Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Poisoned Crown by Maurice Druon

This book continues the story of the end of the Capetian kings in France. Philip the Fair, son of Saint Louis, has died and passed the crown to his somewhat incompetent son, Louis X, le hutin, who has just had his estranged wife strangled so that he can remarry. But the kingdom is full of plots, and Louis's inability to gauge his friends and enemies may be his downfall. This book is another enjoyable entry in the series.

Inferno by Dan Brown

This book felt light to me. It opens in medias res, and I spent the first two-thirds thinking the trail was too easy to follow. Of course, there were twists, and it was not quite as simple as it first appeared, but when all was said and done, it all wrapped up in a pat way that seemed more in service of making a point about the world's population and offering a magic bullet to put the world right than in telling a really good story. All of which is not to say that the ride wasn't a lot of fun--I enjoyed reading about the art and the architecture and following the story. This book would be a great beach read.

The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited by Christopher Tolkien

This book contains J.R.R. Tolkien's unfinished attempt to write part of the Matter of Britain in an alliterative verse form used for Old English poetry (such as Beowulf) and used again in Middle English (for example, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). The story starts with Arthur away from England, going east to fight barbarians when he hears of his nephew/son Mordred's treachery back home. The poem is enjoyable--Tolkien had a good ear for this verse form (as he also demonstrated in some of the poetry in his Middle Earth stories and in his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Perhaps more interesting, though, is the supplementary material. The first essay is on The Fall of Arthur's place among other tellings of the story of King Arthur, especially The History of the Kings of Britain, the alliterative Morte Arthur, the stanzaic Morte Arthur, and Le Morte Darthur. The second essay argues (I think more convincingly thematically than on hard evidence) that not only was Middle Earth Tolkien's attempt to provide mythology for the English people, but that it was directly connected to the King Arthur legends--indeed, that the Isle of Avalon (where in some versions of the story King Arthur still awaits the moment to return and lead Britain to glory) is Tol Eressëa, or the lonely island, which was where the elves could dwell and look on Valinor after their exile. I really enjoyed this volume; however I would not recommend it to anyone just looking for a good story (there are better--and more complete--retellings of the Arthur myth) or who is a casual fan of The Lord of the Rings. If you like Tolkien's poetry, or are interested in the intricacies of the Arthur story, however, this book is well worth a look.

Dr. No by Ian Fleming

This book, like many of the James Bond novels, is very much of its time--the espionage is high-tech for the late fifties, the Cold War is raging, and the novel's portrayal of race and gender is often unsettling for a modern reader. But, for what it is, the story in Dr. No is entertaining and full of bravery, skill, and luck on the part of James Bond. Commander Bond is supposed to get an easy mission after his latest brush with death: he's sent to Jamaica to look into the disappearance of a British agent who has supposedly run off with his secretary. The truth, however, is something altogether more dangerous and Bond quickly finds himself facing a much more dangerous enemy than simple lust.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

This book is Pratchett at his finest. Moist von Lipvig is the consummate con-man--until he is caught. Then, after a convincing hanging, Lord Vetinari gives him a second chance, but only if he takes over the Postal Service (which has gone into decline with the advent of the clacks to send messages across long distances). As Moist cons his way around the post office, he learns that the clacks are being operated along a different kind of con--and he suddenly realizes, after a life of deceiving people, he must do the right thing--restore the post office and set the clacks to rights too. Full of humor and Discworld characters I came to love, Going Postal is satire with a warm heart.

Feeding the Ghosts by Fred D'Aguiar

This book is a historicization of the Zong disaster. While its perspective shifts among several of the participations, the most memorable character is Mintah, the woman who climbs back aboard the ship after being thrown over. The book explores what happens when we commodify the human body--the abuses and indignities that humans are willing to perpetrate on one another in the name of getting a good return on an investment. It also explores the role of literacy and the power it confers.

Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler

This biography provides a comprehensive account of Walt Disney's life from his boyhood in Marceline, Missouri and Kansas City to his death in Los Angeles. I thought it was especially good on his work. At least according to this book, Walt was often the guiding force behind novel ideas, but it really wasn't his skill as an animator that launched the Disney empire--it was his ability to see the cultural potential for animations. I particularly liked the accounts of Disney's collaborations with Leopold Stowkowski and Salvador Dali. The book also portrays Disney as restless: once he achieved something, his interest often turned to doing something new instead of simply repeating his success (which is not, of course, to say that his companies didn't often try to capitalize on and reproduce these successes!). I have read that the Disney family (and particuarly Diane Disney Miller) disagree with the author's characterization of Disney (especially in his relationship with his wife), but I thought the book made sense and gave a persuasive reading of Walt's life and its meaning in the midst of the American Century.

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

I really enjoyed this book, which is set in a world where the United States are actually the United Islands, and in which certain people have the ability to draw lines and shapes with chalk and then make the chalk obey their bidding and even affect the physical world. These people need this ability because the United States is populated by wild chalkings which would destroy its citizens without rithmatists (the people with the chalking ability) to protect them. There was a great mystery, a good dose of a young man learning more about his family and himself, and the promise of more to happen in this world. I'm looking forward to the sequel!

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas, pére, narrated by John Bolen

This book mostly concerns a horticulturist, Cornelius van Baerle, who gets caught up in politics just before he can achieve his crowning success--the cultivation of an entirely black tulip. I enjoyed the story, and there's certainly a good revenge plot, but there's just not as much there as in some of Dumas's better novels (like The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers).

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

This book is set in a world influenced by African folklore, where technology is organic and Earth is only a myth. Zahrah, born with dadalocks in her hair, discovers that she has a rare, almost mythical, gift. But when her explorations of her power land her beat friend in the hospital, she has to go on a dangerous journey to save him. I found the world fascinating, and the story entertaining, but relatively simple. I love the way that Ms. Okorafor has made her world fresh--it feels new and exciting.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Strangled Queen by Maurice Druon

This book continues the story of the French throne after the death of Philip the Fair (IV). Louis X, Philip's son, inherits the throne, but he must decide what to do with his unfaithful and inconvenient first wife. In the meanwhile, a variety of other people are making their own plays for power. I enjoyed this story: it really makes the history and the people come to life.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear

This book features a weak, and ultimately forgettable, mystery that allows Maisie to dither about her future. I had assumed that she had decided against marrying James Compton based on the previous book, but she's still considering it, and frankly I hardly understand why she cares either way. The time period is still fascinating, but I don't think Ms. Winspear uses it as well as she used to. I wonder if this series has been over extended.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

While I enjoyed this book from the start, as layers started to peel back and lies started to be exposed, I was drawn even more to the story. I loved the way this story revealed the lies the characters told each other, and the plotting and counter plotting of the protagonists, Nick and Amy Dunne. When Amy disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary, we see the facade they built start to crack, and gradually learn how this couple brings out both the best and the worst in each other. I'd highly recommend this book as a summer read.

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen

This book discusses zoonoses, or diseases transmitted across species. It tends to address one disease per chapter, and covers illnesses such as Hendra, Ebola, AIDS, and influenza. I learned a lot from this book, especially about HIV. I wish I knew more about how widely accepted the AIDS theories in the book (including positing 1908 as the spillover date for the worst strain of 12) are. It was also very good on how human choices can affect the relative danger of various diseases. Fascinating: a great science read!