Reading Journal Entry: Myth-ion Improbable, by Robert Asprin

Asprin's MYTH series was a wild best-seller in the eighties. It's light fantasy, heavy on the puns. His 'Phule' series was also well-received (humorous SF) and he co-edited the very successful 'Thieves World' series with Lynn Abbey, his former spouse.

The MYTH books started off with a good head of steam. The premise and setting (apprentice magician paired with grouchy cursed mentor/dimension hopping fantasy adventures) were original enough to provide a mine of situations for Skeeve and Aahz to claw through. As the series progressed, however, the quality declined along a swift arc mirroring the quality of life for Asprin and his characters. Happy-go-lucky Skeeve, the apprentice, became a victim of his own success and an incipient alcoholic. Asprin, meanwhile, got divorced, got writer's block, and got into a huge mess with the IRS over, allegedly, unreported income. He wrote almost nothing for almost ten years. Concurrently his publishing company declared bankruptcy, and the MYTH books went out of print.

Meisha Merlin, a small press, bought the rights to the original MYTH series and is reissuing them. Asprin is apparently back in the saddle and has, according to the introduction to MYTH-ion Improbable, 'resolved' his IRS problems. MYTH-ion Improbable, published 2001, was his first contribution to the MYTH canon since Sweet MYTH-tery of Life in 1993.

Also in the introduction he explains that he was having difficulty resolving the threads created in the last installment, and a friend suggested he write a 'fill-in' novel set between two earlier books. Hence Improbable is a self-contained adventure set before Skeeve became a wildly successful interdimensional traveler and started hitting the bottle.

It really shows that Asprin has been off his feed. The writing is stilted and the characters lack much of their original charm. Skeeve and Aahz aren't particularly nuanced characters, but Tanda, their green, buxom partner in crime, was delicately balanced between ditz and manipulator. In Improbable she's entirely wasted.

This was not a good book. It will be of interest to completists, but not really to anyone else.

I'm more interested to read Something MYTH Inc. It's been ten years since Asprin left a lot of balls in the air, and I want to see where they land.

Reading Journal Entry: Barren Corn, by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer is most well-known for creating a genre - the Regency Romance. Her Regencies are impeccably researched and sparklingly witty, so much so that they spawned legions of imitators.

She also wrote several modern-day novels. This is the first 'modern' Heyer I've read. It's a love story set shortly after the first World War (pub date: 1930). Laura and Hugh, two Britons, meet and fall in love in France. She's thirty-years-old Briton from a respectable bourgeois family; he's the slightly spoiled nephew of a Baron. Their class differences concern Laura but Hugh convinces her to marry him.

After an idyllic honeymoon, eventually they must go back to Britain; to Hugh's 'smart set' and Laura's dismayingly stultifying family members. The class conflict is both old-fashioned and very un-American; I'm not sure whether Hugh was supposed to come off as quite so much of an ass. He can't stand her family - why? I don't know, but it 'just won't do'. Laura conversely can't enter into the interests of Hugh's life, riding and hunting (aside: what an ass). She's concerned when they run into debt and this irritates him (ibid). She doesn't get along with his friends, who are over-educated snobs (see above).

The great weakness of the book is that the conflict is not entirely class or education-based. Heyer seems to conflate class and intelligence. The problem isn't that Laura holds the coffee-pot wrong (<---not kidding), it's that she's stupid. She doesn't get people's jokes. She can't make conversation. She's boring. That's not the same thing as being middle-class. It kills the premise. This isn't a love doomed by social inequity; it's a love doomed by mental inequity. I just can't have much patience with a heroine who initially is portrayed as sensitive and principled, but six months later can't find anything to do while her husband isn't at home.

Best Chocolate Ever

Seriously. I am not kidding. This IS the best chocolate ever.

Look at it!

It tastes even better than it looks, I tell you.

Sandra Scoppettone and proofreading

I guess Sandra Scoppettone decided not to worry about being seen as a complainer....

Great Books: Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

I read this book in high school, and have seen various movie versions. My memories were not very complete. I remembered the great passion Heathcliff and Catherine have for each other; the latter part of the story, taking place after her death, seemed like a mere coda. In fact, it makes up the bulk of the narrative and is where the real action happens.

