Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fahrenheit 451


By Ray Bradbury

Written in the early 1950s, this is a look at a future America, an America where all serious literature has been banned, including works of philosophy and religion. In this society where houses no longer catch fire accidentally, a new role has been created for the firemen: now instead of fighting fires they start fires, specifically, they burn books. And they burn the homes and possessions of anyone caught with banned books.
Montag is one such fireman. He claims to love his job. He claims to never think twice about what he does. And yet, he has a secret stash of books hidden in his own house. He even has a Bible and has memorized whole sections of it. His wife is totally unaware of this illegal activity of his.
But, after talking to a young neighbor who opens his eyes to the real world, he admits that he is not happy, in fact, he knows no one who is happy. Although the society they live in is designed to keep people amused and occupied, still it is all superficial and most people are quietly miserable. Including Montag's wife, Millie, who tries to kill herself by swallowing an overdose of sleeping pills. All the activity and fun of their modern lives, their escapist TV shows and trashy books and magazines, their shopping and rushing around and sports and games, basically their lives are unfulfilling and meaningless. And they know it, the proof is all around them with murders, violence, suicides and impending war.
Montag goes a little nuts and forces a couple friends of his wife to listen as he reads to them. He is desperate to wake people up, to point out the fog they are living in and he gives himself away. His fellow firemen arrive to seize and burn his books and his home. Not surprisingly, his neighbors turned him in and so did his wife. She believes she is comfortable in her familiar routine and she is against his new militancy.
Montag's boss makes him burn his own books and house. But then Montag uses his firestarter on his boss, burning him alive. He flees the city, with a mechanical blood hound on his trail.

This is a story about a society that in some ways resembles our own. Montag is a guy who has just been going through the motions and experiences a crisis when he begins to question and struggle against the established way of thinking, or not thinking, as in his world thinking is very much not approved of or encouraged in any way. In his world, critical thinking is no longer taught in schools and is actively discouraged. Education has become less about knowledge and more about lots of activities, keeping the kiddies busy and amused and when they are grown, more of the same, resulting in a population that is rudderless and drifting and depressed without understanding why. It's an interesting look at a world gone terribly wrong, manifested by the book-burning firemen and their callous destruction of the accumulated wisdom of the centuries.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Ashes of Roses


By Mary Jane Auch

Rose Nolan and her family are Irish immigrants on their way to New York City where they are hoping to get a slice of the American dream. But things go bad right from the start at Ellis Island. Rose's baby brother is ill and refused entry into the US. This means the family has to make a hard decision. Should they all go back to Ireland or should some stay behind, waiting for the others to join them later? Rose's dad decides he will go back to Ireland with the baby while Rose, her mom and her two younger sisters will stay, living with the dad's brother until the dad and the baby can come back.
Next bad thing, the dad's brother wasn't expecting them. He never got the letter informing him of their arrival. Also the brother is married to a mean wife with two mean daughters and they make the immigrants feel very unwelcome. Finally the mom gets fed up and, when the brother offers to pay for their fare back to Ireland, she accepts.
Only problem is Rose doesn't want to leave New York. She has been looking forward to starting a new life there. When they get to the docks just before boarding the ship home, she informs her mom that she isn't going. She will cash in her ticket and use the money to live on until she can find work. And her sister, who is a few years younger, decides to stay too. The mom doesn't like the idea, but the ship is ready to go and she gives in.
Rose finds a cheap room for rent and their landlord's daughter arranges to get her a job at the place where she works...the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory! Oh, no! Rose has gone from the frying pan and into fire, literally. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is a death trap just waiting to burst into flames and kill hundreds of the people that work there.

Based on a true, tragic event, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a fire in which 146 people perished because the doors that should have been open were locked, trapping them inside the burning ten-story tall building. Many of those who died jumped to their deaths, trying to escape the flames.
I have to laugh at myself because I hadn't a clue as to where the novel was going, not recognizing the name of the factory from history. Of course, I think most people are familiar with the dangerous working conditions of sweatshops, of which this plant most certainly was. It was not until the last part of the story, when Rose put on her best dress to wear to work that day that I figured she was going to ruin her pretty, ashes of roses colored dress. Even then, I didn't tumble to how it was going to happen, so the fire and death and destruction came as an nasty surprise. Up to that point it had just been an engrossing story about a young immigrant woman's experience trying to make her way in New York City. Rose manages to escape the fire, but two of her good friends, also named Rose don't. It was a good read with a terrifying, true ending.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Chalice and the Blade


