Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Race to Splendor, by Ciji Ware


I think it’s pretty clear from this blog that I’m quiet eclectic when it comes to my reading choices.  Historical fiction, popular fiction, non-fiction, classics – I’ll read anything that catches my fancy.  But I found myself a little stumped with my last read, which was a bit of a mixed bag – I really enjoyed it, but there were several aspects that annoyed me to no end… But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s start with the name of the book – A Race to Splendor, which is Ciji Ware’s tale of post-1906 San Francisco.  If you’re not familiar with American history, the date seems non-consequential; however, 1906 was the year of a massive earthquake that destroyed much of the city by the Bay.  

A Race to Splendor tells the story of Amelia Bradshaw, the second woman to have graduated from UC-Berkley and formal architectural school in France.  Once she completed her studies in Paris, she returns to San Francisco to find that her father has gambled away her inheritance in the form of a luxury hotel that had been in the family for years.  The man who now holds the deed, J.D. Thayer, is something of a wild-child in San Francisco’s aristocracy, and is extremely well connected to the city’s power structure.  The situation changes, however, on the morning of April 18th, 1906 when an 8.25 magnitude earthquake hits the city, and the hotel that Amelia and J.D. have contested ownership of is destroyed.  Following the earthquake and resulting firestorm, and by twist of fate, Amelia ends up the principal architect and construction overseer on the hotel’s rebuilding.  Working in a city rife with corruption, and in close proximity with J.D., the story then becomes about a developing relationship and the dangers of working in construction in a corrupt system.

The story is interesting, the characters engaging, and Ware’s writing style is solid.  What I didn’t like was the way this book was sold to readers via the back-cover.  I was led to believe that it would be a story of rivalry between female architects working to rebuild the city – while a secondary character, Julia Morgan, was a real historical figure that has been credited with the actual rebuilding effort, she’s portrayed in this book as a friend of Amelia and her one-time employer; there’s no real rivalry between the two of them and what tensions do exist are dismissed with quickly in favour of the developments surrounding the hotel’s rebuilding.

While I enjoyed the story and characters, the style of this book through me off at a few turns.  It’s like a hybrid between a standard historical-fiction and a romance novel.  Ware relied on some tried and true tropes that can be observed in good old-fashioned bodice-rippers, but she also fell back on patters that make up the back-bone of historical fictions.  As someone who reads both kinds of books often, it was enough to throw me off balance more than once – I was never quite sure what the mind set I should be in to read it.  And while Ware’s writing style is good, she’s got a few bad habits – such as minor instances of ham-fisted plot development and awkward dialogue.  

What I really liked about this book was Ware’s ability to capture a unique time in Western history.  This story, set at the turn of the 20th century, highlight a whole host of social issues that the people of the era were dealing with.  As the Victorian age was in its decline, and women were experiencing expanded legal rights, A Race to Splendor is a character study of a society that is having to adjust to the realities of women like Amelia.  Beyond the feminist bent to this book, it also tackles the sticky subject of racism – it does a yeoman-like job as illustrating the role of marginalized cultures (specifically the Chinese population) in San Francisco before the earthquake and after.  Finally, in its very setting of the construction world, it demonstrates the types of corruption that could occur in politics before the 24-hour news cycle and increased public accountability (no, I’m not naïve enough to this that corruption has been eradicated, merely that it’s harder to hide these days).  In all these things, this book reminded me a lot of Dark Hearts of Chicago, another book that I really enjoyed.

Regardless of the flaws, I felt that the successful characters and historical perspective had me enjoying this read.  So much so, that Ware is going to go on my list of author’s to look for when I brows through my local Chapters.  So, final verdict?  This is a good book – if you’re a fan of historical fiction (and a chick, because of that romance angle), I think you’ll enjoy this one.  Go into it with the understanding that the plot as described on the book isn’t what you’ll be getting, but know that the story is solid.  

Sarah Court, by Craig Davidson


**Spoiler Alerts – Two spoiler alerts: 1- Don’t read this book, it sucked. 2- I reveal something about the ending in my review…. So, if you’re planning on reading this one, skip my review and come back to it later.**

I knew my last read was going to be trouble before I got past the preface.  Sarah Court, by Craig Davidson, was a convoluted mixed bag from the word go, and the only reason I finished it was because I had nothing better going on that afternoon.  But let’s back up and dissect where things went wrong…

Sarah Court tells the story of five families and their neighbours in a small town in Southern Ontario, downriver from Niagara Falls.  Each chapter is dedicated to a particular family/person’s story, but all are interwoven with each other.  

The problems began right ways, however, with the way in which the story unfolded.  To start off with, the preface is told from the point of view of a non-human species.  The reflections on the human condition observable amongst the community’s residents are trite and over-blown.  More annoying, is the author’s over use of turns of phrases such as “It’s the type of town/place/community where…” at the opening of every paragraph for what seems like the entire chapter.  After the preface, and we start in on the stories of the five families, I almost thought the preface’s narrator was a squirrel (don’t ask…) but, as revealed in the last chapter, it’s rather some sort of daemon/alien?  I don’t know – that twist came out of the blue and was a really shitty addition to a series of story lines that I had started (marginally) enjoying about three-quarters of the way through.

The actual meat of the book, the five families that are covered, are hit and miss.  The first two chapters are slow and boring in contrast to the last three, which become more interesting and titillating as you read.  To complicate the whole matter, each chapter jumps back and forth between time frames, so they can turn into something of a convoluted mess.

The characters (some of them at least) had potential, but the author never gave himself enough space or time to develop many of them.  The chapters that I enjoyed most were the ones where the characters were fleshed out, and interacted with the plot in a more meaningful way, but overall these successes don’t make up for the deficiencies.  

So, final verdict?  Don’t bother.  I love being able to support Canadian authors, but Sarah Court is a serious misstep in the Canadian literary field.  It’s not my cup of tea, but I’d love to hear from those who have read it an enjoyed it – maybe you can point out what I’ve missed?  

