2005: 3rd Quarter [29]

Holguin, Brian. Aria: The Enchanted Collection. Orange, CA: Image Comics, 2004.

I quite enjoyed the previous volumes of the Aria series, but this two-fer is somewhat less satisfying. The first story, published originally as “The Uses of Enchantment,” involves Kildare, the young-ancient princess of Faerie, being lured away from Manhattan to visit a Disney-like mini-kingdom somewhere in the Catskills — the king and creator of which, who claims to be Oberon II, has definite personality problems. There’s lots of fairy tale references around the place, which should be a hint as to just what’s really going on. The characters are kind of interesting, though they aren’t explained (*why* is Ember continually on fire, anyway?), but the plot’s kind of shaky. The second story, “Summer Spell,” is much superior. It’s set in the mid-1960s, when Kildare and her entourage were still hanging out in London, and it involves the return of Thomas, the mortal knight from five centuries before, whom she had abandoned and who has been searching for her ever since. Now they’re lovers again, and Thomas is trying to make the adjustment to the modern world, but you just know it’s going to end badly. (9/30/05)

Pearl, Nancy. More Book Lust. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2005.

Avid readers tend always to be interested in anyone else’s more or less qualified opinions about books — what to read, what other writers a fan of a particular author might enjoy, and newly discovered novelists of promise. Pearl is an ex-librarian in Seattle and a regular on NPR, and her tastes are so eclectic in both fiction and nonfiction, I can’t imagine not finding suggestions here to suit almost any reader. The index is thorough, so you can search for authors and titles you already like, but this volume is really meant for browsing. Whether your interested in the politics of the 1960s, or female detective characters, or small-town life, or fiction set in Florida, or even intriguing opening lines of novels, you’ll find useful leads here. (I wish she had included publishing dates though, which so many books like this seem to omit.) Pearl also includes her email address so readers can send in their own recommendations — as so many did after her first book. (9/29/05)

Trainor, Kevin (ed). Buddhism: The Illustrated Guide. NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.

My first exposure to Buddhist ideas was in the 1960s, in California, in what I later realized was a rather self-conscious, thoroughly Westernized form that viewed Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a “religion,” compared to Christianity. American and European scholarship regarding Buddhist thought and its application in eastern social systems has changed considerably in the past few decades, however, and this recent volume is a very good introductory overview. Each section is written and edited by a different scholarly authority, beginning with Buddhism’s historical and political origins, progressing to its principals and practices and a discussion of its evolved holy writings, and concluding with a section on “Buddhism Today” that points up its diversity from India to China to Japan to southeast Asia. The narrative is smooth and frequent sidebars offer more detailed explanations of doctrinal or historical points as needed. The illustrations are numerous and mostly in color. My only gripe, really, is an editorial one: On nearly every page, it seems, there is at least one in-text cross-reference (“see pp. 20-21”) which encourage the reader to jump around, which leads one to lose track of what are often very alien ideas. (9/24/05)

Willis, Connie. Inside Job. Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2005.

Willis is one of my favorite writers, the author of such masterful novels as Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog. She also does some terrific shorter work. This one is novella-length, just under 100 pages, but I have to say it’s not really one of her best efforts. Rob is the editor and principal writer of a magazine called The Jaundiced Eye, in the mold of The Skeptical Inquirer, dedicated to blowing the whistle on spiritualists, creationists, psychics, and other flim-flam artists, especially those practicing in his home base of Los Angeles. He doesn’t much bother with “channelers,” since there’s no way to compile objective evidence disproving them, but he makes an exception when his assistant — a gorgeous, semi-wealthy ex-movie star named Kildy with a crush on him — comes across a third-rater calling herself Ariraura, who seems to be channeling the spirit of H. L. Mencken, the great debunker and rationalist himself. An interesting conundrum: How do you help a channeled spirit disprove the fraudulent medium through whom he makes himself known? The writing is light, the insights on Mencken’s professional life are interesting (though the author ignores his other, sometimes distasteful opinions), and the narrative moves right along, but it nevertheless seems a bit flat. And I have one question: Since Mencken speaks with his own gravelly voice in all his earlier appearances, why does he speak with the channeler’s voice in the big climatic scene? (9/23/05)

Burdett, John. Bangkok Tattoo. NY: Knopf, 2005.

I went straight from the first novel in this apparent series, the thoroughly amazing Bangkok 8, to this one, so all the richness of Burdett’s portrayal of the city and its lower social layers was still fresh in my mind. The second book is equally good, though a bit different. Having established the milieu, the author is now free to pursue the complex plot without too many explanatory digressions. Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep of the Royal Thai Police finds himself (against his better Buddhist judgment) handling the day-to-day operations of a successful new brothel established by his mother, a retired prostitute and nascent feminist (and a marvelous character). He’s also besotted with Chanya, a very astute practitioner of sex-for-hire in his mother’s operation, who (in the Thai way) is also somewhat innocent at heart. And Chanya was involved with Mitch Turner, a CIA operative in the southern, Islamic part of Thailand, who was also smitten with her. And Turner is now dead, in a particularly gruesome way, and apparently at Chanya’s hand. Of course, simple investigation of the murder is not an option, given the CIA’s habit of blowing things out of proportion, plus the Agency’s conviction these days that every bad event in the world must be traced back to Al Qaida — which could cause a religious civil war in Thailand. Besides, Sonchai’s boss, the brilliantly corrupt Police Colonel Vikorn, is the majority stockholder in the brothel and he doesn’t want to lose Chanya’s services. But there’s more! In fact, there are layers upon layers here, and (like the first book) you should read slowly to understand and savor each plot twist and social nuance. And I haven’t even gotten to the business about the tattoos yet. The humor is delightful, the offhand descriptions of Bangkok are fascinating, and the background of a Buddhist society that succeeds in the mundane world by being very, very different from Euro-American culture is thoroughly intriguing. I shall be waiting eagerly for Sonchai’s next appearance. (9/22/05)

