How does Wallace get me so breathlessly interested in his opinion on topics about which I have little or no actual interest? Sports biographies? The l...moreHow does Wallace get me so breathlessly interested in his opinion on topics about which I have little or no actual interest? Sports biographies? The lobster industry? The man was clearly a wizard.(less)
SCtW is my kind of history book. Relatively uninterested in kings and politicians, this is more of a Howard Zinn-style people’s history, albeit one wh...moreSCtW is my kind of history book. Relatively uninterested in kings and politicians, this is more of a Howard Zinn-style people’s history, albeit one which far more gently grinds its axe. Christopher Columbus gets mentioned, for example, on three separate pages. The longest passage by far is only fifty-seven words. Readers will learn far more about Olaudah Equiano, an enslaved African taken to Barbados to work in sugar, or even Thomas Thistlewood, a white overseer who wrote with a kind of nauseating jocularity about the cruelties he inflicted on his charges. They’ll also learn about the university of Jundi Shapur, which flourished fifteen hundred years ago in what is now Iran and which sounds so wondrous I can’t believe I’d never heard of it before. They’ll learn that the “whitest and purest” sugar of the ancient world came from Egypt of all places. Suddenly those sugar cube pyramids we all built in grade school are elevated above the level of busywork to some kind of totemic historical metaphor. It would be easy to call this a bitter book about a sweet spice, and there are unquestionably some difficult truths in Sugar Changed the World. There were also, for me, odd moments of pride–it was interesting to discover that the slave trade was focused so heavily in the Caribbean and South America, for example, and when I learned that only four percent of the slaves taken from Africa ended up in North America, and that these slaves had a comparatively low death rate, I chanted the feeblest U-S-A of my life. So why did I come away from this book inspired? A section on Gandhi didn’t hurt. Likewise sections on new (to me) heroes like the Haitian leader Toussaint, and English abolitionist Thomas Clarkson, a contemporary of William Wilberforce. This is an ultimately hopeful book, and I hope it finds a place in the classroom. Excellent period illustrations and photos abound, including sample pages from a grim old children’s picture book that painstakingly details how sugar got from the West Indies to your sweet shop, and unintentionally details everything that was wrong about the Victorians. The back matter of SCtW contains a great set of appendices that include, among other things, a timeline, a web guide to additional images, and an essay aimed at parents and teachers that explains how the book was researched. (less)
Maybe it’s the heroic rogue of a main character, or the Arabian setting, or possibly even the Disney logotype on the spine of the jacket, but I got to...moreMaybe it’s the heroic rogue of a main character, or the Arabian setting, or possibly even the Disney logotype on the spine of the jacket, but I got to thinking about the animated feature Aladdin. The first ten minutes of that movie contain a sprawling musical action set piece in which we learn that the titular hero –Has to steal to eat –HAS to eat to live –Works really, really hard at it –And did we mention he’s an orphan? and anyway after he finally absconds with his hard-won loaf of bread he just gives it to the first adorable pair of street urchins. Contrast this with heroic rogue Bartimaeus, who in the first twenty pages of The Ring of Solomon –Defiles an ancient temple –Burgles a holy relic –And kills and eats an old man. The djinni Bartimaeus, and by extension Stroud, is not going to make some cloying play for our affections. This is not SPOILER ALERT a story about reformation END SPOILER ALERT. I’m even going to go out on a limb and say that Bartimaeus is refreshingly without an arc here. Throughout the book he behaves only in the singularly free-thinking fashion that has made him the irritant of both humans and spirits alike, what with his universal impudence and humorously digressive footnotes. In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I previously read The Amulet of Samarkand, the first of the original Bartimaeus trilogy, so I’m aware that he’s starred in at least four stories now. I suspect that Stroud understood early on that he had a very special character here, and it wouldn’t do to keep neutering him with sentiment in Act II of every book. He is who he is, and I think he would be alarmed to know that I found him to be the most human of all Stroud’s characters. His first-person chapters alternate with third-person chapters that focus on other actors, particularly a young and deadly Sheban named Asmira who is tasked with assassinating the powerful Solomon in order to save her homeland. And here lies my chief criticism of the book: Bartimaeus is so effervescent that chapters in which he doesn’t appear (much less narrate) sometimes come off like flat soda by comparison. Bartimaeus is such a force that he spills out in every direction–through the fourth wall, into the margins of the page, and onward into self-awareness and anachronism, such as when he invokes copyright (actual copyright) to protect one of his signature fighting moves, which he informs us he’s been using since 2800 B.C.E. Note that The Ring of Solomon is set 900 years before there was a C.E. to be B. Anyway, every chapter left me wanting more–if Stroud and I were in a Scheherazade/King Shahryār situation I totally would not have killed him at any point. (less)
I read the entire series of Sandman in either collections or single issue format during the nineties, but reviewing (briefly) the final volume seemed...moreI read the entire series of Sandman in either collections or single issue format during the nineties, but reviewing (briefly) the final volume seemed like the easiest way to express my admiration for the whole run.
There's a certain kind of story I think Gaiman tells, with full characters and humor and earnest fantasy, that nonetheless has the confidence to contain someone like a Rose Walker or a Delirium–someone who unsettles the atmosphere without undermining it. As if Gaiman's allowing that, yes, the Emperor has no clothes, but what a rich suit of clothes he doesn't have. Let's go ahead and believe in these serious, imaginary clothes.
I can't overestimate the influence Sandman had on my development as a writer. It could well be that Mr. Gaiman has read some of my work and would rather not accept any credit for my development as a writer, but I'll leave this review up until I get a cease-and-desist-style letter from his people.(less)
I like a title that tells you everything you need to know. I suppose they could have called it "The Funny and Surprising Adventures of Nanny Piggins (...moreI like a title that tells you everything you need to know. I suppose they could have called it "The Funny and Surprising Adventures of Nanny Piggins (a Circus Pig in a Dress)," but that's a bit long.(less)
I suppose every review is going to say something about The Mysterious Howling leaving kids "howling for more," so I'm not going to say that. But I lik...moreI suppose every review is going to say something about The Mysterious Howling leaving kids "howling for more," so I'm not going to say that. But I liked it.(less)