Monday, September 30, 2013

Imaginary Dinner Party

That old question of "If you could have dinner with anyone at all, living or dead, who would you choose?"

My answer has always been Oscar Wilde, who just seems like he'd be the best host for this imaginary dinner party. Since we're imagining, I'm also going to assume that there are no language barriers, either. Some of these guests may not actually be fun in real life, but it would be fascinating to listen to them all talking to each other:

Oscar Wilde

Xavier de Maistre
Sei Shōnagon

Leonardo da Vinci
Lord Byron (the young version)

Who have I left out? I'm sure there are many....

Friday, September 27, 2013

My Top 5 All-Time Favorite Suspense Movies

The weather's starting to turn on us, so it's time to think about indoor activities like watching great films. I have many favorites, so it's going to take me multiple lists to break them all down for you.

This list will be focused mainly on what I'm going to call "suspense" (though action, mystery, and noir are all represented). These are the movies I return to time and again when I want a great story told by gifted directors, actors, and writers.

1. The Maltese Falcon
Humphrey Bogart is one of my top two all-time favorite actors (the other is in the second movie on this list), and it's mostly because of this movie. He's the quintessential noir detective, Sam Spade, troubled by dames who bring violent thugs and nosy cops to his seedy little shop. He's quick-witted but not overly kind as he helps Mary Astor track down either her sister or her lover or possibly a plain black statue.... Sydney Greenstreet is here as the jolly but sinister Gutman, and Peter Lorre plays a petulant crook who favors gardenia-scented calling cards. Everything is spare with just the right amount of detail. Falcon is one of the best noir films ever made.
Humphrey Bogart
2. Notorious
I recently rewatched this Alfred Hitchcock-directed gem, and was again awed by the perfection of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman as they portray love tenderly disguised as disdain. Ingrid Bergman is a good-time girl named Alicia Huberman whose father just went to prison as a traitor. She, however, is a patriot, which is why CIA agent Devlin recruits her with a delicate assignment: he wants to use her to infiltrate a group of her father's Nazi cronies - which may require Alicia to seduce her old beau, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains, who you may remember from Casablanca as the charmingly corrupt French police chief).

Everyone is at the top of their game here. So much is left unsaid between the two lovers, shown only with looks and long kisses. There are the usual fantastically tense sequences Hitchcock is known for, and Grant and Bergman smolder in their scenes together.
Rains, Grant, and Bergman
3. L.A. Confidential
I can put this movie into the DVD player and watch it on repeat. The plot is complex and there are three incredible leading men, each with his own storyline that slowly feeds into the main narrative. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a cop whose quick temper and brick-like build have relegated him to roles that require more brawn than brains, but he knows he can do more. Ed Exley (Guy Pierce) is an ambitious new cop who wants to maintain his integrity and climb to the top of the deeply corrupt LAPD. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a Hollywood hanger-on who likes the perks of cop life more than the mission.
James Cromwell (left),
Pierce, Crowe, and Spacey
The story begins when a high-level mobster gets arrested, leaving a vacuum in the crime world that leads to massacre, corruption, high-end prostitution (Kim Basinger, in a role that won her an Oscar), and the darkest guts of Tinseltown. There are very few movies that offer this much story and compelling characters.

4. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
This slyly self-aware film marked Robert Downey Jr.'s pre-Iron Man comeback role and it pays homage to the trashy pulps that inspired The Maltese Falcon and L.A. Confidential. Harry Lockheart (Downey) is a small-time crook who lucks into a movie role (they happen to need a crooked type, and he nails the audition with some Method acting) and is sent to Hollywood. As research for the part, he is paired with detective Gay Perry (Val Kilmer, who gets some of the best lines and delivers them to perfection). But a girl from Lockheart's past (Michelle Monaghan) shows up with a big problem, so he pretends to be a detective to impress her. Then real corpses start appearing in odd places, and the hapless Lockheart needs all the help he can get to stay alive and out of prison.
I'm telling you, watch it.
5. In Bruges
This foul-mouthed gem is one that may have easily slipped under your radar, but fans of Harold Pinter's play "The Dumb Waiter" will recognize some of the setup. Two hit men with very different personalities hole up in the medieval Belgian town of Bruges, waiting for their next assignment. Ken (Brendan Gleeson), the senior of the pair, is charmed by the attractions of scenery and art. His impatient partner, Ray (Colin Farrell), is not. At all. And he goes out looking for trouble, which ought to be hard to find in such a sleepy place....
Gleeson and Farrell
Farrell shows that he's more than just an action hero, playing his deeply immature character with a seemingly effortless combination of humor and pathos. Gleeson is the film's solid heart, and Ralph Fiennes almost steals the show as the hit men's hilariously obscene - yet deeply principled - boss. It's a violent film, completely un-PC, with more F-bombs than you can count (one of the special features on the DVD is a supercut of all the obscenities uttered by the characters - a solid minute and a half). So don't say I didn't warn you, but you should really check out f***ing Bruges.

(Side note for fans: it's by the director who did 2012's Seven Psychopaths starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Christopher Walken.)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All MaladiesThe Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this elegant blend of history and science, a practicing oncologist reveals the hidden history of cancer: a story riddled with painstaking research, leaps of insight, and the seemingly endless instances of human suffering and endurance.

