It’s been a while since I could rattle off the names of dinosaurs with ease, but I have to admit there’s still a small part of me that is fascinated by them. Something about seeing a giant skeleton from millions of years ago makes me revert into being a ten year old again. I doubt I’m the only one, and that’s probably one of the reasons for the success of Jurassic Park. Most dinosaur related things outside of academia are directed towards children, so it’s fun to have a novel (and movie!) about dinosaurs that you can appreciate as an adult. Yet it’s something older kids can get into as well; I first read this book when I was twelve. Michael Crichton was great at creating an action-packed plot with quick pacing and interesting clues to what’s going to happen next. Obviously, any mystery aspect of the plot is kind of spoiled for most modern readers who have seen the movie or just have not been living under a rock since 1993, but still he did set up everything nicely. Despite already knowing what was going to happen, I was reluctant to set the book down and pretty much read it in one sitting.
That said, I wasn’t particularly invested in any of the characters. They’re all pretty stock action/sci-fi characters with little to no development throughout the novel. Granted, that’s because a lot of them are you know… dead… by the end of the book but it would have been good to see more from the characters than just concern about survival. As it is, they are there mostly to service the plot, or in Ian Malcolm’s case, to service Crichton’s message of “Hey, maybe let’s not fuck around with nature! That leads to bad things!” A message that got reiterated probably one too many times, but at least he was eloquent about it.
In any case, I had a lot of fun rereading Jurassic Park, and I am shamefully way too excited about its re-release into theaters.
Recommending humor writers is always an iffy task because what one person finds hilarious another person might find asinine. That said, Sedaris really is a brilliant humorist. I already kind of fell in love with him when I read Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, but I think I enjoyed When You Are Engulfed in Flames even more, perhaps because of its autobiographical nature, as I tend to be drawn to memoirs and biographies and the like. Of course, When You Are Engulfed in Flames is not exactly a memoir, but a series of essays that, rather than forming a complete chronological portrait of his life, give us brief snapshots of Sedaris’ personality and view of the world through various moments in his life, from falling in love with a spider to buying a human skeleton as a present for his boyfriend. Sometimes I have the sneaking suspicion while reading that he is stretching the truth a bit, but it doesn’t really matter because I’m laughing anyway. Perhaps more importantly, oftentimes I honestly could connect on a personal level to what he was saying. In reading about his ridiculous foibles and those of the people around him, I could recognize my own and have a good laugh about it, knowing that we’re all kind of a bit ridiculous in our own way.
Throughout the book, I constantly found myself going “Oh I like that quote!” and “I should write this one down!” because well, first off I’m a dork who actually does write down quotes from books all the time, but second off because Sedaris’ writing is the perfect mixture of funny and insightful, which is something that is harder to achieve than it seems. He has a wonderful ability to render ordinarily dull activities comical and to highlight the delightfully eccentric qualities of the people around him without sacrificing depth in his writing.
The Gilded Age is a fascinating time in U.S. history and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair often serves as a symbol for the era as a whole, appropriately so. In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson provides a detailed but engaging account of the Fair from start to finish, and in case that isn’t interesting enough for you, he throws in a little murder. While Chicago’s architects, businessmen, and civic leaders struggled to make the Fair a success, on the outskirts of the fairgrounds an attractive young doctor, was building a hotel where he murdered a succession of people, mostly young women who had come to Chicago looking for independence and economic opportunity. Larson switches between these two main narratives, with the architect Daniel Burnham, the director of the Fair, and H.H. Holmes, the serial murderer, as the main figures. The two tales of the Fair serve to juxtapose the dark and light sides of both Chicago and the period well.
The Devil in the White City is a non-fiction piece, but it reads like a novel. In general, this is a positive thing. All too often, history books are too dry for casual reading, which is unfortunate, because, as Larson proves, historical events can be just as interesting and exciting (or horrifying, as the case may be) as fictional stories. Larson’s Chicago of 1893 is not an abstract idea you might encounter in a textbook, it feels like a real and tangible world, which it was. However, Larson can sometimes stray too much into speculation about events, particularly how exactly Holmes murdered his victims and his motivations behind the murders. Larson does admit to this in the afterword, but during the course of the book it can sometimes be a little difficult to tell when he is pulling a detail from a primary source or if a particular detail is something he is theorizing about. Speculation is of course one of the things that makes history fun but writers do have to be careful about not letting their speculations seem like irrefutable facts.
