Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Ten Days in the Hills

By Jane Smiley

Max, a has-been movie director, has a houseful of people staying with him. There's his lover Elena; Simon, her slutty son; Isabel, Max's daughter; Zoe, Isabel's movie star mom and Max's ex-wife; Delphine, Zoe's mom; Cassie, Delphine's friend, Paul, Zoe's therapist and lover; Stony, Max's agent and Isabel's lover; and Charlie, Max's boyhood friend from back East, ten people all together.
So for ten days these people are together, talking, eating and screwing. Set at the beginning of the Iraq war, Max's girlfriend Elena is distraught about the war. She blames the war for Max's impotence. Most all of Max's guests side with her, except for Charlie who is a Republican and a supporter of the war which causes some conflict with Elena. He feels her doubts about the war are disloyal and calls her on it. Meanwhile the others are having lots of sex and eating vegan meals. Towards the end of the story, they all move from Max's house to a fabulous mansion owned by some rich Russians who want Max to direct a movie about Cossacks. Max isn't really that interested, he wants to make a movie about him and Elena in bed called "My Lovemaking with Elena," which would be kind of like the movie "My Dinner with Andre." The new location is an opportunity for more and different kinds of sex and more talk.

Not much happens in this story, mostly just lots of talk and lots of rather graphic sex. At times, I really couldn't understand why I was reading it. It's not like it has a plot. It's just a bunch of people talking, eating and screwing. Somehow, it roped me in, and despite its length, I kept on reading. I can't say I really liked the characters but somehow I liked reading about them, even their long conversations.

For another review of the book, see the NY Times.

Friday, September 05, 2008

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World

By Tony Horwitz

What a wonderful book! Horwitz takes the reader down the little explored avenues of American history, mingling the past and the present in a very intimate and informative way, yet keeping the pace lively and entertaining without bogging the reader down in a dry recitation of boring dates and facts. He makes history personal and living as he travels around gaining a new vision and understanding of the underpinnings of American history and in the process exploding lots of our most dearly held myths. These myths include the first Thanksgiving, the landing at Plymouth Rock, Ponce de Leon's search for the fountain of youth, and Columbus proving the world was round. All false, as false as George Washington chopping down that silly cherry tree and all came to exist in pretty much the same way as the cherry tree story. Some old guys decided that that was the way it should be and so it was, never mind the truth. As Horwitz discovers, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Spanish settlers in Florida; the Pilgrims didn't land at Plymouth Rock, they landed on the beach, Ponce de Leon was not looking for the fountain of youth, that was completely fabricated by later historians, and Columbus and the Catholic Church already knew the world was not flat but round. Still, at the end of the book, Horwitz acknowledges that people need their myths and that myths will outlast the truth every time.

You know you are reading a terrific book (a history book more than 400 pages long) when you can't put the book down and end up reading it in just a few days. Such was the case with Horwitz's engaging history of early American explorers, A Voyage Long and Strange. I had a lot of fun reading this book and it is definitely "a keeper".
The only thing I didn't enjoy was reading of the slaughter of the innocents and the brutality of the Europeans against the native peoples. That was really painful and hard to read about and it made me very sad that American history is built on piles of dead and exploited peoples, native and African. That part was tough to read about yet totally worth it. You don't really know history if you don't know the ugly parts too.

For a review see NPR, which also has an excerpt from the book.

New Words
Yoiking: Yoik, Joik or juoiggus is a traditional Sami (Lapp) form of song. "The show opened with a woman yoiking, then segued to an interview with a Swedish Jew."
Prelapsarian: Of, or relating to the period before the fall of Adam and Eve. "This prelapsarian image helped give rise to the myth of the Noble Savage, which would endure in the Western imagination for centuries."
Cumber: The act of slowing down or hindering. "They soon cease to cumber; they fertilize." (A quote from Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary)
Exurb: A residential area beyond the suburbs. "St. Augustine today is almost an exurb of Jacksonville, with a population one one-hundredth the size of the sprawling metropolis."
Lacuna: A blank gap or missing part. See also lacunae. "For Gannon, though, the controversy sparked by his remarks spoke to a more consequential lacuna in our memory of early America."
Cosmography: The creation of maps of the universe; the study of the size and geometry of the universe and changes in those with cosmic time. "Typical was Richard Hore, a leather seller and dabbler in cosmography who sailed in 1536 with thirty gentlemen 'desirous to see the strange things of the world.'"
Pickery: Petty theft. "But she [Elizabeth I] quietly abetted the looting of Spanish treasure by seamen on 'journeys of pickery.'"