Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday Review Post? Yes!

Dear merciful deity of your choice! It's Friday, and here's a review! Will wonders ever cease?

Tanya Huff - Blood Lines
This is the one with the mummy. At some point, it becomes clear that Huff is re-thinking the classic movie monsters - vampire, demon-worshiper, werewolf, mummy, zombies/Frankenstein monsters, and finishing up with ghosts. Anyway, this is, I think, my favorite of the series. What I really like about this one is that the monster is actually a monster. I also like the plot line which twists Victoria's beloved police back upon her, and finally, I really really like the point at the end of the book that Victoria and Celluci have been fighting despair for years. All in all, I think, the gem in a fairly stellar series. One more, and I can read the short story collection!

Bruce Cumings - The Korean War
Wow! I was expecting a fairly straight-forward history of the Korean War. This was NOT that book. Cumings covers the basic story in his first chapter, very briefly, and then goes off and does some seriously heavy cultural military history. His basic thesis is that Americans really have no understanding of what happened between 1950 and 1955 on the Korean peninsula, and that this is largely because they (understandably) insist on looking at the events as if they had something to do with the United States. More broadly, Cumings argues that the Korean war was the most visible/violent aspect of a Korean civil war which started in the 1930s with a new level of Japanese repression, and really hasn't ended yet. I've taught this war for several years now as the first of the Cold War proxy-wars, and that will remain an aspect of how I present the material. I will also, having read Cumings, be including the idea that what made Korea different from Vietnam was that both sides of the war (from a Korean perspective) saw themselves as the legitimate rulers of the peninsula. And, from the appropriate points of view, both sides were correct. A further point that Cumings makes is the idea that the United States was on the side of the Japanese collaborators - this was the first instance of the US siding with the repressive dictator because he was less "Communist" than the liberal reformer.

This was a seriously dense book. Cumings gave me lots to think about. He made a serious effort to connect the Korean War to current events, both in Korea and in the Middle East. His broadest possible point was that the Korean War really defined the way in which the United States has fought wars and enacted occupations since the end of World War Two. If, Cumings suggests, we are looking for a point in history where the United States "went wrong", we need look no further than the Korean War. That is, perhaps, too broad a statement to make, but he presents a very convincing argument.

Some final notes - excellent pictures throughout the book, but it needed more maps! Even given that the book was more cultural than military, the maps were entirely inadequate.

Alex Archer - The Spirit Banner
My wife described this book as slush, and she was oh so right. Because I'm sure your curious, no, Anja Creed does not have sex in this novel. Nor, however, does she consume absurd quantities of food in an obvious attempt on the part of the author to sublimate her sex drive. There is no explanation of the series title - Rogue Angel? Anja is not, as far as I've seen, an angel, she's just an archeologist with Joan of Arc's magical mystical sword. In this book, she finds Ghengis Khan's (at one point, a Mongolian calls him Chingis, which was actually his name. It would have been nice to have seen Ms. Creed correct her peers throughout - that would have been a nice touch of academic realism...) tomb. Oh, and has a fight in Mexico which was neither explained nor really resolved. She falls off of a bridge, and has a sword fight in which she reveals that she is, in fact, the bigger person, and an all around nice girl. The author indulges in military porn (that is, he describes, in painstaking detail, all of the military equipment used - this sort of gun, that sort of jeep, the other sort of helicopter, using such and such sort of ammunition, etc etc), and there's an entirely gratuitous scene where the baddy shoots up some of Anja's allies, even though she's not around to see, and never finds out about it. All of this, but despite the provocative cover image (look, I've included it so you can see what I mean - seriously, if this were a romance novel, there would be bodice ripping...), she does not have sex. Next time I have lengthy train rides where I need to put my brain to sleep, I'll grab some more of these.

Molly Crosby - Asleep
A book about the epidemic of encephalitis lethargica of the post WWI period. Fascinating stuff - a disease caused by swelling of the brain which resulted in severe lethargy (to the extent that patients' pulses were often too faint for doctors to sense) and, if the patient woke up, violent mood shifts. Linked, perhaps, to the 1918 flu pandemic, or maybe to a  concurrent strep throat epidemic (doctors are still unsure, which makes this whole thing even more interesting).

So, fascinating subject, but I have to question Crosby's organisation. She starts by breaking the book into a series of patient case files - this patient, seen by that doctor, with those symptoms - but she's really telling the story of a small group of neurosurgeons and psychiatrists and such who tried to figure out the disease during the 1920s and '30s. I almost feel as though the book would have been better served by following the doctors instead of the patients - the patient stories felt a little tacked on.

The book has ample endnotes, and an extensive bibliography, but the notes are not cited in the text, which makes it hard to find the reference points. Normally, this wouldn't bother me, but I've just finished the Keegan and the Cumings, and they are both histories written by historians, so in this book, it bugged me. Especially because Crosby includes some truly juicy information in her endnotes, and you wouldn't know it from the main text. Tsk tsk. Seriously.

Also, the glossy photos towards the end of the book really add nothing.  All in all, a fair book on an exceedingly creepy and interesting topic.