Monday, August 18, 2008

Further Reviews in Bulk

21. After Elizabeth: The Rise of James of Scotland and the Struggle for the Throne of England by Leanda de Lisle

An aunt of mine decided I needed to move past the Virgin Queen and this book was the official family attempt to wean me off the dangerous obsession ;) To be honest, I never knew much nor cared to know much about James, that Stuart scion who ended the glorious Tudor period. The one thing I'll say for this book is it proved to me James of Scotland is an interest well worth pursuing in his own right. Lisle presents him as a clever and calculating young man, uncouth among friends and reserved among strangers, he was fiercely Protestant but dearly loved his Catholic wife (even though their marriage was arranged), and openly took several male lovers. His wife Anna is fascinating too, she was a Danish princess who married James when she was 14 and he was in his late 20s, but even at that early stage managed to exert her civilizing influence on the court. The book chronicles closely the last two years or so of Elizabeth's reign, James' journey from Scotland to England, various plots against him that never occurred and the trials of the plotters, and James and Anna's coronation. This is an oddly specific time period for an entire book (literally less than five years), so I believe I was justified in expecting more analysis. Instead, I got some excellent characterizations of Elizabeth, James, Anna, and contemporaries, descriptions of public mood, and the admittedly exciting events surrounding the plotted kidnappings and/or murders. However, I also got a lot of unneeded minutiae on politics, including largely irrelevant French, Spanish, Dutch, and Venetian politics. There was no new controversial information and no long cohesive argument to tie the book together. Lisle insists throughout the book that Elizabeth had become terribly unpopular and describes many scenes of effusive welcome for James. At the end, she seems to begin an argument that James is now unfairly overshadowed by Elizabeth, and then contradict herself saying that he became unpopular and the people adored their previous Queen. Keep in mind she has not attempted to make an argument for over three quarters of the book. The first couple of chapters set up a premise that James had a more difficult succession than historians today now believe, but the contemporary accounts she quotes state just the opposite, that they are astounded at the peaceful succession in town after town. That idea is also paid quick lip service too at the very end. History needs much more analysis than this book had to make it interesting, in my opinion at least. In the future though, I would be interested in reading more about James and his lovers or the impact of his bisexuality on the royal court. I don't know if bisexual is the correct word though, for he seems to have gone entirely for men with the exception of Anna, with whom he had around seventeen children.

I mightily enjoyed this last sentence, " The contrast between the vulgar James and the iconic Elizabeth was so startling...The respect in which the English crown was held was thus diminished and the nation that shaped and worshiped Gloriana has never forgiven him for it (289)."

All in all, I could not get into this book like a work of fiction and it's taken me far more days than I would have liked to get through it. I'm also attempting to read The History of G-d, another nonfiction, this one about the evolution of the idea of G-d from the earliest Jews to the latest Muslims. I am not used to reading nonfiction and it is usually difficult for me to get through. do other people find this as well? Does anyone have any recommendations for quick and interesting nonfic reads?

22. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

As Breakfast of Champions was lacking from my father's otherwise robust Vonnegut collection, I read this instead. I hope Breakfast of Champions is better. It was at least the quick read I was looking for, I picked it up today and it took me under three hours. There is something to be said for a simple, irreverent style. I bet Vonnegut is popular for people with ADHD, and I mean that as a sincere compliment to the man. The first part of this book though slid by on typical Vonnegut style alone, and for someone who's read a lot of his work, it was disappointing. No aliens even to brighten it up. Mr. Rosewater is Eliot Rosewater, an inheritor of millions turned an odd sort of philanthropist. He sets up an office with two phone lines, one where people call and he listens to them, advises them, and often hands out small amounts of money, and the other for fires. When he gets a fire call, he presses a button ringing the siren he paid to have installed over the firehouse. It's hard not to love Eliot Rosewater, but in more of a generally appreciative rather than passionate way. The book does become a statement on humanism, another typical Vonnegut theme, but in a less compelling manner than his other books. In the end, this is an almost fairy tale like corollary to Slaughterhouse Five, and lacks the big ideas and bite I'm accustomed to.

23. A Late Divorce by A.B. Yehoshua

Karen gave me this book to read, and as I usually enjoy her selections, I was excited for this eponymous novel about an Israeli family. There was essentially one problem with it. One problem of mega-disaster proportions, in my mind. It is a stream-of-consciousness novel. Last time I read one of those I seriously contemplated traveling to California with the sole purpose of throttling Dave Eggers. Non-grammatical run-on sentences in prose BOTHER ME. I realize this is a New Age style, it illustrates the language of thought, conveys a certain poetry and rhythm. I'm just immune to it I guess. I live for the well-organized sentence. That aside, this is a character focused book, which I appreciate, and I did find most of the characters strikingly well drawn, particularly the seven year old boy, grandson of the divorcing couple. Each section is written from the point of view of a different character, all but one members of the family. There is even, surprisingly, a plot, which I followed along expectantly only to discover...that it is not resolved. and by not resolved I mean however the situation ends, it is only hinted at. the ending of the book felt really random to me, like just the ending of another section. I did not appreciate that at all. I like ambiguous endings, but not endings where some sort of direction is not even suggested. I think probably if i went back and cobbled together a lot of symbolism and characters melding into other characters, I could probably come up with something vaguely coherent, but it's not even worth it. and if I don't want to re-read it, ever, that really is the death knell.

