Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chaucer and the Doctor of Physic by Philippa Morgan

I know that historical mysteries with a famous figure in them are quite popular, but at least for me, there must be a reason why the famous person is being used. To push them across the page like a chess pawn only to find they sit on the second rank for 90% of the game, er, book, makes no sense to me and leaves me cheated.

So it goes with this book, which only seems to have Chacuer on the scene to attract people's attention, like it did mine. if you're hoping for a Dectective Chaucer, a very plausible idea in my opinion, you'll need to look elsewhere. Chaucer hates his assignment, doesn't contribute to the solving of the case (with the exception of one single throwaway line almost at the very end), and spends most of the book rehashing the story so far about three times more often than necessary and whining about how he's clueless as to what to do.

The plot would have worked if it had not been so layered in actors running across the stage. A possibly powerful elixir is stolen by a greedy relative, and misfortune follows it everywhere, right into a trade agreement with England and Genoa. Chaucer is sent to fix the problem, though he doesn't know the problem involves something serious enough to kill for. Soon he's in a country town as the unwanted city folk guest. Will he be able to stay alive long enough in a place stacking ever higher with bodies? See what I mean? It's a pretty cool idea. The trouble is in the execution.

The book has so many repetitions it makes me wonder if it was trying to hit a page count. Everything is spoon-fed to the reader except for the "how caught" which ends up being a single gotcha moment buried amongst the dreck. I admit I missed it, but that was because I was bored. By the time you've been stopped in the plot to be inside the head of yet another character (I think we get fed the perspective of every single person in the book, almost down to the walk-on servants), it's hard to keep track of anything that matters.

That was another problem--too many people to keep track of, almost none of whom were even needed--and some of those unnecessary people were supposed to be main characters, making this an even bigger problem. The book starts with a murder far away and ends with a murder closer to Chaucer's interests--but lost mine somewhere along the way.

Honestly, this is a short story masquerading as a book and needed heavy editing to even be passable. I'd have liked it more without Chaucer, and I don't think that's what the author was going for. There's better mysteries out there, and some of them even use famous people (like the ones with Groucho Marx, to name a series I like). Seek out those instead, and make your Chaucer the classical one that writes all the words in funny spellings.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

We'll Always Have Paris by Ray Bradbury

[I "read" this as an audio book, if that matters to you.]

Sometimes it feels a little weird when I do reviews here of authors I like quite a bit, because it seems like the review I end up doing would indicate otherwise.

This is one of those times.

My mother was a huge Ray Bradbury fan, and despite not reading his longer works, I'm always interested by a collection of his short fiction. I've read several over the years, though none recently. His anthology television show was great, from the episodes I saw on DVD. You can peg a Bradbury episode of other shows almost without his name, and then it's a great pastime to try and spot the folks who were inspired by him.

That's why this review is a hard one to write, because with a few exceptions. I just didn't care for the stories included in We'll Always Have Paris, a mish-mash of speculative, sentimental, and stolid fiction that only ever seems to flirt at the ages of the Bradbury magic.

When reading Bradbury, you come to expect stories that have a sense of whimsy, of possibilities realized and lost, and of people who often could just as easily be you or me. There's a definite sense of familiarity involved, but that's true of just about any prolific author. The trouble is when the author doesn't use their own quirks to advantage but instead to play it by the numbers. That's the way this book felt to me.

I knew I was in trouble when the lead-off story, Massinello Pietro, never did anything but tell the sad story of a man who refused to give up his animal menagerie. I kept waiting for the big payoff, but in the end, it was just the silence of his absence that drives the closure. Like other stories in the collection, Bradbury seems to be experimenting with the postmodern style here, but it doesn't suit him. Stories of non-sexual seduction or trying to put relationships back together (or watching tragic mistakes play out before you) just aren't in Bradbury's wheelhouse. I give him some credit for trying to be different, including the use of non-straight couples from time to time, but they don't strike out on their own enough to work. When they are mixed in with tales of ghost children who can only stop crying by the act of procreation*, perhaps the very antithesis of a post-modern story, the results are jangling, jarring, and almost cause for giving up entirely. Had this book been longer than roughly five hours, I doubt I would have kept going

Some of the concepts work out okay, but that's as far as they go. A story of golfers who putt well into the night to forget the mistakes of their life is clever, but just not creepy enough to hook the reader. In fact, the strongest stories in this collection all have a bit of a horror feel, such as when a radio personality comes to life to bedevil a middle-manager in Ma Perkins Comes to Stay. The trouble is, the reason for the horror is never fully realized here, leaving the reader wondering just why the man snaps. This is also the problem with The Murder, which was my favorite in the book. Bradbury gives us a great little horror story, but races his way to the punchline, spoiling his own idea like a cook who burns dinner by having the heat up so high.

Even when the story has a pretty good premise, such as bringing the Earth to Mars, the potential is lost in pedestrian prose. The idea that we'd need to change any alien world to match our own makes sense and could easily bring a moral along with it. Here the idea is presented without comment. The hope that might once have added something, anything to the work just wasn't around. It's as though Bradbury himself has become like the dead man walking character that wants to keep his old life going in The Reincarnate. Just as that character must accept that he is dead and will live on in others, perhaps it's time for Bradbury to realize that his literary career, which has so many shining lights, needs to rest and allow others to bring light to the same ideas. Tons of science fiction writers can cite Bradbury as an inspiration. I'd hate to see that change by having more books like this one tarnish his legacy with mediocre prose.

For me personally, I think I'll stick to Bradbury's older work, if this is what he's doing today. There's just nothing here that interests me, as the plots feel recycled or uncomfortable (sometimes both, as when he advocates reviving an older man's life by having an affair with a younger woman). I'm afraid that while I certainly don't want us to Always Have Paris, I'll certainly be happy to say we'll always have the Martian Chronicles. This is a book I'd definitely put on the avoid list, even if you're a big Bradbury fan. Re-read an older collection instead.

*I really and truly wish I was kidding, but When the Bough Breaks is literally about a couple who decides to be child free, hears a ghost child, and makes love to stop the sound. This is such a terrible story idea, I don't even know where to begin.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route by Saidiya V. Hartman

This is a very personal book that reads more like a person journaling professionally than anything historical. I suppose the proper word is travelogue, but since I have never read a travelogue, not even Mark Twain's books about his various tours, I guess I'm not familiar with the style in any way.

Hartman is angry, very angry. That needs to go out front, because if you're not willing to read a book by a person who is angry at the past, this is not the book for you. Part of why she's so angry is that, well, let's face it, how America (and the rest of Euro culture) built its Southern (and part of its Northern) economy was on the backs of slaves. And then, even when slavery was over, we did our level best to make life miserable for the lucky(?) few who survived the trip across the Atlantic. It's not a nice business, and when America notices it has something not nice to deal with, we toss it under the rug--arguably worse than tossing it under a bus. Put simply, we don't talk about race issues very well. Hartman is very aware of this, and that is why she sets out on this journey.

The opening pages tell us about the fact that no one wants to discuss slavery, not even those that you'd think would be front-and-center in relating its brutal history. "The counselors taught us to disdain property, perform the Black Power handshake, and march in strict formation, but they never mentioned the Middle Passage or chattel prisons," Hartman notes. She tries to do that which her grandparents did not--return to Africa, thinking she can find something that was lost--not personal history, she knows better--but a connection.

Instead, she finds herself to be a stranger in a land that lives uneasily with its legacy, unable to seemingly embrace it, destroy it, or utilize it. Just as those who were sold into slavery lost their mothers, there is no way now for Hartman to connect to those on the other side of the Atlantic. Despite the problems of being African American, there is no real way for her to link or connect. After pages and pages of trying to do so while wandering the places where slavery was born, she realizes it's a false task.

"'My friend from the diaspora,' was how Akam addressed me, in contrast to the group whom he called his brothers and sisters from the continent. Diasopra was really just a euphemism for stranger, since for the most part, none of my colleagues, with the exception of Prof and Hannington, gave much thought to the way their history was enmeshed with mine, nor did they entertain the idea that the Africa in my hyphenated African-American identity had anything to do with their Africa. They made it clear: Africa ended at the borders of the continent."

That clearly has to hurt, and it's the story that echoes throughout the book when Hartman describes her meetings with those who live there. Eventually, she comes to see that the connection will not be the shared history--there really isn't one, for those who were not shipped in conditions the FDA would reject beef if they found it that way--but in the shared struggle for being in control of their own lives. African Americans might--I repeat might--be finally getting there, but those in Africa are still "managed" by primarily white post-colonial powers who care more about the four-legged animals on its flatlands than the people starving to death.

