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Meredy's 2018 Reading Journal

This is a continuation of the topic Meredy's 2017 Reading Journal.

The Green Dragon

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Edited: Sep 10, 9:44am Top

This is a continuation of my 2017 reading journal:


Welcome to my ongoing reading record, and thank you for your interest. I've had to let go of the idea that I could post a comprehensive and literate review of everything I read. A little more selectivity will, I hope, help me keep up better.

There are no spoilers in my reviews.

Solid star (★) = 1 star. Open star (☆) = ½ star. Post references are links. Reviews are posted on the works pages as well as in this thread, and I'm tickled to death when someone gives me a little thumb now and then.

Current fast-track read(s):

Brief History of Japan: Samurai, Shogun and Zen: The Extraordinary Story of the Land of the Rising Sun, by Jonathan Clements

My Year of Dirt and Water: Journal of a Zen Monk's Wife in Japan by Tracy Franz


A Graveyard for Lunatics: Another Tale of Two Cities, by Ray Bradbury (1990), 1/3/2018; 309 pages (★★★☆); review: post 12.
A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles (2016), 1/16/2018; 462 pages (★★★★☆)
Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson (2017), 1/21/2018; 525 pages + frontmatter + backmatter = 616 (★★★★☆).
Let's All Kill Constance, by Ray Bradbury (2003), 1/30/2018; 236 pages (★★☆)
Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles (2011), 1/31/2018; 335 pages (★★★★)

Total: 5 books, 1958 pages


Initials Only, by Anna Katharine Green (1911), 2/5/2018; ?100 pages (★★)
Curtains for Three, by Rex Stout (1950; NW 18), 2/6/2018; 222 pages (★★★)
Murder by the Book, by Rex Stout (1951; NW 19), 2/11/2018; 246 pages (★★★☆)
• Abandoned: The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead (1940), 2/12/2018, on page 30 of 527 (+ fm = 568): 5.7%; for a main character's unreadable, unbearable speech mannerisms; review: post 30.
Triple Jeopardy, by Rex Stout (1951; NW 20), 2/18/2018; 183 pages (★★★)
Prisoner's Base, by Rex Stout (1952; NW 21), 2/27/2018; 209 pages (★★★☆)

Total: 5 books, 960 pages


The Golden Spiders, by Rex Stout (1953; NW 22), 3/5/2018; 224 pages (★★★☆)
The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope (1894), 3/11/2018; 202 pages (★★★☆); comments: post 31.
Rupert of Hentzau, by Anthony Hope (1898), 3/19/2018; 324 pages (★★★☆); comments: post 31.
The Black Mountain, by Rex Stout (1954; NW 23), 3/26/2018; 208 pages (★★★★)

Total: 4 books


The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, by G. K. Chesterton (1908), 4/1/2018; 194 pages (★★★☆); review: post 34.
Side Jobs, by Jim Butcher (2010), 4/12/2018; 419 pages (★★★☆)
Unf*ck Your Habitat, by Rachel Hoffman (2017), 4/17/2018; 201 pages + index = 213 (★★★★); review: post 35.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2017), 4/18/2018; 209 pages + index = 223 (★★★★)
Three Men Out, by Rex Stout (1954; NW 24), 4/19/2018; 165 pages (★★★☆)
Before Midnight, by Rex Stout (1955; NW 25), 4/24/2018; 144 pages (★★★☆)


The Master of Ballantrae, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1889), 5/4/2018; 195 pages (★★★☆)
• Abandoned: Corrupting Dr. Nice, by John Kessel (1998), 5/9/2018, at 16% of 320 pages, for amateurish writing and a (so far) static plot that squanders a good idea in repetitious gee-whizzery and ostentatious displays of research; comments: post 62.
The Bletchley Girls: War, Secrecy, Love and Loss by Tessa Dunlop (2015), 5/14/2018; 352 pages (★★★); review: post 48.
• Abandoned: Gardens of Water, by Alan Drew (2008), 5/23/2018, at about 15%, for flatness; comments: post 62.
Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction, by Steven Martin (2012), 5/24/2018; 396 pages plus backmatter (★★★★☆)
Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad (1900), 5/31/2018; 308 pages (★★★★☆)


