A Man With An Agenda

I'm an indie bookseller in Vermont, sometime public servant, and voracious reader. My public commitments have not kept me from weekly D&D sessions or thinking about getting more cats and ways of keeping said cats off my antiques.

The Infinite Future by Tim Wirkus

The Infinite Future: A Novel - Tim Wirkus The Night Ocean - Paul La Farge
— feeling grin

The Infinite Future involves nesting stories: There is a fictional 'Tim Wirkus' who receives this manuscript out of the blue from a distant acquaintance. The manuscript is the story of how the acquaintance, Danny, uncovers a literary mystery with two other people that leads them on a altogether different kind of spiritual quest. Danny begins as a former Morman missionary and financially strapped would-be author who has run afoul of the thugs of the religious-fiction industry. In Brazil, while doing research for a doomed novel he is befriended by a librarian, Sergio, who introduces him to an obscure Brazilian sf writer - Salgado-MacKenzie - who left hints of a trans-formative novel, 'The Infinite Future', and vanished without a trace. On their search for more answers they meet Harriet, an excommunicated Morman historian who had corresponded with the author some years before.

The three of them have little in common, but they are inextricably drawn together by what Salgado-Mackenzie's work makes them feel. Each finds themselves hinging their different hopes on what they may find when they track down the elusive author and the manuscript for his masterpiece. What they discover is too good a story to reveal here. The second half of the book is the novel-within-the-novel 'The Infinite Future'. Readers can judge for themselves its worth.

Along with Paul LaFarge's The Night Ocean, The Infinite Future is inaugurating a new generation of genre-fiction that is examining itself and pushing into new boundaries. This is an unusual book, but that is its primary strength.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm. - Stella Gibbons

This is novel is an artifact of the interwar years of Great Britain and a satire of the great and small English authors who wrote so passionately about the deep and rich life of the rural poor. I confess I'm not as familiar with the authors Stella Gibbons is lampooning in Cold Comfort Farm as I should be, other than Austen, I've read a novel and a half of D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy apiece, and I'd never heard of Hugh Walpole until I had to find out who she was mocking in the preface. Other popular writers of the time were more responsible for the content and the character of the Starkadder Family and Cold Comfort Farm itself were so bludgeoned into obscurity I can't bring myself to name them here.

The plot involves one Flora Poste, an elegant and educated girl of 19 who finding herself without parents and knowing the stigma attached to living off of friends, decides to foist herself on some unknown relatives in Sussex. She finds the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm to be hampered with ignorance, psychosis, stifled ambitions and general uncleanliness. One by one she begins to transform them to her liking.

It is all very contrived and patronizing, but a few cuts come in close and I can't say Gibbons was wrong. It was entertaining and passed a few cold evenings. I read the Folio Society edition and was disappointed, for the first time, in Quentin Blake's illustrations. They didn't do anything for me or for the story. Happily, the text carries itself.

Christmas Past by Robert Brenner

Christmas Past: A Collectors' Guide to Its History and Decorations - Robert Brenner

I have to admit something to you all: I'm crazy about Christmas. I don't have a tree up all year or sing carols or anything, but as soon as Thanksgiving is over, IT'S ON! The Christmas albums come out, the lights get put up and our collection of ornaments get hung on the trees.*

My husband and I have family ornaments ranging from a few fragile German pieces from just after WWI to mid-century Shiny Brites to a piece of purple foil glued on cardstock marked 'MyLes' in pencil.** We also like finding eclectic antique and vintage ornaments in cotton or paper or glass. The problem is that while we've picked up a thing or two, we never had a comprehensive reference on how to identify or date ornaments. As 'crackers' as we are about the ornaments, there's a real limit to how much we'll spend on a piece of fragile glass or a disintegrating candy container. So we hunt for bargains that aren't going to be researched and labeled. That's where Robert Brenner and his books come in.

This Christmas we received three of his books on the history of ornaments. This one is his earliest and is a valuable reference tool, but it does suffer from some issues. The book is divided into sections based on the materials an ornament is made of - dough, cloth, metal, paper, wax, cotton, glass, composition and plastics - with some grey areas addressed. Oh, and lighting. The book is furnished with some excellent photos of early ornaments of most types discussed.

