Destiny of the Republic – Candice Millard – Paul Michael

If you look up “delusional” in the dictionary, there’s a full–page, full–color picture of Charles Guiteau.

And if you look up “unfulfilled potential” in my personal dictionary, with this book James Garfield’s picture took the place of JFK’s.

President James Garfield is one of those Commanders in Chief no one seems to know much about. By which I mean I never knew much about him, until PBS aired an hour-long documentary about his death, which because of its proximity also took in his entire presidency. (But seriously, the name “Garfield” is almost certainly going to mean “cat” to most people, not “president”.) I was so utterly horrified by the story – and fascinated, in a look-how-the-train-wreck-twisted-the-metal way – that I went looking for this book.

The short version: it’s an excellent book about an extraordinary man, and with a first-rate narration. It’s a great book. Depressing, horrifying, heart-rending, and often nauseating – but really great.

Being me, there’s a long version.

I could spend a couple thousand words just on what might have been had Garfield lived and served out a full term, or probably two. He was kind of amazing – how is he so unknown? “Big-hearted and cheerful, Garfield was nearly impossible to resist. Throughout his life, he was just as likely to give a friend, or even a determined enemy, a bear hug as a handshake.” He deserves a far greater memorial than an orange cartoon cat. This book is a good beginning.

A big part of this story is the literally skin–crawling discussion of what anti–antisepsis medical practitioners practiced… Suddenly time travel is even less attractive. Never mind a dearth of antibiotics, Reconstruction-era racial strife, outhouses, and a complete lack of women’s (or children’s) rights – this exploration of how a bullet wound was treated in a man who held the highest office of the land and could, theoretically, expect the best medical care possible… this was enough to keep me from ever contacting Max and company in Jodi Taylor’s St. Mary’s series with a view toward tagging along on a trip backward. Whatever I might sometimes feel about the deficits of this day and age, thank you, I’d like to stay here please.

Because here, and now, no one would need to consider inserting a really bright light bulb into my body to find a bullet. No one would keep feeding me, even after the pattern was established that I would only shortly vomit everything back up (which must have been hellishly painful to the wound on the back, for starters. No one would pour fermented mare’s milk down my throat, or inject beef broth into other orifices… No. Every time I start being wistful about the manners and morals and other shiny things about any past age, I’ll think of the stubborn insistence of so many medical practitioners that hand-washing wasn’t just unnecessary but probably harmful to patients, and … no, really, I’ll stay put. (See, the Doctor has the TARDIS. And he’s the Doctor. I’ll go with him anywhere, anytime.)

I haven’t been fond of Robert Lincoln since reading [book:The Emancipator’s Wife]; that book’s description of his treatment of his mother – who, I grant you, was a couple of McNuggets shy of a Happy Meal and, shall we say, challenging to deal with – left me fuming and heartsick. Now I learn that after Garfield was shot he rushed out in his carriage and picked up Dr. “Filthyhands” Bliss to come and see to the wounded president; he had tried (unsuccessfully, it may not be entirely fair to remind the reader) to save President Lincoln. Without the ham–handed (filthy–handed) efforts of this exemplar of the medical profession, the consensus is that Garfield might would surely have lived. Even apart from the academic or creepy connection Robert Lincoln had to not one, not two, but three assassinations – nope. I still don’t like him.

So many good, forward–thinking doctors tried so hard to stop Bliss … And were shouted down. Or just ignored.

And my mind continues to be blown that the Secret Service wasn’t officially assigned to protect the president for another twenty years. It’s a little shocking that even more incidents didn’t occur.

As I mentioned earlier, I found the story heart-breaking. Garfield’s death
– devastated his family
– devastated the country
– cut short what might have been a brilliant presidency
– cut short what surely would have been a brilliant life

However, it also
– forced Chester Arthur to become a better man, and a good president (with a lot of help from Julia Sand
– brought the country together more than it had been since before the Civil War
– helped finally quash Roscoe Conkling, who needed quashing so very badly
– raised real awareness that no, really, germs are real and can be prevented from killing a patient if only certain levels of cleanliness are observed
– drove Alexander Graham Bell to develop an invention which, while (because of Bliss) it was unable to do a thing for Garfield, would go on to prevent discomfort and even death for thousands

I find it hard to swallow that Garfield’s death might have benefited humanity more than the rest of his life might have … but it might be true.