Lockwood, the narrator has rented a house from Heathcliff, and is told the family history by a servant, Nelly Dean, after a puzzling encounter with the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. This double-narration, and the jumps in narration over time (from the past to the present, then back, etc.) give the reader a uniquely long perspective on events - at the beginning of the book you know, for example, that Catherine will die young.

Catherine Earnshaw was the daughter of a well-to-do family owning the titular house, Wuthering Heights, placed on barren and forbidding moors. Heathcliff is a foundling her father brings home from a trip; they are twin spirits, linked by their wild ways and their love of nature.

When Catherine's older brother Hindley becomes head of the family, they are separated. Heathcliff is relegated to a servant's status. Catherine grows into a beautiful young woman, and develops a friendship (soon romance) with the scion of the other prominent family in the district, Edgar Linton. She confesses to Nellie that her love and loyalty for Heathcliff is unchanged, but that he is degraded and beneath her in his current condition. Heathcliff overhears this conversation, and disappears.

Catherine falls seriously ill, but recovers and after a long engagement marries Edgar. They are happy until Heathcliff returns, wealthy and educated. Heathcliff proceeds to destroy Catherine's older brother Hindley, encouraging him in his drunkenness and gambing with him until everything he owns, even the home they both grew up in, belongs to Heathcliff. Hareton, Hindley's son, is now penniless, and grows up in the same state of servitude and squalor to which Hindley had condemned Heathcliff.

He and Catherine cannot stay apart - but Edgar objects to the presence of his rival. They quarrle, and Catherine's basic instability comes to the fore. Her illness returns. Meanwhile Edgar's sister Isabella elopes with Heathcliff, who marries her to punish Edgar and to gain the property she owns.

Catherine dies after giving birth to a daughter, also named Catherine; Isabella escapes from Heathcliff, later giving birth to a boy named Linton who is raised elsewhere.

The second generation grows up under Heathcliff's long shadow. Hareton grows up strong and handsome, but ignorant and rude. Linton, Heathcliff's son, has delicate health. He is first raised with excessive indulgance by his mother and then, after her death, treated brutally by his father, who despises his weakness. Catherine the younger is raised with love by Edgar and Nellie Dean; she grows up headstrong but kind-hearted.

Heathcliff's plans for revenge dictate their lives. Catherine is tricked into marrying Linton, her ill cousin, so Heathcliff can gain control of her property. Catherine originally had developed some love for Lynton during surreptitious correspondence and visits; this love is soon extinguished as his true character is revealed. Far from protecting her from Heathcliff, he colludes in keeping her from her dying father. Linton's illness worsens, and Catherine is given the task of caring for him alone. He dies within months of their marriage.

When Lockwood takes possession of his rental house, young Catherine strikes him as a beautiful shrew. She ridicules Hareton, her cousin, for attempting to learn to read. Heathcliff hates her for being Edgar Lynton's daughter, and hates Hareton for being Hindley's son. He is waiting for death, so he can rejoin Catherine. They are presided over by the vulture-ish Joseph, and fanatically religious old man who constantly berates them for their sins.

Quite a menage! It's no wonder Lockwood lights out of the neighborhood after hearing the bulk of the story. When he comes back, at the end of a long summer, he finds the situation has changed; young Catherine and Hareton have fallen in love. Hareton is being taught by Catherine how to read and comport himself. Joseph is relegated to the fireside. And Heathcliff is dead, lying in the churchyard next to his beloved Cathy.

Ah, the drama! Windswept moors....gypsy boys....stolen inheritances.... There's no better gothic than this. Heathcliff is the original tall, dark, and handsome - totally obsessed with the woman who gives meaning to his life, totally without scruples or pity. Nelly even wonders if he's a devil set on earth. No, it's just that his moral compass points straight at one person, and halfway through his life that person is laid underground.

What struck me most, in this re-reading, was Catherine's wild emotional state. She's firmly loyal to Heathcliff, but not to the point of insanity like his love her her. She loves him, but her wildness is internal. She cannot be controlled by others, nor can she control herself. The happiest times in her life are in childhood, when she has free reign, and in adulthood, before Heathcliff's return, when Edgar and all around her make a point of appeasing her and going to any extent to avoid provoking her wrath. Once that wrath is provoked she is undone. Emotionally and physically, she is devastated by the effects of her uncontrolled passions. Any opposition merely provokes her emotions to more violence.

