Sunday, February 28, 2010

Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis by Kingsley Amis

This book consists of three parts: "On Drink," "Everyday Drinking," and "How's Your Glass?": the first is an organized treatise on drinking, according to Amis; the second, a collection of newspaper columns reprinted; and the third, a set of quizzes and their answers. The first part is absolutely hilarious, but also rings true (although, I can't imagine drinking as much as Amis suggests). The second part is fairly repetitive of the first part, and also not nearly so well organized, because it seems he's just transposed his weekly columns into the book. The quizzes are wickedly difficult. I can count the number of questions I got right on one hand. I'd recommend reading the first part straight through and dipping into the other parts as you have time. It's taken me the better part of nine months to finish this book: it's just not something you go through in one sitting. As an added bonus there are many intriguing recipes for drinks contained herein.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart

I would have loved this book as a child. These days, the adventures ring a bit flat--there's an awful lot of explanation that goes on. The idea is fairly well played, and the author seems to get a big kick out of surprising the reader every so often, but the tone rings a bit young for my taste.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Perelandra by C.S. Lewis

This book replays the story of Eve's temptation in Genesis on the planet Venus. But instead of leaving the serpent to his own devices, this time good gets an advocate in the form of Dr. Ransom who has been sent to Venus (or Perelandra, in Lewis's system) to make a case for Maleldil (that is, God and goodness). Lewis creates a beautiful world, as always, and makes a lovely case for goodness and virtue. Indeed, it's one of the best clarifications of the nature of original sin that I've ever read. For both its literary and its philosophical merits, I strongly recommend this book.

The Poacher's Son by Paul Doiron

I received this book through the Barnes and Noble First Look program. As we have not yet begun our discussion online, I'm putting the rest of my review behind a cut.

Destiny's Way by Walter Jon Williams

In this book it felt like the slog against the Yuuzhan Vong is finally turning around. I really liked seeing more of Vergere, and loved her conversations with Luke (although they definitely made Luke seem stiff and unlikeable). I thought the book did a good job of showing the new government come together: maybe because it reminded me of the Thrawn books (setting up a government after the last one has been shown not to work), I enjoyed it much more than some of the previous books in this series. I also loved that Admiral Ackbar and Winter were back in action.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Seized: A Sea Captain's Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World's Most Troubled Waters by Max Hardberger

I received this book via Sneak Peek, a branch of Barnes and Noble's First Look program. I have put the rest of my review behind a cut as we're still discussing the book on the Barnes and Noble boards.

Shakespeare's Trollop by Charlaine Harris

I really enjoyed this entry in the Lily Bard series. Deedra Dean, a local woman with a less-than-sterling reputation has been found murdered, and Lily Bard, despite her best intentions, takes up the case. I thought the plotting in this mystery worked really well, and I loved the way it showed Lily off to her best--the novels are narrated in the first person, and you can really see what a good person Lily is, though she doesn't acknowledge it to herself so very often.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca

This account of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca's journey from the coast of Florida through Texas to what is now the US Southwest blends a variety of genres. In part, it's an official relation to the king, part of Cabeza de Vaca's attempt to get the king to give him permission to keep exploring in the New World. As such, there's a fair amount of natural history (about the geography and the plants and animals that fill the land) and ethnography (about the people Cabeza de Vaca encounters). At times, Cabeza de Vaca's called upon to practice medicine, which usually consists of him conforming to indigenous expectations about ceremonial gestures and ritual actions (there's some cutting and cauterizing going on) while praying to the Catholic god to cure the people. Once he actually performs surgery to remove an old arrow. Cabeza de Vaca also uses his religious faith as a means of understanding his experience and as a possible motivation for getting the Spaniards to spend more time and energy settling the region. At the end of his captivity, when Cabeza de Vaca encounters Spaniards again, he seems estranged from them as well as from the native peoples with whom he's been living.

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

This book concludes Stephen King's Dark Tower series. I'm deeply ambivalent about this series. It does get richer over time, and I generally enjoyed the rich levels of reference (from internal symbolism like the rose and the tower to external references to The Wizard of Oz and "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came"). I also thought the meta-fictional parts were fairly well done. Finally, I thought there was generally an appropriate level of sacrifice, and I actually didn't mind that King started Roland off on his journey again (I read the implication as being that this journey just depicted was the one that taught him what he needs to know to escape the cycle). I did think King was a bit of a jerk in his afterword when he simultaneously complains that a) critics who talk about meta-fiction are pretentious but that b) inserting himself in his own story is somehow not pretentious. I'm glad I finished the series, but it'll never replace The Lord of the Rings in my mind.

