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June 8, 2017

Book Report: The Liars' Gospel

So, the book I am most interesting in reading right now is The Power, by Naomi Alderman, which has been winning all kinds of UK awards and looks absolutely terrific. Sadly, and you can see this at the linky link up there, it isn’t out in the US yet. What!? This outrage must not stand!

Well, anyway. Since I couldn’t read the thing I wanted to read, I picked up The Liars’ Gospel, which I was a little suspicious of. It is in the recently-fairly-common subgenre of books purporting to retell Bible Stories in a historically accurate fashion, and while I have enjoyed some of them, I wasn’t really looking for another. And of course I’d on the whole rather read about Tamar or Shammai than about Jesus anyway. Still, she was winning a bunch of awards, and it certainly could be interesting, and well, what the heck, anyway, it’s a library, if I don’t like it I won’t finish it.

I did finish it. I did like it… sort of. I mean, it is very well-written, and the historical setting seems to have been well-handled (YHB favorite Amy-Jill Levine evidently read and assisted with the manuscript) (Wait, A-J has written a children’s book?) and the characters are vibrant and plausible. She does the interesting thing with it, and writes from the point of view of characters named in the Gospels, but has the Jesus story intersect with their own stories only tangentially. I don’t know if a Christian would find it blasphemous (Ms. Alderman is a Jew who grew up in Orthodoxy) but I found it only mildly theologically provocative. Until the end, when it was just irritating—whereas most the book, I think, rather generously evokes the notion that this is one possible set of stories around the Jesus story, one possible frame for the remarkable events of first-century Jerusalem, the end of the book seems to make a claim to particular historical accuracy that I think brings down the tone of the book as a whole. I almost wrote from a sort of fantasy to a sort of apologia but that overstates it in both directions, I think. Probably.

Still. I did wind up staying up later than I meant to, on a couple of nights, thinking I would put the book down soon. That ain’t bad. And it feels like the sort of book that sticks with a person, honestly; a book that I will think about, when I think about various parts of the Christian Scripture, and I might well wind up liking it more, over time. Or, of course, not. And it depends also, I suppose, on whether I find other people to talk about the book with—this is the sort of book that is meant to be discussed, I think. Which I admire and even like.

And the author, having won a prestigious literary prize, immediately said that she wanted to write for Doctor Who, so that’s all right. D’y’see?

That was the last time I spoke with President Trump,,
-Vardibidian.

May 10, 2017

Book Report: Blood and Banquets

I picked up Blood and Banquets from the shelf because of the intriguing title, and found it an intriguing book. It purports to be Bella Fromm’s diaries from Weimar and Nazi Germany, mostly from 1930-1938. I say purports; I had a sense while reading it that it was highly re-written for American publication, and when I went looking, I found an article (Two Dubious Third Reich Diaries, by Henry Ashby Turner, Jr, Central European History, Vol. 33, No. 3 (2000), pp. 415-422) persuasively claiming that it was entirely written in the US in 1941-1942. Still, there is no question that Ms. Fromm was a regular columnist for Berlin newspapers during those years, at least until the Nuremberg Laws made that impossible, and it seems plausible enough that, as she says, her stuff continued to be printed under other names while she was still in Germany. I would guess that the book was written from her newspaper clippings and other sources, filled in with remembered anecdotes which may have been accurate, may have happened but at different times or events, may have been exaggerated, and may have been made up out of whole cloth.

Bella Fromm herself, as a character, seems too good to be true. From a prominent and wealthy Jewish family (her uncle was Max Fromm, the wine merchant), she came into a big inheritance young, moved to Berlin, married and had a daughter, then divorced. She was a philanthropist and charity-organizer among the upper crust, and then when hyperinflation wiped out the value of her inheritance, she took work as a gossip columnist reporting on the aristocracy and particularly on the diplomatic set. The introduction is by Frederick T. Birchall, who had won the Pulitzer in 1934 for his reporting from Berlin, and he talks about how connected she was and what confidences she held. She is acquainted with the old royal family as well as with the bankers, landowners and military leaders, and is indispensable at the best and most exclusive parties, as she then reports for the newspapers how glittering and wonderful the dinner conversation was, and she trades in the gossip of the people who know the most. She stays until 1938; she is personal friends with various diplomats and their spouses, and as such is left largely unmolested as a non-Aryan, and even is able to help some other people through her connections in the foreign services.

And that all seems to be true! I mean, it’s possible she exaggerates how close she was to various people, but in broad outline, yeah, she was there. The details may be invented, but the observations are her own.

And of course I am reading this book that purports to, from the author’s note, “help clarify the great historical enigma: How was it possible for the culture-loving nation of Goethe, Schiller, and Kant, of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms, to succumb at last to the new barbarism of Adolph Hitler?” I worry, here in the United States in 2017, whether we will succumb to some new barbarism, or rather, how far we will succumb. The most fascinating part is the early years, before Hitler comes to power, when the Nazis are growing more popular but there are still clear alternatives. It’s hard to conceptualize, or at least hard for me to conceptualize, that in 1930 or so, when the Nazis were pretty much a fringe party among other fringe parties, they had a private army of 100,000 men in uniform. A hundred thousand! In a country of sixty-five million! That would be (in terms of the percentage of the populace) like half-a-million in the US right now, in uniform and marching, in opposition to the elected government. It’s unthinkable. It couldn’t be allowed. I mean, it was unthinkable in Germany in 1924, too, mind you, but the Weimar government was such a disaster by 1930 that it happened whether it was thinkable or not.

The SA was collecting money on the street and beating up those who failed to contribute. The police were largely in sympathy with the SA, and in fact many of them were in the SA. Many of the rest were veterans who couldn’t get work in a devastated economy, they hired on with the SA to beat up communists and got a uniform to wear. This is before Hitler becomes Chancellor, when the Nazis are just a small (but growing) political party, not even the largest among a hugely split parliament. The rest of the parties and factions are trying to figure out how the Nazis can be manipulated, ignored, co-opted or weakened. The brownshirts are ruling the streets.

I don’t know what lessons there are to be learned for today. I mean, I don’t think you need detailed correspondence between historical events and the present to learn lessons, but reading this book I was overwhelmed with how utterly different things are here, now, than they were there, then. Fundamentally, the Weimar government had failed by 1930, probably (I’m not an expert) sometime between the 1928 and 1930 elections when the government simply could not govern, for a variety of reasons both domestic and foreign. While there seems to be a good deal of talk about desperation in the country in the last few years, about last best hopes and swamps and the end of everything, it certainly seems to me that we have a functioning government. Even with the President firing the FBI Director who was overseeing an investigation into some of the President’s associates (among other activities, of course) it seems to me that the government is more or less working in most of the country. I don’t want to understate the challenges, and of course there is always some stuff getting worse and other things getting better, but it’s not like it was in Weimar.

At the same time, I don’t think that, when the Beer-Hall putsch failed in 1923, anyone would have believed that Hitler would be supreme leader within a dozen years, with the constitution a dead letter. Of course it could happen here.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 27, 2017

Book Report: The Collapsing Empire

I don’t write about every book I read, any more—I sort of wish I did, or rather I sort of wish that I had written about them without wanting to go through the actual writing. It was terrific to have a list at the end of the year, and also to have a record after five or six years. I have often gone back to this Tohu Bohu to remind myself what I thought of a book, or even if I had read it at all. It’s a terrific record of five years or so of my reading.

On the other hand, I found it a chore to actually do, and I didn’t enjoy writing the reports very much. Or most of them, anyway. They did not spark conversations (back in the days when there were conversations occasionally sparked here) and they crowded out other potential posts. Well, they felt like they did, anyway; it’s probably far more accurate that fulfilling my promise to myself to blog each and every book kept me in the habit of posting nearly daily, and when I stopped with the bookblogging, I pretty much stopped with the blogging. Well, anyway, I am going to attempt to write more often about books that I read, even if I don’t return to the commitment to blog ’em all.

One book I read recently was John Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire. I’ve written a lot about Mr. Scalzi’s work here; I have used phrases like like basically competent and a safe bet and perfectly good and even enjoyed quite a bit but also not really that great. Wow. It seems that I have spent a fair amount of pixels trying to explain myself, too: why I keep reading them, or why I am fond of them, and also why I don’t love them. It’s frankly peculiar, taken in the aggregate and all. Thousands of words. Mine, I mean. Many thousands of his.

And the thing is, I feel pretty much the same about this one as I felt about the others. It’s fun, but it’s not terribly powerful, and it isn’t so fun that I want to gleefully return to it. There are few Sources of Reader Irritation—although there is one huge one for me, which is that it was obvious quite early on that the book (or Book One) would end without resolving anything important.

Come to think of it, this was probably not a good one to start me bookblogging again.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 27, 2017

Book Report: Frogkisser

I’ve been re-reading some of my old Book Reports about Garth Nix’s stuff. I have been writing this Tohu Bohu for a long time, haven’t I? I’ve written, at least briefly, about nine of his books. Or ten, now, with Frogkisser. And Frogkisser may be my favorite of all of them, or perhaps second-favorite after Sabriel. Looking at the whole list, I’ve read (I think) fourteen of his novels? That seems like an awful lot, doesn’t it?

At one point, oh, maybe twenty years ago, I mentioned to a friend that I had read and enjoyed ten novels by Robertson Davies, and that was an awful lot of books by any one writer to like. Ten novels! I have lived another twenty years since then and read a lot of novels, but I wonder if there are very many more writers with ten I like. Hm. Lois McMaster Bujold, yes. Dick Francis? Are there ten Dick Francis novels I like? Probably, tho’ I wouldn’t want to have to name ’em. Terry Pratchett much the same. Are there ten Diana Wynne Jones books I actually like? There are ten James Morrow novels, do I actually like all of them? John Scalzi has written ten novels, more or less, but I haven’t really liked all of them. John Dickson Carr? Orson Scott Card? Eva Ibbotsen? Maybe Eva Ibbotsen. Six great books, two more very good ones that I should probably own but don’t, and probably at least two of the children’s books that I don’t really remember. Anyway, not very many writers have, including many of my favorites. There aren’t ten Charles Dickens novels I enjoy. Kazuo Ishiguro hasn’t written ten novels yet, and I don’t like all the ones he has written. Mary Renault, five novels I absolutely love, a couple of others I like okay, a couple I don’t like much at all, haven’t bothered with the rest.

Anyway, I don’t know why that came up, because I haven’t enjoyed anything close to ten of Garth Nix’s books. I liked Sabriel a lot, and I enjoyed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the Keys to the Kingdom series, and I didn’t actively dislike most of the others. Enough to keep reading them, I suppose, and enough to pick up Frogkisser, once I made sure it wasn’t part of a series.

Frogkisser is lighthearted, which it turns out is a wonderful thing for his stuff. Both of the Big Series (well, the two Big Serieses that I’ve read) were very dark, which he did very well. But this one is silly. Oh, there are a few of his remarkable spooky visuals (well, prose visuals, you know what I mean) but those punctuate what is fundamentally a romp. I wouldn’t have guessed that Mr. Nix would do romp that well. Some of the incidental jokey stuff is genuinely funny, and much of the adventure is nicely adventurous. Even with the one bit that I found tiresome from the beginning, a running gag about Heralds speaking in Headlinese, he doesn’t run it into the ground. Or perhaps I was just in a good mood about the rest of the book so that bit didn’t wear on me as much as it might otherwise have done. It’s not a perfect book by any means—I’m not sure why it was so important to emphasize that the world was not our own by mentioning the two moons so awkwardly—but it’s the kind of book that I just enjoyed reading without thinking about too hard.

It is also yet another (and welcome) entry into the set of books where the Hero is a Princess who doesn’t wait around for a Prince. Princes are not entirely unavailable, but they don’t seem any likelier to rescue Princesses than anyone else is.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 13, 2017

Book Report: The Inquisitor's Tale

We haven’t had a Book Report here on the blog for ever so long, partly because (I hate to admit) during the Hamlet rehearsals I wasn’t reading much, and partly because I haven’t had much inspiration to write about the stuff I have read. I’ve read some good stuff in there, tho’ I can’t off the top of my head remember what. That was the good thing about blogging each and every book I read for five years; I could look back and at least to some extent remember what the good ones were. There were less good parts, too, though.

Well. I recently finished The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz. Hunh. I hadn’t realized he was the Tale Dark and Grimm guy. Anyway, I had been seeing the book on the shelf for a month or two—a very enticing cover, and you know I always judge books that way—and it kept winning awards and all, and so finally I picked it up. It’s terrific. I liked it a lot.

It’s an odd little middle-grade homage to Chaucer and the Middle Ages generally, and I’m curious whether someone more knowledgeable about that stuff than I am would find it irritating or would enjoy it even more than I did. It’s a jumble of saints’ legends, literature, history, music, architecture. It’s full of anachronisms, clearly deliberately so, and of odd bits of mismatched flotsam. One of the characters is clearly supposed to be Joan of Arc, but she’s in the wrong story entirely—the wrong century, the wrong part of France I think, certainly the wrong quest. It didn’t bother me, at least once I decided that she was supposed to be some sort of Joan of Arc analogue and that her story wouldn’t have to match up with the real one (or the legend, for that matter). And that’s just one—I’m pretty sure that is properly St. Margaret’s dragon, and that jongleur was contemporary with St. Louis’ grandmother, not with him, and what language, exactly, does the Scotsman have a terrible accent in? It reminds me, honestly, of Maz Luhrmanm’s Bollywood Triviata Moulin Rouge! in its delirious nonsense. If that sort of thing gets up your nose, this may be a book to skip.

And in truth, for a book that is, I think, intended to teach middle-grade readers about an actual historical event, and about the Middle Ages more generally, I wonder if the hodgepodge approach is really a Good Idea. I mean, will such tweens as read this thing be charmingly confused, or will they just assume that Joan of Arc really did have a magic greyhound? Yes, there’s an afterward that sorts through sources (and that’s great) but, well, if I’m worried about what medievalists would think of the book, I suppose it’s more important to wonder what its actual target audience would think of it.

Had I mentioned that it’s a middle-grade book? I suppose I hadn’t. Yeah, that’s what it is. Seems to be aimed at bright ten-year-olds who like to read, which is a marvelous thing, really, since so many middle-school books seem to be aimed at reluctant readers. And I know there are a lot of those reluctant readers, as strange as that seems to me, and that it’s really quite important that there exist books written to entice them to read. I don’t know what a reluctant reader would do with this book, honestly, but there do exist bright ten-year-olds who like to read, and thank goodness people write for them, too. Otherwise they jump right to the teen stuff with content they aren’t quite ready for—they’re ready for the complexity of the writing, but not the moral quandaries, sex and horrific post-apocalyptic murderscapes. At least, they aren’t all ready for that. I hope.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 13, 2016

Book Reports: Arabella of Mars, Steeplejack, Behind the Throne

Your Humble Blogger hasn’t done a Book Report in far too long, it seems. I’m gonna jam three of them into this note, then.

Amongst the books I have recently read are Arabella of Mars, a YA steampunk bit of fun by David Levine, Steeplejack, a YA Victorian-fantasy bit of semi-seriousness by AJ Hartley, and Behind the Throne, a space opera by K.B. Wagers. All three have fighting female protagonists, and all three are in at least some measure about colonialism. It’s interesting.

Arabella really is a silly book, delightful and shallow, and the colonialism plays out straightforwardly. Our heroine (I will use the feminine) is raised on a Mars that is explicitly a British Colony, with a native aya who imparts both ancient wisdom and the skill in tracking and fighting that will obviously become important later. She is brought back to the Mother Country where she is stifled by the social rules for ladies (and the gravity) but runs away and gets passage on an interplanetary sailing ship, disguised as a cabin boy. On her return, she discovers a native rebellion; due to her extraordinary experiences and ability, she is able to resolve the issue, bring the rulers and the ruled together, and begin liberal reform. The whole thing is a liberal fantasy of the highest order. Arabella and her late father are of course liberals and loved by the natives they rule over so fairly and justly; the whole rebellion is sparked by the blundering of a greedy racist; the entire thing is resolved by the mutual affection and respect between our heroine and her native aya (coupled with the combat training the native has provided our heroine, of course). Oh, and the other colonialists, inspired by our heroine, abandon their misguided fear and hate. It is not, you understand, a very truthful book, but it is a lot of fun, and frankly it’s nice sometimes to luxuriate in a liberal fantasy.

Steeplejack is a more serious book. In a bizarre alternate-history version of South Africa, our protagonist comes from the community of Indians brought in by the white colonials to do the work. The machinations of the book pinch her into the beginnings of a native uprising that will certainly be disastrous for her community, whatever the outcome for black and white. Meanwhile there are maguffins to be chased and rooftops to be chased over, and a web of responsibilities and opportunities and magic and music and crime and all that stuff. It’s still a romp, but it’s a more fundamentally serious book than Arabella. The good people are less uniformly good; the bad more desperate than evil. While both protagonists find themselves outside the society they grew up in and unable to comfortably return, Steeplejack quite effectively (for an adventure yarn) shows how the cultures rubbing against each other force everyone into that position, the oppressors and the oppressed and the allies and bystanders as well. It’s also not quite as much sheer preposterous fun as Arabella, so there’s that as well.

Throne is not marketed as YA, and is not a pseudo-historical novel, and if I hadn’t happened to read them in near proximity I would not have thought to put them together at all. Our protagonist is—well, she ran away from home twenty years before the story begins and was not a child at that time, so let’s call her forty years old. She doesn’t seem forty to me, but she isn’t a teenager like the protagonists of the other two. She’s a princess who ran away for Plot Reasons and became a smuggler; her return to the palace is the signal for, well, more plot. She finds herself uncomfortable within the strictures of a society and position she had left behind, but as the heir to the throne she has a greater scope of autonomy to do something about it. Her home culture is a matriarchy, so she is in a position of extreme privilege. (Hm, Arabella is white, rich and British/human, but within that society she is low-status as a female; the titular Steeplejack is low-status as a woman of color, but is higher status than the natives. Each occupies a position on the Chain of Peoples that defined both by the links above and below. In Thone, the gunrunner princess has acquired low-status friends, but is herself at the pinnacle of the heirarchy. Hm.) The liberal-fantasy element is still there, as her political opponents, in addition to being murderers and incompetents and tools of foreigners, are illiberal conservatives who think that too many people have been given too many rights. Our hero, of course, sides with the radical egalitarians who are being blamed for the assassinations but who, again of course, are innocent. It doesn’t work quite as well (at least for YHB) simply because I so utterly reject the whole notion of hereditary monarchy; the gunrunner princess simply shouldn’t be in charge of anything, no matter where her sympathies lie. Still, the action is very exciting, and the book reads quickly and well.

And the point, really, is that in all three books the heroine is a Strong Female Character, not so much because she kicks ass but because she is the protagonist of an action-adventure story. Being a woman is not incidental—in none of the books could you swap the lead’s gender without screwing up the whole story—but neither are they books for or even really about girls (or women). To the extent that they are about something other than adventure, they are about colonialism and the experience of an ethnic group attempting to rule over other groups, and the experience of individuals coping with the ways they don't fit in to the ruling or ruled cultures. To the extent that it's remarkable that the protagonists are all both females and fighters, that's a remark about other books, not these.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 19, 2016

Book Report: Five Children on the Western Front

Five Children on the Western Front.

I mean, really, that’s all you need, isn’t it? If you love Five Children and It, that phrase will make you do the arithmetic and discover that Cyril would have been 21 in 1914, and Robert nearly 18. Like all the families in England, all the families in Europe, their boys would have gone to war. That title, that moment when you think about Cyril on the Western Front, is enough to make me cry, anyway.

For someone (such as Your Humble Blogger) who reads a fair amount of late-Victorian and Edwardian lit, it’s always a bit of a shock to remember that all those boys would have gone to war, and most of them would have died. Hard to imagine Freddie Eynsford-Hill living through the war, isn’t it? The Baker Street irregulars, turned regulars, gassed. Dickon from My Secret Garden a Tommy under Flanders field. Button-Bright might have been old enough to serve by 1918, if he hadn’t moved to Oz by then (I was never clear how old Button-Bright was supposed to be, actually). Frederick turned 21 in 1880, so I suppose he probably would have been too old to serve at 54—tho’ he hadn’t reached his fourteenth birthday. Mostly, though, it’s the Nesbit collection of 1905 children, full of hope and promise, living in a pre-war bubble. I don’t know if there has been a lot of fanfic written on the topic before; I don’t really want to know, I suppose. The title is enough.

And yet, as it happens, the book is quite good. Kate Saunders (who may well turn out to be in the Top Five Saunderses of this Tohu Bohu) wrote the book with restraint and imagination—I think I had written (Oh, look, I sorta did) about the problems of writing the further adventures of beloved characters. Essentially, you can either attempt to keep the character exactly as it was in the earlier books, which is deathly and besides untrue to the character’s new circumstances, or you can attempt to portray the character’s growth and change, which is a betrayal of the character we have loved for decades. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s bound to be tricky, any way you go about it. Even if you are writing about Pooh Bear. Ms. Saunders made (in my opinion) an excellent job of the gutsy version, making Anthea (f’r’ex) a young woman who was just enough like the girl of ten years previous to be plausibly her temporal replacement without being so much the same as to invide invidious comparison. And the gutsiest part was inventing a whole new sibling, younger than the Lamb, to be the right age to be interested in sand-fairies after the Bigguns were busy with their lives. I was upset, at first, by the sixth child, but after a few pages I was happy with it. It’s the Psammead at the center of the book, anyway, not the siblings. Or, well, that isn’t exactly right, but in the way that the foolish wishes of the first book brought the children new understanding, in this book the Psammead finds out his own foolishness. Magic isn’t working the way it did, precisely, in the earlier books, but then nothing else is, either.

Now, I do want to register a significant complaint, which is that the book concerns itself rather too much with romantic love, for my taste. That’s understandable, with the four children we know best entering the world of grown-up things, but it winds up meaning that the Psammead’s lessons in the meaning of Love are focused rather strongly on romantic love to the exclusion of paternal, fraternal or filial devotion, or even willing to call the comradeship of the trenches by the name. I don’t mean to knock romantic love, or even to deny it primacy in the love-pantheon, but if a sand-fairy is being forced to recognize the human capacity for love as a good thing, stopping with romantic love is a problem for me. Particularly, of course, since the crushing heteronormativity of nice upper-middle-class WWI England quite plausibly keeps the family away from any wider possibilities than one-man-one-woman-marriage; I personally might be amused by the crew coming out of the British Museum into Russell Square and falling in with some of the Bloomsbury crowd, but their Mother would not be so amused.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Book Report: The Librarian

I’ve recently been reading two specfic books in translation. One of them is The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, which I haven’t finished, and the other is The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov. It’s interesting to me that both of them begin with lengthy introductory passages that do not introduce characters that will be in the bulk of the novel. In both cases, they are talking about events a generation ago, and the closest we come to a central character in this part dies. After that bit—and I’m talking about fifty pages or more—we skip forward to the present day, or something like it. A new place, a new time, new characters. In both cases, that initial part was somewhat difficult for me to get through, in part because there didn’t seem to be a plot, as such, with a main character who wants something and circumstances preventing it, just a long (and violent) setting of the background. Probably just a coincidence, but I don’t read a lot of non-Western fiction, and it seemed odd that the two such books I read this year both started in a way that I found very difficult to get in to.

The other really odd thing… OK, so The Librarian is about a set of books that, if read a certain way, grant the reader strength, endurance, good memories, or other qualities. The bulk of the book is the struggle between groups of readers who disagree about the correct ways to read the books and want to control them. The struggle is mostly violent (incredibly violent; this may be the most violent book I have ever read) and as smaller reading rooms coalesce into larger organizations (or, rather, as large organizations force smaller reading rooms to join them or die) the violence between those large organized libraries increases in scale. People within these organizations are willing to commit the most appalling atrocities in defense of their books, and in fact derive the strength to do so from reading the books themselves.

Now, that’s not the odd thing. The odd thing is… so I have developed a habit (that’s not the odd thing, or perhaps it’s an odd thing but not the odd thing I am leading up to) of finishing a book and, if I am feeling at all unsettled about my interpretation of it, looking up a few reviews and essays about it. Books of quote-literary-merit-unquote will have more such, of course, but there are blog posts and such for all sorts of books these internetty days. Anyway, I looked up what people were saying about this book, which after all won a literary award in Russia, and it turns out was a controversial choice at the time, so when it came out in English people did write about it quite a bit. And here’s the odd thing: none of the essays or reviews I looked at talked about Mr. Elizarov’s attitude toward Scripture.

They talked about his satire of capitalism, his nostalgia for the Soviet era of his youth (or his subversion of that nostalgia, depending on the interpretation) and the racism of the characters (and possible of the book). They talked about the violence. They talked about the beginning, and they talked about the end. But they didn’t talk about religion and Scripture.

Does that not strike you as odd? I mean, if you came across a story about people who were killing each other over the right way to read a book, wouldn’t you assume that the writer was writing a satire of religion? Part of what I was looking for in the essays was whether other people found the satire to be as muddled and unsatisfactory as I did, but evidently they didn’t find it at all. And perhaps for a Ukranian living in Moscow, more or less my age, Scripture is not a cultural thing, and people killing each other over control of books is assumed to be resource-based or even economic-theory based. But it seems odd to me that the Westerners writing about it didn’t make that connection, even if Mr. Elizarov hadn’t intended it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 12, 2016

Book Reports: The Just City and Children of Earth and Sky

So, I recently read a couple of recent specfic books that reminded me how much I like straight-ahead historical fiction.

One of them was Jo Walton’s The Just City, which is very much a speculative book: one of the main characters is Apollo, one of the main plot points is whether the robots are sentient, and one of the Sources of Reader Pleasure is the interaction of people from different times and places. I more or less enjoyed it; lots of Sources of Reader Pleasure and Irritation, with the balance in question throughout, but on the whole I think tipping towards approval. I wonder if, in three months, I will remember liking it or disliking it. It reminded me, I think at the author’s deliberate evocation, of Mary Renault’s Greek books, which as Gentle Readers are probably aware are my very favorites. Love those books. Ms. Walton’s book is sort of a cross between Ms. Renault, earlyish Isaac Asimov and, well, Jo Walton. I may read the second one, and I may not; it’s a little hard to imagine the Pleasure outweighing the Irritation in a second book, but then, I have no idea what sort of book the second one is.

The other was Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest, a massive tome called Children of Earth and Sky. It fits into Mr. Kay’s ouvre quite well: a lightly-fictionalized version of history with some minor fantasy elements. The book is largely terrific; I find the invented names for cities to be profoundly irritating. Because I begin by translating them back to the real world (this one is largely set on the road between pseudo-Venice and pseudo-Istanbul, with a few scenes taking place in those cities and a few in pseudo-Dubrovnik and pseudo-Prague) I have to pause, when a place is mentioned, and translate them back. Oh, right, that’s the Dubrovnik one, I thought to myself, or more accurately in that case That’s the one that’s down by Split or somewhere, I’ll have to look it up at some point, because my central-European geography isn’t very good. I know Mr. Kay has reasons for what he does, but I would be happier if all the maps were our maps and the cities our cities, and the historical figures had their right names, too.

Or at least I think I would. I do like historical novels without speculative elements, but I haven’t been reading new ones for a long time. I’ve actually never read anything by Samuel Shellabarger other than Prince of Foxes, which is one of my very favorite comfort books. I have read two or possibly three Thomas Costain books, but haven’t sought out the others. Mary Renault hasn’t been writing much lately, what with having died in 1983. I didn’t like the one Phillippa Gregory book I read; I could try again, I suppose. I should pick up Wolf Hall; I didn’t make it through the tv series. I enjoyed the first couple of Sarah Waters books (and didn’t blog them?) although the last one I tried didn’t work for me. Hm.

Anyway, do any Gentle Readers have recommendations? I’m not looking for Romance Novels, although I certainly don’t object to a love plot of some kind. I like my historical novels with adventure, politics, philosophy, art and economics… but mostly adventure.

I suppose I could just read more Walter Scott.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 1, 2016

Book Report: Playing Lear

After being vastly pleased and impressed with Oliver Ford Davies’s performance in Richard II last month, Your Humble Blogger thought to look to see if the man had written any books, and in fact he wrote a diary of Playing Lear in 2002. It’s a marvelous book, really lovely, with a huge chunk of endearingly pedantic history and pontification about preparing a Shakespeare part and a set of personal reactions to the various Lears he has seen in addition to taking us through the preparation and rehearsal process from casting to opening night and after.

I would like to write such a book someday.

I don’t know how it would read to a non-actor. It’s much less gossipy than Antony Sher’s similar books, with less focus on what it’s like to be him, in his position. Fewer funny stories about props and costumes, fewer word portraits of mornings spent in dappled sunlight trying to learn the lines, fewer paroxysms of self-doubt. And of course no sketches of himself and his castmates. Instead, Mr. Ford Davies walks himself and us through the text:

I try to read the play as if for the first time. I keep asking questions, and try not to come to any conclusions. When I finish I start making notes, though in truth this takes me several days. I make a little précis of the plot and give some scenes names.

And then he does, for some fifteen pages, breaking it down scene by scene, pulling out a few lines that seem to stand out in each one. Then he goes back and starts over again, asking different questions this time, looking at differences between source texts (he is quite concerned about the differences between the Folio and Quarto texts, and whether Shakespeare improved the play by judiciously cutting out (f’r’ex) the mock trial scene, and thus whether they should be guided by that text, despite it being a great scene. I was reminded of Stephen Sondheim’s fury at people who put back songs that they cut from shows—yes, the songs may be terrific, they weren’t necessarily cut because the song was bad, but because the arc of the show worked better without them. He imagined the guy who leaves the production thinking Man, that Sondheim show dragged in the middle not knowing that Sondheim had in fact solved that problem. Of course, producers have Sondheim to consult, and at any rate the texts we have are pretty well dated and verified. The Shakespeare texts are confusing as hell.

Oh, that reminds me: both Mr. Ford Davies at the Almeida and Mr. Sher at the RSC talk about the rehearsal process beginning, after the read-through, with another read-through, this time with each actor paraphrasing the line. I’ve done four Shakespeare plays, I think—Hamlet in college, Shrew in Boston, R3 and AYLI since I’ve been blogging here, I don’t think I’m forgetting any—and I’ve never done this exercise. It seems very valuable to me, although it requires a tremendous investment of time. Mr. Ford Davies calls it fruitless, though, mostly because Shakespeare uses words so precisely that swapping out synonyms strips out layers of meaning. And it’s a fair point: he will often use a word that means X but also Y, or uses X and connotes Y, or uses X in a way that puts it into Y context. But then, presumably that’s what you discuss in the rehearsal, when the paraphrase falls sufficiently short. And as Mr. Ford Davies admits, the director can’t assume that the actor who sounds smooth actually knows what the words mean.

I am, as I mentioned yesterday, hoping to be cast in a production of Twelfth Night. If I get any of the really juicy parts for men—Malvolio, Sir Toby, Feste, Aguecheek—and the director does not make us paraphrase together, I might try to it on my own, just to see if it’s helpful to me. Orsino tends to be more straightforward in his speech, which would make it less interesting an exercise, I would think. I mean:

Metaphor warning! Music is to Love as Food is to Men.
I want to overeat music
until I am so full that I get sick of it.
Play that bit again that went da dum
It reminded me of a breeze
on a meadow
because it blows the smell away and then brings it back. OK.
Bored now.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 13, 2016

Book Report: The Lost Conspiracy

Your Humble Blogger read and enjoyed Frances Hardinge’s first book, Fly-by-Night (I was clearly in a hurry when I wrote that one, not going in to the specifics, but in fact I really enjoyed its fun and subversive charm) and had difficulty getting in to any of her other books. I have taken both Well Witched and The Lost Conspiracy out from the local library multiple times and returned them unread. Then, after the most recent book won all sorts of awards, I thought I’d give them another try. So I took out The Lost Conspiracy for the third or fourth time, gave it a good try, and when I wasn’t absolutely hating it (but not really enjoying it) in the first few chapters, instead of trying another book or retreating to a favorite reread, I pressed on. And eventually became more absorbed in it, more interested in what she was doing, more fond of the characters and setting, and then, finally, got to the point of not wanting to do anything else that would interfere with my finishing the book. So that’s all right.

The book is about, well, it is most obviously about colonialism: Gullstruck Island (the setting and the UK title) is a volcanic island with a variety of indigenous tribes ruled over by the mainlanders. I think my difficulty getting into it was that it was so obviously about colonialism that it hit some of my Things Fall Apart buttons. And our Hero, a self-effacing young girl, wasn’t appealing to me at first. Even after her village was destroyed and she takes her sister on a desperate journey up the side of the volcano, she seemed not terribly interesting in herself, but as a collection of markers: of colonial oppression, of race prejudice, of gender prejudice, of the plight of the young. It isn’t until nearly half-way through the book that she came together for me as a character with characteristics rather than markers.

I could argue that this is because it isn’t until halfway through the plot that she manages to escape even partially, even in her own mind, all of those pressures: that it’s not until halfway through the book that she actually does become a character. Or perhaps it’s because Your Humble Blogger was impatient, or because my limousine-liberalism isn’t as comfortable with difference as it thinks. I think it’s an actual flaw in the book, though—I think Ms. Hardinge had such ambitions for the book and wanted to put so much of the world into it that our Hero suffers early on, and the reader really does have to wade through too much information about this world and its various tribes and IVSRs (institutions, values, symbols and rituals, for those Gentle Readers who weren’t around a dozen years ago when I used to use that shorthand for Clinton Rossiter’s formula of Conservatism) before the story becomes a story.

On the other hand, when the story does become a story, and the character does become a character, the book starts to sing and doesn’t stop. There’s a wonderful shift at the end, where it becomes more about climate change than colonialism, and it’s one of those moments which is beautifully set up, to the point where I probably said hunh! out loud. I hope I didn’t wake up my Best Reader at that point, because it was really quite late and I ought to have put the book down and turned off the light an hour before.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 23, 2016

Book Report: The Year of the Fat Knight

I had enjoyed Antony Sher’s Year of the King enormously, so I was excited to hear that Mr. Sher had published another production diary, this one about his Falstaff, called The Year of the Fat Knight. More excited about the book than the performance, I have to say. I had exactly the reaction that Mr. Sher writes about expecting everyone would have: Really? Antony Sher as Falstaff? How does that work?