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Witness House, by Christiane Kohl


My latest read, The Witness House, by Christiane Kohl, was an accidental read.  While browsing through Chapters this weekend, I stumbled across it in the fiction bargain books section, and with the subtitle of “Nazis and Holocaust survivors sharing a villa during the Nuremberg Trials,” my interest was immediately peaked.  When I got home, however, I realized that this wasn’t at all a fictional account – rather it’s a ‘popular’ history written by Kohl that is depended on a variety of sources, ranging from private paper, to public accounts of events, to oral histories.  The result is a shockingly frank and interesting account of a post-war dynamic that I was unaware of.

First, some history on the Nuremberg Trials for those who might have heard the term, but don’t know much about them.  Following the Allied victory over the Nazi government in German (in 1945), it became quickly apparent that the German power-structure, led by Adolf Hitler, had be perpetrating a whole host of crimes against the peoples they governed that ranged from unlawful imprisonment and simple theft, to genocide against Jews.  As Allied troops rolled through Europe, liberating countries from German rule, they also had the task of liberating German prisoners from concentration camps.  (I visited Dachau a couple of summers ago – for my impressions of the experience, please visit my travel blog.)  As the Allied forces moved across Europe, they also took into custody as many of the members of the Nazi regime as they could find.  The questions quickly became who to hold accountable for the war and the resulting crimes against humanity, and what was to be done with the Nazis and collaborators that were being taken into custody.

This is a period in human history were international laws was still in an early stage, but the Allied nations felt the need to hold the German power-structure accountable for the events of the war.  As such, it was decided that the Nazi prisoners were to be put on trial for their role in the war and genocide.  While many of the public indictments of these individuals were made in Berlin, it was decided that the trials would be held in Nuremberg.  I’ve read elsewhere that this choice was perhaps poetic justice in response to the ‘Nuremberg Laws,’ which were passed by the Nazis limiting the right of Jews early in their rule.  At the Nuremberg Trails, which began in 1946, Germans such as Hermann Göring and Rudolph Hess (and many, many others) were put on public trial to answer for their role in Hitler’s master plan for Europe.  The results, in a shockingly short year after the start of the trial (when you consider the scope), were death penalties for the worst offenders, and various interments for many of the others; some were acquitted.  

The logistical nightmare that was the organization of these trials is the basis of The Witness House.  On trail (during that first year) were about a dozen Nazis, and in the subsequent years, dozens of lesser functionaries had their day in court.  The question was what to do with those who were asked to testify during the proceedings?  Nuremberg suffered severe damage during the closing months of the war – in fact, much of the town was nothing but ruins.  Finding accommodations for the many people involved in the trail was going to take some doing, and once a location was selected, there was going to have to be some sort of authority-figure on the premises.

The actual abode chosen to host many of the witnesses, known as the Novalisstrasse Villa, and was put under the control of a displaced Hungarian aristocrat, the Countess Ingeborg Kalnoky.  Kalnoky’s greatest challenge was managing the odd compendium of witnesses that passed through her door; very often, she was required to host Hitler’s close friends and concentration-camp survivors over dinner and tea.  This was the most potentially incendiary combination, but almost everyone who came under her care was connect in some way to each other – either as Nazi administrators, Nazi victims, or collaborators in one was or another.  In a more immediate sense, it wasn’t uncommon for her to host prosecution and defense witness and attorneys at the same time.  As hostess, one can only imagine how tense the situation would have been at all times.

Kohl’s account of the history of the witness house begins with her anecdote about a dinner at which she was shown the guest-book for the house that was kept by Kalnoky’s predecessor.  This primary document pushed her to further explore the history of those who had stayed at the Villa.  She visited Kalnoky in her home in the States for a first-hand account of the house and its guests, and well as exploring the memories and personal files of those who had a connection to the house, and who were still living in the early 2000s.  Her account is presented in a narrative fashion and, along with the history of the Witness House, also provides the reader with more details about the Trails themselves, and the testimony provided.  Some of the facts that were entered into evidence are shocking, even for someone who has stood in a gas chamber and seen the ovens up-close.

And here’s where I start giving you my personal opinion on the Nuremberg Trials.  Please, don’t savage me in your minds until you’ve read all I have to say.  Part of me feels that the expense and energy put in the Trials were unnecessary and misdirected.  All anyone had to see was pictures of survivors of the camp to know that all high-ranking Nazi officials were guilty of some piece of those terrible crimes.  The Trails were unnecessary to prove this; men like Goering and Hess should never have been given their day in court – they didn’t deserve that basic human right.   Moreover, the fact that the Trails were put together and concluded so quickly (in was about 12 months from indictments to death penalties) proves (to me at least), that all those involved knew what the outcome would be – the Trials were set up with teams of prosecutors from the US, Britain, France and Russia and, in many situations, there had to be agreement between the teams before certain pieces of the proceedings could advance – remember that the Nazis controlled various aspects of the French government throughout the war, and the Russians started off as German allies in the war.  Finally, the Witness House itself is telling of the expectations of the Trails – in its walls, witnesses for both sides of the case, and some of the attorneys, mingled freely in a social environment.  Ask any lawyer you know – this isn’t something that’s done; it taints testimony and affects credibility.  Combine all this with the plethora of witness and volumes of evidence that had to be collected, and I wonder how in the world we’re expected to believe the Trails weren’t rigged before they started.

Regardless, I do acknowledge that the Trails brought into the public consciousness the full extent of Nazi brutality.  Without them, many of their crimes would likely have been reduced to the status of whispered rumours – the trail, and the subsequent guilty verdicts brought much of those crimes into the public domain and cannot now be ignored.  And yet, I think the Trails were held out of one pure motivator: vengeance.  Vengeance for what the Nazis did, but more importantly because Hitler was not available to answer for his crimes.  In a move of pure cowardice, Hitler famously killed himself when it was clear that the Nazi cause was lost.  Without the architect of the war and war crimes available, someone needed to be held responsible, and the Trails provided the public spectacle required to satisfy humanity’s need for closure.  

