Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Declaration of Independence edited by Michael Hardt

This edition of Jefferson's writings, prefaced by an essay of Hardt's, insists on separating Jefferson's political thoughts from the inconsistencies in his life. Furthermore, the selections are carefully chosen to reflect Hardt's own ideas about how Jefferson ought to be read--as advocating a model of democracy with revolutions every 20 years and then training the citizens for democracy with a ward system.

The Annotated Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

This edition of The Hobbit is handsome, generously illustrated, and has notes containing more of Tolkien's poetry, details of his life, and similiarities to Norse epics. Reading the story for the 10th time, I think, I noticed more structure this time than usually--Gandalf uses reverse tricks to convince Bilbo and Beorn to help the dwarves' quest, and as Bilbo must be saved from the trap of the trolls, he saves the dwarves from the spiders and elves. A great story.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien's son published the writings about the origins of the elves, in which Tolkien found people less than interested during his lifetime, in this book. The Silmarillion is obviously less polished than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, both of which read gracefully. This volume includes five overlapping texts: Ainulindalë, Valaquenta, Quenta Silmarillion, Akallabêth, and Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age. Despite the lack of continuity--which makes the reading slower and less enjoyable than the polished works, these stories constitute a faithful continuation of the history of Middle Earth. Tolkien still values beauty, moral goodness, and making choices, and constructs his world such that choices have to be made--no one, except possibly Ilúvatar has it all.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

This drama is domestic and vicious. Reading it is like watching A Lion in Winter.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein

I found this play entertaining reading, but I'm not convinced that it completely works in the end. I like the art history lectures, and the idea of telling the story through vignettes of Heidi's life, but the politics of the play are fairly predictable and routine and Wasserstein strikes such a reasonable, middle-ground sort of point, that I'm not entirely convinced she's saying much of anything at all. Ultimately one of those works far more interesting for its flaws than its successes.

The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez

This mystery was fairly compelling. The red herring was particularly well done; I spent so much time paying attention to her that I nearly missed part of the murder. Some of the math discussions dragged on a bit too long and some of Martínez' work covering up the clues that would give away the mystery was a bit heavy-handed, but otherwise a quick, smart read.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

This novel is perhaps the worst of the His Dark Materials trilogy, though of course one couldn't appreciate the trilogy without reading this book. Pullman has constructed a church so evil, it's impossible not to hate organized religion, which is all well and good--except that it makes the moral decisions in the book too easy. Also, the book is filled with easy ways out--between the knife, the alethiometer, and the spyglass. While Will and Lyra make a hard decision at the end, by the time they get there, these other flaws in the books make that decision far less significant than it could have been.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

I found this populist fairy tale quite enjoyable. At times simple, and definitely written to be understood and enjoyed by children (though their parents ought to follow the allegory), the book tells a pretty good story.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

This book is clearly rich: there's a lot a careful reader could do with the ideas in it, the images Vonnegut uses to get to the ideas, and the humor. While I appreciated the aesthetic value of the book, and found its ideas about stasis, free will, and the effect of war (and destruction like Dresden more specifically) on the human spirit compelling, I don't all out adore the book. The style doesn't quite resonate as it could.

Lord Peter by Dorothy Sayers

This complete collection of Dorothy Sayers's short stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey is simply delightful. It's easier to leap to the proper conclusion in the short stories than in the novels, partially because there's less room for things to unfold, but the stories are uniformly written with the wit and grace that makes Sayers's writing so enjoyable. This collection would be especially good if one didn't have the time or energy to read an entire novel. I particularly liked the story solved by a crossword puzzle, the story whose key lay in an old book, and the story in which Lord Peter showed off his fine palate.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Eros and Psyche by Karen Chase

This study contrasts three psychological novels: Jane Eyre, Bleak House, and Middlemarch. While all three write the character of the individual into the fabric of the book, Chase is careful to preserve differences and distances between the authors. The readings seem spot on, and Chase gracefully links her arguments together.

The Wind's Twelve Quarters by Ursula K. Leguin

I found this collection of short stories enjoyable but uneven. I enjoyed the two Earthsea stories, "The Word of Unbinding" and "The Rule of Names" (uncollected elsewhere) the most, but I also really liked "Winter's King" and "April in Paris." I had a hard time getting into some of the most hardcore science fiction, and her fantasy/science fiction writing remains much more compelling, to my mind, than her realist fiction. The collection would be worth picking up and skimming, and then reading only the appealing ones.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling

I was surprised by this collection of short stories. They aren't all about Mowgli, and not all of them are even set in India. Kipling includes a lot of verse, some of which is more compelling than the rest. The Mowgli stories and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi are the best; they all focus on the way that the jungle works--through a Law which all obey. Overall better than I thought they would be.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Rape of Clarissa by Terry Eagleton

I found this study to improve as it went along. It begins by setting Clarissa in its cultural context, in an introduction almost as long as the book itself. Then the first part of the main text is a Freudian reading of the book, focusing on the sexual/textual metaphor. The second part of the main text (and the real reason to read this book) is a rollicking attack on previous readings of the rape. Eagleton certainly doesn't hold any punches here. He concludes with a coda on Sir Charles Grandison.

