Andi M's books

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Andi M's books

Postby AndiM » 26 Mar 2010, 08:30

Cool! I'll give it a whirl, but no promises I'll shove 50 books into a year.

Forgot the disclaimer: These books are books that I've either bought, received as gifts from friends/family members who have absolutely nothing to do with the publishing industry, borrowed from the library, or borrowed from friends/family cuz I'm too cheap to plunk down the bucks for 'em.

#1
A Beautiful Place to Die, by Malla Nunn.
Atria Books, 2009

In this haunting, lyrically written debut thriller/mystery set in South Africa, 1952, Nunn gives us a glimpse of police work set against the backdrop of Apartheid. An Afrikaner police commander is found murdered outside the small town of Jacob's Rest, his body floating in the river. Local whites assume a black person, or a "colored" person (someone who's mixed-race or Indian) did it. The police commander's family members, after all, practically own the town and oh, he was so well-respected. . .no white person could do this to such a prominent white man. . .

Enter Detective Emmanuel Cooper, sent in from Johannesburg. He uncovers small-town secrets and big-time connections, both insidious and dangerous, made especially so in the toxic stew of religion, race, class, and gender. Cooper isn't convinced that a black or colored person committed the crime, and as he delves into the murdered man's past, he realizes he's sitting on a powder keg.

Nunn is an Australian filmmaker, and she brings a sense of the visual to her writing. Her settings are beautifully wrought, and often she treats her characters like landscapes themselves, describing them with a practiced eye for detail that allows them to jump off the page. Throughout, she weaves the threads of violence and corruption that sanctioned racism creates, so that history and setting become characters as well. Cooper is marvelously flawed, suffering from PTSD (World War II), and in a country where the powers that be use and manipulate the files kept on South Africans to achieve their aims, he is in great danger, both as an "outsider" in the town and because one of his parents is English, something contemptible to Afrikaners. This is thus a mystery on different levels--who killed Willem Pretorius, and why; why has the state sent secret services in to investigate; and can Cooper hold himself together long enough to solve the murder and survive?

My one quibble is with a scene toward the end, in which our hero has to deal with the secret service men in a showdown (and they've pretty much been at each other's throats throughout the book, so that's not a spoiler) and the way that the men are distracted didn't quite ring true for me, and it felt a little forced. I'm not going to say anymore--don't want to reveal specifics--but it's not enough to put off reading this otherwise tightly rendered, taut historical mystery.

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edited January 4, 2010 to add that disclaimer.
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Re: Andi M's books

Postby AndiM » 26 Mar 2010, 08:31

#2
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John M. Barry
Penguin Books, 2004; 2009

I'm a sucker for medical history, and any time I find a book like this, I'll probably read it. Barry started researching and writing this book in 1997; it was originally published in 2004. This version includes an afterword that briefly discusses the recent H1N1 flu scare.

Here, Barry traces the emergence of the influenza that struck in 1918. What's interesting--and I didn't really know this--is that this flu originally appeared in January of 1918 and kind of lingered through the spring/early summer. That first wave was practically nothing compared to the second wave--the one that hit in the fall of 1918. But then another wave hit in the winter of 1918-1919 and in fact, subsequent waves recurred throughout the early 1920s. The most deadly, however, was that fall 1918 attack.

Barry contextualizes this horrendous tragedy within three important factors: the slowly emerging medical field in the United States--prior to this flu, the US medical school system/establishment was an absolute joke; Barry focused on a few of the movers and shakers of the late 19th century/early 20th century. Which brings us the second factor: local, state, and federal governments and officials that remained caught up in machine politics and often didn't listen to the warnings from medical officials--had the system begun professionalizing earlier, perhaps this could have been avoided. Or perhaps not. The third factor was the simple fact that the US entered WWI in April 1918, but prior to that, President Woodrow Wilson had already begun gearing up for war, and those preparations included a massive propaganda and patriotism machine. Basically, if you said anything negative about the government, you could be arrested. The media was kept on a short leash, as well, and everything was geared toward ensuring that the war effort was not undermined, to the detriment of so-called free speech and democratic processes.