Burdett, John. Bangkok 8. NY: Random House, 2003.

That word “exotic” has a rather condescending flavor in the mouth of a Westerner, though it was bound to be used (and was) in reviews of this astonishing, at times almost scholarly work. To begin with, even though it’s only about 320 pages, this is a very dense novel — not in the sense of being difficult to read, because the author’s narrative style is certainly highly readable, but because to get the full effect you really ought to read it slowly, rereading the sections you don’t quite understand the first time through, and pausing at intervals to think about the sheer alieness of it all. Sonchai Jitpleecheep is half farang — Anglo — and it’s this split heritage that gives him the ability to serve as our guide to the real Krung Thep (known to outsiders as Bangkok), and which also enables us to puzzle over the strange (and, yes, exotic) ways of the West from his point of view. There are really three stories here. There’s the murder of a large, handsome, black U.S. Marine in a particularly dramatic fashion, which also results in the death of Sonchai’s partner and best more-than-friend; for this, as a matter of honor, Sonchai will kill those responsible. (To which a Thai would nod and say “Of course.”) The investigation is knottily complex, especially because every Thai policeman is a “profit point”; it isn’t even corruption to them. The second story is the mutually puzzling relationship between Sonchai and Kimberly, a gorgeous FBI special agent also working the case, but with her own additional agenda. Karma and past lives have a large part in this. The third story, though, is an exploration of how Bangkok works (and it does work, in its own Buddhist way), why the city has fascinated Americans since the Vietnam War, and how the West has affected it, for good and ill. To Americans, Thailand seems to be all about sex, in every possible form, and especially about prostitution. (To which accusation a Thai would shrug and say “And your point is. . . ?”) Because context is everything. Sonchai’s mother is a successful, now retired prostitute, a respected member of the business community. Thai prostitutes — all of whom seem supernaturally beautiful to Western eyes — treat humanely clients that American hookers would make faces at: The homely, the disfigured, the merely aged. The point is made, over and over, that America is a consumer society and we end up consuming each other. It’s also very Thai that there’s no neat ending. Read this book slowly and think about what you read. You’ll be the richer for it. (9/11/05)

Busiek, Kurt. Astro City: Local Heroes. NY: DC Comics, 2005.

This collection of nine mostly separate stories is considerably above the average, much better in my opinion than the earlier Astro City stuff I’ve read. “Knock Wood” and “Justice Systems” is the only two-parter, about a criminal defense lawyer who finds a new way to defend his obviously guilty mob client and finds himself in a bad place for doing his job; it’s easily the best story here, with the attorney’s musings (in 1974) about losing faith in society and the government, and in the legal system generally. “After the Fire” is a short one without even any superheroes in it, about real heroism; it’s actually a very affecting short story with pictures. “Shiny Armor,” which won an award, is about a superhero trying to learn to become human, and it’s pretty good, too. The other stories aren’t up to that level, but none of them are badly done. (9/10/05)

Martin, Judith. Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated. NY: Norton, 2005.

As a career reference librarian, I have answered probably several thousand inquiries from the public regarding the details of wedding invitations and condolence letters, and whether you’re “allowed” to wear white shoes in months with an “R.” Those are just “etiquette” questions and most of them I can answer from Emily Post or Amy Vanderbilt — but for the rationale behind manners, I turn always to Judith Martin, the leading authority on civilized behavior for a quarter-century, combining sometimes starchy asperity with a home-grown love of American democracy and classlessness. Who else could lay out so lovingly the rules for a formal dinner à la russe, followed by thoroughly sensible guidelines for the civilized use of cell phones, email, and instant-messaging? And you won’t find her wishy-washing when it comes to inviting same-sex couples to dinner or organizing a shower for an unwed mother; to her, people are people and all are deserving of polite treatment, if not always respect. And her dry wit, as always, is a quotable marvel. (8/30/05)

Massey, Sujata. The Salaryman’s Wife. NY: HarperCollins, 1997.

