Thursday, December 23, 2010

The "Crew," Monologues and Briefs

I've really enjoyed the people I work with this deployment (with a few exceptions, but that is to be expected – you can't get along with everyone). When I arrived in September, I was worried about being the late one, making a good impression and trying to fit in with a pre-established group. Fortunately, there had been some moving around right before I got there, so five of us quickly formed a social circle of our own, "the crew." The crew consists of the S2 OIC, the S4 OIC and his replacement "4 lite" (who was actually in the 3 shop temporarily when I got here and trained me up), the S4 NCOIC and me. We generally go to lunch and dinner together, the 2 is my battle buddy for the gym, and the 4 and I tend to have long-drawn out arguments while the rest of the group either watches and laughs or occasionally stirs the pot.

There is quite a bit of good natured teasing, especially since we all have such varied backgrounds. The S4, for example, is married with two children and about to get out of the Army, and we often tell him that has no clue how dating works since he's been with the same person since he was 19. I have quickly become labeled as the liberal feminist with extreme, unconventional views because I don't want children and plan to keep my name if I get married, among other things. They have also teased me about my love of the website Pajiba, and think I make unsafe decisions because I've met two people in person that I had previously known only through the internet. The 4 especially likes to call it the Pajiba Monologues, or make vagina jokes about it. As a result, I decided to order everyone in the crew copies of The Vagina Monologues as a bit of gag gift for Christmas . . . except I gave them out early because patience is not one of my strong suits or virtues.

It was intended as a joke, and I didn't expect them to read the books at all, but they have actually read a few of the monologues on their own (I was, of course, expecting the reading of random paragraphs out of context upon receipt). Two Soldiers saw a copy in the S2 office – one of them promptly borrowed it, and may be putting videos of him doing readings on YouTube in the near future.

Unfortunately, the crew will soon be a thing of the past – as I said, the S4 is about to head back to the States and ETS (get out), the S2 will transfer to another unit for her platoon leader time, and I am about to become the HHC commander. I'll still be here as a result, but it will definitely be a very different dynamic once it's just three of us.

Work continues to go well. I've been briefing our BN's section of the BDE BUB over conference call/Adobe Breeze (it just depends on how the internet is working that day) for nearly two months now, and apparently, the BDE still hasn't gotten over the novelty of hearing me brief. When I first started briefing, our BN XO teased me about how I'm the buzz of the BDE due to my voice and that everyone was asking about me – he actually made a joke about me being "the angelic voice" and how I was so positive and upbeat when I briefed (to quote his imitation of me, "We did some training and it went really well, and then we sent out some convoys to resupply everyone, which made people happy"). I've made calls to BDE in the last month, only to have the person that picks up tell me they recognize my voice from the BUB. Recently the BDE Commander referred to me as the "voice of Maintain" during a visit to our BN headquarters. Only yesterday, our SPO OIC told me I had a soothing voice, and this morning told me that two people from BDE asked him yesterday who I was while discussing business with him on the phone. I hope they aren't too disappointed when I leave the 3 shop, and someone else starts briefing. The BN Commander has already suggested I make guest appearances every once in a while.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ramblings from Iraq

I haven't really updated in a while, and part of it is definitely due to lack of time. I haven't read too many books since I've gotten here, but there are about three that I could post on. For the most part, I have a good routine down, although I wish there was more time in the day: to sleep, to read, to watch DVDs of TV shows, to go the gym. Basically, the way things are going right now, I only have time to really two to three of those things (sleeping, exercising, reading in order of time spent on each activity daily).

The thing is that while on occasion being on a twelve hour shift kind of sucks, I actually quite enjoy what I'm doing. I like the responsibility, I like feeling like I actually know what's going on etc. And honestly, I've mostly developed a pretty good schedule. It's just I've seriously been dragging the last few days, and I have no idea why. I've also been getting headaches whenever I run which may be a result of something I did while doing deadlifts on Thursday (is it possible to pop a blood vessel from straining too much - I may have been using a heavier weight than I was ready for). I've gone to bed at the usual time lately, but I've been so tired at work that I've made the guys I usually go to meals with stop at the coffee shop afterwards so I could get double shots of espresso. It worked out well today, though the fact that I waited till after dinner to do this last night may have been part of my problem today . . . I slept last night but maybe not quite as soundly as usual.

For people that are still commenting on my blog, thank you and I am sorry I haven't responded. I can check my email at work, so I see the comments, but the site itself is blocked so I can't actually respond, and I'm really too busy to do much non-work related stuff beyond having my email account open. The internet in my room is touch and go - sometimes it's almost normal, other times, especially in the evenings, it takes forever for pages to load. It probably doesn't help that I usually get back from the gym around 10ish which is when everyone seems to be online, leading to a slow connection.

I've been good about going to the gym after work (as long as I get off work somewhat on time . . . generally, if I stay more than an hour late, the gym doesn't happen, but fortunately, a lot of deadlines have been moved up in the past month so my regular reports are due during the day, and I don't have to wait around too much after my shift to finish them up) but I really was hoping that by this time in the deployment I would be going twice a day . . . or to be more precise, that I would be doing cardio twice a day - I go twice a day a few times a week since I've been lifting over lunch three times a week, but I cannot get myself up in the mornings to go to the gym. For some crazy reason, I thought that maybe I could wean myself off sleep some as the deployment progressed but that doesn't seem to be an option. I would also like to say that all those magazines that say that exercising gives you more energy are full of shit . . . I still need as much sleep when I exercise regularly as when I don't.

I have received some good news in the past day, though. Actually, I guess it was Friday and Sunday that I was exhausted - yesterday, I was actually in a really good mood - maybe I simply used up all my energy for the week on Saturday :p . . . anyway, I found out that I will be moving to a new position in the next few months, and taking a command. I knew I was going to get a command with this unit at some point, and I was hoping I would get one in the spring, but based on some courses of actions I'd heard being considered, I thought I probably wouldn't get one until later on. Now, it's happening sooner than I expected or hoped for, so I'm really happy about that. This may mean longer hours than I already have but I also think it will mean slightly more flexibility in some ways. I'm definitely happy about it, though, and honestly, my current position was really a great way to prepare me for the demanding hours of command. I admit, I'd had it a bit easy for the previous year as far as actual work schedule was concerned (I got so lucky last deployment - we put in a lot of hours pre-deployment but once we were in Taji, it really wasn't too bad). Anyway, things are actually going very well professionally, and I am enjoying myself. If only I didn't feel so attached to sleep . . .

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Book 101: Catching Fire

This review will include spoilers to The Hunger Games, in other words, stop reading if you don't want to know how it ends.
The sequel begins about six months after the conclusion of The Hunger Games, and only a few hours before the Victors Tour that takes place halfway between the annual Hunger Games (have to keep the audiences happy and interested, after all).  Katniss is still adjusting to the changes in her life and her relationships.  She and her family now live in the Victor's Circle with only Peeta and Haymitch as neighbors, the only other living District 12 winners.  Before the tour kicks off, President Snow, leader of the Capitol, makes a personal visit to Katniss and warns her she needs to watch her behavior on tour, threatening the lives of her friends and family.  At the conclusion of last year's Hunger Games, Peeta and Katniss had partnered up upon the announcement that for the first time ever there could be two victors if both tributes from the same district were left standing.  As soon as Peeta and Katniss were the last survivors, this revision was revoked, and rather than kill Peeta or let him kill himself to save her, she made the gamble that the Games had to have a victor, and asked him to eat poisonous berries with her.  Rather than have no victor, the head game maker reneged the previous statement, and crowned both Peeta and Katniss.  While most of the audience in the Capitol have read this gesture as the romantic gesture of a young girl madly in love, some of the districts have interpreted it as an act of defiance against the Capitol, and have drawn inspiration from it.  President Snow wants Katniss to present herself as a young girl in love to convince the districts that she in fact did not defy the Capitol, and quell the growing signs of unrest and discontent.
Katniss herself isn't completely sure what her intentions were with her action, whether it was out of affection for Peeta (definitely not mad love), in defiance of the Capitol or cold calculation on her part - District 12 never would have forgiven her or let her live in peace if she had killed such a decent human being they all knew - the only thing that is clear to her is that she thought it would allow her to survive, and she wasn't doing it because she wanted to sacrifice herself.  The first visit on the tour is to District 11, which her friend and ally Rue had represented.  Katniss sees the anger in the crowd, and understands what President Snow was referring to - Peeta's and her speeches lead to a show of solidarity, and she witnesses several civilians killed in response.  Following that incident, Peeta and Katniss play along as much as possible with President Snow's desires to prevent more deaths, but at the end of the tour, Katniss is told that she has failed to calm the feelings of unrest and rebellion.
After returning home, Katniss worries about the repercussions for her family, but also starts to hear more vague rumblings about uprisings.  Even though the media is completely controlled by the Capitol, she gathers that District 8 has rebelled based on a report she accidentally sees in the District 12 mayor's house.  She also runs into two refugees from District 8, and begins to hear rumors that District 13 may not have been destroyed after all.  In addition to all these vague rumors, it also very clear that the Capitol is cracking down since the security force has new leadership and an increased presence in District 12.
Finally, the 75th Hunger Games are steadily approaching, and every 25th anniversary is referred to as the Quarter Quell, bringing even more horrors with it.  For the 25th anniversary, the districts had to vote on which children would serve as tributes rather than the usual draw, for the second Quarter Quell, the Capitol drew twice the number of tributes (this is the year Haymitch won).  Between the anxiety and anger over the Quarter Quell and the general oppression, the country is a powder keg ready to explode.
 While The Hunger Games dealt with personal survival within impossible circumstances, in Catching Fire, Katniss witnesses the beginnings of a revolution.  She vaguely begins to understand that she has become a symbol of defiance, and a symbol for a movement since she defied the Capitol and survived.  As the novel progresses, several new characters are introduced, especially after the rules for the Quarter Quell are announced, and the drawing afterwards (I quite enjoyed Finnick).  Instead of simply worrying about her own survival, Katniss has to worry about her family's surival (and not just keeping them fed as before) and has to learn where the line is between survival at all costs and standing up for a cause.  She blames herself for many of the deaths she sees (such as in District 11), even if they were due to people's choices and the Capitol's regime.  From reviews, I had heard that this novel wasn't quite as good as the first, and while it wasn't necessarily as quickly paced or action-packed, I actually quite enjoyed reading about the politics, and learning more about the districts.  I felt like there was more than enough going on, and in fact, more happened than in the last novel, it just simply wasn't all action.  Collins did a great job of presenting how in a disillusioned and oppressed society, one simple gesture or act can be all that it takes to return hope and give people something to fight for - obviously, once logistics are involved, it becomes a lot more complicated but what was once an impossibility can become a choice with the right spark. 

