Friday, May 30, 2008

Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten by Gary Gallagher

This book presents an even-handed and entertaining account of the way the Civil War appears in Hollywood movies and visual art. Focusing most specifically on the last twenty years, Gallagher identifies four responses to the Civil War (Lost Cause, Unionist, Emancipation, and Reconciliation) and tracks Hollywood's increasingly Emancipationist films in contrast to Lost Cause visual art. He concludes that the most remarkable aspect of the nation's memory of the Civil War is its disregard of the strong Unionist sentiments of the North. Altogether a very enjoyable read.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Thinks... by David Lodge

This book pits science against literature, along the lines of Nice Work--only this time, the stakes are raised as a novelist and a cognitive scientist fight about the nature of consciousness. There are a lot of serendipitous coincidences throughout the novel, and they pile on particularly high at the end, but overall, this is a fun read.

Vathek by William Beckford

This short novel tells the tale of Vathek's fall into blasphemy and his ultimate destruction. A critique of his insatiable desires--both for sensual satisfaction and for knowledge--the book disguises some of its harshest commentary with its exotic, Middle Eastern setting.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Bishop's Tale by Margaret Frazer

This mystery again takes Dame Frevisse outside the convent, this time to the funeral of her uncle, Thomas Chaucer. The mystery and its solution build steadily but slowly (and indeed, its definitive proof is limited by the conditions of the time and the investigator)--but this series intrigues me less for its mysteries of death than for its continuing development of the character of Dame Frevisse and its work on elucidating the mystery of what such a life might have been like.

The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips

This book, which has the best megalomaniac since Charles Kinbote, fascinating Egyptian history, not one but two unreliable narrators, and a frantic treasure hunt, raises questions of history, creativity, and interpretation. I love that the story that I took from the novel at its end is not related clearly anywhere, but that I am able to infer it from the precise ways that each of the main narrators (Ralph Trilipush and Harold Ferrell) are unreliable. This story shows an intense desire to re-create and re-make in one's own image, a serious disregard for the truth, and a lot of humor (if gruesome humor) throughout. I look forward to re-reading this book. The setting (nearby Howard Carter's discovery of King Tutankhamen) is icing on the cake.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Wyndham Case by Jill Paton Walsh

This mystery is quite enjoyable, in the style of Gaudy Night. In addition to a good mystery, there were a lot of academic politics boiling right below the surface, and I loved the romantic tension, and the sub-plot of the missing rare book (which I located as soon as I knew it was lost...). Well worth some attention.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I love this book. Goldman claims (unreliably) to have edited out politics, but not only does he tell a smashingly good adventure story, he uses his edits and redactions (of a supposedly longer and more political instant classic) to make fine points about the nature of narration and genre. This story is quite enjoyable and well worth returning to time and again.

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

This book is a really engaging description of the author's madcap tour around Britain right before he leaves for an extend absence in the United States. At times, things get a bit silly (sure, there's no good rail service between Oxford and Cambridge [you have to connect through London]--but you could also take the bus, with which a day trip is very manageable), and at times, Bryson sounds like an unbearable jerk, but overall, I really enjoyed both Bryson's obvious enthusiasm for Britain and his witty description of his trip.

Tintenblut by Cornelia Funke

I enjoyed this book more than its predecessor, Tintenherz. In this sequel, much of the action goes to the Tintenwelt, and the action is much more exciting (at least for me)--also, there's a more thorough and robust investigation of the rules of reading changes into books (although nothing definitive is hashed out by the end)--although I still worry that there's a bit much of the deus ex machina. I'm really interested to see how this series ends up.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

This story of self-discovery is intertwined with the discovery of the history of a book--a history that moves backwards. The book in question is a haggadah, but the heroism and tolerance which this book inspires brings out the best in everyone who comes to love it. This story is very well-written, and beautifully conceived.

In the Walled City by Stewart O'Nan

This collection of stories depicts people in flux--and as with O'Nan's novels, the reader gets a strong sense of the characters of the various people involved in the stories. Although sometimes O'Nan gets so caught up in the dead-end lives he describes that he writes dead-end stories, generally this collection is effective and works well as a whole.

Nice Work by David Lodge

This book gets at the differences between the academy and industry. Set in Rummidge, like Changing Places and Small World, and featuring a few returning characters, Nice Work also gives a great send-up of academia. Although this book is not as original as its predecessors, it's still funny and it has a great plot. Booker shortlisted, 1988.

Songs for the Missing by Stewart O'Nan

This book is one of Stewart O'Nan's better attempts. He does an excellent job of evoking the community response to a local girl's disappearance and the gradual process of secrets coming out into the open. Of course, the facts of her disappearance are secondary to the response, but this book is generally a pretty good portrait of a loss.

