Books: I only read 7 books this quarter. A lot of them were on the long side, however.
- John Jakes, The Bastard. This is the first book in The American Bicentennial Series. It follows Phillipe Charbonneau from his childhood in France through his mother’s attempts to get his father to acknowledge his paternity in England to his escape to America, where he changes his name to Philip Kent and gets involved with the Sons of Liberty. There is plenty of action and a dash of romance, which held my interest for well over 600 pages. I’m looking forward to reading more of the series.
- Patrick Quentin, Puzzle For Players.. Quentin is a pseudonym for Hugh Wheeler, who wrote (among other things) the libretto for Sweeney Todd. While he clearly knows the theatre world, I found this mystery too theatrical and, hence, too implausible. I prefer to have characters who act more like actual people would.
- Mary Janice Davidson, Undead and Unwed. Paranormal chicklit is not one of the genres I normally go in for, but I actually enjoyed this one quite a bit. Betsy Taylor may have become a vampire, but that doesn’t stop her from being tempted by high-end shoes, even in the midst of a war between two vampires who both want her as their queen. It was pretty trashy but humorously entertaining.
- Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow. This was a book club selection and proved to be one that all of us liked a lot. The story involves Count Alexander Rostov, who is sentenced to house arrest in an attic room of the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. Despite his precarious legal situation, he befriends a number of people, ranging from a young girl (who grows up and leaves her daughter in his care) to an important government agent he shares movies with to an American diplomat. He is a very likeable character and reading this was like spending time with a great conversationalist. Simply delightful – highly recommended. (And, by the way, I have actually stayed at the Metropol!)
- Jean Plaidy, The Passionate Enemies. The enemies of the title are King Stephen and Queen Matilda, as they battle to rule England after the death of Henry I. They manage to carry on an affair in between battles. Neither of them comes off all that well, but I suspect that is realistic. It’s hard for me to say how accurate the history is, but this version held my attention.
- Paul Theroux, Fresh Air Fiend. This is a collection of several of Theroux’s essays. He’s a writer I’ve always had mixed feelings about. I’ve found his novels both interesting and disturbing, while his travel writing tends towards the overly cranky. In the shorter works here, he is rather more self-congratulatory than I’d like, particularly when he expounds on the excellence of traveling by foldable kayak. There is one amusing incident where he meets a man on a remote island who happens to have read his books. He also has some essays about other travel writers. I haven’t read a lot of the works he mentions, so I can’t comment on most of those. He was suitably impressed by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, which is a plus. Bottom line is that Theroux is worth reading, but I wouldn’t want to travel with him.
- Michael Cunningham, A Home At the End of the World. This was another book club selection, but our meeting is postponed until April 15th (when we will do it via zoom). The plot involves two childhood friends (Bobby and Jonathan) and their complicated relationship, which extends to include a woman, Claire, who they end up living with. There are somewhat bizarre family dynamics, e.g. Jonathan’s mother smoking pot with them (and dancing with Bobby) when they are teenagers. Bobby is the victim of extreme trauma, starting with the accidental death of his brother (in a bizarre and not entirely convincing way), so it’s not surprising he clings to Jonathan’s family. In short, all of the characters were seriously in need of therapy, though I suppose that if they had gotten help, there wouldn’t be much of a book. I’m interested in how our discussion of this will go, since I definitely didn’t like it, but you never know how other people will have reacted.
Just a few this quarter.
- Lawrence of Arabia: This seemed like a suitable thing to watch on my way home from my trip to Dubai and Oman. It was definitely worth watching. Lawrence was a complicated figure, something of an outsider, who believed in getting to know the local tribes and understanding the people he was fighting with and against as the British vied with the Turks for control of the Middle East. His understanding of the Arabic culture – and his respect for the people – is what ultimately makes Lawrence (ably played by Peter O’Toole) easy to cheer for. This was absorbing and I recommend it if you have any interest in the region.
- The Iron Giant: I watched this on what would prove to be my last flight for a long time. It’s the story of a young boy named Hogarth who finds a giant robot from outer space. Is the robot friend or foe? Well, that depends. There is a bad guy (from the government) who is outwitted by Hogarth. It’s a bit predictable, but that isn’t a big issue in movies intended for children. I also suspect children will mind the preachiness a lot less than I did.
- Piled Higher and Deeper: Based on the web comic by Jorge Cham, this follows a few grad students through the trauma of academia. Winston is searching for a Ph.D. advisor and ends up in a lab where he and fellow students are expected to endure abuse from their professor. Cecelia is a teaching assistant confronting indifferent undergraduates and left with insufficient time to pursue her hobby of competitive ballroom dance. There are other characters, but those two are the primary focus. It mostly rang true. Let’s just say grad school was not the best time of my life. That said, I doubt that this would hold the interest of anyone who hasn’t endured that special circle of hell.
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