One quote I made note of: “…traveling from town to town and asking for votes was considered undignified for a presidential candidate…”

I weep softly for the wisdom of a lost age.

Posted in biography, books, history | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Warp – Lev Grossman

I still haven’t read The Magicians. I saw the first season of the tv series, and enjoyed it, and I have the book, but just haven’t gotten around to it. Everything I’ve read about Warp indicates that The Magicians is miles better – and I hope so.

The description of the book on Goodreads made my eyebrows go up. “The story of a modern day Ulysses” – oh, my. Yes, the man who led soldiers to victory in the Trojan War, came up with the Trojan horse, and fought for years to get home to his wife – that’s exactly who I thought of while reading about Hollis, who did … nothing at all. And if you believe that you have clearly missed the strong tone of sarcasm I was using. Hollis would be lucky to be compared to Walter Mitty, with his lapses into alternate universes and personalities, but I hesitate to allow it here. Mitty – in the original Thurber story – had reasons to escape his dull life with his nagging wife. Hollis … just drifted in and out of his fantasies, escaping a life he found himself neck-deep in because he apparently didn’t have the volition to accomplish anything more or better.

The description also says that Warp is “Unlike other self-indulgent, whiny narratives of post-graduation angst”… Which is funny. I haven’t read many (any) such self-indulgent or whiny narratives, but Warp was pretty darned self-indulgent and angsty, and seemed simply too apathetic to be whiny. Hollis has wound up in his crappy apartment, which he can’t afford, with no job and no future and no prospects, purely because of self-indulgent lassitude. He’s a slug, an amorphous blob beginning to take the vague shape of a man.

I kept expecting something to happen – and when something did, I kept expecting it to change things somehow. But nothing did. Beginning to end, Hollis is an untethered balloon, and he’s apparently leaking air. I hope I wasn’t supposed to feel any sort of sympathy for him.

This wasn’t awful; I definitely didn’t love it, but it also didn’t actively make me want to quit. It also would not make me want to read The Magicians if I didn’t know better. Good marketing strategy, Lev Grossman’s publisher, to re-release this early work now. Well done.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

Posted in books | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Yea Though I Walk – J.P. Sloan

Yea Though I Walk is what I’ve discovered is called a “weird Western”, a Western with a fantasy or steampunk spin. Which is, in my opinion, something there ought to be more of. The spin in Yea is that the hero and first-person narrator of the story is Linthicum Odell (a fine name), who is working to become a Godpistol, a righteous hunter of unnatural and evil creatures like the hungry undead or blood-sucking Strigoi (called striggers, which is kind of brilliant). But he deserted during the Civil War, and while it’s taking a very long time for him to be accepted as a Godpistol, he feels that’s only right. He needs to prove himself. He needs to redeem himself for past sins.

To that end, he has taken a mission to bring silver coins to a smith – a former Godpistol – to be turned into silver bullets. And … well, I never thought of that before. Mr. Lone Ranger, sir, how are you acquiring all those bullets you’re so famous for? In pursuit of that duty, he is attacked by some horrible creatures new to him, and discovered by a townsman called Denton Folger (such good names) who has an extraordinary relationship with a Strigoi.

At one point fairly early on in the book, someone made a suggestion that caused my eyebrows to go up. I won’t even hint at what the suggestion was, because that suggestion was realized in a remarkable manner, and it would be too easy to do to this book what someone did to The Sixth Sense for me; there’s a twist in the tale, and it’s just a bit mind-bending. What was funny, and fun, was that I noted a couple of things I thought were plot holes … and, as it turns out, they weren’t.

I did groan a bit at “the faun hanging in the corner”; I don’t believe goat-footed mythological beings were among the creatures roaming this earth. But on the whole the writing was as well edited as it was enjoyable.

I loved the characters, and the complexities of their relationships. The evils that they faced were truly, honestly frightening – strong and unpredictable and horrifyingly numerous. And with all of this in a Wild West setting that rang true – well. I have a new go-to subgenre in Weird Westerns.

