Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"101 Things You Didn't Know About Jane Austen" by Patrice Hannon

I picked this up on the bookstore's bargain shelves a couple months ago, thinking it would be basically a list of 101 random facts about Jane Austen, one to a page or something. I flipped through it a bit, saw it was more substantial than that, and figured for less than $10, I couldn't go wrong.

Turns out, this book is a little bit biography, a little bit literary analysis of Austen's works. The only purpose the 101 facts seem to serve is to break up the book into readable chunks, and they're not even presented as "facts," but more as topic headings. Here's a sampling:
5. A family member meets the guillotine
25. Arrested for shoplifting!
59. Why are there so many clergymen in Jane's Austen's novels?
As you can see, this book covers a wide variety of material, and in only 230 pages. For the casual fan of Austen, like me, it's a great way to learn more about the author and her books. Those who are avid Austenites would probably also enjoy it, particularly if they want to know more about the author herself, but don't have time for a lengthy biography. I enjoyed the bits of literary analysis the most, undoubtedly because I minored in English and still love delving deeper into books than what an initial reading gives you.

101 Things You Didn't Know About Jane Austen: The Truth About the World's Most Intriguing Literary Heroine is a fairly easy read, and enjoyable even if you haven't read all her novels yet (like I haven't). It's not engrossing, however, and it took me over a month to read it because I kept getting sidetracked by other books. But because it's broken up into 101 little chunks, it's perfect for picking up whenever you have a few minutes.

(Originally posted on The Huggermugger Blog on Nov. 16, 2009.)

"Death du Jour" by Kathy Reichs

I read Death du Jour so quickly, I didn't even get around to putting it in my sidebar here before I'd finished it. I'd say it was even more absorbing that Reichs' first book, Deja Dead. The characters are more fully realized this time around, and the dialog in most places was much more natural.

Once again, the story crept inside my head and stayed there until I'd finished the book, which is the main reason I read it in just a couple days despite it being nearly 400 pages long. That's pretty rare for me these days, with my son demanding so much of my attention, though it was normal for me back in my pre-parenting days. It was possibly even more creepy than Deja Dead, as it dealt with things like cults and some decidedly unnatural deaths. So if you're not a fan of creepy books or all those forensic crime shows on TV, you might not dig this.

Death du Jour focuses on a series of seemingly unrelated murders in Canada and South Carolina that Dr. Tempe Brennan ends up investigating more than her jobs as forensic anthropologist and professor would ordinarily necessitate. It involves more personal relationships than its predecessor, and we not only meet up with Brennan's daughter and ex, but also her sister and nephew. And her professional relationship with Montreal detective Andrew Ryan takes a more personal turn as well, much to my delight.

Reichs' descriptions are the most powerful aspect of her writing, something I admire since I often struggle when describing things in my own writing. Here's my favorite passage from this book: "The new flakes lay white atop the underlying gray, like newborn innocence on last year's sins." Good stuff!

(Originally posted on The Huggermugger Blog on Oct. 7, 2009.)

"O Jerusalem" by Laurie R. King

I've read O Jerusalem before, but I think I enjoyed it more this second time through, possibly because I got to relish the storytelling this time through instead of breathlessly wondering what would happen next. It's one of Ms. King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books, and it's actually the fifth book in the series, although it takes place during the events of the first book, The Beekeeper's Apprentice. Someone recommended that I read O Jerusalem after Apprentice and before the second book, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, and I've done that on both my trips through the Russell/Holmes books. I've yet to read all of this series, but I was inspired to start the series afresh when I met Ms. King a few months ago at a book reading. I'm not sure it's best to read the books out of published order like this, but that's how I've done it, so oh well.

O Jerusalem follows Mary Russell and her mentor Sherlock Holmes to Palestine, where they seek refuge from a deadly enemy back in Britain while helping solve a mystery in the Holy Land. Since this is a mystery, I won't say much more, so as to not spoil things for anyone coming newly to this marvelous series. If you want to know more, you can read an excerpt and reviews here on Ms. King's site. I will only say that this book continues the exceptional relationship between Russell and Holmes and is an adventure worthy of them both. If you are a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I highly recommend this series, as it is the best non-Doyle portrayal of the master sleuth I have ever read.

