Bragan Reads Everything Else in 2016, Pt. 4
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OK, I have no idea where this year has gone, because it's seemed to fly by in a great big blur. But wherever the previous months have disappeared to, it is now the last quarter of 2016, which means it's time for a new thread (continued from the old one here). As usual, I am far too lazy to post some kind of long introduction featuring my reading thus far, so I'm just going to launch into my first book of October:
110. The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie
Americans are most likely to know Hugh Laurie as the star of House. Which, great as he is in that, is kind of a shame, because if that's the only place you know him from, you've missed out on his long, hilarious career as a comic actor. And it turns out he's just as funny as a novelist, too, because this crazy spy thriller is written with a droll, pitch-perfect wit that makes pretty much every page a delight to read. Mind you, the plot is completely ridiculous, being convoluted and contrived and based on an idea that's pure tin-hat conspiracy theory. Which wouldn't be a problem, really, except that it was written in 1996, and its flippant, dated depiction of terrorism reads a lot more uncomfortably now than it would have then.
Rating: It's a little hard to decide how to rate this, but, hell, it's not Hugh Laurie's fault 9/11 happened, and even with some discomfort about that niggling in the back of my head, I still enjoyed it a lot. So I'm going to call it 4/5.
111. F in Exams: The Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers by Richard Benson
A short compilation of humorous, supposedly real test answers given by students. They range from vaguely cute to laugh-out-loud funny. One of my favorites: the first and second laws of thermodynamics being given as "First rule of thermodynamics is you do not talk about thermodynamics. Second rule of thermodynamics is you do not talk about thermodynamics." There's not much to it -- the whole thing maybe takes fifteen minutes to read, if you're not hurrying -- but it's a decent little hit of humor if you need some.
The US Kindle version of F in Exams costs 99 cents, so I just purchased a copy of it.
>3 kidzdoc: I think I spent about three dollars on the print version. There's not enough to it to make it worth more than that, really, but there's definitely at least 99 cents worth of humor in there.
112. The Passage by Justin Cronin
The US Army infects twelve condemned prisoners with a virus that produces a vampire-like condition in its victims. The resulting monstrosities then inevitably escape their confinement and go on a murderous rampage, resulting in the rapid end of human civilization (at least in the United States, and probably everywhere else as well). But the last experimental subject, a six-year-old girl, has a very different reaction to the infection; she is changed, but still human. She wanders off into the mountains in the wake of the massacre... and then, nearly a hundred years later, into a small colony of survivors' descendants.
This isn't a bad book, but I'd hesitate to call it a good one, either. I do like the concept behind the creatures, which includes some clever nods to traditional vampire lore. But the story and the characters never really engaged me all that much, on any kind of emotional level. Cronin goes into great detail about his characters' lives and backstories and relationships and emotions, and so forth and so on, but he seldom makes me actually feel for any of them, and the post-apocalyptic world-building seemss a little flat and not always entirely convincing. Again, it's never really bad, but nearly 800 pages is a long time to spend with something that's decent, but just not really grabbing you. It did get more interesting, I think, in the last 300 pages or so, but by that point I was already feeling ready to be done with it. Although I'm still not, of course, as there are two more volumes and another 1,100 pages or so yet to go. I am intending to read the rest of the series, both because I already have all of it, and because the ending of this one was surprisingly effective in making me want to know what happens next. But I'm not sure I'm going to be in much of a hurry to get to them. Plowing my way through this one has kind of tired me out.
>1 bragan: Highly interested now. This one goes right onto my wishlist. I must admit, that I only now Hugh Laurie from House and some sketches with Stephen Fry.
>2 bragan: You see loads of those funny answers on the Internet these days. I always have a laugh at them but also doubt their authenticity somewhat. I'm not sure whether I'd go for the book, but 99 cents is definitely worth a try.
>6 OscarWilde87: My first exposure to Laurie was via Blackadder, which is probably one of the best comedy series of all time.
I must admit, I was a little doubtful about the authenticity of some of the answers in the book, too. But they were still amusing, regardless.
>8 Simone2: Well, a lot of people seem to have liked it much better than I did, so I dunno... At the very least, I recommend saving it for sometimes when you're feeling ready for something long and not exactly fast.
113. H Is for Hawk by Helen Mcdonald
Helen Macdonald is an experienced falconer, who, while grieving deeply in the wake of her father's sudden death, decided to take on the training of the notoriously difficult goshawk. This memoir combines her experiences of training the hawk and of dealing (or, often, failing to deal) with her grief, as well as frequent discussions of the author T. H. White, best known for The Once and Future King, who also wrote a book about training a goshawk -- badly, in his case -- and whose experiences of that, like Macdonald's, reflected many of his own psychological issues.
I have to say, I was not at all sure about this book at first. It was over-hyped to me to the point where I was almost resistant to reading it, and it seemed at first as if it might consist largely of the sort of self-indulgent self-psychoanalysis that sees everything in the world as a metaphor for the author's own life, which doesn't really have a lot of appeal for me. Plus, the writing style, half-casual, half-poetic, takes some getting used to.
But it grew on me, a lot. The prose really is good, and the emotions and experiences Macdonald writes about feel very honest. The things she talks about, from the lives of hawks to the life of T. H. White, are interesting. There are some good insights and thoughtful reflections. And ultimately -- and most importantly -- Macdonald very much respects and understands her hawk as an independent, non-human entity, not as a mere prop or tool with which to work out her grief, and she makes that gratifyingly clear by the end.
I don't know that this blew me away the way it seems to have done with some people. But I found it a very worthwhile read, nonetheless.
Catching up Betty. Great review of H is for Hawk...and nice to learn the Hugh Lauris wrote a book. I'm guessing that's his only one. Going back to your previous thread, I saw a preview for a movie on African American computers for NASA, presumably based on that book (preview made it seem a bit silly though)
>12 dchaikin: That does seem to be his only published book, sadly. I'd definitely read another one if it existed.
And the movie is, indeed, based on the book I reviewed in my last thread. I rather liked the preview, myself, mostly just because the women in it were pretty recognizable as the one's I'd just been reading about.
114. Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman
A collection of short stories (and a handful of poems) consisting of various fantasies, fairy tales, and snippets of strangeness, some dark, some silly, some both at once. Including a Sherlock Holmes story for the Holmes fans, a Doctor Who story for the Doctor Who fans (although if you don't happen to be one of those, a sentence or two in the introduction outlines all you need to know for it), and, for fans of Gaiman's other work, a story featuring Shadow from American Gods.
Gaiman himself calls it a kind of hodge-podge his introduction, and offers an apology for this. I started out thinking he was kind of right, that the collection lacked a certain coherence. Then I stopped caring, because the stories themselves are so good, ranging from interesting curiosities to glittering little gems. Then I starting thinking, no, he's wrong, that there are complicated recurring themes woven throughout the whole collection that do make them feel as if they all fit together somehow, after all.
But, really, my main thought about this book is that I can't believe it took me this long to get around to reading it, knowing that Gaiman pretty much never disappoints.
115. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
This 1970s Russian SF novel is considered something of a classic of the field, and I can definitely see why. It's based on a fantastic idea, one that really gets under your skin: Thirteen years ago, aliens briefly visited Earth. Everywhere they landed, bizarre, destructive, inexplicable things happened. Then they took off again, giving no indication of why they'd come in the first place, but leaving the places they touched forever changed into something weird and dangerous, scattered with unfathomable alien technologies and equally unfathomable hazards. People go into these zones to scavenge for these technologies, but often they don't come out again. Or they come out changed. And creepy, impossible things continue to happen around them. What does all this mean? Nobody knows for sure, but one character speculates that perhaps the visitors' stop on Earth was no more than a roadside picnic, and these altered landscapes and abandoned miracles are nothing more than their discarded garbage and forgotten tools, and the careless tracks of their passing. Like I said, it's a fantastic concept.
The story itself, which focuses mainly on one of these scavengers (or "stalkers") isn't very substantially plotty or anything, but it pulled me along nicely, anyway. The setting is a little odd, because it's not quite anywhere in particular, under not quite any political system in particular (an artifact, perhaps, of the restrictions the authors were under while writing in Soviet Russia). But while I found that a little distracting, it mostly works OK in the end. The one really sour note is the book's treatment of women, which is abysmal, even for the 70s: every woman in the story is either a sex object, or is ordered about like a servant, or both, and none of them have the faintest shred of a personality. Still, as annoyed as I was by that, I'm still very glad to have finally filled this gap in my reading of the genre.
>16 bragan: I'm not sure why I haven't got around to Trigger Warning yet either. Gaiman rarely disappoints and I particularly love his short stories. Glad to see another good review of this one, maybe it'll help me finally get to it!
>17 bragan: I hadn't even heard of Roadside Picnic until the STALKER computer games came out, at which point I read it. I remember quite liking it but can't remember any of the details now. I feel like I should reread it. Disappointing to hear about the treatment of women in it though.
