So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Sky Pyrates Over Oz

Sky Pyrates Over Oz by Sherwood Smith

Sky Pyrates Over Oz (2013) is the third in a trilogy of novels including The Emerald Wand of Oz (2005) and Trouble Under Oz (2006) that are "founded on and continuing the famous Oz stories by L. Frank Baum." This three book series was originally arranged by Byron Preiss with HarperCollins and the L. Frank Baum Family Trust. While the first two books were published as planned by HarperCollins and illustrated by William Stout, this third book is published by Pumpernickel Pickle and illustrated by Kim McFarland after a hiatus of 7 years. It is good to finally see Smith's trilogy completed and in print.

These three books tell of the adventures in Oz of Dori and Em, two sisters who believe themselves to be great-nieces to Dorothy Gale of the original L. Frank Baum Oz series. In Sky Pyrates Over Oz Dori and Em are magically transported with their father to a sky island by two mischievous princesses. L. Frank Baum first wrote about the floating islands in the sky in his 1912 book Sky Island. Sherwood Smith builds on this by creating a world of sky islands populated, like Oz, with magical and unusual characters like the six Snub-Nosed Princesses, Lanendir the Librarian, tiny butterfly people called Neeper-Geeps, the Nightmare Sorcerer, and, of course, the Sky Pyrates. Into this aerial world land Dori and Em and their dad who is promptly turned into a dog by a magic spell. An adventure in the sky filled with excitement and many new and old Oz friends that completes the the series and adds a new chapter to the history of Oz that will be a great treat for long-time fans of Oz.

Stories from Uzhgorod:

Stories from Uzhgorod: Stories by Sandy McCulloch

When retired biologist Sandy McCulloch of Corvallis Oregon was in his 70s he visited Uzhgorod in western Ukraine and wrote these stories. Corvallis and Uzhgorod are sister cities and share cultural exchanges so Sandy's visit is not completely strange or random.

In his Introduction McCulloch says: "Most of the stories in the book deal in some way with the people of Ukraine or Russia -- my friends. How then shall I write of my friends? It is called fiction. This is a book of fictional stories; but many of them in truth are a mixture of what we call reality and what we call imagination."

Although written in English, Stories from Uzhgorod was edited and published in Uzhgorod by Art Line Publishing House. The book has very limited availability in the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom. Being published in Uzhgorod with a Ukrainian editor lends a sense of authenticity to McCulloch's writing which reflects how a person from the USA might react to the everyday life of Ukraine.

I bought the only copy available on Amazon because I had been to the city myself just two years earlier than the author. It is an amazing city in the heart of Europe, and this literary visit reminded me of the joy I had there. I am sure it has changed much since the writing of this book, but Mr. McCulloch has done a wonderful job of capturing the spirit and the people of this small regional capital at the turn of the century.

The stories are short images of what a retired white man from the USA might glimpse of life in a small Ukrainian city. They deal with the difference in perspective of an everyday American and the Ukrainian community he visits. He writes in the first person, which he explains is his literary style, and the stories are not necessarily all about him.

"An Ordinary Day In Uzhgorod" tells of the events of one day that starts with him buying an engagement ring for his Ukrainian girlfriend. Later she feeds two hungry children they find on the street, and she intercedes with the employer of a friend to get some money paid to his widow. His message is that hunger and hard times cause people to help each other and stay happy.

"Please, Kill Him" - What would you do if you were an American in a foreign country and a child you had befriended asked you to kill someone?

"Hunger" - There are more than one kind of hunger. While many Ukrainians suffered from a lack of food, this story is about an American coming to Ukraine to marry and live with a local woman. Her hunger is not for food, but for his money.

"Americans Can't Understand Us" looks at the differences that an American in western Ukraine must come to terms with in living there.

"Footprints" is the author's musings, illustrated with four examples from his own experiences, on the idea that when some significant event happens in a certain place, the event leaves a residue that can be felt over time by later visitors.

"The Mirrormaker" is written in the style of a traditional folk tale and tells of a female mirrormaker and the young boy who is infatuated with her.

