Dec 14, 2009

The Fugitive Wife, by Peter C. Brown

I really liked this book, but the whole time and after I'd finished I felt like there was something missing; I still, however, cannot figure out what that is.

The book takes place in 1900 and is about a woman from the midwest who leaves her inadequate husband after a series of errors on both their parts lead to their son's death. She makes her way out West, hoping to stay with her younger sister, but ends up following the ever-hopeful migration of humanity to Alaska in search for gold. Blessed with obstinacy and a business-like mind, Essie manages to make good for herself among the miners. Weaved into the story of the present is the story of how she and her husband, Leonard, met and married. In Alaska, the inevitable happens, and she becomes connected to a young man whose idealism led him to Alaska.

The writing is quite good and the book reads very quickly, but it came off almost as a poor man's Ivan Doig. The searing fact of Mother Nature is its own character, and the emotionally stunted characters who bloom into understanding echoes Doig's hardy, midwestern stock. The only unpredictable part of the book was Leonard himself, a man who knows he is all wrong and for all his faults and disturbing traits, ends up a surprisingly sympathetic character. But he must be sacrificed for the happy ending. All told, though, I did thoroughly enjoy reading the book, I just wish there'd been more to it.

Dec 6, 2009

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

This book is definitely one of the better works of recent fiction that I've read, though I feel rather spoiled after discovering Neal Stephenson, and did not take as much delight in Hollinghurst's prose as others seem to have. Part of it may have been my surprise at the subject matter; while I have no problem with a book about a young man exploring his homosexuality during the emergence of AIDS, the blurb on the back of the book made absolutely no mention of this topic, even though it is the central premise of the book. Yes, it is also about a youth being caught up in the glamor of the self-righteous political elite and his efforts to fit in without betraying who he is, but it is mainly about love. Hollinghurst has managed to write the most accurate description of romantic yearning I have ever read. Everybody has felt that intense desire to love and be loved by a particular person, and the terrible fear that they do not love you as much as you love them, and that they could leave at any time. It is a conflicting emotion almost impossible to describe by those who feel it in the moment, but Hollinhurst has managed to elucidate it almost perfectly. I was incredibly impressed.

I do wonder how readers among the gay community feel about this book. While Nick himself (the main character) is certainly sympathetic, the other gay characters in the book are presented almost as disgusting hedonists: cocaine addicts who trawl around for nameless sexual partners; one gets the sense that Hollinghurst wants us to feel that those who contracted AIDS in such a manner brought it on themselves. Perhaps they did, but then again perhaps not. Either way, it left somewhat of a bitter taste in my mouth.

Certainly this is a book I would recommend to a reader who is looking for something a little different, and for a good contemporary writer. I just wish the blurb on the back cover had been a little more accurate, so I could have been prepared for the subject and taken it at face value as opposed to being surprised by all the graphic gay sex.

Nov 30, 2009

The Cult of the Virgin Mary, by Michael Carroll

This is a very readable work of non-fiction that seeks to explain the delayed beginnings and strength of the Mary cult in certain geographical areas. Written by a socialogist, it presents a completely different perspective on a religious phenomenon. It is, however, extremely dated. Published in the mid-1980s, Carroll chooses to use Freudian psychoanalysis to explain the Mary cult, and in this day and age, that just doesn't fly.

Carroll takes the Oedipus complex for granted, and easily concludes that the Mary cult is particularly strong in geographical areas (Spain, Italy) where the father ineffective family is the predominant proletarian family structure, therefore leading to an especially strong sexual attachment to the mother, which leads to an even stronger repression of that feeling. If one takes such Freudian analysis at face value, yes, Carroll's argument is a strong one. But Freud's ideas have been viewed with increasing skepticism over the years, and is now nearly completely discounted. Without the Oedipus complex, Carroll's argument fails utterly.

Luckily for him, this does not affect much his argument about the beginnings of the Mary cult. He takes an in-depth look at various pagan goddesses and their devotional cults in order to suss out any one that might have been Mary's precursor. Much research lead him to just such a goddess: Cybele. She represents the same unique dichotomy that Mary does: Motherhood, and a complete disassociation from sexuality. Carroll points out that the Mary cult has always been associated with some form of masochistic behavior that is clearly meant to minimize sexual feelings (this part of Carroll's "sex" argument I can agree with), and in Cybele's cult, the male priests ritually castrated themselves.