Cancer once lurked quietly behind common plagues like smallpox, cholera, influenza, et cetera - until the 20th century, when longer life spans and healthier human beings revealed the seemingly inescapable disease that had no effective treatment. Starting with the story of one of his own adult leukemia patients, Mukherjee tracks the brief appearances of cancer throughout the centuries, then narrows his focus on the doctors who began the modern fight by first seeking treatments, and then slowly moved to searching for the causes of this imperial affliction.

The history of cancer in America is one of movements in both scientific understanding and medical activism, a story of the unintended consequences of attempting to manipulate complex systems. As Mukherjee guides us through the theories about cancer (from Galen's four humors to carcinogens, to viruses, and finally to genetics), he uncovers the incredible difficulties that beset scientific advancement, where judgment can be easily clouded by desperate hopes, ambitions, prejudices, misconceptions, and outright lies.

Mukherjee covers an incredible amount of ground in this microhistory, but rarely leaves the importance of the all too-human doctors and patients behind. This book is a masterpiece of writing and research, and in 2011 received a richly deserved Pulitzer Prize.

For further reading, there are few science history books as impressive as this one; but Oliver Sacks is a science writer and neurologist who always treats the fascinating case histories he writes about with compassionate insight. His book Awakenings tells the story of people stricken during a sleeping sickness epidemic who were briefly awakened decades later, like real-life Rip Van Winkles. Mukherjee often refers to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, which is both an allegory of the Soviet state and a depiction of people suffering terminal illness.

On a shallower note, it strikes me as somehow unfair that Dr. Mukherjee should be such a gifted writer and oncologist - and have hair this good:
Siddhartha Mukherjee
Author Siddhartha Mukherjee
Am I right?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Meditations in an Emergency

Meditations in an EmergencyMeditations in an Emergency by Frank O'Hara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first learned to love poetry in college when I had a marvelous professor (whose voice I still hear when I read T.S. Eliot or W.B. Yeats). But since then I've fallen away from even my favorite poets, short of time and focus. Lyric poetry in particular takes time to read, reread, and savor. If books are like dishes of food, lyric poetry is like a particularly rich, dark chocolate truffle. You can't eat it all at once. "Truffle poems" are ones I've reread a dozens of times, poems that always surprise me. They are like going into a familiar room where all the furniture has been rearranged several inches to the left.

Frank O'Hara is too abstractly unfathomable to be a truffle poet, but there are moments where his use of language evokes a feeling beyond meaning. From "Invincibility":

Lepers nest on the surly cats of glistening delirium

What does that even mean? Darned if I know, but the play of words is fascinating and feels sharp, unnerving. I stopped and reread it over and over, trying to decide what quality attracted my eye back to it.

Probably my favorite poem in this collection was "Poem: There I could never be a boy", dedicated to James Schuyler. I suppose it appeals to me not only for its deft physical description of a "frightened black mare / who had leaped windily at the start of a leaf", but because I value poetry that gets at an insight like "All things are tragic / when a mother watches!" That idea reminded me strongly of W.B. Yeats's "Among School Children" when the elderly Yeats asks if his mother, seeing him as an old man, would have thought herself repaid for all her efforts:

What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

I also enjoyed O'Hara's "To the Film Industry in Crisis", where he celebrates his favorite actors with tongue firmly in cheek, theatrically doling out accolades. The rest of the poems are less accessible, but deserve rereading someday.

The one stanza in "Mayakovsky" that I think is a misstep is the one quoted in Mad Men:

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

It's a bit too self-pitying, like something a moody teenager would write and relate to. (Sorry if you loved it.) For stark, lovely poems, try W.H. Auden, whose "Funeral Blues" speaks for everyone who's lost someone. You could also check out the avant garde New York School poets and painters.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Top 5 All-Time Favorite TV Shows

Anyone who has spent five minutes with me knows I'm almost as huge a TV and movie nerd as I am a bookworm. Thanks to Netflix, we can all perform the entertainment equivalent of shotgunning TV shows like cans of cheap beer.

I've been happy to be introduced to some truly wonderful television via the Netflix Way, as well as some that are...well...just okay. There are shows I've loved for a few seasons and then drifted away from (I'm looking at you, Bones and The Office.) And shows I missed the boat on but filed aboard once I saw it (Fringe, plus Breaking Bad.) There are shows I can watch anytime they appear in syndication (The Golden Girls), and a few that I acknowledge as flawed but love anyway (Angel, which had a near-perfect season 5). So, in the best tradition of High Fidelity, here are my top 5 all-time favorite television shows. Some may be familiar to you, but you may also find something new to chug.

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer - The ultimate Joss Whedon show, with plenty of high drama, romance, humor, danger, and creepy, creepy monsters. This has everything you could possibly want out of a TV show. Great cast, great scripts, epic story arcs (you'll suddenly find yourself needing to know the plural of "apocalypse"), and at its core a kick-ass girl.

2. Firefly - Gone too soon, I only watch this show occasionally because I would otherwise spend much of my life bummed that there aren't more episodes. Fox was too dumb to know what it had, but at least we got one season of the smartest space western you'll ever see. Meet Cap'n Tightpants and his oddball crew as they dodge the evil empire and do their best to stay free in the open 'verse.
Aren't they shiny?