"The Best Talk In The World" is the author's memories of several great discussions he has had with Slavic people in his or their homes over drinks and/or dinner.

"Fire In The Desert" - what would cause a man who had put together a library of 4,000 books to burn them?

"Chekhov's Angels" is a brief story about 22 year old Leila whose mother plans to marry an American from Corvallis.

"Chekhov's Angels - Anna" is a story about the author meeting a Russian prostitute named Anna during a visit to Istanbul.

"The Cat That Walks By Herself" is a short story by Rudyard Kipling. McCulloch tells the story of Ukrainian Natalie who reminds him of the cat from Kipling's story.

"Plato's Magic Box"is the author's retelling of Plato's Cave for the television age.

"The Health House" tells of the author's visit to a health spa in the Carpathian Mountains near Uzhgorod. This spa, which is not usually frequented by tourists, was one I visited in 2000, so I found the story especially interesting.

"Moments Out Of Time" is exactly that, brief images of life in Central Europe that stood out in an American man's mind.

"A Perfect Suicide" tells the story of retired librarian facing her life after the library.

"Only Two Laws" tells a story based on two laws: Vengeance and Gratitude.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Death of a Red Heroine

Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong
Set in Shanghai one year after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Death of a Red Heroine is a police murder mystery that gets overshadowed by the political implications of the case. In a time when Communist Party ideals were being challenged by new marketplace values, the police detectives have to navigate political implications as well as follow the clues in order to solve the case. The city itself is a major character as the case takes us from the palatial homes of the Communist Party elite to the families of workers living in single rooms and sharing communal kitchens. But above all, the book is about honest cops trying to do the right thing in a shifting moral environment.
If you like to visit different times and cultures through well-written books, this may appeal to you. As a Best First Novel it was nominated for an Edgar Award and received an Anthony Award. The author was a Chinese scholar born in Shanghai who was studying in the USA at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests. He stayed in the USA and this was his first mystery novel in English.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Samba for Sherlock

A Samba for Sherlock by Jô Soares
Originally published in Brazil in 1995 as O Xangô De Baker Street and translated into English in 1997, this novel features Sherlock Holmes and his partner Dr. John Watson being summoned to Rio by the real life actress Sarah Bernhardt who, on the first stop of her 1886 world tour, suggests to the Emperor of Brazil that the famous detective may help him find a stolen Stradivarius violin. While they are on board ship to Rio matters take a macabre turn as a prostitute is found in an alley stabbed to death with a violin string curled into her pubic hair and a flap of skin cut from her body. So when they arrive, it is not only a theft, but a murder they are asked to solve.

The author José Eugênio "Jô" Soares is a Brazilian television talk show host known for his observational comedy, surreal humor, and deadpan style, and this is his first novel. He takes liberties with his portrayal of Sherlock making the book both humorous as well as a mystery. I fear that a lot of his Brazilian humor gets lost in translation to an American audience. His willingness to make the detective the butt of much of his humor may not endear this work to diehard Holmesians. Readers willing to go along with the joke may find his portrayal a lot of fun.

Soares fills the book with a large cast of characters, as well as locational and historic details, that make it a rich and rewarding experience. I have not come across many novels like this one where the author provides a five page Bibliography of references, although I am sure other authors have done even more research than he in creating their historical fiction. I found it hard to keep track of all the names of the players and, even though the book came with a detailed endpaper map of Rio, impossible to follow the geographic references. So while I enjoyed the book, I was left feeling I had missed half the jokes, found the cast of characters confusing, and was in the dark on most of the local references.

The book was made into an award winning Portuguese/Brazilian movie O Xangô de Baker Street in 2000.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama

Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel
Following up on Alison Bechdel's first exploration into her family history called Fun Home is Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama. The first book looked at her relationship with her father, a closeted bisexual who commits suicide, as she is coming out as a lesbian. This second excursion, as the title suggests, examines her relationship with her mother, but also the love relationships in her life, her connection with her psychoanalysts, and her reading of the works of Sigmund Freud and D. W. Winnicott.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Nat Turner

Nat Turner by Kyle Baker
Nat Turner was a African American slave in Southampton County Virginia who was born in 1800. He led a slave rebellion in August 1831 and was executed that November. When he was in jail awaiting execution, a white lawyer named Thomas R. Gray visited him and wrote down Turner's own story which was published in 1831 as The Confessions of Nat Turner. This is not to be confused with the 1967 novel of the same title by the white Virginia author William Styron. However both Styron's novel and the graphic novel Nat Turner by Kyle Baker are derived from Gray's original Confessions.