What Kohl’s account in The Witness House brings the modern reader is a reminder of the human aspects of all the different types of people involved in the drama that was the Holocaust.  Guests at the villa were sometimes complaisant about the evidence the trail brought out, others were horrified, and still other were in denial.  The Witness House reminds readers that everyone’s perceptions of themselves and those around them creates a unique worldview – while the Trails also highlighted that, in Kohl’s account, the modern reader is provided with a venue to fully appreciate both that fact and the history that illustrates it.

In the end, I highly recommend this book.  It’s been translated into English by Anthea Bell with only minor problems (some awkward phrasing, and the Germanfication of some of the vocabulary used – i.e. ‘coreligionist’ isn’t an English word, but it has the stamp of the German penchant for combining nouns all over it).  Both the content and manner in which it is presented are incredibly readable, especially the pictures of the Villa’s guests.  I think this book would appeal to anyone who is interested in the history of the Nazi state, as it can serve as a ‘P.S.’ to the regime.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak


This morning I engaged in one of those mental back-tracking exercises where you try to figure out where and why you got interested in a topic, and I surprised myself at where I ended up.  The purpose of these musings was to figure out when and were I got interested in imperial Russian history – it’s not something that I experienced growing up (like British colonial history), since that was my dad’s area of interest as an amateur historian.  

But then I realized, like all good things in this world, the origins are in British history – follow me on this: as a kid, my dad watched the Sharpe movies on TV; I developed one of those celebrity crushes on Sean Bean; I then spent oodles of time and my (very little) disposal income hunting down all his movies; Sean Bean stared with Sophie Marceau in Anna Karenina (1997, and don’t get me started on the new version); I then read Anna Karenina in grade 10 as part of an independent study project; I followed that up with an undergrad course on the history of imperial Russia and a Russian language course at University; and now, I spend my time indulging my interest in Russia through literature.  As part of that (and to avoid re-reading Anna Karenina, because I just got through War and Peace), I dug into my latest read The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak for a bit more of that Russian ambiance.  

The Winter Palace tell the story of Barbara (who has about 50 nicknames thanks to the Russian penchant for monikers), an orphaned bookbinder’s daughter who, thanks to her father’s profession and work for the Empress Elizabeth, winds up in the imperial Russian court as a ward of the state following her parents’ death.  With a quick mind, it’s not long before Barbara gets caught up in the spy-game at the palace, first working for Elizabeth, but then shifting her loyalties to Sophia, later Catherine, who is brought to court to marry Elizabeth’s nephew and heir, Peter.  From Barbara’s position as a spy, the reader is given a glimpse of the private lives of all three players in this dynastic game.  Intensely loyal to Catherine, Barbara is witness to the heartache, the lovers, and finally the coup that put her on the imperial throne.  

Stachniak’s work is incredibly readable – I found myself halfway through it before I could blink, and I spent lots of time reading during the week (which I rarely do).  The plot is well paced, the characters are engaging, and the author’s writing style is delicate and well balanced.  I have no complaints about this book on those fronts!

My one reticence comes from the time frame of the book.  The sub-title to my edition is “A Novel of Catherine the Great.”  I get the impression that that bit wasn’t included on the first print of the book, but was added later as Stachniak is working on a sequel.  But the truth is, this isn’t about Catherine, it’s about Barbara; and it’s not even about Barbara’s interactions with Catherine the Great, but rather with Catherine as the Grand Duchess.  The reader does get to see the palace coup, but only in the last couple of chapters, and for a whole host of reasons Barbara isn’t even around Catherine all the much after that.  I get that Stachniak is gearing up for a series on the topic, but as one of my profs used to say/bark at us, picking an accurate title is half the battle.

But, regardless, I strongly recommend that you check out this book.  It’s an excellent read, and I’m really looking forward to exploring more by this author.  In fact, this book was so good, that I think Stachniak fortified me for another run at Tolstoy – Anna Karenina, here I come!  

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens


This is how I imagine things went between Charles Dickens and his publisher during discussion around A Christmas Carol:

Charles Dickens: Good morning my fine man!  I hope I find you well and enjoying rude health on this fine and glorious morn!
Publisher: Um, yeah, good morning Chuck.  Have a seat.
CD: Why thank you, kind sir!  Your generosity as a host is quite enchanting and all-encompassing.  Now, before you ask – as I am sure you would, for any good host would, and you’re a magnificent host – I don’t require any sort of libation this morning: no need for tea, coffee, snuff, or anything of the stronger nature.  I found this charmingly quaint little coffee house not twenty steps from my lodgings this morning and –
P: Yeah, Chuck, this is what we need to talk about.
CD: Pardon me, good sir?  What seems to be the problem?
P: I just read your draft of A Christmas Carol, Chuck.  It’s 1,700 pages.  I thought we had talked about this – you were supposed to submit a short story that could be published over the Christmas season to boost our winter sales.
CD: But this is a short story!  I laboriously edited it down from an original page count of 2,300!  I found myself moved by the muses to describe the state of Scrooge’s home and person in a loquacious way, but I chose to limit my own pen with the judicious eye of an editor.
P: What you don’t get Chuck, is that people are busy this time of year – gooses don’t cook themselves, wassail bowls need to be refilled, to say nothing of the hours they’ve got to work to afford those geese and bowls.  We wanted something short and pithy that could be read to the family while the pudding steamed.  This is too much.
CD: I must protest!  My art is what it is, and….
P: Let’s be honest here, Chuck.  You made a fabulous deal with us when you first joined our stable of writers – we pay you by the word.
CD: … I do not consider monetary recompense when I craft my characters – do you think the Ghost of Christmas Present was influenced by any thought of worldly gain?  
P: Yes, yes I do.
CD: [Beat] Fine.  How many pages do you want?
P: Keep it under 100 and we’ll be fine.
CD: On it.