I received this book from the publisher for review.

Posted in books, fantasy | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Place Outside The Wild – Daniel Humphreys

The author of this book came into one of my Goodreads groups to promote it, and – happily – I asked for a copy. I liked the idea of a culture aware of zombies having been caught up in a zombie apocalypse; the book takes place eight years after the z-poc, in a community of survivors who have rebuilt something that has begun to resemble civilization.

It never really bothered me that characters in, say, The Walking Dead had never heard of the walking dead before things fell apart, never saw a Caesar Romero movie or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – hey, if I can suspend disbelief enough to the dead I can stretch it that much further. So I was surprised at how pleasant it was that these people used the “Z” word and knew pretty much right away that only a head shot would end them. And while I enjoy the beginning of the story as much as the next z-poc fan, I have always been fascinated by attempts at recovery, as pre-apocalypse supplies grow scarce. I may be one of the only people on earth who was interested in what’s commonly called The Walking Dead’s “Farmer Rick” phase at the jail, as crops were planted and pigs penned (poor pigs) and routines began to develop.

This book makes me wonder why more people don’t take advantage of something like what AMC calls the most popular show on TV, and build on it. All the areas in which the show is lacking are addressed in the book. People remember the past, and struggle with addictions; people work together and slack off; most importantly for this story’s realism in my eyes, the military actually lasts longer than a snowball in hell and winds up playing an important role in recovery efforts, rather than curling up and dying and/or doing as much damage as the zombies.

What is wonderful about the setting of this book is the acknowledgement that these people have gone through hell, hell is still just outside their walls, and while they’re starting to try to rebuild it’s still always with them. “Streams of normalcy interrupted by memories of loss.” When a handful of the 198 survivors decide to seek oblivion rather than continue to live with all the varieties of hell that make up the new world, it makes sense – as well as those survivors who turn out to be scumbags eager to profit by others’ desire for oblivion.

I’m not sure about the plausibility of “Two hundred thousand square feet” of drug store supplies still sitting untouched in its warehouse after eight years – but I think the point is that the speed of the events of the Apocalypse was such that no one ever got to it. I wish that had been made more evident.

The writing was absolutely enjoyable. Writing is more than putting a noun and a verb and whatever other parts of speech together in a sentence that makes sense; that’s important, lord knows, but more vital to a story for it to be really enjoyable is the story-telling. Anyone can tell a story – but for it to be a story that anyone else wants to read there has to be an ability to present characters who are believable and (hopefully) likeable (or at least people a reader is willing to spend a few hours with), moving through a believable setting, with a past and a present and a future.

“… Weighed more than the two of them combined. Not much of it was fat — his build was more wall than pear.”

And it’s terrific that not only the author but the characters know their zombie lore (one of my very favorite lines: “If you guys named it Woodbury, I’m leaving.”).

I loved the character building throughout. From the IT tech introduced at the beginning of the book, whose POV we see through for most of it, to the kids who remember the pre-apocalyptic world dimly if at all, they feel real. Setting was well done – I believed in the compound these survivors have fortified and made liveable over the past few years, and all the details of its security. If the world actually does go pear-shaped, one could do worse than to use this book as inspiration.

And to repeat what I said in my message to the author, the zombies in A Place Outside The Wild make the ones in The Walking Dead look like fuzzy little puppies. They were genuinely frightening.

“Charlie Mike…. Continue mission.”

Posted in books, fantasy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

How The Walking Dead failed

I ask my followers’ indulgence in a (surprise!) long rant on The Walking Dead. I’m not a horror fan, at all, but after years of listening to my brother and sister talk about TWD I did get into it. The “tl;dr” of this whole post is that now I’m getting out of it.

Here we go.

Last night was the season premiere of The Walking Dead. Six months ago, on April 2 (it should have been April 1), the show produced the worst excuse for a cliffhanger in television history, as far as I’m aware. The episode was an hour and a half long, and consisted mainly of a large group of the show’s main characters driving about in an RV. Which was actually okay – there was suspense in the situation, when first watched. Spoilers had leaked – even to me, not looking for spoilers at the time – that comic book character Negan was finally going to arrive on the scene, and would in short order bash someone’s brains in. So I was prepared for a death.

