Obviously, this book is an exemplar of a certain time and cultural hegemony. If you can't swallow a little casual racism, chivalric chauvinism, and a...moreObviously, this book is an exemplar of a certain time and cultural hegemony. If you can't swallow a little casual racism, chivalric chauvinism, and a lot of implicit colonialist/supremacist attitudes (White Savior ho), it's not for you, and I can really respect that.
However, I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would. The first-person narrative was droll and self-deprecating enough to blunt the impact of the almost videogamey levels of protagonist exceptionalism, and there was enough interesting, actually vaguely scientific worldbuilding involved in, for instance, the culture of the Green Martians that they didn't come across as the one-for-one standins for stereotyped Earth cultures I'd feared to find. I found the Sola/Tars Tarkis subplot really interesting and compelling. The adventure, although occasionally a little jerkily episodic and inconsistent (uh, isn't that a lie? and why can't you read that guy's brain?) was pleasingly swashbuckling, and I liked the details of Martian life, the classic airships and faithful Martian hound...not to mention some real sensawunda moments.
As for the titular Princess, well, she does spend a lot of time as a damsel in distress. (And some of that distress is Burroughs hilariously contriving to break his own Green Martian worldbuilding in order to follow formula, sigh.) She does at least talk a good game occasionally, and nominally is involved in Science, but she is a little disappointing. (And that's not getting into the Men are from Earth, Women are from Mars comedic miscommunications.) She's not as weak a character as I might have feared, but when I reflect that Mina Harker; intelligent, stalwart and competent even swathed in chivalrous effusions from the menfolk; was written twenty years before, I could have done with a little more active agency from Dejah Thoris. The secret is to strangle the big creepy green guy with the chain, Princess.
Bottom line: fun adventure, cool ideas, antiquated notions, not as cheesy as I'd expected. I may actually be tempted to listen to another Burroughs novel in future!(less)
The mystery plot was a little tighter in this second book in the Medicus series, In general the plotting was quite well done: little bits of foreshado...moreThe mystery plot was a little tighter in this second book in the Medicus series, In general the plotting was quite well done: little bits of foreshadowing, necessary information and so forth were woven quite invisibly into the fun, interesting setting and the characters I care about. I especially appreciated some of the tension Downie created between Ruso and others even when I was chafing desperately against it -- so it must have been good!(less)
It's hard to rate this because it was stellar, lovely in every sentence and page, but also so very brief. I am astonished to see the page counts, and...moreIt's hard to rate this because it was stellar, lovely in every sentence and page, but also so very brief. I am astonished to see the page counts, and would like to see the wordcount sometime to convince myself it isn't a novella.
It's primarily an adventure story, and excels as such: like a good adventure story often does, it makes you care about the people as well as the plot. The classic idiosyncratic friendship of the gentlemen and their very different bonds with Filaq are well sketched and convincing. The novel briefly and vividly transports the reader to a very cosmopolitan past, an age and place not familiar to most readers in English. For this, for its philosophical flourishes, its beauty of line, its humor, its swashbuckling, and its elephants, I loved it.
Audiobook note: Andre Braugher did a good job, especially with the dry humor.(less)
Another book that left me with mixed feelings. This is a multi-point-of-view fictional narrative based on a real series of events that happen...more3.5 stars
Another book that left me with mixed feelings. This is a multi-point-of-view fictional narrative based on a real series of events that happened in Communist Czechoslovakia.
One of the problems I have in assessing this story is that it didn't read like a novel. It has some remarkable strengths. I loved the two main viewpoint characters: Emil, a charming scientist from a privileged background who is secretly anti-Communist; and Amina, a somnambulist factory worker who becomes very attached to the captive giraffes. I found the setting fascinating -- I've never read anything set in Czechoslovakia before, let alone Communist Czechoslovakia.
I thought the prose was very fine. It employed a certain amount of repetition, which I rapidly became fond of. There are certain phrases and images that appear over and over: "the Communist moment", people sleepwalking through Communism, Czechoslovakia's lack of wind, rivers as veins, humans and giraffes being "vertical creatures". These repetitions gave the story a dream-like quality, so that the reader enters into the somnambulism of the setting and accepts the recurring images, the similarity of events in Africa and Europe, the way different people's internal lives can rhyme.