Friday, October 29, 2010

Book 100: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This isn't actually the 100th book I've read this year since I'm still behind on a few reviews but I wanted review 100 to be coherent rather than a collection of paragraphs about books I read in April and barely remember. I haven't been living behind a rock so I've heard quite a bit about this novel, and how good it is. After being in Iraq for a few weeks and barely having time to read, I figured this would be the perfect novel to get me back into reading: from all the other reviews, I knew it was a well-written, well-thought out and thought-provoking novel, but since it still falls into the young adult category, I figured it would also be rather easy to get into.

The other reviews were, of course, correct: this is very well done. In fact, I really wouldn't think of it as young adult fiction necessarily even though the protagonist is a teen or young adult. Mostly, it's just a good story. The last novel I completed before this was Atwood's The Year of the Flood, so apparently I'm into dystopian futures at the moment. However, if anything, I would say the set-up here is more similar to the show Firefly since there are is the Capitol (or Panem) that controls all the other surrounding districts and exploits them, especially after they unsuccessfully fought for their freedom. The Hunger Games has a darker twist than Firefly, though (or at least, the government is more obvious and perverse in exhibiting its control) - as punishment for the failed uprising, each of the remaining twelve districts must give up two tributes, one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 17 to participate in the annual Hunger Games.

The narrator, Katniss, is 16, and the odds are not exactly in her favor due to her age (the older the child is, the more times their name is entered) but it is her 12 year old sister, Prim, with her single entry who is called to be a tribute. Katniss volunteers to take her place, and Peeta, the baker's youngest son, ends up being the male tribute of District 12. They have not had much interaction in the past, and Katniss does not know what to make of him, especially when he confesses his love for her on live television in the Capitol. However, between this starcrossed lovers bit, and their fashion designers' skill, Katniss and Peeta become very popular before the games begin, which means they have a greater chance of survival since sponsors can buy things and have them dropped into the arena.

Once the Games begin, the novel basically becomes a study of human nature - what someone will do to survive, how loyalties are formed, alliances built and destroyed, and self-sacrifice. Katniss becomes allies with a 12 year old girl from District 11 because she reminds her of her sister, and this leads to one of the more heartbreaking scenes in the novel (actually, I was worried there would be more heartwrenching death scenes than there were - when Collins describes the chosen tributes, she includes tiny Rue, a boy with malformed foot and a few others whose selection seems even more unfair than the rest). Of course, Peeta also ends up playing a big role, and the technology that the Capitol possesses that is on display in the arena is awe-inspiring, making the juxtaposition between the poverty of the districts and the decadence of the Capitol even more obvious.

While this could definitely work as a stand-alone novel, Collins has created a trilogy and as the series progresses, she will really start exploring the larger political implications and issues at play. While all the novels are very personal since they are from Katniss's perspective, this one has the most contained setting, even if it does give a good introduction to the disparity, the injustices and oppression that exist in this country. (I have to say I'm not sure how well I succeeded with the coherence bit here . . . can I blame the fact that I barely got any sleep last night because I couldn't stop reading Mockingjay, the last book of the trilogy?)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book 99: A Beautiful Blue Death

A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch

In one word, I would describe this novel as serviceable. It didn't irritate me, it was easy enough to get through, but it didn't exactly leave me wanting for more. Set in England in the 1860s, it begins when Charles Lenox receives an invite from his neighbor and friend, Lady Jane, who asks him to begin an inquiry into a former maid's death. Charles Lenox is well-to-do and of aristocratic blood, and as a result of all his leisure time, has become a bit of amateur detective or P.I. He also has a strong interest in Roman history and travel. This is the first in series of murder mysteries centered around Lenox. While I didn't guess immediately who the killer was (possibly because I just didn't care enough), I wasn't impressed with his investigative technique - his interviews just seemed weird, and he immediately suspects one person on incredibly flimsy evidence. In fact, I didn't even think there was evidence pointing to that person, really.

Lenox becomes so focused on one aspect of the case that I felt like I had to be reminded that there was a murder investigation going on. There are a lot of other characters throughout that want to help in the investigation, and everyone remains very proper and polite during the whole novel. There was no real action . . . at no point did I start becoming worried about any of the characters. Then again, I guess it was kind of nice to have a murder mystery for once that didn't involve the detective almost getting himself killed because he is seen as a threat.

It almost seemed like they talked more about tea-drinking and sandwiches than anything else. Every time someone visited Lenox or vice versa, there'd be tea and comments on the cold weather. I guess if someone is interested in Victorian England, those touches might be cute but they didn't seem real - none of the characters seemed real, they all seemed like stereotypes someone might have of what proper Victorian English people should behave like. Also, I got a little irritated by how protective Lenox was of Lady Jane - "you talked to Barnard - how brave of you" - really? At what point did that man ever really seem to be a huge danger? A bore maybe. And yes, I realize, Victorian women are supposed to be sheltered but it was a little irritating how much credit she got for doing basically nothing.

I don't really see myself picking up the next in the series unless I run completely out of ideas for books to read - it wasn't fun enough to qualify for trashy or easy reads when I need something light, and I didn't become invested in any of the characters at all.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book 98: The Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

As much as I like Margaret Atwood, I was a bit hesitant to read this. I feel like some of her more recent books have been disappointing. I knew it was a tie in to Oryx and Crake though they didn't necessarily have to be read in any particular order, and it could still work as a stand alone novel. I read Oryx and Crake a while back, so I couldn't remember much beyond some basic plot points, so it kind of irritated me that I didn't remember more as I was reading this one . . . when Jimmy and Glenn appeared, I wondered if they were characters from the other novel, but it took me a few more chapters to put two and two together. Still, I think if I hadn't read Oryx and Crake already, this actually wouldn't have been a problem . . . it was just the faint recollection that was worse than not knowing at all since I was trying to place it within a context I couldn't remember.

Mostly, I liked this though it took me a while to get into this, partially for the above reasons, and partially because the sermons and the poems from the Gardners seemed like distractions at first. However, as the novel progresses, and I became acquainted with the characters, this wasn't the case since the sermons would contain names of characters I knew and as a result, feel more like background. At first they had simply seemed like philosophy or religious thoughts, both things that tend to make me zone off. I still could have done without the poems that came with each sermon though.

The novel is told from the perspective of two characters, Toby and Ren, who knew each other in the past. As the novel begins, the virus/plague that ended Oryx and Crake has passed, and Toby and Ren are two survivors due to the fact that they had been in isolation as it hit. Toby is in a spa where she had stored goods for just such an occasion as a result of her years with the Gardeners, and their prophecies of the waterless flood (or the plague/virus tha occured). Ren is trapeze artist at a gentleman's club and had been in the isolation room after an incident with a customer to make sure she was virus-free. Ren's story is told from 1st person, and Toby's is told from 3rd person limited.

The novel switches back and forth between the two characters, and each chapter/part begins with the year 25 as seen by the Gardeners, or the year of the flood, and then goes back to give background on the characters. Ren and Toby knew each other before when they lived with the Gardeners, a religious sect; Ren came to live with them when she was around 10, in the year 10, while Toby had joined them earlier when she was already in her twenties. As a result, the reader gets to see the perspective of a child and an adult in this community, and different interpretations of the same events.