3. The Dick Van Dyke Show - Dick Van Dyke is amazing with physical humor, and he's supported by his comedic equal, the peerless Mary Tyler Moore (plus hilarious meta cameos by Carl Reiner). Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) is a good-hearted TV writer who is as funny at home as he is at work. It's pure delight, the anti-Mad Men. It's the kind of show that makes me feel good about life.
The Empress Carlotta couldn't have shown better taste.
4. Star Trek - This is a cheat, because I'm going to fold in the original, plus TNG, plus Voyager. I grew up watching Captain Janeway struggle to get her crew home, and she's one of my feminist role models. The utopian optimism of TNG sometimes makes me laugh cynically, but it has episodes and characters that I adore. I only recently watched the original series, and I finally get what the fuss is about - though often schlocky and cheaply made, its core team of Spock, Kirk, and McCoy have a perfect chemistry that sells the goofy or sometimes offensive stories. Plus:
Oh my God, yes. I mean aye, Captain.

5. Justified - Have you even heard about this one? I'm often amazed at how many people who love Breaking Bad but haven't heard anything about Justified. I may be unduly influenced by the way Timothy Olyphant wears his cowboy hat (and those blue jeans!), but it's not just U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens who makes the show what it is: the bad guys are top-notch. From the crafty Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) to the hapless Dewey Crowe, they just get better and better. Margo Martindale was hands-down the best one-season baddie of all time (and has the Emmy to prove it). Plus, it's based on an Elmore Leonard short story and emulates the best parts of Leonard's writing style: he sometimes wrote for the show before his death. Justified is cool, it's sexy, and you'll thank me for telling you to watch it.
No man wears a henly better...
Reincarnation of Gary Cooper? Could be.
Honorable mentions: There are so many other great shows I've left off (five is such an arbitrary number). Veronica Mars, about a tough gumshoe who happens to still be in high school, has its storytelling roots firmly planted in classic noir and would easily place high on a longer list.

There are no British shows in my five, though Doctor Who, Sherlock, Spaced, and Fawlty Towers all have places in my heart and DVD collection. I've also left out animation, which knocks off Avatar: The Last AirbenderFullmetal Alchemist, and Cowboy Bebop.

Pushing Daisies, like Firefly, was gone too soon - and had Kristin Chenowith and Lee Pace lighting up the pie shop. The Vampire Diaries may get relegated into the teen vampire ghetto with Twilight, but it moves like lightning and will have your head spinning. Finally, what person with a heart or sense of humor could leave out Parks and Recreation?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Hunting Eichmann

Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious NaziHunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a thrilling international manhunt, a group of Israeli secret service agents risked everything to bring Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann to justice.

Adolf Eichmann fled Germany in the wake of the fall of Berlin and made his way to Argentina. Juan Perón welcomed and sheltered Nazi war criminals in the decades after the war in spite of the guilty verdicts at Nuremberg. As years passed, Eichmann's role in the genocide of European Jews became more clear, though no one seemed interested in finding him. No one except for those who had survived.

Eichmann covered his tracks well and may have died free - diminished and impoverished, but free. There are details in the story that sound straight from a spy thriller but are well-researched and documented. A blind Jewish man and his beautiful daughter were the first to recognize the mass murderer in hiding - Eichmann's grown son's unrestrained anti-Semitism and familial pride sparked their suspicions. An Israeli commercial plane was drafted into service to smuggle the prisoner to Tel Aviv, its crew of Holocaust survivors only told of the man's identity after takeoff.

Israel was brand-new, and so was its intelligence agency, Mossad  Extracting Eichmann from a country so openly hostile to Jews was a major test of Mossad's capabilities. If a whisper of his danger reached Eichmann, the hunters were sure he would go deeper into hiding and evade justice for good. If the Argentine government found out about the spies in their country, all of the agents would have been imprisoned for life.

The story is a fascinating one, told with the kind of detail you normally find in a John le Carré spy novel like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The echoing horror of the Holocaust permeates the story, since each Jew attached to the hunt had his or her own losses to contend with. The self-discipline of the agents who captured Eichmann is remarkable - they were able to restrain their desire for vengeance in exchange for justice.

The object of the hunt was a man so thin, balding, spectacled and poor that he inspired disgust and pity in his captors. Eichmann's defense was that he had only been following orders, and his persona and defense strategy led reporter Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase "the banality of evil" in her controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem. The trial served as a reminder of the Holocaust and touched off an entire era of studies in history and ethics. (An excellent book on the subject of banal evil is James Waller's Becoming Evil, one I read in a class Dr. Waller taught on the psychology of holocaust and genocide at Whitworth University.)

And for spy thriller junkies, you have to see Alfred Hitchcock's classic Notorious starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. Bergman is a civilian enlisted to spy on a group of Nazis in South America, pushed to ever-more compromising tactics by her handler, Grant. (It also has one of the most notorious kisses in movie history, a post-Hays Code smooch that took three minutes to finish.) See it. You'll thank me.
Do you really need more reasons?
"'We will bring Adolf Eichmann to Jerusalem,' [Isser] Harel said, striking the table, 'and perhaps the world will be reminded of its responsibilities. It will be recognized that, as a people, we never forgot. Our memory reaches back through recorded history. The memory book lies open, and the hand still writes.'" - 174

"That someone who looked like a postal clerk, someone so average in appearance and temperament, could have been responsible for killing millions of Jews was a horror in and of itself. Harel later described the feeling he had that night. 'The sight of that miserable runt, who had lost every vestige of his former superiority and arrogance the moment he was stripped of his uniform and powers of authority, gave them a feeling of insult and profound scorn. Was this the personification of evil? Was this the tool used by a diabolic government? This nonentity, devoid of human dignity and pride, was this the messenger of death for six million Jews?'" - 256

"David Ben-Gurion had achieved his ambition. The trial had a profound impact on Israel. It unified the country in a way it had not been unified since the 1948 war. It educated the Israeli public, particularly the young, on the true nature of the Holocaust. And, after sixteen years of silence, it allowed survivors to openly share their experiences. The trial also reinforced to Israelis that a sovereign state for Jews was essential for their survival." - 322

Thursday, September 19, 2013

What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World

What We Found in the Sofa and How it Saved the WorldWhat We Found in the Sofa and How it Saved the World by Henry Clark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When River and his friends discover a rare zucchini-colored crayon in a discarded sofa, they are launched into a fight to save Earth.

