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Bragan's Tenth Thingaversary Reading, Part 2

Club Read 2017

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1bragan
Edited: Apr 6, 3:39am Top

So, I, um, meant to start a new thread for my reading for the second quarter of the year, as I usually do to keep things from getting too unwieldy. And then I completely forgot, and just kept posting on my old thread come the start of April. Whoops?

But, better late than never, right? Here's my new thread. (The old one is here, if you're feeling nostalgic.)

And, just for the sake of tidiness, here's a repost of my first review of the quarter, in the correct place this time:

32. California by Edan Lepucki



This is something very much like a post-apocalyptic novel, except that there's no identifiable apocalytic event, just a slow, awful economic collapse that increasingly means that only the rich have access to basic things like fuel and doctors, until America, or what used to be America, is divided into the well-off trying desperately to recreate a supposedly idyllic version of the past inside their gated communities and a world of desperate have-nots everywhere else. So, a frighteningly plausible sort of "apocalypse," and a frightening reflection of our current society in a mirror that needs less distorting power than we might like. That setting, and the way Lepucki handles it, are definitely the best thing about this book.

The plot features a couple, Cal and Frida, who have retreated to the wilderness to live alone, but who go out looking for others once Frida discovers she is pregnant, only to find a surprising face from their past. It's not bad, but perhaps a little drawn out, and it turns over and over on characters not telling each other things, sometimes for bad reasons and sometimes for no obvious reason at all, which is not a favorite trope of mine, and which I often found kind of annoying. Still, it's funny. My main response to the last book I read was, "I really wanted to like this a lot more than I did." And for this one, it's the exact opposite. I liked it a lot more than I sometimes felt I should. Or, at least, it kept me engaged and interested in a way the last few novels I've read simply haven't.

Rating: 4/5

2mabith
Apr 6, 8:31pm Top

Given that I'm not much for post-nuclear apocalyptic fiction, I think California is a must-read for me. Sounds really intriguing.

3bragan
Apr 6, 8:46pm Top

>2 mabith: If you're interested in reading something set in a dystopian or decaying future, but don't like the usual apocalyptic scenarios, it may indeed be the thing for you.

4bragan
Apr 6, 11:35pm Top

33. Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt



Zoologist Bill Schutt begins by looking at cannibalism in animals, from killer tadpoles to shark fetuses that eat each other in the womb (or, if you want to get super-technical about it, the oviduct). He explores questions like: what animals eat their own kind, and why, and how do we know? Then he turns to cannibalism in humans, which turns out to be an extremely murky subject, since accusing groups of people of cannibalism has long been a go-to slander for justifying treating them poorly or taking them as slaves, which makes it very hard to separate truth from fiction when it comes to historical cannibalism.

The book covers a lot of ground, including such topics as mad cow disease and women who eat their own placentas, and features lots of weird and interesting facts. It's got a laudably scientific perspective, as Schutt refuses to take myths or received wisdom at face value, but always asks what the science is and what the scientific controversies are. The writing style is clear and engaging. And while things can get a bit gory, because of course they do, Schutt makes a deliberate point of not sensationalizing the subject.

It seems just a little bit odd to say I really enjoyed a book about cannibalism. But, well. I really enjoyed this book about cannibalism.

Rating: 4.5/5

Note: This was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book.

5FlorenceArt
Apr 7, 2:07pm Top

>4 bragan: Love the title! And you make me want to add this to my wishlist, though it's doubtful whether I'll ever get around to reading it...

6bragan
Apr 7, 6:08pm Top

>5 FlorenceArt: It's beginning to be doubtful I'll ever live long enough to get to all the books on my wishlist, but somehow that doesn't stop me. :)

7mabith
Apr 7, 7:19pm Top

Glad the cannibalism book was so enjoyable! If I had a dollar for every time I was asked to stop talking about cannibalism during a meal I'd probably have enough to buy a book. So obviously I have to read that.

8bragan
Apr 7, 8:54pm Top

>7 mabith: LOL! You mean, that's not acceptable table talk?

9bragan
Apr 9, 12:33am Top

34. Places No One Knows by Brenna Yovanoff



Waverly Camdenmar seems to be perfect: a top-notch student, triumphant cross-country runner, and member of the popular crowd. But it's all a carefully crafted facade. The real Waverly is someone else entirely. The real Waverly can't get to sleep. Then one night she lights a candle as part of a relaxation exercise, but instead of drifting off, she finds herself elsewhere, in the presence of Marshall Holt, a sensitive underachiever who's coping badly with problems at home. He quickly becomes the only person she can really open up to... but only during these strange nighttime visits.

I am genuinely astonished by how much I loved this book. YA is always kind of hit and miss for me, and as soon as I opened this one up and realized that the story was plunging me into the horrific world of the Popular Girls, I had to suppress an urge to run away screaming. (Hey, I have lingering trauma.) But Waverly isn't your stereotypical Popular Girl. Waverly is a natural Nerd Girl who's faked her way into the Popular Girls' circle by virtue of careful scheming and the right choice of childhood best friend. She's a layered and interesting person, with a strong and interesting voice. And she feels very real.

Actually, once you accept the vaguely magical realism-y premise, everything in this story feels impressively, insightfully, sometimes heartbreakingly real. And it's darned well-written, too.

Rating: A somewhat startled 4.5/5.

10bragan
Apr 10, 3:16am Top

35. Lean Mean Thirteen by Janet Eanovich



Book thirteen (ish) in Janet Evanovich's series about hapless bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. In this one, Stephanie loses her temper at her ex-husband, then becomes a suspect when he suddenly disappears.

The plots of these are usually pretty forgettable, but, I swear, I was forgetting this one even while I was in the process of reading it. It was reasonably amusing, though. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but pleasantly silly in a fairly consistent way, which is about all I expect from this series. I am still annoyed by the way Evanovich keeps trying to write guys being sexy but misses the mark and hits "skeevy" instead. But, hey, at least there were no fat jokes in this one!