(Originally posted on The Huggermugger Blog on Sep. 1, 2009.)

"The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" by Alexander McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is an engaging book, full of earthy wisdom and charming observations on life. Told mostly from the point of view of Mma Ramotswe, the only lady detective in all of Botswana, this book is a collection of several small mysteries and one larger one that runs through the others now and again. I found this to be a quick read, though not a particularly absorbing one.

My favorite aspect of this book was the look it gave me at life in modern Botswana, as well as other parts of Africa. Mma Ramotswe had a likeable voice, and the writing was never dull. But as a mystery book, it wasn't terribly exciting. So if you're looking for a thrilling mystery, this might not be for you. But if you want some lighter mysteries, this would probably please you. I thought it was a good summer read.

(Originally posted on The Huggermugger Blog on Aug. 11, 2009.)

"Brisingr" by Christopher Paolini

On a whole, I found Brisingr to be a much smoother, richer, more thoughtful book than the first two in the series, Eragon and Eldest. Paolini's writing becomes more subtle with each book, and you can definitely see him growing from a talented adolescent into a gifted adult writer.

In fact, the only thing I didn't particularly like about Brisingr is something it can't help: it's a middle book. As such, it doesn't have a definite conclusion, but keeps leading up to things that will happen in the final book.

For those who found out about Eragon's parentage in Eldest and thought it was too much of a Star Wars rip-off, I say this: new information comes to light in this book. Read it.

(Originally posted on The Huggermugger Blog on Aug. 2, 2009.)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

"The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner

I got about 120 pages into this book, then realized that for three days running, I'd chosen to read Potty Training in Less Than a Day rather than Faulkner because the potty training book was more interesting. So I quit reading Faulkner. Because I have very little time to read right now, and I'm not going to waste it on something I'm not enjoying or learning from.

I'm not a big fan of stream-of-consciousness. Virginia Woolf gives me a headache. This didn't quite go that far, as it's not entirely stream-of-consciousness... but it's also told all out of order, which also annoys me. Sometimes it can work to tell a story in circles -- think Catch-22 by Joseph Heller -- and sometimes it seems to serve no purpose other than to try to show how clever the author is to tell a story in a non-conventional way.

Yes, Faulkner is an Important Writer. Yes, I've read some of his short stories and liked them. Yes, his books are Modern Classics. But I simply didn't like this book.

(Originally posted on The Huggermugger Blog on Jun. 29, 2009.)

"Deja Dead" by Kathy Reichs

Deja Dead is Kathy Reichs' first novel, and it's a riveting read. Her dialog can be a bit stilted, but her characters were excellent, and the plot kept me guessing, which is actually a bit unusual for a mystery.

I don't mean that in a conceited way -- I love reading mysteries, and I don't usually try to figure out whodunit or anything else. I like letting the stories unfold before me, without me spending time trying to outsmart the author. If I do figure the ending out ahead of time, I get all disappointed and feel like the author didn't do their job very well.

But while I read Deja Dead, I couldn't stop the story from popping into my head while I wasn't reading it. I had theories on who the bad guy was (all wrong, yay!) and who would die next (I was mostly wrong, so mostly yay!), and I kept trying to figure out how I was going to get creeped out next.

Yes, this is a somewhat creepy book. Reichs is a real-life forensic anthropologist, like her protagonist, Dr. Temperance Brennan. She fills this book with all sorts of vivid details about death and other not-so-yummy-things -- so vivid sometimes that my skin started to crawl. If you're a fan of forensic TV shows like Bones, NCIS, and the CSI: shows, then you'll probably do fine here. If those churn your stomach, you might want to avoid this book.

Boreanaz and Deschanel on Bones
Speaking of Bones, these books by Kathy Reichs spawned that show. I've been a fan of the show right from the start, due to the presence of David Boreanaz (who had starred in my second-most-favorite-show-ever, Angel). Bones is a really fun show, revolving around the characters of Dr. Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth (Boreanaz). I think my biggest surprise while reading this book wasn't at all related to the plot -- it was regarding how different the book's Dr. Brennan is from the one on the show. On Bones, Dr. Brennan is socially awkward and has a pretty unusual view of life, people, relationships, everything. The Deja Dead Dr. Brennan is cerebral, but not to the point of social awkwardness. She's actually a divorcee with a college-age daughter, and seems to have no problem relating to "normal" people. There was no Seeley Booth, but I'm hoping he pops up in one of the next books in the series.