After over an hour of other stuff, including a good half hour anyway of driving around in that RV, and then a flurry of activity as Our Gang was captured and bullied into kneeling in a line, and – oh, there he is. Black leather, barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat, great entrance … except did he just really say “pee-pee city”? How am I supposed to take that seriously? Okay, whatever … I braced myself. And he began to talk. I was keeping an eye on the clock the whole time, trying to gauge how it would fall out … and he kept talking. And talking. And … talking, to the point where I actually said out loud “For God’s sake just shut up and hit someone already.” From the moment he stepped out of the RV (which was a good touch) to the point when he finally took action, it was just under 11 minutes. I mean … kudos to Jeffrey Dean Morgan for delivering such a long monologue, but it’s not a fun experience to be wound up prepared for something and instead be faced with an endless stream of psychopathic bibble-babble. Behold the definition of “bloviate”.

Finally, finally he got underway, with the “eeny meenie miney moe” thing which I have now heard (in commercials) approximately 4,800 times and hope never to hear again, went randomly up and down the line of Our Gang, and – as most everyone who’s been on the internet or knows a Walking Dead fan knows by now – the POV of the camera switched from his, looking down the bat at terrified or angry faces … to the victim’s. Or, rather, the audience’s, as after weeks of hype and an hour and a half of suspense and over ten minutes of speech, Negan bashed in the head of someone whose identity would be left unknown for six months, until the October 23 Season 7 premiere.

Except of course it wasn’t left unknown. Because everyone wanted to know. So people ramped up their efforts to find out who it was, by any means necessary. And they found out that not one but two actors were conspicuously absent from the set, and in fact one of them was shooting a film in Korea during filming of TWD. So – never mind pee-pee city, it’s spoiler city time, and that’s the last time I will ever use the former phrase, ever – the safe money went on both Glenn and Abraham for the victims; the theory I heard was that he would hit Glenn, and Abraham would try to help him and get pulverized himself.

Here might be a good time to talk about why the death of Glenn was such a stupid idea, but I don’t have the heart to bring the words “dumpster” and “Nicholas” into it. Suffice to say that Glenn has been miraculously not killed several times recently, he was the (only) victim of Negan in the comic book in the equivalent scene, and I honestly didn’t expect it. I was afraid of it, but I didn’t really expect it.

Instead of talking about that, I’ll just mention how utterly furious I was with the way that season finale was handled. As a ridiculous trickle of “blood” ran down the screen and the picture and sound went fuzzy, I used language I wouldn’t like my mother to hear, and came as close as I ever will come to throwing something at a television I can’t afford to replace. I wasn’t happy. And as time went by I did not become happier. If one (or two) of those characters had died at minute 85 of the 90-minute season finale, after the twisting of the screw for the previous hour-plus to the point at which the tension was almost unbearable, I would have been devastated. I would have needed an entire box of tissues. And, in a strange way, I would have been satisfied. I would have felt like I was one of the survivors, having just watched a beloved comrade (or two) beaten hideously to death, and would have been left with just a clean fury aimed where it belonged: at Negan.

Instead I was left with a very messy and more real fury aimed at the producers. Talking Dead immediately after the finale asked people to tweet who they thought the victim was, and my response was a wish for it to be the show’s creator Robert Kirkman and/or executive producer Scott Gimple.

I thought the episode was weak; I thought it was stupid; I thought it was a terrible replay of a terrible idea earlier in the season (the dumpster incident, in which the outcome was not revealed for weeks); I thought it very much represented just what it looked like, the show beating the audience to death. It was not a cliffhanger. It was a “neener neener, we’ve got you where we want you and we’re going to torture you like Negan, nah nah nah” – and it felt almost as childish. That’s actually pretty close to how I feel about it: a child’s version of a cliffhanger.

Wikipedia: “A cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device in fiction which features a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma, or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction”. Shocking revelation. Not “something terrible just happened but we’re not going to tell you”. Not “we’re using stupid tricks to artificially simulate a cliffhanger instead of relying on good writing and plotting to create a real one”.