I enjoy mystery novels set in Japan, and this is a promising new series. Rei Shimura is the California-born daughter of a well-off Japanese father and an Anglo mother, but for two years she’s been living in a seedy apartment in a poor part of Tokyo in an effort to make it on her own. Her field, courtesy of an M.A. from Berkeley, is antique Japanese arts and crafts, but because of the lack of museum jobs she’s been making ends meet teaching English to the employees of an export-heavy appliance company. A rare winter vacation to a country inn involves her in the murder of the wife of an executive who turns out to have a very checkered past and character, and she also finds herself thrown together with a Scots lawyer who works for the same firm and who knew the woman — but he has some secrets, too. The plot becomes very complicated very quickly, but the author does a good job of moving things along and not telegraphing the key points. The plot and the characters are well done, especially those of Rei and her gay roommate, but the prose sometimes swings between stilted and gushy. A better developmental editor would have found numerous suggestions to make regarding word choice. But, over all, I enjoyed it and I’ll be looking for the next in the series, as there seem to be six out now. (8/29/05)

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. NY: Knopf, 2005.

Ever since the appearance of Remains of the Day, Ishiguro has been recognized as one of the most original, observant, and thoughtful writers in Britain. And he’s done it again with this quietly forceful story set in a slightly alternate present, of young people — clones — raised solely to supply needed organs to the rest of the British population, until they die. Though the details of the program are never stated, and only once does the word “die” cross a character’s lips. Donors don’t die, they “complete.” But Kathy and Tommy and Ruth and the rest of their privileged group are at least raised under the relatively benign influence of Hailsham, an isolated, insulated country facility where they acquire education and culture and produce art under the tutelage of the Guardians. They, and we, discover their true natures and their unavoidable purpose in life very gradually, so the reader must have patience as the world in which the students live takes shape, as they reach maturity and (at the age of fourteen) go on to an intermediary stage for a year or two at the Cottages (where they break their psychological ties to Hailsham and learn to do for themselves), and then enter training as “carers” — because those who haven’t yet become donors must look after those who have. Some are better at this than others, and Kathy, the narrator, outlasts all of her close friends and fellow students, reaching what is apparently her late twenties before moving on to the next stage — becoming a donor herself. And all of them accept this fate as perfectly normal, though even the Guardians, who claim to be on their side, have a superior attitude toward their charges. It’s what they’re for, after all. The interpersonal dynamics among the three principal characters make up much of the story, as seen and explicated by Kathy. They don’t always get along, and Kathy explains each time in almost obsessive detail how and why things go wrong, which is another instance of her need to understand things. Ruth, especially, is often a trial as a friend, with her bossiness and airs and need to be accepted by those more advanced in the process than her. But Tommy is a very sympathetic person, and so is Kathy, even though she can be pretty wishy-washy when she’s young. Ishiguro is amazingly talented in the subtle rendering of his characters and they, and this book, will grow on you — even as you become horrified at their impending futures. He never obviously raises such moral issues as “what does ‘human’ mean,” though the questions are there on every page. Miss Emily poses the question “does a created-by-man clone have a soul,” but you don’t have to be religious to have an opinion about this book. (8/25/05)

Liddiard, Robert. Anglo-Norman Castles. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2003.

This is a collection of nineteen articles by well-regarded specialists in medieval English history, including such notables as Marjorie Chibnall (writing on Orderic Vitalis) and Sidney Painter (with a reprint of his 1935 article on castle garrisons). Some of the papers consider particular castles, like Hedingham and Orford, or fortifications in particular areas, like Scotland or the Welsh marches. But castles didn’t exist in a cultural or political vacuum, so there’s also quite a lot here on the Bayeux Tapestry, Alan of Brittany and the honour of Richmond, the Anarchy and the building programs of Matilda and Stephen, and the effects of castle architecture on later, nonmilitary construction projects. Any medievalist will therefore find a great deal of interest, and there’s also a useful bibliography (which is actually pretty long to be, as it warns, “selected”). (8/24/05)

Clout, Hugh (ed). The Times London History Atlas. NY: HaperCollins, 1991.

While its nearly 200 pages are crammed with maps, this volume is considerably more than “just” an atlas. After several pages on surface land forms and geology, we go straight to Roman London, how and why the town was established where it was, and the location of the first bridge across the Thames. The six gates in the Roman wall are located and the commercial quarter is depicted in detail, as is the fort at Cripplegate. Then we move forward through Saxon and Norman London, the medieval, Tudor, and Stuart period, and so on, up to the aftermath of World War II. Subsequent maps and their accompanying text discuss industrialization and suburbanization, the construction of major new motorways connecting the city to the rest of the country, and plans for the future (as they were more than a decade ago). There are any number of fascinating birds-eye reconstruction of London at various early periods, before the first surviving representations of the town. There are also extensive pictorial discussions of building materials, parks and gardens, the underground, “agricultural London” (not a theme even most modern Londoners, probably, would consider), the effect of immigration, royal London, and more. Finally, there’s a series of overviews of each section of London with detailed maps, drawings, and photos, and an etymological dictionary of London place-names. This is a marvelous book for browsing as well as a useful reference work. (8/22/05)

Ennis, Garth & Carlos Ezquerra. Adventures in the Rifle Brigade. NY: DC/Vertigo Comics, 2004.

