Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Not only was this the name of a long-dead beta fish given to me by a long-dumped boyfriend, but it is also a thrilling classic. I reread this book last weekend and was again enthralled by the romance, intrigue and mystery. Fot those of you in the dark ages, this book is set in the 18th century during the French Revolution and "those demmed Frenchies" are chopping off the heads of the snotty French aristocrats. Lord Percy Blakesney, the biggest fop in England marries Marguerite St. Just, the cleverest woman in Europe. Scandels and secrets between the two keep them apart, but this paragraph shows their true feelings. The best paragraph ever is as follows:

"Had she but turned back then, and looked out once more on to the rose-lit garden, she would have seen that which would have made her own sufferings seem but light and easy to bear, a strong man, overwhelmed with his own passion and his own despair. Pride had given way at last, obstinacy was gone: the will was powerless. he was but a man madly, blindly, passionately in love, and as soon as her light footsteps had died away within the house, he knelt down upon the terrace steps, and in the very madness of his love he kissed one by one the places where her small foot had trodden, and the stone balustrade there, where her tiny had rested last."

Shannon's Grade: A

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Book Update: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

The book I'm currently reading, Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia is 1150 pages long, so forgive me if it takes me a while to finish it. Written in the late 1930's when the Nazis were starting to become pretty scary and before they invaded Yugoslavia, this book follows the author's trip through Croatia, Dalmatia, Bosnia and Herzogovnia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. So far I've only read the the Croatian and Dalmatian sections, but I've taken note of some excepts that I really like so I thought I'd share them.

It's clear from her writing that West is (was) an extremely intelligent woman, and she is very gifted in her ability to see more than just the superficial in society and politics. When visiting Dalmatia, she is struck by the sight of a woman sitting on a wall as they passed by. I read somewhere that the odd shape of Croatia has a historical background in the Turkish invasion, and basically the borders lie where they do because the Turks were not successful in penetrating further into Europe. Specially West mentions how Venice, while it controlled regions of Dalmatia, would essentially collect monies from the natives to pay off the Turks in order to momentarily halt the western progress of the Ottoman Empire. When West came upon the woman in that poor region she wrote:

The west has done much that is ill, it is vulgar and superficial and economically sadist; but it has not known that death in life which was suffered by the Christian provinces under the Ottoman Empire. From this the people of Rab had saved me: I should say, are saving me. The woman who sat on the stone wall was in want because the gold which should have been handed down to her had bought my safety from the Turks. Impotent and embarrassed, I stood on the high mountain and looked down on the terraced island where my saviors, small and black as ants, ran here and there, attempting to repair their destiny.

I'm a bit of a history buff, so her combination of travel and history (that I imagine is very prevalent in modern travel writing) is really fascinating to read. But she can also be witty and sharp, as this excerpt from her visit to a girl's school shows. She writes to the girls:

Remember, when the nuns tell you to beware of the deceptions of men who make love to you, that the mind of man is on the whole less torturous when he is love-making than at any other time. It is when he speaks of governments and armies that he utters strange and dangerous nonsense to pleas the bats at the back of his soul. This is all to your disadvantage, for in love-making you might meet him with lies of equal force, but there are few repartees that the female governed can make to the male governors.

This book is full of insights such as that, and I am thoroughly enjoying the read!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Book Review: Clueless George

Clueless George: The Complete Presidential Library by Pat Bagley

Includes: Cluess George Goes to War!
Clueless George Takes on Liberals!
Cluesless George is Watching You!

Follow the adventures of your favorite War-Monkey-President as he bungles his way through the War on Terror.”

These books made me smile! This little “Decider-in-Chimp” takes on a lot and learns some very important lessons from “Dickie.” Great for every age unless fiercely conservative or without a sense of humor.

Take a ten minute break and read ‘em while they’re fresh!

Grade: A

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Book Review: The Rule of Four

The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason

I listened to this book over Christmas break while driving home. I remember being excited when this book came out since it is in "Dan Brown style" and takes place on a college campus. After listening to it I have to say that I'm not impressed.

The plot surrounds a mysterious 15th-century manuscript, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a rare text (a real book) which contains embedded codes revealing the location of a buried Roman treasure. Four students, in an Indiana Jones fashion, attempt to solve the mystery before an evil professor takes all the credit! Sound familiar?

The writing is disjointed and there were several times where Mike and I had to stop and collect the pieces of the plot to see the picture. We both struggled to finish this one.