I know how that feels. I know what it is like to feel rage. When Bronte writes that Catherine felt such rage that she dashed her head against the couch, that Nelly Dean felt that she decided to act madly - I know what that feels like.

It's a problem I've struggled with for a long time. Better over the past three years. I made a deliberate effort to deal with my out-of-control emotions in various ways. I do a lot of yoga now, among other things. I am luckier than Catherine.

Notes on this audio edition: I have decided, after listening to this and Jane Eyre, that Flo Gibson's old lady voice annoys the heck out of me. Not recommended.

20 must-read Scottish books....

Via The Literary Saloon.

The Scotsman has compiled a list of 20 Scottish books everyone must read.

My grandmother was Scottish. I've a tendre for the place. How many of these have I read? Just one.

"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark: As much a time and a place as a character, Spark's Jean Brodie came to embody a generation of Edinburgh women. Her unconventional ways and blatant favouritism made her both terrifying and alluring."

Read it. Did. Not. Get. It.

I've read works other than those selected by Alexander McCall Smith, Iain Banks, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Reading Journal Entry: The Bridge, by Iain Banks

One of the best books I've read all year. And that's saying something.

The Bridge is a psychological tour de France. It begins with a car crash. The novel proceeds with the protagonist (named John Orr by his rescuers) a victim of amnesia, trying to create a life for himself in a strange society existing entirely on a huge, seemingly endless bridge.

His psychologist seems to be able to read his mind and his TV isn't working. No-one knows where the bridge leads or who built it. The semaphores worked into the text are endless and wonderful; this was a real joy to read.

Banks has an uncanny ability to evoke the disorientation that occurs when one wakes from a vivid dream. Again and again, reading this, I was struck by intense feelings of deja vu as Orr's emotions (not, of course, his circumstances) struck a chord.


Reading Journal Entry: Silent Partner, by Lee Goldberg

Silent Partner is a tie-in for the TV series Diagnosis: Murder (starring Dick Van Dyke). I think I maybe caught an episode once, about eight years ago. I picked this up at the library because I regularly read Lee's blog. This is pretty typical stuff for a series whodunnit - to his credit he managed to keep me guessing until about two-thirds of the way in. Since I came without any background about the characters, there was a lot of interaction that was lost on me. I assume the 'Jack Stewart' who reappears to do a kidney transplant was someone who left the show, but without that context his introduction didn't make much sense.

Charitable donations selected for 2005 include....

You want to make a difference, but marching isn't your style. Writing letters to the editor doesn't seem to make a difference in Washington, D.C. There's only so much time in the day and you've got to make a living and care for your family before you spend time volunteering somewhere. This is your chance. You can change the world by engaging in what David Brin calls Proxy Activism, "the uniquely convenient, but seldom discussed, ability of a modern person to participate in activism... helping change the world... by the simple expedience of joining some group that is vigorously pursuing that part of your personal agenda."

You have only have one vote in an election. But you have as many votes as you have dollars when it comes to proxy activism. The year is about to draw to a close - this is your last chance to donate money in 2005 that you can deduct from your taxes in 2006.

I've been putting it off for a while. This evening I finally sat down and became a member of organizations that I feel will make the world a better place.

This year we selected several organizations dedicated to supporting our rights to free speech:

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
The CBLDF is currently engaged in defending Gordon Lee, a comic book retailer in Georgia. A summary:
"Lee, the proprietor of Legends, in Rome, Georgia, faces multiple charges stemming from an incident whereby a minor participating in a community Halloween celebration inadvertently received as a trick or treat gift the 2004 Free Comic Book Day offering by Alternative Comics (cover pictured below). That comic book featured a selection from the historical drama "The Salon," by Nick Bertozzi. The scene in question showed the first meeting between Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Picasso is depicted in the nude on three pages in reflection of historical fact."

The Electronic Freedom Foundation
The EFF is a non-profit dedicated to protecting digital rights. Their latest campaign is for blogger's rights.

And, finally, the American Civil Liberties Union.
It's not just about unreviewed phone taps and intelligent design - the ACLU is a major supporter of free speech rights.

And finally, on the saving-babies front:

The Cambodia Fund
The Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation is removing landmines and providing prosthetics for the ongoing wounded in Cambodia and around the world.

Do it tonight - I can't think of a better way to honor Christmas and/or Hanukkah.