>18 valkyrdeath: I was all excited to pick up Trigger Warning, and then it took me ages to get around to it. All I can figure is, some semi-conscious part of me thought I should save it for the ideal time when I could appreciate it properly. If so, I'm glad I gave up on that, because those times never actually happen.
My copy of Roadside Picnic has a mention of the video game on the cover, which surprised me, because I'd heard a lot about the book, but had never heard of the video game. I suppose I can see how the premise could lend itself to a very interesting game. I'm more than a little curious about it now.
And the thing about the women is something I suspect wouldn't have even registered with me if I'd read it 20 years ago, but once you start noticing that sort of thing, it's impossible to miss things like the way the main character's wife exists entirely to give him a child and take his food and drink orders.
>19 bragan: I definitely notice that sort of thing a lot more these days. Years ago I would be too focused on the plot and ideas behind the story and I barely paid attention to characters at all and things like that slid past me, but now those things stand out and are a lot harder to look past.
The game based on the book was by Ukrainian developers and they moved the setting to the Chernobyl exclusion zone where a second disaster has caused effects similar to the ones in the book. It's very bleak and atmospheric and using the real Chernobyl locations made it a very strange experience.
>20 valkyrdeath: Huh. That does sound interesting. I can't decide whether actually using Chernobyl is a brilliant idea or a disturbing one, though.
I just found this thread after 'losing' you since the end of your first thread of the year. I've had a very enjoyable read through your last several months of reviews. This is therefore a very belated comment but I wonder if you might prefer the more surreal Murakami books (his earlier ones), instead of the quirky but real-life stories which he mostly writes nowadays. You might try The Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
ETA: although The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is probably his masterpiece.
116. An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie
Tété-Michel Kpomassie grew up in Togo, in West Africa. When he was a teenager, he fell out of a tree during an alarming encounter with a python, and was taken to the priestess of a snake cult to attend to his injuries. The priestess was apparently quite impressed with him and suggested that once he was better he return to become a priest himself. The boy had no desire to do this, but he father was in favor, and in his culture, a father's word is law.
But before the deal could be done, Kpomassie happened to read a book about so-called "Eskimos" and suddenly developed an overriding obsession with running away to Greenland. So he did. It took him eight years to get there.
Kpomassie comes across as a really interesting person. His oddly persistent obsession with Greenland seems a little, well, crazy, but crazy in that weird, wonderful way that's it's good to see in the world from time to time. And he writes thoughtfully and well about his adolescent turning point, his travels, and the people and culture he found in Greenland when he got there. Both Togo and Greenland being equally unfamiliar to me, I found his descriptions of both equally fascinating, and very much enjoyed the entire account. Well, OK, maybe not so much the graphic descriptions of butchering animals, including dogs. But even that was sort of interesting, in its own gruesome way.
The Kpomassie book has been on my wishlist for a long time. I really do need to hunt a copy down.
>27 bragan: I'm a vegetarian and I enjoyed it (apart from the annoyance of discovering that a new French edition was released just after I'd given up and bought the translation...).
>28 thorold: At least it was a very good translation. Well, it seems like it was, anyway. I haven't (and couldn't) read the French edition in order to compare, but it read much more smoothly and naturally than many books in translation I've read.
117. The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon
Young Archer B. Helmsley is the grandson of a pair of famous explorers, and he has very much inherited their thirst for adventure. But when his grandparents disappear on an iceberg in the Antarctic, his mother becomes so over-protective she barely lets him out of the house. Still, he's not going to let that stop him from planning a trip to look for his grandparents, with the help of a couple of friends (including a one-legged French ballerina).
A decent enough kids' book with a bit of humor and some nice illustrations, but not a very memorable one.
Rating: I'm sure it would have done a lot more for me as a kid as did as an adult, so I'm going to let Adult Me and Inner Child Me split the difference and call it 3.5/5.
118. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
Lo Blacklock works for a travel magazine, and gets what could be her big break when she is sent to cover the maiden voyage of a mini-luxury liner. Unfortunately, the timing is terrible, since a frightening home invasion and a fight with her boyfriend just before the trip have left her feeling paranoid, jumpy, deeply exhausted from persistent insomnia, and entirely too prone to self-medicate with alcohol. Which means that when she wakes up in the middle of the night thinking she heard a scream from the next cabin and a splash from below, then rushes out to the balcony to catch what might be a fleeting glimpse of a sinking body... Well, it seems entirely possible she might have imagined it. But she doesn't think so. And she definitely knows she didn't imagine meeting the woman in the cabin next door, the one everyone insists has been empty the entire time...
It's good setup for what shapes up to be a pretty good mystery/thriller. I did find it hard to keep all the characters straight for a while, and there was a moment or two when I got a little confused about something that really shouldn't have confused me, but that's pretty minor stuff in a book that I enjoyed overall. Ware uses a simple but very effective little narrative device to build suspense, and provides a surprising and twisty answer to the mystery, as well as a climax that I rushed through quickly because I was afraid I might not finish it before being interrupted by work and I did not want to put it down just then. In the end, I'm not sure how believable all of it was, but it certainly worked well enough for me while I was reading it.
119. The Red Market by Scott Carney
The "red market" of the title is the trade, of varying degrees of legality, in human bodies and body parts. There's a surprising amount of ground that can cover: from the donation or selling of organs, blood, egg cells, and even hair, to the mounting of human skeletons for the teaching of anatomy, to renting out one's body as a drug tester or pregnancy surrogate, to offering a baby up for adoption. There's no doubt that all of that can do a lot of good, but the origins of all that human material can sometimes be very troubling indeed. Scott Carney delves into that darker side, describing, among other horrors, bones robbed from graves, children kidnapped from their families and handed over to adoption agencies who can profit from hefty "international adoption fees," and people living in extreme poverty who are exploited badly by those willing to pay -- but not pay very much -- for their kidneys or the use of their wombs. Mostly he focuses on India as a red market supplier, it seems partly because there's a lot of this stuff going on there, but also just because that's where he happens to live.
It's disturbing stuff, for sure. I'm not sure how I feel about Carney's suggestions for how to improve things, though. He talks a lot about how transparency about exactly where, and exactly who, organs and babies and blood come from might make the shadier parts of the red market harder to maintain, and he might have a point. But, medical privacy being as important as it is, it's an idea that I can't help having some reservations about. And as for his assertions that doctors "create a market" for transplants and that perhaps people should instead "learn to accept mortality..." Geez. I kind of get where he's coming from, but that's harsh, and his willingness to make that kind of statement so baldly and so callously does make me think that here's a guy who has maybe let himself get a little carried away on this subject, which inclines me to take some of his other assertions and opinions with more of a grain of salt.
Still. Whatever one thinks of Carney's personal take on the subject, or his ideas on how to deal with it, he is definitely uncovering something here that all of us, particularly those who stand to benefit from it, should be much more aware of than we are, even if that awareness is unpleasant. Which it is. It really, really is.
120. The Dark Half by Stephen King
A late-80s Stephen King novel about an author whose pseudonymous alter-ego/absorbed-in-the-womb evil twin comes to life and goes on a brutal rampage right out of one of his own crime thrillers.
It's a really great premise for a horror novel, and one that hints at some intriguing themes of identity, creativity, and the dark side that may be hidden in good people. Mind you, King doesn't really go into any of those themes in any depth, but I think they're lurking in there, anyway, under all the supernatural weirdness and the gore. Mostly it doesn't tingle the spine the way the best of his stuff does, but the prologue does contain what may be one of the creepiest images he's even written, so I have to give it some points for that. And, as is usual for King, it's a very readable book.
On the other hand, while I was more than happy to accept its bizarre-but-fascinating premise, other aspects of it did stretch my suspension of disbelief, including a sheriff getting ridiculously chummy with a guy who's a suspect in his murder investigation, and a whole lot of thoroughly unconvincing dialog. And while, at about 430 pages, this is downright slim compared to some of King's later work, it does drag some in the middle in a way that makes me think it could have been cut down by 50 or even 100 pages and been the better for it. Plus, the resolution is... odd. It's well built-up-to throughout the novel, which is more than you can say for some of King's endings, but it's still odd.
Basically, this is middle-of-the-road King. Definitely not his best, definitely not his worst.
>35 OscarWilde87: The execution is probably not nearly as interesting as the premise, to be completely honest, but when you're in the mood for some Stephen King, I'd say it does the job.
121. Thug Notes: A Street-Smart Guide to Classic Literature by Sparky Sweets PhD
Thug Notes is a YouTube video series in which literary works are summarized and discussed -- in gangsta-speak, with the aid of animation consisting mostly of cartoons or stick figures with photographic faces stuck on them. I kind of love it, because it's irreverently funny, because it often does a better and more insightful job of analyzing the books in question in just a few minutes than my English teachers did in weeks of classroom time, because it seems like a great way to get teenagers engaged with books that might otherwise have all the joy sucked out of them by making them assigned reading, and because it sends the message that anybody can understand, enjoy, and engage with great books.