By Glenna McReynolds

Set in twelfth century Wales, this is the story of Ceri, daughter of privilege until one terrible day when her family's castle, located on a cliff beside the sea, was overrun and overthrown and her family killed. The only survivors were the child Ceri, her young brother and a woman who managed to escape the destruction with the two children.
When Ceri grew up, she was horrified to discover she was the intended bride of the man who had invaded her castle home and killed her family, the Boar of Balor, Caradoc. Caradoc wants the girl because he believes that union with her will give him access to the magical powers inherent in the old castle. Underneath the castle are miles of passages and natural caves and dwelling in those caves are huge magical creatures, the pryf, dragon spawn.
Anyway, Ceri runs away only to end up in the hands of a sadistic knight who intends to rape her. But she is saved by a mysterious magician, Dain Lavrans. Ceri was handled very harshly by the knight and Dain has the knowledge necessary to heal her. So he keeps her in his impregnable tower to tend to her injuries and to help her get well again. Of course, they fall in love and together must stand and fight off all those who wish to see them parted, with the help of the local fairy people. (Who seem not very fairy and a lot plain old human.)

This was a fantastically boring book. In fact, I started reading it and stopped at about page 200 and didn't pick it up again for months. The vast majority of the book is about Ceri and Dain falling in love. So mainly it is a romance novel with a fantasy setting and I am not a fan of romance stories. The only interesting part of the story is the pyrf but you don't get to see them at all until the last part of the story and they don't play much of a role anyway, just happening to blindly crush a few soldiers who get in their way.
Bottom line, this book never captured my attention.

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Girl Named Disaster


By Nancy Farmer

Nhamo is a Shona girl living in a traditional village in Mozambique. Her mother died when Nhamo was very young and she doesn't really remember her much. Her father was young fool from Zimbabwe who went back there and was never heard from again. Nhamo lives with her maternal grandmother and her two aunts and some cousins. Her aunts, it seems, were jealous of her mother, who got to go to away to school and learn to read and write, while they had to stay home. Even though Nhamo's mother has been dead for many years, they still feel envious and take it out on Nhamo, making her days one long round of chores and work. But her granny loves her very much, which helps make up for her feelings of loneliness.
It turns out that the reason Nhamo's father disappeared is because he killed a man in Mozambique and fled back to Zimbabwe. The relatives of the murdered man still want to be compensated for the man's death but Nhamo's family doesn't have the wherewithal to pay the blood debt. So it is decided that Nhamo will marry into the dead man's family, this despite the fact that the man she is to marry is very much older than her and has three wives already. And that Nhamo's status in this group will be that of virtual slave and her early death from abuse or murder by the jealous older wives is pretty much assured.
So, urged on by her dying granny, Nhamo steals a row boat and sets off up the river to Zimbabwe to find her daddy. Even though she is only about 11 or 12 years old, she is very capable and manages pretty good until one night when she ties the boat to some reeds and falls asleep only to wake up the next day to discover that the boat became unmoored and has drifted all the way back past her village and beyond it into a huge man-made lake. This lake is so big its like being on the ocean. Nhamo can't even see the shore. Still she manages to row to an island and thus she gradually makes her way through the huge lake, island hopping and living off the land. She has a hard time of it with encounters with wild animals and gets stung by a scorpion and almost starves to death. Still she plugs on because to give up means death.

This is one of those books intended for teenage readers that is also suited for adults. It isn't preachy and boring or predictable, like so much teen lit, especially teen lit for girls. Life in her village is so different from the modern world; they have no electricity, no water except what they get from the river and virtually no education, especially for girls, who are not considered worth educating. Everywhere they look, the world is filled with spirits, good, bad and indifferent and care has to be taken not to offend these very touchy spirits. Nhamo and her granny are both born story tellers and the book is full of these little, often amusing folk tales. Nhamo's journey is riveting and exciting and she is a very sympathetic heroine. I really enjoyed this story a lot.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ashenden or the British Agent


