Friday, December 27, 2013

From Bosworth to Boulogne

For a history project my senior year in high school, I wrote a very passionate defense of Richard III's innocence in the deaths of the Princes in the Tower. (Not that I was a huge fan of the entire Plantagenet line, but even back then I liked defending often-unpopular or obscure points of view just for the hell of it.) I had read Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time back in middle school, and I think it made an impression on my proto-emo soul.

So when a friend reminded me of Josephine Tey's books, I read the three preceding books in her Inspector Alan Grant series... and then I re-read The Daughter of Time again. It's been a while since I've read mysteries without a female protagonist, but Tey's Inspector Grant series is an enjoyable police procedural mystery set, peppered with descriptive piquancies - perfect for gray Northwest evenings!

In the first three books, Inspector Grant is in the field, running around Britain solving murder mysteries and gaining insights into human behavior from his theatre and society friends. But in the last, while recuperating in hospital from an injury sustained while chasing crooks, he "solves" the mystery of whether or not Richard III murdered the Princes in the Tower. (He comes to the conclusion that he did not, and that the hunchbacked, throne-usurping Uncle Richard story was propaganda put out by Henry VII and enshrined by pro-Tudor factions for decades onward. Even Shakespeare was not blameless, writing as he did under a Tudor monarch.)

Of course, reading the series reminded me that earlier in the year, DNA tests proved that a skeleton found under a car park in Leicester was indeed Richard III's.

Meanwhile, an ocean and several hundred years (and light years) away, I am also fascinated by the superhero film genre as an ever-evolving expression of national identity. So when Man of Steel came out earlier this year, I went to see it. (It's a pretty crappy movie. Amy Adams is wonderful as always, and I did like the extended back story of Jor-El and Krypton. But there were way too many gratuitous explosions and overly long scenes of the casual destruction of planets and buildings. The tornado scene was particularly unfortunate, given so much devastation this year in Oklahoma. How can a superhero save an audience that is too desensitized to violence?)

Looking at oh-so-pretty Henry Cavill was basically the only thing that kept me in my seat for over two hours.

Soooo, after election season settled down I finally got around to watching The Tudors.

I had long been personally boycotting the series due to the anti-Plantagenet conspiracy that particular dynasty wreaked on its predecessors (see above and what reading The Daughter of Time did to an impressionable 12-year-old).

Turns out, the series is brilliant. It takes a lot of liberties with the timeline (and some historical figures age quickly, while others don't age at all in what should be a 20-year span).  But aside from some digressions from the history books and chronology, I think it gets the general spirit right.

Trying to make a rather fit Jonathan Rhys-Meyers look like a rotund Henry VIII, though, was amusing, as was Henry telling Thomas More "You're not a saint!" (Ha ha... )

The most fascinating aspect of the series, though, was how it portrayed the tumultuous break with the Church in Rome and the rocky, somewhat sketchy beginnings of the Church of England. I really appreciated how the series included the doctrinal implications of the schism as well as the cultural and political ones. That gray, confusing area where England was neither fully Catholic nor very Protestant is generally glossed over, but is so fascinating... especially from an organizer's perspective! (What do we do with all these abbeys? What do we believe about the transubstantiation, again? How do we tell the illiterate masses what just happened? What is happening? What's the definition of heresy this week?)

The series is most known not for its insightful theological statements, of course, but for its raunchy soft-core porn-esque sex scenes.

From the brilliant and nerdy comic Hark! A Vagrant

Maybe I should just continue on this chronological journey, and move on to the Stuarts! Mi Hermana did tell me over Thanksgiving that she's addicted to Game of Thrones, and that after recognizing threads from family rants while watching the Red Wedding episode, discovered it was indeed based in part on the Glencoe Massacre...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Under thine own life's key

Back when Mis Hermanas and I were only allowed to watch pre-1970s movies, we ended up watching a lot of WWII films ... and a lot of those were POW movies. (The Great Escape remains to this day the one film I have seen the most in my life, due to watching it every other weekend one summer in middle school.)

