Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson

A portrait of a midwestern town at the turn of the century. Winesburg, Ohio is made up of several short stories about individual residents of Winesburg, Ohio. It's a small town, with berry farmers and a weekly paper whose young staff reporter George Willard provides the connecting thread. Each vignette seems almost like a character sketch, an attempt to capture the essence of a person or personality in a moment of crisis or desperation. Anderson demonstrates a deep knowledge of human nature, and as deep a love for his characters. He's unable, however, to give them happy endings. There's a pervasive unhappiness, loneliness and despair that ties these stories together. Each inhabitant of Winesburg, Ohio seems to posses that sensitive soul which can hardly exist in our cruel world; they long to find genuine human connections, and genuine fulfillment, but settle for escape or death.

It left me sad; it leaves me wondering about the reality of life as I experience it. Doesn't everyone at some point feel like they want to run out into a field, screaming in frustration and anger? I've never given in to the impulse, though, it just seems too dramatic. Too flamboyant to be sincere. This reflexive disbelief occurred several times as I listened; is it a flaw in the writing or did Anderson create the cliche? Anderson was one of the great mentors of Hemingway and a highly influential early American writer. The audio version I listened to was very good. Each story was narrated by a different prominent modern author. At the end of the book, several authors voice their thoughts about Anderson and his work. I most enjoyed Richard Russo's story - he seemed to have exactly the right voice. This would be an excellent gift for writers and aspiring writers. Highly recommended.

Erewhon, by Samuel Butler

A philosophical exploration reminscent of Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Butler's parody is a bit facile, but he made me smile. I must do more research in order to figure out what the heck he was making fun of with 'the evolution of the machines' chapter - which could have come right out of a work of modern science fiction.

The hives are fading.

No book review for you

You know why? Because I have hives. All over my body. Big red blotchy itchy hives. I moved to a new apartment on Saturday, and I haven't been able to sleep for four days because my skin itches so bad, and I have NOT had time to finish reading Erewhon by Samuel Johnson. I am awash in a sea of ineffectual antihistamines.

Even if I had finished it I don't have internet access yet at the new place. Even if I had internet access I don't know where my computer is. It's buried somewhere beneath the over 100 boxes we moved from one 3 bedroom apartment to our new 3 bedroom apartment. Some of those boxes have not been opened since we moved them from California to New York 3 years ago. This is just too much crap for two people. I plan to institute a new slash and burn policy.


Except for my books, of course.

The Bridge Over the Drina, by Ivo Andric

If I needed a reminder of why I started this 'Great Books' project, here it is. I never would have come across Andric 'The Bridge Over the Drina' on my own. It's out of print, it was originally written in another language, it's obscure. But it's wonderful and was so very worth my time.

Andric has created a portrait of a Bosnian town and its people over several centuries, from the building of a graceful stone bridge in the 1500s to its destruction in war. The bridge is a silent witness to the personal travails of individuals and the rising and falling fortunes of the different classes and religions in Visegrad. This is Serbia, after all - so there is a curiously galvanized mixture of Turkish Muslims, Serbian Christians, and Jews, all of whom take their turns sitting on the wide expanse of the bridge, talking, smoking, relaxing, and living.

It begins with a train of children, the annual tribute of youths from Serbia's Christian population to the Turkish Empire. One of these children grows up to be a powerful Vizir and gives the bridge as a monument to his homeland. It ends with a war - the Austro-Hungarian Empire takes away more of their young men, to serve in their army, and in the end the region literally explodes into conflict.

A Problem From Hell, with its overview of the disastrous conflicts in the region, provided a poignant background to these charming stories of Visegrad's inhabitants. I wish I had read the Bridge first, or had it available when I was trying to study the history of the Balkans in school, because it is an excellent portrait of the tensions and history of the region.

I am glad to see that the bridge has been restored, but apparently it is once again in danger from erosion produced by a nearby electric plant.

Highly recommended. Truly, it's enchanting.