Might As Well Be Dead, by Rex Stout (1956; NW 26), 6/5/2018; 157 pages (★★★☆)
The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin (2018), 6/14/2018; 343 pages (★★★★)
Circe, by Madeline Miller (2018), 6/21/2018; 385 pages (★★★★)
Three Witnesses, by Rex Stout (1956; NW 27), 6/26/2018; 179 pages (★★★)


Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, by Susan Tive & Cami Ostman (Eds.) (2013), 7/3/2018; 315 pages (★★★); review: post 74.
If Death Ever Slept, by Rex Stout (1957; NW 28), 7/8/2018; 145 pages (★★★)
The Jews: Story of a People, by Howard Fast (1968), 7/12/2018; 424 pages (★★★★)
Three for the Chair, by Rex Stout (1957; NW 29), 7/18/2018; 222 pages (★★★)
The Restless Wave: Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations, by John McCain (2018), 7/25/2018; 384 pages + backmatter = 403 pages (★★★★☆)
• Abandoned: Plague Land, by S.D. Sykes (2015), 7/28/2018, at page 38 of 336 (11.3%), for amateurishness and stock characters


Somebody at the Door, by Raymond Postgate (1943), 8/5/2018; 233 pages (★★★)
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti (2017), 8/15/2018; 387 pages (★★★☆)
The Three Hostages (Richard Hannay 4), by John Buchan (1924), 8/27/2018, 288 pages (★★★☆)
• Abandoned: The Eleventh Hour: How Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the U.S. Brokered the Unlikely Deal that Won the War, by L. Douglas Keeney (2015), 8/28/2018, at page 14 of 326 (4.2%), for sloppy editing and careless proofreading


My Year of Dirt and Water: Journal of a Zen Monk's Wife in Japan , by Tracy Franz (2018), 9/9/2018; 308 pages (★★★☆)

Jan 1, 3:21pm Top

This is my six-word placeholder.

Jan 1, 3:28pm Top

So glad to see you starting a thread for 2018--happy new year, and I hope this will be a less tumultuous year for you--and one full of good reading.

Jan 1, 3:51pm Top

Hoping that 2018 brings positive things to you, Meredy! Good friends, good reading experiences, and various bits of good fortune along the way.

Jan 1, 4:12pm Top

Jan 1, 4:13pm Top

Got you starred.

Jan 1, 4:15pm Top

Wishing you a happy new year of reading.

Jan 1, 5:05pm Top

Happy new year!

Jan 1, 8:06pm Top

I love reading your reviews, even when they're of books that don't even interest me. I hope things look up for you and your family this year. Best wishes always!

Jan 3, 6:15am Top

I am just parking myself here to view the words of wisdom that you will inevitably weave into your posts on this thread.

Jan 4, 1:51am Top

I hope this is a good year for you, in books and in life. Looking forward to following your thread again.

Jan 4, 5:43pm Top

Thank you so much for your kind good wishes.

Death Is a Lonely Business

I didn't plan it this way, but for me the turning of the year was bookended by two Ray Bradbury titles. I started Death Is a Lonely Business (1985) near the end of December because it was available on my Kindle and I was stuck lying down, nursing a sore back. It ended up being my final book of 2017.

I hadn't read a Bradbury novel in decades and had him pretty much lodged in my mind as a writer of pulp sci-fi short stories--a more than competent one, to be sure, but for me not the stuff of a steady diet.

So I was taken by surprise by the depth and complexity of the novel, from its predominant theme of death and its agents to the delicate, wavering balance between illusion and consensual reality accomplished by locating the imaginative flights in the mind of the first-person narrator, whose name we never learn. Thematic elements, lush evocation of time and place, and quirky characters that stop short of grotesquerie by virtue of their humanity round out the quasi-detective story with its backdrop of Los Angeles neighborhoods.

Bradbury was 65 when he wrote it, and that's not too young to be pondering the transitory nature of things.

From LibraryThing I learned that this book is the first of three so-called Crumley Mysteries. Detective Lieutenant Crumley does have a role to play, but he is present more as a catalyst than as a major actor. It is not first of all a detective story but rather an almost mystical meditation on death and life and how people's lives intertwine.

