Saturday, January 30, 2010


Is it just me, or is the whole voice-automated menu stuff incredibly annoying? I've had to call American Airlines a few times the last few days now, and honestly, I would much rather have a menu that says things like "Press 1 for this." Instead I keep having it tell me "say this for this" and then tell me "I'm sorry I didn't understand" so I'm getting annoyed and yelling at the phone before I even talk to the actual representatives. Also, at one point it told me to say my last name - seriously, unless your name is something like Smith or Johnson, what are the chances that machine is ever going to understand your pronunciation?

Book 40: Blood Rites

Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

It's getting a little difficult to talk about these books too much without giving away spoilers for the rest of the series. In this one, Harry is getting sick and tired of various vampires trying to kill him so he decides to take the offensive and plans an assault on Mavra, the supervillain of the Black Court. Additionally, he is working a specific case that he found through White Court vampire Thomas that keeps showing up. A porn director has noticed that women are dying around him in freak accidents, and hires Harry to protect them and determine who is using such a powerful curse to come after him.

Butcher finally introduces a few more characters from the White Court in this novel since before this, the focus has really been on the Red and Black Courts. He also reveals quite a bit more about Harry's family - it was about time to give us a bit of a bone. Also, Harry gets a puppy.

Butcher definitely has been doing a good job of keeping this series fresh, and adding backstory as he goes. Six books in and the series isn't getting repetitive or boring, so I can appreciate that. As I said, I am not going to go too much into these since it ruins things in earlier novels if I do.

Book 39: The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I've been wanting to read this for a while but I was waiting for it to be released in paperback or for the hardcover to go on sale. Once I started it, I was a little unsure to begin with since Aibileen is the first character to narrate, and I wasn't sure how to react to her dialect.

However, I ended up really, really liking the novel. The three narrators are Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. Skeeter is a young white woman that has just graduated college and has now returned home while the rest of her friends have all found husbands. Aibileen is a black maid that works for one of Skeeter's two best friends, and Minny once worked for her other best friend Hilly's mom.

Skeeter definitely does not fit into the mold at her hometown Jackson, Mississippi, and she doesn't want to get married and have kids - she wants to be a writer but really has no clue how to go about it. However, she was very close to her maid Constance as a child, and there is a bit of a mystery about Constance's departure. This inspires her to want to speak to other maids and interview them about the dynamics involved in being the black help that basically raises the children but is looked down upon as inferior. Given the climate of the time (the novel takes place over a span of two years, beginning in 1962), this is a much more complicated task than Skeeter originally thought in her naivete.

Aibileen is the first to agree to help her, and later is also very important in getting others to assist. As the maid, Aibileen witnesses many conversations about race by the women of Jackson as if she weren't in the room. Many of these comments are naturally rather insulting. In addition to seeing the racial dynamics, the maids also see the different class issues at play, and the power struggles within the women's world. Hilly is the social dictator of Jackson, and Minny's new employer who is originally from a poor part of Mississippi and married to Hilly's former boyfriend does not understand that she will never be accepted by society due to her background.

While the novel focuses mainly on race, it is easy to see how everyone is constricted by the society and rules of the time. Elizabeth is clearly not interested in children or cut out to be a mother but since this was 1962, that was what was expected of her. Now, she is clearly miserable and makes those around her miserable. Skeeter also does not fit in and her mother is constantly picking on her to find a man. Hilly is trying to help her husband for a political seat but given her skill at intrigue, she probably would have been the better candidate. Maybe if she could have found a real challenge, she wouldn't be as intolerant and controlling as she ends up being.

I definitely enjoyed the novel but part of me also wonders what a black author might have written - after all, two of the main characters are black but the author is still a white woman. How different would the novel or the perspective have been if it had been written by a black woman? The mammy figure has been glorified for a long time now, but while this novel tries to give the mammy's side of the story, it's still a white woman's idea of the mammy's side of things.

In college I read a good non-fiction book about gender and race dynamics in the South called Making Whiteness in which the author explored the importance of black women in maintaining the myth and the idea of Southern white womanhood. Some of those ideas can also be seen at play in this novel - the white women can only be perfect wives because they have black women at home helping with the childrearing and housekeeping.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Book 38: Bonk

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

I really enjoyed Stiff so it didn't take me long to pick up her other two books, Bonk and Spook. Since I've heard a lot more about Bonk, I read that one first. Like Stiff, Bonk is meticulously researched, and the information is presented with a nice amount of humor. Her research took her all over the world, including a penis surgeon in Asia and the pig inseminators in North Europe.

I had a few moments of epiphany while reading the book as well, where after reading a certain comment or section, I would just think, "oh, that explains . . ." (I'm not going to get too specific here since my dad reads this and really doesn't need to know). I also think it's very impressive that Roach was willing to participate in research as a subject if this would help her gain access to information.

Still, I think I preferred Stiff to Bonk. I think there are two reasons for this: it's much more fun to read about sex when you're actually having it on occasion. Instead, it was just a bitter reminder of what I'm not doing. Also, while Roach uncovered many things I didn't know about sex and sex research in the book, there were a few things I already was familiar with. I think part of the reason I liked Stiff so much is that I really had no clue about the topic (except for what I'd seen on Six Feet Under) - in comparison, I've already read The Technology of Orgasm, one book which she cited, and I've also read a biography of Kinsey. While these are only two of her sources, it still meant I already knew a little bit coming in so it wasn't quite as revealing and enlightening for me as Stiff.

However, it is still an incredibly entertaining and informative book, and I would definitely recommend it. I really think I was just bitter about all the fun everyone else was having with the research that I'm missing out on.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

I Don't Know What to Say

I know I have spent a post or two on this blog bitching about my German grandfather and his lack of interest. I haven't, however, mentioned my non-grandparents on here before.