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

This satire, which I found more robust and enjoyable than A Handful of Dust, finds room to criticize Oxbridge, boarding schools, society, religion, and the English penal system, to name a few things, in a rollicking romp through a mistaken exile from higher education. Really funny and really biting.

Clouds of Witness by Dorothy Sayers

This novel raises the stakes for Lord Peter--this time he has to find the solution to his brother's murder charge. I particularly enjoyed Peter's difficulty in moving past both his brother's and his sister's additional obstructions. Very satisfying.

Lord Peter Views the Body by Dorothy Sayers

This collection of short stories is entirely comprised of Lord Peter stories. The stories are generally good--but if you've read Lord Peter, they're all repeats...

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

This bildungsroman traces the development of one woman's skills in healing and self-confidence during a plague year--one in which her village decides to cut themselves off from the rest of England in the hopes of slowing the spread of the Black Death. I found it to be very well-written, and I loved the complex development of the characters.

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

This novel is a biting social satire, set in England between the wars. It was a very engaging read, and I was very interested in the ways that architecture was employed to reinforce themes of decay.

A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz

This book takes the reader along on the author's trip through the United States, tracking early American history. In addition to being quite well-written and very amusing, it seems to offer a fairly cogent, general, early history of American exploration, carefully tracking aspects of history that aren't necessarily taught in American elementary schools. It's a little casual for a formal history book (though it has a robust bibliography) and it's by no means comprehensive (although it is upfront about what it includes and excludes and why)--but well worth the read.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

This book combines a reasonably entertaining story about a little girl's mistake and its consequences with a meditation on the nature of authorship and what writing can and cannot do. I think the story is reasonably well-done (although the beginning is much stronger than the end), and the meta-fiction aspect is not bad, but overall, it might be trying to do a little much. Booker shortlisted, 2001.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

This book is a fascinating study of the process of reading. As the reader-hero attempts to read a book whose identity and content are constantly shifting, Calvino explores the relationship between stories and communities and the reader and the text. This book is easily one of the best I've read all year; after reading the first chapter, I returned the library copy and bought my own to read.

The Wild Palms by William Faulkner

This novel tells two unrelated stories in an interweaving pattern: the story of a young doctor's elopement with a married woman and the story of a convict's tribulations when the Mississippi River floods. Although neither of these stories are set in Yoknapatawpha, they are still very Faulknerian (his elevated diction and syntactically complex sentences remain), and they complement each other very well thematically. I was particularly interested in Faulkner's treatment of the pregnant women, of fate and resignation, and of responsibility.

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

I recently re-read this book, which is part-travelogue, part-history, and part-cultural studies, with a good dose of humor as well. Horwitz examines the South's continued fascination with the Civil War. He takes an admirable tone--in his search he encounters all sorts of points of view--and he tends to present them even-handedly, with both perspective and distance, so that readers can draw their own opinions. Although this book doesn't hit the entire former Confederacy, it provides a humorous and enlightening overview of what the Civil War means to some parts of current US culture.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

This novel, a gentle portrait of the brief interactions between four people who come together in an abandoned Italian villa during the final days of World War Two, gives an account of the tentative and fragile process of healing. Although not much happens, much is revealed in this beautiful book. Booker award winner (shared), 1992.

The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan

It took me a while to get into this novel because I was having a hard time placing the narrators and the narrative interjections. It builds up, along with memories of what was lost in a car accident, a sense of purpose and of unfinished business. There are several innovative stylistic moves on the part of O'Nan, including great, self-aware narrative commentary, and a Time's Arrow-like section that moves backward at the end of the book.

The Good Wife by Stewart O'Nan

This novel chronicles the life of a woman while she waits for her husband to be paroled from jail after he has been sentenced to life for a murder which he may or may not have committed. His innocence isn't exactly the point; instead it's his wife's failures and successes as she tries to navigate life in a world radically changed. At times, I'm slightly mistrustful of the woman O'Nan has created; I have a slight sense that she doesn't quite ring true, although I have difficulty pinpointing exactly what makes me feel that way. Her steady endurance and her warm heart win me over, however,

The Outlaw's Tale by Margaret Frazer

This mystery builds slowly, and relies on Dame Frevisse's ability to read character as much as her ability to read clues. Although she's outside of the convent when she's waylaid by her long-lost cousin, an outlaw, she still has severe limitations on the amount of direct detecting she can do. Not my favorite of this series, but a very nice portrait of medieval life in a well-to-do household.