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

In this book Terry Pratchett traces the humorous circumstances that result from a wizard bequeathing his powers on the eighth son of an eighth son only to discover that the son is a daughter. I found this book much funnier than the previous Discworld novels. The satire on gender conventions and on schools of wizardry was particularly good. I look forward to seeing more of Granny Weatherwax.

Popol Vuh translated by Dennis Tedlock

This book offers a translation of the Quiché alphabetic text of the Popol Vuh. I thought the introduction did a very intriguing job of explaining that the original book was actually more like a tool to be used by trained specialists, and what was written out in an alphabetic form was what one of those specialists might have said. The stories themselves were intriguing. I was particularly wondering how much indigenous contact with Catholics influenced the way the tales were told (especially with an immaculate conception story and a resurrection story) and how much these things are common to human imagination. There's also a large emphasis on twinning. I was intrigued by the way that humans took four tries to be created properly.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

In this book C.S. Lewis takes his readers on a trip to Malacandra, a type of utopia where beings are kinder to each other because there's more than one type of sentinent creature. I really enjoyed the parts of this book that explored philology and the nature of language--particularly the part where Ransom is beginning to learn the hrossa language. I also liked the author's note at the end, which gave the whole thing a meta-fictional slant--Ransom complains to CS Lewis about all the things Lewis omitted from the book, thereby including those very things, at least partially. This book has a very negative view of the way that humans treat each other (the idea is that we live on Thulcandra, the silent planet, which is not connected to the higher heavenly order because of a bent world spirit), but I thought it was beautifully written and overall quite enjoyable.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dog On It by Spencer Quinn

In this mystery Chet the dog narrates the case of a missing girl. I really loved the interactions between Chet and Bernie, the dog's point of view (great perception and difficulty communicating that perception with his owner, Bernie), and the emplotment of the mystery. The idea of having a dog narrate is a bit gimmicky, but overall the book came off as endearing.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Night by Elie Wiesel

In this memoir Elie Wiesel recounts his experiences from the beginning of the Second World War to the liberation of the camps. The heart of the story, though, is his experience of the time he spent with his father in the camps--his father's death is the real end of the story. In lyrical prose, Wiesel (and his wife, who has re-translated the book into English) recounts his utterly devastating story. In the introduction, Wiesel spends a lot of time talking about the importance of memory and the reason he recounted his story. This book is very moving.

Shakespeare's Christmas by Charlaine Harris

In this mystery Lily Bard goes home for her sister's wedding, but Jack Leeds, her detective boyfriend, and his case follow her there. This mystery strained my belief because there were three little girls who could have been the kidnapped child, and, especially in a small town, I didn't think the scenario was very likely. Still, it was an enjoyable story.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Viper's Nest by Peter Lerangis

In the 7th 39 Clues book Dan and Amy go to South Africa where they learn the value of patience, meet friends of their grandmother, Grace, and learn even more about their parents. By the end of this book, I was questioning many of the premises of their quest. As usual, while the way that all the Cahills are related strains incredulity and while the quest to assemble this substance is also strange, to say the least, I enjoyed the history and the scenery along the way.

In Too Deep by Jude Watson

In the 6th 39 Clues book Dan and Amy Cahill travel to Australia and Indonesia, following the trail of their parents, to keep finding clues. Along the way they meet a friend of their father's who hasn't been the best about keeping in touch and follow Amelia Earhart and see Krakatoa. An intriguing entry in this series, this book was entertaining and tested familial bonds in a variety of ways (between Dan and Amy and within the Lucian branch). Also--I'm getting more and more curious about Nellie Gomez.

The Black Vampyre: a Legend of St. Domingo by Uriah Derick D'Arcy

This short pamphlet contains the story of a vampire, imported to Haiti at some point in the far past (certainly before the Haitian revolution), who was killed immediately upon purchase by his master for being a weakling, but who refused to die. He turns the master's newborn son into a vampire and then the master dies two. Two husbands later, he marries the master's wife, and on their wedding night, introduces her son, whose skin and hair and nails she had buried years ago, and digs up and reanimates his former master and the two other husbands. After a battle, those husbands are dead again. There's a scene where the vampires and slaves gather, but turn against each other, and by the end the master and his wife both take a potion which renders them human again--although the master hasn't aged the sixteen intervening years, much to his wife's delight, and her first child after the incident is the son of the vampire. If it's not clear from my description, the story is somewhat of a ridiculous romp. After this tale, D'Arcy makes a point of commenting that vampirism isn't just sucking blood, but happens when people steal labor of others (a Marxist point). Then there's a long poem at the very end. Very intriguing. I wish it were more widely available.

