Saturday, June 7, 2014

Gods Behaving Badly, by Marie Phillips

I like quirky books.  I read so much, that sometimes the plain old plot lines and story telling methods are just humdrum and predictable; a quirky book, that will come at the reader with a unique point of view, or characters, or plot, is one of my favourite things to discover.  And boy, did I ever find that it my latest read, Gods Behaving Badly, by Marie Phillips.  

Gods Behaving Badly tells two connected stories, both set in modern London.  The first is the story of Alice and Neil; Alice is a cleaner and Neil is an engineer.  They love each other, but are so shy and nervous around each other that they’ve had a two year, chaste, friendship.  The second story is about an odd family, living a life of declining fortunes; this is because they are the gods of the ancient Greek pantheon.  Of course, they might be living is squalor at this point, but they still enjoy meddling with the lives of mere mortals, and this is where Neil and Alice come in.  Miffed with Apollo, Aphrodite gets her son Eros to make Apollo fall madly in love with Alice.  When Alice rebuffs him, things don’t go well (and the last time it happened, he turned the chick into a tree).  The rest of the story is a delightful updating of a hero saga, with the modern twist of ‘who the fuck would believe that the ancient Greek gods are living in London?’.

Of course, a quirky plot isn’t enough to keep me happy.  The characters have to be engaging too, and they certainly are.  Phillips is able to write the human and relatable characters of Neil and Alice, who are retiring and afraid of their own shadows, as well as a pantheon of gods, such as Artemis, Hermes and Hera.  Each of the gods have all the characteristics you would expect, but Phillips has also humanized them; Artemis is a dog walker who is constantly hoping to find a spark of wildness in her charges, Hermes is constantly on the go as the god of money and enjoys wearing pin-stripped suites, and Hera is still a vengeful bitch.

Phillips’ writing style is refreshingly tongue-in-cheek; she knows this is a quirky plot and a quirky cast of characters, and she doesn’t appear to take herself too seriously as a result.  The writing style is quick-moving and easy to follow, and turns into a plot with a bunch of twists that are really enjoyable.  Phillips has melded the modern world with the ancient in a completely believable and interesting way.  Hats off to Phillips for creating such a wonderfully unique story-scape.

So, final verdict?  Definitely read this book.  It’s quirky, hilarious, well-written, and unique.  In a world that sees oodles and oodles of books published weekly, Gods Behaving Badly is one that stands out.  Phillips has another book coming out this summer (about King Arthur’s court) that I can’t wait to read; I’m definitely adding Phillips to the list of authors I keep an eye on, and whose books I snap up as soon as they’re published.

The Devil's Queen, by Jeanne Kalogridis

One of the best inventions of the last 20 years has got to be PVR systems.  As much as I like to read, I’m also a fan of binge-watching television shows, so when the PVR came along, it was a god-send for me; no longer was I forced to watch television weekly – instead, I was able to record an entire season of a show, then sit down and watch it back to back to back.  This is exactly what I did with the CW show “Reign.”  Now, I knew going into the show that it was likely to be a mix of “The Tudors” and “Dynasty,” and boy was I right.  The historian in me struggled against the horrible representation of historical facts for about 20 minutes, and then it gave up and approached it more as if it were “Game of Thrones,” that’s to say, a parody of historical European politics.  What watching “Reign” did do, was inspire me to read more about the era, which led to my latest read The Devil’s Queen, by Jeanne Kalogridis.

The Devil’s Queen is the story of Catherine de Medici, daughter of the famed House of Medici in 16th century Florence.  When political turmoil rocks Florence, Catherine’s future is in doubt, and her uncle (then Pope, and a Medici) works to secure it, as well as his own power; the best way to do so was to marry Catherine to a powerful family.  Catherine ends up married to the second son of the King of France, but all is not well in the marriage – Catherine is dealing with a husband who has a mistress he won’t leave and who is exerting power over him, a hostile foreign court, and the inability to have children.  In an age where a woman’s security depended on her marriage, all of this led to a very tenuous position for Catherine, and so she resorts to magic to get pregnant.  The novel is really the story of Catherine’s efforts to hold together her life and those she loves in the face of a hostile destiny.

As far as historical fictions go, this one is incredibly engaging.  I was caught in the first few pages, and couldn’t put the book down after that.  Kalogridis’ writing style is straight forward and uncomplicated – she’s able to easily and clearly convey the thoughts of her characters, as well as the movement of the plot.  This might seem like an obvious thing for an author to do, but having read The Devil’s Queen so shortly after The Woman in White, I really appreciated this level of skill.  