So, I enjoyed Deja Dead, and I hope to read the next book or two later this summer. If you like forensic mysteries, you'll dig it!

(Originally posted on The Huggermugger Blog on Jun. 23, 2009.)

"Giant" by Edna Ferber

James Dean as Jett Rink in Giant (1955)

When I was a kid, one of the movies my family watched over and over was Giant (1955), which stars James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor. I was crazy in love with James Dean's character, Jett Rink. He was sweet, sad, shy, and eventually became a gazillionaire. Swoon.

It's surprising that it took me this long to read the novel, I guess. But not nearly as surprising, for me, as the differences between the book and the movie. Much of the movie is very faithful to the original plot, characters, and setting. But there's one major difference:  Jett Rink. No shy, backwards ranch hand with a schoolboy crush is he, not in the book. He's mean, he's conniving, and he's cruel.

But despite Jett being so different from my childhood idol, I did enjoy this book. Ferber has a firm grasp of full-bodied characterization and an acidic wit that made for a fast-paced, enjoyable read. I didn't even mind her occasional bursts of stream-of-consciousness. It was a good way to kick off the summer.

But I like the movie better, mostly because of Jett Rink.

(Originally posted on Inscriptions on Jun. 5, 2009.)

"Hollywood Buzz (Starring Pucci Lewis)" by Margit Liesche

I love classic Hollywood and the WWII era, so it's no surprise I enjoyed this book. Hollywood Buzz (Starring Pucci Lewis) by Margit Liesche is a fast-paced mix of mystery, excitement, Hollywood glamour, and a little romance thrown in just for fun.

The lively heroine, Pucci Lewis, is a WASP -- as in Women Airforce Service Pilot -- who also happens to be good at undercover work. She gets assigned to Hollywood to see to it that a film about the WASPs is portraying them accurately, and also to try to find out if a fellow pilot's recent accident was the result of sabotage or not. Pucci tackles both parts of her assignment with a determination and bouncy charm that kept making me try to decide whether they should cast Claudette Colbert or Ginger Rogers in the role. The supporting cast includes an attentive screenwriter, a mysterious Gypsy housekeeper, a handsome former pilot, and none other than screen legend Bela Lugosi.

Hollywood Buzz is a fun, fast read, perfect for the beach blanket or hammock this summer. It's actually a sequel to Liesche's debut novel, Lipstick and Lies, which also stars Pucci Lewis, and which I intend to get from the library myself this summer.

(Originally posted on Inscriptions on May 11, 2009.)

"Richard Burton: Prince of Players" by Michael Munn

I am hereby declaring Michael Munn to be my favorite biographer of movie stars.

Actually, I've been a fan of his for a few years -- I bought a copy of his John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth without ever having read it, which is odd, because I'd never managed to finish reading a biography of John Wayne before. They always angered me, because if they were written while he was still alive and acting, they were generally hyped-up image-creators; if they were written more recently, they focused on his flaws and failings and tried to destroy his image. But I bought Munn's book because from the back cover and the few pages I skimmed, I learned he had actually met John Wayne and had respect for him, as a man and as an actor. It turned out to be one of the best book purchases I've ever made. Munn treated Wayne as a human, neither deifying nor demonizing him, which is exactly how I wanted my hero treated.

So when I saw Munn's biography of Richard Burton on the "New Books" shelf at the library, I picked it up. And since the index at the back of the book listed no fewer than nine references to Hamlet, I had to get it.

Richard Burton is not one of my very most favorite actors -- he's probably in my top thirty. I enjoy his work, I've seen quite a few of his movies and own three or four, and I love his turn as Hamlet on stage. But he's not someone I'd seek out a biography of. Still, since Michael Munn had written this one, I figured it was worth a read. And I was right.

Michael Munn knew Burton personally and worked with him several times, so the book is full of first-hand accounts and anecdotes, as well as stories told to the author by Burton's friends and colleagues. And once again, Munn's subject emerges as a fully-rounded human being, a man with a talent for acting and a taste for alchohol and women. Munn neither condones nor condemns Burton's faults, he simply tries to get his readers to understand him. And what more could anyone ask from a biographer?

