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22 May 2017

Book Review: American Gods

American Gods (American Gods, #1)American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Eh.

That one word review will either get me lynched or make me a hero of the anti-alternative-not-so-indie intellectuals.

I have this thing that if characters in books don't ask enough questions and instead wander through set-pieces as overly-malleable creatures who function to further the action rather than being personalities that mold or reroute the action I soon tire of the book and want it all to stop.

I like characters who take control, even of uncontrollable situations.

None of these characters really do that. They are all passive results of other people's actions and thoughts.

Which makes this a very difficult book for me to enjoy.

Add to that the fact that I am a simpleton who enjoys modern takes on mythology more in the realm of Rick Riordan, then you understand my three-star rating and dismiss it as the ravings of a cretinous know-nothing.

HOWEVER...

There were still moments that resonated. Not enough for four stars, but enough that I kept reading even when I wanted to put it down and move on. These moments, interspersed with a few of Gaiman's impish slaps at humor, made the book worth the two days I spent on it.

But I wouldn't spend more than two days, frankly.

"The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes.
"Say 'Nevermore,'" said Shadow.
"Fuck you," said the raven."

"Back in my day, we had it all set up. You lined up when you died, and you'd answer for your evil deeds and for yoru good deeds, and if your evil deeds outweighed a feather, we'd feed your soul and your heart to Ammet, the Eater of Souls."
"He must have eaten a lot of people."
"Not as many as you'd think. It was a really heavy feather."

Then there is the moment when one of the gods short-changes a waitress. Shadow, the main character, rectifies it, telling the god the waitress hadn't done anything wrong.

"No? When she was seven years old she shut a kitten in a closet. She listened to it mew for several days. When it ceased to mew, she took it out of the closet, put it into a shoebox, and buried it in the backyard. She wanted to bury something. She consistently steals from everywhere she works. Small amounts, usually. Last year she visited her grandmother in the nursing home to which the old woman is confined. She took an antique gold watch from her grandmother's bedside table, and then went prowling through several other rooms, stealing small quantities of money and personal effects from the twilight fold in their golden years. When she got home she did not know what to do with her spoils, scared someone would come after her, so she threw everything away except the cash. She also has asymptomatic gonorrhea. She suspects she might be infected but does nothing about it. When her last boyfriend accused her of having given him a disease she was hurt, offended, and refused to see him again. They all do the same things. They may think their sins are original, but for the most part they are petty and repetitive."

Then there's Sam's off-the-cuff creed, which is amazing and several pages long, but includes;
"I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies."

But I suppose the book was made completely worthwhile with this little nugget.

"There was a girl, and her uncle sold her, wrote Mr. Ibis in his perfect copperplate handwriting. . That is the tale. The rest is detail."

Detail is the tale. Telling the story.


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Book Review - Gaudy Night

Gaudy Night (Lord Peter Wimsey, #12)Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I mean, was there a mystery here?

Don't get me wrong. It was fun to read along while Harriet finally falls for Lord Peter, but the pace was ponderous and the clues few and far between.

I also found myself wishing for a cast of characters to refer back to, like one finds in certain editions of Agatha Christie books. I couldn't keep all those learned ladies apart.

Written in 1936, this book spends quite some time thrusting forth early feminism, the world wherein it is preferable to stay single and study than get married and procreate.

"It would have been such a bore to be the mother of morons, and it's an absolute toss-up, to be the mother of morons, and it's an absolute toss-up, isn't it? If one could only invent them, like characters in books, it would be much more satisfactory to a well-regulated mind."

Not that Sayers looks too fondly on some of the female scholars; "...that curious little creature dressed in unbecoming pink, who looked as thought she had been carelessly packed away in a drawer all winter and put into circulation again without being ironed..." It's as if she is judging them for not being feminine, though she judges for being feminine, too.

And the men? Well, the men are mostly treated kindly; "He had the appeal of a very young dog of a very large breed--a kind of amiable absurdity."

