stuff I read

Drood

I finished the last 650 pages of Dan Simmons’s doorstop of a horror novel in one go last night. Why are books that you can’t put down always so very, very long? I short I went to bed at 4:30am last night and my brain is fried. And I’m awake again. Ugh.

Suffice to say it is a well-written novel, very descriptive, and told through the narration of Wilkie Collins. I think I read somewhere that a reviewer didn’t think the prose was Victorian enough, but I think it captures Wilkie’s writing style quite well and Wilkie wasn’t a typical Victorian (kept one mistress, had children by another, and never married) plus he was massively addicted to opiates. The lurid opium dreams are wonderful. Simmons leaves you with a mystery to solve – what did Wilkie see that was real and what was illusion?

Good book. If you want more, go to the B&N page and click on “Customer Reviews”; I’m pedsphleb.

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stuff I read

The Mistress of the Monarchy and The Well and the Mine

I finished another two books this week. Score one for me for actually finishing some books before starting new ones.

The Mistress of the Monarchy is a bit of a misnomer because it sounds a bit like Katherine Swynford was the King’s mistress rather than John of Gaunt’s mistress/third wife (Guant was very influential but never King of England); the “mistress” portion actually refers to Katherine’s position as step-mother to Henry IV (House of Lancaster) and mother to the Beauforts and Swynfords through whom the Houses of York, Tudor, and Stuart are descended. Kind of amazing when you think about it; at one point nearly every royal family in Europe could trace their lineage to one of Katherine’s children. Katherine also occupies a neat place in English history because she was granted autonomy over her dower lands, making her a very rich woman in her own right. Weir’s books are so interesting because she gives not only the biography at hand but also biographies of the surrounding players as well as the history of the time-period; often she has to work out the movements of the subject by elimination so we learn about everyone else as she goes. A good example is when each of her children by John of Gaunt were born; there weren’t any birth announcements but Gaunt gave her very lavish presents or grants at nearly the same times that the children were born and this allows Weir to give more exact dates for Katherine’s confinements.

The Well and the Mine is truly deserving of the B&N Discover Award for Fiction. Haunting. Phillips has each member of the family rotate through as narrator, not in any regular pattern but anytime the story would be served by a shift in perspective. In this way Phillips never has to stop the novel to describe the setting and I think this is wonderful. She paints 1930s Alabama wonderfully, pulling no punches, but never lets the story bog down in word-painting. The novel feels like an portrait of the time period and exhibits people in all their various shadings and beliefs, including the warts. The feeling of the novel is most definitely not nostalgic but authentic. Although the central plot of the novel is to determine who threw a baby down the family well the process of telling that story is what makes this a treat to read.

stuff I read

This Republic of Suffering

I started eyeballing Drew Gilpin Faust’s latest book back in the summer, when it was still in hardback, but didn’t bite because I wasn’t sure if I would like it (yes, I know who Dr. Faust is and I was pretty happy when she was offered the Presidency of Harvard University). I just wasn’t quite sure if I would enjoy reading about death in the Civil War. The book got nominated for just about every major award out there so I finally picked up a copy.

Somber material aside, This Republic of Suffering is a fascinating book that details how Americans’ ideas of death, dying, and patriotism were altered over the course of a war that claimed 600,000 lives (and there are probably more because the civilian deaths were never well accounted for particularly those due to disease). Faust has a very nice style of writing – not completely academic but it definitely assumes her reader is an intelligent person – and organized her work into chapters with very simple headings like “Dying,” “Naming,” “Surviving,” etc. This way the reader progresses through the processes of dying, burial, identification, mourning, and survivorship. The lengths that soldiers might go to in assuring a dead soldier’s loved ones that he died a “Good Death” – particularly in assurances that he died a Christian – were quite amazing. One of the more moving sections of the book came in “Naming” and surrounded two famous figures. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote his name and rank on a piece of paper after he was wounded so he might be identified by his father in case he became incapacitated and died before he could provide the information. Walt Whitman, who came to Washington DC in search of his brother, stayed to provide comfort and friendship to wounded and dying soldiers; it was quite heart-wrenching to read that section and then think of Whitman’s later poetry.

