Friday, July 24, 2015

Book Review: In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great by Michael Wood



     Alexander the Great is one of the most famous conquerors in history, for good reason. He stretched his empire farther than any other, and his military tactics and driven personality have become legend all over the world. Like any legend, however, there are two sides to his story. That’s where Michael Wood comes in.

     I didn’t realize this was the companion book to a BBC special, but as I haven’t seen the special, it was all new to me. Michael Wood, with a team, decided to traverse as closely as possible the route Alexander took on his conquests. Even today it is a long and difficult journey, and to imagine what the Macedonian army went through in a time with less technological advances is mind-boggling.

     Wood is a great storyteller. His description of battles and strategy had me on the edge of my seat. In particular, the section on the battle at Issus and the chaos Alexander brought on Darius was fascinating. He used the famous mosaic to demonstrate the sort of bind Darius was in-he was supposed to be the god-king, but was powerless to help any of his men. Furthermore, he was to be kept alive at any cost, and this has often been passed down through the stories as cowardice.

     This was the unique part of Wood’s book. While he acknowledged the great advances made in culture, science, and math through Alexander’s march across Asia, he shows us the dark side of Alexander’s conquest. As with any war, innocents are killed, and unfortunately Greek thought considered the pillaging and massacres a part of heroic behavior. I was amused to find that Alexander is practically the boogeyman in Iran-a threat to keep children in line. The dispersal of him throughout legends, sometimes seen as a devil figure, and in others as a veritable angel of light, ascending to heaven in a chariot pulled by griffins. Muslims in particular revere him due to the early influence of Greek thought.

     Wood’s own journey is no less fascinating. He has a knack for description and the places he went through sounded beautiful. He was aided by people along the way, many of whom had some story or another about Alexander to share. In many places Alexander is alive and well in people’s memories, not merely a historical figure but a fact of life.

     This is an excellent book, both informative and exceptionally entertaining. It gives a sense of how Alexander has influenced even our present thought and in the end leaves our view of him ambiguous: the man who slaughtered thousands, the man who brought east and west together; the thinker and the warrior, the scientist and the madman.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Book Review: Auraria by Tim Westover



     Auraria is one of those books that don’t always make sense, but that’s okay. In real life, Auraria is an old gold mining town in Georgia that went defunct after a while. In the book, however, it is much, much more.

     James Holtzclaw has come to Auraria at the behest of his employer, Mr. Shadburn, to buy all the land in the town. Shadburn has plans to develop the place, and Holtzclaw is told to use whatever methods he can to get the inhabitants to sell. But Auraria is a stranger place than he expected, with fish swimming through fog, a ghost that plays piano at the inn, and an invincible terrapin who still sing the old songs. And there is gold everywhere, washed away when the moon maidens come to bathe in the river.

     Holtzclaw finds himself uneasily traversing the strange landscape, aided (and hindered) by the water spirit Princess Trahlyta. Even as plans come to fruition, he finds there are stranger things to come-many of which are found within himself.

     I wanted to like this book more than I did. I loved the mixture of mythology, folklore, and Southern mountain culture. The characters were colorful and sympathetic, and the entire plan behind the development of Auraria was actually brilliant. However, it had some weak points that I can’t overcome.

     The first problem is with Holtzclaw himself. While I think we were meant to see someone slowly getting used to the strangeness, his initial reactions were more of dull surprise than fear or confusion. He never seemed to really react to the odd things he encountered. He simply dusted himself off and carried on. I expected him to get to that point after being in Auraria for a while, but he started out this way. He does have character development, but of a different sort.

     Overall, the story has a very simplistic moral to it, which I think fits well with the Southern folklore theme. However, it feels like Tim Westover was hammering it in pretty hard. Much of the book is more of interconnected events that all seem to wind up demonstrating the moral. The ending itself demonstrates that Holtzclaw finally gets it (and I was quite happy with the ending), but I feel like the middle of the book got a bit boring overall. It lagged in places, and Westover probably could have shortened the book without losing any of it.

     That said, this was a good book, and an enjoyable one. It’s a slow read, and one to take your time on, but it’s well worth it. It left me with a bittersweet feeling, a look into a forgotten world where the supernatural was considered to exist alongside mortals without anyone blinking an eye.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Book Review: The Forgotten Room by Lincoln Child



     Jeremy Logan, famed enigmalogist, finds himself invited back to the Symposikon, a respected think tank where he once conducted his studies. A stolid scientist went mad and killed himself in a spectacularly bizarre fashion, and along with a host of other odd occurrences, the director has decided to bring in Logan to figure out what’s going on. However, in his investigations, Logan finds a sealed-off wing of the mansion filled with odd lab equipment. Suspecting a connection to the strangeness, he starts to investigate-but finds a dark secret that was meant to remain buried.

