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13 August 2017

Book Review: The Basque History of the World

The Basque History of the World: The Story of a NationThe Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation by Mark Kurlansky
My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Couldn't get through this one, even though I have a hearty desire to know more about Basques and Spanish/French history.


Before I quit reading, right in the middle of a convoluted section that started several pages earlier declaring it would explain the Basque beret but getting bogged down in so much poorly-told history that I threw the book down in disgust, I did learn a couple of things.

Basques have the highest percentage of Rh negative blood in the world. Other places originally occupied by Cro-Magnon man, like the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and the Canary Islands, also have high percentages of Rh negative.

The Basque language, Euskera, is not related to any other language. It has no Indo-European roots. At all. Which is remarkable because once those Indo-Europeans started spreading, they left virtually no European language untouched.

The only defeat Charlemagne ever suffered was at the hands of the Basques in 778. The story is told in the Song of Roland.

I wish I could hang in and keep learning. But I just can't read this darn book any more.

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07 July 2017

Book Review: Murder in Mesopotamia

Murder in MesopotamiaMurder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I scrolled WAY down the list of editions to find this edition because when I pulled this book off the shelf to take on vacation, I realized that I bought it for 25 cents at the used bookstore that benefitted the Manchester Cancer Society in Mandeville, Jamaica. There's even a date stamp; 09 March 1982.

I don't remember reading it. Though I'm sure I did. There were moments in the text that I remembered. But I didn't remember whodunit.

I DO remember, as a young teenager, being enthralled with the setting; an archeological dig in the middle east. As an adult, I saw the disdain Christie had for the non-British vagaries of that society; the imperial sense of superiority. But I didn't see that as a kid; I superimposed Raiders of the Lost Ark over Christie's setting and, for a while, I wanted to be an archeologist. It's rather disappointing to re-read this as an adult and think "no running water?" "oh, how tedious!" "that sounds hot and miserable!" instead.

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Book Review: The Labors of Hercules

The Labors of HerculesThe Labors of Hercules by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read a 1964 Dell edition that was originally 45 cents and truly fit in my pocked. Back when we didn't have phones to keep us occupied on trains and buses.

Enjoyable set of stories, wherein Poirot decides to take 12 cases that will parallel the 12 labors of Hercules. Since his name is Hercule (and his brother's name is Achille, though he only shows up here in a mention).

I don't, as a rule, enjoy short stories as much as full-length novels because once I get to know the characters, boom, the story is over.

For example, in "The Horses of Diomedes" Poirot is in a small town, gently pumping an old hen for information. He asks if she is acquainted with the classics and then reveals that the case he's working on emulates his namesake, Hercules and his taming of the wild horses of Diomedes.
"Don't tell me you came down here to train horses--at your age--and always wearing patent leather shoes! You don't look to me as though you'd ever been on a horse in your life!"
"The horses, Madame, are symbolic. They were wild horses who ate human flesh."
"How very unpleasant of them. I always so think these ancient Greeks and Romans are very unpleasant. I can't think why clergymen are so fond of quoting from the classics--for one thing one never understands what they mean and it always seems to me that the whole subject matter of the classics is unsuitable for clergymen. So much incest, and all those statues with nothing on--not that I mind that myself, but you know what clergymen are--quite upset if girls come to church with no stockings on--let me see, where was I?"

I would like Poirot to have 100 more conversations with this gal.

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16 June 2017

Book Review: The Ivy Tree

The Ivy TreeThe Ivy Tree by Mary  Stewart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I didn't like this book at first because I didn't like the main character. At all.

Then plot happened, things were revealed, and I DID like her.

So now I need to read it again, because I think I'll like it better the second time knowing about her what I know now.

Good training for life, really. Try not to pass judgement; everyone has a story but you wandered in the middle of the 3rd act and don't know it yet.

Also, this, when one character asks another to give her advice.

"Why in blazes should you imagine I could be of any help to you? I made a pretty fair mess of my own life, you know."
I half expected the routine and automatic response of kindness and reassurance, but it didn't come. She said immediately:
"That's why. It isn't the people who've had things their own way who--well, who get wisdom. And they haven't the time to think about what life does to other people, either. But if you've been hurt yourself, you can imagine it. You come alive to it. It's the only use I can ever see that pain has. All that stuff about welcoming suffering because it lifts up the soul is rot. People ought to avoid pain, if they can, like disease...but if they have to stand it, its best use might be that it makes them kinder. Being kind's the main thing, isn't it?"

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01 June 2017

Book Review: The Secret of Chimneys

The Secret of Chimneys (Superintendent Battle, #1)The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I visited my elderly uncle two summers ago and he implored me to take some of his collection of old paperback mysteries off his hands. I gladly absconded with several Ngaio Marsh, G.K. Chesterton, Earl Derr Biggers and Agatha Christie.

This was one of them. The edition I read doesn't exist on Goodreads. It's tiny. Pocketsize, truly, from when we carried books around to entertain us instead of smartphones. Dell. 1959. 35 cents.

It wasn't typical Christie. No Poirot. No Marple. Superintendent Battle appears (in fact, it is now listed as Battle #1 on many lists) but he is not the main sleuth. There IS no main, sleuth, really. The story revolves less around a central figure-out-er and more around a delicious cast of characters.

Originally written in 1925, the between-the-wars intrigue is palpable. A Balkan country called Herzoslovakia. Deposed monarchs. A group called the Red Hand. British imperialism in Africa.

Patently dated but completely enjoyable along the lines of one of my top five favorite Christie novels Man in the Brown Suit and Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk?.

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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


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.


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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