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11/22/63: Stephen King, Craig Wasson

A few years back, my image of Stephen King was entirely made up of killer clowns and rabid dogs and possessed cars (there’s a thought: Christine as a killer clown car…), the grandpappy of a genre I had absolutely no interest in. I’d read a whole two King novels, one of them because I was forced, and never felt the need to explore further.

Idiot.

I still haven’t read much of his (all those books full of treasure – what a wonderful thought!), but what I have read has made me into a still-astonished fangirl. I mean, I never would have believed that Stephen King could make me cry at work – not “Oh God there’s something under my desk I think it’s a clown” crying but genuinely moved tears. But there I was, surreptitiously wiping my eyes as I listened via Audible. More than once.

He does beautiful, surprising things with words.

“My honors kids were juniors… but they wrote like little old men and little old ladies, all pursey-mouthed and ‘Oo! Don’t slip on that icy patch, Mildred!’”

“…Chased my headlights down Highway 77…”

“No wonder she looked like you could staple a string to the back of her dress and fly her like a kite.”

And:

It’s all of a piece, I thought. It’s an echo so close to perfect you can’t tell which one is the living voice and which is the ghost voice returning. For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dream clock chiming beneath a mystery glass we call life. Behind it, below it, and around it: chaos. Storms. Men with hammers, men with knives. Men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss – surrounding a single lighted stage, where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.

This is writing I want to wrap myself up in forever.

(I made a note of one exquisite line, and I still have to follow up on it: “Scaring people is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.” And I commented that that should be on the King family arms. And then I started wanting very badly to design the King coat of arms. When I find my pencils…)

I feel a bit ashamed of the fact that I’m so surprised at the warm loveliness of some of this. “Of course it went splendidly, as cream pie fights always do.” My God, that whole chapter was a joy that left me a little giddy as a reader and a little awed as a writer.

I love “The Land of Ago”. I adore “Little by slowly”, and am incorporating it into my vocabulary.

And this made, makes me very happy:
“What might that be, Miss Caltrop?” I asked. “Because I’ve got ice cream in here and I’d like to get home before it melts.”
She gave me a chilly smile that could have kept my French vanilla firm for hours.

“That probably should have told me something, but I had too much on my mind. His story was not the least of it. That’s the curse of the reading class: we can be seduced by a good story, even at the least opportune moments.” He is of my people.

“I know life is hard, I think everyone knows that in their hearts, but why does it have to be cruel as well? Why does it have to bite?”

It’s beautiful – and it’s terrifying. There’s no killer clown here, no dog foaming at the mouth, no vampires. Instead there’s something called the Jimla, which in its mystery and in its explanation is deeply unsettling. And there’s a broom, which isn’t what you expect, but which is at least as awful. The writing can have a rather pure simplicity to it – and it just goes to show that you don’t need all that much to create terror if you do it right. “Something was moving around upstairs.” *shudder*

And it’s not just a masterful way with words: his plotting is equally beautiful. The long long buildup makes actually finally getting to 11/22/63 rather like the first day of summer vacation after a long, long school year. It’s not often that the main event of a book is so very far into a long book, and yet suspense is maintained throughout. “Get rid of one wretched waif, buddy, and you could save millions of lives,” said Al Templeton, and it actually gave me chills. Because, come on: this is a cause worthy of Don Quixote. Whatever negatives can be brought against Kennedy, there’s such an aura of mythical unfulfilled promise about him that the whole premise of the book is irresistible, to Jake as well as the reader. Who knows? If Kennedy had lived, we might not have become tangled in Vietnam. We might have had a fuller, longer space program. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. might not have been assassinated. Race relations might have improved faster, more thoroughly. Who knows? He was young, smart … promising. Who knows…

In the long, slow, gorgeous buildup of the book, Stephen King demonstrates that not only is he quite the expert on torturing his characters … he is also very good at torturing his readers. I don’t know when I’ve seen quite so much foreshadowing and “had I but known”: “Things between us might have progressed faster than they did, except for what happened during that halftime.” He uses this device a lot – but he’s so damned good at it, at making the outcome nothing you ever expected no matter how many hints he gave and how much you thought he was telegraphing, that what might elsewhere be an aggravation is, here, just another way of keeping up the suspense.

Al, who went first through time and taught Jake the little he has to work with, explained to him that time is obdurate. (That not-so-common word gets a workout in this book – it’s great.) The timeline as we know it fights any attempts to make changes. But, I thought, maybe all of the delays were to put Al just where he needed to be, not to try to stop him. I sigh for my innocence…

One thing I do wonder a bit is why Jake’s full concentration was on getting rid of Lee Harvey Oswald, the wretched waif, via the one method. He never seems to have considered other possibilities, which might have been a bit simpler and perhaps more foolproof. He also never seems to consider that if he had taken out Oswald earlier it would have prevented the second daughter’s conception. See “butterflies’ wings”, below.

One fun thing about listening to this while at work was that with the computer right in front of me the whole time I could jump online and look things up right away. (During one such search I came upon a website purporting to show John Connally shooting Kennedy from the middle seat. I … no.) And looking into a certain boxing match, I found this quote: ”Tiger was not the kind of guy to get zonked by an opponent who was way past his prime. Certainly not in 1963.”. And I can only say … that’s kind of the point.

And of course being online anyway meant that whenever the characters were listening to it I could queue up “In the Mood” too. I started it up while listening to George and Sadie’s first dance – and it was one of the best listening experiences I’ve ever had. There are times, like being forced to listen to some of the rancid expulsions from the work radio station, that I would give up environmental advances, women’s lib, and medical achievements for this alone:

The flapping of butterflies’ wings, that time-honored trope of time travel fiction, is here in full force. Jake avers that he does his best to avoid any extra flapping – but, in what may be the only real flaw I can think of, what Jake doesn’t seem to think of immediately is that his taking this apartment and that, this job and that, even this car and that, kept others from taking them. That’s a pretty significant flap. This doesn’t do to dwell on… In fact, this is the tale of an intelligent man – book smart, street stupid – who goes back in time with next to no preparation and doesn’t do too badly – until he really, really does. At one point I became so irritated with Jake’s ineptitude and what happened to him because of it that images of a scathing review and greyed-out stars in the rating area danced in my mind – and then it hit me. Of course he’s inept. Exactly how ept would anyone, any English teacher from 2011, from Maine or anywhere else, with exactly no time to prepare and no history of any of the kind of behavior George Amberson is forced into – how “ept” could anyone like that be in an alien time and – eventually – place? Of course Jake is inept. That’s kind of the point.