Sometimes humor, especially in a comic book, succeeds by being extreme (think Three Stooges, or Monty Python on a bad day), but this send-up of World War II special-ops commandos, unfortunately, isn’t one of them. The first half of the book, which is the first three issues in the original series, introduces the six cliched characters, including an upper-class git as the captain, a gay lieutenant, a pathological giant as the sergeant, a lower-class corporal, “Hank the Yank,” and (for some reason) a Scottish piper who is the captain’s family retainer. Three of them never say anything beyond a single cliched phrase, and the piper never speaks at all. The Nazis are similarly borrowed from Warner Brothers. The second half of this collection is about the quest to capture the Fuhrer’s mystical missing testicle, and it’s somewhat better, if only because of the song everyone sings to annoy the Germans. But still. Bugs Bunny did it better. (8/21/05)

Rabagliati, Michel. Paul Moves Out. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly Books, 2005.

This is the third in a graphic-novel series about Paul (last name unknown, I think), a young freelance graphics designer, who shares an apartment in Montreal in 1983 with Lucie, whom he met in art school but who now studies languages. This is a slice-of-life style of thing — not a lot of “action” in the dramatic sense, no real beginning or end (just a pregnant pause). Much of the book is about how they met five or six years earlier, how they learned about each other (Wow! She reads comics!) and met each other’s parents, and so on. It’s also about the gay art instructor (and how Paul deals with that fact) who turned their worlds upside down by taking them away from the precise rendition of vacuum cleaners in pencil and teaching them instead the principles of design, and who also takes them on a field trip to New York — which Paul thinks of as “the big city,” as if Montreal were just a village! And it’s about Aunt Janette and her travels, and about Lucie’s two small nieces, whom she and Paul babysit one weekend. And that’s pretty much the plot. These are all very likable people, and it’s an absolutely delightful experience. The artwork is rectangular panels, four to nine to the page, all in straight black-and-white line drawings, but the rendition of the surroundings is representational; I have no doubt a Montreal native would know exactly where each scene was set. The people are simply drawn, too, but the expressions and postures are just evocative enough to pull you completely into Paul’s and Lucie’s world. In fact, the photo at the very end may catch you off-guard — as I admit it did me. Very nice stuff. (8/20/05)

Pratchett, Terry. Moving Pictures. NY: Penguin/ROC, 1990.

In his more recent yarns, Pratchett has had trenchant (though always funny) things to say about such deep-rooted Western mythmaking institutions as war and religion. In this earlier work, he takes on a more fearsome set of myths: Hollywood! The Holy Wood, down the coast from Ankh-Morpork, in an area where the sun is always bright, is the site of “leakage” by Things from the other side of reality (or somewhere) that are trying to take over the Discworld by perverting the minds of innocent people and animals. Victor, a student wizard at Unseen University who knows better than to graduate and lose his funding, gets sucked into the boom, as does Ginger, an erstwhile milkmaid who suddenly decides she wants to be the most famous person in the world. Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler becomes a producer, Laddie the not-very-bright Wonder Dog becomes a star, and Gaspode (who really does talk) becomes an agent. The plot, such as it is, concerns Victor’s realization of just what’s going on and his attempts to evict the Things from his own reality. But, of course, that’s really just an excuse for Pratchett to dredge up every movie cliché he can think of, almost always hilariously. (In fact, some of his references are so sly and relatively obscure, I suspect they’ll be wasted on younger readers with little experience of the old Hollywood system and of old films.) This isn’t one of Pratchett’s best, by a long shot, but it’s still far above most novels. (8/16/05)

Vankin, Jonathan & John Whalen. Based on a True Story (But With More Car Crashes): Fact and Fantasy in 100 Favorite Movies. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2005.

As an historian who is also a film buff, I try to be lenient when faced with a movie that bends the facts more than necessary. Anyone who has ever tried to write a screenplay, even one based on a novel, much less on a real person’s life or a real historical incident (and I have, entirely as an experiment), knows you do indeed have to adapt a story (or real life) to the medium of film — but there’s a limit, and some flicks are just too much to take. The authors, talented entertainment-journalists, know this, for the most part. They obviously loved Shakespeare in Love and admit that it stuck close to the exceedingly few facts that are known about Shakespeare; likewise Girl with a Pearl Earring (a gorgeous film), since almost nothing is known about Vermeer. And they’ll accept the rather minor biographical changes made in Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae as being simply unavoidable. But they really rake Mel Gibson over the coals (deservedly, I think), both for the perversion of English history committed in Braveheart (the Christ-like martyrdom of Wallace, they suggest, was practice for The Passion) and for the equally perverted treatment of the American Revolution in The Patriot (which pissed off a lot of people on the other side of the Atlantic with its suggestion of Nazi-style behavior on the part of the British). They come down hard on The Hurricane for claiming that Carter won fights that he actually lost, merely to re-enforce the theme of racism, nor have they anything good to say about Elizabeth, the 1998 version, in which Cate Blanchett portrays a young queen so insipidly naive and trusting, “she wouldn’t have lasted longer than a fortnight (or whichever ye olde calendar notation ye prefer)” — in which they’re entirely correct. (I hated that movie.) They don’t have much use for Spike Lee’s egotism, either, especially in Malcolm X. They reserve real venom for the fact that Amistad not only jerks history around, the production company, Spielberg’s Dreamworks, actually had the nerve to send out study guides to schools promoting wholly made-up characters as actual historical models to be emulated. In other cases, the authors simply wonder why liberties with real people were taken unnecessarily, as in Seabiscuit or The Elephant Man. Some of the biopics the pair analyze, such as American Splendor, probably don’t belong here (Harvey Pekar is hardly “historical”), and some, like Communion and The Mothman Prophecies, don’t belong anywhere, but they presumably had to come up with an even hundred. However, the film that led to this book being written is Oliver Stone’s JFK, the most vilified film ever made — before it was even released. As a matter of fact, and as the subsequently published “documented screenplay” demonstrates, every voiced opinion in Stone’s film came out of forty years of assassination research. “To its critics, JFK was a film that offended their deeply held view of the world. Stone questioned their religion.” This is a good book to keep at hand while browsing through your DVD collection. (8/14/05)

