Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain

Honestly, I didn't like this book, but I am going to try to be fair.

I mean, McLain scored a big hit with The Paris Wife that I didn't much care for either because it failed to do what I thought was a necessary thing. In a book about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, it failed to convince me of Hemingway's genius, and it didn't entice me into reading an either.

In conjunction with this book though, perhaps I need to rethink McLaine's objectives. In some ways, she is trying to reclaim women who have been shortchanged by history. I can certainly get behind that. I mean, Hadley Hemingway's story has mostly been cast as her husband's story, or the story of the first wife where the later wives were much more glamorous. Or she was merely a minor attendant to the glamorous figures who also populated Hemingway's life in Paris. Poor Hadley, home with the baby while Ernest and the Fitzgeralds and the other glamorous expat were drinking it up in the bars of Montparnasse.

Beryl Markham might also be a similar project. While she was an early British settler of Kenya--moved there by her parents when she was 4 years old in the very early days of the 20th century, she was a remarkably modern woman--she married three times, trained horses, learned to fly, had affairs,  was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west (harder due to prevailing winds). Her story is somewhat of an adjunct to the story of Isak Dinesen and her lover Denys Finch-Hatton, told so cinematographically in the Oscar winning Out of Africa.

Markham also has a famous memoir called West with the Night, which even Ernest Hemingway praised for it's writing (and Ernest hated praising anyone who wasn't himself). So her story was told the way she wanted to tell it, but there are presumably gaps? And to give her credit, it seems that McLain did a fair amount of research into the minutae of Markham's past and life of the British in Kenya in the 1920s.

And yet.

Maybe this book needs to be read as a companion piece to Markham's own work (which I have not read). Maybe the tedious focus on her early teen years, the dreary digging into the names and habits of many of the horses she trained, while at the same time the near failure to cover her famous fltrans-Atlantic flight or anything after that--was because all that was well covered by Markham herself.

It's just--so boring. She was a wild and obstreperous child, allowed to run wild with the local population of Gikuyu after her mother returned to England when she was about 5. Her father was a horse man, training, breeding and racing thoroughbreds in African races. At some point, when she was about 12, he brought another woman to live as his wife, and Beryl was sent to school (which she hated) and some effort was made to civilize her. She married a few days before her 17th birthday to a local landowner when her father's business went bankrupt. She remained in Kenya; her father and semi-step-mother moved to Cape Town.

Not surprisingly, the marriage didn't work out very well, but it took some seven years or so for it to fail to the point of divorce. Meanwhile, Beryl had a few affairs, got certified as a horse trainer, met Isak Dinesen and Denys Finch-Hatton, fell in love with Finch-Hatton, had an abortion, felt torn between her desire for Finch-Hatton and her loyalty to Dinesen, remarried, had a child, lost the child to wealthy in-laws, returned to Kenya and learned to fly. Denys Finch-Hatton died in a plane crash. The epilogue is the last 50 miles of her trans-Atlantic flight, where she doesn't die in the crash landing.

There might be some beautiful writing about Africa of the 1920, but she is not a very interesting character to describe it to us. She loved the farm of her childhood, and so she actively resisted learning anything new that wasn't about being on the farm. She fell in love with Finch-Hatton who's most salient characteristic seems to be that he is beautiful. Her life had incident, but ti  is hard to shape it into any kind of narrative arc. Things happened, and then I kissed Denys/my husband divorced me/my reputation got damaged and it was the end of everything except then it wasn't.

McClain seems to want to rescue Markham's reputation from the scandalmongering of nearly a century ago. There was some whispering that she had an affair with Henry, the Duke of Gloucester (fourth in line to the throne, younger brother of both David who abdicated for Wallis Simpson, and George the father of the current Queen Elizabeth). So McLain shows us scenes where they are perfectly platonic and lets Beryl rail against gossip. She is known to have had an affair with Denys Finch-Hatton, even while Denys was involved with Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen Blixen) so McLain shows us Beryl wracked with guilt but also a better match than Dinesen was.

Beryl was linked a little bit with the "Happy Valley set"--the African version of Waugh's Bright Young Things, people with too much money and too little to do, who drank and drugged and swapped partners. Beryl is dragged along by a man, but refuses to take any of his cocaine and while she sleeps with him, won't change partners when everybody else does.

Do we know these things to be true? I don't know. Do I like her better for not having done the things she was "accused" of? Not necessarily. She comes off as priggish and reflexively anti-drug, reflexively unwilling to accept a different sex partner, not out of any particular aspect of her character. She's drawn as weirdly hedonistic and then moralistic, with no real explanation of why the lines are drawn where they were. Why is champagne acceptable, but cocaine is not? Why is it okay for her to sleep with some men but not others?

Perhaps it was the reader--I listened to the book and the distanced, mostly monotone reading leeched any nuance out of the character. Written in first person, a gifted reader would have shaded Beryl's character, made me root for her. Instead, I just got tired of her.

At several points, she discusses poetry with Finch-Hatton, or waxes lyrical about the effect of his death on her, and I just got irritated. Glittering vaguenesses, basically.

I mean, I think I respect McClain for the research she did, and it's not easy to write an book, but I wish there had been more of a point of view, more of a point at all. It was barely worth the time, and mostly I listened while doing other things anyway.

In short, I can not recommend it on it's own terms. Maybe if one has already read West with the Night, this would be a worthwhile addition. It did make me somewhat curious about reading that book, to be fair.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

 This book was all the rage a few years ago, and I did not read it then because I have a hard time reading non-fiction. One of my bookclubs picked it for the end of this month, so I bought it back in April. I finally finished it. I do have trouble with non-fiction.

This is not, however, the book I expected. I thought it was going to be much more rigorously scientific. Instead, it highlights the messiness that constitutes concepts like "progress," "science," and "understanding."

