Category Archives: Books & Reading

Review: Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility
by Jane Austen

Title: Sense and Sensibility
Author: Jane Austen
Published: 1811
ISBN-10: 0-141-43966-1
Publisher: Penguin Classics

Jane Austen’s tale of the family Dashwood, and their prospects after husband and father, Henry, dies is a commentary on the class system in England.

Austen really does not like the way in which the society she lives in sets expectations for each other, most especially, the young, unmarried women.

While first published in 1811, Austen’s themes resonate across two centuries.  Women are held to impossible standards, and always found wanting.  Austen’s main theme is that of sense vs. “sensitivity.”

Is it better to be sensible and logical where emotions, and love, are concerned?  Better to not show emotion and to explain hurt by others away by the use of logic?  Or is being sensitive to others’ feelings and wearing one’s heart on the sleeve a better approach?

While reading Sense and Sensibility, I kept wondering about “the middle path.”  One in which both sisters are allowed to be both logical and show their emotions, rather than this tug of war of trying to measure up to society’s expectations.

Which, of course, is the point.  There is no “middle path.”  Women must pick a path and stick with it in order to please both those of her class and any potential suitors.  Things are better in some ways now, but it’s still difficult for both men and women to live up to the expectations laid upon them by rigid societal mores.

Austen is worth reading, both for her commentary and for her sharp observations into human nature.

Review: Masculinity in Breaking Bad

Masculinity in Breaking Bad edited by Bridget R. Cowlishaw
Masculinity in Breaking Bad
edited by Bridget R. Cowlishaw

Title: Masculinity in Breaking Bad
Author: edited by Bridget R. Cowlishaw
Published: 2015
ISBN-13: 978-0-7864-9721-8
Publisher: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers

Watching Breaking Bad was one of the most entertaining times in my life.  Such fantastic story-telling about a wimpy high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer and needs to find a way to support his family after his death.

Walter White goes from chem teacher to badass drug kingpin in the course of the series.  There are no truly likable characters in Breaking Bad, but there are sympathetic characters.  Characters with which we can identify in some way because of their circumstances.  Sympathizing does not mean liking, it’s the simple recognition of, “Yep, been there.  Understand what you’re doing bro.  My choice was different, but you be you.”

Masculinity in Breaking Bad is what happens when a bunch of liberal arts Ph. D.s, each with a particularly granular specialty, look deeply at the male characters.  It can be a dense read.

This is not to say it’s not an interesting read.  There are multiple ways of exploring the themes of Breaking Bad, and masculinity is an obvious one since the story is male-driven, and centers on one man who is forced to redefine himself because of his diagnosis.

Eight essays, and two round table discussions, cover the topics from Walt’s fatherhood, manhood, business acumen, and legacy to my favorite, “Men in Control:  Panopticism and Performance.”  Basically, Jeffrey Reid Pettis uses French Philosopher Michel Foucault‘s theory of panopticism (in Discipline and Punishment) to the use of surveillance, and reactions to surveillance, in Breaking Bad.

Panopticism is a fascinating concept in which a prison is built in such a way that everyone (including staff) can be under surveillance at any time.  When there is no way to know when an individual is being watched, he begins to perform as though being watched.  Here, Pettis delves into the performance art which comes out of the knowledge each character has that he may be watched.

It is a rich essay, dense and chewy.  But the concept of always being watched is one of which none of us is completely unaware.  How does Walt react to knowing this?  What lengths does he go to show those he imagines watching that he is “the one who knocks?”

While I did find Masculinity in Breaking Bad interesting in many ways, I can only recommend this book to those truly interested in this type of close reading  and, who don’t mind working for their read.

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Review: minor characters

Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson
Minor Characters
by Joyce Johnson

Title: Minor Characters
Author: Joyce Johnson
Published: 1983
ISBN-10:  0-671-72790-7
Publisher: Washington Square Books

The women didn’t mind, or, if they did, they never said – not until years later.  (p. 218)

To be a woman is difficult in any era, but to be an independent, creative, curious woman is especially difficult.  In the 1950’s, after World War II, gender roles were supposed to be fairly well established.  But things were starting to rumble a little.  Change was stirring.

Really, the story of the Beat Generation begins in the late 1940s, when a confluence of personalities and talents converged at Columbia University in New York City.  It was there the big names began to meet and discuss a new way of writing, and of being.