Atwood describes the world she had already introduced in Oryx and Crake, although this time it is from the perspective of the poor rather than the two boys that grew up in a more middle class and sheltered environment. Private corporations are in control of everything, species are dying out by the day, and excess exists all around for those that can afford it.

Given what little I had heard about this novel before reading it, I was actually pleasantly suprised. As I said, I had a few issues getting into it, but once the story really started going, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I believe there is supposed to be a third novel, and I would definitely like to see where Atwood goes with it - whether she will introduce new characters and perspectives or if she will continue more with the remainders of humanity trying to forge a life in this new world.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book 97: The Lacuna

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

I enjoy Barbara Kingsolver and as a result was very curious to read this, especially when seeing that it would deal with Frida Kahlo among other things. It was a weird book for me to get into . . . I liked it but it definitely almost felt like two separate novels, and I'll explain why as I go.

The novel is set up as a diary entries and letters with a few pages of explanations inserted throughout by the person (V.B.) who decided to compile Harrion Shepherd's personal papers into a book. V.B. explains that Shepherd has always had a tendency to see himself on the outskirts and as more of an observer rather than as part of the action. In fact, even though the first half to two thirds of the novel are comprised entirely of his journal entries, the word "I" rarely appears except when in quoted dialogue. Despite the fact that I was forewarned, I think this may one of the reasons I had a hard time getting into this part of the novel while it might have been easier if it had simply been told from the third person. Even when he addresses his emotions or speaks of himself, he tends to do it in the third person so the novel seems oddly removed at times. The first half of the novel is mostly set in Mexico where Shepherd grows up with his slightly erratic mother after she leaves his American dad. When young, he makes friends with his mother's boyfriend's cook, thus acquiring a skill that will lead him to first be a plaster mixer and then a cook for Diego Rivera, and by extension, Frida Kahlo, "the Aztec princess." Surrounded by these colorful characters, and eventually Lev Trotsky, Shepherd documents their lives and passions rather than his own. Despite the fact that the diary seems somewhat emotionally removed, it is still obvious to see how Shepherd, or Soli as Frida calls him, feels about people based on his descriptions, so that his crush on one of Trotsky's secretary's is obvious due to his Adonis-like descriptions.

After Trotsky's assassination by Stalinist, Shepherd seizes to write a journal, and moves to the States. In the States, he becomes a famous novelist, and most of this section of the novel is comprised of letters written to friends, especially Frida, random thoughts he wrote down without being a regular diary, and newspaper clippings. As much as I loved reading about Frida and his descriptions of her volatile nature, and how everyone fell under her thrall, I preferred this part of the novel, or at least the voice . . . I liked hearing Shepherd actually talk about himself a little bit in letters rather than alluding to himself as "the secretary," etc. It wasn't even necessarily that he was talking about himself more but since it was letters, his tone was more conversational. The writing throughout the whole novel is beautiful and there are quite a few different sentences and paragraphs of great descriptions (then again, there were also a few that went on too long, especially in the diaries which may have been why that part felt slow to me on occasion).

Barbara Kingsolver explains in one of interviews in the back that she wanted to explore the relationship between art and politics, and especially within America - she used Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as a contrast to America. As she says, in Mexico and elsewhere in the world, political artists are celebrated and politics and art seems a natural mix (Toni Morrison would agree). In the States, however, she believes that the public wants their artists to be apolitical and not be part of a movement or a cause. As a result, I definitely understand why she chose to set up the novel the way she did, and Shepherd's background as a cook and typist for communists in Mexico made the fact that he would be investigated during the era of McCarthyism all the more believable but in ways it also felt like Kingsolver was interested in Kahlo and Rivera, and McCarthyism and came up with Shepherd as a way to connect the two and I'm not sure if it quite worked for me. I think it might be the tonal shift more than the topic that makes it seem like she took two almost unrelated stories and wove them together, though.

Some other themes that I thought were of interest, and probably also meant to reflect on current times, was the portrayal of the media. I know I have seen complaints and lamentations online about the current state of the media and investigative journalism, and the fact that journalist seem to simply report what people say rather than research it and show the viewer/reader how statements certain political figures are making are false or misguided . . . since they simply get repeated, these statements are accepted as fact by the public. However, while I share this sentiment, I'm not sure when the glory days of investigative reporting were because all the newspapers and media sources in this novel do the same thing in the '30s and '40s and invent a few facts as well. The other theme that I believe was paralleled today was the way Kingsolver described both the McCarthy investigations and the hysteria and fear caused by the idea of Communism even though no one actually really knew what communism was, just that they were against.

Overall, definitely an enjoyable novel, and it is obvious that Kingsolver is also using the past to make statements about the present. The first part had a variety of colorful characters but in ways I liked the more intimate last half better. Basically, there were things I liked in each part of the novel; I just felt like the Mexico section went on maybe a little too long.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Book 96: Dogs of God

Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors by James Reston, Jr.

I'm not sure how I feel about this book - the author says he considers this "the last of a quartet . . . all have focused on stories of ancient and medieval history which have great resonance for the present day, questions of science and faith, of millenial expectations and fears, of clashes between civilizations and faiths. All four books have peered into dark corners of Christian Church history" (339). Part of me really wants to read these other books because they sound like they are about interesting topics, Galileo, Richard the Lionheart and Saladin (probably helps that I just read about his parents in Eleanor of Aquitaine), and Europe in 1000 (okay, that one I'm less interested in). However, I'm not sure if I'm interested in reading more by this author, even if his topics might sound interesting.

I admit, I thought it was just me - I kept drifting off in thought while reading this, and would then realize that I'd just read two or three pages without actually absorbing any information. Maybe I was just distracted while reading this - however, at some point, I think, it might also be the fault of the book that I kept letting myself get distracted.

In the book, Restin traces three events that all cumulated in the year 1492 - the reconquest of southern Spain (Granada and the such) from the Moors, the Spanish Inquisition leading to the expulsion of the Jews, and Columbus's voyage to the Americas. The uniting theme between all of these is religion, and a certain view of empire. For the most part this book is very educational, and there was quite a bit going on in the fifty-some years that this books spans. However, at some point, it also just felt like there could have been a bit more analysis. It is rather odd - in some ways, I feel like he certainly judged certain people and their actions, and in other instances, it seemed like he was just giving us the opinion of the sources. He describes one of the Moorish leaders as a traitor and a coward (obviously, the guy's action speak for themselves but still I was surprised to hear him described/condemned in such terms, mostly the coward part). There were also a few other things where I could have used more of a "why does this matter?" - granted, I may have just missed some of the explanations when I started zoning out. He explains the Inquisition and its process very well, and I understood that much of it had to do with money - for everyone condemned, the crown would get some money, the judge doing the condemning would get money so I understand some of the motivation behind it. However, there was also an obvious religious motivation behind it since Church members pressured and convinced Isabella to do this: still, I don't think I ever quite got how having people that said they were Christians but were less than devout was actually hurting anyone . . . yes, I know, different times but I just wanted more on this. Or how people could possibly think the judge could dispense justice when he would benefit from condemning people. Also, I would have liked to know why Isabella kept turning to stricter and stricter churchmen at different times. Restin explains the appeal of one of them, but how did the rest gain their important positions, and why did she not want to listen to the more tolerant men?

Though Columbus was the first figure in the title, he actually takes a backseat to the other events. While Isabella and Ferdinand were obviously devout and saw themselves as Christian leaders, to the point where they felt certain prophecies applied to them, they were also very narrow-minded as a result, and used their religious ideology and vision to betray and break treaties and promises they had made regarding tolerance. Of all the people described in the book, most of them appear in a very unflattering light, with the exception of Isabella, Isaac Abranvel (a high ranking Jew affected by the expulsion) and Columbus. Columbus spends the last six years of the war against the Moors attempting to get money for his voyage, and it is only after the war is over, that the monarchs finally agree to finance him, all with the idea of spreading Christianity.

There was one statement towards the end of the book that kind of bugged me and it was about the crew men that had gotten syphilis from the women of Cuba and Hispaniola: "[they] had no resistance to the young women with beautiful bodies who welcomed them" (306). Yes, I'm sure all of these women attempted to seduce the white foreigners, and not a single one of them was coerced or raped on this first voyage of discovery. I'm sure there was some consensual sex before the people realized what was in store for them but I doubt that all of it was. And no, I don't know why that sentence struck me of all the other things in the book.

One other thing: since this book covers over fifty years, there are a ton of people that make appearances. Some of them barely seem important, but there definitely are a lot of names to keep track of as the favorites in the courts change. As I said, overall, it was educational, and probably a good introduction to this time in history. However, I would see this as more of an introduction to the topic, and possibly supplement it with other books for a more analytical view of history.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book 95: Cursor's Fury

Cursor's Fury by Jim Butcher

Tavi is now a cursor, and has completed his training and schooling. In this novel, he is assigned to a new legion as a junior logistics officer to spy on potential traitors against Gaius Sextus, the First Lord. Most of the unit is rather green and untrained, but the commander is fair. Unfortunately, the legion soon finds itself under attack by a Canim army, and most of the chain of command is taken out, leaving Tavi in charge. Fortunately, he is still as intelligent as ever, and has several strong NCOs to rely on during the ensuing battle, most importantly Valius Marcus.