River, Freak, and Fiona live in an environmental disaster zone: their town, Hellsboro, has been poisoned by an underground coal seam fire. Not only that, but their town seems to have gotten weirder since the fire started - there are weekly show-tune-singing flashmobs in the cafeteria that no one seems willing to admit to. (Even Fiona, who participates in them herself.) The key to the mysteries is not just between the sofa cushions, but also inside the old house near their bus stop.

River and his friends are bright and skeptical kids, which makes them fun to follow. They aren't easily fooled, having lived through the worst of human nature. The science fiction plot combines the silly with the serious: there is a villain with a compulsive disorder and extreme megalomania ("Compared to me, Alexander the Great was merely mediocre" - 299) as well as true loss and danger (Freak's father is abusive, and the others have similarly fractured family lives).

The text is liberally sprinkled with loving Lord of the Rings references, as well as allusions to other classic art, film, and literature. The humor is dry and made me laugh aloud, and I liked the three kids - they may not always want to be seen together in public, but they certainly have each others' backs. It's a smart and fast-paced story that I think will appeal to fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. I'd also suggest Lynne Jonell's Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat.

On finding Jackson Pollock's childhood coloring book: "Remind me to show it to you. The man was completely incapable of coloring within the lines." - 132

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Fabulous Riverboat

The Fabulous Riverboat (Riverworld, #2)The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip José Farmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Newly resurrected with all of humanity on an alien planet, Sam Clemens attempts to build a steamboat to find The River's end.

This is the sequel to To Your Scattered Bodies Go, and it doesn't really live up to the original. Sam Clemens has always dreamed of being the captain of a riverboat, and when a meteor strikes Riverworld he suddenly has access to the rare metals to make his own. But to make his dream a reality, he must strike a deal with a devil in the form of the  Plantagenet king, the treacherous John Lackland. (You know, Prince John the phony king of England.)
Not so cute and cuddly in real life.
Less thumbsucking.
More murder.
Not only that, but the sudden presence of metals in Riverworld creates a trading economy, which naturally leads to nationalism, imperialism, an arms race, and racial tensions (on a positive note, there is also a new Magna Carta aimed once again at keeping Lackland in line). In To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the afterlife aftermath all had to do with the Holocaust; in The Fabulous Riverboat it is instead the consequences of anti-black racism and slavery's legacy in America. One of the tiny kingdoms is led by a black nationalist who believes that segregation is the only way to achieve peace.

All of these conflicts are enough to obscure Sam's real reason for building the riverboat: to find the River's end and thwart the alien Ethical's shadowy plan for humanity. Along the way, the identities of six of the Twelve anointed are revealed (what do you bet that none of the other six will be female, either?) Sam has doubts about his role in all of this, and he's also longing for his beloved wife, Livy.

I had a moment of happy chills when Sam gets introduced to a legendary archer known for his wiles (spoilery link), but the feeling disappeared as soon as he did. This book is more of a slog than the first, mainly because it's all political maneuvering and Sam is a less compelling protagonist than Sir Richard Burton. Once again there are only a few women, and those on the margins. (If this book had been written a mere ten or more years later than it was, I think that Farmer would have corrected this flaw.)

Still, I'm intrigued enough by Farmer's world to continue with the series, just to see what will happen after the Twelve confront the Ethicals. Will humanity get a second chance, freed from its giant prison? Or will the vast project simply get shut down? Will the Twelve ever find each other? Will women ever not be considered property in a science fiction novel? Sigh.

Quotable Scene:
"You were the world's greatest humorist," Lothar said. "Have you changed a great deal since you we're resurrected?"
"What's that got to do with it?" Sam said. "A humorist is a man whose soul is black, black, but who turns his curdles of darkness into explosions of light. But when the light dies out, the black returns."

And just because I adore Peter Ustinov's voice performance so much and since this gif is so perfect:

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How Reading Changed My Life

How Reading Changed My LifeHow Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Journalist and bibliophile Anna Quindlen recounts her own thoughts and experiences on what it means to live the reading life.

Quindlen retreads familiar ground here, but readers love reading about reading. Observe. (And they like it in fiction, too.) She adds a soothing voice to chorus of readers (and a refreshingly non-Luddite perspective on ebooks), offering up some delectable quotables for your commonplace book. So instead of summarizing Quindlen's bookish essay, I'll give you a list of the best reader's books I've enjoyed throughout the years.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman - These essays are short and passionate, perfect microcosms of the incidents that make up a reader's life.

Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason by Nancy Pearl - Probably none of us need to hear about more books we have to read, but you may want to lend your ear to an experienced librarian whose goal is to tell you what books you might actually enjoy. Pearl is the least snobbish reader I've ever met, and her goal is always to get people to find a book they love, even if it's in a genre or by an author they've never even heard of. Get to know what people love to read, she says, and then you can introduce them to the great stuff.

