Lady Wu, Lin Yutang

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1 star
First Sentence: How can one write about one’s grandmother, especially if she was a whore?

Thoughts: Lady Wu was a fascinating woman, but you wouldn’t know it from this book. Yutang portrays her as a cardboard cutout of a monster with no depth or reasoning behind her desperate grabs for power. She is simply a force of evil, subjugating all the men who stand in her way until her uncontrollable lust gets the better of her. It’s such a parody of a powerful woman that it’s almost insulting.

Not only is Wu a one-dimensional villain, the book is written in a dry, stilted style that makes it read like a weak novelization of a textbook. The story isn’t as important as the long list of facts that run together in a kind of literary drone that makes this an excellent book for insomniacs. (Trust me, I tried it.) The textbook nature of this dare I call it a novel is emphasized when Yutang interrupts the story with a three-page list of Wu’s most politically important victims. He then spends the rest of the book referring to this list both in the text and in footnotes.

It’s a shame the book is so boring because, as I mentioned before, Wu was a very interesting woman. She was a minor concubine of Emperor Taizong who went into a convent after his death, only to emerge to become the concubine and then first wife of the next emperor, Gaozong. Her rise was made possible by her political savvy in making friends with the maids of the other concubines and wives, and her utter ruthlessness in eliminating everyone who got in her way. She was so powerful that when Gaozong died, she took the reins of power for herself, exiling her own sons so she could be Empress Regnant.

On the other hand, she did have her vices, which Yutang played up to a ridiculous extent. Especially her lust for young men. Yutang seemed to think that an older woman with a younger man was something horrible that went against all the laws of nature. Reverse the genders and suddenly it’s the most natural thing in the world!

Still, I can’t help but share Yutang’s horror when Wu murders her own firstborn daughter so she can frame Gaozong’s first wife Empress Wang.

I would love to see what a woman’s version of Wu’s life would be like. Unfortunately history, especially Chinese history, is a very masculine thing. The official records were all kept by men who thought women needed to keep to their “proper” sphere which was not on the imperial throne. Still, I can’t help but think a female author would give Wu more depth in both her personality and motivation. If nothing else, she could write it so it would be a proper novel and not a disguised history lesson.

The Bungalow Mystery, Carolyn Keene

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4 stars
First Sentence: “Look at those black storm clouds!” Nancy Drew pointed out to her friend, Helen Corning, who was seated beside her in the bow of the small red motorboat.

Thoughts: Bungalow is a fun word to say, isn’t it? Buuuunnnng-alooooooooow. It makes me think of the bit in Eddie Izzard’s Dress to Kill where he talks about how everyone in Europe lives in a castle and longs for a bungalow. I don’t think they’d long for this one, though. It’s a bit treacherous.

This particular bungalow is a refuge for Nancy and Helen Corning after their boat is sunk during a sudden storm on Moon Lake. They’re rescued by another girl, Laura Pendleton, who rows them to shore where they take shelter in the titular building. The place seems deserted, but they find evidence that someone’s been camping out on the second floor,* so they leave a note explaining why they dripped all over the floor and drank all the cocoa before heading back to the hotel.

On the way they get to know Laura. Her mother’s recent death has left her orphaned and adrift in the world. She’s on her way to meet her new foster parents, the Aborns. Nancy and Helen meet Mrs. Aborn when she comes into the hotel lobby to yell about how inconvenient the country is. They’re not impressed with her nor with Mr. Aborn when they meet him the next day. There’s something a bit off about the both of them. Unfortunately Nancy doesn’t have time to worry about that right now because her father’s housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, has just sprained her ankle. Since Mr. Drew is out of town on one of his frequent trips, Nancy has to hurry home to help her out.

The next day Nancy gets a mysterious phone call that ends with a scuffle, a cry of pain, and the line being disconnected. Nancy thinks it might have been Laura, but she can’t go investigate right now because Mr. Drew needs her help on an embezzlement case he’s working on. He wants Nancy to check out four of the suspect to see how suspicious they are. After a morning of undercover work, Nancy returns home to find Laura on her doorstep. The Aborns are trying to rob Laura of her mother’s jewelry, so after she shows it off to Nancy and Hannah, they lock it up in Mr. Drew’s office safe. Finally, Nancy has a chance to go back to Moon Lake to investigate the Aborns.

This is one of those mysteries that would be totally different if it had happened today. Nancy wouldn’t have been in so much danger if she had had a cell phone. She wouldn’t have gotten into so much trouble when she was caught sneaking around the Aborn’s place, and Hannah and Mr. Drew wouldn’t have had to worry so long when she didn’t get back home on time. She also wouldn’t have gotten stranded many times as she was. Take all the auto shop courses you want, they still won’t beat the ability to call a tow truck when your car breaks down on the side of the road.

*Aren’t bungalows supposed to be one story?

