Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Scots, Brits, Russians

Hello, dear readers. Life continues to be charming in these parts. I hope it is the same for you, although I know we are all missing out when I don't have absurd stories to post about Expert Guys or poop bag mishaps.

Since last posting I have read Resurrection Men, by Ian Rankin, which I have to confess I didn't really enjoy. I usually love Rankin, however grim his stories are, but in this one I simply couldn't get invested in the plot. The villains were so broadly villainous, where Rankin usually creates much more complex characters, and so the attempted byzantine loops of betrayal and cross-betrayal didn't work, because the reader is never in any doubt that the possible crooked cops are, in fact, crooked cops. Disappointing, alas.

I am not sure whether The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, was disappointing or not. It is a very short book - almost a novella - about a group of high school / college friends who fall apart when two of them end up dating the same girl. Our narrator is one of these friends, and is looking back on that period of his life from his sixties. The book was very much a Male British Experience, and while I do love Barnes' writing and occasionally I laughed out loud at his delicious wit, I just couldn't connect with so much of the story. The disputed girl, for example, is completely uninteresting as described by our narrator. There is no reason for anyone to be obsessed with her, let alone two different men over a period of forty years, and yet it's not sublimated homosexual desire between the two men either. It's just taken for granted by Barnes that this makes sense, and he doesn't seem to feel the need to elaborate on that for the reader. I did like the descriptions of the narrator's relationship with his ex-wife, who was a believable female character, but I couldn't care less if our hero reunites with his lost flame.

And I have been struggling through Robert K. Massie's Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, but as of this morning I decided to give up. Massie is a repetitive, dry writer whose attempts to get into the female psyche are just cringe-worthy (I cannot tell you how many times he's said of a politically powerful female that "as a woman, she was helpless before flattery" or something like that, which makes me just throw my head back and go ARRRRGH). Sunday I ended up taking a two-hour nap that I blame on this book (because surely it had nothing to do with the fact that, after a giant plate of French toast, I decided to head back to bed for some reading and dog-cuddling). So enough of this nonsense! Life is too short, and I have trashy historical novels to read.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

cornflakes, cookbooks, and POWs

Oh, readers, I wish I could share with you some of the charming things going on in my life; however, those stories are not solely mine. Discussing Shakespearean sonnets with me and being adorable are not equivalent to relinquishing your privacy. The gentleman in question will receive a nickname if he becomes a recurring character on this blog, but other than that I will exercise discretion. (Unless, of course, he turns out to be a jerk. Then all bets are off!*)

My reading since last posting:

The Road to Wellville, by T.C. Boyle. I love Boyle's writing style madly, even though I am not sure I was a fan of the story in this book. It is about Dr. Kellogg's sanatorium in Battle Creek and the general madness which went on there, and Boyle clearly did a ton of research, although it's fiction. I found the patients' plots more interesting than the con men's, and the gender roles going on in all stories did not exactly delight me: possibly period-appropriate, but the closest creature we come to a hero has an undiagnosable ailment which, in the end, is explicitly shown to be the result of letting his wife boss him around. The second he takes charge in the relationship (which is only allowed to happen because she has been publicly humiliated for having sexual desires), he recovers. There is also a LOT about his erections, or lack thereof. Now, I don't know, maybe this is as fascinating to male readers as it is to the character and to Mr. Boyle. But to this lady reader at least it gets tiresome so fast. "Oh, our hero's penis again. Hooray."  

(See: my unfortunate experience with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. After four pages of being blown away by Díaz's talent, I was unprepared for the next two hundred pages, which consist of, "Dominican women are hot and it's not fair if you don't get to have sex with one." I do know women who loved that book, but I was irritated and disappointed by it.)

Then I read At Home on the Range, by Margaret Yardley Potter. Potter was the great-grandmother of author Elizabeth Gilbert, and Gilbert discovered her cookbook in the attic and had it re-issued. I got this from the library because I do like Gilbert's writing when she's not writing about herself, so I thought the introduction might be amusing. And it was, but the book is charming on its own merits. Potter's voice is just fantastic, and reminded me a lot of my own grandparents and their witty acidic conversations over cocktail hour. Some of the recipes I'm actually tempted to try as well, though they weren't the primary reason I was reading the book. I can definitely recommend this.

And I just finished Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. Telling the story of the Olympic miler Louie Zamperini, and his survival of a plane crash, his years in a Japanese POW camp, and his struggle to rejoin society while suffering from severe post-traumatic stress, it is very well done but grim, grim reading. Not sure what will come next; I've got several e-mails from the library saying my requested e-books are available. I swear, if you'd told my eight-year-old self that someday she would be able to get library books without interacting with a single human... oh, brave new world!

*I kid; I'm not proud of how much of Claudio's privacy I violated when I started this blog. I was hurt and angry but that's no excuse, and I'm determined to be more careful with others' information.