I’m so glad I opted for the Audible edition of this. The narrator, Craig Wasson, often sounds like Jimmy Stewart, which somehow was utterly perfect. Also, there are a lot of creepy things in the world, and one of them is a voice like Jimmy Stewart’s voicing Stephen Kingisms. The janitor’s father – Dunning – sounds like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. (I’m sure I’m missing a connection there.) And there were some pretty darn good Kennedy and Cronkite impersonations, as needed. Also? Chaz is awesome, cuz.

I seem to say this a lot lately, but – I learned a bit from 11/22/63. (For one thing, the mental lapse I’ve always suffered in trying to remember that date is now conquered, with the added bonus that I will always now know the birthday of the cousin who was born the day Kennedy was shot.) I didn’t expect the anti-Kennedy faction to be also anti-racist (in a paternalistic, no-really-segregation-is-better-for-everyone sort of way). I didn’t anticipate the inevitability of the fact that there were over 200 death threats against Kennedy on that Texas trip – a very relevant fact. I trust King’s portraits of the historical figures – and his sympathetic portrait of Marina takes away some of my usual unease at real people appearing as characters in novels (especially those still living, or with direct relatives still living). I couldn’t possibly have cared less how King portrayed the “waif” – and the almost reluctant (and very limited) sympathy which he also received, and which King forced me to also feel, caught me off guard.

In the end, the main thing I take away from this sprawling saga of time travel and love and fear is a deep affection for King’s characters. Harry Dunning. Al Templeton. Sadie Dunhill. George Amberson/Jake Epping. “Deke” Simmons, Ellen Dockerty, the kids. Even the Oswalds. I won’t forget them in a hurry. Ever. I’m probably going to apologize to Stephen King in every review I write of his books, because I was an ignorant twit when I dismissed his writing for all those years. Mea culpa.

There’s a film adaptation coming! A series on Hulu – and filming started on June 9, 2015. Dang. Guess I’ll need to subscribe to Hulu.

“Bonus content” for this blog post … one of my very favorite character descriptions, ever, at all:

…That was it, you see: Sadie wasn’t clumsy, she was accident-prone. It was amusing until you realized what it really was – a kind of haunting. She was the girl, she told me later, who got the hem of her dress caught in a car door when she and her date arrived at the senior prom, and managed to tear her skirt right off as they headed for the gym. She was the woman around whom water fountains malfunctioned, giving her a faceful. The woman who was apt to set an entire book of matches on fire when she lit a cigarette, burning her fingers or singeing her hair. The woman whose bra strap broke during parents’ night, or who discovered huge runs in her stockings before school assemblies at which she was scheduled to speak. She was careful to mind her head going through doors, as all sensible tall folks learned to be, but people had a tendency to open them incautiously in her face just as she was approaching them. She’d been stuck in elevators on three occasions, once for two hours, and the year before, in a Savanna department store, the recently installed escalator had gobbled one of her shoes.

I have a little bit of the same curse, though happily less harmful. Buttons come undone, hair fasteners slide, jewelry goes askew or breaks or goes missing. Earphones pop out (like they just did). I will now think of Sadie every time my shoelaces come untied or my earring falls out.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2015 in books, fantasy

 

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Searchlights and Shadows – Martin Turnbull, Lance Roger Axt

“This audiobook was provided by the narrator at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review courtesy of AudiobookBlast dot com.”

Isn’t it interesting how, despite (despite?) the Hays Code, racism, McCarthyism, homophobia and faux marriages, and a studio system which can harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres… still, Classic Hollywood was far and away, miles and miles, and many times better than contemporary Hollywood. I love the actors of this era and the films they starred in, so – especially taking in the WWII Homefront aspect – this book had a lot going for it.

I learned a great deal – Ogden Nash worked on The Wizard of Oz? Bette Davis declared complete integration for the Hollywood Canteen (actually, I learned everything I know about the Hollywood Canteen from this book, and loved it). Orson Welles in this period was dating a semi-literate stripper. I learned that Errol Flynn was tried for statutory rape (I’m still surprised I’d never heard of that), and everything about Alla Nazimova.

On the other hand, Bette Davis also had conversations with the fictional main characters, Errol Flynn had an affair with one of the fictional main characters, and Alla Nazimova was like a mother to the fictional main characters. Aaannd yes, here’s the complaint I often come out with about books like this: Well, here. Here’s the thing. My family has a tradition of mock-claiming celebrities with our name – Cousin Rod, Aunt Martha, Uncle Jimmy, etc. James Stewart barely rated a mention in this (wrong studio)(no – he was MGM. How odd), but if my name was, say, Novarro, or Welles, or Mayer, or Flynn… I would be a good deal less tolerant of this book. I have to admit the backstage-Hollywood perspective was fun… I also have to admit I was a little squeamish about it. I might have preferred that all the characters were like the inserted fictional actors that starred in the fictional “William Tell”… I know, I’ll stop now.

The writing was alternately fun and exasperating. I loved the line “That bitch will take a powder so goddam fast you’ll be tasting Max Factor clear through to next week.” It still makes me smile as I write this. There was a metaphor involving a bank robber that was kind of awesome. There was very heavy use of simile and metaphor – and not all of it was this successful. There were a number of misplaced modifiers and suchlike, and sentences like “I suppose she won’t be the first staff member we’ll lose” which … I don’t think that means what you meant it to mean.

My response to: “It’s taking all of my will power not to lean over and kiss the cotton-pickin’ dickens out of you” – was “take me, I’m yours”. / sarcasm.