Aaaannnnddd scene…

So, how do you write a review for a story that everyone is familiar with?  You don’t – if you were raised after the beginning of the capture of images on film, you’ve seen one rendition of A Christmas Carol or another in your lifetime.  I do recommend that you read the original though – it’s decent, and less wordy than I was expecting.  But if you’re just looking to relive the story during this holiday season, I recommend you check out Scrooged or The Muppets Christmas Carol – two of the best tellings of this story out there (I think the casting of Fauzzy Bear as Fezziwinkle makes the Jim Hensen version even better than the original Dickens).

In case we don’t meet again before the holiday, I’d like to wish all my reader a wonderful Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanza/Festivus/Pagan Winter Festival/Non-Denominational Winter Holiday.  Whatever floats your boat!  Enjoy this time, find a book to dig into, and be good to one another!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Bulfinch's Mythology, by Thomas Bulfinch


I had a hard time deciding how to classify my last read, Bulfinch’s Mythology: The Age of Fables.  Part of me says this is a non-fiction account of various religious myths (and I don’t mean ‘myths’ in a derogatory sense – the first thing they teach you in university when talking about all religions is that ‘myth’ has no intrinsic value to the word, rather we assign either positive or negative meanings to it), and the other part of me (that would be the lapsed Catholic) says it’s all fiction…

I grew up with this volume sitting on a bookshelf, but never really got into it, and that’s in light of an entire unit in a Grade 10 English class that was focused on mythology, and two undergraduate Classics course that leaned heavily on mythology for exam content.  I’m not sure what pushed me to finally crack this book, but I did find I enjoyed it… for the most part.

According to the author, this work is a collection of mythological stories that need to be understood in order to fully appreciate some of the great classics of ‘modern’ poetry (I’m talking about Milton and Pope, amongst others) and their frequent allusions to classical mythology.  It’s a sincere and useful exercise, but for me, I can’t enjoy those types of work.  Luckily, Bulfinch follows a pattern: the first part of his chapters presents the myth in question, and the second part includes snippets of various works of poetry at the end.  In my case, including it at the end made those pieces easily skip-able.  And boy, did I.  If, however, you enjoy the Miltons of the world, you should appreciate not only the text of the myth, but also the inclusion of the more modern references.

As for the myths themselves, I found them to be a bit of a mixed bag.  The origin stories of the gods are generally glossed over in the first chapters, and are only occasionally referenced and/or expounded on as they relate to the other stories that Bulfinch is relating.  And, oftentimes, they could serve from some judicious editing and an over-all copy edit.  However, on the whole, the book is exceedingly well organized – each chapter has a common theme that runs through it, from mortal interactions with a specific god, to name origins, to different regions.  About two thirds of the book is dedicated to a mix of Roman and Greek myths, while the last third covers the Egyptians, Norse, and Celtic myths; I almost felt like this was an afterthought, as Bulfinch wraps up the section on the Greek/Roman stories with an academic assessment of how and why those stories developed, but doesn’t do the same for the other culture.

What I particularly loved about this book is the summary of The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Even though I was assigned to read both books in those Classics classes I took, I was never able to get through them.  I think it’s the epic poetry component – I can’t find a rhythm in the reading and get frustrated.  My knowledge about these stories was a compendium of class discussions I had to sit through, the movie Troy (staring Sean Bean as Odysseus, which is why I watched it.  Brad Pitt who?), and an episode of Wishbone I saw when I was 9.  These sources were effective in giving me the jist of the story, but Bulfinch’s summary is well appreciated and I feel less bad about my knowledge gap now…

So, final verdict?  This book has many purposes and target audiences.  It could be enjoyed by someone who likes poetry and needs to better understand the illusions those authors make; it could be useful to students at all levels trying to get a better handle on the subject matter; or it could be for people like me, who were just looking for an interesting read.  While Bulfinch’s compilation isn’t the only one out there (in fact, I have Mythology for Dummies sitting on my shelf which I did, in fact, read from cover to cover), it is one of the first modern versions and it does a yeoman-like job at collecting information from a disparate set of sources and presents them in a reader-friendly fashion.  For these reasons, I’d recommend you read it if you’re into that type of thing.  

** A foot note - This is the 100th post for Eight Bookcases!**

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare


I think I’ve said all that I need to about my impressions of Shakespeare – case in point.  however, as I’m a glutton for punishment, this week I read Hamlet.  

I would like to turn things over the Rowan Atkinson, in his genius role of Blackadder, to reiterate my sentiments:

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman


**Spoiler Alert!  If you’ve been living under a rock since the 1980s, you might not want to read this review.  However, given the existence of a really popular movie based on this book, I’m not holding back.  You’ve been warned.**

I am really close with my dad.  No doubt about it, but it’s pretty obvious that he and I are basically the same person – same sense of humour, same tastes, same shaped toes.  The one thing I could never understand as a kid though was his love for the movie The Princess Bride.  Sure, it had adventure, humour, and an okay plot, but it seemed for a while that it was the go-to movie in our home and, while I didn’t mind it, it wasn’t high-up on my list of things that I wanted to watch.  Regardless, I respected his choice in flicks and would watch it with him (even though the R.O.U.S. scared the pejeezus out of me, and even then I didn’t find the relationship between Westley and Buttercup to be well developed).

My next contact with the story came from a friend who recommended that I read the book that the movie was based on – she sold it as a really engaging read, with a twist (more on that later).  Since she hadn’t steered me wrong in the past with book recommendations, I took her advice and picked it up.  And fell in love with the book.  I didn’t, however, develop a full appreciation for why I loved it so much until I took an undergrad English course on the adaptations of books to film (but more on that later too).

So, plot.  Very simple – boy and girl realize they love each other, boy leaves to make his fortune promising to come back for girl, boy is reported dead, girl accepts a marriage proposal from someone else, boy returns from the dead, and boy and girl are reunited.  That’s the basic over-view – in reality, there are a whole host of variables: boy always loved girl, but girl disdained him at first; boy leaves for the New World only to be shanghaied by the Dread Pirate Roberts, whose identity he takes over; upon learning of boy’s death, girl agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck, and spends years learning to be a princess; boy returns from the supposed-dead just in time to rescue girl from an assassination attempt, which is where we meet the most lovable case of supporting characters ever known to man; and boy and girl are reunited after boy is killed and brought back from the dead, girl is rescued following her marriage to the Prince, and they (with their helpers) flee.  And there are some Rodents of Unusual Size (R.O.U.S.s) in there too.