A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia by Thomas Harriot

This book, which reprints the 1589 edition, is a fascinating account of early colonial history in the Americas. It contains descriptions of the products that might be exported, the food that could sustain colonists, and ethnographic reports of the indigenous peoples. In addition to the first part of the book, which must be read partially as propaganda convincing people to come to the area, there are illustrations of the native people, done by John White (whose granddaughter Virginia Dare disappeared with the Roanoke colonists), and also some drawings of Picts (to show the savage roots from which British civilization had risen). All in all a lovely book. A bit difficult because it exactly reproduces typeface and spellings used in the original.

John Hartwell Cocke and Bremo: A Study of Plantation Life by Catherine Helliar-Symon

This monograph gives a basic account of the life of John Hartwell Cocke in conjunction with his plantation Bremo, south of Charlottesville. To begin, it's very short and only really covers plantation experiences (for example, I know from other sources that this man was a general--but I'm not sure which war! My guess is 1812). It also took a while to get to the information I wanted (he started a school for his slaves on his plantation). Finally, this book couched Cocke as the very best of paternalism, and that attitude always makes me leery. But, it was a quick introduction to a figure I wanted to know more about.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Haw Lantern by Seamus Heaney

This collection of poetry contains my favorite sequence by Seamus Heaney, "Clearances," a most lovely meditation on his mother's death. In "Clearances" the simplest, everyday tasks gain meaning and dignity. I also particuarly enjoyed "A Ship of Death," a translation from Beowulf, and "A Peacock's Feather," on a niece's baptism. In addition I was intrigued by this collection's focus on language and writing (the first poem is called "Alphabets" for good reason). Overall a beautiful collection of poetry. Worth reading and owning for "Clearances" alone. I bought this book when I heard Mr. Heaney read at Goucher College in 2002.

The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel León-Portilla

This book anthologizes Nahautl writings about the conquest of Mexico in order to create a smooth narrative telling the events from an indigenous point of view. It's important to remember that this book has been produced through multiple layers of mediation: most of the accounts in this book were written in Nahautl and then translated into Spanish and from there into English. Furthermore, the book's translator freely admits to wanting a smooth read, so much so that paragraphs have been dropped and words changed. Furthermore, the book is anthologized, so rather than following one account, many accounts are excerpted. I would have particularly liked to get more of the poetry (not to mention some explanation of how Nahautl poetry works: is it rhymed? does it use alliteration? what about meter?).

While most of the book is clearly a native account (both through the clarity of the names that Spaniards seemed to have trouble getting right in their own accounts and in the perspective), there are moments when Spanish intervention is clear (for example, most of these accounts are written in alphabetical Nahautl, taught to the natives by Spanish priests, and at times there are references to Spanish places and the Catholic faith in ways that strike me as unusual for natives). The Aztecs don't hestitate in admitting that they first saw the Spaniards as Gods (specifically Cortés was supposed to be Queztalcoatl), but they also quickly see how the Spaniards are debased by their obession with finding gold.

I was also interested in moments of translation within the texts: most of the time, the texts just record discussions, but sometimes they explicitly show the presence of La Malinche (Doña Marina) who translated between Nahautl and Mayan, and a Spaniard who translated between Mayan and Spanish. Often these accounts portray La Malinche as siding with the Spaniards, although they don't necessarily hold this allegiance against her.

An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear

This mystery may be one of my favorites in the Maisie Dobbs series. In this story, Maisie goes to Kent to investigate a land purchase for James Compton. Again, there's less of the annoying "Maisie knows what she knows by mimicing people's body langauge" and the story surrounding Maisie's personal life is also less annoying this time. I really appreciated the way the book investigates the questions of difference and fear, and I thought the Zeppelin mystery was quite well done.

The Other Victorians by Steven Marcus

This book is an academic reading of the dark underside of Victorian sexuality. A large portion concerns publication history, a tricky question because so many of the texts that shed light on the topic were published with false names and dates or suppressed entirely. The book relies heavily on the thesis that these materials show the Victorians operated in a pre-psychological world, that is, in a time before Freud demonstrated how the mind affects our bodily impulses. The style of this book is actually quite enjoyable, perhaps because the author has such a clear grasp of and evident affection for more canonical texts; these traits enlighten his reading of the other, less well-known texts that comprise the body of his work.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

While this book is more clearly a children's book than others I've been reading lately, it offers a delightful story that I know I would have loved as a child. Four children, who, for various reasons, find themselves alone, answer an ad in a newspaper, and, after passing a series of tests, begin spying to thwart an evil man from taking over the world by brainwashing its people and making them think that there's an Emergency. The dystopia plot lines fell a little flat for me, but I loved watching the children's ingenuity as they solved problems, worked together, and learned to be a team and a family of their own. I am looking forward to reading the next books in this series.

