but the Christians come off rather badly in this whole affair.)

Once things are rolled up in the Holy Land, we turn back to Europe to see what Richard is up to. Seems he and his father didn't get along too well, and the legend of Richard as a strong fighter came mostly from fighting with his dad, and not just in terms of verbal banter, either, though apparently Richard was quite the wit, as Reston reveals in judiciously used quotes. He was also, which I appear to be the only person on earth who didn't know this, a homosexual until he had to get married for political reasons. Funny, that never comes up in Robin Hood, and I wonder if anyone told Sean Connery. He even had no women at his coronation session, and I hear it was a very gay affair. Ahem. Moving on. Richard's proclivities in his youth lead to trouble, however, because the other person headed off to Crusade with him is King Phillip of France, England's frequent rival and now a spurned lover.

I'm sure you're shocked, this doesn't go well, and Reston shows over and over again how Richard can't help but make himself look better than his old lover, building up a resentment that will lead to Richard being imprisoned after the Crusade is over. Apparently war and the French don't go together very well, because the French cut and run after a bit, leaving Richard, fresh off more conquests en route, to face Saladin alone.

This is the fun part of the book, from a military standpoint. Richard and Saladin were men ahead of their time, and, in the case of Richard, one of them may have been the best at personally leading his men of any General, ever. Reston includes many accounts of Richard single-handedly keeping the Crusaders in the fight when all seemed lost, most notably at the very end, where Richard needs to make landfall with a small army. (The way is blocked, until Richard himself leads the fight to clear up the beach. If I read that in a fiction book, I admit, I'd feel as though the author overreached, but apparently, it's true. Like I said, Richard was amazing.)

The Christians, badly outnumbered, far from home, and still squabbling all the way, manage to beat back Saladin to the point that he is ready to give up on Jerusalem and work to prevent Arthur from becoming another Ceasar. But maybe there's something to that divine intervention thing, because Richard gets cold feet just as he's about to win, pulling back at the right time for Saladin to be able to fight to a draw. This is just what he wants, because once Richard is gone, Saladin knows he can take out the Christians at a time and place of his choosing.

Like a paper cup that's been refilled one too many times, though, once the fight is over, neither party does very well. Saladin returns home, and, very ill, passes away soon after. Richard tries to flee back to England, and ends up captured by his foes and ransomed like a damsel in distress. He spends the rest of his life fighting with his ex-lover and settling disputes by fighting, the only thing he turns out to be good at. His end is far less glorious than anything he ever accomplished on foreign soil.

Reston's text, while long (it clocks in at just under 400 trade paperback pages), is fresh throughout, and his accounts of the battle are quite clear. At times, it's like reading a scrit for a History Channel documentary--he peppers discussion with sarcastic comments that also help keep the text moving. For example, when Richard (comically?) suggested a marriage between the two families, and Saldin's brother balks at being married to less than a Queen, Reston quips, "The players were being difficult." It's things like that which bring this up over the usual history book to something I'd recommend for people who aren't big fans of non-fiction.

This is not to say that the book isn't well-researched. Reston quotes where needed, and takes pains to point out the facts versus the legends, especially in the case of Richard. (I love how he handles Robin Hood, for instance.) He also does a great job of hopping across the world without spreading himself too thin. I was able to get the whole picture, and since this was a "world war" before they called them that, a sense of scope is highly important. All in all, though this is considered a "popular history" (translation--not dry enough!), I'd consider it a model of how to write an engaging and concise history of an event that more people should learn about.

If there's a lesson in this book, it's that every time Christians try to take over the lands that belong to the Muslims, it ends up badly for the Christians, and that Sunnis and Shiites never have gotten along very well. Deal with a moderate leader fairly, and we can all get along. But when you push people too far, they will fight. Apparently, this hasn't gotten through to modern times very well, and we're only going to learn that lesson to our peril. Since this book pre-dates all of today's problems, it would be asking too much of Reston to think he was trying to sound a warning to would-be Crusaders. But I can't help but think after reading this book that any attempt to take the Holy Land is going to end in disaster--even if our new goal isn't the True Cross, but Pure Crude.

Monday, May 25, 2009

I Am America (and so can you!) by Stephen Colbert

We got this out in audio book form, and while the CDs are slightly abridged, I think that's probably the best way to approach this material. It's one thing to imagine Colbert's over the top stylings in your head; hearing the real thing makes it that much better.

"Shouted" by the author, this book is a spot-on parody of Bill O'Reilly's cliff-note for neocons books, just as the show is a blatant take-off of O'Reilly's TV show. Cobert pretends to genuinely espouse policies and opinions that are only slightly more out there than those proclaimed by real conservatives, with a little help from a few friends (Amy Sedaris and Jon Stewart, amongst others) along the way. Short and punchy, the book takes on subjects ranging from child-rearing to the elderly (who he says are hard of hearing so he insults them in low tones and then flatters them with shouted hackneyed compliments) to immigration (in which he brings the elderly back into things by suggesting they all be hired as border patrol, since they are very good at telling kids to get off their lawns).

If you're chuckling at that last line, you'll laugh out loud as you listen to Colbert try so very hard to pretend he actually believes the things coming out of his mouth. This is parody at its best--just sincere enough to make you think maybe it's real commentary. Or maybe I've just spent too much time on the conservative side of things and it's hard to tell their reality from Colbert's fiction.

There's so much fun to be had in this one--whether it's Colbert's starting off by his statement that he won't give the book to libraries (and if you borrowed the book, you're a welfare queen) or his stated distrust of books, knowledge, and reading--and the wonderful skewering of internet "fact" that goes along with this diatribe--even those who fall on the right side of the political fence should be laughing right along. If you are a fan of the show--and even if you're not--you really need to check this out. It's better than Al Franken's work and less pretentious than the Daily Show. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday Readings 05-17-2009

A few links to items of interest that I've found over the course of the past few weeks:

The Wall Street Journal calls this a "New Age of Discovery", as people rush around the world trying to find and preserve online items that may be destroyed for whatever reason. I am particularly interested in reading that new version of Medea, and wonder if there's some alternative Homers out there somewhere. I'd also love to read the one from the Crusades, a part of world history I am really starting to get interested in. An interesting look into something I'd, perhaps surprisingly, never given much thought to.

In a similar vein, Bibliodyssey has some examples from the National Library of Serbia of Cyrillic manuscripts.

Steven Burt has some thoughts on the fact that apparently only 8% of Americans are reading poetry. David Blaine says in a reply that all 8% are poets, and that's not hard to believe. When I was on Goodreads, as soon as I started posting poetry reviews, I was asked if I wrote poetry myself. (Truth is I do, but only privately--I haven't tried to publish a poem since 4th grade.) I tend to agree with his point--if there's still an audience, why worry? Also, were the people who could quote Longfellow daily actually reading any *new* poetry? My bet's on no.

And speaking of poetry, the Best American Poetry blog tells me that New Zealand has a "Best of...", too, that only publishes online.

Everything Happens in Chillicothe by Mike Shannon

[It's almost time for the Frontier League season to start again, so what better thing to post than this?]

Subtitled "A Summer in the Frontier League with Max McLeary, the One-Eyed Umpire", this book somewhat haphazardly follows McLeary around some of his Frontier League games in the 2000 season, from opening day through the first level of the playoffs. Shannon was originally just looking for some fun quotes when he met McLeary but the focus soon changed as he realized that not only was McLeary an interesting person beyond the obvious (a one-eyed ump?) but the Frontier League had a lot going on for it if you were a person who liked watching people who have no guarantees play the sport hard.