I'm going to see if the library has any more of Munn's books, as I see he's written about other actors I like, such as Jimmy Stewart, Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, and Clint Eastwood. If you like learning about Hollywood and the real people behind its glitzy images, I suggest you do the same.

(Originally posted on Inscriptions on Nov. 13, 2008.)

"Lone Creek" by Neil McMahon

I just finished reading Lone Creek this afternoon. The only reason I didn't read it all in one day is my 2-year-old; spending most of my time running around after him meant it took me three days to read it instead. And considering it runs 300+ pages, that tells you something about how engrossed I was.

Lone Creek is a noirish mystery set in modern-day Montana. It has a flavor that's a cross between Raymond Chandler and Larry McMurtry; the protagonist is sort of hard-boiled-detective meets good-old-boy. It revolves around two mysteries, one in the present and one in the past.

It all starts when Hugh Davoren finds a couple of gruesomely slaughtered horses. And since we all know that anyone who's mean to horses is Evil, we all know that there must be an Evil Person around. Then the human bodies start piling up too, and Hugh winds up on the run from the law and the Evil Person. And he also falls for a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to a girl who died mysteriously when Hugh was a boy. That old mystery gets tangled up with this new one, and it's not until several plot twists later that everything gets straightened out (mostly, anyway).

My favorite character was actually Hugh's best buddy, Madbird, a Blackfoot Indian with a flair for sarcasm and spookiness. Every scene he was in was extra-intriguing.

If you like tales of the New West, mysteries, or love stories with a touch of the supernatural, you'll probably like Lone Creek.

(Originally posted on Inscriptions on Sep. 21, 2008.)

"Eragon" by Christopher Paolini

If you've gone into a bookstore in the last five years, or even walked down the books aisle at Wal-Mart or Target, you've probably seen this book. It probably made the biggest splash in the young reading market since Harry Potter. Several of my friends read it, read the sequel (Eldest), and are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the final book (Brisingr) later this year. So why did it take me this long to read it myself?

Probably because I kept reading/hearing that it was really just a rehash of Lord of the Rings. Or of Star Wars. Or of Harry Potter. People also said it was badly written, or immaturely written, or predictable, or boring, or... you get the picture.

So I decided to read it for myself, to see if it was as good, or as bad, as people said.

It is.

Christopher Paolini started writing Eragon when he was a teenager. And it feels like it was written by a teen, with some odd pacing and writing that is both spare and wordy. S. E. Hinton he isn't (but who is?). So don't read this book if you're looking for sparkling prose or perfect plotting. But if you want a fun, fairly fast read, something to divert you this summer while you're on a plane or the beach, go for it! I liked it well enough that I got the second book out of the library.

Oh, and as for the accusation that it's similar to Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or Harry Potter -- of course it is! It follows the pattern of all great myth-based stories. Our hero gets a call to action, acquires a mentor, meets up with some archetypal characters, and engages in a big battle against the Evil One. I don't call that copying, I call that utilizing the mythic story structure. For more info on that, read The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth by James N. Frey or The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

(Originally posted on Inscriptions on Jun. 22, 2008.)

"The Ninth Configuration" by William Peter Blatty

Huh. Here's another rarity: I just read a book that a movie was based on, and decided I liked the movie better. Usually I see a movie, then read the book, and like the book better, but still like the movie too. Sometimes I read a book, then see the movie, and generally prefer the book. Not this time.

I saw The Ninth Configuration in a film class in college and liked it right away. It's twisted, it's weird, it's off-beat, it's creepy, and it's very unlike most of the movies I like. But I dug it anyway. In fact, I dug it so much, I actually bought a copy, albeit a used one from a video store that was going out of business.

The story centers around this Vietnam-era batch of soldiers (and one astronaut) who are presumably bonkers (but possibly faking). They're stuck in a funky old castle in the Pacific Northwest. Into their midst comes one Colonel Kane, psychiatrist, all-around sweet guy, and also... no, I can't tell you the rest, it's too wonderful a movie to spoil.

So when I found the book a few months ago at a used book sale, how could I resist? It was written by William Peter Blatty (author of The Exorcist), who also wrote, directed, and produced the movie. I picked it up, hoping I would like it as well as I like the movie.

But I don't.