When we moved back to the States originally back in '97, we ended up living in Kirkland, WA for two years. There was an older couple across the street from us, and we quickly developed a relationship with them. After we moved to Illinois, we stayed in close contact with them, and since I still had other friends in Washington, I usually would spend my spring breaks there, and there was always a spare bedroom for me at their place.

Evelyn has had myriad of health problems over the years but she has always been very tough, and kept right on going. She already had a muscle deterioration disease when we met her, but she would still be outside gardening all the time, with whatever contraption necessary to help her stand up. It was amazing how much she would still continue to do despite real health problems when my grandmother (my dad's mom) who was younger would take naps all the time and talk about how sick she was when there was really nothing wrong with her.

Despite all these health problems, Dick and Evelyn drove down to Illinois when I graduated college and commissioned. Dick and my mom pinned my rank on me, and then my dad gave me my first salute. I have long been referred to as the grandkid (compare this to the biological grandfather that couldn't even drive an hour and a half to see me). They sent me a few packages when I was downrange, and sent me cards for all the holidays.

Last March, Evelyn was diagnosed with cancer, and given a six month life expectancy. I had just taken leave back to the States right before so I couldn't go back to see her at that time. It is now January, and while she has had good and bad days, she was still hanging on. I figured I would go see her once my class started and I got the schedule. Given everything else Evelyn has ever had, I really thought she would just keep on going. She took a turn for the worse yesterday, so I'm flying out to Seattle this weekend to see her. At the moment, she can't speak but understands what people are saying to her. While her husband told my mom she might only have a week, for me it is hard to believe that she won't pull through somehow since she has been surprising doctors for a very long time now.

My maternal grandmother died very suddenly, so none of us had a chance to say goodbye to her, and I wasn't close to my paternal grandfather (I didn't even attend the funeral). While I want to go, of course, there's also a part of me that doesn't want to see the feisty old lady I knew in a weakened state. I've never had to deal with this kind of stuff before, which makes me rather fortunate.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Book 37: The Death of Vishnu

The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri

I've noticed that whenever I start to fall behind on reviews, it tends to be because there will be that one book that I don't know how to react to or what to say about it. The Death of Vishnu is one of those for me. I picked it up based on the recommendation of my friend Jak, and I enjoyed reading it but I've noticed I always have a hard time articulating my thoughts when I read literature about other cultures (I enjoy reading post-colonial lit, but as I said, sometimes it can be hard for me to critique).

A lot of this probably has to do with the fact that I'm really not that familiar with the culture, and while I read these novels to learn about the culture, it isn't the same as growing up in it. So a lot of it is due to familiarity or lack thereof. For example, while reading about the bickering housewives in this novel, it reminded me of Thirty Umrigar's Bombay Times (I really enjoy this author). However, I'm not sure if I were reading an American or English novel with bickering housewives, I would immediately think, "hey, that reminds me of all these other American authors." When I read Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie, I noticed the back cover and Amazon displayed several quotes comparing her to Chinua Achebe and I couldn't help but wonder if this comparison was being drawn simply because they were both from Nigeria. I've also seen comments online about how it is hard to get books translated or published in English about other cultures, along the lines of "oh, you wrote a novel about a disillusioned Indian? We already have one of those" even if there might be a hundred written and published about a disillusioned American (I'm paraphrasing and staying rather general here since I don't remember where I read this).

Anyway, since there are of course fewer novels available to English-speaking readers about India than there are about America or England, it might be harder not to start comparing them subconsciously or drawing connections. Also, instead of reading the novel, and drawing comparisons to real-life people one knows, it is easier to compare them to other characters. If that makes any sense at all.

Anyway, I've been avoiding this review for about two weeks for above stated reasons, so some things are already becoming a little fuzzy. The novel is about the dynamics of an apartment complex in Bombay. One of the characters, Vishnu, the "errand man" who lives on the stairs is dying, and the novel deals with the few days during which he lay dying. For the most part, his dying is seen as an annoyance and an embarrassment even, since now company has to pass a dying man on the way to visit. While Vishnu adds some more reasons for arguments into the mix, for the most part, life goes on as normal. On one floor, two families have apartments and they share a kitchen. This has led to a type of warfare between the two housewives. One of the families has an eighteen year old daughter who is seeing the Muslim boy from upstairs against her parents' wishes. The last resident is a widower, whose wife died several years ago after only a short but loving marriage (I liked him the most), and then of course there are various servants and workers that make appearances throughout the novel.

The Muslim husband has always been more of an intellectual but in the last few months he has been acting very odd, worrying his wife. It turns out he is on a quest to find religion and God, and he is the one that has the idea that the dying Vishnu is actually the God Vishnu. Vishnu hears this, and starts believing it as well as he lies on the stair threshold, reflecting upon his life.

In addition to class divisions, religion continues to play a large role, and the only time the two bickering housewives bond is when they bitch about the Muslim housewife upstairs. The teenagers in the novel are rather ridiculous and have completely unrealistic ideas of life. As I said, I enjoyed the widower's reflections on his life as well as Vishnu's memories the most. I also felt very sympathetic towards the Muslim wife who loves her husband but probably ended up with someone she was rather incompatible with. In comparison, the other two housewives seemed much less developed as characters.

The ending is rather dark. It was hard to really relate to any of the characters too much because while they definitely have things that are relatable they also act oddly on occasion - it was easier to maintain a certain amount of distance from everyone. I think Umrigar's characters in Bombay Times, which is also about an apartment building, are easier to relate to even with all their flaws. And there I go comparing again.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Book 36: Year of Wonders

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

I’ve never read Brooks’s novel March, which is probably her most well-known work. The main reason is that I never read Little Women as a child, and feel like I should probably get around to that classic before reading her vision of a character that plays an important role in the novel without ever appearing in it.