By W. Somerset Maugham

A fictionalized account of Maugham's experience in the British Intelligence Department during World War One. Ashenden, a writer by profession, is recruited as an agent. He is sent overseas. This is no guns blazing, explosions bursting, high-speed chase type of agent. Ashenden is sort of a middle management agent, getting reports from spies in the field, arranging for the spies to be paid and sending the info on to his bosses higher up. Most of the spies he deals with are like himself, ordinary people recruited because of their access to information and their willingness, in some cases, to betray their native land. Of course, if any of them, including Ashenden, are found out, it will mean death. Indeed, two of the stories are about people being tracked down with the ultimate goal their execution, although one of these people is not a spy but a terrorist.
So Ashenden doesn't pack a gun and doesn't know how to disarm a bomb and relies on public transportation to get around. But nevertheless, he is a heartless, cold and ruthless character and I can only hope that that part is fiction, otherwise I would have to conclude that Maugham was a son of a bitch. For instance, Ashenden uses a woman's self-interest against her, making her chose between her own imprisonment for ten years and her lover, the terrorist's, life. She begs and pleads and weeps and he just looks at her and forces her over and over to write deceiving letters luring her lover to his entrapment and death. In another story, dealing with a British citizen who is spying for the enemy, Ashenden tricks the traitor into going back to Britain and into the waiting hands of the authorities, knowing he will never return, leaving behind his wife who loves him desperately and who Ashenden knows will be emotionally destroyed by the loss of her husband. I guess his boss knew he was picking the right man for the job when he recruited Ashenden.

This was a pretty interesting look at what being a spy was really like during WWI. It wasn't glamorous and it wasn't dashing about being all suave and sophisticated.
As Maugham points out, "The work of an agent in the Intelligence Department is on the whole extremely monotonous. A lot of it is uncommonly useless." Mostly it required sitting about in hotels and waiting for the info to arrive and then sending it on to HQ. Most of the spying was actually done by locals who were willing to gather data mainly for the money they were paid. Ashenden worked out of neutral countries which allowed him to freedom to move around, under his guise of being a writer. It was risky but it certainly wasn't as risky as being on the frontlines getting shot at. A nice dose of reality in a world were James Bond, Jason Bourne and the Tom Cruise character of Mission Impossible are presented as the typical kind of spy.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Daughter of Time


By Josephine Tey

Inspector Grant of the Scotland Yard is laid up in the hospital and bored out of his mind. Until he stumbles upon a historical mystery: the murder of the two young princes by their uncle, Richard III.
His investigation starts out with a picture of Richard III. Being a policeman, Grant is used to evaluating people by their appearance and his first impression of Richard III is that of a man of suffering and sorrow, but not a murderer.
So this contrast between Richard's face and what he was accused of doing seem, to Grant's policeman's thinking, to indicate a contradiction and so, with the help of a friend to do most of the research and lots of books, Grant sets out to gather the facts and sort out the truth of the matter: did Richard III contrive to have his two young nephews murdered to guarantee his own position on the throne of England?

It's a fascinating look back at a crime that is still wondered about today. And the author makes a very good case for Richard's innocence, especially as it seems that Richard would not have benefited from the boys' death. And, as the author makes clear, Henry VII, Richard's successor to the throne, was the more likely suspect to have had a hand in the deaths of the young princes. Even if you are not a fan of British history, still made for a pretty good story and a pretty convincing argument in Richard's favor.

New Words

Bathetic: effusively or insincerely emotional. 'To fall through a trap-door was the ultimate in absurdity; pantomimic, bathetic, grotesque.'

Hippocras: A cordial made of spiced wine. '"But I expect she was just a little tipsy. She is very fond of hippocras."'

Lag: a prisoner, a criminal. 'Kind, well-wishing letters from all sorts of people, including a few old lags.'

Attainder: The loss of civil rights following a sentence of death or outlawry for treason or felony. 'And if these were discounted, the first through illegitimacy and the second through attainder, there was another possible: his elder sister Elizabeth's boy.'

Conventicles: The Conventicle Act of 1664 was an Act of the Parliament of England that forbade religious assemblies of more than five people outside the auspices of the Church of England. This law was part of the programme of Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, to discourage nonconformism and to strengthen the position of the Established Church. These prohibitions led many, such as the Covenanters, to vacate their parishes rather than submit to the new Episcopal authorities. Just as the ministers left so too did the congregations, following their old pastors to sermons on the hillside. From small beginnings these field assemblies-or conventicles-were to grow into major problems of public order for the government. '"If you went to church on Sunday instead of to a conventicle, you were liable to wake on Monday to find your barn burned or your horses ham-strung."'