Oh, it's pretty well-written, and for the most part the movie follows the book very closely. Sometimes it's word-for-word, which is to be expected from a screenplay written by the same guy that wrote the book.

But he changed the ending. And I like the movie ending better. It's not a big change -- essentially the same things happen, except there's a slightly different reasoning going on in the movie, and there's one little thing that I really liked that isn't in the book. So I guess I'll be keeping the movie and passing the book on, as I definitely don't have room in this apartment for books I only sort-of like.


(Originally posted on Inscriptions on Apr. 2, 2008.)

"A Gift from the Sea" by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

It's hard to describe why this book has impacted me so strongly. I really feel like I need to read it again -- or for a first time, technically, since I listened to it as an audio book on the way to a friend's house. But for now, let me just say that I think the things I got from this book are what my writing prof was trying to teach me by having me read "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf. That didn't really speak to me very much, or maybe I wasn't in the right place in my life to listen to it. But this book did touch me in some pretty profound ways.

I've been a fan of Anne Morrow Lindbergh ever since I read Bring Me a Unicorn for my Creative Writing class when I was a college sophomore. Her letters and diary entries reminded me of myself, in a way, a young girl growing up not exactly lonely, but apart somehow. That book crossed my path right when I was ready for it, ready to look back at my childhood and adolescence and think about how it had shaped who I was becoming.

A Gift from the Sea also crossed my path at a rather perfect moment. As my baby grows and stretches my tummy farther and farther, thoughts and curiosities and fears about motherhood occupy a slice of my mental life. Will I still be able to find time to write? Will I want to? Should I want to? Will my need for alone-time, now fulfilled in the one night a week my husband works that I don't, decrease? Will I still need time to myself, but feel too selfish to take any? Lindbergh discusses this exact issue from her vantage point as a mother of five and successful author, and the things she said resonated with me and the ways I expect to feel in the coming years. If nothing else, her words assured me that I'm not the only woman who needs alone time, who needs to create things to feel more complete, be they stories or books or afghans or pumpkin pies.

That's about all I can say about this book right now -- I definitely need to read it again. I'll probably put it on my Christmas list. But if you're interested in women writers and their perspectives, find this book.

(Originally posted on Inscriptions on Jun. 20, 2007.)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"Keeping Watch" by Laurie R. King

I've been trying to write this blog post for about three days now, but I can never seem to find quite the words I'm looking for. So I guess I'll just go with the words that come to me without requiring a hunting expedition.

Once in a while I read a book that changes me. Many books delight me, some inspire me, and others teach me. But every now and then I read a book that changes me in some way. Maybe it changes my understanding of war and killing, the way On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman did. It could end my distrust of biographies of famous people I love, the way John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth by Michael Munn did. Or it could change my attitude toward the usefulness of descriptions, the way my first Raymond Chandler novel did (that was The Big Sleep, if you're interested).

Laurie R. King's book Keeping Watch changed me. It's one of the first modern adult novels set in the present to suck me in so deeply that I don't want to leave the book's world even when I should be sleeping or eating or showering. Older books can do that for me, and the Harry Potter books as well, but most modern novels for adults somehow keep me at a distance. Either the characters are too self-aware and self-critical for me to really like them or the plot is too conscious of being clever, or the bad guys have too many nice streaks for me to hate them. Something always goes slightly awry and keeps me from disappearing into the book. Even the predecessor to this book, Folly, did not pull me in completely. It was a fascinating book with a great character, but I kept guessing what would happen next. Even though I was wrong half the time, the fact that the story felt guessable kept me from being entranced.

But Keeping Watch never felt guessable. I couldn't imagine what each new page would bring, but I couldn't wait to find out. Even though the subjects aren't pleasant -- child abuse, soldiering during the Vietnam Conflict, and the mental disturbances that can result from both -- the characters felt so very real that I simply needed to find out how they would deal with whatever happened next.

And I've been forced to change my mind about the quality of modern fiction set in the modern world. It doesn't have to be bleak, post-modernist, self-absorbed, or self-conscious. This just might mean I'll have to read more modern books and see if there are other good ones out there.

(Originally posted on Inscriptions on Apr. 21, 2007.)

