Monday, June 4, 2012

Snow whitely

So, I was going to review Snow White and the Huntsman (tl;dr, Theron is amazing, Stewart cannot close her mouth, the Huntsman wears the same expression the entire time, the dwarves provide comic relief).

But instead, here is a summary for your enjoyment, and, as always, spoiler alert:

A dramatic retelling of Snow White and the Huntsman

Once there was a queen, who, in an age of things like pleurisy and dropsy, undertook a very unwise walk outside during winter and came upon a rose, inexplicably blooming in the snow. Promptly stabbing herself on its thorns, which in those days meant you were going to get typhoid or gangrene and lose a limb, at least, she made a very strange mental connection between the sight of her blood and having a baby.

Which she did, because family planning was not yet a thing, and the baby looked like a baby, sort of pink-faced and squashy.

Then the baby got older.

SNOW WHITE: Aaaah a bird. Think its wing is broken.

QUEEN MUM: What, sure, true beauty is within.

SNOW WHITE: …. I am still going to be beautiful, though, right? Because if not, we’re hosed. Nobody is going to go into battle if I have bad eyesight or a bumpy nose.

QUEEN MUM: Oh yeah, sure. Otherwise this whole thing is never getting off the ground. Also, I DIE.

The king goes into battle against an army made out of black safety glass. He wins. The glass soldiers are hauling a wagon inside which a lady is chained.

KING: LADY! You are….beautiful. So I’m not even going to ask why you’re in this wagon, why these guys are made out of glass, who is commanding this mysterious army, or any of the other questions that someone with two brain cells to rub together would be wondering. MARRY ME I DEMAND IT.

EVIL QUEEN: I have ended up in the Kingdom Of The Very Dense Men. Score!

And there is a marriage.

Wedding night scene:

KING: You have all of your teeth and don’t appear to have had the pox. Works for me.

EVIL QUEEN: I know, right? Man, this reminds me of this one time I married this king. And then killed him. And took his kingdom. And killed most of his subjects. That’s kind of a funny story, how I ended up…are you listening?

KING: Pant. Pant. Gasp.

EVIL QUEEN: …fuck it.

Stabbity stabbity stab.

Several years pass. About…I don’t know, maybe eight years? Seven? In earlier versions Snow White trended way young, but I think they’re trying to avoid the pedophiliac overtones of many fairy tales. So…eight. We’ll go with that.

EVIL QUEEN’S CREEPY BROTHER: Oh my sister. You are…looking kind of tired. Eesh.

EVIL QUEEN: That’s rich. You look like you ganked your haircut from Anton Chigurh. Seriously, what is that? Are you a big Prince Valiant fan?

CREEPY BROTHER: You are MEAN. But, I still love you, in a very creepy and non-platonic way, if you know what I mean, so I have captured this toddler-faced peasant girl.

EVIL QUEEN: Slurps out toddler-faced peasant girl’s life force, or youth, or something, in a scene cribbed from the Dementors. AAAAhhhhh.
Mirror, mirror, on the wa-

MIRROR: O, let us skip it. Yes, you’re still hot, in a MILF-y kind of way, but Snow White doesn’t need a solid eight hours to not have undereye bags, so. That’s what it is.

EVIL QUEEN: EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAA. BRING ME SNOW WHITE. Whom I have inexplicably kept alive in a tower cell for eight years, although why I didn’t kill her beforehand is a convenient plot hole. Probably because she thought I looked good in that puffed-sleeve wedding dress monstrosity.

CREEPY BROTHER: God, finally.

Creepy brother creeps up to Snow White’s tower cell, where, despite having been imprisoned for eight years, she is 1) wearing sturdy leather boots, all the better for fleeing with and 2) doesn’t seem to have experienced any muscle atrophy, which is also weird.


SNOW WHITE: I’m just going to pretend you don’t have your hand under my jerkin, or whatever this bodice-like thing is called. AH HAH I ESCAPE.

There is a running scene through the castle. Snow White makes it out (duh). There is a horse waiting for her, which she vaults onto, even though she has no saddle, but this horse is very cooperative, so THEY RIDE, then the horse gets stuck in quicksand, so she escapes into the EVIL FOREST.

SNOW WHITE: This…looks a lot like a higher-budget version of Princess Bride. Uck, what is that smell?

The forest produces a noxious mist.

SNOW WHITE: I am…tripping balls. (passes out)

Meanwhile, back at the castle.


CREEPY BROTHER: cower cower

EVIL QUEEN: ONE SIMPLE THING. I ask you to do ONE SIMPLE thing and you totally bollocks it up. WHAT I can’t even, bring me someone MANLY.

Cut scene to the drunky-pants Huntsman. Cut scene to castle.

HUNTSMAN: Lady, what. As you can see by my scruffy ponytail and leather pants, I am not to be trifled with. What’s the deal?

EVIL QUEEN: I can see that behind your scruffy demeanor, you are deeply saddened by the untimely death of your young, lovely wife. A death I had nothing whatsoever to do with, and I can conveniently bring her back, soooo. DO WE HAVE A DEAL.

HUNTSMAN: Yeah, sure. Whatever.

EVIL QUEEN: ….that’s it?

HUNTSMAN: I guess.

EVIL QUEEN: Are you…are you going to wear that same expression throughout this entire movie? Is your face…is it stuck that way?

HUNTSMAN: Yeah. This, like, vaguely worried looking expression is the only one I can make. I’m basically a human Golden Retriever.


The Huntsman and Creepy Brother crash through the underbrush with a posse of baddies in pursuit of Snow White, who is battling the first hangover of her young life.

HUNTSMAN: AH HAH! Shit, I am captivated by your beau- NO. MISSION AT HAND. (grabs Snow White) Check it out, creepy brother. WHERE MY WIFE?

CREEPY BROTHER: HAHAAAAhahaha. What? Seriously? Have you somehow not noticed that wagonloads of young, comely peasant lassies have been vanishing into the castle and not returning, while the queen isn’t aging, and it never occurred to you that maybe YOUR young wife, who mysteriously vanished, was one of them? God, you are a dipshit…wait, why am I telling you this while you’re still holding onto Snow White? Tactical error.

Swordfight ensues. Snow White and the Huntsman get away.

SNOW WHITE: …. Soooo. What happens now?
HUNTSMAN: Uh. I think this is where we have the scene where we both declare how we can’t trust each other, and yet there is obviously SMOLDERING PASSION.