Reading Journal Entry: The Under Dog, by Agatha Christie

I'm very much enjoying this Christie audiobooks. They're the perfect length - just long enough for a car ride - and the perfect kind of material for the format. Intellectually engaging, but not too much deep thinking required.

Suchet does another wonderful job on this Poirot mystery. Poirot is called in on a murder in a family house - where almost every member of the household is a possible suspect. I'm very impressed by Suchet's Poirot, and almost more impressed by the way he switches between the little Belgian and the other characters, who vary widely in gender and class. He's very smooth and really brings to life the understated humor of Christie's writing.

Reading Journal Entry: Mind Into Matter by Fred Alan Wolf, Ph.D

I have a lot of sympathy for subjectivism. There's something to the study of consciousness and the experience of the observer in the study of the observed. And so I was quite carried along by Dr. Wolf's discussions of the nature of consciousness and reality. I was even willing to forgive his rather opaque writing style and the way he assumes the reader is familiar with all the basic concepts of 'spiritual alchemy'. Until I got to a section where he discusses something I know about: evolution. Seemingly out of nowhere, Wolf starts talking about the origins of life and evolution and how unlikely it all is.

I can only assume that the rest of the book was exactly as full as shit.

Dr. Wolf's claim to fame is his appearance in the film 'What the Bleep Do We Know'. Coincidentally, just today I found an article on Salon discussing rumors that the movie is really a recruitment film for a cult.....

Reading Journal Entry: The Third Man, by Graham Greene

The Third Man is a novella Greene wrote as preparation for the screenplay for the Orson Welles movie (which I now must see). It's a mystery about an author of cheap western novelettes, Rollo Martins. He goes to post-war Vienna at the invitation of his childhood friend Harry Lime, only to find when he arrives that Lime has just died in an automobile accident. The story is rife with mistaken identity and suspense; and there's a girl, of course.

I actually gasped about halfway through, if that tells you something. It's very good.

OK, let's make our English teacher proud and discuss what The Third Man is really about. It's about identity. Rollo Martins writes under a pen name; he assumes the name of another author; and he is described by the narrator as having two disparate personalities, one 'Rollo' and the other 'Martins'. That's four identities for Mr. Martins. In addition he assumes the role of the sheriffs he writes about in his books when he sets out to investigate his friends' death. Then he discovers that Lime was not the person he thought he was; he is disillusioned. He confronts Anna, Harry's girlfriend, who tells him that knowing more about Lime doesn't change their relationships about him; he was who he was, not merely who he was in relation to themselves. But Rollo's identities are defined by others - or does he define them through his actions?

Damned if I know. I'm tired and going to bed.

Advance Review: A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906, by Simon Winchester

Advance reading copy from the BEA - the book is scheduled to be released in October.

I found A Crack in the Edge of the World, by Simon Winchester, immensely disappointing. I read and enjoyed Krakatoa, and heard wonderful things about The Professor and the Madman. I was expecting more of the same quality non-fiction historical narrative. Alas, Crack just doesn't measure up. Winchester wanders and weaves like a drunk driver. First he starts off with a view of Earth from space; then dizzyingly, he swoops down to a close-up of a small Kansas town; from there he ranges from Iceland to Texas, from seismographs to oil pipelines, without ever really satisfying the palate. In Krakatoa, the material on plate tectonics and geology was an integral part of the topic. Sadly, in Crack, Winchester seems to think that the 'main character' of the San Francisco Earthquake is the San Andreas Fault. It's not; the main character of the San Francisco Earthquake is the city and its residents; both receive short shrift in favor of acres of pages about the shape of the faultline and exactly where in California it runs, what small towns it goes through, exactly what sequence of shifting continental plates produced it starting at the beginning of time, etc., etc., etc.

The fictional Sherlock Holmes pastiche I reviewed last week contained more (true) human interest stories about the San Francisco earthquake than did Crack. Winchester treats the human drama as something of a sideshow to the moving rocks and the result is intensely unsatisfying.

In addition, the book just seems under edited. It's sloppy and over-written. I was itching to get out my red pen. Footnotes abound, breaking the rhythm of the text unnecessarily - generally they either contain material that could easily go in the main body of the book, or is totally extraneous.

