Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday Review, 6/10/2011 - Trashy Books

There will probably be a Trashy Book addenda next week, because I will need to read something on the plane on Sunday, and after sightseeing tomorrow. So, watch for that.

First, not a trashy book - on the plane out, I read:

Donald R. McCoy -  The Presidency of Harry S. Truman

Truman was born and raised in Independence, Missouri, which is where I've been working all week, at his library. So, it seemed appropriate to read this in preparation. I own this book, I bought it years ago for a class, and never read it, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. It was an excellent plane book - long enough to occupy the pair of flights (and the bus ride in from the airport, and the waiting for my host to come and pick me up), but not so enthralling that I resented having to stop to change planes, or talk to a person, or whatever.

As a historian, I found some of McCoy's conclusions a little weak. He is clearly a fan of Truman, which colours his take on the conflicts of Truman's presidency. For instance, he takes at face value Truman's assertion that he chewed out Molotov, the Russian ambassador. The only source for this is Truman's diary, and it seems out of character. No one else in the White House remembers it, although it would seem to be the sort of thing that people would remember. Still, it's part of the Truman mythos now.

Another historical problem is that the book was published in the early '80s (1984), so some of the evidence he used is a little out of date now - especially his assumptions about the Soviets and their reaction to Truman's administration. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, cold war historians got access to the Soviet era archives, and that changed a number of things about cold war history. Clearly, it's not the fault of McCoy, because his book was published before the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it does mean that there are probably better histories from that regard published since.

As a reader, the book was not bad. A little dry in places, especially in the lengthy descriptions of legislation that Truman championed or vetoed, but clearly written for an educated layman reader. Truman is a fascinating president, and the experiences of his administration can teach us a great deal about our current political situation, if only we were paying attention.

Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason - The Rule of Four

I started this one next, because it prompted comment when I posted my photo. This book was delightful. The cover material alludes to Dan Brown, and that is entirely wrong and misleading. This book was so so so much better than anything Brown has cobbled together. The cover material also mentioned Umberto Eco, and that's a much better fit - it's not quite as dense and twisty and translated out of the Italian as Eco, but it has a hint of Eco's sparkle, and his tendency to tell complicated jokes through his characters.

The plot is complicated. 4 students at Princeton approach graduation. To graduate from Princeton, they must all complete (as all Princeton Seniors must do) a Senior Thesis. Paul Harris has chosen to write his thesis on an Italian Renaissance text, the Hypnerciomachia Poliphili. Scholars who study the book are convinced that it contains complex riddles, pointing readers to some sort of treasure or mystery. Paul, with the help of his 3 friends (Tom, Charlie, and Gil), has set out to solve the riddles, and thus locate the mysterious treasure. In this quest he is challenged by his thesis adviser, who is one of the few scholars of the text, and who shares an entirely different theory as to what the book is about, and how to unlock its secrets.

Caldwell and Thomason offer entirely believable characters, a lovely description of Princeton, a neat plot with a minimum of racing about, and a fun puzzle of a book within a book to explore. There is a sweet romance, a little mystery and confusion, some murder, and a little mayhem. I must say, I didn't like that most of the book was written in present tense - that bothers me. Also, as I look back on the week, it wasn't really a trashy book, either. Oh well, can't win all the time, right?

While doing research on Tuesday, this song came up on my Pandora - Sloan: Green Gardens and Cold Montreal. For some reason it reminded me of this book, which I had just finished reading the night before - something about the discussion of college and expectations and romance.

Gene Hackman and Daniel Lenihan - Wake of the Perdido Star

A pirate book! Well, sort of. In 1805, Jack O'Reilly and his family travel of the Perdido Star from Salem, Massachusetts to Cuba, to claim title to some land that O'Reilly's mother inherited. While there, they are betrayed, and O'Reilly's parents are killed. O'Reilly escapes, and returns to the ship, where he becomes a crew member. He vows revenge. The ship sails into the Pacific, where, due to a series of unfortunate events, the crew are forced to become pirates, and also deep sea divers.

Hackman, of course, is an actor. It is clear that he brings a sense of narrative pacing to this project. His partner, Lenihan, is an underwater archaeologist - he brings thoughts about deep sea diving and ocean retrieval, and probably thoughts about the history of the period, the nature of sailing ships, and etc. They combine to produce a really good book - swashbuckle-y! It's got fighting, revenge, deep sea diving, pirates - no fencing, no giants, and only a minimum of kissing, but otherwise a good book.

The scenes involving deep sea diving went on a bit - I'm sure they were achingly accurate in their depiction of how that process works and the dangers inherent in diving with very very pre-modern equipment. The whole sequence was, of course, entirely vital to the plot, but perhaps dragged on more than it really needed to. The decision to become pirates was, as far as I am aware, historically appropriate - driven by desperation, and accompanied by the trappings of democracy. That was very nicely done - but then the ship doesn't engage in any acts of piracy! That was a little disappointing - it would have been nice to have had at least one set piece naval battle. Also missing - a really good map (there is a map, but it lacks detail) and an historical note.

As with The Rule of Four, I am hard pressed to call this book trashy. Thus far, I'm 0 for 2.