As far as the reviews, it seems to have gone well. Although the brief video clip I saw didn’t really knock me out, to be quite honest. It’s not the record of a breakthrough role that the earlier book was, nor a record of a disaster, but a record of a prominent actor in his prime, working under the specific and peculiar conditions of the RSC. He builds Falstaff in fits and starts, blind alleys and moments of clarity, a fat suit and a relationship and a word. It’s the kind of acting-preparation I would like to do, given the enormous resources (and how I would love to be given those enormous resources) and the part. Whether I would be happy with the result, or whether anybody would be happy with the result, is a different question. I would also like to be able to write a production diary as evocative as this one, even if in places it does seem much more like he is writing to us—the putative readers of his published book—than to himself.

I’ll pass along an anecdote, though, my favorite in the book. At one point, earlyish in the rehearsal process, the RSC warehouse guy and drops off a load of rehearsal props. Walking sticks, swords and steins; hats and halberds and half-pint mugs. A lot of drinking vessels, actually, and a lot of weapons. Mismatched stuff, not usable on stage anymore, but good enough to get something in the actors’ hands. A load of old iron. And the actors are gathered around this pile of rubbishy old things, you know, poking at them and seeing what they want, when someone says Hey, Tony! he says, isn’t this yours? And he goes over to see, and in the pile is a beat-up black crutch with an elbow brace, one of the ones he used as Richard III, thirty years before. And everybody goes and looks at it, this relic of Mr. Sher’s youth, of their own professional hopes and dreams, of one generation of the four centuries of Shakespeare plays and players.

I like that.

I’ll be auditioning for a summer production of Othello in a few weeks, and if I don’t get in to that, I’ll be auditioning for a summer production of Twelfth Night later in the Spring. I hope I’ll write about it here, in as much detail as I can. I won’t have an old crutch to center my story on, though. Not yet.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 7, 2016

Book Report: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

It occurs to me that I haven’t written about the new Vorkosigan book, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. I had been waiting for this book for some time—I mean, I had been waiting specifically for Jole since it was mentioned on Lois McMaster Bujold’s Goodreads blog, but I had been waiting for a book about Cordelia and Sergeyar since… well, I first wrote about it on this Tohu Bohu more than ten years ago. So I suppose it’s not terribly surprising that I was disappointed, with all that build-up.

It’s not a bad book, by any means. A little dull, for those of us interested in plot. The things that the characters want are eminently achievable, the conflict is small-scale, mostly internal. Like the later seasons of Downton Abbey, the pleasure is being with the familiar characters we like, and seeing them succeed in various ways. On the other hand, like the later seasons of Downton, that’s pretty much all the pleasure in it for me. Oh, there’s the pleasure of well-written passages, true, and some romance-ish stuff, though not very much. But there is little of what I really like about her work, what I think she does better than other people do, which is plot.

My reaction was that it read like fanfic to me, and I know that sounds disparaging, and I only sort-of mean for it to. Here’s what I mean by that: I don’t read much fanfic, and when I read fanfic and enjoy it, it is largely because I get to spend a little more time with characters that I like, and the writer fills in some gaps in the world, ideally in a surprising way that is still consistent with canon. That sort of enjoyment is exactly the sort of enjoyment I got from this Jole. I have rarely read any fanfic that is well-plotted in the way that the Vorkosigan stuff usually is; that sort of lack is exactly the sort of lack I felt in Jole. And, yes, I suppose, there’s a focus on unexpected sexual pairings (or treblings) which is in a lot of fanfic, but (a) there’s a ton of fanfic that isn’t about sex, and (2) this novel isn’t erotica and isn’t even particularly prurient in its evocations of what John Irving calls sexual suspects. My Perfect Non-Reader (who may well be reading this Tohu Bohu these days, for all I know) claims that fanfic means smut—Jole is not smut. But it is… smut-adjacent? Reclaiming a minor character from a series, making him the main character in a story of his sexual relationships with of the two main characters… well, that is the sort of thing that fanfic seems to do a lot of. And often well, although not perhaps as well as Ms. Bujold has done it here, in the manner of hitting on her own style pretty much exactly.

I believe one of Ms. Bujold’s lines has become a sort of catchphrase for talking about series novels or indeed plot of any kind: she has said (I’m paraphrasing) that she attempts to figure out the worst possible thing she could do to Miles, and then make that situation much worse, and then figure out how he can get out of it. There are books where that method is obvious (Memory, obviously, and Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance) and others where it is somewhat less so, but in each of the Vorkosigan books there is something that goes very wrong, with disastrous consequences. In addition to the thing that has gone wrong, there some other thing that has a high probability of going wrong in the near future, and that would have disastrous consequences. In Jole, well, not so much: Gentleman Jole has a choice to make, but both choices are lovely (a new family or a huge promotion) and neither would be obviously disastrous. There is nothing stopping him from making either choice he prefers, or delaying the choice for a while, either.

Also, and this is connected, the sheer amazing privilege of our characters got up my nose after a bit. I mean, yes, when we met Cordelia she was a ship’s captain and her influence has only increased from there, and the Vorkosigan clan has always been insanely rich and powerful, enough to buy or bully their way out of any ordinary situation, but then Ms. Bujold takes them out of ordinary situations and makes them prisoners of war, or escaped convicts, or else constrains them with rules of honor and loyalty that prevent the use of their amazing privilege in the direness of their specific direness. In this book, that privilege is everywhere evident. Is there a potential logistic problem? Foist it on a minion. An awkward social situation? No-one dares challenge the (effective) Queen or the (effective) Commander-in-Chief, so it’s not a problem. The closest to a potential problem would be disapproving relatives, but those relatives are conspicuously broad-minded (which is consistent with their earlier characters—I’m not saying it would be better if they weren’t, just that there was little suspense of whether they would be) and besides, Jole and Cordelia do not seem at any point worried about what their insanely rich and powerful relatives would do if they disapproved. In the end, they just buy a couple of new houses and boats, hire some nannies and have fun! Which is nice for them, it’s true, and certainly not unpleasant for us to read about, but goodness gracious me the privilege. Might as well go ahead and watch Isobel Crawley marrying Lord Merton. Which, you know, I also enjoyed, so there’s that.

One of the things that Ms. Bujold has said in interviews and on her blog (hey, she evidently read my Tohu Bohu, I can read her Goodreads) (wow, that was a long time ago and on MySpace for the sake of everything holy) is that some readers appear to be disappointed that the book is not what they were expecting, and those readers are therefore attempting to read a book that isn’t there, rather than the one that is. I know I was looking forward to aspects of Ms. Bujold’s writings that I like very, very very much, and which it turns are not so much in the book, and yes, I am disappointed not to find them. Not as much so as I might be if they were in the book but somehow screwed up, I point out. That would suck. No, I recognize that this is the book she wanted to write, and if it isn’t exactly the book I wanted to read, well, I suppose that’s my problem.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 26, 2016

Book Report: Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

It seems Your Humble Blogger has never talked about Salman Rushdie on this Tohu Bohu. The reason for that, presumably, is that I don’t think about him much, and haven’t read most of his books. Which is odd, really, in that I love stories about storytelling, which is much of what he writes about, and that I have quite enjoyed stuff of his that I have read. Haroun & The Sea Of Stories, for instance, and the short story Chekov and Zulu and some other things I can’t recall. I have a vague sense of him as an unpleasant person, from interviews and so forth, but that really oughtn’t prevent me from reading books I like.

Anyway, I picked up Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights from the library, and really enjoyed it. It’s a sloppy mess of a book in a lot of ways, and doesn’t live up to its pretensions (or its beginning) but I prefer books with pretensions that are difficult to live up to, even if the book doesn’t live up to them. OK, that’s not true, I suppose—I like books with certain kinds of pretensions to live up to. Pretensions to fantastic turns of phrase, ambitions to memorable set pieces, pretensions to creating a new and yet recognizable speech pattern for the narrator, ambitions to captivate and delight, ambitions to a sense of wonder. Those are Salman Rushdie pretensions. He also has the other kind—pretensions to literary merit, vaddevah dat means; pretentions to Importance; pretentions to insight into the Human Condition; pretensions to a place in the canon.

The book surely had some annoying bits. Surely, it was irritating in places, lots of places. There was no way the end it would be at all satisfying, and it wasn’t. Furthermore, as a Believer myself, I felt the book suffered from not really understanding how religious Belief can work for people, but probably that’s more my problem than the book’s. Mostly, it’s a delightful, delightful book, the kind that makes you want to read bits of it aloud to your spouse, or steal sentences for your own use. It’s a fun book, a big book, and if it doesn’t have the thump that it thinks it does, more thump would not have improved it at all.

I don’t know if Salman Rushdie has ever been nominated for a Spec-Fic award. I don’t know if this is the book that would do it—it is a mess, after all, and there are presumably plenty of good books that aren’t messes—but the thing a nomination might conceivably do is to put the book in the context it deserves, and bring a delightful mess of an urban fantasy novel to the attention of readers who like that sort of thing. I used to grouse a lot more about the insularity of spec-fic award nominations, that books such as this one (or Walter Mosley’s or other ‘literary’ speculative fiction) weren’t being considered for nomination, or even considered part of the field. That’s scarcely the most pressing problem at the moment. Still and all, if (as with the Oscars) the point is just to pick a few works to focus attention on and honor, with the hope that people who would like them will read them, this book is one that, for all its mainstream attention, genre readers would like and probably won’t read.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 7, 2016

Book Report: The Secret Chord

I was pleased to see that Geraldine Brooks was named to the Order of Australia. It inspired me to celebrate Australia Day by picking up her Nine Parts of Desire, a non-fiction book that grew out of her reporting. Sadly, I didn’t actually get to that part of the library that employs me on the day, and while I still plan to read the thing, it wouldn’t be an Australia Day observance and so it can wait.

Meanwhile, our public library had her latest novel on the display shelf, and I grabbed it. This is The Secret Chord, a novel retelling the life of King David. This sort of thing is my meat and drink, of course, and while it’s certainly possible to do it badly, Ms. Brooks does a magnificent job. It’s an enthralling story, and she combines the narrative storytelling (I know the incidents, of course, which not every reader will) with evocative writing about the land and its people. An excellent read.

I have developed a probably-unfortunate habit of reading reviews of books within a few days after finishing them. I do this particularly with the sorts of books that get reviewed in the major newspapers and such—I do sometimes seek out blog reviews of YASF, too, but if I finish a book of the award-winning hifalutin literary type, I go to seek out what the Important People had to say about it. I do this whether I liked the book particularly or not; I am not so much looking for verification that the book was in fact as good as I thought, or to be outraged by the stupidity of Critics, for that matter. I suppose I’m just looking for someone to talk with about the book, as I have allowed this blog to go essentially dormant and the thought of joining some other social network fills me with weariness.

I am often surprised, though, at what the critics (or those I read) pull out to dwell on in the space they have or what I noticed that they left out. In this case, I was surprised that none of them mentioned Mary Renault. The Secret Chord read to me very much like a Mary Renault book, not only as a historical novel but with something of Ms. Renault’s style and emphasis. It’s not accurate to say that this is the book Mary Renault would have written, if she had chosen to write about David instead of Alexander, but it’s difficult for me to think about this book without comparing it to her books. Ms. Renault would not have dwelt so furiously on the rape of Tamar, but then, like Ms. Brooks she would have not let the reader forget it or forgive it, either. There’s a moment in The Mask of Apollo when Niko the Tragedian (through whose eyes we see the story of Dion of Syracuse) responds to some great diplomatic contretemps—if I’m remembering the line correctly, his friend exclaims could there be a greater insult? and Niko finds himself thinking of a flute girl who had been raped. She left the violence off-the-page, though; Ms. Brooks is too angry to do that.

I think that Ms. Renault might well have chosen to tell us the King’s story through the eyes of the prophet Nathan, though, as Ms. Brooks does, and made that character as conflicted in his loyalties as Ms. Brooks does so beautifully in this book. Alas, my one major complaint might well also have happened in a Mary Renault version: the character of Solomon is too good, too hopeful, without the foreshadowing of the character flaws that will set his story into such chaos and disaster. It’s a sort of blindness on Nathan’s part, but it’s also a sort of blindness on Ms. Brooks’ses part, I think. It’s too bad, because Solomon is a rich and terrible story, too. My minor complaint is also Renault-esque, as it happens: they both transliterate most, but not all, the names of places and people, in a way I find distracting and irritating. Thus, Nathan and Solomon are Natan and Shlomo; Hebron is Hevron; the Palestinians/Philistines are Plishtim. David is David, but I suspected I was supposed to be mentally pronouncing it dah-veed. Ah, well.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 22, 2016

Book Report: The Thirty-Nine Steps (play)

So. Your Humble Blogger is considering auditioning for a production of The 39 Steps. This is a stage adaptation of the 1935 Hitchcock film adaptation of the 1915 novel by John Buchan. The history of the adaptation itself is kinda whatsit, evidently, with the basic idea (do the movie on stage with only four actors playing all the parts) being the genius of two people implausibly named Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. That idea was turned into a madcap spoof of a script by Patrick Barlow, of the National Theater of Brent, whose shtick was goofy adaptations in which Mr. Barlow played the lead and one other actor played everybody else. However, Mr. Barlow did not produce The 39 Steps with the National Theater of Brent, or play the lead himself. The script (and presumably the posters and the playbills) credits Mr. Buchan, Mr. Hitchcock, Mr. Barlow, Mr. Corble and Mr. Dimon, but not, bizarrely, Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, who wrote the screenplay for the 1935 film and thus wrote the bulk of the actual sentences said in the play. Including the immortal exchange: What are the 39 Steps? The 39 Steps is an organization of spies collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of—aaaargh!

As it seems that playing multiple roles is becoming my shtick, I am hoping to be cast as one of the two clowns (as Mr. Harlow calls them) who play dozens of supporting characters. I haven't the physical dexterity I once did, alas, but I can still clown a bit, I hope. At one point, in a footnote to a bit of stage direction, Mr. Harlow writes: This will depend entirely on your design, amount of wing space, and the actor's level of Olympian fitness. Quite a lot of this show depends on the actor's level of Olympian fitness. It has proved an invaluable aid to weight loss. My Olympian level of fitness is… not Olympian. Funny voices, funny faces, even costume quick-change I think I can manage. One pratfall a night, no problem. Two at the absolute maximum.

Digression, I suppose: I wish that I had trained properly at physical comedy in my youth. I wouldn't have kept it up, as I haven't the discipline, but it would have been helpful. Lately, my experience with physical comedy bits in shows is something like this: I get an idea for the possibility of a bit, then I try it out at rehearsal, where it gets lashings of laughter from all and sundry and the director says to keep it (we will pass lightly over those that do not get lashings of laughter). The next time we run that scene, I do the bit slightly too late, having missed the cue. The director gives me a note, and I assure him or her that it will not happen again. The next time, it's at the right time, but stiff and awkward, and not funny. The time after that, it's late again, and also stiff and awkward and unfunny. Then I get it just right! Once. Then it's early, but still funny. The next time, I do it so wrong that I injure myself, but shake it off. The next two or three times, it's hard to tell whether it's funny, because everyone is focused on whether I will plummet to my hideous doom or not. Wagers are presumably made, and lost. I survive. By this time I can't remember what exactly was funny about the bit in the first place, but it's too late to ask to take it out. In dress rehearsal, the bit goes smoothly and silently. On opening night, I am surprised by the audience's laughter. Depending on how many performances we have, it's likely that one night (or even more likely, one matinee) I do it late and it gets a laugh anyway; one night it gets no response whatsoever despite my doing it perfectly. Ah, well. End Digression.

What concerns me, though, is that the audition notice says that All the roles in this play are performed by a small ensemble of actors (eight, possibly more.) Much of the fun of the play is predicated on the two-clowns conceit. Scenes are structured to draw attention there being no way to bring a fifth character on-stage without one of the clowns going off and changing clothes. In one scene that strikes me as particularly clever, one of the clowns changes character onstage in character (sort of, it's hard to explain) which makes sense only if the audience is constantly aware that there are no other actor to play the other parts. For instance, Our Hero is in a railway car with two salesmen:

Salesman 1: Wonder what won the two o'clock at Windsor.
Salesman 2: I'll get a paper.
Salesman 1: I'll go to the lavatory.
(They get up. Squeeze round each other.)
Salesman 1: Excuse me. Sorry. Sorry.
Salesman 2: Sorry. Sorry.
Hannay: Sorry.
(Salesman 1 exits. Salesman 2 sticks his head out of the window. Whistles through his teeth. Salesman 1 immediately back on as a Paperboy in a flat cap.)
Paperboy: Evenin paper! Latest news! Evenin paper! Latest—
Salesman 2: Evenin paper please?
Paperboy:Evenin paper sir? Thankoo sir! (gives him a paper)
Salesman 2: (gives him a penny) Thankoo.
Paperboy: Evenin paper! Latest news! Evenin paper! Latest—
(Exits. Immediately back on as Salesman 1)
Salesman 1: Excuse me. (Squeezes past) Sorry. Sorry.
Salesman 2: Sorry. Sorry.
Hannay: Sorry.

And then after the exposition from the paper has happened, we get another scene:

Salesman 2: Think I'll pop out to the buffet car. Finished? (Snatches paper from Hannay) Fancy anythin'?
Salesman 1: No thank you.
Hannay: No thank you.
Salesman 2: Right you are. (He leaves the compartment. Squeezes past.) Excuse me. Sorry. Sorry.
Salesman 1: Sorry. Sorry.
Hannay: Sorry.
(Salesman 1 glances out of the window.)
Salesman 1: Good Heavens! Place is stiff with police!
(Hannay freezes. Salesman 1 pulls down window. Calls out.)
Salesman 1: Excuse me Constable! Caught the West End Murderer yet?
( Salesman 2 appears in a police hat)
Policeman: We'll catch him. Don't you worry.

…and so forth.

If the Paperboy isn't played by the same person as the Salesman, his appearance isn't funny. Even if he is played by the same actor, if the audience knows that there's someone else standing around in the wings, his appearance isn't funny. And while that's among the most explicit of those sorts of moments, the play is made up of a whole succession of such, and a cast of eight would, it seems to me, ruin it.

On the other hand, I must admit that a community theater would have an easier time selling tickets to a show with a cast of eight than with a cast of four. Ah, well. We'll see.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 17, 2016

Book Report: Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink

Your Humble Blogger has been reading various threnodies to David Bowie, as have you, Gentle Reader, I imagine. The most moving ones don’t talk that much about the man who died, you know, but about the writer, how that particular writer happened on the music (or visuals, often, and sometimes both together) and was struck, and struck deep. And how that moment of being struck opened a world to that writer, transformed her, woke him, made for them all a new world. And that it happened again, and again, and then again as well: the writer is saying, in grief and mourning, that she is who she is because of David Bowie, and—this is the really moving part, for me—she is grateful to David Bowie because of that. That David Bowie made all those people into people who were happy about being people made by David Bowie.

Well. I liked David Bowie and all, he was very popular in my teenage years, but I don’t think he was one of the songwriters or performers who made me who I am. I listened to ChangesOneBowie a lot, and of course when music videos became a thing, his were always worth watching, but I can’t say that I am who I am because of David Bowie. No, there are a few dozen of those artists of various kinds, but not Bowie. Mary Renault, J.R.R. Tolkien, the Monty Python crew, W.S. Gilbert, probably Isaac Asimov, P.G. Wodehouse, Mark Knopfler, I’m sure a few others. Shakespeare.

And, of course, Elvis Costello.

And it occurred to me, as I was reading all of these things, that someday Elvis Costello will die, too, and I will try to write something like that. Something about what Elvis Costello meant to me, and still means to me. Something about the way I am who I am because of “Mystery Dance” and “Tears Before Bedtime“, “Green Shirt” and “Less than Zero”, “No Action” and “The Imposter”. And all the rest, but particularly the ones up through, oh, Imperial Bedroom; after that there are songs that I like a lot, but nothing I think that sank into my bones.

The topic has come up in this Tohu Bohu, now and then (Bootlegging after Repeal, f’rex, and You Are Warned, and also Interview’d, holding fourth) and is also coming up now because I haven’t written a note about the memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. It’s an entertaining book, also a bit frustrating. He does go into some detail, here and there, about a lyric or a musical choice, but doesn’t delve into the guts of particular songs at length. Well, it’s a memoir, more than anything. The last, oh, third of the book (wherein he is wealthy, famous and in demand) is astoundingly name-droppy. It’s actually quite sweet, though, to discover he is at this point still impressed enough to drop the names of Aretha Franklin or Tom Waits. Still and all, I don’t actually care about that. I care about the music. I care more than somewhat about his childhood, and the various choices and accidents that led to that music, and I care a lot about the music he is passionate about (at various times in his life) and I care about how those recordings happened, and how they happened the way they did. On the other hand, I think it’s worth reiterating that I read a rambling six-hundred page memoir because I care that much.

On the other hand, I also read Stephen Fry’s More Fool Me, which was awful, and he’s clearly awful, so there’s that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 4, 2016

Book Report: Netherland

I was initially prepared to like Netherland, about which I mainly heard that it was a cricket book. Then it was mentioned as one of the Literary Books of the Year, and I lost interest. Then I picked it up again, read a bit in it, and put it back on the library bookshelf, and now, needing an O for my AtoZ, pulled it back down from that library bookshelf and read the thing.

It was… excellent in parts? I dunno. I have no idea what the book as a whole was about. I mean, I have no idea why I should care about the main character, an absurdly wealthy man who appears to drift through life aimlessly, as his wife leaves him and then returns to him, as he leaves one adopted country for another and then returns, as he associates himself and then dissociates himself from a con artist who later dies. He never appeared to want anything or begin any action, and while that was represented as a sort of depression, the book was not in any way about his struggle with that ailment.

On the other hand, I didn’t dislike it enough to stop partway through. There were bits I found fascinating, and even a few bits I found moving. And Mr. O’Neill has a gift for finely observed minutiae, which presumably other readers thought added up to more than the sum of its tiny, tiny parts. I didn’t.

I’ll talk for a minute about one scene that I found memorable, for good or ill, and of course it’s about cricket. Early in the book Mr. O’Neill describes the cricket grounds our protagonist plays on, public parks where cricket’s demands run third or fourth to the demands of more popular sports. Moderately well-kept, these fields have grass that slows, rather than speeds, a batted ball. Thus the well-placed conservative shot, looking to roll between fielders to the boundary for four runs, or requiring a strenuous run-field-throw to keep the batsman to two, is instead likely to die a short distance from the crease with no opportunity to score. Meanwhile, an open-shouldered uppercut of a swing, a baseball swing not to put too fine a point on it, while retaining the risk of getting a batsman caught out, has a chance to clear the barrier on the fly for six runs. The balance of risk and reward is different in the cricket oval here, as it is outside it, but our protagonist cannot bring himself to change his swing, finding himself blocking and nurdling his way toward low run rates and low totals.

Late in the book, he describes a moment when, as he approaches the wicket to bat, his friend—this is the confidence man, numbers runner and shadowy investor whose fascination for our protagonist is called Gatsby-esque by reviewers who liked the book more than I did—urges him to swing for six. He does. He hits it over the rope, and writes how, in that moment, he discovers that he can hit the ball in the air without compromising his identity, that he is still who he was, even doing a thing he thought he would not do. He is, I suppose, pleased with this discovery, although the affectless prose fails to prod emotion from him or me, but the point is that, having refused to adapt his game to the ground in reluctance to abandon his fundamental nature forever, he feels fundamentally the same person.

But of course he is wrong about that. He isn’t the same person, he just thinks he is.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 1, 2015

Book Report: Ark Baby

Our AtoZ project has, as it is designed to do, compelled me to read books by writers I hadn’t previously read, and in many cases hadn’t previously heard of. I had never read anything by Liz Jensen, for instance, when I was perusing the local library’s J shelf, and of the three or four books that looked interesting, I picked up Ark Baby. So that’s a plus for the project, because I quite enjoyed it.

It was very James Morrow-ish, which is a good thing in my eyes, even though I think it wasn’t, in the end, quite up to the standard of Rabelaisian humour in the better James Morrow books. Still and all: provocative, funny, surprising, obnoxious, and with rococo sentences that get lost in metaphorical bric-a-brac. Or bric-a-bracical metaphor. Something like that, anyway.

The book is largely sewn together from two parts, the successful part and the not-altogether-successful part, the latter of which follows a main character who is neither likeable nor intelligent, which makes following him a chore, frankly. This half also bears the weight of the futuristic elements: for unexplained and indeed inexplicable reasons, the residents of the British Isles have become entirely sterile, and the sun is therefore setting on Britishness. The better half (in my arrogant one, at any rate) is set in Victorian times, we follow two characters in this part, both moderately likeable, as they approach each other and their inevitable romantic pairing. The two parts are linked thematically and by concern, the descendants of one showing up in the other, by a taxidermists’ figures, and by probably my favorite character in the thing: the Empress of Laudanum, who in the early part is racked with prophecies of the endtimes, whose hideous death pushes forward the narrative more than anything else, and who haunts the modern section with increasing indifference to the end of the world. I liked her quite a bit, and wish in fact that she had returned at the very end to pass judgment on the ending of the book. Ah, well.

The book was also filled—packed—with monkeys and apes, and references not only to evolution but to our human relationship to our primate brethren. Not because Ms. Jensen in interested in monkeys, I think, but to provoke us to wonder: do we care, really, about the elusive definition of humanity? Are we satisfied to know it when we see it? If humanity, Homo Sapiens as we jocularly call ourselves, turns out to be an evolutionary dead end and Nature starts selecting elsewhere… so what, really?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 17, 2015

Book Report: The Wanton Chase

I admit that I picked up Peter Quennell’s The Wanton Chase in part because I need a Q for my author AtoZ. I still have J, O, U, V, X and Y to go, if y’all want to make recommendations, although I have two Js out from the library already, and I should probably start one of them, as soon as I finish the Pratchett. Anyway, I needed a Q and although I had never heard of Mr. Quennell, as far as I knew, he qualified. And it’s a hell of a title, innit? I don’t know if it counts as judging a book by its cover (which I certainly do and encourage people to do) but that’s why I picked it. Well, and the title page said it was an autobiography that picked up in 1939, and I knew from where it was in the library that it was a British author, so, you know, worth a shot, right?

It turns out that Mr. Quennell was one of those dines-with-more-famous-authors authors, which of course is right up my proverbial. Cyril Connolly, Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot, Kingsly Amis, Constantin Brancusi, Augustus John, Esmond Lord Rothermere and Ian Fleming, George Duthuit, George Moore and Emerald Cunard, uswusf. I eat that shit up with a spoon. On the other hand, while the writing style and tone were amusing enough, the anecdotes were carefully anodyne and sometimes instead of coming to a conclusion just drifted away to nothing. It’s an odd book, that way; he doesn’t seem to get the point of his own stories.

The other thing about the book that really struck me was the way the mores have changed in fifty years or so. Marital infidelity is taken as a matter of course, and doesn’t reflect poorly on the unfaithful spouse. Sexual attraction toward the young, even to adolescents, is a quirk rather than a disease; he is amused rather than appalled. Racism, of course, both explicit and implicit. And then: his total blindness to working people of any kind, his inability to see waiters, servants or foreigners as humans, and his utter indifference to suffering of any kind. The callousness is a pose, of course, but that just begs the question: the mores have changed so much that a pose of indifference is strange and unpleasant, as opposed to… amusing?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 10, 2015

Book Report: The 13 Clocks

I had somehow never read The 13 Clocks. I'm not sure why. I read a lot of Thurber as a kid, and I read more as an adult. I read three (including a collection of letters) just when I was blogging books here. And I knew about this one as Thurber writing a Thurberish story of a prince in disguise, a curse, a wicked Duke, a quest, all that sort of thing. And people love it. Neil Gaiman loves it.

I didn't love it. I loved bits of it, mostly individual sentences, but I didn't really love the thing in itself. I'm not sure why.

Digression: I have recently started using the phrase curate's egg a lot. Do y'all know the phrase? It's from a Punch cartoon titled True Humility in which a humble curate, at tea with his bishop, assures his reverend boss that parts of his egg are excellent. When I call something a curate's egg, I'm saying that there were good bits, but that it didn't quite work as a whole thing. I don't know if I've been saying it frequently of late because I have been seeing and reading an unusual amount of stuff that doesn't quite work for me, or because I have been finding an unusual amount of excellent parts in the usual rubbish I come across. End Digression.

Maybe the reason I didn't love it was its adherence to the gender roles of This Kind Of Thing. As a child of the women's-lib 70s, and as a father in the 21st Century, I have grown used to these stories subverting those gender roles. The maiden's total lack of agency (or indeed entity) seemed like a hole in the book, and the overwhelming masculinity of the village made me sigh a bit. That may have been enough to put me in the wrong mood to be charmed. And loving something like this is just not as likely if you're in the wrong mood. Ah, well.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 14, 2015

Book Report: Woyzeck

I hated Woyzeck. I oughtn’t to be surprised, I suppose—I’ve never finished reading any of Neil LaBute’s plays before, and I’ve never finished reading any of the translations of Georg Büchner’s play before, either. I thought I would give it a try, though.

I know that the fragments that make up the original playscript form a tremendously influential piece of writing, and that theatrical expressionism and modern drama may well date from the discovery of the thing. I dunno. It’s awful, and I don’t see any merit in it. The language, the situations, the characters, the theater. It seems as if it would be somewhere between depressing and boring, unless it were laughable. Most likely it would fall into the irritatingly superior category. I mean: yes, various despicable people treat poor Woyzeck cruelly and drive him to madness and murder, it’s terrible what such people do, tsk tsk tsk. I’m glad I don’t know anyone like that. And you don’t. I swear to you, you don’t know anyone like any of the men in this play.

I don’t see any wit in Mr. LaBute’s adaptation, either. It doesn’t even seem to be a great part for an actor. I mean, it could be, with enough time for the poor sap to run around wordlessly and wildly breaking down whilst the rest of the cast shouts at him, but… yicch.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 13, 2015

Book Report: Saving Lucas Biggs

Saving Lucas Biggs is a hell of a book.

First of all, it’s got a terrific sense of place. It’s set a Northern Arizona mining town, edge of the desert, edge of the mountains. Second, it’s got a terrific sense of history. That’s connected to the first, probably, in that it’s difficult to have a sense of place without it, but they get the particular mining-town history of Arizona right. Which is connected to the third thing, that I love it when a YASF book turns out to be full of old labor-left stuff, real rabble-rousing material that brings the iniquities of the Company right down to the present day. Hydraulic fracturing is killing people, yes, and you should believe that because mining companies have been killing people to make a buck for a couple of hundred years, now.

Having said that, I am disappointed, a little anyway, that Our Hero (and she’s a good character, too, even if perhaps just a trifle too quirky for my tastes at the moment) succeeds in the end by melting the heart of an old evildoer. I wanted a political victory. The kids reading this book should (in my opinion) learn of the tremendous achievement that was moving our labor conflict from machine guns to ballot boxes; we should politicize the fuck out of every dead miner and every spoiled river and every fracking earthquake so that it doesn’t come down to guns again. Because those things kill people, too.

But then, I feel bad about complaining—no kid would really read this book and think Why bother joining a union or voting or calling my congressman, I’ll just melt the heart of an evildoer. No, kids will read this book (I hope they will) and think the bastard mine-owners are still killing people to make a buck.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 9, 2015

Book Report: Frank

I suspect I would have read Barney Frank’s book even if I didn’t need an F for my A-to-Z year. And starting it, I would certainly have finished it; it’s a hell of a book. He’s a funny man, of course, and that helps, but he’s also a very smart man and a man with a long and fascinating history in public service. And, I suppose, it helps that I agree with him 90% of the time or more, both on policy substance and on process efficacy. I completely agree with his insistence on the benefits of incremental change, both because incremental improvements are real improvements that help real people and because each incremental improvement in a particular policy area makes it a little easier to make the next one. He has lived this history with LGBT rights; he has in the last twenty-five years seen it work the other way on affordable housing—and has also seen how refusal to accept incremental change and compromise is counterproductive, on both sides. It’s fascinating.

Where I disagree with him, I think, is in his dismissal of events and activities outside politics, and their ability to move public opinion and lead to change in people’s real lives and in their politics. He is dismissive—contemptuous is not too strong a word, I think—of protests and marches and rallies. He says (and he writes strikingly, I admire his writing) that if you have been to an event with people who agree with you, and you feel good about yourself afterward, then you almost certainly haven’t achieved anything. We all would like to believe that isn’t so, but… I think it is probably mostly so. Or at least somewhat so. Alas.

On the other hand, protests and marches and rallies can certainly go alongside a conventional inside political effort. Barney Frank does recognize this, although he is deeply skeptical that the groups holding the rallies will have the discipline to go through with it, and that’s from personal experience I have to believe. But when it happens, I think it works very well indeed. Let’s take, for example, the minimum wage fight, where street protests and rallies have been coupled with some very strong state and local legislative lobbying. Or, alternately, the T.E.A. Party movement, which successfully coupled political theater with direct mail to stymie a second economic stimulus package and make the sequester bite into popular public spending programs. And then—Gavin Newsom’s ridiculous and irresponsible decision to authorize same-sex marriage in San Francisco in 2004—did it make it easier for the other guys to pass Proposition 8? Did it delay legal same-sex marriage nation-wide? Barney Frank believes it did; I can’t really argue it. But I can’t say I regret that it happened, either.