A teenaged girl named Joyce Johnson lived in a “respectable” neighborhood with her “respectable” parents.  And, around the age of thirteen, this “respectable” girl rebelled.  She went to places young girls shouldn’t go, and met people who opened her mind.  These people led to the Beats; Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac among them

Minor Characters is Johnson’ memoir centered around the years 1957-58, when she was Kerouac’s sometime girlfriend.  She tells a story many can relate to, being attracted to someone who can’t reciprocate at the same level.

Much has been written about the Beat Generation writers.  The men, that is.  Not so much has been written about the women.  Especially not much about the way women were treated.  Johnson’s story about being in the middle of that maelstrom is fascinating.

She relates how women were discounted by the men.  The usual story; taken for granted, belittled, not taken seriously, etc. etc.  Her story could be the story of so many women, but what makes it stand out is that it happened with a group of men who are revered for their open-minded views about all sorts of things.  They were especially interested in changing the rules of writing, and literature.  But women were only for amusement, or housekeeping.

And as Joyce Johnson, reiterates, the women stood for it.  Because as many generations of women will say, “we thought that’s what we had to do.”  To find love, to find a life partner, meant a woman had to put up with the meanness of her beau’s foibles.

Here is a book in which the woman, after two years of evasion and half-truths, said, “No.  Go away” to Jack Kerouac.  Joyce Johnson told Jack Kerouac, she was tired of his crap and to leave her alone.  Brava!  and Well Done!

The pain of this decision is clear, as is the need for something healthier, something more equitable, more loving.  To be sure, the most famous names were men who were hard to love, under any circumstances.  Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassady; all charismatic and difficult.  Horrible in their actions, negligent in their search for self-awareness.  Of them all, Ginsberg is the one who consistently appears to exert a great deal of effort to become familiar with himself.

While the Beats were changing the way America read and wrote, literature, Joyce Johnson was changing the way women looked at the men with whom they were in relationships.  Her story is well-told, and a fascinating look at the minor characters who also played a part in the Beat Generation.

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Review: Butcher Bird

Butcher Bird by Richard Kadrey
Butcher Bird
Richard Kadrey

Title: Butcher Bird
Author: Richard Kadrey
Published: 2007
ISBN-13:  978-1-59780-086-0
Publisher:   Night Shade Books

Be quiet.  It’s not necessary to fill every moment with your own voice.  Silence terrifies you.  You see your own existence as so tenuous that you’re afraid you’ll pop like a bubble if, at every opportunity, you don’t remind the world that you’re alive.  But wisdom begins in silence.  In learning to listen.  To words and to the world.  Trust me.  You won’t disappear.  And, in time, you might find that you’re grown into something unexpected.  (p. 126)

In Butcher Bird I read many of the themes which make the Sandman Slim series so interesting.

It’s more than “what is real”.  It’s about what happens when reality shifts and the way through is to accept things are scary different from our expectations.

One of the things I consistently enjoy in Kadrey’s work is the way he reconfigures religious myths.

in Butcher Bird, tattoo artist Spyder Lee lives a life he enjoys.  He hangs out with his best friend and tattoo partner at their favorite bar, getting drunk and being raucous.  He has a solid reputation for his tattoos and shop.  But one night, Spyder steps outside to relieve himself and a demon tries to bite his head off.

Yes, literally bite his head off.  And then a blind woman steps in and saves his life.  Now Spyder can see the demons and monsters humans aren’t supposed to notice.

The key to this particular fight is one of Spyder’s tattoos.  It’s a symbol he thought looked cool and didn’t know the meaning of, which calls the demon to him.

Then Spyder discovers that his best friend, Lulu, isn’t what she appears to be and he is really screwed.  And in order to put everything back into some semblance of order, Spyder goes on a quest with Shrike, the woman who saved him.

I love a good quest story, and this one has great payoffs.  Quests, on the surface, are about going from here to there in order to solve a problem, usually saving the world.  Quests are also about confronting ourselves, our beliefs and what we thought we knew about everything.

Butcher Bird has everything a good quest story should have; unexpected blessings and obstacles, fights (sword play or something similar), evil (in this case in the shape of demons and monsters), tricksters, love, and a drive to put things right.