In brief, a young black woman was admitted to Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore in 1951 with aggressive cervical cancer. So aggressive that she was sent home multiple times as "well" until she showed up and never left the hospital again. The autopsy showed that in a matter of weeks, the cancer had invaded her entire body.

At some point, a doctor took a sliver of the cervix--the book is not terribly clear about whether the sample was healthy or malignant (until the end, when Skloot clearly articulates that the sample was cancerous)--and used it as another attempt at his frustratingly unsuccessful quest to grow human cells in culture. These cells turned out to be vigorous and rapid growers, and a medical industry of tissue culture was launched.

Skloot has several points she is making here, and to her credit, she makes them clearly without beating the reader over the head with them. Instead, she leads us gently into the morass of medical ethics and challenges our assumptions about what "science" is.

Henrietta Lacks had the misfortune of having a terrible, aggressive, painful cancer that killed her at a time when the treatment for cancer were scarcely better than the disease. As a black woman in 1951 Baltimore, she was lucky to get any treatment at all--de facto segregation and poverty were enormous barriers to adequate care, even if the state of cancer treatment were any better than it was. Patients were not encouraged to question doctors generally, especially when black, poor, and female.

So Skloot sets out to do a number of things with this book. One is to recover who Henrietta Lacks was as a person--to reclaim the human being in her full humanity. This turns out to be very difficult, because the family has closed ranks and doesn't trust anyone, and even as Skloot gains their trust, not many people knew her. She had been dead for nearly 50 years when Skloot began asking about her, and many of the people were just too young to know anything about her.

She perseveres, and manages to sketch a woman whose life was severely circumscribed by poverty. Yet she was loved, she married, had five children, before dying at 31. Her death is particularly graphic and tragic.

Meanwhile, the "science" of cancer treatment and tissue research was far from rigorous. So the poverty of Henrietta Lack's life is weirdly mirrored by the doctor who first grew her cells. George Gey had theories, and ideas, and almost no funding and no support. He built his own lab equipment, often from salvaged junk, and basically invented cell growth medium from scratch. There is no reason to suspect that Henrietta Lacks's cells would do anything but die like all the rest of them.

These were the wild and wooly days of tissue research, when scientists traveled to labs carrying samples in their coat pockets and briefcases. These cells (labeled "HeLa") ended up being subjected to any number of strange manipulations as people attempted to figure out how to even test cells. Cells were sent into space, were subjected to nuclear testing, were treated with any number of possible toxins and vaccines, even as there was no system for keeping samples uncontaminated.

This lackadaisical approach to sterility is ridiculous to read about now, but is clearly part of the learning process of how to understand tissue research. It is how scientists learned--they made a lot of mistakes, but made an amazing number of discoveries using these new cells.

Meanwhile, Skloot interleaves these chapters with chapters about Henrietta Lacks's children and extended family. One daughter in particular, Deborah, keenly feels the loss of her mother and becomes emotionally volatile as she learns hthe fate of her mother. The Lackses remained poor and ill-educated after Henrietta's death, and it would be easy to mock their failure to understand what happened (and continues to happen) with Henrietta's cells.

Deborah in particular seems to feel that her mother exists inside those cells, and she asks people if they could use those cells to raise her mother from the dead, or to clones an exact replica. This might sound "crazy" but isn't that the same kind of question that scientists are asking in different contexts? What does it mean that these cells keep reproducing, a half century after Henrietta's death? Who owns that information? Does science owe Henrietta anything? Is there a financial obligation owed to her children--who are themselves so poor they can't usually afford health care?

In the end, the cells themselves seem to be immortal, is Henrietta also? Is it only fair that the woman herself be recognized? What does it mean to be immortal?

Perhaps the most meaty portion of the book is the Afterward, where Skloot lays out a number of ethical questions about tissue research. Matters of informed consent, monetization, genetic patents raise important questions that have not been definitively answered. Why shouldn't Henrietta's children get some payment for the use of her cells? An early court challenge to the use of human cells was decided against the donor, based on the concern that allowing donors to demand financial compensation might slow scientific research. The reality is that this decision simply moved the financial issues to the actual researchers. Genetic patents mean that science is held hostage by other scientists and biomedical companies--isn't this classist?

Fundamentally, it feels wrong that there should be so much money sloshing around the HeLa cells, and yet Henrietta Lacks's children and grandchildren should continue to be too poor to afford health care.

In the end, the book stands as an argument that not just the cells are "immortal" but the woman should be remembered as well, and should be immortal in her own right. TL:dr--the issues that underlie the book are clearly and cogently laid out in the Afterword, which might be the only really necessary reading. The issue is complicated, but is clearly articulated in it's complexity.

Skloot contrasts the questions scientists raise with the questions raised by Henrietta Lacks's family. They really are only different in detail--what does it MEAN to conduct experiments on human cells?


Monday, March 21, 2016

The Botticelli Secret, by Marina Fiorato

As travelogue and art detective mystery in the vein of Dan Brown, this book is both light-weight (in the sense of being a beach read--not too taxing) and a heavy-weight (in that it clocks in at over 500 pages.) It's well-written enough that it passes pleasantly, although it suffers from a Pot-Boiler Syndrome.

Pot-Boiler Syndrome is a term I just made up to describe a book that adheres to the conventions of a pot-boiler plot, with gruesome murders and near miss disasters to keep the stakes high for the protagonists, that has a central puzzle that leads the characters to Important Discoveries and fuels the plot development--but at the end, simply makes no sense.

Let's start with a plot synopsis, shall we?

The story is set in Florence, Italy, beginning in 1482. The narrator is a 16 year old prostitute named Luciana Ventra, who is beautiful enough to be asked to model for the figure of Flora in Sandro Botticelli's famous painting Primavera.
Flora is just right of center, in a dress covered with flowers.
Source.

For reasons, she is cheated of her fee, and ends up stealing a cartone, a miniature version of the larger work, small enough to roll up and hide in her bodice. She leaves the studio, and by the time she makes her way home, the bodies have started piling up.