Miller, Judith. Arts & Crafts. (Collector’s Guides) NY: Dorling Kindersley, 2004.

I first became aware of the Arts & Crafts movement of William Morris and his circle back in the late 1960s, when Art Nouveau (an outgrowth of Arts & Crafts) was enjoying a renaissance. I ended up with several pieces of Arts & Crafts-style furniture (replicas, naturally, on my graduate school budget), some poster (reprints) and a couple of affordable ceramics (original). And I made a point thereafter of searching out museum collections and galleries specializing in this stuff. I still have a preference for the clean lines of furniture and the luminescent glazes on pots, especially those by Pilkington and Rookwood. Miller has brought together in this beautifully produced volume more than a thousand examples of design and craft, with detailed descriptions and notes and a list of “Key Features” for various artists and studios. Approximate values also are included, though I’m happy just to look at the pictures. If you’re trying to learn about the Arts & Crafts movement, this would be a good visual textbook. (8/12/05)

Dessen, Sarah. Someone Like You. NY: Penguin/Puffin, 1998.

Halley was named for her grandmother, who was named for the comet. Scarlett, across the street, was named for you-know-who. Both are “onlies,” just turning sixteen, and have been best friends, almost-sisters since they were eleven. Then Michael, the boy to whom Scarlett lost her virginity only the night before, is killed in a car wreck and — you guessed it — she’s pregnant. Her mother also had gotten pregnant in high school and (fortunately for Scarlett) had kept the baby, and now she decides to do the same. Meanwhile, Halley is getting more and more involved with Macon, Michael’s dangerous buddy, who wants more than she’s ultimately willing to give. The nine months of Scarlett’s pregnancy is the backdrop for a very well-written story about love and sex and real friendship and dealing with parents. And the final scene, in the hospital waiting room, is very cinematic. This is a terrific book for teenagers, but it’s also simply a very, very well done novel. (8/09/05)

Hornby, Nick. A Long Way Down. NY: Riverhead Books, 2005.

It’s New Year’s Eve, a major day for suicides, and four people happenstantially meet on the roof of a London apartment building, a well-known suicide venue known as “Toppers’ House.” Individually, they might actually have topped themselves — or maybe not — but together, they just can’t. They end up going back downstairs for coffee and, gradually, almost inevitably, they bond. They know nothing about one another at the outset, and they come from widely varying backgrounds, but as a “gang” of almost-suicides, they understand at least one very important thing about each other that most other people would not. And as often as they fall out, and as much as they frequently dislike each other in various combinations, they keep getting back together over the next couple of months.

Maureen is fifty-one, never married, not especially attractive, and a recently practicing Catholic, but that didn’t keep her from trying to do herself in. Her biggest problem is Mattie, her nearly-grown, severely retarded son, who absorbs every moment of her life, awake and asleep, to the complete exclusion of the entire rest of the world. As a result, Maureen is dreadfully naive but not hopelessly so; she’s just very inexperienced. She’s so desperate for change, for escape from her circumstances, that death seems very attractive. And she also has a way of unexpectedly cutting to the chase emotionally that makes the rest of the gang pause and listen and take her seriously.

Jess is an eighteen-year-old royal screw-up, the younger daughter of the junior minister of education whose older daughter vanished four years earlier. Jess seems to function properly only when she’s angry and picking a fight and being drunk and/or drugged. She’s educationally challenged but not stupid, though she has a problem with similes and metaphors when she speaks and with “those speech mark things” when she writes. Her problem, though she doesn’t quite realize it, is extreme loneliness because her uncontrolled behavior completely alienates everyone, and I mean everyone. It’s simply her nature, and at least she knows it.

JJ is a thirty-year-old American, a recently failed musician who has also lost his girlfriend. Even he recognizes that his motivation for suicide is pretty thin, so at first he lies and tells the others he has a fatal brain disease. He’s also a self-educated school-leaver with a tendency to literary pomposity. But where he assumed he would be okay after his band failed — because he could just do something else with his life, right? — he’s begun to realize that that’s not true. All he really wants to do is make music. He’d like to be a famous maker of music, naturally, but it’s the music that really matters. Especially since the other members of his ex-band, about whose futures he was worrying, are doing just fine with session work. He’s looking at maybe a half-century ahead of him as a non-musician and he can’t take it. Being a soloist doesn’t seem to have occurred to him.