The celebrity characters, as I mentioned, made me a bit uneasy. I was never sure where the line was between “this happened” and “made up by the author” (and then of course when you factor in “this was a fiction created by the studio” it just gets a little hairy). The main characters were strong; I understand how those who started with the first book could feel that these folks were good friends. I’m not sure I adored them enough to go back and start from the beginning, though. For one thing – not a definitive thing, not a deal-breaking thing, just a thing I didn’t like – I kept raising my eyebrows as Gwendoline wandered the world taking notes, not admiring the clothing she comes across and planning to use it as inspiration so much as … planning on ripping it off. Moral ambiguities I can work with; I didn’t much care who the characters slept with, or who had what black market dealings. But this was disturbing.

The narration was equally alternately fun and exasperating. Characters were given distinctive voices that kept them identifiable – and, I’m happy to say, the stars were not read with an eye (ear) toward impersonation. For those with distinctive mannerisms, Mr. Axt hinted rather than going full-on Rich Little, and it worked beautifully. However, there were some pronunciation issues that did not work. “Brassiere” was pronounced “brasserie”; director George Cukor’s name is consistently mispronounced “cookur” (see: www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/….. it’s “Bowdlerizers” and not “Bowlderizers”; and, dammit, the word is NOT pronounced mischievIous. (ETA: Mr. Axt let me know in an email that when a character mispronounces the word “epitome”, it is the character’s ignorance and not the narrator’s, as I expected.)

So: fun, but I don’t expect to continue with the series.

One last eyebrow-raiser, proving perhaps that either monks led a very different lifestyle in 40’s Hollywood, or the author’s control of language might not be exactly what he thought it was: “For the longest time, Marcus doubted he was any good at this “boyfriend” business, and had almost resigned himself to a monk-like life with the occasional encounter.”

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2015 in books, historical fiction

 

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Harlots, Hussies, and Poor Unfortunate Women: Edith M. Ziegler, Sally Martin

The required disclaimer: “This audiobook was provided by the author, narrator, or publisher at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review courtesy of AudiobookBlast dot com.” And thanks!

What a fascinating subject. I was a little familiar with the transportation of male convicts, particularly to Australia; I was a little familiar with efforts toward colonial population expansion like Les Filles du Roi. This made me realize how little I knew about those topics, and how even less about female transportation.

There are some potentially tremendous stories are, but listening to this reminded me strongly of reading a biography of Shakespeare: we know next to nothing, and what we do know consists of a) facts gleaned from impressive research into court records, wills, and contemporary letters and journals; and b) conjecture based on what is known about the subject, what is known about others, and on what was the usual case, weaving a book out of slender threads whether there are enough threads to support a whole book or not. Here, though, those potentially amazing stories are of a necessity passed by with the merest mention, presumably to a lack of data: either it doesn’t exist or Ms. Ziegler didn’t go down the rabbit holes. Case in point: the female convict/servant who “passed for a soldier at Culloden”. That is a monster of a plot bunny. (How interesting that tempting avenues of research branching off from the main topic and tempting plot ideas that crop up in the midst of other things are both named after rabbits.)

This book, and one I’ve read since in a similar vein, makes me better understand both the allure of and criticisms against a non-fiction author like Erik Larson, who spins the facts he scrapes together into a coherent narrative tapestry. This is wonderful to read: he is a very good storyteller. But it leaves an uneasy aftertaste: it’s a story more than a history. It’s easy to read his works and not pay attention to the frequent use of “must have been” and “could have been” and so on, and – without reading the acknowledgements – not realize that when Mr. Larson mentions that his primary subject saw a gull fly over one morning it is not because it is known that that person saw a gull fly over on that particular morning, but because when Mr. Larson went to that location for research he saw a gull fly over.

That sort of thing does not occur in this sort of history. This is pure Joe Friday “Just the Facts, Ma’am”. So, on the one hand, it’s fascinating and trustworthy… and, on the other hand, a bit tedious. It becomes a matter of quantity substituting for quality, in terms of depth; there are hundreds of records of trials, convictions, transportations, ads for runaways, wills, and so on that can be referenced and from which can be drawn inferences, but very few instances where one woman’s story can be traced from start to finish. Why did one woman steal a sheet? Who knows? Was rape as prevalent as my slightly queasy gut feels? Who knows? “Irish convicts came mostly from the county of Leinster” – why? Who knows? I wish there had been a way for the author to have followed up with household accounts and other owners’ paperwork for more information.

This is not in any way meant to denigrate Ms. Ziegler’s efforts. There is a tremendous amount of research here, and the necessity of dealing with common names, aliases (one woman had at least three), non-survival of records after 300 years and the lack of records in the first place. But something like this underscores the inevitable shortcomings of this sort of book:

“It would be interesting to know the fate of a black London woman named Elizabeth Jones who was indicted in 1735 for stealing a few items of clothing with an assessed total value of ten pence. She was convicted and sentenced in April, and transported to Maryland on the John in December of that year.” That’s a rather frequent phrase throughout, “It would be interesting to know” – including how the women (and men) fared during the Revolution, which is rather a big one: convicts, originally British, but cast out by Britain; where do loyalties fall? (Again: plot bunnies.)

The narrator gave this a pleasant, neutral reading… but it’s unfortunate, given the subject matter, that “gaol” (as in “Hertford Gaol”) is mispronounced as “goal”.

So, to sum up: this is a rather dry treatment of a fascinating subject, and had I worlds enough and time there could be any number of ideas for novels in there. I’m very glad to have had the chance to give it a listen.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2015 in books, non-fiction

 

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The Divine Sarah: The Art of Theatre

The Art of the TheatreThe Art of the Theatre by Sarah Bernhardt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This audiobook was provided by the author, narrator, or publisher at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review courtesy of AudiobookBlast dot com: thank you.

I was quite interested to see Sarah Bernhardt’s Art of the Theatre in an email from AudiobookBlast. I’ve known bits and pieces about The Divine Sarah, it seems by osmosis, from the art of Alphonse Mucha to legends of her Hamlet and so forth. I was looking forward to learning about her. I hoped it would be some cross between memoir and art instruction; I was looking forward to learning more about the actress and her experience of theatre in the nineteenth century.