The illustrations for Baker's Nat Turner wordlessly illustrate the original 1831 Confessions which appears as text set in the graphic novel. The words of the original Confessions and Baker's graphic narrative enhance each other, creating a most powerful document for understanding Turner's life and motivation. Originally self published as a four part series, Nat Turner sold out two printings and won several prizes in 2006, including an Eisner Award for best reality-based work. Since 2008 it has been published as a single volume through a commercial press.

Part One is called "Home" and tells the story prior to that covered in Gray's Confessions of Nat Turner of Nat's mother being captured in Africa by slavers, transported to the coast, and put onto a slave ship to America where she is sold as a slave. Part Two is called "Education" and tells the remarkable story of Nat, a gifted child with mysterious powers, who can read, who is deeply spiritual, and starts to receive visions and messages. At the same time, he is witness to the brutality of human slavery all around him and as it effects him and his parents, wife and children. After his wife and children are sold away from him, his visions take a dark turn where he sees white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle and blood flowing in streams. He is told to be prepared to receive a sign to begin his fight against the Serpent. The first sign of a solar eclipse marks the beginning of Part Three - Freedom in which Nat starts to tell a select group of close associates of his visions and they make plans for the rebellion. The Great Barbados hurricane of August 1831, which turned the Sun blue as far north as Virginia was to Nat Turner, the sign he had been waiting for to begin the slaughter. He and his four allies went into houses in the dark of night, killing all the whites, taking their weapons and horses, and recruiting followers from their slaves. Before they were eventually stopped, there were about 60 armed freed slaves following him and over 55 dead whites in their trail. Part Four - Triumph details Turner's last days.

I had read Gray's book The Confessions of Nat Turner prior to reading Baker's graphic novel, and I find the combination of the hauntingly expressive images with the simple straightforward text an exceedingly effective manner to present Nat Turner's life and activities to a modern audience. The story is compelling to me because I live just two hours from the site of the rebellion, and slave conditions would have been the same here as they were for Nat Turner in Virginia. Baker has made the story one that I will never forget. At the end of the book is a Bibliography of further readings and a Teacher's Guide that would make this a powerful classroom instructional tool.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Fräulein Else by Arthur Schnitzler

Fräulein Else by Arthur Schnitzler
This novelette written in 1924 and translated into English in 1925 by Francis Hamilton Lyon, a prolific translator of Scandinavian and German books, tells in stream of consciousness style one day in the life of 19 year old Else while she is on holiday at the Hotel Fratazza near Monte Cimone, the highest mountain in the northern Apennines, of Italy. She is traveling with her aunt Emma, cousin Paul, and his girl friend Cissy when an express letter comes to her from her mother in Vienna. The letter states that Else's father, a lawyer, is in a dire financial situation and needs 30,000 Guldens, or he will be arrested for embezzling a trust fund. All other avenues of borrowing the money are exhausted, and her mother asks Else to make a personal request of a loan from Herr von Dorsday, who has loaned her father money in the past, and have him wire the money as soon as possible.
The Austro-Hungarian Gulden was replaced by the Krone in 1892, with 1 Gulden = 2 Kronen. In 1913 one US Dollar was worth approximately 5 Kronen. So the 30,000 Gulden of this story might have had a value of around $12,000.
Dorsday is a rake who was been casting lingering glances at Else, and she is reluctant to put herself in a compromising situation with him. The book follows her thought process as she struggles with the dilemma that her mother's letter has created for her. She cannot ignore her father's plight and yet is in dread of her own situation of being indebted to von Dorsday. How she resolves her inner struggle makes compelling reading.
Some of Schnitzler's works were controversial due to their frank description of sexuality. While Else is not unaware of the sexual implications of her plight, this is not one of his pornographically labeled works. It is one of his notable works, and this edition provides a good readable English translation.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Myra Breckinridge & Myron

