Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

This book gives a fictionalized account of Alexis de Tocqueville's trip to America. The book opens with an account of it's hero's (Olivier de Garmont) childhood, which reminds me a lot of Marcel's childhood in Swann's Way. Garmont's parents decide to send him to America to investigate the penal system (but really to escape the wave of revolutions and anti-aristocratic feeling in France); a British man working for a friend of Garmont's mother accompanies Garmont as his servant. Despite the vast differences between the two men, they form a friendship, as each learns more about America itself. This book is quite enjoyable.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Faulkner: A House Divided by Eric Sundquist

In this book Sundquist argues that the best way to understand Faulkner's literature is to see his good books (leaving the bad ones out of the equation) as being divided chronologically: in the first ones (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Sanctuary) Faulkner develops a modernist form of his own, and in the later ones (Light in AugustAbsalom! Absalom!, and Go Down, Moses) he finds themes (of race and racial conflict) appropriate for those forms. Sundquist does a nice job building connections between Faulkner's characters (I particularly liked the idea that although Quentin Compson commits suicide early on, Faulkner needs him too much to let him die), and connecting Faulkner's literature to both earlier nineteenth-century American prose (as Faulkner moves from Modernist to Americanist in Sundquist's estimation) and to the history Faulkner keeps digging up. The argument was fairly convincing and articulated very well.

The Fleet Street Murders by Charles Finch

I enjoyed this book, but I am starting to get the sense that these books are as much interested in telling about the development of characters (the detective's run for Parliament, his courtship of his neighbor, his friendship with a doctor who has let success drive him to drinking) than about the mystery itself--indeed, I felt that the mystery was harder for the reader to solve along because in this case, Lenox is far more interested in getting himself elected to Parliament by a town he's never visited before in his life (and NO, the defense of virtual representation was NOT convincing) than in solving the mystery. This book was enjoyable, but it's no substitute for Agatha Christie.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Although this book is different from the first two in the Hunger Games series in that the games have been ended and it's all about the resistance to the Capital, I found this book very enjoyable and a fitting ending to a great series. Katniss is faced with choices to make (should she accept the role of being public face of the resistance?) and consequences for those choices--and she has to determine what sacrifices should be made for liberty. This book asks big questions and answers them bravely--while it's not for the weak of heart, it will leave you with a lot to think about and a lot to ponder.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Legal Handbook for Photographers by Bert Krages

This book presented legal challenges that might face photographers from a variety of perspectives (i.e. from taking pictures, to publishing them, to defending copyrights) in a level-headed and informative way. The main messages I will be taking away from this book are that it's important to understand your rights, it's better to explain clearly what you're doing (and often to ask permission first), and that if you can avoid legal recourse, it's often cheaper and better than taking someone to court.

Invincible by Troy Denning

This book concludes the Legacy of the Force series. It was much more focused than the previous books in the series--it really boiled down to a series of confrontations between Darth Caedus and the rest of his family. I thought that the series ended correctly, for the way it was set up (although I didn't particularly like the way that Jacen went to the Dark Side--I felt it was inconsistent with his character as it had been set up in earlier books).

The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other by Tzvetan Todorov

This book uses the Spanish conquest of the New World, and particularly Cort├ęs in Mexico, to investigate the ways that humans understand the other. I found the book particularly interesting in its history. I thought that the example of the conquest worked well for Todorov's points about the other (and found the chapter about signs and types of communication particularly helpful)--but I don't think this book would be a good way to understand the conquest on its own. I also really liked the last chapter about two different Europeans writing about native cultures.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart

While the main plot of this book follows a couple struggling to deal with the death of their only son, there's a lot more here. There's a lot of humor, lots of history (especially as relates to the Tower of London) and even a bit of mystery (what exactly happened to Milo, the son?). The playful moments, the magically realistic story of the Beefeater asked to open a menagerie in the Tower, and the story of attempts to find the owners of property lost in the London Underground contrasted powerfully with the story of living with loss. All around an excellent read.

Hard Core by Linda Williams

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

This book, while beloved by children, is rich for any reader. The satire is sweeping and at times vicious (but what else would you expect from the author of "A Modest Proposal"). I was particularly interested in the changes in Gulliver during the journey. While at first he wanted to return to England, his wife, and children, by the end, he so misses the Houyhnhnms that he can barely stand human contact. This ending reminded me of the quick disposal of Robinson Crusoe's family in his book--but Gulliver seems to change more than Crusoe (who never worried particularly much about human contact). I was also struck by Swift's great imagination--Gulliver finds himself in all sorts of wildly different societies--and in places that could conceivably (just barely) exist within the world of that time. All in all a marvelous book--I'm sorry it took me so long to get around to reading it!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Revelation by Karen Traviss

In this book Ben Skywalker confirms for himself that Jacen Solo killed his mother, Jacen continues to act like a creep and a petty tyrant, and Jaina patches things up with the Fetts in order to be ready to kill her brother. This book felt like it was marking time till the grand finale, though I enjoyed the Mandalorian parts.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The September Society by Charles Finch

In this book Charles Lennox returns to investigate a case of missing boys at Oxford, which seems to relate to military affairs of twenty years ago in India. The main case itself was quite interesting and well-plotted, if a bit opaque (there was a fair amount of explanation left at the end of the book), but the romantic subplot struck me as silly.