Interspersed with Hartman's narrative are those of the slave trade themselves. Unflinching in her description of evil--white and black--is part of what makes these sections so powerful. The worst are the slave ships and holding pens, where people would die standing up, but there is no love lost for the slave uprising that was only among the upper class, for instance. After all, they'd planned to use their lower-class brethren as slaves once they'd overthrown the white masters!

But I would be doing a disservice to Hartman if I let that be the focus. It's too easy for Americans of European descent, even those like me who, to the best of my knowledge, came after the Civil War or did not hold slaves at the time or any ties to slavery, to say, "See? Blacks did it to themselves." That's not the point--as Hartman notes early on, Europeans sold each other into slavery, too, once upon a time. But the demand for African slaves was never quenched until well into the nineteenth century--the idea that they were less than human prevailed, and we still see its effects today when major Presidential candidates talk about "hard working, white Americans" and decry those who dare to say that God might not look too kindly on how whites treat their African American neighbors.

The perception of truly fighting for freedom--not your own country, but your own life--is what Africans and African Americans had to do and continue to have to do today. When it's not done as it's "supposed to be done"--Hartman references a statue with a supplicating black man, praying for freedom as a model for how African Americans are supposed to approach equality--there's just as much trouble now as in the era of Jim Crow. Walking amongst the ruins of the slave trade just remind Hartman all the more of how much further away we are from equality than I, quite honestly, want to admit. (It still doesn't mean I can't argue that things are better than Hartman seems to believe them to be, but that's outside the focus of this review.)

In the end, this is a book about being a stranger and examining what that means via a long glimpse away from home in a land charged with painful experience. I can't say that none of this book was hard for me, because I'd be lying. But I think it's a book worth reading, especially for those who dismiss the idea that race--and the estrangement (to at least some degree) of African Americans and Africans from real, meaningful freedom--still matters.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The 100 Greatest Looney Tunes Cartoons edited by Jerry Beck

It's probably not shocking to you to learn that I grew up at Bugs Bunny's knee, with additional lessons from Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, and a touch of Foghorn Leghorn. I'm even about as effective a hunter as Elmer Fudd. Never a big Disney person (and really only Donald Duck, at that), I took to the Looney Tunes gang like nobody's business.

As Leonard Maltin notes in the introduction, Warner Brothers cartoons have influenced multiple generations (though I fear the one after mine, those turning 25 or older right about now, might be the last) with their manic antics, verbal wordplay, and refusal to give up just because authority tells them to. An amazing gathering of talent, from Tex Avery to Friz Freeling to my personal favorite, Chuck Jones, all worked at "The Termite Terrace" to turn the idea of "cute" cartoons on its ear, and we are blessed by their legacy.

Like Maltin, I'm probably more affected by the Warner Brothers cartoons than your average person. I can recite almost the entire Rabbit of Seville script, I frequently try to confuse people by arguing quickly and getting them to accidentally change their opinion (it even works once in awhile!), and I still do a quick-stepping foot dance then run that mimics the roadrunner.

All that is to say that a book like this is a trip down memory lane for me, as I found myself leaping from page to page to see what they had to say about my favorite shorts, from Rabbit of Seville to the Duck Season-Rabbit Season trilogy to even the little-seen Russian Rhapsody, where a pre-Cold War studio gleefully uses communist sentiment to sink Adolph Hitler, fighter pilot. (This short contains one of the best Warner Brother original songs, too.) For me, it was a chance to peek into the minds of experts, ranging from the usual animation historians to people I defer to in comedy expertise, such as Mark Evanier (a veteran of writing Looney Tunes comics, which the book sadly fails to mention) and TV's Frank (of MST3K fame). A brilliant choice was Stephan Pastis, one of the few Sunday cartoonists whose characters can match Bugs Bunny and company gag for gag.

Unsurprisingly, most of the shorts focus on some combination of Bugs, Daffy, and Porky. I was a bit shocked to see how many later shorts were included. I know that animation was more modern and the characters more nuanced, but at the same time, the sense of total insanity which I love comes a lot from the older shorts and I thought more would share that enthusiasm. I also was surprised to see that many of the other primary characters were slighted, particularly the Road Runner. Heck, Pepe Le Pew's only mark on the list is in a cameo role. There's almost a bias towards the more obscure characters, like the 3 Bears or shorts that had none of the usual cast at all. I gotta admit, those are the ones I tend to like least. I'm a character man by heart, and for a Looney Tune to really sing, it needs one of my favorite characters to drive the plot.

In terms of the foils, Elmer is by far the number one suspect, with Yosemite Sam (his louder, less sympathetic clone) a distant second. Oddly, it seemed like the commentators preferred Sam because of his primal evil. Neither seem to get a lot of respect from the writers here, which is a shame. Had they been real people, I think a lot of folks would eulogize Fudd as being one of the overlooked supporting characters of the age.

There are the usual pitfalls in a book of this nature. Some of the commentators overreach in their attempt to analyze the characters, particularly the "almost competence" of Porky Pig as compared to Daffy. Others seem to feel like they have to drag Chuck Jones down in order to bring other, lesser-known directors up. I found the need to try and figure out just which cartoon was the most manic (here there is absolutely no agreement) a bit puzzling, almost as much as I found the reduction of some ideas to repetitive gags annoying. (If you have to be told why it's funny that certain jokes get repeated over and over again, you're watching the wrong set of cartoons, folks.)

The biggest mistake, however, was in the inclusion of a grossly offensive cartoon that stands out because none of other other offensive cartoons (and they are legion, let me tell you, having been born early enough to see some before they were banned) are included here. A "great but flawed" section, with appropriate context would have been fine with me, but to say that because they used black voice actors, they were "in on the joke" is just about as offensive to me as the original short. With so many good cartoons to choose from, and given that stereotypes of Mexicans are completely ignored in the Speedy Gonzales short chosen as well, I'm afraid that this book had a tin ear when it comes to valid criticisms of some of the Warner cartoons.

I am a huge fan of Looney Tunes, but we also need to acknowledge that some of what they did just isn't funny, when it comes to portrayals of race. (I don't think I'd mind if most DVDs of Duck Soup took out its completely inappropriate racial joke, for that matter.) If you are going to include offensive things, and I am fine with that, it needs to have solid context. This book did not, and that's a mark against it.

That doesn't mean I'd recommend against reading this love story to classic animation, however. The solid choices far outweigh the questionable ones, and I'd have a hard time quibbling with 90% of these selections. The book handily avoids the mistake of ranking the cartoons, which I thought was both appropriate and clever. There are plenty of stills from the shorts, along with a few sketches and promo materials that add to its value for the amateur animation historian. Learning that most people don't like how they changed Daffy Duck was refreshing, and I liked the varying takes on how Bugs was portrayed by different directors.

Overall, 100 Greatest Looney Tunes is a wonderful pickup for the classic animation fan on your gift list, assuming they don't already own it. Just be prepared to listen as they argue with you (whether you want to be part of the argument or not) about the selections or remarks by the commentators. I can assure you that *I* of course would never do such a thing. Oh no.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Two Roads to Sumter by William and Bruce Catton

This is part of phase one of my Civil War Book Challenge, where I follow the war's 150th anniversary in a series of books from the pre-war years to the start of reconstruction. Feel free to join me!

Progress so far: 2 of 5 books set in the pre-war era.

Bruce Catton formed the heart of my Civil War reading when I was growing up and first learning about the conflict. His books feel a bit old-fashioned now, showing as they do the best of the well-known names such as Lee, Grant, and Lincoln, without the touches of realism and human frailty that we expect from history books today.

Are we better off now that we know more about the men who waged the war, right down to their most personal problems? I'm not sure, but when you try to go back to the classics, it sometimes can be a jarring experience. Two Roads to Sumter spends a lot of its time trying to think the best of Lincoln and Davis, occasionally to the point of distraction. There's really not much you can do to make a man look better when he's advocating for the perpetuation and extension of slavery and denying the right of African Americans to participate in even the most basic aspects of American society.

Sorry guys, but Jefferson Davis might have been an upstanding gentleman who thought he was right, but you can't wash the taint off his hatred by couching it in context and high rhetoric. (It's a lesson I hope we'll soon see extended to the look back at extreme hatred in America today towards groups that did nothing but be different from the norm or look different from others.) The book is stronger in lionizing Lincoln, who certainly had his faults but clearly believed in human rights for all people, even if he wasn't as sure on the particulars or as free from bias as we'd like to think. Still, he too feels a bit larger than life here, able to rise above the petty manipulations of rival Seward, once he's been freed from the extreme partisanship that apparently marred his term in Congress.

