Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Stories So Far: Some Books and a Show!

Some quick looks at the books I've read this year ... (you can see my current reading in the Goodreads link in the sidebar).
  • High Spirits by Robertson Davies
    Can't remember where I saw this recommended but these are extremely enjoyable humorous takes on the classic English "Christmas Eve" tellings of subsequent experiences by the first Master of Massey College. Every year he experiences either a ghostly visitation or some other supernatural adventure which luckily happens in time for him to tell it on Christmas Eve. Funny without being over the top. I will probably have to investigate this author's other works after this. (#4-2010)
  • The Night's Dark Shade: A Novel of the Cathars by Elena Maria Vidal (review copy)
    A spunky heroine, the Cathar heresy, and some swashes being buckled.  I liked this book quite a lot. Vidal managed to combine romance without immodesty, insight into how a truly Catholic girl would have responded to suddenly being confronted by a heresy, and a feel for life back in those long ago times. I especially liked the heroine's confusion over the many similarities of the Cathar heresy and true Catholicism. It is that same confusion that often hits us today when something is not quite right about the philosophy someone is espousing but we can't quite pin it down.

    However, this book also felt strangely incomplete in some way which I have pondered a lot, considering I enjoyed the book so much.  It finally occurred to me that this book was like a slice taken from a larger one and we weren't told enough of the whole story. This "snapshot" was so good that we want to know more about the heroine's time in the convent, more about her marriage without having just bits given to us. For reference to any who would like to know what came to mind when thinking of fully satisfying book, I give you: historical fiction-Samuel Shellabarger; romance/mystery-Jane Eyre, Mary Stewart, Georgette Heyer; overall good fiction-Rumer Godden.  Also, the typesetting was gigantic. The book could easily have been 100 normal paperback pages if it had been set in a more normal size. Oh, the pain. However, despite all those things, I still liked it.

    Recommended for those who like a pure romance, who want to know more about the Cathar heresy, and who like historical fiction. #6
  • Praying the Mass: The Prayers of the People by Jeffry Pinyan
    Began reading this for a projected project to go in our bulletin per our priest's desire to begin education about the new liturgical translations. Enjoyed it quite well, but the introduction ... Heavens to Betsy, here is the reason people have editors. As far as I can tell this book is self-published and it is good. It is vouched for by the diocese of Metuchen (NJ), but I don't see a professional publisher mentioned which means no professional editor either. The intro is so deep it almost made me skip the entire book, the rest of which is NOT written at that level. Thank goodness. It is not just about the new translation, although I highly recommend it to those who are interested in the reasons for the changes. Pinyan goes deeply into how each part of the Mass is a prayer and that was really enlightening. Highly recommended. #8
  • Space Prison by Tom Godwin
    I listened to the SciPodBooks reading of this. In many ways this is a unique science fiction book, based largely around a survival story. After pirates hijack an Earth space ship, they dump the "non essential" passengers on a planet on which it seems impossible to survive. The thought of one day attracting and overcoming the pirates keeps the survivors striving to overcome their hostile environment. An absorbing story of several generations and two centuries that is nevertheless fast-paced and interesting. #5
  • The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
    How did this author do it? A story about an 11-year-old detective that is a unique blend of Sherlock Holmes, eccentric English country house murder mystery, and Nancy Drew. And it works. Fascinating and wonderful. I say that even though I pegged the murderer the first time there was an appearance. The discovery of why and how and who was entirely enjoyable despite that. (#3)
  • The Club of Queer Trades by G.K. Chesterton
    At the beginning of the 20th century, in detective fiction there was Sherlock Holmes and that was all. There were other fictional detectives, to be sure, but they were only bad imitations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous consulting detective. The sleuths offered by other writers would try to outdo Holmes in eccentricity and in solving crimes that were evermore contrived and convoluted.

    But in 1905 a book of mysteries came along that finally managed to turn the Sherlock Holmes idea on its head. The book was The Club of Queer Trades by G.K. Chesterton. His detective, Rupert Grant, is a Sherlock Holmes-like private eye who investigates crimes and chases crooks with great self-assuredness in his powers of deduction. But he is always wrong. The hero of these stories is not Rupert, but his older brother, Basil Grant, a retired judge. In each case, Basil proves to Rupert hat there has been no crime and no crooks.