Hope springs eternal

This chick sent an email to Neil Gaiman's blog about promoting her PublishAmerica fantasy novel.

Note the detailed journal about her 'publishing' experience. I'm wondering at what point she sends them money?

Sorry, guys....

I have to take the rest of the week off. This whole moving thing, combined with an unexpedcted guest, has played havoc with my reading schedule. I'll be back on track soon.

Reading Journal Entry: Lord Pierson Reforms by Donna Simpson

A Zebra Regency Romance. Poorly written, poorly edited, poorly plotted. There's no zip to this one. Avoid!

Reading Journal Entry: Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith by Gina B. Nahai

Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith is the December selection of a local book club I'll be visiting tomorrow. One of my friends is a member and invited me. This should be interesting - I've never belonged to a book group before.

I do a lot of reading, and a lot of writing about reading, but not a lot of talking about reading. I'm not sure what to say about Moonlight. It's extremely well-written, but so, so, depressing.

Lili is an 18-year-old girl whose mother, Roxanna, jhas just returned after 13 years of absence. She flew away on angel wings when Lili was five years old. Roxanna was considered a bad luck child, and Lili relives her mother's tragedies. Roxanna was the latest in a long line of runaway women who brought bad luck to their families and the Jewish ghetto in Tehran. The family history is explored in rich detail, and it's a surprise to find ourselves in the near-modern era with Roxanna and Lili, as they live through Iran's recent turbulence and eventually emigrate to America.

The members of Roxanna's family are visited by one tragedy after another; children die, husbands are unfaithful, security is non-existant. Their recurring flights seem to be attempts to escape this Destiny of bad luck - futile attempts. Even after they fly, they are caught in different tragic webs. No-one in this book is happy. They're all terribly sad; they hate themselves and each other. Any stability is fleeting, soon brutally destroyed. Even love is malignant; mothers abandon or try to kill their children, marital relationships turn people to stone. The message, if there is one, seems to be that even though life is not really worth living, it's one's duty to stick by family members. Miriam, Roxanna's older sister (nicknamed 'the Moon' because of her youthful beauty) perseveres in connecting with her niece Lili and the exiled family in California....her persistent attempts to reach out are the only human warmth in the book, besides Roxanna's disastrous adulterous relationship with her husband's father.

The writing and imagery are outstanding, yet I wish I could unread it. I'm just not into the 'downward spiral of misery' type of storytelling. The 'rich tapestry of Jewish Life in Tehran' bit was good, but at the end of the book the tapestry had burned up. What's the point?

Reading Journal Entry: Rats and Gargoyles, by Mary Gentle

Friday's review. Yeah, I'm behind. I just moved across the country. Give me a break.

Mary Gentle is one of the fantasy/SF authors I most respect. She doesn't play with the conventions, she guts, fillets, and grills them. In Ancient Light, the sequel to Golden Witchbreed, she gives - I won't say the reader, but maybe the reader's expectations - a big 'Fuck You'. In Grunts!, she eviscerated high fantasy with an X-rated look at life in the Orc Marines.

So when I was scooping up books at the Seattle Public Library, trying to get back to my car before the meter ran out, and saw Rats and Gargoyles, I grabbed it gladly.

Prince Lucas, new student at the Invisible College, is our ingenue. Valentine and Casaubon, Gentle's universe-hopping, larger-than-life heros, provide the real pretty pictures. She's a hot sword-wielding bisexual magic-user. He's a poorly dressed, grossly obese Lord-Arhitect. True love!

Mary Gentle's work is multi-layered and demands an active reader. Part of this is the lack of exposition. We're launched straight into a bizarre, weird world without explanation. There are people with tails. Huge talking Rats with swords. Flying lizards, serving incarnate gods. The other part is the lack of internal dialogue - we never get spoon-fed the emotions or thoughts of the major actors. We are required to figure out their motivations and plans from their actions. Which, frankly, is not easy. At the end of the book I still wasn't quite sure what had gone on. That's ok, I was entranced by the pretty pictures anyhow.

Gentle's fantasy (she claims it's SF, but isn't that debate so over?) is as refreshing as a tall, cold, glass of water. In the face.

Recommended for fans of Iain Banks, China Mieville, Gene Wolfe.

Reading Journal Entry: Newcomer's Handbook - Seattle

Thursday's review: Newcomer's Handbook for Moving to and Living In Seattle.

