Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Life in the 20th Century

This was an excellent autobiography. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. has written some relatively famous historical books. I have one of them that I enjoyed. He took the same rigor that he uses to write his historical books to his own life.

Unusually for an autobiography he checked his facts and sometimes points out where his memory does not match recorded history. He also talks about how articles or books that he wrote in the Thirties and Forties stand up to history. Since he is a historian, he brings in a lot of the period, the ideas and feeling for each year, that I have rarely seen in biographies.

I honestly thought about buying this book after reading the first third, because he talked about the history and feeling of the Twenties and the Depression in ways I had never seen before. By the middle of the book his liberal tendencies got to be overwhelming so I no longer thought it was something I wanted to own and reread but I was still impressed by his ability to see the people in his life as they appeared to him then and who they ended up being in the years to come.

His description of the years right before WWII were especially interesting because he described to mood in ways I had never heard before. I knew that there was some isolationist sentiment before Pearl Harbor, yet the extent of it was new to me. In his words:
There have been a number of fierce national quarrels in my lifetime -- over
communism in the later Forties, over McCarthyism in the Fifties, over
Vietnam in the Sixties -- but none so tore apart families and friendships as
the great debate of 1940-41. Though historians have dealt ably with
the policy issues, justice has not been done to the searing personal impact
in those angry days...."You could get away from the war for a little while,"
Jeffery Wilson muses, "but not for long, because it was everywhere, even in
the sunlight. It lay behind everything you said or did. You could taste it in your food, you could hear it in music." And so it was for many Americans.

In my experience the war itself eclipses the tension before it. It is an interesting contrast to the war in Iraq. We are not so fully devoted and obsessed with the war. It is easy to avoid and many of us do not know people who are involved. The wholehearted commitment to the war then may have been a reaction to the tensions involved before. Also he mentions that going into the war many people were doubtful of the outcome. Hitler had not had a defeat. Nazi Germany looked like an unstoppable monolith. I think the feeling of military invincibility that resulted from our victory and the Cold War has caused some national problems we are still dealing with.

This book won the Pulitzer Prize and it was well deserved. From the little I have read, Pulitzer prize winning books, especially nonfiction, are worth reading.

A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Houghton Mifflin. 2000


Truth be told, I sometimes read books because I just need something to read, while I'm putting Bridget to sleep or eating alone. This was one that I wouldn't have finished if it hadn't been there. I have heard critics call a bad performance "phoning it in." That applies to this book I think. Bradley has written some books that are supposed to be very good, The Mists of Avalon for example: this wasn't one of them.

The book is about magic and reconciliation with lost relatives. But it seems that instead of researching authentic mythological traditions, or inventing her own completely, she just took remembered shards of a bunch of different systems and used them as they popped into her brain. It felt like very sloppy writing and the main character was of the type you want to reach into the book and slap. I think there might be a sequel but I won't be reading it.

Ghostlight. Marion Zimmer Bradley. Tor Books. 1995

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


I don't often read a book that makes me sorry for the author. This guy teaches writing at Chapel Hill and decided to write a book about the thing he loved the most; candy. So he toured as many of the small, independent candy factories that would let him in and wrote about it. I must admit, the way he described some of the candy made me want to hunt down the website and order some. But at the same time, a book written by a man who admits that his love for candy is a substitute for the real thing is pretty sad.

I was entertained, and even learned a few things, but mostly I hoped that the author could used this book as a therapeutic way to move on with his life and find some better ways to use his time. He seemed very lonely, poor guy.

Candyfreak. Steve Almond. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2004.

Talk to the Hand

The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door.
I must say, I think I must live in a much friendlier place that the poor author does. Of course she lives in a city and I live in a tourist town so that is to be expected. An entertaining book, she has a number of things I had to read to David. She has been thinking about this a lot I expect, so it is remarkably rant free (not completely, but considering her strong views she does pretty well.)
She thinks about the origins of a lot of the drop in civility today: "Egalitarianism was a noble aim, as was enlightened parenting, but both have ploughed up a lot of worms. . . . It has become a modern tenet that success should have only a loose connection with merit, and that when 'the people' speak, they are incontestably right." p 33. And also "Benjamin Rush, in 1786, writing, 'Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property.' These days, of course, the child is taught to believe quite the opposite: that public property, in the natural way of things, belongs to him." p 36
A quick read, although the one downside was the common referral to 'Eff' which is a huge symptom of rudeness in society.

Talk to the hand. Lynne Truss.Gotham Books 2005

Mirror Dance

This is another one of the series about Miles Vorkosigan. The plot summary sounds sort of stupid, but it was a pretty good read. He has a clone twin, made without his knowledge. Evidently the two meet originally in a book I have not read yet. In this one the clone brother steals one of Miles' spaceships and goes on a mission that is a personal crusade of sorts. This goes horribly wrong and it takes the rest of the book to fix everything.