Despite some of the problems inherent in writing in an age where criticisms of heroes were tricky to manage, the Cattons do bring interesting ideas to the table that were new to me. Lincoln's extreme partisanship and manipulations for power (I don't think I knew he ran for US Senate in 1854 as well, for instance) aren't as well documented, at least not in the books I'd read previously on the rail splitter. Similarly, I had no idea that Davis was often considered too conservative for his Southern audience, an irony that explains a lot about the problems faced by Jefferson Davis the President.

I also thought it was interesting that this book spends so much time looking at how the Democratic Party might have been able to stave off the war (and extend the life of slavery) by swallowing some pride and looking past the nose on their face to see the bigger picture. It confirms for me that American politics really don't work all that well and thinking they ever did was folly. It also shows how extremists can take control of the political process if given an opportunity, a lesson we're about to learn again soon, I think. In terms of the contemporary politics of the time, our pair of writers leaves no mistake that the feelings of the 1850s echo the 1950s in ways both similar and striking. Cleverly, they even leave those links for the reader to grab onto, rather than spell them out. It's a nice case of understatement that I think served the text well.

It's a bit hard to tell who is writing where, but the lengthy digressions into politics strike me as more from William, where the character profiles fits with those we see in Bruce's solo outings on the Civil War. The two mesh these ideas rather well, I think, with neither dominating. This prevents the book from either becoming too dry or too full of useless character studies that don't show how two of America's best known figures made their way through the years before the Civil War.

The book's central premise is that Lincoln and Davis, who both had roots in Kentucky, were not dissimilar men. They both came from the idea of frontier and expansion, though Davis would advocate it while Lincoln (perhaps in reaction to his father, an idea that's not explored here) rejects rampant growth, especially in light of the slavery question. They both had poor beginnings, but Davis gets a guardian angel in the form of an older brother. This is the key moment that changes the two men, as both face personal setbacks but only one has to really work for his opportunities. The difference gets more and more striking, as the book shows, until there's no way for these two men, who are arguably moderate for their day, to ever agree without bloodshed.

In this way, Lincoln and Davis are avatars for the regions they represent, two factions unable to come to terms because, like parallel lines, their visions for America could never co-exist as long as one based their philosophy on the slavery of an entire race. It took the war to, however unevenly, blend the two lines together. Two Roads to Sumter shows that, while possible, it was unlikely that anything other than the Civil War could have happened, given the actors in play at the time on the political stage. I think this book puts the lie to the idea that slavery would have died a quiet death if left alone. Possible? Yes. Likely? No. There were too many people trying to cling to outdated ideas, another echo of the 1950s and even today.

As I'd expect with most books that take such a specialized perspective on a part of history, this book is not going to have a lot of general interest. It is, however, one of the best books I've read on the pre-war years, however. (Keep in mind that's a limited number, so don't go by just me.) Unlike the book about the Compromise of 1850s, this text takes the time and space to explain is arguments, including why people such as Clay, Davis, and Lincoln acted as they did and what they might have done differently. I may not agree with the alternatives proposed by the book, especially the theory that President Douglas in 1856 might have saved the Union, but at least arguments are made that have real backing and explanation.

Those interested in the politics of the 1850s should definitely check out Two Roads to Sumter. It may have some problems that all older history books share, but it's still a strong study of the time period that presents logical arguments and crucial details I'd never seen before. It definitely belongs in the library of any historian of the Civil War era and should be of interest to fans of older American politics as well.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

50 Books Reached!

I'm so happy to report that I made my goal of 50 books this year!

It's so nice to be reading consistently again. Despite having a hectic schedule, I've found ways to make sure that I'm still getting a regular diet of fiction and non-fiction from a variety of sources.

It will be interesting to see how many books I can finish the year at. Is there time to make 60?

Another good question: Having hit the 50 bar this year, what should I try for next year? 50 again? 60, especially if I come close this year? Go for broke and try 75?

Regardless, it's been quite a good year in reading for me, with books I mostly enjoyed and a few I probably could have done without. Should make for an interesting "Best of the Year" post when we hit January.

Enjoy your weekend and Happy Reading!

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem

[Note: I "read" this as an audio book, if that matters to you.]

Isn't that an awesome book cover? That wasn't the cover to my audio book, but I saw this one and felt it was too cool to pass up.

In a New York City that's both the same and different from our own, a child actor turned gadfly meets up with an eccentric ex-writer who prides himself on seeing hidden meanings. While trying to cope with a life that's increasingly turning into a role he plays for the greater good, the child actor meets others within the circle of the writer's influence and is eventually forced to see that the world isn't the place he thought it was. In a city that accepts almost anything, will the actor fall into line--or fall out completely?

This was my first Lethem book, and it might not have been a great place to start. I admit I'm a bit of a bad reader, in that I don't always want to be questioning the status quo as I read, and this book features that theme in spades. Our rogue writer sees hidden meanings and conspiracies everywhere, and by the end, we're definitely meant to empathize with this perspective. It's one I don't share, so I found myself kinda competing against the theme of the book as things went on.

Lethem does a great job of using familiar icons to fuel these delusions, such as Marlon Brando, an iconic figure that could easily fuel ideas of a world we're not meant to know. He also plays with the idea of faked deaths, nihilistic art, bogus news, and other ideas that you hear if you talk to the right people. We all harbor a few of these, and Lethem gets them all out on display. The trouble is that for them to be believable, I needed a bit more to go on, and we don't get that. It's a problem that plagued the boo for me--Lethem throws out so many ideas, but very rarely do they get the follow-up needed to develop them.

There's also the curious decision to mix real names with fake ones. Brando and Maler are okay, but apparently Frank Oz and the Muppets was not. I can understand needing to change Second Life and Mayor Bloomberg, but I think I'd rather have seen it all be fictional, rather than a curious mix of names I knew and obvious attempts to hide names I knew. It jerked me in and out of the reality of the book's world too many times, as my mind drifted away from the plot and into "Hmm, why did Letham rename this character but not the other one?"

My other issue was in the choice of narrative perspectives. I just did not like Chase, the Child Actor, and found him to be boring at best and a real jerk at worst. He bumbles through this strange world, and only too late does he seem to get it. As a result, I don't know that I trust him to be telling me the reality of the situation. I guess that was Lethem's point, but I think I'd have liked the book if it had been in third person instead. Not only could we then get more from the livelier characters like Richard and Tooth, Chase's blandness wouldn't have been front and center at all times.

I can't say that I liked Chronic City all that much, even though I found some of the ideas intriguing. It's like Lethem tried a bit too hard to mesh it all together while being as clever as possible in the construction. The trouble is he was too clever by half. The point of the book--Who is to say what reality is?--gets lost in the muddled translation of Chase, who seems to prefer to think nothing is wrong until it's far too late to do anything about it. I have no problem with complex narrative structures as a rule. I just don't think Lethem did a very good job of it in service of his story.

Despite being disappointed in Chronic City, I did like Lethem as a writer, strange as that might sound. His narrative turns of phrase are almost poetic at times, and I liked his banter between characters. The interactions, from the formal to the informal, felt quite real. He also does a great job of painting background scenes, whether it's describing a character's appearance so we can know why they're losing credibility or giving you an idea of how each person should talk by their personality quirks. Those are the kind of things I look for in a book, and Lethem has them in spades. It will be interesting to see them play out in a different book. Hopefully, I'll like the whole, not just the sum of its parts, when I next read Lethem again.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman

This is my first audio book in quite some time. I listened to most of Mr. Hillerman's old books this way, so since I wanted to try out an audio book again, he immediately came to mind. Those used to my longer reviews for books should note that it's hard not to spoil a mystery if I delve too deeply, so I've tried to keep this brief.

By this time, Joe Leaphorn, my favorite of his two detectives, has retired, and Jim Chee has settled into marriage. We meet them as Leaphorn has a story to tell--one that might be better off left unsaid to people still in the employ of the government.

In looking up an old friend, Leaphorn tumbles on to a complex story of theft, deception, and murder within the framework of the Native American culture he's defended over the years. When curiosity and the desire to see wrongs righted--not to mention a little threat to his own life--pull him further into a complex puzzle, it seems that this time Leaphorn may be in over his head. With joints aching and the former power of a policeman behind him, he can only work within the sidelines--and sometimes, he'll have to jump off his traditional lines instead.