Martin is, in Jess’s words, a “tosser.” He was co-presenter on a successful breakfast-time TV talk show (think Regis and Kathy Lee) but he got caught sleeping with a fifteen-year-old girl, lost his job, lost his wife and two daughters, and went to prison for a few months. But he’s selfish, self-centered, and superior. He’s entirely a victim of his own stupidity (which he admits), not of circumstances like the others, but maybe that’s just his nature, too.

The author lets each of the four relate their adventures in their own words on a round-robin basis, Roshomon-fashion, and the juxtaposition of viewpoints on the same events is frequently hilarious and very revealing of what makes each of them tick. Hornby is a dab hand at characterization and he shows here that he also has the speech patterns of class and age down pat. I’d love to see this made into a film — but not with Hugh Grant this time. (8/05/05)

Lindsay, Jeff. Dearly Devoted Dexter. NY: Doubleday, 2005.

It’s shortly after the events of Dexter Morgan’s first adventure in solving a crime — not one that he was personally involved in, that is — and his cop sister has been promoted to sergeant and assigned to homicide, the annoying Detective La Guerta is gone, and Sgt. Doakes has advanced from unformed suspicion regarding Dexter’s nightstalker activities to full-press harassment. Of course, Doakes shares some of Dexter’s killer tendencies himself, so who better to act as hunter? In self-defense, Dexter is trying to appear as ordinary as possible, spending inordinate amounts of time with his girlfriend and her kids (all of which is merely a clever disguise as he is constitutionally incapable of love). Actually, having discovered the relaxing effects of beer, he seems to be sliding into couch-potato-hood and the whole thing is “driving him normal.” But then another killer turns up, a previously government-sanctioned one, whom Doakes knows all about, and the semi-big guns arrive from Washington. Being, by his own description, a monster, Dexter is quite incapable of feeling emotion of any kind. He also has zero empathy, which often makes it hard for him to understand what people are actually thinking or what the unspoken conversations of gesture and expression around him mean. But he has become very good at faking humanity. On the other hand, Dexter is also fond of children. And the discovery that one of Rita’s kids might be a Dexter-in-waiting brings up all kinds of interesting possibilities. Lindsay’s style, and the style he gives Dexter, is delightfully wry and dry, sometimes self-mocking, but never quite mordant. His descriptions are inventive and often memorable: After a sleepless night, for example, Dexter feels “as though someone had snuck in and packed my head with beach sand, even including the bottle caps and cigarette butts.” And up until the last two chapters, this story moves right along. Nearing the end, I wondered how Dexter was going to rescue the disliked and dangerous Sgt. Doakes — because he had to, right? That would be a nice bit of irony, because Doakes would then be able to come back to haunt poor Dexter again in the next installment. Only the author makes a dreadful error here and the whole plotline falls apart. The ending isn’t witty or amusing or ironic, much less believable, and Lindsay does his readers a great misservice. I’ll still be watching for the next Dexter book, but I hope his editor has a heart-to-heart with him along the way. (8/03/05)

Hirahara, Naomi. Gasa-Gasa Girl. NY: Random House, 2005.

Old Masao Arai, American-born L.A. gardener and survivor of Hiroshima, is a character who grows on you. In this second book in what looks to become a series, Mas has been called across the country to Brooklyn by his daughter, who has married an Anglo named Lloyd — who, Mas discovers, is also a gardener and a student of the Japanese style. “Gasa-gasa” means “always on the move” and that certainly describes Mari Arai Jensen. When the benefactor of the foundation that owns the garden where Lloyd works is mudered, everyone involved is pointing fingers in different directions, except that several of them end up pointing at Mari. Mas, well aware of having never been the best of fathers, takes upon himself the job of solving the killing to protect his extended family. He’s aided by Tug Yamada, Nisei war hero and all-around straight-arrow, who’s also visiting in New York, and by his network of cronies back on the coast. Things get dicey more than once, but Mas is a stubborn old coot and he keeps at it. The author has a gift for empathetic characterization and dialogue, and for efficient description in a scene. Her prose is direct and unpretentious, and I look forward to more stories about these guys. (7/29/05)

Hirahara, Naomi. Summer of the Big Bachi. NY: Random House, 2004.

Masao Arai is an aging Japanese gardener in Los Angeles who’s just barely making it. He’s also one of the several hundred American-born Japanese who was in Hiroshima in August 1945, an experience from which he will never, ever escape. He’s not an important man by anyone’s standards, he’s not even very involved in anyone else’s affairs (now that his wife is dead of cancer and his semi-estranged daughter has gone off to New York to be a film maker), but he has a few friends and many acquaintances among the other Japanese and Nisei in LA. One of them is a man known as Joji Haneda, whom he knew in Hiroshima, whom Mas has avoided seeing again for a couple of decades, because Joji is not what he appears. Now a young Japanese reporter, the grandson of a woman Mas also used to know, has turned up asking probing questions. And a local woman dies, with the grandson being blamed. And other Japanese are poking around, making trouble for Mas and his friends, and all the things Mas wants not to remember are coming back to haunt him — especially about what happened to Joji Haneda. This book is marketed as a “mystery,” but Mas isn’t a detective. He doesn’t even think of what he’s doing as solving a crime; he just has to make amends. (“Bachi” is the avenging spirit of retribution; “what goes around comes around.”) This is one of those involving, absorbing stories that stays with you for weeks after you finish the book and put it back on the shelf. The characters are very fully realized, the Japanese under-community is brought completely to life, and the most ordinary, unheroic people show the depths of themselves. An amazing book. (7/24/05)

Matsumoto, David. The New Japan: Debunking Seven Cultural Stereotypes. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 2002.