As for characters, Kalogridis has created for her readers a personality and soul for Catherine that is engaging and touching.  The historical view of Catherine tends to be negative; she’s remembered as the woman who ruled France while shunting aside her sons, and as being the architect to a massacre of Protestants in Paris.  All of this contributes to a historical impression of a real harpy of a woman, and yet Kalogridis portrays her more as a woman with an iron backbone who would do anything for her husband and sons, and the royal house of France.  The modern feminist in me is now asking if I’d have the same negative view of a male historical figure if they had been the architect of the St Bartholomew Day Massacre?  Probably not – he’d be taking care of business, while she’s seen as being a monstrous bitch.  Funny how that works.

My one complaint about this book, and it’s come up before in books like this, is that Kalogridis uses actual magic/demonic presence to explain some of the harder plot points.  I find when authors do that, it’s a bit of a cop out – it’s almost as if they can’t find a real explanation for where their plots/characters have ended up, so they swing for the fences with a really odd explanation.  I can understand why Kalogridis did it (it fits with the rumours that have persisted through history that Catherine was dabbling in dark magic), but given she did such a good job reforming the rest of Catherine’s historical memory, I don’t appreciate Kalogridis conceding ground on this point.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  It’s a really great historical fiction of this era and this historical figure.  Kalogridis did such a great job with Catherine’s story, that I’ll be looking for her other books in the future.  What I don’t recommend is that you check out “Reign.”  Honestly, I can look past the odd fashion choices, and the use of Lorde’s song “Royals,” and the fact that they check in momentarily with reality then take a real left turn with the historical records, but the fact is, it’s a horribly cheesy show.  Rather than waste your time watching it, read Kalogridis’ book instead; not only is it better for your intellect, it’s more enjoyable and less bonkers.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson

As always, when I find an author/series that I really enjoy, I can’t rest until I’ve collected all the related books so I can binge-read them.  That’s what happened with my latest read, The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson – after reading The Psychopath Test, I wanted to read everything else he’d written.  The Men Who Stare at Goats was made into a movie a few years ago, but I haven’t seen it yet, so I was coming to this book with very little knowledge about it, other than the brief write up on the cover: “This story is about what happened when a small group of men – highly placed within the United States military, the government, and the intelligence services – began believing in very strange things.”  It seemed like classic Them-Ronson, and I was really looking forward to reading it.

I realized though, within the first couple of chapters, that even though I hadn’t seen the movie by the same name, I was influenced by it.  I had figured that, because it had been made into a movie, and because of the use of the term ‘group’ in the write up, that there must be a running plot/characters through the book, and so I was reading it and looking for those common threads.  But, this was a mistake on my part; this book is classic Ronson – there is no plot, but rather a collection of stories and observations about interesting people that have something in common and, in this case, that was the exploration of the metaphysical to advance the strength of the US armed forces.  Once I caught on that I was super-imposing my expectation onto the book, and let them go, I was able to really get into Ronson’s work and enjoy it.  

As always, Ronson has collected an eclectic combination of people to tell his story.  Some of them, highly-placed commanders in the US armed forces, other, like a media-hungry spy (think about that combination for a minute) all come together to confirm that, yes, the US armed forces have explored various metaphysical ways of gaining an advantage over the enemy.  These ‘interesting’ techniques include approaching enemy combatants with lambs and soothing music, to the more hostile methods of stopping their hearts by staring at them.

Ronson was writing shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and if you think back to that era in world history, you might remember it as one of insipid panic: the Bush administration was constantly reminding the population (domestic and global) that more attacks were imminent.  For a while, everyone seemed caught up in the case that Bush was building against extremists who were lurking around every corner.  So, maybe exploring the concept of using psychics to find bin Laden, or stopping the hearts of any plane highjackers, or using subliminal messages buried in Fleetwood Mac songs at Guantanamo during interrogations wasn’t the worst way to spend time and money on the off-chance that they would work.  But, as Ronson shows, these methods weren’t developed in response to the 2001 attacks; rather, they had been developed as early as the 1970s.  