"John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet" by Richard L. Sterne

As I may have mentioned before (and probably have), I'm very fond of Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. I've read it probably ten or eleven times in the past ten years and seen at least six versions on film (though none on stage yet). I've read several books pertaining to it, ranging from the scholarly Hamlet in Purgatory by Stephen Greenblatt to fictional retellings like John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius and Alan Gordon's An Antic Disposition. I wrote several papers about the play during college and studied in in a couple different classes.

So while I am by no means an expert on Hamlet, I am definitely familiar with the play and more than passingly fond of it.

Which means it's very odd that it took me this long to get around to reading Richard L. Sterne's journal of rehearsals, John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet. I actually did read a tiny bit of it when I was a college senior while doing a paper on Gielgud's relationship with the role, but I didn't have time to read the whole thing. All I can say now is, what a shame.

Because this book is brilliant. Basically, Richard L. Sterne had a small role in the 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet that starred Richard Burton as the embattled prince and which John Gielgud directed. Sterne smuggled a tape recorder (which occupied a whole briefcase back then!) into all the rehearsals and recorded all the cast's discussions of the play and, most importantly, Gielgud's own ideas about the play and the main role.

And the insights Gielgud had into the play are breathtaking. He'd played the role hundreds of times, setting the previous Broadway record for performances of the play in the 1920s (which Burton broke and I believe still holds). He'd participated in quite a few productions, even one in Elsinore itself. And he'd obviously studied the play and thought deeply about it for years and years and years.

Which means the book is chock full of wonderful little perceptive statements from Gielgud like these:
"I don't agree with Larry [Olivier], who said in the film that this is a play about a man who can't make up his mind. Surely it's about a man who cannot reconcile his own conscience with the world as he sees it, but who is able to come to this reconciliation by the end of the play" (56).
"What I find so fascinating about the part is that Hamlet always begins a scene one way and has to end it in another because something has happened in the course of the scene. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's spying doesn't occur to him until he catches them. The arrival of the Players causes another enormous change. he meets Ophelia in the nunnery scene and he doesn't know how she'll react to him. Then he realizes they are spying on him and there's another change. He goes to his mother, hears a voice, and kills Polonius, and this changes the whole course of his life" (59).
"Claudius is a professional poisoner, and as soon as Laertes mentions it, we should see him already planning to go one better" (71).
"They're bad, shallow people, the people in this play. All except Hamlet, Horatio, the Gravedigger, and the Player King. They all have a zestful superficiality which should create a feeling of corruption" (91).

And there are lots of wonderful discussions about the various parts and scenes between the actors and the director, things like this:

"BURTON: John, do you suppose I could start the "too, too solid flesh" before the court leaves?
GIELGUD: No, no. This is the most realistic of the soliloquies and it would seem odd that the Courtiers would fail to hear it if they were there.
BURTON: I would like to be close to the audience for this. (Burton moves downstage and says the soliloquy with great energy and passion.)
GIELGUD: That's fine, but I think it's too active. Keep it sad and simple. Soft. He's down -- a very sad boy, but not morose" (22-3).
You get to hear all about the process of blocking the play, rehearsing different scenes, changing things around, even changing the costumes. In fact, it really made me wish I was involved in a theatrical production again. Maybe some day I'll go back to living in the daylight and join a local theater group or something. If I get really gutsy.

At any rate, this book was so delightful, so crammed with thoughts about the play that I'd never even considered, that I simply had to buy my own copy. I have a feeling it's one I'll return to often.

(All quotations taken from the 1967 edition from Random House.)

(Originally posted on Inscriptions on Mar. 28, 2007.)

"An Antic Disposition" by Alan Gordon

It has been a great year so far for discovering awesome books! This week I read An Antic Disposition by Alan Gordon. The cover describes it as "A Medieval Mystery," but it's so much more than that! It's actually a wonderful retelling of Hamlet. I like it way better than Updike's Gertrude and Claudius, although it's similar in the name-changing department. This one messes with the story more, particularly the ending (which is unexpected and makes me think of things like The Sting and Mission: Impossible).

The story is set up as a tale being told by the leader of the Fool's Guild to a bunch of other fools (aka jesters), including a guy named Theophilos. It seems Alan Gordon has written several books about Theophilos, who we find out is actually involved in the story of Hamlet, but I won't spoil it for you and tell you who he is. The tale starts out following one fool, Terence of York, as he gets involved with the Danish court and befriends the young prince, Amleth, who nicknames him "Yorick".