I have read her novel People of the Book, however, and really enjoyed it, and as a result was more than willing to pick up her first novel Year of Wonders when I saw it Barnes and Noble (since this was my first trip to Barnes and Noble in almost a year, I was very willing to pick up many books for very little reason . . .). I think I liked this one even more than her other novel. Also, being set in England in 1665/66, it actually had similarities to The Heretic’s Daughter, since both explore small communities reacting to circumstances that could make or break them and both deal with matters of faith and superstition.

Of course, for the most part, while Year of Wonders has moments that portray the evils of human nature, it also shows them at their best. After the plague comes to a remote mining village in England, the community decides to quarantine itself following the lead of their minister. Rather than attempt to escape or flee to other communities, the villagers all make an oath to remain there, thus containing the disease and preventing its spread throughout the area. A local earl agrees to provide them food for the entire time as they wait for the disease to run its course.

The novel begins after the plague has raged through the village, and killed many. The minister has lost his wife, and shut himself off from the rest of society, refusing to see anyone, including Elizabeth Bradford, daughter of the nobility and the one family in the area that chose to flee, and then never turned back or sent any aide to the village though they had the means to do so. Anna Frith, his servant, is the narrator, and after the opening, she takes the reader on a journey of the previous year.

Struggling for money after her husband’s death, Anna takes in a lodger, the tailor’s new assistant, a man that is both kind and generous but unfortunately, it is through him or a cloth he ordered that the plague comes to the village. While Anna herself survives (obviously), her home becomes ground zero for the disease and she loses both her children. After a few more deaths occur in the village, the inhabitants make their pact to remain together rather than flee.
For the most part, the community holds strong together and help each other, but they also turn on each other in their desire to find a cure and an explanation. As can be expected, the local healers are the first victims of this fear. Others quickly take advantage of their neighbors, charging them exorbitant amounts for services or using deaths and illnesses in families as a means of taking over their land and mines. Despite all this, the villagers stand by their pact. They may turn on each other and blame each other but they do not attempt to leave. Anna is especially impressed by the efforts and kindness of Elinor, the minister's wife and as the disease rages on, Elinor and Anna become close friends in their efforts to help their community.

The events in this novel were actually inspired by a true story, though Brooks said that there was not much documentation of the daily life within the plague village of Eyam. The characters are all fictional with the occasional "inspired by." As I said, it was rather simple story and many of the plotlines are rather predictable or at least recognizable, but I really, really liked this book. I think Brooks has a way of taking the old and cliched and making it seem real and new. And as I said, it might not be a bad follow up to The Heretic's Daughter if anyone liked that and wants to read more about small communities in the 17th century (even if this is takes place in England rather than the colonies).

Book 35: Lost in a Good Book

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

This is the second of the Thursday Next novels, the series that started with The Eyre Affair. As the novel begins, Russia and England are in peace negotiations to end the Crimean War due to occurrences in the last novel. Thursday and Landen are happily married and Thursday is newly pregnant.

Unfortunately, the Goliath Corporation continues to be rather perturbed at Thursday for imprisoning one of their operatives in "The Raven," and they are still looking for a way to insert themselves into literature, which is why her uncle Mycroft has retired and disappeared with his wife. In addition to all this, a copy of a lost Shakespearean play has been discovered, someone appears to be trying to kill Thursday with coincidences, and her father has told her that unless they can figure something out, the world will end 12 December 1985. Also, the price of cheese has risen to exorbitant rates (hey, cheese is important!). In an effort to blackmail Thursday, the Goliath Corporation eradicate her husband, changing historical timelines by killing her husband as a two year old. Thursday is now the only person alive to remember him or the fact they were married. In order to make a deal with Goliath (Jack for Landen), Thursday becomes involved with Jurisfiction, a literary court inside the bookworld, where she is apprenticed to Miss Havisham of Great Expectations and learns about reading herself into books.

The novel was fun, and Fforde is definitely creative though occasionally it seems like he’s doing too much just for the hell of it. My main complaint with this novel is that it was all over the place and lacked the same kind of focus that the last one had. In the first novel, all the tangent plot lines tied together, while here, they set up questions for later. It seems like the first time round, Fforde was focused on writing a stand-alone novel while with Lost in a Good Book, it is obvious that he is setting up a series. Two possible new arch-villains are introduced but given very little stage time. The whole “the world is going to end” plot barely gets mentioned. Much of the focus is on Landen and explaining the world of Jurisfiction. Also, Thursday seemed rather bland to me in this novel in comparison to the last one, and I much more enjoyed interacting with all the fictitious characters from other novels that Fforde brought to life.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Book 34: The God Delusion

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

When I was in Iraq, one of the soldiers I got along with best was an atheist, and since I had a similar irreverent attitude towards religion, he assumed that I was also an atheist. Except I was still rather hesitant to use that label at that point in time, and even ended up writing a rather extensive post about it.

The thing is the reason I originally turned away from religion had very little to do with my political beliefs and very much to do with the fact that I found church and the sermons boring. Comments like “Jesus loves you” just irritated me, and the idea of Christianity as taught in America when I first moved back in 8th grade seemed way too goody two shoes for me (in Germany, it was just repetitive and boring). From this boredom and disdain, I eventually also started analyzing organized religion and seeing the way people behaved in the name of God, and it just turned me off even more from the concept.