At the same time as this is going on, one of the lords of the kingdom, Kalare (his son was the bully that tormented Tavi in the previous book) has decided to rebel because he wants to become the First Lord. He has taken several important hostages, and Amara is sent on a mission to free these hostages (one of them is the wife of another noble, and as much as he wants to fight, he is not willing to risk his wife's life to support Gaius).

Overall, it was a very entertaining read, and Butcher also gave more background on some of Tavi's friends, most importantly Max and his family. Isana and Fade were involved in an attack, so most of their sections deal with Isana desperately trying to rescue Fade during the Civil War, and her recognizing her feelings for him. While all the parts of the novel are crucial, Isana's parts tend to be the least exciting for me, usually. In this novel, Butcher finally gives the background story he has been hinting at for the last two novels.

Book 94: The House at Sugar Beach

The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood by Helene Cooper

I originally heard about this book on another Pajiban's blog. Beyond the fact that Liberia was originally founded by freed black Americans, and that the capital was Monrovia, I didn't know much about Liberia's history. It was definitely very educational, and I liked Cooper's writing style.

Cooper was born in Liberia in 1966, and descended from two very important families within Liberian history. Her mother's ancestors were on the first boat from America in 1820, and her father's family came over in 1829. As a result, she led a very sheltered and pampered life. Her parents owned various properties and cars, and traveled every summer. While her family decided to take in Eunice, a young girl of Bassa descent to be a sister to Helene, Helene still didn't notice the class tensions within the country that much. There was always a strain between the country people, the descendants of people that had always been native to the country, and the Congo people, the descendants of Americans and other immigrants. The Congo people held most of the power and the riches despite being a minority. Naturally, this led to unrest, culminating in the coup in 1980. Following those events, Helene, her sister Marlene and mother escape to the United States while Eunice chooses to stay. Liberia, meanwhile, is plagued by political unrest and violence for years as a result of these events.

While Helene misses her life in Liberia and has a hard time fitting in at first, she dives into her new life and becomes a journalist who travels the world. However, she doesn't return back to Liberia for years, until after she covers the beginning of the Iraq war. As a journalist, she often reports on stories that seem to mirror the world she grew up in, but it's much easier to judge these stories from a distance as an adult than as a priviledged, young child. Cooper is definitely aware of the irony, which is why she included these tidbits. And honestly, given the disparity of wealth within Liberia, it is obvious that some type of reform was needed. It is understandable that there was a revolution but unfortunately, the revolution didn't lead to reform and a better life for everyone. Instead, it led to violence, a breakdown of infrastructure and persecution.

I enjoyed the way she worked in the background and thus gave a brief history lesson on Liberia. She also gave some background on what was happening to Eunice who stayed in Liberia. While I enjoy reading the stories and memoirs of ex-patriates, I would also love to read something like this from the other perspective - one of the "country people" or someone who stayed. It seems like many of these types of memoirs tend to be written by people that were already in priviledged situation to begin with (I'm thinking of Nazar Afisi and Iran, Edwidge Danticat and Haiti - Brother, I'm Dying is a great book, by the way), which makes sense because they had the resources for an education, to leave and possibly make contacts in the publishing world, but if anyone has recommendations for a different type of view, I would love to hear them.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Book 93: Academ's Fury

Academ's Fury by Jim Butcher

This is the second novel in Butcher's Codex Alera, and it takes place about two years after Furies of Calderon. As a result of events in the first novel, Tavi is now a student at the Academy in the capital, where he has made a few very close friends, and a few enemies amongst the children of the elite lords and nobels of the realm. As the one student without furies and special powers, he is naturally a target to bullies. Unknown to them, Tavi and three of his friends are actually in training to be cursors, spies for the empire like Amara.

Amara and Bernard have been together since the events of the last novel, and while Amara is visiting Bernard at the garrison he is now in charge of, they receive warning from Doroga of the Marat that an ancient evil is back and on the rise. In fact, it has already managed to take out a large part of their people. Bernard and Amara soon find themselves facing this threat in their lands. According to what is still known of the "vord," they are led by queens, and there are usually three of them, leaving one as a threat to the capital and Tavi (Tavi and Kitai were the ones that accidentally awakened the sleeping queen during the events of the first novel).

Butcher also uses this novel to introduce the Canim, a wolf-like species from across the ocean. There are also more hints about the past, and while Butcher doesn't come straight out and say it, he also isn't exactly hiding what he is going for as far as the past and its implications on the future.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Book 92: The Gargoyle

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

This is actually the second copy of this book that I have bought. A while back, I ordered the paperback when it was released, and brought it to work with me one a day that involved a trip to our higher unit an hour and half away. I had another novel with me that I needed to finish, and this was supposed to be the back up. When we got back to the office, I left this novel in the laptop bag, and then a few days later, realized that the bag had gone missing. Fortunately, I stumbled upon a hardcover version of this novel a few weeks ago at Barnes and Noble for $6 so I decided to try again.

The reason I didn't rush to replace my copy sooner is that I had read the first few pages before I put it in the bag, and I wasn't exactly sold. The narrator seemed like quite the asshole, to be honest. However, I'd heard enough positive feedback to not write it off completely. The novel really was amazing. Davidson never claims to give any answers so the reader can interpret the story the way they want at the end, which I liked.

The narrator begins his story with his crash - driving home from a party one night, high on coke, he believes that someone is shooting flaming arrows at him from the woodline, and crashes his car right off the top of a ravine. The car catches fire, trapping him inside (he had also spilled bourbon on himself right before the crash, excellerating the destruction in the lap area). Miraculously, he survives, and the next few chapters explain exactly how damaged he was, and what the healing process would be comprised of. The narrator, however, has no desire to continue living - he has no family, no friends, has lost his looks and sense of self and identity. He is a porn star and director that has been extremely burned over most of his body, and due to the bourbon, his penis was burned off. He only looks forward to leaving the hospital so that he can end his life undisturbed.

One day while in the recovery ward, a woman visits him, Marianne Engel, and she claims to know him. The narrator quickly recognizes that she is a patient on the psych ward, but is intrigued by her. She continues to visit even after her release, and the nurses and doctor that have been treating him notice the positive effect she has on his psyche and attitude.

Marianne believes that she knew the narrator in the early 1300s when he was also extensively burned (by flaming arrows). During their meetings and her visits, Marianne tells him various stories, and assists with his physical therapy. She tells him the story of her life in the monastery Engelthal in 1300s Germany, and how they ended up meeting. She also tells him four other love stories, stories about incredible sacrifice and devotion, and fires and arrows become recurring themes in the novel. At first I wondered if Marianne believed that these stories were reincarnations of her and the narrator, but it honestly didn't matter to me either way by the end. They were beautiful stories that fit in perfectly with the rest of the novel.

The narrator suspects that Marianne has schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or possibly both. However, he is also incredibly drawn to her. She is incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable, speaking several languages, and the narrator talks about the extremes to which she goes - for example, one evening she brings a Mediterranean inspired meal for him to eat, and she brought just about everything that would pop into someone's head at that concept (I admit that section made me hungry) - this went along with the Italian love story. There were equivalents for the Japanese love story, and the English and Icelandic ones.

I loved how this novel really isn't that easy to define and how it is part a collection of love stories and part historical fiction among other things. Marianne is a sculptor of grotesques (not to be confused with gargoyles), and, of course, the narrator is now a gargoyle come to life. As I said, the novel doesn't give answers - if as a reader, you want to believe that Marianne is crazy, it clearly wouldn't be that far fetched; however, you can also choose to believe her, and that they have known each other before. Personally, I like the idea of believing in Marianne's version of the truth.

Book 91: World's End

World's End (Age of Misrule, Book 1) by Mark Chadbourn

I'm not even quite sure how I felt about this novel. I'm not going to rush out to get the sequel but I definitely will probably order it in the near future. Is it possible to like a novel and the story and the premise but not care about the characters/dislike them/ be kind of annoyed with them? Because that's how I felt about this novel. I really didn't like the characters much for the most part.

The novel begins with Church and Ruth as they separately stumble upon the same murder scene in an attempt to help. However, when they see the killer, they both pass out and can't remember exactly what happened beyond a certain point. That night continues to haunt them, and they begin to search for answers together, though the answers seem to point to the impossible.

They soon stumble upon Tom, an old hippie while under attack by seemingly impossible beings, and he starts explaining some things to them. Very cryptically. The old gods and fantastical beings really existed, and are coming back to the world at this time, wreaking havoc with the rules of science, and bringing the potential for darkness and horror. The creatures that were most commonly associated with good (or at least not as evil) have been trapped by the evil and vicious supernatural beings so there is no one to stand against them. Church and Ruth discover that they are two of a group of five that together is supposed to stand against the rise of this darkness and free the others.

