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.