Monday, January 9, 2012

A Certain Slant of Light—Laura Whitcomb

Granted it's been about two weeks since I finished this book. I don't know why I put off writing about it...probably because there was nothing significant about this book. It made essentially no impression on me, which is not a good sign in a book.

The premise of this book seemed moderately interesting, and it was short enough to warrant taking the two to three cumulative hours that it took to read it. However, I must say that I was disappointed. It's difficult when you find such an interesting idea, and then are let down by the actuality.

The book begins with the journey of a ghost who can only survive as a ghost as long as she is "attached" to someone. However, she is destined to spend life alone, as obviously no one can see her. Until one day, she is attending class with her current "host," an English teacher at a high school, and a boy looks right at her. She's surprised, and learns that he is actually a fellow ghost who decided to inhabit the body of someone who abandoned it. (The boy who "lived" in the body before him, whose body it actually was, abandoned it during a drug overdose.) She attaches herself to him, letting go physically - if not entirely emotionally at this point - of her previous host. She finds that she can actually touch him and sleep, things she couldn't do before with regular humans.

Probably the most disappointing thing was that I expected it to be more about the mystery of why this boy could see her and the impact that would have on her future, rather than a superficial love story. Gag me. I've read Twilight once, and it was a mistake the first time. I don't need to read another version of it.

As much as I hate to say it, I wouldn't recommend it. There are so many other interesting, thoughtful books in the world.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Remarkable Creatures—Tracy Chevalier

Looking up at the stars so far away, I begun to feel there was a thread running between the earth and them. Another thread was strung out too, connecting the past to the future, with the ichie at one end, dying all that long time ago and waiting for me to find it. I didn't know what was at the other end of the thread. These two threads were so long I couldn't even begin to measure them, and where one met the other, there was me. My life led up to that moment, then led away again, like the tide making its highest mark on the beach and then retreating. (224)

From the author of The Girl with a Pearl Earring, this is an interesting novelization about Mary Anning, who discovered several fossils that were integral to our studies of archeology and history (including those of the plesiosaurs, icthyosaurs, and the first complete pterodactyl).

Although the book does explore the findings of Mary Anning, it is perhaps more accurate to say that it explores the relationship between two women from different social classes who were brought together by a common interest. The book has several chapters, and alternates between chapters written by Mary Anning, and chapters written by Elizabeth Philpot. Mary has lived in Lyme her entire life, and has spent her days exploring for fossils (what she calls "curiosities" or "curies"), which she then sells to tourists in order to help support her family. Elizabeth Philpot moves to Lyme with her two similarly unwed sisters following the marriage of their brother. Elizabeth, while a spinster, is still a lady, and Mary is a simple town girl.

Elizabeth states from early in the book that she is surprised that her relationship with Mary blossomed the way that it did, that she learned so much from Mary, considering their different stations in life and that Mary was quite a bit younger. Mary teaches Elizabeth about the fossils to be found and the best way to extract them from the beach, and Elizabeth teaches Mary the proper names for them.

While Mary starts off finding small fossils, one day she and her brother find a larger one - what we will learn is the fossil of an icthyosaurus. Through the course of the rest of the book, we learn about her other discoveries, as well as the people who come to be interested in them.

This was a subtly informative, well phrased glance into the lives of two women who adventured into territory which had previously been reserved for men. They both remained unmarried, focusing instead on their passions for fossils. A great look into the "everyday" lives of these two.

101 Best Sex Scenes Ever Written—Barnaby Conrad

Off-camera sex was the norm in most early novels. Daringly, the man and woman would usually disappear into the woods or a bedroom, several asterisks would appear, and nine months later she would have a baby and a problem. (11)

False advertising, Barnaby Conrad. First, there were not anywhere near 101 scenes in this book. I guess I should have figured that out when I noticed that the book is only 160 pages long - it would be somewhat difficult to put 101 scenes, with introduction and explanation, onto so few pages. It's true that "72 Best Sex Scenes Ever Written" doesn't have quite the same ring to it...

Second, some of the scenes in here weren't sex scenes. They weren't even subtle sex scenes. I didn't expect them all to be explicit; in fact, that's not what I was looking for. But I expected them to be, at the very least, sex-adjacent.

Third, Michael Chabon (one of my most favourite authors) is listed as one of the included authors, and his name is not even mentioned anywhere in the book.

All of these initial frustrations aside, I thought this was a fairly interesting read. It would have been very easy to create this book using scenes exclusively from romance novels; however, Conrad made it clear from the beginning that his purpose was to emphasize that sex scenes should be used when they contribute to the artistic message of the book. He included several scenes from well-known, "classic" authors, articulating that the particular scene added some dimension to the characters that was important for their development as people.

I enjoyed that he split up the scenes into themed chapters: there was a chapter about subtle sex scenes, a chapter about first times, a chapter about quickies, a chapter about affairs. Conrad did seem to falter somewhat towards the end with the commentary introductions between the scenes; though sometimes poorly written, he managed to make his point and emphasize why the specific scene was important for the "theme" of the chapter.

Worth reading, but not nearly as exciting as I was hoping.

Monday, January 2, 2012

101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived—Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan, & Jeremy Salter

It is not accidental that Santa Claus is one of few characters associated with Western culture that were allowed to persist in Communist countries. Consider that both Santa Claus and Karl Marx have bushy white beards and believe in giving people what they want without regard for cost. And Santa Claus always wears a red outfit, the symbolic color of Communism. (40)

I was seriously disappointed with this book. It was another Half Price Books find, and I actually thought it sounded like a fantastic idea. Our society uses art as a means of expression, oftentimes hoping to incite change or even just bring attention to a particular social or political issue, so it would make sense that many of our "fictional" literary characters would be inspirational in that regard.