Soon, they were on the road together, drinking after games, following the two teams Max umpired most regularly (Chillicothe and Richmond), and getting a feel for this baseball league that got nothing from the Major Leagues except the occasional signing or former player coming in as a manger.

This book's high points are reading the periodic game summaries and quotes from things that have either happened to Max or to players in the Frontier League. Max handing his eye to an outraged coach and offering to let him call the game is just one of fun ones. The story of trying to make it as an unaffiliated minor league team is also a very compelling read. One owner-manager slowly cracks as the season progresses while another manager complains of incompetent umpiring at the same time Max and his friends say the league treats the umpires poorly (only 2 take the field each game to save money, for instance, and raises for playoff games are a pittance).

Players come and go throughout the season and injuring yourself is probably fatal to your career. A player who struggles just doesn't get any time to right himself, with so many people jumping at the chance to play ball and when they do play well, their teams suffer because they are signed to a big league's squad instead. (This actually harms one team's chances quite a bit over the course of the book. It's both a happy moment and a sad one--exactly the type of thing Bill James was arguing about when he said baseball's minor league system is unfair to the cities that house them.)

I really enjoyed reading about all of the above, and not just because I've gone to a few Washington Wild Things games, a team that is now in the Frontier League that was not when the book was written. I prefer watching people play hard to watching people get a paycheck and I actually prefer going to see a minor league game nowadays for that reason. Had this book solely been those topics, it would have an unconditional recommendation.

But Shannon, for reasons I don't understand, has to talk for pages at a time about what *he* was doing over the course of the year--a getaway with his wife, his relationship to his father, the need to go to church every day, etc.--and they stop the book cold every time. It's one thing to mention going to the baseball hall of fame and cornering Carlton Fisk about an umpiring accident. It's quite another to relate how you went mountain climbing with your wife in a book about struggling baseball teams and a cyclopsian umpire. The frequent insertions of the author into the text hurt the book in my opinion. Between that and the overt religious references, this book could have been about 50 pages shorter and more cohesive overall with the digressions removed.

Max is a very interesting fellow--he made some mistakes over his life, and a more religious person than I would say he was humbled by the experience of losing an eye and either way has worked hard to overcome that disability. He doesn't get every call right, but we do get inside the minds of the umpires in this book--why they might call a close play a certain way, for instance, or that they really are hurt when people don't think of them as human. I wish Shannon had tried to get inside Max's head a bit more and left some of the religion-based commentary to himself, but I'd still recommend this to any baseball fan as a great read for the off-season, when you need your baseball fix.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler

That's not what the cover of the edition I read looked like, but I am a sucker for old editions of classic books, so this is the one I'm going with.

I've mentioned before I'm a mystery-detective fiction fan, so it's not surprise that I've taken to the Chandler I've read and watched like a duck to water. So if this review ends up gushing and glowing, you've been warned.

Another Phillip Marlowe story, this one involves Marlowe being asked to discreetly investigate a rich man's wife and quickly spirals into a complicated plot involving multiple homicides, brushes with police (both honest and otherwise), fast cars and fast action. Before Marlowe knows it, he's up to his neck in a plot so convoluted only a writer in the pre-workshop era could have pulled it off.

And that's just the way Marlowe (and I) like it.

I find writing about mysteries just a bit tricky because I don't want to give away any of the multiple twists and turns Chandler provides the reader as Marlowe gets deeper and deeper into trouble, trying at times to either protect or implement his client in the proceedings. The lies pile up one after the other, as Marlowe feels no need to play straight with anyone he doesn't trust--and sometimes, those he does.

For a modern reader, there's a definite sense of confusion at times, especially towards the end when Chandler must wrap up all his loose ends in a bundle that only ties together neatly if you don't think about it too hard and don't worry about "fair play"--the practice of giving the reader everything he or she needs to solve the crime. I have a fairly high tolerance for twists and turns in a story, but even I have a few moments where I wanted to just ask Chandler to end the story before Charles Lindbergh showed up asking for his baby.

But let's face it, you're not reading a Marlowe story for the plot, just like you're not watching Monk because it challenges the brain. You're here because Marlowe is one hell of a character, and Chandler's no-nonsense, amazingly scripted internal monologue of perpetual description is always there to put a smile on your face.

Some examples, drawn randomly:

"I got my knees under me and stayed on all fours for awhile, like a dog who can't finish his dinner, but hates to leave it."

"The hop was tall and thin and yellow and not young and as cool as a slice of chicken in aspic."

"In a little while it was dark enough and he sang and went away into the invisible depths of sky. I snapped my cigarette into the motionless water a few feet away and climbed back into the car and started back in the direction of Little Fawn Lake."

"My hand went out for it, stiff as an eggshell, almost as brittle."

"A wizened waiter with evil eyes and a face like a gnawed bone put a napkin with a printed peacock on it down on the table in front of me and gave me a Bacardi cocktail."

I think you get the idea.

There are some problems, of course, with the style. Marlowe, while taking his lumps early and often, seems like a super hero at times in his ability to get out of anything--eventually. There's also the problem of women in pulp works, especially of this nature. There's not a good dame in the bunch here and they often fold like water at Marlowe's toughness. I understand this as part of the genre and acknowledge (but not endorse) it, the same as I do when an otherwise good writer throws racial stereotypes at me. If you are particularly sensitive to those types of issues in fiction, you're better off staying away on this one.

Whether or not you're interested in the story depends entirely on how much you like Chandler's writing. If you get hooked into the constant patter of Marlowe and his jaundiced view of humanity--he didn't invent the phrase "I'm only in it for the money" but he might as well have--you'll love this book no matter how implausible the story gets. (I think where Marlowe tries to escape a trap set for him by hanging outside the window of a seedy hotel is probably the best example of this in "Lake.")

If on the other hand, you find the tone annoying--Chandler's writing style is almost always that of conversation without another party getting a chance to interrupt--or think those quotes above are some of the worst writing you've ever seen, then you're not going to like this at all. Chandler is definitely one of those writers you either enjoy or hate.

I of course fall into the former category, finding interesting stylings better reads than the polished work that's been edited to death in a writing workshop. If you're looking for a classic of the 1940s, this is definitely the book for you.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lost by Ian Phillips

If you are a pet owner of any kind, this book is almost guaranteed to tear at your heart sleeves. I know that every time I see a poster on a telephone pole, saying someone's cat or dog is lost, I feel for them on a level than only a fellow pet owner can understand.

Artist Ian Phillips has collected these posters from all over, just as the book cover states. They range from loving pictures taken of a pet almost certainly never to be seen again or childish drawings like the one shown on the cover to the left.

It's an impressive collection and as an artistic piece this is pretty cool. However, because I am sympathetic to these posters, I found the lack of backing information troubling. Phillips does not appear to care about these animals or owners as anything but artistic subjects to be cataloged and placed between the pages of his work. I say "appear" because I do not know that to be fact. But it's hard not to turn the pages and wonder, "Did they ever get their animal back?"

That's a fact we don't get many answers to, even though there would have been plenty of room to do so. Because of that, it definitely gives the reader a sense that the focus is on the artwork and not the human interest. Which is okay, I guess, but not how I'd have gone about trying a book like this.

