Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Dark Heart Of Italy by Tobias Jones, 2003

Read from October 23 to 29, 2014. Copy obtained through library. 

I didn't enjoy the book, but I sort of enjoy that it just exists, because it’s the latest generation of a tiny but noble and ancient genre of books - which goes something like “British Man Goes to Foreign Land and Has a Bad Time because of Culture Shock, Then Has a Good Time Unsubtly Thinking he Passes a Native, Then Has a Bad Time Again from Deeper and More Lasting Culture Shock, Then Probably Goes Home and Writes This Book.” Also known as “British travelogues,” or really, just “travelogues.” British travelers have been writing these books since they first had the idea to travel as far as I can tell, and they’re marvelous historic records, but as this one is not yet firmly in the past, man oh man do you spend the book just wanting to smack the fountain pen and glass of barolo out of Jones’s stupid hands, as he does irritating things like italicizing all the Italian words in the book (even the Italian words everyone totally knows), which he drops on you like relentless little bombs of token culture just so you’ll be sure to notice that he speaks Italian so very well. In Italy they eat pizza. Also his writing is ponderous.

But, okay yes, his book totally hits the main value of travelogues - foreigners notice things about cultures that are so important and ingrained to the culture that actual members of the culture don’t even think about them, and then some of them write it down. So thank you, Jones, for making this interesting historic record of how 20th century Italians related to their history in life, politics, the media, and beyond, which all seems pretty messy. Thankfully he moved home right after it was published and presumably there someone made him stop acting like “Lawrence of Italia.”

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Last Eunuch Of China by Yinghua Jia, Haichen Sun (translator), 2008

Read from October 26 to November 28, 2014. Copy obtained through library. 

Have you ever wondered what a Chinese pop history reads like? Well get this book and find out, because it’s a Chinese pop history book about the end of the Qing dynasty translated into English, but not in any way else really altered for the US market. Shoot the cover’s even got that ugly monospace font that you get with the Chinese font in Windows. The translation is actually really solid and has been completely proofread, but it’s not TOO smooth so as to let you forget that you are reading a Chinese book, like it has that delightful bad-translation thing of not having a good grasp of formal and informal registers, and therefore mixing and matching high-brow and slangy language with a certain cheerful tone-deafness that never fails to please. Also at the end it kept referring to people pushing an elderly Sun Yaoting around in a “handcart” and I was super confused, until I finally saw a picture where he was sitting in a wheelchair. Whoops. It’s also written entirely in imaginary dialog, like a novel. That’s probably the hardest part to get past.

This book is a refreshing change of pace from the usual Chinese historiographical treatment of eunuchs, which is very negative, because the author has a clear affection for his subject, and presents Sun Yaoting only positively, and his compatriots in a range of human colors. The author knew Sun Yaoting pretty well in his later life, and said he made 100 hours of recordings in the process of writing this book. The author even helped arrange for Sun Yaoting's headstone (traditionally a family duty), which was very kind of him.

However, as a warning: if you don’t already have a decent grasp of Chinese culture before entering this book you’re going to have a bad time. He does take a little time to explain some of the basic terms like “rice bowl” but there’s no information given on the Chinese concepts of guanxi/face/social networks etc, Confucianism, the importance of extended family networks and relationships, and, if you didn't already understand these things, Sun Yaoting's life and career is going to strike you as unusual or corrupt. So that’s kinda poor form, but like I said, this book was written for Chinese people to read and not for Foreigners to read, so just be grateful it was translated at all and on the cultural stuff you’re going to just have to get that somewhere else.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fair Play by Josh Lanyon, 2014

Read from November 14 to 16, 2014. Copy free from publisher.

While reading this book I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from P. G. Wodehouse:
A certain critic -- for such men, I regret to say, do exist -- made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained "all the old Wodehouse characters under different names." He has probably by now been eaten by bears, like the children who made mock of the prophet Elisha: but if he still survives he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.  
Lanyon seems to have channeled this tactic for this book, as it seems to be a common critique that Lanyon's books are formulaic and pretty similar to one another. (The other common critique being people just wanting his books to have more kissing or sex.) This is a sequel to Fair Game which was published four years ago, and this book is the usual Lanyon special - gay romantic action-adventure murder-mystery. But why mess with a working formula? If you write Coke then why write New Coke?

Well here's your most recently published glass of Coke, Lanyon fans. And it's ice-cold and full of that classic cola taste. It's a tight mystery that kept me guessing until the end, juxtaposed with complicated human drama, both between our lead Elliot and his boyfriend Tucker, who are carefully exploring emotional boundaries as their relationship becomes more domestic; as well as by far and away the most complex relationship in the book: the one between Elliot and his ex-radical dad. More than worth your time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Modern Castrato: Gaetano Guadagni and the Coming of a New Operatic Age by Patricia Howard, 2014

Read from September 28 to October 26, 2014. Copy obtained through library. 

This is the first monograph biography of Gaetano Guadagni, author Patricia Howard has been working on Guadagni for years, and she's previously re-written the historic record on some essential stuff about him, like what his vocal range actually was, and the fact that his birthdate was wrong for years (this for whatever reason happens to castrati a lot) and that his birthname was actually Cosimo! So she's almost certainly the foremost expert on Gaetano Guadagni.

However that means she's published a lot of her Guadagni research already to get this reputation, and the book has that pesky recycled feeling. The information on his early life, acting, limited composing, puppetry, and relationship to the character of Orfeo has all been published before, which is maybe like 30-40% of the book. There's a lot of original stuff in here through, like the chapter on his work with Handel, which will likely prove to be the most heavily cited section because he's pretty hot right now, and a few tantalizing hints that Caffarelli might have given Guadagni a leg-up in his early career by getting him a gig in Lisbon which sheds a bit of a different angle on Caffarelli, as well as the whole "reform" singer/actor idea. As Caffarelli is known more for maltreating other singers, it could be a hint that at least one of the old timer recognized GG’s raw talent. But she unfortunately doesn't explore this idea much.

