Monday, January 31, 2011

The Curse of the Pharaohs by Elizabeth Peters

The Curse of the Pharaohs
by Elizabeth Peters, read by Susan O'Malley
Blackstone Audio, 2005
9 discs (unabridged)

I have a habit of downloading things a bit at a time -- that is, with the Elizabeth Peters mysteries, I tend to download and burn only three discs at once, for some reason. Well, for several reasons, none of which compensate for the fact that I get through three discs just quickly enough for my online library download to expire, such that I then have to wait another week or two to download and burn the next three discs.

Which is why it's taken me so long to listen to this. It's not that book wasn't good or enjoyable. It was great. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I just had to wait between downloads. I'm still working through the Susan O'Malley books since that's what I have access to currently, but I'm keeping an eye out for the Recorded Books versions done by Barbara Rosenblat, as per Nan's instructions.

So, this is the second of the Amelia Peabody mysteries by Elizabeth Peters. It didn't disappoint. I'm avoiding summarizing and other spoilers for the first book in this review, but when I continue with the series I don't necessarily expect that to be possible. We'll enjoy it while it lasts.

I really enjoyed this book, almost as much as I enjoyed the first. The sophomore effort in a longstanding series is always a hump that I, as a reader, am anxious about -- sometimes the second book just really can't possibly live up to the shininess of the first book, and that's always disappointing. But if The Curse of the Pharaohs wasn't quite as good as Crocodile on the Sandbank, that doesn't mean it was bad. It was quite a lot of fun, of the sort that I had expected to come from Amelia, and the mystery in this one was even slightly harder to figure out than the first one. An extra abundance of suspects helps with that, as does the fact that the foreshadowing is handled a little more gently. And when I say a little, I mean just the tiniest bit, really. Subtle foreshadowing is not an Elizabeth Peters strong point. Or perhaps I should say an Amelia Peabody strong point, because it is in Amelia's voice that we receive the entire story. These books are written almost like a diary, but more a report; dispatches from the field, perhaps, with Amelia the first person limited narrator.

One thing I noticed in this book slightly more than the first was that Peters handles Amelia with gentle hands, but isn't above letting the reader see where Amelia's faults -- and faulty reasonings -- lie. There are occasions where Amelia will suggest something and the reader (or in my case, listener) will know that there is a different explanation, or she will tell us something and we will immediately grasp the significance of what she is saying but she will not, and sometimes never does. I like this about the books -- it's not that I like feeling superior to my narrator (there is no chance of that; Amelia is just too delightful) but that it requires me to do some thinking on my own, rather than having Amelia spoonfeed me everything.

The reasons I don't think this book is quite what the first was? Well, the murder mystery isn't quite as original as the sort of mystery Amelia was solving in the first book. And the secondary characters, perhaps because there were several more and varied, weren't nearly as well-fleshed as the first set. As with the first, this one was slow to get started (though charming from the beginning, too) and I found I didn't care quite as much about anyone except the recurring characters by the end of this book the way I had cared for the secondary characters in the end of the first book. I am hoping that does change in the third book, because it was part of the reason I loved Crocodile on the Sandbank so much.

I'm still recommending this series to anyone looking for a lighter cozy mystery with a fascinating, out-of-the-ordinary setting. Amelia's love of place (and perhaps Elizabeth Peters'?) shines through in her descriptions of Victorian-era Egypt. One doesn't have to have an interest in classical Egyptian archaeology to enjoy the characters and plot, and my knowledge is very rudimentary, though growing thanks to these books. For anyone who has read these books and is interested in the archaeology, I'd recommend Harry Thurston's excellent and readable (if long) book on the Dakhleh Oasis Project, Island of the Blessed. It's an archaeological project of which Amelia would thoroughly approve, I think.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Japanese Gardening by Charles Chesshire, photos by Alex Ramsay

Japanese Gardening
by Charles Chesshire, photos by Alex Ramsay
Aquamarine, 2006
160 pages

It must be late January. Every year, like clockwork, the seed catalogues come and we have a few gorgeous, somewhat warm sunny days (which soon tilt back into frigidly appropriate dead-of-winter temperatures), and I start to feel the draw of the garden again. January is far too early to start planting even the earliest seeds indoors around here. I've got at least until mid-March before I dare to attempt that. So the next best thing is garden books, and I expect there will be a smattering of them from here on out until I'm actually out in the garden in the sun and soil.

I've always really liked the traditional Japanese garden ethic. I didn't know anything about it, really, except that there is something I appreciate instinctively about it. So this book, with its absolutely gorgeous cover and beginner attitude, appealed to me strongly when it came back across the desk.