If you can detach yourself long enough from the situation to appreciate the project on its surface, "Lost" is an unusual urban found art project that's well worth your time. The pet owner in me just wishes it would have had a little more depth.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Jazz Piano History and Development by Billy Taylor

I love jazz and am working on learning the history behind the music that I play entirely too often for my wife's indie-folk taste.

This book by one of the classic jazz pianists is exactly the type of work I like best, as the perspective of the artists themselves was often different from the writers of the period, particular because a lot of the writers were white while the performers were black.

Taylor sets the stage by talking about the origins of jazz within African America culture, noting correctly that this was often overlooked by the jazz writers of the time. He also speaks extensively of the improvisation of a jazz musician, correctly noting that such performances only come after long practice. As with most other things, in order to break the rules, you have to learn them first.

After establishing the links to African culture--perhaps a bit too forcefully, but that's understandable--it's time to go over the main periods of jazz and how the piano changed over time. There's a large difference between the playing styles of, say, Earl Hiles and Duke Ellington, as opposed to Monk and well, Billy Taylor. Taylor uses quite a bit of musical notation to aid the reader in seeing this, but since I can only barely read music, I could only just barely grasp the significance of the examples.

A person who can read music would probably appreciate the book more as a whole than I did, but don't let that steer you away from the text. Taylor strives to make the book readable for those who are less musically inclined, and I for one am thankful. If you know the music to which he refers--and let's face it, if you're going to read a jazz book, your Ipod has quite a bit of jazz in it--then you'll be fine.

The middle section of the book, where Taylor spent most of his musical life, is by far the best part of the work, spending extensive time on the intricacies of piano work in the pre-bop, bop, cool, and early 1970s period. He tries hard to convince me that cool jazz is good, but I'm afraid that's a hard sell for me.

What I appreciate, however, is the linking between the past and the present. Taylor shows how the pianists of the latter part of the 20th Century are still building on the ideas of the earliest jazz musicians: "Throughout the history of jazz there have been many stylistically different approaches to the same musical material. The key to these stylistic differences has often been the treatment of rythym." Later in the same section on cool jazz, Taylor mentions how Gil Evans used 1930s arrangements for his music. Jazz may progress through time, being influenced by rock (as in the fusion work of Weather Report and others), gospel (Ray Charles), and other forms of music, but it also draws from its roots.

Taylor looks into the future of jazz in the 80s, and I don't think it ended up as he'd hoped. It seems that the Kenny Gs of the world outnumbered the heirs of Hines, Monk, or even Herbie Hancock. (Nothing against Hancock, I just don't think his work is nearly as innovative as the others.) Too often jazz means a bad keyboard synth pad and a sputtering sax. I don't think Taylor would like what he saw if he were still alive. Still, it's interesting to see his thoughts.

Taylor ends every chapter with further reading and listening, making for some great "homework" if you're a jazz fan. If you're looking for a place to start your jazz history work, this book should suit your needs just fine, assuming you can find it. You may need to "bop" into your local library, but it's definitely worth the trip.

Dick Tracy The Secret Files edited by Max Allan Collins and Martin H. Greenberg

Since I was able to read the comics page in the newspaper on my own, I've been a fan of Dick Tracy. He's a cartoon embodiment of my detective fiction, Dragnet rerun, Columbo-watching childhood, and he will forever be fond to me because the Warren Beatty-Madonna movie is the first movie I ever saw in a theater behind my mother's back. (Sorry Mom!)

He's kinda fallen on hard times, only appearing in like 50 newspapers now and being written and illustrated by a team that doesn't quite seem to know how to tell a consistent story. I follow the strip online now, and it's great one day--or even for a few days--then falls into artistic issues (a motorcycle that dwarfs two men) or plot problems (how do two men keep moving with bear traps on their legs?).

So getting a chance to read a book edited by the man who succeeded Chester Gould was too good to pass up. Almost certainly a movie tie-in, Collins puts together a fairly solid set of stories about the yellow-clad detective, with Tracy ranging in age and time period from today's dark crimes and violent drug offenders to some that harken back to the days of Gould's run (which I am reading in the collections from Fantagraphics and will be reviewing over on the sister blog, Panel Patter).

I'm going to highlight the stories I liked best and worst, which should give you a pretty good feel for if this is the book for you.

Origins by Mike Resnik opens the collection with a young Gould working on finding his niche in the comics world and aided by a man who will end up seeming very familiar. This may be the best in the collection, which is no surprise given Resnik's resume.

Ron Goulart sends Tracy to Hollywood to interact with a recurring character of his. While they're filming a Dick Tracy movie, a suspicious suicide happens on the set. Can Tracy spot the crime in time to prevent a miscarriage of justice? Playfully written, Goulart's ability to write about 1940s Hollywood (as shown in his Groucho books) always puts his stories a cut above the rest.

Cereal Killer takes things in a darker direction, being the first of many stories placing Dick's family in danger--or at least, perceived danger. (This also happens in Auld Aquaintance, Homefront, and Chessboard's Last Gambit, to name a few.) I like the trick Rex Miller uses here, but some readers may feel cheated.

Rockabilly is notable for bringing back Tracy's nemesis Mumbles as a singer in a band. The story itself is pretty straightforward, but I found that idea so funny that I forgave the story itself any flaws it may have had. Tracy almost ends up one for the record books in this caper, and of all of them, it feels like the one most likely to have appeared in comic form.

Homefront is by Max's wife Barbara, and it didn't do anything for me. I felt like Collins ran Tess through every possible woman-in-danger cliche, and that didn't work for me. It's possible she was trying to be ironic, but the irony was lost on me. This was my least favorite story in the collection.

Paradise Lake Monster tries to take Dick out of his usual environment by giving him a simple mystery on vacation. I solved the crime within the first few pages, so the rest wasn't all that engaging for me. It may also just be anthology fatigue--sometimes I get a bit tired halfway through a book of this nature.

Old Saying is a playful story with a lot of verbal wordplay. Tracy and Sam must go after a gang with a member who can change into anyone for a brief period of time, leading to sight gags and peril. Can they catch the crooks--once they figure out who they are? Any story with puns gets points with me, so while I guffaw, you may groan at this one.

Whirlpool, Sizzle, and the Juice and Living Legend are by far the darkest of the bunch, with the violence pushed to the forefront and ham-handed commentary on the 1980s gang wars and Tracy struggling to deal with the new realities of the world. They're technically fine but I just felt like the writers were laying it on too thick.

Edward D. Hoch, who seemingly has written everything but a chapter in the Bible, provides a compelling story of misdirection in Chessboard's Last Gambit (I'm not giving anything away by saying that, as that's what a gambit is--making a stunning move to try and throw your opponent off) as Tracy must try to sift through the clues and attempt to beat the system to save the day--and maybe, just maybe, his wife. Hoch shows more modern realities in his story, too, but in a way that doesn't jar the reader.

Last up is Collins, writing a fractured Christmas tale that involves the murder of children and one horrible Santa Clauss. The tale is dark without being too gory, Collins allowing the reader to fill in the nastier pictures. I love how Tracy and Co. react to the crime--it's one thing to go after a killer, but a child-killer is another thing altogether. A great ending to the series.

I didn't touch on all 16 stories in the collection, but they are similar in nature, featuring Tracy taking on criminals odd and mundane, often with Sam and Lizz in tow. Pat is mostly the Chief here, but he gets in some good licks, too, when the time is right.