The Golden Ball and Other Stories by Agatha Christie

These stories have more to do with the supernatural, moral decisions, and finding happiness than with the more conventional body in the bathtub stories that Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple solve. There are no recurring characters, and some of the mysteries end entirely benevolently, with their protagonists discovering new things about themselves. A refreshing collection.

To Let by John Galsworthy

The end of this trilogy does not disappoint. Although the decisions made and habits formed in the earliest parts of the saga continue their lasting effect over the destiny of the youngest members of the family, the book is a gorgeous elegy to a certain instinct of possession--an elegy which all the while lovingly acknowledges the failures of those who possess this instinct. The story fits together very well. Little details also delighted me--most of all, the family name, Forsyte, which could not possibly be an accident. I look forward to returning to this saga time and time again.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Digging to America by Anne Tyler

This book offered a sweet story about fitting in. It tells the story of the unlikely friendship between the Donaldson-Dickersons and the Yazdans that develops after both families adopt daughters from Korea. Although the book was uneven at times (some parts felt like they developed awfully quickly), it was an enjoyable read, full of warmth and humor.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Akhnaton by Agatha Christie

This play brings up big questions of both religion and imperialism. In telling the story of the rise and fall of an Egyptian king who embraced monotheism and humane concepts such as ending slavery, war, and oppression, Christie draws parallels between that king's religion and the Christian faith, and between the British and Egyptian empires. She also investigates the relationship between art, culture, and war, and the relationship between a king, his country, and the people.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Sepulchre by Kate Mosse

This book follows a pattern established by Mosse's earlier Labyrinth and indeed, shares its location and several peripheral characters with the older book. In an investigation that eventually take a supernatural turn (and that makes the inevitable Grail reference), Meredith Martin comes to the south of France to find her family, and gets caught up in a mystery that's more than 100 years old. I read this book because it was heavily hyped, and I have to admit, at the end, there was more smoke than fire. Both the plot (in its structure) and the writing itself were full of clichés, and I'm not sure I buy the initial motivation of the 1890s murderer. This book is probably just the type of book I would write if I were a writer, but I suppose that's why I confine my literary activities to reading and criticism.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Small World by David Lodge

A summer of conference-going, a highly coveted UNESCO chair of making a ridiculous sum of money for no work, a helpful airport employee, a mysterious, yet brilliant, appearing-then-disappearing grad student, a street performance of The Wasteland and old favorites Phillip Swallow and Morris Zapp make this book an excellent read. In his highly literate, self-aware, and allusive send-up of the academic conference scene, David Lodge outdoes himself.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Circus Fire by Stewart O'Nan

I read this book last night. I thought it was well-written, in terms of style, and it seemed to be very well-researched (although it's obvious the publisher conceived of the audience as non-academic: I would have loved some footnotes). I thought O'Nan did an excellent job capturing the human side of the tragedy, and also giving a fairly comprehensive picture of what happened and how it happened from before the fire (including a preliminary section on a Cleveland menagerie tent fire in 1942) until 1999. I had no idea that there had been a circus tent fire in Hartford in 1944, and now I feel like I have a very good sense of what generally happened. I cannot recommend this book quite as enthusiastically as I have his other works, however, because it's a very tough read emotionally. There's a bit of graphic detail about how people died (and how even those who didn't die in the fire suffered physically), there's at least one photograph of a dead body (it's not tasteless, and was published in newspapers as part of an attempt to identify the girl, known as Little Miss 1565, but still surprised me when I turned the page and found it), and there's a lot of human suffering in this book. I personally think that the stories of the courageous and not-so-courageous men and women who experienced the fire more than compensates for the disturbing, violent, and sad passages, but I wanted to be upfront about the fact that this book could be one of the most difficult I've read this year, emotionally, and let people decide for themselves whether they want to spend their time reading that kind of book, or sticking to the fiction (which has the advantage, even in cases of suffering as appalling as those in this book, of not being true if you're the type of person whom graphic or very sad stories upsets).

Endless Night by Agatha Christie

This mystery was one of those difficult ones where the nuts and bolts of the death does not happen until very near the end. Still, all the clues were there (and some of them even unsettled me as I was reading them the first time)--the difficult part is pinpointing what there is to be a mystery about. It also has a great portrait of a criminal's mind.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Murder at Hazelmoor (The Sittaford Mystery) by Agatha Christie

I was sure I knew the solution to this mystery all the time I was reading it--and as it turns out, I was dead wrong. Christie doesn't use one of her usual detectives for this story, but instead mostly follows the work of the fiancée of the accused, Emily Trefusis. I thought this mystery was particularly well-done; I love mysteries that have all sorts of secondary and tertiary plots running through them as well.