There was some of that. I had a glimpse into the life of Miss Bernhardt, but just a glimpse; I had a taste of what it was like to become a thespian, to work as a thespian, in Europe over a hundred years ago – but just a taste. I would have loved more about her education at the Conservatoire; it was delightful to hear about the deportment classes, like a ridiculous version of Kabuki. I would have loved more about her performances – more along the lines of the fact that she had horrific stage fright unless in front of a hostile audience (like in Germany, where she made some bad choices for her performance). I loved her discussion of the almost schizophrenic-sounding ability to split off the character she was set to portray from her own personality: “I would dismiss Sarah Bernhardt to a corner and leave her to be a spectator of my new me.” She felt that she literally left her self behind in the dressing room.

I perked up when the “three Hamlets” came up, but either Mlle Bernhardt assumed whoever was reading her book knew what she meant or… no, that’s probably what it was. (They are, for the record, to perhaps save someone the Google: the black Hamlet of Shakespeare, L’Aiglon, the white Hamlet of Rostand, and Lorenzaccio, the Florentine Hamlet of Alfred de Musset.) She mused a brief while on the role, but I had hoped for more. I do love the comment that Hamlets are generally too well-fed and comfortable … although, really, it’s not like a wealthy, privileged young man whose troubles are pretty recent would have had the chance to wither away too much…

The tales of her career are made a bit less than enthralling by heavy reference to people – actors, authors, playwrights, artists – who were huge in her day and in France, but are at best obscure here and now. Name-dropping is less impressive when nobody knows what you’re talking about.

It was a bit difficult to get past prejudices the lady built up within her time period and her experience. Stout women waddle. You can’t be an actor if your proportions aren’t right. God help you if you’re ugly. “If the sacred fire burns in you, you will succeed” – unless your arms aren’t long enough.

Going wider: “Although all new ideas are born in France, they are not readily adopted there.” Because France, of course, is the center and focus of the world. (America (which here includes Toronto)? *delicate shudder* Though I have to say,“despotic enthusiasm” isn’t the worst description I’ve ever heard for this country …) So is theatre the epicenter of everything: “Our art is the finest, the noblest, the most suggestive, for it is the synthesis of all the arts. Sculpture, painting, literature, elocution, architecture, and music are its natural tools.” Pardon me while I go find an actor to kowtow to, in my natural station as subservient former art student.

If she liked you, you were golden, and could do no wrong. If she disliked you, God help you. If she liked you and then was disillusioned … oh dear. The lady held very strong opinions, and was free with them; “There are actors devoid of talent who are very successful.”

I wonder if it’s actually true that “all sports are injurious to the voice, especially sailing”.

It seems possible that autograph-seeking was invented expressly for the Divine Sarah: “One lady had the idea of producing her pocketbook and asking me to write my name. The idea spread like lightning.” Without Sarah Bernhardt, Comic-Con would be but a shadow of what it is.

So, this isn’t quite a memoir, or a book of acting instruction, exactly, though elements of both exist. What it resembled most was pulling up a seat next to an elderly prima donna and trying to follow along as she vented her opinions on her schooling, and kids’ education these days, and people she knew thirty years ago, and that time in Germany… An outpouring of words which outline the shape of Sarah Bernhardt and the space she filled in theatre, without adding color or dimensionality to the outline. The gap I was looking to fill will probably be better served by a biography. I’ll have to look into it one day. This only served as an appetizer.

The narration was quite good, though there were some awkward pronunciations: “Marseillais” became “Marsellay”; “infinite”, “dross”, “physiognomy” were all a bit off, and so on; “A” was always long. I believe one review complained about the narrator not being French, and I admit a genuine French accent might have enhanced the experience (given Miss Bernhardt’s ethnocentrism, especially).

While I couldn’t help raising eyebrows at some bits of the book, and was alternately fascinated and quite frankly bored in places, this quote was wonderful:

[The actor’s] walls are of cardboard and his mountains painted on canvas, his skies have their nights illuminated by a thousand little paper stars, suspended at the end of a thread and stirring with every puff of breath. His impregnable turrets are fashioned of millboard, and the axe which is laid to them and the bullet which pierces them are children’s toys. But the hand which holds these toys is the hand of a man electrified by splendid verse. The heart that rushes to the assault beats a charge as vigorous, as precipitate, as if a real enemy were in question. And for the public that is present, anxious, nervous, and transported, the turret might be of freestone; the sky the black firmament lit by its thousands of golden studs, and it is the faith of the actor holding the torch handed him by the poet that illumines every mind, every soul, and every sensibility.

 

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2015 in biography, books, Theatre

 

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All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr, Zach Appelman

I’m a huge voice fan. And last fall I had the tremendous good luck to see Zach Appelman as Hamlet at The Hartford Stage. If it hadn’t been the last day, I would have gone back as often as possible, sacrificing groceries and any bills necessary – and books – to see it again and again. Books. This was serious. But it was the last day, and so I have to just be thankful I got to see the best Hamlet of my experience that one time. Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Olivier, even Derek Jacobi and David Tennant – all pale. Appelman was incredible. If he’s in anything anywhere near you, go see him.

So I admit it – the solitary reason I downloaded this book was for him. I also admit I hadn’t heard of either author or title. (Yes, I know (now): it won a Pulitzer. I don’t get out much.) Now, it has to be said that Zach Appelman’s French is very … American, and there’s a fair amount of French in the book. I don’t care. I’m a fangirl. His is a quiet, level voice; character voices are subtle and affecting. He gives a little chuckle as he reads a line about Marie-Laure and her father accidentally burning a tart, and it makes all the difference in the world. I’d be happy with the phone book. (ETA: But not, as it turns out, The Odyssey.)

Here: my last Appelman plug, and then I’ll talk about the book.