Now, I definitely consider myself a non-believer, though occasionally I’ll notice myself accidentally doing things from habits as a child – I will still cross myself with holy water when I enter a Catholic church though I enter them purely as a tourist. Occasionally, I still think in my head, “please God, don’t let this happen” or “please help me with this test/etc ” before remembering that I’m not actually addressing anyone. When I walk into a particularly beautiful and well-constructed church, I will occasionally think if anything could make me believe in God, it would be this before rationally reminding myself that God didn’t build the church – humans did, sometimes inspired by him, but nonetheless, it was a human that designed and built the church and painted the paintings and made the sculptures. If anything, the buildings then reaffirm my faith in humanity. And as much as religion may occasionally irritate me, anything that inspired and financed anything that beautiful can’t be all bad (although as Dawkins points out, what might they have made if they hadn’t been spending all their time on church stuff – I guess I just have a hard time thinking of what may have taken the place of a church and had the money and power to create all that if religion hadn’t existed).

I enjoyed The God Delusion quite a bit, although I think that may be because I already agreed with a lot of the things he said. Some of the chapters dragged on a bit I felt, but maybe that was due to a case of preaching to the choir. However, I don’t think this would be enough to change anyone’s mind. Anyone open to this book probably already has some doubts or agrees with Dawkins and is simply looking for a more articulate way of expressing themselves and supporting their arguments. He even used an example of a geologist who was both religious and studied geology, only to give up geology (at least the way he had been taught) because the two conflicted. While many scientists have been able to reconcile their faith with their work, this is a problem for some in the States where many tend to read their Bible literally.

While Dawkins briefly addresses other religions, he focuses on the big three, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, since he expects most of his readers to fall into one of those categories or at least be familiar with them. In his first few chapters, he discusses some of his issues with religion, and the fact that it is treated in such a respectful manner - religion is used to excuse many actions that would otherwise be frowned upon. He also discusses the idea of faith and how very little of religion has any base in reason. All these chapters were well-set up and provided good background.

I felt like Chapter Four dragged on way too much, though. In this chapter, Dawkins discusses why the idea of intelligent design and a supreme being is ridiculous - as crazy as the idea is that life suddenly developed through a chemical reaction, it makes much more sense. After all, in this theory, life began as something very simple and over billions of years, developed into something much more complex and varied. If there were a supreme being, that would mean something incredibly complex existed and developed from nothing which is much more farfetched. As I said, I felt like he drove his point into the ground but that's also because it made sense to me, and I agreed with his assessment.

I loved the rest of the book which involved quite a bit of sarcasm and humor while Dawkins analyzed and skewered religion. It really is frightening how much ignorance is continued in the name of religion. Also, the people that are portrayed in the Bible as examples are incredibly flawed, lying and cheating, destroying other cultures for no real reason other than "they were in the way or on the land God promised us."

My other major problem with the book was in Chapter Nine. In it, Dawkins equates religion with child abuse, and while I definitely agree with the idea that children should be allowed to make an informed decision about which religion to follow or if any at all, some of his statements bugged me:
I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place. It was an off-the-cuff remark made in the heat of the moment (356).

Since he said it was "an off-the-cuff remark" I would have been willing to ignore the comment but he pressed the point, and used a woman's letter to support this idea. I'm sure it depends on the situation - I've never been sexually abused, but I also wasn't raised in a very strict religious household that preached fire and brimstone so I know which one would probably be worse for me. I thought the statement was too sweeping, and disregarded how serious an effect sexual abuse could have on someone.

Overall, I thought it was a well-reasoned book that addressed the problems with religion from a variety of views rather than just science. It is hard to imagine how the world would have developed without religion but it is an interesting question to ponder. Especially in this day and age, it seems that people would be take a more rational approach to religion - not necessarily getting rid of it all together, but not using it as an excuse to let ignorance reign as tends to be a problem in certain parts of the US.

Also, speaking from a purely military perspective, there are certain ways in which I think religion is helpful. When soldiers have personal problems or other issues that they don't want to discuss with their leadership, many of them are much more likely to talk to a chaplain than a mental health counselor (there still tends to be a certain stigma attached in the soldiers' minds to that). As a result, I actually support the mixing of religion and state in this one instance only, and even there it completely depends on the chaplain - I've seen the fire and brimstone variety, and I've seen those that really just want to help soldiers and provide some sound advice, independent of religion or God. I just don't think having a counselor in a battalion would have the same effect as a chaplain.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Book 33: The Heretic's Daughter

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

I ordered this novel from Amazon a day before I saw Rusty's review on her personal blog, and finished reading it the day before that same review was pulled to the Pajiba main page - I guess I have weird timing.

The author, Kathleen Kent, is the descendent of one of the women that was hanged as a witch during the Salem Witch Trials, Martha Carrier. She has grown up with the family legends and mythology of this woman who chose to stand for her principles rather than confess and live. It's always amazing reading about the past and seeing how different people's reason and logic worked (of course, this still applies to certain groups even today) - if she were a witch, wouldn't she have something better to do than torment stupid teenage girls for no discernible reason?

Anyway, the story is a fictionalized version of Martha Carrier and her daughter, Sarah's, lives. Kent chose to make Sarah the narrator since as she explained, there was still so much that happened after Martha was executed. Life in the early colonies was hard, and Sarah's relationship with her mother was complicated to say the least. After she is sent to live with her aunt and uncle during a plague outbreak, she sees a different side of life, and her aunt and uncle have a much warmer home life, which Sarah thoroughly enjoys as well as her cousin Rachel's company. While Sarah's home may be harsher and stricter, it also becomes clear throughout the book that Sarah's family has greater principles and is much less confined by the superstitions of the day.

I couldn't help but cringe when I heard Sarah's uncle describe his attack against a village of an indigenous tribe to prevent them from attacking whites, and Sarah's father later tells her there was nothing heroic about these actions, since the village attacked was peaceful and the men weren't even there; her "brave" uncle" had massacred a village of women and children.

Much of the first half of the novel shows the dynamics in Sarah's family as well as the local community, all illuminating the grudges and innocent actions that would later be used as evidence or be the real motivators for accusing innocent men and women as witches.