However, there were some problems. It had very slight conflict, and passive characters. I find that acceptable, but some would hate it. The end is rather unsatisfying, though an argument could be made for that being the point: the author communicating the meaninglessness of events rather than trying to give them meaning through his work. Also, a lot of characters seemed to be interested in long, discursive discussion of thematically related material, such as the history of captive animals in Czechoslovakia. I'm willing to accept, even embrace, two main characters who are introspective, dreamy and ruminative. But several supporting characters who spout paragraphs of historical research? Not so much.
My biggest problem with the book was some of the points of view. I found the initial section, from the main giraffe's perspective, a trifle overwritten and sometimes encumbered with human knowledge and concepts. Any animal POV is a big risk, one I think you need to take all the way -- writing animal sections throughout or exclusively -- or not take at all. I also didn't think we needed the butcher's point of view at -- he added nothing to the artistry of the story, repeated events we already understood. His only essential role was to connect to the last, foreign correspondent's POV and thus explain the existence of the book. I didn't like the foreign correspondent, I didn't think his POV added anything, and I don't need the existence of the book explained. In fact, given its ethereal charm, I'd almost rather it went unexplained.
In short: a beautiful, enigmatic book I enjoyed listening to. The events are troubling and there's not much resolution, but it's a quick read, so if you want to be challenged and transported, give it a try.(less)
I've finally gotten around to finishing off the Harry Potter series. I was probably dilatory in this mainly because I found the last few book...more3.5 stars
I've finally gotten around to finishing off the Harry Potter series. I was probably dilatory in this mainly because I found the last few books very disappointing.
I find this one a little hard to judge, because like any book that has achieved giant success, it ends up being about more than itself. Does this series convey some Harmful Messages to Our Young People? Well, yes. Quite apart from all the kids-in-danger and not-telling-trusted-adults objections I've heard to the earlier books, I am not mad on the idea that everyone meets their True Love by the age of 17. But I think all that stuff may be too much burden to put on what is, after all, pretty much a YA fantasy book. I'm not sure it's fair to put some extra societal standard pressure on it just because the series was a runaway success.
So setting all that stuff aside, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this last installment. The characters were not as whingingly immature (aka, devastatingly accurate depictions of teenagerhood) as in the last few. While there was a certain amount of stumbling around on the part of our heroes, the eventual plot reveal was compelling and surprisingly tight after seven sprawling books (obviously this is a woman who knows how to outline!) In the end, the plot managed to hit several necessary/foreshadowed points, fulfill some suspicions and expectations, surprise me, and yank on my heartstrings. I was really pleased with some beloved secondary characters' arcs. In short, the last third or quarter made the book for me, and I finished listening with a complacent heart about the series as a whole. Pretty impressive, given my previous disaffection.
That's not to say that I was completely happy: I did feel like certain inter-character squabbles were repetitive (from previous books), a little undermotivated, and generally pumped up to add conflict to a slow section. I have some niggling concerns about the nature of evil and how many of the characters, despite a few notable exceptions, are ugly outside if they are inside, and vice versa. And perhaps most importantly, I do feel like Rowling has gotten "too big to edit", which isn't necessarily her fault -- even if you're sweet and unaffected by success, that success will intimidate people into silence or sycophantism -- but this book definitely had hundreds of pages of flab that could have been cut to the benefit of the whole.
Short version: Despite my misgivings and its occasional flab, it made me smile and cry, and put a nice bow on the series.(less)
The kind of history you can't believe could be forgotten -- but it routinely is. Timothy Egan's journalistic researching serves him in good stead here...moreThe kind of history you can't believe could be forgotten -- but it routinely is. Timothy Egan's journalistic researching serves him in good stead here, allowing him to paint a detailed picture of the fire and the individuals' stories. The structure, starting at the fire then jumping back to give lots of background, is somewhat teasing, but the background does eventually pay off as the events and their political aftermath unfold.
I got quite attached to the dedicated foresters and plucky citizens of the tale, and even found myself engaged by the portraits of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, which I did not expect. Come for the amazing stories of survival and inferno, stay for the perspective on the history of the American West, the Forest Service and conservationism!(less)
I wanted to like this book better than I did: it was beautifully written, and most of the characters were interesting, multi-faceted, flawed:...more3.5 stars
I wanted to like this book better than I did: it was beautifully written, and most of the characters were interesting, multi-faceted, flawed: convincingly human. I loved the way different kinds of beauty affected the plots and the characters: without fanfare, the theme was woven everywhere. I couldn't even count the ways the theme returned. It was, dare I say, quite beautiful.
