Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Reading List: The Glorious Cause

The Glorious Cause
by Jeff Shaara

The son of The Killer Angels author Michael Shaara has managed to become nearly as successful at bringing American military history to the masses. This one features the conclusion of the American Revolution, something I previously read about just a few months back on the List with a biography of John Adams. Alas, it's Ben Franklin who's a featured character here, along with Washington (subject of another prior List entry, Johnny One-Eye, from before the Hub City days) and some not-so-well-remembered figures, all sharing their unique perspectives. The blistering pace of reading I enjoyed last year ran into a little thing called employment at the start of 2012, not to mention a tangent in the Percy Jackson books, but I'm hoping to pick it up again.

Thoughts on Tecumseh: A Life

Reading John Sugden's biography of Tecumseh is at once mesmerizing and perplexing. There's little doubt that he did a great deal of expansive and immersive research on his subject, but from a objective standpoint, Sugden still tends to fall prey to the same things he attempted to avoid and strip away from the pervading narrative of the life of Tecumseh, namely the legend.

Many, many times, he goes out of his way to give voice to the perception that Tecumseh was an extraordinarily attractive individual. I don't personally see how that's relevant, nor how it affects one thing or another about his effectiveness. The basics of Tecumseh's life are that he came about at the last opportunity for Indians to make a significant stand against the encroaching United States, and was successful to the extent that he was because of continued bad relations between the country and its late fatherland, England. Beyond that, he failed in unifying tribes for any length of time, inspiring greatness in them, or winning sympathy for them. That may sound harsh, but the same can be said for Alexander the Great, for whom Tecumseh is a remarkable analogy, except Alexander had success in his lifetime that crumbled as soon as he died. Both had precedents immediately before them that helped make their successes possible. If there's something Sugden misses, it's an opportunity for perspective.

He spends most of his time preparing the reader for Tecumseh's greatness, but ends up making his brother, the Prophet, whom Sugden routinely downplays, sound more successful, if more temporarily, less respectful. For all the exhaustive accounts of Indian activities and the politics of William Henry Harrison, Sugden dances around more than illustrates Tecumseh, happily relying on conjecture rather than admitting that he doesn't really know that much beyond what he can extract from the legends that followed.

I'm not trying to say this is not worth reading, because it is; it's incredibly insightful and educational, and in some closing thoughts Sugden tries to put Tecumseh's impact in a certain amount of context (while basically dismissing every other Indian leader and movement that followed). It might be said that the whole point of the biography is to testify to the portrait of Tecumseh as the consummate "noble savage." Again, I don't mean to imply that this was actually Sugden's intention, but that he is not the writer that Tecumseh deserves, and that's what the book really proves, that there's a truly great story here, except that it's waiting for the author that's worthy to the challenge.

I read this one because I was relying on information that suggested it actually was that book, but I'm not convinced that it is. I struggled with the legacy of Tecumseh throughout the book, mostly because Sugden keeps him at an ambiguous distance for most of it, and maybe that's the best the historical record can give us today, and maybe it's a flaw of the author. That's why I'm presenting my impressions in this light, because it's my opinion that the author is the problem, and not the subject. Perhaps we'll know for sure at a later date.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Thoughts on Percy Jackson

I've now completed the five book Percy Jackson cycle from Rick Riordan (The Lightning Thief, Sea of Monsters, Titan's Curse, Battle of the Labyrinth, and The Last Olympian), and on the one hand, it's really obvious that Riordan comes from the popular fiction writing tradition (he also writes a series of mystery books for adults), but this is not really so bad a way for young readers to pass the time.

Popular fiction writers tend to be people who write in the very literal, description heavy fashion that people who don't look for a lot of complication but plenty of stimulation from their reading tend to enjoy, and that's why so many more people read this kind of thing than more literary fiction. On the surface, it's not very "good" writing, in that it's not terribly nuanced, but again, it's readable. Riordan, for instance, seems to have written as if he got most of his inspiration from the way cartoons are presented to kids, with very deliberate and not overly serious characterization (even from the villains) in most situations (though Last Olympian gets some major points by delivering on the dramatic potential of the prophecy at the center of the narrative finally coming to pass).

In addition, he adapts most of his storytelling directly from existing Greek myths, taking whole characters and situations with very few changes and transplanting them to modern times, sometimes with a twist and sometimes without really thinking it all the way through. One would have wished that he had gotten some editing tips from the start. There's no real reason to have dragged the story to five books, except that he could get his target audience to continue buying these books no matter what (which is why he's now begun a spin-off series and an unrelated one based on Egyptian mythology which he's writing at the same time).

Still, it's not really so bad, but its long-term potential is questionable, especially the less readers look for that next Harry Potter. That's the main hook for Percy Jackson, and the more distance from Harry's release comes between existing readers and those who might come next the more likely Percy will be forgotten...and Harry won't. Harry completely outclasses this competitor.