Martha's outspoken has earned her many enemies and she realizes that she will be accused. She also decides before she is even imprisoned that she will not be kowtowed, though she counsels her children to do whatever it takes to survive. Carrier was willing to die for a principle along with a dozen others, and her strength inspired her memory to live for generations within her family.

While it was also fascinating to read about the early colonies, I can't say I felt much pity for the colonials, for the most part. Naturally, they can't be blamed for being superstitious since so little of science was generally known back then, but it is hard for me to sympathize with the villagers' fears of raids from Native Americans - after all, they had invaded their land, and then proceeded to kill off entire villages at a time - as a result, I don't feel much pity when I hear about a few dozen whites being killed in a raid. The whites would retaliate a hundredfold or already had done something much worse to which the raids were simply responses.

I enjoyed the novel, and Kent did a good job of mixing history with fiction, envisioning what life may have been like at the time and how easy it was to get neighbors to turn on each other and lose trust in one another.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Book 32: Death Masks

Death Masks by Jim Butcher

While I have had an interest in many different novels and TV shows that deal with the supernatural and evil, most of them tend to shy away from actual religion. While Buffy battled demons and the forces of darkness on the Hellmouth, Whedon shied away from discussing God, even sending her to heaven without addressing religion. The first few seasons of Supernatural definitely deal with hell and demons but it wasn’t until the 4th season that God and angels actually started playing a role, and even there, Lucifer seemed a lot more of a real presence and threat than God.

Even though Butcher has already addressed religion by having his Knights of the Cross, I was still surprised to find that the Shroud of Turin played a role in this novel. Granted, the question in the novel isn’t necessarily whether it is real or not – if it is, it has power due to that; if it isn’t, it has power due to the many people who have strong faith in it. (Actually, this reminds me of a short story I read when I was much younger, though I don’t remember the title or author: a young woman captures a vampire and locks him up in her basement with shackles with crosses on them. She tortures him for his evil nature and actions, and eventually asks her priest for advice. She didn’t like whatever he said, so she either lied to him/ disobeyed him or killed him, and then went to the basement to torture the vampire some more. However, the vampire breaks the shackles, explaining to her that it wasn’t the symbol that had power but her faith in it, and since her actions towards the priest meant her faith no longer meant anything to her, the crosses no longer have the power to hold him – does this sound familiar to anyone?) This is also Harry’s introduction to the other two Knights of the Cross that have come to Chicago because the stolen Shroud has been brought to Chicago, and the Fallen, incredibly powerful demons/ fallen angels that possess people for centuries and millennia at a time are somehow involved.

As usual, it is a very quick paced novel, all plot points and random side tangents naturally end up being related to one another, and there are losses. There are also some issues with the ongoing war with the vampires, and Susan visits Harry, helping him out quite a bit on this case (since she is now much stronger than him, she ends up being incredibly useful in some situations). It’s been about a week since I read it, and it’s already a bit hazy, but I don’t exactly expect these novels to leave huge, lasting impressions and change my life, and I was already looking forward to picking up the next few in the series once I finished it. Also, I have to give Butcher credit because sometimes series get repetitive and old after awhile, steadily becoming worse from one novel to the next, but if anything his might be getting better (I’m not saying he doesn’t repeat himself at all – each novel has a comment about Harry's cat Mister almost knocking him over in greeting due to his size and weight, each one makes sure to describe Murphy as looking the opposite of how she really is . . . I’m not sure if this is because he expects people might pick up in the middle of the series or because there’s a period of time between when the novels were published and he doesn’t want readers to forget certain things).

Friday, January 15, 2010

First Few Days Back

Thanks to everyone that asked how everything turned out! We actually got more snow last Monday than we did during the Friday blizzard, so I was worried they'd close post down before I went everywhere I needed to but fortunately, they didn't. I had my final out in the morning, my farewell luncheon at 11 at my favorite Italian restaurant in Graf (it's not necessarily that they have the best food, but it was close to home and I always enjoyed the atmosphere, plus it's always nice to have a place where the waiters basically know what you are going to order). My replacement said they are going to get a plaque made for me so I'll actually have something to represent my time with the unit!

I'm really enjoying being back in the States. I've already found some furniture at Pier 1 and even opened up a credit card with them for a discount. Since they don't deliver, I had to call a delivery company they recommended to get everything to my place and waited all evening last night for it to come. I finally got a call from the company telling me that the driver had quit and they would reschedule me for this morning (which is why I'll be leaving Starbucks as soon as I'm done here).

I've been to Panera, Chipotle and Starbucks. I've also already been to Barnes and Noble and Victoria Secret. My credit card company actually put a warning on my card due to odd activity so I had to call and explain that I just moved back to the States and am spending a lot because 1) I'm setting up my new apartment and 2) I'm going to stores I haven't been to since last March. Fortunately this happened in the States and not while I was traveling in Europe - Victoria Secret wanted to make a sale so they were more than willing to let me use their phone while it would be hard to find a store that would let me call the States in Europe.

Anyway, I need to go; unfortunately my household goods won't be getting here for another month, and I'm really looking forward to hanging up all my decorations and souvenirs in my new place - now that I will have my own furniture, it's going to look really cool. I'll post pictures once it's completely set up.

Book 31: The Firebrand

The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon was one of my favorite books when I was younger, and is one of the few that I’ve read more than two or three times, and own in two different languages. I was recently discussing The Mists of Avalon with a friend of mine, and shortly thereafter saw a review of Margaret George’s Helen of Troy at Books for Breakfast (George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra is another favorite that I keep meaning to reread). These two things reminded me of the fact that Bradley had also written a novel about the fall of Troy that I’d read (I must have been between 10 and 13 at the time since I read it in German), and thought might be a good time to revisit it. As much as I like Margaret George, I didn’t remember having a strong reaction to her Helen story – I enjoyed it while I was reading it but it didn’t leave much of an impression and I don’t know if it added much or anything to the story. On the other hand, I remembered Bradley’s view adding to the story and really giving more background (granted, at that age, I might not have been as familiar with the story though I did go through a phase when I read lots of mythology).