But Sayers is still stuck; a product of her time. Trying to walk that tightrope of having a bevy of strong, independent female characters who, in the end, still rather want to get married.

"I once got engaged to somebody," one of the female scholars expounds. "But I found I was always blundering--hurting his feelings, doing stupid things, making quite elementary mistakes about him. In the end I realized that I simply wasn't taking as much trouble with him as I should have done over a disputed reading. So I decided he wasn't my job."
"I suppose one oughtn't marry anybody, unless one's prepared to make him a full-time job," another character replies.

Enter Lord Peter, with his cosmopolitan description of the political state in Europe in the 1930s, "The old bus wobbles one way, and you think, 'That's done it!' and then it wobbles the other way and you think, 'All serene;' and then, one day, it wobbles over too far and you're in the soup and you can't remember how you got there," but, in the next breath, wishing to trade his role as a diplomat for the simpler life of the scholar; "Here's where real things are done, Harriet--if only those bunglers out there will keep quiet and let me go on. God! how I loathe haste and violence and all that ghastly, slippery cleverness. Unsound, unscholarly, insincere--nothing but propaganda and special pleading and 'what do we get of this?' No time, no peace, no silence; nothing but conferences and newspapers and public speeches till one can't hear one's self think. If only one could root one's self in here among the grass and stones and do something worth doing, even it it was only restoring a lost breathing for the love of the job and nothing else."

And, of course, Lord Peter is an enlightened man. At one point, when asked if he approves of education for women, he replies, "You should not imply that I have the right to either approve or disapprove." We should all remember that little tidbit as we are navigating the comment threads of various social networking sites.

"Lord, teach us to take our hearts and look them in the face, however difficult it may be."


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06 May 2017

Book Review: Have His Carcase

Have His CarcaseHave His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers


Dammit. I figured this one out. But it was still a good read.

It would have been fun to know Sayers, I think. Not that she probably would have enjoyed knowing me, if her condescension to the reader is any indication of her attitude towards mere mortals. Here, just as in Five Red Herrings, Sayers makes several side comments that indicate just what she thinks of you.

At the same time, I understand why she despises me. She's a hermit. A judgmental hermit. A brilliant, judgmental hermit. So, sometimes, when she throws off-hand comments that level judgment on the masses, I nod and say, yes, you truly understand the human condition. Or, more specifically, MY human condition.

"A solitary rock is always attractive. All right-minded people feel an overwhelming desire to scale and sit upon it."

"You know what people are. The minute they see anyone having a peaceful feed they gather in from the four points of the compass and sit down beside one, and the place is like the Corner House in the rush hour."

And then, superior to me or no, she has the capacity to make me laugh. Take this exchange, during which Wimsey shows both his charm, his knowledge of literature, and his grasp of science.

"We believe in you, Miss Kohn," said Wimsey, solemnly, "as devoutly as in the second law of thermodynamics."
"What are you getting at?" said Mr. Simons, suspiciously.
"The second law of thermo-dynamics," explained Wimsey, helpfully, "which holds the universe in its path, and without which time would run backwards like a cinema film wound the wrong way."
"No, would it?" exclaimed Miss Kohn, rather pleased.
"Altars may reel," said Wimsey, "Mr. Thomas may abandon is dress suit and Mr. Snowden renounce free trade, but the second law of thermodynamics will endure while memory holds her seat in this distracted globe, by which Hamlet meant his head but which I, with a wider intellectual range, apply to the planet which we have the rapture of inhabiting. Inspector Umpelty appears shocked, but I assure you that I know no more impressive way of affirming my entire belief in your absolute integrity." He grinned. "What I like about your evidence, Miss Kohn, is that it adds the final touch of utter and impenetrable obscurity to the problem which the Inspector and I have undertaken to solve. It reduces it to the complete quintescence of incomprehensible nonsense. Therefore, by the second law of thermo-dynamics, which lays down that we are hourly and momently progressing to a state of more and more randomness, we receive positive assurance that we are moving happily and securely in the right direction. You may not believe me," added Wimsey, now merrily launched on a flight of fantasy, "but I have got to the point now at which the slightest glimmer of common sense imported into this preposterous case would not merely disconcert me but cut me to the heart. I have seen unpleasant cases, difficult cases, complicated cases and even contradictory cases, but a case founded on stark unreason I have never met before. It is a new experience and, blase as I am, I confess that I am thrilled to the marrow."

