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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander

Started 6/13, Finished 6/16

This was a bit of a lark. Well, departure is more like it. My wife checked this out from the library to see if Alex would be interested at all, and because she recalled having read something by Alexander in the past.

She couldn't even get 4 pages into it. What she hadn't known when she checked it out was that this book, this series of Prydain books (the second of which became the animated Disney film The Black Cauldron) was both the beginning and end of my fascination with all things fantasy. I consumed these books when I was about 11-12 - probably the ideal age for them. I was almost obsessed. I wanted to live in this world and be confronted by such torments and joys. I reached the tipping point, way back then, where I had just had too much. Like when you eat peanut butter or ramen for three weeks solid because you don't have a penny in the bank. You never want to see any of it again... that's exactly what happened to me. I can't read Lord of the Rings, I can't even get near the long-running D&D novels, and I can't really stand much science fiction.

But since I loved these so much as a kid I thought I'd pick it up and rekindle some of the magic. What the heck, right? It's only about 180 pages. I could read that during the commercial breaks of 30 Rock.

Well, I probably shouldn't have bothered. The writing is okay, not great. A few of the characters are reasonably well-developed. Others annoyed the shit out of me. When I came across an archetype (like Geydion the hero or Eilonwy the princess), I suspect that I was supposed to smile instead of groan. I was intended to recognize the character as such and appreciate that it was easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys. It just wasn't for me. Eilonwy of the beauteously wispy blond hair and oh-so-talkative nature. Gurgi of the crunchings and munchings. Yawn. The only interesting characters were Taran, the main character, and his mentor Dallben (who meditates constantly, "an occupation so exhausting he could accomplish it only by lying down and closing his eyes").

These two characters are interesting because they are the only ones who possess shades of gray amidst the black and white. Here comes a slight spoiler if you care. When Taran complains about his inexplicable survival near the end, Dallben basically tells him "look, you got a little bit lucky. Of course you didn't save the day. Of course you didn't really do anything but watch while the events unfolded around you. But that's just what happens sometimes - you lead them there, and that was your real role."

So, for the hero of the story to be relagated to a witness isn't necessarily interesting--it happens to Harry Potter all the time. But for it to be acknowledged and worked into the moral of the story--that was interesting. That's also something that never would have occurred to my 12-year-old self, and since I read these in a void I never had the benefit of a guiding wisdom to help me understand it. All I cared about was "good guys won, bad guys lost, and there were magic swords and shit".

I'm not sure I'll pick up the rest... it was such an easy read there's no reason not to cover the rest, but on the other hand... eh... the silliness and ill-treatment of the only major female character in the book might be bad enough to set me off. I don't know if I can handle more of it. I'll read it if it falls into my lap like this one did. Maybe.

Books #18 and #19 will be Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, respectively, by JK Rowling


Monday, July 23, 2007

Done and Done

Finished book 7 at 10:34am at the Green Muse coffee shop on Oltorf... and I played a little hookie to do it.

Don't know what else to say here. I may or may not write more about good ol' Harry... It's not like there's a lack of words spent on him. I think the Internet was originally created (by Al Gore) as a giant repository of hard drive space just to store opinions and theories about Harry Potter.

I'm just glad of a terrific tale, told skillfully, and I'm a little bit relieved to get back to my normal reading. These stories will be a joy to reread forever, and particularly when my children discover them.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Wine & War, by Don & Petie Kladstrup

Started 6/10, Finished 6/15

This was another of the "3 for 2" books I can't help buying over at the local Borders. I haven't blogged much about it, but I'm a bit of a wine guy, and seeing this book about protecting French wine during World War II was irresistable. Now, as my fellow writer Emily noted, "hey, I thought non-fiction made your ass twitch!!? What's up with that book?"

I can't explain it. I believe I have read, not counting schoolbooks, 5 non-fiction books in my life, and off the top of my head I can only think of 3. I didn't expect to finish this one at all, but hey... something really clicked with me and I couldn't stop.