This is a book full of intrigue, humor, and more than a little violence. Even if you're not obsessed with Hamlet the way I am, if you like suspense and mystery stories, try to find this book. You will be entranced.

(Originally posted on Inscriptions on Feb. 23, 2006.)

"Zorro" by Isabel Allende

I finished reading Zorro, by Isabel Allende, this week. It was amazing! As in, I wish I'd written it myself. I love books that make me feel that way, they keep me inspired to keep writing my own stuff. 

This has one of those plots where all sorts of little things that happen along the way keep coming in handy or becoming important later on. It's long and a little rambly, but in a good "what's gonna happen next?" way. Every time one adventure kind of winds down, another one starts up, so I kept wanting to read more and more and never stop. Plus, it's got pirates in it too, which I was not expecting. Unanticipated piratery is always good ;-) 

The voice of the novel is great too, like some friend of yours is telling you all the stuff that happened when they went on a vacation. Only they had a fun and fascinating vacation, not the kind where you spend most of the time in the car trying to get somewhere interesting. I think I might actually buy my own copy of this book, I liked it that well.

(Originally posted on Inscriptions on Jan 24, 2006.)

"John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth" by Michael Munn

Tonight I finished reading John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth by Michael Munn. It's the first biography of John Wayne I've ever managed to finish reading. I don't usually read biographies of celebrities that I admire, because too often they end up ruining my idolization by waving all sorts of dirty laundry in my face. In fact, up to this point, the only celebrity biography I'd made it through is Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee by their son, Dodd Darin. (I own that particular book, and now also this one about the Duke.)

I think the difference between these two books and the other celebrity biographies I've tried--and failed--to read is that these are written with real love and/or respect for the people they're describing. Michael Munn actually met John Wayne in the 70's, and his description of the time he spent in the Duke's company is especially touching. The book basically details John Wayne's whole life, from birth in Winterset, IA, to his death in CA. Munn discusses every movie the Duke made, and makes extensive use of interviews with others that worked on those films, letting them tell the story for him. Through these first-person reminiscences, we get to see different sides of John Wayne's personality down through the years.

For instance, here's something Lee Marvin told the author about a conversation he had with John Wayne on the set of The Commancheros:

"Duke said to me, 'I think there's a great part for you in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.' I said, 'Which part would that be?' He said, 'Liberty Valance.' I said, 'Who's the man who shot him?' He said, 'Me.' I said, 'Duke, if anyone's gonna shoot me, I can't think of anyone I'd rather be shot by.' And he was as good as his word." (pg 231)
Munn also writes about the Communist plot to assassinate John Wayne, which I hadn't heard about before. It seems pretty credible, and although I can't link you to any text from the book concerning it, here's something in another bookthat gives you a general idea. I was anti-Communist before, but now...whooo, they tried to kill John Wayne! At least three times! Yeeeeahhhhh. I think I'm gonna go burn anything remotely red-colored in my closet...

Anyway, it's a great book, and I kinda want to just start reading it over again right away. I enjoyed it that much!

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Aug 2, 2005.)

"I Never Had it Made" by Jackie Robinson with Alfred Duckett

I've been trying to find my own Civil Rights Hero--like an activist from the 50s and 60s that I could really relate to and kind of idolize. You know, someone I could point to and say, "Hey, this person did a lot to further good relations between the races, helped America get over stuff like bigotry, and was neat in personal life too." Now, there are a lot of people who point to activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Malcolm X as the ones we should hero-ize when it comes to Civil Rights. The thing is, all three of those activists did things in their personal lives, espoused ideas, or embraced religions that I don't agree with or that offend me. None of them are people that I can really get jazzed up about, that I can talk about with enthusiasm and fervor. I can't point to any of them and say, without qualms or exceptions, "I wanna be like this person--they did good things and stood for good stuff." So you see why I've been looking for my own Civil Rights Hero.