That happens. They keep going into the forest. And going. And they get to the end of it, and there’s another scene with some other people which is pretty boring, and the Huntsman figures out who she is, and then of course abandons her because GRIEF, but then the Creepy Brother and his goons return, and blah blah blah.



DWARVES: Not really. We’re actually all normal-sized actors, made small by the magic of CGI. Apparently there weren’t any actual dwarf actors.

HUNTSMAN: …Peter Dinklage?

DWARVES: You’re kidding, right? He’d never lower himself to be in a movie with such wooden dialogue.

HUNTSMAN: Yeah, you’re right. Anyway, this is the Princess. So, help us.


Lead Dwarf: Wait. I sense something. I sense…can it be? It is! She is the ONE.

Dwarf: The…what?

Other dwarf: The one. Like Jesus. Or Neo. You know. Don’t question it, otherwise we’re never going to get to the end of this movie.

They continue, still trailed by the Creepy Brother. They enter….a MAGICAL FOREST. A magical forest that is filled with pollen. And fairies.

SNOW WHITE: ….what…IS that?

Dwarf: Fairy. And mystical woodland creatures.

SNOW WHITE: Are they going to be helpful at some point? Put on a tiny suit of armor? Swing a little cocktail sword?

Dwarf: What do you think this is, Narnia? No. But check it out. DEER GOD.

SNOW WHITE: This looks….vaguely familiar. Actually really familiar. You guys ever see Princess Mononoke? Seriously this deer thing is totally a rip-off of the deer god. Also, where are we going with this scene? None of these things ever show up again. I’m not really sure how the benevolent force of nature is supposed to help me if nobody here knows how to like, lead an army or build a trebuchet.

She has a point, but no one wants to admit it after wasting the CGI budget on some Fern Gully-looking fairy creatures that resemble humanoid tree frogs and look like something I would really want to squash. They continue on into the forest. Oh shit, right, back story. Prince William, Snow White’s childhood friend, has infiltrated the Creepy Brother’s band of misfits and is now on Team Snow White.

Meanwhile, back at the castle:

EVIL QUEEN: Are you KIDDING me. Are you…I can’t…you know what? CROWS, ASSEMBLE, AND GRAB THAT APPLE.

In the snowy forest:

SNOW WHITE: Uh. This is awkward, being together after eight years. You’ve been all living in your dad’s castle. I’ve been stuck in a smelly cell. Thanks.

WILLIAM: I know, I am totally sorry. Dad feels really bad too, for what it’s worth. Here, have an apple. Don’t ask how I got an apple in the middle of this snowy forest, or why I was hauling it around with me this whole time. Just…eat it.


EVIL QUEEN: Aaahahahahaha stupid. Look, this isn’t personal, but we are several centuries from inventing Botox or those fillers, and I am really, really not about to get wrinkly.

They get interrupted by the Huntsman and the real William. The Evil Queen takes off for her castle, wrinklier than ever, and demands a new truckload of nubile peasant maidens to take the edge off.

HUNTSMAN: Crap. Well, this was a non-starter.

They haul her back to William’s dad’s castle.

HUNTSMAN: You are…so beautiful. Even dead. And I’m drunk. Well, not drunk drunk. But, like, that kind of drunk where your inhibitions are lowered, you know?


HUNTSMAN: smooch

SNOW WHITE: Wakes up. Goes outside. Aaah. Huh. Okay, well, honestly, I would have expected you would be burning me at the stake right about now. And I have no training or tactical understanding, but, all that aside, would you like to join me in a ride across completely open, undefended land towards a heavily fortified castle while boiling oil and arrows rain down upon us? IRON WILL MELT BUT IT WILL WRITHE INSIDE ITSELF.

CROWD: …….what?


CROWD: Did she just….iron will…I don’t – is that a metaphor? Are we the iron? But, like, the queen is writhing? Is there a context that I missed?


And they do! Across a beach. With no cover. Into a hail of arrows and boiling oil. BRILLIANT TACTICIAN, that Snow White is.


SNOW WHITE: EVIL QUEEEEN!!!! (rushes at her with sword)

EVIL QUEEN: Psah. (sidesteps)

SNOW WHITE: I don’t…I don’t get it. Why is everyone Team Evil Queen? I’m virginal. I’m like thisclose to having a unicorn pop up and demand I rub its horn or something.

EVIL QUEEN: You’re boring.


EVIL QUEEN: You heard me. I have a backstory. My character actually has some dimensions. I had a traumatic childhood. I am deeply damaged. You spent eight years staring out of the window of the North Tower. You can’t even swing a sword! Also I can’t figure out how the director thought that you turning into Katniss Everdeen without even a training montage was going to be believeable.

SNOW WHITE: (stab)


There’s a coronation scene. Snow White makes eyes at both William and the Huntsman. Mercifully, it ends and we all get to stretch our legs.

FINAL VERDICT: C. Charlize Theron tears it up, Kristen Stewart is boring.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Bad fruit

So there's this thing going around. I think I've written before about how, while I wouldn't necessarily say that science fiction is one of my favorite genres, many of my favorite authors are classified as science fiction authors. (Also science fiction is kind of the now! I'm getting frikkin' laser beams shot into my eyes in a few days so I can finally see. That's pretty sweet, although I'm holding out for my jet pack and/or personal teleportation device.)

Which, science fiction has become this sort of big umbrella term. The boundaries of the genre are pretty elastic, I find, but there's this interesting sub (sub?) - genre of science fiction (or, as we're now calling it, speculative fiction) that creates alternative histories.

Kind of like playing a big what-if game with history. Interestingly, World War II is a pretty popular era in this subgenre, which I guess makes sense, since there were huge leaps in technology, and also some terrible experimentations going on.

Which! Brings me to Ian Tregillis' Bitter Seeds. The first installment in a trilogy (book two is due out next month), Bitter Seeds follows Raybould Marsh, a British secret operative trying to dismantle a terrifying Nazi experiment.

Which! Okay, so - in the 1930s and 1940s Germany wrapped itself up in this incredibly bizarre, almost entirely invented mystic, proto-pagan, neo-Germanic national myth. Basically, Germans imagined a national history and began teaching it as fact, inventing this 'pure' Germanic race that had been tainted by foreign influences. At the same time, a lot of bogus, pseudo-scientific disciplines began popping up, and an obsession with the idea of creating a superrace developed.

Germans weren't the only ones - the Soviets, although not dragging around quite as much racial claptrap baggage, seriously thought that you could develop superhuman powers like telekineses or telepathy.