January 1st of this year I had a bit of a brainwave: I've spent more money taking classes to learn about wine than I've spent on the wine itself. K and I took a 13-week course from the Grape Vine Market here in town, and neither of us can remember anything about it. I took a UT informal class abou wine tasting. I've been to Central Market tastings, Whole Foods tastings, and even friends' houses for tastings. When I go to someone's house, people invariably ask me, "hey, you've taken all those wine classes... what should I serve with dinner tonight?" or "how do you like that Cabernet? Doesn't it remind you of the ocean, with hints of blackberry and peach pie--no, vanilla peach pie?"

I don't know. I don't know I don't know I don't know. I've never tasted or smelled blackberry in a wine. I've never found a wine to be "coquettish" or "arrogant". I couldn't even tell you what it means for a wine to be "very tannic". I think I was too busy drinking too much of the wine at these tastings.

But January 1st of this year people were talking about resolutions. I don't make resolutions. I say I'm gonna try to do something, then I try to see if I can do it. In 2003 I wrote a novel. In 2006 I read 25 books. In 2007 I decided I was fed up with trying to learn about wine in the same old way. I was going to apply the study techniques I learned in my degree program to the problem of understanding wine: drill, drill, drill. Spend all the time you think you need on one single subject, until you believe you understand it well enough to move on.

I decided to spend the entirity of 2007 studying one single winemaking region, preferable of France. Usually a wine tasting will give you 2 hours and 3 wines from, say the Loire Valley or the Cote du Rhone. That just wasn't enough. Rather than an evening, I'm taking a year.

I settled upon the Burgundy region because of no other reason than because on January 2nd, the daily wine calendar I got for Christmas last year (see the expectations I've set?) recommended a 2003 Louis Jadot Chambolle-Musigny Premier Cru "Les Charmes".

Now that's a mouthful. I had heard of Louis Jadot and I had lived through 2003. Other than that, that was a bunch of words I could pronounce just fine, but which baffled me utterly. The description explained that it was a Pinot Noir from the Burgundy region.

So I started Googling.

And Wikipedia-ing.

And finally, Burghounding.

I know enough about Burgundy at this point to fill up several blog posts, and I probably will at some point. I've only had a few, though, because the good ones are so darned expensive. Reading books about wine has been the closest I've been able to come to some of the magnificent things that have come out of this tiny and very beloved area of France.

So we get back to Wine & War, which is as much about Burgundy as it is about Bordeaux, Beaujolais, Alsace, the Loire valley, and the Cote du Rhône. Since I'll probably be studying French wine for the next 5 years, it was right up my alley.

Now to the ethical question: Jess brought up an objection to the very premise of this book, one that I admit I had thought about the moment I read the jacket pitch: how the hell can you think about saving your precious, silly little bottles of bubbled-up grape juice while six million Jews are roasting in Krakow? Not to mention the other atrocities going on all around you?!

The answer is never overt, in fact the question is never posed. Nothing of this sort of objection or query is ever made, and it's becomes easy to understand why: these people were doing everything they could to protect the people, to save as many lives as they could. Several were hiding Jewish families somewhere in their chateaux. Some were helping downed American pilots cross the border into France, where they would hide in the cities and countryside, escaping from the Gestapo on punishment of death. Nearly every winemaker was a member of the French resistance. What I came to understand, which to our educational system's eternal shame I never learned in school, was that the devastation of the French army was so quick, so total, and so unexpected, that the citizenry found themselves under the thumb of martial law within weeks of the first bullet. They were expected--no, directed at gunpoint--to go about their normal lives, particularly so that they could supply the Third Reich with the supplies and even some of the luxuries of the French lifestyle that were demanded. The Germans were determined to sap the country completely dry, forcing it into a state of dependence on their conquerors.

These people did save every blessed human life they could, well before they even thought to save their wine. And the stories about the lives being saved have been told and retold, so the authors believed it was time to tell the story of the bubbled-up grape juice. At length I was convinced enough to doubt the moral dubiousness of choosing this as an important tale to tell.