Joanna Maitland - A Poor Relation

Period romance! Surely this one is trashy. Miss Isabella Winstanley is a wealthy single woman who, in order to engage in charitable works and to avoid being pursued by gentlemen with fancy titles, but no money and no manners, masquarades as a poor relation of her aunt. She catches the attention of Baron (also Major) Amburley (titled, but poor - well mannered, though, and attractive), largely because her cousin Sophia (actually a poor relation)  has caught the eye of Amburley's young associate, Lewiston (wealthy, but untitled.) Amburley is convinced that Sophia and Isabella are up to some plot to catch a rich husband for Isabella, and so sets out to find out what's up. Naturally, he and Isabella fall in love - he is gruff and moody, and she can ride like a man, play cards like a man, and drive a coach like a man, while remaining entirely feminine and alluring.

So, ok. It's a romance novel. The plot is fairly straightforward - we have  meetcute, we have a complicated mistaken identity, we have loathe at first sight, we have the gradual coming together and we have the epiphany wherein Amburley realizes that, yes, he really does love Isabella. Around that plot, though, there is a well researched and reasonably well written novel, with characters that it's not hard to care about. There is no swooning, there is a little kissing, but no historically inappropriate sex before marriage, Almack's plays a prominent role, and Sophie is not allowed to waltz until given permission to do so from a matron at Almack's. There is an overly long scene involving a game of Piquet, which, actually, I could have done without. The game (it's a card game) is deeply complicated, and Maitland doesn't really have the space to explain the rules or any of that. It's important to the plot to an extent, and it shows us that Isabella can hold her own against Amburley, but it goes on too long. Despite that, all in all, I enjoyed the book quite a lot - and it's only mildly trashy. 0 for 3.

Lawrence Block - The Hit List

Jack Keller is a hitman. That is, he earns his living by killing people. Periodically, he gets a call from Dorothy (Dot), his contact/broker, who tells him who the client wants removed, and where. Keller goes, he does the job, he comes back. He buys stamps for his collection. He serves jury duty. He falls, superficially, in love. He dabbles with astronomy. He worries, because there is some indication that someone else is trying to kill him - for reasons he cannot conceive. Eventually, Keller and Dot work out what's going on, and resolve things in the only way they know how.

The book seems to be written in a series of vignettes, or short stories. The time that Jack killed a guy in Louisville, and bought some stamps. The time he decided not to kill a guy in Brooklyn, and didn't buy a painting, but got a girlfriend (sort of). The time Keller didn't kill a couple of guys, but got paid for it anyway. The time Keller did jury duty. There's a thread there, but it's tenuous, and focuses on this guy who may, or may not, be trying to kill Keller.

Initially, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. The humor was black and dry - Keller is dubious about the morality of what he does, while, at the same time, doesn't care enough to actually stop doing it. There's a lot of Martin Blank in Keller - it wouldn't be hard to see John Cusack playing Keller in the movie version. I like a dry black humor, and I like an anti-hero who isn't convinced of his heroic status - Keller was a lot of fun, initially. Later, though, when Dot and Keller decide that the only way to resolve things is to kill Keller's ex-girlfriend; enh. He stopped being a sympathetic character. I dislike that. I kept expecting some sort of twist ending, and it didn't come. In fact, the book just sort of ends - Keller is still doing what he does, Dot is still doing what she does, and nothing changes. It's a little bleak - even a little depressing, frankly. Although disapointing in the end, I'm not sure I can classify this book as trashy, either. So, 0 for 4.

Theresa Medeiros - After Midnight

Ok, THIS book, this book is a trashy book. Regency romance, a little later in time than the earlier work, with added vampires. Vivienne Cabot is having her Season in London when her younger sister, Portia, becomes convinced that the man who seems to be courting Vivienne is a vampire. She tries to convince the eldest (and most sensible) Cabot girl, Caroline, that something must be done. Caroline is not convinced, but an invitation from Adrian Kane (potential vampire) brings Portia and Caroline to London anyway, where Caroline proceeds to fall madly (and unwillingly) in love with Adrian Kane. Who may or may not be a vampire. Portia falls for Kane's younger brother, Julian (who may or may not be a vampire, but is certainly an overly dramatic fop), and Constable Larkin (and old friend of Kane's, and definitely NOT a vampire) falls in love with Vivienne. There's a masquerade ball at Kane's castle in the country. There's a mysterious figure from Kane's past. There IS a vampire (naturally). There is also some steamy steamy extra-marital sex - totally inappropriate for the time period. Everyone is utterly dramatic about almost everything, all of the characters are perfect types of their type of character, and everything falls tidily into place (or into bed, as the case may be).

It's trashy, but it's not bad. It's a little overwritten in places, and Medeiros inserts character development at odd places - Caroline, we are told 3/4 of the way through the book, is better at math than at embroidery, for instance. She and Vivienne have a silly spat in the last 1/8th of the book, revealing that they are really sisters and behave like real sisters do. For the most part, though, the characters are acceptable, even if the story is silly. Medeiros clearly had fun writing it, and I had fun reading it.

1 for 5 on trashy books - but they served their purpose. Perhaps I'll do better in two weeks when I have to go to DC.