Archive for September, 2010

Review: Iorich

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

The latest in Steven Brust‘s Vlad Taltos series was available for the Kindle, so I actually read it before it came out in paperback.  My reviews of the books in this series are usually shorter than the other capsules, partially because most of the Taltos stuff is like most of the Taltos stuff, though not in a particularly repetitious way.  There’s always some twist to them that keeps you reading, and the writing is fun and thoughtful.  At this point, the books feel more like chapters than books, and it’s a little hard to review them in isolation.

These are well executed novels in the fantasy genre that are part of an interlocking overall whole.  If that’s your thing, and it’s certainly mine, jump in.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Shakespeare

Monday, September 27th, 2010

If you’re looking for a detailed accounting of how Shakespeare passed his days, Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare is not going to satisfy you.  As Bryson makes abundantly clear, there are not a lot of hard facts about the Bard’s life, and the interpretation of the ones scholars do agree on is fairly wide open.  If I’m going to be wandering through a field of data with few well marked sign posts, Bryson is one of my go-to guys.  He’s an excellent researcher, a fine raconteur, and brings an excellent blend of common sense and speculation to the topic.

His topic here is utterly fascinating.  Shakespeare is a towering figure in English literature, to the point where even though most people know he’s the biggest name, they really don’t know how many expressions and words he brought into the language.  Even if one leaves aside the structure and execution of his plays as drama, his contributions to the language would make him immortal.  For someone who has literally influenced how every English speaker expresses themselves, we know next to nothing about him.  Even the contents of the plays and poetry are up for some debate.  The absence of data has not lead to an absence of biography, and pulling the supported narrative from the mythmaking is not easy.

Bryson leaps cheerfully and diligently into the fray.  He catalogs the facts well, pausing often to point out the herculean efforts that pulling a single bit of knowledge can require.  His digressions on the lengths that both professional scholars and obsessed laymen will go to in pursuit of a new atom of information are enlightening.  Such obsession leads to wholesale speculation from both professionals and amateurs that often lodges in the public mind.  Bryson turns a lighthearted but needed hose on these narratives when they get out of hand.  But he’s a writer and is not immune to the draw of pulling a coherent story from a few facts.  He respects the urge, but retains his reserve.

Overall the result is a somewhat threadbare biography that illuminates the legend without being seduced by it.  The chapter on debunking Shakespeare conspiracies is particularly delightful in this regard.  Bryson is always engaging and informed, but he’s not buying anything that isn’t supported.  And even by those standards, the life and works of Shakespeare stand up just fine.


Review: Lincoln

Monday, September 20th, 2010

Gore Vidal’s Lincoln is a meticulously researched historical novel about the years of Lincoln’s presidency primarily through the eyes of his staff.  It’s no great challenge to find the facts about the Lincoln years, but Vidal’s telling makes the people real and the changes to the nation visceral.

Lincoln is heralded as a master politician, and the record shows his skills.  It’s one thing to read about those skills and to understand in the abstract how careful footwork and forethought made a political nobody into the President in a few short years.  It is quite another to watch Gore’s fictionalized Lincoln outmaneuver a viper in the cabinet that has been denigrating his judgment and plotting against him for half the book.  It is a brilliant scene, with Lincoln maneuvering Salmon Chase into a literal no-win position with lawyerly tactics and superlative control.  Then, even as Lincoln exults in the triumph, he has compassion for the seductive influence of power that drove Chase to make his play, recalling that the same thirst placed him in the presidency.  As I say, all these goings on are supported by the historical record, but Vidal brings it alive with the nuance and power of a great writer.

In addition to making the historical figures as big as life, Vidal’s interested in capturing the metamorphosis of the nation as well.  Lincoln’s four years in office saw some of the largest growth in Federal power in our history, as well as some of the largest abuses of that power.  People are jailed for exercising their freedom of speech, the treasury begins directly controlling currency, a huge army is created, and other expansions.  Again, the record is clear, but Vidal brings his radical’s eye and novelist’s voice to explaining the changes.  He knows and shows the effects of the changes, but never presents the choices as cut and dried.  He makes no excuses, nor conjures any demons.

It isn’t hard to imagine his depictions of Lincoln, Seward and Chase in the cabinet of Barack Obama or of George W. Bush.  That alone is thought provoking.

All that makes the book sound like a civics assignment; it is anything but.  His characters are fascinating and dramatic, and his Lincoln is every bit the charming, disarming, dedicated man that history shows us.  There is drama, pathos, and comedy throughout.  Even if you have no interest in pondering the kind of man Lincoln was or how the mechanisms of government changed between 1861 and 1864, the book is interesting and entertaining.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Mark Twain: A Life

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

I’ve long enjoyed reading Mark Twain.  There is a combination of pulling for the hometown boy, in that he is buried in my hometown, and well, I just like the way he writes.

There’s a certain amount of Twain’s life that one soaks up living in Elmira, the way I assume one must soak it up living in any one of the many other towns in which he lived.  Any opportunity for a high school English or History class to spend a week talking about his life was taken.  As a result, I knew the broad outlines of Twain’s life before I picked up this book.  Ron Powers, the author of Mark Twain: A Life, seems to assume such passing familiarity without leaning on it.

Overall, Powers’s book is a fine gateway into Twain’s life and career.  His writing is clear and crisp, assumes the reader has heard something of the subject without being an expert.  From that basis he composes a biography that is conventional in form – birth to death telling of the major events – but light and discursive in content.  There is a daunting amount of scholarship about Twain, focusing on everything from his place in world literature to the motivations for the most trivial choices, and Powers points that out without getting drawn into the vortex of it.

For example, it’s really difficult to decide how to address the subject of this biography: Twain is fictional and says and does things that Clemens doesn’t.  Powers solves this elegantly by referring to the writings (and the writer) as “Twain,” the adult as “Clemens,” and the child as “Sammy.”  The last seems a little incongruous until one reflects on how Clemens’s childhood informed practically all his written work.  It’s a very useful convention through which Powers keeps the reader connected to the history and influences of the man simultaneously. A reader can also see how he has been driven into this convention by a mob of scholars willing to dispute any particular characterization.

Powers’s narrative is well composed, and he drops a few bits of Twainian dry wit in as well.  He relates the seminal events with detail and provides analysis as to how and why the world and the author consider them important.  He also covers smaller incidents that provide background and tone.  Overall one comes away with a solid impression of Twain’s importance, abilities, and flaws.

There are some seams visible as well.  The chapters occasionally restate material already covered in a way that another pass or two over the whole manuscript might have caught.  Powers also seems enamored of William Dean Howells as well.  I don’t know the story here, but I suspect that Powers is a student of Howells, and is also interested in writing about him more extensively, or has done so.  It’s never distracting; Powers never forgets whose story he’s telling.  But still, you can see him stealing verbal glances at the person he’d rather dance with.

These criticisms are more in the spirit of notes.  The work is interesting, enjoyable, and informative.