Dear Mrs Bird, by A.J. Pearce

32594993[1]While I enjoyed this book from the start, it wasn’t until I realized what it was I was reading that I really got into it. Dear Mrs Bird is a classic wartime comedy-drama with a touch of the screwball to it. The role of Emmy would have been perfect for Carole Lombard. Theresa Wright would have been a wonderful Bunty, and Mrs. Bird? I’m thinking May Whitty or Marie Dressler.  Once I began to see the film playing in my head, the story became more engaging for me with it’s laugh out loud moments, and all-too-predictable dramatic moments, including a character death I saw coming for several chapters.

It really is an engaging story in spite of Emmy’s utter inability to understand why her choices are so poor.  And even though she messes up big time, it all gets smoothed over by loyal friends and a suggestion that all is for the best because she’s earning her magazine more money.  That’s classic 30s and 40s Hollywood thinking, and normally I’d have found it terribly out of place in a story which was supposed to be dealing with issues of life and death, ethics and morality.  But it doesn’t really, not unless you need it to.  It’s more “all in good fun, eh?” and “it will all come ’round right in the end.”

I could have been an old stick and taken offense at some of the things that get solved with a good, old-fashioned dose of common sense, a bit of sisterhood, and a few laughs, but I’m not going to because there’s a place for books like this, books that make you feel a bit better because you know just who you’re supposed to like and who you’re supposed to dislike and why.  So if you want a story that has some feels to it, and a lot of funny scenes as well as some tear-jerkers, give Dear Mrs. Bird a try.  Keep Reading and Carry On.

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Review: Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi

27272632[1].jpgI flailed about for a while trying to decide what it was I was reading as I read Summerland, but in the end, I realized I was reading a thriller in science fiction garb.  That’s not to downplay the SF element, it’s essential to the plot, and it’s unusual in that it treats the afterlife, or at least what is known of the afterlife in this society, as something that’s just slightly to the left of real life.  The dead can still communicate with the living, they go about their lives pretty much as they always have, creating the forms of that life with their thoughts. There’s a spiritual price for such creation, though, and if you spend too much of your force on such things, you begin to fade.  Once you fade, well, no one is quite sure what happens to your soul, or your spark, or whatever it is that was persisting in what is known as the Summerland.  Most people work hard to afford “vim” which prevents fading.

Predictably, the Summerland has been nationalized, and the forces at work in the real world during the WWII era, are also at work in the afterlife. Networks of spies work in the ether to protect the interests of England which is still ruled by Queen Victoria from the Summer Court. Rachel White is a spy in the Winter Court, the real world, and when an assignment goes badly wrong and she loses an asset, she’s demoted to office work. Between that and her failing marriage, she is desperate to feel as if she’s doing something useful, and also to follow up on some information the asset gave her before he died. She believes there’s a mole in the Summer Court, and she wants to expose him.

The book is a pretty classic thriller once you get past the science fiction elements.  It’s fast-paced with intrigues and double crosses, changing allegiances, double agents, and lots and lots of secrets, the greatest of which could spell disaster for all of Summerland.  It moves quickly and doesn’t waste a lot of time on setting a tone, which is fine.  That’s not really why we’re reading this kind of thing after all.  But if I do have one objection, it’s that the action sequences involving the dead can be confusing because of the terminology such as soul spark, ether tendrils (one of the easier ones) and luth (apologies if I got that wrong. I was listening to the audiobook and can’t find a reference to it online.)

Bottom line is that it’s a fun book, it’s got some ideas which are worth considering, and it’s entertaining as all get out.

Review: Narcissus and Goldmund (Audiobook) by Hermann Hesse

511TYaoMVOL._SL500_[1].jpgI’d read other Hesse, but never Narcissus and Goldmund.  A friend’s Facebook post made me want to tackle it and I’m glad I did because it’s one of those books that makes you think deeply about life, and about how we choose to experience it.  Narcissus, a young monk and teaching brother, befriends Goldmund, a young student. The two become inseparable to the point where sometimes people assume there’s something not quite academic going on between them.  And in fact, Narcissus admits that he is attracted to young men, but has never and will never act on it.  He loves Goldmund for reasons other than the obvious physical attractions.  They are compliments to each other; Narcissus is mind and Goldmund is body, and the two of them live their lives through those modes of experience.  Narcissus stays in the abbey and eventually becomes the abbot.  Goldmund runs off and becomes a wanderer, a seducer of women, and eventually even a murderer. In the end, Goldmund brings all of his experiences to bear in the service of art, and apprentices with a sculptor where he produces, over a period of years, a figure of St. John that is not only the finest figure his master has ever seen, but the image of Narcissus.