I had for years talked about the Two Browns theory of government—you need Willie, who is willing—eager—to sell out to corporations and special interests to collect the crumbs of the deal for his own supporters, and you need Jerry, who is willing to forego alliances and give up power and influence in order to make unpopular points and maintain independence and freedom from corruption. Of course, that was two or three Jerry Browns ago, before he decided he actually was interested in governing, so the whole theory is shot to hell, but the point is that the two attitudes are both necessary. Without the Willie Browns you get no actual governance, and the lives of the people in the area are that much worse. Without the—well, without the, let’s say, Bernie Sanderses, or on the other side, I dunno, the Mick Mulvaneys?—without the uncompromising standers on principle, there’s little pressure on the folk sitting across the table from the Willie Browns, and the Willie Browns sell out for less and less.

If I were a legislator (and no, that would be gruesome and awful) I would hope to be a Barney Frank, a man who managed to maintain both his principles and his compromises, who always kept his eyes on his Henny Youngman lodestar: compared to what? Anything can be made better, any slide to the worse can be halted or at least slowed. People can be helped and any progress is progress. But the point is not the compromise, the point is the people. He helped an awful lot of them along the way.

And, you know, it’s hard not to read the current fiasco in the House—with the so-called House Freedom Caucus going all-in to prevent legislating from occurring at all—in light of Barney Frank’s career and his very real accomplishments as a consummate compromiser.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 5, 2015

Book Report: My Real Child

I enjoyed Jo Walton's My Real Child enormously. I found it sweet, absorbing and problematic; I didn't want it to end.

The end was always going to be a problem, wasn't it? When a novel is told, more or less, in flashback from the point of view of an elderly person with Alzheimer's-related dementia, eventually that's going to be a problem. And in this book, where the tension between two stories—two versions of a life, and a world that life takes place within—is the primary narrative tension, well, there is no satisfactory way of resolving it, is there? If there were, the book wouldn't work as well. I didn't want the book to end because I wanted to stay and spend more time with the folk in the book, yes, but also because I knew I would be disappointed in the ending, no matter what.

The central theme—well, the theme I think is central, anyway—is very meta: it's an alternate history story where the alternate history barely matters. The difference in war, politics, and scientific progress are peripheral to the main character's life. They do affect it—I will refrain from plot spoilers, I suppose, but World Events make a difference in the lives of our friends only indirectly, and often well after the fact. As they often do in my own life—the most closely the destruction of the World Trade Center has touched me, for instance, has been years after, when friends have been arrested for things that wouldn't have drawn notice beforehand. Portraying that sort of thing is a critique of the Great Man focus that alternate-history stories often take, and of the Great Man stories that we tell ourselves about the actual world. I'd call it an inherently feminist argument, but it's more than that; it's a critique of the reach of politics in general. And while I'm not altogether in agreement with it, it's a powerful one.

All of which lies underneath a terrific book about people that I enjoyed spending time with.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 10, 2015

Book Report: Temptation

Having read a biography of Vaclav Havel, Your Humble Blogger was tempted to read more of Mr. Havel’s plays. I’ve read a few, but hadn’t (unless I had forgotten it entirely) read Temptation or Leaving, and since we don’t have Leaving on the shelves of the library that employs me, I read the other one.

It’s a difficult play. There are parts of it that I can’t imagine work at all, and other parts that might work visually but not verbally. The ending is utterly unsatisfactory and frankly unplayable as written—here, some stage directions:

… As he goes, however, he sets fire to FOUSTKA’s coat, so that a new chaotic element is added to the scene as FOUSTKA, his clothing on fire, runs to and fro in panic. Then, out of the summer-house where KOTRLY has placed his bowl, come thick sulphurous flames. The music thunders, the stage is completely obscured by smoke. As far as technically possible, the smoke invades the auditorium. After a while the music stops, the auditorium lights come on, and the audience sees that the curtain has come down in the meantime. There is a short silence, then music is heard again—this time the softly and the most banal muzak. If the smoke, or the play itself, has not driven the last spectator out of the theatre, and if there is anyone left to applaud, the first to take a bow will be a fireman in uniform, with a helmet on his head and holding a fire extinguisher.

Amusing to read, but I wouldn’t want to have paid for a ticket. The English, bye-the-bye, is George Theiner’s translation; I occasionally wonder to what extent the stylistic infelicities (or what seem to me to be infelicities) are the fault of the translator, rather than the playwright. The really brilliant strokes of theater (or what seem to be to be brilliant) are not verbal in this play: the Devil/Tempter/Mephisto character’s habit of changing into indoor slippers which he carries in a paper bag, the Deputy Director’s repetition of the Director’s clichés and vice versa, and most of all the two silent characters who are both utterly magnificent creations. Wonderful stuff. Repetition throughout is used both for laughter and for disorientation, I might even say for pathos, in places. Just lovely. On the other hand, the actual dialogue is largely clunky and tiresome, and the themes (or what seem to me to be themes) are just not terribly interesting.

The biggest problem, though, for me, thinking about it as an actor, is that the misogyny and homophobia in the play are so jarring and awful that I can’t imagine even putting the thing on stage. Havel has… difficulties, let’s say, with women characters (and with women, evidently), so that’s one thing, but also his leads often reflect cultural misogyny, specifically in a double standard for dishonesty with sexual partners. While to some extent Havel is poking fun at the double standard, it’s also true that he asks the audience to identify with the flawed leads. In this play, though, there’s not only that part of it, but the women in question are themselves awful, and twice our lead physically assaults his girlfriend. Maybe in 1988 that just indicated his flawed nature, or maybe in Czechoslovakia in 1988 that just indicated his flawed nature, but an audience in the US in 2015 would (I hope) react to that now so strongly as to overpower the rest of the show. I could devote a few sentences to the incidental and unpleasant homophobia as well, but you can guess at it just fine, Gentle Reader, without specifics. In either case, I feel that the audience’s reaction of this playwright is an awful person! would overwhelm the show.

And that’s particularly a Big Deal in this case, because the audience would, I think, be going in to the show thinking Vaclav Havel is that playwright who overthrew the Communists, isn’t he? OK, no, probably they wouldn’t, because that was twenty-five years ago, and nobody remembers it, but to the extent that anybody knows who the hell Vaclav Havel is, they would think of him as a Great Man (which there is certainly a case for) and because of that, the discovery that he was a horrible misogynist and homophobe (which there is also a case for) would be even more detrimental to their ability to enjoy the play. I don’t think it’s easy to dismiss the bad stuff as a product of its time.

Which is too bad, because it is a product of its time, for good and bad, and yet it turns out that it’s not the politics that dated, but the misogyny and homophobia. Um, good?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 29, 2015

Book Report: Havel, a life

Your Humble Blogger is, as Gentle Readers may guess, mostly interested in Vaclav Havel as a playwright and a theatrical figure. I love his stuff; I love the sort of thing he does. I’d love to play in a production of The Memorandum; I’m too old to play the lead in The Garden Party, but I could certainly play one or another of the bureaucrats (or several of them, I suppose). I’d like a chance at Largo Desolato, sure. His stuff is sort of absurdist moral comedy, as it might be Pythonesque and Beckettish, a bit Stoppardy à la N.F. Simpson in Caryl Churchill mode, in a sense, with a touch of Ionesco. But nothing like any of those. He’s really masterly at repetition, and really masterly at repetition as well. Extraordinary works. Extraordinary.

And of course an extraordinary life. Michael Zantovsky (the author of Havel: A Life) was Mr. Havel’s press secretary in his first term as President of Czechoslovakia, or possibly his first term as Czech President, or perhaps both. The details weren’t clear. For a politician and diplomat, though, he does an excellent job of situating the theater stuff, both interpreting the works themselves and situating them within Prague culture of the time. He’s better at describing the reactions to The Garden Party than the production, but that itself is fascinating. Really, though, Mr. Zantovsky (or Žantovský), is much better at the political maneuvering and chaos that immediately followed the Velvet Revolution. The stuff he was there for. The image of President Havel and President Walesa trying to find somewhere in the White House to have a cigarette was lovely.

My favorite bit could have come out of a Havel play: after Mr. Havel took office, he prioritized a sort of de-communization of the Castle, the immense thousand-year seat of government. I had no real idea about the Castle; you could fit ten White Houses in it with room to walk around between them. Good King Wenceslas ruled there; so did Hitler. Anyway, the thing about the Velvet Revolution is that the government never really stopped in between; the whole point of the velvet-ness was a combination of amnesty and continuity that meant (among other things) that people who had jobs in the Castle under the Communists in November 1989 would show up to work in December 1989 under democratic rule. And the Communist bureaucracy was of course famous for not letting the right hand know what the left was doing (while simultaneously encouraging either hand to inform on the other) so it took a while to, f’r’ex, figure out that the catering staff reported to the security staff.

Anyway, Now-President Havel prioritizes de-Communizing the Castle. He’s a believer, of course, in symbols and whatnot, and art and architecture and so forth, and he wants to make the Castle feel less communist. So evidently he would go on these excursions, room to room, trailing his inner circle of staff, trying to find out what was going on in this part of the Castle, and what was going on here, where people were being made to stand in line under huge statues, or whatever. He got into details of design, which drove everyone crazy. Anyway, in this insanely large complex, he’s trying to poke his nose everywhere, but not systematically, just charging around. And Mr. Zantovsky doesn’t say how long he’s been at it, alas, when he comes across a room full of women wearing headphones and typing. They were listening in on all the telephone conversations in the Castle. That had been their job under the Communists, and they were still showing up to work and doing it, even though nobody was coming and picking up the reports any more.

Such a great scene. And profoundly Havel-ian, too, although I suppose if he had written it, there would have had to be another scene later, where the President comes back in and the women are still there, still typing their reports for nobody to ever receive, only now of course in the newly liberated capital, with democracy and freedom, they have no headphones and no longer eavesdrop on people’s calls. They just skip that step, too, and keep filling out the reports just as they always did.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 15, 2015

Book Report: Boys Don't Knit

Obviously, I picked up Boys Don’t Knit, by T.S. Easton, because I am a boy who knits. Done.

It turns out that it’s quite a good book. Funny, silly, rude, sweet, outrageous. I’ll keep an eye out for the second one in the series.

I’m a little curious about the editing for the American edition—this is a very very English book, and it’s jarring when he talks about his father offering to take him to a soccer game. Does Macmillan US really think that American teens would be confused by references to football? Are they right? There were a couple of other places where there were what felt like Americanisms stuck in between the Tesco and the tea cozy, if you know what I mean. On the other hand, I’m told that British English now has Americanisms stuck in like that particularly amongst teens (such as this book’s first-person narrator) so perhaps a British reader of the American edition would find it totally smooth. Dunno, it seemed off to me. Although the choice not to change lollipop lady to the American crossing guard also confused me, so what do I know.

This also connected to a mini-gripe about the knitting talk—mostly it was marvelous, with our main character a kind of savant who has to visualize the whole pattern in his head before he begins, and then knits with machine-like precision. Not my way, but I loved reading it; the knitting was an extension of his character. I’m not convinced by the pattern for the easy-knit huge-stitch hoodie, I must admit, but hey, there’s a lot of stuff on ravelry I’m not convinced by, with pictures and everything, and that’s presumably real. As an idea for a pattern by a teenaged asbo who discovers a gift for the knitting needles, it works. No, my gripe is that in discussing a completed (or nearly-completed) knitted item, he several times says that there were no dropped stitches at all, and I think once says that an item knitted quickly was good, even though there were a few dropped stitches. I don’t know if a dropped stitch is something different in American Knitting than in British, but in my experience, a dropped stitch is a significant calamity which is likely to leave a large unsightly hole in the finished product. A twisted stitch is more the sort of thing I think a good knitter in a hurry might do, uneven cabling, or there’s probably a name for it when your stranded colorwork has the wrong tension and puckers the fabric, right? Anyway, dropped stitch clanged on my American ears quite badly.

But those are minor gripes in what was otherwise a fun YA sort of read.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 13, 2015

Book Report: Uprooted

So. Your Humble Blogger has written about Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels, and y’all have presumably figured out that I like them a bunch. Not that they’re perfect, but they are enjoyable—they play to her strengths, and her strengths happen to coincide nicely with my Sources of Reader Pleasure. On the other hand, I have been feeling that the Temeraire story is getting played-out; I don’t look forward to the new books the way I might. I was somewhat ambivalent about the new non-Temeraire novel, then, mostly eager, but a little concerned that Ms. Novik would abandon the plot-driven incident-packed style that I like so much.

Well, Uprooted is certainly packed with incident.

It is also powerfully evocative, and the world of Fantasy Early Modern Poland is a magnificent creation. The magic, as well, is lovely, and the core of the book is in Our Hero, a young woman with a talent for magic, as apprentice to an older (but dead sexy) man whose talent for magic appears at first to be utterly incompatible with hers… yes, you can certainly tell where this is going. But while it does have some of the tropes of Romance that get up my nose, it manages to avoid other ones that get even further up my nose, so that’s all right, d’y’see? And while I don’t know that I think the characters, as such, are brilliant inventions, the relationships between the characters are compellingly drawn, and drawn in such a way as to propel the plot, and that’s most certainly all right.

I’m wondering, though, whether the inclusion of a scene earlyish in the book where a Bad Guy attempts to rape Our Hero is the sort of thing that the article I can’t seem to find now was on about—I mean an article I can’t seem to find now, that says more or less if you are including a rape scene just to show that the villain is a Bad Guy, please don’t. But there have been lots of notes recently about the inclusion (or not) of rape scenes in movies, books, TV and comics; the question really ought to be in people’s minds. And while this scene is handled quite well, it really isn’t necessary from a plot point of view, and is of questionable value from a character point of view—that is to say, nothing of the decisions she later makes seems informed specifically by her experience as a survivor of sexual assault. Of course, there are lots of things in books that aren’t necessary, and perhaps sexual violence does not, in fact, constitute a special category such that an author must justify its presence by necessity. Your Humble Blogger is inclined to think it does, by virtue of the history of the trope, but your mileage is likely to vary. I’m not angry at Ms. Novik for including the scene, I’m just a trifle uncomfortable with it in the otherwise terrific book.

Digression: I am, however, really angry with Google right now. In an attempt to discover whether other people had been musing on this question, I typed [novik uprooted rape scene] as my initial search, without quotes, and Google seems to feel that rape and sex are synonymous. In addition to making YHB angry, they boost to the top of the search discussions of an entirely different scene, consensual in nature, effectively obscuring any articles that I’m actually looking for. But mostly, that’s just bad and wrong, Google. Boo. End Digression.

Anyway… Uprooted is a terrific book, one of the best I’ve read in a long time. One of those when-can-I-get-back-to-my-book reads. On several occasions I responded aloud to an event in the book; a couple of times with an ewwww but at least once with a yesss!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 5, 2015

Book Report: The Nicholas Nickleby Story

So. What with this whole Petherbridge business and all, when a Gentle Reader of this Tohu Bohu offered to lend me The Nicholas Nickleby Story: The Making Of The Historic Royal Shakespeare Company Production by Leon Rubin, I jumped at the chance. It’s a terrific book, and does a great job of illustrating just how crazy the RSC was to do the thing in 1980, and how unlikely it was to succeed, and how really really unlikely it was to solve their funding problems for years. Mr. Rubin was the assistant director, assistant to the two co-directors (not exactly co-equal, tho’, as one of the co-s was Trevor Nunn who was at the time Artistic Director of the RSC, so there’s certainly a sense in which Mr. Rubin was assistant to the assistant) and had insight into the process from both an artistic and an administrative angle. I’d recommend it as a balance to a really good production diary written by one of the actors, only there isn’t one. Alas.

This lack is particularly keen because few of the actors come across as vibrant characters in this story—to be honest, Mr. Rubin doesn’t really write vibrant characters and is better at describing problems and solutions. Still, you get a sense of David Edgar, the playwright, and the co-directors, Mr. Nunn and John Caird, and the composer Stephen Oliver, and the set designer, more than you do the actors. Roger Rees does become a character, and you get a sense of him as the lead actor in more than one sense, pushing the production toward his view as well as acting out the others’. Mr Petherbridge has a couple of good scenes in the book, as does Bob Peck, but John Woodvine barely appears at all, and while he is effusive about Ben Kingsley’s Squeers, there’s no depiction of Mr. Kingsley’s process of creating the character. Digression: I know that the broadcast version is not the original cast, nor yet the second cast, but I find I cannot keep in my head the idea that Alun Armstrong was not the first Squeers. I certainly cannot imagine Ben Kingsley in the role. I would be fascinated to know how Mr. Armstrong approached the role, joining the cast after the long development was over. Someone should really be doing some sort of oral history of the show now, before anyone else dies. Anyway, this book doesn’t present a Ben Kingsley to usurp Mr. Armstrong in my mind, so I’m sure I will continue to forget that he played the part. End description.

The bulk of the book, of course, depicts the months-long period of research and improvisation that forty-odd actors went through with three directors and a playwright and the novel. I would have hated that process. Oh, Lord, would I have hated it. As did some of the cast, evidently, although most of them stuck it out. For which I am grateful, if not really understanding.

Now, during much of that period, the actors were also performing Shakespeare in repertory. That is, depending on the show and the part, they were putting in full days preparing NickNick and then playing George Page in Merry Wives of Windsor in the evening, and then coming back the next day to work on NickNick all day and play Iago at night. These are roles Bob Peck actually played in Newcastle in the last weeks before NickNick premiered, while he was learning Sir Mulberry Hawk and Big John Yorkshireman—more accurately he was rehearsing the NickNick roles whilst David Edgar was simultaneously writing them. John McEnery whilst preparing to play Mr. Mantalini, among others, was playing Pistol and Roderigo. Mr. Rubin doesn’t give a sense of what that was like at all, but then, he was spending those nights in meetings with Mr. Caird and Mr. Nunn and Mr. Edgar, amongst others. Probably just as exhausting.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Book Report: Playing to the Gallery

I’m interested in Grayson Perry as a sort of public figure—I can’t say I much like the art that I’ve seen pictures of, I’m afraid, although of course with pots and tapestries it’s unlikely the pictures on the internet do the artworks justice. But the person, or at least the public persona, I find fascinating. He’s wildly transgressive in a comforting, middle-brow way; he’s a straight man who likes wearing dresses, particularly outrageous ones; he pontificates about art while mocking the way art seems to draw people into pontificating. He’s an unpopular pop artist. He combines being an avant-garde artist with being a television personality. It’s as if Robert Mapplethorpe combined with Graham Norton, or as if Salvador Dali.

The cartoon on the cover of Playing to the Gallery, Helping Contemporary Art in Its Struggle to Be Understood, has the title scrawled in spray paint over a Rothko. I like contemporary art, but I have never really enjoyed Rothko’s stuff, so that was an added spark of interest—tho’ I don’t think, in that specific case, that Rothko’s paintings need help to be understood, but maybe they do. And while I like contemporary art, not everybody does; perhaps, I thought, this book will help me in my struggle to be understood as genuinely liking Clyfford Still’s stuff or Sol Lewitt’s. At any rate, I grabbed it off the library shelf and gave it a try.

It’s entertaining, often cleverly written, largely unhelpful, inconsistent, somewhat incoherent and a lot of fun. I don’t think it will help contemporary art in its struggle to be understood—if you don’t like the stuff, at best you will feel better about not liking it. Or at least feel less like the stuff is an insult directed at you personally, which seems to be a common reaction… it’s much more likely to be an insult directed at previous generations of artists. And recent ones, too, which means that the insulted stuff is also contemporary art, within the meaning of the act, and you won’t have liked that, either.

As a working artist, concerned for his income with gallery shows and critics, museums and crowds, Mr. Perry has some interesting insights into the industry. He also is aware that, for instance, a hundred years have passed since Marcel Duchamp put his Fountain on show. His art-school teachers’ art-school teachers would have been too young for art school when that happened. I’ve read far too much pontification about contemporary art that fails to understand that there has been time for reactions to reactions to reactions to that provocation. It’s still a marvelous joke, but it’s a marvelous old joke, and has been for a good long while now.

Anyway, the book is unsatisfying and provoking, and good, too. If you would rather, you can listen to the Reith Lectures from which the book was adapted. The Q&A part is pretty good, I have to say.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 17, 2015

Book Report: So, Anyway...

So… Anyway… Your Humble Blogger read the John Cleese book.

He's a funny man. No, really. He's still funny. It's a funny book.

Unfortunately, it's not an entirely funny book, and there are sizable chunks of the first half that are more or less of the form:

I remember I couldn't have been more than six or twelve when an entirely ordinary thing happened at the end of the school day. Much later, I told my therapist about it, and I still remember how the feelings came back to me, just as they had when I was nine, a feeling of overpowering ordinariness. Indeed, writing this, I can remember it now, even though things are very different, and different people annoy me in different ways. But at the time, it was like it was at the time. And so was my father, who was like that.

Except that he'll throw some bizarre oddity in the next paragraph to make my Best Reader ask what I was sniggerin' at. So that's all right.

The second half of the book covers his career in comedy up through the formation of the Pythons—well, it was clearly intended to stop with the formation of the Pythons, but he clearly wound up writing another chapter after that, which included enough discussion of the Python working methods that it took away from the structure of the thing, although of course I didn't mind—as I age, I find I am becoming more interested in reading about them and their work than watching episodes of the Flying Circus for the n=kth time. The evolution of individual sketches, or even of ideas of what works in a sketch, from his Cambridge Circus days through writing for David Frost and the two Ronnies, to sketches I know by heart.

Speaking of which, the bookshop sketch on Contractual Obligation was written for At Last the 1948 Show and has been done various times with various people; Wikipedia claims that Bob Hope performed it at one point, tho' I have not confirmed that fact.

It occurred to me, as I was reading the book, that many of my favorite Python bits, in particular many of the great Cleese bits, are essentially extended world's worsts. If you aren't familiar with world's worst, it's a one-liner improv game where the emcee throws out a prompt of the world's worst something, and the players come up with examples. Whether they started from that germ or not, there are sketches about the world's worst game show, the world's worst mountaineer, the world's worst Hungarian phrasebook, the world's worst food shop, the world's worst arts interviewer, the world's worst pet shop, etc, etc. The thing that makes them great, though, is the other guy in the sketch, who responds to the world's worst bookshop customer in some insane and hilarious way. That's the funny stuff.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 16, 2015

Book Report: The Goblin Emperor

So… Your Humble Blogger has not written about this year’s Hugo nonsense, largely because many people with actual knowledge have been writing quite well about it but also because my stance on the Hugos has been for some years that it is structurally problematic, and that my preferred response to that is to demote its prestige to no more than the other specfic awards. Writing more about the nonsense—some of it very interesting nonsense—seemed unnecessary both from the point of view of content and attention. Plus, let’s be clear, I haven’t written about much of anything for months and months.

I did, however, read enough about the whole business to become interested in reading The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison. It’s the only nominee for Best Novel not to come from a Puppy Slate (if you don’t know what that means, be grateful for your ignorance) so I am assuming it will win the Hugo. And viewed as a Hugo-winner, it’s… okay.

Now, YHB is a fiend for narrative, as y’all know, and this is a world-building book, with a plot that has very little incident. As a Source of Reader Irritation, a protagonist who has no idea what his goals are is a big deal for me. So in some ways, I was impressed just by how much I was absorbed by the book despite feeling itchy for something to happen every now and then. And there were other Sources of Reader Irritation as well: long names indistinguishable from each other, conspicuously opaque faux-translation, occasional clunky dialogue. And yet, I remained absorbed by the book, staying up later than I intended to read another passage. So that’s all right.

In the end, though, I was left more irritated than satisfied, and not so much by any of the things I found irritating while I was reading it. The lasting problem, for me, was that the main character wound up being a sort of Connecticut Liberal in the Elf King’s Court.

To explain what I mean by that—the titular character is the youngest son of the Emperor, the result of an ill-advised treaty marriage between the Emperor of the Elves and the daughter of the Emperor of the Goblins; as a half-elf, he is brought up away from the court, first by his mother and then by a drunken tutor. Not only does nobody expect him to become Emperor, nobody expects him to ever attend Court, or even be released from what is effectively house-arrest in a backwoods province. And then, when Maia is eighteen the Royal Family is killed in an airship crash; he ascends the throne as an unprepared outcast. And thus the book.

And he is an unprepared outcast and a racial minority to boot, so it makes sense that he will have an outsider’s view of things generally. But he gets in trouble (more or less) over his first year under the crown for expressing support not only for racial minorities, but religious minorities and homosexuals. He supports women’s rights, he urges tolerance for the nearby indigenous people and respect for their religious sites. He supports industrial progress against feudal lords, but he also supports workers against owners. He supports the arts! He is kind to children and menials! He pushes for greater transparency in government! He might as well have posted one of those tests that shows how much he agrees with Bernie Sanders.

Now, in many ways, that’s the point of the story: the new emperor, having the experience of being a minority and not having been indoctrinated with the ideas of the aristocracy, is naturally a liberal. My problem with that is that it’s just bullshit. I mean, it would be kind of cool if people were naturally liberal, and the only things keeping them from actively identifying as liberal are brainwashing or ignorance. I mean, it wouldn’t be actually cool, because what makes the world interesting and fun is that people are different, one to another, but from a liberal perspective, it would be easier to persuade people to support liberal causes if liberalism were some sort of natural state. It isn’t.

And making Maia such a modern liberal ruins the book, for me, because it takes Maia out of the world of the book entirely. He is implausible, a cipher, a stand-in for the reader’s modern world-view. It flattens the world. It also takes away from the racial aspect that I had expected to book to explore more deeply—Our Only President is bi-racial and is The Black President; the racial aspect of that in our world is fascinating. It is much less fascinating for the Goblin Emperor. Now, it’s true that the racial aspect is probably more fascinating further away from the Emperor himself, who is by the nature of the office insulated from direct insult under normal circumstances. From the moment of coronation, racism becomes in some sense treason, and kept secret accordingly. And that’s interesting in itself, except that because the author has restricted our view to Maia’s, we don’t see it very much.

(I should say, Ms. Addison’s choice to hew closely to Maia pays off in other ways; having additional point-of-view characters would make it an entirely different book with entirely different Sources of YHB’s Irritation, and knock out some of the stuff I really enjoyed. Everything’s a trade-off, and I wouldn’t call this particular choice a mistake, at all. It’s just that one particular drawback, not closely seeing how any subjects deal with race, resonates for me with the problem that the Emperor is by office insulated from racial politics, and the racial politics were part of the thing I was looking forward to in the book.)

Anyway. I am disappointed. Much to like about the book—I liked, for instance, the central political point about the building of a new, technologically sophisticated bridge across a span previously thought to be unbridgeable, particularly as the metaphor was (through most of the book) muted in favor of entertaining political squabbling and pretty models. And I liked Maia and his timid good-heartedness, his terror of being thought ignorant and stupid, his unwillingness to use his position for his own comfort, and his difficulty in defining his vague sense of what a good Emperor should be. Maybe in a year or so I will forget how cranky I wound up, and only remember the good stuff. But for now, still cranky.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 22, 2015

Book Report: The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro has a new book, The Buried Giant. And it is the Ishiguro-est book yet. The Ishiguro-est book ever. For good and ill, it's hard to imagine a book more Ishiguro-y than this one.

Of course, that’s a tricky thing to say about a book. What makes a book Ishiguresque? His main theme is memory—the ways in we live through and in our memories, the ways our memories shift and blur, the ways in which we live with knowledge we can’t live with. How identity is a function of memories and how memory is a function of identities. The specific context changes from book to book—well, and in some of the books it’s quite an unspecific context—but the themes are his themes.

The critics (who were not kind to this book, on the whole) make a big deal of how Mr. Ishiguro crosses up the expectation of his readers. Having become famous for a historical novel, he wrote a science fiction novel last time, and this one is a fantasy novel. How can readers keep up with that? Oh, no! Actually, the last book was a book of shorter prose pieces, but the reviewers don't seem to mention that one for some reason. Anyway, one of the advantages of being a genre reader, for the most part, is not being perplexed by an author making a choice to work in one genre to tell a particular story, and a different genre for another. Or maybe it's that I'm not terribly confused by William Shakespeare having written both comedies and tragedies. I want to be sympathetic and all, but are mainstream ‘literary' critics really that obtuse about genre? The books are far more alike than different, taking into account themes, tone, attitude and sensibility. Mr. Ishiguro is, in all of these (and the mystery one) writing as much about genre than in genre, but then, a lot of genre books write about genre.

Anyway, I don't mean to whinge about how obtuse critics can be. I should talk about the book. Which is… well, Ishiguro-y. Disorienting, powerful, sad. Beautiful. Difficult. Hard to pin down.

So. Spoilers, eh? And I believe that spoilers do spoil Ishiguro novels, because part of the whole thing is clearing away the lies and obfuscations the characters try to believe about themselves. So. Spoilers, eh?

Start with this: Arthur and his Britons come to an uneasy truce with the Saxons, a short generation before the novel begins. A treaty, negotiated by a young knight, functions as a sort of fifth-century Geneva Convention, promising that whatever may come in the struggle, at least they will all stop using rape and murder of civilians as a tool of war. However… well, things happen, don't they. And by things I mean unspeakable atrocities perpetrated against the Saxons, encouraged by Arthur himself, regrettably necessary, don't you know, to ensure that the perfidious counter-insurgence will never counterinsurge. In the wake of the great battle (the Battle of Badon, maybe?) when the Britons gain dominance, Arthur sends Merlin (protected by five knights, including Sir Gawain) to make a mighty enchantment: the breath of a dragon will produce a mist that clouds everyone's memories. The bloodlust for revenge will be swallowed in the fog of amnesia.

I don't see how anything can possibly go wrong.

The novel's story itself is, more or less, the uncovering of that sequence of events, ending with a Saxon warrior slaying the dragon and ending the spell. Before that can happen, there are ogres to be fought, of course, and towers to be jumped out of, hags to be humored, pixies to be driven off, old scores to unsettle, old bones to trample, old doors to unlock. Well, doors. In my day, we were lucky to have a frame of branches leaning against an underground opening, but they were doors to us! That was back before they took away our candle. Dark it is, now, without a bit of candle in the night, and no chance for the sun, as it rises, to penetrate this mist. Wait, what was I talking about? Oh, the dragon, I forgot.

It's a frustrating book, in that way, with Mr. Ishiguro and his characters throwing any small matter in the path of the putative quest. Conversations change subjects from line to line. A character may seem to drop a goal entirely, or to act contrary to it, or deny an obvious fact. It's unsettling, and difficult, and frustrating, and it reeks of truth.

In the middle of the book, all of the main characters are in a friary built in an old fort. The warrior, as he enters, observes the old defenses, no longer used but built in to the fabric of the place. The monks are Christians who observe a barbaric pagan ritual. There are factions among the brothers, deep divisions we aren't privy to. Secrets are buried there, both too deep and not deep enough. The local Saxon lord sends his men in to kill the warrior, who uses the forgotten defenses to lure them to their deaths; other characters escape through a crypt. The past is there, whether you talk about it or not; the past kills people; the past saves people's lives. The past isn't what you want it to be.

Near the end of the book, when people's memories are starting to return, I began to fear that everything would be wrapped up too neatly. The old woman's missing son would turn out to be the young man with the missing mother; everybody's past would match up and all the holes would be filled in. That is not the sort of thing that happens in Ishiguro books, though—the dragon is destroyed, but that doesn't answer everybody's questions. We're left, at the end, not really knowing anything. Frustrating and sad, but shot through with beauty, not unlike life, really.

I keep thinking about the monastery built on the old fort. In a way, it's the book's manifestation of beating swords into plowshares, innit? Take a place of violence and repurpose it to the sacred. And yet, it remains (this particular spot, in this book, for Mr. Ishiguro's purposes) a place of violence. It's built into the stones—once the physical attributes are there, they can be used, which means they will be used. But then, it's not as simple as fort=war; monastery=peace in the first place—the fort is designed as a defensive place, an island of safety amid violence, and there is violence submerged among the monks. Nothing is simple, in Kazuo Ishiguro's books; nothing is separate, nothing is resolvable or complete.

That's what makes the book Ishiguro-ish. Not the setting or genre. Those are just ways of telling ourselves stories about ourselves, as is history, and memory, and life. An Ishiguro book is about our inability to live without those stories, and our inability to live with them, and that's the buried giant.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 12, 2015

Book Report: Rising Steam

Terry Pratchett has died.

I have been meaning to write about reading Rising Steam, which I read in January and February, surprisingly slowly. It’s a good bathtub book—the Discworld books generally are—but I didn’t get into it, somehow. I didn’t laugh much, and I found the satire on fundamentalist terrorism a little too serious for my taste. Or my mood, maybe. I mean, considering it was the fortieth Discworld book, it was an impressive achievement to punch out a book that wasn’t filler, wasn’t dreadful, wasn’t overly nostalgic, wasn’t bad and bothered having a plot and at least a few new jokes. But it wasn’t one of my favorites.

What were my favorites? Oh, to pick three, Guards! Guards!, maybe Soul Music, definitely Monstrous Regiment. I also really liked the Bromeliad books, and I enjoy Good Omens quite a bit.

I also feel as if—I never met the man, I have read few interviews with him, I never went to see him at a panel or anything, but he seemed like a Good Person, and one that had a positive influence on the specfic community. I feel like I have lost something with his death, not so much the books-not-written, but the man himself.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 11, 2015

Book Report: Galapagos Regained

I like James Morrow’s books, and I liked Galápagos Regained. So there’s that.

The thing about James Morrow’s books, though, is that even when I like them, I never find them quite satisfying, if you know what I mean. The experience of reading them isn’t complete. That’s probably deliberate on the part of the author, who presumably wants the readers to keep thinking about the stuff after the book is over. It’s not intended to be absorbing as such, but provoking, which means that I am less invested in the characters’ happiness than in the author’s illustrated arguments, and am correspondingly less satisfied when the plot is wrapped up. Chloe Bathurst, our Protagonist, is pleasant enough, but seeing her end up happily married and careered is of only minor interest.

Although I suppose that’s also a problem with the picaresque in general: one thing after another happens, sometimes at Chloe’s instigation and sometimes against her will, and when it stops happening, it’s not so much a conclusion as a petering out. Mr. Morrow also tends to like to play with his Protagonists’ goals, such that (as in this case) the goal is either accomplished by other agencies or made superfluous by unrelated circumstances. Chloe wants to win the prize money to bail out her father from the poorhouse, but her father’s salvation comes from elsewhere, and the contest is canceled with the prize unrewarded. In fact, she has lost interest in the prize (as has everyone else) by the last third of the book or so. Now, the prize being a MacGuffin is a fine choice, backed by all sorts of precedent and whatnot, but it does make the conclusion of the book less, well, satisfying.

