Sunday, February 26, 2012

Red Prophet by Orson Scott Card

This book continues the story of Alvin Maker, but it fits his story into that of William Henry Harrison, Tecumsah, and the Shawnee. It made me wish I knew more about that history, so I could tell what was accurate and what was stretched. I really liked the way this book thought about war, relations beaten very different groups of people, and how to live with the land. It's structure also was thought-provoking: the book overlaps in time with the first book, do the reader gets to experience some events all over again in a really powerful way.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Vampyre by John Polidori

This book was originally attributed to Lord Byron, but it was actually written by his physician, John Polidori. It tells the story of a young aristocrat, Aubrey, who finds himself attracted by the mysterious Lord Ruthven. When he discovers that Ruthven is a brute committed to destroying women's reputations and lives, Aubrey tries to pull away, only to have the vampire Ruthven take his revenge on Aubrey's family. Sensationalist and lurid, this book is one of the earliest vampire stories.

John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead

This book investigates the myth of John Henry through the perspectives of a number of characters poised on the cusp of the information age. When the US Post Office decides to release a John Henry stamp, a number of New York freelancers and a Maryland stamp collector converge on the town of Hinton, West Virginia for the first annual John Henry Days festival. As the story plays out, it's not just the question of John Henry against the steam engine, but modern man against computers, and the grueling cycle of digital promotion that plays out. This book spends a lot of time thoughtfully considering what it means to read a book. Another excellent and thoughtful book.

The Valley of Horses by Jean Auel

This book alternates between continuing Ayla's story after she leaves the Clan and has to fend for herself and telling the story of Jondalar, who leaves his family on a Journey with his brother. I enjoyed moving back and forth between these two characters, despite the fact that they don't meet till the last third of the book. There was a lot of thought about domestication in this book (Ayla, through chance and her good-hearted nature, ends up with both a cave lion and a horse), as well as communication and language. I think I liked the first one better, but I'm definitely going to want to see what happens to Ayla and Jondalar next.

Small Favor by Jim Butcher

This book continues to indicate that something really wicked is coming Harry Dresden's way. When Queen Mab of the Winter Court of the Faeries calls in a favor, Dresden quickly finds himself up to his ears not only in the faeries but also Denarian schemings. I am continually impressed by Dresden as a character--he's not so good you can't stand him, and he's often tempted (and sometimes does) morally questionable things, but when the cards are all down, he comes out as a strongly moral character. I also like the way this series develops the big evil that Dresden has to fight: obviously it's bad, but it's not clear. Each mystery makes the plans and plots a little clearer, but we still don't know quite what we're up against. And I think that Butcher's willingness to let the readers find out with Dresden is one of the strengths of the series.

Friday, February 17, 2012

James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham

This biography gives a thorough account of Madison's life from his birth to his death. It covers matters both personal and political with a thorough approach: it has all the necessary background to make sense of the political events and it covers not only Madison's opinions and actions but also the philosophical basis for his actions. The book quotes heavily from Madison's letters and writings. My biggest problem was with its organization: it lumped all his personal affairs (most notably his marriage to Dolley Payne Todd and his retirement to Monticello during John Adams's terms as president) into one chapter that didn't fit entirely chronologically. Otherwise this book offers a thorough and entertaining view of Madison's life.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley

In this book the wonderful Flavia de Luce returns, but this time, while she does use her acute analytic skills and run some chemical experiments, poisons don't play a leading role. Instead, Flavia unravels a mystery that has a number of red herrings--and a fishy smell all around. I think this mystery did a great job bringing the disparate pieces of the story together in a convincing way, even if it took me longer than usual to figure out where things were headed. I'm really enjoying this series.

Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution by Laurent Dubois

This book recounts the complex history of the Haitian Revolution in a readable and clear way. It gives a reasonable amount of background and does a good job tying the events in Haiti to the larger events that helped cause and provoke the Haitian Revolution (such as the political climate of France). The book insists on the importance of the Haitian Revolution beyond Haiti to world affairs and to questions of human rights. It tries to move beyond an account of just the leading generals and politicians to include a wide range of people, and it uses documentary and primary evidence where it exists. Overall this book is a great introduction to the complicated topic of the Haitian Revolution.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

This book has an extremely unpleasant main character with a split personality. When the book opens he's trying to determine his identity, which he can barely remember, and whose stability is compromised by garments and accoutrements that seem to belong to two lives rather than one. As the book goes on, the main character, Simonini, his alter ego, the AbbĂ© Della Piccola, and the narrator work together to reconstruct Simonini's activities. Despite the main character's reprehensible views, the book is fascinating, as it ties together a wide range of nineteenth century conspiracy theories (from the Paris Commune to the Dreyfus Affair). It also reflects on the nature of forgery and on the difference between fabula and syuzhet--the latter in an afterword that traces the structure of the plot. Despite the complexities of the plot and theme, this book was easy to slip into and enjoyable to read.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Our Vampires, Ourselves by Nina Auerbach

This book looks at the development of vampires in popular culture during the 19th and 20th centuries. It contends that vampires change generationally and that they can help us track cultural preoccupations at a given moment. I found this book to be better written and more convincing than most academic accounts of vampires I've read recently.

Literature After Feminism by Rita Felski

This book takes critics of feminist criticism and feminist readings of literature to task. It contends that these critics don't account for the broad variety and nuance of feminist readings (and often set up a straw man that's both unrealistic and easy to attack). Felski looks for better ways to read literature written by and about women. The book addresses a more general (rather than specific) audience and its arguments are necessarily short--it covers a lot of territory in a little amount of time.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

This book presents a complex and intriguing portrait of the Royal Society around the time of its founding, mixed with adventures in European politics and espionage. Some of the characters (particularly Eliza) are really compelling, and it's a treat to see the great minds of the Royal Society in action. There's a lot of attention to cryptography, mathematics, and science in this book, which I enjoy. If anything, it's lacking a clear plot: there are elements to various stories that play out very clearly, but overall, I'm not quite sure where this story is headed. I'm willing to give the second and third books a chance, though.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valante

I really loved this story, which satisfied my appetites for adventure, magic, travel, escape, and witty commentary all at once. I'm not sure if I've seen a narrator I liked so much since I read Tristram Shandy or Tom Jones. The theoretical basis of fairyland and how you get in and out works perfectly and fits in well with folkloric and mythic sources. The twist at the end (which explains the villain's power) is really magnificent: I didn't see it coming and it completely blew me away. This book is a must-read for fantasy lovers of all ages!

Burial at Sea by Charles Finch

This book gives MP Charles Lenox, headed to Egypt on a mission with diplomatic and spy components, a closed-off murder mystery--since the victim is killed on a ship, his killer must be one of the officers or the crew. I found the pacing of this story a little off: the killer was discovered a little too early, so the end of the mystery did not coincide with the end of the book. Furthermore, there were way too many sappy, sentimental asides about how much Lenox loved and missed his wife while on his voyage. Otherwise not a bad read. I really enjoyed seeing the Victorian navy in action.

White Night by Jim Butcher

I thought this book was one of the better Harry Dresden books I've read. I really enjoyed seeing Elaine appear, I loved watching Harry teach Molly, and I especially liked Harry's moral quandries. I think that the Denarian plot was wrapped up really nicely here. I also thought the vampire court machinations were a real treat to watch unfold. This series has been moving along at an excellent pace. I'm looking forward to the next entry.

The Annotated Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

As I reread this book, I didn't spend as much time as I have in the past on the annotations. I liked the way the bits of older material (such as Gondolin) kept popping up. I also appreciated the way that Bilbo finds himself, through Gandalf's work and his own good sense and good luck, a leader among the dwarfs. Finally, this time I noticed echoes of the Lord of the Rings: especially in the involvement of the eagles.