Thursday, November 29, 2012

amber i

The Great Book of Amber includes all ten books, in one giant volume and I've just pounded through the first five. I heard some good things about this book from my brother-in-law and his wife, and I bought a copy for one of my kids last year or the year before for Christmas, and it got no traction. SO... its up to me.

The Chronicles of Amber--as these stories are also collectively known--were written by Roger Zelazny between 1970 and 1991. The fifth book, The Courts of Chaos, which I just finished came out in 1978, so that must have been a long haul for those fans who read this series as it came out. I say that because the first five books are really a continuation of the same story, each book being an episode in the larger tale. I don't know if that will be the case for the second group of books, but it does seem as if I've begun another related story now in the sixth book: The Trumps of Doom.

My first impression was that I was getting into another Narnia-type epic, but it soon became clear that this isn't Narnia. Nor is it The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, or any of a number of other fantasy stories. Its more of a combination of fantasy and science fiction, and its targeted, it seems to me, at an older audience than Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. There is drinking and smoking on a level with TLOTR but it also includes sex, at least in the abstract, so it probably isn't something you'd want to read to your toddler. It does seem free of foul language however.

So, thus far, Amber is told from the first person POV, by a character that takes a little while to introduce. Zelazny takes his time sketching this protagonist, and eventually he kind of grows on you. It takes a while however, because the main protagonist doesn't tell us everything he knows and is thinking, and when he does tell us, he is sometimes wrong in his assumptions abput what is going on in the larger story. Zelazny uses this technique very effectively to spin a yarn that soon becomes very complex and its clear that a lot of thought and preparation went into this series.

I'm looking forward to what the second half of this tome has to offer.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


Wakefield is the first I've read of Andrei Codrescu, that burbling-voiced poet of NPR fame, who can turn a phrase and help you to look at life from a new angle, 33.3-degrees away from where you are used to.  Codrescu has a thoughtful and well read (seeming) view of life, and he brings his deep thought and his poetry to Wakefield, in a way that most reminds me of Tom Robbins.

Codrescu is also the founder of "The Exquisite Corpse", and taught literature and poetry at Johns Hopkins University, University of Baltimore, and Louisiana State University where he was MacCurdy Distinguished Professor of English. I understand that he is now retired from professorizing and just does the writing and his NPR gig.

Wakefield is a study of the modern, successful, single man in America. Codrescu's Wakefield seems to float through America--he's almost awash in it, as he moves from place to place, following his job as a speaker. Wakefield seems to think about roots, about anchoring himself somehow, making human connections, but it just seems incompatible with his personality. He seems to know that he might be better for it, but just can bring himself to think about anyone as much as he thinks about himself. But in examining Wakefield, or maybe watching Wakefield examine himself, Codrescu gives us a look at what it is to be a wealthy, single and unattached man, floating about like a bit of fluff.

 Codrescu's language is fun to read; and its clear why he is such a force on the radio, from little bits like: "Zamyatin laughs his smoky laugh that sounds like marbles in a tin box." to pure poetry in prose form, as in this riff on a desert Indian casino:

"No one is alive here; he is surrounded by ghosts. Does it matter to anyone that eagles were once sacred? Or even that they once certified real value on gold dollars? Now they are plaster, money is dust, the Indians are smoke, and pain floats about touching maimed bodies, squeezing as hard as it can, without effect. People scream in pantomime, holding whiskey and pretending to drink, laying down fake money, shaking cups full of confetti; their corpses are carried out and more are brought in by tall, thin shadows."

That's pretty awesome. did you read it with a romanian accent?

Wakefield's relationship to the Devil, see him peeking at us on the cover? may be his most powerful connection, with the possible exception of his one friend, Zamyatin. The Devil seems, indeed, to be Wakefield's own, personal demon. And his deal with the Devil, a deal with himself. What else would we expect from so inwardly looking a man.

Read this book.

Friday, November 16, 2012

rome tales

I read Rome Tales because it looked like fun and seemed appropriate with my wife in Italy for two weeks. Actually, I think I bought this for my wife, but she didn't seem interested, so it sat around for a while and I pulled it out to read while she was gone.