I can only imagine that Winchester and the publisher decided to rush this one out in order to take advantage of the 100th anniversary of the earthquake, coming up next year.

Not recommended.

Reading Journal Entry: The Incredible Theft, by Agatha Christie, read by David Suchet

Sorry about the delay - I didn't have good computer access Friday evening.

The Incredible Theft is a short Poirot novella set on a country estate. Important documents go missing - which of the guests is responsible? I remember reading this one back in the day, but Christie still managed to keep me in suspense throughout the story. Good job, Agatha. Of course there's a glaring logical loophole in the solution....but what the hey. I was fooled.

Suchet does a much better job than Nigel Hawthorne.


Reading Journal Entry: Murder in the Mews, by Agatha Christie

I read Agatha Christie in huge gulps as a teenager. This is the first time I've revisited Hercule Poirot as an adult. Not much has changed; Christie is heavy on the intellectual exercise and light on characterization. Nigel Hawthorne does a good job with all the voices EXCEPT Poirot's, whose heavy accent is a bit ludicrous. The mystery was really easy. Ah well. Not her best.

Reading Journal Entry: Phenomenal Woman, by Maya Angelou

I loved I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and this short collection of Angelou's poetry fulfills all the promises of that autobiographical volume. Angelou reads four of her most popular woman-themed poems: "Phenomenal Woman," "Still I Rise", "Weekend Glory," and "Our Grandmothers." She has a wonderfully strong and expressive voice.

I wanted it to last longer.

This would be a perfect mother's day gift.

Highly recommended.

Reading Journal Entry: Your Life, Only a Gazillion Times Better, by Cathy Breslin and Judy May Murphy

I like self-help books. I think they're fun. Self-knowledge is not a task easily accomplished, and good self-help books can provide a basis for reflection and improvement in all kinds of areas.

Gazillion claims not to be 'the same ole' self-help'. In fact it's a rather mediocre rehashing of evaluation and improvement techniques with a weird, 'hip' according to the blurb, overlay of girl-talk and new agey junk.

I've never had a self-help book recommend colonic irrigation to me before. Gotta give it that.

Gazillion also recommends stalking - choosing mentors who you may not even know and studying details such as the way they walk into a room, what makes their marriage successful, and other potentially restraining-order-inducing minutiae.

The authors also, annoyingly, buy into the fashionable belief that your beliefs about the world and your relationships are all-powerful. Is you husband unsupportive? Never mind, just choose to 'feel cherished'. Is your family holding you back? Never mind, just choose to believe they support you. And for a final contradiction, choose to believe that you can do anything, but be careful not to set unrealistically high expectations for yourself.

In short: a total waste of time.

Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges

A collection of short stories, narrated by Henry Strozier. These collected short stories deal not only with literal physical labyrinths, but labyrinths of time, space, and the mind. They are not calculated to excite the senses, but the intellect; demanding and teasing with shifting perceptions, motivations, realities. They seem very dry for the author of the emotional smorgasborg which is Love in the Time of Cholera, sometimes seemingly intellectual exercises.

Strozier's voice occasionally approximates Rod Serling's, with unintentional hilarity.

Reading Journal Entry: Magic Street, by Orson Scott Card

I'm fairly grumpy this morning. So if I harsh on this book, it might not be fully warranted.
Magic Street is apparently Orson Scott Card's 'highly awaited' urban fantasy novel. I didn't know nothing about it, but apparently he's been working on it for 8 years or so. It's a rather grim fairy story set in a middle class black neighborhood of LA. A homeless man who has strange powers and a motorcycle riding 'hoochie mama' - who eventually are revealed to be Puck and Titania - create a strange child and continue to mess with the residents in various unpleasant magical ways. There's lots of typically bad fairy behavior. Card does creepy well, and he creates characters well; it's easy to get drawn in to his work.

