Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bossypants by Tina Fey

This book offers a rollicking good time. Not only is Fey hilarious (and that's no surprise for anyone who's seen her on SNL or 30 Rock), but she also provides a lot worth thinking about in terms of sexism, the relationship between politics and entertainment, stand up comedy, and leadership. You can easily understand why Fey has had such success as a writer after reading this book: she moves gracefully from one incident to another, not always keeping a strict chronology, but always entertaining and writing well. Just another reason to keep watching 30 Rock. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacey Schiff

I enjoyed the audio version of this book. While there's not as much fact as one might be able to find for a more recent figure (there's only one word that may be written in Cleopatra's hand, and no surviving contemporary portraits or statues, besides her coins), this book does a nice job of laying out the possibilities for Cleopatra's life, as well as giving a crash course in the relevant Roman politics and history, so that it all makes sense. I was particularly intrigued by the arguments for Cleopatra's intelligence (apparently she was a gifted linguist); most of her early chroniclers were portraying someone who fit into their historical picture as a problem, and history is, after all, mostly written by the winners.

A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon

This book continues the story of Jamie and Claire Fraser, settled in North Carolina on the eve of the American Revolution. It's not as annoying as some of the previous books as there's a discernible arc to the plot (Jamie's conversion to the Revolutionary cause as a matter of principle instead of survival) and a few abductions (both Claire and Brianna) to be dealt with, but, as with many of the books in this series, this book could have used a stronger editorial hand.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results by Thomas J. Tierney and Joel L. Fleishman

I have the feeling that this book is aimed at people who have a lot more money to give away than I will ever hope to make. It's mostly a set of questions that you can ask yourself in order to make your philanthropy as effective as it can be, in addition to a series of stories (sometimes cautionary) and case studies about philanthropists and their works. The book is very invested in the idea that philanthropists are only accountable to themselves for excellence (which makes it very hard to achieve) and that it is worth paying good overhead to get the right kind of people so that the philanthropy works (as opposed to bad overhead for fancy cars or whatever).

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On the Wrong Track by Steve Hockensmith

This mystery is a lot like some of the best Agatha Christie novels: because it's set on a train, so there's a limited cast of characters who could be the criminal. I found this plot quite engaging and the twists kept coming till the end, though, it did start a little slow.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

This book intentionally points toward Dickens, especially Oliver Twist, set in part among a den of thieves. As the plot unwinds, it's a plot worthy of a Dickens novel--in its crosses and double-crosses and complicated twists. However, while the best of Dickens's novels have many such plots interweaving, this novel has no real subplots. It's still an enjoyable read. Booker shortlisted, 2002.

The Princess, The Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight by Gerald Morris

In this book a young woman with remarkably fine clothes sets out to avenge herself on the knight who lead to the deaths of her mother and her protector. As she travels, however, she learns that revenge isn't everything and that she's not the center of the universe. I was not familiar with the Chrétien de Troyes story on which this book is based, but I enjoyed the story. I also really appreciate this version of Lancelot, who seems to have given up his passion for Guinevere.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Witches on the Road Tonight by Sheri Holman

This book deftly links the story of a young boy who encounters two WPA artists while growing up in Appalachia with that of the way the family of a small time television entertainer is torn apart when they bring a foster boy into their midst. There's a lot of piecing together that the reader has to do for herself, but I especially enjoyed the parts set in rural Virginia. The television show, which seems to be a sort of low-budget, local market Mystery Science Theater 3000, features Captain Casket (CAP/TAN/CASKT, the Casketeers sing, in a parody of the Mickey Mouse Club song that Disney would shut down faster than you can say "Jimney Cricket" today), and is one of the most entertaining and imaginative bits of the story.

A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin

The third installment in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice series does not disappoint. No character seems safe as the war for the throne of the Seven Kingdoms continues and the threat in the North increases. It's not just the continually shifting allegiances and political manoeuvrings that thrill, though. As the viewpoints from which the story is told expand, characters whom I found unbearable at first begin to grow on me. I'm just sorry that the series isn't finished yet.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone by August Wilson

In this play, Herald Loomis appears at a boarding house in Philadelphia looking for his missing wife. As he looks for his wife (and other residents look for various people as well), it comes out that Loomis was taken by Joe Turner, and it's not so much his wife as his individuality that he seeks. With its plot twists (especially at the end) and its wide cast of characters, this play offers enjoyable reflections on what it means to take control of your own life.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, and Selected Stories by James M. Cain

I reviewed the major parts of this collection separately, but I thought I might say a few words about how it works all together. I particularly enjoyed Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity. The stories are generally more of the same, with the same bleak outlook, as the first two novellas. I think the novella length is better suited to the material though.