Enter this particular strain of influenza, which was like nothing anyone had ever seen. Most likely it jumped from swine to people in Haskell, Kansas, in that early manifestation in 1918. From there, it traveled with soldiers to the nearby military base and from there...well, you get the picture. That first wave was bad, but the second...holy crap. I can't even tell you how horrendous that was. Virology was still not well understood, so most medical officials--both in the US and in the rest of the world--were completely stymied by it and its variegated symptoms. Some people exhibited typical flu-like symptoms. Others exhibited ebola-like symptoms, with blood leaking from body orifices. Many also succumbed to the respiratory arrest we saw with the emergence of Hantavirus and SARS, I believe, in which the lungs fill with fluid and pus and you basically drown. It was a horrifying, gruesome way to die, and in that second wave, it could kill some people within 12 hours of the appearance of the first symptom.

And in this country, at least, nobody was prepared because of those factors I mentioned above: state and local officials refused to acknowledge, in many cases, that there was a problem. Government officials muzzled the press, which printed stories about how everything was fine and dandy. Meanwhile, the flu leaped to civilian populations and in cities like Philadelphia, people were dying so quickly and so suddenly that those who lingered, ill, in their homes, often shared bed space with the dead. Other bodies might be piled up in corners. And because of the misinformation the gov't and the press issued, horrible fear spread throughout the country, so that nobody would come to help anybody, including medical personnel. Many early estimates of the worldwide death toll--the brunt in that second wave--put the figure at round 27 million. Barry notes that more recent research puts the figure at around ONE HUNDRED MILLION. That's a third of the current population of the US.

The lessons we might learn? The truth--no matter how heinous--is much better than lies, because even if there's a monster amuck, knowing what it is is much better than being told there is no monster and everything's hunky dory. Other lessons--better communication between government officials at all branches spearheaded by public health organizations might help stave off the effects of an epidemic like this.

Barry writes like a journalist, so his narrative flows well. He provides an easily understood breakdown of how influenza works and how it strengthens from wave to wave, and he weaves the stories of some of the individuals involved in trying to unravel the mystery of the pandemic throughout. One thing I had an issue with--and maybe I'm just too PC or something--is that Barry referred to "humans" and "humankind" as "man." I haven't seen that usage since reading pre-1970s anthropology and biology books in college. I mean, seriously? "Influenza was no longer the hunter. Instead, man became the hunter." Okay, on a literal level, yeah, mostly men were involved in the research--at least publicly. And Barry does give some props to the women who were also involved, but to use that "man" term as the stand-in for "human"--I admit it grates on my nerves. I'm surprised, actually, that Barry's editor (a woman) didn't call him on it. Oh, well. It's probably just my gripe and I'm more sensitive than most. Other than that, this is a sobering account of what can happen when incompetence and wartime patriotism converge in the eye of a pandemic. Eerie yet prescient.

A caveat: I'm not a virologist. But I wanted to check some of Barry's facts, so I poked around and discovered that he may have been incorrect in some of his scientific information. This blog suggests he is incorrect in some instances. And certainly I'm glad this person is pointing out the errors. But in a larger sociopolitical and historical context, I think Barry's themes and arguments bear merit.

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Re: Andi M's books

Postby AndiM » 26 Mar 2010, 08:33

#3
Triangle: The Fire that Changed America
by David von Drehle (Grove Press, 2004)

Did you see the movie Titanic? And did you get really into it because even though you knew what was going to happen, you were so caught up in how the people in the movie were dealing with it that it didn't really matter that you knew the historical outcome?

That's what this book does. I'd been wanting to read it for a while, now, and I finally got the chance because I picked it up at the Tenement Museum on New York's Lower East Side. What a wonderfully informative museum, by the way. I highly recommend it.

Anyway, von Drehle is a journalist, which means this is a powerful, gripping, well-written account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which happened on March 25, 1911. It was one of the most shocking events in workers' history, and because of that fire, a reform movement created a viable infrastructure to improve the lot of American workers and fix working conditions in factories. And the Triangle Fire was the single-worst workplace disaster in NYC history until September 11th, 2001.

A fire broke out in the factory on the 8th floor, located in what is now the Greenwich Village area of NYC and subsequently roared up to the 9th floor and then the 10th. 146 workers died (almost all immigrant women, some as young as 14), either burned or broken because some 50 jumped from windows and another group died when the flimsy fire escape collapsed. The Triangle fire called attention to the horrendously bad working conditions in garment factories and the lack of safety codes with regard to the fire.