One of the more interesting things I learned while reading the book is that established war-time procedures we take for granted these days – identification of the dead through dog tags, field ambulance service, gravesite registration, body identification and reinterment – didn’t particularly exist prior to the onset of the Civil War. There really hadn’t been a need because casualties hadn’t been so high; I’m not sure of prior conflicts, but it seems the extremely high casualty rate made it hard to simply keep up with proper identification and burial of remains. Bodies might lay on a field for days prior to burial due to continued fighting, the body may be robbed or defiled by enemy forces, coffins were in extremely short supply, and often those comrades who might be able to record the death of a soldiers were often wounded or dying themselves. Families often went in search of a deceased husband, son, or brother, had the body exhumed, and shipped home for burial, all out of their own pocket so it is obvious that those who didn’t have the means to do so were left to mourn a loved one in absentia. The national cemetery system was started after the Civil War to identify and accommodate the remains of Union soldiers (silly me thought it was started after the Revolutionary War, see what interesting things we could be learning in school that we don’t?); a point Faust brings up is that the United States chose to honor and provide funds for reburial to Union soldiers not Confederate ones and that caused a rift in feeling that helped to fuel anti-federal sentiment.

The important point of Faust’s book is not the numbers of dead or where they died but how those numbers transformed the American idea of death on the battlefield.

Newbery vocab

The Westing Game

Having taken a two-month break in my Newbery reading, I returned to the quest by inviting myself along on the mystery that is Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. I had the store order in the Puffin Modern Classics edition because it’s much prettier than the chess-piece designed mass market we carry in the store. I first read TWG in fifth-grade and I can honestly say that there is nothing in Raskin’s narrative to explicitly place the novel in 1978 (the year it was published, incidentally, also my year of birth) and I’m pretty sure I initially placed the novel’s setting as around 1990; it makes a very modern novel seem timeless because there are no specific pop culture references except to a few car models, the Packers (but only because the novel is set in Wisconsin), and the market Turtle plays only goes up or down 30 points or so a week rather than hundreds of points in a day.

On a re-read, this is still a very spell-binding book. I read it all this afternoon (only pausing to trade out the laundry) and finished in about two hours total; why I never asked for a copy of my own is beyond me because I remembered so many scenes from the book in exact detail (Angela’s injuries after the bombing particularly). I must have checked this out from the library hundreds of times. The great power of the novel is that the reader has access to everyone’s clues in the game, making us know more than everyone else, and Raskin expects the reader to figure out the answer before any of the characters. Which you never do – it takes Turtle to put everything together at the end of the book because she is the one who realizes what it missing. Also, being a young adult book, the narrator treats the reader like an adult, which is always nice when you’re trying to act more like a grown-up; re-reading TWG as an adult I think that the level of writing and structure is quite similar to many literary novels in a simple way.

I still love Turtle; she is my favorite character (partly because she and I are so much alike, right down to the competition with the boys) followed closely by Chris and then Angela (but only about half-way through when she stops being a pansy and we find out her secret). I still hate Grace Wexler and wish she hadn’t been so successful; at least she started working instead of decorating and “putting on airs” like royalty. I do confess that I remembered Turtle as considerably older than myself, nearly finished with high school and the same age as Doug and Theo, rather than only a year or two older than myself (perhaps this is because I was the youngest in my school class and always felt a year off birthday-wise from everyone).

Vocabulary Lesson:
bookie
facade
pyrotechnic
billiards
coroner (that would depend on how many crime shows are watched)
executor
audible
pyramidal tract
sporadic myositis
cunning
dastardly (which is loosely defined nearly 100 pages later)
autopsy
inscrutable
bigot
incriminating
elephantine
stoolie

One of my favorite bits occurs near the front of the novel:
“Who were these people, these specially selected tenants? They were mothers and fathers and children. A dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge. And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake. Barney Northrup had rented one of the apartments to the wrong person.” – page 5.

I am debating on whether to re-read A Wrinkle in Time since I last read it in 2007 in honor of L’Engle’s passing; but in any case my next choice is Caddie Woodlawn.

news in review · random

At least it’s a start…

The judge in the Madoff trial rejected the application for bail and ordered Madoff straight to jail.

Good.

The only drawback is that Madoff hasn’t come clean, yet, and I’m with the investor who says that Madoff isn’t sincere and the apology offered in court is garbage. I’m pretty sure that Madoff is only sorry he got caught with his hand in the billion-dollar cookie jar.\

I think the prosecution needs to a) confiscate his $7-million penthouse and b) scare the crap out of his wife because she’s probably sitting on some of the ill-gotten gains. Those billions of dollars can’t have just ‘poofed’ into thin air; there has to be a trail.