Now, I realize that if the characters begin believing in supernatural elements too quickly, it seems unrealistic. However, with everything Ruth and Church had witnessed, I got irritated rather quickly with how much they still wanted to play doubting Thomases when Tom tried to explain things to them (also since I'm purposely reading a fantasy novel, I obviously want to focus on the fantastical aspect rather than keep hearing about how it's impossible). The whole novel seemed to go back and forth between them quickly grasping what was going on and then suddenly going all Scully on the guy and the situation again.

They naturally accumulate the other three as they go, and are given a quest to search for four supernatural items, a stone, a sword, a spear and a cauldron. Of these other three, I liked Veitch the most. Laura was a character that I almost could have liked but she also irritated me. On the one hand, she was rather saracastic, which I enjoyed but the author kept trying to shove the whole "emotionally vulnerable underneath the tough girl act" cliche down my throat and it got annoying very fast. Every time she made a sarcastic comment, there was another sentence about how it showed her hope underneath it . . . blah, blah, blah. Ruth started out as intelligent but quickly became a bit of a goody two shoes, as Laura liked to point out. And I could have done without the love triangle aspect of it all.

Still, I enjoyed the way the novel incorporated old Celtic myths and the idea of the quest. Church was the one character that became less annoying as the novel progressed which was good. As I said, I like the story line and hopefully, the characters will be less one dimensional and more developed in the next part of the novel.

Book 90: Prince of Thieves

Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan

I haven't actually seen Gone, Baby, Gone, but I'm really looking forward to Ben Affleck's next directing effort, The Town. I haven't seen many of Affleck's movies but he's always seemed like a likable guy, and I've heard he is actually doing well with directing. I loved the novel Gone, Baby, Gone, so I figured even if he wasn't always good at picking scripts as an actor, he might be much better at picking novels with film potential as a director.

Prince of Thieves is the novel that The Town is based on, referring to Charlestown, the part of Boston where the Battle of Bunker Hill took place, and which later became known for its large population of bank robbers. While many of the characters in this novel will seem familiar, the book doesn't seem cliche. There is the close-knit group of high school friends, there is the driven, ambitious member of the law after them, the one member of the group that appears to be growing out of control while another is becoming weary of a life of crime and ready to move on. As I said, all more or less stock characters and story lines that have been done and seen dozens of times before. And even being able to guess what was going to happen due to the familiarity of these types of stories within film, books and television, it was still a great read. Despite being almost stereotypical characters, they seem real and developed.

The main character is Doug McRay, the brains of the operation among his four friends, and also the one who is reconsidering his life. The novel begins with a bank robbery, and after the robbery, Doug finds himself drawn to the bank manager, Claire Keesey. Claire isn't necessarily that fleshed out but she comes to represent a new life and a change to Doug. Given that he was already having doubts about his life, her kind of life is interesting to him, and as a result, he places more importance on her than he should after only a short time. He approaches her and begins seeing her after the robbery, while she is unaware of his real job. However, this relationship leads to conflict with his best friend, Jem, who becomes more and more out of control as the novel progresses.

I think this novel could definitely be a very good movie, and can't wait to see what Affleck does with it. One thing I am very curious about is the character Krista, portrayed by Blake Lively, who is about 16 years younger than Affleck. In the previews, before reading the novel, I was reading her as a young woman that was in love with McRay but whom McRay possibly saw as more of a little sister that he protected in the neighborhood. In the novel, however, they are about the same age (32), and have been off and on since high school. I'm interested to see if they are going to play Lively as an ex-flame, or if they are going to change the character due to the age difference. Now, I know this is Hollywood, so having the woman be that much younger is about normal, but it wasn't the intent in the novel.

Also, just a random side note, but I think it really is insane how a novel that is only fifteen years old can date itself simply by mentioning the internet - it wasn't a big thing at all and wasn't crucial to the novel, but it's just incredible and unbelievable how much that technology has progressed in such a short time. At one point, McRay also made a comment or reflected on the fact that bank robberies were becoming more difficult as society was becoming more and more cashless - many banks no longer had (and others soon no longer would have) a need to have a large amount of cash on hand. Frawley, the FBI agent, also lamented the fact that he was the last of his line as the future of financial crime was more likely to be identity theft than armed bank robbery.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Book 89: The Partly Cloudy Patriot

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

I finally get the big deal about Sarah Vowell! She was one of those authors that people kept raving about over on Pajiba, so I read her book Assassination Vacation, and while there were definitely parts of it I found amusing, I just didn't get the hype. I figured I just wasn't quite her audience and I don't tend to have a good track record with essay collections . . . I have yet to click with David Sedaris (a few of his essays cracked me up; the whole collection . . . not so much) or Sloane Crosley (same issue as above). After reading Assassination Vacation, I commented that her style might work better with smaller topics, and apparently I was right.

While her collection of essays definitely has a theme, each essay approaches this theme from a different topic. Even though it is a collection of essays, for the most part they span from 2000 to 2002, covering the Gore-Bush campaign and election, as well as a few other essays about random historical sites and conflicts. "The Partly Cloudy Patriot," the essay which gives the book its name, actually addresses 9/11 and her feelings about patriotism. I'll get back to a few of these topics in a little bit, but I figure I'll start with the funny stuff before moving on to the more reflective parts of the book.

The second essay in the book probably had me laughing the most, which was about her family coming to New York for Thanksgiving, and included this quote:
It is curious that we Americans have a holiday - Thanksgiving - that's all about people who left their homes for a life of their own choosing, a life that was different from their parent's lives. And how do we celebrate it? By hanging out with our parents! It's as if on the Fourth of July we honored our independence from the British by barbecuing crumpets. (12)

It also included a description of her father as "a man who moved us sixteen hundred miles away from our Oklahoma relatives so he wouldn't have to see them anymore" (11) which I loved because I think my family could definitely relate to that. My parents and I first spent 8 years in Germany, then two years in Seattle before my parents finally decided to move to Illinois to be near my dad's family, only to stop speaking to them after a few years.

Mostly though, I loved the fact that Sarah Vowell loves history, and is in fact a huge nerd about it as she would tell anyone, but is also conflicted about it (and, of course, the Buffy references make her awesome as well). She describes working in an antique map store, and how a customer would be looking at an old map of South Carolina and how pretty it was, and while she would agree, she would also immediately think "slave state." I really appreciated reading about someone that clearly loves history and their country but also can look at how nuanced and complicated it truly is simply because I often have the same feeling. America's history is not simple by any means but so many people try to simplify it that I often feel like a spoil sport for not being able to look at the story of American westward movement and progress without thinking, but what about the Native Americans? Or the slaves? Or the Japanese internment camps? Just as a few examples.

She also took a look at the election between Gore and Bush, and discussed the fact that at some point in America, being knowledgeable became something to hide or be embarassed about. Gore was clearly the more intelligent of the two candidates but Bush won on a platform of the "average guy" - do we really want an average guy in charge? I mean, why do we want someone in the White House that gets us rather than someone that not only gets us but also might have an understanding of how to solve our problems? Or recognizes that problems even exist?

The last essay I wanted to mention was "The Partly Cloudy Patriot," written in December of 2001. Vowell explains that in the first few days after the attack, she thought seeing flags everywhere was a cheering sight but as time progressed, she felt like the symbolism changed. And I really understand what she meant there. In her view, "the true American patriot is by definition skeptical of the government . . . so by the beginning of October, the ubiquity of the flag came to feel like peer pressure to always stand behind policies one might not necessarily agree with" (159). I also am occasionally skeptical about seeing the American flag hanging everywhere . . . on the one hand, it can be nice to see but sometimes I wonder if people are just hanging it to be cool. Or to say they are patriotic. And like Vowell, I wonder, who is more patriotic, the person that hangs a bunch of flags up and says, "America, fuck yeah!" or the one who knows and loves the history of America with all its contradictions and tries to make sense of it? Personally, I prefer the one that involves some thought. I have never described myself as a patriot because it feels like such a loaded word, it feels like it's been appropriated by people who think they represent the true America and I don't agree with their views, and I don't have an uncritical view of our country and its past. Yet I know many people would probably describe me as a patriot or assume I am one simply because of my job. I think part of this might be due to the fact that I spent K-7 in German schools so when I learned American history, I was already older and more likely to look at it critically rather than learning to love America in second grade (trust me, I was proud to be the American in my class of German students in elementary school but I just didn't grow up with American history the same way as many of my peers; instead, I grew up under the shadow of the Holocaust, which definitely teaches people to be critical of their past rather than simply proudly embracing it).

Also, this whole idea of patriot and patriotism reminded me a bit of the current debate regarding the cultural center, which is being played up as a mosque, and some comments that Jill at Feministe made:

5. Republicans who hate on New York City 364 days of the year, and how use the evils of New York (sex! gays! immigrants! Jews! elitists!) for political gain, don't get to suddenly claim to care when September 11th is involved.