Von Drehle found an amazing array of sources and he's able to provide some biographical information on a few of the women who died, including accounts of conditions in their home countries that helped propel the immigrant wave to America. In so doing, he paints a vivid story of Progressive-Era America, machine politics in NYC, union organizing, and the more elite suffrage movement. He contextualizes the fire against a massive garment worker strike a couple of years earlier--this was an amazing era, when unions were fighting tooth and nail to get better working conditions. Von Drehle's descriptions of those conditions should horrify you, if you're unfamiliar with this era. His account of the fire had me nearly in tears, and then his descriptions of the fire's aftermath and the subsequent trial had me glued to my seat. This is how history should be conducted and should be written. A riveting account of both the dark and light sides of Progressive-Era America.

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Re: Andi M's books

Postby AndiM » 26 Mar 2010, 08:33

#4
Rough Country,
by John Sandford (Putnam, 2009)

My mom was reading this book a couple months ago and every few minutes, she'd laugh out loud. I needed something lighter after Book #3, so I picked it up a couple days ago and read it in one sitting. It's the third in Sandford's series starring detective Virgil Flowers, a tall, athletic, surfer-lookin' dude who struggles with the nature of his work and his upbringing--he's a minister's son, so he has these dry but funny interludes before he goes to sleep in which he contemplates God. He can also quote scripture like a mo-fo, adding an interesting element to his character because otherwise, he's a laid-back, foul-mouthed, funny guy.

In this installment, he's on a fishing vacation in northern Minnesota with his buddy Johnson Johnson. Seriously. That's his name. The guy's father had a thing for outboard motors, and sadly, this particular son got the first name "Johnson." Anyway, Flowers gets called to go to another part of northern Michigan to investigate the murder of an ad exec from the Twin Cities. She was found shot in the head, floating in a lake near the Eagle's Nest Lodge, a rich chick's resort that also attracts lesbians. Enter a whole array of quirky, interesting characters who both help and hinder Virgil's attempts to find a sharpshooting local killer. And who would want Erica McDill dead? Was it her life partner back in Minneapolis, who McDill was kind of over? Was it Wendy's (the lead singer of a local women's country band) pissed-off girlfriend? After all, Wendy had slept with Erica a couple nights before Erica died. Was it Jared, the sexy young dockhand who Erica (and other wealthy bi and straight women at the resort) paid for occasional sex? Perhaps Zoe, the lesbian accountant of the resort who's madly and dysfunctionally in love with Wendy? Or perhaps Wendy's nutso brother? Or maybe her weird father? Is this a lesbian affair gone bad? Or did Erica perhaps piss somebody off at her ad agency, since she was planning to fire a bunch of people?

Not tellin'!

This is a fast-paced, tense read with hilarious dialogue and great characters. I had a blast reading it. But for you more. . .ah. . ."sensitive" types, it's a bit raunchy and full of swearing, which some of y'all might have an issue with. On one page, I found the F-bomb dropped 8 times in dialogue (which I actually like, but that's just me because I can be a major potty mouth). One character even said it 3 times in 2 sentences. So if you have a hang-up with people swearing, this is not the book for you. If you don't, it's a hoot.

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Re: Andi M's books

Postby AndiM » 26 Mar 2010, 08:34

#5
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
By David Grann (Doubleday, 2009)

In 1925, British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett embarked on what would be his final journey into the Amazon in search of the fabled "El Dorado"--a city he called "Z". This was a man who had taken several trips into the jungles of the Amazon Basin doing mapping for the Royal Geographical Society. He had served in WWI, and weathered several expeditions without succumbing to the diseases and injuries that plagued the other members of his exploration parties. I have one word for this guy: hardcore.

Fawcett was part of the exploration frenzy that colored part of the Victorian era--the colonial impetus, the "white man's burden." But he was also a restless wanderer, and his exploits thrilled millions of people across the world. He was obsessed (literally) with the idea that a giant city had existed in the Amazon Basin, and the coverage of his trips and him demonstrated that a lot of other people were also obsessed with the idea of "treasure." So using local folklore, Spanish accounts, and rumor, he spent a good chunk of his life searching for it. His last expedition included only two other men. One of his sons, Jack, and Jack's best friend Raleigh Rimmell. Their dispatches stopped after a few months on that last trip, but nobody got really worried because Fawcett was legendary and everybody knew how hard it was to get messages out of the jungle. But by 1927, nobody had heard from him, and that's when people started looking both for him and the "lost city."

