Friday, December 19, 2014

I'm Behind Quick Review Round-Up

 Being a bit behind, I will go quickly:

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is so carefully written, so sparse and brutal and bare. It is beautiful. The Slow Regard of Silent Things will not make any sense if you haven't read the King Killer trilogy, which you should do immediately. A spare novella of Auri with hints but no stories, back or otherwise, only Auri and the Underthing.

Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Unexpected Life of the Author of the Secret Garden by Gertrude Holbrook Gerzina: It is important to put The Secret Garden in the title of every FHB biography (like Beyond the Secret Garden by Anne Thwaite), otherwise, nobody will know whom you're talking about. I can't help comparing the two because they were really damn similar but Beyond the Secret Garden has more zip. This FHB: TULotAofSG is perfectly fine, but goes over the same material with few new insights, except on her son Vivian's death and the extremely tentative good qualities that FHB's second husband may have had buried deep inside. On the other hand, Ms. Gerzina discusses A Lady of Quality without warning people not to read it and flies past most of the books in favor of Mrs. Burnett's social circumstances.

Aid and Other Dirty Business:An Insider Reveals How Good Intentions Have Failed the World's Poor deserves more attention than I will give it. The only appropriate amount of credit to give this is to read it, and that is mandatory. Giles Botton gives a distressing account of the troubles in Africa by presenting you, yes, you!, with your own African country for the duration of the book. Your country, Uzima, is blessed with natural resources and incoming tax revenues beyond the dreams of the president of, say, Uganda, but still squarely in the middle of sub-Saharan African economies. Your liabilities are massive, and you lack the most basic infrastructure. As well, you lack an educated workforce from which to hire more government functionaries to meet with all 90 or so governments and and NGOs who want to bestow aid upon you. Compounding that, many governments and NGOs only commit to project aid, rather than direct assistance. The USA only invests in project aid and spends a flipping 47% of aid money on consultants. Beyond that, our food aid resembles a combination of dumping agriculture surplus and propping up our wimpy shipping sector. Meanwhile, the US and Eurozone subsidize their own farm products to a point where no small farmer in the Ivory Coast can possibly break into the international market. Add unfunded Western promises and the new Chinese development with strings and then fix your country, Mr. President.

Missie will hate Miss Cayley's Adventures for the same reasons she hated Name of the Wind. Miss Cayley is too damn good at everything. But Name of the Wind was funny, there was real swashbucklement, the plot moved forward, it wasn't racist. Missie recommended Miss Cayley's Adventures to me based on this glowing Toast article: and it is a whole hell of a lot better than most New Woman literature, but that's not saying much. Miss Cayley shoots one tiger, but mostly she relies on her extensive wits and serendipity to travel around the world. On the train to Germany, she foils a jewel thief. The old lady with the jewels provide Miss Cayley's start-up capital and Miss Cayley is fallen in love with by the lady's rich nephew Harold. Miss Cayley wants to be not an adventuress but an adventuress so she refuses Harold's hand and continues her travels by winning a bicycle race and becoming a commissioned sales agent of a piston-action bicycle company. After foiling another plot by the jewel thief brigand, she and her friend set up a typing shop in Milan. Bicycles and typewriters are both extremely modern inventions to be embraced by the New Woman. In Egypt, she rescues a white woman from non-white people, and in India she meets a young potentate with the manners of a European and the soul of a dusky savage. With trouble brewing between Harold and the villain who's dogging her, Miss Cayley heads to Vancouver on a steamer, crosses Canada by express train, and disembarks at Quebec in time to take the speedboat back to London, thus ignoring North America in her round the world adventure, and foiling the villain once and for all in a clever courtroom maneuver. Miss Cayley's Adventures is not at all a bad book but it's not a good book either. It's "better than," if I may damn it with faint praise. Better than so many books of its era, but if you want overt, bad-ass, 1890s feminism, read The Shuttle. (And for globular circumnavigation Around the World in 80 Days is the obvious choice.)

