Saturday, March 31, 2007

Reading Diary March 2007

As before, books read online are in green.

  1. The Silver Bough, Lisa Tuttle. Like Singer of Souls, an urban fantasy set in Scotland, but very different. Happenings both weird and wonderful, with a satisfying conclusion. Can't help feeling not everything adds up, though.
  2. Legacies, A. Paul Wilson. Repairman Jack's still fun, but didn't like this as much as The Tomb. Chaotic, rather episodic, with shocking waste of an interesting character's death.
  3. Making His Way, or Frank Courtney's Struggle Upward, Horatio Alger. Missing wills, chance encounters with benevolent millionaires. Character never really struggles or suffers.
  4. Andy Grant's Pluck, Horatio Alger. Pretty typical of his country-boy-goes-to-the-city tales. Hero gets numerous lucky breaks, but turns them into prosperity through hard work and virtue.
  5. Frank and Fearless: or, The Fortunes of Jasper Kent, Horatio Alger. One of the most boring of Alger's works. All nonsensical "adventure" story, no real boy-rises-through-industry.
  6. Romance Island, Zona Gale. Weird Lost-Horizons-like adventure tale.
  7. A Fatal Appraisal, J. B. Stanley. Not bad, but I wouldn't run out to buy the next one. Murderer and motive pretty obvious, not least because the motive is plastered all over the front cover.
  8. Ragged Dick, Horatio Alger. Alger's first and probably best work. Informative, unsentimental look at social and economic conditions. Dick is a genuinely likeable hero, and his rise is accomplished through his own resourcefulness and industry, with a minimum of coincidence and lucky breaks.
  9. The End of Mr. Y, Scarlett Thomas. A mind-blowing ride through cosmology, phenomenology, epistemology, theology, and no doubt many other -ologies I've missed. How can you not love a book that stars Apollo Smintheus, god of mice? It's amazing to me how a book like this can be embraced by the mainstream critics when it's so clearly science fiction, but more power to Thomas for pulling it off.
  10. Miss Lulu Bett, Zona Gale. This couldn't be more different from her insubstantial, fantastical, rather boring Romance Island. Closely observed, deeply felt tale of female oppression and liberation about a spinster of 34(!) in a small Midwest town. Too bad Lulu has to settle for marriage with the nearest man at the end.
  11. Miss Lulu Bett, Zona Gale. Gale's historic Pulitzer-winning stage adaptation of her novel. Interesting dual endings. In the original, Lulu does not settle for the nearest man, but goes off to make her own life. Audiences didn't care for this strong feminist message, so Gale rewrote it so that Ninian's first wife has died, and he and Lulu wind up together.
  12. Dope, Sara Gran. It's noir, baby. Gritty, entertaining tour through post-war New York with hookers, con men, petty thieves, and junkies -- and those are the good guys. Must admit I was blindsided by the ending.
  13. Conspiracies, F. Paul Wilson. A Repairman Jack living off the grid, dispensing his own idiosyncratic brand of justice, running into the occasional weird, inexplicable event? Sure, bring him on. A Repairman Jack as the sole defender of the universe against chaos and Eeevil? Oh no, no, no. Wilson just isn't a good enough writer to bring this off. I'm done with this series.
  14. Solstice Wood, Patricia A. McKillip. See post March 18, 2007.
  15. A Torrid Piece of Murder, C. F. Roe. One of those books that make me think people in the UK live in an alternate reality. Heroine's kids talk like teenagers and behave like 30somethings. Only real twist is that when the seriously ill heroine collapses while confronting the murderer in her deserted office, he goes for help rather than trying to polish her off.
  16. They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, Deanne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook. First of three books I bought during my visit to the battlefield at Manassas, VA. Should have been fascinating, but snooze-worthy instead. Badly structured, with a laundry-list approach to the evidence.
  17. Eyes of Crow, Jeri Smith-Ready. A post-apocalypse tale for the crunchy granola set. Completely lost interest after the third or fourth repetition of "Rhia evades her destiny; Rhia accepts her destiny."
  18. Alice Adams, Booth Tarkington. Wanted to read this after seeing the movie, which turned out to be a very faithful adaptation aside from the ending. Real ending much more realistic, both heart-breaking and encouraging, with the family reduced to taking in lodgers and Alice entering secretarial school. I really think they'll be much more comfortable on their proper rung on the social ladder, without the strain of trying to reach so high all the time.
  19. Beguiled, Alice Borchardt. Borchardt has written one good book. This isn't it.
  20. Dirty Blonde, Lisa Scottoline. Post to come.
  21. Firethorn, Sarah Miklem. Beautifully written, thoughtful tale of love between high and low. Never settles for the easy answer.
  22. Shane, the Lone Ethnographer, Sally Campbell Galman. See post March 28, 2007.
  23. The Good Fairies of New York, Martin Millar. Neil Gaiman recommends it and so do I. What else do you need to know?
  24. The Book of Jhereg, Steven Brust. Contains the books Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla. How glad I am that I read Brust's mock-heroic, Dumasian romances The Phoenix Guards and its sequels before picking up this book, because I really enjoyed them and I never would have sought them out had I read this first. Protagonist was so whiny in third book I really grew to dislike him.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Shameless Relative Promotion