Reading Butcher Bird while in the midst of the Sandman Slim series, gave me a richer experience, because I already knew what Kadrey was up to.  That appeals to the historian in me.

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Review: A Thief of Time

A Thief of Time by Tony Hillerman
A Thief of Time Tony Hillerman

Title: A Thief of Time
Author: Tony Hillerman
Series: Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee #8
Published: 1989
ISBN-10:  0060159383
Publisher: Harper & Row

Academic competition is fierce, especially when it’s between colleagues trying to get to the historic pottery remnants first to prove their theory and get published.  Oh, and recognition in their field.

A thief of time is someone who robs graves in order to take something.  In this case, it’s all about the Anasazi, a tribe which mysteriously disappeared around 1200CE.  The ruins left behind appear as though the people planned on coming back, but never did.

The black market for pottery is hot, people will pay exorbitant amounts to own a piece of “authentic” pottery with questionable provenance.  While Jim Chee is trying to chase down a stolen backhoe, Joe Leaphorn is trying to track down a missing anthropologist.

Personal baggage is heavy in this book.  Chee’s relationship with  teacher Mary Landon has hit the skids.  She’s gone back to the midwest to be with her family and go back to school.  In a letter to him, she expresses her deep love for him but sees no way around the white vs. Navajo conundrum they keep bumping against.

Joe Leaphorn is mourning the loss of beloved wife, Emma, who didn’t have Alzheimer’s after all but didn’t survive the surgery to remove a tumor.  My heart sank when I read of her death.  Interesting how easy it is to get caught up in the lives of fictional characters isn’t it?

While working their individual cases, Chee and Leaphorn eventually cross paths and discover they’re working the same case from different angles.  The stolen backhoe is being used to uncover pottery, while a different anthropologist is stealing jaw bones to prove his theory.

A hike to a nearly unknown, unreachable Anasazi ruin, two helicopters converging on the same spot, and the case is solved.  But this one seemed rather convoluted to me as it involved a decades old murder case Leaphorn had worked, a traveling tent show leading Navajos to the “Jesus Way,” and those using Chaco Culture National Historic Park as their base to study the Anasazi.  Too many moving pieces to keep track of, and an unbelievable ending involving the aforementioned helicopters.

But the thing I have always enjoyed about Hillerman’s books is his love of the Southwest and his use of Navajo culture to keep his mysteries from being just another murder/stolen object procedural.  His attention to the cultural differences pulls me in and keeps me there.

Review: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Jodi Taylor

Title: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Author: Jodi Taylor
Series: The Chronicles of St. Mary’s (#6)
Published: 2015
ISBN-13: eBook
Publisher: Accent Press

Max and those crazy historians of St. Mary’s are back. This installment is almost tame compared to the earlier books. Tame, that is, if you discount the baby mammoth poo all over one of the pods, five trainees being trained by Max, one of the trainees with an agenda of his own having to do with Richard III, and a not so unexpected twist at the end. I mean, I saw it coming from the first time Max complained of being sick.

Yup, I liked it very much and continue to be delighted with the attention Jodi Taylor gives to the history.

Review: Dead Set

Dead Set
Richard Kadrey

Title: Dead Set
Author: Richard Kadrey
Published: 2013
ISBN-13: 978-0-06-228301-6
Publisher:  Harper Voyager

When I think of horror, I think of Freddy Krueger or Nightmare on Elm Street or Stephen King, even.

If I were to categorize Richard Kadrey’s books, they would be urban fantasy, which also have a dark twisted underbelly to them.

But many have categorized Kadrey as horror, and since I’m not big on quibbling about labels, I’ll just say “‘Kay.”  Because what it all comes down to is story.  What is the story and how is the story told?  That’s what makes a great read for me.

Dead Set is the story of Zoe and how her teenaged life got derailed after her father dies.  The only thing good she can count on is visits with her dream brother, Valentine, when she goes to sleep.  But then, (good stories always have a but then) …

But then, a black dog starts appearing in her dreams.  And she meets a guy at a record shop storing records with souls captured on them.  For a seemingly small price, he’ll let Zoe commune with her father.

And then, Zoe actually goes to her father and nothing is even close to how she imagined it might be.

