Books, Books, Books, Books...

One pleasant side-effect of being laid up with a phlegmy chest: I have a legitimate excuse to lie around reading.  (Of course, I was doing that anyway, but now I don't have to feel even remotely guilty about it.)  And since I haven't gotten around to updating any of the site's "Recent Reads" areas recently, perhaps a few recs here in the ol' journal would be in order.

Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis.  An intriguing mix of the familiar-from-eighth-grade-social-studies and the completely surprising, this account of the American Revolutionaries in the early days of the Republic is consistently delightful.  You'll learn fascinating tidbits about the below-the-radar genius of James Madison, the intense partnership of John and Abigail Adams, the almost-ironically-imperial character of George Washington, and (perhaps most interesting of all) the remarkably compartmentalized mind of Thomas Jefferson.  I had a healthy respect for Madison before reading this--he's a local boy, after all, from only a few miles outside Orange--but I had no idea how complicated, self-contradictory, even self-deluding Jefferson was, which makes Ellis's biography of TJ, American Sphinx, a definite must-read.

The Terror by Dan Simmons.  A cracking good yarn.  Simmons has constructed a book which is part historical novel, part horror story, and all absorbing.  Though it's based on the real voyage of Sir John Franklin and his two ships to find the Northwest Passage, and is therefore full of fascinating details about 19th-century sailing and icebreaking practices, the story is centered around Simmons' creation of a terrifying something-or-other that's stalking the ships.  As they sit, frozen in place for the second winter in a row, unable to escape, the ships' crews have to face the same decisions faced by the men aboard Shackleton's Endurance at the other end of the world--how to defeat the cold, the boredom, the darkness, the deprivation--but also decisions Shackleton never faced, like how to avoid being plucked off the ship and eaten alive.  It's a masterful balancing act, full of creativity and vivid detail, and I knew Simmons had me cold (so to speak) when he stretched a single action sequence over twenty-five pages and I didn't even notice until it was over.  Wonderful storytelling, highly recommended.

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing.  If you're wondering why I was in the mood to read Simmons' novel, it was because of this superb real-life adventure (which I didn't realize until it was in my hands had been published in 1959).  Lansing's command of events on Shackleton's abortive Antarctic adventure is superb, but his storytelling ability is what makes this book work so beautifully.  Every time you think you see an opening for our heroes, Lansing slams it closed with a timing that verges on the unearthly.  I can imagine that any writer could make Shackleton's tale worth reading, but in Lansing's hands, it's a tale worth savoring--you want to pull people aside on the street and tell them how amazing it was that Shackleton didn't lose a man.  A classic of nonfiction for good reason.

Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis.  As a stone fan of Ellis's comics writing, particularly Nextwave, The Authority, Planetary, and the indescribably gonzo Transmetropolitan, I was looking forward to reading his first prose novel, and I wasn't disappointed.  Sure, at some level I suppose I could have predicted that an Ellis novel would involve Godzilla fetishists, but it's a rousing good tale nonetheless:  the bastard child of Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson, hopped up on speed and driving America's highways in a car with a powerful engine, dangerously unreliable tires, and a stereo tuned to an all-punk all-the-time station and cranked up to skull-liquefying volume.  Have a blast!

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.  I've long loved Narnia, but for nearly as long, I've had a definite uneasiness with Lewis's fiction for adults.  Actually, some of the Narnia material is a little unsettling as well--the casual racism of The Horse and His Boy, say, or the rather unnerving fate of Susan in The Last Battle--but it was my readings of The Great Divorce and the astonishing short story "The Shoddy Lands" in his Of Other Worlds collection that really brought me up short.  To put it mildly, Lewis had Some Issues With Women.  I was therefore a little leery of picking up a Lewis novel about three sisters that's narrated by one of them.  Luckily, his muse was up to the task, and it turned out to be an enjoyable retelling of the myth of Cupid & Psyche.  I was a little disappointed in the ending, when the tale really shifts away from the myth and moves into Lewis's attempt (one of many in his career, I might add) to bring the classical mythology he loved into a satisfactory detente with the Christianity he had married himself too.  As rationalizations go, it was roughly as effective as most rationalizations for adultery, but his descriptions of the actual affair are quite engrossing.  It's also interesting to see some of the tropes from Prince Caspian (such as the siblings disagreeing on what is/is not visible, or the battle decided by single combat between the monarchs) getting trotted out for an adult audience.  All in all, though, it's really the heartbreaking way in which he shows Orual's love for her sister being broken against her rationality that makes it worth reading.

So.  Click on something.  Buy it.  Find some reading time.  Enjoy.


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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on February 26, 2008 6:37 PM.

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