Not actually that helpful. Did not contain in-depth information on the amenities I most wanted to know about. Contained a lot of info I did not want to know about. Other than that, seems mostly accurate (if, inevitably, a couple years out of date).

Yesterday's Review: Reading Journal Entry: The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli

Pietra Rivoli starts with a T-shirt grabbed out of a bin at Wal-Mart and follows it from its birth to its death. She meets cotton farmers in Texas, clothing manufacturers in China, politicians in DC, and used clothing distributors in Africa.

This is one of the best non-fiction books I've read this year. The T-shirt is the perfect vehicle for exploring globalization - everyone owns them, nobody knows where they come from. Rivoli punctuates her economics with portraits of individuals who make the story of a simple cotton garment come alive if a way I never imagined possible.

I consider myself reasonably well-educated about free trade. I didn't really think this book would have much to teach me. I was wrong. Rivoli evaluates the positive and negative impact of every aspect of globalization. In addition, she introduced me to a whole market I wasn't even aware of - mitumba. When you donate used clothing to a charity, a large portion gets sold to used clothes dealers and eventually ends up in Africa. There's a lively and mostly unregulated market in American cast-offs. Who knew?

Love it - highly recommended. This would make a great classroom book.

SO NOT BORING! (<----my favorite new phrase. Watch for it in future reviews.)

Reading Journal Entry: Great Books, by David Denby

David Denby was a forty-eight year old movie critic and writer, and it was the middle of the debates about the 'canon' and 'curriculum' and 'political correctness' of the early nineties, when he decided to go back to school for a year. Denby decided to re-take the Columbia core courses that deal with the classics, Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. His goal: to take the temperature of the current crop of freshmen and sophomores and reconnect with 'the classics'.

Denby keeps himself removed from the classes as much as he's able to, exactly the opposite of Rebekah Nathan's approach in My Freshman Year; he seems to think he'd be somehow cheating the students if he injected himself into class discussion too much. Nonetheless, the class is about the students and the professors as much as it is about the books. Denby tries to understand some student concerns, specifically the protests about the exclusionary nature of the texts selected (the 'dead white male' accusation) and, weirdly, a 'Take Back The Night' rally. Concurrently he reveals his own, sometimes very personal, reactions to the texts. This multiplicity of theme is a drawback; for example, he tantalizingly references one of the professor's method of analysis by dealing with 'structure and theme' without actually explaining what the hell that means. The 'Take Back The Night' episode and other musings on why the students are so (insert adjective here) are, with fifteen year's hindsight, either puzzling or just quaint. Denby was writing from a pre-Giuliani New York City, with all the baggage of the 1980's crime and grime. He seems afraid a lot, very concerned with the downward spiral of civilization that seems somehow to have evaporated.

The upshot is that he didn't engage the books as deeply as I would have liked. His chapter on 'King Lear' impressed me, as did Virginia Woolf, but the focus is really on his experience of the books rather than the works themselves. I suppose that's the only way a book like this (such a meta experience) could really be a success.

Near the beginning of the book he talks about why we read these works. Is he doing this out of (I paraphrase) the 'vanity of self-improvement'? Ouch! Am I doing this reading project out of narcissism? Maybe..... I'll have to see if I can come up with some better sounding justification, like Denby did.

Great Book: King Lear

If you're thinking about complaining that King Lear isn't a great book because it's a play, I don't want to hear it. King Lear made it on five lists, more than any other single Shakespeare work. As a nice coincidence, King Lear is the first book I've read treated in David Denby's Great Books, which I'm reading concurrently. I'd already noted the similarities between Lear and Oedipus Rex (the blindness/wandering with kid thing) but what I didn't know is that Shakespeare probably had no access to the Greek story. Very interesting.

So. Here's the plot.

Lear is going to retire and he's planning to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Regan, Cordelia, and Goneril. But first, he asks them how much they love him. Regan and Goneril step up to the plate and lay it on really thick. Cordelia, youngest, doesn't play nice. King Lear takes his toys and gives them to Regan and Goneril instead. Cordelia runs off with the King of France and Lear settles down to what he expects will be a pleasant retirement living with his daughters. Instead, Regan and Goneril refuse to accord him his former honors and turn him out into the countryside. Meanwhile, Gloucester, the king's loyal supporter, is betrayed by his illegitimate son. Gloucester, blinded, and Lear, insane, wander about the English countryside. Regan and Goneril engage in extra-marital affairs with Gloucester's bastard and kill each other (seriously). The King of France invades and, as usual for the end of a Shakepeare play, everybody dies.