I feel like this basically describes the people that say they are patriots and wave a flag around a lot but don't necessarily think about the topics more (not that I'm saying all Republicans are like this, I'm quoting her). Actually, since I'm on that article anyway, there was other point, I really liked:

6. Don't even get me started on the people who now call the World Trade Center site "hallowed ground," but have had no problem coming to NYC and snapping smiling photos in gym shoes and fanny packs in front of the site, like it's another attraction between Century 21 and Times Square. It is hallowed ground. Act like it . . .

I just really liked that point because I have felt similar about people visiting the Concentration Camp at Dachau. I admit, when I was in Manhattan in May, I ended up going to the site and taking a picture of the flag flying overhead, but I wasn't planning on going originally because I didn't want to treat it like a tourist site. There's a line between treating something like a tourist site and going due to genuine interest or to show respect, and I feel like it can sometimes be hard to tell which side of the line one is on during a particular visit. I ended up going when I realized I was a block away but as I said, I'd originally meant to avoid it because I didn't want to turn it into something on a "Things to See in New York" check list.

Anyway, in case it isn't obvious, I really enjoyed this book. It was thoughtful but also humorous and I agreed with much of what she said, and I am definitely looking forward to reading another one of her books. I just hope it's similar to this one in its set up, and not like Assassination Vacation.

Book 88: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Alison Weir

I was first introduced to Eleanor of Aquitaine by the German historical fiction novelist Tanja Kinkel in her novel Die Lowin von Aquitanien. Unfortunately, I don't think she has been translated into English (as usual, it seems like everyone is more than willing to translate out of English and import American films but less so the other way around), and she had some very good novels. Anyway, I'm also a big fan of Alison Weir so this book definitely had two things in its favor. However, I've had this book for at least two or three years, and every time I looked at it, I'd think, oh I should finally read that, but then get distracted by something else. I was interested enough to pick this as one of the unread books that went into my car and suitcase with me rather than into a box with the packers with many others so it's not like I wasn't interested in the topic. However, my recent interest in Henry II, her husband, is what finally pushed me to read this.

Eleanor of Aquitaine lived from 1122-1204, and was married to two different kings, first the king of France, Louis VII, and then Henry II, King of England and ruler of Normandy. Given this time period, it is of course very hard to get a completely accurate view of what was going on. Sources survive, but women weren't deemed important enough to really be made much fuss over, even the wife and mother of kings. Still, enough references to her survive in history for Weir to give an overview of her life. Some of her sources are in fact lists of expenses, showing what she was spending (thus giving an idea of how much she was traveling/where she was) or what she was contributing to charity/the church. Still, there are large chunks where she is barely mentioned, if at all. As a result, much of this book explains what the men in her life were doing over various periods of time, and how this affected her. Given that I was interested in Henry II, I was actually happy with this, since Weir portrayed him quite a bit and was fair to him, even if he was the man that imprisoned the subject of her book for several years of their marriage (if I were writing a book about someone, I'd probably be a bit biased in their favor).

With such old sources, it can be hard to tell who to believe. Like Cleopatra, Eleanor was a rather controversial figure. During her marriage to Louis VII, she accompanied him on a crusade, and according to rumors of the time, cheated on him with her uncle Raymond, and Geoffrey of Anjou, her later husband's father. Some of the sources see her an adulterous, ambitious whore, while others respect her ability to rule. Especially in her later years, after being imprisoned by Henry II for a few years, she appears to have mellowed with age, and the sources that knew her only in this later period of life, have only good things to say about her. Her son Richard II left her in charge of the realm when he went off on the Crusades. Overall, I believe Weir portrays Eleanor in a very fair manner. She loved her sons, especially Richard, but supported them in rebelling against their father, hence her imprisonment. I think she appears to have been a capable ruler, especially with age - I got the impression that she could be a bit too impulsive on occasion when she was younger.

Mostly, however, I quite enjoyed reading about the men and the kings of the time. It's interesting to compare actual history to what one actually thinks of when hearing certain names and the way they have been portrayed in Hollywood or preserved in the imagination. For example, Henry II, I simply knew as the man who was seen as responsible for Beckett's murder and who locked up his wife. However, Henry II brought peace to England after almost twenty years of civil war and under his rule, England controlled the largest part of France it ever would due partially to his strategic marriage to Eleanor. Beckett tends to be remembered as a saint and martyr that fought against the power of the king and for the people, but really, he simply fought for the power of the church. One of their main disagreements was over which court should prosecute clerks and clergy for crimes - Henry believing they should be seen by a regular court like everyone else to prevent them from achieving leniency, while Beckett wanted them to remain within the Church's authority. However, not only did Beckett disagree with the king, after their disagreement he was letting the clergy off with no punishment . . . that's just flaunting the church's authority rather than trying to find a way for people to be treated fairly. Richard II is another king that I haven't thought of much but when I do, I feel like he was brave and a good ruler . . . after all he was called Richard the Lionheart. Of course, being brave and courageous and a good military man doesn't exactly translate into being a good ruler. Shortly after taking his father's crown, he went off on a crusade for three years during which time his younger brother kept conniving to take the crown, and others in the realm were constantly threatening to rebel. Call me crazy but as a ruler, it's more important to make sure your own realm is squared away before gallivanting to the East to be part of some glorious Crusade for the church.

Also, I was very surprised by Henry II's relationship with his sons. All of his sons were constantly going to war against him because they were tired of waiting for him to trust them and give them some power. They wanted to be king and didn't want to wait for him to die to achieve this goal. This also made me think of Cleopatra and Antony . . . there was a reference to one of the eastern kingdoms (the Parthians perhaps) where the ruler had killed about forty family members to assure his accession, and of course, the Ptolemies themselves were constantly scheming against each other and killing each other for power. Yet, I kind of have to respect that - at least they weren't necessarily raising armies and making a bunch of random people die to achieve their desires. I guess I was so surprised because now it just seems so natural - monarchy, the old king dies, the new one is crowned, that I couldn't believe that Henry's four sons would be straining against this so much.

Overall, it was very informative. There are a quite a few chunks where little mention is made of Eleanor as Weir is explaining exactly what is going on in the realm, but given the few resources remaining on the subject, it is completely understandable. In addition to explaining as much as is known about Eleanor and her character, the book also gave a rather balanced view of some of the influential figures in her life, and as I said, I especially enjoyed reading about Henry II, a leader that was misunderstood in his time and only truly appreciated after his death.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Book 87: A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

As I said while discussing A Game of Thrones, I love this series, and it is interesting rereading them, and seeing how well I remembered the novels. While A Game of Thrones had some very defining events in the novel, in comparison, I couldn't quite remember how far this novel went within the series. While there are very important things that occur, I found myself waiting for things that are obviously going to happen in later novels. If A Game of Thrones documents the different events that set the action in motion, this novel deals with the aftereffects. As a result, I guess it is understandable why the following three novels would blend together for me in certain ways, though I'm not saying that this novel is weaker in anyway.

As the novel begins, the realm is split after Robert's death. Both his brothers and his son have declared themselves heirs to the kingdom, and Rob of Winterfell and his followers have declared him King of the North, opting to once again be an independent kingdom. The men of the Wall are on a reconnaissance to the north to find out what has been going on up there with both the wildlings (men that don't want to fall under the rule of any man) and were the blights are coming from (the walking dead). Dani is trying to put together an army and power base to take the throne that is rightfully hers, while dealing with desertion of most of her dead husband's former men and the weakened position she is currently in. Her three dragons are fortunately a draw for powerful men, but still too young and weak to be of military use, and most of these men are more interested in gaining a dragon than helping Dani.

With the realm torn apart by civil war, the roads have becoming very dangerous, and different people take advantage of the chaos and confusion to gain power while the nobles battle it out amongst themselves. By the end of the novel, more men have risen to claim power for themselves while other contenders for the the throne have been taken out of the equation. One of my favorite new characters was Davos, a devoted follower of Stannis, the elder of Robert's remaining brothers who watches his master choose a path he can't agree with but has no choice but to follow.

For the most part, there is no such thing as black and white in these novels. There are of course one or two characters that seem to be just bad (Joffrey being one of them), but for the most part, even the villains are portrayed in a way that is complex, and even if they aren't sympathetic, they can be understood.

Book 86: Mother Night

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is one of those authors I've always thought I should like but I've never really been able to get into. I didn't like Slaughterhouse-Five when I read it in high school, even though I haven't forgotten the "so it goes" quote, and Breakfast of Champions just didn't quite pull me in, either (oddly enough, I didn't really like The Lord of the Flies in high school either but I fondly remember the message, and actually think I would enjoy it quite a lot if I reread it . . . that's another one with a quote I still remember, "kill the beastie"). I've always assumed that maybe high school wasn't the proper time to read Slaughterhouse-Five, and if I just got the right book, I'd finally get it. After reading a fellow CBR participant's review of this novel, I thought maybe this would be the one.