There are very few women in war movies. But when we'd play-act or write (we would have "travelling stories" sessions where we'd each write for 10 minutes, then trade and keep finishing each other's stories), we'd insert ourselves or kick-ass girls into the storyline as if their war experience could be equal to those of men.  Once, I even turned in a story in high school about a female pilot shot down over Germany who escapes from a POW camp; my English teacher hailed it as a good idea for story contest and history research project.

So stories about female pilots shot down over occupied Europe in WWII were already familiar terrain for me.

But I read Code Name Verity on the recommendation of a friend, thinking it would be a Spy Kids kind of storyline... or even one along the lines of the Maggie Hope series.

Instead, Code Name Verity had me sobbing for the last few chapters. It's the story of two best friends, female civilian pilots who ferry planes for airborne servicemen to use. When shot down in occupied France, one is captured and tortured for information, and one is not. The story of their friendship and fates is told captivatingly through diaries and journal entries.

The sequel, Rose Under Fire, was actually heavier in content than its predecessor (I didn't think it could be, but it was). Rose is also the story of a female pilot, shot down over Germany towards the end of the war. She is thrown into the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp and shares a bunker with a (real life) group of Polish prisoners who have been the subject of Nazi medical experiments. It evoked memories of specific passages from both Night and Survival in Auschwitz that, even years later, I can never forget.

Wein's writing style reflects the fact that the books are written for young adults, and the characters are all young women in their late teens who are still navigating their place in a male-dominated world. The characters struggle to find -- and maintain --  their own voices amidst chaos and utter brutality: the respective themes of the books are "I have told the truth" and "Tell the world".

The books are heartbreaking and heart-wrenching, but they speak to the simple heroism of survival and the enduring power of friendship. I'm definitely adding these books to my collection of WWII fiction for young adults.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Hard and heavy tidings

In the wee hours of late summer, both pre- and post-primary election, the long hours of work frequently demand cheesy soap opera-esque dramas to soothe the unending campaign routine.

The Maggie Hope series provided exactly that relief.

The main character is half-British, half-American trying to find her roots in London when war breaks out. She happens to be a brilliant mathematician who speaks German. She happens to be recruited to join the secret service in the war effort. And of course, she discovers that her supposedly long-dead father is actually a brilliant scientist working with Alan Turing on super-secret code stuff, that her also supposedly long-dead mother is in fact a famous German spy, that the man she loves in Book One and supposedly dies in Book Two is alive after all in Book Three (to create an awkward love triangle with Man 2, who consoled her after the "death" of Man 1).  And that she has a nurse half-sister in Berlin who secretly tries to save mentally ill and other Nazi-deemed "undesirable" children.

In between all of these scandalous revelations, Miss Hope (right?) saves London from an Irish insurgent, saves Princess Elizabeth from a Nazi kidnapping plot, and gathers valuable information for the Allies from behind enemy lines in the heart of the Fatherland. Naturally, she goes rogue several times (but her ends always justify the means); and she always has a showdown with male superiors who want to limit her role to more mundane and secretarial duties. There are also inspirational Churchill quotes interspersed, Mrs Miniver-like scenes from around Britain, and gay and Jewish best friends to remind us of what the war is really about.

The books are a fairly quick read, and the plots are almost comic-book unbelievable. But they're still enjoyable!

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Ah, Teneriffe!

Because the WA State primary and then the general elections swooped in almost immediately after the Mt Rainier adventure, I've barely had time to pause and reflect.

Rainier was AMAZING. I had a small anxiety attack at midnight at 12,000' when we started the final trek to the top, and had to turn back. But 12,000' is now the highest height to which I have ever hiked (beating my previous record of 10,000' at base camp the year before).

And I loved every minute on the Mountain.