Faust Part Two, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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4 stars
First Sentence: When the petals, like sweet rain,
Deck the earth with fluttering spring,
When the fields are green again,
And to men their blessing bring,
Then the little elves, great-souled,
Haste to help, if help they can
Saint or sinner, for they hold
Heart’s compassion for each luckless man.

Thoughts: There’s a lot more going on here than in Part One. Mephistopheles’ quest for Faust’s soul seems to be put on the back burner while Our (Anti-)Heroes take a grand tour of Europe. They visit the Holy Roman Emperor who’s having some cash-flow issues that are quickly (too quickly) solved when Faust and Mephistopheles introduce paper money. The emperor is thrilled and asks Faust to conjure up the ghosts of Helen of Troy and Paris to entertain his guests. Faust does so, recognizes Helen as the beautiful woman from the witch’s magic mirror in Part One, and promptly swoons like a Victorian maiden.

Mephistopheles takes the unconscious Faust back to his old study where he catches up with Faust’s old assistant Wagner and the student he tricked way back when. He convinces Wagner’s homunculus to take them to Greece where they wander around for a while. Faust wakes up and starts searching for someone who can help him conjure up the real Helen, the homunculus hangs out with Proteus until he breaks his glass case and dies, and Mephisto falls hard for the Phorkyads, three ugly Greek witches with one tooth and one eye among them.

Then they all take part in a parody/homage to classical Greek drama. Helen and her chorus find themselves reanimated in Sparta where a Phorkyas (really Mephistopheles in disguise) convinces her that Menelaus wants to sacrifice her and sends them all to the new next-door neighbor who has promised to protect her. That neighbor is none other than Faust who woos Helen, wins her, and fights Menelaus for her hand. Then the time jumping begins and things get a bit weird.

I really wish Goethe had put in some sort of indication in the text that he was skipping several years.

Faust finds himself once more in a tragedy. He and Helen have a hyperactive son who falls into a pit, Helen dies, and Faust has to go back to the Holy Roman Emperor who’s going broke due to inflation caused by the paper money. He takes a job as a civil engineer working with land reclamation projects which end up killing Baucis and Philemon. Finally, Faust dies and Mephistopheles calls up all his witches to claim his soul. Alas, the story of Mephistopheles was the true tragedy all along because the Penitent One (Gretchen from Part One) sends a choir of angels down to snatch up Faust’s soul before the Devil can get his grubby little hands on it.

The moral of the story is: woman always has to clean up the messes that men make.

No, I’m not kidding. Goethe was obviously a man who knew which side his bread was buttered on.

If all this was a little tl;dr for you, please enjoy this ten-minute summary of the play:

Words Without Music, Philip Glass

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5 stars
First Sentence: “If you go to New York City to study music, you’ll end up like your uncle Henry, spending your life traveling from city to city and living in hotels.”

Thoughts: I first discovered Philip Glass in the summer of 1997 when I was at Governor’s School in Winston-Salem. Governor’s School is a (now sadly defunct) program for gifted & talented high school students to geek out over the summer by immersing themselves in their preferred form of geekery. Somehow, I’m still not entirely sure how, I ended up playing the viola in the orchestra program. Probably because viola players are hard to find, but that may just be me being too hard on myself. Still, I wasn’t prepared for the full orchestra experience. I had only played in an after-school program before so I had zero confidence. Philip Glass’ “Company” changed that. It was an extremely simple piece to play, but it sounds totally profound. Thanks to Glass I had the confidence to keep going all the way up to John Adam’s “Meister Eckhart and Quackie” where we got to play with harmonics.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about Philip Glass. This is a man who has lived the 1960s boho artistic life that my high school theater classmates were longing for. He had decided at an early age to devote his life to music and so he did. He worked his kiester off to get into Julliard and then got a grant to study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger in France before taking a year off to explore India with his wife before returning to New York to grind away until he hit it big with his first opera, Einstein on the Beach.

But he wasn’t just a musician. He worked with all sorts of artists and their art. He helped his wife Joanne with her theater work both before and after their divorce. He worked in a moving company with several other artists, as mentioned on a recent episode of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. He even proved to be an inspiration to Jasper Johns when he was looking for a new medium for his art. Glass had been working as a plumber at the time and had just learned how to work with lead (this was in the days of copper pipes and lead solder.) He showed Johns how to heat the lead and work with it and from that came John’s lead “splash paintings.”

I mention this episode in particular because recently I went to the Asheville Art Museum with a friend of mine and guess what they had on the wall? A Jasper Johns lead piece. Yes, I did squee and direct my friend’s attention to this piece, complete with the story I just told you.

