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Review: Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition

Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition by Stephen R. Bown My rating: 4 of...

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition

Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition by Stephen R. Bown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley


For some reason, I like reading books about white men going into cold places and dying. Except Norwegians, for some reason my brain believes Norwegians should always make it out alive. I’m not sure why, but it does. I blame National Geographic Museum in Washington DC for all this because I saw an exhibit there about Scott and Amundsen.

This book is about a Russian trek, led by a Dane Vitus Bering (yes, that Bering). Truthfully, when we read about those treks, at least in the Eastern part of American, we tend to focus solely on the British during crazy things. It was refreshing, therefore to read about Russians doing crazy things. It should be noted that I am not an expert on this topic.

Brown does a very good in keeping the reader engaged. First, he sets up the scene, allowing the read to understand the circumstances that the large group of men were dealing with. Unlike the British, the Kamchatka Expedition had to deal with official who had little desire to help the leaders, making food and supplies difficult. The failure of the expedition, it seems, was also that due to politics.

Brown doesn’t hesitate to illustrate the flaws of some of the members of the expedition, but he also shows the good points. In particular, is Stellar who is at once infuriating, yet he is vital to the survival of those who make it.

Perhaps that is the greatest strength of this history – unlike many such book it doesn’t play favorites but presents humanity struggling in a dangerous situation of its own making.


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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review: The Infernal Library: On Dictators, Their Books, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy

The Infernal Library: On Dictators, Their Books, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy The Infernal Library: On Dictators, Their Books, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy by Daniel Kalder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

I have to admit, I almost didn’t request this title from Netgalley. It wasn’t that the topic, a study of works by dictators, didn’t sound interesting. It did, but there also seemed a possibility for dryness, and I really wasn’t in the mood. But I requested it anyway.

I am very happy I did. Mr. Kalder, I am sorry for thinking it would be dry.

Honesty, you know you are in good hands when the book starts, “This is a book about dictator literature – that is to say, it is a book about the canon of works written or attributed to dictators. As such, it is a book about some of the worst books ever written, and so was excruciatingly painful to research.”

Kalder took one for the team, and quite frankly, we should repay him by reading this book.

The book isn’t so much literary criticism; though Kalder does not shy away from calling a bad book a bad book. For instance, on The Green Book, “it is not merely boring, or banal, or repetitive, or nonsensical, although it is certainly all those things. It is quite simply, stupid . . . “.

And he is fair, for Kalder notes of Mussolini’s bodice ripper (which isn’t really one apparently) that it is readable.

His survey of literature starts with the Russian revolution and includes present day dictators. Kalder is also as funny as, well, Monty Python.

What Kalder does is look at not only what the writings reveal about the dictators, but also why people didn’t take the books seriously as warnings of things to come. He points out that some people should have known better. He also connects it to the thinking and control process, showing how the works did reflect the personality of each man (and they are all men). He also addresses the weird beliefs that make their way into the books – Hussain had strange ideas about bears.

The book is an entertaining journey into some really strange minds that produced some really bad literature. Luckily for the reader, Kalder read it for us.


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Sunday, October 8, 2017

Review: Middlemarch/Personal Canon

Middlemarch Middlemarch by George Eliot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eliot is one of those writers who I always forget how good she is. It’s not that I ever forget she is good, it is just that forget the high standard she has for most her work. The exception in this forgetting is Adam Bede, and this is no doubt because it was the first Eliot I read (thanks to Alistair Cooke).

I first read Middlemarch in either college or grad school. I recently re-read because of a line in the New York Times Book Review.

To call Middlemarch feminist would be wrong, though in many ways she is a proto-feminist. At the heart of the novel is the character of Dorothea and the idea of marriage. If Doretha was Catholic, she quite easily could have become a nun. But she isn’t, so the avenues opened to her are a bit slim. She wants to do good works, and to improve people’s lives. At beginning of the novel is she able to do this with a help of a suitor, a suitor she doesn’t know is a suitor, and later in the novel, she has the possibility to do it another way. This of course soon changes.