David Grann, a journalist, intersperses Fawcett's story with his own. Grann wanted to see if he could find him, or at least figure out where he'd disappeared. Painstakingly reconstructing Fawcett's explorations based on his journals (written in his own secret code because he didn't want other explorers to scoop him), letters, and talking to Fawcett's descendants, Grann goes to the Amazon in search of Fawcett, like hundreds did before him. Dozens of people have died over the years searching for Fawcett and, by extension, his "lost city."

This, then, is a tale of obsession, as the title indicates. Not only with "finding things," but also the colonial imperative behind this modern "Age of Exploration," and the internal demons that some of these explorers--like Fawcett--were able to put to rest (albeit temporarily), in some ways, through physical deprivation and strain in inhospitable environments. It's a story, too, about how colonial attitudes toward indigenous peoples in the early part of the 20th century kept Fawcett from seeing the signs of his lost city in the cultures he came into contact with.

It's also a treasure story--who hasn't dreamed of finding something amazing like a lost city or cities of gold? Of living an Indiana Jones kind of life? Grann's brilliant reconstruction of Percy Fawcett and his personal quest can translate to the adventurer in all of us, but Fawcett's life and family suffered for his obsession, and Grann doesn't hide the warts in this tale. A gripping, often brutal account of a man who still inspires others to go looking for him, Grann included, and the two sides of this coin: triumph and folly.

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Re: Andi M's books

Postby AndiM » 26 Mar 2010, 08:35

#6
And Only to Deceive
by Tasha Alexander (HarperCollins, 2005)

Emily Bromley is an Englishwoman of excellent Victorian society pedigree. She weds Lord Philip Ashton only to lose him six months after the marriage because he dies in Africa while on safari. So in deference to Victorian mores, Emily must spend a period of 18 months to almost 2 years in mourning, which gives her a certain amount of freedom, ironically, and financial independence since she inherited Philip's fortune, which is substantial. When this story begins, Philip has been dead almost a year.

But all is not as it seems. When Emily discovers Philip's journals, she learns that he was a lover of Greek antiquities and history, so she immerses herself in a world of art, museums, and intellectual pursuits that would be considered unbecoming of a woman of her status, except she is in mourning and can be excused her "odd behavior." However, the more Emily acquaints herself with the people in Philip's network prior to his death, the more she realizes that he may have been involved in black market dealings with stolen antiquities, much to her horror.

And the more she learns about that, the more she learns that someone wishes her harm, and it has something to do with her husband's activities, stolen art, and the British Museum. In addition, she has attracted the attention of two prominent suitors, one of whom may have dark intentions.

Written in the style of a Victorian-era novel (i.e. lots of ruminations on manners, fashion, gossip, and Emily's attempts to figure out who she could be without the restrictions of a marriage), Alexander's characters and delightful dialogue brighten up a few places of turgid pacing that work if one is expecting a Victorian-era piece; however, if one is not, then falling into the rhythm of the book may prove a bit of a chore at first, but stick with it and you'll find an engaging story with some intriguing twists and a view of the constraints of upper-class Victorian society.

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Re: Andi M's books

Postby AndiM » 26 Mar 2010, 08:36

#7
Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda, by Gretchen Peters (Thomas Dunne Books, 2009)

When I was working at High Country News as an editorial intern in 2008, there was a cartoon on the wall with this guy looking completely freaked out. Above his head was the planet Earth, with all kinds of things whirling around it like "war", "famine", "disease", environmental disaster"--stuff like that. And the caption was: "We're F***ed." (spelled out).

That's how I felt reading this book. Peters is a dogged reporter--she's been doing just that from Afghanistan and the Middle East for some 10 years, and what she's arguing here is that the drug trade (the product originates in Afghanistan) is funding terror. No big surprise, right? Except that this trade is sanctioned by the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan and has been since the 1990s. We're talking opium, from the vast poppy fields of southern Afghanistan. From opium, you create heroin, and drugs make up at least 30 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product.

Basically, terror networks in the Middle East and Asia are all working together in the drug trade. We're talking major narco-terror states, with billions of dollars transmitted through modern and not-so-modern means. It's been going on since the Russians invaded Afghanistan back in the 80s, but what's so appalling is that the US government, especially, has pretty much ignored the drug trade in this region and that's a huge problem, because terror networks are almost exclusively funded now by drugs. It's a multi-billion dollar industry, and without a multi-pronged approach, this so-called "war on terror" is no more effective than the so-called "war on drugs."