Some parts of the book do get a bit name-droppy, which is to be expected because Glass has worked with a lot of other famous people throughout his life. People like Carl Sagan who attended lectures with him when they were in high school, Ravi Shankar who taught him music in Paris along with Boulanger, Robert Mapplethorpe who took a portrait of Glass that’s included in the book, Martin “Marty” Scorcese who he worked with on the movie Kundun. But the name that impressed me the most was the pseudonym of one of his Julliard classmates: P.D.Q. Bach. The P.D.Q. Bach! If you don’t know who that is, you need to drop everything and listen to “Echo Sonata for Two Unfriendly Groups of Instruments” right the hell now!

I was pleased to discover that, in addition to being the greatest composer of the late 20th/early 21st century*, he’s also a heckuva writer. Especially when he’s talking about music. For example, here he manages to capture the feeling of playing in a group in one simple sentence:

Once we let go of the narrative and allow ourselves to enter the flow of the music, the buoyancy that we experience is both addictive and attractive and attains a high emotional level.

He also has a healthy sense of humor and perspective as demonstrated in this section where he’s talking about his critics:

They were going to be mad at me no matter what I did. But luckily I have a wonderful gene—the I-don’t-care-what-you-think gene. I have that big-time. I actually didn’t care then, and to this day I still don’t care.

I didn’t think I could love Glass more, but there you are. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a long list of composers and orchestral pieces that were mentioned in the book that I need to listen to. Thank your deity of choice for YouTube! Otherwise I’d be on a decades-long search to find out what these pieces sound like.

*In my not-so-humble opinion. He’s the only composer I get straight-up fangirly over.

The Hidden Staircase, Carolyn Keene

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3 stars
First Sentence: Nancy Drew began peeling off her garden gloves as she ran up the porch steps and into the hall to answer the ringing telephone.

Thoughts: Strange things are afoot at the house of the Turnbull Sisters. There are weird sounds in the night, things don’t stay where they’re put, and food keeps disappearing from the pantry. They’re starting to think the house is haunted. Their granddaughter/great niece Helen Corning calls her friend Nancy Drew to investigate the disturbances, but Nancy is worried about leaving her own home at the moment.

Her father, Carson Drew, is working on a land-dispute case between the railroad and local property owners, and one of the key witnesses has gone missing. A thoroughly unpleasant man named Nathan Gomber had just come to the Drew home to warn Nancy she might want to keep an eye on her father because “something” might happen to him. Nancy’s intends to keep close to her father, especially after they’re almost run over by a runaway truck at the river one day. But Carson reassures his daughter that he’ll be fine and goes out of town to look for the missing witness, leaving Nancy free to visit the haunted Turnbull house.

Her investigation leads her to believe there’s a secret passage between the Turnbull house and an abandoned colonial mansion nearby. The houses were built by two nineteenth-century brothers who had been close until they had a falling out after the Civil War. Then Nathan Gomber shows up again in the abandoned mansion, leading Nancy to believe the missing witness might be closer than Carson thought.

It’s a fun mystery but not as good as The Secret of the Old Clock. This is mostly due to Helen. She’s too busy planning her wedding to be a good sidekick. She doesn’t take part in the investigation as much as react to it. I’m glad that she drops out of the series eventually.

While I was trying to remember Gomber’s name, I discovered that this version of the book (which is also the version I read as a child) is not the original. Apparently it was heavily revised from the 1930 edition which also featured Carson giving Nancy a gun and an extremely racist stereotype of a black woman.

Sometimes it’s good to update the story to fit the times.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

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4 stars
First Sentence: First the colors.

Thoughts: When Death is your narrator, expect a roller-coaster ride of emotions. He (She? It?) swings you from tragedy to humor to bittersweet and right back to tragedy. When Death is telling the story of a young German girl during WWII, expect the peaks and valleys to be exceptional in both height and depth.

Liesel Meminger’s story starts out with tragedy. Her younger brother dies on the train that is taking them to their new foster parents. Their mother can’t keep them for reasons that Liesel doesn’t understand for several years. As they leave the side of Bruder Meminger’s grave, Liesel notices that one of the gravediggers has dropped a book. She snatches it up and thus begins her career as an inveterate book thief.

Her foster father, Hans Hubermann, teaches her to read from that first stolen book, which is a handbook for gravediggers. They work their way through it after Liesel wakes up from her regular nightmares. This also cements Liesel’s affections for Hans. He’s a kindly man who paints houses and plays the accordion. One of his fellow soldiers had taught him how to play while they were serving in WWI. Hans brought the accordion back to his friend’s widow after he (the friend) was blown up in battle, but she asked him to keep it because reasons. Years later, the friend’s son, Max Vanderburg, shows up on Hans’ doorstep looking for a place to hide. For, you see, the friend was Jewish and the Nazis are now running Germany.

Max encourages Liesel in her reading and, inadvertently, her book thievery. She and her friend Rudy Steiner join a gang of children who rob farms of any loose fruit or vegetables that haven’t been harvested yet. When they aren’t stealing produce, Liesel and Rudy are sneaking over to the mayor’s house to swipe books from his wife’s library. Liesel reads those books to Max who repays her by writing and illustrating little books of his own for her.