Can he figure out who is who with enough time to prevent more murders? Can a white man with the apparent power of a shape-changing skinwalker (in the most modern form, of course) stop him? And if they knew the truth, just what would Chee and his wife do?

Though it's somewhat disappointing to learn that Leaphorn is no longer on active duty, the rest of this was vintage Hillerman. If you've read him and liked his stuff before, you're going to enjoy this. If you find his wandering yet precisely plotted prose rather dull, then this is not going to appeal to you at all. Leaphorn's stories are always puzzles, and getting the pieces together can sometimes be maddening to the reader. This one was no exception. But when they're fitted together, Hillerman puts together some of the best climaxes in the genre. Combine that with his ability to create colorful and human characters for his detectives to interact with, and you have a solid mystery.

This particular edition also places a strong emphasis on identity, because of the nature of the plot. Leaphorn reflects on what he is now, as a retired cop. He also connects with another character stripped of his cultural heritage, as Leaphorn was. For the most part, these are weaved into the narrative, though at one point towards the end where the origin stories are rehashed again, it feel like a bit of "look how much I know of Navajo culture" thrown in for good measure. Because of the internal emphasis, there's a bit less on the lay of the land. Those looking for the descriptions of mesas and ruins may find this one a bit lacking in what they look for in a Leahphorn/Chee story. This will also be true for those who really like Chee. He's almost complete comic relief here, and has only a small role.

My only qualm is with Leaphorn's actions towards the end of the book. Perhaps this is part of his evolution as a character, but I remember him as being a very strict law and order type. He bends the law early and often in this one, which, while perfectly natural within the story, does feel a bit stretched here and there. Chee would have been a more likely candidate for associating with a former felon who wants revenge, for instance.

Still, not every write can say they're putting out quality mysteries this far into a series book. Hillerman can, and I look forward to more.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Spooky Virginia retold by S.E. Schlosser

Having been horribly disappointed by the two ghost story books I chose to read around Halloween (the one about Alaska that I reviews and a "classic" book from M.R. James that I found so boring I couldn't even bring myself to review it), I eagerly grabbed this one from the library shelf in the hopes of trying to find something better.

This was definitely something better. Let's start with the decision to use "retold" instead of claiming authorship over the stories. Almost any book of collected tales and legends is going to be an adaptation of oral tradition. If you are going to use the "by" label, then you need to have written them yourself. Better even than "edited by", I think retold is the way to go. After all, what Schlosser is doing carries on the grand tradition of those who came before her. This is just designed to reach a broader audience by writing them down.

The stories themselves felt warm and familiar to me. I don't know if I'd read or heard some of them before (that's quite possible, as I've been in love with ghost stories almost since I could read) or if we have a situation of similar stories playing out in different parts of the country. Either way, every page in this book was a welcome return to the kind of ghost story I like best--
haunting tales of things gone wrong, cruelty repaid, and horrors revisited again and again.

While the language is soft (there are no oaths or swear words in here), the tone can be quite brutal. People are skinned alive, bloodied before recognition, and dismembered, depending on the story. There are a few that are just sad, such as when a distressed lover dies and remains at his or her designated spot, and a few that are just tragic (the wreck of the old 96 is included). Overall, however, the tone is dark without being gory. It's just the right pitch, in my opinion, for these kinds of tales. The classic story was often the best--make it scary, but don't cause anyone to lose their dinner over the campfire or wood stove.

You have to have a love of folklore and oral tradition to get this book. The stories are all extremely short, and their endings are as predictable as a Pittsburgh Pirate losing season. You'll often know the clincher before it happens, but that's okay. The fun is not so much in the reveal as in the getting there. You either appreciate this or you don't, and which camp you fall into will determine how much you like (or don't like) the book.

The oddest thing about this collection is that, since these are older tales from the south, we have slaves mentioned here and there. I give a lot of credit to Schlosser for not sanitizing the stories that include, for better or worse, things we'd rather not think about as being established history.

Personal favorites for me was a Jack O' Lantern story that was one I hadn't heard before, a story of vampirism set in the backwoods, and one about a sticky finger bone. Each were well plotted and creepy in their own way. I'm sure you'll find your own favorites if you read this book.

I liked Spooky Virginia a lot, and am looking forward to seeking out more books in this series. If you're a fan of the classic campfire ghost story, you should look for this one and its companion volumes, too.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Clutter Busting by Brooks Palmer

[Google's having some issues, no no cover image to go along with this one. Sorry guys.]

I'm going to start this review off by admitting that I have a problem with letting clutter accumulate. I'm not going to be on Hoarders anytime soon, never fear. I don't have pizza boxes on my sofa, a copy of every single newspaper over the past decade, or food that's literally exploding out of its boxes. You can easily walk in my house, sit on the furniture (most days), and find clean glasses to drink from.

I do, however, have some unhealthy habits in relation to stuff that I'm trying to shake, and when I want to learn more about something, I tend to turn to a book. So this is my first attempt at seeing what's out there in written form to help me. Consider this half essay, half review then, I guess. You've been warned.

To give you some background: My mother always worried about clutter, but seemed to go from one extreme to the other when she tried to get better. My father's never met something he didn't want to keep. I grew up in this environment, and as time went on (and I got my own, bigger places), stuff literally started to creep up on me, especially when I got an attic AND a basement.

Flash forward to moving, in 2010. I had a depressing revelation that I had a lot of stuff I didn't need. I cleaned and tossed, and still had too much, necessitating a lot of expensive and mentally painful moving. I vowed to get a better handle on things, and to cut my stuff by at least 1/3 before I needed to move again. As Palmer will tell you, why pay for storing things you don't need? I've certainly been guilty of that, and I'm glad to see that pointed out as a problem.

The process is not easy, let me tell you. Palmer does a good job of explaining why. We're encouraged to have a lot of stuff, as it shows how successful we are. ("He who dies with the most toys wins" and all that.) Our stuff can bury our problems, mask our fears, and prevent us from doing what we really want. Getting the stuff is easy; letting go is worse than having a tooth pulled. In various ways, we allow things to dominate our lives if we aren't careful, and it's usually in places we look at every day but don't want to face. What's worse is that sometimes we keep the stuff around just to feel guilty about buying it! Yikes!

This much is all true, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. I can especially relate to that last point. I've had things I kept because "I paid for it, now I need to keep it around until I use it." That day, as Palmer correctly notes, rarely comes along, and the stuff pile gets bigger and makes you feel worse about yourself. Noting that it's better to just get rid of things and move on than torture yourself was probably the best thing I read in the whole book. I've been told this enough times; maybe it will finally sink in.

Using a variety of examples, Palmer shows how different people he's encountered over the years have faced their problems with clutter. It's everything from tens of boxes under the bed to garages full of unread magazines. I can't imagine hoarding clothing, but there are folks who do it. Reminders from past relationships, items kept only out of guilt or fear, and some things that are out there to help us get noticed that only end up losing us in the process. All of these people have one thing in common--they're using their things as a wall, and having trouble letting go.

It's a problem I share, even if I'm not raiding the neighbor's garbage or holding on to every picture of my past relationship. Part of reading the book was a refreshing "my problems aren't that severe, especially now that I've de-cluttered significantly" and part of it was "I can totally understand that problem"--with just a bit of "I'm still doing that" mixed in for good measure.

The book has several strengths, starting with an affirmation that you are not alone in having a clutter issue. It's a soothing, gentle tone that Palmer adopts in terms of the condition. He's not blaming you for how you've acted, only if you refuse to change. I think there's a lot of merit in that approach. Why make it worse when the person already knows they have a problem? I also like the idea of looking at what you have, finding problem areas, and bringing them into the light of day. That's something I did when I was moving, and it helped me a lot.

Palmer also notes that sometimes friends can be clutter, if they are only negative and don't value you as a person. That's sound advice--look at the whole picture of your life, not just your things. As with the physical clutter, this is not a condemnation, but a request that you open your eyes.

The trouble is that Palmer is too new age for my taste, referring to positive and negative energy and people feeling better just by willing themselves to feel better. The idea that an ill person can get well just by chucking their medical books means they either have a mental illness that needs to be treated, or they're going to have a horrible crash when the de-cluttering doesn't prevent a relapse. They might even start to clutter again as a panic reaction.

