Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Not keeping up...

Time gets away from me sometimes...

I finished reading Lucy's Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins (2009, Harmony Books; 309 pages), by Donald C. Johanson and Kate Wong, a few days ago and haven't yet written about it. It's the third book, after Lucy and Lucy's Child, chronicling Johanson's discoveries of early hominid fossils in East Africa, mostly in Ethiopia but at Olduvai Gorge as well. I read it as part of research for a writing project, but I enjoyed it as a good read as much as I did because I'm interested in the subjects of paleoanthropology and human evolution.

Only the first half of the book chronicles Johanson's experiences in the field, and some of that is recap of the first two books, in which he talked about discovering the partial skeleton of a hominid individual that came to be known as "Lucy" and others of her species. The rest of the books looks at the history of other fossil hominid finds in Africa, in Asia and in Europe, hominids that lived both before and after the lifespan of Lucy's species, Australopithecus afarensis, which lived from about 3.9 to 3 million years ago. All of this comes with Johanson's commentary and his assessment of what those finds mean within the history of human evolution.

It is a good book, but it is also an example of the contentious nature of paleoanthropology, where discoverers of different species will vociferously advocate that their fossil is on the direct line of human evolution and the species others have discovered might be cousins of ours but probably not direct ancestors. As long as you read it from the perspective that Johanson is advocating for the species he discovered and realize that this might color some of his assessments of other, there is good information here, presented in a readable manner. In other words, the information presented is good but it is probably a good idea to take Johanson's opinions about other finds and other paleoanthropologists as biased to a certain extent.

So, now I'm reading (and am more than halfway through) Hotel Transylvania (1978, St. Martin's Press; 252 pages), by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. It's a re-read, but I first read it within a few years of its publication. I'm not sure I'm enjoying it as much this time around as I did the first time, but it is still holding my interest enough that I'm determined to finish the re-read.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Review: "Red Mist"

I'm still not sure I'm going to finish reading Preston's The Codex. I've tried to pick it up again several times and just haven't been able to get back into it.

However, I did finish Red Mist (2011, G. P. Putnam's Sons; 498 pages), by Patricia Cornwell. Interesting novel, which I can say very little about without spoilers. I will say that I did like that it was constructed in large part of a series of conversations, with not that much action. I like to read novels like that sometimes. I suppose some people find that kind of writing too slow, but sometimes it can be a nice break from non-stop action. On the other hand, Ms. Cornwell chose to write this novel in the present tense, which bugs the hell out of me. It's a tribute to the strength of the story that I stuck with it and read the whole thing.

I also have to say that I'm kind of ambivalent about Ms. Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta mysteries. I've read several of them, and I just have a hard time liking Scarpetta. The way Ms. Cornwell has written her, the character seems to have problems with grandiose thinking. She seems to think that everyone else is either stupid or naive. In this book, at one point, she is about to enter the apartment of someone she has known for some time and who she is nearly positive is dead, and the narrative has her thinking, "It's what I sense right before I walk into a place where death quietly and finally waits for me to tend to it as only I can." It's as if she thinks she is the only medical examiner in the world, or at least the only one who knows anything. Like I said, she has a bit of a problem with grandiose thinking.

Still, I liked Red Mist. If I hadn't, I wouldn't have stayed up late into the night two nights in a row reading it.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Two Book Reviews, or Starting the year out right...

I'm starting out the year on a bit of a reading binge, apparently. Since the beginning of the year I've finished two books. Already mentioned in an early post, I finished Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910 - 1969 (2001, Viking; 422 pages), by William J. Mann, on Friday night.

It is an interesting book, well worth reading despite the fact that there are times when it takes a scorecard to distinguish the players. The problem is that Mann, in an admirable attempt to be comprehensive, tends to throw out names one after another, then refers to them sometimes by first name and sometimes by surname, which becomes confusing at times.

But, he is comprehensive and he isn't engaged in gossip-mongering, which is something I was afraid he might be when I first picked up the book. When he identifies someone active in the entertainment industry as gay, he provides evidence, and when there is no evidence that someone who has been presumed to be gay actually was, he says so. Additionally, he spends very little time on top stars who were either admittedly or rumored to be gay, and instead traces the history of movie-making through all aspects of the industry. He does write about actors, both male and female, but he also writes about directors, writers, producers, editors, art directors, agents, publicists, and all the other people it takes to put a movie on the screen. If Mann had been aiming at a sensationalistic account, he would have spent much more time on the Hollywood names everyone knows.