When my brother was dating the brainy and beautiful woman who soon became my sister-in-law (he courted her with words like "privileging," "marginalized," and "hermenuetics"), he told us she was an ethnographer. "Huh?" I responded cogently.

Oh, if only she had already published Shane, the Lone Ethnographer! If she had, I would have known that ethnographers study groups of people who share a common culture, be they Trobriand Islanders or corporate wage slaves. But this is more than a textbook; it's a funny, informative graphic novel. (Can something be a graphic novel if it's nonfiction? Oh well; it's a graphic textbook.) This book proves that Sally is not just a rising academic star, but a talented writer and graphic artist.

Shane is a graduate student with a research project, a vivid imagination, and a penchant for Westerns. Guided by the shade of Ruth Benedict, among others, Shane learns how to develop and carry out her ethnography project with verve and humor. Seriously, you haven't lived until you've been lectured on theoretical stances by a talking armadillo or had cultural relativism summed up in the following exchange:

Conquistador: Primitives! You haven't even discovered pants!
Maya: Dude, it's 102 degrees and 97% humidity. You're the one wearing a metal suit.

I also love the animals that lurk in the corners of the frame, offering their comments on the text. Moo!

(I only have one complaint: in a book that references Westerns by the score, featuring a heroine named Shane, there's not one allusion to this movie.)

I'm glad to say that the book is an academic blockbuster and is already in its third printing, contributing literally tens of dollars to the family coffers! If you're at all curious about ethnography, or you just like learning stuff as long as it's presented well, get Shane, the Lone Ethnographer and contribute a dime to my darling niece's college fund.

Friday, March 23, 2007

More Solstice, Less Wood

Patricia A. McKillip once described something as being "as beautiful as a fragment of ancient poetry." That's an apt description of her whole body of work -- lyrical, enchanting, romantic, full of haunting imagery, evocative, elliptical. Her prose is lapidary, many-layered, full of symbols, elusive and allusive. Nothing is ever fully explained in a McKillip story; there are hints, glimmers, like the flash of fish in a pool, but nothing solid to hang onto, nothing the reader can be sure of. There are always mysteries left in the shadows.

Many critics have noted McKillip's penchant for riddles, most notably in her early books The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and the Riddle-Master trilogy. Indeed, the whole theme of the latter is "Answer the unanswered riddle." But even when the riddles are answered, questions remain. Who were the Earth-Masters? Where did their rivals come from, and why were they driven to destroy? How and why did humans rise in the place of these mighty peoples? We know fairly well why Morgon was chosen to be the Earth-Masters' heir, but what of Raederle? McKillip never tells us these things, even indirectly. This elliptical quality adds to our sense that each tale is but a piece of an infinitely greater saga, in the way that each Greek myth offers only one facet of a god's complex nature or that any one romance can never tell the whole story of King Arthur and his knights.

Even later works like Od Magic, where the framework is disappointingly slight, sustain a weight of mystery. What are the strange creatures sheltering on the mountain? Where did they come from and what powers do they possess? Questions like that nibble at the mind long after the book is closed.

Yet at times I have longed for McKillip to be more straightforward, to leave less to the reader's imagination and ability to piece clues together. Yes, yes, the shadow city of Ombria is changeable and elusive, but is it real? What actually happens to Corbett Lynn? How did Atrix Wolfe's actions trap Saro, how do they free her, and what does she go on to become?