I discovered I love hanging out on glaciers. I discovered exactly how in-shape I was (despite ongoing body-image issues that women in our society are told to have), what my personal hiking style is, and that there is actually cell phone service at 11,000' on the southeast glacier. Also, that there are bees that high up, despite there being no vegetation.

I'll be back to finish the summit in the next few years!

So then a few months after the Rainier summit attempt, I summited Mount St Helens - though it's now considerably lower in elevation (8,365' to Rainier's 14,410'), the journey to the top was completely different. (No glacial travel, though there is one glacier on the mountain.)

For starters, the trail past the timber line is straight up ash and huge pumice boulders. It's extremely humbling to realize that, once upon a time when I was a baby in Wenatchee cranky because I couldn't go outside to play in the falling ash, the very boulders I was scrambling over were being formed deep within the earth's crust and ejected nine miles into the atmosphere above St Helens before landing on the slopes for future climbers to maneuver around.

The view at the top is similarly humbling: the mile-wide crater, with the growing lava dome in the middle, dozens of vents spewing steam, and the entire north slope of the mountain completely missing (and the forest still pretty scorched and desolate).

The main steam vent was captivating - I took tons of footage of the plumes spiraling upward.

And when we finally got fellow climbers at the top to hush, the most humbling experience of all...

You can hear the mountain rumbling.

Friday, July 05, 2013

The agonized groans of mangled men

Because I signed up to summit Mt Rainier this summer, La Otra Hermana suggested I read Bear Grylls' autobiography. Though I am permanently scarred from watching Man vs. Wild footage of him squeezing elephant dung in order to drink water while "stranded" in the savannah, I decided to read it because La OH never recommends books (the last one was The Maker's Diet).

Of course, La Otra Hermana did have ulterior motives: it turns out, Grylls is super-Christian. The first half of Mud, Sweat, and Tears is basically him detailing how pure grit and God got him through the grueling tryouts for the elite British Special Forces. The second half is how pure grit and God got him through the grueling climb up Mount Everest, when he became the youngest Brit (at the time) to summit.

It's not the most well-written book... and that's a kind understatement. There's also a definite "muscular Christianity" and vaguely colonial attitude underlying the stories he tells about his adventures, which gets a little uncomfortable at times.

I was surprised, though, that Grylls is actually from a pretty well-off, privileged family. There was one line that had me laughing out loud: when Grylls shows up for Special Forces training with a chum from Eton, they're heckled by trainers with shouts of "Where are the lads who speak like Prince Charles?"

What strangely does motivate me to train for Rainier?  A mystery series set in ancient Athens. Maybe it's the Spartans as intimidating secondary characters, or the reminder of how marathons started, or the setting of the third book at the Olympics. But the series is thoroughly enjoyable, as well as hilarious.

Nicolaos is the fictitious older brother of the 12-year-old Socrates. He is commissioned by Pericles to solve a politically charged murder in the early days of Athenian democracy. Then he's dispatched to Ephesus, deep in the heart of the Persian-ruled part of ancient Greece, to see what an ostracized Themistocles is up to. Upon returning to Athens in time for the Olympics, he has to solve yet another murder in order to avert a war with Sparta.

I haven't taken classics since ninth grade, so I had to brush up on my ancient Greek history a bit after the first few chapters of The Pericles Commission. Then I breezed through the next two books because they're so wonderfully witty! Can't wait for the fourth book to come out sometime next year.

In the meantime, I have two weeks left of stairs, weighted backpacks, and pain. Lots of pain.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The devil you know

Reading Michael Robotham is like watching a psychological thriller onscreen: it's horrifying, kind of predictable, and yet gruesomely addictive in a Seven, noir-esque kind of way.

I like how his books alternatingly follow the same cast of characters (a police detective, a policewoman, a psychologist).

Night Ferry takes over where Lost leaves off -- and this time the narrator is the injured policewoman who heads to Holland's red light district to figure out who is smuggling pregnant immigrant girls to England to harvest their babies for adoption. In Shatter, Joe the psychologist is back to solve a series of grisly suicides. They all go rogue to solve horrific, extremely disturbing, and violent crimes.  But their personal lives suffer, making it harder and harder to look away from the disturbing train wreck and put the book down.