Rating: 3/5

11OscarWilde87
Apr 11, 4:30am Top

>1 bragan: California has been on my wishlist. After your review it moved several steps to the top... Thanks!

12bragan
Apr 11, 7:04am Top

>11 OscarWilde87: I will say that I don't think it's a perfect book, but it did hit the right spot for me, I think. Hopefully you will agree!

13OscarWilde87
Apr 11, 11:01am Top

>12 bragan: I'm really intrigued. However, there is this big TBR pile before I'll get around to reading California...

14bragan
Apr 11, 11:07am Top

36. Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris



A collection of personal anecdotes and ramblings, interspersed with short pieces of satirical fiction, many with a bit of a political edge.

You know, I appreciate David Sedaris' sense of humor, with its mixture of the snarky and the droll, but his writing often straddles the line between funny and painful and leaves me not feeling exactly sure what to think of it. This particular collection wavers back and forth over that line a lot, and while I quite liked several of the pieces here, I do think he spends just a little too much time on the "painful" side of the line for my personal taste.

Rating: 3.5/5

15bragan
Apr 11, 11:11am Top

>13 OscarWilde87: Boy, do I know all about big TBR piles...

16mabith
Apr 12, 12:27am Top

>8 bragan: I'm a descendant of an original Jamestown settler, cannibalism is just in the blood!

17bragan
Apr 12, 10:37am Top

>16 mabith: Remind me not to invite you for dinner. ;)

18RidgewayGirl
Apr 12, 11:01am Top

>14 bragan: I read the essay about colonoscopies while waiting for my husband to have his. And there's nothing less appropriate than stifled giggling in a roomful of anxious and ill people.

19bragan
Apr 12, 12:54pm Top

>18 RidgewayGirl: Heh. I can only imagine. Perhaps you should just be grateful no one asked you waht you were laughing about!

20bragan
Apr 14, 7:18pm Top

37. The Great Glowing Coils of the Universe: Welcome to Night Vale Episodes, Volume 2 by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor



A collection of episode scripts from the second year of the popular and amazing Welcome to Night Vale podcast. As with the first volume, each script features a short introduction by one or more of the podcast's writers or performers, and there are a smattering of surreal illustrations throughout. The book also includes the script of the live show "The Debate." Although, once again, I find myself really wishing they'd insert the live shows at their appropriate points in the show's continuity, rather than simply tacking one on at the end of each volume. Because the result here is that we get to see the mayoral debate immediately after the mayoral election, and while I know time is often weird in Night Vale, there's no need to help it along quite that much.

But never mind. I said after reading the first volume that I really enjoyed having copies of the episodes in text form, but that reading them simply wasn't remotely the same as listening to the dulcet tones of Cecil Baldwin speaking them into my ears. Well, it's still not the same, but I have to say, I enjoyed this installment even more than the first one. Probably that's largely due to the fact that it's a great run of episodes, featuring, among other things, the exciting StrexCorp arc and the introduction or significant development of several important characters, including the first appearances of my bookish hero, Tamika Flynn, and of The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home. (Although I find it a bit boggling to realize the Faceless Old Woman doesn't properly show up until episode 26. It honestly seems like she's been around forever. Which I guess technically she has been. In your home. Secretly.)

I think it also makes a difference that I read this during a pretty rough week, because at times like that, I find Night Vale's bleak-but-humane existentialist philosophy genuinely, if bizarrely, comforting. Sometimes it just helps to be told that, yes, you are ultimately powerless in the face of the cosmos' indifference and inevitable decay, but it's okay, because so is everybody else, and in that hapless impermanence there is nevertheless a real kind of beauty. It especially helps to be told that by someone who is capable of being genuinely funny in the face of it all. And who then cheerfully goes on to tell you all about ridiculous shenanigans involving five-headed dragons or a lost civilization under a bowling alley.

So, this was definitely the right book at the right time for me.

Rating: The podcast is still 5/5. I'm calling this book version 4.5/5.

21FlorenceArt
Edited: Apr 16, 12:26pm Top

I tried listening to the podcast but I hated the dulcet tones. You make me regret that a little, but I guess it will remain in the long list of things I could and possibly should have done in my life but didn't.

22bragan
Apr 16, 12:28pm Top

>21 FlorenceArt: I've heard a few other people say the same thing. That guy must just have a love-it-or-hate it voice, I guess.

Well, if you're interested in the story but hate the narration, you could always try the books.

23FlorenceArt
Apr 16, 12:36pm Top

>22 bragan: Not sure that would work for me, but I added the first book to my wishlist, who knows, maybe some day I will try it.

24bragan
Apr 16, 4:16pm Top

38. Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett



My partial re-read of the Discworld series continues with the third of the City Watch books, Feet of Clay. In this one, some murders have been committed and golems are clearly involved somehow. Also, someone is poisoning the Patrician. And Corporal Nobby Nobbs has been identified as having aristocratic blood, which is startling, since it's hard to tell by looking at him whether Nobby even has human blood.

The story in this one isn't quite as exciting, perhaps, as the last two. It is, after all, lacking in dragons or terrifying new weaponry. But it's a really good, solid police procedural-type mystery, laced (of course) with humor and some gentle-but-firm social commentary. And the last fifty pages or so put a huge grin on my face. Pratchett, in addition to all his other talents, really knows how to bring together an ending in a way that leaves you feeling deeply happy about the entire book. I also very much like the way he handles the golems. And there's some great character moments, especially for Commander Vimes.

Basically, all and all, it's yet another highly satisfying Discworld reading experience. One of these days, maybe, just maybe, I'll re-read one of these and decide it's not quite as good as I remembered it, but today is definitely not that day.

Rating: 4.5/5

25dchaikin
Apr 17, 11:01pm Top

I thought Feet of Clay was fun, too. Not one of his best, but still fun.