This isn’t just a book about love, brotherhood and the ties of soul-mates, but an exploration of how necessary mind is to body, and body is to mind. Without mind, the body’s experiences remain unrealized, and without the body there is no true experience of life.

I’ve seen comments about how women are essentially throw-aways in this book, and yes, that’s true.  But I can’t rail against it because they are part of the body’s experience, not real people.  The only real people in the whole book are Narcissus and Goldmund.  They are our universe as we make our way through the story.  We experience others through Goldmund. We understand Goldmund through Narcissus.  It’s an incredibly rich book, and one which I suspect I will reread in the future.

Simon Vance, as narrator, does a terrific job, as always.  If you have the chance to listen to any of his performances, jump at it.

Saints and Sinners: Three Reviews

I finished three books in the last few days, and because there are links between the three, I thought I’d do the reviews in one group, the better to explore those links. Two of the books, Illuminations and Ecstasy are by Mary Sharratt, and the third, The Testament of Mary is by Colm Tóibín. It was odd to be reading two books by the same author simultaneously, something I normally wouldn’t be doing before I began to listen to audiobooks.

36180381[1]The perfectly gorgeous cover of Ecstasy is almost the best thing about this book. It had been on my wishlist for a few months, so when it went on sale, I snatched it up.  I’m a sucker for books about the fin de siecle, Vienna Secession, etc., and this fictional biography of Alma Mahler seemed exactly the sort of thing I’d gobble up like popcorn.  Eh, not so much as it turns out.  Though I’ve never subscribed to Alma as bitch-goddess, I felt that Sharratt went overboard trying turn her into a long-suffering near saint, who cleaves to her self-involved genius of a husband to the detriment of her own creative drives.

Alma was no saint. But I think I could have forgiven the attempts at rehabilitating Alma’s reputation if the narrative hadn’t been so wildly over-wrought, reading in some places like a really bad romance novel.  Klimt’s kiss awakens her, losing her virginity to Mahler makes her a woman at last. (It’s actually unlikely that Mahler was the first. She probably took Alexander von Zemlinsky as a lover well before she met Mahler.) Sex is always a transcendent, earth-shattering experience in this novel, and I found myself muttering, “Oh God, not again!” every time Alma experiences another spiritual awakening.

The portrayal of young Alma very nearly made me stop reading.  She comes across as an idiot teen. While this may be accurate, it’s not all that interesting.  And even later, as an adult, her bouts of introspection which seem to make up the bulk of the narrative are annoying and repetitive. By the time she met Walter Gropius I was skimming the book, and while I found it odd that it effectively ended with Mahler’s death (implying, I thought, that the only truly interesting thing about her was her relationship with him) I have to say that I don’t think I could have tolerated fifty more years of transcendent sex, and hand-wringing about her music.

51UDISdHczL._SL500_[1]It’s a kind of miracle that I even began Illuminations, a fictionalized biography of Hildegard of Bingen, by Sharratt given how I was feeling about Ecstasy. But I had just finished a lecture about Hildegard and Bernard of Clairvaux, the two greatest Christian mystics of the 12th century, I was anxious to explore more about her.

Whether the subject was less conducive to such emotional excess, or because it was an audiobook where the narrator — who did a stellar job, btw — was able to soft-pedal the histrionics, I found this book much easier to like. I do wish I’d chosen an actual biography, but this one kept me reading, so it wasn’t a loss.

Hildegard’s life was strange even by 12th century standards. She was given at the age of eight as an oblate to Jutta von Sponheim, an anchorite at the monastery of Saint Disibod in Germany.  Jutta and Hildegard were literally walled up in two small rooms for thirty years. On Jutta’s death, Hildegarde chose not to continue as an anchorite, a life she hadn’t chosen. Eventually she went on to found the Benedictine convent at Rupertsberg.