Theodor SEUSS Geisel by Donald Pease

I think this book would have been more successful if it focused on either presenting a straight biography of Dr. Seuss or giving a critical reading of his books. Merging the two strains, in this instance, read like an attempt to use the books of Dr. Seuss to diagnose his own childhood traumas (much like the people who want to diagnose characters and historical figures with various conditions after the fact). I thought it was enjoyable to read--but at times, the biography skipped around, so I was left a little confused as to what happened when, and how the life fit together. It did provoke me to think more deeply about the books themselves, and the ways in which they make reading both possible and fun for children.

Eric by Terry Pratchett

This book tells the story of Eric, a thirteen-year-old demonologist who tries to make a Faustian bargain with a demon to get power over the whole world, the most beautiful woman in the world, and to live forever, but ends up with Rincewind instead. The fulfillment of the wishes (including spoofs of the Aztecs and the Trojan War and the Big Bang [this last could almost have been written by Douglas N Adams]) is pretty funny. I enjoyed the peeks at the Unseen University, Death, and Pandemonium as well. A solid entry in the Discworld series.

Storm Warning by Linda Sue Park

The penultimate book in the 39 Clues series answers a lot of outstanding questions about the Cahill family, the Madrigals, and Nellie's behavior. I thought the pirate part of the hunt was cool--and I'm really excited to see how it all wraps up now.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

This book chronicles Bryson's experiences hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1996. In addition to his personal experiences, there's a lot of information about the history of the trail, and the nature and other things one encounters along the way. He's willing to push beyond the appearance of things (for example, what do the National Park Service and National Forest Service actual do with the land and resources they're protecting), and he serves it all up in an entertaining and humorous style. This book prompts some great reflection about our relationship to the natural world and to our own bodies and their capabilities. A great read.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Antiphon by Ken Scholes

This book continues the Psalms of Isaak series--and it really increases the stakes. As Jin Li Tam, Rudolpho, Petronus, Nebios, Winters, Vlad Li Tam, and Isaak all seek to serve the Light, alliances shift and the path to serve the light becomes less and less clear. This book has lots of surprises--and really, no one seems truly safe. Scholes investigates what family means and what we owe our family--and what separates man from machine in this beautiful and intriguing book. I can't wait till the last two in the series come out!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald

This book continues the adventures of the Princess Irene, focusing on Curdie, the miner's son who helped her in the last book. He battles his way through a series of challenges only to discover that the king is being poisoned by a cabal of his treacherous subjects. Curdie is helped in the challenge by the mysterious Queen Irene and her servant, the hideous but loyal dog Lina, and prevails because of his loyalty and good behavior. An excellent adventure, with a moral that's not too overbearing, but a strange ending; despite its strangeness, I think it works.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney W. Mintz

This book presents a history of sugar. While in some ways I found it to be somewhat Anglo-centric, it was a really fascinating account of the rise of sugar as a form of food. It's Mintz's contention that sugar and the patterns of consumption that surround it are not accidental or arbitrary, but instead the result of larger economic patterns. I found the production and eating and being chapters particularly helpful--Mintz talks about the way that sugar's chemical properties (especially in preserving food) and its historical circumstances have changed the way we eat--and thus the way that we relate to each other. This book is really remarkable.

Fury by Aaron Allston

This book continues to tell the story of Jacen's fall. He gets even more protective of Allana, to no avail for his own plans, while Jag, Jaina, Zekk, Han, and Leia track down Alema Rar and Luke decides to support the Galactic Alliance, but not Jacen. Jacen gets even worse as a character, so it's going to be easier when he's eventually defeated, but I'm still generally frustrated by this plot line.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

In this book Terry Pratchett follows the logical consequences of professionalizing thieves in Ankh-Morph: the city watch becomes superfluous--except not, as an ambitious leader of a secret society uses a dragon to terrorize the city. This novel is rollickingly funny and a quick read to boot. The first few Discworld novels were difficult for me to appreciate, but I'm finding that as the series continues, the books keep getting better and better.