Of course, the fundamental thing about the book is that it is a paean to atheism, and I’m a Believer. That doesn’t usually bother me about Mr. Morrow’s book, I have to say, because both he and I are fascinated with religion, with Scriptures and rituals and beliefs. He, of course, from the outside, and me from the inside. The central theme of Galápagos Regained, though, is that belief and unbelief are fundamentally unarguable. You can’t persuade a Believer that there is no Creator by logic and reason; you can’t lead a skeptic to the Divine by evidence and argument. I think that’s largely true. I have said, in the past, that I believe in a Divine Creator simply because I like to: it makes me happier than atheism did, and inspires me, I hope, toward my better self, if often somewhat ineffectively. I view it as a matter of personal taste, though, and wouldn’t suggest that you would be happier or better with Belief (or Disbelief) than you are right now. Any more, I should say, that I think you would be happier if you liked the taste of lamb.

Within the book, it is not so much a matter of choice as epiphany—Chloe has a Vision and becomes a Believer, and then has another and rejects the first—but still, the effort to convince somebody of belief or disbelief is a fool’s errand. Which rings true to me and my experience. But at the same time, it makes the arguments, presented in a variety of ways throughout the book, a bit of a letdown. And then, of course, all the sympathetic characters are atheists (eventually, anyway) which makes the book a little less enjoyable for me, too. I don’t think that’s just sulking at being lumped in with losers and dupes, tho’ that doesn’t really help. No, I think it hurts the book that James Morrow, despite his fascination with religion, can’t quite wrap his head around it. He wants to, but in the end, he can’t sympathize, quite, with those for whom belief in a Creator or a Scripture is beneficial, not detrimental.

Well, and I’ve gotten to the end of the note without talking about Mr. Morrow’s language, which is wonderful and delightful in itself. You won’t find naturalistic dialogue or painterly descriptions, you’ll find a tricky combination of dry wit and exuberant excess. I love that. A quick excerpt from the first chapter:

“Yes, child, your eyes do not deceive you,” said Phineas. “I’m living at Her Majesty’s expense in Holborn Workhouse—a place no sane person would enter of his own free will. Thus does our nation hold down the high cost of poverty.”

If that sort of thing irritates you, best to give this one a pass.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 18, 2015

Book Report: Lock-In

The thing about picking up a book by John Scalzi is that you know what you're getting on a bunch of levels. It'll have snappy, sarcastic dialogue. It'll have intelligent characters. The characters will be in mortal danger, probably with tremendous frequency. It'll turn out OK. It'll be a quick read, with virtually no lengthy passages of poetic description to skim over. And it'll be at the least basically competent.

What I mean is, there's a floor for Scalzi expectations that's fairly high. There's a ceiling that's fairly low, too, I have to say. I think I've said before that I've never been inclined, with a Scalzi book, to grab people by the lapels and say read this book, dammit!. I would say, for those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you'll like. If you were going to grab a book for an airplane ride, without knowing much about it other than the author, I think a Scalzi is a safe bet. I think Mr. Scalzi would be pretty happy with this assessment—I mean, he'd presumably prefer people to have expectations of the books being life-changing lapel-grabbers, and he has made it clear that he can live just fine with other people not liking the books at all, and I don't think Tor is going to slap a safe bet to be worth the read on the next cover. But John Scalzi seems, at least in his public persona, to be above all a professional writer, and he writes professionally, if you know what I mean. And that's a hell of an achievement.

Lock-In definitely meets that baseline for me. It's a good book. I went back and forth between being satisfied with that, and wanting something different from a good book, wanting a risk-taking book, a book with pretentions, a book whose reach exceeds its grasp. My dissatisfaction with the last book I read, though, a nice contrast with this one; I liked the sensibility of the book, as well as the book itself.

I particularly liked the way certain aspects of the threep tech were presented as surprises to the audience, while being normal to the people in the Lock-In world. If there's no time-lag—and we have had to swallow the lack of time-lag already—then a person can control a threep (or an Integrator) from three thousand miles away as easily as thirty. I may have missed the bit where somebody at the threep location accepts a particular controller, but that's just a thing, and the main character wouldn't see that happening for his own threep anyway (although Haydens would presumably see that happening a lot, in rental centers and so forth). It sets up a great bit toward the end, where Chris Our Hero is just zipping around the country, here and there, DC and Arizona and Virginia and California, and while it's expensive, it's logistically easier than getting in a cab and going to the Mall.

But what impressed me was the way that Mr. Scalzi handled it, and handled other aspects of the life that Chris took for granted and the audience would find startling. Chris' third-person defense of his own body. The way the Haydens dialed down or up various senses on their threeps, depending on their circumstances. I also really liked the way Chris wildly overestimates his threeps' fighting abilities. I would have liked a little more explicit sense that Chris losing fight after fight has something to do with being in unfamiliar robot bodies, but the general sense that he keeps tackling people and then losing them, together with the sense that the fight can't hurt him because he isn't there, is a great play on the sort of detective story that the whole book riffs on.

If anything, my complaint was just that I wasn't terribly interested in that sort of detective story. And I'm still not. I've lost my taste for mystery novels, and when I did like 'em, I didn't really like this sort of thing. Maybe I'm missing something by not having a few dozen Ludlums and Pattersons and Cornwells under my belt, but the whole police procedural element to the book was clearly supposed to be fun and, for me, wasn't. Maybe that's what kept the book from being a lapel-grabber for me, or maybe it's just that perfectly good thing, a perfectly good book.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 14, 2015

Book Report: The Magicians

So. Lev Grossman's The Magicians is the critically-acclaimed fantasy-for-grupps at the moment. It made me grouchy.

One problem with it is that it's rather good. Mr. Grossman come up with a really clever line every few dozen pages, and some magnificent images here and there, and I certainly was surprised by what happened, pretty much throughout the book. Well, surprised and irritated, mostly.

The big problem is that our main character, Quentin, is unlikable in all the ways that main characters are unlikable in the kinds of critically-acclaimed books that make me cranky. He's self-critical, misogynist, irresponsible, fearful, small-minded and aimless. Realistically so! It's a triumph of the art, painting a character in words that is so nasty to be with.

The whole thing feels to me like a book written to be a grown-up version of the Harry Potter and Narnia series—as it clearly was. But the reaction seemed to be that the Hogwarts and Narnia, as places, were too charming, too pleasant to read about, and most of all, too much fun. Real magic, Mr. Grossman seems to be saying, wouldn't be fun at all. So he wrote a book chock full of magic with no fun at all. Which I suppose is an achievement, of sorts.

Lois McMaster Bujold, in a review of a book I haven't read yet, wrote something interesting:

There exists a quality of a book that I do not have a name for; it is approached by terms like “mode” and “voice” and “the writer’s world-view”, but isn’t quite any of these. I short-hand it as, “What kind of head-space am I going to be stuck in now? ” And is it one I that will enjoy being stuck in?

I would call it the sensibility of the book, I guess. Some books are charming, some books are melancholy, some books are light-hearted or great-spirited or kind. Some books are mean. This is a mean book.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 9, 2013

Book Report: Hunger Games Series

It seems I never wrote about the rest of the Hunger Games books—the first book of the series was the second-to-last of my regular Book Reports (when I was blogging every single book I read) and while I listed Mockingjay in the Ten or Eleven Books Your Humble Blogger Enjoyed Reading for the First Time in 2011, I didn’t actually go back and write the Book Reports I promised.

Anyway, I am re-reading the series—I think this is my second time through Catching Fire and Mockingjay, tho’ I did re-read The Hunger Games by itself at some point. Anyway, I am still finding them exciting, well-paced and powerful. And I am still totally and completely knocked out by the guts Suzanne Collins showed in making the horrible trauma Katniss experiences in the first book have actual, permanent effects in the last two books. Really, the great accomplishment of this series—the reason it’s a great series and not just a good read—is that when Katniss gets fucked-up, she doesn’t recover immediately just because she wins. In fact, she doesn’t recover at all—she learns eventually to live with her PTSD, to control it with treatment and habits and so forth, but the damage done is damage done.

Most YA books don’t do that. I’m OK with that. It’s not easy to read. It’s much easier to read the bit where Our Hero escapes the terror and kills the villain, and then embraces his family (or his True Love) and everything is all better. That’s not what happens in real life, but then in real life princesses aren’t kidnaped by dragons anyway. I don’t demand verisimilitude. And a second or third book that consisted entirely of Our Hero adjusting, slowly, to life with PTSD would be terrible. It’s Ms. Collins’ses’s achievement is in making an exciting, well-paced and powerful story that also depicts Our Hero as fucked-up by the fucked-up stuff that fucks her up.

And in with that, what has really impressed me this time is what she does with Haymitch… y’all know the basic idea of the books, right? The evil dictator forces the regions of horrible postapocalyptic dystopia to give two tributes each year, a total of twenty-four teens or tweens who are forced into an arena to fight until only one survives. Well, and the Victor of a year has special status and wealth and blah blah blah, and also acts as a mentor for the tributes from his or her district each year. The only Victor around from Katniss’ District Twelve is Haymitch, who is a drunk and a loser and a moron and a jerk, only we keep discovering hidden—what? Depths? Not really depths, I suppose. Hidden facets? Can you hide facets? Anyway, the really amazing thing is that as I am reading the three books, I keep being surprised by the fact that Haymitch is a killer.

Really? Surprised? What’s the one thing we know about Haymitch from the start? That he is a Victor, which means that he survived a Hunger Games. While it’s theoretically possible that a person could survive without being a killer, practically speaking? No. He’s a killer. Not to mention that he was trained as a killer before he entered the arena, and that—and think about this—he has been training tweens and teens for the arena every year since then. More than twenty years of training kids to kill each other, and by the way all of those kids died. This guys is a fucking psycho, right?

And yet, for me at any rate, it’s so terribly easy to think of him as an irascible but lovable old soak. Until something happens that reminds me that he is both manipulative and ruthless, unmerciful and pretty much totally lacking in empathy. And I’m surprised by it. We discover—over and over—that he has lied to Katniss (and by extension to us) and lied to everyone else, rigged whatever he could possibly rig to his favor and everybody else’s disaster, planned people’s deaths individually and in mobs without compunction. Well, without evident compunction. We don’t see things from his point of view, but from Katniss’ses’ point of view, and she really needs to be able to trust him. And then trust him again. And then trust him again.

And so we do, too—or at least I do. I forget, chapter to chapter, that he’s a killer. And that’s astonishing to me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 24, 2013

A Zombie Novel, by which I don't mean...

I see that Diana Wynne Jones’s final book completed by sister, and that it will be out (from HarperCollins, who at the moment don’t seem to have a page for it yet) in the Spring or Summer. And I, for one, am very excited about this—I have read more than a dozen of her books, and enjoyed very nearly all of them. Some of them I have enjoyed very much indeed. And while I don’t know any of Ursula Jones’ stuff, I don’t on the face of it have any qualms about her co-authorship. So: author I like having her ouvre extended posthumously by close kin: happy Vardibidian.

Oddly enough, one or two down from the DWJ story on the Publisher’s Weekly site is an article on An Anniversary and a Rebranding for Richard Scarry, in which the Random Penguin is re-releasing some of Richard Scarry books with new covers. The writer of that article, Sally Lodge, interviews Richard “Huck” Scarry, Jr, who is a professional illustrator and who evidently has continued to produce Richard Scarry books after his father died. And I found the whole thing quite repulsive and commercial in the worst sense of that word: art-like works being produced merely to exploit a market. So: author I like having his ouvre extended posthumously by close kin: gripey Vardibidian.

Now, to be fair to myself, I’m not sure how anyone could ever read an article extolling the rebranding of anything without being disgusted by market capitalism. So I was in a gripey mood by the time I got to the bit about the kid (now nothing like a kid) continuing to milk the dad’s intellectual property. I was all primed to think of it as cheap commercial exploitation, because the rebranding is cheap commercial exploitation. Perhaps perfectly reasonable exploitation—hey, the market is what it is, and I have most of the Oz books in the Dover editions with matching covers myself. Of course, the Oz world has its own exploitation issues.

And the kid—well, it’s like the zombie strips in the comic strip syndicates. I mean, really? I like the Busy, Busy World, but isn’t there enough Richard Scarry in existence? We need more?

The thing is, I’m sure “Huck” Scarry doesn’t think of himself as tapping his dad’s money factory. I suspect he thinks of himself as completing the work, guarding the legacy. Doing all the stuff that Ursula Jones thinks of herself as doing. I think he’s wrong, and I suspect that Ursula Jones is probably right—if I am in fact correct about their opinions of their own actions, which maybe not. Still.

And of course the whole other issue I have talked about before, where I remain deeply, deeply skeptical, as an American, of some sort of inherited right to profit from somebody else’s work, just because of a genetic link. Smacks of aristocracy to me—and I suppose I have to say, it smacks of that kind of nasty aristophilia that Diana Wynne Jones so clearly subverts in her books, over and over.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 14, 2013

Book Report and Play Report

Your Humble Blogger doesn’t blog books anymore, but I did want to mention having read and thoroughly enjoyed Alif the Unseen. It’s an Urban Fantasy novel that doesn’t irritate me the way urban fantasy novels generally do. It’s a political novel that doesn’t irritate me the way political novels sometimes do. It’s an adventure novel that does entertain me the way adventure novels do. So that’s all right.

I would say, for any Gentle Reader who may happen to pick the thing up—don’t sweat the prologue thing. Give it another chapter beyond that. And after that, it builds in intensity and excitement—really, it picks up when the vampire shows up. Not a vampire. Don’t worry.

The main character, the titular character, is one of those fellows who exists primarily on-line, a person whose handle is more important to his sense of self than his name. Or, at least, a person who thinks that he exists primarily on-line—the action is real-world action, which tends to trump on-line identity, after all.

I hadn’t thought about it, but that does resonate with another thing I read this week, the play Water by the Spoonful. It’s a strange and beautiful playscript. We get to know several of the characters through their on-line identities, seeing the way their real life and on-line life overlap. Much of the play involves attempts to make or to avoid making real-life overlap with the on-line world. And, now that I’m focused on it, death and absence in both spaces. Hm.

Digression: One of the main characters is an adjunct at Swarthmore, teaching some sort of advanced Jazz History course. My immediate reaction was that Swarthmore doesn’t hire adjuncts to teach that sort of class. Then I thought to myself, well, they didn’t do that twenty-five years ago. Who knows what they do now? And then I thought, you know, self, you don’t really have any idea whether there were adjuncts teaching you. You didn’t know or care, self, whether the profs were full-time, tenure-track, whatever, unless you had some sort of crush on them. And this is largely accurate and fair. On the other hand—would Swat really hire a jazz composer as an one-course adjunct? End Digression.

YHB has written about mobile phones onstage before, and it’s something I still find interesting. Spoonful does take into account the mobile phone thing, but is much more interested in the internet. Alif (which of course is a very different story-telling form) is interested in the internet as a connecting web, and takes away the smartphones from its characters early—and the dumb phones are pretty nearly useless, which as an old guy I find entertaining.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 12, 2012

Book Report: How Music Works

Your Humble Blogger has been reading David Byrne’s new book How Music Works, which is a fascinating book on a whole bunch of levels. The man has thought about music a lot—thought about it, researched it, played it, listened to it, made a living at it. There’s a lot of stuff in here I didn’t know—stuff about him and his bands, and stuff about the business, the way the money flows, the contracts… there’s a lot of just plain old information in here. There’s also a lot of opinion, some of it really provocative. Some of it trite, some of it wrong, some of it brilliant.

In other words, it’s a good book. Worth reading, if you are at all interested in music. Particularly his music, of course, but really any modern music at all.

Even if you aren’t terribly interested in music, Mr. Byrne’s ideas about music education may interest you—we are, after all, paying for music education at the public schools, even if dilatorily, and the questions of why and how are important, as are can we do better and how would we know.

As it happens, much of the instrumental music instruction in our schools is geared to the creation of an orchestra able to play some recognizable bits of the classical repertoire. Mr. Byrne doesn’t much like orchestral music, I’m afraid. He doesn’t seem to like the buildings created for it, and he doesn’t like the audience norms it requires, and he doesn’t like the music itself, mostly. He likes the funk. Which is noticeably absent from the instrumental music curriculum in this country.

On the face of it, actually, it’s a little odd that (to the extent there is any instrumental music education in our public schools) the students are taught to play Bach and Beethoven and Vivaldi on flute and trombone and cello. These are kids who otherwise would never listen to orchestral music, never listen (intentionally and consciously) to those instruments. And perhaps just as important, their parents, by and large, never listen to that music and those instruments, lack the vocabulary to talk about them or the sophistication to listen carefully to the practicing. Or the concerts. There are arguments to be made for our program, but I think it must be admitted that it is an odd thing.

Particularly as there exists American Music—I believe that our middle grade kids have an incredible sophistication with popular music. David Byrne suggests that we teach our kids by, more or less, giving them guitars and keyboards and drum kits and letting them boogie, more or less endorsing the Little Kids Rock method. I know nothing about the actual program; I was a Suzuki kid. But it makes sense to me.

In fact, I would start out by teaching kids the blues. Simple chord changes, lots of repetition, familiar sound and instrumentation. Teach them the structure. Let them improvise a little. Play them some songs. Let them come up with words of their own.

The first line of the blues is always repeated a second time
Oh, the first line of the blues you gotta sing one more time
So when you get to the third you have time to think of a rhyme

It seems to me that you go from the blues to the Beatles, and then to Irving Berlin and then to Bach. But then, you know, I don’t actually know if any recent pop music falls into the blues structure; when I was a kid there were at least some recent recordings of popular musicians that were blues songs, even if they didn’t sound much like them. Learning (as I did eventually, in college) to recognize a blues was a big step in my musical education. Probably a bigger step than learning to play a minuet.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 28, 2012

Book Report: The Long Earth

At the very beginning of The Long Earth (by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter), the plot is kicked off when a renegade scientist puts a schematic for a Device online, and thousands of people—teens and tweens, mostly—build the thing and flip the switch. It’s a simple Device, requiring just some wire, and a box, and a three-way switch, and a potato for power. In the story, it’s made clear that the instructions do not indicate at all what the thing does: there are wires and a box and a switch and a potato, and that’s it. Oh, it’s called a Stepper. The kids don’t know who put it on-line (the scientist had been using a series of false names, as it turns out, but the writers specifically say that it was uploaded anonymously) or what it is, other than a Stepper, but off they go to the hardware store. Dozens of them in Madison, by implication it’s hundreds of thousands all over the world.

Huh?

OK, first of all: we do not live in a world where thirteen-year-old kids routinely put together electronics from the web. Sure, there are a few kids who are electronics nuts, but they are mostly working from kits. And there are even fewer kids who may have gotten beyond the kits and really be doing their own stuff, but they are doing their own stuff. They aren’t going to look at some diagram on the web with a potato and a three-way switch and think I must make a Stepper today! Vaddevah dat iss! They are going to look at it and think That looks dopey. People are such morons! Soon I will complete my Device and destroy them all, mwahahahahahahahahahahaha! Seriously, hard core wired-up hackers are not, even at thirteen, going to want to copy some random circuits without any obvious purpose.

The plot point felt very Heinlein-y, the juveniles where some precocious kid happens to be a whiz with a slide rule. That kind of thing. A fifties-ish idea of young teens but with the internet. Although, of course, in real life, in the fifties or otherwise, messing around with electronics wasn’t anywhere near as widespread as it was in the imagination and culture. Go to a Radio Shack—“There had been a real run on Radio Shack”—and look for the thirteen-year-olds. Keep looking. Hell, if the local Radio Shack had a run on wire and three-way-switches, I suspect they would have been all over twitter and whatnot long before the kids finished making the things.

Which leads me to my real bafflement, which is that that’s just not how the internet works. I mean, the renegade scientist puts the Stepper plans on-line—where? On his faculty page? On instagram? Wherever. He puts this image on-line and with a few hours, all these kids have seen it already. That’s not how it works. Hell, my eleven-year-old didn’t see the Gangnam video for three months. Nanny filters are set up, among other things, to discourage kids from downloading and then trying out dangerous shit like that. And even among the tweens and early teens who are allowed to surf the internet widely (and those who do it anyway), where are they going to come across the link? Their Facebook wall? Their tweeps? And if somebody did, somehow, decide to retweet and share and digg and reddit this thing, who is going to click on it, out of all the thousands of things so dugg on that day?

It’s just about possible, given the nature of the Device, that after the plans had been sitting largely un-noticed on some web site for five months, that the handful of people who actually knew about it (and had pics so it did happen) could tip it into going viral through some celebrity or other. It would probably go through some educational site that large numbers of tweens could actually use, maybe included as part of a Gamestar Mechanic screen or something. Of course, the moment that happened, there would be innumerable false Steppers on-line, too… A story about how a Device that requires some assembly became a fad among the global youth might be a fascinating story, but it ain’t this story. And that’s fine, of course; Mssrs Pratchett and Baxter wrote the story that really begins after everyone has had Steppers for ten years, and they get to write the story they are interested in. They were pretty upfront about not being very interested in this plot point, and that it’s just there to get the story started.

My problem, though, was that as I was reading the rest of the book, I kept thinking but what about all those tweens making the boxes in the first place? Which, you know, kinda ruined the whole book for me. And I’ve been thinking about why it ruined the whole book for me, and I think there’s a reasonable response: if the writers got this so wrong—utterly and completely misunderstanding how internet memes work, how tweens use the internet, how they spend their free time—all the stuff about how groups react to the now-ubiquitous Steppers is, well, it’s kinda ruined. Even if it doesn’t feel wrong, the bits detailing how one group comes together or another splits apart are still in the shadow of that initial wrongness. And to me, they never come out of it.

Other people don’t seem to have that problem, I should say. Other people either think that bit is just fine or (more likely) recognize that it’s just the setup and move on. None of the reviews I have happened to read even mention that bit. Maybe it’s just a genre convention, I dunno. But it has kept niggling at me, anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 9, 2012

Loving the Books

The Internet tells me that today and every Ninth of August marks Book Lovers Day. Of course, the Internet tells me that yesterday evening was traditional Sneak Some Zucchini Onto Your Neighbor’s Porch Day, so there’s that. My Best Reader did not plant zucchini this year or any squash at all, in an attempt to combat the evil SVB menace, so we could not have participated. On the other hand, our zucchini-less garden means it would not have been such a disaster has we been targeted with some zucchini. We were not.

There will be some book-loving today, though. Well, at least enjoyment of book-reading. In codex form. Pages, sewn or glued at one edge. You know.

Not that this is a day to badmouth the scroll, obviously. We’re all in this together, us who like to read. No pogroms.

I finished a couple of books yesterday, as it happens. I have only two books unfinished, at the moment: Terry Johnson’s play Hysteria, a farce featuring Sigmund Freud and Salvadore Dali. So far, there has been no Subsidized Theater Moment, but I’m not done yet, and the thing was commissioned by the English Stage Company of the Royal Court Theatre at the Duke of York’s, so, I wouldn’t be surprised if all the watches go all droopy before the end. The other book is The Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi, which I have been kinda nibbling at for a few weeks, now. For a book that starts off with an underwater battle between an augment and a giant alligator, I am reading it awfully slowly.

By the way, is augment the universally accepted English term now? They don’t call them augments in the Drowned Cities, of course, but the genre convention of genetically-manipulated super-soldiers with animal DNA and whatnot—that’s an augment, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 9, 2012

The Night before the Ball

Your Humble Blogger is still early in reading it, but I wanted to pass along a thought on the first bit of a book I’m reading. It’s set in Victorian England, and in the first scene it’s the night before the Hunt Ball. There’s a room full of women, young and old, all a-bustle and sleepless in the midwinter night, and they are all focused on the beautiful gowns, of course. Except for Our Heroine—we can tell she’s Our Heroine, because not only is she the title character, but she is not looking at the gowns but out the window at the moonlight on the snow.

You have the idea? You know what kind of a book this is going to be, don’t you? Except that I’ve completely mislead you. The women in the room won’t be wearing the gowns or dancing at the ball. They are focused on the gowns because they won’t be allowed to sleep until they finish sewing them. These poor women are indentured to the milliner, who is venal and selfish and is besides in desperate competition for business; she has obtained the commission by assuring the thoughtless gentry that the gowns will be finished by morning. The only way to do this, of course, is by driving the workers to exhaustion; Our Heroine expects to be rebuked for looking out the window at the moonlight on the snow, but (in addition to the weariness of work) she has been shoved into a dark corner of the workroom, where she can barely see the fine work she must complete.

OK, now you have the idea? You know what kind of a book it’s going to be, don’t you? Probably many of you are thinking it’s either a contemporary book along the Sarah Waters lines or possibly a 70s book in the women’s liberation movement. It’s a biting satire, turning the opening scene on its head. Except the folk who know Elizabeth Gaskell’s early books, who have probably spotted Ruth already, or who just know the sort of thing that goes on. The book was published in 1853; it predates most of the books with those scenes of preparation for the Ball, the ones that don’t include the needle-women in the workroom.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 13, 2012

Book Report: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson, is a novel for us pathetic Anglophiles, certainly. It’s a love story, a story of romance, not actually a romance novel but a love story nonetheless. It’s also about racial prejudice, the Conservative mindset, grief, books, guns and tea.

It’s got a great cover, too. Gentle Readers know how strongly I judge books by their covers, and I kept seeing the cover and picking it up off the New Books shelf a the library that employs me. And then putting it back, because it’s a love story, and I don’t really like love stories, right? I like wizards in pointy hats and spaceships and people shooting each other with zap guns or whacking each other with ensorceled swords. When I see that a book is telling the story of a romance in a small town in the actual world, my reaction is to put that book safely back on the shelf for somebody else. I am not in that audience.

Of course, I like plenty of love stories. I don’t think of myself as a reader of love stories, but that’s because I lie to myself about what kind of person I am. I mean, I’m still a Dickens rather than an Austen, that hasn’t changed, but I am a Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand person and not a Ready Player One person. I am a Eva Ibbotson person. I like love stories, so therefore I am the sort of person who likes love stories, right? Or, more accurate, I should keep in mind that I am not any particular sort of person at all, and also that I might like a love story now and then.

Of course, this is a love story between a widower and a widow of late middle age, neither of whom were looking for affection (or particularly prepared to give it house room when it showed up unannounced). As a resident of early middle age, I suspect I am more susceptible to this sort of thing than I am to Young Love. Also, the book is, I think, fundamentally about the difficulties of telling a Very English Story without completely ignoring the horrific unsaid consequences of Very Englishness, when in large part the core of Very Englishness lies in shutting one’s eyes to those horrific consequences.

In fact, when the novel asks, as it repeatedly does, what a person knows of England who only England knows, it seems to understand that it matters very much what a person knows of England who only England knows, and that it also matters very much what a person knows of England who only England knows even if that person isn’t English. Or doesn’t think of himself (or herself) as English, which perhaps matters even more.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 5, 2012

My Year In Books 2011

Yes, it’s time once again for the Year in Books, where YHB writes an absurd paragraph or two of quantitative analysis, throwing numbers and percentages around as if they were meaningful, and then tops it off with a list of Ten or Eleven Books Your Humble Blogger Enjoyed Reading for the First Time in 2011. This year, since I didn’t blog as I went, I plan on writing an individual note for each of the Ten or Eleven when I get a chance. I’ll take a moment and ask whether Gentle Readers missed the frequent book notes. I can’t say I missed writing them, but I aims to please, and if there is demand, I can meet it.

Anyway. During 2011 I read 71 books for the first time, and I reread 28 books for a total of 99. I finished the ninety-nineth book at 11:55pm on the last day of December, and then immediately shut off the light without waiting for midnight, so that tells you what kind of person Your Humble Blogger has become. That list does not include, by the way, six books that I started and chose not to finish, as well as another book that I have been reading on and off, and expect to finish during 2012, in which list it will belong.

The breakdown is more-or-less usual: 29 new YA/SF books, six SpecFic books that are not, I believe, primarily marketed to Young Adults, and one Young Adult novel that has nothing particularly speculative about it at all. That makes a bit more than half. There were three Graphic Novels, three Mysteries, three Non-Fiction Books, three Victorian Novels and eight works of fiction that did not fall into any of my usual categories. The remaining fifteen new items were plays. Among the rereads, it was mostly mysteries (three Dashiell Hammett books and three Dick Francis books) and non-YA specfic (six Lois McMaster Bujold books), plus YA/SF (including Anne McCaffrey’s three Menolly books), three Victorian novels and a couple of non-genre books (I can’t somehow include Cold Comfort Farm as specfic, even though it very clearly and explicitly is). I seem to be doing less rereading (the trendline on the graph is definitely down; I haven’t re-read more than forty books in any of the last four years, while I topped 40 three of the four years before that) which is not a bad thing. I still have my comfort books, and I reread them when I so desire, so I don’t feel that I am being deprived of the opportunity for that. Nor, of course, am I having difficulty getting hold of something I wish to reread when I wish to reread it. I suppose I might well be choosing, when I take books home from libraries, to give preference to stuff I haven’t read before, which may lose the odd opportunity to gain the particular enjoyment of returning to a text, but of course there are other compensations. On the other hand, it’s possible that what is really going on is that the re-reads just never get entered into my list; one book a month that I take from the upstairs shelf to the bed and/or bathtub and then put back on the upstairs shelf, never remembering to type the title whilst downstairs, would flatten out that trendline quite a bit.

I don’t think that I missed very many new books (using new in the sense of new to me, of course) this year, nor is the trendline obviously down for those. This year’s 71 is a trifle over the eight-year average of 70, and is up from the previous two years (both 64). One can argue that it’s padded with, which read faster than novels (even YA novels), but the point isn’t to maximize words or pages but things read, essentially stories read, with all that encompasses. And to maximize good stories, I suppose. Which leads me to the annual list:

  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson
  • The Frumkiss Family Business, by Michael Wex
  • The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford
  • A Resounding Tinkle, by N.F. Simpson
  • Orson’s Shadow, by Austin Pendleton
  • The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Hidden Hand, by E.D.E.N. Southworth
  • Goliath, by Scott Westerfeld
  • Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
  • The Beasts of Clawstone Castle, by Eva Ibbotson

Two plays, three YASFs (tho’ one is more a middle-grade book), a Victorian novel, the Hugo winner, and three non-genre novels. The really odd thing is the presence of two recently written books that are set in the present day (more or less) and have no speculative elements whatsoever. I rarely pick up such books, but this year most of the books of that ilk that I did pick up, I enjoyed. I could well have added Whores of Lost Atlantis to the list as well, perfectly happily, but books must be left off lists, or what are lists for?

Speaking of lists, then, I will add below the complete list of 71 books for those who like that sort of thing. If any of y’all have any questions about any of them, let me know, as I would be happy to talk. I’m that way.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

  1. The Beasts of Clawstone Castle, by Eva Ibbotson
  2. Behemoth, by Scott Westerfeld
  3. The Bishop’s Wife, by Robert Nathan
  4. Bow Street Mystery, by Israel Zangwill
  5. Box Man, by Harry King
  6. Calamity Jack, by Shannon Hale
  7. The Cardinal’s Blades, by Pierre Pevel
  8. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams
  9. Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
  10. The Clockwork Three, by Matthew J. Kirby
  11. A Conspiracy of Kings, by Margaret Whalen Turner
  12. Done to Death, by Fred Carmichael
  13. Dracula, by Bram Stoker
  14. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly
  15. Flowers for the Judge, by Margery Allingham
  16. The Frumkiss Family Business, by Michael Wex
  17. The Giant Baby, by Allan Ahlberg
  18. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making , by Catherynne M. Valente
  19. Goliath, by Scott Westerfeld
  20. The Grey Wig, by Israel Zangwill
  21. Hadrian’s Memoirs, by Marguerite Yourcenar
  22. Half upon a time, by James Riley
  23. Hereville, by Barry Deutsch
  24. The Hidden Hand, by Eden Southworth
  25. The Hole, by N.F. Simpson
  26. I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett
  27. The Idiot Box, by Michael Elyanow
  28. Keys to the City, by Joel Kostman
  29. The King of Attolia, by Margaret Whalen Turner
  30. Kingdom of Death, by Margery Allingham
  31. Life as we Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer
  32. Lord Sunday, by Garth Nix
  33. Magic Flutes, by Eva Ibbotson
  34. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson
  35. Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell
  36. The Midnight Folk, by John Masefield
  37. Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
  38. The Mostly True Story of Jack, by Kelly Barnhill
  39. Moving to Higher Ground, by Wynton Marsalis
  40. The Mystery of Irma Vep, by Charles Ludlum
  41. New Jerusalem, by David Ives
  42. Orson’s Shadow, by Austin Pendleton
  43. Over Sea, Under Stone, by Susan Cooper
  44. Pathfinder, by Orson Scott Card
  45. Piece of my Heart, by Shirley Lauro
  46. The Pirates’ Mixed-Up Voyage, by Margaret Mahy
  47. Puck of Pook’s Hill, by Rudyard Kipling
  48. Punch in, Susie!, by Nell Giles
  49. The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford
  50. The Queen of Attolia, by Margaret Whalen Turner?
  51. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
  52. Reckless, by Cornelia Funke
  53. A Resounding Tinkle, by N.F. Simpson
  54. Restoring Harmony, by Joelle Anthony
  55. Rhinoceros, by Eugene Ionesco
  56. The Ruins of Gorlan, by John Flanagan
  57. The Seafarer, by Conor McPherson
  58. The Search for WondLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi
  59. The Secret of Platform 13, by Eva Ibbotson
  60. A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams
  61. Superior Donuts, by Tracy Letts
  62. A Tale of Two Castles, by Gail Carson Levine
  63. To Anchor a Cloud, by Dilip Hiro
  64. The Vicar of Dibley, by Richard Curtis, et al
  65. What a Carve Up!, by Jonathan Coe
  66. Whores of Lost Atlantis, by Charles Busch
  67. The Wide-Awake Princess, by E.D. Baker
  68. Wildwood, by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis
  69. The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
  70. Wonderland, by Tommy Kovac & Sonny Liew
  71. Zorgamazoo, by Robert Paul Weston

July 21, 2011

Book Report: Superior Donuts

Your Humble Blogger was, a few months ago, flipping through one of those books offering advice on one’s putative professional stage acting career, or perhaps it was just on preparing audition monologues. I don’t remember. I occasionally flip through those books as they cross the circulation desk, and I suppose I glean bits from each, but without taking any bits of any of them very seriously. Actually, the best bit I read recently was from a book on stage management and other technical stuff, in which the author advised potential stage managers, ASMs, prop and costume masters and mistresses and other reasonable, rational hard-working crew not to think of actors as intrinsically stupid, but to think of them as perpetually having a lot on their minds. Not, it was hastily made clear, that such thinking was more likely to be accurate, but that it might cut down on the amount of bile in the lives of the crew. This is a piece of advice I have found widely applicable: whenever possible, attribute obvious stupidity (on the part of others, naturally) to everyone being excessively busy, and commiserate rather than rant.

