Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Reading Riot!

It's been too long since I reviewed any books here... but then, it has been too long since I had time to read any books.  But I've been having a sort of sanity break just lately - time to visit the beach, take that long-promised water color painting class, and to really read.

As my theatrical life speeds up again, I'll give you a in-the-rear-view-mirror look (if not full reviews) of some of the favorite books I've found during The Lull:

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde - recommended by the owner of Fort Worth's cool new bookstore The Last Word, this is the first in a series of literary detective novels that I really enjoyed.  And when I say "literary detective" I mean a detective/peace officer inside literature.  As in dealing with those hotheads in Wuthering Heights and prosecuting fraudulent and/or cloned Shaxpeares.  Or working with 'em.  Whichever.  Amusingly meta.  Literate.  Clever.  Funny.  Alice-in-Bookland inventive.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler - another find from The Last Word.  This is a retelling of Shakespeare's (the real one's) The Taming of the Shrew.  I found it oddly charming and gently funny.  Romantic, but not in the least mushy.  I liked it so well that I immediately followed up with the same author's Pulitzer Prize-winning Breathing Lessons as a chaser.  Both good... wisely observant of real people and (rare!) understanding of the chemistry of relationships and especially long time marriages.

Another entry in the retell-classic-stories race is Emma, Jane Austen's classic rewritten by Alexander McCall Smith.  Which worked pretty well.  I have to admit that Emma is not my fav Austen heroine - too bossy, too unaware, too embarrassing-herself (I cringe).  But this modern day retelling is lively and funny and makes ol' Emma more fun, I think.

As is my wont, I spent a good few hours revisiting old favorites by the old authors too.  Among the best times this time was a great Terry Pratchett, The Truth.  This is set in his Discworld, but is a strong stand-alone from that series.  More-or-less it's about the invention of a Free Press... really funny, thoughtful, smart, silly, and sane... in a crazy way.  Classic Pratchett.  Not a bad first book to start with if you haven't met his work before.

Another golden oldie: Trustee from the Toolroom, by Nevil Shute.  I'm a fan.  Shute's On the Beach is probably best known now, but this is my favorite, with one of my favorite all-time heroes- he's quiet, humble, talented but poor in a worldly way, unambitious... and, when he needs to be, a brave and resourceful man.  His superpower is figuring out what the right thing to do is and then just doing it.

A different kind of hero - but with the same superpower - is in The Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger.  I loved this book as a teen, and it was dated then, but I still enjoyed it hugely.  For me, it's a classic like The Prisoner of Zenda.

On the topic of heroes: Andy Weir's The Martian is as good as and even more involving than the film version.  And that just won a Hugo award.  Plus NASA people I know like the science.  So there.  Read it!

A shockingly new variation of hero lives in Naomi Novik's non-science but magic-based novel Uprooted.  A girl?  Hero?  Absolutely.   Disclaimer: I always want to like books about magic, but am often disappointed by how well, mundane, it all becomes by about chapter five.  By chapter eleven it's generally all ren-faire-ish politics.  Yawn.  (Ditto "urban romance" another vamp/were/zombie clash? mega yawn.)  Not so much here.  In this novel magic is real and really scary.  Some wonderful, thrilling visions of magic at work.  Very visual.  Very the creepy side of the Brothers Grimm.  Loved it.  I need to reread this soon.

Speaking of so called "urban romance" AKA Vampire Lit...  A few interesting recent reads:  the latest in Charlaine Harris's Midnight, Texas series is fun.  (She authored the books behind TV's True Blood.)  I enjoy her work, but I'd kinda class it in the beach-book airplane-book category - in the nicest way.  Funnier, so I like it better, is the series by Drew Hayes that starts with The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant.  At the tippy-top of my Favorites for this genre (more or less) has to be Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series, starting with Rivers of London or in the US, Midnight Riot.  (Because, being the US, we won't read books without gratuitous violence in the title?)  These are excellent.  Can't recommend these magical-policeman stories strongly enough.  And BTW there are comic books as part of the series at Comixology.

Reflecting on all this sort of richness is an interesting collection of essays by writer Neil Gaiman in The View from the Cheap Seats.  Obviously, this will mean more to you if you first know Gaiman's fiction: I'd suggest starting with Stardust or Neverwhere or his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, a cheery look at the Apocalypse.  The essays are thoughtful and scholarly about the sort of imaginative fiction I love, though delving more deeply into comics than I can keep up with.  A takeaway?

"I believe that in the battle between guns and ideas, 
ideas will, eventually, win."

On the battlefront of Ideas - in the skirmish of democracy - Sarah Powell's Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is an amusing and informative look at one of the Founding Fathers... or, rather, their French battle-buddy.  I really like the way she spins things, for example:  "Devoted to the principles of liberty, equality, and religious tolerance - which, dear Internet, is not necessarily the same thing as Satanism..."  

I've been reading up on history lately... starting with 1820s New Orleans ('cause Architect/Pirate Barthelemy Lafon!) but slipping back in time a bit (because I've gotten interested in the hit musical Hamilton).  So I've been reading The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed.  Another award winner.  Fascinating!  Also dipping into letters by Hamilton himself and this and that.  The internet is a rabbit hole for history - just a warning.  Anyway. 

I've found my history reading timely... Nice to know that political discourse - as we see it in this years presidential race - hasn't really changed much.  Sigh.

Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull courtesy of Wikimedia
public domain

The most fascinating reading has been my gift copy (thanks!) of Hamilton: the Revolution, the book by Lin Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter.  This documents the creation of the you-can't-BUY-a-ticket Broadway musical.  A really in depth look at its writing and its development on stage.  This book would be an ideal present for anyone creating (or interested in) new works for the theater.

Phew!  Last entry.  Also on artists doing their art, the book of the long over-due retrospective for painter Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun...  Gorgeous portraits!  Vigee Le Brun, by Joseph Baillio, Katherine Baetjer, and Paul Lang.  Important painter, protege of Queen Marie  Antoinette, international celebrity in her own day, it only took the Metropolitan Museum, what, 200 years? to stage her first international show.  Figures. 

 Another thing that hasn't changed enough, misogyny.  As a member of France's Revolutionary Council explained back in 1800s:

"Among savage peoples, who are closest to nature, does one see women doing the work of men?  He thinks it is because a famous woman, la citoyenne Le Brun, showed great talent in painting that a host of others have wanted to take up painting, whereas they ought only to engage in embroidering police officers' belts and caps..."

Sometimes fiction is more upbeat than history.  I'm looking for a nice comforting dystopia next...

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