The theme of the novel, in part, seems to be the idea of marriage, for marriage does concern much of the part. At first, it is merely Doreatha’s marriage to Casaubon, who is older and who she hopes will teach almost like a father. Then it is the marriage between Lydgate, a doctor who wants to do good, and Rosamond, whose brother Fred forms part of a third marriage with Mary Garth.

The question of marriage is more a question what a good marriage is. Doreatha’s first marriage, really isn’t a good one. But it is not entirely her husband’s fault and in fact, very few of her friends (in fact only her sister and James Chettam) try to talk her out of it or express doubts about the marriage.

In many ways, the true right people in the novel are Mary Garth and Celia Brooke, Doretha’s younger sister. Mary is the dependable and intelligent daughter of the Gareths. She is prudent. The most imprudent thing she does is love Fred, who at the start of the book has a good heart but is a bit too much flash and imprudence. Celica is Doreatha’s younger sister, less religious, more sensual, but also more observant. She watches before she speaks. She may not be as good or holy as Doretha but she is not a bad woman. Mary too watches. This makes those two women better able to handle the society that constrains them.

Doretha is not able to handle society in the same way. Her marriage options are frowned upon whether she marries for the right or wrong reason. And unlike Lydgate, who marries an illusion, a pretty thing that he does not see as human or understand fully as human. He does not watch enough. Neither does Doretha at first.

Eliot’s suggestion that she is trying to write or example a modern life of St. Theresa is interesting because Dortha, like Lydgate, doesn’t quite come what she could have been.

Of course, that is, in part, the purpose of Eliot’s book, showing us the bonds – both prison like and fond – that society puts on us.


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Sunday, October 1, 2017

Review: Cleopatra: I Am Fire and Air

Cleopatra: I Am Fire and Air Cleopatra: I Am Fire and Air by Harold Bloom
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

Anthony and Cleopatra is my favorite Shakespeare play. It didn’t really attain this title until I was in graduate school. There is something not only wonderful about the character of Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play but also because it is a love story with a political theme. Everyone remembers Cleopatra but very few remember that political component.

Like all of us, Harold Bloom has fallen for Cleopatra. Hard. After reading his slim volume on Hamlet, I thought Bloom wanted to have an affair Gertrude, but now I think there is something of a threesome going on between Bloom, Gertrude, and Cleopatra. One can’t really fault him for that.
Bloom is at his best and most piercing when he links Shakespeare’s Cleopatra to the idea of ebb and flow of the Nile river. This is a brilliant observation. It actually does much to explain aspects of Cleopatra’s character and then also ties both Cleopatra and ebb/flow into Anthony’s character. It is quite interesting.

There are also problems with it. In many ways, it is difficult for a female reader to forget that early on in his book, Bloom writes that Cleopatra “cunning beyond male thought”. Now I am looking at an early electronic galley, so hopefully that word male will be removed. As it stands, it is jarring. It almost forces the female to reader out of the book. A strange feeling considering the subject is a woman.

It’s true to note that Shakespeare’s audience would have been male, so Bloom is undoubtedly correct on a basic level. Yet, the narrow focuses weaken his point, especially the level point in connecting Cleopatra to the water.

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Thursday, September 28, 2017

Review: The Tiger’s Daughter SPOILERS!!!!

The Tiger’s Daughter The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from Tor as part of a Librarything giveaway/first read program. Also, spoilers.

I wanted to love this book. When I first started reading the novel, it was exactly what I needed. A novel where the chosen one or ones is/are female, I so need that, especially with all the movies and shows about men doing great things. The book drew me in right away, and the first night I did not want to put it down. The second day, I still enjoyed it, but I was a little confused by a few things – one of which was the setting and character names. The setting seemed to be a fantastical China. There was a wall that the mother of one of the characters destroyed. There seems to be one society that is de facto Chinese, and another that is de facto Mongol. There are steppes on the map for crying out aloud. The strange thing was that some of the names seemed to be Japanese. But I am not an expert on Japanese or Chinese culture. To be honest, the only reason I noticed that Japanese influence was because I had read Johnson, Dalkey, and the Tale of Heike. I do know, however, that any combination of Chinese and Japanese cultures (or any Asian culture with another for that matter) is problematic for several reasons, including what happened during WW II.