>10 bragan: This Evanovich review made me laugh. I like this line, although it certainly doesn't make me want to read it: "The plots of these are usually pretty forgettable, but, I swear, I was forgetting this one even while I was in the process of reading it."

Great reviews of California (>1 bragan:) and the memorably titled Cannibalism : A Perfectly Natural History (>4 bragan:)

26bragan
Edited: Apr 17, 11:41pm Top

>25 dchaikin: Feet of Clay didn't stand out much in my memory, but I enjoyed it a lot on re-read. It may not be not his deepest or funniest book, but it does what it's doing very well, and what it's doing is fun.

And there are reasons why I tend to read those Evanovich novels at times when my brain isn't working at full speed. You can forget what's going on even while you're reading them, and it honestly won't even matter. :)

27bragan
Apr 22, 11:20pm Top

39. The Lifebox, The Seashell, and the Soul by Rudy Rucker



Rudy Rucker contemplates, at great length, the idea that perhaps the entire universe can be viewed as the working out of a series of computations, something akin to an immense implementation of cellular automata (like the well-known Game of Life, in which grids of light and dark squares follow simple rules to evolve complicated patterns over time). He looks at this idea on many different scales, from the basic laws of physics, to the workings of the brain, to the behavior of human societies.

It's hard for me to know quite what to say about this book. On the one hand, it offers some interesting and often quite reasonable and worthwhile perspectives on the world, and it does a good job of expressing some complicated mathematical and scientific ideas, such as chaos theory, in a very condensed way that works surprisingly well. (Although there are sections that get a little more technical, and a basic grounding in math, computer science, or physics might be helpful for some of it.) On the other hand, Rucker's writing is very rambly, and he makes a lot more sense on some subjects than on others. He also includes a lot of musings about his own life and snippets of his wacky SF writing, which I don't think were nearly as interesting to me as to him. Plus, he's got an odd and thoroughly unrepentant mystical streak, which doesn't sit particularly comfortably with me.

There's also a big, fundamental flaw at the heart of his whole premise. Namely, he defines "computation," in part, as something fundamentally deterministic. It's difficult to reconcile a fully deterministic universe with the seemingly probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics, though, and he does so mostly with a wishful-thinking argument that basically says, oh, well, I think there ought to be some way to get rid of this aspect of quantum mechanics because I don't like it, so I'm just going to assume it can somehow be made go away. For all I know, there's a chance he's right about that, but to call it unconvincing would be a universe-sized understatement.

So, yeah, while reading this was kind of an interesting journey, there's a limit to how seriously I'm taking it as a whole. I will say that this is the sort of book that if I'd read it in my high school or college years (not that that's possible, since it was published in 2005, well after I graduated), I might have had a little bit of a "Whoa, you just blew my mind!" kind of reaction. Now, though, I fear my response is much more along the lines of a noncommittal "hmm."

Rating: 3.5/5

28bragan
Edited: Apr 23, 11:10pm Top

40. The Good Husband of Zebra Drive by Alexander McCall Smith



Book number eight in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. This time, various people contemplate changes in their careers, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni gets to investigate a case of his own.

Once again, the mysteries investigated by the detective agency aren't remotely the point of the story, although their endings do lead to some nice emotional moments (one amusing, one poignant, and one sweet). Instead, as always, it's really all about the characters and the setting, with some gentle musings about life and relationships in modern Botswana and some equally gentle humor. And, as always, I find myself surprised by the fact that, book after book, this never starts to feel tedious and over-familiar, but continues to be pleasant and charming and to leave me feeling warm and fuzzy at the end.

Rating: 4/5.

29bragan
Apr 24, 4:58pm Top

41. Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny



A short fantasy novel from the early 70s, featuring a world divided into two halves, one of strange magical powers and permanent night and one of science and technology in the light of permanent day, focused on a being from the dark side, a thief called Jack, who has power over shadows.

Which makes it sound like a much more mundane kind of story than it actually is. In reality, it has a slightly surreal, slightly myth-like feel to it, and every time I felt like I was getting some kind of handle on the world or the story, it'd go somewhere I wasn't expecting and didn't feel remotely sure about. Most of the way through, I kept thinking that it was interesting and (as is usual for Zelazny) well-written, but that it felt more like an odd little writing exercise than a novel, and there was no way it was going to be entirely satisfying. And yet, in the end... I liked it, possibly more than I feel like I really should.

Rating: a bemused and possibly over-generous 4/5.

30thorold
Apr 25, 4:48am Top

>28 bragan: I know what you mean - I keep thinking that I ought to stop reading Alexander McCall Smith because his books are always exactly what you expect them to be, but I still usually pluck one or two off the apparently inexhaustible shelf in my mother's guest bedroom when I'm there, and always enjoy them.

31bragan
Apr 25, 1:04pm Top

>30 thorold: I'm starting to think that there's something to be said for always being exactly what you expect, at least if what you expect them to be is warm and pleasant. I certainly wouldn't want a steady diet of them, but picking one up every few months is nice.

32valkyrdeath
Apr 25, 6:41pm Top

>29 bragan: Somehow I've still not read any Zelazny, and I really need to try something by him at some point. Not sure if this one would be a good place to start though. I think I may have a short story collection and one or two of his novels from a Humble Bundle.

33bragan
Apr 25, 7:33pm Top

>32 valkyrdeath: Yes, this isn't one I'd recommend to start on Zelazny with. His short stories are probably a much better place. They vary a lot in quality, but the best ones are absolutely top-notch, arguably some of the finest in the genre.

34bragan
Edited: Apr 29, 11:51am Top

42. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough



A thorough, well-researched biography of Wilbur and Orville Wright and their successful design, development, and flight of the world's first airplane.

