Forrest, Emma. Namedropper. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Most books get onto my to-read list because they’ve received good reviews or because friends have recommended them to me. This one, I happened to pick up at the library because the cover photo caught my eye. I often judge a book by its cover. And this one was a lucky pick. Viva Cohen is a girl, a teenager, a North Londoner, a Jew, and a dedicated virgin, not necessarily in that order of importance. She’s also very bright and a terrible student. And an expert on music and films, especially Elizabeth Taylor. She was raised by her Uncle Manny, who is gay and rather wise, and her best mates are a blindingly beautiful blonde her own age (whom she frequently loves and hates at the same time) and a second-tier pop star fifteen years her senior. This is the armature on which Forrest wraps a thoroughly delightful, very funny, very touching story of what it means to be Viva, to discover that you’ve mis-heard the lyrics to the rock tune that you thought defined your life. The writing crackles, the turn of idiom is droll, and the author is going places. (9/27/01)
Billings, Malcolm. London: A Companion to Its History and Archaeology. London: Kyle Cathie, 1994.
Though I lived in Europe for several years, I never had the opportunity to visit Great Britain, so it may be odd that I’ve long had a strong interest in the history of London. This well-written and beautifully illustrated survey of the capital’s course since its founding by the Romans c.50 A.D. is very satisfying in that regard. Billings, a sort of non-academic historian at the BBC, is heavy on the architecture and archaeology of London’s churches, but that’s about all that remains from the earlier centuries. He also doesn’t have much good to say about the British habit of continually tearing down historical structures and replacing them with badly designed office blocks — which is all the more frustrating since so little that was built before the 18th century survived both the Great Fire of 1666 and the more recent Blitz. There’s also a very good “brief guide” to the City’s Churches and an extensive bibliography. (9/16/01)
Mills, Magnus. All Quiet on the Orient Express. NY: Arcade Publishing, 1999.
There’s something about British humor that no other English-language literature will ever be able to supplant. The narrator — whose name we never learn — is a young odd-jobs-man who is presently on holiday with his motorbike and tent in the Lake District. It’s late summer, he’s been at the campground a week, and he’s about to depart, when Tommy Parker offers him a bit of temporary employment painting the front gate. One thing leads to another, and the narrator finds himself responsible for painting a flock of rowboats, cutting firewood (on loan, as Mr. Parker seems to have rented him out), spending his evenings at the local pub (where he’s recruited for the darts team), and being drafted by 15-year-old Gail Parker to do her homework. But money almost never changes hands. Everyone in the area knows everything about everyone else — including him, he discovers. And then Mr. Deakin, the milkman, disappears into the lake while helping locate the new mooring raft, and the narrator finds himself with the milk route, as well. The story is perfectly deadpan, in a very sly, droll way, and the effect is cumulative and almost Hitchcockian — especially the last page! Even though one might get annoyed with the narrator for allowing himself to be so thoroughly taken advantage of, this is a most delightful yarn. (9/05/01)
Lodge, David. Ginger, You’re Barmy. NY: Doubleday, 1965 [publ. in the U.K., 1962].
This is Lodge’s second book and it’s far different from his later work. It’s the story of the National Service experiences (in the mid-1950s) of Jonathan Browne, narrated by himself: His introduction to Basic Training, the friends and enemies he makes, the appalling stupidity and mental waste of the army, his final acceptance of it, and his marginal success through the two years until he’s mustered out. It’s also the story of Michael Brady, a casual friend from college who becomes Jonathan’s near obsession, an Irish Catholic whose personal morality will not permit him to bend to the will of the army he so loathes. While this is not in any way a major work, it certainly shows an early promise that Lodge subsequently developed brilliantly. (9/04/01)
Baker, Kage. The Graveyard Game. NY: Harcourt, 2001.
This fourth volume in the series is a considerable improvement over the last two. Things are coming to a head among the cyborgs employed (owned) by the Company, as time marches on toward the Silence that will occur in or before 2355. Mendoza is still missing, and Joseph and Lewis find ways to search for her — and for the mysterious reappearing tall Englishman who caused her to go AWOL in the third volume. However, Baker this time introduces another extraneous and unnecessary element in the form of “fairie folk” who have been hunting Lewis for some 1,700 years. This annoying development smacks of deus ex machina. Well, we’ll have to wait for the fifth (and probably last) volume to see if the author can bring all this together. (8/23/01)
Baker, Kage. Mendoza in Hollywood. NY: Harcourt, 2000.