Then I read Laurelinvanyr’s review where she goes into detail about the problems with the names used in the novel as well as other cultural issues. I strongly suggest any potential reader of the book reads that review. It’s true that a counter to many of the points that Laurelinvanyr makes would be the simple “it is a fantasy setting that has been inspired by various cultures” excuse that is used for more than fantasy novels. It is also true that this is not the only book that has inaccuracies. Hell, you even get them in a book that is set in say America but written by a Brit. At the very least, there is not enough world building to account for the combination. Laurelinvanyr’s more knowledgeable review goes into far more detail about this problem (and there are other reviews that mention the same issues but in less detail. There is hardly only one review that raises the questions of bad research, cultural approbation and fetishism). Additionally, it is possible/very likely that the use of language and cultural comments by some characters was there to show racism between the Empire and Qorin. The problem is that racism is never really direct dealt with, at least on the part of the Qorin and not really very well in the Empire.

In addition to the question about the world building, there are other problems with the book, that are glaring from a structural and storytelling point of view only.

It is impossible to discuss these without spoilers, so this is your last spoiler warning.

The first problem is the conceit – the idea that whole book is one very long letter that one heroine writes to the other. This works in the beginning but makes no sense later on because why would you write such a detailed letter to someone who was there and experiencing most of what are you writing about with you? You wouldn’t. Not in such a detailed way. (There also is a section where it seems to take a character two years to make a bow, seriously). If this was an actual exchange of letters this would be different, but it isn’t.

The second problem is that because you know the letter is being written after the events described, you know the two central characters are going to be okay. This lack of tension might be replaced with the tension regarding whether they are going to get their happy ever after. Normally, it would be, but the question of whether love can overcome the forced separation is dealt with so quickly that there isn’t any. Not really.

To be honest, the second half of the book feels like little more than a set-up for the second volume. Part of the draw of the first part of the book is the idea that both heroines are somehow divine. This is important for two reasons. The first is that it explains the powers that each girl has (though one power is more developed). The second is it explains why despite the young age of both heroines (both are under eighteen for the whole book), they act so much older, for there is a long tradition in epics, regardless of culture, for such divine or semi-divine heroes to be older than their years. This semi-divine status seems forgotten when one of the characters becomes vampire like (something that most say they are frightened of but no one acts like it). It is to seek a cure for this problem that one woman journeys to what seems to be an Underworld. Sounds interesting, no? Happens entirely off page and is most likely a hook for the second novel in the series. But why would you read that when you know she succeeds? It was a total cheat of an ending.

And finally, there were two smaller things that disquieted me. The first is the relationship between an older woman and a young woman. It is unclear whether they are another lesbian couple, it is strongly suggested that they are. I don’t care that they are couple because of their gender. I have a problem with an adult, in this an aunt, sleeping with niece. I just do. Not only does violate the incest taboo that many culture, fantasy and otherwise, have, but quite frankly, there is something off putting by someone who is family member who helped raise you, taking you as a lover. I hate this when it is a man and woman relationship, and I still hate it when it is a woman/woman one. Sorry. Additionally, there is an incident of spousal abuse. One character is possessed/dealing with vampire traits when she attacks her girlfriend. That’s fine. It’s an interesting idea as is the struggle to contain the vampire cravings. Handled well it would have been a good thing to explore. But nope, everyone, even the woman who was almost killed, seems to get over it in a few pages.

Promising start. Disappointing ending.