If you like Dick Tracy or simple detective fiction, this is a great, fun read. As with most Greenberg anthologies, the stories are always quality--nothing here sticks out as being badly-written, even if I didn't love it. On the other hand there's no chances here, either--a story about Gould himself and a few nods to meta-Tracy are all you'll get in the way of experiments. All in all, while the stories are definitely a product of their time, it's a writing style I enjoy and I think most of you would, too.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Star Trek 3 by James Blish

What better way to celebrate the release of the excellent new Star Trek movie (it's quite possibly my favorite Trek movie ever, you really should go see it) than to read some more of James Blish's adaptations of the Original Series?

I had noted in my review of volume two that Blish, with serious space limitations, had fallen into plot summary writing rather than storytelling, a trend that had me worried.

With this set of episodes, however, there is a much more nuanced style that works far better. Rather than trying to get everything in, as it felt in the second book, Blish tries to keep a narrative going with compelling dialogue and use of point of view. It makes for a far better read.

Interestingly, this is also the first edition that has a lengthy introduction, in which Blish talks about the immense popularity of Star Trek, how he's not as connected with the show as people think (he mentions seeing Roddenberry only three times), and just how many awards the show's writing was nominated for while still getting cancelled (though he tactfully leaves that part unsaid). He also mentions how his Star Trek mail was larger than mail on all his other fiction combined and gives a few tips for the budding sci-fi writer.

It's a nice humanizing preface that helped me get into Blish's head a bit better on how he was writing these. I think my favorite part is his genuine surprise that someone wants him to write an original Star Trek novel.


This volume has several great Star Trek episodes in it, including "The Trouble with Tribbles", "The Doomsday Machine", and "Mirror, Mirror." There's also "The Last Gunfight," "Assignment: Earth", "Friday's Child," and "Amok Time," all of which are given a nice treatment here by Blish.

What continues to be most interersting to me when Blish is not doing the plot summary writing is the subtle changes made here and there. "Doomsday Machine" in particular has an immensely different ending that strikes me as Blish adding another layer of Anti-Vietnam War commentary on top of the original "mutual destruction" theme--an idea that works rather well, I thought, though your mileage may vary. Almost all of the episodes included here can reflect on the American-Russian problem, as the Klingons lurk in the background almost constantly, if not right at the surface ("Tribbles").

Where Blish shines best, I think, is in the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triangle. By the time these episodes were aired, it was clear who the stars of the show were, and they tend to be on the page most often. Blish is probably best with Spock, giving him the wry lines that make the character sing while at the same time offering coldly logical commentary on the situation. But he's gotten better by this time at handling McCoy's continual conflict of morality versus practicality and Kirk's desire to have it both ways.

I'm afraid I don't remember enough of "Mirror, Mirror" to know how much of the final Kirk speech is Blish and how much is the episode, but the writing of Kirk's appeal to the logic of the evil Spock is top notch:

"Mr. Spock, one man can change the present. BE the Captain of this Enterprise, whether you want the job or not. Find a logical reason for sparing the Harkans, and making it stick. Push where it gives. You can defend yourself better than any man in the fleet, if you are anything like MY First Officer, and I think you are. In every revolution, there's one man with a vision. Which will it be? Past or future? Tyranny, or the right to hope, trust, love? Even here, Spock, you cannot totally be without thedecency you've shown on the--the other side. Use it, make it work!"

That's a speech that you know Kirk would make, and even when Blish is tweaking things, he captures the feel of the characters well. Which is good, because in the interest of space, he sometimes needs to condense things, which forces great interpretations at times, such as when McCoy has to drug Kirk faster in "Amok" because there's only 20 pages to get the whole job done.

This volume sees a transition, I think, from just doing the episodes to the beginnings of Star Trek fiction. As such, I think it's a good read for any Trek fan. I'm still not convinced these are for a casual audience, but if you wanted to give them a try, this seems like a good place to start.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Sherlock Holmes in New York, adapted by D.R. Bensen

I love going into used book stories and finding weird shit like this book, which I read all in one sitting on a plane trip to Arizona (though if it was coming or going, I forget). It's based on a TV movie that starred Roger Moore and Patrick Macnee and isn't on DVD anywhere, much to my chagrin.

Come on people! James Bond and Steed in a Holmes movie! That's video purchase gold, right there.

At any rate, I just have to be content with the text version, picturing their lines of dialog in my head, where it might just be better than the actual product was for all I know.

I am a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, and I'm planning to re-read the entire Doyle series from start to finish later this year. I've watched Rathbone, Brett (my personal favorite), Spiner (via Data), and others play the part to varying degrees of quality. I've listened to the radio shows and even read one of the radio scripts. I've read everyone from Laurie King to Martin Davies have a run at the character, not including parodies or homages.

So when I say that this plot is actually very enjoyable and one of the better non-Doyle stories I've read, that's no small compliment. Based on the script by Alvin Sapinsley, Bensen manages to capture the Holmes-Watson dynamic really well. While Holmes is stunningly brilliant, solving crimes literally from the time he steps on the boat to New York, he needs Watson as his grounding to reality, lest his overly anylitical mind withdraw him too far from humanity. (It doesn't hurt that Watson is shown as fairly competent, part of what makes or breaks a Holmes story for me. After all, why would Holmes hang out with a baffoon?)

The book opens with yet another Holmes-Moriarity battle, this one with the full backing of the police. Holmes, supremely triumphant, has no idea the problems that Moriarity will give him later, which is part of the fun. (Holmes is a great guy, but no one ever called him modest.) A letter calls Holmes and Watson across the sea to meet one of the few people to ever best Holmes, Irene Adler. She's a bit older, with a child in tow, but no less lovely than she was in the past.

Unfortunately, and this is the one part of the book I had an issue with, is that Adler becomes the woman in the refridgerator, as she falls apart because her son is kidnapped by Moriarity as a lever against Holmes interference in his American schemes. (For those not into comics, that's a callback to the imfamous scene where a new Green Lantern's girlfriend is murdered and stuffed into his fridge. Classy stuff, comics, sometimes.) She recovers in time to help aid Holmes, but not in the role of equal that would have made this story sing. But it's a small complaint--if I stopped reading any story where women were not treated equally, I'd sadly read hardly anything at all.

As the American police grow ever-more irate with Holmes, he concots a plan of deceipt to save the day, using Adler and Watson as decoys while Holmes plays master of disguise. Proving more than a match for the men keeping him at bay, it's on to the real scheme and another showdown with Moriarity--perhaps for the last time!

This is where the book really moves, as Watson provides inspiration and essential help, Adler stops being so useless, and Holmes leads the reader through his logical world into a denouncement that gives a nice spin on the locked-room mystery. There's nothing earth-shattering about the main plots--I am pretty sure I copped to both tricks before the big reveal--but they're fun and make sense, which is really all I ask from a mystery. The clues are all out there for the reader, if you're the type who wants to solve it before the sluth does. I don't recall any points where the author kept things from the reader in order to make the resolution somehow more effective. (I hate books that do that, personally--your milage may vary.)

By the end, Holmes and Watson must return, and Adler must fade back into the mist of Holmes' past, but not before giving him something rather important to think about. It's a nice touch that, if someone wanted to and could find the rights, might make into an interesting series of its own.

Bensen does a pretty good job aping the dialog of the Victorian age, though in places it feels a bit clunky and might jar some readers. I'm not a stickler on perfect period writing, as long as I like the story and no one's running around talking about President McKinley when we're still in the age of Chester A. Arthur or something that a simple fact-check by the editor would have fixed. I wasn't able to notice any jarring inconsistencies like that, but I'm sure there's one or two you might spot on a careful reading.