Again, I found Sharrat’s prose over-wrought, though not to the same extent as in Ecstasy. (At least there were no sex scenes!) but her invention of drama for the sake of drama bothered me. She portrays Jutta as having been raped by her own brother in an attempt to explain away Jutta’s masochistic piety.  She comes perilously close to suggesting that Hildegard’s feelings for one of her fellow nuns, Richardis von Stade, had a sexual component.  Now possibly both things are true, I don’t know, but, just as I felt Alma Mahler’s story was interesting enough without all the hand-wringing and spiritual sexuality, I think I’d rather have known more about the visions, about Hildegarde’s writings, and her music than Sharratt’s “psychological insights.”

All things considered, if I was going to recommend one of these books, it would be Illuminations.

41L1CAA8eQL._SL500_[1]But then we move to the sublime, with Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, a fictionalized account of the last years of the life of the Virgin.  Mary now lives alone in Ephesus, being cared for by her son’s followers, none of which are ever named.  She doesn’t like them — she calls them misfits, and they don’t like her, but she is useful to them because they hope she will fill in the gaps of their knowledge of Christ’s life.

But the thing is that she can’t or won’t do what they expect of her. What she could tell them isn’t always what she chooses to  tell them, though she never lies, and there are things she still doesn’t wholly understand about her son’s life and death. She is not the saintly, long-suffering mother of our tradition, but an angry woman who refuses to be what they demand her to be.  She refuses to tell them the things they want to hear and when they prompt her, she slaps them down. She is constantly at odds with her keepers, and that’s fine with her. In Tóibín’s hands Mary has become a tragic heroine, a fury, who will never accept that the death of her beloved child was “worth it.”

I broke down in tears at the end of this audiobook. Tóibín does in ninety-seven pages what Sharratt could not do in nearly three times that length, he gives us a richly imagined portrait of an extraordinary woman without a single extraneous word.

So there you are, three fictionalized biographies of remarkable women, saints and sinners.  One is very much worth reading, one worth your time if you find the subject interesting, and one not so much even if you’re interested in Alma Mahler.

Review: Smoke and Iron (The Great Library #4) by Rachel Caine

36395299[1]The Housemate and I have been waiting for this one ever since we tore through the first three last year, and when I texted her that it had dropped into our library, we both squealed with delight.  I love this series. I love the characters, and the ever-increasing sense that Jess and his friends will be irrevocably changed by this war they’re fighting, one they’re not even sure they can win.

In Smoke and Iron, the personal must give way to the greater good, and there are a great many differences of opinion as to what that greater good is.  Should the library continue or be dismantled? Who should be able to decide what knowledge is freely available, and what technology is acceptable? Should the library be controlled by a single country, a consortium, should it be independent?

But there’s still a good lot of the personal going on as the young librarians navigate love, friendship, and family ties. It’s a good mix, just enough action and just enough relationship. And for the central characters, just enough of a look into their minds and hearts to hook the reader. Who is a friend, and who is a foe, and what do their vows mean to them in the end? Are those vows worth more than their loved ones?

If you’re not familiar with the series, start at the beginning with Ink and Bone. But do read them.  They’re wonderful, tightly written, and engaging. This one kept me reading way past my bedtime, and I’m not one bit sorry.

Gilgamesh: A New English Version, by Stephen Mitchell

22811845[1]I’ve read Gilgamesh a couple of times and while I like and appreciate the story, much of the time it’s rough going based on the choices made by the translator.  In this version — not a translation — Mitchell has read the available great translations and produced a text which is accessible and beautiful.  And I’m not using that word loosely.  There are sections of this story that moved me to tears.

Written c. 2100 BCE, The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving literature in the world. It tells the story of a king of Sumer, who is part human, part god, and the mightiest king and warrior in the world.  His power, predictably, corrupts him and the gods, who want to chastise him, create his opposite number, a wild man named Enkidu who is equal to the king, and who becomes his better half (and you can take this any way you choose because the homo-erotic elements are pretty clear.)  They go on adventures together, and Gilgamesh becomes a better man, though Enkidu, becomes a worse one in the process.  Gilgamesh loses his friend and goes on a quest to find the secret of immortality.