Peradventure: chance, doubt or uncertainty; perchance or maybe; perhaps. '"But there's no peradventure about his activities once he was across the channel."'

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Project Jennifer


By Jill Amy Rosenblatt

Joan is a nice girl and, I guess like nice guys, nice girls finish last. Because her fiance has dumped her and married a woman named Jennifer. He didn't even have the guts to dump Joan himself, he had his mom do it! Which was OK by the mom because she never liked Joan. It is never said in the book, but one gets the feeling that the fact Joan is Jewish may have had a lot to do with the mom's dislike.
Anyway, to Joan, it seems that Jennifer is the picture of female perfection and Joan reasons that if she could be more like Jennifer then she would be better off, with a nice job, a good life and a boyfriend. So she decides to act like she thinks women like her rival, Jennifer, act.
She has an affair with her new boss, but figures out eventually that he is just interested in the sex and is not going to leave his wife for her. She ends up feeling pretty damaged and realizes that the whole Jennifer shtick is not working for her. It takes awhile and another less-than-perfect relationship before Joan gets her head screwed on straight and her life back on track.

For me, it's hard to sympathize with a character that gets involved with a married man, hoping he will leave his wife and marry her. That is just so low in so many ways. Plus she treats her friends like dogs simply because they make a few critical comments. For a person who is certainly old enough to know better, Joan not only dates a married man who is also her boss, she gets herself into a lot of debt trying to carry off the Jennifer lifestyle. I just didn't care for Joan very much and I was getting pretty tired of her towards the end of the book. Although I can definitely say that Joan is not a nice girl anymore!

Under the Jolly Roger


By L.A. Meyer

After escaping from the girls' school in Boston, Jacky Faber was able to get passage on a whaler, assisting the captain's wife, thus able to earn some money. Making her way back to London, she visited her fiance's home, trying to discover why he had never answered her letters. She is very rudely received by his mother and finds out from one of the servants that Jame never got any of the letters; his mother hid them from him. The servant also told Jacky she could find Jame at the races. As a lark, Jacky dressed up like a jockey, intending to surprise Jame. But to her surprise, she found Jame escorting a very pretty girl and, in her usual impetuous manner, Jacky rushed off before he could explain, throwing her engagement ring at him. He stopped to search for the ring and Jacky had vanished.
Running away from the track, dressed at a male jockey, Jacky was taken by a press gang and gagged and bound before she had a chance to let the them know she was not a man but a girl. She wasn't ungagged or unbound until on board the Navy ship. The captain, being a lecherous, evil cuss, decided to keep her on board and turn her into his fancy piece. Fortunately, the captain was far from well, and it was many days before he called for Jacky to attend him in his cabin. Lucky for her he had a heart attack and died before he could commit his dastardly deed.
Since Jacky was officially a midshipman from her previous time in the British navy and since the navy has rules about the officers fraternizing with the lower ranks, the captain promoted Jacky to lieutenant so he wouldn't be breaking any navy rules when he raped her. All the other higher officers were off the ship and with the captain dead, that made Jacky the highest ranking officer on board and she made the most of it. Winning the crew over to her side was a bit tricky but she managed to pull it off, especially when, under her direction, they capture some richly loaded smuggling vessels and that means cash in the sailors pockets.
They head in to Britain to turn in their treasure and get their fair share of the spoils but Jacky kept one of the smuggling vessels for herself and doesn't inform the authorities about it. She also managed to talk them into giving her a license to become a privateer and she set sail again, with an Irish crew and the captured ship, preying on the smugglers trying to slip through the British blockade of France. Too bad for Jacky that the authorities found out about the captured ship she didn't turn in and they declared her to be a pirate. And if they get their hands on her she is sure to be executed.