A big revelation was how many ornaments and styles kept on for decades after we thought they would have fallen out of fashion. We were aware of many modern reproductions, but certain styles of ornaments we thought were exclusively Victorian it turns out were made well up into the early 1930s - these include the large wire wrapped glass figurals and the abstract tinsel ornaments made built around tissue-thin glass spheres. "Feather trees", artificial trees made of wire and wrapped in dyed goose feathers, and the miniature ornaments to match, were also made right up until WWII. Brenner offers some advice on what to look for: a rule of thumb is that more elaborate construction and "true" lifelike colors in glass and paper indicate an earlier date. But there are exceptions. And, while there are hundreds of color images in the book, Brenner rarely, if ever, puts examples side by side. For example, if Japanese honeycomb tissue ornaments were 'less dense' then their German counterparts what does that mean exactly if there isn't a single picture of a German or a Japanese item?

The book is a great place to start, and there is a later edition of this book (still twenty years old...), but I'm hoping the others provide some more concrete examples and insight. I'm hoping to be a little more educated next time we come across promising ornaments.

*We had two. Maybe a third next year. Only one is real though! Does that make it better?

**I've always disliked arts and crafts, so I tended to phone it in even then.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever - Barbara Robinson, Judith Gwyn Brown

I know for a fact I read this book in elementary school, but I didn't remember anything about it. It turns out The Best Christmas Pageant Ever is about how the Herdmans, a gang of ill-bred ruffian poor children, hijack the Christmas play at Church because they thought there would be food, and they end up teaching everyone in town the lesson that.....they have feelings? I think that's it. It was marvelous.

The narrative, from the perspective of the daughter of the woman who ends up having to direct the pageant, is deadpan and with the humor mostly being carried by the dialogue between her parents and a lengthy segment where the hard-bitten urchins are disgusted by the treatment Mary and Joseph receive in Bethlehem and the poor quality of gifts offered by the wise men.

The humor is great, but there is a core of genuine sympathy in the book. Robinson cleverly cuts through all of the 'expected' traditions and finds a way to express the, yes I'm going to say it, the true meaning of Christmas. There isn't much resolution, but it does raise many questions, which can be a good thing when one enters into the dicey territory of Christmas fodder. This is a quick read for Christmas day and can be supplemented by the 1983 television special.

Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones

The Islands of Chaldea - Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula Jones

Aileen is a young girl and comes from a magical bloodline. It is her destiny to follow her aunt and late mother as a Wise Woman of the Islands of Chaldea. There are four islands to the world, three of them cut off from the largest because of a spell cast a little over a decade before. The feel is generally Celt-ish.

There are shortages of certain goods and some political turmoil because of the division of the islands, but Aileen's biggest worry is that her magic has not revealed itself yet. She is apprenticed to her aunt but she worries she may never be a capable leader.  The worries are pushed aside when she finds herself, her aunt, a handsome prince, and an orphan are sent out on a quest to end the division of the islands.

Diana Wynne Jones was a fantastic author and Islands of Chaldea has many elements of her successful stories. We'll never know what the final novel would have looked like, but this was a fun diversion. I'm glad to have read it, but it doesn't stand out of the pack of her other, finer, work.

The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home - Denise Kiernan

Biltmore is an enormous Gilded Age estate in North Carolina. It was built on the orders of George Washington Vanderbilt II in the 1880s-90s as a summer retreat and became the largest private home in America. Biltmore is situated on a plot of land to match, over 10 square miles, the bulk of which is forest and now a National Park.  The house itself, astonishingly, remains in private hands. How this came to pass makes for an entertaining bit of history.

I hadn't known much about the origins of Biltmore or its role in the early environmental movement and was impressed. Kiernan veers away from the story of the house to dwell on Vanderbilt family drama, but its to be expected. Not many people just want to hear about stone korbels and inspiration for plasterwork. The Biltmore Vanderbilts lived interesting lives, Edith (George's wife) in particular with her involvement in an Arts & Crafts cottage industry around the estate. The other family members, especially where it seemed Kiernan had to fill gaps of information with speculation such as with Cornelia Vanderbilt (the original heiress), was less interesting. Thanks to this book, Biltmore and its gardens and the park surrounding it have risen above the 'cottages' of Rhode Island as a must-visit for me.

The fact that Biltmore, such a white elephant from the beginning, survived intact through a century as destructive as the last one is remarkable.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury

Over fifty years later and people are still trying to match this book. I grew up in a small town in America, and had a childhood very unlike the one Will and Jim were enjoying before it was interrupted, but Bradbury writes in such a way that his nostalgia becomes your own. I felt it. The narration feels like a fairy tale, this is a book that does well aloud.

I meant to re-read this for Halloween, but I didn't get to it until the turkey was gone. <i>Something Wicked This Way Comes</i> is about childhood, and growing up, and what fear can drive people to do to each other and themselves. It is the stuff of a million novels, but Bradbury makes it work with his fantastic elements, the carnival-as-explicit-metaphor, and the acknowledgement that the character's lives cannot go back to the way things were.