He also has Watson comment--probably a bit too often--on when he's writing about things he couldn't have known first-hand. Those scenes did throw me out of the moment, and I didn't see their point. Watson is of course writing this at a later date, and would have checked up with Holmes on anything he didn't have first-hand knowledge with. Playing around too much (like imagining Moriarity's instructions to his lackeys) hurts rather than helps. But it, like the fact that Adler wasn't stronger as a character, is a minor quibble on a pretty good book.

If you're not a fan of adaptations or writers playing with classic characters, this is a poor choice. But if you love Holmes as much as I do, finding a copy of this one in your friendly neighboorhood used book story should lead to an elementary decision on your part. I had fun with this one, and I think you will, too.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Supernatural Horror in Literature by H.P. Lovecraft

Now here's something ironic--this book is the first non-adapted Lovecraft work I've read!

While looking for something else entirely, I stumbled upon this little treatise on the history of horror by one of its main writers during the 1930s. Originally written for what we'd call a fan magazine today, the obsessive Lovecraft worked for years on the project and never saw it get the detailed publishing it deserved.

The cover of the copy I read was a lot more understated than the one pictured here, buried under the solid read of a old library binding. I think it fits the work better than a fanciful one, because this is a serious essay that was obviously a labor of love (no pun intended) for the author.

Lovecraft has his biases, of course--it's very Anglo-Aryan-Franco based, with other cultures (from the Irish to Indians to Israel) existing as exotic cultures to be mined by superior literary talent of the aforementioned races for what Lovecraft refers to as "weird" literature. It's a bit jarring here and there for a modern reader, but I think the perspective of a pulp writer on how the genre got to where it was circa 1925 is worth the price of the negative aspects of Lovecraft's personal views.

The opening chapters are pretty rudimentary stuff, with Lovecraft explaining the genre's origins in believed myths told by the fireside as a way to explain life, showing his grounding in the scientific reductionism that ran rampant during his lifetime and led to tragic ideas like eugenics and racial superiority. Here, it's used to explain the superiority of those who didn't have time for ghosts as anything more than plot devices. (Interestingly enough, Lovecraft doesn't mention Doyle's belief in the very supernatural that laces his non-Holmes fiction.)

There's some mention of the earliest genre writers, none of whom I was familiar with until we get to Hawthorne (who Lovecraft gives a hometown discount to in terms of his writing abilities) and of course Poe, the man who nearlysingle-handedly made genre fiction what it is today, even if he was not recognized for it at the time. Poe is given his own chapter, where Lovecraft extols his virtues while stating his humor was terrrible and his writing sometimes overblown. (I admit to giggling every time Lovecraft disses on a writer in some way. It feels like pre-internet snark.)

Here's Lovecraft's reasoning for why Poe is so important to the writers of "today":

"Before Poe the bulk of weird writers had worked largely in the dark; without an understanding of the psychological basis of the horror appeal, and hampered by more or legs of conformity to certain empty literary conventions such as the happy ending, virtue rewarded, and in general a hollow moral didacticism, acceptance of popular standards and values, and striving of the author to obtrude his own emotions into the story and take sides with the partisans of the majority's artificial ideas. Poe, on the other hand, perceived the essential impersonality of the real artist; and knew that the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove -- good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing, with the author always acting as a vivid and detached chronicler rather than as a teacher, sympathizer, or vendor of opinion."

In other words, Poe is a modernist in thinking even if a Victorian in writing style, much as Twain and James will be in varying ways approximately 40 or so years later. This is what sets him apart and makes "The Fall of the House of Usher" a classic while Hawthorne's "House of the Seven Gables" tends to be, while good, an artifact for the modern reader.

Lovecraft probably would not like my singling out of James as a good writer. He only grudgingly admits to the quality of "The Turn of the Screw" and says that the work, "triumphs over his [James's] inevitable pomposity and prolixity sufficiently well to create a truly potent air of sinister menace..." Spoken like a person who didn't like having to read James in school!

After Poe, the names Lovecraft references become more familiar to me, such as Bierce, Stoker (who Lovecraft says in another snark had ideas better than their execution), Doyle, Wells, and Stephenson. He even singles out one of my favorite Doyle stories, "Lot 249" in the essay as a great use of the resurrected mummy plot. Still, his concentration on modern writers tends to names I didn't know, such as Robert W. Chambers, Mary E. Wilkins, Leonard Cline, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and a Dr. James, amongst others. Perhaps I am just out of touch on late 19th and early 20th Century horror (quite possible) or perhaps this is a fine example of why literary criticism is such a fickle animal. As tastes change over time, writers that were once in fashion are almost unkown a few scant generations later.

After all, no one really saw Poe comnig, did they? Or that Robert Howard would be the person whose stories lived on well after his death while other contemporaries with longer histories would fade away.

Lovecraft definitely has his blind spots--he seems to feel overall that horror needs no hero to drive the story, and that writers who try to moralize marr their work (it's his only complainst against Frankenstein, by the way, which he correctly cites as being a high point of the genre's early days). I can't say that I disagree with either point, but I do object to his bias against stories with a detective feel and also his quite puzzling bias against proto science fiction. (This is why Verne and Wells seem to get short shrift here.)

Overall, it's a fascinating and quick look inside the views of a master giving his perspective on a genre he clearly loved and hoped to see prosper in the years to come. The little quips and barbs Lovecraft throws in are enjoyable and as an overview of the supernatural fiction world up to aboiut 1920, it works pretty well. I'm sure Lovecraft would have been a blog-centric creator with a lot of comments, at least based on this and his love for interacting with fellow writers.

I'm not sure how he'd feel about modern horror--as a rule, I think it's too quick for shock value and too slow to engage the reader's mind, but my readings of modern works are admittedly limited. But I think he'd be happy to know that "weird fiction" is alive and well today.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Lume Spento by Ezra Pound

This book is so old I can't even find a picture to go with it, sorry.

As part of National Poetry month, I tried to read as much poetry as I could, which will trickle down into reviews here as time goes on.

One of the things I tackled was some Ezra Pound, a poet I've had on my "to-read" list for quite a while now.

Maybe I shouldn't have gone with an early work, or maybe I just have to accept that I am far more comfortable with the poetry of the personal, because for me this Pound was only worth a few cents.

(I apologize, that was terrible. Blame my editor. Oh wait, I don't have one.)

In a little over 100 pages of early poems and notebook work, there is simply not a single poem I liked, not even just a little bit. Usually, I can find at least one or two good poems even from a poet I dislike. But Pound's lines are just so blandly constructed on subjects that feel so artificial--a troubadour, dryads, old men with troubles, and the like, all portrayed as distant actors, without a chance to get close to the reader.

It's almost like reading Shakespeare without talent, or a homage to old poetry without a sense of irony that someone like Atwood might try. It's not that I object to the subject matter. I am going to rave about a poet that uses Barbie as her subject sometime soon, so I'm not saying you have to write from what you know. You can write a good poem, even today, about any of those things I list above. But the language Pound uses feels outdated even for the early 20th Century and today is just downright painful to slog through. I don't get this many "thee" and "thou" references when I read old Stan Lee Thor comics!

Here's a few snippets of the poems, chosen more or less at random.

From La Fraisne:

"For I was a gaunt, grave councilor
Being in all things wise, and very old,
But I have put aside this folly and the cold
That old age weareth for a cloak."