Having not read any Japanese gardening books before, this appears to me to be a good entry into the aesthetic. It's very basic in some ways, although it's not at all a basic gardening book. There is an understanding that you, as a reader, have gardened before in a Western style, probably for a while, and are now turning your sights towards designing a Japanese-style garden. It's hard to say whether or not it fulfills its purpose, as I don't have the kind of space, time, or (most important) restraint to implement almost any of the ideas in this book. Generally, these are big gardens for big properties, and only a very few ideas for smaller gardens were briefly touched on. Which in a way is odd, because it's not like most Japanese gardeners have acres of space to play with.

As garden porn, it fulfills its purpose -- the photos are beautiful, and the layout of the book itself is very pretty. As garden erotica, perhaps not so much -- I was left wanting quite a lot more. I was lead to believe, for example, that there would be some discussion of contemporary Japanese gardening, and there were perhaps one or two glancing blows, mostly in captions of photographs. Along the same lines, there were sometimes photographs that were very incompletely explained; one caption discusses a photograph of a "bandaged" pine, which was probably very symbolic and/or functional, but there was nothing at all in the text to explain anything about it.

Done well, on the other hand, was a good chronology of design styles and a good explanation of design influences through history. It wasn't in-depth, but it was good enough that I now know I want to know more, and could at least name and explain a little bit about the four traditional Japanese garden styles and where they came from. Also, while Chesshire explains the design ethic, he touches often on the fact that to really understand the Japanese garden, one needs to understand the spiritual influences and not just the hard design. I think that's probably very important for Western gardeners to at least acknowledge as a major part of a Japanese garden, when attempting to design one of their own; Chesshire feels the same.

Also good were the glossary and plant lists. The bibliography was very small, which was a bit of a disappointment.

Overall, far too brief, I think, but nice to look at and a fine entry point for someone interested but not committed to the traditional Japanese garden. It was enough for me to recognize that while I appreciate the ideas, they really won't work for me. Not at this point in my gardening life, anyways. I don't have enough restraint. I love my flowers and my colours and my scents. The search for my own garden design ethic continues...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson

by Jacqueline Woodson
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2007
118 pages

This is a beautiful, simple, complex, shining little book. It's a book that I'm sure would mean different things to me at different ages -- it's got so many layers, some of which I haven't sorted yet. When I suggested we read it for the parent-child book club, I'd only read pieces and several reviews. I'm a little scared now, because it is a very complex book, and the main character is older by years than the kids in the group -- I have some as young as six -- but I'm also really happy, because I think the adults are going to get a lot out of this, and at the same time there is plenty of fodder there for the kids to think about. And lots of fodder for discussion both between kid and parent and between our group.

The story is a relatively simple thing: Frannie is eleven years old and in school at Price Elementary in New York. It's the seventies, and the schools are still segregated, if informally -- Frannie and her family are black, and they live on one side of the highway. All the white people live on the other side and go to school there. But one day a white boy walks into Frannie's class, and that's the beginning of a really gorgeous story about family, friendship, fitting in, bullying, memory, and hope.

Woodson has language wrapped around her little finger. I believe the woman could do whatever she wanted with it and I would follow happily. More than that, she has that feeling of what it's like to be a child dealing with big questions and difficult situations down. Frannie is often confused, worried, sad, and frustrated, but she's also happy, hopeful, and funny. She's self-involved, but she's starting to look at the world around her with more awareness, beginning to empathize with other kids, and trying to do the right thing.

Add another layer, now: Frannie's older brother Sean is deaf. The relationship between the two kids is beautiful, too. Frannie has the mixture of overprotectiveness and awe for Sean that one might expect to find in a younger sibling who can hear. Sean puts up with her, but more than that, obviously loves her deeply too. They play games, talk, help each other, and occasionally get on each other's nerves. Further, they support each other through a difficult family time: their father is a long-haul trucker (though this is never explicit -- one of the things I like about this book is that Woodson lets the reader figure things out for themselves) and so not often home, and their mother is pregnant again, after several high-risk and ultimately miscarried pregnancies, including an infant that died between Sean and Frannie. The two kids have different perspectives on this, but stick together through it. Aside from their relationship, the little glimpse into the world of a congenitally deaf teenager adds something special to this already special book.

I could keep going, keep digging deeper. The bullying storyline is pretty straightforward, and I think will probably form a core for our discussion of this book next month. Then there's the relationship between Frannie and her best friend Samantha. Sam is extremely religious, the daughter of an evangelical pastor. Frannie's not so much.

