Wednesday, January 18, 2012

re-reads and television

Over the long holiday weekend, because temperatures were for the most part in the teens and I have no life, I spent most of my days on the couch, with the dogs, re-reading history.

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, is, I think, still his best. He has attempted in his following books to re-create the juxtaposition of murder / scandal with technological advancements, but it never works quite as well as it does with the World's Fair in Chicago and the murders of Dr. H.H. Holmes. A fairly disturbing read, and Larson's choice to write one scene from the point of view of a murder victim is a little jarring. He addresses that choice in the afterword, and defends it well, but it does make it seem suddenly like fiction. Other than that, what a fascinating book.

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, by Nathaniel Philbrick, remains flawed. Philbrick is really out of his depth writing about a non-nautical piece of history, but he brings his excellent storytelling to it and provides enough maps and diagrams that the reader is able to get the sense of the battle. The book feels incomplete, as if he didn't quite know how to finish it, and I always am a bit unsatisfied when done with it. But it's very interesting nonetheless.

I flipped through A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, as well. It hasn't held up as well as I would have expected, but that may be simply because I was first assigned it in high school and I'd never read anything like it before. Now history as written from the powerless' point of view is commonplace, and how comprehensive Zinn is actually makes this book a little overwhelming. Reading it one chapter at a time is probably the best way to handle it.

I also watched "Cranford", which I cannot recommend highly enough. It is very rare that I find a show which appeals both to the part of me which loves pastoral period dramas featuring exquisite acting, and to the part of me which appreciates a good cat-being-given-a-laxative scene. I did not at all expect to be laughing as much as I was throughout. There is a dog fatality, and normally, on page or screen, dog fatalities leave me emotionally devastated and furious at the writer(s), but for this one I laughed until I couldn't breathe. It didn't hurt that the replacement pet shows up immediately and is transparently played by the same dog. Perfect.

But it's sad, too: wonderful characters die left and right, and the last episode had me crying like a baby the entire time (some of that was sentimentally happy, and all of it was utterly manipulated: I kept saying, out loud, things like, "Oh no, NOT the book of poetry, oh crap," and "Oh god, you're pulling out 'Loch Lomond', I'm DONE"). It was extraordinarily cathartic.

One quibble, though: the two female characters aspiring hopelessly for the heart of the Dashing Newcomer are portrayed rather cruelly, when as far as I could tell their only crime was daring to believe they deserved a man's love despite being (in one case) not pretty and (in the other) not young. Of course they are cheerfully paired off with other men at the end, because it is that kind of a show, but the way they are mocked rankled a bit for me.

Finally started The Tiger's Wife over breakfast today. We shall see how that goes.

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