Well, in theory it’s a good idea.

Anyway, one or another of those books decreed than anyone who wanted to regularly work as a stage actor should be reading at least two plays a week. It might have been three, actually, but whatever it was, it seemed absurdly high the moment I read it, and then after a while I thought to myself hmmm (not even addressing myself by name, because we’re that close) it really doesn’t take long to read a play, does it? The point of the advice, I would think, is not to be choosy in reading plays, but to just keep reading them, that familiarity with a lot of plays, good and bad and clever and formulaic and successful and that other thing, helps an actor prepare for any specific play. And while of course there is limited time for play-reading as there is for anything else, reading a play is a good use of that limited time (even if, as in my case, my interest in acting is only amateur). So if a playscript comes across the circulation desk and it looks remotely interesting, rather than spending time looking through it to decide if I think it’s worth reading or not, I try to just read the thing.

Which is not to say that I wouldn’t have read Superior Donuts anyway, and in fact I’m not absolutely sure I read that two-a-week advice before reading this play. Tracy Letts had a monster hit with August: Osage County, and this was his follow-up play. I had read the reviews and found them intriguing. And, most important, there’s a part for me. Actually it turns out there are two parts for me: the aging pothead owner of the store and the raving Russian Mafioso neighbor. The neighbor is the good part, the supporting role that has some actual tension. The lead is an interesting challenge, as the actor would have to portray an even-tempered hazy drop-out with enough energy and intensity to keep the audience awake without betraying the character’s traits. On the other hand, it’s not a challenge with a lot of reward.

The play is dull on the page. I imagine that given the right actors it could spark to life, but there wasn’t anything in the script that made me itch to see (or produce) this rather than any other play.

The good news, though, is that there are plenty of other plays.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 30, 2011

Book Report: The Hidden Hand

Earlier in the year, Your Humble Blogger read The Hidden Hand on the recommendation of one of the instructors here at the university. It was a blast.

I had never heard of E.D.E.N. Southworth. She is one of those very-popular-at-the-time writers who disappears into the mists of bestseller history in a generation. She evidently wrote something like sixty novels, and this is the one that has survived, to the extent that it has survived, what with my never having heard of it. And I’m not surprised, really, as this sort of book is absolutely not in style at all, not in any way.

But I like it.

Really, I was chortling with delight over the first few chapters, which were already packed with incidents and coincidence, and the rest of it largely continues as it began. Pirates, bandits, missing cousins, secret marriages, unjust accusations of infidelity, kidnapping, cross-dressing, remorse, conspiracy, inheritance swindling, birthmark recognition, runaway horses, faithful family servants, fiendish cads, false preachers, prison breaks, manly homoeroticism—seriously, I cannot catalogue all the crazy goodness in this book.

I don’t know that I will go on with her stuff (my employer does have some more, although nothing like a complete set), but this was a beaut.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 14, 2011

Short Book Reports: YASF

Your Humble Blogger has not been doing Book Reports lately, as y’all may possibly have noticed. I have still been reading books, mind you, and even keeping a log of them, although I have missed several, I’m sure. As usual. But I haven’t been blogging each book.

That’s because I was finding the mandatory (well, with a self-imposed mandate) blogging dispiriting, and I was resenting it. I did expect to report on books when I felt that I had something to say. Perhaps I just haven’t had anything to say. Well, and I hope there aren’t too many of y’all gently reading this Tohu Bohu out of hopes to read something about books, because the pickings have been sparse.

So I do want to go back and mention a few books I have read in the first half of the year.

  • Zorgamazoo, by Robert Paul Weston is a fun and silly Young Adult fantasy, really aimed more at the pre-teen readers, that is (a) lavishly illustrated and cleverly laid out, and (2) told entirely in rhyme. It’s nearly 300 pages, and while I did tire a bit of the anapest couplets, still.
  • The Midnight Folk is one of those hugely important and influential works of children’s fantasy that have largely disappeared from the actual shelves. I had never heard of it—I’m not sure I had really heard of John Masefield, but if I had, it was in the context of poetry, probably of the Great War. There were some utterly charming bits, but I got tired of the dreamscape stuff pretty quickly.
  • I don’t know, now, whether I really am a huge fan of Cornelia Funke; I may dislike as many books as I like (that I’ve read). Alas, Reckless falls in to the former category.
  • I finally read Lord Sunday, the last book in the Keys to the Kingdom series by Garth Nix. Glad that’s over. There were some very good things in the series—there were even some good things in this book—but on the whole, no, it didn’t work. Found myself not remembering bits of the earlier books that I probably needed to follow this one, and not caring.
  • I suppose I Shall Wear Midnight is being marketed as a Young Adult novel, which pretty much means it is a YA novel, as there isn’t a better definition. Still, I don’t see what distinguishes this from the not-YA Discworld series. Well, it’s better than many of them, but many of them are better than many of them, because there are a lot of them, so only the very worst ones aren’t. But this is one of the better ones.
  • The Beasts of Clawstone Castle is an excellent example of Eva Ibbotson’s younger-oriented stuff. The only other one I seem to have blogged is Which Witch. I know I read Not Just a Witch at some point as well, and I must have read others, but none of the names are looking familiar just now.
  • The Clockwork Three, by Matthew J. Kirby, failed to charm me. Not sure why. It ought to have. And once I got a fair way into it, I enjoyed it without being charmed—but it’s the sort of book that ought to have been charming, and charmed I was not.
  • The only thing that I did not like about The Ruins of Gorlan, the first in a Ranger’s Apprentice series by John Flanagan, was a scene where the school bullies are vanquished by being beaten to a pulp. Violence, it seems, was the answer. Which made YHB quite uncomfortable, and I didn’t really trust the book from that point on. On the other hand—oops, I forgot the prologue or whatever it was, the first few pages which were nearly unreadable. If I hadn’t had a recommendation, those pages would have stopped me cold. But I persevered, as was rewarded for it.

OK, that’s the lot of YASF that weren’t rereads, and that I remembered to jot down, so far this year.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 18, 2011

Book Report: Pathfinder

So. It appears that Your Humble Blogger has not re-read any of Orson Scott Card’s books over the last six or seven years. That seems unlikely. I appear to own eight of his novels in paperback, including at a quick estimate four terrific bathtub books. Hm. I suspect I just haven’t blogged them. I probably have picked up at least one or two for bathtime and so forth, and just put them back on the shelf without writing about them.

I have read two new books by Mr. Card over that time; the very enjoyable Magic Street and The Crystal City, which isn’t so enjoyable. At all. My inclination is to attribute the lousiness of Crystal City to the novel-series problem, as it is not only fifteen years into the series but five years after the previous Alvin Maker book. On the other hand, Cryoburn didn’t stink, so there’s that. And the Homecoming series was atrocious from beginning to end. So there’s that.

I picked up Pathfinder at the library not knowing what to expect. There’s this: Orson Scott Card is a very good writer. There’s also this: Orson Scott Card has had some terrible, terrible books published. Plus, he’s an irritating man. So I wasn’t sure what to expect. Which is all right, you say—why should a reader know what to expect the moment the book begins? On the other hand, YHB wasn’t approaching the book from a blank slate. I was putting into a context, either the context of his terrific writing or the other one, of his sometimes terrible books.

Alas, this book didn’t fall in to either camp. It was an exciting, engrossing book that was also irritating. And, it turns out, it is not only the first book in a series, but it suffers from the major flaw of that condition: the whole plot of the book is stuff that happens before the exciting bit. On the other hand, Mr. Card writes like a sonofabitch; there is an exciting plot with chases and escapes and deception and betrayal and loyalty and near misses and beautiful misses and superpowers and people who are Not What They Seem. Nor is it the sort of irritating series novel that brings all that together just to get everybody hanging from a cliff at the end of the first book. Our hero has a goal to achieve despite strong opposition, achieves the goal though combinations of brains, brawn and buddies, the attainment of the goal provides our hero with a new goal, which is achieved through somewhat different combinations of brains, brawn and buddies. When that goal is narrowly gained, the (surviving) heroic characters have earned a respite, as have we, and the book ends. So that’s all right. Or it would be, if it wasn’t all done within a device wherein Mr. Card reminds us at the top of every chapter that a much more interesting and exciting set of goals and conflicts is waiting for this story to end.

There are other Sources of Reader Annoyance, which are balanced by lots of Sources of Reader Pleasure, at least for this reader. There are the bits where the characters talk like prep school students in a seminar. There is the risible idea that Our Hero is tutored in financial, social, political, scientific, athletic, historical, linguistic—hell, in everything—during a childhood of almost total seclusion, and is able to put any and all of that knowledge and skill base to use immediately, despite no actual practice. But again, that’s irritating while also setting up lots of fun plot stuff where Our Hero is able to talk, deduce and run circles around the formidable forces arrayed against him (and by extension us), so that’s all right. Or if not all right, not all wrong, either.

So. There it is. I don’t think of these reports as making recommendations, which is just as well in this case, because I don’t have any advice on it. I don’t know how I feel about it myself, really.

And he evidently has another series of novels beginning with a book just out. Which is not less irritating than the last.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 30, 2011

Book Report: Whores of Lost Atlantis

Do you, Gentle Reader, have one of those very dear friends who knows you very well indeed? Your Humble Blogger is lucky enough to have not only my Best Reader, who is utterly proverbial, but also another. Who gave me a copy of Whores of Lost Atlantis.

This is the Charles Busch memoir/novel; he takes his rise to fame and whatnot and adds a silly but entertaining subplot about deception, robbery and kinky sex. I’m pretty sure the robbery is fictional.

So, you know the Publisher’s Note on the copyright page that says This is a work of fiction? This one goes on to say Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Then in the afterword, Mr. Busch writes things such as My dear friend Kathie Carr (Camille in the book) and My Aunt Lillian (Aunt Jennie in the book). Coincidence? I mean, yes, Mannequin is clearly Lypsinka, and Roxie is Julie Halston, and so on and so forth. And as for locales, well, I don’t know anything about the East Village stuff, but, you know, New York City does have a Morgan Library and a 65th Street and so on. Does the publisher really think that the disclaimer will protect them in court? Or that nobody’s feelings will get hurt? Or is it all some elaborate ritual? Don’t Mssrs Carroll and Graf owe me recompense for having so clearly misled me? Was there ever even a Mr. Graf in the first place? Is there no end to the deception?

Seriously, this is a wonderful book, loads of fun, and I am now (at last) old enough to know that I am only enjoying fantasizing myself as a queer drag playwright/performer scraping together a bare living as a temp while putting on bizarre and hilarious shows that start at midnight, if the lights work. Not really the life for me, as it turns out. But it’s so, unbelievably, utterly, and completely the life I want to read about, at least when it’s done as entertainingly as Mr. Busch does it. And know you know that about me, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 21, 2011

Book Report: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate won a bunch of awards, and has an absolutely terrific cover. So. Plus, my Best Reader read it first, and liked it, so there’s that.

The thing that struck me (other than liking the book, because it is a terrific book) was the problem that goes along with setting a book in Texas in 1899. Or anywhere in the South any time within half a century of the turn of twentieth century. Which is that almost all the white characters are going to be supporters of the Confederacy or sympathetic to the Rebel Cause. It’s very hard for me to like a character that supports secession to protect the institution of slavery; I hope it’s very hard for most people to like such characters. You can make the book about race relations, of course, but if there is some other story you want to tell about the South, you have to wrestle with it.

Jacqueline Kelly does an excellent job of wrestling with this problem, I think—but I also think it defeats her in the end. She makes her family, the Tates, reasonably enlightened for their time period, without making them implausibly modern in their thinking. Calpurnia’s grandfather, who is the great character of the novel, is a veteran of the Confederacy; he certainly shows no sign of regret, other than having lost. I mean, war is dreadful, and he regrets the horror of it, but the specific matter of fighting to protect rich white people’s right to own poor black people, well, that doesn’t enter into it for him. Nor would it, of course. The black farm hands and house servants are treated quite well by the Tates, but not implausibly well, and there is some sense that they are not treated as well by other families but Calpurnia isn’t terribly interested in that question, and there is no reason why she would be. This is part of her privilege, the ability not to be interested in that question, as well as her ignorance of that privilege. Portraying it otherwise would be dishonest.

And yet, I am aware of her privilege. I am aware that these people are Part of the Problem, and that it is a huge problem. We have inherited it from the Tates, among others, and it’s actually kind of hard not to hate them for it.

I don’t know what the answer is. Obviously, the answer is not for writers to refuse to write books set in the South unless they are centrally concerned with race. The answer is not to make every White Southerner in fiction either a cartoon villain or a preposterous visionary. And, alas, it seems that the answer is not to simply write good books with good characters, characters that are true to their lives and their situations, and let the reader handle it.

You know, my own method is simply to read other stuff: Young Adult novels set in phoney Renaissance Maerchenwald, or space opera with giant robots, or genteel Victoriana. This is my privilege; I can choose to leave the problem unanswered. If that means that I miss good books about a little girl becoming a disciple of Darwin, well, that’s my problem, and not much of a problem at that, what with, you know, lots of good books in the world.

I am joking, of course, at my own expense (or attempting to, anyway), but in seriousness, my problem with a book like this one, good but problematic through no fault of its own, is not as a read but as the parent of a reader. This is a book that I want my Perfect Non-Reader to enjoy after she has some control over her awareness of her own privilege, the history of our country and its literature, and all that complicated jazz. But it’s also a book I want my Perfect Non-Reader to enjoy in the next year or two, not when she is forty-one.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 11, 2011

Year in Books 2010

Your Humble Blogger seems to have read 102 books in 2010, counting only two that I know I read but didn’t blog (Rough Crossing, for which I am planning to audition in the Spring, and The Return of the King, to finish up my reread). Of those 38 were re-reads and 64 were new to me. I also read 64 books in 2009 (and only 36 re-reads), and that is pretty much the median and the mean and the mode over the last seven years. OK, not exactly: the mean is 70, but it’s the median and the mode, and it’s as close to the mean as any of the other whole numbers are. Except the 75 books from 2004, obviously. Look, nobody cares about the statistics, anyway. All right? I’ll skip straight to the…

Ten or Eleven Books Your Humble Blogger Enjoyed Reading in 2010

Year of the King, Antony Sher’s Diary about his preparation for playing the lead in Richard III, stands out as a vastly enjoyable book. Of course, I was preparing to play Buckingham, myself, so I was more than ordinarily interested, but still, it’s a marvelous book.

A Song for Summer may have been my favorite of all the books I read this year. I have been enjoying Eva Ibbotson’s stuff for a while, now, and this is my favorite of them. Alas, there will be no more. Still, we have this one: escapes from Nazis, false names, cooking, music, heartbreak, bombs, nudism, suffragettes, flowers, Brecht and the importance of good manners.

My Victorian Novel kick proceeds apace; Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South was probably my favorite of this year’s books.

The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear is my least favorite of Walter Moers’sees’ novels, but still makes the list of books I enjoyed reading, so if you have not given yourself a taste of his stuff, I think you are missing something.

I’ll add The City & The City on to the list; it was an excellent book. I do have some problems with the resolution, such as it was, but the purpose of the list is not to find flawless books, and besides, an ambitious book like this one is bound to be flawed, one way or another.

I read a lot of Young Adult specfic this year (28, actually, which may be a record) (well, a modern record, not counting the days when my adultness was actually youthful, or really only putative) and perhaps my favorite was Princess of the Midnight Ball, a Jessica Day George book that, it turns out, now has a sequel. Hm. I haven’t seen the sequel, but I hadn’t been looking for it, either.

I enjoyed The Secret of Zoom, which was good fun. I don’t know if Lynne Jonell is planning a sequel; she seems to be concentrating on her Emmy stories, which is not a bad thing, either.

I’ll also mention The Hunger Games, which is terrific, although any Gentle Readers who are interested in YASF will have heard about the series by now. I haven’t read the second one yet, but the first did live up to the hype. Which is not the usual case, of course.

Plain Kate sticks out in my memory as worth mentioning, too. It’s Erin Bow’s first book, I think, so there’s the advantage of finding a new author, who perhaps has some more books inside just waiting to come out.

And I’ll finish with a play called Good Morning, Bill, from Four Plays by P.G. Wodehouse. It’s based on a play by Ladislaus Fodor, who evidently wrote a million other plays, none of which we have in our library. Alas. In 1931, TIME magazine said in reference to Mr. Fodor, “Some doubt exists as to whether all Hungarian plays not written by Ferenc Molnar are originally dull…”; whether it was originally dull, Mr. Wodehouse’s version is not.

And that’s my Year in Books.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 4, 2011

Book Report: The Hunger Games

The last-but-one book Your Humble Blogger read in 2010 was The Hunger Games, the first book of a Big Deal YASF trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I have been hearing such great things about it for so long that I got past skeptical and was back around to eager again. On the other hand, I didn't know somehow that Ms. Collins was also the author of the Gregor the Overlander series, which might have brought me back to skeptical.

Digression: Hunh. I appear to have quite enjoyed the Overlander when I read it. My recollection is that I didn't. I have avoided reading the rest of the books, largely because I didn't like the first one, but it seems I did like the first one. I mean, with some annoyances. I suspect that in memory the annoyances have outweighed the pleasures, but is that a fault of the books, or of my memory? Quite often I find that my recollection of a book's pleasures and annoyances differs widely from what I wrote at the time. One good thing about having written actual blog notes about books, rather than just listing them, is that I do have that note to look back to. On the other hand, I don't know that my immediate response (or my would-have-been-immediate-if-I-weren't-so-bad-at-doing-things-immediately response) is any more accurate than my response after the book has sifted through my brain and ripened into memory. At least I am remembering the right book, so that's all right. End Digression.

I was utterly captivated by The Hunger Games. Y'all know that I'm a fiend for narrative, and the plot of this book moves along like a sonnovabitch. Rattling good plot. And the characters are good, too, although of course most of the minor characters are pretty minor. But I like a deftly drawn minor character that stands out without being either unnecessarily three-dimensional or taking up too much page-turning time. The fox-faced girl, for instance, or the hiding girl. Great, sharp characters, not because they are fully realized but because they are just right for their purpose.

And although there is a certain heavy-handedness to it, the book is smart and sharp-edged. I mean, yes, it's a dystopia with teenagers forced to kill each other until only one remains, which, you know, not the most original idea. But where I was worried it would be pale Battle Royale, it turns out that the book is at its best attacking reality TV. The whole thing is filmed, you see, and everyone is forced to watch it (no, it makes no sense, don't worry about that), but what everybody sees is highly edited. We read some of the ways in which the contestants are aware of their ratings (not exactly ratings, but that's the idea) and the ways in which the show and its outcome is manipulated by the editors and producers. My experience with reality shows is limited, really, to the cooking ones, and I got enough of an education about film and TV that I watched them with some awareness of what was going on. But most teenagers don't get that education, I think, unless they pick it up somewhere. Such as in this book.

I think the main success of this book, for me, is that. And if it gives an unpleasant connotation of violence and fascism to Chopped or Project Runway, well, that's a good thing, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 31, 2010

Book Report: The Mask of Apollo

Your Humble Blogger is writing this note on December 26th, in the evening, during a profound snowstorm. I am at the moment only partway through The Mask of Apollo; I expect I will finish it in the next few days. Well, next few days from now, when I’m writing it. I am scheduling the note to actually go on-line in five days. So from your point of view, Gentle Reader, I expect I will have finished it in the last few days. And if I don’t finish the book by the 31st, I will delete the entry, so you won’t have seen it. If you are reading this on the last day of 2010, then I will finish the book in the next few days. Clear?

Of course, if you are reading this in 2011 sometime, it’s likely I finished it in the first week of the year. Or maybe you’re just catching up, because you had better things to do on New Year’s Eve than read a book report on the Tohu Bohu, particularly when it is, I kid you not, the fourth one on the same damned book. I mean, come on. In which case, I hope you had a good time. Or, if it hasn’t happened yet, that you do have a good time. Happy New Year! Whatever year it is.

Now, the reason I am pre-blogging this book is that I have, at last, caught up with my list of unblogged books, and if I don’t finish anything else before the end of the year, I will not have to write any entries in January that have December timestamps in order to make my Year in Books accurate. Ish. Because we all know I’ve missed a bunch. And, despite the traveling I am planning on doing between now and then, the odds are fairly good that I’ll read something of some kind while I am on the road. I do that. I’ll have the netbook with me, anyway, and I have all kinds of stuff on the hard drive now. But for now, the plan is that The Mask of Apollo will be the last book I read in 2010, and the last book I blog, and then the last Book Report that posts itself whilst I, Gentle Readers, am driving up the Eastern Seaboard, coming home.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 30, 2010

Book Report: And Another Thing...


Your Humble Blogger came across The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at just the right moment. I was old enough to get it, and young enough to enjoy it. It was new enough to be hip, but not new enough to be difficult to get hold of in Arizona in the early 80s. I could bond with my friends over it, because I liked, and, crucially, they also liked it.

And, of course, it was funny. I wonder how much my sense of humour was matched by Hitchhiker’s (and earlier by Python), and how much of it was formed by them. I mean, much of the stuff in them told me this is funny, and was reinforced by my buddies telling me how funny it was, and me telling them how funny it was, and so funny meant stuff like this. On the other hand, the original radio show (which I didn’t hear until much later) and the miniseries (which probably was where I started) and the first two books really were funny. So there’s that.

I was disappointed in the third book, I think—my recollection is pretty fuzzy, but I think I watched the tv series first and then read the first two books, which follow it pretty closely. The third book came out in 1984 (in the US); I suspect that, actually, was the first sequel I knew about in advance and eagerly awaited. It didn’t have the familiarity factor of the first two, and of course at the time I was not into Cricket (Australia all out for 98!!!! England finished the day at 157 for naught! It’s a Christmas Miracle!) so the cod derivation of the Ashes and the end of the world was not as funny as it might have been. Still, I didn’t hate it.

I don’t think I hated the fourth book, either, although it didn’t feel like a Hitchhiker’s book at all. I loved the Fenchurch romance. I found the Asylum bits a bit glibly cynical, but then the whole idea of the book was glibly hopeful.

I don’t even remember the fifth book. I must have read it. I vaguely remember hating it, but none of the events sound remotely familiar. It sounds awful, but I don’t know if it just sounds awful or if it was awful. At any rate, I was done with the series at that point. At least in the sense that I didn’t need any more books—I reread the first one at some point, and I watched the intermittently entertaining feature film, and I have vaguely wanted to re-watch the original television series with my daughter when she is old enough (I have no idea when that would be—she has read or at least skimmed the first book, through my inadvertently shelving it within her reach), but I don’t bemoan the lack of new material.

So. Probably I should have left And Another Thing alone. I didn’t even like the book I read in Eoin Colfer’s original series.

It would be inaccurate, then, to describe myself as disappointed in the book. Aggrieved? Irritated? Distracted? All I know is that I have written better fanfic than that, and that was the last fanfic I wrote before discarding the idea that I was any good at it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Book Report: The Runaway Princess


Your Humble Blogger actually wanted to read the sequel to Kate Coombs’s’es The Runaway Princess, but thought it would be right to read the first one first. And having read the first one, I’m still interested in reading the sequel, so that’s all right.

The book feels quite dated to me, in that it not only has a beautiful princess who is out to save the wicked witch from the brave prince, but makes a big deal of how the beautiful princess wants to save the wicked witch from the brave prince. Her refusal to bow to the partriarchal demands are admirable, but hardly surprising at this point, thirty years after The Paper Bag Princess. It would be more surprising, at this point, to have a story where the princess wasn’t initially outraged by the promise of her hand and half the kingdom to the prince who vanquishes the witch. It’s wouldn’t be better, mind you, but it would be a surprise. It would even be a surprise if such a story were told from the point of view of the prince, and we didn’t find out her reaction until later.

That said, I don’t need surprises; I like that some of the worst aspects of fairy-tale patriarchy have become so successfully subverted. And the book is fun. The invisibility potion is terrific; the wizard is great fun; the characters are likable and nicely differentiated, with even the bad ones different in different ways. I am looking forward to the second one, although perhaps not until Spring.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 29, 2010

Book Report: Enchanted Glass


Your Humble Blogger doesn’t always judge books by their covers. Which is a good thing, because, alas, when the artist depicted the titular window in Diana Wynne Jones’ses’ Enchanted Glass, he chose to make the colored panes with the upper left one in orange, and the one next to it in green, the one below that in yellow, and the one on the lower left in blue, with a wavery magical effect rather than square lines.

This is not, in fact, true. It’s three-by-three, and it’s just that there is a blue one second down on the left and a yellow one immediately to its right, and that was enough to make the thing look like an advertisment for a certain operating system.

The book is not an ad for an operating system, although there is a lot of swearing at the computer, which doesn’t function well in the presence of magic. Or, presumably, oxygen. If it’s anything like mine. Ooh!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 28, 2010

Book Report: Plain Kate


Your Humble Blogger picked up Erin Bow’s Plain Kate on a whim, despite the blurb promising a talking cat. There are good books with talking cats, although, well. Talking cat. Not a good sign.

It’s not a talking cat book, fortunately. It’s a magnificently creepy story about gypsies in Russia, although of course it’s pseudo-Russia and pseudo-Gypsies. Roamers, she calls them. Sometimes I find that irritating, but I didn’t in this book, for some reason. Anyway, the main character is wonderful, fierce, intelligent (but not implausibly so), flawed and lovable. And, cleverly, an outsider both in her village and with the Roamers. And she doesn’t have unexpected magic powers. You have no idea what a relief that is, unless you read as much YASF as I do, in which case, you probably do. But there is magic, wicked and good magic, both of which are scary. And there is art, and commerce, and food, and culture, and really good writing.

And a talking cat. But it’s cool. Really.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 27, 2010

Book Report: Ever


Your Humble Blogger was going to give Ever a pass. I have liked the Gail Carson Levine books (although I don’t remember to blog them; Ella Enchanted, Fairest and The Two Princesses of Bamarre got blogged, and I really only noted that Dave at Night made it onto the blog), but for some reason I wasn’t really excited about this one. But my Perfect Non-Reader asked me to read it, so we could talk about it, and I accepted with alacrity, if not eagerness.

I found it difficult to get in to the thing. The three fairy-tale books were all set, more or less, in Maerchenwald; phony medieval villages and palaces where people fight with swords or songs and trade with copper and silver. This is, I guess, bronze age. Well, it’s not the real world at all, but then neither is that medieval stuff. It felt bronze age. And there was a stylistic choice that I’m not sure I can articulate that aided with that feeling, and contrasted with the once-upon-a-time stuff of her other books. I prefer the once-upon-a-time stuff.

On the other hand, once I got into it, I enjoyed the thing. The story is a romance between a minor god in a polytheistic pantheon and a mortal girl in a monotheistic society. The monotheistic village is horrendously repressive and vile; the girl is slated to be a sacrifice. The multiple gods do not have human sacrifice, and our hero is appalled, as well as being, you know, distressed that his love will be killed.

I don’t know if the book has been challenged in middle-school libraries. If it hasn’t, it’s through ignorant oversight. This is a much more subversive book than His Dark Materials, I think, if only because it’s much easier to read and follow for younger kids. Not that I object, personally, to my kid reading it, or to its inclusion in the libraries. But then, I tend to (a) support the judgments of librarians, and (2) find that some subversive ideas are good for my kid’s faith process. And my kid is a year and a half away from middle-school, yet; I don’t think her school library has the Gail Carson Levine books at all, which, you know, is a reasonable choice for kids under eleven. But in the middle school, Ella Enchanted has got to be a hot item, right? And then the kids keep reading them and you keep buying them, and sooner or later some parent is going to freak out. Only (as my Best Reader pointed out to me) you really have to read the book to know what’s objectionable. The blurb wouldn’t look any worse than the Percy Jackson books (which may also be challenged at middle schools, I guess), and the really bothersome stuff wouldn’t turn up until the reader is a third of the way through. It’s a stereotype, but I somehow don’t think that many of the library book challenges are based on somebody reading the books.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 26, 2010

Book Report: The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

So. Having read the second book back in March, I finally remembered to nab The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma from our local public library. It was… OK. Not great. The clever idea of having the Bad Guy come up with clever puzzles for the kids to think they were solving in order to lure them into a trap was a good one, but the puzzles weren’t very good, and frankly it was crazy that the kids didn’t spot the trap from the moment they found the first scrap of paper. Hmph.

Still, there were fun bits, and funny bits, and I must say I was very pleased to have the whole three-book arc pretty much wrapped up. Mr. Stewart didn’t preclude another book, but he provided closure if there isn’t going to be another book. Although I should add that my Perfect Non-Reader wants there to be another book, and she is presumably the intended audience, the one likely to spend her Chanukah Gelt at that part of the bookstore.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 24, 2010

Book Report: Martin Chuzzlewit

There is a line in Martin Chuzzlewit that I can’t remember exactly off the top of my head, but it says that Americans have a consuming passion for Liberty, which perhaps explains why they pursue her so hotly, and take such liberties with her when they find her. Other than that, the American section of the book isn’t very good. I don’t think that’s just my American eyes on it; I think that it just doesn’t work very well. I should say—the description of the Florida swamp that young Martin winds up in is very good. Charles Dickens does a good job with landscape, when he gets inspired to; like everyone else, I tend to forget that and remember his characters.

As for those, this book has two trustworthy-servants-of-untrustworthy-masters, which is one too many. The great character is Mark Tapley. Mark Tapley believes he is a man of cheerful character and helpful mien, but he worries that this is only because he is always in such cheerful surroundings. There is little merit, you see, in being cheerful when he is the barman at a successful pub, with a charming and lovely widow of a landlady in love with him, and all the village friends to come in and drink and chat and play darts. So he leaves the pub and takes up as personal servant to Young Martin, because Young Martin is a selfish, thoughtless and penniless young idiot charging off to America to make his unlikely fortune. When they are steerage for a rough crossing, trapped in a dank and filthy underdeck with impoverished and ailing emigrants, then there might be some merit in being jolly—only they are all so grateful for the little help he is able to be to them, they all form such good friendships as he shares with them what little he has to share, their children treat him like a favorite uncle when he plays with them and sings to them and helps to bathe them and dress them, and everybody compliments his cooking so highly when he volunteers to take over for the steerage cook who is too ill to prepare any food, that, well, there is hardly any merit in being jolly in circumstances like that, is there? So it is still untested whether he is really a cheerful, helpful, jolly sort of fellow, or if it is just his circumstances. And so on and so forth; he is a great, great character.

Other than that, it’s a fairly good Dickens, except for the American bits, which are sub-par. So. Not a Top Five, but enjoyable anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 23, 2010

Book Report: The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey

Another book I read back in March but evidently forgot to blog was The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, the second in Trenton Lee Stewart’s series. Trilogy, I hope.

I wasn’t really pleased with the first one, which started out brilliantly and then had a very dull middle and not that great an end. The problem, really, was that the good bit was unsustainable. The mysterious Mr. Benedict advertises for special children; when Our Hero turns up, he is put through a series of examinations. These are terrific scenes, with magnificent puzzles that are solved not just once (by our hero), but three times in three ways (by two of the other three eventual members of the Society). However, once the tests are over and the four kids begin the adventure, there isn’t any way to sustain the highly artificial test-solving fun.

In the second book, however, Mr. Stewart has a stroke of genius. Mr. Benedict has set a bunch of puzzles for the kids in the society, as a treat. But before they can get started on the puzzles (which require globe-trotting and so on), Mr. Benedict disappears! And in order to find him and rescue him they have to solve all the puzzles to find out where he was when he was captured—and they have to do it before the bad guys.

So we’re back at the highly artificial test-solving that was so much fun in the first book, only it’s the actual meat of this one. Very nicely done.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Book Report: The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen

We’re nearing the end of the year, Gentle Readers, which is when I try to get all caught up on books. I am now, according to my current list, ten books behind with only nine days left in the year. And I will almost certainly finish another two or three books in that time. Well, two anyway; I’m partway through one, and there’s another I am interested in that looks like a quick read. On the other hand, I will be traveling during those nine days, which is not conducive to reading. On the other other hand, traveling isn’t conducive to blogging, either. Ah, well.

And that ten book list is the ones I know about. I realized, recently, that I read Lloyd Alexander’s The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen back in March and never logged it. March! And it would have dropped out of the list altogether if I hadn’t come across the little library slip with the due date on it. In theory I keep all those slips, and have for years. They go in an envelope by the shelf where the library books go. Only, of course, they don’t go there; they are used as bookmarks, and then they are discarded anywhere in the house, until eventually they get crumpled up and thrown away. If I did keep them, really keep them, I’d have a pretty good sense of what I have read—not that I read all the books I take out of the public, but I could probably figure out pretty close to instantly what I had read and what I hadn’t. Of course, I could just type them all in to my list, but then, I don’t even get the slips into the envelope, am I seriously going to transcribe them?