In the end, this is a hero’s journey, different in some ways from the standard model, yet still a classic quest, in this case for wisdom. The king who returns from his quest is a good man and a good king, no longer using his power for selfish reasons.

Mitchell’s version is gorgeous, prose with the rhythm of poetry, giving the story such power that, as I said above, it moved me to tears.  The mourning of Gilgamesh for Enkidu wasn’t just a man mourning the loss of a friend, it was the embodiment of mourning, a gnawing sense of how hollow life becomes when we lose those we love. I am so glad I found this audiobook because hearing Guildall reading Mitchell’s words was a revelation.

I want more.

Melmoth, by Sarah Perry

38126334[1]I’m going with four stars on this one, even though my instinct says 3 or maybe 3.5.  Why? Well partly because it’s a holiday here and everything is kind of low-key today, and partly because I think my reservations about the story have something to do with my personal feelings about guilt.

I was familiar with the name Melmoth from Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, but that’s as far as my knowledge went. It’s just as well since Perry’s Melmoth is rather a different creature from Maturin’s. Her wanderer is a woman who, as punishment for denying Christ’s resurrection, is doomed to walk the earth eternally bearing witness to the sins of others. This, at least, is the story as the protagonist, Helen, a woman with a terrible sin on her conscience, hears it, through research given to her by a friend, and assurances that the woman is well known in Czech folklore under slightly different names.

Her friend is convinced that Melmoth is coming for him, and in spite of his fear, he also feels a kind of yearning for her.  As Helen goes deeper into the research, she begins to feel the same ambivalence, fear and desire all tangled together.  She feels Melmoth coming closer, sees her out of the corner of her eye, dressed in black and walking on  torn and bleeding feet. She flees, but still aches to meet the woman who will hold out a hand and say “I’ve been so lonely. Won’t you come with me?”

Does Melmoth truly exist?  Hard to say.  Either way, her appearance gives a choice of surrendering to guilt and giving up on life, or determining to find a way to make some kind of restitution.

I found it hard to engage emotionally with the book, but ultimately I embraced what I feel is its message, and in spite of (what should have been) a creeping sense of horror at the wanderer’s slow approach, and the seeming inevitability of damnation, I think Perry got it right. The past cannot be changed, but perhaps the future can be.

June 2018 Reading Recap

Wow, I really cranked through things this month in spite of it being a difficult time.  Eighteen books read, and a nice cross section of stuff.  My reviews didn’t all get written in a timely manner, but they’re covered now.  No other stats this month as I just don’t feel like compiling them. I’m sure you can figure it out.