Not only is there an interesting plot, but she uses this book to talk about identity and family and what makes you who you are. This is normal, or at least expected, in a book about clones. What struck me the most was the discussion of "genetics as destiny" that she begins to investigate here and works with more fully in Cetaganda. In talking about power, the men have the obvious, military power, but it is the women, the "grandmothers" who control the marrying and raising of the next generation.
She also has the invention of a "uterine replicator," a means to carry a child to term without the physical risk as an additional cultural manipulation. How would sexual politics change if women didn't have to spend the time physically being pregnant? Since pregnancy is personally awful, I think it would be a great idea, but in our imperfect world it is better that we cannot do such a thing and don't even have a chance of learning how in the near future. I revel in the opportunity to raise my children and I can see the influence I have on them. Those who sacrifice the raising of their children in behalf of their personal achievements do not realize what they are losing.

Mirror Dance. Lois McMaster Bujold. Baen Books. 1995

The Spirit Ring

I have been working through the books by this author at the library. This is different from the other ones by her as it is fantasy instead of science fiction. It is set in Medieval Italy. She even mentions in the back of the book the three main inspirations and sources for the novel. They sound interesting. Especially the biography of Cellini. I have thought about reading more about him anyway.

She has a bit of romance, a bit of magic and a lot of political intrigue. This was quite an exciting period in Italy's history. Before Machiavelli, but not before being machiavellian. I have decided that one of the reasons I like Bujold is she writes very sympathetically about people of faith. It was nice to have the churchman not be the evil villain. He isn't the hero either, but since the hero gets married at the end of the book, that would have been hard anyway.

This reminds me of the book I read in the last while that is one of the best pictures of faith and what help from The Lord really looks like in a time of crisis: The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. A modern person goes back to the Dark Ages and gets caught in the plague. People dying all over the place does not make for a jolly book, but in the end, the churchman who is faithful to his flock and to God teaches the agnostic a very important lesson. I cried through the end of this book, and I even cried while I tried to tell David why it was so good. This is a book, like Ender's Game and a few others, that I really felt deserved the awards it won.

The Spirit Ring. Lois McMaster Bujold. Baen Books. 2000

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Vorkosigan's Game & Cetaganda

These are the continuation of a series I started last month. They were pretty good. Evidently some of the short stories and other novels in this series have won the Hugo. I don't know that they were that good, but I enjoyed them.

The main character of these books is the son of the main characters in the first two books. His parents are attacked by poison gas while his mother is pregnant with him and as a result he is born with stunted, brittle bones. due to wars of the past, His society is paranoid to the point of superstition about "mutants" so he has an extra hard time.

All this serves as background for some very well plotted stories. The ones dealing with Miles Vorkosigan feel like running downhill, one thing leading to another in a very wild sequence. Very enjoyable space/military sci-fi, doesn't take itself too seriously.

Vorkosigans's Game. Lois McMaster Bujold. Guild America Books. 1990

Cetaganda. Lois McMaster Bujold. Baen Books. 1996.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Top Ten

This book I picked up quick at the library and had I had more time to look at it I probably wouldn't have brought it home, but I skimmed through it quick and didn't really learn anything new, though I did have the foresight to actually write down the books in it that I do want to read.

The editor of the book asked a bunch of writers to give their top ten list of the best books of all time. Then they went through and gave a brief summary of each book and played some other games with the numbers, like top ten American, British, of the twentieth century, comic novels, etc.

I say I didn't really learn much because as an English major I had already read a number of these, or at least heard about them. I don't really like most fiction, especially contemporary fiction. I find that as our society has become more open and permissive authors who consider themselves to be "Artists" have to go lower and lower to shock and get the reaction they want.

I read for enjoyment, I do not need a "thought provoking" look at sin, guilt, immorality, drinking, abuse or any other justification for wallowing in the mire that these books generally give. For example, the book Lolita by Nabokov was on the best ten of all time list and I personally have no desire to know more about that book.

I know a lot of people like the true to life thing and find catharsis in those stories. I also know that people who have had trauma in their lives like to see others in their situations, but so much of modern fiction, especially those books which are considered "literature" is so much muck and reading them and perhaps writing them is so much justification for things that should not happen. Antiheroes, existential philosophy and just plain wrongness is praised, rationalized and examined in a way that makes me retreat to Sci-Fi and Fantasy and non-fiction where studies of morals and guilt can be done in a way that doesn't try to make consequences for wrong decisions seem unjust and the actions of an uncaring God.

I decided to avoid any book recommended by Oprah or any other public book club for that reason. I have read Beloved and I know that Toni Morrison is writing what is relevant to her and her background, but I need books that lift me up, not drag me down.

And, after all, I like to read for entertainment and learning. Perhaps I'm just shallow, but I don't feel a need for "soul-searing" examinations of life. I have the scriptures, I have my family, and I have real life dilemmas. But for those I can pray and find the answers through communication from a Source that no human written book can equal. These "great" books are second best when it comes to understanding myself and other people.