In Tregillis' novel, the Germans have succeeded. An aristocratic mad-scientist type, Doktor von Westarp, has been collecting orphans and performing gruesome experiments in a bid to awaken their Willenskraeft. Using a combination of torture, brain surgery, and a battery that harnesses the Goetterelektron, von Westarp kills a whole lotta kids, but manages to make a handful of supermenschen: prescient, sociopathic Gretel, her brother, Klaus, who can become insubstantial and run through a building or stop a heart, invisible woman Heike, the pyrokinetic 'salamander' Reinhardt, and brain-damanged Kammler, who can create a swathe of destruction with his mind.

Hooooowever, their powers are dependent on a continues supply of the Goetterelektron, and they have some interesting limitations (Klaus can't breathe in his insubstantial state, for example).

With the Reichsbehoerde at the Nazi's command, things look really dicey for the English. After France falls, they're separated from the German forces only by the tiny English Channel.

This is where it gets really speculative. A small group of warlocks step to the defense of the Empire, summoning the capricious, omnipresent Eidolons, invisible demonic forces who are willing to aid England's war effort...for a price. (Actually the Eidolons remind me of Mieville's Weaver spiders, noodling along the interstices of our reality and confounding anyone who tries to bargain with them.)

The plot revolves around Marsh, his damaged, aristocratic warlock friend, Will, and the prescient Gretel, who is playing a much larger game than Marsh or her handlers can comprehend.

I really liked this book. Tregillis has a very keen eye for historic detail, and his characters are flawed, often disgusting, sometimes heroic, and very complicated. The Reichbehoerde are saved from caricature by their weaknesses and fragility. Tregillis has a good feel for the horrible bargains that are driven during war.

But, and this is probably better left to people who are, I don't know, conversant in discussing literature, but I felt distinctly uncomfortable reading a novel about World War II that never mentioned the Holocaust. I wonder about the ethics of this particular genre of speculative fiction, but that discussion may better left until Tregillis finishes his trilogy.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Shake it

I think everyone should just take a minute to watch Brittany Howard tear it up here:

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Bugs in the system

Can we talk about nanotechnology?

Seriously, when is it ever a good idea. It's as bad as anything that starts out with "on a routine salvage mission." Do not ever go on a routine salvage mission (especially not if Ludacris is playing a supporting role) because you are going to end up with alien eggs in your torso, or being chased by a flash-frozen Dracula, or something. Or with flash-frozen Dracula eggs in your torso, I don't know.

Anyway! Agh, nanotechnology, right? Steven Gould's 7th Sigma is set in a futuristic American Southwest, where tiny, self-replicating, solar-powered bugs devour anything metal, and if you're unfortunate to accidentally step on one and damage it, the otherwise more-or-less peaceful bugs turn into a fatal swarm and will straight up perforate you.

7th Sigma is an uneasy blend of science fiction and coming-of-age story, and although Gould's little bugs are pretty neat, Sigma gets tripped up by a one-dimensional hero straight out of a spaghetti Western.

Orphan(ish) Kimble hooks up with Ruth Monroe, an out-of-work sensei headed to a settlement to start her own dojo. In exchange for food and lessons, Kimble helps Monroe establish her school in the scrubby desert near the Rio Puerco, but Kimble technically still has one living parent, which makes him a runaway. When an inquisitive Ranger shows up, Kimble cuts a deal to work as an informant in exchange for the Ranger's silence. Kimble would be more interesting if he wasn't always self-consciously Doing The Right Thing, which gets boring after a while, and most of the action seems to take place off the page, which scatters the narrative. Gould also gives the reader an intriguing glimpse into what may be the next stage of the bug's development, but doesn't pursue it any further.

7th Sigma is a neat little novel, if you can get past the unrelenting optimism. Tor is quickly becoming one of my favorite publishers, both for the diversity of their authors and their beautifully designed cover art.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Good vibrations

So, I am finally getting over my horrible mutant cold / general disgustingness. Well, mutant cold, at least. The general disgustingness is probably here to stay.

Got around to watching The Avengers last weekend. When you see this movie with a group of girls, it's just nonstop speculation about which one you want to sleep with.

Which. Duh. Captain Fury.

Perhaps this is not a surprise, since this is a Joss Whedon film, but I was pleased by how the movie handled Black Widow. Depending on your point of view, she's either the least or the most impressive member of the team. She doesn't have a super suit, an awesome hammer, a Brylcreemed side-part and an indestructible shield, or the ability to turn into a giant rage-monster who still manages to retain his pants, yet she still wades in and kicks ass, and even more impressively, none of the other guys question her right to be on the team. Instead of relegating Widow to a love interest, Whedon made her one of the more interesting characters.

Whiiiiich brings me to this movie, Hysteria, which I watched yesterday, by myself, because nothing says I am kind of pathetic than watching a movie about the invention of the vibrator by yourself on a Friday night. The punchline kind of writes itself.

Hysteria is, really, just a fluffy rom-com dressed up in Victorian garb with a pro-woman message. Jonathan Pryce stars as Dr. Dalrymple, who specializes in 'pelvic massage' for hysterical upper-class London wives, and Hugh Dancy plays his assistant, Mortimer Granville, who stands to inherit the practice (and the hand of Dalrymple's lovely, boring daughter Emily). A wicked case of carpal tunnel and Dalrymple's fiery suffragette daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) throws a wrench in Mortimer's plans, but he develops the first electric vibrator and the practice explodes (in ecstasy!).

Hysteria is almost insufferably cute, from the prim Victorian widows who flood Dalrymple's waiting room to Gyllenhaal's almost nauseatingly idealistic Charlotte. Although she gets to deliver a sermon in the courtroom where she's standing trial for assault, the movie still ends with her getting rescued from penury and spinsterhood by the puppy-faced Mortimer. Even Emily takes her jilting with surprising good grace.

Which isn't to say I didn't like it, but it's weirdly ironic that the spandex-clad Black Widow seems like Andrea Dworkin when compared with Gyllenhaal's Charlotte. If Black Widow needed a vibrator, she'd go make her own. OUT OF DEAD MEN'S BONES.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Manly men

Is anyone else as excited as I am about Mansome? I sure hope so.

You are all just jealous because I get to run my fingers through this glorious face-pelt whenever I want.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ye olde sexy times

So, is sex sexier today than it was four hundred years ago?

I don't know. I mean, maybe? Because we have things like floss and toothbrushes and anti-aging cream and spandex, so possibly? But at the same time, I feel like we also have these culturally-created expectations that are kind of ridiculous - okay, bear with me, we're going into Tangent Land - but I watched Year One (shuuuuttt upppp I never claimed to have good taste in anything) and there's a scene where Maya, a sexy cavegirl, lifts one arm and reveals - WAIT FOR IT - armpit hair.

