Wednesday, September 3, 2014

magician's land

Quentin, you old dog!

Quentin Coldwater and the gang--well, some of them--are back for Lev Grossman's third and final book* in the Fillory Trillory. yeah, I made that up Brakebills has only a supporting role is this book, much like the second. We pick up Quentin's story a little while after the end of the second book. Quentin is beginning to heal, deal and un-feel some of the damage done to him, and as always, damage he has done to himself. Both physically and emotionally.

Quentin gets his feels on more deeply and complexly than his archetypes, Harry Potter and  Peter Pevensie. Everyone knows who King Peter is, right?  What makes Grossman's characters so much more compelling is that they DON'T fit the standard fantasy story mold. Grossman's characters, settings and personal interactions are just as fun, magical, and fantastic as Lewis's or Rowling's, but they are more real, adult and complicated like Tolkien's. I think that's because Grossman's audience is not kids, or even young adults, I think he's writing for adults.

Its been a little while since the second book came out and I found that I remembered the first book very well, but I had forgot a lot of the details in the second book. So I went back and read both of those after I finished this one. If I had more time, I might have put this one down and re-read them first, but my daughter was waiting for me to finish, and she was headed back to school.

The Magician's Land--the whole trilogy--is about finding your dreams. About making your dreams come true, because, in the end, that's the only way we find them. Quentin Coldwater is normal guy, who works hard, and knows what he can expect from his hard work, but above all, Quentin never quite knows whether or not he's good enough or deserving enough. In this book, I feel like he is finally making headway. Everyone has to grow up, and it seems like Quentin has done that too. And maybe his dreams came true, or maybe they didn't. But if anything is true, I think he's grown up enough to dream new dreams now.

Read this book. Read all of them, and then write me a note and tell me I was right.


* if you ask me, and I know you didn't, Grossman left room for more books if he decides to revisit Quentin and Co. 

... and I know you didn't ask me this either, but the Fillory Trillory one would make good movies, if done right.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

hitchhiker's guide

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is another book that I've had on my reading list for a long time. If I had know it was as short as it was, or as funny, I might have read it a little sooner. They made a movie a little while ago, but I didn't see it and I got the impression it wasn't well received, but I'm not sure.

The book has that British humor twang to it, that is so funny, but somehow not really identifiable, unless its the sarcasm. The Brits do sarcasm better than anyone. The storyline is big, and it jumps in pretty quickly. The galaxy is filled with inhabited planets and a great way to get around is by hitchhiking. Its not easy, so there is a fair amount of street cred that comes with it. But once you get out there, its not too long before you find that many of the same problems that we have to deal with on earth, are also problems just about everywhere you go.

That's what sets this book apart I think, and some of the other sci fi stories like it, its written in opposition to the two main trends in sci fi: utopian futures and dystopian futures. There aren't a whole lot of sci fi stories that predict a future that's pretty much just like the day-to-day crap we deal with now. But if the expanses of the galaxy are the same where ever you go, why would anyone travel? The answer is simple: the more things stay the same, the more they change. Each of their adventures is wild, screwy, unpredictable, and funny. And the funny, often verges on the ridiculous. Like a lot of British humor.

Read this book. Its funny and relevant now, just as when it was first written.

Then read it again in 20 years.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

princess bride

I've had The Princess Bride on my reading list for a while. I saw the movie years ago, and its was fun, romantic, swashbuckling, and over-the-top in every way. The book is almost the same as the movie, scene for scene, and nearly word for word, as much as I can remember the movie. This isn't a case where a movie was inspired by the book, or vice versa. The only thing that really differed was the narration.

In the movie version, and grandfather reads the story to his grandson when he is sick in bed, as his father or grandfather read to him. There is a similar but much more convoluted narration story in the book, designed to frame the story as true historical fact. I get how that could be fun--its another fairy tale--but in my opinion it was overdone. William Goldman seems to have beat on the factual history aspect so much as to make that also seem absurd.

The fairy tale itself, is just the same, and its a great story full of the traditional fairy tale story bravado, magic, monsters, heroes, fair maidens, and bad guys. This fair tale is tongue in cheek throughout, the author smiles at us even as he tells the story, as if to say, yes, I know isn't it hard to believe.

Goldman does a good job on this, even if he's a little heavy-handed on the history part. He's warmed up the best parts of our favorite stories from childhood, and brought them back to an older crowd; a crowd that the original stories he's celebrating, were probably intended for.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

age of dreaming

Jun Nayakama is a long-ago retired silent movie actor, and when he is approached decades after his last film by an interested reporter, this quiet, private man needs to decide if wants to step out of the shadows and be recognized again for the work he did, and was quite famous for, in his youth. And, if that's even possible.