Shock – not disgust.

The six (six and a half, but who’s counting) months went by, and the only positive aspect to the long wait from the show’s point of view was that my anger cooled, my disgust faded a little, and sometime during the summer I got curious about what people were saying. I went hunting for theories. They weren’t hard to find. There was the “the character point of view used throughout the episode was either Daryl or Michonne, so logically the POV at the end was the same person”, which was narrowed down to “it was Michonne”, which became my favorite theory because, although I didn’t want to see Michonne killed, it was so logical. (Insert scornful noise here.) There’s the “Eugene said goodbye to everyone and made himself a hero so he’s the one” theory. And of course there was the all-but proven “Cudlitz and Yeun haven’t been on set” theory.

That’s the positive aspect as far as the show was concerned – the long delay settled down the part of me that never wanted to be bothered watching an episode of TWD again. The positive thing for me was discovering the podcast “Dead Fans Talking”, which I love and will probably keep listening to even if I never see another episode, because I enjoy the hosts so much. (They read my iTunes review at the end of episode #76, bless their hearts.)

I’ve gone on long enough with this; I need to start to put a period on it. I put the tv on partway through the afternoon; AMC had been showing the whole series all week, so I left it on in the background to remind myself of why I cared. (Last week they showed a series recap, which was entertaining but didn’t quite get me to give half a damn again.) (If you’re still concerned about spoilers, here’s where they start coming in force.)

To reiterate: what should have happened, what would have happened if things had fallen out differently, was that twelve main characters of the show would be lined up in front of a freak with a baseball bat, and he would have given his monologue, and he would have killed Abraham and maybe Glenn, and the season would have ended with me working my way through a box of tissues and hoping for a slow and painful death for the bastard in the leather jacket. Season 7 would have picked up at some point in that bloody scene, plunging the characters and me along with them back into the moment and building on the emotions, and cemented the bond between viewer and protagonists against the bastard in the leather jacket.

What happened instead was a long, slow summer and autumn, punctuated by the rather lacking Fear the Walking Dead, until finally here it was. They did indeed drop the viewer back into the same scene – in fact, apparently immediately after the last one ended.

Who died?

Who knew?

The scene hobbled on, with a very sweaty Rick in the foreground and some script tap dancing around the victim’s identity, and instead of being anxious for the characters I began to go right back to where I ended Season 6: aggravated with the producers and writers. What the hell, people – six and a half months wasn’t long enough to keep people waiting? Nope – let’s go another fifteen minutes or so. (That was the only good thing about the dumpster debacle – at least when they finally revealed what actually happened it was in the first moments of an episode.)

They managed to produce some tension by playing with Rick and the hatchet; I haven’t read the comics but I know that Rick loses a hand at some point, and that was one of the only two parts that held any suspense for me: waiting to see if Negan was going to take Rick’s hand. (He didn’t.)

If I’d been in charge, that would have been how last season ended: Abraham dead on the ground, and maybe Glenn, and Negan dragging Rick off into the RV with the hatchet. It would have been perfect: shock, horror, and oh-my-God-what’s-going-to-happen-to-Rick, and many tissues and in memoria to the dead – – and an actual cliffhanger.

And then finally came the scene – the scene. Abraham. And where I should have been upset and sad, I was only mildly regretful. (Aw, no more word salad; I’ll miss the dingleberries and the Bisquick and the dolphins and whatever other nonsense came out of his mouth. Bitch nuts.) I was actually mainly disappointed: I had really hoped that the show would pull something off, that the producers would have been smart enough to realize that fans and others would be monitoring who was on set and who wasn’t, and have managed to do something that would be a surprise. But no. There was Abraham, headless. Then came the only other moment of suspense in the show, as Daryl lunged forward to try to stop Negan from babbling on and on and waving the dripping bat under people’s noses, and I decided that if Daryl died I wouldn’t riot, but would turn off the tv and go to bed and never bother again – – as with so much else, not because of the death itself (although that would make the show very boring to me) but because it was so pointless.