    Read the entire lecture on this book, of which the above which has been an excerpt, here. This book was a delight from beginning to end, and I'm not really a G.K. Chesterton fan. I listened to the Librivox recording which was wonderfully read by David Barnes. #7.
  • Forever Odd by Dean Koontz
    A rereading of this book, prompted by the fact that I misplaced Hyperion and needed some fiction for bedtime. Perhaps should have been called MacGyver Odd. Odd tracks down a strange group of villains who are obsessed with the supernatural and have kidnapped a friend of his in order to make Odd show them ghosts. Although Odd can see ghosts he can't make them manifest to others so this is something of a problem. Practically the entire book takes place in an isolated, burned out casino and Odd spends the entire book figuring out ways to outwit them and rescue his friend. Rereading this made me notice the many small points about faith that Koontz muses about and that added value to the already enjoyable story. #9
And now for the show!

District Nine
Most people have probably heard the premise of this movie, which I found fascinating. A huge alien ship suddenly shows up over Johannesburg, South Africa but nothing happens. When the people finally muster the nerve to investigate they find that the aliens aboard are sick and dying because they are simply workers who have been left to die when their leaders ran away. The aliens, called "prawn" are housed in a government camp (District Nine) which soon deteriorates to a ghetto. Shot to look like a documentary, the movie takes place many years later, following a middle manager who has been promoted to lead the effort to move the aliens to a new camp, District Ten, further away from the city. Everyone being interviewed keeps mentioning "before the event" and "before things went wrong" so we are prepared for things to go downhill in some way for the poor fellow. However, I never would have predicted how this manager is caught up in the storyline and the discoveries of the movie.

It is obviously a movie about racism and bigotry, about how we treat the "other," and how the "other" is not as different from us as we would like to think. However, I was very interested by the types of details that were included. For example, the humans and aliens couldn't speak each other's languages but the could definitely understand each other. As we watch this hapless fellow I began to dislike him more and more which was a very odd feeling to have about the movie's protagonist. (I'm trying to write this without giving much away...) However, Hannah said that she found it interesting because she thought that his actions were actually one of the most realistic things about the movie ... that he was acting as a normal human would when caught up in events that were far beyond him. This was an intriguing thought for me. The more I thought about it, the more I saw her point and appreciated the story telling from this point of view. The protagonist is much more of an "everyman" than the usual so-called type we see. He is not too smart, he is something of a bully because he doesn't even know enough to see a larger perspective on his actions, and he is self absorbed ... all somehow in that hapless, nervous way which helps disarm his least likable characteristics. However, he has a true devotion to his wife and he does learn a larger way of seeing the world, both of which lead to his redemption.

I did feel there was a misguided bit of the movie toward the end, an attempt to meld sci-fi action with the rest of the story. However, it did no great harm and overall this is a very good film. Tom hasn't seen it yet and I look forward to viewing it again sometime soon with him.


      1. Tante Leonie1/28/10, 9:17 AM

        I *love* Robertson Davies!

        Try his Deptford Trilogy (Fifth Business, The Manticore, World of Wonders) and Cornish Trilogy (The Rebel Angels, What's Bred In The Bone, The Lyre of Orpheus)

      2. Dang, Tante Leonie beat me to the reccomendation! :) Robertson Davies is a very fine author, and both of those trilogies are excellent.

        If you want an intro to his writing that's shorter than a trilogy, I recommend Murther and Walking Spirits. It begins with the murder of the main character, who then haunts his murderer. The murderer happens to be a film critic, and so the ghost follows him to a film festival. But what the ghost sees, instead of classic films, is scenes from his own family's history.

        A great read!