The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby - I love Nick Hornby's "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns (from The Believer magazine), and I've written about each collection here.

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard, Jeffrey Mehlman (Translator) - Very witty, very French; it may even make you reconsider listening to that voice in the back of your head that keeps saying "You should be reading Middlemarch right now, not the latest J.A. Jance." (Both are valid choices.)
The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford - Wonderful all the way through, this is probably my favorite bookish memoir ever. Spufford's nonfiction works are Hornby recommendations, and I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination is high on my to-read list.

“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.”

“How is it that, a full two centuries after Jane Austen finished her manuscript, we come to the world of Pride and Prejudice and find ourselves transcending customs, strictures, time, mores, to arrive at a place that educates, amuses, and enthralls us? It is a miracle. We read in bed because reading is halfway between life and dreaming, our own consciousness in someone else's mind.”

“While we pay lip service to the virtues of reading, the truth is that there is still in our culture something that suspects those who read too much, whatever reading too much means, of being lazy, aimless dreamers, people who need to grow up and come outside to where real life is, who think themselves superior in their separateness.”

Monday, September 16, 2013

Three Free Books: Big Bricks I Love

These three books are the quintessential Classics with a capital C. I read them reluctantly at first but soon added them to my favorites list. There is a reason these are well-known. They tug at your heartstrings, make you laugh, and introduce you to people worth knowing and stories worth reading.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo - Jean Valjean starts this story as a convict whose sentence is up. He was condemned to ten years of hard labor for a minor offense and faces a future full of shame and ostracism. His justifiable bitterness is challenged by an act of grace that sets him on a path to redemption. (I get tearful just thinking of it.) And there is more: the orphaned daughter of a prostitute becomes his ward; Jean Valjean is relentlessly pursued by the uncompromising policeman, Javert; then comes the French Revolution and its famous barricades. Valjean's noble struggle for redemption coincides with a larger political battle for the ideals of Liberté, égalité, fraternité as the old order represented by Javert fails. And even though Cosette is a spineless drip and there are digressions where a modern reader may nod off, hang in there - this is a profoundly moving and exciting story.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas - Jealousy and political intrigue conspire to imprison young Edmond Dantès on the eve of his marriage. Betrayed by his nearest and dearest, and by the perversion of justice, he is sent to the Château d'If, a prison fortress on an island where his enemies intend for him to die forgotten. Instead, he meets a fellow prisoner who educates him and reveals the secret hiding place of a vast fortune. Dantès escapes and uses the money to remake himself into the urbane Count of Monte Cristo with one goal in mind: vengeance. This book has been adapted into film more times than I can count because it's the perfect adventure story. There's a chapter that I would give my right hand to have written where the Count has a conversation with an oblivious enemy on the nature of revenge - a thrilling example of dramatic irony.

Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray - Becky Sharp is the coolest character ever. She's smart, beautiful, ruthless. She is poor and orphaned, but has the looks and charm to get what she wants from men who have the wealth and power she craves. (She is a forerunner of Margaret Mitchell's Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind.) Becky uses every tool at her disposal to scheme her way into a better caste. Thackeray uses this sharp-witted minx to expose the failings and hypocrisies of high society, where appearance is everything and everyone is obsessed with money.

Friday, September 13, 2013

How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

How to Talk About Books You Haven't ReadHow to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 Bayard writes to everyone who has felt that flicker of panic at entering a bookstore and despair at leaving a library: there are so many books, and who has time to read them all? His solution is elegant: don't even try. He challenges conventional wisdom about the necessity to read the great canon of literature, given the vast numbers of books in the world. In fact, Bayard argues that we simply traverse books, recreating every text in the moments we remember or discuss them. Therefore it is far more important to understand where books fit into the larger scheme of art and literature.

Bayard is a practicing psychoanalyst known for iconoclastic readings of venerated texts (so French!), and his writing can be theoretical at times, leaning heavily toward reader response theory. Still, this book is small and light enough to be enjoyed by those who know nothing about literary criticism. His examples are culled from great literature, and may give you just what you need to talk about Proust and Graham Greene without blushing!

I know I've talked about this book a thousand times, but I'll mention it once more because it fits so well with Bayard's central point: So Many Books by Gabriel Zaid actually changed the way I read.

"Reading is first and foremost nonreading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening all the other books in the universe." - Bayard

"Reading is not just acquainting ourselves with a text or acquiring knowledge; it is also, from its first moments, an inevitable process of forgetting." - Bayard

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

To Your Scattered Bodies Go (Riverworld, #1)To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip José Farmer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What would happen if all of humanity was inexplicably resurrected after death on a vast alien world?

A frequent daydream of mine is to imagine "If I was suddenly transported back in time..." Farmer's daydream has a fantastic variation on the theme of time travel: Every human being who ever lived (including Da Vinci, Genghis Khan, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Oscar Wilde, Cleopatra, Hitler, Elizabeth I - plus the billions of mere rank and filers from every era and region) suddenly wakes up in a vast world dominated by impassable mountains and a giant River. With every physical need provided for, obviously resurrected humanity starts over with new wars and slavery, just to keep things interesting.

The new world is a mystery that one man wants to solve: Sir Richard Francis Burton caught a glimpse behind the curtain of Riverworld before resurrection and is determined to interrogate the man behind the curtain. He explores the endless River with a small group of companions and slowly begins to understand that Riverworld is no supernaturally created afterlife. In fact, the designers may have dark plans for humanity. Half the fun of reading this book is learning more about the Riverworld, so I won't say more about the plot or specifics of the world.

