James Bradley, Flyboys. Grandpa's. This is notionally the story of some American airmen who got left behind on Chichi Jima, the island next to Iwo Jima, and died there. And there is that story in it. There's also...a great deal of agenda on Bradley's part, some of it overt and some possibly subconscious, not sure. For example, he attempts to treat George H. W. Bush as just another Pacific theater pilot, which...doesn't really work. At all. I mean, he was one, but his background was substantially different from that of the dead airmen, in ways that make Bradley's late-book speculations about what they might have done if they'd returned home a little ludicrous. (Only one of them was likely to become head of the CIA. Was it the kid with poverty-stricken alcoholic parents and no social connections? That seems less likely, somehow.) He also did this intellectually dishonest thing where he didn't actually come out and say, "Darwin was at fault for all atrocities ever committed by white settlers and colonists," but he put Darwin or Darwinism in close proximity to them whenever he got the chance. Which is a complete no-go, temporally speaking. Just...not at all, in fact. But I'm not sure he set out to make his readers think worse of evolution in this WWII microhistory. I think he had the preexisting belief that Darwin Was Bad and let the rest fall in after. The final really weird thing that tainted this book for me was that Bradley seems to have the belief that soldiers of various kinds (airmen, sailors, what-have-you) know when they are going to die in battle. That no one ever says something like, "If I don't return, make sure my mom knows X," and then returns. Which...is approximately as sensible as the Darwin thing, frankly. As markgritter noted when I was complaining about this part, you don't have to leave the History Channel on more than an hour and a half before they're interviewing some WWII vet who is saying, "And I thought I was a goner for sure." People walk into death without knowing it, in wars; people are sure they will die and then live. That kind of made-up soldier mystique serves no one well and is certainly less than the dead airmen deserved. I think Bradley had the book about his dad's service in him (Flags of Our Fathers) and then needed a follow-up book for the same market. I'm sure this sold like crazy to that market, but it was just not a good book. The up side: he was very clear and attempted to make his readers very clear that not all of Japanese culture for all time was about militarism and mass suicide. Considering the audience he was trying to reach, that was almost certainly a necessary thing. I just wish the rest had been more worthwhile.
Lisbet Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation. Eighteenth century science: crazy and hilarious and wonderful. That is my theory. It seems to also be Lisbet Koerner's theory. This Linnaeus bio had several places in which it made me laugh and laugh, in addition to the usual early modern science, "They what? They what?" moments.
George R. R. Martin, Fevre Dream. I am not a fan of Martin's big famous series because I can see the strings, and because I found it incredibly trite. I had an interesting conversation with alecaustin that finally explained to my satisfaction why people thought Ned Stark spoilering in the first volume was so shockingly revolutionary when I found it so shockingly predictable, so that, at least, is a relief to understand. But anyway. This is one of the two Martin books people say I should read when I say I don't like the wintry books I reasonably should like because of all the winter in them. This was a Southern vampire book. What is it about the American South that makes people think so of vampires? But anyway: it was very well done with the Mississippi riverboats, and yet...did not make it into the top tier of my affections. It's not that I never love vampire books, it's that they're an awfully tough sell for me.
Steven Ozment, The Reformation in the Cities: The Appeal of Protestantism to Sixteenth-Century Germany and Switzerland. Ozment does a very good job of showing why urban dwellers in the countries he's discussing found Protestant ideas appealing, and not only or even primarily the more abstruse philosophical ones. It's a focus slightly to the side of what one mostly gets in Reformation histories, so that was a very useful perspective change. He is still my favorite historian of Germany.
Adrian Tchaikovsky, Dragonfly Falling. Second book in the Shadows of the Apt, and it continues the storyline with yet more characters, insect-affiliated races, and battles. There were several points at which he failed to drag out the thing I was afraid he was going to drag out, and also I really liked the focus on people trying to figure out new and more effective war machines in desperate circumstances. It is very much a middle book in a series, though, rather than a self-contained item.
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Grandpa's. After reading Fevre Dream and noticing that Grandpa's birthday was coming up today, I decided that this was the perfect combination of factors for me to return to Huck Finn. I skipped the year we were supposed to read it in high school, so I hadn't read it since Grandpa and Grandma and Mother and I went to Hannibal, MO, on vacation. I think that was the first of our book-related trips, but I can't swear to it. I was 11. It was a good trip. In Hannibal, nobody tells you to get your nose out of that book and look at this other thing here, because that book is likely to be part of the point. It's so good. And then you get to go to the St. Louis Botanical Gardens and all is well.
Anyway, Huck Finn itself. It was very structurally weird--I know it was meant to be picaresque, and that's not the part I'm complaining about, it's the "and Jim was free all along!" ending. Meh. Meh. Also as a fabulist I was interested in Tom and Huck's syncretist approach to history and literature, and particularly interested in all the things Jim does and believes that read as though the reader is supposed to take them for foolish superstition. When Jim thinks he is seeing Huck's ghost early in the book and he says that he's always been kind to dead people, my fantasy writer brain went ping. The book itself is fairly condescending to Jim in that way, although there are also places where he is used for folk wisdom to poke holes in something ridiculous in white culture of the time; with all the spate of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies sorts of things we've had, I would think that Jim's experiences with the world of magic and spirits would be a much more natural fit, requiring far less "tacking on" of fantastic elements. On the other hand, trying to write that kind of phoneticized dialect would be excruciating. I didn't find Huck quite so bad, but Jim and several of the others with different accents than Twain's own--why do people insist on trying to phoneticize accents not their own? I blame Twain for most of the later examples, actually--but it's horribly condescending and often flat-out wrong. So if anyone does come along and write the untold story of Jim's magical experiences, I hope they skip the dialog completely. The word "gwine" gives me the shudders.