That question put to rest, this is one hell of a yarn. It made me want to pull a Da Vinci Code and write a novel from their non-fiction premise and hope the judgment goes as well for me as it did for ole Dan Brown.

It reads like fiction, which is probably why I could get through it. They don't go into detail about winemaking, but they do spend some time discussing the fears of being a winemaker and of some of the things the Germans did to manipulate the process.

The story that stuck with me the most was about one winemaker, I believe Joseph Drouhin (whose wines are available right now at the Austin Wine Merchant), from Burgundy. He had large casks of some grand cru wine, some of the most valuable fluid in the world, sitting in his cellar. Some Germans came by to demand their weekly ration of industrial alcohol, but he had none to give them. They looked at these large oak casks and said, "that's okay, we'll just take this and boil it down".

Horrified, he tried to explain, this wine is worth 100 times what you want. Please, let me sell it and I will give you the alcohol next week. It will be no trouble at all...

The soldiers went down the row of casks, pouring one cup of heating oil into each. Decaliters of wine, not to mention the ancient casks themselves, were spoiled instantly.

After that, the winemaker buried what little stock he had left and increased his Resistance activities considerably.

They are small stories, less important than most of the others we have heard hundreds of times, but I found that even in this microcosm, the realities were the same as in the larger world: heroes and villains, good and evil, courage and insecurity. All the same lessons of the greater war on display even in the smallest encounters. I'm glad they chose to tell this story, and I'm certain that it's still only half-told.

If I were to fictionalize this, I can't imagine the amount of research I'd have to do. Fortunately, the subject of French wine isn't altogether unpleasant to study, both in the academic and in the practical senses.

Book #17 will be The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander


Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Started 6/6, Finished 6/9

Words strewn like black ash over the pulpy compost of tree sediment. Pages that flip by before you can shield your mind from the blood and pus. Dappled letters like crisped blades of grass, crunching under your feet as you troll the wasted countryside, never more immersed than at the moment you read it. I look up, and the boy is sitting at my feet. Modernity and ancient history, living and breathing, surround me.

"Deedah? What we going have for dinner tonight?"

"We're having sandwiches."

"Can we have soup? Is there soup? Can we have soup? I hungry."

"Yes. We can have soup."

"Can we have fizzy water?"


"Are you going have wine?"

"Yes, I'll probably have a glass."

"Mommy going have wine too."



I look back down. The words tumble over my head again, pushing against my brain and boring their way inside. You don't even notice the crozzled bones after a while. You used to notice them, back in the beginning, when you were naive about the world, when it was all new. Then you just wanted it to stop. Now you hardly notice them except as grisly breadcrumbs, marking your path, preventing a desparate walk in circles.

How many bullets are left in the gun? Where will you sleep tonight? When your muscles are stretched like guitar strings and your feet crack with each step? One wheel on the shopping cart wobbles and you count the ball bearing clicks, humming a song that will never be sung again.

"Deedah? Are you going make dinner soon?"

"Come here for a second."

The boy trots over, hair gleaming like fire and looking at me like I have every answer. I look at him for three or four seconds, then pull him to me. He wraps his arms around my shoulders and makes a sound like groaning, to mimic whatever despairing utterance escapes my throat.

"I love you, boy."

"Oh! I love you sooooooooo much," he says, and smiles, his lips glossy with saliva. He runs off to the kitchen to bang on the pots and pans. Our evening ritual.

I put down the book and make dinner, the heat on the stove lower than usual. Today, nothing in my suddenly palatial estate will be crozzled.

Book #16 will be Wine & War, by Don & Petie Kladstrup


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Beneath a Marble Sky, by John Shors

Started 5/30, finished 6/5

This book caught my eye in BookPeople a few weeks ago. I liked the typeface used on the cover, and as soon as I read the title I knew it had to be about the Taj Mahal. The picture on the cover confirmed it. I picked it up with some apprehension, then curiosity, then sadness: someone got to this story before I could.