In choosing historical figures, Farmer shows perfect taste: the talented polyglot explorer Richard Francis Burton (1821–1890), Nazi Reichsmarschall Herman Göring (1893–1946), and Alice Liddell Hargreaves (1852–1934). Burton is a fascinating character, full of contradictions, and Farmer obviously knows a lot about his eventful life. Göring, too, is given depth and interest beyond that of a Nazi sociopath. The only shortcoming is Hargreaves, who gets a fairly perfunctory treatment as a love interest (most of the women seem to be here merely to be admired for their figures). The women are frequently lumped in with the property (you know: food, tobacco, women), though you can tell Farmer attempts to give them some credit for action and independent thought. Sexism is a common problem of old-school science fiction, though Farmer is not as bad as some.

It's a fascinating book, and I highly recommend it to fans of classic science fiction. If you enjoyed Larry Nivens' Ringworld or Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, you'll love To Your Scattered Bodies Go. It's not necessary to know about Sir Richard Burton's real life, but he's such a fascinating character you'll probably want to pick up one of the biographies about him by either Edward Rice or Byron Farwell.

Next up: Farmer's sequel, The Fabulous Riverboat, starring Samuel Clemens!


"Burton, despite the scoffings of his twentieth-century friends, believed steadfastly in most of the superstitions he had nourished on Earth. He often laughed at the superstitions of others, but he knew that some numbers held good fortune for him, that silver placed on his eyes would rejuvenate his body when it was tired and would help his second sight, the perception that warned him ahead of time of evil situations." - 199

Monday, September 9, 2013

Crocodile on the Sandbank

Crocodile on the Sandbank (Amelia Peabody #1)Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Independent spinster Amelia Peabody and her friend Evelyn Barton-Forbes came to Egypt to view the antiquities - but when they are stalked by a mummy Amelia suspects it may be a non-supernatural ghost from Evelyn's checkered past.

The unstoppable Amelia Peabody impulsively rescues Evelyn Barton-Forbes, abandoned and ruined by a faithless lover, from a street in Italy. She then hires the disgraced heiress as a companion on a trip to Egypt, and they become close friends. Floating down the Nile, the women meet two archaeologist brothers: handsome Walter Emerson and short-tempered Radcliffe Emerson. When they join the Emersons at their dig site, the group is stalked by a mummy. Yeah, a MUMMY.
Of course, Amelia is too sensible to succumb to superstition for long, but she suspects the human behind the mummy poses a tangible threat to Evelyn's safety. With a firm grip on her parasol and her wits, Amelia attempts to solve the mystery. All the while Evelyn and Walter are falling in love, star-crossed by noble Evelyn's sense of her own dishonor as well as the persistent attentions of her cousin, Lord Lucas Ellesmere. Amelia keeps herself busy bossing everyone around and getting into heated arguments with Radcliffe (who is her equal in every way, a love interest along Mr. Rochester lines) about archaeology.

I have a soft sport the affable Lucas, who cheerfully goes out of his way to offend everyone. Even prickly Amelia has to struggle to maintain a steady dislike of him. He's a more interesting character than both Walter and Evelyn combined - the latter two play the fated lovers role with a hysterical intensity (but true sincerity) that makes Amelia scoff inwardly more than once (as much as she genuinely likes them both).

The solution to the mystery seemed obvious at once, though it's such an outrageously weird scheme that Amelia quickly points out that only a European mind packed with Gothic novels could have come up with it. Overall, a fun adventure and historical cozy mystery. It's the first in the Amelia Peabody series, which I will definitely keep reading!

Amelia is the clear forerunner of Alexis Tarabotti from Gail Carriger's The Parasol Protectorate: tough, smart, and outspoken. (And both end up in Egypt!) Elizabeth Peters is the pen name of Barbara Mertz, who died in August of this year. She wrote 70 books, all starring wonderful female characters, and was an Egyptologist herself.

For other great cozy mysteries, try the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy Sayers, starting with Whose Body? You might also check out the Victorian historical mystery And Only to Deceive (Lady Emily series) by Tasha Alexander.

“I disapprove of matrimony as a matter of principle.... Why should any independent, intelligent female choose to subject herself to the whims and tyrannies of a husband? I assure you, I have yet to meet a man as sensible as myself!” - says Amelia

“There are too many people in the world as it is, but the supply of ancient manuscripts is severely limited.” - according to Radcliffe Emerson, Amelia's grumpy soulmate

Friday, September 6, 2013


Sabriel (Abhorsen,  #1)Sabriel by Garth Nix
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With her powerful necromancer father missing, Sabriel must take on the mantle of Abhorsen and return to her homeland to protect the living from the ravaging Dead.

Sabriel is happily planning her life after boarding school when a peculiar messenger arrives one night with her father's tools of the trade: his sword and a bandolier containing seven bells to control the Dead. Sabriel leaves her life behind without a second glance, undertaking a dangerous journey back to her homeland. She is pursued by a terrifying Dead creature sent by its even more powerful master: a necromancer who may have caused her father's disappearance. During her journey, Sabriel acquires two companions: a mysterious cat-shaped servant called Mogget, plus a young man named Touchstone who spent the past two hundred years in an enchanted sleep.