And so when I ran out of pages in Death Is a Lonely Business, I downloaded the second, A Graveyard for Lunatics: Another Tale of Two Cities (1990), which became my first completed work of 2018. My main current title is Walter Jacobson's Leonardo da Vinci, which will take me weeks to finish; but I was still nursing my back, and I needed lighter reading. My Kindle weighs only 7.2 ounces, no matter how many books are on it; the Leonardo bio is a real wristbreaker at 2.8 pounds (44.8 ounces), so I saved that for bedtime and lots of propped pillows.

A Graveyard for Lunatics: Another Tale of Two Cities

In a feat of love as much as verbal skill, Bradbury achieves cinematic magic on the unadorned page--much as his unnamed character does as a Hollywood screenwriter.

There is a mystery element to this story, all right, and Det. Lt. Crumley puts in a second appearance, although again his role is more about moral support and reality check than it is about crime-solving prowess. Even in the thicket of his strange exotic garden, Elmo Crumley supplies the anchor that reminds us where the shoreline of fantasy stops.

But this novel is first of all a valentine to the movies and especially to the people whose vision and skills transform experience through their craft. It pays special tribute to special-effects man Roy Holdstrom, the fictional counterpart of Bradbury's close friend Ray Harryhausen, who is named in the dedication. Any film buff who dotes on the classics of early cinema should revel in this romp in the shadowlands between the real and the unreal. Although I'm not a true aficionado, with a library of collectibles and an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, I have seen a lot of old movies (some of them even before they were old), and I enjoyed Bradbury's evocation of the world behind the guarded studio gates.

The tale involves the mysterious reappearance on Halloween night, 1954, of the body of a long-dead movie mogul whose twisted history still haunts the living, from a volatile studio executive to a gifted film editor to a paranoid fan whose only life is his obsession with movie memorabilia. The passion of creators for their creations is personified in the Harryhausen character and displayed across the spectrum of actors, directors, and other ancillary personnel, all of whom seem as touched by madness as the villains of the earliest horror pictures. The main character, who identifies himself as "the Crazy," follows a trail of hints and seeming coincidences to uncover a long-buried secret as dark as any in the old black-and-white spookers of his own youth.

The third book in the sequence is called Let's All Kill Constance (2003). I'm ready for it.

Jan 4, 5:56pm Top

I’m so glad you like them. And your summaries and descriptions are lovely and spot on. Isn’t Constance a swirling mystery of a woman? Fabulous books.

Jan 4, 7:54pm Top

>13 Bookmarque: Thank you. I write my reviews before I read anyone else's, so I didn't know you had already declared your enthusiasm for this three-part series. I've thumbed your first two reviews, but I'm not peeking yet at the third. I'm happy to see how nicely our views converge so far.

And yes, Constance is an extraordinary character. But so, in their various ways, are all of the principals. I don't know why I don't quite like Peg; maybe because she hasn't really come out of the wings yet?

Jan 4, 9:24pm Top

I never particularly liked Bradbury, but these sound worth a try. Good markspersonship. I hope your back improves!

Jan 5, 5:32pm Top

I don't think I've encountered A Graveyard for Lunatics but I'm intrigued. It's the kind of thing my husband would like as well.

Jan 6, 1:55am Top

>16 jillmwo: Ha! Score. Do note, though, that it's the second in the series. I can't judge how well it might stand alone, but I thought a lot depended on my knowledge of several key characters from the first book, either in terms of who they were and their relationships to the narrator or just with respect to understanding the references.

Edited: Jan 6, 10:07am Top

>17 Meredy: So that means your score on book bullets goes up by two! I'm not sure that's fair. Doesn't Robert's Rules of Order frown on that? And if not, oughtn't there to be regulations on how many hits one can suffer from within the first week of a New Year?

Jan 6, 10:50am Top

>19 MrsLee: Speaks she who hit almost everyone in the pub with a book bullet in the first week of the New Year.

Jan 6, 2:52pm Top

>18 jillmwo: Double ha. Four if I count your husband, who is surely at least a member-in-law. >19 MrsLee: has the right of it.

Jan 10, 6:47pm Top

Now I've veered off onto A Gentleman in Moscow while continuing with Leonardo da Vinci (by Walter Isaacson, who apparently still doesn't rate a touchstone). I was captivated already by the second page.