Grade: B

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Book Review: With Their Backs to the World: Potraits from Serbia

Let me preface this review by saying that if you are anything like me (and therefore know next to nothing about the Balkans) do not read this book without first consulting some encyclopedia source (Wikipedia was my choice) on Yugoslavia, Balkans, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia. Throw in Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia if you're really industrious. Trust me, it's extremely helpful. For instance, did you know that after Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia left what was once Yugoslavia, "Yugoslavia" was used to refer to Serbia and Montenegro? I didn't know that, and it caused a great deal of confusion as to why this book said Yugoslavia was dissolved as late as 2003.

But on to the substance of the book. I picked this book up at Borders mainly because I wanted to take advantage of their "3 for the price of 2" deal and picking three books was proving harder than I anticipated. But this one looked interesting, and as I previously mentioned, I knew almost nothing about the Balkans. What I did know is that there was a lot of fighting there during the 1990's and that "Bosnia," "Serbs," "Kosovo," and "ethnic Albanians" were terms I remembered hearing a lot on the news when I was younger. But Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian sparked my interest in Eastern Europe when before I didn't really give that area of the world much thought at all.

I didn't expect to become so engrossed.

Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist who also authored the bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul, spent time in Serbia as she covered the conflict in Kosovo for Norwegian television. While there she decided to write a book about some of the Serbs she met and got to know during her time there. There are many characteristics of Serbs that prompted her to title her book "With Their Backs To The World." It is certainly an apt description for some, but after reading this book I am not convinced that the converse would not apply equally as well.

A quote from a Yugoslavian rock star that Seierstad profiles sums up, to me at least, the central issue concerning Serbia. His story and personal insights are remarkably cunning and more than once I was awed at his ability to cut right to the heart of the issue. His quote is as follows:

"If someone had asked me, before 1990, what my nationality was, I'd have been at a loss for words. My mother and father never talked about it. I was baptised as a Catholic, my brother as Orthodox. Today I know full well that my mum is Serbian and my dad half Croat and half Montenegrin."

America is often called a "melting pot" and maybe that's why Rambo's statement seems startling to me. Americans grow up surrounded by not just different ethnicities, but different races. And while we certainly have our problems with race relations, generally Caucasians are lumped together as "whites." The extreme and inherit nationalism in the former Yugoslavia is difficult for me to grasp as an American, especially considering that these are people who have lived within close geographical proximity to each other and were for decades part of the same country, Yugoslavia.

Another issue that is brought up again and again, particularly by members of Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party, is the widespread disdain for the West, particularly America, who is primarily blamed for the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia following reports of ethic cleansing against Albanians in the southern Serbia region of Kosovo. Seierstad makes a point to highlight that a common weakness among Serbs is to recount over and over again the wrongs that have been committed against them while ignoring the wrongs they've committed against others, despite the fact that (from a Western view, anyway) Serbia initiated and lost wars against Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo Albanians, and many Serbian politicians and military personnel were charged with war crimes by the Hague.

After reading this book I've come to the conclusion that the Serbs are a bafflingly complex and in someways pitiful people, but I am also convinced that this proud nation does not deserve the vilification that they received from the West during the Balkan conflicts. They are not so different that the rest of us, really, and were victimized by their own government until the October 5, 2000 revolution that removed Milosevic from power. But the saddest part of these stories comes from the depression that has beset many following Milosevic's fall when the new democratic government failed to raise the quality of life in the country. That is part of the reason why the popularity of nationalism is again on the rise in Serbia. America and the West certainly didn't help matters. We sanctioned and bombed their country, destroying bridges and factories that provided economic support to Serbia, then denied them a $100 million aid package for their unsatisfactory cooperation with Milosevic's prosecution. And of course, once 9/11 occured our attention went from defending the Albanian muslims to fighting muslim extremists in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reading these stories, no matter what the political view of the speaker, I couldn't help but feel that, even if the proud and unyielding Serbs have turned their back on the world, the world has turned its back on them as well.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Romance Novels Are Books, Too

I was at a little law school get-together last year when I was explaining to some fellow guests how I review books on a blog. They asked what kind of books and without hesitation I answered, "Romance novels." Another guest, who reads this blog (or at least used to) chimed in and said to me with not a little bewilderment, "Yeah, and you review them really seriously!"

As if it was an impossible, or at least unworthwhile, task.

Look, the romance novels of the world may not make anyone's list of best literature, but they're still books. Books that someone put a lot of effort into writing. Books that someone took their time to edit. Not only are they capable of thoughtful and sincere reviews, they deserve them.

Which is why I was so delighted to stumble across this website, Dear Author. The contributers provide well-thought, articulate, and intelligent reviews of romance novels. I try to do that myself here.