I would be happy with the phone book – but this isn’t the phone book. It won a Pulitzer, and I’m really very happy about that. It is the story of a clever young blind girl in France and a young clever mechanically-minded boy in Germany (Marie-Laure and Werner) whose paths slowly converge and finally collide, and all the while coil around a mysterious gemstone which is both more and less than a Maguffin. And it is the story of, in its way, light, and how it soaks through the lives of two children in wartime; where light comes from, and where it goes, and how it affects everything it touches, or doesn’t. It’s simple. It’s intricate. It runs deep and sparkles on the surface, like the ocean Marie-Laure comes to love so much.

“The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children,” says the voice. “It floats in clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light, and yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

Marie-Laure’s half of the book – which alternates with Werner’s – is a fascinating exploration of blindness from the inside. “Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver. Pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden…” The story is not sentimentalized, even given the fact that her mother is dead. She loses her sight, and adapts, and her rather wonderful father (named Daniel LeBlanc, which was (in a way) my grandfather’s name, which is kind of wonderful) adapts, and then the War comes.

The tale of young Werner Pfennig is a clear illustration of how it all happened. He is a very gifted boy, but utterly penniless, and is informed quite definitely that he will be going into the coal mines when he is fifteen. His father died in the mines. And he knows he is capable of much more than that life. And once he recognizes what he needs to do to change the direction of his life, he makes the determination to do it, do anything. It is “a way out”. “You have been called,” he is told. He hates what the Reich encourages men to do, but in that time and in that place, how else can he ever find the outlet for his abilities? He is given no choice … but even had there been a choice the path the Reich offers him is enough to balance the horrors that line it. Until it isn’t.

Werner wants everything to change; Marie-Laure wants everything to stay the same. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Werner gets his wish, in that at least.

Stones are just stones, and rain is just rain, and misfortune is just bad luck.

Point of view is scattered and unfocused. Chapters are broken into sections, and while they mostly alternate between Werner and Marie-Laure, sometimes they carom off to Van Rumpel, Marie’s father, others. Even within one discrete section the POV sometimes flickers – one moment Marie-Laure, one moment omniscient talking about how things look. Sometimes it is how Marie-Laure imagines they look, sometimes not.

But … it doesn’t really matter. They say you have to know the rules in your bones before you can break them without making a fool of yourself, and I think I can safely excuse the flickering POV by saying Doerr knows the rules, very well. There’s a measurable difference between no idea what he’s doing and unquestionably doing that on purpose and to effect. I never tend to seek out award winners or suchlike. But it gives me a surprisingly warm glow that this book, this lovely thing, this superlative experience, won a Pulitzer.

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2015 in books, Favorites, historical fiction

 

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Dangerous and Unseemly – K.B. Owen – Becket Royce

I am required to say: This audiobook was provided by the narrator at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review courtesy of AudiobookBlast dot com. So I’m really, really happy to be able to also say that the narration was far and away the best part of this book. The plot and story had a fair number of issues fighting with nice characterization and fun dialogue (and a setting of Hartford, Connecticut – my backyard), but the reading – by Becket Royce (and now I want to be named Rebecca so I can go by Becket) – was one of the best I’ve listened to in a while. Character accents were present without being overwhelming; humor was nicely accentuated; best of all were moments such as when the text mentions someone giving an unladylike snort… and Becket Royce complies. I have a new go-to narrator.

So, now, the book itself. I should be slamming it with three or even two stars. I saw just about everything coming light years away – what was wrong with Mary, and which of the two men courting our heroine Concordia Wells was a bad’un, and the secret behind the enameled dagger. This is not because I was being clever – I’m never clever at guessing who dunnit and whatnot – but because all of this was telegraphed with great clarity.

The plot also relied heavily on clichés. If you haven’t ever read a book or watched a television show before, this might be a spoiler: when someone told Concordia that there was something very important they had to tell her – but they didn’t want to tell her now, they would meet her tomorrow … well, really, how many books or tv shows have there ever been where that setup actually resulted in the person showing up at said meeting and imparting the very important message? (I should start a list.) (I’m very surprised not to be able to find this on tvtropes.com; it’s almost “Lost In Transmission”, but not quite…)

Spoiler in three… two … one …

Something that was odd about that situation was: “The doctor was of the opinion that [Sophia] had not been outside [in the rain] for long.” But … she was an hour late for her meeting with Concordia, which is why the latter went looking for her (in the rain). If she wasn’t attacked on her way to meet C, then when? Was she dragged outside after being conked?

The writing – in terms of well-chosen words strung together to form pleasing sentences free of grammatical errors – wasn’t perfect. There was at least one example of “lay” for “lie”. And the scary, scary note left pinned with a dagger – “Beware – next time a real stabbing could happen!” – really isn’t very scary. But aside from these quibbles and the larger problems mentioned above, I was happy listening to Dangerous and Unseemly – which is a great title, by the way. As mentioned, the dialogue was very nice in places, lively and life-like, and particularly fun to listen to. Blessings on author and reader for the fact that it was “mischievous”, not “mischievious”! I can forgive a lot for that.

I enjoy a good historical mystery. (Does this class as a cozy? I guess this is a cozy.) I enjoy books set in boarding schools and colleges – such enclosed, self-contained environments. And I enjoy books set around theatre productions, particularly Shakespeare of course, and D&U features a student production of Macbeth. (I know someone who would be quite irked at the pronunciation “McBeth”; I forgave it.) (One line regarding that play started a little plot bunny for me: “Lady Macbeth still had a tendency to giggle during her sleepwalking scene…” That could totally be worked in.) I can’t really say this was a great mystery – the disparate parts of the plot (what happened to Concordia’s sister, the death(s) at the college) didn’t necessarily play well together.

I couldn’t help wondering if the author is a fan of L.M. Montgomery. Our heroine Concordia is a ginger, and puts up the familiar lament that a red-haired lady can NOT wear pink. And at one point she admires dresses with “gigantic puffed sleeves” and elbow cuffs.

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2015 in books

 

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Broken Homes – Ben Aaronovitch, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

So let’s see. I need to post a review about something I liked. *scans list of recent reads* Nope… nope… no, not that either… Ah.

