Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Roaring Twenties (Book Review)

Told with wit, Edmund O. Stillman reviews the 1920s in The Roaring Twenties. A short volume, easy to read, the book reviews many major moments and trends of the 1920s in the United States. If you don't know much about the decade, you'll learn about political corruption, bootlegging, financial corruption, and the less than perfect state of these United States. If you've even thought that the past was wholesome and moral, you should be dispelled of all such notions by the end.

For the serious student of history, the book is a good refresher, touching on the subjects of the day, but is ultimately lacking. The main problem with the text is that Stillman does too good of a job, sucking you back into that time, but then leaving it all too soon.

The book ends all abruptly, even for a history. There's so much more to this decade, so much more to discuss and explore. I want MORE MORE MORE. 110 page just doesn't do the decade justice.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Captains Courageous (1897)

Captains Courageous (1897) by Rudyard Kipling is a tale of a spoiled youth who falls into the sea. He is saved by a fishing boat, not merely in body, but in soul. The Yankee worth ethic turns his life around, making a far better man out of himself than his parents ever could. By the end of the tale, he's a changed boy.

Good luck getting to the end.

Half the tale seems to be written in a thick northeastern dialect, with a few other dialects thrown in, creating such a thick slog of dialog that this somewhat dull story drags to a near complete stop, not on its own lackluster merits, but solely by wearing the reader down.

I began this book six or seven years ago, read fifty pages, then put it down. It was only through my well trained literate obstinance that I picked up the book and made it to the end.

I suppose that if you like sailing ships, fishing, and after-school specials, where the story has a moral like a jib hitting you in the head, you'd find this an interesting and engaging story. Otherwise, this is a tale to skip (unless your a Kipling completist, in which case you already know what you're in for).

Friday, October 16, 2015

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971)

School assigned my daughter to read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) by Robert C. O'Brien, so I took the opportunity to read it as well. The book falls into the juvenile talking animal genre, where animals think and act like people, but are otherwise animals. There is little humor in the book, but that's not to call the book humorless. It's more of a drama-adventure, with emphasis on drama.

The book follows Mrs. Frisby, a widow mouse, who finds herself in a bit of a pickle. She can't move because her son is sick, but she must move because it's planting season and the farmer's plow will destroy her house. The solution involves the nearby rats, who don't act like other rats at all, and whose story and plans intersects her own life.

I found the tale a bit slow in the beginning, but about halfway through, when you hit the rat's story, the whole thing got more interesting, leading the tale to a satisfying conclusion. The plot is simple and easy to follow, and by the end, you're rooting for everyone to succeed. Mrs. Frisby isn't a deep character, but she is a woman of sincere courage, which is admirable.

I'm not sure that it belongs among the best fantasy novels of the 1970s, as I'm very torn whether children's literature counts as fantasy. I won't answer that question here, leaving it to better minds than mine to contemplate.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Soldier of Sidon (2006)

Gene Wolfe continues his soldier series with a third book, Soldier of Sidon (2006). The story follows the life of Latro, a man who forgets every day, and so writes down his memories on a scroll. The book itself purports merely to be a translation from an ancient scroll from the height of the Persian Empire. It is the literary equivalent of found footage.

Being a man who loses his memory has many implications, and in this series, having a head wound means that Latro sees and interacts with gods and spirits and things unseen. Although he forgets facts, he does recall feelings, and so can sort out who he prefers and who he trusts. Likewise, he retains skills as he learns them, such as the languages that he's exposed to.

In this book, we find Latro in Egypt, who will travel south, upriver, in search of restoring his memories. What follows is more of a travel log than an adventure, a witnessing of a time long ago when people were very different, yet very much the same.

If you are sensitive to sexism, you will find your sexism meter ringing. As the book seeks to give us a sense of time and place, it seeks to give us a sense of gender as well. In good news, the books gives us a sense of sexism because there are women present and those contribute greatly to the story. They are not absent characters, and they do not exist to be rescued. However, they do often sound like ingenues from some 1940's movie. Gererally, the women prove themselves useful and important without picking up weapons, a standard that I hold the male characters to.

As to the male character, all the men are not warriors. The men come from a variety of places and backgrounds, few of them steeped in testosterone culture. This is not a tale of manly manliness. I believe that stories which move away from testosterone culture are more important in addressing sexism in literature than addressing the status of women directly.

The novel itself is less of a novel and more of a happenstance, a recounting, a slice of life. It begins where it begins and ends where it end. I did not come away with a feeling of a complete loop. Some things were resolved, but their resolution passed by like nothing.

The fun of the novel comes from the multiple snapshots that you get of each character. As Latro always forgets them, he always reintroduces them as well. Sometimes this is confusing, but usually this is enlightening. One sees the arc of relationships progress, much being said in the reintroduction of each character.

The writing itself is fairly straightforward and unornamented. There is little inherent beauty in the plain language and sparse descriptions. Yet, I feel that the narrative is well told, except for the ending which I feel falls flat. The character walk off the page, the story undone. The only reason I don't give the story five stars is because the ending gives the story no meaning, not heft, no closure nor satisfaction.