Monday, July 16, 2012

history and such

Since last posting, I have finished The Children of Henry VIII, by Alison Weir, and The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard. Both were quite good.

I liked Weir's biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine a ton, but didn't enjoy her book about Mary, Queen of Scots, at all. So I didn't know how this book was likely to go, but fortunately it was very informative and entertaining and clear. It turned out to be almost entirely about Mary I, despite the title. Edward and Lady Jane Grey get some page time, and Elizabeth appears as a teenager, but it deals mostly with Mary's reign and ends with her death. I can recommend it if you're at all interested in Mary; I certainly got more information than all my previous reading about the Tudors provided.

The River of Doubt was also enjoyable. It's about Roosevelt's journey down an unknown South American river in 1913, but has long chapters about the indigenous people, the fauna, and the ecological history of the region. I found those to be the most interesting parts: the journey itself became a bit of a "what could go wrong next?" farce, complete with dog fatalities. Millard knows her science, or at least it seems that way to a non-scientist like myself.

In other news, I hung out this weekend with an actual human male who appears to rather enjoy my company. He has a degree in theater, and it says all you need to know about my alma mater that when I discovered as much I promptly thought, "Aw, crap, he's a Brecht-snob whose dream was to study mime under Ariane Mnouchkine and whose girlfriends created naked interpretive-dance pieces about Frida Kahlo." And then I was startled out of my wits when he knew his Shakespeare.

(I have a theater minor, and managed to study mostly Shakespeare and Chekhov. But my senior year honors seminar consisted of hours and hours of Mnouchkine productions on video, and papers on Indonesian puppet theater, and guest workshops by the local avant-garde company which you were not allowed to skip even if you'd broken your tailbone the week before*. You say "theater major" to me and I immediately picture the guy in that class who was on the edge of his seat for the entire four hours of a 1950s performance of Faust, in German, without subtitles; and no one wants to hang out with that guy. [Indonesian puppet theater is pretty interesting, though.])

There was no mime involved in our day together. We did end up tagging along with a tour group run by someone he knows; the group was all middle-aged white women who seemed like they might have had some mimosas at lunch and who were very openly appreciative of their strapping Native guide. I found this seriously cringe-worthy, because I am oversensitive to Othering (see: alma mater, above), and then as we were walking to our next spot of interest, one woman turned to us and said, "I hope you don't mind how we are with [guide]. We're all widows of brain cancer."

"Oh," we said.

Another woman turned around. "No, not all," she said. "Some of us have lost children to brain cancer."

"Ohhhh," we said. And then I felt like an asshole. But it was a very good tour. And a very nice day, so I'm not going to say any more about it. If it had been bad, I would turn it into a hilarious story for the blog immediately, but it wasn't. Your loss, my gain. (And now you know why my reading pace has been so slack the last few weeks.)

Next up: possibly The Road to Wellville or some silly mystery from the library. I haven't decided yet.

Also: welcome, alumni who are here after seeing my shameless plug for the blog in the magazine! Of course the first post you see is the one mocking our theater department!

*I've been asked this many times: there is only one way you break your tailbone, and it consists of falling on your ass.

Friday, July 6, 2012

a brief catch-up

Hello! There have been many things afoot, including taking a week off while my parents visited, and standing on beaches and boats and knee-deep in the ocean with good company while dogs frolicked joyfully around us. So, you know, life has been rough. I actually sort of have a tan. (It's mostly freckles.)

All this glorious ocean-going has not, however, given me much time for reading or blogging. Since I last posted, I have read:

Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota, by Fraser Harrison, my Early Reviewers book from Librarything. It's a slim travelogue by a Brit, with sections on Deadwood, Wounded Knee, and the Badlands. Harrison writes well and wryly, although much of the time his subject matter doesn't allow for humor. I enjoyed this book quite a bit.

Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal. A cute riff on Jane Austen in which the Regency world has magic. The rivalry between our heroine and her sister (which, methinks, was the inspiration for the whole book) was a little too transparently Kowal thinking, "What would happen if Elinor and Marianne Dashwood were competing for the same man?"; and the hero wasn't developed enough for me. But this book was nonetheless adorable and a very soothing read.

Lord Tony's Wife, by Baroness Orczy. I invite you to revisit the previous entries about tight pants if you want more information about the Scarlet Pimpernel novels. I'm not proud of reading this nonsense, but sometimes you just need to fluff it up.

And I finished Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris, by David King. It tells the story of Marcel Petiot, a Paris doctor who murdered dozens of people (the exact number is unknown). He lured in his victims by claiming to run a network helping people escape occupied France, so naturally they were carrying all their money and belongings when they came to him, and he profited from that. It is a totally whacked-out story, and I was amazed I'd never heard of Petiot before, but the interest lies in the story and not King's way of telling it. As a narrator he is a bit dry, although his description of occupied Paris is excellent.

And that's it for now. We will return to something approximating our normal schedule of books, dog stories, and random silliness about my life soon enough!