123

There are some writers who feel they need to inject a little geekery into their books, trying to claim geek cred they haven’t really earned; I’ve seen more sadly misused references to LotR and Star Trek and so on than I care to think about, the sorts of things that would make someone as unfamiliar with the referent as the writer nod knowingly, but which make a geek like me long to send the writer brownies dusted with iocaine powder.

But Ben Aaronovitch is the legitimate and true owner of a TARDIS-load of honest-to-Eru geek cred, so when Peter Grant remarks to Toby the dog that “We’re living in Isengard”, or remarks on something’s similarity to modern Gallifreyan (“They looked disturbingly like the payload zones of a demon trap and even more disturbingly like modern Gallifreyan”), it’s just a happy happy thing of beauty.

Broken Homes is another excellent installment in an excellent series. The hunt continues for the so-wonderfully-named Little Alligators; another “Falcon-related” death comes the way of the little strange-crimes unit housed in The Folly; life goes on much as usual. Until Peter and Leslie are called upon to go undercover in an apartment complex called Skygarden, long known to be a locus of probable criminal activity, and now revealed as a possible locus of magical activity.

There is, perhaps, a bit more than is actually fun of Aaronovitch/Peter’s 1234favorite hobby horse, architecture – but it is relevant. And it is acknowledged that other characters’ eyes pretty much glaze over when Peter rabbits on about it, so that’s okay then.

I confessed in a Goodreads update that Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s voice reduces me to a state of squeeing fangirl; it’s an understatement, I admit.

Though what Peter/Aaronovitch has against Dire Straits – and Queen – I don’t know. I will overlook it because Peter is otherwise kind of awesome and he is very young. And a music snob. I blame his father.

As seems to be usual, the plotline is the weak area of the book. Characterization, setting, world-building, all of that stuff is terrific, but in Broken Homes the plot has the same flaw as one or two of the other books in the series: it meanders a little. It just feels like the plot could use a bit of tightening.

But, as usual, I had enough fun with the rest (especially KH-S, of course) that I don’t care.

What I do care about is the meaning of the title. I wondered about it now and then. I mean, “The Rivers of London” is pretty obvious, and the rest make good sense as well … so, I wondered briefly here and there, what homes are broken here? Well, I found out, I did. And it made me say “No, oh no no no…” out loud. It’s bad. Not to spoil anything, but it’s really bad.

*ahem*sniffle* Anyway.

This installment moves the story forward substantially – things are happening in the hunt for the Faceless Man and the Little Crocodiles, and I think Peter might say “shit’s getting serious”. (Sorry.) It’s going to be a long, long wait until the next book.

 
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Posted by on June 28, 2014 in books, fantasy

 

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The Three Musketeers (insert sad trombone noise here)

Here’s the sad trombone noise…

61HkYyXY5KL._SL300_My rating for this surprised me, and I imagine it might be a surprise to others.

 

 

One star?? A swashbuckling adventure novel beloved for a couple of centuries? Yeah, well.

I’ve tried to read this before. It had “me” written all over it: aforementioned buckling of swashes, romance and derring-do and so forth. But I never penetrated very far. There was a tone – perhaps to the particular translation I tried, perhaps to the work itself – that just put me off, exemplified by the instance of D’Artagnan selling the yellow horse after his father impressed upon him how he must never do so, and he promised faithfully that he would not. It was such a dishonorable, dishonest, ugly thing to do, in a book I had expected to be dripping with honor – and it was just the beginning.

Last year I finally went with the audiobook, on the theory that classics that have not held a huge amount of interest for me go down better read aloud. I hold the reader, John Lee, responsible for my being able to finish it with as much tolerance as I did; if I’d been just reading words on a page I think it would have ended up in the trash by page 200. I hated this. I truly, deeply hated this. I’ve seen at least a couple of movie versions; I’ve enjoyed them, somewhat, as frothy swashbucklers, of course. I always expected the book to be better, though.

One of my two Goodreads comments on the book was:
“These people are all horrible – honorless, slutty morons. And this is a classic, beloved by schoolboys for – what, over 200 years? God help us.”

3473426And that’s my biggest problem with the book. Perhaps it was supposed to be ironic, some kind of commentary on honor and courage and standards and morality through the depiction of noble swordsmen who were actually men you wouldn’t trust alone with a coin or a woman. I don’t remember ever coming across that take on it, though.

Athos, Porthos, Aramis, D’Artagnan. These are the heroes I wanted to read about. The brave and loyal soldiers, the champions of right and defenders of womanhood and of France … I have no idea where my ideas came from – the movies, perhaps? What I found as I listened to the book was that Athos was a hypocritical prig, Aramis was a hypocritical pseudo-religious, Porthos was a gluttonous gambling dandy, and D’Artagnan a cocky young jackass. They were all four drunkards, given any opportunity; they were all womanizers, cuckolding widely and wildly, dropping whatever girl they had been bedding to move on without a pause or juggling as many as possible simultaneously. And the much-vaunted all-for-one loyalty? I didn’t see it. Every single one of them was as likely to throw his buddies under the 18th century equivalent of a bus as to support them, or to leave them in assorted lurches. Then get a good laugh out of it. And the interactions between these four and the man-servants they could barely afford but NEEDED made The Comedy of Errors seem like a shining illustration of workplace harmony. It was depressing.

D’Artagnan in particular was a letdown. The whole situation of swiving the maid in the room adjacent to her mistress, and vice versa – I wanted to throttle him. A lot. For one thing – seriously? They’ve let prepubescent boys read this for centuries? Oh, that’s just awesome. So, buckling of swashes, romance and derring-do and so forth? The swashes were askew at best; the romance was not the way Anne Shirley defines it (nor me), the doing wasn’t so derring. I only made it through the whole thing because it was an audiobook with a good narrator, and because I gritted my teeth in determination to see it all the way through. It was a deep disappointment, and I hated it.

My other Goodreads comment:
“Chapter 67: Conclusion
Oh, thank God.”

