Thursday, July 19, 2012

book club fail

A coworker and a former coworker, both of whom are my friends on Facebook, have a monthly book club that meets at a pizza parlor. I happened to mention I was really impressed by their choice for last month (they read The Bell Jar! for fun!) and got invited to the next meeting.  This month's book is The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James, which had the advantage of being available for free through Project Gutenberg.  So I put it on my Nook and gave it a shot.

Now, I like old novels. Jane Eyre is one of my all time favorites, and The Age of Innocence was a beautiful book.  I like Jane Austen and Walter Scott, and lesser known writers like Anna Katharine Green. I even managed a good bit of James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne for fun. And I could not get through The Wings of the Dove. Henry James apparently couldn't use one word when fifteen would do.

I plugged through Volume One (174 pages in ePUB format), but quickly bogged down in Volume Two (236 pages, a very discouraging number).  The book club meets tonight, and I am so not going to finish that book in time. Or, possibly, at all. I'm still going all the same, to eat pizza and say rude things about Mr. James' prose style.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Original script by Douglas Adams, novelization by Gareth Roberts.

The Doctor (4th incarnation), with Romana and K-9 in tow, returns to England in response to an urgent message from an old friend, an elderly Time Lord living in quiet retirement as a Cambridge professor. It turns out Professor Chronotis brought some things with him from Gallifrey that he technically isn't supposed to have, and one book in particular has the potential to be appallingly dangerous...and that book was among a handful borrowed by a grad student who means to use it to impress a girl.

It seems my theme for my week off was humorous science fiction. Where Redshirts obliquely evokes Star Trek, this is a direct tie-in with Doctor Who, but it's the Doctor Who of the 1970s, not the current version.  I may as well admit up front that Tom Baker was, is, and always will be my Doctor. When I was in high school the local PBS affiliate ran a half-hour episode of the show every weekday at 6:30, and it was the Tom Baker stories that were airing when I first tuned in.  

But the first Doctor Who story I ever saw was actually "The Five Doctors," which used footage from the unfinished "Shada" to shoehorn Tom Baker into the story when the actor declined (or was unable, I forget) to return for the anniversary special. So the Doctor's first appearance in this book was remarkably familiar to me!

About the same time I was memorizing the names of the Doctor's companions in order from 1963 to the present, I was also discovering The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, both the books and the radio series, and memorizing those through pure repeated exposure. I have not brought myself to read And Another Thing, the sixth Hitchhiker book by Eoin Colfer, but I couldn't pass up a new old Doctor Who story. And I think Gareth Roberts did a pretty good job of capturing Douglas Adams' tone; it's a very funny book. My boyfriend, who loves Douglas Adams but has never watched Doctor Who, also approved.

Monday, July 16, 2012


by John Scalzi.

Ensign Andrew Dahl and his old friend Jimmie Hanson meet Maia Duvall while waiting for the shuttle to their new posting, the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union fleet. Two other ensigns, Hester and Finn, are on the same shuttle, newly reassigned from other ships.  The five of them soon realize that the old hands are seriously paranoid about away missions, and not without reason--every time a party leaves the ship, someone dies; and it's always someone of low rank, never the captain, the science officer, the doctor, the chief engineer, or the astrogator (though the astrogator does get beaten up a lot).  Something deeply weird is happening on the Intrepid, and Dahl and his new friends are going to have to do some really weird things to get to the bottom of it.

I'm a big fan of Scalzi, so of course I read this new one as soon as I could get my hands on it. I had inadvertently read some reviews with spoilers, so I knew a couple of places the novel was going; but it still surprised me towards the end. Parts of it were fall down funny, and parts were quite poignant, and all of it was very meta.  Great fun overall.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Death out of thin air

by Clayton Rawson (writing as Stuart Towne).

In two short novels from the 1940s, professional magician Don Diavolo gets mixed up in a couple of homicide cases where his experience in creating seemingly impossible effects for the stage works to his advantage in debunking apparently supernatural causes for (in "Ghost of the Undead") the death of a woman in his dressing room at the theater, evidently by vampire bite, and (in "Death Out of Thin Air") the murder of a police detective in his office at headquarters and a number of highly publicized thefts by an invisible man.

Clayton Rawson was himself a magician, and also wrote mystery novels featuring the Great Merlini, another professional illusionist who also ran a magic shop; I'm told that Don Diavolo appears in one of the Merlini novels, and a character in one of the Don Diavolo stories mentions that Merlini's store ships mail orders to India with all the instructions carefully translated into Hindustani.  The Don Diavolo stories all originally appeared in the pulp magazine called Red Star Mystery; the other two ("Claws of Satan" and "The Enchanted Dagger") are collected under the title Death from Nowhere.