I think I've found one at last: Jackie Robinson. Yup! The baseball player, first African-American in the Major Leagues. I just finished reading his autobiography, I Never Had it Made, and while I know that most autobiographies need to be taken with a grain (or shaker) of salt, this one contained far less hubris than most I've read. I'll try to find some other books to read about him too, to see if my image of him seems to be a good one. So far I see him as an honest man, a dedicated Christian husband and father--someone who stood up for what he believed in, and was willing to endure all sorts of abuses and insults just to aid his fellow black people to break down the barriers white society had erected. And he also didn't gloss over the mistakes and errors in judgment that he made throughout his athletic, business, and political careers. The chapter in which he discussed the death of his son, Jackie Jr, moved me to tears several times.

So here are two things he says in this book (Robinson, Jackie with Alfred Duckett. I Never Had it Made. New York: Putnam, 1972.) that I really really like:

"The first freedom for all people is freedom of choice. I want to live in a neighborhood of my choice where I can afford to pay the rent. I want to send my children to school where I believe they will develop best. I want the freedom to rise as high in my career as my ability indicates. I want to be free to follow the dictates of my own mind and conscience without being subject to the pressures of any man, black or white. I think that is what most people of all races want." (pg 103)

"A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives." (265)

I may elaborate more on this later. For now, I'm tired, it's been a hard day's night, and Cowboy agrees it's time for sleep.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Apr. 26, 2005.)

"The Eyre Affair" by Jasper Fforde

I just read an astounding new book: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Well, it's not 100% new; it first got published in 2002. But considering that the last book I read was published in 1897, it's pretty new. There's a sequel out now: Lost in a Good Book, which I plan to read as soon as the new bookstore in town gets it in for me.

Anyway, about The Eyre Affair. It's incredibly hard to describe, but I'll try. It's set in 1985, but not the 1985 we knew...in this 1985, things like time travel and pet dodos are common. The main character, Thursday Next, is a literature detective, and she eventually winds up inside the book Jane Eyre, helping Mr. Rochester rescue Jane from the evil genius who kidnapped her. You can see how this would appeal to me--I dig scifi/fantasy, and what wouldn't I give to step inside some of my favorite books (of which Jane Eyre is obviously one)? It's a well-written book, with great bits like this:

"We try to make art perfect because we never manage it in real life..." (pg 271)

Or here's a section where the character Hobbes from the book interacts with the character Grace Poole in Jane Eyre, as he prepares to kidnap its title character:
"I'm, um, with Mr. Mason," he stammered.
"Rubbish," she replied, staring at him dangerously.
"I want Jane Eyre," he stammered.
"So does Mr. Rochester," she replied in a matter-of-fact tone. "But
he doesn't even kiss her until page one hundred and eighty-one." (pg 296)
See the fun possibilities?

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Nov. 18, 2004.)

"Kon-Tiki" by Thor Heyerdahl

Last night, I finished reading Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl for the first time. Naturally, I loved it! I'd read two of his books previously (Aku-Aku and Fatu-Hiva) and enjoyed them too, so loving Kon-Tiki came as no surprise. Not only has he had fascinating adventures to write about, but Heyerdahl has a fantastic way with words--I think he's my second-favorite writer in that respect, after Raymond Chandler. But whereas Chandler has a uniquely skewed and metaphorical style, Heyerdahl is conversational while being creative. He writes about the everyday things, like whether or not he got tired of drinking coconut milk. Yet he keeps things fresh, using precisely the right words and descriptions. Here's one of my favorite passages from Kon-Tiki to illustrate what I mean:

"Perhaps we did the shark an injustice, but we suspected it of evil intentions and rammed a harpoon into its skull." (Heyerdahl, Thor. Kon-Tiki. New York: Pocket Books, 1984. Pg. 120).

See what I mean? Sharks are something they encountered pretty regularly while floating about in the Pacific on a balsa raft, but he doesn't describe this encounter in a bland way. He could have just written, "A shark scared us, so we stabbed it with a harpoon." That is what happened, after all. But no, he explains amusingly that they "suspected it of evil intentions," as if it was a stranger lurking in a dark alley. Then he quits being prosey and cuts to the chase with "rammed a harpoon into its skull," which reads so quickly and violently that you can almost feel that those are your muscles tensing as you strike at this toothy villain with your pointy stick.

Oh, to write that well! Sometime I'll share some Raymond Chandler with you to show you what I mean when I call him 'uniquely skewed and metaphorical'...

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Sept. 30, 2004.)