Nina Revoyr weaves a subtle, personal story of this reserved Japanese-American man, who lives his life in almost direct opposition to his stardom in the early days of Hollywood. Revoyr paints a picture of a man who's life seems to have paused 40 or 50 years in the past, and who is now comfortable with his day-to-day busy work and his anonymity.

The decision whether to grant an interview sparks Nayakama's memories back to his time as a star in early Hollywood, the life he lived, his loves and his losses, and ultimately why he left the business and retired to quiet life in California, rather than returning to Japan. Some of the circumstances of his personal history are pretty mysterious, and Nayakama thinks long and hard about the things in his past that he hoped would never come to light, and had got to the point where he believed they never would.

Revoyr reveals her character slowly and carefully, keeping the interest up until the end. The stories of the heyday of Hollywood are fun to read about and to see them through the eyes of a man that should have been an outsider, but was too talented to stay on the outside, make for an interesting story.

The Age of Dreaming is set in the mid-sixties, when you couldn't just search for everything you wanted to know about a movie star on the internet, and mainstream publications where just beginning to move away from treating movie stars as royalty. The recollections of the characters take us even further back, to the 20s when Hollywood was young.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

empty ever after

I read this book on vacation, and I'm still playing catch-up. Its been weeks, and I've read a few books since I finished this one, so I'm going to keep it short on this one, and the next few so I can get caught up.

Empty Ever After is another Moe Prager novel in the series by Reed Farrel Coleman, and the third one for me. I wasn't able to find copies of them in order when I was looking but you can get them on Amazon now. Barnes and Noble didn't carry them last year when I was in there, but I did find them in a small, specialty bookstore in Brattleboro, Vermont; Mystery on Main Street.

So a few years has gone by for Moe Prager since the last story I read, and things haven't really improved for the guy. Prager takes it on the chin pretty hard, and while some things seem to go his way, like his cases (eventually), he certainly has his share of hard knocks along the way. Coleman uses this technique to keep Prager grounded, and to enliven his inner monolog, which we're privy to as the now semi-crusty private dick narrates his story and his life.

This one was good, I wish I read them in order.


Saturday, August 9, 2014

stones of florence

I borrowed this book from my office lending library. It looks like the type of thing someone might have read before a trip to Italy, to get a sense of Florence so they would be better informed about where to go, what to do, and to better understand Florence's people. It may also have been assigned reading in a design studio or art history course. However it ended up in our lending library, I will say that Mary McCarthy does seem to have done the research and has certainly traveled to Florence many times in the preparation of this book.

The Stones of Florence is a travel book, and art history book, and a history of Florence rolled into one, but it reads more like a travel journal. McCarthy gives us a sense of what its is like to be there (in the 50s, when this was written) * and weaves in the history behind what she sees, and then ties that history to the city that remains; was built and shaped by it, right down to its people. McCarthy describes the people of Florence as different from other Italians because of their unique history. McCarthy focuses on the Renaissance period as the most formative and walks us through the various political and religious upheavals in the city (or dukedom, before the unification of Italy) and the rush of famous artists who descended on the city, and the architecture which still exudes that uniquely  Florentine attitude.

McCarthy is--surprisingly, I guess--not a big Michelangelo fan (she refers to him as monomaniacal at one point), much preferring Donatello, saying;

"Michelangelo was the last truly public sculptor, and his works, so full of travail and labor, of knotted muscles and strained, suffering forms, are like a public death agony, prolonged and terrible to watch, of the art or craft of stonecutting."

This lady's not fooling around, or pulling any punches. This was fun to read, not least because of the time perspective; I found it really interesting to look at the Renaissance and 'modern' Firenze through the lens of 1956 pop America.


[A closing note: I was on vacation for the last two weeks in July, and I read a bunch of books. Some of these reviews and thoughts may be out of order, and may be slightly vague in my memory now.]


* I read the 1963 paperback version of this books which does NOT include the illustrations of the original 1956 book. I just discovered this (doh!) If you're going to read this, it seems like it would be better with the illustrations.