Sabriel's world is a fascinating one: she grows up in a pseudo-England called Ancelstierre, where most of the magic emanating from the northern Old Kingdom is blocked by an ancient Wall. In the magic-filled Old Kingdom, trustworthy Charter magic protects the people from untamed Free Magic or the evil Dead who attempt to escape Death. Death is depicted as a place - dark and full of rushing water - which Sabriel crosses into when she needs to banish the Dead or interrogate them.

Nix has created a page-turning dark fantasy world (I especially love the Abhorsen's house and the concept of the bells) that he revisits in sequels Lirael and then in Abhorsen. If you're a fantasy lover of any age, you should add this trilogy to your must-read list.

Nix has slowly become one of my favorite YA fantasy/science fiction authors, with fantasy series like The Keys to the Kingdom and The Seventh Tower that show a unique imagination and impressive world-building. He also has stand-alone novels like The Ragwitch. His female characters are fully formed and often casually heroic, like Sabriel (who may question her own lack of knowledge but shoulders the incredible burden of her role without complaint).

Nix never holds back from telling truly dark stories in spite of writing for a younger audience, so be prepared: his stories often veer into horror, and can be terrifying and violent. (Example: Shade's Children, a sci-fi horror novel that makes The Hunger Games look tame.) In fact, I mentally pair his seven-book Keys to the Kingdom series with Suzanne Collins' five-book Underland Chronicles because they contain a similar unflinching awareness of the consequences of war and death - all aimed at a middle grade audience.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt KidThe Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Author Bryson takes us on a humorous trip back into his own 1950s childhood in Des Moines, Iowa: the days of comic books and the Cold War, when Americans were happiest: an era rife with paranoia and optimism in equal measure.

Bryson has a gift for hyperbole paired with close observation that made me nostalgic for a period of American history that I never experienced. For example, a man diving doesn't simply bellyflop, he goes down like Wile E. Coyote:

"He hit the water—impacted really is the word for it—at over six hundred miles an hour, with a report so loud that it made birds fly out of trees up to three miles away. At such a speed water effectively becomes a solid. I don’t believe Mr. Milton penetrated it at all, but just bounced off it about fifteen feet, limbs suddenly very loose, and then lay on top of it, still, like an autumn leaf, spinning gently." - p. 78

Bryson has also done his homework on his own era: between anecdotes he quotes news articles, demographics, and facts about the frightening events of the fifties (the Cuban missile crisis, polio, nuclear testing), all filtered through the rosy lens of his own happily oblivious childhood. Young Billy in those days worried much more about his mother's terrible cooking, his father's habit of going half-naked to make a midnight snack (the wrong half), the irradiated toilet seats at his local diner, and the multitude of fascinating discomforts every child endures as a part of growing up.

Along the way he captures the paradoxical nature of the fifties, where Americans may have been in mortal danger of (self-inflicted) mass extinction but managed to stay cheerful and optimistic in a way that seems naive today. He attempts to tie it together with his own superheroic persona, "The Thunderbolt Kid," a metaphor that only works weakly to make the reader think of the heyday of comic books - but it's a small quibble in a fun and fluffy work. This isn't a deeply personal memoir - you won't feel as though you know the "real" Bill Bryson - but it is certainly entertaining and made me laugh aloud more than once.

As I read, I kept thinking of Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes. Bryson has the same wry and affectionate attitude towards childhood, and the same sense of humor. For another funny memoir of childhood in the prosperous decades after WWII, try Haven Kimmel's A Girl Named Zippy. In Life and Times, Bryson also suggests a history of the era called God's Country: America in the Fifties by J. Ronald Oakley.

"I knew more things in the first ten years of my life than I believe I have known at any time since. I knew everything there was to know about our house for a start. I knew what was written on the undersides of tables and what the view was like from the tops of bookcases and wardrobes. I knew what was to be found at the back of every closet, which beds had the most dust balls beneath them, which ceilings the most interesting stains, where exactly the patterns in wallpaper repeated. I knew how to cross every room in the house without touching the floor, where my father kept his spare change and how much you could safely take without his noticing (one-seventh of the quarters, one-fifth of the nickels and dimes, as many of the pennies as you could carry). I knew how to relax in an armchair in more than one hundred positions and on the floor in approximately seventy-five more. I knew what the world looked like when viewed through a Jell-O lens. I knew how things tasted—damp washcloths, pencil ferrules, coins and buttons, almost anything made of plastic that was smaller than, say, a clock radio, mucus of every variety of course—in a way that I have more or less forgotten now. I knew and could take you at once to any illustration of naked women anywhere in our house, from a Rubens painting of fleshy chubbos in Masterpieces of World Painting to a cartoon by Peter Arno in the latest issue of The New Yorker to my father’s small private library of girlie magazines in a secret place known only to him, me, and 111 of my closest friends in his bedroom." - p. 36

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Charles Dickens: A Life

Charles Dickens: A LifeCharles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Insightful and authoritative, this biography traces Charles Dickens from his harsh childhood to the heights of literary success and the depths of marital scandal, painting the portrait of an extraordinary man and artist.

Charles Dickens is one of those precious few writers who people both read for pleasure and as Great Literature. He had a long and eventful life, crammed with friends, family, and many endeavors. He was not only a prolific author: he tried his hand at organizing and acting in plays, public readings of condensed versions of his novels, incredible works of charity, and being a one-man institution to support a growing crowd of shiftless relatives, plus unfortunate widows and orphans.