Seriously. That's the punchline. And everyone in the audience let out a collective "eeeeeeeeeeeeeeewwwwwwwwwwuuuuuuuurgh!"

I know. According to some Republican lawmakers, ladies aren't actually human or due equal protection under the law, but we are still mammals.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, in the 1600s, probably it was not that big of a deal, but then also you may have gotten a pass for missing some teeth, too.

Anyway, Eleanor Herman's (local author! Went to Towson and lives in Maclean!) Sex With Kings is a snappy romp through the royal bedrooms of European nobility. All of the usual suspects are here, from Madame du Pompadour to the greedy and raging Lady Castlemaine to the equally greedy charlatan Lola Montez, and even wraps it up with the (former) Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Sex With Kings has sparkling prose and is sprinkled liberally with excerpts from diaries, love (and hate) letters, and snippets from diplomatic missives, such as the one that delightfully described Madame Conyngham's flashing the royal goods at a nonplussed diplomat. There are moments of pathos, particularly in Herman's description of the longsuffering Madame du Pompadour's relationship with Louis XV. Of course, royal mistresses are disposable, but du Pompadour held her position for a remarkably long time, although at great personal cost.

Sex with Kings is sometimes repetitive and is very Euro-centric - the kings of England, France, and Germany have center stage here - but it's a very intimate look into the bedrooms of Europe's kings.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Breaking news, and bits and pieces

Damn. Nutella is a pretty fundamental part of my diet, since a pleasant looking white lady on TV told me that it was healthy.

See? I mean, how could you not believe this lady? She has kids, which we all know automatically means you are an expert in things like Healthy Eating, Cleaning Your House, and Not Letting Everyone Die In A Ball of Fire.

 Apparently this khakis-rocking mom is a lying liar who lies, and now Ferrero owes me some money, having settled a class action lawsuit brought by someone with even less powers of discernment than I have, according to this article.

I recommend that everyone who has a laptop, limited command of English, and a burning need to bestow millions of dollars on a stranger through the Internet email this lady, because she seems like an easy target.

Seriously, would you like to know how to figure out if something is good for you? Stick it in your mouth, and if it tastes good, it's making your ass bigger. And that, my friends, is SCIENCE.

Here's an excerpt from China Mieville's latest, Railsea, courtesy of Railsea. It is, from what I can tell, a retelling of Moby Dick, but on railways instead of the sea, and the harpooners are hunting a giant mole. Mieville is either a genius, or is legit going insane and this novel is a cleverly coded plea for help.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Of men and monsters

So I have spent much of my life feeling like I'm on the outside part of an inside joke that I don't understand. I attribute a lot of this to having grown up outside the US, but I realized that probably an equal amount of it is having never had a television.

There wasn't much point to having a television in Germany, because there was one English channel that played content it could get for free, which meant a lot of Unsolved Mysteries. After we moved to the States, my parents didn't buy a television because there didn't seem much of a point to it, having not had one for so long.

I think not having a TV is a value-neutral choice. There's nothing inherently wrong with having a television. However, I didn't realize how much American arcana is wrapped up in television. In addition to never having seen things like an episode of Cheers or All In the Family or any of those classics, I had a really hard time grasping that just anyone could watch anything available on television, and was frankly rather shocked at a lot of the content. So much so that sometimes I have to go put on another set of pearls, just to clutch them.

Which is kind of funny, coming from the Land of Exposed Teutonic Boobage. Seriously, in Germany boobs are everywhere, selling plastic surgery, cars, bathing suits, and face cream. I literally ran into a pair when I went around a corner while looking across the street and faceplanted into an advertisement. Boobs are just No Big Thing. That sort of relaxed attitude to the errant nipple clearly never made the jump across the Atlantic. In high school, I took a language immersion course in the summer on a college campus, and the staff had stocked the common rooms with German magazines, which are chock full o'boob, and some industrious counselor had gone through and carefully drawn black Sharpie bikinis on all the Claudia Schiffer look-alikes, lest the students' sanitized American minds be sullied by acres of Germanic cleavage.

Which is doubly weird in that while we lose our collective minds over a wardrobe malfunction, there's a tremendous amount of violence in prime-time television.

WHICH, in an extremely round-about way, brings me to the subject of this post - Young Adult fiction!! The parameters of YA fiction are super fluid, but I don't tend to go into the YA section all that often, because I (erroneously) and thinking of what I find appropriate for YAs, however you're defining them, and my appropriate-meter is apparently extremely low.

So, when I checked out Rick Yancey's The Monstrumologist and its sequel, The Curse of the Wendigo, I was all WHAT THIS IS MEANT FOR CHILDREN?! HEAVENS! and ran to find my backup Pearls of Outrage.

This is super violent! And extremely bodily-fluid filled! They're also really good, like training-wheels-Stephen-King, but dang.

Anyway! Onto the review part of this post:

The Monstrumologist and The Curse of the Wendigo follow rich, manic-depressive narcissist Pellinore Warthrop, the titular monstrumologist, and his young ward, twelve-year-old Will Henry. Will's father was Warthrop's faithful assistant, and, like many of Warthrop's acquaintances, died horribly, so Warthrop takes in the orphaned Will, from whose diaries the story is taken.

A gruesome discovery by an elderly graverobber in their quiet New England town kicks the plot into motion, sending Warthrop and Will on a quest to stop a ravenous foe and exposing some nasty secrets in Warthrop's past. From violated corpses to a lunatic rotting alive in an asylum to the fetid hold of a former slave ship carrying a fatal cargo to the New World, Yancey deftly sketches atmosphere and environment, and his occasional moments of dry levity shine against his dark, soggy New England, populated by men and monsters, with the line in between often blurring.

The relationship between Will and Warthrop is undoubtedly the book's strongest point. Warthrop is a self-engaged, deeply insecure, brilliant, and arrogant douchebag, and he treats Will as a combination whipping boy, man-of-all-work, and unwilling psychologist. Although Will's a naturally hardy and resilient soul, he's still a twelve year old, and prone to completely age-appropriate outbursts that alternately baffle and enrage Warthrop.

The book's sequel, The Curse of the Wendigo, sees Will and Warthrop headed to Alaska in pursuit of John Chanler, who has vanished in search of the elusive wendigo. Warthrop and Chanler were friends, if the prickly Warthrop can truly be said to have any friends, but due to the slight complication of Chanler marrying Warthrop's former fiancee, they're not really on speaking terms. Warthrop still carries a torch for Muriel, but the man they find in the Alaskan wilderness barely resembles Chanler, and once he's returned to his wife, all hell breaks loose.