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

This story is less of a noir-style thriller than the others in this collection. An ordinary housewife, Mildred Pierce, throws her husband out after she tires of his infidelities and starts a restaurant business in order to keep herself and maintain her daughter's pride. Quickly the reader comes to realize, however, that the daughter is two-faced, catty, and brings out the worst of Mildred (especially in her judgment of how to spend money). The HBO series follows the novel very closely, except it glosses over the way Mildred takes Monty back to get to Veda, which the novel makes explicitly clear.

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

In this novella an insurance salesman plots with a dissatisfied wife to help her murder her husband and collect double on the insurance policy (since the accident will happen on a train). This story works really well as a picture of what might drive an ordinary person to commit a crime, while also surprising the reader with a really ruthless character. I think this story was the best noir-style story in the collection.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

In this novella we get the story of a drifter who spends some time at a small gas station in California, commits murder to get the wife of the owner of the station, and the repercussions of the murder. The style reminds me of Hemingway and the characters are all hard-boiled. The story was bleak, but enjoyable if you like noir style.

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick

This book provides an interesting perspective on the early modern world. It starts by describing the conditions of the world in the seventeenth century, especially highlighting the differences in religious belief, and the string of disasters that struck London (the Plague, the Great Fire) in the middle of the century. Then it covers a range of astronomical and scientific discoveries (especially about how the solar system is set up). Finally it deals with the discoveries of calculus by Newton and Leibniz. The book does a nice job making the science and math reasonably clear for the layperson, and it has a lot of fun history.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

In presenting the life of Malcolm X, this book takes the larger-than-life figure presented in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with the help of Alex Haley, head on. Marable contends that the autobiography exaggerates Malcolm's criminal days and behaviors and doesn't fully examine his break with the Nation of Islam or his religious changes (in part because Haley, a liberal Republican, had ideas of his own about what Malcolm's legacy should be). The book is meticulously researched and was able to draw on a lot of new sources (papers the estate only released in 2008, Nation of Islam records that weren't previously available, FBI and other government files) to make it's case. The biography works against the easy reading of the end of Malcolm's life as a complete change to being simply in favor of integration in order to show a more complex picture. This book was especially poignant to read because Marable died just a few days before publication.

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

This charming little novel chronicles a mutual friend of Winston Churchill and Esther Hammerhans, a recently widowed librarian. This friend, whom Churchill calls the Black Dog, but who names himself Mr. Chartwell, or Black Pat, is an enormous dog who takes as his work dogging Churchill's footsteps and comes to lodge at Esther's house. While the blurbs on the book call it humorous, and there are some funny parts, for me, the story was much more poignant. It takes on the question of depression with grace and compassion. I am so glad I read this novel.

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

The second volume in the A Song of Fire and Ice series does not disappoint. There are five people contending for power in Westeros: Stannis Baratheon and Renly Baratheon, both of whom are brothers of Robert, Joffrey Baratheon, called Robert's son (but actually child of Jaime Lannister, the queen's brother), Daenerys Targaryen, only remaining heir of the older line of kings and Mother of Dragons, and Balon Greyjoy, of the Iron Islands. The plot lines are complex, but I found myself more and more drawn into the story. I particularly like Catelyn, Arya, and Bran Stark, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen. As with the first volume, nobody's safe. And the plot twists around in sometimes disappointing (for the characters you grow to love), but never out-of-the-blue ways. Also, magic's coming back (with the dragons presumably).

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Wish You Were Here by Stewart O'Nan

This book recounts a family's last week at the lake: Emily, the grandmother, is selling the family's cottage because her husband has died. This book covers everyone's experiences in excruciating detail. The characters mostly seem not to like each other all that much (or at least to drive each other crazy), and after spending so much time with them, I can see why. I found it hard to like any of the characters, and because the book was the type where past events unfolding substitutes for plot, there wasn't much else to like. It was well-written, but not compelling.

Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith

I enjoyed this book more than the most recent one in this series. It's about two brothers who work together to investigate the mysterious circumstances at the Bar VR ranch. The mystery plot was quite well done; it took a little while for me to realize where everything was headed, but once I did, I enjoyed fitting the pieces together.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar

This book is one of the texts that started the effort to reclaim a female canon. There are great readings of the Brontës, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. While at times the arguments made by the text can seem less like arguments, this fact actually shows how important the text is--many of its assertions, radical at the time, are now commonly accepted. I found the reading of the Snow White story particularly intriguing and persuasive.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

This book chronicles the downfall of a family-run amusement park after its start performer (and the family's mother) dies and a chain amusement park (World of Darkness) moves in down the road. At times (especially when describing the World of Darkness, which was given a lot of thought and reads, in certain ways, like a parody of Disney) the book is quite humorous, despite its sad story--the downfall of an eccentric family. The young narrator seems older than her thirteen years, so that I kept forgetting how young she was when she sets off across the swamps to rescue her older sister who's been bewitched by a ghost. The end came a little fast and furious for my taste, and I felt like one of the plot threads in particular was unsatisfactorily resolved, but I really enjoyed this book.