Instead, of course, it was actually worse. Daryl was dragged back, Negan pointed out that Glenn had been allowed an outburst and he had promised retribution if there was another one, and turned around and clobbered Glenn. And proceeded to beat Glenn to a literal pulp. So there it was: two deaths, exactly the two which had been the strongest rumor, and … I was nauseated, not just because of the brutality of the scene but because of the disappointment with the show.

I didn’t turn it off; I kept watching, and then came the scene in which Negan tries to force Rick to cut his own son’s arm off. If I had cared more by that point it would have been a third moment of suspense: there was no way Rick was going to mutilate Carl, but going back to the earlier tension I thought maybe he’d turn the hatchet on his own left hand. He didn’t; Negan did a God imitation and stepped in to keep Abraham from sacrificing Isaac once he’d proved he was willing to do so.

And that was about it. Conclude with Rick broken, everyone weeping, and Maggie swearing retribution in the most moronic way possible (as they pointed out to her, she could barely stand up; Negan would have had one of his minions knock her out of the way in two seconds or less). I texted my sister: “Well, that was stupid”. Her response: “It was! So pissed”. And I went to bed. I had expected and planned for a long night, because Talking Dead was following the episode with a 90-minute “counseling session”, featuring almost a dozen cast members and a couple of producers and a big audience (in a cemetery, which just strikes me as tacky and I’m spitefully glad they got rained on). I shut it off: there was no way I could sit through ninety minutes of the producers being either smug or defensive (or both, which they’ve managed in the past), and the cast being depressed or stressed or whatever, and Chris Hardwick and whoever else toeing the party line to portray shock and grief.

I almost wish I could say I’ve rage-quit the show. I haven’t. It’s more a sort of shrug-and-eyeroll sort of walking away.

The end result? I’ll be able to get to bed earlier on Sunday nights now.

Posted in Geekery, TV | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Odds on Miss Seeton

It’s been a while since I tried a Miss Seeton, and for some reason I never read more than one or two. It’s a very cute idea: Miss Seeton is a vague and bumbling elderly lady who is perceived by everyone around her, friend and foe, as a sort of Sherlock Holmes presenting this fuzzy front. And of course it all accidentally leads to the solution of whatever crime is in the offing. It’s ridiculous – and it’s fun. I’m impressed by the author’s ability to pull it off.

She looked at Tom Haley for guidance, but he appeared to be immersed. In thought. What an unpleasant man. Mr. Thatcher, she meant.

I’m not sure the gimmick would be conducive to reading too many back to back, so maybe the way I seem to be reading the series is best: one every great while is more enjoyable than a binge.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

Posted in books | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Jane Steele – Lyndsay Faye

Agatha Christie points out in one of her titles: “Murder Is Easy”. Not the first one, necessarily; there is usually a basic human revulsion for taking another’s life. But once that first notch is on one’s belt, subsequent murders/executions/assassinations come more readily. Or so she says – I know nothing about the matter personally, of course, dear Reader.

I think I object to this book being called a retelling of Jane Eyre. Jane Steele knows the book, and recognizes her similarities to fictional-for-her-Jane, and indeed the idea to become a governess is pleasing to her because of the book. I think it’s more an homage, a love letter to the book, as This Jane’s life echoes and mimics That Jane’s; who’s to say that some of the decisions This Jane made weren’t influenced by That Jane? (I suspect the epithet “you impudent elf” might have been.)

It took a little while for me to click with Jane. I lost heart in the midst of her childhood, perhaps disappointed that this was not at all like the Lyndsay Faye books I’ve read and loved before. I admit it was purely duty to Netgalley that dragged me back to give it another try. Thank goodness. Once it did click, it clicked, and there was no looking back – I loved every minute.

I loved the writing. “The girl who had broken off from the line was twelve, with a moon face which was so beautiful I had no notion whether she should be congratulated or censured for taking matters a trifle too far.”

I loved learning something new (such as about the aara, which is horrifying and awesome), and relearning something I’d forgotten (like the definition of “ferengi”, which – have I mentioned I’m a Trekkie?).