This was another aspect I worried about a bit, as we are a public library and I have no idea at all about the religious proclivities of our book club members. I knew that there were Christianity-based religious discussions in it ahead of time, but I decided to go ahead with it anyways for two reasons: one, the kids in the group will already be having the kinds of conversations with others about religion that Frannie is having with Sam; and two, this aspect of the book deals with respect for others' beliefs, not with conversions or Jesus-pushing. This is not a preachy book, and if you're the sort of person (like me) who shies away hard from inspirational or Christian fiction, have no fear. I suspect, frankly, that it's the sort of book that will let people take from it what they will.

I may try to find a good book about a Muslim or Jewish family just for kicks. My feeling from this book club is that they'd totally be in to that. Anyone have any suggestions? Something under 100 pages is best, and though this book had an older protagonist I usually try to keep the protagonists in the 7 - 10 year old range.

The main driver for my choice of this book was that I wanted, for February, a book dealing with black history that wasn't about slavery, the Underground Railroad, or segregation. Those are all topics that the kids will get in school, and it was important to me that they get another dimension of black culture in history, that they know that there's a heck of a lot more to black history than that. There aren't a lot of books for this age group depicting black families or black culture in a way that doesn't explicitly deal with slavery or immediate post-slavery. Feathers was perfect in that respect.

Seriously, this is a kids' book that should be read by everyone, not just kids. I got an incredible amount out of this book, and I don't think I can stress how absolutely perfect, how beautiful this story is. I think that if you have children in your life between the ages of eight and twelve, you should get them this book, and read it with them. If you don't have children in your life, read it anyways. It's a hopeful, multifaceted, gorgeous book, written in such a shining way.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen

Skinny Dip
by Carl Hiaasen
Knopf, 2004
368 pages

I am on a roll with actually reading book club books. I consider two read all the way through a roll, yes, why do you ask?

Especially since this is an adult book even. It's longer than 100 pages! Woot!

And I liked it. I really did. It's a fair ways off my usual beaten path, that of fantasy and/or romance. That said, it included, in some ways, a bit of both. Skinny Dip is a revenge fantasy, and there's a hint of very satisfying, if very peripheral, romance throughout the thing. Plus, this book is funny. It might even be, for some people, laugh out loud funny. I didn't laugh out loud, but that didn't mean I wasn't grinning or appreciating the humour.

Chaz Perrone is a screw-up. He's a biologist who hates all living things, except for beautiful women and the grass on his golf greens. He's married, but not faithfully, and he's a lousy son. He has no ambition, unless you can count making lots of money with as little effort as possible ambitious. Currently, he's doing this by faking water samples in the Florida Everglades to keep a very crooked, very rich industrial farmer in the polluting business. And he's pretty sure his wildlife-loving wife has caught on, so it's over the side of a cruise ship with her. It all seems to have gone perfectly.

Except that Chaz is a screw-up, and Joey's not dead. She's also a champion swimmer. And now that she's been "murdered," she's about to make Chaz's life really miserable.

Hiaasen's sense of humour, which is part of his attraction to many I think, is dark and absurd. Example #1: Joey Perrone's first husband was killed by being flattened by a skydiver whose parachute didn't open. Example #2: Tool, a bodyguard stuck on Chaz by the criminal he works for, is extremely hairy and was mistaken for a bear by a hunter, and now lives with a bullet lodged in his posterior crack. The way the entire story unfolds is like this; unlikely-but-just-likely-enough coincidences and events butting up against each other to make for a gleeful black comedy. Somehow, I enjoy the central characters enough -- larger-than-life though many of them were -- and the plot enough that I wanted to suspend disbelief long enough to get to the end of the story. Of course things like that would never happen (would they?) but for the sake of an enjoyable reading experience, I'll let it pass. And then, by the time I'm halfway through, I'm gobbling it all up.

Because of the things I want to talk about, the this review does include some spoilers. It's really unavoidable in this case. I can say that I think this book in particular is about the journey, not the destination, but if you want to be left wondering about the ultimate fates of the various characters as I was, you're better off stopping here. But first, the recommendations:

Entertaining and smart, I'd recommend this book for adults looking for a funny, somewhat dark but never truly dark story. Those with a weak stomach for a bit of violence, any swearing (there's a lot of it) or sex (though not sexy sex) will not enjoy this book, but those who have ever wanted to see real slimeballs get put through the wringer will. Those who like a bit of an environmental bent to their stories (not always easy to find) will like this book, possibly a lot. As for me, it's not really the sort of thing I would search out, not because it's not well-written or enjoyable, but because it's way far out of my usual reading zones. I'm glad I read it. I don't know that I'll be reading a lot more Hiaasen in the future, but I wouldn't rule it out. Based on this book, I know I'd enjoy something else he's written.