The real plot to this book is not the Westely/Buttercup saga though.  The real plot is this: William Goldman (the author) begins the book with a bit of a bio on his childhood – at age 10, while recovering from a near-deadly bout of pneumonia, his father (a native Florinese) decided to read him The Princes Bride, by S. Morgenstern, the most famous Florinese author.  The Princes Bride’s subtitle, “S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure” says is all.  Goldman wasn’t much of a reader, but The Princes Bride captured his imagination in a way that made him an avid bookworm and set him on his future career path.  He always knew he would want to read the book to his own son some day, and when his son turns 10, he gives him The Princes Bride as a gift.  However, it turns out his son hates the book.  Heart-broken over this inability to connect with his son on a similar level to the connection he had with his father, Goldman picks up the book to find out what went wrong, only to realize that the original Morgenstern is almost 1,000 page, and heavy on both useless detail and political satire.  As it turns out, his father read to him the interesting bits, and left out huge chunks of the original story.  In order to make the book more palatable to American readers, to honour his father’s memory, and to (maybe) find a way to connect with his son, Goldman sets out to abridge the original Morgenstern into what we know today as the story of The Princes Bride.  (In reality, and here’s where I tell you there’s no Santa, it’s all bunk.  The childhood, the parenthood, and the abridgement - The Princes Bride comes straight from Goldman.  Sorry.  But the Easter Bunny is real, I promise.)

While sitting in the English class on adaptations from page to screen, I came to a realization – it’s very easy for a screen-writer to come along and take all the characters, setting, and plot action from a book and put it down on film.  It might be easy, but it’s rarely done right and in a way that makes it as engaging as the original book.  What’s harder to catch in adaptations is the feel of a story.  And, with The Princes Bride (the book), the feel is what makes the story so engaging.  While reading, I’ll often times turn on some classical music just for some background ambiance – this week, while reading The Princes Bride, I tried that several times, only to shut the music off within a page or two.  Why?  The feel of the book stood, all on its own, without the ambiance – it’s odd to explains, but it’s almost as if the book created an ambiance in the room all of its own.  At several points when I put the book down to grab a cup of tea, or feed the cat, it became (suddenly) very quiet in my apartment – almost as if I had turned the TV off, or muted some music: it was the lack of ambiance that I was feeling that I could only connect to while reading. 

This is the only book I have ever read where that ambiance, and my admiration for it, has over-ridden the plot and the characters.  If you go back and read through some of my previous posts, what you’ll note is a consistency in the points I touch on about books – what I thought of the plot development, what I thought of the characters (engaging characters are one of my most important criteria for liking a book), and an author’s writing style.  In the case of The Princes Bride, I find the plot to be ho-hum, and the characters to be somewhat likeable and engaging (with the exception of the Montoya and Fezzik, and those are the secondary characters).  Where this book really shines is in the author’s writing style.  This may be the only book I have every read where I’ve cared more about the author and his abilities than what he was writing.  It’s an amazing dynamic that makes me think I want to read everything Goldman has written. 

And that brings me back to the movie.  Goldman (who is the acclaimed screen-play writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Misery) also wrote the screen-play for the flick.  But, somewhere between the Morgenstern and the Reiner of it all, The Princes Bride looses that special spark, that ambiance that makes the book so damn enjoyable.  Don’t get me wrong, with an adult’s perspective, I now think the flick is an entirely serviceable way to spend two hours, but now that I know of Goldman’s ability to craft an ambiance though words on the page, I’m at a loss to why anyone would chose the movie over the book. 

So, final verdict?  Come on.  I’ve written almost twice as much for this review as most of my others, and that’s simply because I’ve been trying to sell you on reading this book.  I may have knocked the plot a bit above, but it’s still a wonderfully fast-paced tale full of adventure; I may have disregarded my normal assessment of the characters, but they’re still worth getting to know; and if I’m guilty of debasing the plot and characters, it’s only in favour of spending as much time and space as possible telling you about how masterfully Goldman has crafted an ambiance for his readers.  The Princes Bride (the film) is one of those ‘cult following’ flicks that children of the 80s all know – I wish, however, that the book were held in the same regard.  I would highly recommend that everyone out there rush to read this book, it’s amazing.

Coda

My edition of The Princes Bride contains the first abridged chapter of Buttercup’s Baby, the purported sequel to Morgenstern’s original.  It also contains a preceding explanation from Goldman about what happened to him after the release of The Princes Bride, and what led him to start abridging the sequel.

I read through that bit about Goldman’s experiences, but only got a few pages into the chapter from Buttercup’s Baby before realizing that I wanted to let The Princes Bride stand on its own, without any additions to my memory of it.

This decision was made easier following a simple Google search, during which I learnt that Goldman has yet to finish writing Buttercup’s Baby, and he’s stalled over it, because he wants to get the story just right.  If and when he ever finishes and releases it, then I’ll consider picking it.  Until then, I’m content to live with just the original Princes Bride.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien


(***Spoiler Alert – The Hobbit is so well known, and with the movie coming out, I can’t see any reason to hold back.  You’ve been warned.  ***)

Okay, so it’s been a while (again) since I posted.  No excuses, just laziness and the need to recover from the last set of excuses.  I decided that to keep easing myself back into the habit of reading to go with a book I’m familiar with and that I wanted to get around to reading because of the movie coming out.  My choice was The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

The plot is simple enough.  Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, is comfortable in this hobbit-hole.  One day, an acquaintance of his, a wizard named Gandalf, shows up and tells him to be on the lookout for an adventure that comes to his door.  Bilbo insists he’s not interested, but that doesn’t stop 13 dwarves from showing up the next day looking for a burglar to help them recover their ancestral home and treasure from the dragon Smaug.  What follows is Bilbo’s adventures to reach the Lonely Mountain where Smaug lives, and what happens thereafter.  Replete with shape-shifters, elves, goblins, and other magical creatures, The Hobbit is an introduction to the world that Tolkien has created for his Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I’ve always considered The Hobbit the prequel to those books, as it introduces several main characters, and the initiating action for the trilogy occurs in this book.  