I strongly dislike those interminable series of novels which are written only because they can be sold (think Terry Brooks), not because they’re worth writing. They cease being fiction worth reading and become only product. I fear Baker’s “Novels of the Company” series may be moving in that direction. In the Garden of Iden was pretty good, a story of engineered immortals spending their centuries in the service of a far future commercial operation known as “Dr. Zeus,” preserving works of art and endangered species (since time travel only works one way). Mendoza, recruited in the 16th century, is a 18-year-old botanist for the Company who goes to study now-vanished medicinal plants in the garden of Walter Iden in England and then falls in love with an ardent protestant, Nicholas Harpole, who eventually dies at the stake for his faith. The second novel, Sky Coyote, wasn’t nearly as good. Mendoza is mostly an onlooker this time in early 18th century California as immortal agents of the Company persuade an Indian tribe to allow itself to be completely relocated to a Company preserve. The writing is well crafted, but the plot meanders and Baker indulges herself with lengthy retellings of Indian mythology and folktales. Mendoza in Hollywood is even more annoying, I’m afraid. Mendoza is once more the central character, in Los Angeles of 1862, manning a stage stop with a team of other immortal researchers and collectors of scientific specimens — but there’s really no plot furthering the series story line until the last hundred pages. And this time, Baker spends a great deal of time retelling the action of several D. W. Griffith films. This could have been (perhaps should have been) a 100-page novella. Well, the fourth volume is sitting on my desk so I might as well see if the obviously talented author can get back on track. . . . (8/19/01)
Powers, Tim. Declare. NY: William Morrow, 2001.
“O fish, are you constant to the old covenant?” Of any living writer, Tim Powers is the undisputed master of the “secret history,” the conspiracy within the conspiracy, and this may well be his most intriguing (so to speak), best developed, and best written example of that genre yet. I generally prefer his earlier stuff — especially Anubis Gates and Drawing of the Dark — to Expiration Date or Earthquake Weather. But in those early works, the background of his tapestry was largely fictional. This time, though, everything outside of the Declare conspiracy itself is very close to absolute fact, which Powers has reinterpreted in oh, so plausible ways to fit his story. His characters ring true, too: Andrew Hale, recruited to the most Secret Service at the age of seven. Elena, Spanish Catholic turned Russian Communist agent turned semi-French Catholic again. And the repellent Kim Philby, master spy, master traitor, and a thoroughly disgusting little snot . . . even though Powers shows you why he turned out that way. I believe it’s time to go back and re-read all of Powers’s old books, while I wait for his next one. (8/15/01)
Moon, Elizabeth. Sheepfarmer’s Daughter. (The Deed of Paksenarrion, Book 1). NY: Baen, 1987.
__________. Divided Allegiance. (The Deed of Paksenarrion, Book 2). NY: Baen, 1988.
__________. Oath of Gold. (The Deed of Paksenarrion, Book 3). NY: Baen, 1989.
Even though this story was published in three volumes over three years, it was obviously written all at once and was meant to read as one work — a single, 1,500-page saga that will keep you riveted all the way through. I’m not ordinarily fond of high fantasy; even Tolkien is rather wearing to me. But Moon, an ex-USMC officer, is quite different from Tolkien. This is, in large part, a military adventure, especially the early part, which concentrates on the training and blooding of a young mercenary named Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter. But strewn throughout that first volume are also a great many clues to the resolution of the ultimate quest in the third volume . . . by which time Paks has become something a great deal more than a simple soldier. Moon shows herself a master of character development as well as military maneuver and Paks, Duke Phelan, the Marshal-General of Gird, Master Oakhallow the Kuakgan, Sergeant Stammel, Aliam Halveric, Captain Arcolin, Arvid Semminson the Thieves Guild agent — even Jos Hebbinford, the innkeeper of Brewersbridge — and scores of other principal and supporting figures are painted in great depth. And not only the human characters but also the elves, dwarves, gnomes, and half-elven rangers with whom Paks comes in contact and through whom she becomes all she can be. This is very high quality heroic fantasy with a fully realized hero. (8/07/01)
Crichton, Kyle. The Marx Brothers. NY: Doubleday, 1950.