/spoilers begin!

This is a good reading experience. Hiaasen has done such a wonderful job with his characters, both good and bad, that there is quite a lot of delight in seeing things turn out the way the reader hopes they will. Everyone, barring no one, gets what they deserve by the end of the book. It's so incredibly satisfying. The journey to get there is entertaining and very twisted. It's as though Hiaasen took a cast of characters from his head and said to himself, "If I was to write a book set in the kind of world where karma works perfectly in a relatively short amount of time, what would happen to each of these characters?"

And if he is unkind to some of his characters -- Chaz in particular, of course -- the reader can't help but watch with a very satisfied smirk and yes, an incredible amount of schadenfreude. Not just because of what he did to Joey, which was despicable enough (though not despicable enough to merit everything he goes through, I suspect) but because of his entire outlook on life, because of everything he has done or not done that we know about, and because of everything that we don't explicitly know about but suspect. Frankly, the only character who I think got off easy for his crimes was the big bad himself, Red Hammernutt.

Conversely, when we meet and then get to know Tool, the extremely hairy and unpleasant bodyguard, Hiaasen has written him in such a way that the reader actually finds herself sympathizing with the guy and hoping things go better for them than the karmic setup suggests they might. And as we go along in his story, one hopes more and more that things will go all right for the guy, despite the fact that he's almost (but never entirely) repellant. There's a moment when that hope appears dashed -- although one realizes later that one was set up to know it couldn't end like that -- and when Tool gets his happy ending, the reader is relieved and very pleased.

This is the reader's fantasy that Hiaasen is manipulating. He knows that every person out there has entertained the fervent but hopeless desire that people would always get what they deserve. He gives us that in such a way that we don't feel like we're being pandered to, or that he's taking the easy way out. It's an explicit goal of the story. But this is also Hiaasen's fantasy: Hiaasen is a big fan of the Everglades, an advocate for environmental responsibility and sustainable practices. One gets the feeling that Joey's not the only one getting revenge on Chaz, and that Tool's not the only one dealing with Red Hammernutt. Anyone at all who has any feeling for the environment and has often despaired about how it's treated has wished that the people who don't seem to care at all would get a wake-up call, or at least disappear. This adds an extra dimension of catharsis for us. Hiaasen hasn't just wished it, he's written it. I can appreciate that.

All of that said, the very ending, the last paragraphs, did make me squirm just a little. I haven't decided yet whether or not Chaz deserved the open-ended that. It might have gone just a little, just a touch too far. Which I think may have been intentional. Chaz still isn't taking responsibility for anything, and he's still a jerk, but... well. By pushing it that extra little step, Hiaasen has added just a little bit of weight to the gloating reader. Because yes, you wished the worst for him, but did you wish him that?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat

Owls in the Family
by Farley Mowat
Yearling Books, 1996 (originally published in 1962)
91 pages

So, my parent-child book club loved this book, pretty unanimously. The adults had different views on it than the kids did, and I have to say that as someone who had read it both as a kid and as an adult, I had an interesting perspective on it.

I loved this book as a kid. I remembered it as being hilarious, and sometimes a little touching, and just flat out amazing. It started a lifelong love of owls (which, coming from a family of seriously dedicated birdwatchers, I'll admit I was primed for). I remembered it being a lot longer, and there were a lot of things I'd forgotten. Like how Billy (a thinly disguised stand in for Mowat) found the second owl, Weeps. Or the part with the crows. Or the ending, which caused some of the most interesting discussion tonight -- most of us agreed it was way too abrupt, and not nearly as elegant as the rest of the book.

As an adult, the humour doesn't seem as funny, and the discovery of Weeps as well as the crow chapter really stuck out more. And the ultra casual attitude towards wildlife life and death, either at the hands of nature or the hands of humans. And the keeping of ground squirrels and rats in conditions unlikely to make a humane society officer very happy today. In fact, the entire idea of going out into the wild to catch animals to keep as pets makes my inner former environmental educator froth at the mouth. Such a bad idea. But I digress into no-fun-adult-territory.

It is still funny, and as an adult, it's definitely worth reading, if only for an appreciation of how much things have changed, and in some ways, how much poorer we are for that. How many kids get to disappear onto the prairie for a day with a pal, wandering around and looking for wildlife? How many kids get to hang out in an old cave dug by a long-gone itinerant next to a river, and maybe stay the night by themselves? Next to none, certainly around here, though we never really had much in Ontario to speak of anyways -- nothing like they have out West. There is a sense of wonder about this book, a casual wisdom about the wild Billy has that seems very unusual, and very precious, to me now.