I first tried reading The Hobbit when I was 10 at my dad’s insistence – he’s a big fan of the Tolkien universe, and I think he figured that I would be interested in, and be able to handle, the first chapter of the LotR story.  It didn’t go that well.  Regardless of the lovely hard-cover, illustrated version we checked out of the library, I just wasn’t interested.  At the time, I was still reading the Baby Sitter Club books and R.L. Stein (wow, how’s that for a blast from the past?) so wasn’t interested in anything more serious.  I finally finished reading The Hobbit during an undergrad English class on quest-themed literature.  This was after the Ring movies had come out and I’d read those books, so it wasn’t hard to get through.

What did happen, somewhere between that undergrad class and this re-reading was that I apparently forget entirely about the plot.  Weird, I know.  It’s not that I forgot about the plot so much as I forgot about the nuances – I was sitting there reading and thinking to myself “hun, doesn’t that happen latter?” or “wow, I totally forgot about that allusion to the later books.”  It made me feel like I had never read it before… It was both a treat and disconcerting at the same time.

Now, a few comments on the devices that Tolkien uses.  First, a word on Tolkien’s writing style.  At its heart, The Hobbit is a children’s book.  Tolkien often breaks down the fourth wall and interacts directly with his readers, usually with a voice that would appeal to children.  It’s an interesting devise that is used to highlight the fact that the modern reader is pulling away from the natural/spiritual/mystical world.  It’s also used to great effect as a foreshadowing device for events that happen in this book, and within the LotR trilogy.  Tolkien uses this device more in the first half of the book, which is beneficial in advancing the plot that requires his characters to traverse many miles over many weeks.  While it is a children’s book, I find Tolkien too detailed in his description of battles – it’s a real boy’s approach to story telling, that didn’t appeal to me.  

Plot and writing style are one thing, but I’m a firm believer that characters carry a book, and Tolkien’s characters are unbelievable, but in a good way.  Had you every heard of a hobbit before his books came onto your radar?  Of course not, they’re imaginary, but Tolkien has created a creature/character with such believable authenticity that the small fact that it’s fictional can be overlooked.  Bilbo is a kind-hearted, genuine and honest character who provides the moral compass and morale for this story; Gandalf, the magician, can be a bit of a dick, but always with the ends in sight; the goblins are a terrifying compendium of all that we don’t want to meet in a dark corner, both in their physicality and their behaviour; and all the characters are equally well crafted.  While all the characters are based on the imaginary, they are completely believable and unique enough to stand on their own and make you believe that Tolkien may have had some specimens over for tea once or twice to craft his impressions.

For those that don’t know much about Tolkien, one of the first things that you’re taught/read about him is that he was a humanist of the first order.  Tolkien was deeply affected by the World Wars themselves and their after-effects on society, and that shows in his writings.  The Hobbit was first published in 1937, and when armed with that knowledge, some of the battle-scenes and mountain tunnels/passageways remind the reader of trench-warfare.  Tolkien’s main character of Bilbo, a home-body with a heart of gold, is a rejection of the hurly-burly of the world in which evil stalks around every corner.  And Smaug?  That’s a thinly veiled allusion to the increasing industrialization of Tolkien was witness to.  This story does read primarily as an adventure tale, but the deeper meanings that Tolkien embedded in it should not be overlooked.

Of course, no review of The Hobbit at this point in time would be complete without a mention of the upcoming flick by the same name.  Once again, Peter Jackson is returning to Middle Earth to bring Tolkien’s story alive for the movie-going crowd.  Jackson put his name into our homes in a big bad way with the LotR trilogy that came out in the early 2000s.  At that time, there was talks of reviving The Hobbit and giving it the same treatment.  But, after a mega shoot and post-production schedule on the Rings, Jackson passed on directing The Hobbit.  But this is Hollywood, kids – no way was the studio going to NOT do it.  After being passed around between a few directors/producers, The Hobbit ended back with Jackson, which is a good thing for the consistence it will bring.  The downside is that Jackson is apparently convinced that The Hobbit requires the same treatment as the Ring trilogy, and has decided to split The Hobbit into three films.  His rational is that he’ll be going into a lot of the lore that Tolkien published on Middle Earth that won’t get to the silver screen if he doesn’t do it now.  Now, I’ve tried reading some of that extra lore – it’s dry.  I think it can be left on the page without a second though.  I think the real reason behind the decision to split The Hobbit into a trilogy is that Peter Jackson likes money – but I’d caution him on getting into George Lucas territory….

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  It’s a massive piece of our literary zeitgeist and will be inescapable for the next couple of years.  This is a great book to introduce readers (both young and old) to Tolkien specifically and the fantasy/quest genre generally.  The plot is quick moving and engaging; the characters are realistic and likable (for the most part); and it’s the set up for the major tale that is covered by the LotR books.  I strongly suggest you read this book, and then get all your friends to do the same – it’ll be worth it! 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Death du Jour, by Kathy Reichs


After my foray into The Casual Vacancy, I decide the best way to get my reading feet underneath me again was with some pop-lit, so I turned to Death du Jour, by Kathy Reichs for a little relaxation.  And, it worked.

Death du Jour is the first (so says the interwebs, I got a feeling it’s at least the second) book in Reichs’ Temperance Brennan series.  Brennan is a top-notch anthropologist who splits her time between North Carolina and Montreal, working as both an academic and a medical examiner.  Brennan is highly sought after, and extremely skilled.  Death du Jour follows Brennan as she investigates a series of gruesome murders/unexplained occurrences that always seem to drop into her lap.  The plot is good and is always moving forward with little lags or unbelievabilities (other than the way Brennan manages to stumble across so many bodies).