So there it is. And since to my mind the primary purpose to this whole bookblogging thing has become the ability to look back and see what I’ve read, purely as a record, the gaps are problematic. And I feel it’s important to write up book reports for books I read nine months ago, so long as it was in the same calendar year. Like this one.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 22, 2010

Book Report: The Cardturner

Your Humble Blogger isn’t what you would really call a Louis Sachar fan, exactly. My Perfect Non-Reader was absolutely nutso for the Wayside School books, a few years ago, and I think they are pretty good. I liked Holes, and thought Small Steps was interesting, if not (by me) totally successful. So when I saw The Cardturner on the library shelf, I judged it by its cover, and decided that I really didn’t need to read a story about bridge.

My Best Reader thought she’d give it a try, though, and she seemed to like it, even though she shares my attitude about bridge. So I gave it a try, and I enjoyed it a lot. So that’s good.

I have the sense, though, that Mr. Sachar really wanted people to enjoy the book and want to take up the game. My reaction to the depiction of the game in the book was much the same as my reaction to it every time I’ve come across it in real life: aversion.

I like card games. I have played a million billion hours of card games of various kinds. I love to play hearts; I happily play Oh Hell, I like Fan Tan, I play Casino and Gin when I get a chance, and although I haven’t played poker regularly since the Hold ‘Em craze of a few years ago started, for years and years I was in a regular game that was a highlight of my social life. But I don’t play partner games.

My MFQ is high for social games or cutthroat games played individually (depending on the players, of course), but when I have a partner who is depending on my play, and when I am depending on my partner’s play, that quotient goes down into the negatives. I would much rather be crushed in ignominious defeat all by myself than cruise to victory with a partner, and furthermore I would much much much rather cruise to victory all by myself than get crushed in ignominious defeat with a partner. And ignominy is part of the game, isn’t it? So I don’t play Bridge, I don’t play Spades, I don’t play Whist, I don’t play Euchre, I don’t play Clabber, I don’t play Pinochle, and I don’t play Kaiser. And I don’t play Canasta with partners. Actually, I don’t play Canasta at all, but I wouldn’t object to playing Canasta, unless it’s with partners.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 21, 2010

Book Report: Scumble

Your Humble Blogger didn’t like Scumble as much as Savvy. It was all right, and it picked up quite nicely after dragging about a third of the way through. It lacked the specificity of the first book, the sense of place that was one of the best things about it. It also seemed more interested in the rules of savvy (who gets a savvy and why and when and how and all of that) than Your Humble Reader is.

On the other hand, having enjoyed Savvy, I was patient and had faith in the book, and it paid off. Which is a Good Thing, and means that I will start her next book, whatever it winds up being, with more patience and faith. So that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 20, 2010

Book Report: Madensky Square

Having adored A Song for Summer, Your Humble Blogger hit the library shelf for another one of Eva Ibbotson’s books for grupps. I wound up with Madensky Square, which was a very sweet and lovely historical romance (without so much adventure). More than anything, it reminded me of a really good Masterpiece series. It’s got great costumes and setting (a dressmaker’s in Vienna in 1910 or so), and lots and lots of characters, each of whom would be lots of fun to play. There’s, let’s see…

The main character is the owner of the dress shop, who is nearing forty. I’d like to see Lisa Dillon in that one, but they may need a bigger name; it would be a great return to British TV for Catherine Zeta-Jones. There are her two assistants, the red and the one who doesn’t want to get married; I have no ideas but there can’t be a shortage of actresses for that. There’s the cheap old Countess, that’s a Maggie Smith part, or maybe Sinead Cusack. There’s the operetta singer; perhaps Lisa Dillon for that. Her lover is a brief part, a cozy middle-aged man; is Jim Carter too old? For his wife, the crazy philosopher/activist, Amy Marston. Their daughter is an important role, a plain twenty-ish woman; again, I have no idea but there are plenty of options. Her friend, the ethereal beauty is yet another young woman, but her fiancee is a sausage entrepreneur and a wonderful role, and I would love to see Simon Russell Beale in it. And his aunts, well, is Anna Massey still alive? She could play both of them, as far as I’m concerned. Or bring back Joan Plowright.

OK, that’s that group; then there are the Madensky Square gang. There’s the old Professor who keeps proposing to the dressmaker; he could be Jonathan Pryce, or maybe Tom Wilkenson. The other one could play the bookseller who hates to sell books. The bridle and tackle man could be, maybe, Tom Hollander. Now that I’m thinking about it, Jim Carter would be better for the lumber merchant with all the daughters. There’s the little boy who plays the piano, and his uncle who is foreign and poor; I was totally going in the wrong direction in this one until my Best Reader suggested Pete Postlethwaite. Simon Callow is the impresario, if you can get him. Tim Pigott-Smith could be the Minister with the nasty habit, and Imelda Staunton would be perfect as his distraught wife. Oh, the concierge with the dog; Kristen Scott Thomas may be too good-looking but could carry it off.

And I’ll propose Philip Glenister for the dressmaker’s lover. I think he’d be terrific. My other idea is Rupert Graves; he’d be terrific, too.

Well. That’s not all the characters, but it’s enough to be going on with. Oh, shoot, Tom Hollander could play the American banker’s son who loves the communist assistant. Or is he too old, now? And somebody’s got to play the horseman who acts as go-between for the dressmaker and her lover, let’s say Sean Pertwee.

See, this is the thing: nobody’s going to make a miniseries out of an out-of-print Eva Ibbotson book. And if they do, everyone I’ve listed will be to old for their parts. But still. It would be glorious.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 19, 2010

Book Report: Fool

So. The first Christopher Moore book I read was A Dirty Job, which I liked a lot. Then I read Lamb, which I liked OK. Now, I have read Fool, which promised to do for King Lear what Lamb did for the Gospels. Alas.

There were some good bits, mind you. But no.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 18, 2010

Book Report: Cryoburn

So. Remember last week, when YHB was whinging about not liking to read books off a screen? Well, Cryoburn turned up at the library. And the thing about that is that Baen, bless them, decided to include in the hardback of the book a CD with all the Miles books in a variety of handy DRM-free formats. And the library, bless them, left the CD in the book when they lent it out to me. And the rules seemed to indicate that I was OK to make my own copy. Well, when I say seemed to indicate, what I mean is “ This disk and its contents may be copied and shared, but NOT sold.” So I copied them, and I have them on a thumb drive.

And the thing about that is that even though I don’t much enjoy reading books off screens, I also don’t much enjoy waiting. And neither does my Best Reader. So we read Cryoburn simultaneously, her with the book and me with my screen. No waiting, no fuss, nobody had to be generous about it. Except Baen, I mean. And their generosity is tempered by the commercial calculation of it; they believe that “ the more people who read Ms. Bujold’s works the more people will buy them”, and they may be right about that. Or not. I have no idea. I will buy this one in paperback, the way I have bought all the others, because I like paperbacks. It’s possible, not likely mind you but possible, that I would have also bought the hardcover of this one, because I don’t like waiting, and also because I do like rereading her books (as GRs may have noticed), and having them all on a thumb drive seems like a valuable thing to me, should I someday come to enjoy reading on the screen. As it is, of course, I have read the thing now, so I won’t be buying the hardback. And if I realio trulio can’t wait until the paperback comes out before I must re-read it, I do have it on the thumb drive.

And I might not be able to. It’s not one of the bestest of Lois McMaster Bujold’s books, as far as my own taste goes—I would leave it out of the top five, and put it solidly in the middle rank—but the last sentence of the book turned the whole thing around. Well, the last sentence before the Epilogue, I mean. But it immediately made me want to turn around and read the whole damned thing again. It was (YHB says, dancing delicately around the specific spoiler) very much a book about X, and then it turns out to have been a book about Y; reading the book knowing it is a book about Y would be a very different experience from thinking it was a book about X. Not a spoiled experience, necessarily—y’all know I think her books re-read very well. But a different experience.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Book Report: The God Engines

Your Humble Blogger is, as y’all know, down on this whole trend of publishing a novella in a separate volume. Which is odd, because I am not at all down on the 1930s (or so) trend of novels being extremely short. There’s an important contextual difference, there, but I have no idea what it is.

Anyway, when Subterranean Press published John Scalzi’s The God Engines, I didn’t get all excited about it. Nor, I have to say, did I get all that excited about it when I saw it on the library shelf. Nor, alas, did I get all excited about it when I read it.

It’s a grim, grim book. There’s a lot of nastiness in it, unpleasant scenes and unpleasant people and unpleasant social structures and unpleasant… entities. It’s well-written, mind you: they are effectively unpleasant rather than being mildly irritating or buffoonishly awful, or for that matter ineffectually evil. And while the metaphysical questions posted—mostly what kind of Divine would tolerate, much less encourage, a church given to institutional sadism—are troubling ones, I’m not sure that Mr. Scalzi brings anything new to them with this book by putting them in the middle of all this unpleasantness.

It’s interesting to me, by the way, in the whole subgenre slapfight sense of interesting, that Mr. Scalzi built up the book as his initial (published) foray into fantasy. I don’t disagree with the distinction he is making, but it does take place mostly on a spaceship. If the Germans want to slap a cover with spaceships and lasers, I don’t see what would stop them. There is very little in the book that addresses the Sources of Reader Pleasure specific to fans of fantasy novels, as they think of them: he sets up no system of majick, reimagines no fairy tales beloved of childhood, gives his hero no sword nor sandals, depicts no village on the edge of the maerchenwald, and provides no new versions of dragons, unicorns, trolls, ogres, elves or dwarves. Or dwarfs, for that matter. I know that many fantasy readers—YHB, for one—don’t require those sorts of things to enjoy a fantasy story. But then, many fantasy readers also like stories that aren’t fantasy at all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 17, 2010

Book Report: Tongues of Serpents

Speaking of eagerness for the next book in the series to come out, I was ever so excited to see Tongues of Serpents (the most recent Temeraire book by Naomi Novik) on the library’s New Books shelf. I took it home and snapped it up. Probably too quickly, but then my Best Reader was waiting for me to finish so that she could begin. More on that topic later.

It was, alas, a disappointment for me. It’s not a bad book, let me make that clear: it’s not a bad book. But it didn’t quite work for me. First of all, not enough battles, and the battles weren’t tactical enough. One of the great things about the series is that she imagines a Napoleonic world with an air force. Yes, it’s great that the air force ride dragons, and that the dragons are characters, but that sort of thing is done elsewhere. What she does really well is address the tactical changes that air support makes in those battles and in the war. And this book contains only two battles (that I can recall), and although they are great fun, they aren’t tactically interesting. Most of the book is spent with character stuff, which, you know, fine, but I don’t read this series for the character stuff.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 16, 2010

Book Report: The Lost Hero

Your Humble Blogger finished the Percy Jackson series (by Rick Riordan), as did my Perfect Non-Reader, who is perhaps a wee bit obsessed. Loves them, loves them, loves them. So, when she came home from school clutching a pre-order form for The Lost Hero, we shelled out the bucks for a hardback. I don’t like hardback books, myself (and shouldn’t these kids just be getting them downloaded into the chip in the back of the neck, anyway?), and would happily have made her wait on the library list to read the thing and then if it was good bought the paperback in a year’s time. But hey. Kid. Reading. Worth some money.

You know, I can’t remember eagerly awaiting the release of a new book, back when I was nine or ten. It is possible, I suppose, that when I was twelve or so I anticipated the release of Centaur Isle; it is possible that I had already suffered enough disappointment that I had given up on anticipation. Possibly from that series. But I don’t remember being an obsessive fan of any series that was current. Isaac Asimov was still writing books (I remember being pleased when my parents’ EQMM had a new story in it), and so was Robert Heinlein, and I’m sure I had other favorites at that age who were still churning them out, but even at the time, I think I was dimly aware that they were in the decline phase. And they weren’t working in a series, or a series of series, the way Mr. Riordan is.

You know, it may be that I was excited about Moreta when it came out, or before it came out. Maybe not. Now that I think about it, I don’t know how I would have known about a book before its release date, back when I was 10. My parents took the Sunday New York Times, but I couldn’t have been looking at the ads in the book section; I read the Arts&Leisure, and bits of the Magazine (mostly looking at the castles and estates for sale), and maybe looked at some of the fronts of the other sections, but even if I looked at the book section, I don’t know that I would have noticed the ads, and I don’t know that YASF publishers would have purchased ads there. I certainly didn’t have pushers from a bookseller in my classroom with color ads for pre-ordering. That’s progress.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 14, 2010

Book Report: A Song for Summer

Your Humble Blogger has noted here before about the Late, great Eva Ibbotson; The Star of Kazan and Which Witch and The Dragonfly Pool, but evidently Island of the Aunts and The Secret of Platform 13 didn’t make it onto this Tohu Bohu. Anyway, she’s terrific.

I think of her as writing books like Which Witch: romps for kids, with just enough scary stuff to make it fun. And in the E. Nesbitt vein, she juxtaposes witches and ogres with tea cozies and bus conductors; it’s a funny juxtaposition, but for modern American urban readers, it’s also double escapism. But she also writes books like The Star of Kazan, which are historical adventure romance novels. A Song for Summer, is in the second group.

Now, I don’t think of myself as liking historical adventure romance novels—or, really, I don’t think of myself as the kind of person who likes historical adventure romance novels, independent of any actual historical adventure romance novels I may or may not have read and/or liked. But I have to say that I like Ms. Ibbotson’s historical adventure romance novels a lot. I mean, a lot.

I guess I’m up to four of them, now, including the one I read after A Song of Summer but before writing this note, and I have liked them all. But this one is my favorite, and one of the best books I read all year. It’s Nazis without being all Nazis, if you know what I mean; it it’s about the Holocaust, but it doesn’t diminish that aspect of the war; it is fun and appropriately scary, and exciting, and the romance is all romantic and stuff, and it’s just really, really good.

And even better, along with (I think) all of the stuff that was originally published by a Romance Novel imprint, it’s out with a cover that allows me to read the thing without having to change the way I think of myself. So that’s all right, d’y’see?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 13, 2010

Book Report: Strong Poison

I think I was heading in to the tub, which is why I grabbed Strong Poison. That’s a guess. I know I read it, I can’t remember why.

I haven’t read it in ages. Clearly not for the last six years, while I’ve been logging my books. There’s good reason for that, as it’s not a very good book, with a frankly dreadful murder mystery at the heart of it. On the other hand, Lord Peter and Harriet! Which is odd and slightly unpleasant, actually: frankly the meet-cute is more of a meet-harassment, which Ms. Sayers does recognize, but still.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 10, 2010

Book Report: The Incomplete Amorist

So. A few months ago, Your Humble Blogger took a quick cross-country airplane trip. Twelve hours on airplanes to spend nineteen hours in California, to dance at an old friend’s wedding. It was… tiring. But then I knew it would be tiring, and so I packed light. In fact, I didn’t take any books at all. I didn’t take any hard-copy book, I mean; I took my netbook and the fifty or so books stored on its hard drive. But nothing else to read except the in-flight magazine.

It’s all part of my experiment in reading off a screen. See, since it turns out I have a fondness for the Victorian Novel, I figure that the moment I decide I like reading off a screen I have a million pages of free books. Until then, I have to check them out of the library, which admittedly is also free, but costs me the time to, well, get up from my desk and walk up to the third floor. Or I could just snag a book off one of the carts that roll past my desk, to be honest. Free literature isn’t really lacking in my life at the moment. But the point is the same, or nearly: if I decide I like reading off a screen, I immediately have lots of options. And when I am traveling, if I am going to be schlepping my netbook anyway (and I am), it would be nice not to also carry around a couple of paperback.

Anyway. I tried it. I did manage to complete one book on the trip; The Incomplete Amorist by E. Nesbit. It’s not a kids book, as you might have guessed from the title, and it seriously isn’t a kids book: promiscuity, lesbianism, prostitution, art. Oh, there’s nothing explicit. One could certainly get through the book without realizing that the prostitute was lesbian, except that her hopeless passion for the ingénue is the only thing that makes that part of the plot make sense. Also, the scenes where the ingénue is innocently prattling about how happy they are in their domesticity would be pointless and annoying if the reader weren’t watching, as it were, the effect on the Fallen Woman that she has so guilelessly Saved. If the reader just assumes (as I do) that any character not specifically told as being in love with some other character is as likely to be in love with another character of the same sex as with the opposite sex, then those scenes work. As I am almost certain they were intended to.

Another terrific thing about the book is the Aunt. Aunts are a particular wonder of British Literature, and this specimen is a legitimate contender for the Aunts Hall of Fame, in the Worldly and Helpful wing.

Digression: My advice, should you visit the Aunts Hall of Fame, is to do the Forbidding Aunts in the morning. I know it’s a bit much to face Aunt Agatha, Mrs. Reed and Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong before lunchtime, but you can follow it up with the Off-Stage Aunts (Paddington Bear’s Aunt Lucy and of course Charley’s Aunt), have a bite of lunch in Aunt Lucy’s Kitchen (do not try anything with Aunt Martha and Aunt Abby’s names) and then see the Exciting Aunts (Graham Greene’s and Mario Vargas Llosa’s prominent among them, along with Auntie Mame). Tea in the Mothering Aunt’s wing, naturally, probably in the Aunt-Hill (try Aunt Bee’s Checkerboard Chess Pie); don’t forget Aunt Polly and Aunt May. Then, if you have time, why not stop by the Uncle’s Closet? End Digression

Alas, I have to say that the experiment was not really a success. I mean, yes, I did read a book off the screen, and I can do it again in a pinch (and, in fact, have read another since, making three novels altogether, I think) but it wasn’t really comfortable.

And I finished the whole damned in-flight magazine.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 7, 2010

Book Report: The Hallowed Hunt

Your Humble Blogger is at least sixteen books behind, with only twenty-four days left in the year. So I’m not going to attempt to come up with anything clever, provocative, or even interesting about the fact that I read The Hallowed Hunt. Again.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Book Report: The Neddiad

Your Humble Blogger had noticed, way back when, that Daniel Pinkwater was publishing The Neddiad on a website before publishing it as a bound book. I meant to keep going back and reading it, but never did. I suppose I didn’t have an aggregator in those days, and forgot to go back to the site. And I prefer, still, reading a book to reading on-line.

Well, and I eventually saw the book for sale and purchased it. So. Well done, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. If that’s still your name.

It’s terrific, but then of course it’s terrific; this is the sort of thing that Mr. Pinkwater does well, perhaps better than anybody. It’s a good thing to have a reliable writer, isn’t it?

Now, Mr. Pinkwater is again serializing a book previous to publication. It’s called Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl, and he’s on Chapter Sixty-Eight: The Ball at Spookhuizen, so my guess is he’s nearly finished. And if it’s like the last two, it will be taken down when the book is published, so read it now or, you know, wait for a bit longer. While you are at the site, you may want to take a peek at the Audio Archive; there are full recordings of Mr. Pinkwater reading The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death and Borgel and Blue Moose. And he’s adding to it all the time.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 6, 2010

Book Report: One Foot Ashore

Having written about Jacqueline Dembar Greene’s Out of Many Waters, I suppose I have to tell the story of how she came to write One Foot Ashore. She told this story at the talk, and her mother was there in the audience. This is important because the story goes that she went to have dinner at her parents’ house, as she did fairly often—this was after Waters had been published, and Ms. Greene had (I think) turned to full-time writing. And she goes over to her parents’ house, and they say we need to talk. And she thinks, uh-oh. But she figures that they can’t ground her, because she has her own place, and her husband might object, you know? So she says sure, let’s talk and they say come, sit down. And she goes in to the living room with them, and she’s really nervous, because if they are going in to the living room to sit down for the talk, it’s a talk, it’s not just a conversation. And they say You need to write a sequel to the book.

Well, she hadn’t planned on writing another book. Isobel had made it to the New World, and story was over. Right? But they said we need to know what happened to Maria. And Ms. Greene didn’t have any idea what happened to Maria. But her parents insisted, and she wrote the book.

It’s interesting (to me) that what appears to have happened is that the two books have gone out of print (although now that I search, the publisher appears to still have them listed, which doesn’t mean they are in print) and Ms. Greene is self-publishing them through the Author’s Guild Back in Print program. I would be a trifle skeptical of having my books on a self-publishing site, but then, I suppose she does sell some that way. I wonder what the contract was with Bloomsbury/Walker, and whether there was some sort of problem with it. She certainly is a big seller now, although that’s more American Girl than Jackie Dembar Greene. Still.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 5, 2010

Book Report: Out of Many Waters

Your Humble Blogger is always looking out for YA novels that have some Jewish content, but that are not Shoah-related. I don’t mean to dismiss all the YA books on the Shoah; there are some good ones. But it’s not hard to find them. My synagogue has a whole section on them. And I have read a few, and a few that aren’t bad books, but to the extent that I am looking for books for my daughter, I want to make sure that she doesn’t have a sense of Judaism that centers on the six million dead. My preference, in fact, is for her to have some sense of the centuries of our life in Europe that were wiped out by the Nazis, to mourn that appropriately when she does read the Shoah books.

That’s one reason why I picked up Out of Many Waters, which is set around the true events that brought Portuguese Jews to New Amsterdam via Brazil in 1854. The other reason is that Jacqueline Dembar Greene is a local author who was coming to speak at my synagogue. She didn’t grow up in our shul, but in the town next door, and her husband grew up in our shul, and her mother-in-law is still a member here. So it was easy to bring her. Plus, she is the writer of the American Girl Rebecca books, and American Girl is, you know, a trifle popular amongst tween girls these days. Or is American Girl totally 2008? Anyway, we had terrific turnout and it was an interesting talk. And I’m glad I was prepared.

And I’m glad I read the book. It’s an exciting book, there are pirates, it’s well-written, and it has pretty much the right amount of information for a YA historical. I passed it along to my Perfect Non-Reader, who enjoyed it a lot, too, and then enjoyed going to the author talk. Her first author talk! Well, no, there have been a bunch of them at school, now that I think about it. But our first one together.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 3, 2010

Book Report: Nocturnes

Your Humble Blogger is a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguro, as I’m sure y’all know by now. I can’t say I love all his books, though. When We Were Orphans didn’t ultimately work, and I barely made it through The Unconsoled. I had, in fact, almost given up my high expectations for a new Ishiguro novel when Never Let Me Go came out and knocked me for a proverbial. Wow. Not only me, of course; lots of people were knocked out. They even made a movie.

Anyway, a few years after Never Let Me Go, there was a new book, which was once more a cause for anticipation and delight. Only … Nocturnes isn’t a novel. It’s a volume of five shorter pieces, not narratively connected. That is, it isn’t a story carried on through the five stories. There are connections, thematic connections, motifs, ideas, that sort of thing. I’m not sure that each story is self-contained (I’m not sure that the novels are self-contained, if it comes to that; there is something about the way Mr. Ishiguro writes that tends to have fuzzy edges and ill-defined borders), but they have no characters in common, nor are questions in one bit answered in another. Or at all.

One of the things Mr. Ishiguro can do with his writing, in places, is evoke a kind of nightmarish fascination, an inability to divorce myself from his characters even while distrusting and disliking them. More than that—a desire to divorce myself from his characters, even while feeling trapped with them, or inside them. It isn’t very pleasant. That, actually, is one of the things about The Unconsoled and bits of When We Were Orphans that I disliked. Not that I really trust the narrators in the other books, but I am able to either keep a more comfortable distance from them or at least find my feet in their world. These stories veer more towards that unpleasant path. And then, with the five stories, going from one to another is even more disorienting and disconcerting. There wasn’t anywhere to rest.

And yet, there were bits that I liked a lot, parts of stories (if no complete stories) that I found moving and amusing. It’s true, though, that everyone is, in this book, unconsoled, and in the end, so was Your Humble Blogger. I think in Never Let Me Go, and in The Remains of the Day, there is consolation, even in the regret and madness. The characters are deluded, but they are functionally deluded.

And who isn’t?

Well, those that are dysfunctionally deluded, presumably, which include one or two of the most prominent figures in Nocturnes, and also, provisionally, elliptically, its humble readership.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 2, 2010

Book Report: Little Dorritt

Your Humble Blogger finally persuaded the Best Reader of this Tohu Bohu to watch the Masterpiece/BBC Little Dorritt together. That’s the recent one, not the one that was released as two theatrical movies, a decision that still makes no sense to me. Although to be fair, I haven’t seen it. I would like to, but it was difficult enough to convince somebody to watch the more recent one with me, without having to get out the VHS machine like some wild animal in the wilderness.

Anyway. I enjoyed the production, although there were a few things I didn’t like—for one thing, Little Dorritt should really be little, child-sized almost—and it perhaps inevitably brought me back to the book. Which really is wonderful. I mean, wonderful. Reading it after watching the video reminded me of all the bits that didn’t translate well to the screen, in addition to the ones that did.

Old Mr. Dorritt, the Father of the Marshallsea, is one of Charles Dickens’ great monsters, which puts him in very good company indeed. Or bad company, I suppose. But what a part! Tom Courtenay was unsurprisingly good in it, although there were a couple of bits that I felt didn’t work as well as they might. Not all his fault, of course. But he had the requisite monstrosity with just the faintest tinge of a hint of a suspicion of self-awareness, just enough to make him tragic. I also really liked Andy Serkis as Rigaud or Blandois or whatever his name was at the moment; he wasn’t the character from the book, but he was fun to watch. Although he was in a different style than many of the other characters, which was a problem. He might have been more true to the book stylistically, in fact, but in this version, he appeared out of place.

The major and fundamental plot point of the book involves debtor’s prison, of course, which dates it terribly. We no longer have debtor’s prisons, and haven’t for long enough that they no longer make any sense to us. They didn’t make any sense to Mr. Dickens, of course, who had been inside them, but it’s different, now; the whole idea seems a preposterously implausible plot device. Which is too bad, because I could imagine a movie that took bits of the story and updated them—not a point-by-point modernization but a conceptual one—to tremendous effect. Pyramid scheme, bureaucracy, money and society, pretense and so on. Mrs. General, Mrs. Merdle, Mrs. Sparkler (as she becomes), Mrs. Clennam are all types that exist today, and it would be a lot of fun to show them in today’s clothes, doing today’s versions of those things. You would have to get rid of debtor’s prison, of course, and you would have to get rid of the surprise plot point at the end involving who is actually related to who (which I never remember anyway, as it makes no fucking sense), and you would probably have to get rid of—well, you could get rid of Little Dorritt, for one thing. You could make it Mrs. Merdle’s story, or even Young Sparkler’s story—the dimwitted but cheerful fellow, born to genteel poverty, who has one turnaround when his widowed mother remarries the financial wizard, who falls in love with an exotic dancer, and then falls in love with her again when she is an heiress (and her history is hidden).

You know, that might actually work. Although you would need some sort of ending. Hm.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 28, 2010

Book Report: Un Lun Dun

I had postponed re-reading Un Lun Dun for a while, largely because I dreaded the possible letdown if I discovered that the book doesn’t lend itself to multiple readings. After all, part of the fun—a lot of the fun, although there is a lot of fun to be part of—was from the surprise when China Mié ville really let go and slammed the conventions. This time through, I knew I would be expecting the Unchosen one to Choose herself, and to reject the Quest in favor of just getting the job done. And, of course, when the Good Guys appear to be perhaps not entirely Good Guys, re-reading means you know whether they are Bad Guys or Good Guys or if it’s More Complicated than that. This is in addition to the other dread, that somehow YHB liked the book too much the first time through. That I would read the thing, shaking my head at all the clunkers, the annoying bits, and the interminably dull passages I must have missed on the first time, and have lost a favorite book.

Fortunately for YHB, no such thing happened. I enjoyed the second read very much indeed, and Un Lun Dun is still a favorite. I can’t say it was better the second time, but it was very good the second time. And I am confirmed in my initial judgment: it’s a hell of a book.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 26, 2010

Book Report: Alton Locke

Your Humble Blogger started Alton Locke full of hope and whatsit; I can’t say I knew anything much about the book or Charles Kingsley, the author, but it is a Victorian Novel that deals with industrialization, religion and litchrachoor. Alas, I did not like it. In point of fact, I did not finish it. I left off shortly before halfway.

There’s a comment about Charles Dickens that seems appropriate here: Some insightful critic (perhaps it was Stephen Fry) observed that there is so much Charles Dickens in every one of his books that if you don’t like him, you can’t like the books. There he is, on every page. He doesn’t get out of the way and let you like or dislike the characters, or the plot, or the setting. He thrusts himself forward in his authorial voice and insists that you like (or dislike) Charles Dickens. Now, I like Charles Dickens, so there’s that, but I do see some truth in it.

Unfortunately, I don’t like Charles Kingsley. I’m not saying he is wrong, politically or sociologically; I think he is much on the better side of the stuff he was talking about. I just very quickly tired of him talking about it. I found myself constantly wishing that it was Charles Dickens, not Charles Kingsley, who had crafted some particular rant against Sabbatarianism or the piecework system or the aristocracy. Probably it was the lack of leavening humor, although it wouldn’t shock me greatly to find that fans of Mr. Kingsley find that he is funny, or at least witty. I didn’t. Ah, well.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 24, 2010

Book Report: Catch-22

I can’t remember, now, why I reread Catch-22 this summer. Late summer, it would have been. Maybe autumn. Autumn would make sense; it’s a kind of autumnal book. In a way.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 23, 2010

Book Report: Jane Bites Back

So. It seems that when Michael Thomas Ford was speaking with his publisher, the platitude was spoken that the only thing that was selling these days was Jane Austen and vampires. So Mr. Ford naturally wrote a book about Jane Austen being a vampire.

Fortunately, he did not do the obvious thing, setting Jane Bites Back in a bucolic Derbyshire village in 1810. I doubt I would have read it. There are so damn many Jane Austen knock-off books that I have set up a basic wall of defiance at this point. I don’t even like Jane Austen that much—I would name her a distant fourth on my list of Victorian Novelist Fave Raves, and fully expect her to drop as I continue sopping up the tomes of others. In fact, YHB had seen this book on the library shelves and chosen not to get it; my Best Reader took it out and vouched for it being readable.

And it was. The character herself is well-drawn, there are lots of fun and ridiculous plot points, a rather sweet romance, and an easy wit to the thing. The supporting characters carry the book, actually, and what’s more to the point, Mr. Ford lets the supporting characters carry the book, which is a Good Thing, because, you know, Jane Austen being a vampire. Only so much a fellow can take.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 19, 2010

Book Report: The God of the Hive

So, here’s the story. I discover, via bookstore browsing, that there is a new Mary Russell book, The God of the Hive. I don’t buy the thing in hardback, because (a) I prefer paperback books, and (2) what am I, made of money? Instead I keep an eye out at the library. The book turns up surprisingly quickly, and I nab it, and it’s at the top of my stack, and I open it up.

You know the technique where the book starts and something almost incomprehensibly action-packed is going on, and after five pages or so, we read that As she crouched, silently weeping, behind the still-smoldering wreckage, frantically checking for a pulse, for breath, for any sign that this limp body still contained her soul’s mate, her mind went back to the moment that started it all, with that most innocuous of sounds, a doorbell ringing. And then there’s a line of fancy asterisks and below that, it’s three months earlier and the doorbell is ringing. If I remember correctly, The Game uses that technique, so there was precedent within the series.

So when the first action-packed chapter ended and Laurie R. King showed no signs of writing back to show us how we got here, I was intrigued. I mean, I had enough to go on, I could piece together what had happened, and frankly I was much more interested on how Ms. Russell and her husband go on from that action-packed place than in how they got there. So I was happy about it. And I figured there was plenty of book left for flashbacks and explanations.

Only, the book went on, and there weren’t any flashbacks and explanations. And I started to really dread the bit where everything stopped and went back to the now totally unnecessary flashbacks and explanations. Probably about two-thirds of the way through the book, right? Just before the big set piece. Still not there. She won’t seriously stop in the middle of the set piece to do some sort of PTSD flashback and explain it that way, will she? That would be terrible.

And no, she didn’t. The whole book went by, and there was never any attempt to fill in anything but the barest bones of how they found themselves injured, on the lam, separated, responsible for an orphaned child, whatnot. It was awesome.

And then later I discover that all of that background stuff was in the previous novel, which I never heard about.

Sigh.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Book Report: The Last Olympian

Your Humble Blogger had eventually read the second-to-last in the Percy Jackson series (Battle of the Labyrinth), and for some reason was just not very keen on reading the last one. I’m not sure why. Perhaps I was waiting for it to come out in paperback. Which took a while. In the meantime, my Perfect Non-Reader had become a fan of the series (refused to see the movie, though—she has had Bad Experiences with movies made from favorite books) and her grandmother gave her The Last Olympian in hardback. Then she read it a hundred and fifty times in a row, so I left her to it.

Eventually, though, I pried it out of her hands and read it. Well, more accurately, I picked it up out of the chair she left it in—again—and decided to read it before she figured out where it was. I enjoyed it enough—Rick Riordan throws in plenty of action and a smidge of character development and quite a bit of reference to the Greek Mythology he is starting from.

I haven’t felt the slightest interesting in rereading the series from scratch, which is my usual response to finishing a five-book series that I quite like. I don’t know if that’s because I’m just not that into Percy Jackson, or because there is another related (Roman) series, as well as an unrelated but evidently similar (Egyptian) series, or because I would have to find where my Perfect Non-Reader left all my copies.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 12, 2010

Book Report: High Stakes

Your Humble Blogger reread High Stakes, the toymaker one of the Dick Francis books, sometime this late summer or autumn.

And that’s all there is to say about that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 9, 2010

Book Report: Captain Bluebear

Gentle Readers may recall how much Your Humble Blogger enjoyed The City of Dreaming Books and Rumo, and when last we spoke on the subject, I said I would undoubtedly purchase another book by Walter Moers, in part because I want to make sure they are available for purchase in English translation and in large part because my local library doesn’t have them. Sigh. Well, I did purchase 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, and eventually read it, and enjoyed it, too.