The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James

This monograph gives a fairly thorough history of the Haitian Revolution. While James contends that you can't understand the Haitian Revolution except in the context of the French Revolution, and historical circumstances more generally, I think James does a good job of avoiding the trap of merely reproducing metropolitan/colonial relationships. According to James, Toussaint L'Ouverture is the driving force behind the Revolution, so the book's a tad Toussaint heavy. Still, this book strikes me as an excellent overview of the Haitian Revolution and a good perspective from which to start thinking about that historical moment.

The Lamplighter by Maria Susanna Cummins

This book tells the story of Gerty Flint, who overcomes a poor and deprived childhood to find happiness. The story is pretty good--of course there's a bit of gothicism in the family romance (missing family members) who reappear by the end, and a good measure of religious sentiment (but not so bad as The Wide, Wide World), and a fair amount of sentimentalism. There are a few points where Gerty seems almost modern--she wants to stand up for herself and earn her own way, at one point, and at another, she lets another girl be saved from the fire instead of herself, but she never quite breaks out in a fully satisfying way. Still, I'm interested in the intricate plot, and the character development (which at times seems a bit flat or uneven). Much more enjoyable than I thought it might be.

World of Wonders by Robertson Davies

The third entry in the Deptford Trilogy returns to Dunstan as narrator, but this time he's telling the story of Paul Dempster, the boy born prematurely when Percy Boyd Staunton threw a snowball at Dunstable Ramsay which hit Mary Dempster instead, and who ran away at a young age to join the circus. There's much less recapitulation in this book because Dempster, known as Magnus Eisengrim now, had much less interaction with the Ramsay-Staunton set during his life, but it's really a magnificent story. It ties up loose ends (although in some cases, I like my speculation better than what Davies says happened). As a whole, I enjoyed the trilogy. I thought its strengths were its ability to revisit situations from several perspectives (still keeping it fresh) and its different takes on what it means to grow up. At times, I felt like it was slightly misogynist, but my overall impression was one of enjoyment.

The Manticore by Robertson Davies

The second book in the Deptford trilogy shifts its focus to Boy Staunton's son, David, who is undergoing a course of therapy in Switzerland following his father's death. This book tells us a lot about David, and could very well destabilize Dunstan's testimony in the first volume, although it doesn't seem to. I didn't like this book as well because I found the therapy sessions strange at times. Still, it was a pretty good conceit for going back over a lot of the same events--though it was helpful to see them in a new light.

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

The first book in the Deptford Trilogy seems to be a memoir of Dunstan Ramsay, who is born in Deptford, and then grows up to be a schoolteacher. But, as you start to strip away the layers of mystery, you realize that the story's about Dunstan's conflicted relationship with Boy Staunton, who also grew up in Deptford and whose actions set into motion a chain of events that have lasting consequences for Dunstan. I was intrigued by the story's investigation of cause and effect, and the costs of holding on to blame and guilt. It's worth mentioning that the central question of the novel (although it's one that's not explicitly mentioned till the very end)--who killed Boy Staunton?--is not satisfactorily answered, although it's fun to work through some speculation on that point.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

This book features the same narrator as Heart of Darkness, Marlowe, and again, I was struck by the sophisticated forms of narration surrounding the story (this one starts in third person with a narrator who conceals Jim's loss of honor and then moves to Marlowe, telling the story after dinner). I found myself really caring about Jim by the end. It's a masterful meditation on what constitutes honor and sticking up for those to whom you've pledged responsibility or loyalty, even if you can't fulfill that loyalty in ways they'll understand. Generally a beautiful book.

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose by Flannery O'Connor

This book contains a series of essays written by Flannery O'Connor on a range of topics, mostly centered around reading and writing. While they were all well-written and compelling, and some were even funny (in a very dry way), I most liked her reflections on writing and the region. She makes an excellent case for writing what you know and using the gifts you have (although she's under no illusions that everyone's made for a writer). I also thought she was both smart and sensible on the subject of religion: she sticks to her guns, but also contends that a good, Catholic novel must contain both good religion and good writing. She makes a great case for religion being freeing rather than inhibiting to the artist. She was also quite good on the South and the gothic. I'll be returning to this book again, I feel sure.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts

Although this book is not strictly autobiographical, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. makes a good case for it being written by a woman who escaped slavery and then (presumably) taught school in New Jersey. It's really well-written, and I found the plot both moving and intriguing. The book does a really nice job of appropriating sentimental and gothic conventions and adapting them to the genre of the slave narrative. I especially liked the part about the linden and the portraits at the first house. I was also interested in the racial and gender crossing that happens throughout the text.

The Evil Guest by J. Sheridan LeFanu

I really enjoyed this book, though it didn't strike me as a typical murder mystery at the time I read it. I found LeFanu to be really effective at creating a creepy, gothic atmosphere. Although I could see the different strands coming together, the end itself was still a bit of a surprise. Creepy and brilliant!

