Books and Book Reviews: April 2004 Archives

At the School Book Fair

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My son's school had a two-for-one bookfair last night and the rest of this week. Being out of Lent and always drawn by the lure of books anyway, we went, hoping to find treasures that would sustain us for years to come.

And indeed, we did. The one thing I wanted to share here was a curious little item by Tracy Barrett titled Anna of Byzantium. So, children and young adults can now read about the author of "The Alexiad" against whom the 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia had this to say:

. . . a true Byzantine she looks on the Crusades only from the narrow and selfish standpoint of Constantinople, and detests soundly all Latins. The chronology is defective. She loves to describe scenes of splendour, great state-actions, audiences, and feasts, whatever is concrete and picturesque. Nor is she adverse to satire, court gossip, and detraction. Profounder matters, financial, military, and constitutional, escape her purview. Withal, however, Krumbacher calls it "one of the most remarkable efforts of medieval Greek historiography", the first notable production of the medieval Greek Renaissance set afoot by Psellos and powerfully furthered by the family of the Princess. She strains in her vocabulary for an Attic elegance, though construction and style betray too often the distance between her and the models (Thucydides and Polybius) whom she aims at imitating. She avoids, as unfit for the pen of an historian, uncouth foreign names and vulgar terms. Her studied precision in the matter of hellenizing causes her pages to take on a kind of mummy-like appearance when compared with the vigorous, living Greek of contemporary popular intercourse.

Whether true or not, it partakes of "sour grapes." Nevertheless the cover of this book portrays Anna with a halo, suggesting sainthood. Given that she tried to have her brother John assassinated and, along with her coconspirator and mother, was sent into exile in a convent where she wrote "The Alexiad," I would suggest that the halo was a bit overmuch. However, the thought that the children's market could see a place for a book like this is very encouraging indeed.

For those interested here is a place that you can read "The Alexiad" online. (By the way it is an 15 book epic about her father Alexius I. Oh, and John, though homely, was called John the Beautiful and well beloved of his Byzantine subjects for all the good works that he did.)

(Aren't you just tickled that you read this blog and come up with so many useful fragments of information? Blogs are a nearly infinite source of the world's most useless trivia. Where else would you have heard about the Alexiad? No, really, tell me. . .)

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On recent Science Ficiton, Mystery, and other light works of fiction you've read recently and enjoyed. My taste in mysteries tends toward the classic, the cozy, and the unthreatening. No Patricia Cornwell, no detectives after Raymond Chandler (and maybe Travis Magee, if you count him). I tend to like historical--particularly Anne Perry and Ellis Peters (as well as Elizabeth Peters).

In Science Fiction, I like works that don't feel they need to constantly knock religion and faith as some sort of bogeymen. Like particularly alternative histories, well written space opera, etc.

Fiction looking for reasonably good prose surrounding a story that doesn't reek. I'll probably pick up some more Evelyn Waugh (though I realize that doesn't exactly meet my criterion of "light.") What of recent vintage have you read that you really, really liked?

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The Codex Douglas Preston


Half of the Preston and Cloud team that hbrought us such beauties as The Relic, Rip Tide, Thunderhead, and The Cabinet of Curiosities, Douglas Preston presents us with yet another thriller in a similar vein.

An old man dies and has himself entombed someplace in the world along with all his worldly goods. If his children want their inheritance, all they need do is go and find it. As that inheritance amounts to nearly half a billion dollars in pilfered and purchased art treasures and manuscripts, they dutifully begin the search. It leads them to the jungles of Honduras where they seek a Mayan city--one brother with the hellp of his guru, one with the help of the private detective, and one with the help of the chief of a local tribe.

Enough of the setup. The book is really quite compelling for the first 250 or so pages. AFter this it lapses into a kind of trance. Nothing new or particularly interesting happens. In the last quarter or so of the book Preston pulls so many rabbits out of hats that the already shaky premise begins to exhibit an extreme case of Parkinson's.

Suffice to say that the high point of the book is an oblique reference to ofttimes partner Lincoln Child's Utopia. The character conversions in the last fifty pages are so utterly implausibile and unprepared for as to make this half-baked sourbough fall flat as a matzah.

Nevertheless, it is probably worth a read if you want some fast-moving fairly enterteaining and undemanding story-telling. Forgive the writer his occasional lapses and you'll be zoomed along a fairly worn path with some nice exotic scenery to look at along the way--including anaconda attacks, jaguar attacks, Indian attacks, fever attacks, pirahna attacks, bad-government-officials attacks, stock market attacks, and conscience attacks.

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A Handful of Dust Evelyn Waugh


Let's start by saying that I enjoyed this novel tremendously. The writing is superb, the story interesting, and I'm left with the intriguing aftertaste/feeling that I didn't really take full advantage of it while I was there.

Perhaps what I didn't get most of all are the various cover and jacket blurbs that proclaimed this bitingly funny satire. Perhaps the world has changed so much that I see nothing funny in it any more, but rather a kind of weary mirror of the self-love that so permeates modern society. Yes, the story is set in between-the wars England. Nevertheless, what might have been wildly funny at the time strikes me as all-too-real today.

The story itself is a depressing tale of self-love and obsession. The ending even more depressing because the only character with any character (and that admittedly little) ends up in limbo while people who have been horrid to one another end blissfully happy.

However, the whole thing is so well told and so compellingly interesting that it still merits high praise. And as I said, I obviously didn't "get it" this time around. Which is odd because I did find The Loved One amusing at times and right on target.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from April 2004.

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