Sadly, no. There are certain things I like about Vonnegut but he just gets too absurd for me at points. The narrator of this novel is Howard Campbell, Jr who is writing this memoir while waiting on his trial for war crimes. During the war, he was a Nazi propagandist, though he used his position to spy/work for the American government. There are no records of this, so instead he is reviled for his racist, anti-Semitic work. Vonnegut states in the preface that the moral of this novel is "we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." I was drawn to the idea of looking at the public man vs. the private . . . the way society perceives him vs. the way he perceives himself and his actions.

There was some of that, but there was also a lot of random stuff . . . I mean it made sense in the story eventually, but for the most part Campbell just seemed like a man that let himself go along with whatever tides were pulling at him. He ends up discovered fairly early in the novel by some white supremacists and though he doesn't agree with them, he somehow ends up with them. Maybe this is why I can't get into Vonnegut - his characters often don't seem to make that many decisions. Billy of Slaughterhouse-Five certainly just seemed to go through the motions (it's been eight years, I could be wrong). I don't know why I would find this off-putting, though, because I've read other novels with characters like that, and I still enjoy them.

I think if it had just focused on the wartime parts and the way Campbell sees himself I would have enjoyed it more but it was the addition of the crazy white supremacists among others that made it too over the top for me. At least Vonnegut's novels are quick, short and easy to read, so even when I end up wondering what the big deal is about the man, I don't really feel like I've wasted time.

Book 85: The Children's Book

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

I kind of loved this book. I mean, there were a few parts I skimmed, and I was a bit skeptical at first about the characters, but I ended being completely drawn into the story and the people. It seemed like there were a bunch of books that came out last year that sounded incredibly interesting but I didn't want to buy them in hardcover, and now they are slowly starting to appear as paperbacks. I think half the reason I even wanted this novel to begin with was the original cover. It was just so pretty - that's a great shade of blue.

The novel begins when Tom Wellwood and Julian Cain discover that Philip Warren has been living in the South Kensington Museum, and making sketches of the artwork. Fortunately for him, they are rather well done sketches, so when the two boys bring the newly found boy to Major Prosper Cain, the Keeper of Precious Medals, and Olive Wellwood, a children's book author, who is visiting the museum for inspiration, he receives an invite to come home with the Wellwoods.

The novel then spends quite a bit of time introducing all the different characters that will play a part, which includes the large Wellwood family, Olive and Humphrey's clan, the other Wellwoods, Humphrey's brother Basil and wife Katharina, the potter Benedict Fludd and his family, to whom Philip who wants to make something will be apprenticed, some of their more socialist neighbors, and the Cains. At first, I found myself wondering who these people were, especially the Wellwoods, who seemed to live in a kind of fantasy world, having Midsummer parties with perfomances of Shakespeare, while debating socialism. It seemed rather unreal to me. Charles, one of Tom's cousins, begins early in life struggling with the fact that he comes from money but wants to help the poor and sees how it seems odd the way the rich have time to dabble in socialism and such as a hobby almost. Philip also doesn't enjoy this type of talk since he feels like they are talking about him, or how they want to see his past.

Since the descriptions of the novel had said that is spans from 1895 to the beginning of the First World War, I was starting to wonder how all that was going to work when I was three hundred pages in and still in 1895. However, Byatt makes time flow in a logical way once the reader has a grasp on all the characters. She didn't decide to just suddenly jump 20 years into the future as I feared she might.

There isn't a huge plot to this novel by any means. Family secrets are revealed as the novel progresses, but mostly, it just follows the children that attended the Midsummer party as they grow up, witness the end of the Victorian England, and transition into Edwardian England, and finally the War. The women/girls all struggle with what they want to do with their lives, feeling that they want something more than just marriage but having a hard time determining what their alternatives are. Dorothy Wellwood wants to become a doctor, for example, while her cousin Griselda enjoys studying but doesn't know what she hopes to accomplish with it. The boys/men also struggle to grow up and find themselves, Tom having an especially hard time with this.

It's a long novel, and occasionally, Byatt breaks up the narrative to give historical background, explaining her character's circumstances. These were the parts I occasionally found myself skimming because some of her background went on for almost a chapter. Still despite some minor weaknesses, I really liked this novel. However, I can definitely see where this would not be for everyone - it's a story of a family and their friends, and the dynamics between them as well as how the times change them, but there isn't a huge plot per se. I, however, while often shaking my head at some of these people, enjoyed temporarily witnessing the world they lived in.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Book 84: Cleopatra and Antony

Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love and Politics in the Ancient World by Diana Preston

While I was in Philadelphia, there was a presentation in the Constitution Museum on Ancient Rome and the comparisons to America (some of these similarities were a result of the fact that the Founding Fathers were using the Roman Republic as both an example and a warning), and the Franklin was having a special exhibition on Cleopatra. As a result, I really felt the urge to watch Rome again and reread Margaret George's The Memoirs of Cleopatra which is one of my favorite novels, but instead opted to read an actual history.

Overall, this book does a good job of explaining the historical context and politics of the time. She spends a few chapters breaking down the situation in Egypt during the reign of the Ptolemies, and then uses several chapters to discuss the way the Roman Republic had been changing in the past few decades, and how great men had been taking more and more power for themselves to the detriment of the republican ideals, using examples such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey and putting Caesar's rise into context. This, of course, leads to Caesar and Cleopatra's eventual meeting and liasion.

Preston does a good job of trying to see through the propaganda that was written against Cleopatra both during and after her lifetime, and explains why certain rumors and slanders are probably untrue based on when they first started becoming popular (for example, the idea that Cleopatra hoped to survive or receive mercy by delivering a dead Marc Antony to Octavian was something that wasn't alluded to till years after her death, and as result, is rather unlikely). And Preston usually attempts to explain why Antony and Cleopatra acted in the ways they did even when in hindsight they must have known they would be alienating people that could be very important allies to them. Still, I didn't always feel like their actions made sense, but they were human so that probably explains it. Plus, it's been over two thousand years and unfortunately things get lost over time.

Still, while it was a good general history of Rome and Egypt of that particular time period, I was a little disappointed. For example, the title is Cleopatra and Antony but the period of time where they are a couple seems to take up the smallest part of the book. Also, since Preston gives Cleopatra precedence in the title, it would have been nice to hear more about her reign within Egypt when on her own (there's some but I wanted more). Instead, the focus was definitely on Rome which, of course, makes sense since Rome had the power to determine Egypt's future, but I still would have liked to hear more about other topics as well.

I hate to admit this but a lot of my knowledge of Roman history (at least the superspecific stuff) comes from historical fiction (and a college class or two). And honestly, it seems like both Margaret George's novel and Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series were very accurate . . . I can't say I liked McCullough's characterization of Cleopatra that much (she's definitely a Octavian fan) but the basic historic details were right. In fact, I'm not sure if I really learned that much from this book other than getting a quick refresher of Roman history, and getting justification in not liking the way Rome portrays Cleopatra, either - though I definitely like that series. Basically, it's good overview to Roman history as the republic transitioned to an empire but it doesn't necessarily spend as much time on Cleopatra and Antony as one might hope from the title (obviously context is important, though).

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Book 83: The Strain

The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

First off, I definitely had fun while reading this even though it was a bit flawed. But since this is me and I'm super-good at complaining, I'm probably going to spend more time explaining those flaws, even though, as I said, I enjoyed reading this and read it in about a day.

I'm assuming the authors were fed up with sparkly vampires, because I know I am, and decided to go back to the "these things are evil, let's kill them" type of mindset. To be honest, it's been forever since I read Salem's Lot, but the novel actually reminded me quite a bit of that one, particularly how quickly the disease/condition spread, and the overall pacing. Not that that's a bad thing at all but there were similarities. There were definitely a few things that required a suspension of disbelief (yes, I know it's a vampire novel) such as the old man with a heart problem that seems to have almost superhuman strength and speed given his age. I quite enjoyed the beginning when the scientists were attempting to figure out the mystery of the plane, and its passengers - how had they died? What had killed them, why weren't they decomposing normally? However, at some point, it felt like there were too many descriptions of how the four survivors were changing since it lengthened the novel unnecessarily. At one point, someone asks the questions why the four were left conscious when everyone else was dead since it raised more questions. If there was that option, wouldn't it have made more sense to leave everyone conscious rather than have this huge "oh my god, an entire plane of dead people" press spectacle? It definitely wouldn't have caused all the scientists to be called in . . .

I thought some of the things that were alluded to in the story were interesting but it seems like those will be saved for the next two novels in the trilogy . . . the fact that there is a human helping the master vampire make this happen (though, honestly, that point wasn't even that exciting to me when they got further into it . . . you realize the vampire is going to turn on you, right?) and his web of supporters, for example; basically, the next two novels sound like they will focus on the other ancient vampires that had a falling out with Sardu, the one who is currently causing all the chaos in Manhattan, and their reaction to his invasion of their territory.