The Circus and Victorian Society by Brenda Assael

I found this study to be well organized and strikingly informative. Assael starts with a chapter on the origins of the Victorian circus and then examines the circus through five classes of performances: the nationalist/patriotic equestrian play, the incorporation of the exotic (animals), clowns, female acrobats, and child acrobats. Remarkably well-supported by particular detail, Assael's theories address both the relation of the circus to the coming of industry and British imperialism, and the gaze and gasp of the spectator watching dangerous acts.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Three Vampire Tales edited by Anne Williams

This edition brings together three vampire tales from the early to late nineteenth century. Williams includes a thorough introduction, and lots of contextual material first. John Polidori's The Vampyre is perhaps most notable for the circumstances surrounding its creation: when the Shelleys and Lord Byron read Coleridge's "Christabel" (excerpted in this volume) and decided to write their own ghost stories, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and Byron started a vampire story. Polidori, his doctor at the time, finished it, and published it, so it's sometimes mistakenly attributed to Byron. The volume also includes Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, but its centerpiece is, of course, Bram Stoker's Dracula. The terror in all three of the stories comes, at least in part, from the doubling and repetition of the vampire's attacks. Beloved women are particularly susceptible to the vampire (who attack the men via their daughters, sisters, and wives) whether the vampire attacking is male or female. Dracula itself has a complex structure, and includes a fascination with travel, the combination of multiple strands of the plot in complex ways, and a superb use of Gothic horror. The juxtaposition of the tales is quite interesting, but Dracula is the jewel of the collection.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Unnatural Death by Dorothy Sayers

I liked this Lord Peter mystery. In some ways it seems unfair to the reader, as a motive for the murder appears midway through as the result of a change in inheritance law. Lord Peter is brilliant as ever, of course, and I didn't see the mode of death coming at all. It raises some interesting moral questions, but answers them pretty well by the end. Overall an enjoyable mystery.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The second installment in His Dark Materials clarifies the Miltonian and Biblical roots of the series. Lyra meets a boy, Will, who also functions as an orphan. At times, the use of both the alethiometer and the subtle knife seem a bit forced, and the power of the forces of the Authority seems a bit exaggerated as they respond so quickly to some things and completely miss other things. Overall, an enjoyable middle book that moves the trilogy along.

The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman

I found this book intriguing. Lyra lives in a world very much like our own, except that consciences take external, animal forms called daemons, and the roots for electricity and amber have been switched (though we don't find that out till The Subtle Knife). The book is frankly anti-authoritarian and anti-church, although one has to keep reading to get the full extent of Pullman's alternate theology. This book is carefully plotted and well written. It is much more subtle and sophisticated than the movie.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

I found it difficult to get into this novel at first. Although I was hopping into the middle of a cycle, I think it would have been as difficult as if I had come at it with more experience with the fictional universe: the world of Winter is certainly eccentric, and the explanations don't really come until mid-way through the book. I found the book bizarre, but rewarding eventually. I liked the development of the relationship between Genly Ai and Estravan, but didn't recognize it as central to the book until at least halfway through. Le Guin's speculations on pronouns at the back are interesting, though I think "e" (say: eh) reminds me too much of "he" to be effective as a non-gendered singular pronoun. Worth pursuing even if the first chapter doesn't grab you.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin

I enjoyed the last, at least for now, book in the Earthsea Cycle. Like Tehanu and Tales from Earthsea, it retains the psychological focus, and continues reworking and re-imagining the connections between magic and gender, between humans and dragons, between life and death. It's exciting to see Earthsea grow and change as Le Guin matures and spends more time thinking about it. I do think, despite their flaws, the first three books work so well as a unit, that the big plot that develops in the second three feels a bit off. J.K. Rowling said of her Harry Potter series that she doesn't want to write any more novels because she has already written her epic battle for good and evil, and anything else would either make that battle less important or be less important itself. So it feels a little funny to me, to write a series where Ged breaches the wall between life and death, then heals it, and then, only after you've gone through all that thinking the world is healed but Ged isn't, to find that the wall is the problem in the first place. But, loving the characters and the world as I do, it's always a delight to return.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Tales from Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

This collection of short stories continues the Earthsea cycle in the direction of Tehanu. Le Guin uses these stories to investigate and challenge the sexism inherent at the school on Roke. The stories span a wide range of history: they begin with the founding of the school on Roke and end after the events of Tehanu. Unfortunately, this collection does not include two of Le Guin's Earthsea stories, which are published in The Wind's Twelve Quarters, but otherwise, the collection is solid, and well worth the read.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin

I enjoyed this installment in the Earthsea (trilogy no more) Cycle, but it's very different from the first three. The magic, to the extent that it exists at all, is very understated: Ged has lost his (and is absent for much of the book anyway), Tenar, to the extent that she participates in Hardic magic is untutored, and Therru/Tehanu only shows hints of power. Instead, this book is much more psychological, focusing on the healing of three wounded and scarred individuals. Although Le Guin says that this book brought Earthsea up to present-time as she was writing, and she apparently meant to stop, its ending has an unfinished feel to it: it's more like a pause than a full stop.