Book Reviews – Part 1
Can I ever wind down from the brisk crunch of the end of the year and our backpacking trip? Maybe. I’m listening to Flavio Cucchi, an Italian guitarist, and am going to report on a stack of books I’ve managed to finish that have kept me sane over the last few months. But first a note on the food front; ahem:
The DIY Alton Brown style Box Fan Food Dehydrator totally works and we made pasta salad on our backpacking trip. I will have pics up in a bit. There are some slight annoyances, but the overal effect is quite grand.
There, now that’s done, onto the books! These are in no particular order. Okay they do have an order, and that order is the way they have piled up on my desk. Today, you get to see three of these books. So there.
1. Ian Fleming’s Secret War, by Craig Cabell
So I picked up this little treasure from the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. on our school’s 8th grade trip. Pretty Fitting purchase, no? I intended it for my fiancé, but naturally, I read it first.
I have gotta say, the International Spy Museum deserves a visit, and especially the “Operation Spy” where you participate in a rather engrossing and immersive operation. If you get the chance, go. The museum, and it’s varied experiences, are fabulous, whether the inclusion of real relics (the original script for that little sci-fi called Argo, anyone?) or chances to try your hand at the trade (I’m not so good at audio processing. I did, however, use my ninja skills successfully in the noise sensitive air duct), the museum can’t be beat. It’s also running a Bond exhibit at the moment for the film series (rather than the books’) 50th anniversary.
The dust cover flap says Craig Cabell is a journalist, but he writes like a journalist who happens to have had a career in the military; the book, short and absurdly well sourced with included passages and documents, could be confused for a SitRep at times. While engrossing, Cabell isn’t out to provide immersion, he’s out to provide facts, and a clear and concise picture of Ian Flemming’s role in the intelligence community in WWII (he explicitly states similar). This he does excellently, and it’s fascinating. It becomes less of a story of how a writer can gather a variety of inspirations for a bestselling hero, but how one single person fits into the great scheme of a system, and can play quite a surprising role bigger than just a cog in the machine.
Dryness is entirely made up for by this compelling roll out of Fleming’s history as the right hand man to the head of Naval Intelligence, but don’t expect all the dots to be connected for you as to what his successes mean to the greater part of the war effort, or to us today. It’s a fascinating snapshot, not a biography, and it has no illusions about making these connections. Those are for you to make on your own. It’s a good, quick read, and you’ve been warned to the style. A list of abbreviations and acronyms is at the front to help as well.
Also, until this book, I had no idea that Fleming also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I was a little surprised by the revelation, but there you have it. I am imagining a cross-over between Chitty Chitty and James Bond. Someone please write a short or an art piece of this, because that would be some hilarious and big surprises from Q branch.
2. The Inland Whale:Nine Stories Retold From California Indian Legends, by Theodora Kroeber
I picked this little paperback up a while back at the gift shop at Fort Ross, in Northern California. Fort Ross was a Russian outpost back in the first half of the 1800’s before the California Gold Rush- a really interesting time and place for the meeting of cultures, if you think about it. But this book has absolutely nothing to do with that and absolutely everything to do with that: it’s a collection of legends, not transcribed, but put instead into a familiar Western narrative context so that they can be understood.
The Inland Whale was assembled and published in 1959 by Theodora Kroeber, a California anthropologist. One of her children is the writer Ursula K. LeGuin, who writes sci-fi and children’s work, notably the Earthsea series. This book, forwarded by Theodora’s son, is a reflection of Theodora, and very much a reflection of what it means to be a woman. The book is thematic as it follows nine stories of “heroines” in Californian legends from several tribes (some of which overlap, holding the same or similar oral stories).
It’s also an opportunity to share the minority narrative of truth, culture, and history, with the majority. Power relationships play a major role in several stories, and what it means to be a “heroine” is rather at odds and questionable, as the heroines in the stories may fit every role, including villain and damsel in distress. We have not just native stories struggling for preservation, but the tales of women. The book is not about empowerment of either, per se, but these are the cultural tales passed down and owned by men and women alike as theirs. By calling all the women in the stories “heroines,” Kroeber calls the reader to consider the actions and lives of these women as heroic in a much broader cultural sense. With both literal and cultural eradication of many Californian tribes, these surviving stories are of heros and heroines, heroic in that they preserve their culture, customs, and history for the next generation.