 
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Posted by on June 16, 2014 in books, Classics

 

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Wuthering depths…

15997364This is one of those classics I was never able to get very far into. The first time I got the whole gist of the story was watching the Olivier-Oberon film some time back, which surprised me with how much I disliked every single soul in the story.

Last year I finally got determined to crack the shell of this thing and listen to the audiobook. Heck, I thought, I listened to one of my most-hated-books-ever, Tess of the Durbervilles, and ended up appreciating it; surely it would work with Wuthering Heights.

Or not.

Which is nothing against the narrator. Anne Flosnik was the only good thing about the experience: she was excellent.

But the book made me want to bang my head against a wall until it was over. Put it this way: there was a very high body count in this book – it was one grim death after another. But I didn’t mind so much in WH because, as in the movie, I hated every single character. They were either so weak that a mouse sneeze would knock them over, or strong in the way that a serial killing psychopath is strong. So there was me listening to the book thinking “Yes! Die! Die! Die!”

I honestly don’t know if I’ve read and enjoyed a book where I’ve been unable to like anyone involved. And here it was beyond simply not liking anyone – this was a pulsating loathing. I don’t know if I’d be able to like this one even if some of the characters were more amiable – there was another big factor in my loathing of this book: the utterly impenetrable dialect. Now, I can usually manage accents, especially British accents of all types. I love ’em. But my lord. A random sample that I pulled out: ‘Ony books that yah leave, I shall tak’ into th’ hahse,’ said Joseph, ‘and it’ll be mitch if yah find ’em agean; soa, yah may plase yerseln!’ On paper, I can read that without such a problem. Aloud? It might as well have been Bantu.

Kind of thought it might be now and then.

But no. Hateful characters and impenetrable accents aside, this thing was just so unremittingly bleak, so grim and ugly … Heathcliff hanged Isabella’s dog. As a warning. And now if someone could explain to me why he’s considered (from Wikipedia): “an archetype of the tortured romantic hero”….

“Romantic hero”.

There is more to the word “romantic” than the common usage. I know that. What frightens me is the people who don’t know that, and still call Heathcliff a romantic hero. I would as soon call Ted Bundy a romantic hero.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2014 in books, Classics

 

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Quiet – Susan Cain, Kathe Mazur

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking kicks off with the tale of Rosa Parks. The author imagined – and maybe I did too – that Miss Parks was a stately woman with a bold personality who could stand off against a bus full of people, an irate driver, and the police, and win – but she wasn’t. She was small, and quiet, and tired, and simply refused – quietly – on that particular evening to comply with a stupid rule. And the author asks “How could you be shy and courageous?” This surprised me. Aren’t the shy inherently courageous? What extroverts do without thinking – from asking questions in meetings or class to going to parties – introverts see as hurdles to be got over. Extroverts have to be brave in extraordinary circumstances. The shy have to be brave every damn day.

This sets the stage for the book. I learned quite a lot, but questioned some of the conclusions and directions the author went with, and in the end I can’t say I feel the power the subtitle mentions. It’s possible, and I see how – but it’s a hard row to hoe, and all the other metaphors in “Hard Knock Life”.

I should say, before I begin to maunder and meander about the book, that Kathe Mazur does a lovely job of the reading. She maintains a mostly neutral tone, so that her voice merges with the work; she disappears into the narration, for the most part. I’m curious about how her style would work with fiction; with non-fiction it’s perfect.

I scored 19 out of 20 in the evaluation quiz in this book’s first chapter; my only diversion from pure introversion (sorry ’bout that) is that I do like to multitask. I don’t like to just watch tv – I’ll be on the computer at the same time, or sewing, or something, anything. I hate driving with just the radio on now – if I don’t have an audiobook in my ear I feel like I’m wasting valuable time. But even this might be a result of living in an extroverted world; I’ve had to learn how to multitask in my jobs, and it’s sloshed over into life.

Rosa Parks, introvert heroine

Being an introvert (with the addition of shyness, which, I find, is not the same thing – just shoot me now) … For me, that means that almost every morning when it came time to go to school I would feel sick. I had a ridiculously high absentee rate, because in general school was hell for me. I liked the classes, loved the way the world opened up a little every day, even kind of liked homework sometimes. But being expected to participate, being called on whether or not I raised my hand, having to participate in the group projects and readings-aloud and other torments teachers love to devise … Having to cope with my classmates, even those I considered friends… When I was in my mid teens I saw Dead Poets Society for the first time, and I was shattered. I was, I am Todd Anderson (only with much better parents). The wonderful, fictional Mr. Keating recognized Todd’s limits, and knew how to move him past them. I never met the teacher who cared to do that – I never had a Mr. Keating, or even a Neil. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about go watch the movie. Yawp.)

In elementary school, in high school, in art school, had I been outspoken, had I been outgoing, had I at least been able to speak up and say “Oy! Over here!” – things might have been different. I wasn’t able. Knowing that without a drastically different setting things I couldn’t have been able – that alone made this a worthwhile read. “At school you might have been prodded to come ‘out of your shell’—that noxious expression which fails to appreciate that some animals naturally carry shelter”. Well, yeah. And prying a snail out of its shell will have disastrous results for the snail.

And then there’s work. The same thought processes go on in the average manager’s minds as in the average teacher’s: reward the ones who successfully walk the line between conformism and aggression, and pay attention to the ones who make you pay attention. Three words: “Team-building exercises”… the mere phrase makes me queasy. Why don’t managers realize that the reason these things build camaraderie is because it unites everyone in their absolute loathing of the moronic and grating waste of time that they are? How does anyone think they’re a good thing? Or, at least, that they’re a good thing for everyone?

There is a section of the book which focuses on the Harvard Business School, and everything this author says about the school makes exquisite sense in terms of W’s attendance there. For me, for introverts in general and those poor buggers who matriculate their introversion, it’s another circle of hell. The title of an article from the HSB newspaper is quoted: “Arrogant, or Simply Confident?” Er. If you have to ask … Heh. If you have to ask, you might be an introvert.