However, about three pages into the book, I realized that, while a great idea, it was incredibly poorly executed. Let's start with the things that I liked, because there's really only one of them: I liked how the characters were split up into categories, like Myths, Legends, Americana, etc. I suppose if I had to pick one more thing that I enjoyed, it would be the initial explanation of the process for choosing the characters. While not essential to the book, it was great information to keep in mind while reading, especially when looking forward at the list and thinking, "Why did they consider that person influential?"

That being said, this election process was elaborated on several more times during what were called "Interludes," short chapters between the themes. These were not necessary or interesting to read. While painfully obvious that the authors were attempting to be humorous, in these interludes as well as throughout the rest of the book, these additions only served as annoyances and often lead to incredulity on my part. (See below with regard to specific quotes.)

The sad thing is, some of the actual historical information about the characters - Santa Claus, King Arthur, Cupid and Venus - I would have considered interesting and enlightening, but these small learning moments were overshadowed by the consistent irksome feeling I got from the commentary.

For example, the quote above - I read that and thought to myself, "Seriously?" And maybe it wasn't. Maybe I wasn't meant to take that seriously. Given the tone of the article, it definitely seemed to be an actual comparison. Yes, Karl Marx and Santa Claus are pretty much the same person. And communism is absolutely all about giving people whatever they want. If I recall correctly, those are the first lines of the Communist Manifesto. (In case you needed some guidance there, I was being sarcastic in those last few sentences. In fact, the comparison of Marx to Santa Claus is strained at best - Santa Claus is communist because he wears read, and communism is most certainly NOT about giving people whatever they want.)

Some of my other favourite what I call, "Um, what?!" moments:
  • Quote from article about Pandora: If Pandora were alive today, she would find herself served with countless lawsuits. No matter that she doesn't have deep pockets - or, for that matter, any pockets. Our penchant for accusing, blaming, and then suing someone for a problem for which we don't want to accept responsibility has become the stuff of future legends. (While I completely agree that our society, especially American society, has become entirely too litigious, this commentary has ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with Pandora, or her importance as a literary/mythical character.)
  • The article about Buck from Jack London's Call of the Wild was written in the voice of one of the author's dogs. Hilarious - NOT.
  • The article about The Cat in the Hat: the authors were presumptuous enough to write in rhyme, attempting the style of the much-loved Dr. Seuss, alleging to have received said rhyme in a letter from the Cat in the Hat demanding addition to the list. It feel far short, and they should have known - you don't mess with Dr. Seuss and you don't try to imitate.

I think I would really enjoy this book were it to be constructed by other authors, perhaps ones who were inclined to write more academically.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Alienist—Caleb Carr

"The doctors here, the newspapers, the judges, they'd like to think that only a madman would shoot a five-year-old girl in the head. It creates certain...difficulties, if we are forced to accept that our society can produce sane men who commit such acts." (33)

A friend of mine recently recommended that I read this particular title, and coincidentally enough, I had picked it up at Half Price Books for $2.00 probably a month before. After taking a brief break from "adult" books, I came back to this one.

For a history lover, something as historically rich as this book (even as a historical novel) was a delight to read. Carr sets us up in New York just prior to the turn of the twentieth century. Our main characters are Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an "alienist" or psychologist as we might call him, and John Schuyler Moore, a police reporter for the Times. Following a rather gruesome murder of a young boy, Moore is brought into the investigation of what turns out to be a series of murders. Due to the personal information about the victims, the interest in actually solving the crimes is not exactly great in the police force. However, Dr. Kreizler comes up with an idea: by analyzing the crimes, perhaps they can put together information about the perpetrator. This was before the time that this was a generally accepted practice; it's practically par for the course now. Kreizler and Moore are joined by police detective brothers Lucius and Marcus Isaacson and Sara Howard, one of the first female employees of the police department. They discuss the emerging fields of fingerprinting and handwriting analysis in addition to the psychological profile they put together.

This book was satisfying to read on so many different levels. First and foremost, it was spectacularly crafted: thoughtful, fast-paced, suspenseful, informative. Everything I could possibly want from my historical fiction, and more.

Second, as long as I can remember, I've had a morbid curiosity and fascination with serial killers and sociopaths. I'm not the only one; I've often wondered if we perpetuate the existence of serial killers as a society by sensationalizing them. We have books, movies, TV shows, all focused on murderers, sociopaths. Even pondering this question has an impact on the answer. But Carr also seems intrigued by the question: how can two men (or women) with similar backgrounds have such divergent lives? What makes one man a normal, contributing member of society and another a murderer? It's very interesting.

As the above quote reflects, Kreizler believes that the instance of actual insanity is far less than previously represented. He posited that almost all criminals were created as a result of their experiences, experiences which then informed their criminal lifestyles. Society in general finds it hard to fathom that we can create people who have all of their faculties, who are reasoning adults, and who still feel a compulsion towards crime. It's interesting, also, to consider our desire for easy answers and our need for a scapegoat. It's easy to say, "Oh, that man's crazy, and that's why he committed those crimes." It is considerably more difficult to consider what the reasons behind those actions may be, most especially because it might require some empathy for characters we find so implicitly evil.

Great book. It was thought-provoking and historically vivid, with a taste of one of my favourite Roosevelt's thrown in. Definitely adding it to my list of favourites.