And this is the companion volume. Sixteen classic works of literature are covered, with each discussion consisting of several subsections including, among others, "Homies" (a character list), "What Went Down" (a plot summary) and "Themes 'n' Shit" (self-explanatory).
If you're not familiar with the videos, a quote or two is probably necessary to get the flavor of the thing, so here's a bit from the discussion of themes in Moby-Dick: "There's a booty-load of tragic elements in this here text. And one of da most old-school is dat a playa wit' a fat head gonna get his ass put in check by da man upstairs -- 'specially when you spittin' right in his face. Ahab can only talk so much shit 'bout da Big G before his gangsta-ass gets a smitin'."
Or this bit describing the very end of Hamlet: "Then Fortinbras of Norway roll inta da room, see practically errybody lyin' in chalk, and like, 'Dafuq goin on in here? Nevermind. King me, bitches.'"
Fun stuff, right?
Admittedly, I do think this whole conceit works a lot better in the videos than it does in book form. The smattering of still pictures here aren't nearly as fun as the animations, and the attempt to represent the dialog in writing turns something that feels natural and easy in audio into something a bit awkward to read. It helped a lot that I could hear it all in the affable tones of host "Sparky Sweets," but I have no idea how it would read to someone who hadn't seen the videos first. So if this sort of thing sounds up your alley, I'd say you should definitely watch the videos first. The book is probably worth picking up if you're a big fan and find yourself wanting more, or want to support the channel by purchasing it, but it's not really a substitute.
Rating: I find I can't bring myself to give this less than a 4/5, even though I do realize that that's more based on my love of the videos series than on my response to the book itself.
122. Armada by Earnest Cline
I picked this one up under the impression that it was a sequel to Cline's Ready Player One, which I very much enjoyed. It's not, although it does have more than a few things in common with that one. Hell, it's probably got even more pop culture references per page than Ready Player One, which takes some doing. But it feels more YA-ish than that one, or perhaps even more pitched towards middle-school-aged kids.
The plot owes a lot to -- well, to lots and lots of SF movies, books, TV shows, and games, but most particularly to The Last Starfighter. As in that movie, a teenager is called upon to fight real-life aliens after proving himself to be very, very good at a video game used as a secret recruitment tool. The resulting plot is, well, pretty ridiculous. But kind of fun. But still ridiculous. But very, very self-aware about how ridiculous the tropes it's using are. But still pretty ridiculous.
Ultimately, while I appreciated the fun stuff, and was totally on board with its thoroughly geeky sensibilities, I'm afraid I didn't find it nearly as engaging as Ready Player One.
>38 bragan: I felt the same way. It was a lot of geeky fun, just not as good as Ready Player One.
123. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Daniel Kahneman is a psychology professor and the winner of a Nobel Prize in economics. In this book he delves into how the human mind works when we're evaluating situations, solving problems, and making decisions. In particular, he talks about two kinds of mental processing we employ. One, which he refers to as "System 1" (a phrase he emphasizes is simply a convenient label for a particular kind of thinking, not a physical thing that exists in your brain), works quickly, draws on associations between the problem before us and things we've seen before, simplifies complex problems to make them easier to handle, and produces results that just feel right. It's what we might like to call intuition. "System 2," on the other hand, proceeds slowly, logically, and analytically, for instance, when you're solving a complicated math problem. System 2 can be used to double-check on the intuitions provided by System 1, but it can also accept the conclusions System 1 feeds it and use those in its analysis. Or it can simply leave things to System 1 and never kick in at all.
Both systems are useful, even crucial, in their proper domains. Without System 2, we'd never pass calculus, and without System 1, we'd be like the proverbial centipede who couldn't walk because he couldn't keep track of what all his legs were doing. But relying on System 1 can lead us astray in all kinds of ways. And Kahneman shows us many of the ways it does that, as well as exploring the difference between real people and the idealized economists' model of human beings as perfectly rational agents invariably acting in their own best self-interest.
I thought most of this book was just really fantastic. I'd read a fair bit about this sort of topic before, and was a little afraid that it'd just hash over a lot of familiar ground for me, but, while I did get to be smug at having already developed the critical thinking skills not to fall for some of the trick questions designed to expose our irrationality, there was a lot here that I found really worthwhile and interesting, either because I was learning new things or because the already familiar concepts were just so wonderfully expressed.
I will say that there was one multi-chapter section of the book I felt slightly less satisfied with. Mostly, that involved a lot of examination of how people say they would respond to an offered gamble or deal, and whether their responses are rational or not. There was definitely some good stuff in these chapters, but I found them much less interesting, and somewhat harder to get through than the others. In part, that's probably because the way economics types approach these kinds of problems always kind of irritates me. Even when they're trying really hard, they always seem to me to fail to appreciate how real people feel about real money, treating it as some kind of contextless shiny thing that's just abstractly nice to have. It tends to leave me wanting to grab them by the lapels and say things like, "Of course the possibility of losing money that you already have feels more significant than the possibility of winning the same amount. People fear losing money for the same reason they fear losing blood. You have a limited amount of it, can only replenish it so fast, and you need that stuff to live." I mean, come on, guys.
Still, that may just be a personal quirk. Overall, it's an extremely valuable book, one that teaches some important, perhaps even utterly critical, lessons on the ways in which we can all be very, very wrong about things while being convinced we're completely, unquestionably right. Which is a perspective and a level of self-awareness that we desperately need more of in the world right now. I'd certainly like to force every politician to read it.
124. The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab by Gideon Defoe
Sequel to The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. This time, the pirates buy a fancy new ship on credit, then try to come up with some schemes to earn the money before they're dismembered for non-payment. Also, they keep encountering Ahab.
It's all utterly silly, and a little bit surreal. But fun. I will say that I don't think I found it quite as charming or as consistently funny as the first one, maybe just because it caught me less by surprise. But every time I started to think maybe it was a bit more dumb than hilarious, or to get tired of the weird running joke about hams, there would be a pirate rap battle, or something equally delightful, and I would be all on board again (so to speak). Hey, sometimes this kind of ridiculousness is exactly what you need.
Rating: a slightly generous 4/5.
>41 bragan: I've seen this book in the shop and wasn't sure whether to read it. I was thinking I'd maybe read too many similar things before, but you make it sounds like it could still be an interesting read.
>42 bragan: I loved the first Pirates book. I'm wanting a light funny book for when I've finished the more depressing ones I'm reading at the moment so I think you might have given me my next read.
Interesting to read your take on Thinking Fast and Slow. I am encouraged to go and look for this book, I might learn something.
>46 baswood: I think it would be hard to read that and not learn something.
125. Excession by Iain M. Banks
This is part of Banks's Culture series, which features super-advanced, galaxy-spanning civilization. In this installment, a strange object appears, one that's connected to hyperspace in ways nobody's ever seen before and which may be the key to learning how to travel between universes. Needless to say, this attracts a lot of attention, and various groups react to it according to their own complicated agendas.
It's a good premise, but, I have to say, this was not my favorite of the Culture novels I've read so far. That may partly be due to bad expectations, though. It'd been a while since I read it, but I remembered the previous volume, Against a Dark Background, as having a wild, fun romp of a plot, and I was hoping for more of the same here. Instead, I found myself spending hundreds of pages wishing something would just happen already. Which, on reflection, is unfair. Lots of things happen in this novel. It's just that most of them feel a bit abstract. They're moves on a vast gameboard made by players with murky agendas, according to complicated and hard-to-follow rules. It does at least all play out in a fairly engaging way at the end, but I couldn't help feeling awfully impatient while waiting to get there. It didn't help, either, that the human-scale part of the story centered on humans who just weren't very likeable or interesting.
Of course, the world-building and the setting, as is usual for Banks, are creative and very cool. I particularly enjoyed the glimpses we got here of the warlike Affront, who manage to be simultaneously utterly appalling and ridiculously fun. I kind of wish we'd gotten to see more of them.
Rating: a possibly unfair 3.5/5
126. Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
The second of Shirley Jackson's two humorous memoirs about keeping house and raising four kids during the 1950s, this follows directly on from the first volume, Life Among the Savages. I think I liked the first one a bit better, but both are entertaining. Although, man... While the tone here is always light and fluffy, with all Jackson's trials and tribulations and moments of anger or frustration at her difficult and thankless role played for laughs (and often slightly self-deprecating laughs), I found it impossible to read this and not think of the fact that this is the same Shirley Jackson who wrote all those stories about quietly desperate housewives slowly collapsing under the weight of society's expectations. So, while this amused me, I have to say, its main effect on me was to make me feel very, very good about my own life choices, which include not having children and not living in the 1950s.
I lost track of your thread for a while! British comedy Hugh Laurie is definitely my favorite. I was never much of a House fan (the medical parts were so predictable and as someone who spend two years trying to get a diagnosis I have no illusions about most doctors being particularly interested in solving the mystery). My mom thinks that his recent villainous role in The Night Manager might have made it hard to watch Laurie in his other roles.
Definitely adding An African in Greenland to my list, and glad to see your review of Thinking Fast and Slow.
>50 mabith: Welcome back to my thread!