Every social, business, and travel guide you read regarding Japan, and most of the fiction written in this country with a Japanese setting, perpetuates certain stereotypes about the Japanese people and their culture: They’re collectivist in their basic psychology, not individualistic, preferring consensus to majority rule and trying not to stand out in the crowd; they think of themselves as interdependent rather than independent, which has most of the same historical roots and social effects; they’re highly interpersonal, considering others before themselves in decision-making, again for the same reasons and with the same effects; they’re “inscrutable,” meaning they suppress their emotions in the company of others, smiling and maintaining an appearance of dignity even in the most uncomfortable circumstances; the Japanese “salaryman” expects lifetime employment by his company, giving absolute and enthusiastic loyalty in return, even to the point of almost never seeing his family because his social relationships even after working hours are all with his colleagues (this has an enormous effect on the educational system, too); and the man is the master in his marriage, expecting obedience and support from wife and children, while the wife runs the house and manages the finances (and divorce is to be avoided at all costs). And not only have these long been the key Japanese attributes as seen by outsiders, this is also how Japanese have seen themselves, and how they still prefer to.

Drawing on decades of social-psychology studies and scientific surveys, Matsumoto convincingly shows that, while these stereotypes were true in the past, even up into the economic boom days of the 1970s and even the 1980s, they are all absolutely inaccurate in describing Japan at the beginning of the 21st century. This is true to some extent all across society, but overwhelmingly so in the younger generation. Younger Japanese, especially, are more individualist and less collectivist than Americans. Employees are, more and more, in favor of pay and advancement based on ability, not merely seniority, and lifetime employment is very much a thing of the past. Young people no longer suppress their emotions and have rejected arranged marriages in favor of marriage-for-love. Because they are far more individualistic than previous generations, younger Japanese are also far more likely to commit violent crimes; the “shame culture” is also rapidly becoming a thing of the past. In other words, any outsider who lived in Japan even in 1990 would find a greatly changed country and culture if he returned there today. This book ought to be required reading for any novelist setting a story in Japan, for all writers of travel books, and for thoughtful Japanese themselves. (7/24/05)

Hart-Davis, Adam. What the Victorians Did for Us. London: Headline Book Publishing, 2001.

This was published to accompany a BBC series of the same name, one of several similar projects by Hart-Davis, a science journalist. When Victoria died in 1901, the world was a vastly different place than when she acceded to the throne in 1837. Britain had built a worldwide empire, had become dominant in the growth of technology and the production of everything from steel and steam engines to branded flour and disposable razor blades. Some time is spent on basic science, especially geology and fossils, and Darwin’s inspired notion of evolution, but because it was made for television, most of the program (and the book) have to deal with the visible results of science. While there’s a good deal of fascinating anecdotal history here — gardener Joseph Paxton and his innovative design for the Crystal Palace, for instance, and the “Great Stink” caused by the long, hot summer of 1858 and the debate in Parliament that led to the building of London’s sewer system (which also meant the end of cholera and typhoid and established Portland cement as a superior construction medium) — but it’s all a bit superficial. There are a few small errors, too: Temperature isn’t measured in “kelvins,” but in Celsius-sized degrees on the Kelvin scale, which simply begins much lower. And (in the section on crime and the development of forensics) the author describes Sherlock Holmes “with his Ulster cape, his deerstalker hat and his magnifying glass.” But Conan Doyle never gave Holmes a deerstalker; that was added only in the Basil Rathbone films. It’s interesting, too, how many inventions and innovations supposedly were made in or near Bristol, . . . where Hart-Davis just happens to come from. In my opinion, Burke’s “Connections” series did all this better. But, still, it’s a fun read. (7/17/05)

Lister, Raymond. Victorian Narrative Paintings. NY: Clarkson N. Potter, 1966.

Perhaps it shows a lack of imagination on my part, but my taste in art runs to the obvious, and to “storytellers,” especially the pre-Raphaelites in Britain and artists like N. C. Wyeth in this country. (Okay, I admit it — I like Norman Rockwell, too.) The 19th century preference for narrative paintings probably begins with illustrators like Hogarth and Cruikshank, who crammed an immense amount of detail into their works. The artists in this discursive collection tried hard to get it right, sleeping out in the desert before painting an historical scene set in Arabia, or bringing a herd of sheep into the studio to serve as models for a rural scene. Of the sixty works included here, my favorites probably are Millais’s very affecting “The Blind Girl,” Brown’s famous “The Last of England” (a natural for a genealogist) and Tissot’s “The Last Evening,” with its exact detail of ship’s rigging as well as women’s clothing. (The latter is also, unfortunately, one of the few color plates in the book.) It’s been the fashion for decades to make fun of the Victorians, but artistically they knew what they were doing. (7/14/05)

Hallam, Elizabeth & Andrew Prescott (eds). The British Inheritance: A Treasury of Historic Documents. Berkeley; University of California Press, 1999.