I felt a failing in the overall magical framework; the conflicts are occurring between powerful magical beings, and I wanted some kind of taxonomy of faerie to figure out where God figured in to all this. The confinement of the magic to the cast of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream seemed claustrophobic rather than enlightening. Near the end of the book Titania reveals some ancient history of their origins in an offhand remark; if this had been developed more extensively it would have grounded the book better.

One particular subplot involving a preacher didn't really go anywhere. I felt that the final conflict seemed somewhat rushed; Card built up to a longer term battle than he delivered.

All the characters in the book are black, which is an interesting choice; Card goes into this choice a bit in an afterword.

Fun to read, but not the best book ever.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte: Part 1 of 2

I read Jane Eyre for the first time when I was eight, and I was captured for life by Jane's romantic quietude. This 8-tape tome read by ____ was a lovely remedy for the awful abridged version I picked up by accident and started listening to last month.... Ptuh! Ptui! It was awful. I needed reassuring that the meditative character analysis and religious racketeering were still safe, especially since Fforde's The Eyre Affair implanted worrisome ideas in my subconscious. Not to worry - Jane is safe.

It is a wonderful book - indulgent of flights of fancy and fully characteristic of the sensibility of the Victorian age. Jane's worth, and Rochester's, is that they are passionate and sensible beings, with strong emotions that are nevertheless held (mostly) in check by judgment and proper reserve.

The narrator voices Jane's thoughts well; she got on my nerves when voicing the child Jane in a piping voicelet, but redeemed herself in the later part of the narrative with the adult cast of characters.

Reading this makes me want to write a romance novel. I am trying to think of what the modern equivalent of Mr. Rochester's dark secret would be. It is something he is ashamed of, and hides from his friends. Something that prevents him and Jane from being together. Something that to a limited extent (but only so far) is his own responsibility, but had consequences far out of proportion to the act.

The modern Mr. Rochester might be HIV+. That's the only thing I could think of. But that would make it difficult for the happy ending to happen. It must be an obstacle that can, eventually, be removed.

Suggestions welcome.

Oh, and by the way, don't buy this one....Try one with another narrator. Unabridged, of course.

Reading Journal Entry: Only A Mother Could Love Him, by Ben Polis

Ben Polis is the first adult to write a book about his own experiences growing up with ADD/ADHD. He self-published the book in Australia and then picked up mainstream publishers in AU, UK, and US. He's been featured in major articles in USA Today and other big papers. There's something appealing about a rangy 24 year old telling stories about what a hellion he used to be - especially in an Australian accent.
By his account, Ben was truly a horror - he killed a dog when he was four, was in trouble with the law, brought down power lines, got expelled from 6 schools, etc., etc. He had little or no self-control or ability to concentrate. Only during his last years in high school did he learn how to deal with his distractabiliyy and 'buckle down' to read his goal of getting into college. Which he did. Then he wrote a book about how it felt to be that way (awful), and how he managed to deal with it (with difficulty) and what the best ways to help ADD/ADHD kids are.

It's a successful book; his style is very conversational, to the extent that I got a clear audio image of him speaking as I read. His escapades make this a far from boring story, and he goes beyond the sensational to describe in detail the thought processes involved in a way that should be very useful to parents and teachers dealing with similar kids. He manages to convey his frustrations and difficulties very well; many times he just didn't understand why he was doing stupid or dangerous things, or even, afterwards, why he was being punished. Despite a high intelligence (demonstrated by test scores) he constantly failed in school due to inability to pay attention and to complete schoolwork. One thing that rang very true to me was the ADD child's failure to respond to audio cues; he may fail to follow instructions or seem to be ignoring that which he quite literally does not hear. There's so much stimulation around that the ADD mind just can't connect the dots.

This book is definitely free of the American moralistic mindset - the author states matter-of-factly that kids are going to experiment with drugs, alcohol, and sex, so parents must prepare them for it if they don't want severe consequences like STDs, pregnancies, and jail time. He incorporates advice and opinion into the narrative and shares out a dollop at the end as well, about techniques that can help ADD kids learn how to control themselves.