With a colloquium of fellow monstrumologists, Warthrop and Will pursue an ancient enemy who seems delighted to have been transplanted to New York City, which I imagine affords far more prey than the Alaskan tundra.

The Curse of the Wendigo ups the violence and it most emphatically does not end well. People get nommed and eviscerated, Warthrop's antagonistic relationship with Will doesn't improve, and a host of colorful characters and equally colorful beasts are encountered.

So! Read these books? Definitely! Let your kids read them?

Sure, why not? Stock up on night lights though.

Also, there is nary a boob to be found.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hey, if you're ever on a flight and you're wondering why the "lavatory occupied" sign has been lit for a really long time, it's probably because of this lady.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Starving in the land of plenty.

There's this movie out. You may have heard of it.

That's the one! I watched the first Hunger Games movie last week. Since its release, Hunger Games has unleashed a veritable tsunami of Internet chatter.

Which we'll get to. But first! I managed to offend a bunch of people in the theater before the movie even started, which is a first for me. Usually nobody gets annoyed with me until at least after the opening credits. See, I knew it was highly likely that the trailer for whatever Twilight movie is up next would be played before Hunger Games, and I was right, and the sight of Bella menacing a deer, who is all durp durp durping through the forest provoked gales of merriment, which I tried to suppress, only to end up snorting loudly through my nose for a few minutes. Seriously, the deer was emoting more in that scene than Kristin "Stoneface" Stewart.

ANYWAY. So. Hunger Games. I'm not necessarily going to say that you should dash out and watch this movie unless you've already read and enjoyed the books.

However. This is a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, and although I had trepidation when Jennifer Lawrence was cast as Katniss (Katniss is described as rather scrawny, Lawrence has a Playboy-centerfold figure and it's a stretch to imagine her as fourteen), but anyone who has seen Winter's Bone should know that Lawrence is a talented actress. Her Katniss is reserved, stoic, and determined, although if they intend to make the next two movies, they need to get on it before she ages out of the role.

Hunger Games doesn't provide the over-the-top pageantry described in the books (the costumes in particular are disappointing), but upon further reflection, maybe that was a wise choice. Except for scenes in the Capital, the cinematography is shaky cam, usually peering over Katniss' shoulder or bouncing along behind her, which makes the violence seem like less of a spectacle. I don't know if that was the filmmakers' intention, and although I hate shaky cam because I get motion sickness reeeealllllly easily (seriously, the three-D version of Avatar made me dry-heave, and not just because it's an incredibly expensive reworking of Fern Gully), I think it works.

The always-excellent Stanley Tucci does a glittery, avaricious Caesar, Woody Harrellson is snarky and weirdly endearing as the drunken Haymitch, and Josh Hutcherson's Peeta looks like a lost Backstreet Boy. (Which, while I may purport to be Team Gale, we all know I'd go for the chubby guy who makes cookies.)

Now. CULTURAL CRITIQUE time, y'all. Hunger Games has prompted a wave of Internet Stupid, Racism Edition, with a side of Reading Comprehension Fail.

Okay. So. In the book, Katniss and Gale are described as olive-skinned and dark-haired. Understandably, the casting of Lawrence caused a bit of a furor, since she needed some Clairol and a coat of spray tan, and she's still not any darker than I am. Since District 12 sort of corresponds to West Virginia coal country/Appalachia, I had imagined Katniss as a Melungeon.

Collins is pretty vague in her descriptions of many of the characters, leaving a lot of it up to the readers' imagination, but she does mention that Rue and Thresh, two tributes from the same District, as being dark-skinned.

But OH MY GOD, the Internet disgorged a wave of dumb at the shock! awe! that two black actors (the talented Dayo Okeniyi and Amandia Stenburg, who absolutely nailed the gentle, fawn-like Rue, and brought most of the audience to tears when Rue dies) were cast as Rue and Thresh.

Which, wow. And ugh. Which brings to another thing about the Internet - is the Internet, in some twisted way, a form of good in that it provides enough digital rope for idiots like the Twitterers featured in the Jezebel article to hang themselves? I mean, you've just outed yourself to the world as a big ol' racist, and the Internet has a long memory.

Anyway. See the movie, or don't. I think it's pretty great that a movie with a Strong Female Lead (SFL) who does not end the movie by toppling into the nearest dude's arms has been such a smash. The popularity of the Hunger Games series spawned a wave of similar books (dystopian future, adolescent female lead, big Defining Coming of Age thing, Fight the Power), which I'll take any day over Dating a Controlling, Borderline-Abusive Guy And Getting Married Right Out of High School is Wooooomantic.

I also ended up rewatching 300 last night, while guzzling a bottle of rose and eating chocolates, which was a very interesting contrast vis a vis the whole violence-as-spectacle thing.

Which, first of all, let me just say that I do not know what kind of alchemy took the ultimate dudebro movie and turned it into something that allll of the girls I know absolutely love. Rippling abs, homoeroticism, and Fassbender?? Plus a lead who is all I FEEL VERY DEEPLY ABOUT OUR EMPOWERING, MONOGAMOUS RELATIONSHIP, MY QUEEN, YOU ROCK. I argue that 300 is the ultimate chick flick.

But, my point being, 300 was all about style. The violence is so incredibly stylized that it's cartoonish (which, durr, was the point). Hunger Games takes the opposite tack. Although the Games themselves are the ultimate entertainment, the movie stays well away from making it anything but disturbing and revolting.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Yogurt Jesus.

So, I have been reading things lately, in case you were wondering. I finished Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood and Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Nifenegger (Yes! Meh.). And am getting ready to start The Warmth of Other Suns here shortly. I've just been kind of lazy about formulating an opinion about them, because, really.

Anyway lately I've been thinking a lot about Yogurt Jesus.

As anyone reading this blog knows, I was raised in a pretty virulent strain of Baptism. My parents were raised Catholic and somehow, at some point before I came along, ended up becoming Baptists.

Becoming a Baptist is a weird and unusual thing. Right? Like, someone could convert to Christianity or Islam or whatever, but converting to a particular strain of Christianity is kind of oddly specific. Especially the oddly specific sect of independent Baptism, which is sort of like being, I don't know, transubstantiation seems really far out, I'd prefer having strychnine in my tap water and handling snakes!*

*Actually that's certain branches of evangelical Christians. Most Baptists believe the Age of Miracles has passed, but still think that God steps in now and again to Do Stuff, which is not classified as a miracle, because Doctrine.

