Robert Browning: Selected Works

This audio poetry collection was much more successful than the Byron collection I last reviewed. After a short biography of Browning, it launched straight into the poems without further editorializing. I was surprised to recognize a few phrases here are there (the lark's on the wing) but most of the verse was unfamiliar. Frederick Davidson does a fantastic job as reader. I especially enjoyed his performance of the last piece, 'Mr. Sludge, "The Medium"'.

I also very much appreciated 'Beatrice Signorini' and 'Fra Lippo Lippi', which draw on his life in Italy. Browning and his wife lived in Florence for many years. I have a faint memory of visiting their house (now a museum) with my mother while we lived there. It was a modest building (by the standards of Florentine palaces) with a lovely garden in front.

The only thing that could have enhanced my experience would have been additional information about the poetry, about his life, about his wife's poetry as well. I will probably seek out some of this information independantly.


Reading Journal Entry: A Stroke of Midnight, by Laurell K. Hamilton

Laurell K. Hamilton is the soft-core porn author of choice for fantasy fans. Her 'Anita Blake Vampire Hunter' series is in the double-digits by now, and she's beginning to suffer from Big Author Syndrome (BAS - symptoms include an obvious lack of editing, meandering plotlines, and oversized volumes - see Robert Jordan).
A Stroke of Midnight is an entry in her other fantasy series, about 'Meredith Gentry, elf princess/private detective'. The first one was pretty good. The second one was a bit soggy. At the third one I was afraid she was going to run out of inventive sexual postures. This fourth volume marks a jump in quality. Hamilton thankfully gives Gentry and her coterie of stunningly beautiful elf studs something to do (a murder that needs solving) besides manuever for the throne, and she proves my fear that she would run out of ideas completely wrong. Meredith, it turns out, is far more than just a contender for the throne - she is to be instrumental in restoring magic to Faerie.

The book is crowded with plot points and if the murder gets, eventually, somwhat lost in the swirling mists of hormones and intrigue, it's perfectly forgiveable.

New readers should not start with this book, but with the first in the series.

Lord Byron: Selected Works

This selection of Lord Byron's poetry was only long enough to pique my curiousity. I haven't yet been able to find unabridged audio versions of his Childe Harold or Don Juan, but I intend to step up the search after listening to the excerpts contained here. Otherwise this particular version was not a success; the works are read by several different narrators (a bit jarring), separated by wacky instumental flourishes, and generally over-read. I do NOT recommend this as a purchase. But the poetry itself - great.

Reading Journal Entry: Cotillion, by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer was so good at writing romances that she created an entire of genre of imitators, the Regency romance market. Her books are light, witty, and well-educated. They are extremely well-researched, and laced with literary references (I now must read Marmion), Cotillion is one of my favorite of her works. I love Freddy, the hero, as the antithesis of both the hero and the anti-hero. He is not brooding, dark, and sullen - or strong, manly, and serious. He is frivolous, fashionable, and addicted to comforts. Very refreshing.

How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez

If I had read this book at any other time, I would have loved it. Compared to Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings it seemed a little flat. It was nonetheless enjoyable; the lives of four sisters who immigrate, in the 1960's, from the Dominican Republic, with their parents. Their separate and joint stories are revealed backwards, with the story beginning in the present and proceeding back in time to the moment of their flight from the island. Each vignette is told from the perspective of a different family member. Not all of them are equally fleshed out, though; the father in particular seemed puzzlingly opaque.

I'm a sucker for books about families with four daughters....but The Poisonwood Bible was better.

Book News

One of our clients, Loung Ung, has just released her second book, Lucky Child. Her first book, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, is an international best-seller. It's a memoir of her life from ages five to nine in Khmer-occupied Cambodia. I haven't yet had time to read Lucky Child, which tells the parallel stories of her life growing up in America and the sister she left behind, but I am sure it is wonderful.

Loung is a real survivor. She complained to me once that after people have read her book they look at her with sad eyes. Don't ever dare pity her.