Evidently this is the first novelization of the Taj's construction written originally in English. That's a little bit hard to believe, considering it came out in early 2006, and it really upsets me that it was just sitting there all my life like that, ready to be written.

Oh well. That was never the project I wanted to undertake anyway... what I want to do would be more something you'd consider capital-A Art. You know, the kind of thing that doesn't earn a dime but which might be held in esteem by who appreciate a novel with a less traditional structure. I'm working on it now, in fact, about 10,000 words into it, and I think it's the kind of thing I'll hack on for a few years in between projects. It'd fun to write, and the story canvas is as blank as they come. The options are limitless. There's no chance of my forgetting that building or its story any time soon, so I can be patient.

This book is very traditional in terms of structure. It's a 3rd person closed narrative, told from the POV of Mumtaz Mahal's favorite daughter. The novel is as much the story of her life as it is of her parents'.

Shah Jahan ruled the Mughal Dynasty in 16th century Northern India. By all accounts, he was a fair, reasonable man, who attempted to integrate the lives of the Muslims with those of the majority Hindus. He built the most magnificent buildings that the world had seen. He allowed his wife to speak at court. She was the light of his life, until she giving birth to their 14th child. His spirit deserted him that day. The daughter Jahanara witnesses the love they share, which leaves a lasting impression. She helps manage the construction of the Taj Mahal in her mother's memory. With Isa, the lead architect, she seeks the love she saw so tangible in her mother and father.

As the construction of the monument begins, Jahanara finds herself increasingly taking control of her father's affairs. At the same time, her two elder brothers are fighting over succession and how best to rule the country. The story is as much a chronicle of their political downfall as it is about the raising of one of the greatest buildings in the world's history.

The writing is good enough, and the characters are generally believable. What I was left with, though, is a real sense of how American everything sounded. That would probably shock the author, who obviously went to great pains to work out the formalized dialog and the constant references to Allah, the evils of the West, etc., but I stand by it. The whole exercise is viewed through our sort of lens: who is free, who is not free, who is given equality, who can make their own life, their own decisions, etc. I can't buy that this mindset could have existed in the culture Shors is describing. The caste system is so deeply entrenched that barely anyone notices it, let alone stops to wonder what they're missing out on by their obligation to serve others. The rule of law places the Emperor at an almost god-like status, and people don't dare to hold themselves at his level. These issues are discussed throughout the novel, and at the end of it I felt like I had been attending a symposium on human rights violations.

Maybe people did wonder "why must a woman stay in her house all day long while a man can wander wherever he likes," but the poetry and historical accounts I've read on the subject simply don't address these issues. Could it be because the question never arose? My bet is that, were this novel to come over to us in translation from an Indian author, the tone of it would be radically different. That's my biggest criticism of the novel: it pandered to a Western audience.

Less of a problem was that I wanted more detail on the actual construction of the Taj, but I guess I'll have to cover that in my own project. My bet has been that Shors had a lot more in his initial drafts, but eventually cut it out when someone advised him that it wasn't interesting. That may be a downfall for me too, but I'm holding out hope that I can pull it off. Umberto Eco has done it, as has Orhan Pamuk. It is possible.

Overall this turned out to be slightly more of a so-called "beach read" than I would have liked, but it was still enjoyable and informative. I want so much to believe the story of Jahanara's independence, her eventual love story, and the simplicity of the Mughal dynasty's downfall, but I think it was largely invented. I think the story was more complicated than Shors makes it out to be, and by a factor of ten, but that's just not what his audience wanted. I'm definitely willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he had ten times the material to put in there, but that he boiled it down to a more palatable form. Good for him. I still had fun with it. I guess it'll be up to me to try to put some more meat on these bones... I just hope people will be half as willing to read it.

Book #15 will be The Road, by Cormac McCarthy