First, she actually hears as the older prostitute with whom she shares a hovel is murdered. She flees to her wealthy patron (the one who recommended her for the painting) and he's murdered too. Improbably, she has met a handsome young novitiate from the monastery of Santa Croce that she believes might help her, so as she asks him for help, another monk is also murdered. So that's three deaths in only a few hours.

Luciana and her monk, Brother Guido, determine the deaths are related to the cartone, and their only chance at safety is to solve whatever secret is hidden in the painting.

What follows is a whirlwind tour of the major cities of Italy. First they flee to Pisa, where Brother Guido is the nephew of the current ruler. (The ruler is also murdered that night.) They discover the existence of a massive navy, built secretly, and they are captured and forced to go with the fleet to Naples. In Naples, they meet King Ferrante, who drags them to Rome, where they meet Pope Sixtus IV, holding court in the newly completed Sistine Chapel, and then back to Florence, where they attend the wedding of Lorenzo Pierfranco de' Medici, the nephew of the the Lorenzo "Il Magnifico" de' Medici, and the recipient of the Primavera painting.

Periodically, the two protagonists unroll the miniature, and try to solve the clues. The figures mostly stand for various Italian cities, the number of flowers in Flora's skirt has numeric significance of some sort, the names of the flowers falling from Chloris's mouth spell out a word. . .time and again, the details of the painting give some clue to a vast conspiracy of great importance. If only they can solve it in time!And if only Brother Guido weren't going to be a monk, then they could fall in love!

The eventual conspiracy turns out to be a plot to unify the peninsula into a single political entity: Italia. Who all is involved? Oh, just Rome, Florence, Naples, Milan, Pisa, Venice, and a place I had never heard of before (and can't look up because the book is back at the library).

Which raises several questions. First of all--if the leaders of all those city-states have agreed to unify, isn't that a done deal? I mean, if they all agree to terms, and a name, and a single currency, and a single leader (Lorenzo is not "Il Magnifico" for nothing, you know?), what is left to do? Why do they have a giant navy (seriously--thousands of ships?) and why is Leonardo da Vinci building his war machines underground in Milan? Who are they planning on attacking?

Late in the book, it seems that question has finally occurred to the author, and it turns out that it's--Genoa? Because The Seven (very inventive conspiracy name, isn't it?) somehow knew that one city wouldn't join in, so they were building up their armaments in order to attack Genoa.

How did they know this? According to the plot, the Doge of Genoa had no idea this was going on under his nose, and he had to be convinced in the short few hours before the navy attacked from the sea while the army came over the mountains. Which Luciana and Brother Guido managed to do (don't ask) just in time! And the conspiracy was defeated! Italy did not unify! Huzzah!

So, the next obvious question to ask is--was that a good thing? Fiorato devotes about two sentences to the glorification of "the independence of the city-states" and that's it. The conspiracy goes down in flames (literally)(Brother Guido puts a torch to the Navy and it all burns immediately) and the conspirators are forced to sign a treaty that is the kept secret so no one will ever know. (Why?) But what if Italy had unified in 1483, instead of 1870? What would have been lost? What might have been gained? That's 400 years of history where Italy might have been a major player--and it's not clear why it was so important to Luciana and Guido that this conspiracy be foiled. Rather it seems that "well, there's a puzzle here, and a bunch of murders, so it must be bad. Therefore we should stop it."

Raising yet another question--who was doing all this murdering? And why was he so bad at hitting his actual targets? The immediate answer is that there is a really tall, creepy looking leper, who follows Luciana around Italy, and even ends up nearly killing her in the finale in Genoa. He is apparently in the employ of Il Magnifico, but why does Il Magnifico need her to be murdered? And why isn't this leper assassin ever able to actually get to her. It's not like she's trained at avoiding attempts on her life. And part of his creepiness is that he's silent--the disease has literally destroyed his ability to speak. So who was talking to Luciana's roommate and then killed her?

I mean, sure, she had this miniature reproduction of the paining, but the painting itself was put on display at the big wedding? So it's not like they were really trying to hide the content.

Which raises yet another question. Why the hell would Lorenzo--or anybody--sit down with a painter and give him all the details of what is supposed to be a massive secret? And have him PUT ALL THE INFORMATION about it into it? Do you think that the King of Naples is just going to forget why all those ships are sailing into port? Is the Pope going to get distracted and forget the date of the attack? Why does Lorenzo need to have the flowers spell out the word "faro"--to remind him to go climb the lighthouse in Genoa in order to watch the naval battle?

It's not like Botticelli has any role in the conspiracy, other than painting the picture, and so why risk an information leak? I mean, not even that somebody might steal the miniature, but that Botticelli himself might let the information drop. And if you can figure out a plausible reason why all the information had to be encoded into a painting, why put it into a painting being given to Lorenzo Pierfrancisco? Shouldn't it go to the actual conspirators? Or somebody who has anything at all to do with the plan?

Which is ALSO the basis for yet ANOTHER question--how did they keep all this a secret? There had to be hundreds and hundreds of ship builders, and sailors, and suppliers for the navy alone. There was an army as well (from Milan, I think) which means again--armor and weapons and Leonardo's war machines required materials and builders and training. Literally thousands of people had to know at least some of what was going on. How is it that nobody ever let any of it slip? Only Luciana and Guido ever caught wind of it?

And if you are Seven clever conspirators, why do you all wear identifying rings on your thumbs? It's not like Lorenzo and Ferrante and Ludovico Sforza and the Pope wouldn't have recognized each other and needed the equivalent of a secret handshake to identify themselves to each other. In fact, the rings ONLY served (as far as we saw) to tip of Luciana and Guido who was and was not in on the plot.

When you try to reconstruct the plot itself (rather than how the protagonists learn of it), it just doesn't make any sense that the ringleaders would act that way.