A bit of an aside, from this section: “‘It is approximately 2:30 PM, October 5th,’ the students are told, ‘and you have just crash-landed in a float place on the east shore of Laura Lake, in the subarctic region of the northern Quebec-Newfoundland border.’ Um … huh? Newfoundland is an island, and so doesn’t exactly share a border with any province; Quebec borders the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Also, this furthers a stupid stereotype that Newfoundland is glacial and filled with walruses and igloos. It’s really not. Perhaps they meant Labrador? Also, Google Maps shows the lake is something like 13 hours from the coast. What idiot wrote this scenario?

Eleanor Roosevelt, not in a Griselda mood

Part of what helps make people successful, or perhaps simply a characteristic of successful people, is in their speech patterns. “Verbal fluency and sociability are the two most important predictors of success, according to a Stanford Business School study.” Also, talking fast is seen as a good thing. Well, as the Mythbusters say, there’s your problem. When I talk fast it’s obviously nerves, not aggression or confidence. And, sadly, I’m one of those who waits for an opening to speak. I despise people who begin talking before I’ve finished a sentence – shockingly, customer service reps do it all the time; I’ve gotten into the habit of just finishing anyway. For me, it doesn’t matter if the person I’m speaking to has just said something moronic (for instance, that Lake Laura is on the border of Newfoundland) or brilliant or anything in between that requires a response from me, I will wait for a pause before I interject. It’s what I was brought up to call “politeness”, and also ties into my own reserve. Apparently, what I see as basic manners is actually a hindrance to my success. Oh dear.

I unfortunately did not make note of who said it, but here’s a quote that’s sending me (and this review) on another tangent: “I’m sure Our Lord was [an extrovert]”… Really? How odd. I suppose every group tries to claim Jesus as one of their own, but I’ve never thought of Him as an extrovert. Charismatic, certainly; not shy, by any means; confident – well, sure, with God on His side… but extroverted? I really hesitate to class Christ in with some of the huckster evangelists making millions off his name.

Okay. Anyway. Another quote:

“Embarrassment reveals how much the individual cares about the rules that bind us to one another. … It’s better to mind too much than to mind too little.”

That’s interesting. And it’s true – the ones who are never embarrassed are the ones you have to be wary of. My sociopathic ex-boss was never embarrassed.

Or waiting rooms

It suggests … that sensitive types think in an unusually complex fashion. It may also help explain why they’re so bored by small talk. If you’re thinking in more complicated ways … then talking about the weather, or where you went for the holidays, is not quite as interesting as talking about values or morality. The other thing Aaron found about sensitive people is that sometimes they are highly empathic. It’s as if they have thinner boundaries, separating them from other people’s emotions, and from the tragedies and cruelties of the world. They tend to have unusually strong consciences. They avoid violent movies and tv shows. They’re acutely aware of the consequences of a lapse in their own behavior. In social settings they often focus on subjects like personal problems which others consider “too heavy”….

And

“The description of such characters as “thin-skinned” is meant metaphorically, but it turns out it is actually quite literal … skin conductance tests … High-reactive introverts sweat more.”

Fabulous. Shoot me now. Yup, this book is all about me. (Except I love Criminal Minds, and when I spent a solid week a while back catching up on Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones I tended to walk away from my computer dazed at the enormous body count.)

I’ve gone through my life saying – or at least thinking – Don’t you see that? Don’t you hear that? Well, now I know – they, whoever they are at any given moment, might not see or hear – or feel or understand – whatever it is I do. I’ve said elsewhere that my sociopathic ex-boss loved to refer to me on every possible occasion as the office’s “bleeding heart liberal”. And here I learn that that hasn’t been entirely a choice with me. I am wired to cry at Hallmark commercials and well up when someone else – even a complete stranger on tv – cries.

Yay. Bloody amygdala. Bloody pain in the arse amygdala.

How nice – how calm and unstressful and unteary – it must be to function at a lower level of empathy and heart-bleeding.

I loved the tidbits about the “Griselda moods” of Eleanor Roosevelt – “named for a princess in a medieval legend who retreated into silence”. Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt – having two such standouts among “my people” makes it all seem a little less dreadful.

I loved the example of “The Bus to Abilene”: “about a family sitting on a porch in Texas on a hot summer day and somebody says, ‘I am bored. Why don’t we go to Abilene?’ When they get to Abilene, somebody says, ‘You know, I didn’t really want to go’. And the next person says, ‘I didn’t want to go – I thought you wanted to go’ and so on…. The Bus to Abilene anecdote reveals our tendency to follow those who initiate an action – any action.” The ones who speak up control the actions of the rest – especially those of us who hesitate to express an opinion.

This was a fascinating book; it was enlightening; it was clarifying. As I said at some point earlier, it is good in a way to know that, for the most part, I couldn’t have handled a great many situations in my life very much differently. I’m wired to behave as I do. Also … knowing I’m not alone in this is, I suppose, also good. The introverts are the ones who don’t network and make a splash, which means you can be in a room with ten introverts and two extroverts and it’s the latter pair you – and the introverts – will remember later. Whereas each of those ten introverts will go away thinking they were the only ones who were uncomfortable and itching to get out. What a shame. If those ten introverts could get together, they might have a better time. Then again, getting together is antithetical to their nature, so … basically? The upshot? It sucks to be an introvert.

On the whole, though, I’m not sure what reading this accomplishes. It’s startling to read (listen to) a really damned accurate description of my own personality, and to learn that there have been scientific studies done on people exactly like me to find out why we are like me.

It’s nice to have confirmation that there are scientific reasons why to me the word “party” does not mean this

And that there are plenty of other people who feel the same way.

I think I understand better now why some people love Bosch and death metal and bull fights, when I prefer Vermeer and Billy Joel and the Puppy Bowl.

But I don’t really need validation. I’m old. I’ve (finally) reached a point in my life where I know my limits, know when I can push them and when I’d be better off not, know how to fake it when I have no choice. “Power”? In a world which disregards those who don’t push themselves forward? No.

 

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2013 in books, non-fiction

 

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