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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review: A Tangled Web: Mata Hari: Dancer, Courtesan, Spy

A Tangled Web: Mata Hari: Dancer, Courtesan, Spy A Tangled Web: Mata Hari: Dancer, Courtesan, Spy by Mary W. Craig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

Perhaps the first thing one learns about Mara Hari is that she was dancer and a slut. Then, perhaps one learns she was a slut because she danced naked and slept with a great many men. Then one hears that she was spy and was shot for it. But the important thing that one is told is that she was very, very sexy. In fact, she seems to be the spy that gets remembered not so much because of the doubt of her guilt, but because she was a sexpot.

She also wasn’t a very good spy. She got caught after all

Mary W. Craig’s new book tries to present a more nuanced picture of Mata Hari, or at least as much as one can giving the problem of sources.

Margrethe Zell was born in the Netherlands, where she lived until her marriage took her to the Dutch East Indies. Her early life, Craig points out, was nice until her father suffered a major loss in business. What then followed as an unclear life plan and, what today, we would consider at the very least statutory rape – an affair with an instructor. Craig’s details about Hari’s early life - her struggles after the family bankruptcy and her time spent with relatives are related in a matter of a fact way. There is pity in Craig’s writing, but Craig isn’t turning the biography into a more sinned against than sinning story. Hari isn’t portrayed as a victim, but as a woman who took control of her life.

Or if she is, she is doing it by taking a brutally honest about Mata Hari.

Nowhere is this more obviously in the discussion of Zell’s marriage with MacLeod. It is a marriage that produced two children, possibly infected Zell with an STD, and was abusive. While not excusing MacLeod’s behavior, Craig also places the man in context, in particular with his treatment of Hari after separation and divorce, noting that MacLeod’s actions had more to do with protecting his daughter than anything else.

Hari was no saint, and in addition to her sexual activities (less shocking today than when Hari lived), Craig does closely examine and places Hari’s dancing in the times. The discussion of whether Hari was lying or promoting a fantasy with her “Eastern” dancing. How much of her dancing was imply an illusion that everyone brought into, like the body stocking she wore? Craig can’t give a definite answer but she does truly address the issue, even reading books about Hari that were published during the height of her popularity.

Craig, in part, is hampered by the self-serving purpose of some her sources (and she is clear about this) as well as a lack of sources. Yet, despite these drawbacks, Craig does paint an interesting, more revealing portrait of a woman who is usually known simply for sex.

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Review: Wolves in the Dark

Wolves in the Dark Wolves in the Dark by Gunnar Staalesen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ebook not Audio.

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

Varg Veum is a literary character that I first meet though television. MHZ had the Varg Veum movies on, and I watched them. So, I started reading the series in a haphazard fashion, or in other words, totally out of order.

This installment finds Veum coming out of a drinking addiction fueled by depression after a death. In part, some of his sobering comes from meeting a woman (who has a daughter) and part of it comes from being accused of child pedophilia.

The novel opens with the arrival of the police to arrest Veum and search his apartment, and the book stays to the break neck speed. In a cell, Veum is forced to remember as much as his drunk years as he can because someone, he doesn’t know who, is setting him up.

Not many people believe him. Strangely enough his new girlfriend is one of those who does.

I guess he is lucky that way, for those that have known him the longest, by and large, view him as guilty.

On one hand, the story is a non-stop thriller. It starts with a bust and keeps going. The pace never seems to slow, not surprising when Veum isn’t given the time to catch his breath. The characters are well written, possibly not the girlfriend who seems a bit too trusting, yet she is not stupid. Even though at times it seems like too much coincidental. The ending too, is on level, a typical white male ending. It is difficult to image an immigrant or even a woman, even in Norway, having the same reaction as Varg Veum to the final outcome.

In part, that might be part of the problem with this book – Veum never seems quite aware of the societal pressures, norms, what have you, that contribute or allow the trafficking and abuse of children (and women) to occur. On one hand, there are times when a reader wants to smack Veum for his cluelessness on the matter. Doesn’t he realize, the reader might wonder under her breath, in particular when he is confronting woman. Then one wonders if this genius on the part of Staalesen. What better way to show a problem? There is no preaching, no holier than though. And this provokes more thought.

This book will most likely get less attention then Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. A shame considering that it is better written and far more powerful for its subtlety.

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