Which is the big problem with the book, but there are little details that popped up that were just bad research on the author's part. In Florence, there are several moments where Luciana looks at the city and notices some of the main features. She comments on the filed marble patterns on the Duomo--the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore--marble that wasn't installed until after 1870, when Florence was briefly the capital of the newly unified Italy.

Il Magnifico hosts King Ferrante and his wife in the "Medici palace" which she describes as having a "toothed tower." Well, no, in 1482, the Medici were living in the Palazzo Medici, near the church of San Lorenzo. The building with the tower was the Palazzo dei Signoria--it wasn't inhabited by a de' Medici until Pope Clement (himself a de' Medici, son Giuliano who was murdered by the Pazzis) established Florence as a hereditary dukedom some 30-40 years later.

There is a awkward tendency to drop as many names and cameo appearances as possible. So while the characters are awaiting their audience with Pope Sixtus IV, in the Sistine Chapel, a helpful exposition character explains that Botticelli painted the wall frescos (along with some other Florentine artists and their workshops as well) and that "soon," Florence's own Michelangelo Buonarroti will come to paint the ceiling.

Except in 1482, Michelangelo was about 7 years old. . .so not only was it not going to be "soon," no one would have any idea of who he was or that he was going to be an artist.

Do you wonder what happened to the doomed passion of a Florentine whore for a Franciscan monk? Can a man and a woman save Italy from a massive conspiracy (that goes all the way to the top!) without falling in love?

Well, of course not! In fact, it turns out that Luciana is actually the daughter of the doge of Venice! She was sent away to escape some other plot (never really explained) and put in a convent in Florence to be kept safe. She ran way from the convent by accident, but since she was 12 by then, and still couldn't read, its not clear it was a very good place to be anyway. As the daughter of the doge (except "doge" is not a hereditary title, we are told, and is only held for a few years before being rotated, so basically she wasn't the doge's daughter when she was born?) she had been betrothed to the heir of the ruler of Pisa, who happened to be Brother Guido's cousin. A venal, gluttonous, homosexual cousin, whose weak chin was possibly the worst flaw of all.

BUT! He conveniently was at the mountain battle during the attack on Genoa (which was NOT set up at all as something he would do), took an arrow to the leg and conveniently died of gangrene. Off stage. So that on her wedding day, Luciana walks into the church and sees her Guido as the groom! (And nobody bother to tell her.) As for him, Guido had not yet taken his final vows, and when he found out the Pope was part of the conspiracy, he lost his faith in the church so now he gets to marry her! And they get to be rich and powerful and nobody ever tries to assassinate them and they all live happily ever after the end.

I mean, that happy ending kind of came out of nowhere and happened really really fast, but whatever. That's the kind of novel it was.

The most interesting parts are the art detecting--what CAN you see in that picture? And there were some interesting places they ended up during their adventure--Roman catacombs, the Pantheon, the major public buildings of Naples and Venice. . .b ut the thing that got them moving from place to place was ridiculous.

So maybe a B+ read if you aren't asking for internal consistency, believable characters, etc. If you know much about Italy, this will read like a seek=and =find came of locating all the errors of history.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett

I love the breadth and depth of the Discworld novels, and this is the 40th book in the series. Terry Pratchett is a treasure, and his books have brought me great joy. He is also dealing with Alzheimers, joint book projects, and what appears to be some high level administration of his creative empire. If we didn't know about the illness, this book would probably get a great deal of negative review along the lines of "rushed to publication."

All of these things matter, because this book felt like a not-quite-finished draft of the book it should have been.

The expected Pratchett plot structure is certainly present. The multiple plot threads, that work at cross purposes, are there. The work of structuring the book has been done--it's the layers that live on top of the plot outline that feel not quite finished.

Someone (no one we have ever met before, Dick Simnel) has invented the steam engine (just as in past books, someone has invented movable type and the printing press, or stamps, or moving pictures) and the Discworld is not going to be the same any more. Meanwhile, the Koom Valley Accord is not accepted by everybody, and this time it's the conservative faction of the dwarves who are trying to turn the clock backwards by destroying clacks towers and stopping the railway, while ousting the Low King as well. We have schisms in the dwarf community, we have religious differences, we have conspiracy and plotting, we have political maneuvering and a chance to see all the different types of dwarves.

Simultaneously, we have the opportunity to get a history lesson told by Uncle Terry, who highlights the humorous elements of what is basically the story of How Britain Got The Railroads. And the thing about bringing railroads to Discworld, is there are many many towns we haven't seen yet. What happens when Two Shirts is suddenly only a day from Ankh-Morpork? It's kind of like a revisiting of the early novels when Rincewind (who was never a great character) used to run from place to place and we'd get a travelogue of a place that was kind of like Australia or China, but wasn't quite.

So the bones of the story are absolutely there. Three very big plot strands--railroads, political intrigue among the dwarfs, and either new locations on the Disc, or new interactions among the places we already know. Next important element is--who is our protagonist? Who is going to lead us through these various threads?

Personally, I like Moist von Lipwig. His two novels (Going Postal and Making Money) were certainly full of lots of interesting details on the nature of money and finance. Stamps are actually paper currency--well, of course they are, I just hadn't really thought about those similarities. Financial crimes are based on "the idea of money" which seems to be what Wall Street is about these days. What do you do when it costs more to make a penny than the penny is worth? So Raising Steam as a Moist von Lipwig novel means it's going to be about the way a steam engine affects the financial world, right? Questions of financing such an undertaking, fortunes made by cleverly anticipating how the railroad might be used to move people and commodities, buying up land for the right of way, negotiations of contracts and the effects of the rail gaining here rather than there.