Bluebear is his first book, or his first novel, anyway, and it seems to me to be not quite as succesful as the other two. There are bits that drag, and the sudden realization that the book is not just a picaresque sequence of one thing after another, but has a hidden structure where everything has been leading up to this— well, there was too much that didn’t really lead up to that, and more that didn’t lead up to it quickly enough. There was too much lingering, and not enough stuffing in of incident upon incident. Also, probably, too much Professor Abdullah Nightingale.

Still, lots of fun, lots of silliness, surprising amounts of seriousness underneath (quite a ways underneath, so that’s all right) and a very good book all around. Mr. Moers is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. Which makes me a trifle nervous, as there are only two more novels published in English. My plan is to wait for another few months before I read either of them; I don’t want to run out too quickly. I think my next dip into Zamonia will be rereading Rumo, as I would like to know if the books stand up to rereading.

I am curious, though: how many Gentle Readers have read one of the Zamonia books? How many have heard of them (other than on this Tohu Bohu)? I have the sense that they are pretty obscure, but then they are published by one of the Big Houses and are on the shelf at the local Big Bookstore. On the other hand, they aren’t at the library, and I don’t think I have ever come across them as I circle the fringes of the specfic community. No award nominations, no Walter Moers-wuz-robbed comments after the nominations were posted. Not sure what to make of it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 8, 2010

Book Report: Hardball

Your Humble Blogger completely missed Hardball coming out. Hardball is the thirteenth V.I. Warshawski book (by Sara Paretsky, if you are unfamiliar with the series), and I have read all twelve of the other ones, including the middle ones which stank on proverbial. And the last two or perhaps three have been quite readable. So I was excited to see that there was another one, when I happened to come across it in a bookstore, and kept an eye out in the library, and there it was.

Except that somehow I had missed not one but two V.I. books over a couple of years. Not paying attention, I guess. So the one I got at the library (which was Hardball) was not the new one.

I mean, I liked Hardball and all, so it’s a Good Thing that I have another to look forward to, right? And it’s not like I haven’t had a thing to read for two years, or that it somehow inhibited my enjoyment to be a year or two behindhand. Still. Feel a little silly about it. Shouldn’t new books that I want to read show up in my rss feed somehow?

Anyway, Hardball certainly isn’t in the Top Three V.I. books, but it isn’t in the Bottom Three either. There was a serious dearth of interesting and sympathetic minor characters, up until near the end. V.I. kept getting into conversation after conversation where people yelled at her and refused to tell her anything. I figure the Reader Frustration there was deliberate, to show the buildup of Detective Frustration, but still, not the most enjoyable part of reading a mystery. On the other hand, lots of interesting stuff, some terrific set pieces, and a satisfying conclusion. Oh, and Bobby Mallory finally gets to have some positive qualities again. I have to admit I kept hoping for them to come to some sort of reconciliation—which I am aware is a sort of trap from series novelists. Not YHB’s own personal hopes, I mean, but the aggregate hopes of the readership, the various demands to know What Happens to the minor characters we have grown fond of over the years.

Now that I think about it, it has been very nearly twenty years since I started reading this series. Maybe fully twenty. I can’t remember if it was on the syllabus when I took an undergraduate course in Detective Fiction; I think maybe we read one of the Kinsey Millhone series, or Penny Wanawake or Blanche White. I don’t really remember. Still, I am absolutely sure I was reading the series by the summer of 1991. So that’s nineteen and a half years, anyway. And thirteen books. Fourteen, when I read the new one. Unless there are fifteen by then, now Ms. Paretsky has her second wind.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 4, 2010

Book Report: The Morgesons

Your Humble Blogger was chatting with one of the faculty members at the institution that employs me, and it occurred to me that a fellow who was studying James Fenimore Cooper would probably have some suggestion of a book for YHB to read. Having finally, grudgingly, admitted to myself that I like Victorian novels, I discovered that there really are quite a lot of them, and somehow liking one or two authors has not prepped me to browse the shelves and grab a likely book at random. Particularly as my library has good old volumes of collected works, all of which have covers that are dark red, thick and impervious to judgment. Curse them.

Anyway, we had a brief conversation, this American Lit guy and I, and he didn’t come up with much of anything, really. Which was fine—in some ways, an academic specialist is less likely to come up with a recommendation for the enjoyment of a reader like YHB. If he is working on James Fenimore Cooper, he is not likely to read anything but James Fenimore Cooper, except to the extent that he is looking for James Fenimore Cooper in other books (if you know what I mean), and even assuming that the man still likes James Fenimore Cooper at the end of the day (or ever did), he may not be able to look at any of the contemporaries from the outside, as it were.

But then, after he had left the building, he came back in to say that he had just thought of The Morgesons, by Elizabeth Stoddard. He hadn’t read it himself, but there had been quite a few articles about it recently, connecting it to Elizabeth Gaskell’s stuff. And, as it happens, our library does own a copy. So I went and got it.

I loved the start of it, got bogged down in the middle, nearly gave up on it altogether, and then broke through and enjoyed it right up until the muddled end. It’s a hoot, and it would make a great Masterpiece [nee Theater].

Digression: I don’t know whether I wrote about this before, but the peculiarities of British television and theater meant that the BBC was able to create an institution in which fine actors, actually of great actors, made themselves available for trashy television adaptations of forgotten novels that had fallen out of copyright. BBC and PBS, I should say; the American money (much of it Mobil or ExxonMobil) went to Grenada or ITV on occasion. But I suspect that the institution remained more or less constant, and the point is that if somebody went to some great British actor and said We’re doing The Bishop’s Candlesticks, and we are hoping you would play the vicar—it’ll be one of those Masterpiece things, Lord Wossname might very well say yes. Particularly, of course, because wherever they were filming, it would be easy enough to do on a Monday when he doesn’t have a performance in London. That institution makes it easier, in turn, for HBO to set up with the BBC to do Wome or something like that. In this country, if A&E or somebody were to decide to film The Morgesons and called up Christopher Plummer to play the old uncle, I don’t know that they would get through. I mean, they might. But there isn’t as much precedent. Mr. Plummer wouldn’t be as confident that the production company knew what they were doing, and could make everything run smoothly and easily, and make him look good. Or that he would be getting to spend a day or two with old buddies from his training days; that has to be part of the enticement as well. It’s too bad, really, because there are a bunch of old American novels that are plenty trashy enough to be adapted, and while Masterpiece does a few of them (in England), they are pretty far down on the priority list. And because there are a bunch of old American actors who would be fantastic playing somebody’s uncle or the vicar or the teacher or something, and we don’t get to see them. End Digression.

I do think that a portion of my enjoyment of the Victorian Novel is being pleased and astonished by how much the writers could get away with, if they are careful. Or if they aren’t. Adultery, violence, alcoholism, rape, drug abuse, lechery, murder, prostitution, bloodshed in vast quantity, and of course political social and religious blasphemy. Well, they could get away with depicting that stuff, not necessarily doing it. It’s a major Source of Reader Pleasure for me—is she really going in to his room at night? Is he really slipping her laudanum? Is he really mocking the doctrine of Virgin Birth?

Not that later writers couldn’t get away with that stuff as well. It’s just that I get very little enjoyment of a late-twentieth-century novelist getting away with exactly what he is supposed to be writing about, in a time when trangressing couldn’t be less transgressive. There are plenty of other Sources of Reader Pleasure, of course, but this sort of thing I really like about Victorian (and some Edwardian) fiction, and not really about anything more modern than that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 31, 2010

Book Report: The Food Taster

I think my Best Reader picked up The Food Taster at a library book sale, judging it on its cover, as all right-thinking people do. Then it went on the read-this-sometime shelf, and eventually she did read it, and enjoyed it, and suggested that Your Humble Blogger read it, too. So I put it on the read-this-sometime shelf.

Eventually, I did read it, and I enjoyed it, too. Historical novel, jokes and rudeness and obnoxiousness and danger and lots and lots of poison. What’s not to like?

Well, there is the thing where Our Hero is an astonishingly modern-minded man in a pre-modern world. He starts out, of course, not only pious but superstitious, but his transformation into a scientist is quick and thorough, and after that, nobody can fool our man. He’s a liberated thinker, our man is, and blah blah blah blah. It’s an irritating thing that happens too often in historical novels.

On the other hand, having one or two Sources of Reader Annoyance is not unusual in Books I Like (otherwise known as good books). This has that one, and the one where all the action takes place in a foreign place and a foreign tongue, but only a handful of words are not translated into English. In this case, it’s rude words, if I remember correctly, which at least has some reason, even if it’s far more irritating than the use of asshole or cock would be. Oh, the earthiness.

So there are a couple of things not to like, but there are many more that are fun and enjoyable, silly or clever or outrageous or even suspenseful. So that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 28, 2010

Book Report: Dune

So. YHB watched Avatar on a 26-inch television with contrast problems, and of course no 3-D. Which meant that although I could more or less enjoy the pretties, for the most part, I had to judge it against other stories, rather than against, oh, videogames or immersive virtual experiences. Probably not ideal. Because as stories go, this one is not only unoriginal, but in its unoriginality it takes onto itself the offensive assumptions of the earlier versions of that story.

I’m not saying that the story itself isn’t potentially exciting: Noble Savages, riven by internal strife, reach their destiny when a colonialist goes native, combining their ancient secrets with his superior training and weaponry. United for the first time under his leadership, the Noble Savages rise up against their colonial oppressors, and succeed against all odds, as was foretold. Very exciting stuff.

The problem is that there is a tremendous undercurrent of racism under all that, and not very far under, at that. Many of the best versions of the story were told by racists—often well-meaning racists, mind you, who viewed this story as a rejection of the eliminationist rhetoric that was prominent in their times. If, say, an white American is patronizing the Sioux in 1880, patronizing is a lot better than killing them, and it’s important, when reading that work, to keep in mind that it is progressive for its time. It’s also important to keep in mind that it’s racist.

When somebody is writing the same story some six score of years later, well, that makes me really uncomfortable, frankly. Now, I am sure that some writers (film-makers, what-have-you) can do that in a way that doesn’t smack of white supremacy, presumably by including a bunch of stuff that explicitly rejects the notion that the fellow from the advanced culture is superior, and makes the natives better just by being so damned inspirationally good. Making the fellow an American Marine, on the other hand, not so much.

Anyway. The point is that, as I said at the time, the movie made me want to reread Dune again, because there’s just so much stuff that Avatar got wrong that Dune got… well, not right, but wrong in so much more interesting and enjoyable ways.

Oh, and I did not, in fact, reread any of the sequels, so that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 15, 2010

Book Report: Justice Hall

It is probably inevitable that when I finish a Peter Wimsey novel, I am tempted to start re-reading Justice Hall. I don’t know if I can make a logical case for the connection, other than, you know, English mystery novel set between the wars. And Busman’s Homeymoon is quite aggressively a village novel rather than a country house novel. Now that I think of it, is there a country house novel? Clouds of Witness is, I suppose.

And Justice Hall isn’t the Mary Russell book where Peter Wimsey actually shows up. No, I think the connection there is that somehow I connect Peter Wimsey’s WWI experience with Gabriel’s in Justice Hall, although of course Wimsey Gabriel doesn’t come home with crippling PTSD. Or at all. Nor was Wimsey young and fresh-faced (clean-shaven, yes) in 1914; he would have been 24 and if he had not yet begun his succession of sopranos, he had already gained his notable Balliolity.

Or maybe it’s Marsh that I connect with Lord Peter: the reluctant submission to the Family Name is something that one can imagining happening to Lord Peter. Which would make Gabriel connect to Jerry, which makes sense, now that I think about it. Isn’t the standard history that Jerry is shot down in the Battle of Britain? Which, if he hadn’t produced an heir, would leave Lord Peter the duchy, assuming that the Duke doesn’t remarry some young thing in his late years, which he might, of course.

Anyway, the real point is that Justice Hall is, more than anything, an examination of the scar of WWI, and the way that England tries to cover it over, pretending that it hadn’t happened. The ambulance drivers who returned to demure lives, or didn’t, or tried to. The holes left in families, including the nobility. The disruptions of social networks and norms, the pretense that nothing had changed, the drink and drugs and Bright Young Things. Of course you could claim that anything written or set in England between the Wars is an examination of the scar of WWI and the way that England tries to cover it over.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Book Report: Busman's Honeymoon

I can’t remember, now, what led me to pick up Busman’s Honeymoon again. I read it fairly often. It’s probably my favorite of the Wimseys, being more obviously and upfront a novel about Lord and Lady Peter.

Alas, the detective interruptions irritate me more and more as I reread the book. None of the murderer’s earlier scenes show any inkling that he is the sort of person who would think up an elaborate trap and execute it in cold blood, or that he would have the presence of mind to act the way he does when the body isn’t discovered. No, for all that Dorothy Sayers made Frank Crutchley a interesting and unsympathetic character (the bit about getting one girlfriend’s ironmonger dad to make a key for a love nest for another girlfriend is just classic), it doesn’t work at all for the murderer. And, of course, as with most of the Wimsey books, the actual murder, viewed front to back, makes no sense at all: the part-time gardener with his plans to marry the heiress (he mistakenly thinks the victim is rich) sets up an elaborate trap—one that he would never have the opportunity to test under any circumstances—in the aftermath of a heated argument, and before actually securing the inheritance by marrying the old maid. He then brags about his womanizing in the town, and his reaction to the presence of a world-famous detective is to ask to borrow money from him. This would be plausible in a character of infinite coolness and sagacity (well, plausible within genre conventions, of course) but Frank Crutchley is an angry young man who feels put upon and resentful, and can’t keep his fool mouth shut about his womanizing. I mean.

The amazing thing about the Wimsey books, though, is that it really doesn’t matter. No, the murder bits don’t make sense, and they are, still, murder mysteries. But they are enjoyable books despite that. I don’t really understand how that works, but I think it’s an important point. And probably an important point about Agatha Christie too, I suppose. I should try another one of those ones soon.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 7, 2010

Book Report: Fever Crumb

Your Humble Blogger enjoyed the Hungry City Chronicles enough that when I saw there was a new book in that series, I picked it up with joy and eagerness. It was the time that I nabbed the new Bayern book and the new Dragon Slippers book as well as Fever Crumb.

I liked this the best of those three. This one is a prequel, actually, taking place much, much earlier than the other books. That worked for me a lot—I was beginning to tire, a bit, of the characters in the other set, and I certainly did not want to pick up where the last book left off, since the last book provided a very nice and extremely violent end to the series. This one is violent, too, but appropriately so for a stand-alone or for the first in a new series. That is, the violence is large but not apocalyptic. There are still things left to destroy.

I did have some complaints about the tone of the book—there were goofy jokes, often about the way in which Current Stuff is misremembered by the future. There’s a pub called the Mott and Hoople, a neighborhood called B@ttersea, that sort of joke. It jarred, for me, with the more serious stuff. That’s a taste thing, of course, and a circumstances of reading it thing. I don’t think that it’s impossible to make goofy jokes work in the context of a dark and violent book, but in this book, these jokes didn’t work for me.

I don’t want to leave off with a complaint, though, because I enjoyed the book a lot and I suspect that there are Gentle Readers who would enjoy it as well. So that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 5, 2010

Book Report: Murkmere

Your Humble Blogger had decided against picking up Murkmere off the YA shelf at the library, but my Best Reader had a different reaction, and after she read it and liked it, and as long as it was in the house, I read it. And, it turns out, liked it.

It’s not the sort of book I like, in many ways. It’s heavy on atmosphere and light on plot events—the plot mostly consists of our Hero getting into trouble, then slowly learning how much trouble she is in, and then finally acting in the only possible way to escape from it. No great surprises or reversals. But the atmosphere was enough to keep me involved in the book, and in fact kept me up at night to read another chapter, which atmosphere hardly ever does.

Was I just susceptible at that moment to that sort of book? If I had read it some other week, would I have got even a third of the way through? Is the book actually good enough to overcome my usual tastes, or is it just the recipient of a Good Moment for reading? I have no idea. I would be reluctant to recommend the book to any readers who are Like Me, except that readers are different enough one to another that I am reluctant to recommend books in general, these days.

Still, I did enjoy it, and I’m glad I read it, so that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 30, 2010

Book Report: Red Planet

I whipped through Methusaleh’s Children so quickly that I still had a couple of days on my visit, I picked up Red Planet, which was one of the Robert Heinlein juveniles I remember fondly from my own days of delinquency.

Point of Fact: Your Humble Blogger was not a juvenile delinquent. No fights, no robberies, minimal amounts of underage drinking, and my only run-in with The Law was for violating a curfew nobody realized we had. I did read a lot of speculative fiction, though.

The thing that struck me about Red Planet, particularly back-to-back with Methusaleh’s Children, is that—hey! It’s the aliens with unimaginably advanced technology! Mystical shit, too. No holds barred.

There’s also the political stuff that reads very strangely to me—the workers are getting screwed by management, and clearly united action is called for, but the united action is a shootout, not a lockout. There’s the odd libertarian thingie where you can’t trust management, but you certainly can’t trust fellow workers, and in fact the only guy you can trust is the guy who is the most reluctant to be trusted. But having decided to trust him, you have to give over all possible authority to him or he’ll shoot your head off, and nobody will miss you. Authoritarianism is the worst horror, because it give full authority to the wrong sorts of people; liberty is much better, and involves handing over authority to the right sorts of people.

Having said that… it’s a fun book. I enjoyed re-reading it. It isn’t the one I thought it was, which seems to be Star Beast.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 26, 2010

Book Report: Methusaleh's Children

Wow, is YHB behind on these book reports.

So. I was visiting a friend for a week back in the early part of the summer, and I picked up a book from their bookshelves for the visit. When I do that, I prefer to grab something that I have read before, just in case I don’t finish it before it’s time to go home. This time, I found myself at their collection of Robert Heinlein paperbacks and picked up Methusaleh’s Children. I had only the vaguest recollection of the thing. Lazarus Long, the Howard Families escape from persecution on Earth on a stolen colony ship and return to find that the longevity they were persecuted for has become technologically possible. Essentially, I remembered the beginning and the end.

What I had forgotten in the middle was a couple of encounters with aliens who have unimaginably advanced technology. Ridiculous technology, actually. Well, and so do the humans, after Slipstick Libby discovers faster-than-light travel, but that’s all right. In addition to being a genre convention already when he is writing, there’s the sense that there are limits to it; there’s a lot of hand-waving, but there’s an attempt to show that it’s a leap forward from Where We Are Now. The aliens, though, are way beyond that, growing bacon trees overnight and transporting spaceships across the galaxy through the power of their alien minds. Big, big brains. And a lot of mystical stuff that Mr. Heinlein doesn’t so much reject.

My guess is that in the middle of the century, after the atom had been tamed, there really was the sense that anything was possible. That if matter transport was against the Laws of Physics, then the Laws of Physics would be found to be wrong, or more elastic than we thought, or applicable only in earth atmosphere, or whatever. I mean—Mr. Heinlein was born in 1907, and presumably took some physics and chemistry in school (certainly there is the impression of that in his juveniles) and by the time he was revising this one into a novel, it would have clear that almost everything he was taught had been left behind by scientific progress. Why wouldn’t that keep going?

And it has, to some extent, although a lot of the last fifty years or so has involved finding limits to the stuff we learned in the previous fifty years or so. We can split the atom, but revolutionizing our knowledge of subatomic particles (Mr. Heinlein was twenty when Mr. Heisenberg developed his uncertainty principle) hasn’t really led to developing commercial transmutation of elements. We have published a genome or two (incredible, ludicrous, miraculous achievements) and we can genetically modify corn to make farmers have to buy new seed every year, but we can’t grow seed-to-apple in a morning, or make the apples taste like freshly-baked bread. We know that the sun is not actually a mass of incandescent gas, but closer to a miasma of incandescent plasma (when Mr. Heinlein was a kid we only had three states of matter), but we can’t make an artificial sun to provide power to our space stations.

No, I’m just saying there was something that seemed to me optimistic, or even credulous Mr. Heinlein’s introduction of super-advanced aliens. They work, I suppose, within the story, sending our humans home again, home again, jiggity jig. But it was that, really, that made the book seem so dated. Or at least that was what I was thinking this time.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Book Report: The Railway Children

Your Humble Blogger was a huge E. Nesbit fan, back in my misspent youth. Or spent youth, anyway. I can’t really claim that reading E. Nesbit books was misspending my youth.

I have not been able to persuade my Perfect Non-Reader that these books are charming, though. It seems as though she is not fated to become a pathetic Anglophile like her father. Or maybe she will, only it doesn’t come out until later. Or maybe it will skip a generation.

There isn’t any reason for a kid to like The Railway Children, actually, unless that kid is already prepared to be charmed by Britishness generally. Unlike the fantasy stories, which have, you know, dragons and wishes and so on, The Railway Children has little in it to appeal to, well, anybody except a pathetic Anglophile. It was never among my favorites of her books, even when I was a lad. And yet, I found it both charming and moving, oddly enough.

And somehow the background plot, which I never remembered because it really has nothing to do with the book, is about a innocent man jailed for selling state secrets (and a foreign agitator abandoned by his political compatriots), all of which is made much less interesting than a broken leg or a birthday present. Which is how it should be in a book like this, I suppose.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 3, 2010

Book Report: The Black Arrow

Your Humble Blogger picked up The Black Arrow last Spring for obvious reasons. Well, obvious if you know the book. Because Richard III is a main character.

It’s a kid’s book, more or less, a Boy’s Adventure book anyway, by Robert Louis Stevenson, who described it as nothing but tushery from beginning to end. Tushery is a great word, by the way—it’s the overuse of faux-archaic language, and by extension, the kind of crappy writing that overuses faux-archaic language, i’faith. And he was right, about The Black Arrow that is. And about tushery in general, I suppose, although I have to wonder how often a word enters the language and the dictionaries that was invented by a writer to deprecate his own work? Surely that, in itself, is a significant accomplishment, and justifies The Black Arrow, even if it really is not a very good book.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 23, 2010

Book Report: North and South

Back a hundred years ago (well, two), when I found out about Elizabeth Gaskell through the recent television adaptations, Gentle Reader Chris Cobb suggested I read North and South, which takes place largely in a mill town in the industrialized North of England. Our main character is a young woman from the South, who comes up North with her parents when her father, a C of E parson, leaves the church (see Robert Ellsmere or for that matter Children of the Ghetto), and who falls in love with a mill owner.

OK, that last bit is a spoiler, I suppose, although, you know, not really difficult to guess, nor should it actually spoil the book, since you don’t really read this sort of book wondering who she is going to fall in love with, do you? And Ms. Gaskell handles the whole business of she-is-really-in-love-with-him-but-won’t-admit-it-to-herself very well indeed. And the corresponding business on the man’s side—I think she may be better at the man’s side than Jane Austen, although I admit that I like the surrounding bits of book better in Ms. Gaskell’s stuff than Ms. Austen’s, which makes a difference, too.

The surrounding stuff is really what the book is about, of course. The mill, and the workers, and the strike, and the low pay and the high cost, and the poverty and luxury and all of it. Ms. Gaskell is oddly ambivalent about the issues involved—or at least, it seems odd to me as a fan of Charles Dickens that Ms. Gaskell does put some persuasive talk into the mouths of mill owners about their own costs, and of course makes one of the owners a sympathetic and romantic character. There are other sympathetic characters among the mill-hands and radicals, and the crushing poverty of the hands is depicted in such detail as to make it clear that whatever the theoretical or indeed practical economic justification, the pay and conditions are simply not acceptable.

I am trying to imagine something written recently, with this sort of setting and plot, and it doesn’t work at all. A young woman of semi-genteel background finds herself in West Virginia, say, or Arkansas, and finds herself in friendship with both a union radical and a CEO, visiting both homes, sometimes in the same day, and finding herself disoriented and unsettled by her inability to despise either. The background plot of her father and his almost unstated religious crisis underscoring the fundamental changes taking place in the world. The ways in which she finds herself a foreigner, marked by a hundred habits of speech, dress and comportment, in a part of her own country she has never visited. And, of course, her eventually becoming an heiress, the CEO going broke, and then a wedding to end it all. It sounds awful, cheap and trite and stultifying, not to mention the offensiveness of the Outsider, all pretty and educated and whatnot, coming in to Make Things Better. I can imagine hearing about this book, I can imagine an interview on NPR, I can imagine the movie rights being sold for a jillion dollars, but I cannot imagine liking it.

And yet, I liked North and South ever so much. Just goes to show, doesn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 20, 2010

Book Report: Princess Ben

Catherine Murdock’s Princess Ben is one of those books that I find alternately delightful and annoying. I eventually came down on the annoying side, but it could have gone the other way. Ultimately, I suppose, the fact that one of my Sources of Reader Annoyance was aggravated at the end of the book did it for me. Plus that (for me) the Sources of Reader Pleasure were mostly short bits that slid in between the events of the book, while the Sources of Reader Annoyance were tied more closely to the plot.

The main annoyance, however, was Princess Ben’s body image and body. She begins the book as a big girl, overweight and fond of eating, and associating food with her mother’s love. When she becomes a miserable prisoner in a gilded cage, she responds by (a) eating for comfort and (2) taking a self-destructive delight in everybody’s disapproval of her body size. This is very plausible stuff, even if it isn’t very pleasant. However, the point is: she is fat.

Then, as happens to princesses in these sorts of books, she is forced to live like a peasant for a stretch of time, living on not much food and a lot of hard work. I don’t remember exactly how long this went on: probably more than a month and less than a year, let’s say. Now that I think about it, it’s possible it was exactly one year, or a year and a day. It’s that kind of book.

Anyway, of course, over the course of however long she is on short rations and long marches she loses weight and gains muscle tone. Upon returning to her castle with new purpose and discipline, she no longer eats for comfort, either, and no longer avoids exercise. She begins to take pride in her appearance, and submits herself to be groomed by her maids (but doesn’t submit herself to be made by her grooms, which would be an altogether different sort of book).

Now, here’s the thing: Ms. Murdock has Princess Ben mention that she will never be slender and willowy; there is some sense in which the author is trying to avoid having the Ugly Duckling turn into a swan. But all the other characters react to her as if she were suddenly a vision of beauty, without any trace of them altering their definition of beauty to eschew the willow and adopt the, um, sort of tree that is thick-trunked and curvaceous, pneumatic as they used to call it, the beobab? The desert rose? Anyway, I was certainly left with the impression that she was skinnier than she thought she was, and furthermore that Before Ben=fat=lazy, bad-tempered and selfish=ugly and After Ben=thin=disciplined, pleasant and nice=beautiful. And I suspect—I don’t know, but I suspect—that Ms. Murdock was trying to avoid the Beauty Myth stuff, and specifically write a book that would make an overweight kid feel good about herself, allow herself to imagine being the heroine and finding True Love and saving the kingdom and all that. And maybe other readers would have a totally different impression of the ending of that particular aspect of the book, but to me, it was an utter failure, teaching that sure, an overweight girl can become a heroine and find True Love and save the kingdom, just so long as she becomes thin first.

Which, as I said, tipped the whole book over to the annoying side for me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 5, 2010

Book Report: Dragon Spear

So it was one trip to the library that I got a chance to go up to the Teen Room and saw three recent additions to YA/SF series I like. One was the Bayern book by Shannon Hale, one turned out to be a prequel to the Hungry City books by Philip Reeve, and one was Dragon Spear, aka Dragon Slippers III, by Jessica Day George.

I feel a bit unfair complaining that there isn’t enough string-arts in a book in this series. I mean, how many books have any at all? Still, in a series that has been very focused on weaving, embroidery and sewing, this book has a tiny bit of net-making and some dress-sewing that doesn’t go into much detail. I mean, there’s a whole running gag in the book about how she is working on the dress, she wants to be working on the dress but doesn’t get a chance, she’s working on the dress again, the dress is destroyed, the dress isn’t destroyed, there’s another dress, the other dress was destroyed, blah blah blah, but unlike in the first book (particularly), the actual work doesn’t take much page time, nor did it ever feel to me as if I knew what the dress looked like and what she wanted it to look like.

Ah, well. And the dragons weren’t very dragonny, either, if it comes to that. I mean, the dragons in this series were always more like big flying people than not, which is a fine way to do dragons, but Ms. George had an interesting (and potentially plot-moving) take on the whole hoard issue which really gets dropped in this book.

Too much complaining for a book that wasn’t all that bad? Probably. Ah, well. Perhaps I should take a break from book notes. Or hunt down the list to find something that I really, really liked. Hm, let me see. Not that. Not that. Not that. You know, maybe I should have blogged these in June.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 4, 2010

Book Report: Forest Born

Gentle Readers may remember that I like Shannon Hale’s books ever so; Princess Academy is my very favorite, but I have enjoyed all the others I have read to some extent.

I wasn’t knocked out by Forest Born, though. It was fine; I’m glad I read it, there were some good bits.

The big problem for me, though, was something that I see a lot of in YA, and perhaps it’s just that the books are aimed at 12-year-olds. Here’s the general thing: The reader knows something about the main character that she herself does not know. We are given clues, and then it is usually made clear that the main character is in denial about it, which explains her not knowing the thing. Finally, she admits it to herself, and this self-knowledge becomes helpful in the Big Plot Resolution. Then, in the denouement, she tells her friends this thing about herself, and the friends are Not Surprised because, like the reader, they figured it all out in Chapter Six, and have frankly been sick of the whole thing.

I would guess that this is a particularly good thing for YA, because (a) younger folk likely get a bigger kick out of being smarter than the protagonist than middle-aged guys like me, and (2) younger folk are more likely to be dealing with self-discovery than middle-aged guys like me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 3, 2010

Book Report: Alice in Wonderland

Your Humble Blogger is still working through the backlog of Book Reports. I’m far enough behind in time that I haven’t noted the fact that I read Alice in Wonderland way back before I saw the movie, and I finally wrote something about having seen the movie last week after letting that note sit around for months.

Anyway, I did read Alice, and Through the Looking-Glass, too. I think of them as one book, I’m afraid. I’ve never owned a volume that had only Alice, or Looking-Glass either for that matter, so they seem like two halves of a whole, and when I finish the one I go on to t’other. On the other hand, I do tend to remember which bits are in which books, if only because the conceit is so different. Tweedledum and Tweedledee have to be in Looking-Glass, because Alice has to pass through their square; the Mad Tea Party has to be in Alice, because she sees the Mad Hatter again at the trial.

And the Red Queen is a chesspiece, and the Queen of Hearts is a playing card. They are not the same person. They aren’t even the same person in the sense that the Red King’s servants Hatta and Haigha are the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, which is only sort of true. Still, he must have two servants, you know. One to fetch and one to carry. But the point is that the Red Queen is a chesspiece, and the Queen of Hearts is a playing card. Not the same person.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 2, 2010

Book Report: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The thing about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that I had, two and a half years ago, written Psmith, Zombie for a contest called Insert a Zombie, Win a Prize, that was set up by Maureen Johnson in February 2008. Her example of how to best insert a zombie in a great work of literature was, in point of fact, Pride and Prejudice, and she did a great, great job of it in a short bit. After that, having a whole book of it seemed a little overdone, didn’t it?

Not to say that the fellows who put it together didn’t have a really good idea. The really good idea was not to put some zombies into Pride and Prejudice. The really good idea was monetizing that earlier idea. It turned out that if you did even a halfway decent job of inserting a zombie into Pride and Prejudice, and did it at a saleable length, you could make a lot of money. Ms. Johnson’s idea was to do it at a popular length of 250 words or so, and give it away. The other guys made something that could have a cover. And made a great cover; I really have to say that the cover is utterly fantastic. After ten pages or so, I began to form the opinion that the rest of the book after the cover was really unnecessary, and I never lost that opinion.

It was funny enough, I should say, and there were dick jokes, so that’s all right. And honestly, the fact that it didn’t make Your Humble Blogger cranky must be thought of as an achievement, under the circs. But I never felt that it was done as well as it could possibly be done—I didn’t even feel like it was done better than I could do it, if I bothered to do it. But I do have to respect the fact that those guys actually did do it, and got it to the bookstores, which I would never have done.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 1, 2010

Book Report: Victory of Eagles

My recollection was that Victory of Eagles was where the Temeraire series started getting good again. And so it was.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 29, 2010

Book Report: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

My Perfect Non-Reader did, in fact, enjoy Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as a bedtime book, so that’s all right.

I don’t want to read her the fourth book for a while, mostly because I didn’t much like the fourth book and don’t want to read it myself anytime soon.

I’m wondering, though, and I would have to re-read the thing myself to find out, whether the introductory novella could be separated out from the book and read (in a few months) as a semi-detached Bedtime Book in itself. That’s the World Cup bit, of course. I remember reading it aloud with my Best Reader, and thinking that it really seemed to be nearly complete in itself, lacking a real payoff, of course, but still entertaining, as long as you weren’t fretting for the actual book to begin.

I don’t know. She hasn’t been angling to start the next one yet, so perhaps I should just let the whole thing go until she brings it up. Frankly, I am a trifle ambivalent about the rest of the books being Bedtime Books at all, as they are very, very long, and not all that wonderful. I mean, I would call them good books within the meaning of the Act, but I wouldn’t call them Great Books. And while I in theory like the idea of reading all of them aloud to my Perfect Non-Reader, I’m not sure that the marginal sweetness doesn’t drop off quite a bit when you get deeply into the series. Particularly since there are other books in the world, even other books I am looking forward to reading to my Perfect Non-Reader as Bedtime Books, and from Four on in, each book is a commitment of months.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 26, 2010

Book Report: The Pillowman

I’m not sure what to write about The Pillowman. It’s a… fascinating play to read. I wish I had seen it. I actually wish I had seen both the London version and the New York version; it’s easy to imagine David Tennant and Billy Crudup playing the writer, but the lead cop was played by Jim Broadbent and Jeff Goldblum, who are more difficult for me to imagine in the same role. Also, of course, this play like others of Martin McDonagh’s, was evidently screamingly funny while it was screamingly horrific, which honestly did not come through in the playscript.