My maternal grandmother is pretty darn Catholic, but like the sassy kind of Catholic, not the weepy, black-mantilla kind of Catholic. I really do believe that her Catholicism gives her a great deal of comfort and solace, so I don't knock it. She's also kind of a queen bee in her church (early Mass, median age is 73. Except for the week I was visiting, when I knocked the median age down to like 72 and 3/4).

So even though I would normally react like a scalded porcupine to anyone trying to proselytize me, I think Grandma does it because she really, truly thinks that I would be much happier (and probably also married to a doctor and magically tattoo-free) if I converted. So, coming from a place of love and all that.

Grandma used to send me regular Catholic care packages as a child, including outdated copies of Our Daily Bread and plastic rosaries, the kind you can pick up for a dollar next to the cash register at a lot of the stores in Florida.

This made my mother apoplectic with rage. I don't know what part of her conversion was a road-to-Damascus thing and what part was a rebellion against her mother, but probably a pretty equal mix. This was one of those classic The Thing Is Not Just The Thing moments. The rosary was not just a tacky plastic rosary, but a symbol of years of familial strife and mutual antagonism. It was like a smart bomb stamped with a blurry Virgin Mary medallion. Mom would usually intercept these and chuck them out, but one package got through.

Grandma sent me a picture of Jesus.

For those of you not familiar with the finer points of the great Baptist vs. Catholic debate (Banana pudding and shellacked hair vs. the Whore of Babylon), you'll notice that in Baptist churches the cross is empty, Jesus having departed to kick some ass and root for your home team from up on high, like this guy.

This, according to Baptists, is Real Bad. Because the Baptist Jesus is not a weenie, and he would totally smash that cross and then pick his teeth with it, probably while walking away from an explosion and not looking back. But the Jesus that Grandma sent me was definitely the Catholic Jesus, with sad liquid eyes and a narrow face like a beautiful, doomed consumptive. Or it may have been heartburn from the flaming, thorn-encrusted heart he was sporting.

Anyway, since I was about eight and knew that Jesus was kind of a big deal, thanks to my thrice-weekly Baptist churchgoing (not counting excruciating outings with the youth group, in which I was routinely menaced by Lucy, a girl who purported to be my age but was roughly the same size and heft as a Yugo and had a nasty habit of giving you Indian burns), I put Jesus up on the wall of my bedroom.

Until one day he was gone.

I searched for Jesus everywhere, until I got the quivery feeling that there was possibly a supernatural explanation behind His disappearance. Did Jesus hate me? Had he sensed the stirrings of skepticism that I was experiencing during sermons? Had he found out about my habit of drawing cigarettes in the hands of the illustrations in my Awanas book? (Admittedly a really odd habit, since no one I knew smoked.)

The mystery behind Jesus' disappearance wasn't solved until a few hours later, when I opened the kitchen trash can to throw something away and discovered Jesus, His divine face smeared with strawberry yogurt and smelling kind of like tuna fish.

I FREAKED. As early as eight, I already had a sneaking suspicion that deep down, despite my rather limited dossier of sins, I truly, richly, deeply deserved to go to Hell, if for no other reason than I was convinced I was headed there anyway. Now it was indisputable. I was, as our flamboyant preacher put it, dangling from a corn cob above Hell. God, who was everywhere, had definitely seen the picture of His beloved Son in the trash, covered in curdling dairy.

I dug Jesus out and rinsed off the yogurt and coffee grinds as well as I could, while weeping. The glass had cracked, too, so even if I put Jesus back on the wall it was going to be obvious that something had happened. I couldn't hide it.

I don't really remember what happened after that, my tiny brain being so traumatized that it must have wiped the record. I dimly remember my father telling me that it was the wrong Jesus, but I think my brain conjured up that image, my Dad being an also vaguely omnipresent but never actually there presence. There was, of course, no right Jesus, since Baptists didn't really believe in pictures of Jesus (which actually makes them Muslims, and when they figure that out they will probably self-immolate in anger and confusion).

The episode of Yogurt Jesus left me deeply troubled and confused. Having nowhere to seek counsel, I walked the half-mile to an abandoned garden in the back of a shabby apartment building. The garden had a weeping willow that hadn't been trimmed in a long time, so you could crawl underneath the branches and effectively disappear. I sat on the icy mud underneath the tree and slowly ate a stale bun.

I'm really sorry, I said. Our preacher always talked about the still small voice, but by eight I had already started giving up on getting an answer, so I wasn't even that disappointed when the only sensation I felt was of mud seeping through my jeans.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Quality time

So, I'm back from my hiatus, having (mostly) moved into my new apartment, which means now I spend a lot of time stubbing my toes on unfamiliarly-placed furniture and being unable to find things, since my goal of keeping things neatly put away in drawers results in my forgetting where the hell I put them. I really do hate moving, having had to do so much of it as a kid, but there is something about having to reorient yourself that makes you pay attention to things in a new way. I theorize that this is behind the reason my hamster compulsively moved her bedding to a new corner of the cage every few days.

But, one cool thing about my new neighborhood is that I'm within walking distance of a little movie theater, so yesterday I took myself to the movies. It was an impulsive decision, so I was limited to what happened to be playing right then, but I'd been meaning to watch We Need To Talk About Kevin for a while anyway, and it was a great way to avoid having to unpack yet another box.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is a movie that manages to fail despite the presence of two excellent actors (Tilda Swinton as Eva and John C. Reilly as her husband, Franklin) and Ezra Miller's (as teenage Kevin) epic bone structure. Hobbled by intrusive and nausea-inducing camerawork, unnecessary flashbacks, a disjointed narrative, and several cringe-inducing and overstyled scenes that look like the editor had just discovered iMovie, it's a difficult movie to sit through, and not because of the subject matter.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is based on Lionel Shriver's epistolary novel of the same name, written as a series of letters from Eva Khatchadourian to her husband, Franklin. Ambivalent about her pregnancy, Eva, an intrepid traveler and author, finds herself resenting her difficult son and her nesty husband, who insists they move to the suburbs. Kevin is a horror from infancy, colicky and combative, and becomes increasingly sadistic as he gets older.

Young Kevin (played by Jasper Newell) would make a good Damien understudy. His behavior is so over the top and the film makes him so menacing that you expect him to crab-walk down the stairs or vomit split pea soup over a priest at any moment, which makes you wonder why they don't pack him off to Fork Union or a psychiatrist. Forget troubled teen, this one looks like he'd give Dahmer a run for his money.