All in all, Carroll makes a few good points, and his book is very readable, but one just can't look past all the Freudian analysis.

Nov 19, 2009

Blade of Fire, by Stuart Hill

This is the second book in a series of which the first is one of my absolute favorite young adult fantasy books. While I enjoyed this book, I did not do so nearly as much as the first. Perhaps this is the danger with series: you fall in love with the totally new world presented to you in the initial book, and it is this newness that partially attracts you. You can read that book over and over and still love it, but somehow the magic is lost once a second, then a third, and sometimes a fourth or more is written.

The first book was about a 14-year old girl, Thirren Strong in the Arm Lindenshield, a princess of the Icemark and heir to a throne held always by warriors. She must make new alliances with peoples her countrymen had only heard legends of in order to fight off the Polypontus Empire (Rome, obviously) and save her homeland. The war is not just between two peoples, but between the cold, scientific minds of the Polypontus and the residents of the Icemark and beyond, who know magic and huge talking animals and the like. It is the struggle between believing in only what you can see, and believing in something a little more fantastical than that. While I personally do not subscribe to the Icemark's philosophical position, as such, it is always good to imbue young adult fiction with some sort of overarching message. It's not just about the killing and the vampires and all that; it's about forcing yourself to confront what you really believe.

Anyways, the second book follows Sharley (short for Charlemagne), Thirrin's youngest child, as he struggles to save the Icemark yet again from the Polypontus despite his physical handicaps. His villain is Medea, his sister, who alone inherited their father's magical powers, and is evil to the core. She would see her family and the country they love destroyed, but goes about this business with the shortsightedness of any vindictive 15-year old girl. Throughout the book, we meet various peoples who are thinly veiled versions of real nationalities: Venezzia, the Desert People, the Lusu. One begins to grow somewhat weary of Hill's lack of imagination when it came to populating his world. A message is all well and good, but give the reader a little credit and make it harder to navigate! All in all, I enjoyed reading the book, and it was easy to get through in a matter of days, but it wasn't quite as enjoyable as the first. Needless to say, I will still pick up the third, and last, installment of the series.

Utopia, by Sir Thomas More, ed. by Robert M. Adams

I really enjoyed reading this edition of More's Utopia. This particular edition consists of two parts: the text of Utopia itself, and a series of essays and excerpts which provide a background to the text and to More himself and a look at the future of utopias and anti-utopias in the literature since More wrote his version.

First, Utopia itself. What a delightful read! It is easy to see how More got a reputation for such an intellect in his day. The work is astoundingly intelligent; he seems to have thought of everything (though Adams, in some funny little notes to the text, notes where More clearly did not), and what is presented is a surprisingly coherent and complete view of a society in around fifty pages. It is obvious that More thought such a place and such a society to be impossible, but what is more difficult to ascertain is whether he wished that were not the case. Utopia is rather...unfriendly towards individuality, whereas More must have been aware that he was allowed to express a great deal of his own individuality, and one cannot help but wonder how happy he actually would have been had he been forced into the strictures he devised for his Utopia. He spent a huge amount of time in his own life engaging in politics, and politics, in those days as well as in our own, take place nearly always away from the center stage. And yet in Utopia, any discussion of politics at all is punishable by death. In this we see an example of the ridiculous side of More's invention. It is difficult, though to only laugh at this "backwards" society, where gold is devalued tremendously and used only for the fetters of slaves. One must also admire their selflessness, their intelligence, their sophistication and organization. But are these admirable traits enough to sacrifice simple liberties over? This is, obviously, a question that has yet to be answered even today.

The essays and excerpts that Adams included in this edition are incredibly helpful. None is more than ten or twelve pages long so it is impossible to get sick of their arguments, if one is less inclined to academia. They each present important questions about More and his Utopia, some of which I've touched upon in the above paragraph. Equally interesting are the excerpts from various Utopias and anti-Utopias that have been written since More's time: Brave New World, Walden Two, and so on. They show that the idea of utopia has only grown since More's foray into the subject, and that the same questions that were presented by More's work are relevant now.