Gardens of the Moon, Malazan Book of the Fallen #1 by Steven Erikson

— feeling beaten
Gardens of the Moon  - Steven Erikson

There has been some high praise for this series, and I'm willing to admit that I don't have the headspace right now to get into something so high-falutin' and epic.

Or, it could just be bad. There's no way of knowing, because I do not see myself making another go at this book. I've made a bad habit letting books sit for months lately. The thing is though, MALAZAN BOOK OF THE FALLEN, unlike A Forsyte sequel, The Familiar, or a Russian novel on Da Vinci, doesn't have a hook or characters, or a thought that I can connect to and, subsequently, remember. In Gardens of the Moon I have...I have fragments of a magic system, I have some politics, and a mage named Trellis (that's not right) and some soldiers who've had a raw deal. I read hundreds of pages, there should have been something that made a strong impression.

Erikson, you need to give me something. I will go on a long journey with authors (I did namedrop The Familiar), but you've got to give me something. There are books that are worth heroic efforts and concentration and zero parts of this book made me want to make anything like that kind of effort.

Beneath the Sugar Sky, Wayward Children #3 by Seanan McGuire

Beneath the Sugar Sky - Seanan McGuire

Beneath the Sugar Sky is the third book in the 'Wayward Children' series, but this is my first experience with Seanan McGuire's work.

Cora is a recent arrival at Eleanor West's home for Wayward Children. It is a boarding school for children who have come back through the looking glass or the wardrobe or the pond in the back garden and can't quite adjust to everyday reality. They desperately want to go back. Sometimes they do.

Cora's world was underwater, she lived as a mermaid and participated in wonderful adventures, but now she's back in a world where she's self-conscious about her body and obsesses a lot about what everyone must be thinking about her, the fat girl.

So she's self-absorbed. But, she is a teenager.

At the school Cora is beginning to settle in, despite the fact many of the other children are recovering from a horrific experience where a few of their peers murdered a girl to make their doorway reappear, and make friends. Suddenly, a girl in a gown made of cake drops from the sky and demands to see her mother. Her mother, Sumi, was the young girl who was murdered. She can't possibly have had a child so grown up.

McGuire takes us through the logic and unlogic of magical worlds and we follow five teens on a quest to bring Rini's mother back from the dead and save more than a few lives in the process.

I loved it. I read this in a single sitting and must at some point check out the previous books in the series, it has a fantastically diverse cast and settings and straddles horror and fantasy while maintaining a sense of wonder that's often missing from genre novels these days.

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Wishtree - Katherine Applegate

Wishtree is the story of Red, an Oak tree who has served as the a Wishtree for her neighborhood for many years. A wishtree is a tradition where people may write a wish on a cloth once a year and hang it on the branches of a tree in the hopes that it will come true.

Red has never actively participated in the granting of a wish before, but she is touched when a young girl, recently moved into the neighborhood, wishes for friendship. Red witnesses how the young girl faces prejudice and indifference on the street and, when threatened with being taken down as a nuisance, Red decides to take action while she can.

This story could easily have been saccharine drivel, but Applegate's writing delivers the sentiment without making it too cloying. At its heart Wishtree is a novel about compassion and acting on our better instincts and refusing to let the bad behavior of some dictate the future for everyone.

Warp by Lev Grossman

Warp - Lev Grossman

This is not The Magicians. This book falls squarely into the tradition of Bret Easton Ellis, Joshua Ferris and Douglas Coupland in that its about disaffected youngsters flailing about on their road after adulthood set in and trying to find some kind of meaning to it all. One of these youngsters, obviously, is more precious than the rest and its his journey that we follow.

Hmm, the above may sound a little harsh, but I actually like this genre a lot, its a nice snapshot of 'cool' hedonism of past decades. Its fun to read the references, the opinions on musical icons and movies, and - Warp in particular - commentary on science fiction.

The plot revolves around Hollis Kessler and his quest to find something to do with his days in the funk surrounding the exit of his professional ex-girlfriend and, in the meantime, a side-quest to have a good party in a stranger's house. There's a manic pixie dream girl named Xanthe and several other friends who serve as a sliding scale of debauchery and wasted potential.

There is a lot of Catcher in the Rye in this book. Grossman has a good ear for catching realistic dumb conversations (I mean that in the best way) and there is a heart to this book that makes it rise above all of the faint praise I've given it thus far. I enjoyed reading it. You might, too.