Was I surprised at how the US government has been dealing with this? Hell, no. The US has demonstrated its pigheadedness and bad policy choices with regard to the Middle East and Afghanistan for practically 30 years, now. I was, however, surprised at how terrorist networks are basically drug runners and drug lords, akin to what's going on in Latin America. That changes the whole nature of the beast, and Peters, I think, is right to recommend that the US stop ignoring the links between high-power al Qaeda and Taliban operatives and the drug trade.

So the dilemma is this: In order to stop terror networks, you've got to stop the flow of money. Most of the money is coming from the drug trade. However, many of the poppy growers in Afghanistan are small farmers, who don't necessarily have a choice in crops, because they're strongarmed by the Taliban and al Qaeda to grow poppies. And the US and NATO allies have given them no viable alternative. Peters argues that many of the small farmers would like to grow something else, but there's not enough money, and there's so much money made in drugs that even though they don't get much of a percentage from the Taliban, it's way more than more "legit" crops. And if you go in and burn the crap out of the poppy crop, you create scarcity, driving prices up, which funnels more money into the terror networks.

Peters' suggestions at the end of the book don't strike me as workable, given the current climate between Middle Eastern governments and the US. She proposes that the US sit down with Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan (how to do that when Karzai's brother is a major drug player?) as well as Pakistan and sing "We Are the World" or some crap and come up with ways to stop the trade (Please. All of these governments are making tons of money from the trade.) And she talks about investing in security and creating programs to get small farmers to grow crops other than poppies. But after reading through this book, all I have to say to that is: "Yeah, good luck with that." We've seen how effective those approaches are in Latin America. And that leads me right back to the "We're F***ed" mantra. This is not a hopeful book. But it is good information about policy and shifts in Taliban and al Qaeda networks in response to drugs.

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Re: Andi M's books

Postby AndiM » 26 Mar 2010, 08:37

#8
Sand in my Bra and other Misadventures: Funny Women Write from the Road, edited by Jennifer L. Leo (Travelers' Tales, 2003)

After last week's depressing statement about how f***ed up everything is in Afghanistan/the Middle East/Asia with regard to the drug trade, I needed something lighter. This is it. A series of anecdotes and vignettes from women writers who ended up in funny or weird situations while traveling in various locations around the world.

You'll find Ellen Degeneres' classic routine on airline travel here, along with often hilarious vignettes that make you both wince and laugh, like realizing you have your period at most inopportune moments abroad (Nancy Bartlett's "Panic, in Any Other Language") or attacks of "turista" [traveler's diarrhea] ("Scared Shitless on Safari"). Laurie Gough's descriptions of canoeing the Yukon River and the characters she met were priceless ("The Summer of the Lost Ham") and Alison Wright's stint as a bartender in the roughest pub in the world in Australia ("Love and War at the Pier Hotel") was completely gnarly (as in: WHOA). I think, too, I may have to put Nevada's Burning Man Festival on my bucket list (Christine Nielsen, "Sand in my Bra").

Other pieces are more introspective, like Sarah Vowell's "Take the Cannoli", which is sweetly funny but offers a rumination on the nature of connection and family. Anne Lamott explores the nature of aging as a woman in "The Aunties", and E. Jean Carroll's "Women Who Run with No Clothes On" details a group of women who travel down the Colorado River together in a feminist bond-fest that is both funny (poking at some stereotypes of woo-woo-ness) and triumphant as some of the women find inner strength while braving rapids and heat.

All of the authors are talented writers, though some of the pieces spoke to me moreso than others--the nature of an anthology, natch. I love travel narratives, and I greatly appreciate those that include humor, like this one. Plus, I like reading women's narratives on travel, because it's an entirely different perspective than men's. Women who travel notice different things, and women who read accounts like this will most likely find themselves nodding in agreement or empathy. Travelers' Tales publishing puts out a lot of these humorous travel narratives and I know I'll be picking up a few more.