In general though she gets bogged down by facts and details and doesn't tell you what things "mean." For example, Gaetano Guadagni was a big puppet enthusiast in retirement and had a full marionette theater in his house which took up two whole rooms, and he gave free shows for the neighborhood kids and would apparently also ambush unsuspecting visitors to the town and make them sit through impromptu puppet shows. While of course this is just hilarious to think about by itself, Howard doesn't pull much meat out of it. She devotes a lot of words the history and details of late 18th century puppetry, which is all very interesting, but she seems to have forgotten to tell us what this love of puppetry might say about Gaetano Guadagni's personality and theatrical spirit.

Unfortunately I think somewhere along the line she also forgot that she was also supposed to be arguing for something in particular, which would be the title: why does Guadagni have the right to be called "the first modern castrato?" There’s a little bit tacked on the beginning and finish of the book about how he is the first "modern castrato," but otherwise it is not really mentioned in the book, and the term is not well defined. Maybe it was an after-thought when her editor said she needed a title?

I really hate to be a sourpuss about this book, because she's amassed an awful lot of original research on Guadagni's life, like an almost complete itinerary of where he was for just about every season he worked (and it’s actually really freaking hard to do that for opera singers), but I think the art of Doing History and Telling the Story got lost in the focus on verifying all sorts of little bits and bobs from his life. I've got my own ideas about who Guadagni was and what his legacy is this magnificent, ridiculous artform that we call opera, but they’re the same ideas I had before reading the book, and I’m not sure I could tell you what exactly the author thinks in that vein. Having read most of her research articles before, I was hoping she'd get into more of an overall synthesis on his life and legacy in longform, but I was left hungry. If this is your first time reading about Gaetano Guadagni you will probably get a lot more out of this.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Hunting the Spy by Tyler Flynn, 2014

Read from September 16 to 17, 2014. Copy free from publisher.

I really enjoyed this book! Like a hot bath at the end of a long day, a bowl full of mac-and-cheese, and a cold beer, this is solid comfort-reading for those who like m/m historicals.

This book is much more of a mystery than a romance, and it is set in England right before the start of the Napoleonic wars, and the plot focuses on tracking down a man who is passing information to the French. The two main characters are former lovers who split with unfinished business, and the book focuses on them solving the mystery as well as learning to trust each other and work together, and (naturally) coming back together as a couple. The sexual content is pretty light and the mystery content is more prominent, so this book is recommended to those who like a little less romance in their romance books and more action.

My only criticism would be that there's nothing too new or challenging here. The characters are a gruff working guy up against a suave, wise-cracking minor aristocrat who is more or less Fanon!Draco (for those old enough to have cut their m/m teeth in the Harry Potter fandom). And the dynamic here is a little well-trodden but it's well-trodden for a reason, it's a enjoyable romantic dynamic that works well for a lot of people.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mao's Little Red Book: A Global History by Alexander C. Cook, 2014

Read from August 07 to September 15, 2014. Copy free from publisher.

This is a thematic academic essay collection.The book is based around the idea of the little red books as an export product: as a tangible, digestible symbol of Maoism that other groups and nations could get their teeth into, to promote or to ban.

The first four chapters of the book are essays on the book’s function inside of China, I was particularly interested to read how Mao felt about the book (apparently he had mixed feelings about this Snickers Fun Size version of his philosophies), as well as how the book was at sometimes promoted abroad, but the then also exporting it was sometimes suppressed in favor of more complete versions of Mao’s writings. The rest of the chapters focus on specific communism movements inside other countries and how they related to the little red book and by extension Chinese communism, including India, the Soviet Union, and America.

I haven’t studied modern Chinese history since undergrad, and I had no trouble following it, so if you’re interested in labor or political history this is a nice pick.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sweetwater by Lisa Henry, 2014

Read from July 14 to 15, 2014. Copy free from publisher. 

This is a tough book to review because, while it is objectively very good and skillfully written, subjectively, I just really didn't enjoy reading it. 

The story is a Western, which is a setting that gets unjustly ignored in M/M romances (I can only think of a few off the top of my head actually), so I was pleased to see it featured in this book. The author has clearly done her research, this is no plywood-front Western. It thematically captures much of the core appeal of Westerns - a sort of permanent mental homelessness to the characters, that sense that it's always "time to go," leave for somewhere else, tumbleweeds blowing in the wind, etc. etc. There should be a certain innate restlessness to any work in the Western genre, and it's present here in spades.

The main character is a young man who went deaf as a child from scarlet fever, which killed his whole family who was driving West. He was taken in by the kindly widowed doctor who treated his family, and they've built a life together. From this background you get a great sense of incompleteness to his character, he started a journey that got stalled, and you know he's got to finish it someway or another. Without giving away too much, the book largely focuses on him finding his independence from his adoptive father, and working out his own sexuality between two very different adult men: a cruel pimp/saloon owner and a sweet-natured cattle rustler.

Now why didn't I like it? Well, it's got a kid getting repeatedly raped and liking it. Or "dubious consent," as it is fashionable to call it these days. Which I don't like reading about, and will never learn to like reading about. However, I think it is done well, it's not used as a cheap plot point, so I can't really complain about it other than my own discomfort.

This is no simple Regency historical romance with cravats and milords, this is a complicated and gritty Western. A very moody book. Probably not the right fit if you're looking for some pornographic mindcandy to munch on at the end of a long work day, but if you want something in the M/M historicals genre that's more challenging, this is a good bet.