And THEN she makes me feel like I might be superior, too, when I catch that her well-meaning but plebian and gruff police inspector keeps mixing up Congreve quotes, Biblical quotes, and Shakespeare quotes.

Or understand exactly what the theater agent is talking about when he goes on a discourse about the problems of character construction in Shakespeare's Richard III.

"Inconsistent to my mind. You mightn't think it, but I do a bit of reading and thinking now and again, and what I say is, I don't believe W. Shakespeare had his mind on the job when he wrote that part. Too slimy at the beginning and too tough at the end. It ain't nature. Not but what the play always acts well. Plenty of pep in it, that's why. Keeps moving. But he's made Richard two men in one, that's what I complain of. One of 'em's a wormy, plotting sort of fellow and the other's a bold, bustling sort of chap who chops people's heads off and flies into tempers. It don't seem to fit somehow, eh?"
"I always think," said Wimsey, "that Shakespeare meant Richard to be one of those men who are always acting a part--dramatising things, so to speak. I don't believe his furies are any more real than his lovemaking."

But in the pages where she tediously has Harriet and Wimsey figuring out a code, which she walks the reader through, step by step, she has a helpful footnote explaining that the most obvious solution eventually "proved to be untenable, so the calculations relating to this supposition are omitted." I laughed out loud. Then skipped the next four pages of discussion and diagrams. I had no need for that footnote, nor for the in-depth explanation of the code so, obviously, I don't even reach the lowest rung of her expectations of her readers.

I didn't even know who Ninon de l'Enclos was, for pete's sake. Thank heavens for Google.

I am likely not worthy of her constructed world. But I enjoy inhabiting it for a few days at a time anyway.



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02 May 2017

Book Review: Strong Poison

Strong Poison: Lord Peter Wimsey Book 6 (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries)Strong Poison: Lord Peter Wimsey Book 6 by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading through the Harriet Vane/Lord Peter trilogy.

Damn, he falls in love fast. Whirlwind. I would have loved a little more insight into his head-over-heels-ness with the reticent accused murderess.

But in love he falls. So clear her name he must.

And he does, because there is another book. Then another. Then another, with the word "Honeymoon" in the title, so we all know where it's going. We just have to wait until they get there.

Sayers is at her sarcastic peak in this short novel. And, yes, I call it a novel because the mystery was so thin I actually figured it out quickly, so I just read for the love story and the banter.

Like this conversation between two unnamed observers at her trial;
"And how do you know what a murderess looks like? Have you ever met one?"
"Well, I've seen them at Madame Tussaud's."
"Oh, waxworks. Everybody looks like a murderer in waxworks."
"Well, p'raps they do. Have a choc."

Harriet Vane herself has a very dry sense of humor. Lord Peter visits her in jail, fawns, proposes marriage and then, upon his leaving and promising to come again, Harriet says, "I will give my footman orders to admit you. You will always find me at home."

Lord Peter's investigations take him to a smoky club filled with pretentious artists. Lord Peter gleefully eggs one fellow on.
"Well, what can you do with the wretched and antiquated instruments of our orchestra? A diatonic scale, bah! Thirteen miserable, bourgeois semi-tones, pooh! To express the infinite complexity of modern emotion, you need a scale of thirty-two notes to the octave."
"Buy why cling to the octave?" said the fat man. "Till you can cast away the octave and its sentimental associations, you walk in fetters of convention."
"That's the spirit!" said Wimsey. "I would dispense with all definite notes. After all, the cat does not need them for his midnight melodies, powerful and expressive as they are..."