Along the way, Mann also addresses the ups and downs of the acceptance of open gays and lesbians in Hollywood, and the terms under which they were accepted, when they were. He also points out the essentially conservative nature of the top executives and some of the top stars in the industry, something that blocked the complete acceptance of homosexuals and homosexuality in the industry even when the society as a whole really didn't worry so much about what movie makers did in the privacy of their bedrooms.

The most difficult times for gays in Hollywood, according to Mann, were the years when the Hays Code, the production code that severely limited what themes movies could explore, how those themes could be explored, and what could be said and shown on-screen, and what could not even be hinted at, from about 1930 to 1941, and during the McCarthy era of the late 1940s and 1950s (essentially the first years of the Cold War), when life for gays in all segments of society was especially difficult.

I highly recommend Mann's book for anyone interested in film history or gay history.

After I finished reading Behind the Screen on Friday night, I wasn't ready to go to sleep just yet, so I picked up Faye Kellerman's Gun Games (2012, William Morrow; 375 pages). This is the latest entry in Kellerman's series of novels about LAPD detective Peter Decker and his wife Rina Lazarus. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that this is one of my favorite mystery/police procedural series, by one of my favorite writers in the genre.

In this novel, Decker and Lazarus have taken in a young piano prodigy whose father is a gangster (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) and whose physician mother has gone off to Africa to have a baby with another man. At the same time, Decker and his team are looking at the suicides of two high-school students who may or may not be linked and who may or may not have been helped along in their suicides.

I won't say more, as I don't want to provide any spoilers, but I will say that the book is a fast, good read. If I have any quibbles with it, it is that the teenage characters sometimes don't speak much like any of the teenagers I know, sometimes sounding much too adult. It is a minor quibble, however, overshadowed by a plot that moves right along. It certainly kept me turning pages late into the night.


As an update, I'm now reading The Codex, by Douglas Preston (2004, Tor; 404 pages). I'm only about 60 pages in, and I'm not sure yet that I like it much. I'm going to try to stick with it, however. I started but did not finish way too many books in 2011, and I'm going to try to be better about that in 2012.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The first update of the New Year...

Since I've been working on a writing project, I haven't gotten too much other reading done yet in the New Year. I'm a little over 150 pages from the end of Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910 - 1969 (2001, Viking; 422 pages), by William J. Mann. It isn't the gossip-fest that I feared when I picked it up, and there are more names I don't recognize in it than those that were household names. The big bonus is that Mann not only talks about actors, but about writers, directors, art directors, costumers, set dressers and the rest of the people who are as important (or more) in the making of movies than are the actors. I'm pretty sure I'll have more to say about this book when I'm finished reading it.

As far as the research I've been doing for my writing project, I've been dipping into several books, including the Cambridge Illustrated History of Archaeology (1996, Cambridge University Press; 386 pages), edited by Paul G. Bahn; The Practical Archaeologist: How We Known What We Know About the Past (2nd edition, 1999, Facts on File; 186 pages), by Jane McIntosh; and Archaeology: A Brief Introduction (1999, Prentice Hall; 306 pages), by Brian M. Fagan. All very interesting stuff, but I'm mainly on a mission right now to construct a list of archaeologists through history and to gather a glossary of key terms, as I'm essentially writing a study guide for beginning students. Eventually, I'll move on to cultural anthropology and biological anthropology, as I'm wanting to do either an overall study guide for all three branches of anthropology or to do a separate one for each subfield. It's a fun project, as it's what I'm educated in, but I'm having to do much more research than I had counted on (it's amazing how much detail one loses a few years out from taking classes). That's fine; it's just taking more time than I had hoped to do the writing, which I'm doing as I research along, or trying to.

It's not original work by any means, but it's something I wish I'd had access to when I was taking my first courses in these subjects. My theory is that since I actually knew quite a bit about these topics when I took those classes because I'd done a lot of reading, students who are jumping into these classes without much prior knowledge would find such a reference, all in one book (either for all three or for each subject separately), valuable. Something like this might already exist, but if it does, I haven't found it. So, I'm writing my own.

I just wish I could get more up-to-date reference materials from my public library system. There is more recent stuff in the local state university library, but there are logistical problems in getting there (no close, free parking, mostly). So, I'm doing all the work I can from older sources, and then will spend some intense work days at the university library, updating what needs to be updated, with a list in front of me of just exactly what I need to find, so that I won't get off-topic and end up browsing among the stacks. Don't laugh. Going and playing in the library is one of my favorite things to do.