      3. I had seen some of those titles and they looked so interesting ... but I didn't know where to begin. And now I do! Thank you! :-)

      4. I don't know if I can take credit for being the one you read, but I did recomment High Spirits around Christmas time. :-)

        Glad you liked it -- that's an old favorite in the family. And second the recommendation on the Deptford Trilogy. That's probably his best. Salterton Trilogy is lighter, and definitely a very enjoyable read. The Cornish Trilogy is very good in parts, but the first novel in particular is so incredibly perverse in parts that even though it's good it's hard to like. (I found The Cunning Man utterly offputting, for similar reasons.)

      5. Darwin, it must have been you ... since I DO read you (not quite religiously but almost!).

      6. I've been wanting to read THe Club of Queer Trades for a longtime now; it's been on my TBR list for over a year. However, I can't find a paper copy anywhere, and I don't usually do audiobooks. (I'm not an auditory learner.)

        I think I'll start looking again since you recommend it so highly.

      7. I just watched District 9 last weekend and was surprised and pleased by it. It definitely left me thinking about it for a long time afterward.

      8. Found the movie to be fascinating as well! Have you seen Book of Eli yet? Just started my own blog, which led me to yours for a little help and guidance. Now it's bookmarked for regular reading!

        My blog:

        God bless!

      9. Just a quick comment or two on the romanza by Elena Maria Vidal, The Night's Dark Shade. Not all novels have to be 720 pages long to be "complete" and the print font is size 12. Hardly anyone's measure of gigantic, unless you could not think of anything else to make your review appear to be more edgy and clever. I would hesitate to simply make things up when reviewing a book but I guess it takes all kinds. And do look up the genre known as romanza for next time.


      10. Elijahmaria ... you are clearly a good friend or a fan of Elena Maria Vidal's. Please keep in mind that I did praise the book. As well, if you look through my other numerous reviews, you will see that keeping things edgy is not my style. Truth is my style and I have to call it like I see it. I don't require length. But I did want it to be more complete. I don't think that is asking for 700 pages. Also, I think I provided enough samples of various authors who do fulfill what I consider a "complete" work to make it clear that there are all sorts of lengths, styles, and books that can be "complete."

        As for the type, I'm a graphic designer by trade. I lay out books for a living. And, my dear Elijamaria, you are incorrect. 12 point type is huge in a book like that, especially with that leading and margin size. I didn't even talk about the drop caps leaving uneven leading in the first line or the instances where the last line of the paragraph of a chapter had uneven leading. I could have pulled out all the stops but I didn't.


        Because I did like the book and recommended it. The author is big enough, I hope, to see that my criticism was intended to be constructive.

        Otherwise, I wouldn't have recommended it.

      11. Dear Julie,

        I am a fan of honesty in advertising and if you are a professional graphics designer, and your website is the fruit of that training and effort, then I am the Queen of Sheeba and Born to Run!

        And do please look up the romanza as a type of novel. You have clearly allowed your American sensibilities and tastes to show here in the review.

        Have a good'n!!


      12. Ah yes, your honesty ... :-)

        Well, it is a Blogger template that has been jury-rigged. So, of course not!

        Although I agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there are also certain standards. Just get over it. Most self published books are done poorly because the people who lay them out are not designers. They are writers.

        I get it.

        I don't have to enjoy having my senses assaulted every time I open the book.

        Whether I'm a designer or not, I have read many a book in my lifetime and know what is pleasing to the eye. Simply looking through a lot of the books in Google's files (or a bookstore or a library) tells us of the various conventions which have been used over time by those who were professional type setters.

      13. Elena Maria Vidal is hugely praised as being the ultimate lady, incredibly nice, the "authority" on Marie Antoinette. In reality, the writer whose name is actually Mary Eileen Russell, is, er, a bit different.

        1. I don't like her writing. I'm sorry, but her writing is formulaic, contrived. Some sharp critics have considered that she has very much emulated other more experienced famous authors.

        2. Elena Maria Vida is a supernice lady, until one does something that irritates her. This can be something as simple as not agreeing with her, or falling at her feet over her.

        3. She can hardly be called a true "historian." "Elena Maria Vidal" has created a certain 'image' for herself, and pity the poor person who does anything to threaten that image. EMV and fans get very aggressive when challenged

        I don't think she has learned yet how to take criticism like a true seasoned writer.