Friday, August 8, 2014

james deans

Reed Farrel Coleman's books can be hard to find. I talked about that a little when I described how I ran across copies of his books in Vermont in a review of Redemption Street. Unfortunately, the store I found didn't have a copy of all of the Moe Prager novels, so I ended up reading them out of order. I read The James Deans and Empty Ever After in the past few weeks while on vacation. if I think of it, I'll come back here and add a link to the review of the next one once I write it 

Maybe more than other series, it seems like it would be a good idea to read these in order if given the opportunity. They are dependent on one another, but one of the important aspects of the Prager character is his strong ties to the past, so the past comes up a lot in the books, and if you haven't read one of them, then the good news is that Coleman will fill you in a little, as he goes. The bad news is: Coleman will fill you in a little, as he goes. read them out of order and get ready for some subtle spoilers

The James Deans is a mystery inside of another mystery, and guess when one of them takes place. Yeah, in the past. Prager feels like he may just be lucky rather than talented when it comes to his detective work, but if you're successful, why does it matter. The fact that he thinks about it at all is where the interest in these stories lie. The Moe Prager novels are told first person, so while Prager tells his story, he also tells us all of the other things he's thinking as well, but that doesn't slow these stories down at all. In fact, these novels (the ones I have, anyway) are pretty short. The writing is lean and on point.

The James Deans may be more than one mystery inside a mystery, or it may be mystery inside mystery, inside mystery, its hard to tell. its turtles all the way down Coleman knows how to build tension, and surprise into his stories, and he's not afraid to do things that his readers don't expect.


Sunday, August 3, 2014

blood of flowers

This is not the normal type of book I read--if one could actually throw a net over the kinds of books I read--but it got the thumbs up from my wife so I gave it a go. It falls into that group of books written by women, and seemingly targeted to women, that I have occasionally read in the past (Diamant and Kingsolver, I'm looking at you) and which is sometimes referred to as Chick Lit. Or at least, it was, when that was a hip thing to say, like 10 years ago. The Blood of Flowers is good enough however, just as the others I've linked to above are, not to be simply dismissed as genre books.

Anita Amirrezvani penned this novel of Isfahan, Persia in the 1600s, which follows the life story of village girl who moves away from her village to Isfahan when her family falls on hard times. Her life in the city is a trial and she is often close to starvation or some other type of destruction which is sometimes caused by, and other times resolved by her stubborn nature. In fact, I think the entire novel is an examination of what its like to be a woman in this historic Islamic society, and what it would mean to be strong-willed and driven in such a case. Amirrezvani's character longs for power over her own destiny and that drive moves her forward, but also irritates some in the male-dominated world in which she lives, and she is made to suffer for her dreams as well.

Amirrezvani also weaves stories within the story: tales and fables told by women to one another, to give counsel, to give comfort, and to commiserate. These tales take the reader outside the story for a few pages, and even outside the time of the novel, and tie the novel to a larger social context. They give the story depth and texture and often help to illuminate particular points the author is trying to make without being too heavy-handed.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

shadowings

I borrowed Shadowings by Lafcadio Hearn from my office lending library yeah we have a lending library and I didn't know what to expect. Half-way through, I still didn't know what to expect. Hearn is an international type guy. He was born (according to a Wikipedia article about him) on the Greek isle of Lefkada (presumably where his middle name comes from; full name Patrick Lafcadio Hearn) to an Irish father and Greek mother. He father happened to be stationed there during the British occupation in the 1840s. Lafcadio came along in 1850. A broken home and a re-stationed father left young Lafcadio bopping around for a while, until he made his way to the US in his late teens. A few years later he found work at a newspaper, and by 1890 was sent to Japan on a story, and he never left.

Hearn stayed in Japan and continued to write, and eventually took the Japanese name: Koizumi Yakumo. He became pretty well know internationally for his writings about Japan, and Shadowings is one of those books. Shadowings seems like a collection of whatever Hearn had on his desk when print time came, and maybe all of his books are like that. This volume includes translations, and re-tellings of traditional Japanese folks tales, the history and meanings of Japanese female names, and at the end a series of ghost stories and essays about dreams. Sometimes dreams about ghosts.

These essays at the end--which are written by Hearn, as opposed to researched and documented or translated, like the first half of the book--are where the book comes into its own. The essays are like a cross between Tom Robbins, Edgar Allan Poe, and maybe a little Carl Sagan or someone like that. He's very honest with himself, his writings are almost journal entries, and he's questioning and probing all kinds of things: life, and its meaning, the after-life, a higher-power (or lack thereof), reincarnation, love, humanity, and the nature of intellect. He even tries to figure out why Gothic architecture is gloomy, and does a thought experiment on the crowd behavior. This is a busy guy!

I didn't love this book, but it was interesting to read.