Of course, it could be a story like The Truth, which followed William de Worde and the creation of journalism in Ankh-Morpork, in which case, it would be about Dick Simnel and how he comes to understand the vast scope of his little invention. Instead, we get a story about a bunch of things that happened that just didn't matter and in the end there is a battle that doesn't happen. Moist doesn't behave much like Moist, Dick Simnel fails to come alive as a character, and mostly the story goes too fast. It doesn't slow down for the kind of wonderfully observed details that are the reason you read Pratchett books.

The story focuses mostly on the creation of the railroad. Dick Simnel shows up in Ankh-Morpork pretty quickly with a working steam locomotive. He immediately gets financed by Harry King. Vetenari strong-arms Moist into being the official city representative, and then orders the rail to be built to Uberwald as fast as possible. This shouldn't probably take much much longer than it does, as negotiating agreements with landowners really needs to happen before they know you are desperate to get to a particular destination. Also, the creation of steel hasn't really been clearly achieved in Discworld, much less enough to build the kind of infrastructure necessary for a continent spanning railway. But Vetinari has put Moist onto the job in order to get it accomplished, and it gets accomplished. With very little memorable about the project.

Unlike in the previous Moist-centric books, he is not actually trying to achieve anything other than the success of the railroad. He has no cross purpose or ulterior motive, so we don't see him wrestling with his own divided nature--his crass desires for personal advancement and freedom against his better nature and recognition of the value of his undertaking. Instead, Moist has to make the railway work in order for the climax of the novel to happen in Uberwald, so it gets built with very little in the way of effective obstruction, or colorful characters. There is the marvelously named Marquis of Aix en Paines, but he's not memorable except for the name.

There is no real joy in the project for Moist either. Nothing like the colossal scam he pulled in Going Postal to fund the rebuilding of the torched Post Office building. Nothing like the deft handling of difficult people to his own advantage like the characters of Tolliver Groat and Stanley. He is basically an efficient executive for the building of the railroad. So, he isn't recognizably Moist.

There is a moment--just a brief few lines, where the old Moist shows up. He's on the train, expecting sabotage from the Deep Down Dwarves and grags, so he goes up to top of the cars and gets used to the motion. He dances. Compare it to the generous description Pratchett gave of Moist scaling the outside of the Post Office (was that in Making Money?) You can see what Pratchett used to put into his writing, and what is tragically missing from this effort.

There are many other elements that seem only partially completed. There is a scene where Moist goes to the maquis outside Quirm, where hundreds, possibly thousands, of impoverished goblins are barely surviving. One gives him a potion, and he becomes basically a berserker, killing several of the rebelling dwarves in a scene that is only vaguely sketched. And then he basically gets over it. But this is Moist von Lipwig who used to take such pride in only scamming people who tried to scam him first. Moist von Lipwig who never used violence, and was offended by the implication that his scoundreling could have had fatal consequences. This is a man who lived by his wits, never violence. So why make him be violent now? Shouldn't that have had consequences? But the dead dwarfs are universally treated as bad guys who deserved what they got so there are no effects of the battle. Later, as the book approaches it's climax, there are fights with dwarfs who are either killed outright, or dropped off cliffs, or apparently run over by the train. Many of these dwarfs are described as young ones who were too naive or unthinking to realize the evil of their actions (so why did they have to be killed by Moist?) or were deep downers who were just bad (but then why were they above ground at all?)

In the end, the Low King gets to Uberwald in time (of course he does! There was never really any doubt) but there is no real confrontation with the conspirators and usurpers. There is a pale imitation of the scene from Fifth Elephant, when the leading conspirator is revealed to be sad and broken. In this case Ardent is grasping for power, but his methods are pretty much inconsistent and nonsensical. Why is he suddenly a grag, when in Thud! he was an administrator for them? He is agitating for the return to the old ways of the world, where dwarfs weren't expected to be friends with trolls, and goblins had no rights, so in theory, dwarfs had more power and prestige in the world? But now tearing down clacks towers was going to undo those changes is completely unexplained. Then, by the end of the book, he is described as being so ideological that he has progress to a place "beyond sanity" but the book doesn't really show it.

Finally, Raising Steam ends with the Low King of the Dwarfs reclaiming his throne from Ardent with basically no battle, and then awkwardly declaring her gender as female and insisting on being their Queen rather than their King. This had been clearly communicated in Fifth Element, but with the practical political recognition that it was not yet time to lead/force dwarfs into recognizing gender yet. There is literally nothing about dwarf gender in Raising Steam that would lead you to think things had changed. Why would the proper response to Ardent's coup, based as it was on the diminishing role of dwarfs (compared to trolls and goblins) and the Luddite distrust of clacks and railways, why would that the the impetus for gender identity?

So many places where I expected to get some character byplay, some conversation between characters (new ones even) that would make them feel vital--and those either didn't happen, or happened only in truncated form.

Of course, I didn't initially care for Monstrous Regiment at first, and came to love it after re-reading it later. There may well be more in Raising Steam than we would get from anyone else writing this story. But it feels like a diminution of the titanic talent that is Pratchett at his best, and that is our loss.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Introducing Agatha Raisin, by M.C. Beaton



I picked this up because the name M.C. Beaton sounded familiar. This compendium of two mysteries was on the shelf in the breakfast room of the small hotel where I was staying in Paris. In short, cannot recommend.

Agatha Raisin is a pugnacious Londoner in her mid 50s with a Birmingham background of which she is ashamed. After a successful career in PR, she has sold her firm and bought a cottage in the Cotswolds for the life she has always imagined. Of course country life is a poor fit for a pushy city woman, and alleged hijinks occur as she uses her PR techniques to force her way into acceptance.

The set up is strong, the execution is very poor. Agatha is appallingly inconsistent in her characterization, pushy one moment, then weirdly shy and adolescent the next as the plot requires. Her two sidekicks in "The Quiche of Death" are offensive stereotypes: a (literally) screaming queen of a gay character who by the end of the book is looking for a suitably docile and stupid woman to marry, and an inscrutable but wise half-Chinese police officer who teaches Agatha about herself despite being a good thirty years younger than she is. Fortunately, these two characters are mostly abandoned by the second book, to be replaced by a handsome and single male neighbor who (predictably) runs from any threat of commitment and who Agatha pursues in un-funny ways. Thus Beaton hits a two-fer of mid-life cliches with one "comic" pairing.