Overall, I was very happy with this particular edition of Utopia, and would definitely recommend it to anyone wishing to become acquainted with the subject.

The Confusion and The System of the World, by Neal Stephenson

These are, respectively, the second and third books in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, and they completely lived up to the hype I gave the first book. Brilliant, hilarious, touching, inventive, ingenious - Stephenson is a literary god in my view. How he managed to get all that research done, make it into a comprehensible narrative, and then describe complex mathematical and scientific theories lucidly, is completely beyond me.

The scientific parts of the story are well-balanced by the romantic plot, and neither overshadows the other. I often find that when reading a book that has two or more storylines, I look forward to one more than the other. Not so with this series. Each story is so well told, well thought out, and perfectly executed that I enjoyed each part as much as the previous bits. The fact that the entire series is nearly 3,000 pages long should deter no one from reading it; you hardly notice the length at all, and when it is over, you'll wish he'd written yet more.

Sep 21, 2009

Sex & Gender in Historical Perspective, ed. Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero

This collection of essays was gathered together from the pages of an Italian historical journal, Quaderni Storici. In the introduction, Ruggiero writes that there was a need to present little-read journals to the English world. He is right. These articles, though short by English standards and rather disjointed in their organization, are illuminating and unfailingly interesting.

The essays all address the issues of sexuality, the body, honor, and femininity in early modern Italy. Menstruation, syphilis, in-law relationships - all these things were dealt with in ways that demonstrate deeply seated cultural biases. The efforts to regain honor is a common theme throughout the collection, and we can see it in the women who came forward to confess to witchcraft and superstition and who were eager to give up other women in their communities; in the legal battles of women who had consented to sex after being promised marriage, but then been repudiated by their lovers; in the women who, for various reasons, were either forcibly entered into a convent-like institution or applied for admission themselves. All these women sought to regain an honor that had been taken from them; most of them succeeded.

Perhaps the most interesting article was that which essentially accused the Catholic Church, along with other centralized institutions, of promoting a social atmosphere that prevented peers from controlling marriage and reproduction, thereby allowing a tremendous increase in abortion, abandoned children, and rape. I wish, though, that this thesis had been presented at the beginning of the article instead of at the end, so that I could have more easily followed the path of the author's argument.

This collection does achieve what it set out to do: it has opened to me other scholarly worlds, and has shown me that more rigorous translation of scholarly works needs to occur. Important research and writing is being done all over the world, and it is a shame to limit ourselves to only one or two languages.

Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson

WOW. This incredible book can only be summed up in that one word. So rarely do we come across an author who can manipulate the English language as Stephenson can. Fantastic, impressive, wonderful - all these words describe Quicksilver incompletely. This is an epic tome at 916 pages, and I was incredibly sad to see it end. Luckily, there are two more 1000-page books in the series, and I cannot wait to read them!

The book is divided into three inner books. The first has at its center a certain Daniel Waterhouse, Puritan and scientist living in Cromwell's, and then Charles II's, England. Having been literally bred to be a certain age at the time of the Apocalypse (1666, according to his father, Drake, a defiant Puritan whose nose and ears had been cut off by the government long before Daniel's birth), Daniel struggles between his religious beliefs and the brand new scientific sphere that is opened to him on two fronts: his roommate, Isaac Newton, and the incipient Royal Society.

The second book follows the incomparable Jack Shaftoe, a Vagabond extraordinaire, and Eliza, rescued by Jack from the harem of the Turkish Grand Vizier, who is camped outside the gates of Vienna. Jack starts as the protagonist, but it soon becomes clear that it is Eliza's story. Recruited to be a spy at Versailles for the French ambassador in The Hague, then forced to become a double agent for William of Orange, Eliza still manages to come out on top, using her considerable intellect and the help of certain friends (Huygens, Leibniz...those kind of friends).

The third book sees the two main characters meeting, though only very briefly. Their lives intertwine hardly at all, and yet the repercussions of each persons' actions affect the other. We see the death of Charles II, the exile of James II, and the crowning of Eliza's William of Orange. Meanwhile, Daniel is dying of kidney stones.