These and five Merlini books have all been released as ebooks from Open Road Media; I stumbled across them in the OverDrive catalog of downloadable ebooks available from the library where I work, which I think is all kinds of cool, not only that these are available but that somebody in my library consortium bought them for our collection.  To be honest, if a new paperback reprint of pulp stories from the 1940s came out, we probably wouldn't buy a copy for the shelf, so it's grand that somebody took a chance on them in electronic form.

This was my first exposure to Don Diavolo.  I read them and dutifully trotted off to Shelfari to log them and was a little startled to see that I am the only Shelfari user to have done so!  I read the Merlini novels years ago; I forget which library had them, if it was a college library or a public library. But I think it may be time to read them again.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dead Reckoning

by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill

Jett Gallatin, riding into Alsop, Texas, in search of a brother missing since the Civil War ended, is sure that no one will suspect she is a girl, but wouldn't be surprised to run into trouble. Honoria Gibbons, driving across the west Texas plains in a steam-driven auto-tachypode of her own invention, confidently expects not to find what she is looking for, as her scientific turn of mind will not admit the existence of the phantom airships reported to her gullible father without a good deal more evidence than she has been able to turn up so far. White Fox, on leave from his duties as an Army Scout, is following a trail of mysterious disappearances, sometimes of whole wagon trains or even small towns.  None of them expect zombies.

Lackey and Edghill have collaborated on a fair number of novels now, both for adults and for teens. This steampunk zombie Western is apparently the start of a new series for teens, though the plot is wrapped up nicely in one volume with just a couple of teasers for possible future installments.  I quite liked the characters, though it took a while for Gibbons to grow on me, and I still think she speaks with too many exclamation points.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Shape of Desire

by Sharon Shinn

Maria has spent nearly half her life now lying about her lover Dante. She doesn't mention his name to her family or friends. Her coworkers aren't even aware that she's seeing someone. Keeping him hidden is easier than coming up with an excuse for why he's only around for about a week out of every month, and much easier than telling the truth: that he spends the rest of the month in some kind of animal shape, living the life of a wolf or a mountain lion or a bear.  When he is with her, Maria is blazingly happy; when he vanishes again, usually with no more farewell than a terse note ("Had to go"), her heart breaks again. And then she starts seeing news reports from places near her home of people mauled to death by some unidentified creature.

Interesting departure for Sharon Shinn in that it has a contemporary setting; she usually goes for intricately designed secondary worlds. This is a fast moving story with great characters; Dante's siblings (also shapeshifters) and Maria's coworkers are sharply drawn.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Books that shaped America

So the Library of Congress has come up with a list of 88 books written by American authors which, they say, shaped America.  I gather they do not intend this initial list to be definitive; it's meant to spark discussion.  So of course I'm going to turn it into a book meme, and highlight the titles I've read.

"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain (1884)
"Alcoholics Anonymous" by anonymous (1939)
"American Cookery" by Amelia Simmons (1796)
"The American Woman's Home" by Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869)
"And the Band Played On" by Randy Shilts (1987)
"Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand (1957)
"The Autobiography of Malcolm X" by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965)
"Beloved" by Toni Morrison (1987)
"Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" by Dee Brown (1970)
"The Call of the Wild" by Jack London (1903)
"The Cat in the Hat" by Dr. Seuss (1957)
"Catch-22" by Joseph Heller (1961)

"The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger (1951)
"Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White    (1952)
"Common Sense" by Thomas Paine (1776)

"The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" by Benjamin Spock (1946)
"Cosmos" by Carl Sagan (1980)
"A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible" by anonymous (1788)
"The Double Helix" by James D. Watson (1968)
"The Education of Henry Adams" by Henry Adams (1907)
"Experiments and Observations on Electricity" by Benjamin Franklin (1751)
"Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury  (1953)
"Family Limitation" by Margaret Sanger (1914)
"The Federalist" by anonymous/ thought to be Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1787)
"The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan (1963)
"The Fire Next Time" by James Baldwin (1963)
"For Whom the Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
"Gone With the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell  (1936)
"Goodnight Moon" by Margaret Wise Brown (1947)

"A Grammatical Institute of the English Language" by Noah Webster (1783)
"The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck (1939)
"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
"Harriet, the Moses of Her People" by Sarah H. Bradford (1901)
"The History of Standard Oil" by Ida Tarbell  (1904)
"History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark" by Meriwether Lewis (1814)
"How the Other Half Lives" by Jacob Riis (1890)
"How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie (1936)
"Howl" by Allen Ginsberg (1956)
"The Iceman Cometh" by  Eugene O'Neill (1946)
"Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures" by Federal Writers' Project (1937)
"In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote (1966)
"Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison (1952)
"Joy of Cooking" by Irma Rombauer (1931)
"The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair (1906)
"Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman (1855)
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving (1820)
"Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy" by Louisa May Alcott (1868)

