Saturday, April 28, 2012

Slight technical diffculties...

For some reason, the paragraph formatting on this blog is not working right today. To read the review of Life, by Keith Richards, with James Fox, please visit my general blog, I Was Just Thinking. With any luck, the formatting over here will get back to normal shortly.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: "Role Models", by John Waters

I don't know why I am so surprised that John Waters is as good a writer as he is.

I checked his collection of essays, Role Models (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010; 304 pages) out of the library after someone online recommended it for the essay it contains about Manson Family member Leslie Van Houten. I mentioned reading that essay here previously. I didn't know what to expect, exactly, and found a thoughtful and insightful, if slightly naive, defense of one of the women convicted of killing Leno and Rosemary LaBianca during a two-night murder spree in August 1969. I hadn't expected to read the rest of the book, but after that 46-page introduction to Waters' writing, I wanted more.

As the title suggests, Waters writes here about people he admires for one reason or another, who he considers role models. And those role models run the gamut from singers Johnny Mathis and Little Richard to what Waters calls "outsider pornographers" to fashion designer Rei Kawakuro, also quite the outsider in many ways, to writers - there is a short but thoughtful essay about Tennessee Williams here - and artists, to heroes from his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. Waters also treats us, in the final essay in the collection, to an offbeat description of the cult that he would create.

Along the way, we learn that Waters is a compulsive reader and book collector with, at the time he wrote the essay, a personal library of 8,425 books. Reason enough, as far as I can see, to like the man. He writes about the art he collects in his various homes as his "roommates". On the other hand, there is very little in his essays about his film making here, something that surprises me less now that I've read the book. Waters is a man of wide interests and enthusiasms. not all of them respectable in polite society, something I'm sure he is fine with, but most of them fascinating, if sometimes morbidly so.

I also have to say that I didn't find all the essays equally fascinating, but that had more to do with my level of interest in the subject matter than it did with Waters' writing. For example, I had trouble getting through the essay about Rei Kawakuro, mostly because I have just about zero interest in fashion.

I also feel constrained to warn that this book is not for everybody. Waters says things about religion that would shock and offend a certain segment of the population. His essay about outsider pornographers would offend some and make some others uncomfortable. So would some of the language that appears from time to time.

Still, there are rewards to be had here, reading Role Models. It is obvious that Waters is well-read. Even better, he is expert at drawing on what he has encountered in his reading and applying the knowledge he has gained there to seemingly unrelated situations in relevant ways. In fact, as I read, I kept being reminded of the Natural History essays of Stephen Jay Gould, who was wonderful at pulling together topics that appeared on the surface to have nothing to do with each other, going on tangents that could make the reader wonder what he was going on about, and end up with a universal conclusion in which the disparate elements of a particular essay fit together seamlessly. Here, Waters demonstrates that he can do substantially the same thing with very different subject matter.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Restless Souls": a review and some thoughts

I just finished reading Restless Souls: The Sharon Tate Family's Account of Stardom, the Manson Murders, and a Crusade for Justice (itbooks, and imprint of HarperCollins, 2012; 381 pages), by Alisa Statman with Brie Tate.

I don't know that I can call it a good book. It was put together, apparently, largely from writings about the case by Ms. Tate's mother, father, and one of her sisters, all now deceased. Those writings were, also apparently, not edited at all from the way they were left by their authors. This is understandable but not necessarily wise, as the writing is, in some cases, riddled with cliches and odd word usages that made it difficult reading at times because, for me at least, those platitudes and usages repeatedly jarred me out of the story and made me want to put on my editor's hat and sharpen my red pencil. Still, it was an informative book and a compelling read, and useful as a look into the minds of those whose lives were affected forever afterward by a series of horrible, gruessome and infamous crimes.

It was also a disturbing book.

I wanted to sympathize with Ms. Tate's family. As someone who not only remembers exactly where I was when I first heard radio reports of the crimes (on the pier in Oxnard, California, fishing with my family), as well as someone who lived just a few miles from the Spahn Ranch, where Manson and his followers were living at the time they killed Sharon Tate and her friends and the LaBiancas, and who knew people who had spent time at the ranch, I was horrified at the details of the killings, and once arrests were made and the perpetrators went to trial, at the behavior of the accused, then and in some cases afterward.