Another chapter in the Jacky Farber saga, with Jacky trying to fulfill her dream of owning her own shipping company, although, as per usual, she goes about it the wrong way and gets herself in terrible trouble again. This was a pretty good story, although there was too much details about sailing. Some of the plot contrivances were more than a little jarring, like the fiance's mother hanging on to all of Jacky's letters instead of just disposing of them. And Jacky putting on her boy clothes to see Jame at the races and then jumping to the conclusion that Jame had thrown her over for another girl and then running off without giving Jame a chance to explain and, of course, ending up in the clutches of a press gang. All that to get her back on board a navy ship. Still, Jacky is a spunky and engaging character, holding her own in a man's world, proving herself capable time and again. It's fun to read about such a feminist rebel, even though it is just fiction. I enjoyed it for the most part and will probably read the next installment, IN THE BELLY OF THE BLOODHOUND, where Jacky goes back to the girls' school and somehow all the schoolgirls end up shanghaied and, of course, Jacky will be in the thick of it to save the day.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Snowball Oranges


By Peter Kerr

Getting tired of the cold winters and damp weather of Scotland, Peter Kerr and his wife Ellie bought a small farm on the island of Majorca. Switching from farming barley to farming oranges was a huge change but probably the hardest part of the move was coping with the inconveniences of the old farm house that came with the property.
The area was very scenic with warm, mild weather, yet the old house came with a host of problems, none of which Kerr had been warned of by the previous owners. The wiring was inadequate, the septic tank a disgrace, the chimney a fire hazard, the washing machine kaput, the stove, besides needing a new canister of propane, was, in the words of the repairman, a bomb, as was the water boiler. The farm had its problems too with its diseased, neglected, weed-choked orchards.
Still, the Kerrs settled in, with their two teenage sons, and made themselves at home with the help of their generous, odd and charming neighbors.

This was an enjoyable book to read with its descriptions of beautiful scenery, delicious local foods, and of the quirky and amusing natives. And although you sympathize with the Kerr's struggles, you get the feeling that, though frustrated at times, on the whole, they very much enjoyed the time they spent in Majorca. It certainly made for a fun and entertaining interlude reading about their adventures.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Buffalo For the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch


By Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien is a writer and a rancher. His ranch, called the Broken Heart from the brand he uses on his livestock, is located near Bear Butte in western South Dakota. When he first started ranching there, his ranch was pretty degraded due to drought and overgrazing. When he took over the ranch he started using a system of rotating the cattle from pasture to pasture to keep the grasslands from being overgrazed. On those years when he was present to make sure things were going as he planned, his pastures were greener and more productive than neighboring pastures.
But, due to adverse conditions and economic downturns, O'Brien often found his ranch could not pay for itself and he took outside jobs in order to make the payments on the money he borrowed to run it. These jobs often took him out of state so his ranch was not taken care of the way he wanted. He'd come back to find the cattle had not been rotated and the pastures were in bad shape because of it.
One of his neighbors had switched from cattle to bison, which are native to the Great Plains of North America and adapted to deal with its harsh and extreme climate, unlike cattle. According to his neighbor, bison needed a lot less care and were a lot easier on the pasture since their grazing habits were quite different from cattle. Bison were more flexible in their grazing and moved around more. They also handled the bitter cold and deep snows of winter a lot better, using their massive heads as snow plows to clear the snow off the grass hidden beneath. And unlike cattle, the bison cows needed no help birthing their calves. Calving season means a huge amount of work for cattlemen but not for bison ranchers.
O'Brien was intrigued by the idea of running bison on land that used to support huge numbers of them. But he knew he would have to redo all the fencing and corrals on his ranch since cattle fencing won't contain bison, they walk through it like going through cobwebs. Also, bison are not tame, they are very wild and extremely strong and huge. Handling them is different than handling cattle and that would take some getting used to. So it took O'Brien quite a while to work up to getting a few bison for his own ranch. He started out with a small group of young calves and gradually increased his herd, as he was able to improve his fencing.

So this is the story of what lead the author to switch from cattle to bison and of his goals in making the switch and how it has worked out for him so far. It makes for very interesting reading and he even manages to make bison meat sound delicious. (I've eaten bison and I don't like it - it's gamy.) It's especially interesting to read about how his different method of pasture management has not only produced better grass but also improved wildlife habitat at the same time and how the number of native species of plants and birds has soared on his land. It's very encouraging and yet, as he describes how bison are starting to be ranched in the same destructive way cattle have been, how the cattle industry is trying to turn bison into another domesticated product instead of letting bison be the wild, self-reliant creatures they are adapted to be, it's discouraging to see that we just don't seem to be able to learn from our past mistakes.
This is a book that is not only educational, inspiring, and informative, it's also entertaining and engrossing and just a really good story.

O'Brien has a website where he sells organic, grass-fed bison meat from his and other bison ranches: Wild Idea Buffalo.
For some pictures of the ranch, see The Splendid Table.