I've read Jane Smiley's Thousand Acres, which kind of freaked me out, and primed me to look at the play from the viewpoint of the cruel Regan and Goneril. Yes, they betray their father. But Lear's insatiable demand for love and loyalty lies at the seed of the conflict. Alas, he is blind (metaphor!) to the poisonous <----) effect of his behavior.

Reading Journal Entry: Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell has been a #1 NY Times best-seller, as was his previous The Tipping Point.

Plus, he looks pretty fly:

Blink is about the swift, unarticulate powers of the mind. We have the power to make judgements in the blink of an eye, although often we don't realize the power of these judgements. That's it, in a nutshell. Gladwell presents a number of examples of people's ability to make very accurate snap judgements. He also discusses why people sometimes make the wrong decision. The crux: more information is not always better. This lines up nicely with the recent stories about research into memory: people with good memories don't remember more stuff, they just remember less extraneous stuff.

Blink is a nice light romp through brain power, which will no doubt make it a darling of the business community.

Great Book: David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, part 1 of 2

David Copperfield is supposed to be the most autobiographical of Dickens' works. It has an intensely personal feel to it. Copperfield is a young boy from a good family who is mistreated and misunderstood, is rescued by a fortuitous encounter with a benevolent relation, must make his own way in the world, etc., etc. David Copperfield is the original Mary Sue of Mary Sues.

This book is immense. Over 20 cassettes. You may be tempted to pick up an abridged version. Don't do it! I can't see any way that an abrdigement would be worth reading. The glory of this book is in the digressions and the connections established between all the various characters from very different chapters of Copperfield's life.

It's easy to see how Dickens made his living as a writer of serialized works; each chapter ends with a snap or a bang and is heavily laced with foreshadowings of dark events to come.

The audio version from Books on Tape is read by a woman, which I found incongrous at first. But she's so good I soon got used to it.

Some quirks of Victorian mentality are displayed to disadvantage here. A woman's virtue is placed far above her life in importance. Several relatives lament that they wish a Certain Someone had died rather than been seduced away by a Certain Ne'er-do-well.

I have only finished 'Part 1'. I got through four cassettes of part 2 and had to return it to the library because, well, because I'm moving 3,000 miles away and they like to keep their books. I'll get on it again once I'm settled down and have my new library card.

I love long movies, long books, and long-running tv shows.... I find these thick classics geared to the popular taste make a fine substitute for the massive fantasy series I used to read. (OK, still read - I am planning on picking up A Feast For Crows after I re-read the first four. But I'm done with Robert Jordan, thank you.) The language used to be a barrier to me but listening to this class of books is just the solution. In sum: I'm still having fun here. The project continues.

Much Obliged, Jeeves! By P. G. Wodehouse

Audio version.

Wodehouse is a priceless treasure. All those who do not know him, get ye to your local library immediately. Listening to a Wodehouse book was a new and very pleasant experience. His humor is so dialogue-based that the addition of a performance with accents and idiosyncrasies really put the cherry on the ice-cream sundae.

This is a later entry in the Bertie Wooster/Jeeves canon. Wooster is the scion of a noble house blessed with an income and several healthy aunts; Jeeves is the manservant plentifully supplied with 'the gray matter' who keeps him out of trouble. Per the usual formula, Wooster is invited to a country house; accidentally becomes engaged to someone he has no desire of marrying; hijinks ensue; Jeeves saves the day. General satisfaction all-round.

Reading Journal Entry: Diamonds Are Forever, by Ian Fleming

My second Bond novel. Once again I'm astonished at the casual racism. I guess that's just the fifties for you.... But how can I say that after reading Another Country, published only five years later (1962)? I can't give Ian Fleming a pass. The weird part is that the racist stuff is dropped in out of nowhere, and prefaced by the comment "Bond had a natural affection for colored people". Whaaaa?

Fleming was obviously trying to deal with the issue of race (America was a new setting for Bond, I gather from context) but fails to address it an adult manner. Also critically neglected are the race issues in Africa, the wellspring of the diamond pipeline. We are introduced briefly to the white dentist who smuggles out diamonds obtained by the black miners, but this potential powderkeg is given the brush-off.