Ironically, Palmer's book has too much clutter inside it (by my admittedly biased definition) to really be a book I'd recommend. If you were looking for specific advice that is practical, not couched in words like "Have a conversation with your pile of papers," then you're going to be severely disappointed. I kept reading to see if there were little tidbits I could pick up (or affirm I was on the right path), but as the book progressed and the ratio of hard advice to "pretend your bedroom is art gallery" statements went south on me, I found this was not the book to help me finish my quest to have less stuff.

My biggest problem with Palmer, however, was that his advice seemed to be to just chuck things and get rid of 75% of what you own. Palmer might be happy only owning 25 CDs, but I play parts of 25 CDs in a weekend if I'm working on a writing project! Similarly, he discussed getting rid of 95% of a person's books as though having 80 books was a crime. Palmer regards pictures in a way that sounds downright superstitious and advices getting rid of them all. There has to be a better way to advise people on reducing what they have without giving up the things that make you happy.

Palmer wants all of his readers to live in the now, and that's fine--if that's what you want. I like having a past, present, and future. It's a philosophical difference that ultimately made the book mostly unusable for me. I can glean certain tips--make sure you don't own two of anything, keep an eye on clothes and other items you never use, and so on--but the overall message rubbed me the wrong way. It undermined some of the good things that I liked about the book and made it less effective for me personally.

I'm sure if you asked him, Palmer would say I'm not ready to let go of my old ways. Maybe that's true. Ultimately, however, Palmer himself said we have to do what makes us happy. I'm happy owning and keeping certain things. Where I need more focused help is on deciding what those certain things should be. Palmer's gentle but ruthless method that talks about spacial energy and doesn't allow for keeping much of anything just isn't for me. I need a more neutral path. If you feel you need a radical change and want to de-clutter your life in a new age manner, see if this is maybe the place for you to start. I'll still be searching for awhile longer, and letting you know what I find.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

At the Edge of the Precipice by Robert V. Remini

[This book is part of phase one of my extended Civil War 150th Anniversary Challenge.]

It's rare that I get to read a book that came out the same year that I'm reading it, but this one jumped out on the shelf for me, in light of my plans to read books about the time before the Civil War for the rest of this year.

Remni's book features Henry Clay, a man who probably should have been a United States President, but never quite made it. He certainly tried enough times, but due to being the go-to man for compromise he always had just enough enemies that finding an electoral majority eluded him.

In this book, Remini acts almost as an apologist for Clay's role in making Faustian bargain after Faustian bargain regarding the worst sin this country is responsible for--the legalization and continuation of slavery. His main argument is that had the country split in 1820 (or later, and of the biggest focus in this book, 1850), there is no way that the forces of the North could have kept the South in the country, and further evils may have come about as a result.

What those evils are get left to the reader's speculation. Presumably it's that slavery would have continued for decades longer. That's certainly the implication when your book claims early on that the North needed another 10 years to prepare itself for war. I'd buy that argument except for one thing--it's not like the North was stockpiling weapons in safe territory or building up the size of its army. Hindsight might show that the North was better ready to fight for Union by 1860, but I don't think that was on Clay's mind. To imply that he was keeping the union together in order to wait for the right time to shut down the South's ambitions doesn't make any logical sense to me, hence why I feel that Remini is acting as an apologist.

The fact of the matter is that this book, in sticking only to the political wrangling and power games in Congress (logical, given Remini's role as a historian of the US House of Representatives), evades the central problem of looking at this period of history. While Clay, Webster, Calhoun, and others strove for oratory points, real Americans were being subjected to cruelty day after day. They were beaten, taken from their families, and assaulted, and America allowed it to happen for almost the first 100 years of its existence. (America then allowed it to happen again in a different form for the next 100 after that, and let's be honest, there's still issues here in the first 30 years or so of this third American century.)

Because the book is so heavily focused on Clay's desire to save the union at all costs, we don't get a look at those costs. It's interesting to read about how Clay, Webster, and others who might not have liked each other, worked in the end to delay what was certainly inevitable, if they really stopped to think about it. When Franklin, Jefferson, and others tell you that slavery is going to be a problem, no amount of redrawing borders or parliamentary wrangling is going keep things neat and tidy.

Though I was not happy with the tone of the book in terms of its dismissal of keeping African Americans in bondage for years, I do think it does a good job of showing that Congress really never has been good at fixing problems in this country. I think we have a myth that American government was better in "the old days" and a book like this shatters that to pieces. Look at how stubborn actors used their grudges to keep legislation at bay. See how Presidents fight members of their own party for control of the agenda. Note how legal tricks can doom a bill without getting off a single solid vote. Watch as crass men like Stephen Douglas rise to power by letting dreams die. Say what you really mean, as William Seward did, and watch as your political career dies.

It's sad when you think about it, but extremely instructive. Why think that today's politicians can make anything work when it didn't work before? Reading a book like this is almost enough to make you turn in your voting card.

In the end, At the Edge of the Precipice doesn't work well as a justification of Clay's actions in Congress as the slavery issue simmered. Since that's what the book was written to do, I don't think it serves its subject well. In order to make the claim, Remini would have needed to do more than just record the facts and give a few pieces of commentary. He'd need to dive deeper into the wider world of America at that time, something that doesn't happen in a book that's less than 200 pages.

As a book that shows how America's governmental system may be better than the rest, but still can't solve major problems, this book is a history lesson that doesn't give a lot of hope for the future as issues such as immigration, the environment, education, and job creation loom ever larger in the public's mind. That's the true story this book tells, and rather than a dream of possibility, it looks more like a nightmare. I don't think that was Remini's intention, but it certainly played out that way for me. Perhaps you'll have a different take.

Civil War Score: I don't see this as being a necessary read for anyone, unless you are very much into the history of Congress, Henry Clay, or early 19th Century American History. It's very much a niche book.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Way off the Road by Bill Geist

[If you care, I "read" this one as an audio book.]

I grew up on the idea of the Sunday drive, back when a lot of folks still had Sundays off, cars were big enough to be comfortable without being gas guzzlers, and gas itself was priced more cheaply than milk.

Because of this habit of piling in the car and finding places to go that were an hour or three away, I had the opportunity to see things that just aren't on your major vacation hot-spots. In addition, when we were on vacation as a family, we often picked a place at random and went where life took us.

Thus, I am fascinated with the odder parts of American life, like stopping by the Zane Gray Museum or seeing a Jimmy Stewart film in his hometown or going some place that has a metric ton of ceramic dinosaurs. Which means that someday, Mr. Geist and I really need to have a drink together--as long as he promises not to call me an idiot like he did to a conspiracy nut who later puts a gun to his head.

I don't often think about dream jobs, but I'm pretty sure Geist has one of mine. He gets to travel across the country, looking at the odder, smaller side of life. You'll find him at a watermelon festival perhaps, or watching school buses go to town on a demolition derby track. He'll talk to a person who runs a hamburger stand in a town of two as earnestly as another reporter might talk to Prime Minister Putin, and that's what makes this work so well.

You see, no matter how ridiculous things may get, like trying to determine who actually has the largest ball of twine or where in Minnesota is colder, Geist always treats his subjects with respect. That doesn't mean he's not critical of some of the things he observes (painting cows to make them look better comes to mind) or provide a wry spin (discussing raises taxes in a town with a population of one last person). Part of the charm of this book is that Geist never takes what he does all that seriously. However, even with taking jabs at the people around him, some of them even a little mean at times, you never get the feeling that Geist feels he is better than the people he interviews.

That's key, because if he was acting superior to people who are trying to make their claim to fame any way they can, it would come off as really mean. We can't all be on CBS, so some of us have to find a way to make our mark, even if it's just holding a unique parade in your two-block town. We all like being known for something, and in America, there's plenty of room for people to do everything from a headless chicken festival to celebrating the tow truck. Who is Geist to judge? He recognizes this, and acts accordingly. The result is a delightful set of stories, with just the right balance of irreverence and wonder.

The book shines best when Geist interviews people who are just trying to do what comes naturally. The 90+ year old man who writes a newspaper and delivers it by plane is a little scary, but shows that you never know what will keep you going over the decades. A postal worker shows that that mail must go through, even to a small town in the Grand Canyon. A lady finds her faith in serving the best barbecue chicken in Texas. None of these folks are people you're likely to live next to, but all of them find these unusual aspects of their lives are just normal for them. It's endearing, even as Geist makes light about how out of the mainstream they are.