However, I just can't get around Howard. Now, I'm going to admit to my shame (since I'm an English major) I haven't read Howard's End, and I understand that On Beauty refers to it. Perhaps I'm missing something crucial and elegant and intelligent about Howard. But I found him not only repulsive but a failed character. The only trait that inspired my sympathy - his inability to just enjoy things - seemed so overdrawn I had trouble believing such a person could exist. (And I do know academics.) That trait seemed to make him an allegory instead of a man. Other attempts to lend depth and humanity to his character, give him a history, rang false to me. I couldn't believe in him, and he was a poisonous cancer on all the other characters* who I did believe in, and liked, even when they were unlikeable. And he was the mainest main character, with the most screen time. His actions just made him more banal (big points to the character who told him that) and I kept waiting for a train or a meteor to hit Howard and erase him from these poor people's lives. I waited for a plot device to detonate in his face.
I'll admit that I am sick to death of white male middle-aged protagonists with midlife crisis, as well as white male liberal arts professors, let alone New England ones. So Howard hit several sore points, but I am willing to be convinced: I read this book in spite of Howard (who was obviously ticking a lot of boxes from his first chapter, but seemed otherwise inoffensive) and loved so much of it, in spite of Howard. But Howard was Howard, a vast pustule of Howardness, and the end did not redeem him, or really pay off for me. If the book was trying to make a deeper point about this kind of character, or his pervasiveness, it didn't make that point with me.
The book was sprawling, emotionally involving, ambitious, intensely crafted. Characters like Kiki and Zora were exquisitely well-observed, and made my heart ache with their truth. There were even details about Howard that were unusual and winning at first. The huge number of viewpoints were enlightening and fairly well juggled. They even performed an important function: contrasting, over and over, outsides and insides. The book had many telling moments of really interesting discomfort about race, class, and nationality, even if the explicitly political parts of its plot seemed less insightful and occasionally flabby. Ultimately, while I don't regret any of the time I spent on the book, it didn't gel for me, and I think Howard is in large part why.
*There was only one other character I remember really disliking without understanding (V), and I kept waiting for a section from her viewpoint that would explain her better than the sort of shallow sociological gestures I could make myself and Howard made for me. I felt the book was a little unfair to her.(less)
The chief pleasure of these books is, I think, derived from the chance to visit with their characters and observe their progress. The plots tend to be...moreThe chief pleasure of these books is, I think, derived from the chance to visit with their characters and observe their progress. The plots tend to be undramatic and unstructured, the pace moderate and the tone quiet; but it's pleasant to see Mma Ramotswe, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and Mma Makutsi. This particular volume is very good for this purpose: much of the action consists of predicaments and problems of character, so it is a fine little novel of manners.(less)
Another quiet little installment in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. This one contains a welcome focus on Mma Makutsi, the accompli...more3.5 stars
Another quiet little installment in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. This one contains a welcome focus on Mma Makutsi, the accomplished assistant at the Agency. I enjoyed the closer look into her life, and the progress she makes here. As usual, these books should be read for the characters and feel, rather than in expectation of enticing (or even surprising) plot. (less)
I have a hard time determining how precisely I feel about No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books. I find Mma Ramotswe fairly charming. I kind of enjoy t...moreI have a hard time determining how precisely I feel about No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books. I find Mma Ramotswe fairly charming. I kind of enjoy the way they betray "mystery" expectations, but on the other hand I find the way conflict evaporates or fails to materialize a little boring (especially as it's repeated, at least in this one.) Some of the folksy wisdom and gender essentialism wear a little thin. Basically, I am not sure why I like the books, but on the level of the page (the minute, I should say, since I'm listening to them) they're gentle, pleasing reading.
Charming. Miss Marple's very relatable struggle with change adds something poignant and very real to this otherwise simply clever mystery. Which is no...moreCharming. Miss Marple's very relatable struggle with change adds something poignant and very real to this otherwise simply clever mystery. Which is not to downplay the mystery. Christie is the grande dame for a reason. Here she twists a good little plot. One trait of a good mystery: even if you figure it out long before the sleuth, you don't wish it would hurry or denigrate the sleuth's abilities. I enjoyed this one to the last drop.(less)