The prairie really lives in this book, and the abundance of wildlife is remarkable. The casual attitude taken towards it comes from its abundance; wildlife is everywhere, largely a nuisance or alternatively, an entertainment. While it's clear that Billy and his friends love animals, it's a childlike, utilitarian love -- the sort of love, though, that matures into something deep and meaningful and much more respectful, if encouraged carefully by the adults in a child's life. This book made me reflect on how the way we treat other living things, and each other, really changes as we grow up. The way we relate to the world around us changes, too.

And I think that's part of what makes this book so valuable, is that it is told in such a pitch-perfect way for both its times and its protagonist's age. There are no excuses made for what I can see as an adult might have been a... well, a way of relating to the natural world that I might have winced at, if not actively disapproved. The more I think about it, the more I realize that this is one of the reasons this book is so loved by children, and such a valuable story to have in the children's classics canon. Highly recommended for reading and discussing with the children in your life.

ps. from the former outdoor ed teacher: Owls? Make terrible, terrible pets. Please, for the love of all that is holy, don't ever get a child an owl for a pet.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists by Gideon Defoe

The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists
by Gideon Defoe
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004
131 pages

At one point I described this book to fishy as "Like Monty Python, but less subtle." Take from that what you will. It perhaps goes without saying that it's also not as good as Monty Python, but there: I said it anyways.

They would have hugged right there and then, but were interrupted by a further crash as first another cannonball and then a pirate screamed in through the window. The two men stood stock-still.

"Don't make any sudden movements," whispered FitzRoy to his companion. "Remember -- he's more scared of us than we are of him."

"That's bears, you idiot," hissed Darwin out of the side of his mouth. "I don't think it applies to pirates."

That's right: the scientists of whom the title speaks are none other than Captain FitzRoy (who apparently had some interest in meteorology; I actually learned something from this book) and Charles Darwin. Put on to the Beagle by a tricksy fellow pirate who assures them the little ship is carrying all the gold from the Bank of England, our intrepid, and incredibly stupid, pirate crew sinks the famous ship. Feeling somewhat badly about it, they invite the crew aboard and set sail for England, taking Darwin, FitzRoy, and the first Man-panzee in the world, Mister Bobo. This is because Darwin's brother Erasmus has been kidnapped by the villainous Bishop of Oxford, and dire consequences are hinted at if Darwin presents Mister Bobo to society. The pirates, who were in need of an adventure anyways, decide to help.

It's madcap, certainly, and at the beginning I was worried it would be so incredibly gimmicky and maybe even too silly for me, which is saying something. I had no feeling for any of the characters, the plot seemed hazy at best, and the humour felt like it would wear thin with neither plot nor characters to work with. But the thing is, Defoe seems to know the line. He doesn't overstay his welcome. This little book is exactly the right length, and a plot does surface; and what do you know, I actually developed enough of an idea of who the characters were to take an interest in them. I became particularly fond of the pirate with a scarf, who never has a name but is the Pirate Captain's second in command. Actually, the Pirate Captain grew on me too, despite myself.

I had come into reading this with some idea that it might be Pratchett-like, being British satire, and I'm pretty sure something I read somewhere lead me in that direction. I think that's where any feelings of letdown come from. I don't think there's a lot to say about society at large or really any deep themes running through it, despite the vague promise that there might be something about science versus religion. Or if there is, I wasn't induced to read closely enough to pick them out. I did learn a few things -- the footnotes, rather than being hilarious asides, are actually largely factual, adding historical context and even explaining jokes. Which... well, it seemed a little incongruous, really, and in many cases completely pointless. Though did you know that the reason our fingers go pruny in water is that the oily, waterproof layer on our skin washes off, leading water to enter our epidermis through osmosis, thus making it larger and therefore wrinkly? I think I did know that at one point, but now I know it again.

The point being, I don't think it's the book's fault that I didn't get quite what I wanted or expected. Once in my hands, it never really pretended to be anything other than what it was: a very silly adventure story with maybe enough information to tweak an interest in actually finding out more about the real Darwin. Perhaps I will finally pick up The Voyage of the Beagle.

If some clever troupe of actors with a bent for Pythonesque humour got hold of these stories, I would watch them. As a book, Pirates! with Scientists is entertaining but probably ultimately forgettable; ultra-light. I would read another Pirates! adventure, or even this one again, if it was easily handy, but to be honest I don't see myself bothering with interlibrary loan again. Not quite enough substance or hilarity to make it worth the work for our technician, but there is enough there that I don't regret reading it. Other adventures the pirates undertake include joining Ahab and going after a certain white whale, hanging out with communists, and meeting Napoleon.