24. The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien

I read the Middle Earth mythology for a third time because I wanted to remember all the names and relationships again. The Silmarillion is about history, getting a sense of the world of Middle Earth rather than about the characters or a tightly drawn plot, which makes it hard to read. It's also forever referring to language and giving everything and everyone a million names, but come on, the guy was a linguist or should I say philologist. I just happen to dig this sort of thing. I like remembering and knowing minute details about history and characters and genealogy. The best story is that of Beren and Luthien, the first Man/Elf couple although this time the story of Tuor and Idril, the second Man/Elf couple was a close second favorite. Interesting how it's always a man falling in love with an Elf maiden, never a woman with an Elf man, isn't it? I love Huan the Hound in the Beren story. Also I had forgotten that Fingolfin, a Noldorin (branch of Elves basically exiled from Valinor aka Eden) chief usually overshadowed by big brother Feanor who created the remarkable Silmaril jewels, is awesome because he battles Morgoth, the original Dark Lord, one-on-one. That's right, Sauron is just Morgoth's vassal. I might need to get Children of Hurin now, even though that story is part of the Silmarillion, I want to see if there's a more fleshed out version.

25. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

This was the only book we're teaching in Modern Fantasy that I hadn't read yet, so now I have. I'll be rereading the others, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Golden Compass, in due course. This is an adorable mouse tale with a narrative style reminiscent of Lemony Snicket only more cutesy and less conspiratorial. It could definitely be a series. A castle mouse is inspired by his love for the human princess and faces their mutual enemy, rats. It's maybe a fourth grade reading level at the most, but it was satisfying to see those tiny chapters fly by. I would have enjoyed a little more complication and character development, but it's a good gateway book for fantasy. Definitely one to recommend to elementary schoolers of your acquaintance.

26. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I read this book once in seventh grade, this is my first re-read since. I had a rather hazy recollection, except for one very specific quote, because the idea it contained BLEW MY MIND and continues to do so. However, I read much of this as if for the first time and I think understood it better, though not wholly. In contrast to Tolkien, Pullman's language is simple and his world significantly less developed. Lyra, the protagonist, a familiar urchin-sans-parents, exists in a universe alternate to our own. I think Pullman deserves a special category in fantasy for this, as it is not quite "fantastic," that is between our world and another, like Narnia or Hogwarts, and yet cannot qualify as "marvellous," or in a self-contained world like Middle Earth. Lyra grows up in Oxford, England, and yet it is an Oxford in a world the Catholic Church still dominates, science and religious studies are both known as theology, the Tartars are a threat to Europe, and more supernatural-seeming deviations like witches and talking polar bears abound. The prime difference is that humans have a visible animal soul and companion, called a daemon. Children's daemons change, but adults' become fixed. This represents the fixation of character and identity that we believe is settled at some vague coming of age point. Essentially, Pullman introduces fascinating concepts in an interesting way, but I don't think ever fully satisfies or explains all of them. Certainly not in The Golden Compass, but I have read the other two books as well, and while I found them interesting, remember no definitive clarification, only further mysteries. Such is life, one could argue, but I think he could have made more of an effort. I remembered loving Iorek Byrnison, a talking bear, and he is still my favorite character, though Lyra is very likable and there are other interesting minor characters. Actually, I think minor characters are a particular talent of Pullman's, he doesn't bring in too many, and those he does, he develops just enough to make the reader wonder, but not lose track of the story at hand. I should probably see the movie soon now, I was holding off until I could re-read the book, and am pleased with my forbearance though it was more circumstantial than an effort of will.

The aforementioned favorite quote:

"He raised his wings and spread them wide before folding them again.

"There," he said, "I have just brushed ten million other worlds, and they knew nothing of it (188).""

One of my kids was asking me questions about some of the more difficult ideas, elementary particles called Dust that might represent Original Sin, and motivations of certain characters, and after I had answered her to the best of my ability, she said, "I think your daemon would be an owl, because you're very smart."

She said it very matter-of-factly too, and I don't think it was brown-nosing, because I don't grade her. I consider it one of the best compliments I've ever received.

What do you think your daemon would be?

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