So there.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Book Review: The Innocent Man

When I tell people that I'm interested in becoming a public defender, I usually receive a variety of responses. Often there will be jokes about not making much money. A conservative family member of one of my best friends was obviously trying to hide his amusement at what he surely considered to be my youthful naivete. Another man that I had never met before in my life unloaded on me, basically calling me foolish and stupid without actually coming out and saying it, and he had the nerve to ask me "how much is this costing your parents?" as if I was an ungrateful child for repaying my parents by choosing an unlucrative area of law. I fought back my temper and informed him that I was financing my own law school education through loans and scholarships. But to all of those people who find public defender work unworthwhile and disgraceful and can't understand why I would want to do it, I say to them, read this book.

This book centers around the rape and murder of Debbie Carter on December 8, 1982 in Ada, Oklahoma, and the shockingly negligent police investigation and prosecution of two innocent men. Both men were unable to afford private attorneys and were assigned public defenders. In Ron Williamson's case, he was facing the death penalty and was assigned an unwilling blind attorney who couldn't personally examine the "physical evidence," which consisted solely of a few hairs that were not inconsistent with Williamson's. In Dennis Fritz's case, his only crime was being friends with Williamson. Unfortunately, the police and district attorney were convinced that Williamson was the killer despite huge arrows pointing to someone else who was the last person seen with the victim before her death and who, inexplicably, was never asked to submit blood, fingerprint, or hair samples. The law enforcement officers were also convinced that two men committed the crime. Thus, if the killer was Ron Williamson, the second man must be Dennis Fritz. After all, they knew each other. There was even a witness who could testify seeing them in a bar together in a different town months before the murder.

Against all logic, two juries in Ada, Oklahoma convicted Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz of murder. Fritz received a life sentence and Williamson, who had a well-documented history of mental illness, was sent to death row.

This book is a true story. A shocking, infuriating, true story. They didn't have money of their own with which to challenge the state's bogus forensic results, and the judge refused to grant it to them. The police in Ada railroaded these two men and there was no one to stand up for them other than the local public defenders, the state appellate public defenders, and the Innocence Project. So the next time I get asked why I would want to be a public defender I will point the questioner to this book. It is hardly an isolated incident. There are countless dedicated, ethical police officers and prosecutors in this country, but there are also those like Dennis Smith and Bill Peterson from Ada, Oklahoma, who, in my opinion, should be held criminally negligent for what they did to these two men. Anyone who can read stories like this and not be outraged, anyone who can hear of egregious Fourth and Fifth Amendment violations by police and not be stirred to action, anyone who cannot understand my desire to do what I can do to stand up for those in our society who have no one else to stand up for them, anyone who thinks civil law would be better for me solely because I could make a lot of money needs to take a long look at themselves, their ethics, and their morality. Especially those that call themselves Christians.

Lindsey's Grade: A+

Book Review: Irresistable

Oh Mary Balogh, I hope you never die. You are the brightest spot in the world of Regency era romance novels. Your writing is simple enough that you need not invoke silly plot twists yet somehow is still complex enough that I genuinely care for the characters.

Irresistable is not a remarkable novel. It actually has a rather simplistic plot, revolving around two friends who knew enough during the Napoleonic war when the hero (Nathanial) was an officer in the army and the heroine (Sophie) was married to another officer that she traveled with when he was with the army. Sophie's husband is killed at Waterloo during an act of bravery that coincidentally saves the life of many fellow officers, including the Duke of Wellington. Back in England he is posthumously celebrated as a national hero and the government awards Sophie, his widow, a home of her own and a modest pension that allows her to live independantly of her male relatives. Nathanial and three of his friends were always fond of Sophie during the war, but it has been three years since they have seen each other. But Nathanial inherits his father's baronage and the responsibility of making sure his sister and cousin find suitable husbands. So he takes them to London for the Season, where he is reunited with Sophie.

There is more to this story, but I don't want to give too much away. Let's just say that Sophie has a problem that she doesn't tell anyone about and wants no help in solving. Needless to say since this is a romance novel, Nathanial wants to help her because he knows something is wrong, but she keeps pushing him away. Now, this is a fairly common plot device in romance novels, but in this case Balogh wrote about it so well and structured the problem in such a way that I, as the reader, dispaired for Sophie myself because she was in such a difficult situation and couldn't see a way out. Of course, the problem wasn't a big as she thought it was, but that was because of cirumstances that she couldn't have known at the time, so her distress was utterly believable.

Balogh is just so good. There's nothing else to say.

Lindsey's Grade: A