If someone told me that Stephenson spent more than ten years researching the time period, along with an enormous amount of scientific work, I would readily believe it. The immense amount of information presented in this novel is baffling, gigantic, gargantuan. Simply put, the book is stunning. I recommend this book to anyone under the sun, but particularly those who read the so-called fiction of today and wonder where all the brilliant writers have gone. Apparently, they've all poured their talent into Neal Stephenson.

Aug 23, 2009

A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy, by Isaac Husik

This book was a tremendous undertaking on Isaac Husik's part. In it, he seeks to summarize and analyze the philosophical writings of several Jewish philosophers, starting with Isaac Israeli in the 10th Century and ending with Joseph Albo in the 15th. What is fascinating about this book is that Husik makes plain, through his introduction and throughout the chapters, that medieval Jewish philosophy was very much a product of Muslim philosophy. It is well known that the writings and learning of ancient Greek and Roman scientists and philosophers passed not to their European descendants, but to the Muslim intellectual elite. These men translated and commented on the works of Aristotle to great length, and it was in Muslim-controlled Spain that Jewish intellectuals became acquainted with their work. It took a fantastically great mind, that of Maimonides, to break fully with the Muslim-influenced philosophy.

What is interesting about this book is that it contains, within the introduction, the most comprehensible explanation of Aristotle's philosophy, epitomized by his idea of the unmoved mover. Husik's explanation of the Muslim philosophical schools most influential to medieval Jewish philosophers is also quite understandable. As the book goes on, however, and the philosophies become more intricate and draw from many different traditions, it becomes much more difficult to understand. I often found myself reading entire sections without having actually comprehended them. So while the book was certainly helpful on the more basic aspects of medieval philosophy in general, when it comes to specifics, I guess it just takes a more penetrating mind than I have to truly comprehend medieval Jewish philosophy.

Jul 4, 2009

God of Tarot by Piers Anthony

Well, this is a weird one. It's clear that Piers Anthony was in an experimental stage when he wrote this trilogy. The first book is only nominally and superficially science fiction; it's really more a book of philosophy and religion. With, of course, the obligatory, graphic sex scene that no sci fi book seems to be able to do without, but which cheapens considerably the weight of what Anthony is trying to convey.

Set in a not-too-distant future where a form of teleportation (here called mattermission) has sucked most of the energy and technology from Earth's civilization, Brother Paul of the Holy Order of Vision is set on a mission to Planet Tarot. There, he must assess a curious phenomenon: the physical manifestation of thoughts, particularly of a religious nature, and which God of the many cults and religions represented on Tarot is responsible for these visions.

The interesting parts are when Paul must toe the line in this ideologically divided society. The actual visions...these start to get ridiculous toward the end of the book. And while it's clear that Anthony is definitely going for some deep thoughts of a philosophical nature, it gets over the top the deeper we go into them. This is, in the end, not a series I am interested in continuing.

Jun 4, 2009

Bloodhound, by Tamora Pierce

I absolutely love Tamora Pierce. Except for her Circle of Magic series, there isn't a book she has written that I don't devour in three days flat. Building even more upon her Legends of Tortall history and geography, Pierce has delivered yet again.

Beka Cooper is the ancestress of George Cooper, the wiley Thief turned Rogue who plays an important role in the Song of the Lioness series. The first book of this newest trilogy is a first person narrative of Beka's year as a Puppy, a Dog-in-Training. The Dogs are Tortall's police force, and they are extremely tough characters down in the Cesspool, where Beka works and grew up. Readers will remember that Alanna was unique because she was a woman fighter, but Beka's books take place in a time before the idealization of women as gentle and unsuited for any kind of labor.

As usual, Pierce presents us with a strong female character, without compromising her feminine characteristics. In this second installment, we witness Beka coming into her own as a woman, learning how to balance her violent work with her emotional and sexual needs. Beka is a good role model for any young girl.

Beyond the message, the book is just downright fun to read. As I said earlier, I fly through Pierce's books like a dog through his dinner. Pierce is simply a great young adult author. She knows how to write for her age group target, she doesn't patronize or expect them to know more than they do. The action moves along quickly but doesn't overwhelm the finer aspects of the plot. As always, I cannot wait until the next book, though I am always sad to finish them.