Bradley approaches the epic story from the view of one of the supporting characters – Kassandra, daughter of Priam, twin to Paris and doomed prophetess – the woman that sees the future but is never believed. Rereading it now, I could see some similarities to The Mists of Avalon – the main characters in both are misunderstood by their immediate families but feel closer relationships to their aunts that adhere to the old ways. Both novels also show a struggle between the old ways and the new, as religions that worship the Earth Mother and other goddesses are replaced by patriarchal religions in which even the female goddesses are always second to the men.

In some cases, Bradley’s portrayal of the characters is very much in line with what has always been believed while in other cases, she takes their flaws to an extreme or shows a very different view. Aeneas, while only having a small role, is portrayed as one of the best of all the men there. Achilles is an insane megalomaniac (not exactly reaching there, but rather than be shown as honorable and glorious, he’s just a spoiled, rude young man-child). Paris was an incredible asshole, while Helen was one of the few characters Kassandra really respected, even if she prophesied that Helen was bringing doom upon Troy.

In addition to bringing ancient Troy to life, Bradley explores different cultures and cities, some rather familiar to readers of Greek mythology. While Kassandra has always had a calling to be a priestess, she also spends time with the Amazon warriors and relishes the life. Through her mother, she is related to the Queen of Colchis (I don't remember this from any other myths but it's been a long time), so while Kassandra was raised in the very patriarchal Troy, she has a variety of strong female role models among her mother’s relations. While I know Kassandra is a relatively minor character in the Trojan War, I enjoyed the story from her perspective. Occasionally, it seems like everyone but her has lost their mind but that’s not necessarily any different from the actual real mythology given that two nations went to war over one woman’s choice (though both this novel and the film Troy argue that she was an excuse, which certainly sounds much more plausible).

One thing that was surprising to me and might be to anyone that is familiar with Bradley's other work: the sex is very scaled down in this novel. I remember Mists being rather graphic but in this novel, it tends to be of the "we kissed, went to bed and then the next morning" variety. Still, while I'm not sure it was quite as great as I felt when I was younger, I definitely enjoyed myself while reading this and am glad I picked it back up.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book 30: Summer Knight

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

After finishing Grave Peril, I remarked that I wished Harry Dresden wouldn’t always get the crap beaten out of him quite as frequently and badly as he has in the previous novels – and then I read this one, and he doesn’t. Now there are still plenty of fights and action, but Harry manages not to get quite as badly hurt which was nice. I didn’t have to spend various pages reading about how he was too tired to act but had to use up his last ounce of energy to do a spell.

There’s a lot going on in this one as well. The Red Court, a faction of vampires located mainly in South America, and the White Council (the official governing body of the wizards) are at war due to something Harry did. The Red Court promises to end the war if the White Council gives him up, which some would be more than willing to do. Additionally, the White Council needs to get passage through the Never-Never controlled by the faerie world to effectively move during the war, and the only way the Winter Court would be willing to do this is if Harry would do a certain something for them.

Harry doesn’t want to work with the faeries because they aren’t very nice or trustworthy but he has no other choice if he wants to prove himself and not be turned over to the vampires. The Summer Knight, representative of the Summer Court, has been murdered and his power stolen. The Summer Queen suspects the Winter Queen Mab, who is the faerie now holding Harry’s contract (he made a deal with a faerie when he was much younger). He needs to find the murderer and the power to avert a war between the two courts, which would affect the real world very badly, starting with out of whack weather, including raining toads.

Adding to his complications, his presumed dead ex-girlfriend Elaine is back in town, still alive and also embroiled in this case. I really enjoyed this one. Many old characters are back, including Billy and the pack of friendly werewolves, and after being stuck in a nightmare world in the last novel, Murphy gets to fight back in this one.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Book 29: Black Hills

Black Hills by Dan Simmons

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the very generous Hachette Book Group.

I have wanted to read Dan Simmons since I first heard about Drood but I’ve been waiting for it to appear in paperback (that hardcover looks like it could also serve as a murder weapon or doorstop). As a result, this is actually the first Simmons novel I’ve read, and my views are mixed, to say the least.

The premise sounded intriguing though if I’d actually read it before just hearing "free book by Dan Simmons," I’m not sure I would have gotten it. Black Hills is a young Lakota (also known as Sioux) boy who becomes inhabited by General George Armstrong Custer’s ghost, since he touches him as he dies. Black Hills (or Paha Sapa) has already shown a certain supernatural gift, since he occasionally gets flashbacks or flash forwards when he touches people, thus knowing their past or future. For the most part, it’s just small glimpses but there are a few people where this touch leads to him knowing their entire life, Crazy Horse included.

The novel flashes back and forth between that summer in 1876 when Paha Sapa first comes into contact with the ghost and 1936 when he works as a dynamite person on the building of Mt. Rushmore. The novel also takes a look at other times in his life, but these are the major focuses of the novel. In between, there is also Paha Sapa’s stint with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and his domestic life. Paha Sapa, or Billy Slow Horse as he goes by (or Billy Slovak at other points), wants to destroy Mt. Rushmore, and when he hears that the president, FDR, will come to see the completion and revealing of the second head, Thomas Jefferson, Paha Sapa decides this would be the perfect opportunity.