Vacationland by John Hodgeman

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches - John Hodgman

John Hodgeman throws away centuries of WASP tradition and tells everyone what he's <i>feeling</i>. The silver lining is that people can finally talk about how horrible Maine is. The water is freezing, the beaches are sharp, the lakes are bottomed with Lovecraftian horrors, and the people hate you.

Despite all of that, Hodgman carries over some of the charm of the region into his humorous essays. Where he falls apart is the whole white privilege thing. It doesn't matter how often you deprecatingly point it out, there's still something distasteful about reading about the problems of having enough money to hold onto additional houses for sentimental reasons.

There are also some problematic stories about recreational pot, which is like listening to someone talk about how much beer they drank in college, and other stories that need something more than what Hodgeman put into them to make them rise above their subject matter. That is a super-vague criticism, but its all I've got at the moment.

The positives are that even in those downer-essays there are nuggets of humor and insight that made me roar with laughter. Hodgeman is a funny guy, and this is a successful funny book.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn, Heavenly Nostrils #1 by Dana Simpson

Phoebe and Her Unicorn - Dana Simpson

When I was growing up there was no comic strip I loved more than Calvin & Hobbes. On a basic level it spoke to me as a young, over-imaginative kid who dragged his stuffed bear around with him for perhaps too long. I loved the sight gags, the dream sequences, the perplexed adults, the other skeptical children. Long after it was cancelled I still returned, time after time, to my old collections and picked up more until I had the whole series.

With Phoebe and Her Unicorn I finally see a successor. Phoebe is out entertaining herself in the woods when she accidentally skips a stone over the water into a unicorn's head. The unicorn is snapped out of a trance - she'd been mesmerized by her own reflection - and grants Phoebe a wish. She wishes for the unicorn, one Heavenly Nostrils, to be her best friend.

What follows are very sweet, but also sly, strips about modern pre-adolescence, school, parents, holidays and weird food. Its perfect. I would be offering it to every kid that comes into the shop if it weren't for the instant rejection of a pink cover with lady names on. Oh well, little girls love it.

Brightwood by Tania Unsworth

Brightwood - Tania Unsworth

Imagine, if you will, We Have Always Lived in the Castle without a precocious, or particularly interesting, heroine. Daisy Fitzjohn has always lived at Brightwood, her famiy's estate, with her mother and, it quickly becomes clear, no one else ever. Daisy has never even left its grounds or seen another living person.

Instead, she's made friends with a rat and with a topiary and with pictures throughout the house. The house is quite large, but much of it is filled up with boxes of memories. Her mother collects the "memories" of every day and stashes them in special boxes labeled with the date. There are rules about memories and it is a ritual that must be adhered to. Only, mother hasn't returned in some time and someone new has started prowling around the outside of the house. What's a girl to do?

The treatment of mental illness was unrealistic and the whole situation absurd. I couldn't get into it, I just finished it to make sure the Rat was OK.

Mennyms Alone, Mennyms #4 by Sylvia Waugh

Mennyms Alone  - Sylvia Waugh

After the shocking end to the previous book, the Mennyms cautiously begin to go about their lives again. That is until Sir Magnus has a premonition. The end is nigh!

Waugh, as the series goes on, continually reached for a deeper meaning in her story about a rag-doll family that could have simply skimmed on the surface of cute whimsy. Sometimes she's reaching beyond her grasp, but with the early book and with this one she's hit a mark here. Time is passing outside even if the Mennyms advance only slowly. The outside world was going to figure out the Mennyms sooner or later and there would be questions that couldn't be avoided with a low-brimmed hat or an attitude.

Whatever their personal feelings about the premonition, the dolls prepare - especially Tulip - in their own way. As the day and the hour come nearer we can only wonder along with them about what will happen.

Previous: <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2172012888">Mennyms Under Siege</a>

Next: <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2172016578">Mennyms Alive</a>

Mennyms Alive, Mennyms #5 by Sylvia Waugh

Mennyms Alive  - Sylvia Waugh

The previous two books varied in quality, but shared a general "bummer" feeling. The Mennyms had faced the prospect of annihilation and had taken it with dignity, if incredulously.  

What happened next was their discovery by humans, but only as some beautifully crafted rag-dolls. The heirs to the house the Mennyms had lived in for so many decades were a little put-out by inheriting a house fully furnished and packed to the rafters with things.

As a side-note I would have been thrilled, but most people are not me.

Anyway, a kind-hearted antiques dealer and doll-lover adopts the Mennyms and creates a space for them in the unused apartment above her shop. Then without even the help of an old silk hat, the Mennyms come back to life and must plan out their next move.

A logical end to the series, but somehow unsatisfying.

Previous: <a href="https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2172014186">Mennyms Alone</a>

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