The Nimrod Flipout, by Etgar Keret

This diminutive book of (some very) short stories packs a big wallop. The stories are fantastical, vulgar, and highly symbolic. Some of the more staid readers may not be able to get past the language and sometimes torrid situations that Keret describes, but if they can, they are duly rewarded. A strong voice of the new Israeli generation, Keret writes of the relationships between people, of loss and regret, of love and acceptance. This is the voice of an Israel that seeks to find its place in the world, and in a region that does not want it. It is the voice of the soldiers of the Israeli army - i.e. everyone, since army service is compulsory - who win military battles but cannot win the war within themselves. It is the voice of anyone, anywhere, who feels so alone they can hardly breathe. The stories explore many kinds of relationships: marital, friendships, that between a dog and his master, extramarital, pre-marital. These are people who want to feel appreciated and loved for who they are but are forced to give up little bits of themselves in compromise to the people in their lives who seek the same. This voice of the new Israel is haunting and lonely, but hopeful, all the same.

Apr 30, 2009

Novel Ideas, ed. by Brian M. Thomsen

This collection of short stories by famous science fiction authors is absolutely fantastic. The link between the stories is that all of them were later turned into either full-length novels or movies, and almost all of these later products became quite famous. For instance, we have David Brin's short story "The Postman," which most will recognize immediately as that Kevin Costner movie. And "The Lady in the Tower," which evolved into Anne McCaffery's series about the Rowan. Orson Scott Card's short story on which Ender's Game is based in also included. As such, each of these short stories is a piece of literature from science fictions best contemporary authors.

There is a beauty to the short story that is notoriously difficult to capture. Good short stories don't need to be novelized; they are perfect snapshots of a very short period of time in the lives of the characters. These snapshots, when an author attempts to expand them into a full-length book, can fall flat quite easily. But each of these author's excelled at both the short story and novelized versions of their creations. This is a truly wonderful read for anybody, but particularly for sci-fi fans who are familiar with the full-length versions of these stories.

Apr 21, 2009

The Concise History of the Catholic Church, by Thomas Bokenkotter

Despite being nearly 650 pages long, this book really does live up to its name. Starting at the very beginning with a discussion of the historical Jesus and ending with an epilogue written upon the death of Pope John Paul II, this book give just enough depth to be informative without weighing the reader down in too many particulars. The book goes chronologically, though also thematically inside the chronological order. The author rightly organizes the later part of the book by pope, while the earlier part of the book is less rigidly structured.

The book was mostly written and published in the 1970s, and it shows. Though there are 100+ pages written after that period for the books newest edition published a few years ago, there was obviously no effort to update any of the scholarship or conclusions drawn in the earlier part of the book. Much of the book's work, therefore, seems rather anachronistic and outdated. The editing, also, is not very good. Misspelled words and run-on sentences, though not frequent, are not rare, either. And the writing itself is somewhat awkward, though in the added sections at the end, it is clear that the author has progressed significantly in his writing abilities.

Being a student of both religion and history, what was most interesting about the book was the fact that, as the author himself states, it was written by a Catholic for Catholics. It is very interesting to see what he glossed over, what he didn't shy away from writing about, how he spun or didn't spin things. As such, while also being informative, this book was quite interesting simply from a scholarly point of view.

Feb 28, 2009

Fool, by Christopher Moore

Brilliant. That one word sums up Fool, a hilarious retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear. Yes, I know - that play isn't known for its humor. But Christopher Moore is, and he lives up to his reputation in this new book. Being the first book I've read by this author, I am duly impressed, and greatly look forward to reading every other book he has written.

Pocket, the eponymous fool, is as witty as I wish I were. Being the king's jester, he is blessed with the ability to say exactly the truth about everybody, no matter whom, without fear of retribution. But when the good King Lear goes mad, all but banishes the only real friends Pocket has, and his two eldest daughters seek to sink their power-hungry teeth into the old coot, Pocket has no choice but to do what no fool has done before: play at politics. And a damn good job he does at it. Accompanied by his tremendously well-endowed, half-witted apprentice, Drool, and a disgraced yet loyal Earl of Kent, Pocket does his best to protect the old king and get his friends back.