Where the book suffers a bit is when Geist tries to be too clever. There are humorous lists that just aren't all that funny, for example, because I've heard the same comments before. A few of the jokes within the pages are canned, and there are places where you can tell that Geist is writing for an audience that's sometimes the lowest common denominator. Though I don't think he looks down on anyone, as I mentioned, Geist's sarcastic comments can come off a little bit mean as well from time to time, so just be aware there are going to be some places where you want to tell him he's being unfair.

Overall, however, I enjoyed this book a lot. Though I'd never visited any of the places that Geist mentions, primarily because a of lot of them are in the West or Midwest, I could make connections to trips I've made since I was barely old enough to walk. Heck, I'm still making those kind of trips today. Way Off the Road shows that there's more to America than the flashy parts, and does it in an irreverent way. It may not be a travel guide--or even a true travelogue--but it sure was a fun book to read.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Midnight's Children Read-Along Post 1

Jo of Bibliojunkie threw out the idea of a read-along for Midnight's Children, a book that was and is celebrated as an amazing piece of literature, winning not only the 1981 Booker Prize, but also the Best of the Booker (which really should be called the Booker of Bookers) in 1993 and 2008. Clearly, there are quite a few people who have some good things to say about this title from the author of the Satanic Verses.

I'd first read this book back in 1999, if memory serves, and thought it was superior to Rushdie's better known (and more controversial) novel that put him into hiding for some time. Jo's read-along gave me a good excuse to revisit it.

Before diving back into the book, I thought I'd post some impressions that I had about the novel in the first place, to see if my memory would hold up under one of my rare re-reads.

I guess the first thing that comes to mind is the comparison to Satanic Verses. Both have elements that I (perhaps incorrectly) think of as magical realism, where the narrative stays grounded in reality but has some things about it that just can't be explained by ordinary rules. They also both show the tension within India of its major religious populations. I'm still not sure why one book caused a stir and the other did not, but perhaps it's just because I grew up during the Verses flap that I know more about the reception Rushdie received. Checking around, however, and recalling my discussions of the novel in college, I don't remember seeing much about Midnight's Children being offensive. What a difference a decade makes, I guess. One of the things I'll be reading for is to see if there is as much religious commentary in the book as I seem to think there is, based on my hazy memory.

The second thing that I remember is that the book takes a lot of twists and turns in getting to its point. I read a fair amount of experimental fiction in college, but not so much now. I'll be curious to see if I still find an appeal in the confused structure of the narrative. I do remember this book having a very satisfying payoff at the end, and that Satanic Verses did not. If memory serves that's why I tend to think of this one as the better book.

Beyond that, I don't recall much of the book. It's in my memory with pleasant thoughts, despite being part of a class that I ended up hating with an instructor who did not like me one bit. But memory is a tricky thing, as Rushdie himself will tell you in his books. I don't often do a re-read, but Midnight's Children seems like it's worth the effort and the use of my time. I'll be curious to see if I still feel the same way after starting on the book this week.

It's also notable that I only read one Rushdie book after this, and did not think it was all that good. I don't even remember which one, which is sad (and part of why I now have a book blog). One of my goals is to use this re-reading as a gauge to see if it's time to revisit Mr. Rushdie's work, or to move on to other authors. Lord knows there's plenty to go around.

Want to join in the read-along? Find the opening post here, on Jo's blog.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Bambi Versus Godzilla by David Mamet

First of all, props to the book cover designer on this one. I don't think I'd have grabbed it from the shelf if it had not been for that absolutely eye-catching cover. Definitely a solid job on a book that probably could use a little help getting attention, since the subject is a bit off to the side in terms of popularity.

The book itself is a series of essays by Mamet ranging mostly on the movie business but also into other areas, primarily politics. When he stays on task, these are brilliant (if bitter) insights by a man who makes his money in an industry he despises for its business practices. When he's rambling on in an ultra-leftist bias, which sadly happens most often at the beginning of the book, it's a boring diatribe. Whether or not you agree with Mamet's politics, his sour grapes on the state of the political world just don't make for good reading.

The good outweighs the bad, though, and Mamet's style is very crisp, which is what he argues for in screen writing--don't keep anything that's not essential. Because of this, Mamet gets right to the point--there are too many producers, there's little respect for writers because everyone wants to be a writer so they're practically disposable, and the number of movies actually made today is small and keeps getting smaller. That's something I don't think we really look at these days, because with all the advertising, it feels like we have a never-ending supply of films to dislike or enjoy. On the other hand, a lot of the movies made when they were churned out by studio houses were complete crap, so I'm not sure the current system is actually worse.

Mamet also talks about what, to him, makes for a perfect movie--Galaxy Quest is one of them, believe it or not--and how so many fall short. In almost every case, Mamet has a movie example, all of which are given brief summaries in the appendix and allow you to explore his themes further. That was a nice touch, I thought.

I simply must mention his rants about auditions and preview audiences. Mamet believes that some people get parts because they can audition well, not because they can act. I'd never really considered that before. In the latter case, Mamet argues that instead of being natural, people in a test audience try too hard to think of what "they represent" and thus give a biased picture of what really works and what doesn't.

For me, the best part of this book came from reading his thoughts on writing, even though I do a different kind. It's not intended to be a how-to book, but those interested in writing fiction of any kind can learn something.

Overall, however, I worry, as did Steve Martin for the blurb, if after all this is now in the public records, that Mamet will ever work again. If not, maybe he can write more books like this one. I'd certainly read it, and you should, too.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Civil War Book Challenge

All kinds of folks do all kinds of book challenges, so I am officially throwing down mine.

The 150th anniversary of the Civil starts next year. It's a monumental anniversary for a conflict that still reaches out to us today and impacts on the lives of Americans, north and south. The Civil War was a defining moment in American History, and I've had a thing for studying it since I was in grade school.

So here's the challenge I'm throwing out there, and it's a doozy. It also covers the next several years. Hey, I'm nothing if not bold when I decide to do something!

For the rest of this year, read 5 books dealing with pre-Civil War issues.

For 2011 (1861), read 10 books dealing with the Civil War in 1861.

For 2012 (1862), read 20 books dealing with the Civil War in 1862.

For 2013 (1863), read 25 books dealing with the Civil War in 1863, including a mini-challenge of 10 books dealing with Gettysburg.

For 2014 (1864), read 20 books dealing with the Civil War in 1864.

For 2015 (1865), read 10 books dealing with the Civil War in 1865.

For 2016, read 10 books dealing with the era of Reconstruction.

Rules: No books I've previously read. No books dealing with biographies of particular generals unless it is about their actions in a particular year. No books about Lincoln, unless they deal solely with his re-election campaign in 1864 or his actions in a particular year. No books dealing with the Civil War in general or that cover more than one year.

Is this challenge insane? Probably. But it should be fun to watch. I'm starting with well-known Civil War writer Bruce Catton's book, "Two Roads to Sumpter."

Progress will be updated here periodically as well as on a special link at the top of the blog.

Anyone else want to give this a try? It would be more fun if I had a partner or two to keep pace with, but I'm willing to go it alone if I have to!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Strange Stories of Alaska and the Yukon by Ed Ferell

I'm sure you're shocked to learn that I have a thing for odd little books on odd little subjects, especially if they have some ties to the supernatural. So when I saw this book, I grabbed it for reading at a later date.

That later date finally came as I looked for something to start reading around Halloween, though I finished it a bit after the spooky season wrapped up. Strange Stories is a collection of newspaper and other articles found by Mr. Ferrell when doing research on pioneers of Alaska. He didn't write this book so much as compiled them and edited the tales for a modern audience. Ferrell is pretty credulous when it comes to the stories within. I have my doubts, particularly when a tropical oasis and a frozen city are among the topics described within the pages.

Most of these stories are extremely short, almost of a length appropriate for a children's book. That's true of the content, as well. Nothing in here is so graphic I'd be afraid to have a middle school (or even a mature grade school) student read it. They're grouped into sections, such as "Unknown Creatures", "Places of Mystery", and "Lost Mines". Each section features tales relating to the theme, with the largest being the one on ghosts.

I have to admit to two very big disappointments in this collection. The first is that "strange stories" means more tall tales than scary stuff. That one's on me. The second, however, is that too many of these accounts feel generic. I often felt as though I could have been reading about any late 19th Century part of the United States, not Alaska and the Yukon. Because of the nature of the stories, specific placement was lacking (of course), and thus I never became wrapped up in the world of these tales. That was a big problem for me.