I liked the way the exterminator used rats (or more accurately the fleeing of rats) to realize that something was wrong and find the lair. The main issue with this novel for me was really that it was a bit longer than it needed to be . . . something could have been trimmed making a shorter, and better paced novel or they could have incorporated more of the things they are saving for later in the trilogy (maybe a two part series would have been sufficient). I'm curious enough to pick up the sequel, and would like to see where they take it from here. However, it isn't a great new vampire novel that redefines the genre by any means. It's simply going with an old approach that hasn't been as popular lately - less sex, more gore.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book 82: Tears in the Darkness

Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman

Recently, I was at Barnes and Noble with a friend of mine. She was looking for a copy of Black Hearts in the military history section, and since we were over there, I remembered that this book, which I'd been eyeing in Germany at the PX and had heard overall great things about online, was probably out in paperback by now. I couldn't even remember the title or the author but when I saw the cover on a display table, I knew this was what I'd been searching for.

Personally, I really enjoyed the way they framed this book to tell the story. They choose one particular Soldier, Ben Steele, who experienced the death march, a work camp, and was sent to Japan to center their story around while also sharing anecdotes from many other Soldiers, discussing the big picture tactics and presenting both the Japanese and American sides. They give quite a bit of background to explain how the Bataan Death March came to be, including the loss of the Philippines, miscalculations on the Japanese sides, and then after the events of the Death March itself also explain what happened to the surviving American POWs and the eventual war crimes trial against the Japanese commander at the time of the March.

As I said, I think it was a great mix of historical fact with personal story. They also demonstrated the type of culture the Japanese soldiers were coming from, and the brutality within their own ranks. While this of course doesn't excuse anything, it helps shed a light on how this could happen. They interviewed a few Japanese, but, of course, for the most part, the Japanese that shared their stories were the ones that didn't want to kill prisoners etc. While I'm not doubting them, I'm sure the men that actively participated would be less willing to talk to interviewers so it makes sense that it seems like we get a bunch of Japanese that didn't participate and simply watched (kind of like after Hitler's demise, all the Germans were good people, and naturally none of them ever turned in a Jew and even gave them bread) - the question is whether these men or the sadists were more representative of the Japanese Army at the time. Also, it is clear that Japanese politicans and higher-ups were way too involved in the decision-making process and didn't allow for even their senior leaders to raise concerns or decide on the best tactial plans. LTG Homma was told he would have fifty days to take the Philippines and felt extreme pressure from higher when it took him five months (he was basically put into a type retirement after the campaign). One of his staff foresaw that Bataan would be very tough land against which to conduct an offensive and said it was more important to block the Americans from escaping to Bataan than winning Manila first but the Japanese Empire was more concerned with the symbolic victory of the capital city.

I also thought their portrayal of GEN MacArthur was rather interesting. I knew that at one point MacArthur's ego got to his head during the Korean War, and I'd also read a historical fiction novel that critiqued the way he handled the war crime trials after the war, saying that the men executed were pawns and scape goats. As far as the trials are concerned, they were shows. The verdict was decided way before the trial as seen by the differences between the defense and the prosecution's make-up and resources. Additionally, MacArthur had ultimate authority to change any decisions, and as someone else said, he was judging over a man that defeated him in battle - there's no way to be objective, as demonstrated by MacArthur's comment on the death warrant: "the proceedings show the defendant lacked the basic firmness of character and moral fortitude essential to officers charged with the high command of military forces in the field" (385) - not exactly necessary on a warrant that lists charges and court findings.

Mostly, the stuff about MacArthur I found interesting had to do with his preparation for the invasion of the Philippines. While I don't argue that he was a competent general, in this case he had quite a few missteps, some of which may have been a result of his famous ego. He sent false reports to the federal government about the preparedness of Filipino troops, he didn't expect the Japanese to attack until 1942, and as a result, all the Soldiers went about their duties rather complacently, and then he didn't react quickly when the Japanese did strike at Pearl Harbor. He didn't send out an airraid to Formosa soon enough so the entire air force was grounded and an easy target for the Japanese hours later. Additionally, even though Bataan was the obvious defensive position, MacArthur at first planned to defend all the islands, and as a result didn't move enough supplies south for a defensive campaign. As a result, the Americans were already weakened and starving before they even started the death march or arrived at the prison camps. Obviously, anyone can make a misstep but I just thought it was fascinating to see all these issues listed so specifically, especially given how popular MacArthur was with the American people and in the public imagination. It seems like everyone remembers him as a great general and his men thought he could do no wrong. Of course, this book also demonstrates that the man knew how to spin the press and press releases (then again, in the book, the Normans talk about how all the press releases said things like "General MacArthur and his troops . . .", "General MacArthur launched . . ." but I can kind of understand his side on this: yes, give your subordinates their due and acknowledge them but I also know that when I have to write evalution reports, they are written in a way to show that anything the Soldier that falls under the person being evaluated does reflects positively on the person being evaluated: "Soandso's squad completed . . . missions and drove . . . miles in support of . . ." - the idea being that it was Soandso's leadership that made it possible or inspired them).

While all this added depth and insight into the big picture (for example, the US government expected the Philippines to be an early target and knew they would be unable to hold it), the book's main focus is on the Soldiers, and what they saw and experienced. It was incredibly moving and educational, and there were quite a few men that stood out from the crowd (at one point, I was afraid I was going to start crying in the middle of a Moe's - the closest I've been able to get to a Chipotle in the Savannah area). Additionally, Ben Steele started drawing while he was a POW and pursued an education in art, so the book has several examples of his drawings dispersed throughout. I know I've spoken mainly about the men in charge in this review but I think that might be because that is the more analytical stuff that it is easy to talk about. Much of the rest of this book discusses things that are very violent, and emotional, detailing atrocities and how men survived. In some cases, it brought out the worst in them, and in others it brought out the best (could I sound anymore cliche). It is also written in a way that would appeal to people that aren't necessarily that interested in history books/nonfiction. Also, it's been years since I read this, but for anyone interested in the topic, I also remember being rather impressed by the book Ghost Soldiers. I think it focused more on the POW camps after the Death March than the march but it would probably still make a good companion to this book.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Book 81: Things I've Been Silent About

Things I've Been Silent About: Memories of a Prodigal Daughter by Azar Nafisi

I remember I quite enjoyed Reading Lolita in Tehran (it even inspired me to read Lolita, which I enjoyed much less), but I can't remember much about it. I have a tendency to enjoy books that talk about books and I enjoyed how Nafisi related the Western novels she and her students read to the oppression they were experiencing on a daily basis.

While books and certain characters play an important role in Nafisi's life, this memoir is about her growing up, her relationship with her parents and the political changes in Iran. I especially enjoyed the beginning of the book, though I lost interest in the middle - I'm not even sure what it was - were the politics becoming too distracting from the personal story or vice versa?

Nafisi and her mother have a very strained and difficult relationship. In fact, the entire family seems to have a strained relationship with her mother. In the beginning of the book, Nafisi also makes comments about betrayals from her father and how they hurt her, but other than a few scenes were she is clearly put in the middle during an argument between her parents, I don't feel like she elaborated or dwelt too much on any of her father's betrayals.

Nafisi's extended family was huge so I had a hard time keeping track of some of the characters, and couldn't always remember if this was the first time they were appearing or if they'd already been introduced previously. A family tree or an index would have been helpful with that, but most of these were minor characters and simply used as examples and for anecdotes so it wasn't necessary to keep all of them straight. The ones that are important appear often enough to be memorable.

She also does a good job of explaining the political situation, and how some of the more liberal people were so ready for change, that they ignored some of the things that Ayatollah Khomeini would mean for the country, and it didn't become obvious until it was too late. While she herself protested against the Shah, she also portrays him kindly. Since her father was the mayor of Tehran for four years, Nafisi grew up with politics. Sometimes, I didn't quite understand the family dynamics. Considering my views of what Iran now is like, I was surprised by how openly her mother seemed to complain to everyone about her marriage. She also seemed to have quite a following in the pre-revolutionary days.

There was one page or two in the later part of the novel that I thought was particularly well-put. She talks about how many of her friends don't agree with all the rules, but rather than protest them openly, they slyly break them at home, such as drinking or reading Western literature. However, she feels like this makes it a dishonest society. She also talks about how even for the most open-minded and liberated man, it can be hard not to fall into temptation, and live with their priviledge while not doing anything about women or asking them why they can't just wear their veil without complaining or trying to make a statement.

While I enjoyed this book, and I also liked reading about the family dynamics, I can see where this wouldn't be for everyone - if someone is looking for a straight-up memoir, they might find the politics too much. If they are more interested in the history of Iran, they might get irritated with all the mother-daughter drama. However, if someone wants a personal story that takes place during an important political moment, this would work. However, it is of course the story of someone priviledged and educated, and probably doesn't represent the average Iranian. Nafisi studied in England and the States, and had the option of leaving Iran.