So I won't be writing about the hot, new book on Oprah or the newest self-help or any of that. But then, I warned any readers of this blog at the beginning that this is really just a way to get my brain working and not a recommended book list at all.

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. J. Peder Zane ed. W.W. Norton & Co. 2007

Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception

I finished this one a week ago, but If I start with Eat the Rich, I guess this would be the next one.

This is the fourth in the Artemis Fowl series. They are children's books. I read a lot of Young Adult novels. They are creative, fun and don't have the language and sex that "adult" novels seem prone to. Its not always safe but the YA section seems to be where more interesting things are happening.

I wouldn't say this a a great book, but its OK, good for a weekend read or when I'm holding a very cranky, sick child that won't go to sleep. A lot of "breaking wind" jokes that I didn't notice the first time I read this for some reason. Something a twelve year old would really like. It has good pacing and a good plot, and an author not afraid to kill major characters, but doesn't just casually use extras as cannon fodder either.

On another book note. I just found out that Robert Jordan died yesterday. It is a weird feeling when an author you are fond of dies. It's like mourning for the books he hasn't written rather than for the man, since I only knew him from the dust jacket of his books. Of course, since this particular man had written 11 books in a 12 book series, it is definitely a mixed emotion and I haven't really sorted out the difference between how I feel and how I ought to feel.

Artemis Fowl :The Opal Deception, Eoin Colfer. Hyperion Books for Children. 2005

Friday, September 14, 2007

Eat the Rich by P.J. O'Rourke

This is the book that gave me the idea to start a blog, because I had to keep telling David about the things in it and it made him stay up way to late, which wasn't very fair.

I like P.J. O'Rourke because he tells stories in a voice a lot like I imagine my father telling them. So if my Dad took a year off of work to learn about economics, this is something like what he would say. I also chose this book because I want to learn about everything, and it is easiest when you learn with humor. I am willing to read any nonfiction book if presented in a humorous, interesting way.

If, 10 years ago, (the book was written in '97) you wanted to know about how world economics worked where would you go? O'Rourke goes to Wall Street, Albania, Sweden, Cuba, Moscow and Hong Kong. He has studied and read a lot, or at least a lot more than I have the time or inclination for. He compares capitalism in the first two countries, socialism in the third and fourth and just talks about miscellaneous unusual events in the last two.

After reading this I have learned about the Law of Comparative Advantage, and why it works, but doesn't make sense and that managed economies don't work because no one, including economists, know enough to run one completely. I also feel that I got a glimpse, very briefly, into what type of world the millennium and united order could bring us, using the type of economic rules we already know. That last came more from thinking about the ideas that he proposes than from anything revolutionary in the text.

This is a list of six things that O'Rourke proposes lead to economic prosperity as a nation:
  • Hard Work
  • Education
  • Responsibility
  • Property Rights
  • Rule of Law
  • Democratic Government

Though property rights are definitely not going to be to a conservative's liking in the millennium, all of the others would advance and grow. I especially think that number five would improve the lot of most of the world's people. This is something I need to learn more about. I also would like to learn more about what has happened to O'Rourke's test cases in the last ten years.

I am not an economist, neither is P.J.O'Rourke, but he had some good ideas, those sparked off some good (?) ideas in my head. That is one of the things I love about reading; expanding my repertoire of ideas by building on those of other people.

Eat the Rich A treatise on economics by P.J. O'Rourke, 1998. Atlantic Monthly Press


So, mostly for my own amusement, but partly so I can share my own personal obsession (isn't that what blogs are all about?) I have decided to start a blog. All blogs need some sort of basis, to at least avoid the appearance of complete narcissism. This one is the books I read. I read like an alcoholic drinks, incessantly, furtively, and moderately ashamed of my own lack of self control. I have always wanted to keep a list of the books I have read, for curiosity if nothing else, now I have decided to write about each one as I finish it.

Some will be old, some new and some reread for the umpteenth time. I don't intend this to be a "YOU SHOULD READ THIS" or avoid, or whatever type of thing, I just want to share and record the ideas that come with each volume.

If you read this often you will become acquainted with certain authors who I return to again and again. Their books have become old friends and comfortable companions when I need to relax. Terry Pratchett, Jasper Fforde, David Weber, J.K. Rowling will all show up in the course of a year, as for others, I don't know, I am a creature of whimsy in most of my selections.

As for the topic of freedom, Terry Pratchett writes, "No practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences." (Going Postal p. 15) I am open to comments and suggestions, but remember, my children often read over my shoulder, so nothing you wouldn't want them to see and repeat. If after a week or two I have posted eighteen times you are free to accuse me of not having a life, I plead guilty. If, after a week or two I don't post at all, I plead guilty to being the mother of five children and horribly disorganized, so, oh well I tried.