3. Odd Apocalypse, by Dean Koontz
I am a bit of a sucker for Koontz, ever since I heard an audio book of Velocity on a car-trip. Koontz’s writing reads well aloud, in a radio-drama sort of way. You get to know the narrator’s character quite well, what makes them tick, and fall into their story. In the Odd Thomas series, Koontz delivers.
That said, if you want to get into the Odd series, you need to start at the beginning with Odd Thomas.
And maybe check out the manga series of prequels by Queenie Chan, too.
Either you like the series or you don’t. The plots are straightforward, but do get points on the creepy-fantastic-otherworldly-supernatural-odd-o-meter, and that is largely carried by the convincingness of the young fry-cook hero, Odd Thomas, a young man who sees the dead, and gets dragged into a lot of truly weird things on a path to… something we don’t know for sure yet.
I’ve read the criticisms of the series on like amazon and other big book purchase sites from users, and a lot of it is centered into two categories: too different on the odd-o-meter, or that Odd was not a convincing character, or rather, since the books are first person, Koontz was not a convincing late teen/early 20’s fry cook, really writing like an adult and he throws in cliffhangers for every chapter. This comes from both Koontz fans and ones who were just giving him a shot. I, however, think he does an excellent job with this character, and here’s why:
First, Odd is not a schmuck. Schmucks are people who think that if you are in your teens or twenties, you can’t have good vocabulary or style, that you are somehow less intelligence because you have less wisdom of years, or that kindness and hope cannot belong to the same. Odd had an abusive childhood, but he has an amazing memory, the ability to think fast on his feet for survival, and is honest and sincere. He also has a perfect mentor, and it’s this mentor who allows for Koontz to use his style and keep us hanging during the story. Odd’s mentor, his only real parental figure for quite some time, was a mystery writer. This is a brilliant device for Koontz, but it’s also brilliant for Odd. His mentor, Ozzie Boone, encourages Odd to stay with school. He gives him books to read, expands his vocabulary, and challenges Odd with things greater than his small home town of Pico Mundo. Odd proves to be literarily voracious, and has that sort of memory where he can recall poignant lines and passages. My fiancé has that; his memory is pretty bad unless it was something he read when he can quote passages with genuine feeling or quips with humorous intent. Odd has that, and in this book, he gets to antagonize a villain – and make her totally fumble – by quoting Shakespeare. Lots of Shakespeare. Odd would have made any AP English teacher proud, doing what we had to do for grades and AP exams much better because he was doing it for fun. And in this book, it paid off for the side of good, and helped save his skin. To reiterate, Odd’s teenage life can be summed up as equal parts of the following: best friend and girlfriend Stormy, Ozzie’s tutelage, flipping pancakes, and the dead.
Ozzie’s tutelage also explains the narration methods used. Ozzie recommends to Odd that he write all this batshit crazy stuff down as a way to remember and honor the people involved who were lost and process the whole route his life has taken. Ozzie recommends to Odd, who is a truly optimistic person, that he let that show and keep the tone light because the material is dark. Odd is looking back on all this, and hoping that maybe, after he is long gone (partly because he doesn’t expect to live long in this business) someone will read this and know what went on. We actually don’t know how far ahead of the events Odd is writing. It’s not that far, but the distance allows for retrospective grace, and that grace allows Odd to tell it like a story and keep his potential reader interested. He says he is afraid that it would not be so, or that it might be too horrifying if he didn’t treat his memoirs like a novel. The horrifying (and yet sometimes inspiring) events that take place have led Odd and his companions (both alive and dead) to a fictional version of the Hearst Castle where, naturally, more crazy things are going on. Let’s just say Nicolas Tesla and the undead make for an interesting combination, especially when a man who would be as rich as Hearst, creepy children, and quests for immortality are involved. Nothing’s ever as it seems in this series, and if you enjoy the first book, then you’ll enjoy Odd Apocalypse. And to all those who still say nay, Odd doesn’t sound like someone barely twenty, and therefore this/Koontz sucks, I shall remind you of this (and similarity of genre should not be lost on the reader): Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was nineteen and published it by twenty-one. I highly recommend her book. I first read it at the same age, and still, her language is brilliant, her pathos deep. The little girl in me, however says with a raspberry, “So there!”
“You have read this strange and terrific story, Margaret; and do you feel your blood congealed with horror, like that which even now curdles mines. Sometimes, seized with sudden agony, he could not continue his tale, at others his voice broken, yet piercing, uttered with difficulty the words so replete with agony.”