Is it necessary to explain even to the newer generation who the Marx Brothers were? Nah. Except to say that they were, and still are, beyond any doubt, the top comedy troupe of the 20th century. This is one of the best books about the family written by an “outsider” — though Crichton (a longtime editor at Collier’s) was so intimately connected with them that he was often referred to as the “sixth Marx brother” . . . “and, with the exception of Zeppo, the worst actor.” The brothers started out in a Manhattan tenement, “where their father was proving conclusively that he was the world’s worst tailor.” What held the family together was their mother, Minnie, the sister of Al Shean (remember Gallagher & Shean?). Harpo was determined to become a butcher and Groucho had medical ambitions, but faced with Uncle Al’s obvious success, Minnie pushed her boys onto the stage. They worked the vaudeville circuit without much success before and after World War I until Uncle Al, who understood their comic talents, wrote them an act (he forgot to include Harpo and stuck him in at the last moment, without lines). Then they hit the New York stage in 1924 with Coconuts and Animal Crackers — and the world was never the same. The Crash of 1929 cleaned them out, but at least they were employed, and they took Hollywood the way Grant took Richmond, went immediately to the top, and stayed there. (7/19/01)
Lindbergh, Charles A. “We.” NY: Putnam (Knickerbocker Press), 1927.
Lindbergh was the superstar of his day. Following his singlehanded flight from New York to Paris in May 1927, the public rapturously hung on his every word. In this memoir, subtitled “the Famous Flier’s Own Story of His Life and His Transatlantic Flight, Together With His Views on the Future of Aviation,” the “Lone Eagle” tells about his childhood, how he acquired his first plane, his career as a stunt flier, his training in the Army Air Corps, and his work as an Air Mail pilot (including his four emergency parachute jumps). Then, in great detail, he describes the preparations for his epic flight, the flight itself, and the wild welcome that met him in Europe. The “spiritual meaning” of his flight also gets a lot of coverage. (7/18/01)
Martin, Judith. Common Courtesy, in Which Miss Manners Solves the Problem that Baffled Mr. Jefferson. NY: Atheneum, 1985.
Why does this nation suffer from an epidemic of rudeness? How can we keep our professional lives from destroying our private lives? How can good manners be squared with the ideals of American life? The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard invited Judith Martin (i.e., Miss Manners) to come and deliver its John M. Olin Distinguished Lecture on these questions, and she responded with this marvelous little book, filled with the sort of good sense (and good humor) that always makes her work eminently readable. The only other scholar ever invited to talk at Harvard on the question of deportment, by the way, was Cotton Mather — eminent company indeed! If you think Miss Manners is only interested in which fork to use with the fish course, you obviously haven’t been keeping up. She’s actually a very skilled practical anthropologist and sociologist, with a lively interest in what sets our theoretically classless American culture apart from the rest of the world. And she has maintained for years that “proper” — which is to say “common sense” — etiquette is the very linchpin of a democratic, egalitarian society. A nicely written and very thought-provoking book. (7/12/01)
Willis, Connie. Passage. NY: Bantam Books, 2001.
It’s hard to tell whether Connie Willis is writing the same book everytime, or whether each one is very different. Maybe both, but they’re always “novels of ideas.” Twenty pages into this one, I found myself wading through a molasses of biochemical jargon and thought, “I’ll never be able to finish this.” But then I got sucked into the metaphorical parallels between the hospital and the TITANIC (all those passages . . .), between death and Alzheimer’s (which is “dying by pieces”), and between the courage of a very young, slowly dying patient and the courage of those who stay behind on a sinking ship (“grace under pressure,” as someone once said). And not only did I finish — after the absolutely gripping shocker on page 417, I had to stay up until 2:00 in the morning to find out what happened. (Don’t attempt to read that chapter and what comes after unless you have a few hours available in a quiet room by yourself!) Willis is always a master of characterization as well as language. Dr. Joanna Lander, the clinical psychologist researching near death experiences, is Connie’s best sort of sympathetic but very human protagonist. Dr. Richard Wright, the endocrinologist who recruits her to help with his own experiments in inducing NDEs, is absolutely believable. The smarmy and selfrighteous Maurice Mandrake is, unfortunately, also believable — but why does everyone always refer to him as “Mr. Mandrake”? Vielle the ER nurse and Maisie the disasterologist and Kit the numbed caregiver and Mr. Brierley who teaches everyone and Mr. Wojakowski the yarn-spinner of the YORKTOWN, all make up a beautifully realized supporting cast. The humor threaded through this lengthy exploration on the metaphor and symbolism surrounding death will keep you on an even keel. And the ending — which carefully does *not* answer all the reader’s questions — is perfect. In fact, the last couple of chapters show Connie as the literary near-genius she can sometimes be. You almost wonder if she died and sent this manuscript back from the Other Side. I put this one right up there with “Lincoln’s Dreams” and “Doomsday Book.” (7/03/01)