Ronson takes his readers on a curious journey from the new-age movement that emerged in 1970s California to a dilapidated building at Fort Bragg that is supposedly filled with debleated goats, who are used for a variety of training exercises (medical and metaphysical).  The Men Who Stare at Goats is classic Ronson in that it meanders along an odd little path, with many curious stops, that all build to show that, in fact, what might have appeared insane in the beginning of the journey actually has a rational foundation.  But it’s still an odd foundation, no doubt.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  Read all of Ronson’s book.  Lobby Ronson to write more.  There is something so charming and engaging about Ronson’s writing style that, even though it may appear disjointed at first, it contains an innate sense of logic that never leaves the reader behind.  The Men Who Stare at Goats is a curious little read, about a curious time and course of events in American history, that is worth exploring.

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

Often times, I get inspired to read a book based on something else I’ve read.  That’s what happened with my latest read, The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.  While reading The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale makes multiple references to how the case she covers in her study of Victorian crime influenced authors of the era, and Collins was one of those authors she discusses.  So, while reading Summerscale’s work, I pulled Collins’ book from my shelves with the intention of reading it right away; nine months later, I finally got around to it.

A word on the plot to start with: This story is told via multiple narratives, as if the people speaking were testifying to events in a court of law.  Walter Hartright, a drawing master, begins the tale and sets things in motion – while walking home one night, Walter meets with a young woman dressed entirely in white who has escaped from a private asylum.  She and Walter part ways, but when Walter arrives at his new position in Cumberland, he realizes that the woman in white looks remarkably similar to one of his new pupils, Laura Fairlie.  As the story progresses, Walter falls in love with Laura, but she’s engaged to another man and so they part ways.  As it turns out thought, Laura’s fiancé is not all he appears to be.  Unfortunately, I can’t say much more without spoiling things.

This book has a lot of the tropes that drive me bonkers about the novels of this era.  The major trope that bothers me is that the plot is dependant on coincidences to move forward; the woman in white just happens to be acquainted with the household that Walter is going to in Cumberland, the woman in white just happens to look remarkably like Laura, and Walter and Laura reconnect at just the right time.  Another common device that’s used by authors of this period is the idea that women can’t get wet without developing a life-threatening fever; if that were true, I’d be dead a million times over – apparently, Collins, the Brontë sisters, et al had very little faith in the fairer sex.  Finally, I have the feeling that Collins was another author (like Dickens) that got paid by his publisher by the word.  I read an unabridged version of the story, and it seemed never-ending – a judicious editor could cut this sucker down by a few hundred pages and still not loose the meat of the story.  I’d highly recommend that you find yourself an abridged version, or read the complete story if you’re looking to torture yourself.

What I will say in support of Collins is that he masterfully captured the voices of multiple narrators.  As mentioned above, the story is told by individuals involved as if they were testifying in a court of law.  Collins really made it seem as if there were multiple people writing the story – from a young lady of leisure, to a drawing master, to an Italian Count, to a country manor housekeeper, to a downstairs maid – all read as if separate individuals were involved in writing The Woman in White.  I found this a masterful piece of authorship that almost allowed me to overlook the other flaws in the book.

So, final verdict?  Menh.  I honestly can’t recommend this book as I read it.  The plot is interesting, but the extraneous content kills its flow more than once; the characters are well written, but there’s just too much filler to really enjoy reading their voices.  I would be interesting in hearing from someone who has read the abridged version to see if these problems were fixed, but I don’t think this is one worth reading in the complete format.  Instead, read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher – there’s a Victorian mystery that I can highly recommend!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

History's Worst Decisions, by Stephen Weir

Part of my recovery/self-improvement while I’m off work has been to improve my ‘sleep hygiene.’  When I first heard the term, I hadn’t realized I was sleeping dirty, but once it was explained to me, I realized that I might, in fact, be a dirty sleeper.  Sleep hygiene is all about creating a relaxing environment for yourself before you try to fall asleep.  Previously, I had been listening to music or watching TV.  Turns out, doing that is dirty and wrong…. Okay, so maybe I’m blowing that thought up a bit too much, but still.  

My new, cleaner sleep habits include getting into bed and using some guided meditation apps on my phone, then turning off all electronic devices.  I was shocked at how instantly relaxing it is to completely unplug from technology – my thoughts seemed easier to put into order and calmer almost immediately; with the added benefit of the guided meditation, I feel even more relaxed.  But guided meditations only take five to twenty minutes, and the sleep hygiene school of thought recommends an hour of calming activities before you try to get to sleep, so what am I supposed to do with the next 55 minutes in my routine?  Why, I’ve been reading, of course!