I liked House, although it was occasionally frustrating in various ways, and I was never under any illusion that it was realistic. I really should have watched The Night Manager, as it clearly had a fantastic cast, but somehow I never got to it.
And An African in Greenland is well worth adding to the list, I think.
127. The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst
Olivia Frost lost her husband and young daughter in a terrible accident, many years ago. More recently, she lost her grown-up rock star son, too, when he suddenly stopped talking to her. So now she tries to content herself with her life and her writing, though all her novels seem, inevitably, to feature dead children, and lately she's decided she wants to re-write the endings of them all. Then her son is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and she feels compelled to reach out to him.
It's a very multi-layered novel. Mostly, it's a sort of introspective drama about motherhood and grief. But it's also a little bit of a murder mystery, although I imagine anyone reading it only for that part of things is going to be a little disappointed. And it's also a slightly meta-feeling exploration of writing and storytelling. It all works together really well, I think. Not flawlessly, perhaps, but very successfully, nonetheless. I feel like I've been floundering around a bit lately, trying to find the right book to distract myself from a slightly stressed-out mood, to give me something absorbing to think about. Turns out, this was exactly what I needed. Whether or not it's perfect, I liked it a lot, and I'm definitely going to be seeking out more books from this author.
Rating: 4.5/5. Probably I've only rated it that high because it was very much the right book at the right time for me. But I initially gave it 4/5 out of some attempt at being more objective, and then found myself increasingly reluctant to rate other books I liked that high, because I didn't like them quite as much as this one. So, 4.5 it is.
128. Boundless Books: 50 Literary Classics Transformed Into Works of Art by Postertext
This is a very odd sort of art project. It features the complete text of fifty classic works of literature -- although maybe we could debate the word "classic," as they range from books I was assigned in high school to pieces I've never heard of by authors who sound only vaguely familiar to me. The gimmick is that they're all presented in teeny-tiny text, with whitespace artistically arranged in various places between the words to form illustrations relevant to the story. I found some of the resulting pictures utterly delightful and beautifully apt, and others perhaps a little too abstract for my tastes, but you sort of have to admire the amount of work that clearly went into all of them. These are works of widely varying lengths all of which use text of the same size and begin and end at the exact corners of the page, and getting all the illustrations just so to produce that effect must have been quite a challenge.
Is there a point to it all? Maybe not. You're certainly not going to want to read the text in this book. Even with the provided magnifying glass, with which you can verify that, yep, the writing is all there, it's too much of a strain on the eyes to take in very much of it. (Or, at least, it is for my aging eyes.) But as pointless exercises go, it's an oddly charming one, the sort of thing that makes me shake my head a little and smile at the wonderful, ridiculous inventiveness of the human race.
I'll be honest, it's not a book I would ever have gone out and bought for myself, if I hadn't gotten it for free through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers' program. But it pleases me, nonetheless, to have a copy to keep in my house. Which makes me think this might make a fun gift for bookish types who also have a love for art, or an appreciation for the offbeat.
Rating: I have to give this one a 4/5 just for the sheer beautiful weirdness of the whole concept.
(Note: As mentioned above, this was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book.)
>52 bragan: I feel like I just need this book too, after your review. In the Booksdepository shopping basket it went, immediately afterwards...
>54 Simone2: Yay! Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. (And I'm still considering bumping it up that extra half-star.)
129. The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross
It's been a half-century or so since the advent of the Singularity, and most of humanity now exists as disembodied simulations in a solar system-spanning computational cloud. Huw Jones is one of those still stubbornly clinging to a low-tech meatspace existence, but that existence gets badly disrupted when he's selected for a jury empowered to decide whether the Earth should adopt or reject a weird piece of technology sent back by the uploaded masses, only to discover that he himself has been infected with, well, a weird piece of technology sent back by the uploaded masses.
It's a fun book, at least if you have a particularly geeky sense of fun, which I do. There's lots of wild imaginings, lots of silly jokes and sly references. I will say that by the time I got to the halfway point, I was starting to think, OK, this has been entertaining enough, but it feels like it's all flash and no substance, and another 150 pages of this is probably going to be entirely too much. But then, for the second half of the novel, things shifted a bit, not dramatically, but just enough to make me wonder if the two authors had split the writing just there at the midpoint, and I found myself actually engaged in the story, as well as entertained by all the creativity and ridiculousness. I did find the resolution a bit anticlimactic, or at least a bit too abstractly presented to be satisfying, but overall I enjoyed the novel for the crazy, nerdy romp it was.
Rating: a perhaps very slightly generous 4/5
130. Talking Back, Talking Black by John McWhorter
Linguist John McWhorter (who, it is probably relevant to note here, is black) takes a look at the dialect of American English characteristically used by black people, which he likes to refer to as "Black English," but which is also called African-American Vernacular English or, although the term has fallen out of fashion these days, Ebonics. His main aim is to convince the general public that this is, in fact, a dialect of English in its own right, not merely "broken," "bad" or "slangy" English, as many people, both black and white, assume it to be, and that there is nothing wrong with using it. He recognizes that the things that convince linguists of this don't necessarily convince ordinary people, because linguists have very different ideas about language and what it is or should be than the public at large does, so much so that they often can't even remember what it was like to think differently on the subject.
I can't testify personally to the effectiveness of his arguments, because in my case, he's definitely preaching to the converted; I've read enough books by linguists to have come to think like one on subjects like this. But his points seem to me to be very, very good, and very much in touch with how most people do think about language, so I'd say if he doesn't manage to convince people, probably nothing is going to. Mind you, I'm not sure how many Americans whose attitude towards characteristically black speech is "They need to learn to speak properly!" (or, for that matter, concern that even acknowledging that there is such a thing may be racist, something McWhorter also addresses) will read this. But they totally should. Because McWhorter does a good, thoughtful job of threading his way through the emotionally charged minefield of American race relations to expose the value-neutral linguistic reality beneath.
And, along the way, he explains lots of things that my language nerd side found absolutely fascinating, from some of the details of how Black English grammar works (and, yes, it does have its own consistent grammar), to how the dialect evolved and the ways in which that is similar to how modern English evolved from Old English, to examples from around the world of how people comfortably and easily use different dialects in different social situations, something that seems as if it must be difficult to most white Americans only because it's so far outside our own experience.
Definitely recommended to anyone with an interest in this subject, whether linguistic, political, or personal.
(Note: This was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers' book.)
Great review of Talking Back, Talking Black, Betty. I'll add it to my wish list.
131. Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell
The grown children of an Irish family living (well, mostly) in England gather together to deal with the strange disappearance of their father, who went out for a paper one morning and didn't come back. Each of them, as is traditional in this sort of dysfunctional family story, has their own secrets, their own miseries, and their own crises to deal with, as well as various difficulties in relating to each other.
This, I think, is one of those books that had to grow on me, or at least one that I ended up liking more than I initially thought I was going to. For quite a while, as I was reading, my main thought (other than "as someone who lives in New Mexico, I cannot take the British idea of what constitutes a heatwave seriously") was that I had to give O'Farrell a lot of points for making the characters realistic and sympathetic despite the fact that I found none of them very likeable, but that I wasn't feeling quite as fully engaged with their lives as is generally necessary for this sort of of novel to be fully satisfying. And yet, by the end, I'd somehow come to care about these people, to feel a sort of family connection to them that completely transcends the question of whether I like them or not. So, it may not be a perfect novel -- there were a couple of moments where a narrative quirk threw me out of the story a for a moment, for instance -- but I do have to call it a successful one.
>51 bragan: Spaced there... With House I think I mainly started getting really annoyed that almost no one ever bloody died. They're dealing with all this "another hour and they'd be dead" things over and over but barely anyone dies?!
Even as a West Virginian (even going back to my childhood) the British idea of a heat wave is pretty eye-roll inducing (at least what I've seen in books and TV). They should try dealing with their 80 degrees combined with at least 80% humidity like we do in WV. Nice to see positive reviews of O'Farrell though, I keep meaning to read more by her.
>64 mabith: I think people hardly ever dying on House never bothered me mainly because it's the kind of concession to realism that it wouldn't even occur to me to expect. Then again, I was always bugged by the way the doctors always seemed to run all their own tests, so it's probably just a question of which details you happen to latch on to.
Here in NM, I generally don't even bother turning the cooler on until the temperature gets well above 80, and you don't really start talking about it being hot until it hits triple digits. Which it always will, usually round about early June.
Mind you, some places in the US, they're not much different from the UK folks. I remember going to visit my sister in Oregon one July, and the entire time I was there, people kept apologizing profusely to me for how hot it was, and assuring me that it wasn't usually like this, I was just really unlucky in happening to visit during this horrible heatwave, and asking me repeatedly, with real worry in their voices, whether I wouldn't like to go put on some shorts. And the entire time, all I was thinking about the weather was how very pleasant was to be somewhere fairly cool.
Ha yeah. No money for a lab team, only for fighting the system.