In a nutshell: good idea, poor execution.

The stories were translated by Hugh Shankland, and the book was edited by Helen Constantine. My biggest problem was with the translation. Some things just don't translate well, that's a given. There are concepts and idioms in other languages that don't have a clear translation in English. I get that. Its my opinion however, that a translator job is to find a way to translate things that allow the reader to both understand the concept, and also (and here's where the problem is in my view) make sure to leave the bubble unbroken.

The 'bubble' I'm talking about is that bubble of believe, of inside-ness, that one experiences when reading a story. I want to believe that I'm reading an Italian story, even though I know my Italian isn't good enough to read it in the original. Just don't burst my bubble. You can't drop a English word-bomb like higgledy-piggledy, or whatever, into an Italian story and expect your readers to swallow without choking. sorry, I didn't actually take notes on these stupidisms

That said, some of the stories were interesting. I especially like the diary entries of Ennio Flaiano on Via Veneto (Fogli di Via Veneto), and he ghost story "The Beautiful Hand" (La bella mano) by Giorgio Vigolo.

Don't bother. Learn Italian. then teach me

Sunday, November 4, 2012

sour apples

This is not the kind of book I normally read, but this copy of Sour Apples came to me through an interesting connection. My office had a booth at this year's New England Library Association conference in Sturbridge, Mass, and just across the aisle from us was a booth for Sisters in Crime New England, who had a number of their authors there during the conference, signing books and doing give-aways.

During a slow point, a woman from the Sisters in Crime came over to say hello and ask about the new public library we had designed for Granby, Mass. The woman was Sheila Connolly, the author of Sour Apples, and she told me that some of her stories were based in a fictional Massachusetts town, called Granford, modeled on Granby.

Connolly knew a lot about Granby from her research, and was very interested to hear about the library design. We also talked about some of the other buildings in town, including the buildings owned by the Historical Society.

On the last day of the conference, she gave us a copy of her book, telling us it was one of those set in Granby's fictional counterpart.

Sour Apples is a murder mystery set in a small town, where things like murder don't seem to be possible. Meg Corey is somewhat new in town, and has taken over her family's recently restored apple orchard, and is making a go of it as a farmer. When Meg hears that a local dairy farmer was found dead next to a partially milked cow, some things just don't add up, so she decides to look into it herself, with some help from her beau, Seth, one of the local selectmen.

The mystery unfolds bit-by-bit as Meg digs into it, and even though the local police think she's on a wild goose chase, she sticks with it, and helps to uncover the truth.

This book was fun to read, and not just because it was fun to pick out the places in town I've seen or been to. Connolly has an easy-to-read writing style, which I'm guessing may be fueled by coffee. (Meg loves coffee, she must have made two pots a day for a week!) There are even recipes in the back, including something called Apple Custard Cake. I bet it goes great with coffee

Thanks to Sheila Connolly for this book! It was nice to meet you, and make sure you come to the grand opening of the new library.


So I found the original Scorpion from 25 years ago, using my library's inter-library loan system. This one was written in the mid 80s, by a much younger looking Andrew Kaplan. The short story: the franchise appears to be built on pretty solid ground.

Scorpion had a lot of things that I hoped that it would: origin story--including where the name Scorpion comes from--how the Scorpion grew up, and how he ended up where he is. Also, a pretty damn good intrigue story.

I was also happy to find that going back and reading the original story after I've read two of the modern 'sequels' was no problem at all; each of the novels stands on its own pretty well.

There seem to be some slight differences between the modern stories and the original, not least of which are the dates associated with the characters. If our guy was in his 30s twenty-five years ago,  he'd be pretty close to 60 now--he isn't. Other things are more subtle. In the original book he seems to be referred to as 'the' Scorpion; I believe he's just Scorpion now.

Like with a lot of stories in this genre, the bad guys are over-the-top-evil, and the women are so fine you want to weep. There must be a big box of these characters that authors can shake them out of and into their stories, like dried herbs into a nice novel sauce. ah, well

Its fun, fast and entertaining, and doesn't need to be read in order!