So is it wrong of me to be sorry that my wish was finally answered? Solstice Wood is McKillip's latest novel, a sequel of sorts to Winter Rose. Three hundred years later, Corbett Lynn and Rois Melior's descendents gather at Lynn Hall to mourn the passing of Liam Lynn and anoint his heir to guard the passageways between our world and Faerie. As always, McKillip provides a rich array of characterization. There is the prickly and skittish Sylvia, afraid of her heritage, afraid to love; the gangly, unfinished Tyler, still mourning the death of his father and freaked out by his mother's remarriage; the indomitable Gran, zealously guarding the borders of the Otherworld, shouldering the burden despite Liam's nonchalance; the ladies of the Fiber Guild (very similar to the circle of wizards McKillip uses in her story "The Witches of Junket"); and the ageless, changeless, implacable Fairy Queen, who in the end is none of those things.

Ambiguity is a theme of the book: "Maybe. Maybe not. That's the point," is repeated several times. But perhaps by voicing it so clearly, the book banishes the ambiguity it's striving for. Everything is out in the open, on the surface. The prose, while still beautifully crafted, is straightforward and linear, with no wandering byways, no pockets of denser meaning. All the questions are answered: why did Sylvia run away? who was her father? what happened to Tyler? what makes Leith Rowan so special? what happened to Owen's wife? what does the Fairy Queen want? There's nothing hidden here, nothing beckoning the reader on to further revelations.

It's as though McKillip, like her characters, is bringing down the barriers between reality and Faerie. But in opening the way so clearly to Faerie, she removes the mystery, the wonder, the enchantment that has always drawn us there. So I take back my wish: Patricia, turn your lamps down low again, and let me have the shadows back.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Come Again, Your Majesty?

It's been about 2 weeks since I saw The Queen, and I'm still stewing over one throwaway line. In Scotland, Elizabeth II is wringing her hands about the impossible demands of those pesky commoners and wondering if it's time she stepped aside in favor of Charles. Her indomitable mother rears back in horror and says she can't do that because she's part of "an unbroken line going back a thousand years."

I can't figure out whether that line represents the royal family's view of itself or the filmmakers'. But either way, it's patent nonsense.

When historians talk about "an unbroken line" of descent, they mean from parent (generally father) to child (generally son) through the generations. Sometimes they may even count such things as passing the title from brother to brother or uncle to nephew. They don't mean an illegitimately descended cousin killing the king and taking the throne for himself; deposing a king whose religion you don't like; or disinheriting the legitimate son of that king and passing the crown to a cousin who is 52nd in line for the throne. (I think there's probably still a few Scots around who'd give you an argument about that.)

Even if the Queen Mum is just saying that, unlike other European royalty, the English monarchy has existed since the time of William the Conqueror, that too is less than factual. Or maybe she just forgot about Oliver Cromwell and that whole pesky Interregnum thing.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Home Sweet Home Again

I travel pretty frequently for my employer, the Boring Corporation, and I've just returned from a 2-week trip. Next to my cat, my own bed, and my own shower, the thing I'm happiest to come home to is my own TV.

Seriously, why does hotel TV service suck so much? Here's the typical channel line-up of a hotel TV: the incessantly babbling buy-our-pay-per-view channel; ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox; one PBS channel (but never the one showing the thing you want to watch); four channels of ESPN; Discovery; The Weather Channel; the History Channel (all World War II, all the time); three channels of C-Span; TBS and TNT; and maybe HBO (except I never want to watch anything on HBO). That might be sufficient if you were my Dad, but not for 99 percent of the rest of us.

For the love of humanity, where's the Bravo? Do you know how many episodes of Project Runway, Top Chef, and Top Design I've missed? (Good thing they rerun them so incessantly.) Where's the freaking CW? Veronica Mars can't solve all those mysteries by herself, you know. And where in the name of all that's holy is the Turner Classic Movies?