From Villonaud for the Yule:

"Towards the Noel that morte saison
(Christ make the shepherd's homage dear!)
Then when the grey wolves everychone
Drink of the winds their chill small-beer
And lap o' the snows food's gueredon
Then makyth my heart his yule-tide cheer
(Skoal! with the dregs if the clear be gone!)
Wineing the ghosts of yester-year."

The Tree (entire):

"I stood still and was a tree amid the wood
Knowing the truth of things unseen before,
Of Daphne and the laurel bow
And that god-feasting couple olde
That grew elm-oak amid the wold.
'twas not until the gods had been
Kindly entreated and been brought within
Unto the hearth of their heart's home
That they might do this wonder-thing.
Nathless I have been a tree amid the wood
And many new things understood
That were rank folly to my head before."

This last example may be the best poem in the book, but even so, it's horribly dated for the time it's written, at least in my opinion. (I had a similar reaction to Robinson Jeffers' poetry.)

I do understand that this is Pound's early work, so maybe it gets better over time. I also think that those who like classical poetry post Shakespeare through the Victorian age (I don't) would enjoy the overwrought writings in this collection. But when your poetry requires footnotes by the poet, I think you're on thin ice and I'm pretty sure I don't want to read more, at least for awhile.

If you find yourself drawn to Kim Addonizio, Mark Doty, and other writers of the very personal, this is not the book for you. It's going to remind you of at least one of your interminable college english classes, where this type of writing was your professor's favorite. If you are a fan of classic poetry only, give this a shot. I have a feeling you'll like it. If you need me, I'll be hanging out with my complete works of Alan Ginsburg, something you'd be unlikely to enjoy. Luckily for us, poetry's nice and varied that way.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Little Round Top A Detailed Tour Guide by Garry E. Adelman

Gettysburg is arguably the most-visited Civil War battlefield in the United States. Therefore, there are a lot of books written about it and one subsection of those books are battlefield guides—books that take all or part of the conflict and help the reader/tourist understand the fighting on a more detailed level.

If you visit Gettysburg regularly—and I do—then at a certain point you want books that will take you to a certain section of the battle and walk you through the action step by step. “Little Round Top” is one of these books, and it's definitely highly recommended.

Adelman looks at the fighting on Little Round Top from a chronological perspective, rather than by walking across the top of the hill that sits at the eye of the so-called fishhook formation created by General Meade to defend at Gettysburg. Therefore, while a person walking along with the book may be a bit flummoxed by why they start at one end of the hill, move to the other, and then back again, (especially if it's ninety plus degrees and they have a hernia) the logic becomes clear as you read the text.

Fighting in a Civil War battle is never clean and neat, with a row of fighting moving left to right. It's a chaotic mess occurring—at least hopefully if you're the attacking party—several places at once. In the case of the fighting at Little Round Top, there's a need to get the perspective of General Warren first. Adelman helps you get into the mindset of those there at the time by telling you what Warren saw from the same spot that you are standing on.

From there, it's a bit of a walk to get over to the scene of the fighting made famous by the movie Gettysburg, namely Chamberlain's 20th Maine. Adelman walks you through the fighting by that famous regiment as well as its neighboring units, who actions were no less heroic—they just didn't get the top billing when the cameras rolled.

In this general area, there's a bit of nice commentary on the changing nature of the battlefield park. Sometimes we tend to think that the park comes into place whole, protecting things as they looked and nothing about it needs to be changed. Well, that's completely untrue. After all, there weren't neat paved roads, fences decay over time, and of course there's the constant threat of vandalism. Adelman helps the user of this guide understand the changing face of Little Round Top, winding it seamlessly into the narrative of the battle itself.

While the majority of the fighting did occur near Chamberlain's men, Adelman makes sure we know about the other troops involved that day. While their fighting was not quite as intense, other troops plugged the gap in the Union Line, preventing the Confederates from enacting their planned flanking maneuver. Warren grabbed troops from wherever he could, and by the end of the day (and the end of the walking tour), troops from New York and Pennsylvania manned the hill and kept the Confederates at bay, even doing a bit of late-day charging to make sure the position held the night.

The last stop on the tour is the location of an old amusement park on the battlefield. I wish I were kidding. Thankfully, we'd never stop to such crass commercialism today. Of course not.

As is appropriate for a work this detailed, Adelman gets into smaller work, such as the sweeping of the lower hill or the placement of little-known batteries of artillery. He also laces the work with pictures both old and modern to help the reader make sure they are in the right place. (Very key for a few of the harder-to-access locations.) There's also a set of visual challenges, though I did not attempt them.

Even though this is a small tour guide, Adelman notates all of his sources and references, just like a more formal work, should the tourist wish to delve into the material further. It's a nice extra touch that makes this such a well-constructed book.

One word of warning should you use this book—since it is nearly 10 years old now and the Park Service is working on redoing the battlefield, you may have a bit of trouble locating some of the tour stops. My friend—who's been to Gettysburg more times than I have and that's saying something—ran into a bit of trouble here and there. Also, when you go may play a large part in how adventurous you choose to be. I got mauled in briers and gave up trying to get across the face of the hill for location 7A.

With plenty of maps for each part of the tour and just enough description to aid the reader-viewer without bogging down into minutia, “Little Round Top” is a great book for veteran Gettysburg visitors to pick up and use on their next trip to the hallowed ground my friend refers to as the promised land.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Images of America Downtown Pittsburgh by Stuart P. Boehmig

Though I don't own too many of them, I am a big fan of the Images of America series from Arcadia Publishing. They provide a valuable service, namely putting out local history books with lots of pictures of what an area looked like from the age of photography right up to about the 1960s. (Whenever I am on vacation, I try to find at least one book that is a pictorial history, and Images of America is almost always there for me.)

This edition is pretty typical of the series in general. A topic is selected, in this case the downtown area of my home city, and the author arranges the photographs with small commentary at the head of each section. So for instance, here we have "The Forks of the Ohio," "Well-Known Places", "Landmark Buildings," "Immigrants, and Industry", and "Prominent Pittsburghers", to name a few of the chapters.

In addition to the section intros, Boehmig and his fellow authors provide notes for each of the pictures. That's not really necessary if you're a local--I can spot most of the scenes in the book a mile away, and I'm sure you could for your hometown--but those picking this up as a travel book are given the clues they need to understand what they're seeing. That's a nice piece for a project like the Images series, and I am glad they do it.

Those interested in Pittsburgh history will find a lot here to like. There's pictures of Market Square in transition, the original (and industrial) Golden Triangle, G. C. Murphy in its prime, the Mon Wharf before parking flooded it out of the commerce business, and even shots of the jail and courthouse before skyscrapers blocked out its sunlight.

But Boehmig doesn't just dwell on the static parts of the city. The immigrants section is full of photos of those who came to Pittsburgh from other countries, seeking a better life. (Nowadays, people leave Pittsburgh seeking a better life.) They stare, frozen in time, wondering if they made the right choice, just like we do today, except that their choice meant 14 hour days or worse in steel mills, coal mines, and other hell holes run by the industrial barons, who also get a feature in the back of the book as part of the famous people section. Others get their shot, too, including Dr. Salk and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. (I didn't plan on the shot pun for Salk, but that's too funny to take out.)

Overall, this is a great book for those who like old pictures and/or photography. If you want to have a look, there's a way to preview some of the pages here. I'd easily recommend this or any others in the Images of America series to anyone interested in the particular subject they cover.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Dewey The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter

This book proves I don't just read history books, poetry, and television adaptations!