  1. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje — If I had a problem with it, and I did, it’s that the vagueness is wearing.  We watch Nathaniel get older, move through his life, always a little detached from everything because it seems he’s internalized the abandonment as something people do.  And it’s difficult to warm to a character who warms to no one. By the halfway mark, I lost focus on a regular basis, and had to go back and retrace my steps.  Full review
  2. It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History by Jennifer Wright — On the strength of Get Well Soon, I went looking for Jennifer Wright’s other books, and have not been disappointed.  It Ended Badly is characterized by the same dry, offhand, and often gruesome humor as her other work, and kept me chuckling, even at things which really shouldn’t have been funny.  Full Review
  3. The Haunting of Hill House  by Shirley Jackson — It’s gloriously well written; it gave me the wiggins in the first ten pages, and never really let up. But it’s not throat-clutching horror, or jump-out-of-your-skin horror. Rather, it’s a slow and even sad progress of the death of hope in the face of something overwhelming. The horror is that no matter the source, nothing can stop it.  Full Review
  4. Alice (The Chronicles of Alice, #1) by  Christina Henry — I can’t honestly say I enjoyed Alice, it’s far too gruesome to be enjoyable, far too ugly in what it shows us about life, and yet I was invested in it; I had to finish. I had to know that something would be right in the end, something, no matter how small.  Full Review
  5. Falling Angel  by  William Hjortsberg — Bottom line? I got a kick out of the story.  It’s a page-turner, it’s unexpected, it made my skin crawl. How can you ask for better?  Full  Review
  6. Boyfriends of Dorothy (The Real Thing collection) by  Wednesday Martin — The story is short and charming, and I think it’s well worth your time and consideration.  Full Review
  7. The Revolution Handbook  by Alice Skinner — In a format that relies on the reader to create the final book with written, drawn, cut-and-pasted information, it gives prompts, and expects us to think about what those prompts mean to us. They range from a bit silly: “Stick in the dumbest headline from this week.” or “Sew Trump’s mouth shut” (Where you actually stitch the page with a needle and thread. Talk about cathartic!) to deeply important: “Check your privilege. List the ways you’ve had advantages in life.”  Full Review
  8. Murder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot, #10) by Agatha Christie — I’m not sure what to say about it that hasn’t been said, and probably more aptly by other reviewers, but I can tell you it’s a fast, fun read that, even if you know the solution, will hold your interest.  And if you don’t?  It’ll keep you guessing. Full Review
  9. Gumption: Relighting the Torch of Freedom with America’s Gutsiest Troublemakers (Audible Audio) by Nick Offerman —  Not everyone is going to find Offerman as endearing as I do. He’s more liberal than not, and that puts a lot of backs up (not that he cares) and he is a practical man who understands human frailty. I love the guy, weird as he often seems. Or maybe because he seems kind of odd.  I like odd. I was raised with odd. Full review
  10. Love & Estrogen  by Samantha Allen — A lovely account of a trans woman falling in love as she transitions.  Part of the Amazon The Real Thing series.
  11. Everybody Loves Kamau! by W. Kamau Bell — A memoir of how Bell, host of United Shades of America, fell in love with his wife, Melissa, and then had to win over her Sicilian grandfather, who had reservations about Bell’s skin color.  Part of the Amazon The Real Thing series.
  12. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders — I suspect this one deserves its own review, but much as I enjoyed it, I just don’t have that much to say about it. It’s one of those books where everyone is just slightly off-kilter, and working through their own issues while trying to save the world. One of the themes here is science vs magic, and I felt the questions it raised were pretty well resolved by the end.
  13. The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth by Ken Krimstein  — I have been, mistakenly, calling this a graphic novel, but it is more properly a graphic biography. While there are certainly fictionalized interactions, the story itself is the life of Hannah Arendt, philosopher and “virulent truth teller.” She wrote the seminal book The Origins of Totalitarianism after living through the rise of Hitler in Germany, escaping the round-up of Jews (and Communists, and dissidents, all of which Hannah was) and finally finding sanctuary in New York. Arendt, who has reason to know, coined the phrase “the banality of evil,” and possibly a truer thing has never been said about that human drive.  Full Review
  14. Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World by Oren Harman — I don’t like the structure, but boy I love Harman’s myths, and I enjoy his science writing as well.  And I’m warning potential readers about this because I really do think you should read it. I just think you should be prepared. Full review
  15. Bookburners by Max Gladstone — The characters — Sally, Menchu, Asani (the head archivist), Liam (the tech guy who was once possessed), and Grace, the mysterious fighter — are all appealing and complicated. They work well together, but they also strike sparks. The villains are often unexpected, and always interesting, and the stories are structured so that each can be read in under an hour. Full Review
  16. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan — Pollan writes with intelligence and humor, and a goodly dose of honesty. He pulls his readers into his subjects, and simply doesn’t let go until he’s told us everything we need to know about them. On the strength of this book alone, I can say that I would read anything he’s written, and in fact that’s what I’m trying to do.  I really can’t recommend his work highly enough. Full Review
  17. If They Come for Us  by Fatimah Asghar — Navigating femaleness in America is hard enough without the added burden of brown skin, and a repressive cultural background that tells young women things like, your pubic hair is too thick and offends god.  Cut it.  Body shaming is a multi-cultural thing after all.  And Fatimah Asghar, orphaned young, has to navigate not only her extended family, but also American culture, issues not only of race but of sexuality, religion, and camping out at The Old Country Buffet while her family makes the most of the all-you-can-eat policy.
  18. Woodstock 1969: The Lasting Impact of the Counterculture by Jason Laure — If you didn’t live through the sixties, and you don’t really know about 60s counterculture, then this book may prove to be a good starting point.  The photos are wonderful, the text is like a primer of 60s culture.  But in spite of being subtitled, “The Lasting Impact of the Counter Culture,” it really doesn’t give the reader the long view, or contextualize how the shock waves of the 60s are still felt today.  Nice coffee table book for fans of Woodstock though.