As biographies go, it's not, I suppose, the world's most exciting. There are no juicy scandals in the brothers' backgrounds, and, with the possible exception of one particularly bad crash in which a passenger was killed, no thrilling twists and turns in the story of their lives. This is just the story of two smart, decent, industrious guys who developed an interest in something, worked very, very, very hard at it, succeeded, and were then properly appreciated for their accomplishments. But there's something pleasant in that, anyway, and the details are interesting. I especially appreciated McCullough's ability to talk about the science and engineering of the Wrights' airplanes without being either too vague or too technical.

What I found really fascinating about this bit of history, though, is something that McCullough only very briefly alludes to in the epilogue, and that's how astonishingly quickly this invention changed the world, including the fact that a little more than a decade after the brothers' first flight, planes were already being used in war. The entire time I was reading this, I kept thinking about a fact I once saw pointed out somewhere and have never forgotten since: only 66 years elapsed between that first flight at Kitty Hawk and Apollo 11's landing on the moon. Sixty-six years. A short enough time that there were surely plenty of people who experienced both in their adult lives. And for me, that historical perspective casts a real sense of awe over this whole account.

Rating: 4/5

35japaul22
Apr 29, 12:40pm Top

>34 bragan: This is a book I've been interested in and just haven't gotten around to. I had never thought about how quickly aviation took hold - 66 years from Kitty Hawk to the moon is amazing!

36thorold
Apr 29, 2:26pm Top

>34 bragan: >35 japaul22: ...especially when you remember that it took nearly twice as long to get from the Montgolfier brothers to the Wright brothers.

37bragan
Apr 29, 2:56pm Top

>35 japaul22:, >36 thorold: Yeah, it is something that just kind of leaves you standing there going, "Whoa," isn't it? I can't think of any greater testament to the pace of modern technology.

38dchaikin
Apr 29, 6:05pm Top

>34 bragan: 66 years...thinking about that. I think you enjoyed this more than I did (on audio). I was a little taken by how charming the pair were.

>28 bragan: these comments on Smith caught my attention, for whatever reason.

39bragan
Apr 29, 6:56pm Top

>38 dchaikin: I don't really do audiobooks, so I'm not one to judge, but it seems to me that this one might not be the greatest one to do on audio.

But, yeah, there's something appealing about the two.

40bragan
May 2, 2:08pm Top

43. Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang



This is the story of Zhu Jialing, a girl born in Shanghai at the beginning of the 20th century. Jialing does not have an easy life. She is zazhong: half-Chinese, half-European, a heavily stigmatized thing in both Chinese and European culture at the time. She is also abandoned at a young age by her mother, who simply leaves one day and never comes back, for reasons Jialing does not know but dearly wishes to learn. After that, she's taken in by the family next door and is forced to work as their servant. Fortunately, she is watched over by a friendly fox spirit, who continues to help her through the twists and turns of her life.

I really liked this one. I'm not even entirely sure why it drew me in as thoroughly as it did (not that I'm complaining!). No doubt it was at least partly the interesting and unfamiliar-to-me setting of early 20th century China, and how vividly realized it was; partly the unexpected paths that Jialing's life took, leaving me very much wanting to know how things would come out for her; and partly the way the fantasy elements were integrated so seamlessly and beautifully into the story that I never for a moment stopped to question them. Whatever it was, I enjoyed it a lot. This author has apparently only written one other novel, but it's going onto my wishlist immediately.

Rating: 4.5/5

41bragan
May 4, 9:43pm Top

44. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Watcher's Guide, Volume 1 by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder



2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a fact that makes me feel very, very old. But it also made this seem like a good time to pull down this guide to the first two seasons that I've had sitting around on my shelves forever and take a little trip down memory lane.

This has pretty much all the stuff you expect from this kind of book. There are little recaps of each individual episode, which don't go into a great deal of depth, but do include fun little notes about things like continuity with previous episodes, pop cultural references made by the characters, and which weapons Buffy uses, as well as occasional snippets of dialog that were cut during filming. There's a surprisingly meaty section on the show's monsters, including some general comments about its take on vampires and other kinds of monsters and short profiles of the various creatures and bad guys, including fairly minor ones. There's also a longish section with some good (if slightly fawning) interviews with the show's cast members and creators, including a few people you don't often see highlighted, such as the director of photography or the casting coordinator. (The interviewer's obsession with asking everyone about their scars strikes me as just a little bit creepy, though.)

There are also a lot of quotes. So many quotes. Including some of the same ones repeated multiple times, and others that just aren't all that interesting out of context. I mean, I know Buffy's a very quotable show, guys, but there are limits! Also mildly annoying is that fact that the book as a whole is not nearly as visually impressive as it seems like it should be. There is a very small selection of color photos stuck in the middle, but mostly the illustrations are black and white, and oddly murky. Also, I for one, could probably have done without the ten-page tribute to Buffy and Angel's relationship, complete with long passages of quoted dialog and overwrought commentary comparing them to Romeo and Juliet. But I'm aware that there are other people who are much more likely to enjoy that, and I probably should not begrudge them.

Anyway, overall it was reasonably interesting and provided a nice little hit of nostalgia for me. Although I do find that I'm not quite feeling the urge to revisit my old Buffy DVDs the way I half expected I would be by the end of it.

Rating: 3.5/5

42bragan
May 8, 5:54pm Top

45. When the People Fell by Cordwainer Smith



A collection of stories from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, by classic SF author Cordwainer Smith (real name: Paul Linebarger).

I'm not sure I even know where to begin talking about these. Cordwainer Smith is just an odd writer, and nothing one can say about his stories seems to really describe them properly. Well, I guess I'll start off by saying that almost all of the stories in this collection are set in the same sprawling future history, though some are only incidentally connected, while others follow directly on from each other and feature the same characters. It's strange, though, because the things Smith focuses on in building that future history aren't the things that most writers would emphasize. It all feels very strongly connected, with events from one story echoing on into later ones, but the history itself feels underdeveloped. Some specific (and almost always slightly surreal) bits of technology and social development get a lot of attention, but for the most part the details of both technology and society are left quite vague. He includes lots of little touches -- like strange, evocative names for things -- that feel very much like they've come from an unfamiliar, incomprehensibly distant future reality, but those are inevitably blended with elements that feel like mid-20th century America lazily cut-and-pasted onto the future.