Strange Stories of Alaska and the Yukon was good enough as a casual read, but I had hoped for more. I like my legends to have a strong sense of location, and that just didn't happen here. Like the old mines and giants and ghosts, it was all very much a mystery. Unfortunately, it wasn't a mystery that appealed to me. Those who like folklore and ghost stories can do better elsewhere, I think.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Vampire Slayers edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

Part of the 10 Days of Halloween Horror! You can see the rest here and here.

And here's where all my reading credibility goes out the window, because this was totally a guilty pleasure...

The purpose of this anthology was to restore the evil to vampire stories, as based on the introduction that bemoans the humanization of vampires. I picked this one up on a larp--er, I mean lark--just to see if it was any good. Like the five hundred million other Greenberg anthologies, this one is a mixed bag.

I was a bit surprised at the lack of name authors in this anthology. I guess maybe I just don't read enough spec fiction to know some of these folks. The only two named I recognized were Hugh B. Cave and Charles deLint. Overall, this collection's not bad, but there are some clunkers. Skip Special, a psuedo-porn story, entirely if you value your eyesight. The opening story, while not offensive, isn't all that interesting, either. However, the story by classic pulp author Hugh B. Cave is a nice nautical vampire story, which was something I hadn't seen done before.

I also liked Midnight Sun, about an outpost of humans in North Canada facing almost certain annihilation by the vampire hordes. Revelations in Black is a very literary take on a way to stop a vampire's rampage, though the pacing is a bit slow. Charles de Lint has a nice short short about the costs of appeasing vampires and one woman's fateful decision, and there's a vampire noir detective story by Tanya Huff that I liked but due to its protagonist's undead status, felt was out of place in the anthology.

The last story, Midnight Mass, works well as a closer, with a disgraced priest returning to his town to try and save the parishioners who once abandoned him in his time of need.

All in all, this one's not bad--nothing here is award-winning, but I liked them all in all, except of course for Special. If you like your vampires menacing, this is a good choice. As a fan of short fiction, I had a good time. Greenberg's anthologies may never be 100% amazing, but he's got a pretty good eye for putting together material, and this is no exception. However, this is your last warning, if you get this out, don't read Special. Just trust me, ok?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Point Man by Steve Englehart

Part of the 10 Days of Halloween Horror! You can see the rest here and here.

I picked this one up from the library solely on the name Steve Englehart. Though I am quite familiar with his comic book career, I had no idea he'd written a novel. It was sitting in the science fiction section, and I figured what the heck.

Well, it turns out that this "science fiction" book is really a dark fantasy, and not a bad one at that. Englehart crafts a world of magic that has a stronger grounding than you'd expect and some really creepy and terrifying scenes that make this worthy of inclusion in the Halloween Horror celebration.

Max August is a man who hides his war history past and his real name behind the DJ handle of Barnaby Wilde. He's got just about everything he could want--money, fame, and a way to escape everything in the airwaves of San Francisco. When the station manager offers him more--including herself--he opts to take it. What Max doesn't know is that there's another, darker war going on, and he's about to be sucked into the middle.

A simple robbery and crazed man turn the trick, and soon the world of "Barnaby Wilde" is a very different place. As the local police, FBI, and other, more sinister agencies start invading his life, Max doesn't know where to turn. Things are happening to Max that are straight out of a comic book. His only hope is a singer with a diamond-hard edge and her mysterious manager. But can this trio defeat forces that are far older than the nations fighting the cold war? Is Max ready to face his shameful past and return once again to being...the Point Man?

This book has one major oddity that readers should be aware of it. It was written about 1980 but has been re-issued by Tor here in 2010 because Englehart has finally written a second book about August. This is not a new book set in the past. This is Englehart writing how he felt about the late 1970s. In some ways it is a product of its time. The cold war is in full force here, with the idea of the Russians having ties to ultimate evil playing a big part in the plot. References and cultural attitudes are definitely dated (and occasionally cringe-worthy) and the whole idea of DJs having a cult of personality is something that some modern readers might not even understand.

Perhaps the biggest part of this is Max's guilt about his role in Vietnam. Since most Vietnam veterans are now in their 60s or later, I think we tend to forget that it was a very difficult war to be a part of, and Englehart using it as a touchstone would resonate strongly with his intended audience. I'm not entirely happy with the idea of Max being a murderer as a GI, as it adds to the myth that every man who went to Vietnam killed innocent women and children. There are other ways Max could have had a flawed past. However, it's not enough for me to dislike the book. At least Englehart found a way to make it work within the story, rather than as just another cliche.

Once you accept that you're reading classic dark fantasy by a person who never got a novel-writing career off the ground, the book flows pretty well. Englehart's prose is a bit stilted at times, with a few sections containing clunky dialog or romantic scenes. You can tell he's more comfortable with writing a plot for others to illustrate, if you know what to look for. Englehart does avoid information dumps, spreading them out and using the slow reveal of information as a plot point for Max, who needs to get educated on magic as the book goes on. I found this a clever way to explain the magical reality we were dealing with. There's only one time that he slips up, and that's where Cornelius (the singer's manager) talks a bit too much about the nature of magic. I found myself a bit bored and wishing to get back to the action.

It was interesting to me that Englehart, who spent some time writing Doctor Strange (a great sorcerer in Marvel comic books), grounded his book's magic in ideas that any practicing pagan would find familiar. I know enough people who do magick to recognize some of it, and though he takes liberties, the idea that the magic in this book comes from a real source impressed me. We still get fantastic creatures and abilities that are not real, but they start from a point as logical as you can get when dealing with a fantasy. That was a strong selling point for me as I was reading.

The plot itself moves very well. Englehart always was pretty good at balancing action and rest in his comics, and that shines through here. Max keeps thinking he understands and keeps having the rug pulled out from under him. Like any good hero, however, he manages to keep pushing on, and finds something in himself to go that extra mile. Max is a bit like Captain America or Batman--no matter the odds, they'll find that reserve within themselves to be, well, a hero.

I also appreciated that Englehart was perfectly willing to kill people off and to make sure that nothing works perfectly. Max might save the world from a horrible fate, but he'll pay for it. He never comes to anything easily, either, which can be a book killer for me. There are quite a few moments of horror in the book, most of them playing off the occult aspects of the story. We get a very good picture of these scenes, too, which gives the whole thing a darker edge that it might have otherwise missed. We're dealing with demons and the devil, but only just enough to flavor the book, not spoil it.

The Point Man is not a perfect book. It may be too dated for a lot of a readers and the ideals of the main characters probably only work for an audience that remembers when the only thing we worried about was one big nuke instead of dirty bombs. However, this is a series character that's done in one, giving you the chance to sample it without being locked into 1000 pages of reading. If you like dark fantasy, stories that base themselves in our reality, or were a fan of Englehart's comics, I'd make a point of giving this one a try.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Part of the 10 Days of Halloween Horror! You can see the rest here and here.

[Read as an e-book, if that matters to you.]

I've read Frankenstein several times over the years, including for a college class. The number of times I've seen the most famous movie version and endless variations is legion. I am a person who loves classic horror, and Karloff's shuffling criminal full of pathos is for me the defining moment of the horror genre.

Perhaps because vampires keep becoming the in thing, I've always been less inclined to Dracula. In fact, other than an excellent comic adaptation by Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano, I'd never even read the source material. That finally changed, and I'm glad it did. Stoker's work may have been used and abused over the years, but the original text makes for a striking book that reads far more modern than its time period and is a much better book than Frankenstein.

For those who may not be familiar with the plot of the actual book, a man named Harker comes to Castle Dracula to help a mysterious man make arrangements to go to London. To his horror, he learns that this man is not all that he seems, but he is powerless to prevent his coming to the teeming metropolis. Soon, Dracula is on the prowl claiming victims, including the lovely but helpless Lucy. Lucy is the friend of Mina, Harker's fiance, and eventually, with the help of the noted but eccentric Dr. Van Helsing, a group of revenge seekers form.

Can this team of weakened but determined adventurers stop Dracula from making an army of the undead? You know the answer, of course, but it's the getting there that's the fun.

I was pleasantly surprised by the text itself, which read a lot more like a modern novel than I'd expected. At first I was a bit put off by the epistle format of the book (a fair number of the characters share their experiences via letters or journals), but they soon begin to link up in a way that drives the narrative. It's really interesting to see how Stoker links things together, and the added advantage of knowing more than the characters by virtue of being able to read all of the letters in a logical sequence provides an omniscience even within first-person narratives. I don't think this tactic is something I'd want to read every time out, but as a change of pace from the books I normally consume, it was extremely effective.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the fact that Mina is a strong female character. Lucy is a typical female victim, but for the bulk of the book, we are dealing with the fact that the male characters in the book don't quite know what to do or are weakened to inactivity while Mina drives them on to the task, even at great personal cost to herself. I suppose it's wrong of me to generalize in this way, but I had figured on things playing out a bit differently. I thought all of the non-male characters would be props for the virile males to either endanger or save. Dracula is certainly no feminist novel, but it's also not misogynistic.