The characters are engaging and interesting.  Brennan is likable and down to earth in her assessment and reaction to situations; the detective she works with/likes, Andy Ryan, can be a bit pompous (which I don’t think was Reichs’ goal) but he’s an okay guy; Brennan’s sister, Harry, is a fucking mess in a way that’s recognizable to anyone with a similar person in their own lives; and the supporting characters are all well written and no one stands out as a major miss-step.

The only think I didn’t dig about the book from beginning to end was the feeling that I should hold a degree some sort of science-related field to understand what the hell Brennan was describing.  More than once, I found myself thinking of that old TV cop-show cliché “can I get that in English, doctor?” – and Ryan even asked something similar at one point.  While this devise can be played to great effect in a 44 minute television show, in a book, it just takes up extra time and page space that isn’t really needed.

What I did like was the setting – so often Canadian audiences are underserved, but this is one book/series(?) that should speak to Canadians because a large part of the action happens in Quebec.  If you’ve spent any time driving through la belle province, or in Montreal, then the scenery is familiar to you, and the observations that Reichs makes about her locations are added colour and connection to the story.  It’s a nice little twist to what I was expecting to be another by-the-books (pardon the pun) story about a cop investigating a murder.

The names Temperance Brennan and Kathy Reichs may be familiar to some of you – that’s because they are the inspiration for the Fox show Bones.  Now, how in the world Reichs’ Brennan got transformed into Emily Deschenel’s Brennan, I have no idea – on the show, Brennan is an almost unwatchable character with seemingly little humanity as she’s portrayed as far to book-smart to know or care about the plebes.  That dynamic always seems to fall apart at least once an episode to display the emotional side of the character, but there’s never any substantial character growth as she’s always back to her usually self by the start of the next episode.  Honestly though, it’s been a while since I watched, so this might have resolved itself (but, I doubt it, since Hart Hanson has helmed that show since the word go).  

I think Reichs made a huge mistake in selling the character rights to Fox – Bones kept me from reading the books for a long time because I thought they would be similar to the show.  Now that I know better, I’ll probably look out for them when Chapters has its buy 3 get the 4th free sale.

So, final verdict?  This is great beach-blanket reading.  It’s no Dennis Lehane, but it is pretty close to the Preston/Child series that I enjoyed.  For Canadian readers, it’s nice to finally have a story that we can relate too from a big-name author.  Finally, the books prove the point that literature is far superior to television; if you’re a Bones fan, I strongly recommend that you pick up Reichs’ book, and spend that hour every week reading – you’ll get a better plot and more believable characters, and fewer commercial breaks.

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The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling


Okay, so… Wow.  It’s been a long time since I’ve posted. Yikes.  There are some really good reasons for that though, one of which I’m excited to share with everyone.  So, back when I started at my job last year, I suggested that my boss allow me to write an institutional history of the association I work for.  It didn’t go anywhere at the time, but in the lead-up to our big, annual meeting, she decided that she wanted not only a history of our association written, but a history of Canada’s health care system and nursing education.  The original brief for the project was a 20-25 paper, within 2 weeks; my coworker and I completed a 46 page pager, with 2 trips to local libraries, 3 trips to archives out of town, and 1 trip to Canada’s national archive in 3 weeks.  It was a bear of a project that reminded me of my student days…. And while I’m not 100% sure, I’m hoping the results will be available for sale shortly.  Other reasons for the dirth in posts: TV season started up, and TV on DVD release dates…

All of these factors were further complicated by the book I was reading shortly before my life got filled with distractions: The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling.  This book took up a lot of my time before it was released, and a substantial amount after.  After its release, I was wondering when/if I would commit to buying it – but as it turned out, that was wasted time, since I won a copy off Twitter from @indigo_chapters.  I was so excited and waited for my mail with baited breath, and when the book finally arrived, I dived right into it!  Only to experience a sinking feeling within the first 100 pages….  Let me explain.

So, near as I can tell, The Casual Vacancy follows the trials and tribulations of a small rural village in England.  The impetus for the story is the death of one of the village council members, who was in favour of incorporating slums into the village to provide the people who lived there with better services.  On the other side of that debate were council members who were thisclose to getting rid of the community by foisting it off on a neighboring town.  Into this political mine field lands the need to fill the seat left by the death of a council member.  I think.  Here’s the problem: I only got ¼ of the way through it before giving up.

The plot is fucking boring… other than the inciting incident, nothing really exciting happens.  I found myself several times thinking that the events would benefit strongly from a dose of magic, but none was forth coming.  To further complicate the plot are the 600 characters that Rowling introduces and jumps between – and NONE of them contribute in an interesting manner to the main plot.  Some of these character stories are interesting, but in the pages I read, I couldn’t find anything to draw me in and keep me reading.

When you compound a slow moving plot with too many characters and my crazy-ass schedule for the last month, what happened was that I lost interest.  There is no way I have the least desire to finish the book, and I’m super glad I won a copy rather than paying $40 for it.  But this is just another example of why Rowling is the smartest author in the world – though this book sucked, I’m still going to buy her next one.  She’s got so much juice following her from HP, that I firmly believe there’s an amazing author in there somewhere, and this book suffered from a publisher who didn’t want to alienate the golden goose.  I’m hoping on her next try, she undertakes some more judicious editing.

So, final verdict?  Borrow a copy from a library/friend, but don’t buy it.  You should definitely explore this book (and hopefully you’ll like it!) if for no other reason that it’s a major piece of our literary tradition now.  Whether you like the book or not, Rowling’s first foray into literature after the Harry Potter juggernaut is going to be talked about and considered for a long time to come.    

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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley


For this review, I had seriously considered just writing “Read 1984 instead” and leaving it at that.  But, the advise from my thesis supervisor came back to me – he says to never judge a work against you want to it be, but rather, judge it for what it is.  Never one to ignore good advise when I hear it (okay, well I try not to), I decided that giving Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World short-shrift wouldn’t be fair.  So, here we go.