Those differences with usual weather are so amusing. We visited my aunt around Santa Fe every year for most of my childhood and we typically tended to be there during a slightly rainier period so my aunt would always apologize for the 15% humidity.
>66 mabith: I knew I had become a real New Mexican when I started to say "Whew, is it muggy today!" whenever the humidity started to edge up towards 30%.
I'm not sure I'd ever adjust like that! Too many years in ultra-humidity. Dry heat is such a wonderful thing. If the sun weren't such an issue for me I'd move to Santa Fe in a heartbeat.
>63 bragan: Another author I never even heard of, because of my narrow focus on the 1001 for the past years. This first year in Club Read has opened my eyes again to modern literature! So. Maggie O'Farrell. All her books sound good. Where should I start? Is Instructions for a Heatwave a good starting point?
Meredith, I'm not so sure about that. Having lived in both hot-and-dry (Phoenix, AZ) and hot-and-humid; 90 degrees is significantly more pleasant when it's dry, but once it hits 110, humidity is irrelevant, it's too hot for human habitation.
>70 RidgewayGirl: Oh there are always limits, I just mean in general I don't think anything below 60% would ever stop feeling dry.
>68 mabith: Well, I'm originally from New Jersey, so it is possible! Actually, what's really weird is that when I go back to low-lying, much more humid areas like NJ, I find the humidity there usually bothers me less than it did when I lived there, not more. (Well, except for how long it takes me to dry when I get out of the shower!) I can only speculate that it's offset by the positive effects of having a lot more oxygen in the air.
>69 Simone2: Instructions for a Heatwave is the only one by her I've read, so I can't compare it to her other books, but it seemed like a good enough starting point to me. Although I don't know if I will go on to read her other stuff or not.
>70 RidgewayGirl: Yeah, I do have to say, the phrase "at least it's a dry heat!" sometimes amuses me. When it's dry enough and hot enough, you can walk outside and basically feel yourself instantly mummify. Which is not a fun time. :)
132. Doctor Who: Festival of Death by Jonathan Morris
The Doctor and Romana arrive on an odd conglomeration of ships in hyperspace and learn that something has gone very, very wrong at a tourist attraction set up to give participants a taste of what it's like to be dead. Then they discover that it's not the first time they've been there, even though as far as they're concerned, it's the first time they've been there.
Jonathan Morris does a good job of capturing the feel of a Fourth Doctor episode, complete with spot-on dialog for both the Doctor and Romana. There's also a lot of interesting or fun science fictional ideas, as well as some good old-fashioned monsters, and a neatly constructed plot that ties a lot of disparate threads together rather nicely in the end. On the other hand, in capturing the feel of a Fourth Doctor episode so well, it also captures some of the less positive aspects, as well, including the sometimes slow pace of Classic Who, some things that get a little too ridiculously implausible or silly, a very 1980 take on computer technology, and the Doctor and Romana explaining things to each other that they really ought to both already know. It's also marred a bit by the fact that pretty much everybody except the regular characters is an idiot, and by what even the author admits, in his introduction, are entirely too many little references and in-jokes. Because, seriously, a few of those are cute, but this many just gets annoying and takes one out of the story. It also suffers, ironically enough, from the passage of time. When this was written, in 2000, the things it does with time travel would have seemed really fresh and clever, but have since been done, often much more thoughtfully and daringly, in the TV series itself, which removes a lot of the intrinsic appeal of the plot.
Rating: 3.5/5, although I do suspect if I'd read it in 2000, I'd have rated it higher.
133. Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone by Eric Klinenberg
There was a time -- say, about 1950 -- when the vast majority of adults in America were married, and almost nobody lived alone. Today, that's no longer remotely true: half of American adults are unmarried and adults living on their own, for any of a number of reasons, have become common and unremarkable, in the US as well as in many other countries. Eric Klinenberg, who has done some research on the subject, talks about this demographic shift, the reasons for it, how people who live alone feel about it, and what the challenges and benefits of single life are.
As an adult who lives alone and fully intends to continue doing so as long as physically possible, this book is definitely relevant for me, and there is a lot of thoughtful and interesting stuff in it, but, well... I couldn't help finding it it a little disappointing. I think there are several reasons for that. One is the narrowness of its focus: it's almost entirely about people living alone in big cities, with occasional brief mentions of the suburbs. People like me who live alone in small towns might as well not even exist in this narrative, and our concerns and experiences aren't even acknowledged, let alone addressed. Klinenberg says in an appendix that this is because his research simply didn't cover anything outside a few big cities, so he couldn't talk about it, but that seems like a really big gap in a book that purports to be about living alone as a general phenomenon. And he seemed to have no problems discussing the lives of people in Sweden.
Another issue is that while Klinenberg specifically says that he wants to provide a counterpoint to conventional doom-and-gloom narratives about how our society is fracturing and we're all becoming disconnected from each other, he ends up sounding surprisingly negative a lot of the time, anyway. His conclusions, ultimately, are balanced, optimistic, and focused on practical ways of adjusting society to its new status quo rather than standing around lamenting about it, and that's great. But along the way, he often makes things sound sadder than I think he realizes. And in his discussion on how these social changes have happened, complete with repeated invocations of the ugly, judgemental-sounding phrase "the cult of the individual," he makes the whole thing sound so self-absorbed and socially unhealthy that he actually had me thinking, "Geez, suddenly I actually kind of understand all those folks who wail about the breakdown of the nuclear family as if it's heralding the collapse of society!" Which I don't think was the idea at all.
Much more irritating than that, though, were some chapters towards the beginning whose style and structure were just kind of... poor. Later in the book, when he settles down to focusing on specific issues (such as the difficulties faced by elderly people living alone) or offering us longish profiles of specific people (such as the editor of a magazine aimed at singles), the writing is fine. Not particularly lively, but fine. But he really seems to have had trouble with certain earlier sections, in which he does a lot of reciting blocks of dry statistics or bits of historical context, then switching abruptly to a quote from one of the ordinary people he's interviewed in his research. These quotes are somewhat repetitive, not always incredibly relevant to the material around them, and often feel shoehorned in. Worse, he keeps introducing them in these incredibly awkward ways: throwing out random, irrelevant information about the person he's quoting, in a way that gives the impression that he's doing it solely because someone told him that's the correct formula for providing human interest. You know, what kind of clothes they wear, what shape their nose is, that sort of thing. This might be merely mildly annoying, until you notice that while he might just note the jobs or personalities of the men, every single woman gets introduced with some note about her appearance, usually with a direct or implied comment on her attractiveness. Just... grrr. Writers! Do. Not. Do. This. Just... don't.
Okay. After all that, I have to say, honestly, this is not a bad book. It's really not. It's got some interesting and worthwhile things to say, and I'm not sorry I read it, nor do I recommend that people interested in the subject steer clear of it. But, sadly, it's not quite the book I was hoping it would be, either.
As someone who shares a house with two teenagers, I sometimes long for the solitary life. I like the pets and the husband just fine (and the children, too, notwithstanding what my son did to the kitchen last night when he decided to make himself potstickers), but quiet and the ability to do something without interruption are often lacking.
>77 RidgewayGirl: I feel the same way, although when the family left for two weeks this summer, I merely discovered what a boring person I am on my own!
>76 bragan: Had no idea that half adults live alone. Very interesting. That is a very mixed review of the book. But...it could make a nice audio...
It's too bad Going Solo didn't reach greater heights. Did it touch on people in long-term committed relationships or marriages who prefer to live alone? If I weren't disabled, I'd enjoy living alone more, but when you're stuck inside alone 85% of the time (and when you're an extrovert to boot), it just gets too lonely.
>77 RidgewayGirl: I've always hated sharing space with other people, even people I really like. The need for quiet and the ability to do things without interruption are two of the many reasons why.
>78 dchaikin: I, for one, am quite content to be boring on my own. :)
The 50% figure surprised me a bit, too. I would have guessed it was a fairly high number, but not that high. But, of course, it covers a lot of demographics. Not just people like me whose personalities incline us to be long-term loners, but young people striking out on their own for the first time, workoholic professionals who don't think they have time for relationships, widows/widowers, and the divorced. For most of whom it's one temporary state in their lives, but a state a lot of people are in at any given time.
I don't know if it's available on audio, or whether it would work better than way than in print form.
>79 mabith: I think there's maybe one or two lines on people in long-term relationships living apart, and nothing on marriages of that kind. Which is too bad, because I was wondering if it would cover that, too. I remember reading an article years ago about married people who live separately by choice and thinking, "Wow, you can do that?" It seemed a very civilized approach to marriage to me.
The book does deal with the problem of loneliness, especially in people who are stuck inside alone a lot of the time. It's certainly a big issue for a lot of people. Although being an extreme introvert, myself, the whole thing seems entirely theoretical to me. I think I've felt that strange human emotion people call loneliness once or twice in my life, but the feeling was odd and fleeting and hard to get a handle on.
Interesting about not feeling lonely. I felt very lonely during those two weeks - although it was much harder the first few days. It might just have been that my wife and kids were having fun and I was working. So maybe more jealousy than loneliness. ?? And, of course, for me it was an unusual thing, not normal.