     Lincoln Child brings another fantastic and creepy mystery. The ending is less ambiguous than the previous Logan mysteries. Nothing unexplainable here, just science put to evil use. It’s a break with formula that is jarring at first, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of what’s going on. Child sets up a creepy atmosphere easily-if he ever wanted to delve into straight horror, he would do well in that genre. However, we have a combo horror-mystery-science fiction tale that doesn’t fail to entertain.

     I felt like, in some ways, it wasn’t quite as good as the previous Logan mysteries. The supporting cast didn’t feel as well-drawn as in the previous books. I find I know very little about the other characters Logan interacted with. I did, however, enjoy a glimpse into Logan’s past, his struggle to establish himself as a serious scientist rather than a “ghost chaser” (although I enjoyed the little joke about the Loch Ness Monster at the beginning), as well as a little more about the tragedy in his past. (Although, writers everywhere, can we find a tragedy for our heroes that doesn’t involve a dead wife? I think this is the third Child character that has a dead wife.)

     Overall, this was the weakest of the Logan books, but that’s like saying you prefer Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night over the CafĂ©. (But if you say any of those are better than “TARDIS Exploding”, then you deserve whatever you get.) I’m glad I bought it (granted, I had an Amazon gift card) and it will have a prominent place on my bookshelf.

Friday, July 17, 2015

IT HAS BEGUN




What sort of wibbly wobbly timey wimey nonsense is this? GO HOME ALEX YOU ARE DEAD

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Quick Lit: July 2015: I swear I'm not dead

Okay, moving on to more lighthearted subjects. I missed Quick Lit last month, because new job stress. Luckily, an hour lunch break leaves me plenty of time to read (although I frequently escape to the nearby Java House for quieter reading). However, I don't have a lot going on, partly because I've been focusing on getting ready for college again. (Junior classes! Higher levels! Less confused 18 year olds on the discussion board!)



1.


     I'm about halfway through the play right now. Coriolanus is a good soldier, but a complete jerk. Even his friends agree that yeah, he's a total jerk. This doesn't stop him from attempting to enter politics, like with most politicians. Unfortunately, it turns out no one likes him and would like to throw him off a cliff. (Literally.) So far, it's been Coriolanus being a jerk to starving people, Evil Politicians trying to manipulate the starving mob, and Aufidius failing to hide his Foe Yay for Coriolanus. I'm not particularly impressed, but it's Shakespeare so it's still fairly entertaining nonetheless.


2. 


     I'm continuing with the Great Pendergast Re-Read (GPRR). Cabinet of Curiosities is a favorite, because this introduces Pendergast's memory walking, some crazy Pendergast family, and our first glimpse of Constance, who will go on to kill people with triflic acid. (Delightful girl.) It's been said this is really a good book to start out with on the series. While I'm a traditionalist and have to go from the beginning, this really cements the tone of the books and Pendergast's character.


3. The Boxcar Children



     I absolutely loved this series when I was a kid. I think part of it was every kid's dream of running away and living on their own. It presented such a pleasant picture of subsistence living. But at the same time, Warner presented the dark side of this sort of set up: Violet becomes ill and desperately needs help. (I think it's strange her only sign of illness was laughing and crying, but okay.) Looking back, the kids sound really unnatural. They don't use any contractions, they're always extremely polite to one another, and they are too perfect. But given the time period the books were written in, it makes sense that publishers would want books that show children how they should be (according to society). The first adventure, in hindsight, is kind of boring, even if nice to read about. But as the books became mysteries, they became much more engaging. 
    And let's face it, I wanted a cracked pink tea cup too.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Book Reviews: Little Women, Little Men, and Jo's Boys

     I am uncomfortable with the idea of J.K. Rowling continuing to write Harry Potter material. The Little Women trilogy is the reason this makes me uncomfortable. Let’s face it, authors get burnt out on the same thing after a while. Doyle got fed up with Sherlock and tried to kill him off (fanrage ensued), George R.R. Martin threatened to kill off more Starks if the fans kept on asking when his next book was, and Alcott’s books slowly descended into boredom as she got tired of her characters. It happens.

     I liked the first book. Little Women was a gentle, comfortable read that got me through a very bad time. It’s filled with morals without sounding moralizing, and gives us colorful characters that are sympathetic while all being very different. Alcott, from personal experience, knew how different people interacted. Seeing the sisters’ way of dealing with each other, guided by their wise mother (and later, father when he returns from the war) was a very realistic look at sibling relationships. They squabble and fight yet stand strong together when tragedy ensues.