This had always bothered me about the novel, too. Kevin's always been a sociopath, which makes him more of a force of nature, like an avalanche or a tiger, than a child, and his eventual actions seem inevitable, which kind of tanks any feelings of suspense. Miller does what he can with the film's limited material, but he may as well be rubbing his hands together and twirling a moustache as he plans his coup de grace.

That's not to say the film doesn't have impact. It does, especially when the director gives the shaky camerawork and clunky visual metaphors (seriously, how many times do we need to see Eva scrubbing red paint off of her hands? She feels guilty, we get it.) a rest and lets the actors act, which unfortunately doesn't happen as often as it should. Instead, the acting takes second place to the cinematography, which drains the film of the visceral impact it could have had.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The man upstairs.

So, due to a confluence of events (new job, longer commute, started an evening class) posting here has been pretty light. Which, eh. I'm still reading, I just don't think anyone wants to read a review of a feminist historiography published in the early 80s.

But! Here's this delightful, odd little book by Alan Lightman, the author of Einstein's Dreams and the first person to hold a faculty appointment at MIT in the humanities and the sciences.

Which is sort of like a unicorn. It's rare enough to find an English major who doesn't have to count on their fingers, much less one who is a physicist.

Mr. g is a disarming, bouncy retelling of the creation of the world (and the universe, and everything). Sure, God's there, but he's also got a cranky aunt and daffy uncle noodling around in the Void, and when Satan and two minions show up, God seems baffled to see them.

Why does God create the universe? Out of boredom, pretty much, which may strike readers as irreverent, but Lightman isn't interested in retelling the creation myth with mystical choirs moaning in the background. Instead, Mr. g playfully explores the physics that govern the universe(s). Lightman's Mr. g is more curious watchmaker than angry, bearded hurler of lightning bolts. Occasionally poignant and sometimes befuddling, this happy little meditation on creation is quite unlike anything I've read in the past year.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Queen of Creep

Dang, Daphne du Maurier, you make a reader want to sleep with the lights on.

The Doll: The Lost Short Stories is a collection of short stories that du Maurier (best known for her novel Rebecca) wrote in her twenties. Although a few were published in the 30s, they were never issued in a book form (hence the "lost").

The thirteen stories of The Doll reveal du Maurier's prodigious talent for subtle, unsettling suspense. In "The East Wind", the arrival of a trading ship and its exotic sailors to the isolated island of St. Hilda's fatally disrupts the quiet life of the islanders.

"And Now to God the Father" is an acidic examination of hypocrisy and hubris in the Church. "A Difference in Temperament" is an examination of what I like to call the nothing fight. "Frustration" reads like "The Gift of the Maegi," shorn of all sentimentality and sweetness. "Picadilly" is an interview with a callous young prostitute. "Tame Cat" is a horribly depressing episode of maternal dysfunction. In "Mazie," another shabby prostitute confronts an illness. "Nothing Hurts for Long" is set at the precipice of a failing relationship. In "Week-End," an infatuation runs its course during a short holiday. "The Happy Valley" is a surrealistic little ghost tale, and "And His Letters Grow Colder" is an epistolary short story of an affair that has run its course.

The titular short story, "The Doll," and "The Limpet," the last story in the collection, are the most unsettling. "The Limpet" delivers a pitch-perfect portrait of a quietly sociopathic and manipulative woman who insinuates herself into the lives of those upon whom she fixates. "The Doll" is a bizarre little vignette of a troubled, enchanting artist in love with a mechanical man - all the more unusual for having been first published in 1937.

Daphe du Maurier's talent has always been astonishing, but this collection is all the more remarkable for having been written before her reputation as an author was really established.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How to stop loving someone without even trying.

Man, let me tell you, when you Google "how to stop loving someone," you get some interesting results, to wit, the sixteen steps listed on WikiHow:

I think Google has become something of a modern oracle, both hilarious and horrifying (especially the auto-complete feature). For example, the top completes for "how to get" will tell me how to get married in a video game, get rid of fruit flies, get a passport, get rid of bed bugs, and get a girl to like me (I imagine that happens after I'm a passport-holding, bed bug and fruit fly-free individual and I propose to her in Skyrim).

Fortunately, Joan Connor's recipe for quitting love is twelve easy steps, explicated in one of her short stories in a mildly entertaining but frustrating collection.

I find Connor's short stories overly precious, enamored with words and wordplay to the point of weariness, although there are occasional flashes in her less embellished stories. Overall, How To Stop Loving Someone seemed in need of a serious pruning.

In "Men in Brown," a reclusive textbook editor falls in love with her UPS man. In "The Wig," a husband and wife on vacation embark on a role-play that strains their relationship. "The Writing on the Wall," is a pleasingly spare vignette of adolescent awkwardness.

Many of Connor's stories are set in isolated, island settings ("Aground," "Halfbaby," "The Fox," and "Tide Walk") and she displays a sharp eye for detail when her stories aren't slumping under their own fussiness. In "Palimpsest," the last story in her collection, her unraveling obituary writer finds himself "drowning in meaning, a surfeit of meaning, meaning everywhere." Unfortunately, after wading through How to Stop Loving Someone, I know how he felt.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Monday, January 9, 2012


Today is the second anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. I remember seeing the front page of the Washington Post, which published a picture of a schoolgirl in a white blouse and blue dress, slumped over her desk under the weight of a concrete slab that had been the roof of her classroom. In that week's editorial page, someone wrote in to protest that the picture had been too graphic.

Of all of the countries in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti was probably the least equipped to deal with a natural disaster of this magnitude. Overloaded or insufficient infrastructure, a pre-existing dearth of medical facilities, cement buildings that pancaked at the first tremor, and deforested hills that triggered mudslides all contributed to the horrifically high death toll.

But as news of the earthquake broke, aid and personnel began pouring into Haiti. Why then was the response so chaotic and disorganized, and why, twenty-four months later, are thousands of Haitians still living in tents?

Dr. Paul Farmer, one of the founders of Partners in Health, attempts to untangle the labyrinthine maze of aid organizations and funding sources in Haiti After the Earthquake.. Dr. Farmer's Partners in Health began in Cange (central Haiti) and now operates in several countries, including Lesotho, Malawi, and Rwanda.