Brave New World is firmly in the camp of utopian/dystopian fiction.  This society seems to have pulled its start date from the time of Ford and the birth of the modern consumer culture.  We’re introduced to the society literally where it begins – in the hatchery.  Science has progressed to such a level that children can be created, grown and birthed from test tubes; their castes and skill levels are pre-determined before birth, and the children are socialized using a whole host of psychological methods to acclimatize them to their station in life.  As grown ups, the people of this society are encouraged to consume as much as possible, and to enjoy as many sexual partners as they like.  The only thing that is off limits for the people is non-conformity.  Those who will not fit themselves into the expected model of society are considered detrimental to the whole, and exiled.  

All that this sounds really engaging.  And, on the surface, as a fan of utopian fictions, it was.  But there were certain choices Huxley made that ruined the whole thing for me.  First, he doesn’t explain much about the society beyond what I relayed above.  How did humanity get to this point?  and when did Fordism take over?  More than that, Huxley eludes to some components of daily life without really explaining them – for example, what exactly is a Pregnancy Substitute, and why is it required of the women in the society? 

Beyond the oversights in developing his setting, Huxley makes (in my opinion) a serious over-sight with the plot.  In most utopian/dystopian fictions, the main character (who is generally a dissenter in order to future the story’s development and action) comes from within the society itself.  This gives the reader someone to sympathize with; someone to root for; and a more effective lens on the short comings of the society.  In the case of Brave New World, the character who casts back criticism on this new society is an outsider – someone who’s mother is from the society but, due to chance and accident, was raised outside of it, only to return as an adult.  What the reader then gets is the occasional assessment of how this outsider (none to cleverly named Jim the Savage) sees this utopian society, and two rather long discourses about end about the human condition in relation to God, individuality, and society.  Not gonna lie, I fell asleep while reading the last two chapters.

But, maybe worse that these oversights, is that Huxley’s story (for me, at least), is not a dystopian fiction.  If, tomorrow, I was told “feel free to shop as much as you want, have sex with whom ever you want without social repercussions, and don’t worry about being judged for not wanting children” my response would be “I want to go to there.”  This ‘brave new world’ that Huxley crafted sounds amazing – not at all like the Districts, or the Republic of Gilead, or Oceania.  And, worse, it didn’t even seem that bad to the two dissenters we meet in the story – these two people were judged as not being conformist enough, and willingly (and almost gladly) accepted their exile to another country.  Even the non-conformists seemed to have found the society based on Fordism to be a good one!   

In the end, Brave New World just didn’t do it for me.  I feel sorry for the friends I had in high school that had to read Huxley rather than Orwell.  For a utopian/dystopian fiction, Huxley misses the mark by a mile.  And yet, I know this book has been well received and widely read, so I wonder what it was that I missed in my reading of it.  I think I’m going to have to put this one on the shelf for a while, and come back to it in a few years to see if it improves with time.  So, final verdict?  Read 1984 instead. 

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Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Complete Adventures of Charlie and Mr. Willy Wonka, by Roald Dahl


Okay, so after a downer like We Need to Talk About Kevin, I was feeling the need for a literary pick-me-up.  Last weekend, while sick, I watched the Tim Burton version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and decided the time was ripe for a re-reading of the classic Roald Dahl tale.  

I say re-reading, but the fact is, I had this book read to me when I was about five years old.  All I remember from that reading was my mother forgetting to censor the line where Wonka instructs an Oompa Loompa to ‘burp you ass, burp!’  I was immediately smitten with the book.  Not only was the main character extolling the virtues of being rude in a way my parents were trying to teach me not to be, he was swearing while doing it.  I found it charming.  So, when my Dad joined Columbia House Video Club (oh yeah, I’m totally dating myself here, but remember VHS kids?!) one of the first flicks he bought was the Gene Wilder version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Needless to say, I watched that tape over and over again, and it replaced my memory of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the book in favour of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the movie.

Of course, when you love something so much at such a formative age, it’s bound to skew your impressions of certain things in adulthood.  For example, I could never understand how Sammy Davis Jr related to the candy man, because the candy man in my world is a tall white British dude – this is, and seems destined to remain, a serious gap in my adult knowledge.  More importantly, the movie skewed my memory of the book.  While the movie holds closely to Dahl’s tale (and, in fact, Burton’s flick is even more accurate), there’s still no escaping Wilder’s brown bowler, purple velvet morning coat, and green inexpressible.  While reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I was unable to disassociate the visual and aural memories of the flick from the book.  However, the book stood up to my memory of the movies, so it was fabulous.

Now, my copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory contains the second Charlie/Wonka story, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.  This second story is a far cry from the first.  To start off with, it’s simply not believable.  I know how silly that notion sounds – the first story is about a magical chocolate factory run by a group of imaginary creatures.  But still, it’s more believable to me that a glass box that can travel to space, aliens, age-reversal pills, a River Styx-like existential crisis, and aging pills.  Oh, and don’t forget the President of the United States plays a key roll in this one.   

More than just the plot, it’s also the quality of writing that drops off in the second story.  The first story is rich and textured with vocabulary and aural play, while the second tries to riff off the first, but falls short in every attempt.  While the first one slipped this colour in almost effortlessly, it seems as if Dahl had to try and shoe-horn it into this one.  Moreover, the first story is clearly a morality tale (about greed, hubris, and manners) – the second story also tries to be a morality tale, but it’s done in a ham-fisted kind of way.  The first story might get kids under the radar, but the second story seems designed to bash them over the head with messages about restraint and sharing.  Blarg.

So, final verdict?  Read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and skip Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.  However, watch the movies.  I can’t say enough for the visual texture of the Wilder version, and the sensibilities of the Burton version.  Needless to say, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a big part of my childhood, and it’s a part that I still like to go back to when I can.  In that context, I’d encourage everyone to try and capture their youthful spirit with this book.  

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