The mysteries are not well constructed. In fact, in both cases, the actual murderer is the most obvious suspect and the only real mystery is why the police haven't solved the cases well before Agatha even realizes the deaths are suspicious.

The first mystery "The Quiche of Death" centers around a village competition that Agatha enters in order to get the village to accept her. Of course, she can't cook, so she buys a quiche from a specialty store in London and enters it as her own. She doesn't win, and is so angered by the obvious favoritism (the competition judge awards the prize to the women with whom he has been having an affair for years--she always wins) that she storms out and leaves the quiche behind.

That night, the judge's wife leaves Agatha's quiche as supper for her husband, who dies immediately after eating it. Who could the murderer be? Will the police arrest Agatha? Well, obviously not. Agatha is not going to keep claiming she made the damn thing, and it's obvious that she is no baker. So who is the next logical suspect.

Well, who is ALWAYS THE FIRST SUSPECT IN A MURDER--THE SPOUSE MAYBE? And, it is. Of course it is. And she killed him by baking a quiche with cows bane in it and substituting it for Agatha's spinach one. And she did it because she was sick of his philandering. And the only reason--literally, the ONLY reason that this "mystery" lasted almost 200 pages is because the police couldn't find any evidence that she had baked the poisoned quiche in her kitchen. It takes Agatha 200 pages to realize that THERE IS A FULLY EQUIPPED KITCHEN IN THE BUILDING WHERE THE COMPETITION TOOK PLACE AND LITERALLY EVERYONE IN THE VILLAGE BAKES THERE. So the wife didn't bake it at home, she baked it in the community kitchen, which even the most bumbling police officer should have noticed in one of the 300 times they had been in that same damn kitchen themselves. Stupid plot for a mystery.

Next book, "The Vicious Vet," a new vet arrives in the village and starts playing all the middle-aged single women who fall over themselves in humiliating fashion and give him money for his dream of an animal hospital. He promises to marry them all, of course. Turns out, though, that he's got a mean streak and hates house pets. He euthanizes one woman's cat without her consent, and otherwise alienates almost all the women within two weeks, then turns up dead while performing a vocal cord operation on a racing horse at the local aristocrat's stables. He's stabbed with the syringe of horse tranquilizer.

Who could the murderer be? No chance of it being Agatha this time, thank god. Well, let's see, if I were going to do some basic police work, I'd look at who benefitted from the death. Turns out the vet has a partner in the clinic, who is also the beneficiary of the dead man's will. So if you follow the money, it leads to the partner. If you follow the means--who knew what was in the syringe and that it could be fatal, it leads to the partner. Guess who it turns out did the crime? The partner.  Nothing clever about it at all.

So why do we even need Agatha to solve these murders anyway? We don't, unless following Agatha around is either more entertaining than the police (it isn't, because she's a horrible person with no redeeming features other than being the main character), or because it gives us a way to explore the world of the village. Except it doesn't do that, since everyone is basically a cliche or a character that disappears after being interviewed the one time. Agatha is bored by village life, she is self-centered, she is routinely stupid and bumbling--too stupid to have been any kind of a PR success, and she manages to irritate me enormously.

The most egregious example of this is in "The Vicious Vet" when she manages to get her handsome neighbor James to join her for dinner in a pub after they do some amateur sleuthing. On the drive to the pub, she feels a pimple growing on her nose, so she goes through some allegedly hilarious maneuvers to keep him from seeing it. She stops at a drug store to buy cream, concealer, and lipstick, then runs to the ladies' room to deal with it. But (ha ha ha) the light is too dim, but she just happens (?) to have a 100 watt lighbulb in her car, so she sidles in and out with her face averted so James won't see her pimple, ha ha. He thinks she's odd, ha ha, but waits for her. She can't reach the light fixture so she stands on the sink, which rips out of the wall and floods the room. So she walks out, closes the door (like that's going to do anything) and takes James to a different pub, where she heads straight for the ladies' room again.

Are you laughing yet? It gets worse. By the time she comes out of the second restroom, the police are already waiting for her, because the first pub owner has already discovered the damage and realized she did it. (Village mysteries are just not that hard to solve, is what we are learning here.) So she caves and offers a check for an obscene amount of money to cover the damage, which the pub owner is refusing to accept, preferring to make a scene and humiliate her. He also insists on filing a criminal charge. So James steps in and does some basic damage control along the lines of "you don't have that kind of money, Agatha" and "why was that sink such a hazard anyway--I think you could sue for negligence and emotional distress Agatha" which causes the pub owner to accept a much smaller check for the whole thing to go away.

And way--who is supposed to be the PR professional in this scene? Why are we humiliating Agatha and simultaneously stripping her of any professional competence as well? Why does she have to be rescued by a man anyway? This was published in 1992! It would have been just as offensive in 1892, frankly--Irene Adler is appalled at such an incompetent woman is being foisted on the public at this late date.

Too bad, really. I won't be reading any more of these. And there are twenty-five of them!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Tapestry of Fortunes, by Elizabeth Berg

I am on vacation in Florida, escaping the grinding slog that has been this winter. I am also the general factotum for my parents, who have crossed into their eighties. I am the primary driver due to cataracts and residual weakness following chemotherapy.

I am spending far too much time looking at screens, and so I went out to Target to buy a book. This is the one I came back with.

I have read several of Berg's books, and I have liked them. I picked up The Beautiful Ruins and paged through it, remembering that it had been pretty well reviewed, but it just felt so--male. It was about men, men's problems, men's interest in women, men being manly while wanting beautiful women, and it just made me tired after sampling only a few pages. I wanted to read about women.