It is clear from Farmer's introduction that he holds Haiti and its citizens in the highest esteem, and Haiti After the Earthquake takes a refreshingly clear-eyed view of the issues in Haiti. Instead of calling for more aid or NGOs, Farmer instead calls for greater autonomy for Haiti's government and public sector, and blames the well-intentioned flood of humanitarian aid for further weakening Haiti's public sector, which is crucial for any long term or sustainable improvement in Haiti's infrastructure.

While the convergence of aid groups, groups from the United Nations, and the appearance of the U.S.'s Comfort hospital ship and its crew certainly saved lives, Dr. Farmer details the discouragingly disorganized, politicized, and fragmented relief efforts that unfolded in the weeks after the earthquake. Haiti After the Earthquake does an excellent job of explaining the answer to what talking heads started asking during the evening news cycle: if so much aid was pouring in, where was it going and why weren't things being repaired faster?

The answer, of course, isn't simple, ranging from the unintended consequences of USG relief laws to the nascent turf wars that started budding between NGOs to the simple reality of trying to function within a system that, at the best of times, didn't work.

Haiti After the Earthquake also humanizes the victims of the earthquake, from the families of the heroic medical staff of Haiti's hospitals who returned to work, unpaid, often homeless, unfed, without news of their families and friends, and continued their work of saving lives.

Haiti After the Earthquake includes a section, "Other Voices," written by Haitians and members of the Haitian diaspora, including Dr. Farmer's wife, Didi Bertrand Farmer. "Other Voices" is a welcome addition to Haiti After the Earthquake, presenting the Haitian perspective that is so often missing in the narrative surrounding the earthquake.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

First of all, I think apologies are in order for my lack of posting lately - which I'm going to blame on a confluence of events and of course not accept any responsibility for it.

Just kidding. I do have a huge backlog of books (well, not huge. Like four.) that I want to post about, but I just finished In The Garden of Beasts, and man. I don't know - good book, but something about it just bothered me.

So. Erik Larson is the author of The Devil in the White City (HH Holmes, the Chicago World's Far serial killer), and Larson's specialty is nonfiction that reads like historical fiction. I don't mean this in a bad way at all - he's certainly a deft and entertaining writer, and he does a thorough job of sourcing, but he definitely leans on the side of narrative versus historical fact.

So! Garden of Beasts is about Ambassador William Dodd, the American ambassador to Germany in the early 1930s, during Hitler's consolidation of power.

Ambassador Dodd was a rather bizarre choice of ambassador - a quiet, introverted, rather poor history professor whose overarching loves were his unfinished manuscript of The Rise and Fall of the Old South and his farm in Virginia. Dodd originally hailed from North Carolina, the son of subsistence farmers, and rose to a professorship in Chicago through fortitude and determination.

Disappointed at his inability to work on The Old South because of the demands of his position, Dodd got the idea that a nice, quiet ambassadorship somewhere in Europe.


Why did Roosevelt call Dodd? Roosevelt's first five candidates all turned the ambassadorship in Berlin down, and Dodd certainly didn't fit the ambassador mold - not the least of which was not having an uninterrupted supply of personal wealth to finance the lavish lifestyle of the "pretty good club," as the Foreign Service elite called themselves, while living on an ambassador's relatively meager salary.

Dodd accepted Roosevelt's call and packed himself, his wife Martha, their adult daughter, also Martha, son Bill, and their Chevrolet - a symbol of Dodd's pledge to live within the means of his new salary - and set off for Berlin.

Much of Garden focuses on Martha (the second), and for obvious reasons - girl was a walking scandal. A short list of her conquests includes a minor member of French nobility, a slew of authors and poets (W.I River, Thomas Wolfe, and Carl Sandburg among them), a few financiers, a NKVD member and Soviet operative, and a rack of Nazis. Martha even attended a dinner with Hitler, at the invitation of one of his inner circle, who hoped to steer Martha and Hitler into a relationship. Already secretly married when the Dodds departed for Berlin, Martha definitely put some mileage on the couches in the new ambassadorial residence.

Dodd arrived in Berlin during a period of great tension in Germany, when Ernst Roehm's Storm Troopers and Hitler's army were beginning to wrestle for control, German nationalism was becoming increasingly intense, legal restrictions on Jews were fast becoming codified, and attacks on Jews, Americans, "non-Aryans," and anyone unlucky enough not to whip out the Heil quickly enough were becoming commonplace.

Dodd began butting heads with his staff almost immediately. Bookish and frugal, Dodd was a poor fit in the embassy, and quickly alienated much of his staff. Although Dodd objected to many of Hitler's policies, he was certainly not sympathetic to Germany's Jews (his diaries and letters reveal the chilling, casual anti-Semitism that pervaded many levels of the U.S. Government, even complaining about how many Jewish staff members were employed at the American embassy) and, like many other statesmen, was initially suckered into believing Hitler's lies.

Martha became quickly and thoroughly enamored of Nazi Germany, praising the "youthful, shining faces" of the German people and the new exuberance that thrummed through Berlin, and became close to a number of high-ranking Nazis (and by close, I mean really close), although she became disillusioned and repudiated the Nazis towards the end of her father's term in Berlin.

Dodd, Martha, and many of the Embassy staff were prolific letter-writers and diary-keepers, and Larson also had a wealth of Embassy correspondence to plumb from, which he uses to fashion an intriguing snapshot of life at the Embassy and in Berlin. Still, the focus of Garden of Beasts is certainly narrow, and less entertaining characters get short shrift - Dodd's son Bill is mentioned maybe three times in the novel. Larson also skimps on the historical detail (he mentions Germany's wretched economy very briefly, although it had an enormous impact on policymaking in the early 1930s, when Hitler's government repeatedly threatened to default on their debt as a strategy to keep American criticism of their brutalities quiet), but he does a wonderful job of capturing the zeitgeist of both Berlin and the American embassy, a world unto itself.

Larson habitually ends his chapters with cliffhangers, which gets tiresome after the sixth or seventh one, and I looked askance at some of his statements: for example, mentioning the famine in Ukraine with a cursory "famine scoured the Ukraine," which makes it sound like Ukraine's famine was a natural occurrence, ignoring the fact that the famine was man-made, created by Stalin and his circle to break Ukraine's resistance to Soviet rule.

Larson's final analysis of Dodd, as a "lone beacon of American freedom and hope in a land of gathering darkness," is, in my opinion, rather too generous. Dodd's embassy bowed more often to the Germans than to its own citizens, repeatedly putting appeasement towards a bellicose German government ahead of the safety of Americans in Germany, and Dodd's outspokenness about the Nazi regime only began after he'd been relieved of his post - conveniently coinciding with the waning of popularity of pro-German sentiment.