Ben's lucky he met with a few extremely supportive adults and institutions. If he hadn't, he might very well be in jail. I read so much about the insidious nature of the 'self-esteem fad' that it was refreshing to read a corroboration of the fact that it IS important for children not to feel that their worthless.

Highly recommended for parents, teacher, and those interested in the subject.

Reading Journal Entry: The Cheating Culture, by David Callahan

David Callahan examines why Americans seem readier to cheat to get ahead nowadays, from shoplifting to tax evasion to falsifying corporate returns. He argues that due to increasing economic inequality, we have greater financial incentives to break the rules, and due to relaxed government oversight and light penalties, there is less to fear from committing fraud. He also invokes a deteriorating 'social contract', in that people no longer believe everyone is playing by the same rules....why not cheat if 'everyone else is doing it'?

Game theory applied to ethical behavior makes sense to me, sad as it is.


Reading Journal Entry: Five American Women (Voice of the Poet)

Voice of the Poet offers recordings of poetry read by the author and accompanies by short biographical notes and the texts of the work. This collects readings from five American women, Gertude Stein, Edna St. Vincent Millay, H. D., Louise Bogan, and Muriel Rukeyser.

Unsurprisingly the audio quality was not very good for Gertrude Stein and Millay. I could hardly understand what Stein was saying sometimes. And I found Stein and Millay both surprisingly powerless as readers; Stein's work is compelling when I read it, but the words dissolved into sing-song repetition when she read then. Both exhibited surprisingly little power.

The best reader was Muriel Rukeyser, who reminded me strongly of Burroughs reading The Naked Lunch.


Reading Journal Entry: The Italian Secretary, by Caleb Carr

I enjoyed Carr's The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness very much. Alienist is an archaic word for psychologist, and the detective Carr created is a psychological expert in the depths of the human mind. Those two previous works were works of psychological detection; this work is 'commissioned by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle'. I can't imagine they expected what they got; a straight-up pastiche that's as unpsychological as they get.

We live in an age where readers expect some kind of character arc or elucidation in a book; Carr wipes away the tiresome conventions of character development and gives us a no-nonsense mystery with a bit of superstition tossed in as a kind of tip of the hat to Doyle's previously mentioned weirdnesses.

The plot involves a murder coinciding in location and method with the famous murder of Queen Mary's 'Italian Secretary'. This requires tedious amounts of exposition and soliliquoizing from Holmes. There is an interesting looking sinister character introduced early on, but Carr for some reason decides that suspense would impede him plot and assigns all their roles of villain, victim, saint, without much ado or confusion.

In the end he even fails to come up with a plausible explanation for a key part of the murders.

It's beyond imagining how a book with this many explosions, train wrecks, gunfights, brawls, and ghosts could be so boring.

The Life of Samuel Johnson, Part 2, by James Boswell

You'll be happy to know I finished the Life of Samuel Johnson without getting into any car accidents. As the book went on, I started liking Johnson more and Boswell less. Johnson's character is at least genuine; Boswell seems like a born flatterer. Boswell spends much time defending Johnson's characters from malignities that I have not read, and another substantial amount of time recounting arguments they conducted and taking the opportunity to explain why his side (for example, that slavery is justified due to its economic value*) is the correct one. Boswell is hindered by blinders; at one point he strongly denies that Johnson has any prejudice against Scots, for example, and later quotes multiple letters wherein Johnson claims all highlanders are liars.

In the end Johnson is a charismatic figure, and the stories of his interactions with certain literati - specifically Hannah More and Fanny Burney - I found more interesting than I had expected, due to personal interest in the time period. I might even like to have it in my library as a reference tome. But I can't recommend this massive work for general consumption.

* What a prat.

Reading Journal Entry: Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King

This will be the first of two Sherlock Holmes pastiches I am reading back to back.

It's a curious thing about Sherlock Holmes. He's one of the most well-known characters in modern literature; even his profile (with hat and pipe) is easily recognizable. Yet few have actually read the original Conan Doyle stories.