For some reason, In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson always seemed daunting, nay, forbidden, to me as a child. It looked interesting, but it was on display at the library and the librarian and my mother would notice if I touched it, so I obviously couldn't. Nowadays, it's stuck in the corner of the audiochapterbook section of the library, where I found it when I needed an audiobook I could get through in three days before I went to Boston for Thanksgiving. ItYotBaJR has Themes. I rather felt like I was reading a mine of lesson plan ideas for a fourth grade combined English and Social Studies class. We've got immigration, race, friendship, inclusion, baseball, Chinese customs, honesty, integration, New York, and dreams. There were some funny situations and sticky situations and it all ends happily.

Then I read another Discworld book while taking a hiatus from something boring. Maskerade has the witches out of Lancre and into Ankh-Morpork where they solve an opera house mystery roughly based on what I assume is Phantom of the Opera, because I haven't read it. Perdita is in this one, which makes me want to go back and read all the Discworld books chronologically. Good stuff. Bloody hilarious, really.

Meanwhile, in my car, I was reading Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, which won some stuff. Billed as a "Cloud Atlas for teens," Midwinterblood has nothing to do with teens except, possibly, its novella length. Eric and Merle are two souls reuniting seven times backwards in seven narratives, some beautiful. My problems were that a) the two stories at the end, taking place in 1000AD and before time begins (circa 800AD), were the weakest and the book ended on a drier note than it would have otherwise and b) Sedgwick takes the lazy historian's way out: Eric and Merle are reincarnated in 800AD and 1,000AD, their love then skips a millennium to rekindle five times in slightly over two centuries. Eh? Yes, any romances on the Isle of the Blessed between 1000 and 1848 probably would have been circumscribed by a lack of off-island transportation and a sheep-based economy, but try. Also, the audio was terrible. Julian Rhind-Tutt, the book actor, drops his voice at key moments so I was listening to a lot of, "The old man bent his head towards Eric and murmured, "I have something important to tell you. It will cut you to the very slow. Listen carefully: *inaudible whisperings*'" Me: Turns up volume on car stereo to 40, skips back forty seconds, goes deaf, gleans general gist of cryptic whispers, switches to MPR.

Lady Audley's Secret gets referenced quite often on certain internets so I was excited to read it and it's damn good. I assumed it would be more of a tale centered on Lady Audley, but it's mostly Robert Audley, Lord Audley's laconic nephew, trying to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his friend George Talboys. Lady Audley's Secret adds strong support to my theory that pre-World War I England only had 500 people in it, as if you needed more proof. George Talboys disembarks a ship from Australia and bumps into his old Eton chum Robert Audley twenty minutes after landing. Mr. Audley has probably bumped into nine or ten old Eton chums already that morning, but Talboys is in need of a beard trim so Mr. Audley takes George to his apartments in the Temple where they discover a newspaper announcement that Mrs. Talboys is dead. George grieves in Mr. Audley's apartments for a good year and a half (and an inexplicable winter in Saint Petersburg. Why would British people winter in Saint Petersburg?), until Lord Audley invites them to Audley Manor for the hunt. At Audley Manor, we begin to suspect that Mrs. Talboys is not, in fact, dead, but has married not any uncle in the world, but Robert Audley's uncle, who is probably the only uncle in England, by my tiny population estimates. George Talboys disappears that afternoon, and was last seen strolling the lime walk with Lady Audley/ne Lucy Graham/ne Mrs. Talboys/ne Miss Maldon. Robert Audley spends months traveling from Southampton to Northfordshire in a single day, popping home for a shave, to the further proof that England is much smaller than its citizens believe. Is George Talboys dead? in Australia? down a well eating rats? in California? even deader? Solid sensationalist literature full of scandal and bigamy.

Finally, I read/listened A Christmas When the West Was Young while I was doing iStore yesterday. A good example of the hagiographic literature dedicated to the early pioneers, two cheerily unnamed young archetypes struggle manfully (and womanfully) to establish their little farm on the prairie. A baby is born, but it dies, and the man (in a blizzard) stumbles upon an immigrant wagon torched by drunken Indians. Reminiscent of Fanny Kelly's, "Why are you trying to kill us? We just want to kill every single one of you" attitude, but so it was. The man brings the orphaned baby home on Christmas Day and it replaces the dead baby, probably. On Christmas!

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