You know what's also disturbing?  Hearing a strange "rattle" sound and seeing this two feet away from your hiking boot.

Let's just say, I will be reading more Michael Robotham. But I probably won't go hiking in the eastern Cascades for a while.

Monday, March 11, 2013

I have no gun, but I can spit

Because the first book in the Flavia de Luce series completely blew my mind, of COURSE I ran out and read the rest of the series.

With each book, the delightfully devious pre-teen heroine reveals something new about herself or her family's past. She was expelled from the Girl Guides. Like her mother, she's a genius. She still wears pigtails. She tries so, so hard to be an evil scientist but in reality is just a pre-adolescent who wants to hug hurting people all around her. She's morbidly obsessed with murder and death, but still believes in Father Christmas and concocts a brilliant plan to trap him in a chimney.

The literary nerd in me also loves Alan Bradley's series because each book includes so many references to English literature -- including two of my own favorites from my adolescence, "The Lady of Shallott" (Book 4) and "The Highwayman" (Book 5). The literary references are woven into the general narrative, so readers must be familiar with standard semi-famous lines from poems.

While the second and third books aren't as strong as the first, I think the fourth and fifths ones are. And the cliffhanger at the end of Speaking From Among the Bones has me eagerly awaiting Book 6's release early next year...

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Eclipses in the sun and moon

Right on the heels of reading what now ranks as one of my favorite books by Ann Patchett, I read what is now among my least favorites. Taft centers on a Memphis bar manager's obsession with a young girl and her troubled brother. His own rocky relationship with the mother of his son guides his fantasies of what might have happened to the pair of siblings. Throw in a small dose of Tennessee's racial dynamics and underage teenagers, and that's basically the entire storyline.

I guess my main problem with the story was that the narrator's thoughts didn't match his actions. His self-destructive indiscretions came out of the blue and completely apart from the stream of consciousness to which the reader is privy. The same goes for most of the other characters. And, like so many other of Patchett's books, Taft ends with no resolution to any of its several story arcs.

Similarly, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised By Wolves left me uncomfortable while reading every short story in the collection. I really didn't like Swamplandia!, the novel based on one of the short stories in St. Lucy's.

To be clear, they are all incredibly well-written: descriptive, evocative, pathos-laden. Isolation, both emotional and physical, is manifest. Each one involves some sort of natural or human-made disaster: an avalanche, getting left in a giant conch shell overnight, being torn away from your wolf family to live with humans.

Karen Russell presents some fascinating and creative scenarios: a Minotaur on the Oregon Trail, part-wolf children sent to boarding schools, a family of alligator wrestlers. Some element of nature -- or of freaks of nature -- are central to each short story. Where a borderline sci-fi set-up isn't the norm, loss and separation is: two brothers in search of their sister's ghost, two boys stranded on a glacier, a girl left in a giant sea shell, kids plotting to misdirect seagoing turtles.

If there's anything that pervades the stories, it's melancholy. There's a barrenness, a core abandonment, that accompanies a change that the adolescent characters must face. But just like many of Patchett's stories, Karen Russell ends hers right at the cusp of when her characters are finally interesting.

The stories aren't as depressing as The Road. But it was hard to be pummeled with snapshots of dismal human experiences, ten unresolved tales in a row.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

L'état, c'est moi

In my quest for a new, well-written, engaging mystery series with a female protagonist, I failed miserably in selecting The State of the Onion. Theoretically, it could have been great: the main character and unwilling detective is a sous chef at the White House. However, the characters were all so overly caricatured (the scheming staffer, the bitchy cooking show host, the kindly head chef, the Middle Eastern terrorists, the elusive international criminal) that the book wasn't very satisfying. I won't continue to read the series.