By the end of the book, however, I just couldn't say, Yes, that is how I hope to react if ever in the same position. I can understand their hatered for the people who killed their daughter and sister and the others. I have developed, over the years and fairly extensive reading about these crimes, a healthy hatred for Charlie Manson. However, I hope that I wouldn't convert any hatred I would have for anyone who killed someone I loved into the hardened position that the perpetrator or perpetrators of such a crime could never regret the crime, could never come to the understanding that what they did was wrong. And that, as far as I could see in my reading of the book, is the attitude that permeates Sharon Tate's survivors. By the time I got to the end of the book, reading the conclusions of her neice, Brie, that attitude had seemingly hardened into the attitude that anyone who was even at Spahn Ranch at the time of the killings, whether they participated in them, or even knew about them, before or afterward, is guilty of the murders and should be locked up forever.

The two things that seemed to unite the family members were paranoia and entitlement: paranoia that remaining Manson followers were going to come and kill them next, and the feeling that just because their loved one was murdered, that the family is entitled to get whatever they want, whenever they want it. The former attitude is understandable to an extent, if the reader can believe their reports of threats from Manson followers. The latter, I don't believe, is acceptable. Yes, they went through a horrible experience in the murder of their family member. That does not mean that they should be able to call up government officials, record producers and others and be immediately obeyed. That is, I know, a hard judgment to level on them. But it really isn't the way life works.

Who is to say if any of the murderers have really come to an understanding that what they did was wrong? The women involved have all said they have. To my knowledge, neither Charlie nor Tex Watson have, although for years Tex claimed to have gotten religion and functioned as a preacher in prison, implying that this meant he was a changed man. There were statements in the book from various members of the Tate family that they did not believe for a minute that any of the murderers were any less vicious years later than they were on the nights they committed their crimes. Basically, they have taken the position that no one can ever change. Ever. Their conclusion, and their fervent belief, was that the statements from Leslie Van Houten, from Patricia Krenwinkle, from Susan Atkins, were nothing more than coldly calculated attempts to gain parole so that they could go out and commit more murders. Which for all I know, might be the truth. I maintain, however, that those Tate family members cannot know the true minds of those women any more than I or anyone else can, and to maintain that they know that is awfully presumptious of them.

It was interesting to read this book at a time when Charlie was once again denied parole and cannot reapply for fifteen years, when he will be somewhere in his 90s. It was also interesting to read, while I was reading this book, an essay by film director John Waters, in his book Role Models (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), advocating for the fact that she is, in fact, rehabilitated and should be released on parole. Apparently, Waters has become friends with Ms. Van Houten and corresponded with her and visited her in prison many times over the past twenty years or so. Waters makes a good case for his point of view (and is a much better writer than I ever imagined; I'm currently reading the other essays in his book and enjoying them very much). However, it also seems that he might be slightly naive on the subject and so not necessarily unbiased on the subject.

I feel badly that, in reading Restless Souls, I've come to such a harsh judgment about Sharon Tate's family. Surely, they never asked for any of this to come to them. And just as surely, it is not surprising that they reached the positions that they have, after having their family torn apart in many ways by the aftermath of Ms. Tate's murder. However, I found the way in which they seemed to insist that their role as survivors gave them some special knowledge and insight into the minds of the murderers disturbing. I think the worst was the apparent glee that Sharon's niece felt that Susan Atkins was not given a compassionate release when she was dying of brain cancer in 2009.

Not, certainly, as disturbing as the fact that Charlie or someone like him could gain such control over other people that he could convince them to go out and murder for him. I don't know if it frightens me more than someone would attempt to control people like that, or that there are people who are apparently so weak-minded, for whatever reason, that they would allow themselves to be controlled to such an extent that they would kill just because that someone asked them to do so. And maybe, we should all blame Charlie (and the others, but especially Charlie) for the extreme positions that members of the Tate family have taken in the past and, if the statements of Brie Tate are to be taken at face value, continue to take today.