Thus, the Berg.

The copy on the back of the book was promising. The protagonist is a motivational speaker who can't take her own advice. She moves into an old house in my actual home town, with three other women, and they embark on their own growth journeys. All of them have lived quite a while, enough that they are reassessing their choices and trying to find peace with their pasts.

Sadly, I cannot recommend this book at all. It feels so entirely half-baked, as if Berg turned it in before really working through the final draft. The bones are the plot are in place, the set pieces are arranged, the characters and locations mapped out. But all the machinery shows, and the whole thing churns along without actually taking the time to convey the emotions it seeks to evoke.

Our Protagonist, Cece (short for Cecilia) has lost her best friend as the book opens.(*) Penny is dead before we even meet her, and the short flashbacks to their friendship feel perfunctory in the extreme. Oddly, Penny is married, and Cece is not, but the three-leggedness of the relationship is kind of glossed over. Supposedly this is her one and only friend (and the husband is kind of a BOGO), but the interactions between them are kind of generic.

(*Actually, there is a sort of prologue, where the pre-teen Cece gets her fortune told by a friend of her mother's. The fortune is kind of ambiguous, not at all compelling, and the friend disappears for the rest of the book. There is also a short chapter which is supposed to establish Cece's bona fides as a motivational speaker, but it's not actually very motivating. It's like the outline for the novel called for "Chapter One, Cece On The Job"but Berg's heart wasn't really in it at all. Perfunctory.)

"We lived next door to each other. We ate dinner and watched movies. Sometimes I didn't want to go home, but then I did. I kept their gifts to each other at my house. We had a fight once, where Penny accused me of buying too much stuff and not paying attention to my own motivational speeches. Then she died."

Generic, like I said. Oh, Penny thought her husband should remarry, and suggested Cece. They both declined. This is it--the great relationship. I'm not touched by it, because it's not dramatized, it's listed. People who are truly soulmate friends would have all of these elements on the checklist, but the checklist doesn't actually convey the nature of the relationship. There were no inside jokes, no moments of emotional connection. Supposedly the two of them wanted to travel together (conveniently, the husband didn't want to travel at all), but they never did. No guilt, no emotional repercussions at all for Cece--not even when, later in the book, she does exactly that with the roommates she has just met.

Subsequently, Cece decides it's time to sell her house, take a break from working, and change up her life. A postcard from an old flame arrives and he becomes the catalyst for change. Of course, everything works out perfectly in zero time. Cece mentions to her mother that she's thinking of selling her house. "Oh, there's a woman I know who's looking for a housemate, I'll just call her and set up an appointment for this afternoon."

Cece goes to the house, and it's perfect, the residents are all ladies of a certain age, she decides immediately that she wants to live there, they decide they want her to move in, the relator sells her house and all the extra furniture for cash at the asking price in one day.

Do you think any of the other conflicts will work themselves out as well?

Let's list them. The owner of the house, Lise, is a doctor. She is divorced, and has a prickly relationship with her adult daughter. Mostly, they don't speak to each other, so the readers don't see the reality of the relationship. Renie is a lesbian with a chip on her shoulder, and a daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 19 and hasn't seen since. Joni is a chef. Cece has this old flame. They decide to take a road trip to meet everybody from their past.

First up is Renie, who is able to Google her daughter (what???) and sends a few emails. Daughter doesn't want to meet her and is pissed at being abandoned, while also apparently having ended up in a pretty decent family. Despite being warned off by the daughter, she decides that she's going to go sit in a cafe for an hour and let the daughter decide to approach her, or not. Daughter writes a nasty note in response, but seconds later repents and they have an unseen reconciliation of sorts. Plans are made to see each other again.

Next is Lise, who is going to visit her ex-husband. He charms her, she realizes they have both mellowed, they make plans to try the relationship again. Joni, who has been fired by her jerk of a boss at the chichi restaurant where she works, decides she's going to open her own restaurant. (Her story has about zero stakes or conflict.)

Finally Cece goes to meet the first man she ever slept with, who also never married and apparently pined for her all these decades. At first, she misses him, as he is called away unexpectedly, but he flies back to see her and they realize they are The Ones for each other.

Also, Cece starts volunteering at a hospice--Penny made her promise before she died--and in the space of about a week, manages to get a dying 30 year old man to reconcile with his fiancee, serves as "best man" in their hospice room wedding, and is named the godmother of the subsequent (artificially inseminated) baby. Because of course--apparently, the bride and groom are orphans and hermits and have no one else in their lives but the hospice volunteer who works a couple hours a day for a week….

The descriptions of the rooms, decor, flowers, food and clothing all smack of glossy magazine spreads. Vintage cocktail pitchers hold hydrangeas on low coffee tables, while decorative pillows abound. Flowers seem to bloom in the gardens all at once, making it hard to pinpoint the time of year.

The whole thing comes in at a tidy 220 pages, slightly fleshed out, but far from fully executed. Kind of a disappointment. I'll be leaving this at a paperback exchange.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness



This book has been popping up into my field of vision for a solid two years, and the first sequel is already out and keeps showing up as well. Goodreads connections have read it, it shows up on lists of "Best Of" books, and frankly, once something has managed to make itself heard over the usual noise of cultural recommendations, I feel like I need to check it out.

The timing on this one is entirely coincidental--it was sitting on top of the "Leave One, Take One" bookshelf at the hair salon I go to, and I figured that there was literally no way it would be easier to read this book.

The backstory is kind of intriguing--the author is herself an academic with a number of non-fiction books on her C.V. What does a professor of European history and history of science write about when writing successful fiction?

Turns out--she writes Mary Sue Meets The Dreamy Vampire.