Also paradoxical is the fact that, in some ways (and despite the fact that he does focus on some themes that were popular in his time, like psychic abilities, or the idea, in the 50s, that space might be fundamentally hostile to the human psyche), his stories often have something of a timeless feel to them. Partly because of how they barely bother to try to project the technology of their day into the future, and partly because they don't quite feel like what other writers were doing at the time. And yet, many of them have also not aged well, mostly because of the way they handle their female characters. Which is ironic, because I think Smith actually tried harder than most people at the time to write women into his stories. He not only makes a point of including them, he often gives them inner lives, and a fair number of them are intelligent, skilled professionals. And yet, despite all of that, they are still utterly steeped in the unthinking sexism of the author's time, and are viewed through a very, very male gaze. (A gaze, in fact, that clearly likes its women to actually be girls, or at least to look very young and feel very innocent.) There were times when it made me so uncomfortable, I couldn't help wishing he'd just avoided writing women at all. And then there's the story "The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal," which is well-written, wonderfully imaginative... and possibly one of the most homophobic things I've ever read in my life. (And, yes, I fully recognize that it's not exactly fair to blame writers for being the products of their times and writing according to the prevailing social attitudes of those times. But it's equally, or probably even more unfair to expect readers not to be products of their times or to blame them for being uncomfortable when encountering unpleasantness in the products of the past. In other words, this is a perfectly valid thing for 21st-century-woman me to be unhappy about.)

Also a bit paradoxical, I think, is the fact that I found very few of these stories, in themselves, to be all that satisfying. There are a few in the middle -- namely, the fantastic "Scanners Live in Vain" and the compellingly disturbing "A Planet Named Shayol" -- which hit some sort of sweet spot and just completely work. But, for the most part, the earlier stories feel interesting and intriguing but seem to me to stop short of actually going anywhere meaningful, while some of the later stories feel longer than they need to be. And yet, despite there being only two stories in this entire 800-plus-page volume that I feel like I can point to and say, "Yeah, that is unambiguously great stuff," my overall feeling, at the end, is surprisingly positive. Those 800-plus pages actually went pretty fast, and left me with the sense that I'd just had an interesting and generally worthwhile experience. If nothing else, I feel like I've now filled in an inexcusable gap in my classic SF reading.

Rating: Based on all of the above, how the heck do I rate this? Considering it as the sum of its parts, I guess I'm going to call it 3.5/5, but as an overall experience, I'm almost tempted to make it 4/5 instead.

43valkyrdeath
May 8, 8:08pm Top

>42 bragan: I've only read Cordwainer Smith in random stories in anthologies and can't remember much about them except that they seemed unusual. He's one of those authors that's permanently on that list of people I need to check out that I never get round to. Your review makes me think I probably should at some point, despite the flaws.

44bragan
May 8, 8:31pm Top

>43 valkyrdeath: I'd had exactly the same experiences with him. Read a few random stories in anthologies, mainly back in high school, and was interested enough to think I really ought to make an effort to read more of his stuff sometime, but just kept never getting around to it. Fortunately, an especially perceptive person drew my name in SantaThing last year and sent me this collection. (And then, of course, it still took me five months to get around to reading it, because the TBR is just that backed up.)

I do think reading this was a worthwhile experience, despite the flaws. I'm glad I finally got around to it.

45bragan
May 9, 6:59pm Top

46. The End or Something Like That by Ann Dee Ellis



Emmy's best friend, Kim, had an uncorrectable congenital heart problem, and, knowing she would probably die young, she became utterly obsessed with the idea of coming back after death to communicate with Emmy. Then she died, and Emmy hasn't seen her again. She has, however, started seeing entirely the wrong dead people.

I have mixed feelings about this one. I like the premise. It's got a few poignant moments, and it captures the experience of being a teenager reasonably well. But I found the style kind of off-putting. It's really simplified and choppy. Which maybe isn't that uncommon in YA novels, but this one takes it to the next level, with lots and lots of very simple sentences and paragraphs that never seem to be more than one or two sentences long. Hell, the first few chapters are only one sentence long. I'm sure this is a deliberate stylistic choice, and there is an extent to which it does work to capture the sense of a very young and unsophisticated narrative voice. But I couldn't help finding it a bit irritating after a while.

I also couldn't help thinking that this style serves to make it look like there's a lot more content here than there actually is. I'm not sure how the exact word count compares to what you'd normally expect from your average 346-page novel, but it's obviously very low. And it feels low. Low, and slight. I'd say there's maybe a novella's worth of story here, at best.

Rating: 3.5/5

46valkyrdeath
May 9, 7:16pm Top

>44 bragan: You've reminded me that I got a Poul Anderson book from SantaThing last year that I still need to read. It seems SantaThing is good for giving us the classic science fiction authors that we haven't got to before.

47bragan
Edited: May 9, 7:26pm Top

>46 valkyrdeath: SantaThing is great for stuff like that!

Which Anderson is it? I find him a bit hit-and-miss, myself, but he's definitely one of those classic SF authors one should at least try at some point.

ETA: OK, never mind, I peeked at your library. Tau Zero, yes? I think I would put that one right next to Cordwainer Smith in the "flawed, but interesting and worth reading" category.

48valkyrdeath
May 9, 8:30pm Top

>47 bragan: That's the one! Sounds like it's not the worst choice for my first read of him then.

49AlisonY
May 10, 11:54am Top

Catching up - such a great variety of books you've been reading lately.