Thank God I'm home at last. Friday night on my own comfy sofa with my kitty watching Stacy and Clinton snarking the fashion-challenged? It doesn't get any better than that.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Pyle On

I'm not very good at telling who's "supposed" to be good-looking on TV. I mean, I watched Blossom for a whole season without knowing that they were grooming Joey Lawrence to be the new teen sensation. Ditto for Friends: I caught up with the show late and watched it for quite a while before realizing that Matt LeBlanc was "the hot one" and Matthew Perry was the guy who always lost the girl. (Note to all casting directors everywhere: smart and funny do it for me over dumb and blank every time.)

So having confessed my weakness, I still gotta ask: does anyone really find Missi Pyle attractive? I had never to my knowledge seen her before she showed up on an episode of Heroes, and I wouldn't have thought twice about her except that the forum posters at Television Without Pity were going on and on about her.

I could ignore Ando's instantaneous reaction to her, since it's been well-established that he's a horndog who pants after anyone blonde (and brunettes are OK too, although so far he seems immune to redheads). But then she showed up again on The Wedding Bells (a show I hope never to have to sit through again), where it's mentioned many times over how beautiful she is. Again, I don't get it. She looks like a horse with a bad dye job. If I had the money her character was supposed to have, I think I could have touched up my roots better than that.

For me the funniest part was when she refused to appear for her wedding because she didn't feel sexy. The photographer had her dancing around and raising her dress in a ludicrous attempt to unleash her inner hootchie mama. She walked down the aisle in a glow of satisfaction, but I? Thought she could have danced around all damn day without ever once approaching "sexy."

Somebody tell me this is all an elaborate hoax and this is not what women are supposed to aspire to looking like.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Marlene on the Wall

I love Netflix. With one click of the mouse, I got three DVDs with five Marlene Dietrich movies, four of which I'd never seen and three of which I'd never heard of.

Last night I watched Morocco, which pairs Dietrich as a world-weary cabaret singer with Gary Cooper as a Foreign Legionnaire and local Lothario. After one night, although they don't seem to like each other much, these two scarred people form a bond indissoluble by time, deserts, or the attractions of an insanely wealthy and adoring rival.

Much has rightly been made of Marlene's ambiguous sexuality; the scene where, clad in a tuxedo, she kisses a female nightclub patron and then throws a flower to Cooper is almost breathtakingly hot. But Gary is rocking some ambiguity of his own, with his high cheekbones and big doe eyes. I'm not a big fan of his; his demeanor is often stiff and his delivery stilted. But here he is startlingly young*, fresh, and flexible; despite his macho attitude, he could easily be the submissive one in this relationship. He also has some very amusing business, including his saucy little salute (charmingly imitated by Dietrich) and continual ducking to avoid being beaned by doorways too low for his lanky frame.

Adolphe Menjou also contributes his customary suavity to the proceedings as a rich painter also in love with Dietrich. I kept waiting for him to show his true colors as a bad guy, but he never does; good guy or bad guy, he always presents the same starched urbanity and dapper mustache.

As a whole the movie is only fair. I'm not that familiar with Josef von Sternberg's work, so I can't say if this movie is typical, but the direction is off throughout. For a picture filled with sex, exotic locales, romance, adventure, violence, and sex, the pace is unbearably slow, and the action is often confusing. For example, the wife of the legion commander pleads for Cooper's attentions; Dietrich comes looking for him and Cooper escorts her home; there is a fight outside her apartment, in which Cooper fends off two Moroccans. Were they sent by Capt. Caesar, who has been spying on his wife's extracurricular activities? Cooper sends Dietrich inside before the authorities arrive and Mme. Caesar scurries off, still veiled; yet how does Caesar know they were involved, without admitting he was present?

Morocco also reminds me of one of the most deeply perplexing and persistent questions in the history of Hollywood: what on earth ever convinced Marlene Dietrich that she was a singer, and who kept encouraging her? Her harsh, grating, thoroughly unmusical voice could work to her advantage in films like Destry Rides Again, where she sings only rough barroom ditties and you can imagine she's not supposed to be that talented. But in this movie, as in so many others, she's clearly presented as a fabulous performer, and her post-war concert tours indicate that people actually liked and responded to her singing. *Shrug* I just don't get it.

I'm looking forward to the rest of the series. Netflix, keep 'em coming.

*Laugh of the evening: Cynical Cooper declares he wishes he had met Dietrich 10 years ago, before he lost his faith in women; the real Cooper was 29, and his character looks younger. Yeah, those cheerleaders can be like totally rough.