The book is bloody and vulgar, despite there being no actual descriptions of sex (shame, that). Without Moore's wit, the book would fall completely flat. As it is, I laughed out loud more than once, and read the whole thing in three days. I cannot wait to get my hands on all of Moore's other books.

The Oxford History of Britain, ed. Kenneth O. Morgan

This book of essays encompasses nearly two millennia of British history, and it does a surprisingly good job. The essays, by necessity, are about 60 pages each, and the length of time covered shrinks with each successive piece. The essays, though old (this particular edition was published in 1988), cover a huge amount of ground without seeming shallow or imprecise. Culture, politics, religion - all are given due consideration, and in the connected, all-encompassing sense in which all historical essays ought to be written.

The only drawback would be the editing. Nearly all of the chapters contain at least a few errors, and one in particular was nearly chopped to death. Entire halves of sentences are missing; one hopes that these problems were resolved in later editions of the book. The errors can become rather distracting, though the essays are good enough to forgive (somewhat), the horrendous editing.

Feb 15, 2009

Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, ed. Edward Peters

This collection of primary sources documenting heresy from early Christian times to the fifteenth century is invaluable for those who are interested in medieval heresy. Peters' introductions are well written, easy to understand, and good analysis and summation of the historiography of the subject. The theme of the book is easy to follow, as it goes chronologically. The pieces Peters selected are (mostly) relevant and worth reading, though, as he notes rather sadly, they are nearly all written by members of the Church, so it is difficult to parse out what might actually have been true and what was common rote on heresiarchs. That said, there are some pieces here that I had never read but that would greatly aid anyone looking at medieval heresy. A great collection, well edited and well selected.

Jan 21, 2009

The Bartimaeus Trilogy

This is another young adult fantasy trilogy, but it's utterly different from the first I reviewed. These three books by Jonathon Stroud are set in an essentially modern-day London. Machines such as cars and planes exist, but instead of electricity or gas, they run on...magic. Specifically, magic supplied by "demons," or, as Bartimaeus, a fantastically snarky djinn prefers to be called, spirits.

These spirits are summoned from the Other Place, what can be thought of as a parallel dimension to Earth. They are enslaved by the magicians who summon them, and it is these magicians, relying on the power of their servants, who run the government. Vain, callous, and completely self-serving, the magicians consistently step on those they are supposedly meant to serve and protect: the people (or as they like to call them in order to keep the class distinction clear, "the commoners".)

Throughout the books, we follow three people. Nathaniel, a young magician is essentially the protagonist; we follow him from age six, when his parents abandon him to the government for the payment they receive for giving up a promising child, until age seventeen. Nathaniel is, on the outside, a perfect magician, just as self-concerned as the rest. Intriguingly, however, he manages to maintain possession of a conscience. This greatly interests the second main character, the djinn Bartimaeus. He's hilarious, delivering extremely dry, British comments throughout the series. But he, also, is more than the stereotype of his kind. He once had a most uncommon bond with one of his masters, and it is this bond that makes the spirit act in ways foreign to the entities of the Other Place. The third character plays only a small role in the first book, but becomes the key to the message of the novels. Kitty is a commoner, but possesses a remarkable ability that allows her to act out against the ruling class of magicians. Her efforts to inspire like-minded action in others often leave her frustrated, but her determination and selflessness hold true.

Nathaniel and Kitty can get annoying at times. Both characters are deeply flawed, as they are clearly meant to be. Kitty's frustration with those around her can lead to the reader's frustration that she doesn't seem to understand why others would be afraid to act against a powerful part of society that would have no compunction to kill and torture them. It is Bartimaeus' comedic relief that tempers this and other literary frustrations.

The world Stroud has created is intricately detailed, and he describes it with great skill. These books are absolutely wonderful, particularly because there is nothing out there quite like them. The ending, especially, is masterful and unexpected; it fits perfectly, whereas other similar endings may seem cheap. These books are definitely worth buying and keeping to read over and over again.