50bragan
May 10, 6:34pm Top

>49 AlisonY: A great variety is always what I am for in my reading! :)

51bragan
Edited: May 11, 4:59am Top

47. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West



I first heard -- and, indeed, first heard of -- Lindy West when she appeared on a couple of This American Life episodes, once in a segment about her calling out her then-boss (and still friend) Dan Savage for his painful and clueless attempts to fat-shame America out of its obesity epidemic, and once with an amazing story about getting an actual, sincere apology from an internet troll who had attacked her in a way that seems unbelievably appalling and cruel even by the usual cesspit-y internet standards. And, listening to her o the show, I knew instantly that I really, really wanted to read this woman's writing.

Well, now I have. And, boy, did it not disappoint. In this volume she talks about her life, her family, and her relationships; about feminism; about comedy; about abortion; about online harassment; and about what it's like to be fat and to decide, after a lifetime of being told that your body is disgusting and you are unlovable because of it, that you just aren't going to quietly take that anymore. And it's all just amazing. West is so sharp and so smart, so willing to be loud and bold and firm in declaring her convictions, but also wonderfully thoughtful, reasonable, and deeply, deeply humane. And so funny. Parts of this made me laugh out loud. Like, a lot. Other parts made my heart hurt. Also a lot. Possibly a moment or two kind of made me do both at once. Like I said. Amazing.

Rating: 5/5

52ELiz_M
May 11, 7:42am Top

>51 bragan: Ooooh my library has this as an audiobook read by the author. Onto the wishlist it goes!

53bragan
May 11, 8:51am Top

>52 ELiz_M: Oh, I bet listening to her read it is great!

54bragan
May 12, 10:41pm Top

48. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch



Jason Desser could have really made his mark in the world of physics, but instead he made a choice, fifteen years ago, to prioritize family over career. He's very happy with the results, but does occasionally wonder "what if?" Then one night he's kidnapped at gunpoint, thrust into a strange box, and finds himself in a world where things went very differently.

This book got a lot of attention when it came out last year, and for about the first half of it, I really couldn't figure out why. The basic premise was mildly interesting, but not especially original. The writing was adequate, but not great. (And, seriously, what is it with writers who think that choppy little one-sentence paragraphs are the best way to draw readers along? Sure, that can make your writing feel punchy and fast, but it rapidly loses its effectiveness if you overuse it instead of saving it for the moments when you really need it.) And, while I was happy enough to swallow the sci-fi premise, a lot of the little details just didn't feel particularly believable to me. So I was kind of shaking my head a lot and thinking, "Well, this is okay, I guess but, wow, was it really over-hyped."

But then I was surprised by how much better I liked the second half. It's still flawed, but it gets entertainingly crazy in a way that mostly worked for me.

Rating: It's hard to know how to rate this. Putting the two halves of it together, I guess I'm going to call it 3.5/5.

55RidgewayGirl
May 13, 5:02pm Top

I've missed Lindy West's presence on twitter, but can't blame her at all for leaving. I'll have to grab a copy of Shrill, but have to choose between audio and paper.

56bragan
May 13, 7:50pm Top

>55 RidgewayGirl: After having read her comments on the stuff she's had to deal with on the internet, I don't see how anyone could blame her for backing off from it, but it's a damned shame, to put it mildly, that anyone can be driven off like that.

57bragan
Edited: May 13, 8:15pm Top

49. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine



After hearing a 20-something of my acquaintance casually refer to a scene in Ella Enchanted (either the book or the movie version, I'm not sure which) as if she expected it to be something everyone would automatically be familiar with, I realized that this story had slipped itself into the canon of children's classics while I wasn't looking. And having now read it, I can absolutely see why. It entirely deserves it.

The story follows Ella, the daughter of a wealthy but unscrupulous merchant, who at her birth has a "gift" bestowed on her by a well-meaning but very stupid fairy: the "gift of obedience." From then on, she cannot refuse a direct command given to her by anyone, for any reason. Which, if you stop to think about it for a moment (as the story most certainly does) is an utterly horrific idea.

While it's not obvious from that description (and, indeed, a lot of the relevant elements don't come into play until near the end), this is basically a retelling of Cinderella. But it's a marvelous, original, and wonderfully creative one. The world, rather than being Generic Fairy Tale Land is one with its own history and cultures, and its own variants on the usual fantasy creatures. The love story is charming and believable and based on a real meeting of minds, rather than being the usual kind of vacuous fairy tale romance. And the main character is spirited and likeable and feels very much like a real person. At some point towards the end, I realized I was basically sitting on the edge of my seat with tension, desperately hoping everything would work out all right for her. Which is kind of crazy. I mean, it's Cinderella. I know how Cinderella ends! But I was that caught up, and that invested in her happiness. And the climax, when it comes, is a marvelous twist on the original tale that left a great big grin on my face. This is definitely the kind of fairy tale we should be giving 21st-century kids, and 21st-century adult me loved it a lot, too. Way more than I ever would have expected to.

Rating: 4.5/5

58mabith
Edited: May 13, 11:09pm Top

I keep meaning to read Ella Enchanted it came out a bit too late for me to read it in childhood and somehow it's easier to get to the older classics. You've pushed me to get to it in the next few months.

59bragan
May 14, 12:01am Top

>58 mabith: I definitely recommend it, for anyone who's willing to read kids' books at all. Makes me wonder how many other great new kids' classics I've been missing in my adulthood.

60Simone2
May 14, 1:46am Top

>54 bragan: Well, you've made me really curious!

61mabith
May 14, 2:25am Top

I love getting back into my kid brain with children's novels. I have a lot of nieces and nephews, so I do try to read some new/newish ones but I'd do it even if that weren't the case. I routinely ask my mom if she read X classic children's novel as a kid when I'm reading something that was new during her childhood and the answer is almost always no. Will be curious to see what titles my nieces and nephews ask about (if they do at all).