>81 dchaikin: Well, jealousy that other people are doing fun things without you, I do understand. Although for me, it would be offset by the beautiful relief of time to myself. :)
>79 mabith:, >80 bragan: My partner and I joke that if the house next door ever came up for sale we should beg, borrow and steal to buy it... that would be perfect, each of us with our own space to retreat to but close by enough to spend plenty of time together (I mean, we do actually like each other...)
>83 wandering_star: And two houses would mean more room for books! Sounds just about perfect to me.
>80 bragan: My dad and his wife do that. They have homes in separate cities, neither wanting to give up their jobs or friends. So they live apart during the week and spend weekends together. At first I thought they were nuts. Now I think they may be brilliant. They've been married 4 years now and still act like newlyweds.
134. Twelve Sharp by Janet Evanovich
Book twelve (ish) in Evanovich's long-running series about Stephanie Plum, the bounty hunter who's not afraid to admit she's pretty bad at her job. This one kicks off with a strange woman coming after Stephanie while making a surprising claim about Stephanie's occasional bounty-hunting partner and lust interest, Ranger.
I've been thinking for a while that this series is getting kind of stale for me, but I have to say, I enjoyed this one more than I have the last few. It might be that I was just in exactly the right mood for it, but I found the humor consistently humorous and the plot actually pretty interesting. Kind of ridiculous, mind you, and, as usual, wrapped up a little too quickly at the end. But interesting.
Still not liking the eternal love triangle of doom, though. I might be inclined to resign myself to the fact that it's not going away and just relax and accept it for the sexy tease it's supposed to be, but at this point Ranger's constant sexually pushy behavior is making me feel downright uncomfortable. Which is not what I want in my mindless fun.
135. Adulthood Is a Myth: A "Sarah's Scribbles" Collection by Sarah Andersen
A collection of simply but adorably drawn little comics about such topics as the emotional trials of introverts, the difficulty of getting out of bed, relationship anxieties, menstrual cramps, bookishness, and clothes (both the buying of them and the leaving of them in stinky piles on the floor). It's a complete delight start to finish, and I found many of the feelings and situations depicted so utterly relatable that it was downright painful. But hilariously so.
Why does there appear to be only one of these collections? I want to go out and buy five more of them right now.
>89 dchaikin: Yes, the title is also something I can very much relate to.
136. The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
Anne and Marco have a six-month-old baby. They also have an invitation to an adults-only dinner party thrown by the friends who live next door in their block of row houses. And when their sitter cancels at the last minute, they decide that if they bring the baby monitor with them so they can listen for problems and go and check on her every half hour, it ought to be fine to leave the kid sleeping in her crib. Then they get home and find her gone.
On a prose level, I can't say this is a well-written book. I'm not sure if the choppy sentences and tendency to tell rather than show is a deliberate stylistic choice, or just the mark of an unskilled author, but I was sure, after the first few pages, that it was going to drive me nuts for the rest of the novel. It didn't, though. Instead, somehow, it worked for the story. Or else the story was interesting enough and pulled me along so easily that I didn't care about the prose. It's one of those suspense novels where everything is complicated and everybody's hiding something and things just keep getting crazier and more desperate as they go along, and I tore through it all at an enthusiastic pace.
Rating: a surprising 4/5.
Just glad I don't have a baby to worry about anymore. (but we never did anything like that...but then we probably thought about it)
>92 dchaikin: I'm so glad never to have had a baby to worry about. The cats are about as much as I can handle.
Mind you, leaving aside all the specifics of the book's plot and why it turned out to be an issue, there doesn't seem to be anything too terribly wrong with that arrangement to me. I mean, it's a row house. You're practically still in the same building.
>95 dchaikin: I was going to say it's probably more obvious if you read the book, but then, it is in the title, I guess. :)
137. Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson
I like Neil deGrasse Tyson, generally speaking, but I have to say, I was a little disappointed with this one. It's not a coherent, unified book about space exploration, as I assumed when I picked it up, but a very loose collection of magazine articles, snippets of interviews, transcripts of speeches, and other bits and pieces. All of them are about, or at least related to, the topic of space travel, with a fair amount of emphasis on the politics of space travel, why we do or don't put money and resources into it, and why Tyson thinks it's worth doing so.
Some of the articles go back as far as the 1990s, and, although he's apparently updated the science in some of them, the political landscape and the state of the space program have changed a lot over that amount of time. And the contents aren't in any order, so exactly what constitutes"current" in his discussions of current events in space bounces back and forth in time throughout the book.
It's also a bit repetitive. Tyson has a lot of particular examples and turns of phrase he likes to use, and a lot of specific points he likes to make. Which is fine, as they're generally good points and good examples, but the fact that the contents have been collected from so many spread-out sourcess means that we get to read him making them over and over again in different contexts, which gets a little annoying.
While some of the pieces in here are kind of slight, and few them take too deep a dive into their subject matter, there are quite a few that, taken by themselves, are good and very much worth reading. So this may be a worthwhile book to dip in and out of, a chapter or two at a time, if you have some interest in space and space travel and the issues that surround them, but not a huge amount of personal knowledge on the subject. But I don't recommend reading it straight through, and if you already have some familiarity with the subject, and with Tyson's opinions about it, there's not necessarily going to be a lot here that's new for you.
Bummer. I was curious what Tyson might do in a popular book form. I guess this isn't the place to find out.
>99 dchaikin: Like I said, it might be worth dipping into, but, yeah, I don't recommend it as a way to answer that question. I did read his The Pluto Files, and liked it a lot better, so that might be one to check out if you're not sick of the whole "But should Pluto be called a planet?" argument, which, I admit, I kind of am, personally. He's also written a few others, but I haven't read them yet to comment on.
138. Four Comedies by William Shakespeare
This is an old paperback from the 1960s (although apparently reprinted from a 1950s edition) featuring four Shakespeare plays: A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and The Tempest. It's not a great edition. The introduction to each play, and the introduction to the volume as a whole, seem, if I'm interpreting the copyright page correctly, to be lifted from some Shakespeare scholar's book from decades earlier, and not lifted with any great care. I mostly found them really annoying and over-written, and completely unhelpful in understanding or preparing to approach the plays, so I mostly ended up skimming them or skipping them entirely. The brief, scene-by-scene plot summaries that are also included were a lot more welcome, though.
Also, this is the first time I'd read Shakespeare in an edition that didn't feature annotations to explain some of the archaic words and cultural references. I didn't find this a problem at all with A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was perfectly clear and comprehensible all the way through, but there were a few moments in the other plays where I would have appreciated some translation. There is a glossary in the back, but I found it inconvenient and not particularly helpful.
As for the plays themselves, well, I'm hardly going to add anything to 400 years' worth of Shakespeare scholarship here, but I'll say a few words about my own reactions to them, keeping in mind that I hadn't read any of these or seen them performed before:
A Midsummer Night's Dream: Honestly, I was surprised by how slight this was, with both the plot and the characters feeling paper-thin. Which isn't to say that it's entirely shallow. There is, underneath all the wacky love potion hijinks, a sardonic sense of just how absurd human love relationships are. There's a good reason, after all, why "What fools these mortals be!" is probably its most famous line. There's also some real darkness in among all the silliness, too. I mean, it starts off with a woman being told, in no uncertain terms, that she must marry the man her father has decided to give her to because she is his property to do with as he sees fit and to mold into whatever shape he likes, and if she fails to cooperate, he'll have her locked up or killed. Admittedly, that probably didn't feel quite as unthinkably horrific to the sensibilities of Shakespeare's time as it does today, but there's no way that's happy, not in any context., All that notwithstanding, though, it's still pretty much fluff. High-quality, Shakespearian fluff, but still. Pretty fluffy. Which feels a little bit startling when your previous experiences of Shakespeare have involved things like Hamlet and Julius Caesar.
As You Like It: I found this one a lot more satisfying than A Midsummer Night's Dream. The plot's a bit more substantial, with some nice, clever touches, and the characters are great, especially the very appealing and memorable Rosalind. (Although I have a bit of a soft spot for the melancholy Jaques, too.) I'd really like to watch a good version of this performed sometime.
Twelfth Night: It seems a bit of a disservice to read this one immediately after As You Like It, because they share enough story elements to make it start to feel a bit same-y. Of the two, I think I liked As You Like It better; it certainly has the better characters. But I maybe found the humor in this one a bit more amusing. Which is odd, because it mostly consists of really awful people playing awful, nasty practical jokes, which is not something I usually find funny at all. But Shakespeare was a man of many talents, and apparently making that sort of thing actually entertaining to me is one of them.
The Tempest: This... is not a comedy. It's not a tragedy, either, and it does have some moments of humor. But it's definitely not a comedy, and it seems very, very strange to include it in a book that calls itself "Four Comedies." Whatever it is, though, I liked it a lot. TThe fantasy elements hold considerable appeal for me, and several of the characters seem interestingly complex in ways that the play hints at but never really pins down, which I find fascinating. Hard to believe it took me this long to get to this one, when I've known for ages that other stories I love have been directly inspired by it. I'm thinking mostly of the classic SF movie Forbidden Planet here, which I have an almost overwhelming urge to re-watch now.