Mrs. French, my third-grade teacher, used to say to us that "Two wrongs don't make a right." She was right, of course. What Manson and his followers did on those two nights in Southern California, and in some other cases that ended in murder, was certainly wrong. But trading hate for hate, as Sharon Tate's family seems to have done, doesn't seem exactly right, either, no matter the extremity of the provocation. It just becomes a vicious cycle, in which hate begets hate begets more hate. And there is already more than enough hate in the world.

I'm not going to say that they should have forgiven, or should ever forgive, Ms. Tate's murderers. That would be presumptuous of me. I do think that it was, and continues to be, presumptuous to maintain that they know what went on, and continues to go on, in the minds of the murderers.

Friday, April 6, 2012

"A Discovery of Witches", By Deborah Harkness

So, I finished reading A Discovery of Witches (Viking, 2011; 579 pages) by Deborah Harkness. I mentioned that I was reading it last time I posted. In that mention, I said that I would be very disappointed if the book did not maintain its high level of quality as it progressed.

I am very happy to report that I am not disappointed.

I just want to repeat that: I AM NOT DISAPPOINTED. A Discovery of Witches is the best fiction I've read in a long time. Ms. Harkness has written a fascinating, absorbing, rollicking good story, and has done so in high style. The characters are vivid and three-dimensional, the plot is involving, and...and it's just a damn good book.

Her female protagonist, Diana Bishop, is a witch who has mostly ignored her powers since her parents were killed when she was seven years old. Oh, she will use them to fix her washing machine or to get a book she cannot otherwise reach off of a high shelf. But she doesn't feel a real connection with it and has no desire to develop her talents. She is a historian and a professor and loves her work.

But, in the course of her work, which as the book opens involves research into very old alchemical manuscripts, she discovers one manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, that has been missing for a very long time. When she touches the manuscript, however, she can feel the spell that has been put on it. She does what she needs to with it for her work and then quickly sends it back to the stacks.

Simply touching it, however, has sent out the alert to other witches, as well as to the vampires who have also been looking for it, that it has surfaced, and soon the Bodleian's reading rooms are stacked to the gills with witches, vampires, and daemons who want that book.

One of those who wants the book is Matthew Clairmont, a vampire who is also a physician and a geneticist. But he quickly falls in love with Diana and takes the role of protector. Within very little time, Diana has also fallen for Matthew, and that's where the real trouble begins. There is a Congregation of witches, daemons, and vampires that long ago decreed that relationships between creatures who are not alike are forbidden. So, not only is Diana being chased for her access to the manuscript, which is again missing, and so that the witches of the Congregation can learn the extent of Diana's hidden powers and talents, but because she and Matthew are breaking a basic rule by becoming involved romantically. So, the two of them go on the run, first to Matthew's family home in France and then to Diana's home in the United States, involving both their families in the conflict that threatens to tear apart the world of creatures and expose them as never before to the world of humans.

Aside from the wonderful story Ms. Harkness tells, it is difficult to resist a book that includes a yoga-practicing vampire and a sentient house that lets everyone know whether or not it likes the people inside it and can add rooms when it senses that someone new is coming to stay...and knows they are coming before the living, breathing residents of the house. And then there are all the ghosts that also inhabit the place. Oh, and then there is Tabitha the cat, who hates just about everybody but takes an instant liking to Matthew, even though vampires, as he points out, get along much better with dogs than with cats.

If you like fantasy, especially urban fantasy, at all, read this book. And if you don't like fantasy, but like romance novels, read this book. Even if you don't like fantasy (I do) and don't like romance novels (which I generally don't), read this book. It is that good.

Fair warning, though. There is a sequel to A Discovery of Witches that will not be out until July. I'm going to be urging my library system to buy the sequel, because that's the only way I'll get to read it, since my budget cannot stretch to buy new hardback novels right now.

Now that I've finished reading Ms. Harkness's book, I've started reading Kraken (Ballantine Books, 2010; 509 pages), by China Mieville. I've barely started it, so I'm not sure yet how I'm going to like it. It also has to do with something that has gone missing...a giant squid, which has disappeared from London's Natural History Museum. Do I detect a theme in my current fiction reading?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Detectives, witches, vampires, and a little anthropology...