"Mark, the Match Boy" by Horatio Alger Jr. (1869)
"McGuffey's Newly Revised Eclectic Primer" by William Holmes McGuffey (1836)
"Moby-Dick; or The Whale" by Herman Melville (1851)
"The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" by Frederick Douglass (1845)
"Native Son" by Richard Wright (1940)
"New England Primer" by anonymous (1803)
"New Hampshire" by Robert Frost (1923)
"On the Road" by Jack Kerouac (1957)
"Our Bodies, Ourselves" by Boston Women's Health Book Collective (1971)
"Our Town: A Play" by Thornton Wilder (1938)
"Peter Parley's Universal History" by Samuel Goodrich (1837)
"Poems" by Emily Dickinson (1890)
"Poor Richard Improved and The Way to Wealth" by Benjamin Franklin (1758)
"Pragmatism" by William James (1907)
"The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D." by Benjamin Franklin (1793)
"The Red Badge of Courage" by Stephen Crane (1895)
"Red Harvest" by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
"Riders of the Purple Sage" by Zane Grey (1912)

"The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
"Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" by Alfred C. Kinsey (1948)
"Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson (1962)
"The Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats (1962)
"The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903)
"The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner (1929)
"Spring and All" by William Carlos Williams (1923)
"Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert E. Heinlein (1961)
"A Street in Bronzeville" by Gwendolyn Brooks (1945)
"A Streetcar Named Desire" by Tennessee Williams (1947)
"A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America" by Christopher Colles (1789)
"Tarzan of the Apes" by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)
"Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee (1960)
"A Treasury of American Folklore" by Benjamin A. Botkin (1944)
"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith (1943)
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
"Unsafe at Any Speed" by Ralph Nader (1965)
"Walden; or Life in the Woods" by Henry David Thoreau (1854)
"The Weary Blues" by Langston Hughes (1925)
"Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak (1963)
"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum (1900)

"The Words of Cesar Chavez" by Cesar Chavez (2002)

So that's 25 out of the 88 I've read, of which at least 8 were required for school (notably The Sound and the Fury). And it's kind of hard to brag that you've read something like The Snowy Day or Where the Wild Things Are, neither of which (as I recall; it's been a long time) includes a whole lot of text, influentially though they obviously were and are.

I do have some questions, which I suppose means that the Library of Congress has succeeded in their aim.  Why is there no James Fenimore Cooper on this list? His works may be really snooze-inducing for readers today, due to the evolution of literary style from the 19th century to now, but he was really popular and innovative for his day. 

Out of all the works produced by the Federal Writers' Project, why pick the one on Idaho? (Some quick research on the LoC site tells me that Idaho was the first one, which I guess answers that question; I learned something today!)

At any rate, this gives me a reason to move some of these books higher of the list of Books I Want To Read Before I Die...but I really don't see myself hunting up a copy of Idaho: A Guide in Words and Pictures.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


by Nicholas Clee

The subtitle is "The Story of the rogue, the madam, and the horse that changed racing forever," and it does just what it says on the tin.  Eclipse won every race he ever started in, without ever feeling the touch of whip or spur; in many of them, he was the only entry and all he had to do was walk over the course, since his winning was considered such a sure thing that other horse owners saw no point in actually contesting it.  It's not completely verified which race was the one that inspired his owner to predict the finishing order as "Eclipse first, the rest nowhere"--a couple of different ones have the anecdote attached to them, but it could have been almost any of them.

I had read very little about Eclipse before, just a paragraph at the end of King of the Wind, Marguerite Henry's book about the Godolphin Arabian.  I was interested to read in this book that there's some dispute about exactly who Eclipse's sire was, and one of the options would remove the Godolphin Arabian from the lineage (and add in the Byerly Turk); I was oddly distressed by that.

I was also quite interested in this book's portrayal of the Turf at the time; it wasn't a time period or a venue that I knew much about.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Elsie and Mairi Go to War

Elsie Knocker was 30 years old in 1914, a divorced single mother (though such was the stigma of divorce at the time that she told people she was a widow). When war was declared, she called on a friend from her motorcycle club, 18-year-old Mairi Gooden-Chisholm, and suggested they should volunteer as dispatch riders; after going to Belgium as part of Hector Munro's Flying Ambulance Corps, they ended up running their own independent first aid post at Pervyse, bare yards from the front lines, where they remained for nearly the whole course of the war.

Elsie and Mairi, it turns out, were the most photographed women of World War I, and were huge celebrities at the time.  The Madonnas of Pervyse, as they were called, were specifically exempted from a directive that no women could serve at the front lines, and received some 17 medals apiece.  Fascinating story!  And I'd never heard of them before this book by Diane Atkinson, so I learned some stuff too: bonus.  It could be a little tough to keep track of the cast of characters, especially once various soldiers starting coming and going at the front, but otherwise this was great.