Rating: 4/5. Yes, that's a good-but-not-perfect rating. Because Shakespeare is Shakespeare, but this is not an especially great presentation of it. Plus, I have definitely decided that I prefer the tragedies to the comedies.
Fun review. A cool choice, if not ideal for Shakespeare. Of the limited Shakespeare I've read, A Midsummer Night's Dream was the first I read as an adult and was really taken by it. I loved the language play and got kind of attached to the plot (which is confused in my head at the moment). I remember thinking it was more about the language than the plot, but I don't exactly know what that meant to my historical self. I wonder what I would think if I read it now.
>102 dchaikin: I don't know if it's mainly about the language -- I did find the language in it easier to read than I have that in any other Shakespeare play I've read, which was interesting -- but the plot doesn't seem to even be trying to be anything the least bit serious. Not that there's anything wrong with a story just having fun.
>103 bragan: So, I had said it was a great collection, because Twelfth Night and The Tempest are two of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and I do like As You Like It quite a bit as well (especially, of course, Jacques' speech that includes the "All the world's a stage....").
I didn't much like Twelfth Night when i first read it, but after working on a production (and seeing at least rwo others), it grew on me. It is better on the stage than page.
I have only seen The Tempest performed once, many many years ago in a production that cast a woman as Ariel. I have read the play a few times and several of Prospero's speeches are stunning. I find the ambiguity itriguing and in some ways more complex than his greatest tragedies.
I recommend the Kenneth Branagh film of As You Like It and the Trevor Nunn film of Twelfth Night.
>104 ELiz_M: My favorite Shakespeare play is, and I'm willing to bet always will be, Hamlet, but it's possible The Tempest has just slid itself into second place. Prospero is such a great character. I have so many unanswered questions about him and his island, but that seems to me like a good thing, hinting at a lot of potential complexity beneath the surface of the play. And, yeah, some of his speeches are corkers.
Interestingly, I was surprised to realize that Ariel is male in the play! I'd always assumed it was a female spirit. Probably because the name just sounds female to me.
I could definitely see Twelfth Night as being one that works best on the stage. Mind you, my general sense with Shakespeare is that the best way to approach it in order to get the most out of it is to first read the play, then watch a production of it, then read it again. I doubt I'll have enough ambition to do that with these, but I've already added Branagh's As You Like It to my Netflix queue. I'll probably look for the Twelfth Night version you recommend, too, thanks. (Although given how backed up I am with things to watch, it'll probably be ages before I get to either of them.)
I did find a single scene of As You Like It on YouTube, as performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013, and now I'm feeling genuinely upset that I have no way to see the rest of that performance. The acting is phenomenal.
>105 bragan: You need a trip to Stratford (or the Globe, or your local rep., or whatever, but you might as well start with Stratford as a negotiating position...) :-)
Nothing beats a live stage performance with really good actors. Film and TV versions help, but Shakespeare only really comes alive in the theatre.
>106 thorold: Alas, I live in the dead middle of nowhere, and my theater options are woefully limited. :(
139. Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson, from a story and lyrics by Neil Peart
This is basically a novelization of the 2012 album Clockwork Angels by Rush. Which is maybe less weird than it might sound, as Clockwork Angels is one of those concept albums whose lyrics, somewhat loosely, tell a story. In this case, the story is a sort of steampunky homage to Voltaire's Candide. It features a young man who grows up in a society run both like and by clockwork, following the dictates of a godlike figure known as the Watchmaker. The young man goes off and has lots of adventures, during which he comes to question everything he was brought up to believe.
I am, I should probably say at the outset, a huge fan of Rush. But, this isn't my favorite entry in their discography. Heck, it's probably not even my favorite SF-dystopia concept album of theirs, even if I do generally prefer their more recent sound to that of their 2112 days. I certainly don't dislike it. It's decent enough. But it's never going to number among my favorites.
The book, however, I did dislike. Possibly more than it deserves. Don't get me wrong, it's not a good book. The writing is rather clunky and simplistic. The story and the characters are flat, and much less interesting than whatever I might have vaguely imagined for myself while listening to the album. And Anderson does an awkwardly obvious job of incorporating the album lyrics, as well as other random bits of lyrics from other Rush songs. No doubt this was intended to be cute and fun, a little easter egg for the fans. But I found it incredibly distracting, as if the author were constantly winking at me and going, "See what I did there?"
Honestly, though, I've read worse SF novels than this one and felt much less irritated by them. I can only conclude that the problem here is that the whole exercise took something I liked okay by an artist I love, and made me like it less, rather than more, made it more boring, rather than more interesting.
Which is a pity, because it's a very pretty book, physically, with rich, colorful illustrations, and a lovely parchment-y pattern marking the first page of every chapter. Also because I can't help feeling that it would be possible for a really good author to do something worthwhile with the story, something that would add to, rather than detract from, the experience of listening to the album. But Kevin J. Anderson is not that author. And, yes, Neil Peart apparently worked very closely with him on the story. But, look... Neil Peart's lyrics have meant a hell of a lot to me over the years, and seeing him doing his virtuoso drum performance live may be the closest I've come to a spiritual experience in my life. But he's not a novelist, and if a project like this was going to be a real success, I think he needed to be paired with someone more skillful in that area.
Ok, I'm not going to go out and read this, but the idea if it has me thinking of music and novels and Rush and 2112 and silly idealism all in a new perspective. That's something.
140. The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2012 edited by Dan Ariely
I read the 2011 edition of this ongoing series a couple of years ago, and liked it enough to eventually pick up most of the subsequent volumes. Maybe one day I'll finally get around to reading them all and catch myself up to the present.
Anyway, this one was also good, overall. Unsurprisingly I did like some of the pieces better than others. There is always a risk, I think, in writing about scientific topics in article-length form. You can never cover the topic with complete thoroughness, which can feel a bit unsatisfying, and there were a few pieces here that I had that kind of a reaction to. But most of them were well-written and easily held my interest, while a few were downright fascinating. (I think my personal favorite was Sy Montgomery's outpouring of unapologetic personal enthusiasm about the alien intelligence of octopuses.)
There are a wide variety of topics featured, including biology, paleontology. psychology, neuroscience, sociology, food science, and computing. But I couldn't help noticing that while the subjects cover organisms from microbes to humans; the behavior and workings of humans; and various things created by humans, from pollution to french fries, there's not much about the rest of the cosmos. There's no astronomy at all, for instance, and the only physics shows up in a discussion of quantum computing. I remember noticing a similar bias in the previous volume, and now I'm wondering if that's characteristic of the series as a whole, or down to the interests of the individual editors.
141. Doctor Who: Twelve Doctors of Christmas by Jacqueline Rayner, et al.
A collection of twelve Christmas-themed Doctor Who stories, each featuring one of the twelve Doctors. (The poor War Doctor, apparently, does not get a Christmas. Well, I suppose he wouldn't, really.)
I like the concept of this, and it's a very nice-looking book, complete with some cute full-color illustrations. Unfortunately, the stories just aren't very good. They're not awful, I guess. If nothing else, the character voices are mostly pretty good, which certainly counts for something. But, generally speaking, they're uninspired, not very interesting, and not very well-written, even taking into account the fact that, like most recent Who tie-in stuff, they seemed to be aimed largely at younger readers. (Which, by the way, is certainly appropriate, but always takes me aback slightly. Partly because Who has never really been thought of as a kids' show in the States, but mostly because I still remember the Who novels of the 90s, which were often filled with surprising levels of sex, drugs, and violence.)
So, yeah, it's pretty disappointing. I did kind of like Scott Handcock's "Ghost of Christmas Past," in which the Eighth Doctor gets a message from his past, just because it didn't even bother with the lame attempt at a plot the others had, but instead just gave us a rather poignant little character moment. But even that one wasn't great, and it left me feeling unsatisfied, if only because, doggone it, I really wanted to see him responding to the invitation in the message.
Also worth noting, perhaps, is Jacqueline Rayner's "The Christmas Inversion", which I found simultaneously the most fun and the most frustrating entry. It has a brilliantly hilarious premise: the Third Doctor picks up Harriet Jones' plea for the Doctor's help in "The Christmas Invasion," goes to see what it's about, and ends up in Jackie Tyler's flat while his future self lies unconscious in the next room. Unfortunately, Rayner pushes the humor entirely too far, meaning that it's constantly crossing the line between being funny and just being irritating.
Everything else, I'd say, is 100% forgettable.
142. The Book of Jhereg by Steven Brust
This is an omnibus collection of the first three books -- by publication date, not by internal chronology -- in Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos series. Vlad is a human living in a society controlled by the vaguely elf-like Dragaerans. Opportunities in that society are limited for people like him, but he's managed to do well for himself as an assassin and a crime lord. (Well, I'm not sure "crime lord" is how he would think of it. But that's basically what he is.)