The murder victim, an author, is judged as a "perfectly foul blighter" because he "has his photograph on the dust-cover of his books, you know--that's the sort of squit he was."

I was terribly pleased the Miss Climpson made an appearance in this book and laughed all the way through her adventures finding a will in a week. Lord Peter, quite impressed with her work, signs off a conversation with her by trilling, "Bless you, may your shadow never grow bulkier."

Indeed.


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27 April 2017

Book Review: Inferno

Inferno (Robert Langdon, #4)Inferno by Dan Brown
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Hmmm.

I am glad Brown aimed in a different direction than the Catholic Church and the Masons, but, still, this one was a little annoying.

But, still, one moment of clarity that summarizes a lot of what I've learned over the past eight months living in a Muslim majority country; "Both Christianity and Islam are logocentric, meaning they are focused on The Word. In Christian tradition, the Word became flesh in the book of John: 'And the Word was made flesh, and He dwelt among us.' Therefore, it was acceptable to depict the Word as having a human form. In Islamic tradition, however, the Word did not become flesh, and therefore the Word needs to remain in the form of a word...in most cases, calligraphic renderings of the names of the holy figures of Islam."



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Book Review: The Lost Symbol

The Lost Symbol (Robert Langdon, #3)The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My kid went on a Robert Langdon binge during a week's vacation. This book was the first one he read. He then slammed through the other three, also in the wrong order. He didn't seem to care.

I've said in other reviews that Dan Brown takes a lot of flak for his work. And though he is a one-trick pony (or, rather, a 50 trick pony) his tricks are intriguing. And, with this book, new to me.

I'm living in north Africa right now for a couple of years, mostly so my kid can experience a non-US frame of mind. We live near all the amazing must-see European places; Rome, Venice, Florence, London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, etc.

But now I'm trying to figure out how I can get my kid to Washington D.C. before he's too old to want to travel with us anymore. Maybe next summer? Maybe not as much history as those other great European capitals, but certainly as much symbolism.

Things I learned reading this book;

ABC - the three prerequisites for an ideology to be considered a religion; Assure, Believe, Convert. Assure salvation, believe in a precise theology, and convert non-believers.

Magic squares.

All spiritual rituals can be frightening when taken out of context; "crucifixion reenactments, Jewish circumcisions, Mormon baptisms of the dead, Catholic exorcisms, Islamic niqab, shamanic trance healing, the Jewish Kaparot ceremony, even the eating of the figurative body and blood of Christ."



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Book Review: The Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon, #2)The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Revisiting Dan Brown in the wake of my 13 year old plowing through all four Robert Langdon books in less than a week.

This one was, of course, less of a page-turner the second time through. What seems crazy-clever 15 years ago now seems old-news and old-school.

And the mystery is thin. Thinner than it was before I knew Brown's style and the fact that he has 25 points of interesting trivia that he's spun into several best-selling books.

But there were still trivia tidbits that made me raise my eyebrows and think, "Hmmm!" Even on second reading. One imagines 15 years ago, I raised my eyebrows at the same thing. Old age is a wonder. Everything old is new again because we can't remember learning it the first time.

Pagans were originally simple country folk who kept their tradition of nature worship but the church was so fearful of their faith that anyone who lived in a ville or village, was worthy the church's disdain. Hence, our current term "villain."

The planet Venus traces a pentagram in the night sky every eight years. A pentagram used to be a symbol of perfection and was almost a part of the Olympic seal (the Olympics every four years followed the half-cycle of Venus) but, at the last minute, they exchanged the symbol for the rings. Five rings. Hmmm.

PHI. 1.68. The Divine Proportion.

Yeah. We can make fun of Dan Brown. But he's smarter than I am. He's figured out how to make 100 points of arcane trivia into millions of dollars.


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