Monday, May 31, 2010

The Geographer's Library

Jon Fasman

This book just does not work. Fasman has tried to write a Dan Brown novel, using a cub reporter on a local weekly paper in rural Connecticut and cutting back to a medieval Arab scholar, with Antiques Roadshow like vignettes about items supposedly stolen, found, missing or something, which never gel into a coherent whole.

It is also the second book in a row that I have read that makes reference to Hermes Trimestres. (Hermes Trimestres figures in the plot of S. J. Parris's Heresy), a fact that Dan Brown would have taken and run with. In Fasman's case, I just don't care. The narrative about the mysterious death of an Estonian history professor at a Rhode Island college, being investigated by a small town Connecticut reporter keeps being interrupted by these short pieces about coins, amulets and other objects that are never relevant to the plot. Some of them may have been stolen from the geographer mentioned in the title, but others are from a much later period. Regardless, the stuff doesn't figure in the story at all. It's annoying.

As the denouement approached I came to the realization that was supposed to swallow the premise that an immortal alchemist is responsible for the murder, attempting to protect his secrets, and that the kid reporter was able to bean the alchemist with a baseball, thereby changing his mind about murdering him, too. Implausible? No, ridiculous. I'm sorry if this spoils the plot for you but it is already spoiled by being so badly made.

It's too bad, because the characters, the dialog ,much of the plotting, in fact most of the book is pretty good. Jon Fasman could do well as a novelist if he finds his own voice and stops trying to be Dan Brown. Hell, Dan Brown could write a pretty good novel if he stopped trying to be Dan Brown.

This post is in the 46th

Book Review Blog Carnival

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Maryland Bloggers and a new Carnival of Maryland

The Carnival of Maryland, a blog carnival with a Free State theme, has been revived and the first new edition posted at ROTUS. Go see what's cooking in Maryland these days. (Hint: it's soft shell crab week) This blog will be hosting the next edition on June 13th.You can submit your Maryland related blog post at

Along with the carnival there is a new Facebook group, Maryland Bloggers.

Did I mention that I am the person doing all this? What was I thinking?

keywords: blogs, blogging, blog carnivals, Maryland

Thursday, May 27, 2010


An Historical Thriller
S.J. Parris

Stephanie Merritt, who unsuccessfully hides her real identity under the pen name S.J. Parris, used the visit of Italian astronomer, philosopher and radical thinker Giordano Bruno to Oxford University on 1583 as the setting for a story about religious persecution, murder and the role of women in Elizabethan England. Bruno is transformed into a spy, working for Queen Elizabeth's spy master Francis Walsingham, and a detective, solving the case of a series of bizarre murders done in imitation of the martyr stories in John Foxe's "Book of Martyrs."

During the reign of Elizabeth I, Catholics were suspected of treasonous conspiracies. It was believed that they were plotting to bring Mary, Queen of Scots, to the throne, to replace Elizabeth and restore Catholicism as the established church. Although Catholicism was officially tolerated, in fact, to be Catholic was to be suspected of treason. One thread in Heresy is the uncovering of a Catholic cell in Oxford, and the priest that they were hiding.

Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600, for his heretical, pantheistic, views, including his theory that the universe was infinite, with an infinite number of suns and infinite worlds. Copernicus' theory that the Earth revolved around the sun was not yet accepted, Bruno was a contemporary of Galleleo Gallelei, who would receive a much lighter sentence, house arrest, for his observations which confirmed Copernicus. Bruno was centuries ahead of his time in that regard. Heresy touches on his, at the time not fully formed, thoughts. Bruno finds himself in an internal conflict, working for Walsingham to root out heretical (in Elizabethan England) Catholics, while holding heretical (to everybody in that time) beliefs of his own and being under threat from Catholic authorities in his own country.

I found one character to be a bit disappointing, Sophia, the daughter of John Underhill, Rector of Lincoln College, who was educated along with her brother, a frequent user of the college's library and who took an interest in Bruno's esoteric knowledge. It turns out that she is looking for a love potion! What a let down. Her love interest is important to the plot but jeez, what a cheesy way to use her. Merritt/Parris touches on a kind of Elizabethan woman's liberation theme when she is first introduced but then backs way off. Historically that is probably for the best, though.

Underhill, Bruno, Walsingham, Philip Sidney and several other characters in the novel are real people, used for Merritt/Parris' own novelistic purposes, and Bruno did visit Oxford to lecture and unsuccessfully apply for a teaching position. John Foxe's book is real and was popular among the more radical "Puritan" protestants in England at that time. Heresy blends history with fiction in a believable way.

Oh, and the book gives Stephanie Merritt's real name in the "about the author" blurb. Why have a pen name then?

keywords: history, Elizabethan, crime fiction,Giordano Bruno

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Book Reviw Blog Carnival Alive and Kicking at 44

44 editions, that is.  The latest and greatest carnival is at Busy Moms Who Love to Read. Go take a look.

You can participate in the carnival if you ever write book reviews on your own blog. Just click on this link to submit a review to the next carnival.

Don't forget to become a Book Review Blog Carnival fan on Facebook!

Keywords: books, book reviews, blogs, blog carnivals

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Wild Trees

Richard Preston

Steve Sillett was a 19 year old college student when he and a friend made a free climb, without any ropes, mechanical aids or safety devices, to the top of a medium sized redwood tree. Sillett was fascinated with the tall trees and became a biologist in order to study them. The Wild Trees s the story of how he learned to climb into the crowns of giant trees and his study of the surprisingly complex ecology found in the treetops.