There's a reason for this. They're not much fun to read. They were groundbreaking and genre-creating, but they're a bit dry for the modern taste. You can't figure out whodunnit from the clues within the stories (unless you're a connoisseur of African poisons). Nevertheless there's fertile ground in the characters of the angular analytical detective and his beefy sidekick that has fueled dozens of pastiches and take-offs, from straight-up imitations (is this the original fanfic?) to the duo's spiritual heirs Poirot and Hastings (Batman and Robin?)

Today I am reviewing one of Laurie R. King's Mary Russell novels; tomorrow I will review Caleb Carr's The Italian Secretary, allegedly the first Holmes novel commissioned by the Holmes estate.

Pastiche authors always have the problem of what to do with Doyle. Doyle had quite the hyperactive imagination and got a bit wonky as he aged (what with the believing in fairies thing and all) so he can be a bit of an embarrassment. Writers can either write completely within the Holmes universe, or, as many do (including King), pitch Doyle as Watson's 'literary agent' and play with Sherlock Holmes' notoriety as a consulting detective.

King transplanted Holmes a few years forward in time so as to allow him to survive into the twentieth century, and paired him up with a brand new sidekick - Mary Russell, the English-Jewish 'sweet young thing' whom he first took under his wing as an investigative partner and then married. The books are generally written from her point of view and are much more modern in their sensibilities than the originals; forgivably, given the narrator. King loves to delve deep into the underbelly of the human psyche and she generally succeeds in combining some lovely human mysteries with her criminal ones. Locked Rooms isn't the best Russell novel; it is heavily weighted toward the human and the mystery is woefully inadequate to sustain the psychological archaeology. On the other hand, it will please existing fans, because it does explain one of the seminal events of Mary Russell's past and sends the pair where they have never gone before - Prohibition-era America. Lots of opportunity for whimsy.

King inserts a real-life character into the middle of the narrative in a way I don't entirely approve of; and when I, an entirely forgiving reader, stop in the middle of a book and say out loud, 'I don't think I buy this', then the author has gone too far.

Not her best work.

Reading Journal Entry: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, by Terry Pratchett

I thought I'd read all the Discworld novels, but I was wrong (yay!). Maurice is tied in only loosely to the sprawling fantasy series (sorry, I know I should say 'epic', but series means the same thing. Really.) It would make an exceptionally good introduction to Pratchett's work (kid-friendly, natch).

The Amazing Maurice is a cat who can talk, think, and scam his way up a greased cliff. His educated rodents also talk (and use matches and write in squiggly pictures and have trap-defusing experts(and tap-dance)) and he's got the obligatory pipe-playing kid along as the essential human prop to the scam they're playing on local villages.

Q: How is it that talking rats and cats get along better than the non-talking variety?

A: They have an arrangement. Maurice is always very careful to check that he's not eating talking rodents.

Q: Why do cats and rats (even the talking kind) need money, anyhow?

A: To buy an island on which to found Rat Civilization.

In an interesting display of coincidence, this is the third treatment of fairy tale tropes I've read recently. First there was the Sisters Grimm , then Fables, and now I find Pratchett taking a swing at them. And frankly he does better than either. He twists the archetypes with the best of them, but gets much deeper on the issue of what story means and how stories shape our lives.


Reading Journal Entry: Elaine's Circle, by Bob Katz

After I finished this I went a got a hug from my husband. He asked me why I was crying.

"I just finished my book.' Sniff. "About a little kid dying from cancer."

Needless to say I got little sympathy.

It was a good book, though, and a great story. Elaine Moore was a fourth-grade teacher who believed strongly in community. So when one of her favorite students was diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer, she was frank with her class about the situation and welcomed their suggestions on how to continue to include Seamus in class. The class organized daily outings for three or four students to visit him at home and tutor him on the materials they were covering. The doctors gave him six weeks to live, but he lasted almost a year, and made long enough to fulfill one of his final wishes: to be in fifth grade. It's wrenchingly sad, with a wretched coda: Seamus had a twin brother who was mentally disabled. In his early twenties, this twin was diagnosed with brain cancer and died as well.