I loved the horses. I always take note of how a writer handles horses, whether they’re given names, whether they’re given personalities, and – most importantly – with what level of knowledge they’re depicted. They were beautifully handled here.

I loved the entirely unexpected exploration of Colonial – and violently post-Colonial – India. Shades of The Little Princess and perhaps a more accurately drawn Woman in White; fascinating.

I loved the children. You read that correctly: I, who usually can’t stand children in fiction and particularly precocious children, loved Jane-as-child and her poor unfortunate schoolmates, and most especially Sahjara.

I adored Sardar. What a marvelous character. I’m still trying to incorporate his usual response into my daily conversation.

“Your advice is loathsome, Sardar, and it disendears me to you.”
“So often the way with advice…”

And as for Jane and her Charles…

Surprise! I loved them.

So often the way with Lyndsay Faye’s books…

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

Posted in books | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Olympic Collision: The Story of Mary Decker and Zola Budd – Kyle Keiderling

I loved the 1984 Summer Olympics. (Not as much, though, as the 1984 Winter Olympics, which were slightly life-altering. Torvill and Dean? Come on.) I was a kid; I loved the fact that my country did so well, discounting the fact that so many Eastern bloc countries boycotted. I grew up with my dad watching ABC sports and Jim McKay, and it was glorious. I watched everything from gymnastics to javelin.

I’m not sure anymore if I actually remember the Women’s 3000 race, or if I’m filling in with what I’ve seen since (and of course I’ve watched it in several videos on YouTube), but when I requested this book from Netgalley it was with a vague feeling of “oh right, Zola Budd“, and a hint of a growl. Because that’s how it ran, live: Marty Liquori commented during ABC’s coverage of the race that it was Budd’s inexperience in international competition that caused the incident. Sorry – the capital-I-Incident. And track officials disqualified her. And there was Mary Decker, sobbing and thrashing in pain in the infield, then assisted and finally carried off. On YouTube there’s a nearly half-hour video of the live coverage, and Liquori puts the fault on Zola Budd several times. If that’s all you watch, you’ll never know that the disqualification (moot, since she was well out of medals placement anyway) was reversed, and that the next day Liquori – having watched the video a few more times himself– changed his mind, at least partway. And you’ll never know about the blood pouring down the back of Budd’s leg from Mary Decker’s spikes – I’m baffled by the fact that no one seems to have noticed. You’ll certainly never know why Zola Budd actually dropped back from the lead to end up in seventh place.

In fact, it’s truly weird to read the detailed account of the race in this book and then go watch it, because that’s not all you don’t hear about. Quite a lot happened in that six-minute race.

I’m just not sure if even all the events of this race, and those leading up to it and succeeding from it, quite justify 368 pages. The writing tends toward repetition, with Reality-Show-Style Recaps cropping up now and then and simple duplication of facts and sometimes phrases more often. (Example: Mary Decker seems to have wanted a bodyguard, and the reader is told so twice.) And there was a lot of material that surprised me – including a detailed etymological exploration of “Bedlam”. There were brief (or not-so-brief) biographies of other runners – which makes sense, in context (holy cow, Joan Hansen. I mean really. Her college changed the program she had already earned 129 credits in, and she had to change her tack. Then a coach killed himself. Then two friends died in a car crash. Then a stalker started terrorizing her. Then she had a bike accident, which left her temporarily paralyzed. Then when she had at least partly recovered from that she was in a car accident and was temporarily paralyzed again. Then she developed blood poisoning. Then she got the flu. This was all in something less than a one year period, culminating in a hard fall before Mary Decker’s in the 3000 meter race at the Olympics, from which she got up and finished the race I have to add, as so many have before me…). There was also quite a lot of information about drug use in sports in general, track specifically, and Mary Decker’s veins more specifically. With all of that, though, there’s no information (unless I missed it? I don’t think I was skimming) on what happened to the records set by Chinese athletes during a period in which pretty much everyone in the West knew darned well they were using drugs; basically, they set all kinds of records, then urine testing started to be more serious and the most questionable runners disappeared – so, did the records stand? Were they revoked? I should look it up. (I shouldn’t have to look it up.)

