Books I’ve been reading

THE GRIN OF THE DARK by Ramsey Campbell has a film historian researching a silent film comedian whose anarchic films were suppressed because of their ability to drive men mad—and discovering that the closer he gets to Tubby Thackeray’s films, the more chaotic life seems to get … Readable (and I liked the rationalization for the sheer number of obnoxious people in this) but not first-rate Campbell (who’s one of my favorite horror writings); as often happens, the reality-altering becomes hard to follow and Tubby’s chaotic agenda would have been more interesting if it had been hinted at sooner (like Lost, too much detail is saved for the end).
SHARPE’S COMPANY by Bernard Cornwell has Richard Sharpe deciding to join the Forlorn Hope in the siege of Badajoz (the company of men first through the breach—suicidal, but a great career move if you live) as the only solution when he’s lost his captaincy, becoming a father and facing the return of the monstrous Hakeswill, a bullying sergeant and superb villain. Cornwell’s retcon of Sharpe’s time in India doesn’t mesh well with this (there’s no hint Sharpe thought he’d finished off Hakeswill in Sharpe’s Fortress) but it’s great reading, as always.
COLLEGE GIRLS: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens and Coeds, Then and Now by Lynn Peril, chronicles female higher-education in America from the early 1800s through the 1970s, as coeds cope with in loco parentis rules, dating, the right to smoke, and the country’s general concern as to what women should learn, if they should learn and whether college was creating husband-hunting nymphets or frigid, sexless grinds. Very good.
THE WORLD HITLER NEVER MADE: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld is a look at What Ifs starting with the Future War stories published while Hitler was still around and following the later use of such concepts as The Nazis Win, Hitler Assassinated (or in other variations, finding success as a painter), Hitler Survives WW II or The Holocaust Averted (including one interesting variation in which the German Jew who kills Hitler is reviled because the resulting pogroms killed thousands of Jews—nothing Hitler could have done would have been worse than that!). Rosenfeld’s main argument is that as time has passed, alt.history has become more and more ambivalent, presenting us with worlds in which Nazi occupied Britain is rife with collaborators, history works out better because Stalin and Hitler wind up destroying each other, or that without Hitler the Nazi terror continues or Germany becomes an equally oppressive Communist state (as Rosenfeld observes timelines sans Hitler show pointedly whether the writer considers the Fuehrer or the German people the real problem). Rosenfeld also concludes that a great deal of alt.history unsurprisingly reflects contemporary issues-fears over German reunification, criticism of post-war US policy, opposition to Communism-and that different nations see the alternatives differently (British readers being a lot more comfortable with cyncism about the Good War than Americans for instance). Dry but interesting.
BEAST by Donna Jo Napoli is an excellent YA retelling of Beauty and the Beast (based on Charles Lamb’s version) in which a peri transforms a Persian prince into a lion in hopes his own father will hunt him-and even after he survives that, the challenge of finding the True Love that will cure him continues.
WHO WILL SAVE US NOW? Is an anthology of super-hero short stories that suffers from the usual problem I have with such things (Wild Cards, for instance), they’re nothing comics haven’t done before (super-heroes who are jerks, loser supers with useless powers, etc.) and don’t do anything fresh with the genre compared to say, Watchmen or Super-Folks. There are a couple of stories I liked anyway, but also a couple where the super-hero angle felt shoehorned in just to allow the story’s inclusion.
JANE’S FAME: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman ponders how an author whose books sold modestly well in her lifetime then seemed to fade into obscurity (she was considered dreadfully oldfashioned by mid-century Victorians) has blossomed in popularity to the point Austen films are a virtual subgenre. Harman argues that it’s a combination of Austen’s talent, outside events (an Austen biography by her family renewed interest in the 19th century), the fact that we know relatively little about her (so she can be claimed as a proto-feminist, old-fashioned girl, etc.) and that Austen took so long working on her books that she had to keep them relatively “timeless” to avoid making them look dated, so that now they reside in a kind of generic Old England era. Interesting.
THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak is a Holocaust novel in which an orphaned girl living with an older couple and with a book-focused kleptomania finds herself coping with hardship, German soldiers, hiding a Jew in the basement, the push to join the Hitler Youth and so on, all narrated by a somewhat bemused Angel of Death. Nothing that grabbed me.


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7 responses to “Books I’ve been reading

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