Doom of the Griffiths by Elizabeth Gaskell

This book is about the punishment of the descendants of a man who betrays his best friend. It's very gothic, and involves all sorts of hasty decisions. The story is fairly short, and there's not a whole lot to it, but what there is, is pretty good.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

This book is a charming story about belief and trust. The plot is a little simplistic and moralistic at times, but that's more than made up for by beautiful scenery, and characters that seemed, to me at least, to be really quite realistic for the genre. I'm sorry I missed this one as a kid.

The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker by Leanna Renee Hieber

I wasn't overly awed by this book. The quality of the prose itself was not terribly high, and I found the plot a contrived mish-mash of mythological and fantasy plots. I though the relationship between Alexi and Percy was creepy and underdeveloped. I liked the end better than the beginning, but it was not a great book. I am not sure if I'll be reading the sequel or not.

A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch

In this mystery, wealthy, younger son Charles Lenox occupies his time by solving mysteries with more skill than Scotland Yard. He's called upon by his old friend (and transparently-designed love interest) Lady Jane Gray to investigate the death of her former maid, an apparent suicide. Of course, things get tricky very quickly. I thought the plot was handled well and ended up being both inventive and surprising. Lenox himself seems to be modeled mostly on Dorothy Sayer's magnificent Lord Peter Wimsey (with a fair amount of success), with a side of Sherlock Holmes (especially in his predilection for using small facts to draw surprising conclusion) thrown in for good measure. There are parts that get awkward (especially long-winded digressions about why Lenox is such good friends with a woman, or his butler), but it's generally well-done, and I'll be reading more of these books.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

While this book seems at first focused on the fate of a briefcase of money that Llewellyn Moss discovers at the scene of a massive heroin deal gone bad, by the end, I came to the consider the really moving story that of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, who matches himself against Anton Chigurh, in an attempt to save Moss and to redeem himself from the errors he made as a young soldier. I found the book really moving and surprisingly (to me at least) exciting. It did a great job balancing action and moral consequence. McCarthy handles both his characters and the Southwest landscape really well.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins

This book is a strange pastiche. In part, it's the magically realist tale of a tanuki (a type of wild dog that looks like a badger) (or the Tanuki) who comes to earth and mates with human women. In part, it's the story of three Vietnam vets who've been MIA and would prefer to stay that way. It was an engaging story, but the parts only seemed to connect in a superficial way. Also, there was a reference to the terrorist attacks of September 11 thrown in at the end in a weird way, which I found rather unsettling. I would probably read other books by this author, but they won't be the next books I seek out.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South by Patrick Huber

This book contends that the relationship between the increasing industrialization of the South (through cotton mills) and hillbilly music, one of the forerunners of modern country music, has not yet been adequately theorized. Through readings of the careers (and notable songs) of five hillbilly musicians, Huber attempts to correct that picture and show the influence of industrialization and the cotton mill on music of this type. Huber provides both biography, some sociological background (although I suspect there are better places to turn for straight sociology on the mills), and some reading of the music itself. I think the book works pretty well. I wanted an accompanying CD so I could *hear* what Huber was talking about, but he did quote lyrics, and provide a lot of photographs. I really enjoyed learning more about this music, and have been looking up the songs on Youtube and iTunes.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

On Writing by Stephen King

This book is part memoir and part writing handbook. I found the memoir section very interesting--in part because in some ways it continues throughout the book. According to King, he had written this part (entitled "C.V.") and was just getting into the part on how to write when he was hit by the van. He closes with some reflections on the accident. I agreed with a lot of the writing advice King offered (especially the write every day part). I also liked the idea of setting aside a manuscript for six weeks before going back for revisions. I think I would have agreed even more heartily but for two things. First, King is a strong believer in the Strunk and White school. I think Strunk and White are helpful, and often correct--but once you get past basic proficiency, it's more a question of developing your own style. Second, King's style felt patronizing at times, even when I agreed with him. This quibble may be nothing more than a grouchy reading on my part, but there you have it. I do think King offered a lot of great (and practical) advice. He's dead on about his primary point: if you want to be a good writer, you have to write a lot and read a lot.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

This book is a really entertaining entry in the Discworld series. Although there's a section set in Ankh-Morph, most of the book is set in a kingdom that seems suspiciously like Ancient Egypt, positioned, for good measure, between Greece and Troy. The heir apparent, Teppic, has been in Ankh-Morph learning to be an assassin, but comes home when he learns of his father's death. There he must confront an insane (and functionally immortal) high priest who orders the construction of a pyramid that will alter the fabric of space and time. With the help of the dead pharaohs, a recalcitrant camel, and his (unbeknownst to him) half-sister Ptraci, Teppic must under the mad priest's work before it's too late. This book is funny and smart, and a great addition to the series.