Myra Breckinridge & Myron by Gore Vidal

Today author Gore Vidal is mostly known for his Narratives of Empire series of seven novels on American history published between 1967 and 2000. These books (Burr, Lincoln, 1876, Empire, Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and The Golden Age) tell the history of the American Empire through the lives of two fictional families and their interactions with real figures in American history. Few recall the critical uproar caused by his 1948 novel The City and the Pillar that dealt frankly with male homosexuality. And while many recall Myra Breckinridge, it is usually the 1970 film (often listed as one of the worst films ever made), not Vidal's 1968 best-selling novel, that people remember. The 1974 sequel Myron is largely forgotten.

Myra Breckinridge and its sequel Myron are two novels that were very much a product of their times, the Sexual Revolution of the late 1960s. In his 1993 Introduction to this volume combining the two, Vidal quotes poet Thom Gunn as saying "These two books [are] the twentieth-century equivalents of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass." They form part of a series of completely fictional novels that Vidal calls his satirical inventions, that also include Messiah, Kalki, and Duluth. In the 2014 biographical documentary Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia Vidal says of the novel: "When I start an entirely invented book like Myra, I seldom start with anything more than a sentence that has taken possession of me. In this case, 'I am Myra Breckenridge whom no man will ever possess.' Who was she? I could only find out if I kept on writing. It was not until I was half way through the story that I realized that she had been a male who changed his sex."

Told as a series of entries in a therapy journal kept by Myra for her analyst and doctor, the novel tells the story of her arriving in Hollywood to meet retired film star "Buck" Loner who now runs the Academy of Drama and Modeling on the fifty acres of land that once held his father's orange groves. Myra claims to be his nephew Myron's widow. She tells Buck that his sister, her mother-in-law Gertrude, always told her and Myron that her father's property was left jointly to her and Buck, and that she passed on the rights to her half to Myron and Myra. Myron was a film critic who studied the films of the 1930s and 40s. Myra tells Buck that Myron fell off the Staten Island Ferry and drowned. When Buck offers Myra a job teaching at the Academy as their lawyers work out the details of the inheritance, the plot is set for the novel.

I was surprised at how much of this novel is about film theory and criticism. Myra's stated goal in the novel is to finish writing Myron's book Parker Tyler and the Films of the Forties; or, the Transcendental Pantheon. I had to look up Parker Tyler who it turns out was a New York film critic who wrote on gay and underground films from the mid-40s to the mid-70s when he died. Throughout the book Myra exhibits an encyclopedic knowledge of the films of the first half of the 20th century. So while this book is one of the earliest novels about a transgender character, it is not really written to provide insight into the concerns and problems of a transgender person, which often disappoints its audience. Both these books are social satires on sexuality that explore Vidal's belief that people are basically bisexual and that gender roles and sexual orientation are social constructs established by societal norms.

If Myra Breckinridge is a satire on social norms with Myra as a modern Alice visiting a Hollywood wonderland, the second book Myron is a Through the Looking Glass time travel sci-fi satire where Myron, now happily married and living in the suburbs, falls through the screen of his television one night while watching the 1948 MGM movie Siren of Babylon starring Maria Montez. He lands on the set of the film in production just at the scene he was watching, and is trapped in the Hollywood past with a group of other viewers who seem to stumble through the screen each time the film is aired on TV. The actors on the set cannot see these visitors from the future, but once Myron leaves the set, the local people outside the studio and across the street at the neighborhood hotel can see the people they call out of towners who have taken up residence there. Here Myron starts to struggle with his alter personality Myra for control of their body with comic effect. The locals and the other out of towners are left wondering at this strange person with dual gendered personalities. While Myron seeks to get back to his wife and life in the suburbs, Myra wants to save MGM at this crucial point in their history and recreate a golden age of film. She also has a plan to save the world from overpopulation that is unique. I find the time travel paradoxes handled quite well by the author. The two books together like this in a single volume make for great reading. They have inspired me to take a look at other of Vidal's satirical invention novels.