Then a group of Dachau prisoners are paraded through the main street of Molching and things start to go downhill for the Hubermanns. Max runs away to protect the family, but it’s too little too late. Then the bombings start and Death finds him/her/itself on Himmelstraße where Liesel lives.

I probably wouldn’t have kept reading this past the first chapter if Death didn’t have such an engaging voice. It draws you in from page one and keeps you going through the extreme peaks and valleys of the story with a morbid sense of humor you’d expect from the personification of the end of life. I also enjoyed the snippets of German sprinkled throughout. I picked up several new words, some of which are repeatable in polite society! My favorite was not one of those—it was Saukerl/Saumensch, which translates to either “bastard” or “dirty pig” depending on which dictionary you use. At least it was my favorite German word until recently when I discovered hamsterkauf, a word that is unbelievably useful right this very minute.

All that being said, the end of the novel is an absolute heartbreak that made me cry. There is a brief epilogue that tried to bring the mood back up but, as the philosopher T. Swift once stated, “bandaids don’t fix bullet holes.” This is why I don’t read war stories, people. The Book Thief is a fantastic novel but I will never, ever read it again.

Red at the Bone, Jacqueline Woodson

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4 stars
First Sentence: But that afternoon there was an orchestra playing.

Thoughts: That afternoon is Melody’s 16th birthday which her family is celebrating with a debutante party. Melody is wearing a satin dress that her mother Iris should have worn at her own 16th birthday if she hadn’t been pregnant with Melody at the time. The dress, altered from Iris’ measurements to fit her daughter, is the starting point of this surprisingly good family saga. The adjective is because this sort of story isn’t usually my cup o’ tea but the writing (and music) sets this one above the usual family/teen pregnancy tales.

Iris’s pregnancy forces her, her parents, and her boyfriend Aubrey to re-evaluate everything they had planned. Iris’s mother Sabe goes into crisis mode, haunted by memories of her grandmother’s tales of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 when her family barely escaped Oklahoma. Po’ Boy, Iris’ father, has to come to terms with the fact his daughter is a woman now. Meanwhile Iris is shunned and humiliated at her private Catholic school until she withdraws from school. Aubrey’s mother refuses to accept a high-school dropout as the mother of her grandchild, so she tutors Iris privately so Iris won’t lose a year before she re-enrolls at an NYC public high school in a different borough. Aubrey, on the other hand, is totally enraptured by his daughter and gets work in a mail room so he can support her while Iris is away at Oberlin College in Ohio.

Clearly, this a family going through some Stuff. Melody catches some of it, especially being separated from her mother. She calls Aubrey Dad but Iris is always Iris, never Mom. I liked the way Woodson turned the traditional family structure on its head like that. Iris has the usual “masculine” role, going off to do her own thing, having an affair with Another Woman, starting a career rather than just taking a job as Aubrey did.

I also liked how Iris’ feelings toward motherhood were portrayed. The chapter where she gives birth should be required reading in all sex-ed classes. It’s vivid and bloody and entirely too descriptive. I can’t have children and even I stapled my uterus shut after reading that. NO BABY. The only real connection she ever had with Iris was breast-feeding her, but that was tempered by the fact that her breasts were always leaking, even three years after she weaned Melody. (That scene stretched the suspension of disbelief like a weak rubber band.)

The best part? Iris is never judged for not being Mother Maternal. She just wasn’t cut out for that. She loved her daughter, yes, but she was not then, now, or ever the traditional mother who sacrificed everything for her child. Which, if you think about it, is a fine example. She didn’t want to “have it all,” she wanted to better herself. And the only reason she did is because Melody was being taken care of by her father and grandparents. If they hadn’t been around, Iris would have stayed around, but her relationship with her child would have suffered.

Warning: this book is set in New York City in 2001. You know what’s coming. And yes, that plays into the theme of family trauma that began with the Tulsa Massacre seventy years earlier. This time, however, Melody isn’t alone as her great-grandmother was and her scar won’t burden her as much as they did her ancestors. Maybe. Hopefully.

I cannot let this review go without mentioning the one really annoying aspect that irritated me beyond belief. It is written in a pretentious modern style that ignores the fact that quotation marks exist. All of the dialogue is set in italics which can be jarring when there are italics used legitimately in the text. I’ve said it before and I will continue saying it until contemporary authors get it through their fingers onto their keyboards: Quotation marks make dialogue—and consequently the characters—feel alive. Not using them makes your work look like a wall of text that makes the characters feel as flat as the page they were printed on. Shift + apostrophe. The apostrophe/quote mark key is right next to the Enter key. Use it.

This rant brought to you by the Society for the Preservation of Quotation Marks.