So. Mr. McDonagh is a writer who, for this work, came up with a story that is just about the most appallingly revolting thing you could imagine, and which (perhaps just by virtue of being imaginable) has elements of uncomfortable realism in it, while being disorientingly unreal. The main character is a writer who comes up with stories that are just about the most appallingly revolting things you could imagine, and which (perhaps just by virtue of being imaginable) have elements of uncomfortable realism in them, while being disorientingly unreal. Which is not to say he is writing about himself. One of the underlying jokes of the piece is that the law has come down on him because of the one story, out of hundreds he has written, that somebody somewhere was willing to publish. Mr. McDonagh by this point is a highly successful writer—but then, supposedly he wrote all of his celebrated plays in a short time long before he got anything produced.

Lately, I’m afraid, I have been reading plays and then thinking what’s the point? Not the point of reading them, but the point of, well, of writing and producing them, I suppose. What is the audience supposed to get out of it? I don’t mean, I think, whether they are supposed to learn and grow and become better people, although that may be part of it. No, I mean—well, I read Equus recently, and while there is certainly a voyeuristic thrill from watching the sheer fucked-upness of the boy, and I suppose a sense of accomplishment when we are able to trace it back to what fucked him up, I just don’t really get it as a play. I felt much the same about Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and still do, really. I didn’t feel that about Richard III, of course, which is mostly because it is Shakespeare! but also because I fully buy in to the premise that it matters who is King and how they get to be King. Well, and I admit it is because I love the character, and want to watch what happens to him, and do find watching what happens to him fulfilling because it fulfills (if you’ll allow me to claim it) the nature of Richard himself.

Anyway, I was going, in a roundabout way, to say that I don’t think what’s the point about The Pillowman. I’m not sure I know what the point is, mind you. Mr. McDonagh is having too much fun twisting the point around to ever let it, well, come to a point. I’ll note that once I understand as a reader that everything you see or hear is likely to be false, that this scene’s revelation is the subject of the next scene’s revelation that the earlier revelation wasn’t so, I can’t be properly surprised anymore, even by the bits that are surprising. But I don’t think that falseness is itself the point. I think the point is that…

Well, I don’t know. But I would say this: In Mr. McDonagh’s world, not only of this play but of the others I’ve read, and probably including the movie as well, stories are always both fundamentally false and fundamentally true; storytelling is both fundamentally evil and fundamentally necessary for survival. You can’t trust anybody who tells stories, but you certainly can’t trust anybody who claims not to tell stories, and you really really can’t trust yourself, because your own stories are the worst betrayers of all. But when you are not telling stories, then you’re really in trouble.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 19, 2010

Book Report: A Princess of Mars

I can’t remember when I first read A Princess of Mars, the first of the Barsoom books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I assume that whenever it was, I must have been appalled by the racial stuff, because it is all so obviously appalling. But I must have been at least somewhat charmed by the action and adventure, because I retained somewhat of a positive feeling about the series.

One of the things about reading Victorian novels the way I have been these last few years is that it trains a reader to simultaneously be appalled and charmed. There is so much that is appalling about even the most enlightened and progressive Victorian, after all. And while Mr. Burroughs wasn’t quite a Victorian, he was the son of a Civil War veteran, born the year that Hans Christian Anderson and Leo Tolstoy died. Not that it’s any less appalling, but as I said that doesn’t stop me from being charmed.

And it is a charming book. It’s slow to get started—that whole introduction is not charming at all, and double appalling—but once John Carter gets to Mars, it sure starts to be silly fun and John Carter becomes a likable puppy dog of a hero. I particularly liked it when he got onto the flyer and promptly got completely lost. Probably my favorite part of the book, although the constant revelations of preposterous coincidences are a lot of fun, too.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 16, 2010

Book Report: Longshot

Longshot is the survival-skills one, the Dick Francis which starts out with a protagonist who specializes in knowing how to survive the worst-case scenario. Hm. I wonder if he will be frozen to death, drowned, or pierced with an arrow?

It’s one of my favorites, although I have to say this time through I noticed that none of the characters are particularly likable, and that thus the protagonist’s ultimate decision after the murderer has committed suicide to participate in the cover-up, rather than say what he knows, is not very understandable. I had already, on previous readings, been unconvinced by that decision—It was never clear to me why he couldn’t tell the policeman, with whom he had achieved some sort of relationship, the truth: that he was pretty sure it was the son, but that there wasn’t anything like proof. He had no new evidence of any kind and had not seen anything, but deduction had led him to the right guy, and the suicide pretty much confirmed it. What would the police do with that information that would be worse for the family than keeping the murder case open?

Hm. I hadn’t thought about it until just this minute, but in a book that uses the frame-an-innocent-man-and-then-murder-him-and-make-it-look-like-suicide bit, having the actual murderer commit suicide at the end looks mighty fishy. Maybe that, too, was a frame, and the real murderer is still at large…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 15, 2010

Book Report: The Devil

The play that made Ferenc Molnár’s name as a playwright was The Devil; it appears to have had two competing English translations open in New York on the same night in New York (in addition to playing in German and Yiddish). It was, however, banned in London, presumably because of what seems like a very mildly risqué bit where the lead actress is said to be naked under her travelling cloak (although she is not).

Or perhaps it was banned because it’s one of those plays that is terribly cynical about marriage generally. The lead actress is married to a banker but in love with an artist; he has a mistress (who he has dumped at the beginning of the play) and a fiancée, but is in love with the banker’s wife. The Devil appears and mixes everything up, as one would think, and in the end…

The question in these sorts of plays, particularly from the first few years of the twentieth century, is love or marriage? Does the play end with the couple in love throwing off the restraints of the world to fulfill their romantic destiny, or does the play end with the marriage bonds tested and found strong? There are options: the old banker can die, or the young artist can die, or the couple can turn out not to have been legally married at all, or the young artist can be discovered to be not worthy of her love, but if it is the sort of play that supports the institution of marriage, then she will not break her vows. But in that time period not all the playwrights (and novelists and so on) do support the institution of marriage, so the viewer/reader can, a hundred years later, remain in suspense about the ending.

Unfortunately, that’s really the most interesting thing about the play. Mostly the Devil manipulates people into doing and saying things that go against their principles, and sets up situation after situation where somebody is caught in a compromising position, and it’s all very artificial and awkward. I had no idea at the end why the Devil wanted to muck about with this artist and his life. I quite like stories of the Devil in a general way (unlike the editor in the story who sold his soul for a guarantee that he would never have to read another pact-with-devil-story ever again), but I remained unclear who was at risk of being damned for what in this play. Perhaps it’s just my twenty-first century blinders, but it seemed to me that the Devil was neither maximizing sin nor even maximizing temptation, just making people believe things that weren’t true.

Ah, well. I never expected to like all the fellow’s plays.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 13, 2010

Book Report: The Cabinet of Wonders

Your Humble Blogger does remember enjoying The Cabinet of Wonders (The Kronos Chronicles: Book I), by Marie Rutkoski. It’s another one of those semi-Victorian YA books, this time with loads of speculative elements (including a set of invisible tools that goes missing), an extremely creepy Bad Guy who wears other people’s eyes and loads of magic stuff. And a cool clock that will Destroy the World.

My recollection, which may (as I have been saying) be wrong, is that I read this one and Solomon Spoon and The Thief all within a short stretch of time (after tying off the Vorkosigan kick), and that I enjoyed this much more than the other two. On the other hand, looking down my list of books to blog, there are three more YA books that I think I read in a short stretch of time, enjoying one much more than the other two. So. Perhaps I’m thinking of those other books. Or, perhaps, I have a habit of getting three YA books out from the library at the same time and reading them in quick succession, which very likely entails my comparing them and discovering that I like one much more than the other two.

Plus, it occurs to me, I’m pretty sure Cabinet isn’t a library book but a school book sale book. I hope so, anyway, because I think it’s still on my shelf upstairs.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 12, 2010

Book Report: The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow

There has been a trend, or a trendlet I suppose, of YA novels in a sort of faux Victorian setting. Earlier, GRs suggested calling the specfic version of this stuff Space Operetta or Steamtech (both of which I like more than steampunk for the stuff that has no punk in it at all), but that was for the ones with spaceships in them, all brass and wood and glass and valves with needles and so on. Or ornithopters. Love ornithopters.

The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow has none of that stuff. It’s pure Boys’ Own Adventure, but set in storybook Victorian England, with no special technology or magic, just the occasional silver spoon or linen napkin or egregious coincidence.

I have to say the book wasn’t quite as good as I wanted it to be—there were certainly a bunch of entertaining things in it, and for a book as brief and light as this one, I suppose there is no call to complain about the lack of thump. Still, I found myself unsatisfied. I’m not sure why.

I am also, alas, not entirely sure that I am correctly remembering the book. I read three or four YA books in quick succession, and I think this was the one that left me unsatisfied. But honestly? This whole bookblogging business works better if I blog books soon after finishing them. I am now nineteen books behind, and I’m not sure I see much of a point in finishing them. On the other hand, I can’t quite see my way clear to giving up the log halfway through a year. At least I will make a note of what I have think I have read, anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 9, 2010

Book Report: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Your Humble Blogger did not actually read all of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. It was a Bedtime Book for our Perfect Non-Reader, and I was away for a few evenings, and, well, I may have perhaps nodded off now and then when my Best Reader was taking her turn.

Actually, I have grown to really enjoy falling asleep while my Best Reader reads to my Perfect Non-Reader. It’s tremendously restful. Of course, it does mean that I miss bits of the story, which isn’t great—I am allowed to read behind to catch up on plot, but that doesn’t help me know what voices to use for the newly introduced characters. And, you know, it might take away from the whole shared experience thing, particularly since I have been known to snore. On the other hand, I am somewhat of an insomniac when it comes to my regular bedtime, often lying awake for an hour or more waiting for sleep to hit me, and I don’t want to give up the delicious sensation of easy rest.

And I do, generally, wake up in time to say goodnight and head downstairs to do the housework.

As for Grace Lin’s book, I liked it quite a bit. It had one of the things that I think is particularly difficult to carry off: the characters in the narrative stop to tell stories themselves, and then characters and events from within the stories in the story turn up in the main story. Ms. Lin did a fine job of it, making use of our fondness for exotic settings and folktales from distant lands. I have no idea whether somebody who grew up with Chinese storytelling would find it all charming or annoying, but it charmed me.

Which is to say, the book didn’t put me to sleep at all, despite my having slept through much of it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 25, 2010

Book Report: Rock'n'Roll

Your Humble Blogger has been reading a lot of plays, lately. Well, and often good ones, too. I am a big fan of Tom Stoppard, as Gentle Readers may have guessed. I had heard very good things about Rock’n’Roll, not only because Rufus Sewell played the lead, but, er, sorry, lost my train of thought, there. Something about Rufus Sewell, anyway.

I’m afraid that while there did seem to be some good bits in this play, I can’t say as it’s one of my favorites, even for Late Stoppard. I mean, I am pretty sure I like everything he wrote before, oh, 1985 more than everything he wrote after that, just as a matter of my personal taste. The clever-clever formalist stuff tickles my proverbial, while the rethinking of history he is on about in the last twenty years, while still interesting and enjoyable, doesn’t quite hit me in the same way. In this play, particularly, I can’t help thinking that is wasn’t sufficiently Stoppardesque. It’s a pretty darned straightforward play. The main characters are interesting, and the moments between them are interesting, and I am glad, I suppose, that somebody in the theater is using the theater to look at history in that way. But it isn’t— I suppose it isn’t delightful. In the way that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is full of delight and charm, that Jumpers and Travesties and of course On the Razzle and Rough Crossing are full of delights. And perhaps my favorite of his plays these days is Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth, which manages to be at once a clever-clever formalist play about playwriting, a look at history and politics, and an exposition of Wittgenstein.

Hm. I wonder if I could con a local theater into doing Dogg/Cahoot.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 24, 2010

Book Report: Memory

So, back on my Lois McMaster Bujold kick, I reread Memory, which has become probably my very favorite of the books, or at least my favorite to reread. And I am struck, again, by just how baroque the plot is, particularly when viewed from the front, rather than as we discover it, viewed from the back.

There are this capsules that are designed to do nothing else but to destroy the chip in Simon’s head. Hardly anybody knows about them, except the villain and Simon, but when the chip is destroyed, Simon goes down, so that’s all right. We don’t question the existence of the capsules, which are the creation of two sets of baddies from previous books, nor do we question Simon having authorized keeping the capsules, because they are kept in the super-security secret weapons vault with all the other plot points.

The villain sets up the attack thusly: (a) make it look like the chip self-destructed so no-one even investigates it as an attack, (2) set up an elaborate frame in advance just in case somebody investigates it as an attack, (iii) when the frame fails, set up a different frame for the frame job, while subtly bribing the investigator. While this makes an excellent book (it really does, I am not in any way complaining about the book on this account) it makes very little sense as a villainous attack on Simon, who is after all Head of Imperial Security, by his second-in-command. I mean, even given that Simon is assumed to have near super-human powers, there has got to be a straighter line between the crime and the profit.

All of which made me wonder if I should be thinking of baroque conspiracy theories as a genre convention, like talking dragons, wormhole travel or Galactic Standard speech. Or True Love. Or the Noble Savage. You know? There’s a certain kind of book that just has to have an overcomplicated conspiracy theory of the kind that nobody ever would even contemplate in real life, or the book is no good.

William Goldman, in one of his books on film-making, illustrates a similar point by talking about a plan to break into the castle and reach the princess. If you were in a movie, you would gather a group of, oh, five or six specialists: a disguise master, a security expert, a martial arts guy, an insider with the codes, and somebody with a totally ridiculous specialty like imitating bird noises or feigning death. And you would plan the thing out, time it to the second, rehearse it over and over, make contingency plans upon contingency plans, and, well, you would have a movie. But here’s the thing: in real life, nobody has ever broken into the castle and reached the princess like that. Not ever. People who want to break into the castle and reach the princess either study the thing and make plans and then give the fuck up because it can’t be done, or they are crazy people and they just walk in, because half the alarms are broken and half the guards aren’t where they are supposed to be.

Digression: In the incredibly disappointing National Treasure II, the highly successful treasure hunter and his girlfriend, the head curator of National Archives, make an appointment with the curator of Windsor Castle and then get themselves put in the Palace lockdown in order to exploit a security hole caused by their geeky sidekick so that they can examine the Resolute desk. Why not just ask the curator if they can examine the desk? I mean, these are both big machers in the curatorial field; it’s almost unbelievable that the girlfriend wouldn’t be acquainted with the Windsor curator anyway. Then, just to give me more to complain about, they do a sort of break-in at the Oval Office which is much less entertaining, rather than, you know, telling anybody they want to do some research in their field. This is before they go on the lam, of course—evidently the head curator of artifacts at the White House, who the girlfriend necks with while Our Hero examines the desk, is not in contact with his colleague in England, and there isn’t any communication between people in that field where anyone would have heard about any security incidents elsewhere. Oh, and the head curator of the National Archives has never been in the Oval Office before, and the head White House curator tells her the story of the Resolute desk like she was in high school. Seriously. There is maybe one scene in the movie where the character seems to know anything at all about American History, documents, or the archives/curator business. Incredibly irritating. And I never figured out how the discovery of the City of Gold underneath Mount Rushmore proved that guy wasn’t involved in the Lincoln assassination—I mean, has no conspirator ever double-crossed his buddies for the loot? But I digress.

Where was I? Did I have a point?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 22, 2010

Book Report: The Thief

I don’t remember now if I picked up The Thief at the local public library or if my Best Reader did. I had never heard of it, or of Megan Whalen Turner, but, you know, Newbery Honor Book, blah blah blah. Right? Worth a shot, anyway.

I found that there were a bunch of things I really liked about the book, and a bunch of things that got straight up my nose. I did not see the plot twists coming, or at least I didn’t see all of them coming, so that was nice. And there were some really good bits in the middle. But the big set pieces somehow felt bland and underdone, and there were other oddities that I found irritating along the way. I did think to myself at the end of it that I would be willing to pick up another of hers at some point. And lo, there are three more in the series. So that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 21, 2010

Book Report: The Dresser

So. This was more than a year ago, now, that my Dear Director (the one who directed Man Who and Liaisons and Pyggie and the reading of Bound, way back when) mentioned that she was considering putting on The Dresser. It hasn’t happened—the rights are evidently not available just now—and if it had, I don’t know that I would have committed to the ridiculous travel time to do it. I might have, though.

Actually, I had never read the thing; I know it from the wonderful film. Tom Courtenay is the titular Norman; Albert Finney plays Sir (and Eileen Atkins who is probably the best film actress ever plays Madge). I haven’t seen the film in fifteen years, I would guess, but I can remember their line deliveries as clear as anything, their faces, bits of business. Ronald Harwood, who wrote the thing, did the screenplay and added a few things (and I think took a few away, but as I say, it has been fifteen years), but I would say three-quarters or more of the playscript is in the screenplay and vice versa. I don’t generally recommend things, you know, but any Gentle Reader who has any interest in the Theeyater at all should definitely watch this thing.

Being in it, though… I can’t imagine being in it. In the main roles, I mean, as I am egotistical and, tho’ I say it my self, successful enough to think that I would have a shot at the main roles, and wouldn’t be Mr. Oxenby or Mr. Thornton, and wouldn’t drive across half the state to play the small roles, I’m afraid. But reading the play and imagining doing Norman or Sir, that is very difficult indeed. Tom Courtenay in the movie is doing the role he created and played in London and New York. I can’t read any of his lines without hearing his voice, his inflections, seeing his gestures and his grimaces. Not a line. Not a pause. If I were forced to play the part, I would do a Tom Courtenay imitation, which would be sad and wrong and bad, and not worth seeing. Oh, in the event, given time and direction, one hopes to come up with something, but I have read through the play twice now, and I am baffled.

On the second time through, though, I did come up with some… well, not ideas, properly, but possibilities of ideas for Sir. Things I might want to emphasize that Albert Finney did not. Even, here and there, a line reading that isn’t an echo of Mr. Finney’s powerful voice. A possibility of delineating the sudden mood changes, or even a physical aspect to the disorientation. Something, anyway. Is it because I know that other people have played the part, and played it well? Freddie Jones was the first Sir, and Paul Rogers took the part in New York (evidently because Mr. Jones didn’t have a Green Card and didn’t want to bother with the paperwork, figuring that his success would give him plenty of opportunities at home, which it did), so there is in the back of my mind the idea that it can be done. Which is not so much true for Norman; I don’t know of any sizable revival of the play at all, and there definitely hasn’t been one in New York or London.

Which, bye-the-bye, makes Samuel French’s restriction very interesting indeed. The most likely reason for it is that somebody has put a hold on whilst putting a New York production together. But who? I mean, who for the actors, not the producers. For Sir: Frank Langella? Michael Gambon? It’s hard to imagine that Mr. Gambon would do the part here and not in London, or not in London first. Is Christopher Plummer too old? I would think so, but wouldn’t he be wonderful? What about Philip Bosco, is he still working? Simon Russell Beale? I think there’s something to be gained by having a Sir that’s not actually elderly, but is old young, as it were. And for Norman, there’s… um… Philip Seymour Hoffman, maybe? Seriously, I can’t think of anybody at all that I want to see in this part. Of course, I haven’t seen very many people. For all my interest in the theater, I have seen very few professional productions, and know the great stage actors of this era through recordings, films, television and YouTube clips. Still.

As a side note, just because I think it’s interesting, in the latest Queen’s Birthday Honours List Ronald Harwood, C.B.E., was added to the list of Knights Bachelor, and will be a Sir, now. Tom Courtenay has been a Sir for some time now, and Albert Finney has reportedly turned down a knighthood more than once. So it’s Sirs all around. Well, Freddie Jones isn’t a Sir, but Eileen Atkins is a Dame, so that’s all right. The irony—well, it isn’t actually, irony, as such—is that Sir is not a Sir himself, which we don’t find out until two-thirds of the way into the play:

HER LADYSHIP: […] And you drag everyone with you. Me. Chained. Not even by law.
SIR: Would marriage have made so much difference to you?
HER LADYSHIP: You misunderstand. Deliberately.
SIR: I should have made her divorce me.
HER LADYSHIP: You didn’t get a divorce because you wanted a knighthood.
SIR: Not true.
HER LADYSHIP: True. You know where your priorities lie. Whatever you do is to your advantage and to no one else’s. Talk about being driven. You make yourself sound like a disinterested stagehand. You do nothing without self-interest. Self. You. Alone.
SIR: Pussy, please, I’m sinking, don’t push me further into the mud—
HER LADYSHIP: Sir. Her Ladyship. Fantasies. For Gd’s sake, you’re a third-rate actor-manager on a tatty tour of the provinces, not some Colossus bestriding the narrow world. Sir. Her Ladyship. Look at me. Darning tights. Look at you. Lear’s hovel is luxury compared to this.

That moment comes as a shock to me still, even reading the play through twice in a month. I believe in Sir, still, because of course I want to believe in him, and Sir feels that pressure the way we all do up there, that we trade our love for his agreement to be what we want to love. Norman, of course, loves him even more for failing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 17, 2010

Book Report: Something Wicked This Way Comes

I was thirteen when the movie of Something Wicked this way Comes was released. I loved it. I think I had read some Ray Bradbury before that, probably The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles. Perhaps not—I feel sure that I knew the name before I saw the movie, but perhaps I hadn’t actually read any of his stuff. I don’t really know why I was excited about the movie, but I am sure I was. Maybe there were great TV ads?

Anyway, I went and saw it that summer before I turned fourteen, and I loved it. I must have read the book that year. I can’t imagine, given my habits, that I would not have read it, particularly since it would have been in all the libraries. I don’t remember my reaction to the book, but I am sure, now, that it never took over my imagination from the movie. It’s all about Jonathan Pryce. And Jason Robards, Jr. But mostly Jonathan Pryce.

I grabbed the book sometime in the last year from a used book sale of some kind—library, synagogue, tag sale, maybe even an actual used book store, although I haven’t been going in to those very often. Well, I saw the title and had that positive reaction (Jonathan Pryce!) and picked it up and slung it on the shelf-of-stuff-I-have-bought-at-that-kind-of-thing-and-mean-to-read-sometime-real-soon. I think it was next to The Prince and the Pauper. Anyway, the amazing thing is that I did take it off that shelf and I read it.

The less amazing thing is that I didn’t like it very much. Ah, well. It got off to a bad start with a bunch of stuff about how October, for boys, is like such-and-such, and how all boys everywhere like to run, run like they would never stop, the chill air of the etcetera etcetera, and how boys are like this and boys are like that. And while some aspects of Ray Bradbury’s boyness were familiar to me, other aspects weren’t, because in point of fact people are different, one to another, even boys. And his folksy prose poetry rubbed me the wrong way, seeming to privilege the small-town middle America midcentury boyness over any other kind of boyness, particularly my own desert suburban asthmatic bookish and indolent boyness, my little-brother and backyard boyness, my Jewish theater-geek summer-camp VIC-20 boyness, none of which were anything like what Mr. Bradbury seemed to be indicating was a proper way to spend my thirteenth year. Rubbed me the wrong way, it did.

The more amazing thing is that none of that bothered me at the time, when I really was thirteen or fourteen. Did I somehow feel that I was, at heart, like the boys Mr. Bradbury described? Did I buy in to the idea that my own childhood was inferior to the true boyness in the book? Or did I just skim past all the prose poetry looking for action and dialogue, and so never noticed?

Or was my own forty-year-old self’s reaction a product of feeling crappy and downhearted and easily prickled, that day when I started to read the thing? Or am I being unduly influenced by some crazy-old-people stuff that Mr. Bradbury has said in the last dozen years or so? Will I read the book myself when I am fifty and the Youngest Member is thirteen, and find it a different book again?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 16, 2010

Book Report: The King Must Die

Your Humble Blogger read The King Must Die again recently. I have always thought of it as one of my favorites, certainly the top or second-to-top of the Mary Renault books. I’m not sure that’s true, anymore. I do enjoy it a lot, but it’s possible that the annoyances have been growing on me faster than the pleasures. In particular, I find that the last bit, the abandonment of Ariadne, doesn’t work for me at all. I vaguely remember that I never liked that part, and tended to skim it, but I read it quite carefully this time, and I don’t like it. So that’s a problem.

It’s also possible that I am just more open to romance as a Source of Reader Pleasure these middle-aged days. I find that I like The Last of the Wine more (even though I don’t like the ending of that one, either) and of course The Mask of Apollo. I haven’t read The Praise Singer for a while, and I can’t remember whether it’s a love story or not. Hm.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 14, 2010

Book Report: A Civil Campaign

So. While I was on this Lois McMaster Bujold kick I was on, I reread A Civil Campaign, which is a cheerful and pleasant book, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Hrm. I’m pretty sure I had something else to say on the topic. Ah, well.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 10, 2010

Book Report: Cetaganda

So. Your Humble Blogger had just finished The Vor Game and thought that I should pick up another one. It wasn’t particularly in my mind that Cetaganda was the next one chronologically, mostly I was thinking that I hadn’t read it in a while.

I hadn’t ever looked at what order the books were published verses the order of the events. This is, I think, a fill-in, where she goes back and adds an adventure in between two other books. I’m not sure how this fits in with her theory of series novels—I suppose it fits in quite well, since I didn’t notice it. On the other hand, I read them out of order to begin with, and Cetaganda was the first one I read (alas), so it’s not necessarily something I would have figured out myself.

Of course, her willingness to write and publish out of chronological order is a Good Thing, particularly now that Miles is married-with-children. Not that she couldn’t in theory write a perfectly good married-with-children Miles adventure, but if she comes up with a book that would work better with an earlier Miles, all the better. Or, for my preference, a book without Miles. Of all the possible Next Miles Books (and I know, there’s one coming out in a year or so, and it isn’t this one), the one I would be most excited to see is what I call Sergeyar, the story of how the Viceroy and Vicereine come back to the planet where they met, set up a new Barrayaran colony influenced by the Vicereine’s Betan outlook, and battle the infamous plague worms. And, I don’t know, avert interstellar war or something. Frankly, I don’t care. She’s so good at plots, I figure anything would be terrific. And she can put a bit of flesh back in to the increasingly phantom older generation.

Or, of course, she can write whatever the hell she wants. I think I saw at one point that Ms. Bujold was positively inundated with people telling her great ideas for new Miles stories. And the problem with that is that purely from a legal standpoint, it’s best if she doesn’t, you know, use any of those story ideas. And since there is only one of her, and about a zillion fans, just by the odds of the thing, whenever she began to muse on a possible new idea, somebody else thought of it and sent it to her. So my writing about Sergeyar is pretty much guaranteeing that she won’t write it—if I thought I was the first person to have come up with the idea and shared it round, I would have kept my fool mouth shut.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 9, 2010

Book Report: The Vor Game

Your Humble Blogger was on a bit of a Lois McMaster Bujold kick this spring. I think perhaps it has taken me this long to get over her having read this blog—not that I haven’t read any of her stuff in the interim, which I have, but that I have picked it up with that experience in mind, unable to put it out of my mind, which rather takes them out of the category of comfort books.

I don’t remember now, of course, as I am behind on this log by three months or so, but I suspect I picked The Vor Game off the shelf as a bathtub book. Or perhaps I was in a bad mood (YHB is generally a cheerful easygoing sort of fellow, but I do get into moods, now and then) and wanted that comfort book. Or I was just out of reading matter and wanted to fall back on something I knew I would enjoy. Anyway, I did pick it up.

This is the one with two very distinct parts, one on Camp Permafrost and one out in space. I hadn’t known (until looking it up on Wikipedia) that the first bit was published as a separate novella, but it isn’t really a surprise. On the other hand, the return of a major character from the first part is handled extremely well (imao), being a preposterous coincidence and shock to Miles and to us. And yet, there is a lovely inevitability to it.

As well, this is the one where Gregor has something of a personality beyond being An Extremely Good Emperor; the demands of the world set-up and the plots generally demand that readers are not allowed to think even for one moment about the possibility that somebody else would be a better Emperor. Which is fine—I like the plots and the set-up, so I accept that Gregor is who he is, but it’s nice for one bit of one book to think that he could have seriously fucked up. Yes, I know we are told in The Warrior’s Apprentice that Gregor is on the verge of a serious error, but it is told from behind, in such a way that precludes his actually making that error. This one is real.

The good part, though, was that it turns out that I can re-read them comfortably, now, without thinking that I will have to write something that Ms. Bujold may well read. I mean, she might, of course. But I wasn’t worried about it. Which is good, because then I read three more.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 3, 2010

Book Report: Sylvia's Lovers

So here’s the thing about Sylvia’s Lovers: having vastly enjoyed Wives and Daughters as well as Cranford, my Best Reader and I decided to try an Elizabeth Gaskell novel as our own next Bedtime Book. This was back in the Autumn sometime; I can’t exactly remember. We had got out of the habit of Bedtime Books for ourselves, what with our children now having two different bedtimes as well as a very large amount of required reading aloud to the Youngest Member. But it’s a lovely habit, and makes for better sleep; in Mrs. Gaskell’s day it was evidently quite common for spouses to read to each other of an evening, a custom which should be revived. Unlike, you know, racism, sexism, domestic violence, cheap labor, debtor’s prison, the Empire, open sewers and the Bustle.

But I digress. The point is that my Best Reader and I decided to try one of Ms. Gaskell’s books aloud, and I went to the collected works on the shelf (hurrah for working in an academic library) and judged, as usual, by the cover. Or at least the spine: Sylvia’s Lovers is such a great title.

Alas, when we began, we quickly discovered that this book makes liberal use of eye dialect. It is set in the North, and the rural folk talk like Yorkshire peasants. The first bit of dialogue (which isn’t until page sixteen, as the first chapter is one of those Victorian first chapters) goes like this: Be quiet, wi’ the’, Sylvia? Thou’st splashing me all ower, and my feyther’ll noane be so keen o’ giving me a new cloak as thine is, seemingly. Now, I can do a passable Yorkshire accent, but my Best Reader can’t (perfectly reasonably; she has other skills that are perhaps more useful), so that means that I would be doing all the reading. Which I don’t mind, but it isn’t really fair to her. And then, it takes a fair amount of concentration to read that stuff aloud as well as to make sense of it as a listener. All in all, eye dialect does not make for a good read-aloud book at bedtime. And then, the plot started off very slowly, as is quite common for Victorian novels, but provided for less incentive to pick up the thing of an evening.

So, we started skipping a couple of nights here and there, and then more, and then it was pretty clear that we just weren’t going to read this one, and we should give it up and try something else. I decided to finish it on my own, and made fairly slow going of it. This brings us to last Xmas. We spent a day or two visiting at a house that has very few books in it, so I brought Sylvia’s Lovers with me, and wound up finishing the first half there. And leaving the book behind when we came home.

I do not ordinarily take library books with me when I travel. The risk of leaving the thing somewhere is too great, and in addition to the monetary cost of paying the fine, there’s the embarrassment of having to fess up to it. Sigh. I try to ease the process for our patrons who lose books, although of course we do put some pressure on them to find the damned things. Particularly when it is, as our copy of Sylvia’s Lovers was, a volume out of a set, and very old and not terribly replaceable. Admittedly, nobody wants to read the thing, but still. Ah, well, what the hell. The advantage of it being out from my place of employment is that I get semester-long loans; I renewed the thing to May, and figured I would get the book back at some point.

However, it did mean that I didn’t have the book with me to finish. And that was my employer’s only copy, what with it not being a very popular book these degenerate days, and it wasn’t like the local public library had a few on their shelves. On the other hand, one of the astonishing things about this internetty age is that old book are available on-line in their entirety; I downloaded the second half of the book onto my laptop to take with me on vacation. And then didn’t read it. I would like to get into the habit of reading books off the screen, as I am fairly frequently in front of the screen and out of urgent internet. And then I go to the less urgent internet, which is Dicewars and Crazy Mammoths, and while those are perfectly good wastes of time, so is a Victorian novel. Alas, I just can’t seem to get my head around the idea that I can read novels on-line; I have seventeen or eighteen recent specfic books on my computer right now, and about a million pages of Victorian Novels whenever I want them, and I have read, er, two books off the screen. In 2008. None at all in the last year and a half. And I haven’t even tried it enough to be able to complain that I really dislike it. I just don’t remember to do it.

Well, anyway. I didn’t read the second half of the book off my laptop on the airplane or anywhere else. And a search of the house I had been staying at did not turn up the hard copy. Hmph. Months pass. Hmph. And then, oh, in mid-April it would have been, the book turns up! And is brought back to me! Hurrah! And I dive right back in to it, because, you know, book. In hand. Worth twenty on the hard drive, evidently. And I finish it in time to return it by the end of the semester. So that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 1, 2010

Book Report: Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat

Your Humble Blogger had enjoyed Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat so much, I pushed for it to be a Bedtime Book for my Perfect Non-Reader. And it seemed to work pretty well. So that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 27, 2010

Book Report: Dragonfly

I really liked the cover of Julia Golding’s Dragonfly when I picked it up off the shelf. Alas, when I was done with the book, I disliked the cover quite a bit. And, as you all know, I judge books by their covers. So what’s a fellow to do?

The issue is that the dragonfly on the cover is a jeweled pin, lovely and dramatic against the black background. And if the dragonfly in the book were a jeweled pin of some kind, I would not take points off for the picture not corresponding exactly to the description. If the dragonfly in the book were a real insect, I wouldn’t dislike the cover, either, I think; the image is a good one and probably better than a picture of an actual dragonfly. If the dragonfly in the book were a metaphorical dragonfly—that is, if there were no dragonfly in the book at all, but a running motif where people talk about dragonflies or some such—the jeweled dragonfly would be OK, as well, I guess. If the dragonfly just referred to a person, a nickname or alias or something similar, well, it would have to somehow work as a representation of the person, but fine. And the princess in the book is the dragonfly of the title, as a dragonfly is the symbol of her, um, don’t remember, a personal totem or a family emblem or something. But there is a plot point that involves her giving an origami dragonfly to someone, and it being damaged and then fixed. An origami dragonfly.

Which would have made a great cover. I mean, why not use an origami dragonfly for the cover? What’s the point of using a brooch instead? Why screw with it? Gr.

Coincidentally, the book had a lot of things in it that seemed like things I like, but which I didn’t actually like. I can’t say that a paper dragonfly on the cover would have changed, that, but…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.


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