The first two parts of the book describes Dickens's difficult childhood and rise to success. He was a talented writer who captured the spirit of his own age, and was well-loved for it. The final third of the book recounts Dickens's ugly public separation from his wife (who seems to have been a good woman, but too quiet and dull for her charismatic husband - though they did manage to have ten children in twenty years of marriage). Dickens embarked on a twelve-year secret affair with Nelly Ternan, an actress younger than his own daughters. Tomalin faces this head-on, cutting Dickens little slack: "You can feel sorry for him as he struggles, but it is impossible to like what he did, or on occasion to believe what he said" (301). She describes his personal failures with feeling:

"...the darkest part of his character was summoned up. He was ready to be cruel to his defenceless wife. A raging anger broke out at any opposition to his wishes. He used lies as weapons of attack and defence. His displays of self-righteousness were shocking. He was determined to be in the right about everything. He must have known he was not, but he had lost his judgement. The spectacle of a man famous for his goodness and his attachment to domestic virtues suddenly losing his moral compass is dismaying." - 293

Tomalin wrote a book about Nelly Ternan called The Invisible Woman, drawing on the scanty historical facts to put together a picture of a life deliberately erased. She brings an incredible depth of scholarship to bear on both lives.

I love Tomalin's clear critical eye on his literary output, where she not only reports on the historical reception of each work, but gracefully articulates her own insights. She asserts that "In his writing too there were conflicts, a touch of ham certainly, but alongside it the dazzling jokes, the Shakespearean characterization, the delicacy and profundity of imagination, the weirdness and brilliance of his descriptive powers" (389).

Overall, Tomalin manages the impossible balancing act of staying objective about her subject without being detached. She clearly admires Dickens's energy, talent, and generosity, while remaining honest about his human failings. Her writing is always engaging, and she has the gift for finding the telling details out of the unruly, busy life of one of England's best writers.

All his life, Dickens was unflagging in his advocacy for the poor, the imprisoned, and the destitute. The story of one of his most remarkable endeavors, a Home to help women escape prostitution, is told in Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women by Jenny Hartley. He strongly identified with the protagonist of David Copperfield, and it was his own favorite book. I highly recommend Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life, a book I loved (or one of her other impressive literary biographies).

"Even his most hostile critics acknowledged that he described London 'like a special correspondent for posterity'. Early in his writing career he started to call himself 'the inimitable': it was partly a joke with him, but not entirely, because he could see that there was no other writer at work who could surpass him, and that no one among his friends or family could even begin to match his energy and ambition. He could make people laugh and cry, and arouse anger, and he meant to amuse and to make the world a better place." - p. xlvii

On A Christmas Carol:
"The book went straight to the heart of the public and has remained lodged there ever since, with its mixture of horror, despair, hope and warmth, its message - a Christian message - that even the worst of the sinners may repent and become a good man; and its insistence that good cheer, food and drink shared, gifts and even dancing are not merely frivolous pleasures but basic expressions of love and mutual support among all human beings." - 150

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Books I Read in August

Passage by Connie Willis - Psychologist Joanna Lander teams up with a handsome neurologist whose ability to simulate near-death experiences brings them closer to understanding what happens at the threshold of death.

I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella - A breezy comedy of errors that begins with a missing emerald engagement ring and a businessman's stolen phone lead two people to unexpected love.

Deathless by Catherynne Valente - Spun with vivid magic, the Russian folktale "The Death of Koschei the Deathless" is reimagined as a love story between Koschei, the Tsar of Life, and warrior woman Marya Morevna during the early days of the Soviet Union.

Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse - A coveted silver cow-creamer drops hapless gentleman of leisure Bertie Wooster into the middle of two engaged couples, an incriminating notebook, an insufferable Scottie, and blackmail - in short, a situation impossible for any brain but Jeeves' to unravel.

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely - A prominent psychologist shares his insights into the causes of humankind's tendency to cheat - something we all do, whether we admit it to ourselves or not.

The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum - Using cutting-edge science and hard-nosed determination, New York's coroner Dr. Charles Norris exposed poisoners, cleared the innocent, and revived American forensic medicine during the wild days of Prohibition.

Aunts Aren't Gentlemen by P.G. Wodehouse - Following doctor's orders, Bertie goes out to the country for rest - only to have his life interrupted by an overly friendly cat, a lovelorn couple, and his amoral Aunt Dahlia's betting schemes.

Sunshine by Robin McKinley - Though monsters haunt the darkness of her world, Sunshine is still unprepared to be taken prisoner one night by a group of vampires - or to make herself an ally of the otherworldly Constantine.

The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie by Tanya Lee Stone - You don't have to be an academic to enjoy this illustrated look at the history and cultural impact of that controversial fashion doll, Barbie.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel - In this spiritual fable of survival, an Indian boy is stranded in the Pacific ocean for 227 days - accompanied by a Bengal tiger.

Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley - Big Tobacco spokesman Nick Naylor slings BS to pay his mortgage - but after getting death threats he worries that he may have smoked his last cigarette.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton - In this inventive fantasy that re-imagines the Victorian era, members of a genteel family struggle to make their way in the world after the death of their father - and they happen to be dragons.

The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones - In a magical world devastated by packs of other-worldly tourists, a good-hearted wizard Derk is named Dark Lord and must organize the scenic evil - and just maybe free his world from tyranny.

Ignorance by Stuart Firestein - This is a short essay with case studies by scientist Stuart Firestein about the power of ignorance in advancing scientific knowledge and inquiry.