Another State completely captivated me, however: Ann Patchett's State of Wonder.

The story of a scientist sent to the Amazon to discover details about the research project a colleague was working on when he disappeared, I think it rivals Bel Canto for my favorite Patchett book. (Hmm..... both take place in South America.)

Like Bel Canto, a certain suspension of belief is necessary in order to melt into the storyline. But the scenarios are just real enough to make them excruciatingly compelling. And unlike so many other of Patchett's books, this one actually ends with some sort of resolution to the plot, rather than annoyingly in media res.State of Wonder encapsulates so many overlapping scientific and anthropological quandaries: pharmaceutical companies stripping the earth of resources and "primitive" cultures of privacy in pursuit of profitable life-saving drugs, the amorphous concepts of life and death in human-induced situations, and that damned illusory Fountain of Youth.  What happens when a U.S. drug company wants something that an isolated tribe in South America takes for granted, with only a team of  researchers and hundreds of miles of jungle keeping the two apart? How do individuals caught in two colliding worlds alter their values, their behavior, their beliefs? It's such a fascinating and gripping tale.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Sing with me the songs we knew

Because the 10th Anniversary Les Mis soundtrack got me through college (along with the soundtrack to Top Gun), of COURSE I ran out to see the movie with La Madre on opening day. Then I dragged The Planning Committee to see it 10 days later. Both times I sang heartily and proudly (despite La Madre's embarrassed whispers to please stop).

The first third is a bit difficult to get into, mainly because Russel Crowe as Javert is completely horrible. Javert is a pretty nuanced character whose strict adherence to the letter of the law stems from his own background. But Crowe's bad singing doesn't capture any of that. Hugh Jackson as Valjean was good but again, in the first third of the movie, seemed stilted.

However, once the storyline moves to Paris in 1832, then the movie picks up its pace.

It's the first production of Les Mis where I've actually liked Marius better than Enjolras. (At a recent local improv show, an actor imitated Marius by running around saying "Where's Cosette? She's so beautiful!" which has pretty much been my low impression of him for almost two decades.)

I was satisfied with the delivery of all of my favorite songs ("I Dreamed a Dream," "Do You Hear the People Sing,""Red and Black," "One Day More," and "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." Even Crowe did a halfway decent job with "Stars.")  But both "On My Own" and "Drink With Me" had verses inexplicably cut out, which I did not appreciate because it messed with my personal public sing-a-long.

The last fifteen minutes of the film are a pure sob fest, with Valjean's death and the ending scene at the barricade.

If someone wasn't already prone to loving Victor Hugo's classic or Cameron Mackintosh's theatrical brilliance, I don't see how this movie changes that. It's really only enjoyable if the viewer is already a Les Mis nerd (I literally clapped my hands like a dork when Colm Wilkinson came onscreen as the Bishop).

WaitingwaitingwaitingOMGwaiting to own the DVD!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

This changes everything

On the recommendation of a friend, I read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and completely fell in love with the precocious 11-year-old poison-obsessed detective heroine. Though the protagonist is a tween, the book is not for young adults.

It's HILARIOUS. Flavia de Luce, the narrator, lives in dire financial times on her family's ancient estate with her philatelist father and two older sisters. To escape her siblings' taunting and the absence of the mother she never knew, Flavia spends much of her time in her personal chemistry laboratory sating her intellectual curiosity or plotting revenge. When a murder occurs on her family's property, she is morbidly fascinated by it, and pedals off on her bicycle across the English countryside to elude the police and solve the case on her own.

The book's brillance stems from Flavia's isolating, in-between age: she's too old to be babysat but too young still to have her input taken seriously by grown-ups. With snide potshots at her sisters and acerbic observations about the adults around her, she's an incredibly delightful heroine.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is the sequel to The Girl is Murder, a noir-lite book for young adults. I didn't exactly love Book 1, but The Girl is Trouble is slightly better (if vastly more disturbing in content).