On the other hand, Dracula is extremely anti-immigrant. Dracula is the strange figure from eastern Europe who comes to London to "ruin" it, particularly its females. There is a strong vibe against the feeling of the other, coming in to corrupt that which is considered pure. Even Van Helsing and the American get placed in a different light and offer to do things that would be improper for the Brits in the book. It's hard sometimes to remember that not all that long ago, if you weren't from the right part of Europe, you were the enemy.

You could substitute the location of the book and have it serve as a stand-in against African Americans, Asians, or, most recently, Hispanics. When they spoke in such dismissive tones about anyone that was not a WASP, I winced. It makes the book hard to read in places, though I am somewhat used to that in reading older literature of any kind. I wonder if the recent revival of racism against those who aren't "true" Americans (or Brits or French, to name a few other hotspots) made me more sensitive to this or not.

There is also the prudishness that pervades the novel. Anyone who is not strictly seen as chaste comes off badly, and the link between the vampire's kiss and sex is so well documented I don't think I need to get into it here, as the cultural racism angle interests me far more than if Stoker had problems with people enjoying intimate relations. However, everyone reads for different reasons, so you may prefer to go through the book and pick up on the signs that point to upholding a morality that is (and probably always was) out of date.

Dracula is not a book for everyone. It's still slower than a modern reader may like and the epistle format definitely will bother you if you don't get into its rhythm right away. For those who like Victorian writing or the transition period of James and Wharton, this is definitely something you should check out. I'd also recommend it for anyone who likes vampire fiction. Go to the source and see how it all began. The results may surprise you.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book Blogger Hop III

Book Blogger Hop

It's that time of the week again, where folks go around and hop from book blog to book blog, seeing what others are reading and maybe picking up a new person to follow along with here and there. I've had a great time with this, and am always looking forward to finding a few new people who share my rather odd book tastes!

The Hop is hosted by Crazy for Books, and is such a great idea!

There's always a question and today's is "Where is your favorite place to read?"

I read in a lot of places, basically anywhere that I'm standing or sitting around idle. I hate waiting without at least the ability to hop online and read the newspaper. My most common reading location is probably my bed, since I always try to read for at least 30 minutes before I go to sleep. However, if I had to pick a favorite, it would be outside, sitting on a porch or under a tree on a pleasant spring or fall day. I love having the breeze, a good drink, and an excellent book!

If this is your first time here, hello! If you're coming back, welcome back! Stick around and have a cup of The Book Stew!

Friday, October 22, 2010

10 Days of Halloween Horror!

So big, you'll find it on TWO blogs!
A crossover classic with Panel Patter!

Halloween is my favorite time of year, and I'm celebrating it with a 10-day festival on The Book Stew and its companion site, Panel Patter, where I blog about comics, manga, and zines.

Go on over and check out the intro post, then be sure to read both sites to watch Rob geek out in a serious way about his favorite time of the year! You don't want to miss what's sure to be a killer party.

And if you do...you have to answer to this guy:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

[Note: I "read" this as an audio book, if that matters to you.]

I'm always a little leery of books that are prequels, but since this was by the always solid Margaret Atwood, I was hopeful that things would turn out a bit better for me.

Sure, given Oryx and Crake's ending, a sequel would make more sense than a prequel, but I had faith that there was a reason behind going back and telling the story from a different angle. Unfortunately, this book verified my reasons for disliking prequels as a rule, and is the first Atwood book I've read that left me feeling less interested in reading more by this usually strong author.

Oryx and Crake was the story of a dystopian technocratic future and, indirectly, the story of one man's obsession to change that future, based on problems in his past. The Year of the Flood is about a group of people who may or may not have influenced that man's thinking, teaching peaceful resistance to the power structure but really working to undermine it step by step.

As with Oryx and Crake, however, there is a distance placed between the reader and the action, as we once again get the information from a source anywhere from one to several steps removed. This time, the narration is a dual one, with a smattering of sermons (more on this later) by the religious leader, Adam One.

Toby is a woman whose life went to hell in this technocratic society, as the powers that be slowly take away everything she's ever had. She finds the Gardeners, the group who, as it happens, may have influenced Crake's mad schemes. Soon Toby is finding a part of herself she never knew existed--one that may in fact save her life. Alternating narration from a different perspective is Ren, a young women who grows up as a Gardener, then must make her way in what they refer to as the exfernal world. Dumb luck saves her life, but for how long?

As these two women tell their stories, both about the way in which their life changes over time, both for good and bad, they sometimes give differing perspectives on the same situations. This is one of the high points of the book. Atwood shows how perspective can make all the difference. The trouble is that she pushes it too far, having Ren end up meeting most of the folks from Oryx and Crake, in ways that eventually stretch credulity to the breaking point. Ren and her friends end up so involved in the life of Jimmy (Snowman) it's almost comical. Unfortunately, Atwood falls victim to the problem of a prequel--she's trying to make things fit too neatly, and it ends up looking like a frame job.

Unfortunately, this also takes away from the uniqueness of the world created in Oryx and Crake. As we learn more details about this future world, it become less novel, less alien, and less interesting as a character. Giving all the details on the corruption of the new government drags things out of the world of wonder and more into our own sad world. The longer the book progresses, even as things get more like a science fiction novel, the less this feels like an innovative commentary and more like any number of movie plots. That was extremely disappointing to me.

There's also the problem that the Gardeners and Adam One sound entirely too much like they are echoing those of Atwood herself. The sermons are clunky, do not add much to the text, and end with a plea about how humanity is/was destroying the earth, depending on if you're reading it as the opinion essay it is or the fictional account it's supposed to be. I'm sympathetic to Atwood's ideals and I appreciate the better use of resources that the Gardeners espouse. The ideology bogs down the text, however, and makes this novel a lot less than it could have been.

This doesn't mean it's all bad. There are still some new elements of this world that I really like, and the characters are more engaging. Toby starts off as a stock character, but she grows into a real force who finally takes control of her own life, after spending so much time as a pawn. Ren loses herself as time goes on, finding that her personality is one that gloms on to others. Zeb, Shackleton, Crozier, Nuala, Rebeca, and the other members of the Gardeners are likable people who we want to see live despite this terrible new world. Another flaw in the book is that it seems Atwood can't kill anyone off, which is a shame because when she does end the life of a character in Year of the Flood, I was profoundly moved.

Year of the Flood ends on yet another oddly placed cliffhanger, which is a shame because I'm not sure I'm all that interested in reading more. Overall there were just too many moments where things fit nicely into place, a sign of plotting gone overboard. Toby and Ren just have to be in all the right places for this book to work, and that takes away from its sense of plausibility. (Is asking a science fiction book to be plausible unreasonable? Maybe. However, when you're asking me to accept things that are not possible in my world, I do ask that you take the time to keep the usual circumstances of life within the bounds of reason.)

Combined with the often heavy-handed condemnation of a world moving in a direction Atwood doesn't like, Year of the Flood just didn't grab me the way that Oryx and Crake did. I am intrigued enough to read the next book when it comes out, but I won't be in as much hurry this time as I was after finishing the first book in this series. There's no need to flood the bookstore or library to grab this one, and there's definitely better Atwood out there for those looking to check out her writing.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Book Blogger Hop II

It's Blog-hopping time again! Thanks to Crazy-for-Books for hosting!

Book Blogger Hop

First of all, thanks to all of you who stopped by last weekend. That was a lot of fun! I tried to get around and make some comments here and there, and I definitely found some new book bloggers to check in on!

The Hop is designed to give folks a chance to jump around to other book-related blogs and see what's out there. With so many folks over the internet all sharing their love of books, it's easy to get lost. The Hop gives you a central place to explore from, every weekend.

So if you're here for the very first time, welcome! It's good to see you! Have a cup of Book Stew and join in the discussion. If you're of a comics persuasion, you can even get in on a little Panel Patter.

This weekend's question--what do you like to drink while you read?--is an easy one for me. Wherever I am, you'll find me with an iced or hot tea in my hand, depending on the weather. Give me sweetened or unsweetened, I don't care. I'll take fancy brewed, solar, or instant. If it's tea, I'll drink it!

See you around the Hop!