     Let’s get a few issues out of the way. First off, it’s annoying to hear people complain about Beth being boring, in the same way I get annoyed when someone whines about Fanny Price. Not every single character is going to be loud and attention-catching, because not everyone is like that in real life. However, that’s not a huge deal.

     The big issue here is this: Jo and Laurie have no chemistry together and if I hear another shipper complaining about the book I will throw something at them. (I don’t care if they’re on the Internet; I’ll figure it out). All of their interactions were chumminess on Jo’s side and a desire to be “mothered” on Laurie’s side. Laurie was finally ready for a relationship when he stopped expecting to be cooed and petted whenever he was in a bad mood and focused on helping Amy with her grief. Until then, Laurie was still a spoiled little boy. (Similarly, Amy had some growing up to do. Basically, they worked because they were both spoiled children who learned they weren’t special snowflakes.)

     I don’t think, however, that Jo and Mr. Bhaer were any better suited. He’s meant to be a mentor figure, but it felt more like he spent his spare time lecturing her about things rather than engaging her in dialogue. It was especially egregious when he chided her about her sensationalist novels since Alcott loved writing those. This doesn’t seem to change much in the later books, despite the stories’ assertions to the contrary.

     Either way, the first book was pleasant and fun, and I would definitely re-read it.

     Now, let’s continue with Little Men. Unfortunately, this one felt a little more moralizing. Not to the point of being intolerable, but still a bit more. Alcott knew how to write boys, however, and seeing the hijinks a large group of normal kids get up to was amusing. I felt like Jo was rather diminished in this one. She was mainly a worried mother, although occasionally you get glimpses of what she was like in the first book. Mr. Bhaer wasn’t bad, but he still liked delivering lectures. I enjoyed seeing Nat accustom himself to kindness and helpfulness; but it was Dan who stole the show.

     I have to admit, the book showed a better understanding of the psychology behind people’s environment and childhood than was generally shown in that time period. Alcott acknowledges that Dan has good tendencies that have been swallowed up by his rough background, and also acknowledges that one’s background can be very hard to shake off. Dan shows a strong desire to be better but also chafes against restraint because he has not been taught any. (It sounds like a friend of mine, actually.) Seeing his struggles was more engaging than the rest of the book put together.

     Then Jo’s Boys happened, and everything was broken. I mean, some of it was good. Seeing how these kids started growing up was truly interesting, but Alcott got so moralizing that I suspect she was deliberately punishing the editor that kept bothering her to write another book. Nan’s story was quite interesting, and I feel like it’s what Alcott wanted to do with Jo. Nan never marries and never shows any interest in it. She loves being a doctor, and that’s what she is. Little Jo, Jo’s niece, shows a similar spirited pursuit of her interest. I enjoyed seeing her eager attempts at acting and her friendship with a stage actress, and how, instead of discouraging her passion, encourages her to grow into it.

     Then the thing with Dan happened, and the obnoxious moralizing began. Dan wants to help the Native Americans win back their land. Everyone agrees that’s a good thing to do, but maybe he should not be quite so ambitious at first, maybe just try farming? This is what happens when you try to throw water on someone’s passion, especially one motivated by a sense of justice. Dan goes to farming, but on the way discovers an innocent boy being cheated at cards. When he tries to help him, the cheater comes after him with a knife, and Dan manages to kill him by punching him.

     Seriously, he killed someone with one punch. This is truly awesome.

     He is then sent to prison for murder, because the justice system sucks, and then he spends the rest of the book talking about what a terrible person he is. I think Alcott was trying to show the psychological effects of taking a life, even in self-defense, but even the other characters agree that Dan is tainted forever and the only thing he can do is nip off and die fighting for the Native Americans to somehow atone for punching someone who tried to shank him.

     Also, he has been secretly in love with Bess, even though when he describes how he thought of her in prison, we don’t actually see that in the chapter from his perspective when he is in prison. This came out of nowhere, and everyone seems to think it is really presumptuous of him, hey England would you like your class system back?


     Anyways, the book just got increasingly annoying like this, and I had to force myself through the last part. Some parts showed Alcott’s customary charm, but I feel like she was getting as fed up with her fictional universe as I was.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Saturday, July 4, 2015

INTENSE PATRIOTISM



SO INTENSE. SO PATRIOTIC.



Happy Fourth of July everyone! Go celebrate our freedom from England by watching Doctor Who and eating scones no wait

Celebrate our freedom from England by eating Germanic-based food! no wait

Celebrate our freedom from England by shouting 'MURICA while watching explosions. There we go.