I’ve been a working (though non-teaching) historian for more than three decades, and while I’m familiar with historiographical theories, and cliometrics, and other purely intellectual pursuits, I still confess a preference for “tangible,” material history. Maybe it’s my training as an archivist, but I get a serious thrill from seeing, perhaps even handling, an original document. If you mentioned “historic documents” to most people, they would think of the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives. My interests run somewhat earlier, however: I’d think first of Domesday Book, nearly five times as old as the Declaration, and arguably of far more pervasive influence on the U.S. Hallam is on the staff of the Public Record Office, where the Book is housed, so that’s her first choice, too, together with Nennius’s History of the Britons, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and (of course) Magna Carta. But this gorgeously illustrated oversized volume goes on to portray a large number of original charters, treaties, and letters. Examples of William Caxton’s printing are here, and a Shakespeare First Folio, and a list of the burgesses of the Virginia Company, and the Declaration of Rights with which Parliament hedged their offer of the throne to William and Mary. Then, in the modern period, you’ll find correspondence of Prince Charles Stewart (the Young Pretender), and Clive writing home with news of his victories in India, and maps of the enclosures that accompanied the Agricultural Revolution, and Radical political pamphlets from the 1830s, and the manuscript of Pickwick Papers, right up to beer advertisements from the 1890s (deposited at the PRO to register copyright), police reports of the arrest of suffragettes, Edward VIII’s Instrument of Abdication, and Paul McCartney’s handwritten lyrics to “Yesterday.” The accompanying text is excellent and I’ve spent many pleasant hours perusing the illustrations. (7/12/05)

Dawes, Frank. Not in Front of the Servants: A True Portrait of English Upstairs/Downstairs Life. NY: Taplinger, 1973.

Even after watching Upstairs Downstairs on TV, and then seeing the more recent (and more realistic) Gosford Park, there still is a tendency to view the 19th century English dependence on domestic servants as “quaint.” Dawes, an experienced television journalist, is himself the grandson of a career domestic, and as he makes clear, the life of most of those in service was far more than simply hard work. Servants — especially those at the bottom of the pecking order, like scullery maids and “maids of all work” — were grossly underpaid, often worked eighteen hours a day, could be fired at a moment’s notice, and were generally treated by their employers as not quite human. A very large percentage of domestics were girls under twelve years of age. And yet the middle and upper classes constantly harped on the “servant problem” and their inability to get “good” servants. Their blindness to social inequity was not unlike the insistence of many slaveholders that their chattels were loyal out of love of the family they served! (It’s amazing to me that there was never a bloody class revolution in Britain. . . .) Dawes does an excellent job detailing the service system with its layers of controls, how servants survived, the hierarchy imposed even below stairs (everyone has to feel superior to someone), hiring and firing practices, how those in service were kept in line by religious propaganda, and what was likely to happen to young women who resisted the advances of male members of the household. Dawes depends heavily on reminiscences of and correspondence from those who were servants in their youth, or whose parents were, because thirty years ago there still of lot of such people alive in Britain; this book couldn’t be written today. There are quite a few excellent period illustrations, too. (7/04/05)

Azuma, Kiyohiko. Azumanga Daioh, Vol. 1. Houston: ADV Manga, 2003.

This is the traditional sort of lighthearted manga, involving a group of high school girls: Tomo, the abrasive loudmouth; Sakaki, tall and athletic and obsessed with kitty-cats; Kaorin, who has the hots for Sakaki; “Osaka,” because that’s where she’s from (think Brooklyn accent); Yomi, smart but can’t sing worth a damn; Chiyo-Chan, the ten-year-old prodigy; and, of course, the slightly pathological Miss Yukari, the first-year teacher, who often is less mature than her students. The humor is often sly, frequently ditzy (so what does the “ho” mean in “Heave-ho”?), but sometimes a little oblique (which means I didn’t always get the joke). Azuma does it as a series of four-panel strips, like a daily comic, so you can dip in almost anywhere. (7/04/05)

Barnes, John. Orbital Resonance. NY: Tor, 1991.

Melpomene (“Mel”) Morris, born on the converted-asteroid space freighter Flying Dutchman, is thirteen and only six months from becoming a Full Adult. She’s writing this book at the request of her psychologist as a way of introducing the ship’s somewhat peculiar orbital society, of which she and her friends are the carefully planned carriers, to the people still surviving on a war- and disease-ravaged Earth. Individualism has been proven not to work, so their new social system is based strongly on cooperation and teamwork, and being an “Uncooperative” is a criminal offense. Things start to change when Theophilus joins their class — a “groundhog” whose parents have joined the company that owns the ship — and he thinks in a very divisive way that challenges their view of what’s right, and he’s a jerk besides. Mel, together with her brother and her new boyfriend, are destined for a different sort of role, though. Barnes lets Mel tell her story on her own terms, so the reader has to figure out and try to understand the differences between her world and ours, and he’s pretty successful at it; I’m tempted to compare this book to a Heinlein juvenile, but it’s not really like that. For one thing, it’s not really written for adolescents. Pretty good anthropological science fiction. (7/03/05)

Published on 21 November 2009 at 10:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

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