62bragan
May 14, 2:46am Top

>60 Simone2: Well, it's fun enough if you don't expect too much, so if you're curious, I say, hey, go for it.

>61 mabith: Not all kids' books can manage it, but the best and most timeless of them either speak to adults just as much as kids, or remind us jaded old adults what it's like to think like a kid.

I used to tell myself I kept kids' books around in case my nephew ever visited, but he lives 1,500 miles away and almost never did, plus he somehow grew up super-fast. So I finally just admitted they were for me. :)

63mabith
May 14, 12:10pm Top

What baffles me slightly is that so many adults will read loads of YA books but won't touch children's novels (I specify novels since I keep seeing 'children's books' used to just refer to picture books).

64bragan
May 14, 1:49pm Top

>63 mabith: Hey, their loss, I say. Although I do get miffed when people act like there's something wrong or disdainful about an adult reading a kids' book. There's nothing wrong with paying a little visit back to your childhood! I think it can be good for you. Plus, I can certainly appreciate a good story, no matter who it's target at.

65valkyrdeath
May 14, 6:34pm Top

I've always felt that a good children's book should be enjoyable to read as an adult anyway. If an adult can't enjoy it, why should a child have to put up with it? Though when I was a kid I read a couple of children's books that were terrible and so skipped straight onto adult books, so I've read more children's books as an adult than I did when I was in the age range they're aimed at.

66bragan
May 14, 7:03pm Top

>65 valkyrdeath: I do remember enjoying some kids' books when I was a kid that really don't hold up as an adult. I think kids' books can get away with a certain amount just because kids haven't developed sophisticated tastes yet, or because kids haven't seen certain things often enough yet to get tired of them or think of them as cliches. But, nevertheless, a good story is a good story, surely, whatever age you are.

67bragan
May 19, 2:06am Top

50. Stairways to the Stars: Skywatching in Three Great Ancient Cultures by Anthony Aveni



Anthony Aveni, a professor of astronomy and anthropology, examines the astronomy of various ancient cultures, most specifically the Inca, the Maya, and the people who constructed Stonehenge. He goes into considerable detail about what is known or speculated about how these people observed the sun, moon, planets, and stars, how they kept track of their motions, how these motions were reflected in structures they built, and what role these observations may have played in their cultures. He puts a lot of stress on that last thing, by the way, repeatedly warning that it's easy to project our own modern scientific worldview on people who didn't necessarily think of the universe the same way we do. Which is a point worth making, although perhaps not as relentlessly as he does so.

The writing is pretty dry. And it goes into a lot of detail about the calculations that are used to track the motions of heavenly bodies, keep accurate calendars, predict eclipses, and so forth. These calculations are fundamental to the subject matter, but I have to admit, they inevitably made my eyes glaze a little bit. I'd say this book is probably great for anyone who wants to really get into those nitty-gritty details -- it even provides exercises in the back of the book if you want to try it yourself! -- but is less appealing for someone with a more casual interest in astronomy or archeology.

I did learn some interesting things from it, though, such as the fact that Stonehenge as we know it today actually took shape over something like a thousand years, and the fact that the ancient Mayans used a base-20 counting system.

Rating: 3/5

68mabith
May 19, 12:26pm Top

Glad to have your review on Stairway to the Stars, as the title would have grabbed me but detailed calculations not so much. I'll keep it in mind if my niece or nephew get REALLY into astronomy.

69bragan
May 19, 3:40pm Top

>68 mabith: The general topic is interesting enough, but I think one really has to be very much into practical, observational astronomy and not just the theoretical side of things for it to really be the right book.

I should probably also note that it was published in 1997, so it may be out of print now.

70bragan
May 20, 4:27pm Top

51. Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh



All of the characters in this collection of odd short stories range from pathetic to positively repellent. Almost none of their stories have any real resolution, never mind a good one. And Moshfegh's writing focuses so much on off-putting details that it makes not only the characters' lives but the universe in general feel tawdry and depressing.

Which might make it sound like the stories are bad. They're not. They're really, really not. They're unpleasant. But they're far from bad. These are very well-written stories that do, I think, exactly what the author is trying to make them do. And having read through all of them, I think I feel about this book a milder version of what I felt after reading Han Kang's The Vegetarian: I appreciate the author's skill and the fact that this is good, effective writing that touches on something that feels meaningful... and I don't really ever want to read any more of it.

Rating: 4/5

71dchaikin
May 20, 4:34pm Top

>67 bragan: what Meredith said in >68 mabith:. Glad you read it for us.

>70 bragan: interesting.

72bragan
May 20, 4:34pm Top

>71 dchaikin: "Interesting" is definitely the word for it! Glad I read it. Glad I'm done with it. :)

73valkyrdeath
May 20, 6:34pm Top

>70 bragan: I've been up and down on reading that book. At first I was interested thinking it was a collection of sci-fi stories given the cover, then i found it wasn't and lost interest, then I read more about it and became interested again. I still can't make up my mind if I actually want to read it. I'm always put off a bit when I hear about stories not having a resolution.

74bragan
May 20, 6:58pm Top

>73 valkyrdeath: Definitely not SF stories. (Well, the final story, which seems to have inspired the title, is a bit ambiguous. But I don't think even that one qualifies.) They're much more in the literary vein, where having an actual plot with a firm conclusion isn't really the point.

75RidgewayGirl
May 21, 11:46am Top

Interesting about the Moshfegh. I'm hoping to read it soon. It sounds very much like Eileen only in short story form.

76bragan
May 21, 12:13pm Top

>75 RidgewayGirl: I haven't read Eileen, but if it is similar to this one, I may pass. Again, it was really good, but I have had enough of it. :)

77bragan
May 22, 10:15am Top

52. Tinkers by Paul Harding



George, an old man, lies dying. As he dos so, we see glimpses of his memories, and of the memories of his father, who was a tinker selling household goods from a mule cart in the backwoods in the early 20th century. We also get complex, oblique philosophical musings and poetic thoughts and vivid images, some hyper-realistic, some strangely hallucinatory.