A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren

This is a long, depressing Depression novel about the very poor people living in New Orleans in the early 1930's. Dove is a country boy from Texas - he goes to the city to 'rise in the world' and ends up as a pimp. It's filled with vivid description and Algren occasionally breaks into song with long alliterative passages evoking the rhythm, bustle, and heartbeat of city life.

It's a hard life that he describes, and hard people in it. There are moments of humour, but they are drowned by a fierce hopelessness. His characters are trapped by their origins and their situation, but they are also emotionally doomed, unable to genuinely connect to one another without causing crippling harm.

Masterfully written - but very grim.

In a moment of literary coincidence, the whores of this book work on Perdido Street. I read recently a horror/science fiction book called Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville. Perdido Street Station is a study in the life of a futuristic city, and I am sure that the title was a reference to Algren's work. And as I think about it, there are more similarities...which I won't discuss because of spoilers. I highly recommend it.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

This is an autobiography of the first years of Angelou's life, from ages 4 to 16. It starts with her first memories - being shipped off to live with her grandmother in the country - and ends with her first experience of adulthood. Brilliant, so bright with hope and beauty that it makes my eyes hurt. Breathtakingly honest. I don't know how she did it. It must hurt so much to bare onself so deeply. I know people do it. Working with speakers, I can feel that the good ones are good because they are honest with themselves about their pain and can share that with the audience. But this stuff, this childhood stuff, it's harder than hard. I don't think anyone sheds that sense of secret shame about childhood misery, about things done to or by your young, oh-so-vulnerable self. I am awed by her ability to rip open her breast and show me her heart. Thank you, Maya.

Reading Journal Entry: Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin

This is Temple Grandin's latest best-seller - it's been on the New York Times list for several weeks. In the interest of full disclosure, my company works with Dr. Grandin, and I think she's just, well, the neatest thing ever.

Temple Grandin is probably the world's most famous, and arguably the world's most successful, autistic person. She's been profiled by pop head-doctor Oliver Sacks in his An Anthropologist on Mars, and designed most of the cattle-handling facilities in the United States. Her previous works, Thinking in Pictures and Emergence, dealt with her disability (if so it can be called). In Animals in Translation she shares the insight she has gained into the minds of animals through her unique modes of thought.

Grandin argues that animals - like autistic humans - have specialized brains, compared to the generalist brains of regular people, and that their lack of language lends animals an extreme ability to perceive details that are simply invisible to the human eye. Grandin, when called in to consult on why a facility was encountering problems, could in some cases immediately pick out what was distressing the animals and was surprised to learn that the cattle handlers couldn't see them - small things like an empty bottle lying on the ground, a piece of flapping plastic on a fence, a sudden change in light. Grandin spends a lot of time in the book analyzing the way animals perceive the world differently that humans, and how these differences have impacted her work. She spends more time discussing animals we live more intimately with: dogs, cats, and birds, and arguing that these animals are more intelligent than we give them credit for.

I was particularly impressed with Alex, a gray parrot who's learned how to identify colors and shapes, and has learned to ask questions. One day while learning colors, he looked in a mirror and asked his owner what color he is. I don't know why this blows my mind so much, but it's probably because unlike chimpanzees, bonobos, and other apes which have learned sign language, Alex is actually speaking English.

The book is very well written and the subject is fascinating. Highly recommended.

Dr. Grandin's web page, with information on her work.
Alex's web page.

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is well-known for his humorous and low-key columns. As an American living in Great Britian he got mileage out of the outsider's viewpoint of British society. After twenty years of living abroad, he returned to the US and now gets great mileage from the outsider's viewpoint of American society. The Lost Continent is the story of a transcontinental journey he made in 1987 after the death of his father, retracing some of the routes his family travelled for summer vacations in his childhood. I listened to the unabridged version narrated by William Roberts. I can't recommend it. Bryson finds everything disappointing and the America he finds is boring, crime-ridden, monotonous and crass. I've read the book before and enjoyed it immensely. I've also liked all of Bryson's other work. I blame the narrator. William Roberts manages to infuse so much vitriol and condescension into Bryson's voice that the book was ruined. Roberts' overacting sucks all the warmth out of Bryson's humour.