Kadrey’s stories are creepy, that’s for damned sure.  But they’re also interesting, well-thought out and entertaining.  In Zoe’s story, he captures that heart-ache of a teenage girl trying to fit into her own life, and make sense of the changes that have happened.  It’s the story of a girl longing to re-connect with the love she once felt from both her parents, and to use her teenage rebellion for something other than just being a rebel.

I love the Sandman Slim series.  Love it.  In Dead Set, we have a quieter protagonist whose world is almost as dangerous as Slim’s.  And I loved it just as much.

Review: Devil Said Bang

Devil Said Bang
Richard Kadrey

Title: Devil Said Bang
Author: Richard Kadrey
Series: Sandman Slim #4
Published: 2012
ISBN-13: 978-0-06-209457-5
Publisher: HarperCollins

Satanists make junior high school Goths look like NASA.  (p. 143)

I’ve been taken with Sandman Slim from the very beginning.  Not only is he a mostly unrepentant badass who embraces that part of him.  He uses it to try to make life better for those he loves, and the world in general, although were the world to be aware of Slim, they wouldn’t thank him for his efforts.

At the end of Devil Said Bang, Slim is the only person to have escaped Hell twice.  This is quite an accomplishment, given that no one is supposed to escape ever, especially if you’re a gladiator expected to fight to the death the first time you’re there.

Kadrey shakes the notions of Heaven and Hell, God and Satan, around a lot in his Sandman Slim books.  His notions match mine that all is not so cut and dried as Christians would have us believe, there’s a lot of grey area.  And to shake that notion even more, it’s revealed in the first book, Sandman Slim, that Slim, aka Stark, is a nephilim.  This part angel, part human thing makes just about every supernatural being mad.  To say Slim’s home life was screwed up wouldn’t even begin to cover it.

It is also the conjunction of many celestial mythologies which make the Sandman Slim books so interesting.  Along with other supernatural beings you might not expect to mix with creation and destruction myths.

Devil Said Bang suffers from mid-series dementia.  Something often found in other series by other authors.  There’s just something about the fourth or so book which is messy.  Kevin Hearne’s fifth book in the Iron Druid series, Trapped, suffered from this.

And I will say the same thing about Devil Said Bang as I did about Trapped, there’s too much information being thrown at us.  Too many characters and too many machinations.  I couldn’t keep up.

With that out of the way, what I like about this book was the continued battle Slim has with himself.  He knows that maybe he could do better, but there are times when he just wants to break stuff.  It’s what he knows best.

Nice people are fucking weird.  (p. 244)

There are always interesting characters with “interesting” hobbies, which turn out to be some sort of key to the plot.  In Devil Said Bang, it’s Teddy Osterberg and his collection of cemeteries.  Yes, collection.

For generations, Teddy’s family has been moving cemeteries from their original plot of land to the family land outside Los Angeles.  There’s a lot of detail about the supernatural aspects of the cemeteries, but it comes down to Osterberg as caretaker of the more “special” cemeteries.  It is from this the scary little girl with the curved knife, who is running around killing people, comes.

Did I mention Sandman Slim is dark?

Not only am I fascinated by the mythology Kadrey uses, the machinations and politicking also fascinate me.  How do people think like that?  How do they know how to find that piece of information which will allow them to manipulate others?  How do they think three, four, five steps ahead of the others?  Reading Slim play off the others who think they have one up on him in Hell is fascinating.  As are all the new and inventive tools used to kill the nasties for whom a shotgun isn’t enough.

Richard Kadrey’s books are not for the squeamish, or for those who hold their mythology dear.  I find them very entertaining, if sometimes gross, and I always learn something new about mythology; especially Christian mythology.  Kadrey sends me scurrying into the stacks to look up information, and gives me things to think on deeply which allows me space to reframe what I think I already know.

 

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Review: The Dark Wind

The Dark Wind
The Dark Wind
Tony Hillerman

Title: The Dark Wind
Author: Tony Hillerman
Series: Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee #5
Published: 1990
ISBN: 0-06-100003-5
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks

The typical Hillerman mystery involves Navajo culture;  either an action meant to look Navajo or something which disturbs the Navajo Way of harmony with the universe.

There’s always conflict between the White people (men) who have strict rules and believe they know what’s best for everyone, especially the Native Americans.  They are usually portrayed as arrogant buffoons who know absolutely nothing about the case or the people against whom the crime was committed.