The thing is, I can’t bring my current novel to bed with me, because I’d stay up all night reading.  Instead, I need books that include shorter passages that you can pick up and walk away from without a lot of thought.  This led me to my latest read, History’s Worst Decisions by Stephen Weir.  The book is a collection of short entries on events in humanity that led to disaster.  The biggest disaster of all though is the book itself.

I found a lot of the entries to be really off the mark.  Each entry, when you read the title, makes sense in a list of knuckle-headed human decisions, but once you get into the reading, you realize that you’re getting a lot of extraneous information about the situation, often times the title and the entry’s contents don’t really match (like the title was meant to catch your attention, but the meat of the entry is boring/different from expected), and in some cases, I questioned whether there was really a decision at the heart of the situation Weir was profiling (like the case of the missing hyphen which caused NASA’s Mariner mission to fail – that was just a mistake/oversight, after all).

More than that thought, I found the history to be a bit shoddy.  Weir is really quick to highlight incidents that he blames the British Empire for.  Now, I fully admit that I’m an Empire apologist (hey, I wrote my thesis on it, and lived with it for 2+ years; I know it wasn’t all good, but I’ll still defend it), but it seemed like every other entry in the first half of the book was somehow the Empire’s fault – yes, they were involved in a lot of the problems that came up, but to blame the Empire is to blame a faceless, impersonal body, and is a cheep cop-out for holding people accountable for their actions.  I didn’t like it.  In other instances, he’s really quick to assign blame to people that can’t fight back, but he put on the kid-gloves when dealing with those people who are still alive and might be litigious.  There’s a lot of bias on each page that the savvy reader needs to wade through; I realize this is a ‘popular’ history, but still, a little honestly would have been nicer.

The introduction to the work talks about the seven deadly sins, and each entry highlights which of the sins the situation refers too, and Weir has added three more, so his list includes anger, charity, envy, faith, gluttony, greed, hope, lust, pride and sloth.  While each entry highlights which ‘sin’ is involved, the actual entry rarely, if ever, mentions them.  It seems like a gimmick that the book really didn’t need and that detracted from the content.  

So, final verdict?  If you need something really boring to put you to sleep (which is what I needed as part of my new sleep hygiene routine), then this book is for you.  This is also a good book to keep in your bathroom, but I would never recommend that anyone approach it as anything other than a biased and truncated history of humanity’s cock-ups.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson

I once worked with a girl who seemed to have the ‘touch’ when it came to finding interesting books to read and recommend.  She never steered me wrong, and I enjoyed every book she recommended that I check out.  This included a book by journalist Jon Ronson, titled Them: Adventures with Extremists.  I read the book, and laughed my way though Ronson’s exploration of the world of the nutty, the conspiracy theorists, and the dangerous.  I was happy to hear that his book The Men Who Stare at Goats was made into a movie (I still need to read and see it, actually), so when I was last in the book store, I poked around to see if any of his other works were on hand, and found my latest read, The Psychopath Test (in the psychology section of all places – that felt like a miss-filing to me).

Like Them, The Psychopath Test is an account of Ronson’s exploration of a specific part of our society, in this case, the psychopath.  Ronson’s work sees him meeting with a whole host of people in an effort to understand psychopathy and what makes these people tick.  Supported by research into the field and his own journey to educate himself on how to spot these people, Ronson gives his reader an account that is at once light-hearted and chilling.  From meetings with incarcerated psychopaths, to individuals whom you’d feel more comfortable knowing weren’t out of society, to well-known mental health professionals, Ronson incorporates multiple points of view in his assessment of the way our society deals with the psychopathic.

As I learnt through reading The Psychopath Test, the psychiatric world is governed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known as the DSM, currently in its fifth edition), which provides a list of all recognized mental disorders, as well as checklists that mental health practitioners should use to assess their patients.  At the time of Ronson’s writing, the fourth edition of the Manual did not include an entry for psychopathy, rather, the traits these individuals exhibit were classed under other personality disorders.  I don’t know if the newest addition addresses this short-fall, but the people in the mental health field that Ronson spoke with believed it should be.  In the spirit of the DSM’s checklists, Bob Hare developed his own checklist for identifying psychopaths, known as the Hare PCL-R Checklist.  This tool is currently used internationally to identify individuals with psychopathic tendencies.  