Again, it's been a long time between books read. I hate to use the excuse, again, that I'm busy. But I've been busy. I'm working on two writing projects, one fiction and one non-fiction, and I've been putting a lot of time into both of them this month. I've even been doing a lot of reading as research for the non-fiction project, but bits here and bits there, but not usually in the way of reading a book all the way through.

Some of the books I've been in for that include:

Evolution: The Human Story (Doring Kindersley Limited, 2011; 256 pages), by Dr. Alice Roberts

The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors (Doubleday, 2006; 306 pages), by Ann Gibbons

The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Tink We Know About Human Evolution (Oxford University Press, 1995; 276 pages), by Ian Tattersall

I've read Gibbons's book, and Tattersall's, in their entirety in the past; this time I'm mostly just mining data and checking facts with them. The book by Dr. Roberts is very up-to-date as far as checking dates and catchng up on the (almost) latest theories and discoveries. I've also been reading a lot of joural articles online, especially thanks to my library system's remote access to their online databases. I have a love/hate relationship with the Internet, but I love being able to do research without having to drag myself down to the downtown library in person to access journal articles.

Aside from all that (I'm pretty sure you really didn't want an update on the state of my writing life), I have done some recreational reading this month. Not much, but some.

I read Jonathan Kellerman's most recent Alex Delaware novel, Victims (Ballantine Books, 2012; 338 pages). Since it is a mystery, I won't go into details. Instead, I'll just say that both Alex and his LAPD detective friend, Milo Sturgis, are in top form looking for a serial killer with a particularly gruesome way with his victims. I'm not as big a fan of Mr. Kellerman's as I am of his wife, Faye Kellerman, whose books I've reviewed here recently. But I couldn't put this book down, and in fact stayed up until late at night trying to finish it and ended up falling asleep with th light on when I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer. It's one of his better recent outings.

Now I'm reading A Discovery of Witches (Viking, 2011; 579 pages), by Deborah Harkness. I'm very particular about the fantasy I read, and so I rarely pick up a fantsy novel just by browsing the flyleaf description at the library. I've discovered most of my favorite fantasy novelists this way - Tim Powers, Kage Baker, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro among them - but I'm not quick to take a chance on a writer I've never heard of before within the genre. So far, however, I'm really glad I decided to take a chance on this book. I'm 127 pages in and enjoying it thoroughly.

A Discovery of Witches is the story of Dr. Diana Bishop, Oxford-educated historian and witch. Dr. Bishop, the daughter of a powerful witch and an equally powerful wizard, is trying her hardest to be a regular person and not use her powers. However, as the story opens she is back at Oxford on sabbatical from her teaching job in the United States, researching old alchemy manuscripts. One day, while working in the Bodleian Library, she encounters a manuscript that has had a spell cast on it. Her touch overrides the spell and she is able to open and examine it, but the volume frightens her, and she sends it back to the stacks, which reactivates the spell. However, while it was in her hands, every witch in the vicinity becomes aware of its existence. And so does every daemon and every vampire within range. While Dr. Bishop just wants to forget she ever saw the book, all the other creatures (as opposed to humans, who are just oblivious) want to get their hands on it.

One of the vampires who wants the book is Matthew Clairmont, a physician and geneticist, who has been alive at least since the time of Henry VIII. But complication arise when in his efforts to secure the manuscript for himself, he begins to fall in love with Dr. Bishop. Thus, he finds himself protecting her from the crowd of other vampires, daemons and witches clogging the reading rooms of the Bodleian, watching Dr. Bishop and waiting for a chance to pounce on the manuscript, just as the students are returning for a new term.

Also complicating matters is the fact that except for a very few individuals, witches, vampires and daemons do not get on with one another and are, in fact, actively hostile. Even within each group, there are animosities, and just where I am reading now, it becomes increasingly clear that some witches are not above intimidating and threatening their own to get that book.

I'm enjoying Ms. Harkness's writing immensely. The characters are well drawn, and the story is moving right along. I'm going to be very disappointed if the rest of the book is not as good as the beginning has been.