Sometimes, there’s conflict between two Indian tribes, which is usually resolved by being respectful.

In The Dark Wind, Jim Chee is handed three cases, which all become entwined with a fourth.  The fourth is a small plane crash right in front of Chee while he’s on stakeout waiting for the vandal of the windmill, part of a complicated political gesture by the BLM towards the Hopi Nation.

The plane crash is most decidedly not assigned to Chee, the white FBI, and his captain, make that clear.  He is to stay away from it.  So as he goes about his days driving long distances to chase down clues, he does his best to not get involved in the crash and what turns out to be missing cocaine worth about $15M.

It becomes obvious that the federal agents are up to no good and keep trying to set Chee up for the fall over the missing drugs.  The brutality of these thugs made me wince as they tossed Chee’s small travel trailer he calls home and smack him around.  At first, I thought they were just stupid, prejudiced white men.  Later, it’s revealed that’s only part of their makeup.

While trying to identify a Navajo John Doe discovered by some Hopi men gathering sacred spruce for a ceremonial, Chee encounters the trading post’s owner, Jake West.  West performs magic tricks, which Chee mulls over throughout the book, trying to solve how they’re done.  This proves to be a crucial key to the solution of the missing drugs and the dead bodies which keep piling up.

What keeps me re-reading Hillerman’s mysteries (this is at least my second time through) is the use of Navajo culture and sensibilities to solve the crimes which are jurisdictionally complex.  I read them to re-visit a part of my life in which I was surrounded by Native Americans of several nations, and maybe for a better understanding of my own life.

I also read them because they expose me to other ways of thinking, relating and solving problems.  The Navajo Way is explained as keeping in harmony with the universe, and making course adjustments as necessary.

 

Review: Grace (Eventually)

Grace (Eventually) by Anne Lamott
Grace (Eventually)
Anne Lamott

Title: Grace (Eventually)
Author: Anne Lamott
Published: 2008
ISBN: 978-1-59448-942-6
Publisher: Riverhead Books

If I listed every quote which resonated with me in this book, I would be quoting the entire thing.

Anne Lamott’s writing speaks to me.  Her complete honesty, no doubt.  The way she speaks her truth about her life.  The words she strings together to make me understand how she feels.  I recognize myself in some of what she writes about.

That scared, mixed up woman who can barely keep herself going, much less be expected to do anything else.  The woman who panics for what appears to be no good reason to others, but is a very good reason to her.  Like, “OHMYGAWD, I have no money, I can’t buy the groceries I want, I’m going to have to move my books to the underpass, I’m going to DIE.  The world is going to END!”  Yup, that’s me.

Of course, in my clearer moments I know being poor doesn’t mean the end of the world or anything dire.  It just means no money, and reminding myself that the universe is constantly taking care of me, even when it’s hard to see through the panicked fog.

Her junk food binges in the essay titled “The Muddling Glory of God?”  Frequent flyer here.  Her fraught and confusing relationship with her mother in “Dandelions?”  I still have the scars.

And while I teared up over Anne’s life and the way my heart hurt for both of us, I keep thinking, “She lived through it.  She got to a good place in her life where she can afford groceries and lives in a nice home and has a wonderful community around her.”  I can live through it too.

She makes me think.  And then she makes me giggle as I think about how I might also panic because my dog ran off out of sight on our walk.  Although I think I’d be more worried about the rattlesnakes.

And while I was reading, I was reminded how oddly grace works in my life.  How, really, it’s not so bad.  How when I’m not paying attention and wallowing around in my own mire, grace comes along and does something unexpected.  Then I feel all right and ready to keep going.

If I could ask Anne Lamott one thing, it would be if she would be my life sponsor.  One of my tribe to hold me when my face is red from crying and snot is running over my lips.  One who will take my hand, look me straight in the eye, and say, “You will get through this.”

Her books have literally been life changing for me.  bird by bird taught me about the discipline of writing, of being creative, every day.  Whether I want to or not.  Grace (Eventually) reminds me to wait patiently for the grace which envelops me and takes care of me.  Reading Anne Lamott is like meeting a new, old friend with whom I could share an afternoon talking about the deep things in life, while cracking each other up.