A quirk of the writer’s which irked me a bit, and then a bit more, and then a bit more as the book wore on, was the tendency to provide a chunk of information, followed by a paragraph break and a dramatic statement. Example:

“Her stay in England had been nothing short of an ordeal by fire, and she had managed to survive. She had done so, as she explained, through her ‘ability to dissociate from my surroundings.’
“She had to be.”

It happened over and over. And over. It’s an effective trick now and then; when it appears every other page, the effect is muted.

There is a great deal of exploration of the training programs for Decker and Budd, as in how many miles they ran in a week and how far in each session and so on; I know next to nothing about track and competitive running, and I would have actually loved more basic stuff. I mean, every unimpaired human being can run at some point in her life – what makes a runner? How do you become faster? Maybe it was in there, but I didn’t glean from it what I was looking for. My bad? I don’t know. There was a great deal of data in this book, but not what I wanted, or not delivered in such a way that it stuck.

One focus of a lot of the data was the terrifying number of injuries suffered by these two women, especially Decker. Lord, the sheer number of surgeries she had to have just before the age of 40 is queasy-making. “A reporter visiting her for a profile in People magazine said that an ultrasound photo of Mary’s lower extremities would ‘discourage most people from even a casual jog'” – and she was running tens of miles per day.

The book is very much slanted in favor Zola Budd. This could well be based on all the documentary evidence the author was able to turn up – part of which is Budd’s own autobiography. It could also be based in part on the fact that while Budd made herself available to speak to the author, Decker refused to – apparently she refused several requests. Given the tone of a few narrative comments about her, one wonders what kind of tone those refusals took. (“If she was America’s sweetheart,” Reilly offered, “America needed body armor.”) It’s a chicken-and-egg thing – did Decker’s refusal lead to a bit of a tone in the author’s voice, or did an already existing certain tone to which Decker was alerted lead to her refusal? Certainly the description of Decker’s behavior after she fell, writhing in the infield, was less than sympathetic, and there wasn’t much journalistic detachment. Don’t get me wrong, I took a certain malicious pleasure in it, but I’m not sure it was an appropriate tenor. (“Running her mouth”? “The woman who almost always looks like she just had her parking spot stolen”? Really?)

There were also a handful of fourth-wall-breaking narrative comments. Though I did like “Ever see a fast yak?”

The story was all a bit disappointing. One of my takeaways is See? This is why I read fiction. In this tale there are so many coaches out for themselves, putting their athletes second at best; so many athletes behaving badly, and so many family members behaving even worse … There are so many officials and journalists doing abominable things… It’s saddening. I have to say, I did not know the background of Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the International Olympic Committee. I only saw him during the opening and (I think) closing ceremonies, and he was … avuncular. I liked him, the little I saw of him. He was enveloped in the golden glow of my teenaged idealism. And he so did not deserve it. He was kind of horrible. It’s a dent in a treasured memory. Oh well. So often the way with … life…

One more quote: [In South Africa] the small minivans that are used as taxis, and are a principal mode of transport in the predominantly black townships outside major cities, are called Zola Budds because they are small and fast. Some call the larger conventional buses Mary Deckers, because they are bigger and have more accidents.

Posted in books, non-fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Family Caregiver’s Cookbook – Harriet Hodgson

This is one of those books I havered over on Netgalley, requested, and then regretted. After I clicked on it I had the sinking sensation that this was going to be filled with all the sorts of things a couple of my coworkers obsess over which, quite frankly, make me roll my eyes just a little: chia seeds and soy milk and gluten-free whatever.

It is so very, very not that.

What this is, is one of the most practical and user-friendly cookbooks I’ve seen in a long stretch of days. There are quite a number of recipes I can see myself making soon. I kind of expected the recipes to be even simpler than they actually are, but they are by no means challenging – they’re definitely aimed at someone with limited time and money and will to create cuisine, who still wants something better than tv dinners.

I do wonder, though, about naming a recipe “Make Ahead Chewy Chicken”. Does anyone really want to try chewy chicken?

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

Posted in books | Leave a comment

Oh, sure Jeopardy guys


‘Cause there’s nothing more relaxing than a countdown clock.

Posted in books | Tagged | Leave a comment