 

Review: Bookburners by Max Gladstone 

33834989[1].jpgAbout a week ago, depression and anxiety came down so hard that choosing a book to read seemed like a monumental task, one that I was not up to.  I did, in fact, look through 1800+ titles in my Kindle library as well as a stack of books on my shelves (nightstand, floor, coffee table, kitchen table…) with dull eyes and a heavy heart, and said “nope” to every one of them.  And then I remembered that The Housemate had been reading Max Gladstone, and had bought a copy of Bookburners, Season One on the strength of his work. She talked about it as if it was a TV series, a group of stand-alone stories that described a fictional group of people fighting The Monster of the Week.  It sounded low-stress, so I started reading.  And I loved it.

It really is intended to be a kind of series, and yes TMotW is a thing, but there’s also a couple of story arcs that exist beyond the episodic structure.  Just like a good TV series.  And like a good series, it’s a team effort, being the work of four authors, not just Gladstone. It follows a Vatican-based group that maintains the Black Archives, a library of dangerous magical books. (Oh yes, magic exists here in spite of people’s best efforts to resist and suppress it.) They’re nicknamed “bookburners” though I’m not entirely certain why, because they preserve these books in their archive.

Into this group stumbles a cop, whose brother has been possessed by such a book. With the closing of that case, Sally is recruited by Father Menchu, the team leader, and she accepts, at least in part because her brother, though no longer possessed, is in a coma, and can’t be wakened. The Vatican is caring for his body, but Sal holds out hope that she might find some way to bring back his mind by working in the archive.

The characters — Sally, Menchu, Asani (the head archivist), Liam (the tech guy who was once possessed), and Grace, the mysterious fighter — are all appealing and complicated. They work well together, but they also strike sparks. The villains are often unexpected, and always interesting, and the stories are structured so that each can be read in under an hour.

I see that Glinda has bought the second season, and I’m looking forward to starting it; I find it a medicine for melancholy, and that’s worth everything.

Review: The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, by Michael Pollan

13839[1]Oh Nick Offerman, my deadpan guru, I owe you big time for my introduction to Michael Pollan.  Now, in fairness, he was on my radar, but until I read Gumption, I hadn’t made any move to investigate more than the titles of his work. It was your love of that work that decided me, and now I blame you for my Pollan obsession.

The Botany of Desire was a great first choice as an introduction to Michael Pollan’s work. It’s a neatly organized book that covers four plants — the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato — which have changed and been changed by people. And the history of each is fascinating. Pollan’s scholarship is deep and often quirky, and always includes his personal experience of growing each of these plants in his garden.

I could cite wonderful stories from this book all day, about how John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman changed the apple into an iconic American fruit by planting seeds, not grafted plants. About how the very thing that provoked tulip mania in 17th century Amsterdam was a virus that would kill the bulbs eventually.  About how American weed went from being the cheap, much maligned choice for stoners to being the most expensive weed on the planet. And about how Monsanto and McDonalds are changing the market for potatoes and making monoculture the norm.  I could, but I’m not going to because I want you to read this book and think about the plants that surround us, and what they mean, how we relate to them, and how they change to suit our needs which ensures their survival.  Because for plants, it’s all about survival strategies.

Pollan writes with intelligence and humor, and a goodly dose of honesty. He pulls his readers into his subjects, and simply doesn’t let go until he’s told us everything we need to know about them. On the strength of this book alone, I can say that I would read anything he’s written, and in fact that’s what I’m trying to do.  I really can’t recommend his work highly enough.

So there, Offerman.  I hope you’re proud of yourself.