The whole thing seems like it should feel annoyingly disjointed and obscure. But holy crap did it work. There's just something about the writing. I don't know what, and I don't understand how. But you just want to to sink into it, to roll your brain around and around in it until your cortex is saturated with prose.

Well, I did, anyway. And I read it under very non-ideal circumstances. I think this is the kind of book you really want to read in one or two big chunks, on a quiet day when you're feeling focused. And I was the exact opposite of that: sleep-deprived, distracted, frequently interrupted. And it still had that effect on me.

I'm not much of a re-reader, in general, but I think this is one I'm going to want to come back to sometime. It feels like there's probably always going to be more to get out of it, always going to be sentences worth savoring again.

Rating: I still don't even know why, but I guess I have to give this one a 5/5.

78bragan
May 24, 7:47pm Top

53. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer



This is Jon Krakauer's famous study of Chris "Alex" McCandless, a young man who rejected his wealthy family and much of civilization in general in favor of a life on the road and in the wilderness. In 1992, he realized his ultimate goal of retreating to the Alaskan wild to live off the land, only to die of starvation there a few months later.

It's a sensitive examination of a complex life and an unfortunate death. And while Krakauer writes with real sympathy for McCandless, he leaves it very much up to the reader to form their own option of the guy. Was he a naive, reckless dumbass with more fancy philosophical thoughts than common sense, who had no business being where he was, as under-prepared as he was? Or was he a smart, sensitive, thoughtful guy carrying on a long tradition of seeking personal insight through contact with the wild, who died more because he was unlucky than because he was dumb or arrogant? Or was he both? Me, I think I'm going to go with both, but it's a surprisingly complex and thought-provoking question to ponder.

And Krakauer's writing as he invites us to ponder these things is good. He jumps back and forth from time to time and topic to topic: re-tracing McCandless's steps on his journey, filling in his backstory, discussing other people who disappeared in the wilderness in similar ways, even recounting a story from Krakauer's own youth that he feels gives him some insight into McCandless's thinking. All of this hopping around could easily have become confusing or mildly annoying, but somehow it instead works very well. And Krakauer has an excellent instinct for when to offer up his own thoughts and relevant experiences, and when to remove himself from the story and let his subject matter speak for itself.

Rating: 4/5

79bragan
Edited: May 25, 12:13pm Top

54. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Vol. 1: Squirrel Power by Ryan North and Erica Henderson



The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is an unlikely superhero. She has "squirrel blood" in her, which gives her the agility and "proportional strength" of a squirrel. She can talk to squirrels, and has an army of them to do her bidding. She has a big, bushy tail. And she has a costume that features a headband with little squirrel ears on it and dangly acorn earrings. She's here to eat nuts and kick butts!

Although I've been known to dip into them briefly every once in a great while, I'm really not a fan of superhero comics. Among other things, I just find a lot of the conventions of the genre off-putting. (Seriously, every time I see some guy in spandex talking to himself in clunky expository sentences for no reason, a piece of my soul dies a little.) But I'd heard this one was a lot of fun, and I like Ryan North, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

Well, it's still a superhero comic, and it still does do some of the things that bug me a bit about superhero comics, but, yes, it's fun. Obviously, it's not taking itself too seriously. There are lots of jokes and various kinds of ridiculousness, with some of the most ridiculous bits being the most entertaining. And Squirrel Girl (aka college freshman Doreen Green) is oddly charming, in her own cheerful, over-confident, squirrel-loving way. Also, she's a bit goofy-looking, and it's wonderfully refreshing to see a female superhero, even a humorous one, who's allowed to look goofy, rather than sexy.

So, overall I did enjoy it. Although it probably is intended more for people who are genuine Marvel fans. I think watching her defeat familiar villains in silly ways is meant to be a big part of the fun, but my own knowledge of the characters involved is vague enough that I'm sure I didn't fully appreciate most of it.

Also, each page comes with a line of funny commentary at the bottom, which would be great, except for the fact that putting it in teeny-tiny print in very light-colored letters on a white page is a staggeringly cruel thing to do to those of us with aging eyes. I thought comics people were big on the idea that comics aren't just for kids, but making some of the funniest parts super-difficult to read for anyone over 40 is a funny way of showing it!

Rating: I've waffled back and forth on this one a bit, but I think most of the good things about it are just plain good, and most of the things I liked less about it are things that have more to do with my own idiosyncratic relationship to superhero comics. So, what the heck. Let's call it 4/5.

80Narilka
May 25, 2:46pm Top

>78 bragan: Thanks for the review. That's one I saw at the bookstore and was curious about.

81bragan
May 25, 3:52pm Top

>80 Narilka: If the subject sounds interesting, I'd say it's definitely worth a look.

82bragan
Today, 6:29am Top

55. The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell



Marnie is fifteen years old, and her sister Nelly is twelve. Their parents are dead now, but they were horribly neglectful when they were alive, and the girls have always more or less had to take care of themselves, so it doesn't really make all that much difference. Well, except for the difficulties involved in hiding their parents' deaths and the fact that they're buried in the back yard, to avoid being sent to foster care.

I really enjoyed this one. Which seems a little odd to say, because it's about kids who've led an awful, awful life doing things no kid should ever have to do, and it's full of misery after misery. But it never felt entirely depressing. Mostly it just kept me concerned for these kids and tensely focused on my hope that things would work out for them in the end, somehow.

Rating: 4/5

83Simone2
Edited: Today, 7:26am Top

>56 bragan: That plot reminds of The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan.

84stretch
Edited: Today, 11:06am Top

The death need was one of my favorites. It is weirdly uplifting for something so awful. There was something hopeful about the family they forged even if it was the most dysfunctional sort possible.

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