Personally, while there was a sort of morbid fascination with the Sweeny Toddesque murders committed by Holmes, I was mostly interested in all that went into building and operating the Fair, especially the fun tidbits like the one guy who showed up at the Fair’s medical center for “excessive flatulence” or Susan B. Anthony telling a conservative minister that she’d learn more from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show than from going to church. For other people, Holmes’ narrative is probably more exciting. Either way, I really loved this book and could not put it down.
I am sorely tempted to simply link this post and leave it at that (pay special attention to that last line there). This book is terrific, and I don’t know that I can say what I found so terrific about it without veering off into either spoiler territory or perfect incoherence, but I’ll give it a go.
A further three years have passed since The Golem’s Eye. Nathaniel has been promoted even higher since then, and he’s suffering under the responsibility, totally friendless, and forced to constantly watch his back. Naturally he passes some of the pain along to Bartimaeus as they struggle to keep up with multiple wars, commoner revolts, cranking out propaganda, keeping the Prime Minister’s favor, and following up one last lead on that Resistance stuff from last book. Kitty… well, she’s keeping busy. (Spoilers, but she’s being awesome, trust me.)
It’s like the other two: there is a plot in which things constantly get worse, interspersed with backstory (Bartimaeus’s this time, better integrated than in the last book, and… really good). Things blow up into a spectacular magical showdown. The characters are interesting and complicated, and interact in entertaining ways. Snark. Footnotes. Et cetera. The point is… it’s terrific, and a satisfying and worthy conclusion to a trilogy full of awesome. It’s clever and intense, and Nathaniel’s character arc over the course of the series is - well, I’m running out of positive adjectives. Imagine there’s a really fancy one here.
In conclusion: good book. Good trilogy. Fuck.
It’s been two years since the events of The Amulet of Samarkand, and Nathaniel has come up in the world. He’s apprenticed to the Security Minister, he’s become much more adept at magic, and while everyone he meets seems to hate him, he’s considered a rising star in the government. He’s tasked with hunting down the Resistance - and when some huge mysterious thing starts rampaging through London destroying magical artifacts, his superiors decide that’s the Resistance’s doing and clearly his problem. It isn’t them, of course, but it’s on him to prove that - and the real Resistance isn’t keeping idle while this happens. Naturally he’s going to need Bartimaeus’s help to sort everything out.
As with the first book, the forward progress of the plot is broken up with flashbacks for the first two or three sections, and then once we know how everyone got to where they are, the momentum builds to a freaking awesome finale. I had a bit less patience for the format this time, perhaps because it wasn’t so novel - but when things get rolling, whoa, do they ever. There’s an interesting array of antagonists, some of them expected, some of them WAIT WHERE DID THAT GUY COME FROM WHAT THE HELL, and the intensity just keeps ramping up.
We get a new PoV character in Kitty, one of the Resistance members who showed up in the first book. Her parallels to Nathaniel are pretty clear - she’s a smart, stubborn kid, something unfair happened to her, and she is going to bring down the parties responsible. But her ideals are larger than herself, she’s tougher and less naive, and she’s not a little shit like Nathaniel. I feared her plotline would be too predictable, but it veered off early enough, and she’s a refreshing island of decency in a world where all the wizards and most of the commoners are total assholes. She is also a badass. Gold star for Kitty.
As for our original protagonists: Nathaniel has totally turned into The Man. He has nothing but distrust and contempt for his fellow magicians, but he’s trying to be just like them anyway. He’s completely absorbed all the government’s loathsome rhetoric about the inferiority of commoners. All he thinks about is getting promoted, gaining power and prestige, and he is terribly, TERRIBLY serious about it. But he is also a ridiculous fourteen-year-old tryhard with stupid hair. The contrast is fantastic. And Bartimaeus remains a shining pinnacle of awesomeness and snark, though some cracks are beginning to show…
The second book of a trilogy faces a lot of challenges, and book two is often the weakest installment of the three. But this one seems to have sidestepped the usual pitfalls: it succeeds as a story unto itself and as a continuation of the first book, and has kept my interest high for book three. Hats off to that.