It took me a little bit of time to get into this novel for several reasons. First of all, I felt like the explosion plot had very little tension to it – I could definitely understand Paha Sapa’s desire to destroy the monument in progress, but it’s Mt. Rushmore – I’m pretty sure I can say we’ve all seen pictures of it, so it’s not like his plot is going to succeed. Maybe if Simmons had used a less well known artifact that actually would have required some googling, it would have been more effective tension-wise, but it wouldn’t have had the same meaning as destroying Mt. Rushmore.
I mentioned earlier that I would have been hesitant to buy this based on the plot description and this is due to the fact that I can occasionally be skeptical when it comes to whites writing about other cultures – granted, I’m sure an actual Lakota wouldn’t be able to completely accurately represent life within the tribes over a hundred years ago either, but that person would still possibly have a better understanding. With white authors, I just fear there is always the chance of slipping into the “noble savage” stereotype. I’m not sure if Simmons avoided that or not (while I definitely enjoyed the later part of the novel, certain parts of the ending and Paha Sapa’s last vision revealed in the novel just irritated me and seemed to take the whole noble savage thing to an extreme).

A few of the chapters are also General Custer’s ramblings – he addresses himself to his wife Libbie, reminiscing about their lives and all the sex they had, especially in the beginning before he realizes he is a ghost trapped in someone’s head rather than just sleeping to recover from his injuries. Towards the end of the novel, his character actually makes a few statements that make some sense (I read Stephen Ambrose’s biography Crazy Horse and Custer years ago, and completely hated Custer as an arrogant bastard that led his men to death for glory – this novel makes the point that he was simply acting on strategies that had never failed in the past) but in the beginning? I really could have passed on all the sex scenes. It’s not that I have a problem with sex scenes but I didn’t need to read about Custer and Libbie having sex on a horse. I guess one of the reasons this bugs me is that these are real people and there are certain things I don’t think we need to imagine about historical figures, sex on a horse being one of them and whether or not Libbie shaved her vagina being another.

The parts I enjoyed the most actually concerned Paha Sapa’s life in the middle, describing the few opportunities he had after that one summer, and his domestic life. To me, it was much more interesting to see how his life developed and what led him to a place where he would want to blow up Mt. Rushmore rather than reading about him plotting it. I’m not sure how this compares to the author’s other novels, but if I had to make a choice, I guess I would recommend this novel to anyone interested though I would probably point out all the things I said above while making the recommendation (and I’d probably only remember to recommend this if it happened to come up in conversation somehow, not in response to “hey, what should I read?”).

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book 28: Devil in the Details

Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obessive Girlhood by Jennifer Traig

I picked this up after reading a review of it on Pajiba (I think it was the first selection from this year's Cannonball Read to make it onto the main page). In this memoir, Traig details her experiences with obsessive compulsive disorder as a child and teenager. Her OCD takes a very specific turn as well since she also has scrupulosity, a rather religious form of OCD (and trying to be a strict, Orthodox Jew definitely comes with a lot of rules which appeals to her disorder). Despite all the problems she has had, she approaches her life and her disorder with a sense of humor and there were quite a few very entertaining and funny parts.

While this was all well done, this wasn't a book that kept me gripped in my seat, wanting more. In fact, I was kind of ready for it to end because while her approach and lack of self-pity are very admirable, it also became repetitive. I guess that is rather fitting for a memoir about obsessive compulsive disorder. She also doesn't tell her story in linear fashion which works in some ways but not in others. It is interesting how she discusses different types of her disorder and different symptoms that flare up at separate times (or sometimes all together) but since she lists them all in separate chapters, I think it disguises just how bad it got to an extent. At some points, she seems merely eccentric, at others, it is surprising how her parents even put up with her. Of course, since she grew up in the '70s and '80s, the medical community was not aware of the actual causes and treatments for OCD (chemical disorder and the right drugs respectively).

Overall, it was an interesting view of OCD, especially since I am not too familiar with it beyond the stereotypes. However, to me, after a while, the joke became a little bit old, and I wouldn't have minded something slightly more linear to understand the progression of her disease (even though she did state that it would come and go at times for undetermined reasons).

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Because Things Just Can't As Planned, Of Course

I moved out of my apartment on Thursday and will be staying at a hotel on post till Tuesday which has free internet - that naturally I can't get to work on my computer, hence I'm restricted to a quick session at the library at the moment (and I'm four reviews behind, so I could have really used the internet connection). And the library computer won't let me on facebook.

I was supposed to have my final out yesterday at 1230, which would have involved driving to Vilseck for an appointment with finance and getting my final signatures. Unfortunately, the weather stations were predicting a huge blizzard for yesterday so they closed post down at 1200, including finance. Fortunately I called before driving there, but they unceremoniously told me to come Monday at 1230, which also happens to be when we scheduled my farewell luncheon (I'm hoping that if I show up at 8 and beg, they might let me do it then).

Still, as a result, I had to extend my rental car since I need to drive the half hour to Vilseck still. Also, the post office didn't even bother to open on Friday, and I had a few packages I needed to send to myself. Of course, it turns out that might have been a good thing since I just got an email from the apartment building I will be living in, telling me they are putting me in a different apartment than they originally told me - apparently, I just never got the email. Too bad I already tried to be proactive and set up my utilities and my internet for the apartment number they originally told me, and I no longer have free calling to the States (and I am also having problems getting the phone in the hotel room to let me dial). And my current/former landlord called to tell me I owe him an extra 450 Euro for heating and water that wasn't covered in my rent because things have gotten so much more expensive (not to mention that I had to keep the heat on high because my apartment is cold as hell otherwise).

The best part? The blizzard? Yeah, we got like an inch or two tops. And the only thing we got before 5 pm yesterday was a slight dusting. Nothing like going overboard for nothing - I understand we don't people driving on bad roads but couldn't we wait till it actually starts snowing before freaking out? Maybe?

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Book 27: Grave Peril

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

I was a little bit disappointed with this novel, if only because I was expecting something slightly different from the blurb on the back: "the spirit world has gone postal . . . these ghosts are tormented, violent, and deadly. Someone - or something - is purposely stirring them up to wreak unearthly havoc." And while overall, this is an accurate description, I was a little bit disappointed with the motivation behind it all when it was revealed - I was just hoping for something bigger, or something that would involve more and larger revelations about Harry's past than are given in this novel.