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

This book continues the journeys of Rincewind, Twoflower, and the Luggage, who when we last saw them, were hurtling off the side of the Disc. I found this book much funnier than The Color of Magic, but that may just be because I'm starting to get Pratchett's sense of humor. I particularly liked the sidebars about metaphor and description, the way that the wizards generally had no idea what was going on, the metaphysics behind the Octavo, the star, and A'Tuin, and the new characters, especially Cohen the Barbarian. A delightful read.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

This book tells the story of a boy in a small, Southern town who falls in love with a girl who's not quite all she seems. I enjoyed this book, but I'll say right off the bat the "Southern-ness" of the book came off as stifling and awkward--not in the "I can't get out of this town" aspect so much as "I can't believe they're speaking in such clanky Southern accents" aspect. Also, I found the fantasy element (all the material about the Casters) to be a little hard to understand and awkwardly worked in. The family trees that were drawn in to the book were NOT helpful--they were in a form that made them hard to read. Still, the adventure kept me turning pages until late in the night--I liked the pacing and the plot. I thought the relationship that developed between Ethan and Lena was sweet (and a lot more realistic than some YA books I've read recently). I'm definitely going to be reading the next book in the series.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

This book takes its readers to the beginnings of the Great War, reimagined in a world where the Central powers (here, Clankers) use mechanical technologies and the Allies (Darwinists) use genetically engineered animals. The perspective is centered around two youthful protagonists who have to learn the politics of the war very quickly if they want to survive in its changing landscapes. This book is no place to learn WWI history, but its engaging perspectives on genetic modification, industrialization, gender, and politics make it a thought-provoking and enjoyable read. I can't wait till the sequel comes out in October!

Traitor by Matthew Stover

This book focuses entirely on Jacen Solo, who, contrary to his twin sister Jaina's intuitions, has not yet been killed by the Yuuzhan Vong. Instead he's a captive of the Vong and Vergere--and they seem to be working at cross purposes. In this book Jacen spends a lot of time thinking about the nature of the Force and the nature of the threat the Yuuzhan Vong pose to the galaxy. I really enjoyed these parts. During the last third, Ganner Rhysode appears in an amusing but ultimately somewhat out-of-place manner. Despite the lack of all movie characters, I thought this entry was a refreshing relief to space battle after space battle.

Shakespeare's Champion by Charlaine Harris

This mystery starts with Lily Bard discovering a body at the local gym, but quickly becomes more complicated and nefarious. Racial tensions have been spiraling through the small, Southern town where Lily lives, and she finds herself drawn into an activist role. While this book is not the most probing assessment of race in the modern US that I've seen, I appreciated Ms. Harris's willingness to delve into complicated problems. The murder mystery ticked right along as well.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

In this book John Irving explores coincidence and events that can motivate religious faith. I found the story really beautiful and moving. I think the narrator's responses to Vietnam and especially to the Iran-Contra crisis fell a little bit flat. I really loved the character of Owen Meany, who kept surprising me, even at the very end.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Proceed with Caution, When Engaged by Minority Writing in the Americas by Doris Sommer

This book explores gaps and lacunae in various American texts. Sommer makes a case for reading difficulties in the text as signs of particularity that should be respected instead of as something to be deconstructed and then pushed right over. Rather than the modernist difficulties that showed the reader that his or her work was valuable, these difficulties mark moments when readers ought to realize their status as outsiders. Sommer gives a number of different types of gaps and not telling. I thought her most effective chapters were on Beloved and translation and court cases. I would have liked a conclusion that tied things together more effectively in the end, but in some senses, that might be a lacuna of its own necessary to this text.

The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

In this book Maugham presents a fictionalized account of painter Paul Gauguin's life. I was intrigued by the narrator, who hovers just alongside the edge of the story. He's definitely a character, but I was never quite able to bring him fully into focus. I think this book came out on the misogynistic side (although not as bad as D.H. Lawrence)--the women, and most especially Mrs. Strickland, are seen as only capable of loving and not of having lives and interests outside of their husbands (Mrs. Strickland does start a business to support herself, but she doesn't seem to take any pride or interest in it). I was also interested in the book's view of art. It wasn't really interested in ekphrasis or trying to recreate paintings but it was interested in reproducing critical evaluations (who was a good painter) and a little about why those painters might be good. All the artists (and even the critics) in the book are men. For all these complaints, it was an enjoyable and quick read.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

I received this book from the Barnes and Noble First Look program. Discussion hasn't finished yet, so I'll post my review behind a cut.