Monday, March 12, 2012

"The New Book of Lists"

I think I've probably mentioned before here that I love books of lists. If I haven't, let me do that now.

I love books of lists.

So, I'm not quite sure how I missed the fact that David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace, to of the three compilers of the original Book of Lists, published in 1977, put out a new volume, The New Book of Lists (Canongate; 600 pages) in 2005.

The original, which I loved just for the sheer novelty of it, spawned several sequels and numerous and varied imitators of differing quality over the years. I've read, or at least perused, a lot of them. Maybe it's because I love trivia, or perhaps it's because I'm a list-maker myself. Whatever it is, I can't seem to put books like this one down. When I got this new volume home from the library, I sat down to glance through it, just to see what was new. I ended up spending over two hours with it, thumbing through it and read what seemed most interesting to me at the time.

That is another thing that I think attracts me to this sort of book: They don't need to be read in sequence, from cover to cover. That has a lot of appeal to someone like me, who more often than not reads a magazine back to front and who often writes longer pieces of writing from the middle out. With books of lists, you can pick them up, turn to a page, and start reading. Additionally, you can pick up a book of lists for five minutes if that's all the time you have to spare (and if you can stand to put it down after so short a time), or you can spend hours with it and not get bored.

As with the original volume, the lists in this book span the breadth of topics and the complete spectrue from the sublime to the ridiculous. You can read about "15 Notable Events That Happened Under the Influence of Alcohol" (including the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Little Bighorn, and the failed 1991 coup in the former Soviet Union). Or, you can learn about "20 Famous Gurus and Their Former Jobs". Did you know that the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (who famously taught Transcendental Meditation to the Beatles in the 1960s) had a BS in Physics? It is less of a surprise that Werner Erhard, the founder of the EST movement, was once a used-car salesman.

While those examples lean more towward the ridiculous end of the spectrum, a little more sublime is the list of "9 Valuable Art Works Found Unexpectedly". This list includes the couple in a Milwaukee suburb who discovered that the van Gogh reproduction hanging on the wall in their living room for years was not a reproduction, but an original that brought $1.4 million at auction. Or the librarian in Hollywood who found 665 handwritten pages in an inherited steamer trunk that turned out to be part of Mark Twain's original handwritten manuscript of Huckleberry Finn.

And then there are the lists that are just outright funny, like "36 Great Slips of the Tongue in American Politics." Some of these are familiar, and some are not, but I would be willing to bet that it is impossible to get through the entire list without laughing...and becoming more than a little frightened if, indeed, there is any valididity to the concept of the Freudian slip.

I suspect that every word in The New Book of Lists is probably not strictly true; a few of the entries seem to be a bit tongue-in-cheek. Still, it is a fun book that I would recommend to anyone who needs a break from serious, linear, plot-driven reading.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

What have they done to my library?

I just got back from a trip to the central branch of the county library downtown,and don't know right now whether to be sad, or frustrated, or angry.

They've remodeled, and as port of that remodeling, they've gotten rid of a lot of books. A lot. The adult non-fiction section doesn't seem to have suffered as badly as the adult fiction section, although both are considerably reduced. It is the state of the adult fiction section that has me dispirited, possibly because the non-fiction section has never been as up-to-date or inclusive as it could have been. But the fiction section seems to have been reduced by at least half and hidden in a back, ill-lit corner of the library. It seemed so...forlorn.

They have also gotten rid of over half the table space for patrons to sit down and read a book or work on projects. There are plenty of computers, and table space reserved only for those who have brought a laptop to work on. Which is not a bad thing. But the lack of seating makes the place seem much less welcoming.

I don't know what he idea is behind the changes. Maybe they've decided that no one really reads anymore. Or, perhaps, that the only people in the future who will have a right to read are those who can afford an e-reader. And perhaps they are trying to make the library less hospitable to the homeless. If that is so, I think it is unfortunate.

I don't know what they've done to the children;s and young adult sections. I was afraid to look, after seeing what they've done to the adult collections. I might not want to know.

I can't really write any more about this now. I'm still too upset about the changes to be entirely coherent.