Stardust by Neil Gaiman Monday, Sep 5 2011 

Several people have recommended Neil Gaiman to me over the last few years. While his books sounded intriguing, I always had some reservations about reading them, since fantasy fiction was never one of my favorite genres. However, after enjoying Good Omens so much, I decided to follow the wisdom of my friends and check out some of Gaiman’s other work, beginning with Stardust.

Stardust takes place in the 19th century and mostly follows the tale of Tristran Thorn, a young man from the village of Wall. Eager to marry the beautiful Victoria Forester, Tristran promises to bring her the falling star they see while walking together one evening. In exchange, Victoria promises him whatever he desires, not believing he will actually go searching for the fallen star. Tristran leaves Wall and begins his quest into the magical land of Faerie. Over the course of his journey, Tristran learns that stars are not quite what humans think they are, that he has some vicious competition in finding this particular star, and that his connection to Faerie runs much deeper than he ever knew.

According to several sources, Gaiman wrote Stardust in the style of the English fantasy fiction popular before Tolkien. The book definitely has the atmosphere of an old-fashioned fairy tale, but it feels fresh and vibrant rather than archaic. The world Gaiman creates is beautifully detailed and colorful, and it springs to life from the pages. While the novel is much more about plot than character study, there are still some very entertaining and memorable characters, with Tristran Thorn proving a likable hero that the reader can root for easily. Some clever plot twists and interesting, surprising relationships add to the appeal, making Stardust a charming, magical read, even for those who usually prefer their fiction more realistic.

I have seen Stardust listed as a young adult novel and under adult science fiction/fantasy. I think that either way, this is a novel that both teenagers and adults will find very enjoyable. From what I understand, its tone is very different from most of Gaiman’s other work (which I very much look forward to reading), but even if that is so, Stardust demonstrates his great writing and his ability to capture the reader’s imagination. I don’t know if Gaiman plans ever to write anything else about the land of Faerie or the village of Wall, but I would certainly welcome such a book and am sure it would be just as magical as Stardust.

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Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin Friday, Sep 2 2011 

It took me about two months to read Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. This was partly because of my schedule and partly because I was reading other books at the same time. Mostly, though, it was because Team of Rivals is a very long, intense read—over 700 pages (before the notes and bibliography!) containing an enormous amount of information on a crucial period of American history.

In addition to being a biography of Abraham Lincoln, the book also contains surprisingly extensive biographies of Lincoln’s rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination—William Henry Seward, Salmon P. Chase, and Edward Bates—all of whom Lincoln would select to be part of his Cabinet when he became president of a nation on the brink of war. Goodwin tells the story of the Civil War and the conflicts leading up to it largely through the experiences of the men who worked closely with Lincoln during his presidency. As such, the book provides rare insights into the lives and minds of political and military figures usually not discussed in great detail in history classes.

Of course, Abraham Lincoln is still very much the central figure in Team of Rivals, and Goodwin’s portrayal of him is far from that of an inexperienced country lawyer who became president and won the Civil War on benevolence and idealism. While Lincoln was by nearly all accounts a very honest and generous man, he also proved a much more astute politician than any of his skeptical opponents expected. He looked past rivalries and divergent views in order to build the best government possible to manage and win the Civil War. He brilliantly managed not only the challenges of the war, but also the people running that war, some of whom had even fiercer contentions with each other than they had with the president. Lincoln’s ability to win the respect and cooperation of those who had once scorned him was indeed very impressive, as was his success at keeping the various jealousies, disputes, and ambitions of government and military officials from derailing the Union on its path to restoration and peace. Goodwin’s focus on these aspects of Abraham Lincoln provides a fresh perspective on this beloved but often misunderstood historical figure, allowing a deeper understanding of the Civil War and the leaders involved in it.

Considering that it is a non-fiction book over 700 pages long, Team of Rivals reads like a good novel. Historical figures spring to life from the pages, and I found myself forming opinions on them the way I would with characters in fiction. There were people I found new admiration for (like William Henry Seward, the Secretary of State) and others that I found absolutely infuriating (like Salmon P. Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury). In addition to political and military affairs, Team of Rivals offers great insights into the often-difficult family lives of these important men, which adds to the novel-like atmosphere. The tragic death of Lincoln’s son Willie and his wife Mary’s subsequent depression, Chase’s oddly co-dependent relationship with his daughter Kate, and the maneuverings of the prominent Blair family all play major roles in the book and in shaping the reader’s understanding of how war and politics strained every aspect of life in the 1860s. Also quite interesting is the portrait of the social life in Washington, D.C., as well as the incredible differences between life in 19th century Washington and the capital city today. Perhaps the best example is the throngs of people who would come to see Lincoln at the White House, usually seeking some sort of government office. It makes one understand why it is so difficult to obtain a meeting with the President now!

What I have said here about Team of Rivals is really just a brief summary of one of the best works of non-fiction I have ever read. There is so much to learn from this book about Abraham Lincoln, the men he worked with, and the most pressing issues in 19th century America. It is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the Civil War or U.S. history in general. Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film Lincoln, expected in theaters in late 2012, is largely based on Team of Rivals, and it will be very interesting to see how the incredible story told in this book translates to the big screen. You can be sure I will have something to say about it!