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Re: Andi M's books

Postby AndiM » 26 Mar 2010, 08:37

#9
Tularosa, by Michael McGarrity (Pocket edition, 1997)

My mom's been after me to read McGarrity for a while now, so I did. This is the first of a series set in New Mexico, starring military veteran/ex-Santa Fe cop Kevin Kerney, who had to retire early because he got shot on a stakeout--once in the stomach, once in the knee. So he retreats to an isolated cabin in the rugged southeastern part of the state (the Tularosa Basin), where he's planning to start a herd of cattle, since he's from a ranching family.

Enter Terry Yazzie, his former cop partner who screwed up on that stakeout because he was a hardcore alcoholic. He left his post, and that's how Kerney got all shot up. Anyway, Terry needs help finding his son, who seems to have gone AWOL from White Sands Missile Range (based near Alamogordo, NM). Trouble is, that's not like Sammy, to be that way. Kerney is Sammy's godfather, and he decides to take the case for him, not for Terry. So off Kerney goes to figure out what happened to Sammy. He runs up against military regulations, Captain Sara Brannon, and a smuggling ring of some unusual artifacts. Because White Sands is about 50 miles from the Mexican border, the smuggling ring had enlisted the help of a big-time Mexican gangster, so the novel's action eventually takes Kerney to Juarez.

This is more thriller than mystery--lots of cliffhangers, bad dudes roughing up our hero and his friends, and of course the penultimate scene in which Kerney (already beat up pretty bad) has to rescue Brannon from one of the smugglers' lairs. And Kerney takes a beating in this book. He's already a busted-up, broken-down guy (who does stretches and PT exercises with his shot-up knee--nice characterization touch, there), and yet he comes through for the love interest.

This is a common element, methinks, in many thrillers written by men, especially. The woman has to be rescued by the male MC in order to accomplish the "see? Men are useful!" trope. It's tired, this trope. No point to even talking about its inherent sexism. And even though this book was written in 1997, you'll find it still. I'm preaching to the choir here, I know. ANYWAY!

I did like Kerney's character. He reminded me of the group of male Vietnam War veterans I used to hang out with in Albuquerque. And what's nice about him is that he thinks Brannon's attractive, but his interactions with her aren't completely colored by that or drive them. McGarrity wrote Kerney in such a way that he's not intimidated by strong women, he doesn't think he's the best man for the job, and he tries to do the right thing. In terms of craft, it's an adequate read. Great setting descriptions, and nice tie-ins to the kinds of people who inhabit it. McGarrity knows NM, so no complaints there.

I did find a little bit of weakness in characterization--a gung-ho soldier dude in his early 20s, for example, is probably not going to use the term "skirt-chaser" in reference to a play-ah friend. It's 1997, after all (or probably 1995 when McGarrity started the publishing process). "Skirt-chaser" is a term from an older generation--i.e., McGarrity. Also, the word "fanny" for "ass" or "butt"--nuh-uh. Didn't work (again, a generation thing). And for you Brits, I know you're dying laughing now, because in this country, "fanny" refers to your rear end. Men and women. HAHAHAHAHAAA! For you Americans who don't know, "fanny" in British slang means "women's front bits." :lol:

Some of the dialogue was a little awkward, and the relationship between Kerney and Brannon didn't really work for me (and not just because I ain't straight). They worked very well together as friends and colleagues, but it seemed McGarrity had a hard time really "going there" with the relationship. It felt like he just kinda threw it in because "oh, yeah. Forgot to put a little sexual tension in." This book would've been fine without the hook-up and in fact, probably would've worked better without it because McGarrity really didn't pave the way for it. And seriously. How many times does our hero have to get the s*** kicked out of him in the course of a novel? I don't know guys like that, who in the course of their investigations are constantly getting beat up. I think that's a difference between male and female writers of this genre, and something I'll probably ponder more and bring up again later.

All in all, it's a good way to kill a few of hours with some likable characters and an interesting way to approach the military and smuggling rings. And I do think I'll read a couple of his later books to see if those little quibbles of mine were addressed.

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Last edited by AndiM on 26 Mar 2010, 08:43, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Andi M's books

Postby AndiM » 26 Mar 2010, 08:38

#10
Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, by John Taliaferro (Scribner, 1999)

When I was a kid--probably around 10 or so--I started reading a lot of sci fi and fantasy. But then I found this graphic novel called Tarzan of the Apes and I was absolutely fascinated by the story, as completely improbable as it is. I mean, old plot device. Kid raised in the wild, in this case, by great apes in Africa, but he's actually the son of an English lord who was marooned on the shore with his wife and belongings. Kid starts growing, discovers cabin on beach that belonged to his human parents, and teaches himself to read because of kids' flashcards and his father's books. Please! Like that could ever happen!