I wouldn't discourage anyone from reading these books, it's just, unless you're looking for a fun, easy read, I would not go out of my way to recommend them. I don't want to sound condescending, because I did read through all of them in less than two months, which is to say, I was willing to continue reading them even though it's not the level of writing I normally pursue.

If there are future editions of the series, I would strongly urge Riordan to be a little more transparent, and include notes on all the original myths he adapts in notes either at the beginning or end of each novel. Readers will either be existing scholars of Greek mythology, or should be motivated to become ones, and Riordan would do well to make it clear that almost everything he writes except the individual campers already exists, and in the exact form he presents it. It wouldn't be so bad if Percy weren't presented as an ignorant narrator who is always relating events after the fact, and never seems to be remotely interested in learning about anything he's just learned is basically in his family tree. It boils down to the fallacy of Riordan believing his audience is as simple as he cares to write.

But still, I will stress that they're not, after all, more of a chore than a pleasure to read.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Scouring Books: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451
by Ray Bradbury

Originally published in 1951

I've read other Bradbury, but not this one, yet I still know the basic plot. That's the kind of book you should have on your shelf.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: The Great Typo Hunt

The Great Typo Hunt
by Jeff Deck & Benjamin D. Herson

Originally published in 2010

I don't tend to read a lot of narrative nonfiction because more often than not, it's just someone trying to raise a quick buck on a depressing story they somehow survived. I don't read to experience vicarious depression, or whatever epiphany came from the experience. This one's about some dude who convinced his friends that traveling around the country correcting typos was a worthwhile endeavor. Conclusions are reached about what typos are made, infractions committed at state parks are made, and someone who believes he has too much disposable income, or perhaps a really silly excuse for an extended vacation relates his experiences. It's kind of fun reading!

Bookshelf status: read

Scouring Books: My Life

My Life
by Golda Meir

Originally published in 1975

Israel has got to be one of the biggest stories of the modern era, and perhaps no one is quite able to relate its history quite like Golda Meir, a figure I will say the film Munich introduced me to.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: Have a Little Faith

Have a Little Faith
by Mitch Albom

Originally published in 2009

Albom has become to go-to feel-good writer thanks to Tuesdays with Morrie, always attempting to bridge the barriers between individuals, experiences, and this time religions. He relates his relationship with a dying rabbi, and in contrast, a Christian preacher who builds his life back together from the ground up, and hopes to do the same for his community. Above all else, Albom seems to have a knack for capturing the character of the people he writes about, which I suppose comes from a background in journalism.

Bookshelf status: read

Scouring Books: Dear American Airlines

Dear American Airlines
by Jonathan Miles

Originally published in 2008

A truly modern novel (as truly exceptional literature ought to always begin), this one's in the form of a complaint letter (the title explains the rest of that) and is another book I wish more people would've noticed.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: The Riddle of the Sands

The Riddle of the Sands
by Erskine Childers

Originally published in 1903

I had to be intrigued when I stumbled across this one, because it is one of the very earliest modern novels (described on the cover as "the first and best of spy stories"), but I'd never heard of it before, so I had to add it to my collection at least as a curiosity.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: The Autobiography of Mark Twain

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Originally published in ???

This is not a listing for the recently published first volume of the complete autobiography, but rather for an earlier edition, the one I'm referencing from 1961, in what was otherwise considered the working edition at the time. I was completely surprised that so many readers came out of the woodwork for the new edition, considering that most readers these days will do anything but try and read some real literary work. This is not to belittle common literary work that appeals to mass audiences, but to lament the loss of a culture that truly values challenging works (even if it sometimes takes a long time for individual works). Anyway, Twain is Twain, I suppose.

Bookshelf status: unread

Scouring Books: Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies
by William Golding

Originally published in 1954

One of the great classics of 20th Century literature, as well as a priceless study of the psychology of war and youths, it has become a limitless source of pop culture references, and is recognizable even by people who have never read it. Needless to say, I believe that everyone should read it.

Bookshelf status: read

Scouring Books: The 9/11 Report

The 9/11 Report
by Thomas H. Kean, Lee H. Hamilton, and the New York Times

Originally published in 2004

One of the books every American ought to have, this is the official record of the 9/11 Commission, which at the very least provides a comprehensive record of the origins and events of 9/11.

Bookshelf status: read

Scouring Books: Dune

by Frank Herbert

Originally published in 1965

One of the great classics of sci-fi literature, Dune has become a franchise in recent years, thanks to Frank Herbert's son Brian and author Kevin J. Anderson. Herbert himself wrote a number of sequels, but it's the first one that truly remains a part of the popular consciousness, and is perhaps the only one anyone who cares about literature really needs to read.

Bookshelf status: unread
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