I am an avowed cat lover, having had cats around me for almost my entire life--neighborhood outdoor cats first, then some of our own, then finally my own bundles of hellspawn, er, I mean joy that are with us today. Only my college years and first few apartments were cat-free, and I missed them the entire time.

So it comes as no surprise that when I heard of this book, the story of a stray kitten who should by all rights have died but instead managed to survive a cold night in a library book drop, it was something I wanted to read.

Dewey Readmore Books, the full name of the cat to the left of this text, ended up staying at the library he was found at, adopted by the staff and Director Vicki Myron in particular. It's quite unusual for a library to keep a pet, and Myron explains that the decision was not easily arrived at--not when there's a board of good old boys to pacify and the usual bogus cat rumours to deal with. It takes a special cat to find a home in a public place with open doors and not run away (there's no way three of my cats could handle the job, and the fourth is stationary just because he's fourteen), and, as it turned out, Dewey was just such a cat.

Most of the book is about Dewey's life as a library cat, starting off as an energetic, rubber band-stealing kitten and moving through his middle age, where he helps place Spencer on the map. There is also the tear-jerking story of his last days, which of course affected me, having lost an inherited cat to cancer earlier this year. (SPAY YOUR DAMNED CATS!) However, Myron also splices in pieces of her own life and how Dewey affected her during rough times, such as her relationship to her daughter or dealing with her own many health issues. Depending on how you feel about such things, the personal sections either add to the book, showing how cats really do become a part of your life, or are an attempt to get a bit of autobiography out there through the lens of Dewey's story.

Personally, I don't think you can write a book about cat without talking about the people involved. When Myron discusses her own struggles, and Dewey's ability to bond with her at just the right moments, cat owners know exactly how she feels. It's no different than the passages telling how Dewey interacted with people who needed help at the library itself, in my opinion.

Myron also works in some details about the town itself and trying to keep a vibrant, Carnegie-founded library open during hard economic times. A lot of what she said rang true for me, growing up at the edge of the similarly effected Mon Valley in Pittsburgh. Her dedication as library director to keep the library as a place that catered to the needs of all despite perceptions makes for interesting reading.

But the main star of this book is of course Dewey, possibly the most finnicky stray cat I've ever read about. Whether he was sitting in laps at geneology club, hiding in desk drawers, or looming over everyone at the top of the light fixtures, Dewey became a draw for the patrons. His adventures make the book sing, as Myron does a great job of working in just enough description for you to picture the scenes in your head. Dewey was apparently a cat that was just so in touch with humans that he was able to function in a way few other cats could.

The last days of Dewey are particularly sad to me, as they show why so many adult cats end up in shelters. As Dewey aged, he became sick and could not do all those great tricks anymore. And the same people who loved Dewey the sweet cat became agitated at seeing his fur get older, his gait get slower, and his aches and pains increase. I hate to go all "conservative" here, but that disposable attitude people have to everything from televisions to cars to pets is disgusting. Myron quietly shows her anger at Dewey's abandonment, but good for her for holding on to him for as long as possible.

Dewey got a lot of press over the years, from the usual sources (cat magazines) to regional pieces to an international spot in a Japanese special(!). A lot of people came to know him, and some even drove hundreds of miles to see Dewey in his native home. The Spencer Library keeps up a web presence for him, which I think is a nice touch. This book is a great send off for a cat that touched thousands of lives, and is highly recommended for anyone who loves cats and books.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Littlest Hitler by Ryan Boudinot

I think this one came from the NYT Book Review, if I remember correctly. I get so many ideas from so many sources--and I'm so slow to get things off the to-read list and on to the reading list--that it's hard to remember sometimes. Regardless, I have a new writer to enjoy and one that writes my favorite type of story, the short one.

While I can't say I like all of his writing, as you'll see, I like the idea that he tries to get across--namely that the short story doesn't have to be a stilted still-life that tries to be Important. There's plenty of room for the absurd and the rude, rather than just fare for a literary magazine.

All of Boudinot's characters are, for lack of a better word, fucked in the head. There isn't a single story here that's played straight for longer than it needs to be. While each of the protagonists tends to think of their lives as relatively normal, to the reader there's a definite sense of "what shock comes next?"

For some readers, that may be a turn off, but I grew up on family members who loved "Twlight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "Tales from the Crypt" was taped weekly when I was growing up and seeing it on Fox reruns. I think a shock ending or odd twist, if done well, can be a hell of a lot of fun. And Boudinot provides that type of thing in spades.

The book opens with a bang--the title story is about a parent who dresses his son up as Hitler and the son who is so dressed. I think the best part of this one is that the father acts completely surprised that this caused trouble at school.

Or take "Blood Relations", a pair of tales about a cannibalistic mother and a serial killer taken to school.

Here's a pretty typical set of writing from Boudinot:

"It was Dads Day at my six-year-old's kindergarten class. We sat in miniature chairs arranged in a semicircle on the rug, answering questions about our professions. One dad broke a beer truck, another was a landscape architect. There were two orthopedic surgeons among us. The teacher, Ms. Vanderbilt, nodded at me when it was my turn.
'I'm a serial killer.'
'Pardon?' Ms. Vanderbilt said.
'I murder people. Maybe you've seen some of the books about me.' I withdrew from my Discovery Channel tote bag a number of paperbacks chronicling my career.
A boy in the back raised his hand. 'What kind of people do you kill?' he said.
'Nobody important,' I said, and the room seemed to come down several notches, terror-wise."

That's pretty typical of the protagonists contained within this book--they look at life much like the Aadams Family does. To their minds, what they do is perfectly normal, such as "Containment," which features a zombie working at a pea-checking plant. (His only crime is a lack of safety.)

Not quite all of the stories are out there. "The Flautist" is a sad story of a man trying to be something he's not, hanging with a crowd he can't truly embrace, and his prized possession may be the price he pays before waking up to the truth. (One might argue that he should try anyway, but the pain of his realization in the closing words of the story really hit me and that ocverrides any other considerations.) "On Sex and Relationships" has a similar theme, as two couples who are moving in different directions try to stay friends. These stories show Boudinot's range, and may be two of the best collected here.

Sadly, there are also a few really bad entries in this collection that keep it from making my best of 2008 (though Publisher's Weekly did name it as Book of the Year in 2006). "Civilization" is an unfunny parody of a right-wing world where Family Values are a bit skewed. Killing parents is every child's duty in a controlled society and Boudinot never misses a chance to beat us over the head with a "witty" satirical reference. "The Sales Team" involves rape as a joke, and I'm not laughing. Last but not least, "Absolut Boudinot" makes light of domestic terrorism. I'm not prudish enough to say we can't laugh in the face of the most serious horrors, but I'd request that they be a bit more subtle. Hitting me over the head with a brick is not satire, at least not the type of satire I enjoy.

Overall, I liked this book and would recommend it. But be forewarned it may not be your cup of tea, and even if it is, you're unlikely to like all of it. It's the great thing about short stories--you never waste a lot of time reading any particular one!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Star Trek 2 by James Blish

Continuing my quixotic quest to read all the Star Trek adaptations in order, next up is the second in James Blish's books that write up summaries of the original series episodes. (It's hard to call them more than that, when you're only spending 20 pages per episode.)

This time around we have two very famous stories, "Space Seed" (the introduction of Kahn) and "City at the Edge of Forever", Harlon Ellison's legally-challenged but brilliant episode.