But the point was, Burroughs could make you sit back and think: "what if." And the man could weave an adventure story. Tarzan came to life in 1912, during a publishing era in which pulp fiction magazines would actually pay writers $500-$2000 for a serial-length story. That was an assload of money in 1912, friends. And in the 1920s, some of those mags were paying 3 to 4 times that, so it was entirely possible for a fiction writer to make a living writing and in fact, Burroughs wrote so prolifically that he was clearing 20K-30K a year just through that.

Burroughs isn't necessarily fascinating for the writing he did--lots of writers were doing sci fi, fantasy, and westerns during the early part of the 20th century and on into mid-century. What was fascinating about him was how prolific he was--in one year, he wrote 300,000 words, and most of it was published in the pulps and also found life as books. Burroughs sold millions of books worldwide during his writing career, but what's also intriguing about his life and this biography is how Burroughs anticipated the publishing industry.

He incorporated himself, basically, and thus controlled the rights to Tarzan, which became movies--made and re-made even through the 1980s--and a radio show. Tarzan is still selling worldwide, and the money Burroughs made from this character is still supporting some of his descendants. He involved himself in the movies based on Tarzan, created a publishing house to reprint his books, and by the time he died in 1949, Tarzan was bringing him 100K a year. Interesting side-note--publishing nearly collapsed in the 1930s because of the Great Depression, but writers who "thought outside the box" were able to weather the storm. Burroughs opened his own publishing house--reprint house, actually--and reissued all his work so that he could get a larger chunk of the royalties. He was always trying new things--trying to develop new ways to market himself and his stories, and he was always writing.

Taliaferro weaves Burroughs' plotlines throughout the story of his life-- and he brings to life how a writer can reflect his or her times in his stories, even if the stories are spec fic. Burroughs was an extreme xenophobe and terrible racist--read the original "Tarzan" and you'll see it. But keep in mind, he was writing in 1912. Which doesn't excuse his views, but perhaps it offers an explanation.

Burroughs himself felt like a failure for a large part of his life; his first marriage disintegrated in the wake of his wife's alcoholism and an affair he had with a woman half his age, who became his second wife (and she, too, left him a few years later). He claimed he became a writer because he had failed at everything else, and thought maybe he could try is hand at it, since he had been making stories up since he was a kid. He was definitely not the best writer, but in the "golden age of publishing" in the early part of the 20th century, his editors helped him quite a bit with craft. And he spent almost as fast as he made money, so many times he was flat broke and had to write something to put food on the table.

Burroughs built amazing worlds in his stories. He not only wrote Tarzan (and several books in that series), but also a sci fi series that takes place on Mars, one on the Moon, another on Venus, and one reminiscent of Journey to the Center of the Earth--a place Burroughs dubbed Pellucidar. I read almost all of Burroughs' work, including his contemporary (to him) fiction and his westerns. The man wrote a great adventure, and to someone like me, who would spend hours as a kid staring at the stars and playing pirate and explorer, they were a great escape. But I always wanted to do better than Burroughs as a writer--to dispense with an author's ethnocentrism and instead relegate it to characters. And I always imagined myself as the heroine, the bad-ass kicking butt, the woman who didn't need a man to get the job done. So here I am, writing my own stories. But making a hell of a lot less than Burroughs!

Anyway, this biography is a fascinating study not only of a writer who created a character that influenced several generations of youth across the world, but also because of how Burroughs negotiated the publishing industry, and how different things are now in some ways, but how much has remained the same.

The first story Burroughs published was "A Princess of Mars." He received $400 for 70K words in 1911 (not too shabby for 1911). It ran in installments over the summer of 1912. The main character is John Carter, an Earthman who ends up on Mars. I say that here because in 2012, the movie John Carter of Mars--drawing from several of the Mars books--will be released through Disney. Which means once again, one of Burroughs' characters has proven resilient throughout the course of a century. Not bad for a guy who was known as a pulp writer.

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Last edited by AndiM on 26 Mar 2010, 08:43, edited 1 time in total.
"I've always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific."--Lily Tomlin

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