But I'll be back for Constance.

Jan 12, 7:47pm Top

*thumbs up*

Jan 13, 2:14am Top

Yes--I'm enjoying the story and the focal character a lot. But some of the author's habits are really getting on my nerves, and he's indulged in some weirdness that I can't see a reason for. And, as with just about every other book I've seen lately, there are far too many instances of editorial lapses. It's a library book, so I'm not actually writing "naptime for editors" in the margin, but I do think that whoever had charge of the preparation of this manuscript for print is guilty of some notable misses. Recent example, page 199: "for another millennia to come." "Millennia" is plural; he means "millennium."

Significantly, there is no acknowledgment of an editor and indeed no acknowledgments of any kind anywhere in the front or back of the book.

Jan 14, 9:26am Top

>23 Meredy: This almost makes me glad of my lack of education, for nothing is getting in the way of my love for the story and the characters.

Apr 26, 3:00pm Top

>24 MrsLee: I see your point, Lee; but there is also the point that when you're hard to please, and something passes all your tests (or enough that you want to forgive the rest), you're really, really, really pleased. I tend to read with the highest expectations only when something has given rise to those expectations; and those promising elements were all there. So it was an extra disappointment to find that both of Towles' fine novels were the victims of sloppy editing. (But some of the weirdnesses weren't the editor's.)

I'm mentally gearing up for a major catch-up. I won't try to cover everything that I've read since I lapsed as a faithful book-by-book reviewer; but I don't like being out of touch here and want to be more active again.

Thanks very much to those who have sent me kind and friendly PMs. Your thoughtfulness and encouragement have given me a real boost during some difficult times. Things are still not what you'd call easy, but they're better than they were by a lot, and my level of ongoing stress and anxiety has gone down. Reading has been my best escape and comfort through these couple of years, which is why you see all those Rex Stout titles in my recap. What's better than an absorbing read that doesn't make your head hurt and that dependably ends with justice for all, and liberty for those who deserve it?

Apr 27, 9:10am Top

It's good to see you back here Meredy. I hope things continue to improve for you; thank goodness for reading!

Apr 27, 9:24am Top

>25 Meredy: Yes, I see your point too! :) So glad to see you back here again.

Apr 27, 10:29am Top

>25 Meredy: Yes, very much with you on that issue of being hard to please, but you knew that. ;) Looking forward to your catch-up.

Apr 28, 7:18pm Top

Ok, here goes. And thanks for all the encouragement.

Random start: current volume of my reading journal. I'm in my fourth notebook, after forcing myself to abandon the tiny slips of paper I used to write notes on. The present volume happened to begin in January of this year.

Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson (2017)

Overall impression: It isn't magnificent, but it's solid and admirable enough. Lots of editorial slips. Also a fair amount of repetition. I wonder how much of the author's expertise is borrowed.

Beautiful printing job. Really nice paper, enough so that I couldn't bring myself to mark errors or make marginal comments. Coated stock favors fine color reproductions of works. I liked the detailed descriptive explanations of the paintings and drawings and the emphasis on placing them within their physical, historical, and biographical contexts. I also learned some things that I have since applied in the art classes I take, such as the reason for the use of sfumato techniques (blurring the edges of things), and in looking at the work of other artists, such as their treatment of perspective and their rendering of movement.

A few quotes I liked:
Paper turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after five hundred years, which our own tweets likely won't be. (page 4)

The glory of being an artist, [Leonardo] realized, was that reality should inform but not constrain. (page 47)

Any person who puts 'Describe the tongue of the woodpecker' on his to-do list is overendowed with the combination of curiosity and acuity. (page 178)

This is the heart of Leonardo's philosophy: the replication and relationships of the patterns of nature, from the cosmic to the human. (page 487)
On the other hand, in addition to numerous dubious word choices (fulsome, bevy, enormity), we have egregious sentences like this one, which mixes no fewer than six metaphors:
Leonardo's willingness to pursue whatever shiny subject caught his eye made his mind richer and filled with more connections. (page 363)
We also have, in the course of more than 600 pages, some pertinent things that are overexplained and some that are never explained at all. For instance, I had to go elsewhere and dig around on the internet to find out what he meant by "nutcracker man," a term he used over and over but never defined.