The copy I read even boasts about the Kahn story on the cover. Sadly, I was not able to find an image with that blazoned on the front.

However, it is those two famous stories that short the shortcomings of this style of adaptation. In his cramped space, Blish must remove entire incidents, robbing them of the careful touches that make the original Star Trek so entertaining, even after all these years. "City" has a special preface note indicating the trouble Blish had working from Ellison's script and the final episode, and it shows. There's just not enough time for Kirk's love to develop, so when we have the final death scene, it's hard to tell why he's so attached to this one woman.

A similar problem develops in "Arena", where Spock helplessly watches Kirk struggle, knowing what can save him but unable to commuicate (cut), "A Taste of Armageddon", where the dipomat is shown to be unable to recognize a true threat in a cold war allusion (cut), and "Court Marshall", where the tension of man versus machine is not cut but crammed into the space Blish was allotted.

Perhaps it's just these particular episodes being hard to place into text or I'm just getting more familiar with the formula and less interested in it, but I have to say, I wasn't overly fond of this one. I don't think it's Blish's fault--he's good with a turn of phrase and his dialog actually does snap in the places where he has room to use it--but the whole exercise is reminding me of an old professor of mine who made us write papers summarizing 200 page books in 10 pages. Yes, you learn something about concise writing, but what's the point?

I'll see if the third book is better, but I may skip ahead to the books instead if not. My advice to you is to just give this one a pass.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Time and Materials by Robert Hass

This is another National Book Award winner, which I think caught my eye when I was reading the New York Times Book Review on a regular basis. Hass, a collaborator with Czeslaw Milosz (one of my favorite poets), writes in a style that's very quiet. With a simplicity of lines and a keen eye for theme, Hass can say more about his subject than a lot of other poets, without going over the top or being melodramatic.

Here's a good example of what I am referring to, "Envy of Other People's Poems":

"In one version of the legend the sirens couldn't sing.
It was only a sailor's story that they could.
So Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed
By a music that he didn't hear--plungings of sea,
wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds--
And the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch,
Seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing
The awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever
On their rocky waste of island by their imagination
Of his imagination of the song they didn't sing."

This is deconstruction of myth done on the down low. No grand lines about all the wrongs of the patriarchal past or anything, just "hey, what if Odysseus was terrified by the lack of what he wanted?" It's very well done, but it's done almost so subtly as to be missed. (Though, since this *did* win a major award, perhaps I am wrong in saying it could be overlooked.)

In "The Problem of Describing Trees", Hass takes a few licks, again very quietly, at poetry itself:

"The apsen glitters in the wind
And that delights us.

The leaf flutters, turning,
Because that motion in the heat of August
Protects its cells from drying out. Likewise the leaf
Of the cottonwood.

The gene pool threw up a wobbly stem
And the tree danced. No.
The tree capitalized.
No. There are limits to saying,
In language, what the tree did.

It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.

Dance with me, dancer. Oh, I will.

Mountains, sky,
The aspen doing something in the wind."

Am I reading too much into Hass's lines? Maybe, but that's the fun of being a reviewer, you get to put your own spin on things. "Art and Life", a longer poem, uses a painter as the subject, but the theme also seems to tie into a poet and his writing. I'll only reproduce the ending here:

"...Here is the life that chose you
And the one you chose. Here is the brush, horsehair,
Hair of the badger, the goat's beard, the sable,
And here is the smell of paint. The volitile, sharp oils
Of linseed, rapeseed. Here is the stench of the essence
Of pinewood in a can of turpentine. Here is the hand,
Flick of wrist, tendon-ripple of the brushstroke. Here--
Cloud, lake water lifting on a summer morning,
Ash and ash and chalky ash--is the stickiness of paint
Adhering to the woven flax of the canvas, here
Is the faithfulness of paint on paint on paint on paint.
Something stays this way we cannot have,
Comes alive because we cannot have it."

Change a few of those words, and it's a comment on the writer trying to capture that which he sees and that which he imagines.

And hey, even if you don't agree with me in relation to the meaning--look at that artistry of the flow of the poem. The density of the words, the beauty of the repetition, the power and description placed in every line. This poem itself is a work of art!

As with Milosz, the poems collected here either come from personal experience or are written in such a way as to make the reader feel close to the speaker. There is an intimacy that comes out through the pages which draws me into work such as Hass' that other writers cannot match. We could make character sketches of the speakers, be they women performing daily tasks or a young boy watching his father pull power trips over his wife in the underbelly of the 1950s.

Not all the poems are quite so serious. Hass includes a section of playful writing with his friend Milosz, based on the difference between "o" and "oh", and there's even a short piece featuring cucumber, called, appropriately enough, "Poem with a Cucumber In It." Another poem is an argument between two lovers that's written in verse with dashes indicating the change in speakers. The variety of styles is actually quite amazing.

I usually end poetry reviews with one more parting line from the artist, but I think this time I will merely recommend Hass' work to you, because there really is no definitive piece to quote. As vast as it is quiet, this book's materials will definitely hold up over time.

(I did not, please note, promise not to leave on a horrible pun based on the book's title.)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Star Trek 1 by James Blish

While going back and watching the original series in order, I discovered that I am in fact a rather big fan of Star Trek. Memories of begging to be allowed to watch TV over dinner came flooding back to me, as did trying to tape the old marathon runs on UHF stations and being very upset that I wasn't able to see Star Trek V (or was it VI?) with my friends.

A newer, more critical viewing shows the subtle ways in which the show evolved over time, like how they found that McCoy was a winning character or that Spock works better as a being with a dry wit rather than a complete machine (something Next Gen also learned with Data, come to think of it).

While we were watching the shows, I mentioned how Star Trek novels actually didn't suck, as opposed to the Star Wars adaptations I read. So, in a fit of either inspiration or madness, your call, I figured I would try to run through as many Trek novels as I could before getting tired of the idea.

And because I am a sequentialist, I simply have to read them in order.

So here we are, with the first Trek novel, an adaptation of seven episodes of the original series, written by an Englishman before the show had crossed the pond. None of them are very long, only about 20 pages or so at the max in a mass market format. As a result, the feeling is more like cliff notes of the episodes, hitting the highlights rather than going into depth.

What's most interesting, however, are the little touches Blish adds, like "McCoy didn't like Spock" during the Romulan encounter, that show he's not working from the complete picture of the series, just (presumably) script drafts. There's also notes about Kirk's distaste for desk-bound Federation departments that will use the ships scientific explorations for war, a clear reference to the Cold War military research and the ever escalating levels of destruction made capable in the 1960s.

Blish also seems more inclined to make the Enterprise's crew feel like a sailing ship rather than a science fiction vessal, something that probably ties to England's longstanding nautical tradition. There's stuff about long voyages, lack of communication, reactions to females not onboard the shop, and so on. That's Blish moving out on his own, as the series itself doesn't seem to concentrate on this nearly as much.

The episodes covered here are a bit out of order from how they aired originally, but that honestly doesn't change much, as Blish does not try to use prior experiences to move the characterization (this, I think, is the biggest flaw of the adaptations, other than their extreme brevity). I'm not entirely sure why, unless this was the planned airing order for Britain.

All in all, unless you are a hardcore Star Trek fan, there's probably no reason to read these. I, of course, will continue to do so, because I'm funny that way. You might want to pick one up along the way, just to see the early days of adaptations.