Honestly, there is obviously intellect at work, and some lovely passages about the lure of old libraries and the pleasures of intellectual pursuits. Obviously, the scenes set in Oxford are drawn from her own experience. And I am not philosophically opposed to supernatural novels--mixing witches, daemons and vampires into academia is not necessarily a deal breaker. I am willing to go with someone who handles this well.  But this main character--Diana Bishop? She positively reeks of Mary Sue-ism to the point where I had what amounts to an allergic reaction and gave it all up.

Our Heroine is a witch. Actually, a Salem witch, the descendant of the Salem Bishop witches, who are supposedly the most powerful ones in America, as well as the daughter of the Proctor line as well. This means that she is Sooper Speshully Powerful, the culmination of the two most powerful magic families in the country. But! She refuses--on principle!--to use magic! Because her parents were killed mysteriously when she was a child, so obviously (?) that tragic backstory explains why she has to do academia like a non-magical person would. Except when she does use magic, but she tries to limit it! And fixing the washing machine shouldn't count, because it might have caused water damage to the apartment below hers! (This is an actual thing she says.)

So, now she is in possession of an honestly earned Ph.D. in history from Harvard, and she's got tenure at Yale. So no privilege or snobbery there at all. Because she didn't get it from using magic! It's all her own intellectual effort! (Because Harvard and Yale are completely meritocratic, and have no Old Boy Networks, or tendency to admit and reward family connections or anything.) So trust us--even though she is Magic, she didn't use it (unless she did?)--she is just one of the top 1% of intellectuals in the US all by herself! Nothing special about her at all!

Now, she's at Oxford doing research for a keynote address on alchemical history. Because that's not magic! She insists it isn't, so it mustn't be! And she calls up a number of books each day, including one called Ashmole 782, that is odd. It's not willing to give up its call slip to the librarian until Diana touches it. She feels the tingle of a spell on the cover. She opens it, and it's all palimsest and magical writing and odd non-standardized alchemical imagery, and since she is so principled (the washing machine doesn't count, I tell you!) she decides she would be too tempted to use magic to understand it, so she sends it back to the stacks.

But somehow, her touching it breaks a magical seal, and now all the magical creatures are aware that Ashmole 782 has been found. It starts asserting a magnetic draw, and all kinds of magical creatures start showing up in the library and trying to get their hands on it, using Diana if possible.

Fortunately, the incredibly handsome and debonair 1500 year old vampire Matthew Clairmont shows up before anybody else does. Even though magical creatures hide their nature from humans, Matthew has managed to become a world renowned expert on genetics and Norwegian wolves, and a couple of other areas, without looking more than 35 and without raising any suspicions. (He is also apparently not worried about having his fame follow him and cause any suspicions in the future either, when his seminal work is still being taught and he still looks 35 decades from now.)

Matthew and Diana are both gorgeous, both Sooper Speshully Powerful, and so of course Diana is absolutely not going to fall in love with him or anything. She even calls home to tell her psychic aunt that. And then she falls asleep in her chair with the window open, and wakes up in the small hours of the morning with the taste of cloves in her mouth.

What? Did you suspect that Matthew the Sooper Speshul vampire came in through the window and watched her sleep? Is this what vampires do now? Thanks, Stephanie Meyer. Thanks a whole lot. But--he had an excuse! He thought maybe she had smuggled Ashmole 782 out of the library, against all the rules and conventions of academic research! So he had to search her apartment! (But mostly he just stood there and watched her sleep, while seeing Powerful Magic seeping out of her skin.)

Powerful magic you say? She is more powerful than she knows? Maybe you have to teach her how to accept her power and control it so it doesn't break loose and wreak havoc. (Substitute the word "sexuality" for "magic" just to make the dynamic between these two characters as creepy as it is.) We are in vintage romance novel territory here--back in the old days of the late 1970s, when the formula required that the heroine be under the age of 22 and a virgin, while the hero had to be wealthy and a good 15 years or more older, as well as sexually experienced but wounded….

Of course, he starts putting the moves on her--I mean, hanging around the library to intercept all the other magical people who want to find that book and think she may have it. Nobody seems to have tried just putting in a call slip, nobody seems to be trying to track what happened to that book after she sent it back. Everybody just seems to assume that she's got it? Like with her at all times, even when running or rowing on the river?

I lost it when the big set piece of the first part of the book is the two of them finding they have something in common, which is--yoga? Seriously? Matthew the 1500 year old vampire puts on yoga pants and puts a mat into his Lamborghini and goes to do downward dog poses?

It's worse than that. The class is for all sorts of magical people--vampires AND witches AND daemons, who we have been told have strict taboos against mingling together. But magical wonderful Matthew has managed to use yoga class (!?!?!) to get these several dozen beings to overcome their natural revulsion in order to--take a yoga class. I am so not buying this at all.

But I stuck it out for about one more chapter, after Diana flounces around at Matthew, then finds out that he built the enormous country home where the class was held--back in 1590, using the architect who had built Hampton Court for Cardinal Wolsey. Then Matthew goes to Scotland to meet with a friend of his and to brood darkly over a chess board--because he is In Love With Diana. Because of COURSE he is--who wouldn't fall in love with someone with exactly zero personality, and who has been nothing but snide and bratty to him?

It's that Sekkrit Power she has (hint: it's really sex) that she doesn't realize she has (really, it's totally sex) and that he knows he can teach her how to harness and use (sex, ya think?)

So at that point, I gave up. You know where this is going, right? They are going to both be in love with each other, but not say anything because reasons. Or they are going to be Forced by Magical Society to be apart, until they overcome the oppressive system from the Sooper Speshulness of their Love (the greatest love story of all time and history, of course.)

I did look up a plot synopsis to see if I was missing anything--and nope. There is a whole lot more Sooper Speshul Magick Powers nonsense, and then. . .time walking? Also a lot of Diana being rescued by her white knight, which--ugh.

Well, at least I know I'm not missing anything. So many other books are already lined up to fill up this particular spot!