In fact, the whole Africa sub-plot which introduces the diamond pipeline weakens the book; I wish Fleming had just stuck Bond into 'the American mob' in some other way.

Fleming makes no pretense of trying to deal with homosexuality in an adult manner; he just calls a couple of the bad guys 'pansies' and leaves it at that.

Another strong anachronism was all the drinking. Bond drinks at breakfast lunch and dinner; there are cocktails before dinner and after dinner, not to mention the afternoon aperitif. He really knocks 'em back.

I was not impressed with Bond. The pacing is excellent: Bond is swept from one action-packed picturesque American locale to another at breakneck speed. But he does several risky things and mostly reacts to events as they occur to him. He doesn't even rescue himself. Tiffany Case, the hard-boiled criminal with a heart of runny golden yolk, is much more interesting.

In sum: watch the movie.

Venetia, by Georgette Heyer

Cute, romantic, so not boring!

Georgette Heyer is one of those few writers who inspires and embodies an entire genre of imitators (Stephen King and Zane Gray being the only others I can think of). Her romance novels set in the Regency period are fun, banter-filled bonbons. They are a little bit of an anachronism in the current sex-heavy romance market. Those who like to think they would be best friends with Elizabeth Bennett should enjoy them. Highly recommended.

Reading Journal Entry: The Illuminated Soul, by Aryeh Lev Stollman

This is a novel written as a reminiscence and a re-creation. An older man, after writing a book about an experience he had as a teenager, retells the experience and reveals the effects it had on his subsequent life. He imagines and researches episodes in the life of the woman who boarded with them for a short time, and who had such a strange effect on he and his family. This twice-removed structure helps to bring a dreamlike quality to the narrative, and the boarder, Eva Laquedem Higashi, takes on the myterious aspect of a visiting angel.

Joseph is 14 when she arrives, and his family has suffered a series of losses. His father has died recently. His younger brother Asa has been diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease. One of Joseph's few friends has been sent to a mental institution. The book is set in a Jewish neighborhood in post-War Canada; references to what has been lost in terms of people and possessions is a constant subtext. Joseph focuses on religion, taking the task of reading the Torah portion with utmost seriousness (and obsessiveness). Asa refuses to use his eyes, so as not to wear them out. His mother, Adele, is a tall but ungainly echo of the wandering Eva, a European Jew via Japan who in crossing the Canadian border accidentally violates the terms of her visa and is thus ejected from yet another country. Her one treasure is a beautiful illuminated 15th century manuscript, the Augsburg Miscellany, a family heirloom which she smuggled out of Europe. The beauty of this object, and of the woman herself, sheds a golden light on each member of the small family in a different way. She brings them a sense of the possible, a sense of the transcendence of everyday life.

The characters are fully realized in a very little space. Impressively written, fully enjoyed, many-layered.

In the end I was disappointed by the mundanity of Joseph and Asa's subsequent lives. Joseph goes on to become a neurologist who, having made an important breakthrough early in his career, skates on his laurels from then on. Asa works as an illustrator and then goes blind. They take care of each other, do not marry. It seems that they only break through to that plane of existence on which they briefly dwelled when Joseph writes his memoir and spends time speaking about, and seeking for, Eva Higashi. What's the point of this transcendence when it is only fleeting and temporary? I wanted Joseph and Asa to go on to have beautiful, interesting lives. I wanted some positive permanent change to have been wrought. Instead they almost seemed trapped by their fascination with her.

The neatest thing since sliced bread (in publishing, at least)....

I signed up for a couple of weeks ago after reading the article about them in Publisher's Weekly.

The website features a new giveaway every day, usually a business book. Create an account, click on the button, and you are in the running for one of 25 free copies. Why are they doing it? Because publishers are paying them to. So far they've got at least ten publishers on the line.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this is marketing gold. By giving away 25 free copies of the book, the site encourages hundreds of others to look at the book cover, read the copy about it, and click on a big button saying 'I Want One'. Maybe they win one, but probably they don't. If they don't, they've already completely bought in to the idea of wanting and owning the book in question.

I clicked and won, myself, already. I received my free book fairly quickly thereafter, a copy of Petra Rivoli's Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy. It was, as promised, wrapped in bubble wrap.