Also, based on that, I was expecting to see Harry battling a bunch of different ghosts, and while the novel tells us he has been doing this for the past two weeks, at the point where the novel begins, he is dealing with one creature in particular. It's been happening in all the novels, but especially in this one, I just couldn't believe how much and how often Harry gets the crap beaten out of him - can't there be one novel that involves action and adventure with only a few punches and beatings rather than one insane, crushing pummeling after another?

The novel introduces a few new characters, Michael, a knight, and Lea, Harry's faerie godmother, which is not a good thing. Additionally, Bianca, a vampire that Harry pissed off quite a bit in the first novel is back, and having a party to celebrate her recent promotion. Since in this novel, Harry is working on his own, Karrin Murphy doesn't make too much of an appearance. Susan and Harry's relationship is also getting more serious though his unexpected work schedule is beginning to get to her a little bit.

The ending leaves quite a few things to be taken care of in the next novel so it should be interesting. Butcher hasn't been overdoing the amount of characters he introduces in each novel but this novel felt oddly crowded, for some reason. Maybe it was the godmother in addition to everything else going on. I'm not really sure.

Book 26: Fool Moon

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

I ended up going back to the PX, and it turned out they did have the second novel in The Dresden Files series after all, they just didn't have it out before or it was in a different section (while the PX book section is smaller than at a Walmart, they still managed to have three different displays for the series - I guess they were excited about the shipment).

As might be expected from the title, in this novel, Harry is called on a case dealing with werewolf attacks. Karrin Murphy, the head of special investigations, has not called him in a while, and their relationship has still not healed from the rift caused by Harry withholding information. While I could definitely understand her distrust, her quick willingness to arrest him a few times in the novel just didn't seem realistic to me ("you didn't tell me something! You're under arrest for murder" - alright it wasn't quite that extreme but the point still stands).

His date with Susan has also developed further into a kind of relationship though they are both very wrapped up in their jobs. While the case was interesting enough, a few more clues are dropped about Harry's past that really leave me wanting to know the whole backstory. A demon also hints to Harry that there are a few things he doesn't know about his mother and even his father. It's the ongoing connections in the series that really have me interested, more so than the actual cases from one novel to the next.

As Harry discovers on this case, there is actually more than one type of werewolf, all of which are created in different ways, including magic, curses and pacts with demons. The mobster John Marcone also makes an appearance since once again, some of his employees are among the victims. This time, the FBI is also involved in the case, and Murphy is rather limited since she has been under investigation from Internal Affairs. As usual, Harry manages to piss everyone off by his inability to play nice - I understand having morals but he might want to figure out a nicer way of saying no to powerful people that could have him killed. That's just me - in fact, maybe I should take a page out of his book since everyone at work describes me as "nice."

I actually did like this novel and I am enjoying the series, even if it doesn't sound like it in my review. The novels are fun reads and at least they keep me interested even if they aren't perfect (in fact I'm reading two different novels right now, neither of which is doing a good job of keeping me interested - or not pissing me off every few chapters).

Friday, January 01, 2010

Book 25: A Dirty Job

A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

I probably never would have heard of this author if it hadn't been for the Cannonball Read. I noticed quite a few people were reading novels by Moore, especially Bloodsucking Fiends. However, the novel with the concept that sounded most intriguing to me was reviewed by one of the people that didn't make the cut off, and was reading on his own. As a result of that review, I picked up A Dirty Job. The reason this one appealed to me might also have something to do with the fact that I watch Supernatural and the idea reminded me slightly of the Grim Reapers (and I liked Tessa, the one that was supposed to help Dean).

First off, the novel was hilarious. While there might have been a small detail here and there that I didn't really agree with or thought was over the top, it didn't bug me because it was such a fun read, and light-hearted, especially considering the topic of death. This statement might cause a few people to disagree with me, but something about Moore's style reminded me of Neil Gaiman. I'm not saying they are copying each other at all, but both have a kind of dry approach to a quirky world, and Charles Asher, the kind of average everyman character of this novel certainly shared certain similarities with Richard of Neverwhere or Charlie of Anansi Boys.

Shortly after his wife Rachel gives birth to their daughter, Charles watches her die. The doctor say it was a blood clot that traveled up to her brain and caused an aneuryism but Charles watched a man come into her hospital room as she died. Except no one else saw him. The doctors and everyone else write it off as stress but other weird things start occuring to and around Charles as well until he finally realizes that he is death. Well, one of his helpers. And it's not so much that he helps people die as that he helps their souls move on.

Still, something is brewing. There are dark forces which are trying to gain power, and while they were driven underground long ago, the scales might be tipping in their favor, possibly having to due with a prophecy concerning the Illuminatus, the original big Death that has been absent for a long time.

While Charlie is trying to deal with his new position as a "death merchant," he also still has to run his second hand store with two crazy employees (Ray, an ex-cop, and Charlie both suspect each other of being serial killers), deal with his sister's occasional antics and raise his daughter as a single father with the help of his upstairs neighbors (the neighbors, one Chinese and one Russian woman, while entertaining, were played for laughs and portrayed as stereotypes - one of those things I probably would have normally had more of an issue with). Charlie attempts to raise his daughter as normally as possible given the circumstances, going through extreme troubles to make sure she has pets but they have a tendency to drop dead in the apartment.

On occasion, Charlie seems rather dense about things, and I think Moore expects the reader to fgure things out before Charlie does - I mean, it's spelled out rather obviously. As much as Charlie occasionally gets things wrong, he is a very likable character that tries to do the right thing and the best that he can with the tools he has.