Sillett learned to climb more safely, first by using the climbing spurs used by lumberjacks. A rope is passed around the trunk of a tree and the climber old onto both ends, leaning back against the rope and sets the sharp spikes on his boots into the bark of the tree, to climb. This is very damaging to a tree but lumberjacks cut down the trees they climb.

Sillett next learned to climb the way arborists do. Arborists throw the weighted end of a rope over a branch, secure the rope and then climb the rope, using mechanical "ascenders" a harness called an arborist's saddle and an arrangement that allows them to use the strength of their legs to climb up the rope. Arborists have methods and gear which allow them to move from tree to tree like spider man once they have reached the crow. Sillett became expert in these techniques.  He and Marie Antoine, a biologist studying lichens for her doctoral thesis when the met, were married in the top of a grove of redwoods.

In the tops of redwood trees, Sillett found ferns, huckleberry bushes and small trees, growing in tons of soil that has built up over the centuries in the crotches of branches and in hollows in their trunks.  As you can imagine there are birds in the redwoods, but there are also animals, lizards, flying squirrels and crustaceans, a kind of  tiny shrimp or krill from the north Pacific which has adapted to living 300 feet above the ground.

Part of the story of The Wild Trees is the search for the world's tallest tree. Michael Taylor, the son of a wealthy California real estate developer, who also developed an obsession with the redwoods, spent years searching for the tallest redwood tree, pushing through the thick underbrush into remote areas. He becomes acquainted with Steve Sillett and they work together to identify remote groves of redwoods to study and explore. Taylor suffers from  fear of heights.

Although the tallest trees we know of today are redwoods, Preston speculates in the book that there may have been Douglas fir trees more than 400 feet tall until commercial logging cleaned out the choicest old growth forests early in the 20th century. There are also Australian mountain ash trees over 300 feet and they may have also been much taller in the past. We may never know which species was the tallest in a state of nature. Nobody payed that much attention when they were being cut down.

This post is in the 45th
Book Review Blog Carnival

keywords: biology, trees, redwoods, botany, technical climbing

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire

Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played With Fire is the second book in the posthumously published action thriller trilogy by Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson. Larsson builds on the background of his central character, Lisbeth Salander that was established but not completely revealed in the first novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. There are references to events in that book throughout The Girl Who Played With Fire and, although Larsson tries to fill in a bit, it makes much more sense to someone who has read the first book.

The Girl Who Played With Fire
is both less graphically violent and more plot driven and exiting than The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. There is a considerable amount of violence, mind you, but the way it is presented is more artful and less stomach turning. I found myself reading it at one in the morning when I knew that I would have to get up at six.

Where The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was about corruption in big business, Nazis and misanthropic men, The Girl Who Played With Fire contains corruption in government, particularly the police, international spies and the sex slavery trade. Naturally there are plenty of misanthropic men. It wasn't until near the every end of the book that the significance of the title appeared. Don't read ahead.

I'm going out looking for book three, now: The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets' Nest.

keywords: fiction, thriller, Sweden, Stieg Larsson

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Man of Constant Sorrow

My life and times
Dr. Ralph Stanley with Eddie Dean

When he was on her NPR show promoting this book, I heard Diane Rehm ask Ralph Stanley if he thought of himself as a man of constant sorrow. His answer was that yes, he had sung the song of that title for many years and that he felt that the way he sang it communicated it's meaning very well. That is hardly the answer Diane was looking for and, after reading the book, I have concluded that while Dr. Stanley has had his share of heartache in his long life, that he has had his share of joy as well. But his use, for this book, of the song title so closely associated with the Cohen Brothers' Oh Brothr Where Art Thou, (not the song that Stanley sang in the movie) is entirely justified by long association. Anyway, it wouldn't work to title his autobiography Oh Death.

Man of Constant Sorrow is an autobiographic look at the Stanley Brothers, the Clinch Mountain Boys and old time mountain music from the inside. Dr. Stanley says a number of times that he does not consider what he calls "the Stanley sound" to be bluegrass. The music industry mostly disagrees with him, but that's OK.

Dr. Stanley's reminiscences have been compiled and organized by Eddie Dean, a music journalist associated with the Washington D.C. City Paper and co-author of another book Pure Country about country music performers coming through the outdoor music parks in Pennsylvania and Maryland in the 1950s and early 1960s. The book is written in the first person in the voice of Ralph Stanley and preserving the flavor of his rural southwestern Virginia speech.

You may have noticed that I refer to Ralph Stanley as "Dr.Stanley" in this posting. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee in 1976. Dr. Stanley makes it perfectly clear that he is quite proud of his degree and that he likes people to address him that way. At the same time he makes it clear that he is just a country boy who has been fortunate enough to make his living playing music. Pride and modesty going hand in hand.

There are some stories in the book about others in the bluegrass and country music filed, especially Bill Monroe, whom both Ralph Stanley and his older brother Carter worked at times. There is a bit of grousing about some people in the field. John Duffy, of the Seldom Scene takes the worst licking. I understand that much material of this kind was left out of the manuscript at Eddie Dean's insistence. Without going into detail, I agree with Dr. Stanley's assessment of Tim McGraw and the contemporary stable of country music stars. It's well known to everyone over fifty than no good music has been recorded since 1969 or thereabouts.

Note: there is a companion post, with video, on my music blog, Clark's Picks.

This review is in:

This post is in the 44th
Book Review Blog Carnival

keywords: biography, memoir, music, bluegrass, Ralph Stanley