This was actually a re-read for me. I first read these about ten years ago, enjoyed them, and had every intention of continuing on with the series, but for some reason I never did. Well, I've decided to go back to it now, and I figured a refresher on the first three books was in order. Although it may not have been strictly necessary, as they're largely designed to all stand alone.
The three short novels included here are:
Jhereg: In this one, Vlad is hired to kill a very important target on a very strict time schedule, but the person has holed up somewhere where he can't be taken out without dire consequences. The plot is rather slight, and I'm not sure the gimmick used to resolve things is set up quite as well as it could be. But it's entertaining enough. And it does a good job of introducing the series. Both the character and the world are decently interesting, and right from the beginning it feel like they both have a full-fledged history behind them. Brust also uses some common fantasy tropes in ways that don't feel at all cliched, and makes a character who could be very flat and/or unlikable quite sympathetic and human.
Yendi: This is a prequel to the first book, and features a mob war that turns out to have connections to something bigger, as well as the story of how Vlad met his wife. Again, it's an entertaining enough read, although the plot (convoluted as it is) didn't hold my attention quite as well as I might have hoped. I think that might be an artifact of it being a re-read for me, though, meaning that even if I didn't remember any of the details, it still felt a little too familiar. Although maybe it's more because it is a prequel, so you kind of know how things are going to come out for Vlad in the end. I also found the love story part of things a little annoying; it's one of those cases where it feels like the characters fall for each other solely because the author pointed at them and ordered them to. Which is especially disappointing because the characters have enough in common that it would have been easy to believe in their relationship if they'd, y'know, been allowed to have an actual conversation before falling in love. Despite all that, it's not bad, but I think it's the weakest of the three.
Teckla: And this one goes back and picks up shortly after the first book left off. This time, Vlad's wife has gotten involved with a group of revolutionaries, and Vlad is not happy about it. This was definitely my favorite of the three. There's a lot of political discussions, which I'm sure is not for everybody, but I was impressed with the nuanced way Brust handles it all. Plus, it's nice to see a fantasy series that doesn't act like only the aristocrats exist or matter, but rather is willing to acknowledge that there's a lot of exploited underclasses making all those aristocratic doings possible. And the complexity of the political situation is reflected in the complexity of Vlad's character, as he's forced to question his own identity and actions a little, in a way that feels very realistic. There are no instantly life-changing personal epiphanies here, just a lot of thoughts and doubts that get stirred up but not resolved. All of which is perhaps a bit of a surprise in the third book of a series which, up to this point, could probably be fairly described as simple escapist fun. But I think it works.
Rating: 4/5. And I should be getting to the next couple of books in the series fairly soon.
>114 OscarWilde87: No math at all, I'm afraid. Well, maybe the quantum computing article alludes to some, but not in any detail.
>115 bragan: There is a whole series of them, though. It's possible one of the other years' volumes has some mathiness. Although I'm not sure I'd bet on it. Especially if the tendency to focus more on biology and such carries over.
143. The Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes But Fed Up with Fondue by Davd Sax
An exploration of food trends and how they happen.
I'm always interested in how ideas of any kind spread through societies, and more than once I've found myself wondering why it is that I opened my eyes one day to find the words "salted caramel" facing me from every direction, as if the addition of salt to caramel was the most exciting technological development since the Manhattan Project and the entire world wanted to help me get my hands on this miracle substance immediately. I'm not remotely what you'd call a foodie, though, and I can't help feeling that somehow I just wasn't the best audience for this book. Some of the chapters were interesting, or even mildly fun (like the chapter on bacon), but others left me kind of cold. I'm sorry, but descriptions of obsessive attempts to cultivate extra-ultra-fancy-pants rice to sell to rich people for beyond-obscene amounts of money are more off-putting to me than interesting. And while Sax covers a few other topics, such as the politics of city food truck regulations, mostly he focuses on top-down attempts to create food trends, from hotshot chefs hoping to invent a dish that'll get them noticed and set them on the path to their own reality show, to corporate marketing departments doing their best to psychologically manipulate consumers into wanting their products. Which I suppose is probably what I should have expected from a book on this topic, especially one called "The Tastemakers," but didn't, quite.
I did like it better as it want along, and I learned a few interesting things, but the book as a whole didn't really make for the most satisfying meal.
>114 OscarWilde87: There is another series "The Best Writing on Mathematics" that had been running since 2010 from Princeton (not one of the Best American series but worth reading if you are interested in Maths)
>119 AnnieMod: Hey, thanks a lot! I will definitely look into it.
144. Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith
Book number seven in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. This one features a dishonest doctor, a food-embezzling cafeteria worker, and a strange disturbance at a game preserve. But while I found at least some of these cases and their solutions a little more interesting in themselves than usual, the thin wisps of plot are never the point of these books. The charm, as always, is in the characters, and the setting, and the odd but lovable writing style.
Yeah, these books do all have a certain kind of sameness to them, and at the beginning I half-expected that by the time I was this far into the series, I'd be getting tired of it. But I absolutely haven't. At this point, reading these feels remarkably like wrapping myself up in the familiar comfort of a warm, fuzzy blanket. And this one gave me that feeling more than ever, maybe because a warm, fuzzy blanket of a book is exactly what I needed right now. And even when it touches (very gently) on dark or controversial things, or when I disagree with the characters' philosophies on something, that feeling somehow never disappears or fades.
145. A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry
Seventeen-year-old Lucas Knight is the son of a rich developer and spends every summer at a hotel his father owns in San Juan, Puerto Rico. There, he grew up hearing stories about a house at the end of a certain street. It's said to be cursed. It's also said that a witch lives there, someone with the power to grant wishes, or to poison people, or both. And when Luke enters the house and meets a young woman there, he learns that at least some of the things they say about it are true. Meanwhile, girls keep vanishing from San Juan and only to be found drowned on the shore.
I liked this one. It hooked me in very effectively right from the beginning. The magical elements are strange and interesting, and the writing is good, lacking the slightly stilted or superficial feel that YA writing sometimes seems to have. The Puerto Rican setting is used to very good effect, too.
>118 bragan: D.C. is always annoyingly "on trend" with these food crazes. I can report that our bazillions of cupcake stores are largely closing (except for the most famous ones) and doughnuts seem to be the new trend. That and pour-over coffee shops that sell only coffee - no pastries and not even lattes, cappuccinos, etc.
I'm waiting for the ice cream trend, which I would actually enjoy.
>123 japaul22: Sax goes on at great length about cupcakes in the first chapter, and I must admit, it puzzled me and even annoyed me a little. I mean, OK, maybe I'm seeing a few more cupcakes out in the world these days than I did when I was a kid, but nothing like the incredible, world-shaking cupcake trend explosion he describes. I don't think I've ever eaten anything like the super-specialty New York bakery cupcakes he talks about, and I've never seen a store specifically dedicated to cupcakes. It seems to me that trends and crazes often really mean mostly "trends and crazes happening in big coastal cities," like NYC or, I guess, DC. I have to say, I don't think I'm sorry to be mostly sitting them out, here in the Southwest. Hopefully that dumb-sounding coffee trend will pass us by, too.
146. Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland by Dave Barry
Humorist Dave Barry talks about the bizarre insanity of Florida, and why he loves it so much. Then he takes us on his travels to a few of Florida's more offbeat attractions, including, among other things, an underwater mermaid show, a town full of psychics, and a "research institute" in the Everglades devoted to the Skunk Ape, Florida's equivalent of Bigfoot.
The humor levels in the travelog parts are a bit variable, but the whole thing is fun, and I laughed out loud quite a few times. Maybe not the kind of laughing-until-you-can't-breathe fits that Barry in his heyday could sometimes give me, but some good, solid laughs, nonetheless.
And I guess that's gonna be it for me for the year! Please feel free to come and join me for another year of reading in my 2017 thread. Happy New Year, and happy reading!
Oh, wait, I lied. Not about you being able to join me on my 2017 thread. But apparently I'm not done yet. I forgot I was going to do this cute end-of-the-year meme I stole from VivienneR. (And did we do a slightly different version of this as a year-end thread last year, or am I somehow imagining that?)
Anyway, the game is to answer each question with the title of a book you read in 2016. So:
Describe yourself: Thinking, Fast and Slow
How do you feel? : Nothing to Envy
Describe where you currently live: Images of America: Socorro
If you could go anywhere...?: What's It Like in Space?
Favorite form of transportation: Railsea
Your best friend is: Going Solo
You and your friends are: The Mad Scientist Hall of Fame
What's the weather like?: Dead of Winter
Your favorite time of day is: The Shadowed Sun
What is life for you?: Beautiful Chaos
You fear: The Emperor of All Maladies
Best advice: Adulthood is a Myth
Thought for the day: Let's Pretend This Never Happened
How you would like to die: The Rapture of the Nerds
>125 bragan: I guess Florida needed a book like this. I'm tempted by it. Happy New Year!
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