As with Them, Ronson’s writing style is incredibly interesting and engaging.  I found I was drawn into his journey and wanted to know as much as I could about the people he was meeting with and learning about.  The one aspect I wasn’t a fan of in this book was the subtitle, which is “A journey through the madness industry.”  I get the feeling this was tacked on by an editor or publisher after the manuscript was turned in – there is very little discussion about the ‘industry’ that is supported by mental health experts, and much more on the identification of psychopathy.  The book seems to be at war with itself in what the title implies, and what the content actually is.  But, if you take the title out of the equation, the book stands on its own as an interesting and dynamic read.

A final thought on the psychopath test and The Psychopath Test: I don’t think Ronson could have gotten away with publish a book on this topic without including Bob Hare’s list of indicators.  If, like me, you read through the list and see psychopathic tendencies in yourself, not to worry.  In the best point made in any work I’ve read recently, Ronson points out that, if you’re worried you’re a psychopath, you’re probably not, after all, you’d be counter-indicating item 16 on the checklist: Failure to accept responsibilities for your own actions.  Sooooo…. phew. 

So, final verdict?  Definitely read this book.  Then read Ronson’s other works – he’s witty, intelligent, and a wonderful communicator through the written word.  A big thanks to my friend Hala for recommending I check out his work, because I’ve enjoyed it for year.  

The Fool Books, by Christopher Moore

It’s no secret that Christopher Moore is one of my favourite authors (for proof, see here and here).  So, just because I’m off work on disability, and tight on cash, doesn’t mean I can forego picking up his newest work when it comes out.  I’m that dedicated.  And foolish.  But that foolishness fits in with his latest book, The Serpent of Venice, which is a sequel to Fool. 

Both books are the story of Pocket, originally a fool in King Lear’s court.  Yes, Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Moore has taken some historical liberties with Shakespeare’s characters – and by ‘liberties,’ I mean he completely made up when and where they lived.  Moore’s King Lear lives in Medieval England, with his base of power being in London’s White Tower.  There’s a lot wrong with that sentence for a historian and it would usually drive me nuts, but Moore wasn’t pretentious about these flagrant disregards for fact, instead, he plays into the ridiculousness of the situation by including some Cockney and modern British language cues.  It’s a real hodgepodge that isn’t aiming for historical accuracy, so mistakes can be ignored.  Kind of like Monty Python, really.

Pocket, as far as characters go, is very Moore-ish.  Moore specializes in creating engaging characters whom he’s characterized in past books as the “Beta Male” (as opposed to the Alpha Male).  Pocket fits this mold as well; he has no real power in the situations he finds himself in, but he has a streak of intelligence and cunning, as well as an innate sense of humour that sees him through the worst of times. 

A word on the plots of both books:  Fool is centered on the story of King Lear, that is, Lear’s decision to split his kingdom amongst his three daughters, depending on how much they love him.  When Cordelia refuses to be overly flowery in her description of her love for her father, he disowns her.  (You know what, just read the play your self for the details).  Enter Pocket, who is in love with Cordelia, feels filial devotion to Lear, and dislikes how the situation played out.  While learning about his own personal history, Pocket also has some time to incite a couple of plots of treason and save the kingdom.  The Serpent of Venice picks up a few years (?) later, when Pocket is sent to Venice as a diplomat to talk the city out of launching a crusade.  While there, Pocket is waylaid and has to escape mortal danger and get revenge on those who’ve wronged him.  Oh, and there’s a water dragon.  And a lot of talk of bonking.

Both books draw heavily on the Shakespeare cannon for plot development, characters and dialogue, and it’s a delightful mélange.  As always, Moore’s writing style is quick and witty – lots of insults and bon mots to keep the reader engaged in not just the story, but also in the story-telling of it all.  I honestly have no complaints about these books; they speak directly to my sense of humour, and I find them to be a lot like Alice in Wonderland; they are silly and non-sensical at heart, but there is so much logic built into them that you can look past that silliness and enjoy the humour they bring.

So, final verdict?  Read these books, duh.  This is, yet again, a wonderful addition to Moore’s cannon, and I can’t speak highly enough of his skills.  I only wish he’d publish more often!  But, regardless of when his books come out, I’m clearly impelled to pick them up as soon as possible.  Maybe there’s some eye of newt embedded in the paper of the books…. I wouldn’t put it past Parsley, Rosemary and Sage….