For starters, it wraps up the huge loose end of teen detective Iris' mother's death. While the reader (and Iris) have long thought she committed suicide, Trouble  brings the sinister truth to light in a way that wraps up most of the other loose ends from the first book. Whereas bobby soxers and high school cliques dominated the story in Murder, infiltration of the American Bund becomes the center of Trouble's gruesome mystery.

I think the titles for the two books should be swapped to better reflect their content.

But really, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie knocks any book with a young protagonist detective out of the ballpark.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Some relish of the saltiness of time

After a few of Sharon Creech's books for young adults that weren't exactly my cup of tea, I finally read two back-to-back that were!

Bloomability is the story of a girl who never had a "real" home due to her parents' nomadic life. Dinnie, the main character, grows up poor;  after her sister becomes a teenage mother and her brother winds up in jail, her aunt and uncle whisk her off for a year at a boarding school in Switzerland. (Parent Trap flashbacks, anyone?) It's a cute tale about studying abroad, making new friends, dealing with homesickness, and fitting personal experiences into a larger global framework.  The end of the book is unresolved: Dinnie returns to America for the summer, and she hasn't decided yet if she'll stay or not.  Though the book is really about tweenhood and identity, I couldn't help but see it through the lens of educational opportunity: DUH, she should return to Switzerland!

There's also an avalanche scene in the book, which 1) reminded me of this incredibly written but scary NYT piece on the avalanche at nearby Stevens Pass last year; and 2) started to freak me out about avalanches while I'm out snowshoeing.

Chasing Redbird was a bittersweet story about another tween, the middle child of a rather large family. She spends a summer clearing an old trail behind her family's property in the Appalachians. By re-building the trail, she comes to terms with several deaths in her family.

The thing I do like about Creech's protagonists is that they don't come from "perfect" homes; they are generally from struggling or non-traditional families or rural areas, and there is usually some event (birth or death or illness or separation) that provides the catalyst for the angst and apprehensions of her young characters. Though her stories must be wonderful for young readers who can relate to their growing-up themes, her characters are sometimes wiser than many real-life adults who have yet to encounter hardships.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Winged Cupid painted blind

I did, in fact, time my reading pile perfectly so that I would be reading The Twelve Clues of Christmas on Christmas Day. The latest in Rhys Bowen's gleefully delightful Royal Spyness mystery series, it did not disappoint. It took the romanticized notion of a "classic" and "traditional" English country Christmas to a different level.  But one of the best plot developments for Lady Georgiana fans is that our heroine can finally stop worrying about her dashing Irish suitor; (SPOILER ALERT!) they finally get engaged in this cheerful holiday book. The reader no longer feels strung along after 6 books...

... unlike Victoria Thompson's Gaslight mystery series, where our Knickerbocker-turned-midwife and her Irish police captain are still doing the "will-we-or-won't-we" dance after 12 --12!-- books.

In Murder on Bank Street, Sarah's husband's cold case murder is finally solved. (So at least that's one loose end wrapped up.) However, with the two children our heroine has adopted comes the introduction of more mysteries about characters' pasts.  In Murder on Waverly Place, one of those pasts comes to light during a seance. (Because what mystery series taking place in the late 19th or early 20th centuries is complete without exposing a seance as fraudulent while solving a murder? Rhys Bowen herself did it with the Molly Murphy series.)

But the most fascinating Gaslight book in a long time is Murder on Lexington Avenue, which addresses the different approaches to education for the deaf: sign language versus lip reading. The same issues and arguments for and against both sides still exist: create and build up a supportive deaf community around a shared (signed) language, or assimilate into the hearing world by learning to "hear" spoken words differently? As a deaf college friend of mine has taught me, the development of the cochlear implant has also added another layer to this debate. At any rate, Thompson created a great mystery story that revolves around the controversy.

In related news, Alexander Graham Bell supported the eugenics movement and hated immigrants and sign langauge.  Even during flights of escapism through fiction, it's never really possible to truly free fall.