Random curious fact: The Mona Lisa's eyebrows may have been lost. They were described in detail by a contemporary. The painting was done in many layers, and they may have been taken off during a cleaning, an explanation that makes more sense than that Leonardo left them off or that the sitter didn't have any.

I liked Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs a lot, and I grant that this one tackles a much more difficult and complex subject. Although it gets bonus points for ambition, I still have to take off for ways in which it falls short of the mark. As is so often true for me, I wonder why the obviously high budget didn't spare more for editorial support.

Edited: Apr 28, 8:34pm Top

The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead (1940)

I thought I was in for a literary treat when I read this savagely lush description on page 7:
[E]very room was a phial of revelation to be poured out some feverish night in the secret laboratories of her decisions, full of living cancers of insult, leprosies of disillusion, abscesses of grudge, gangrene of nevermore, quintan fevers of divorce, and all the proliferating miseries, the running sores and thick scabs, for which (and not for its heavenly joys) the flesh of marriage is so heavily veiled and conventionally interned.
Disturbing imagery, yes, but it reminded me of the artfully controlled mad excesses of Look Homeward, Angel, and I thought I'd stay with it to see where it went.

I made it all the way to page 30, with considerable difficulty, and then just gave it up. And this is one of the very few (not so many as ten) books that I will take some satisfaction in placing in the recycle bin and not trying to palm off on anybody, not even in a box labeled "Free" at the curb.

The reason: the gaggingly awful speech mannerisms of principal character Sam. He has horrible nicknames for his children ("Loozy," "Little-Womey") and affects a phony dialect that makes him sound like a demented babbler in a madhouse of overage babies. It is so staggeringly obnoxious that I would be hoping on every page for the story to turn out to be a slasher novel with six kinds of violent mayhem in store for our Sam. Five hundred pages of this? I need peace in my life, not the vision of a character who makes a good old-fashioned evildoer look like more pleasant company for my reading hours. How could an author even bear to create a character whose dialogue is so sickeningly loathsome that a hopeful, receptive reader turns away in disgust?

Never mind, I don't want to know.

Apr 28, 8:50pm Top

The Prisoner of Zenda, by Anthony Hope (1894)

Fine romance and adventure, with a poignant ending. Not especially literary, but, like the yarns of John Buchan, very good for what it is.

Thanks to overuse as a plot line in the movies, the story of a man pressured into standing in for his lookalike to prevent some sort of disaster may seem like a somewhat familiar tale. At the time of this publication, it was not so shopworn. Even so, it holds up well and gets good marks as melodramatic escapism that goes down easily.

Rupert of Hentzau, by Anthony Hope (1898)

A fine sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda, with a satisfying, if sad, wrap-up to the romantic adventure. It does leave us to wonder about the unanswered question at the end: would he have, or not?

Apr 28, 11:14pm Top

Great to see you Meredy.

Apr 29, 12:06pm Top

>31 Meredy: More incentive to track down a copy of the second of those, which I've always meant to since finishing the first.

Apr 30, 6:53pm Top

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, by G. K. Chesterton (1908)

A note in the front of my paperback copy says 2/16/1967. That's when I bought it, and soon afterward I enjoyed a first reading. A few years later I reread it with the same pleasure. And then it sat in the hidden second tier of a shelf among hundreds of other books for at least four decades, until something sent me looking for it about a month ago. Amazingly, I was able to go right to it. Hurray: I haven't yet lost that store-and-retrieve connection. I'll be in trouble when I do, because there's nothing overtly systematic about my system. I usually find things by snapshot visual memory.

But as to the story, all I recalled was the main setup of the plot, namely, that a man named Syme infiltrates an anarchists' cell whose members have as code names the days of the week. The anarchists set off on a mission to prevent the prevention of a planned bombing incident. Our main character plays along while trying to think of ways to foil it himself.

Then, 7/8 of the way through this short (194-page) novel, it suddenly turns metaphysical. In fact, we begin to see that it has been allegorical all along, even though the fantastic element had seemed well anchored in a recognizable terrestrial reality. It has been so long since I last read this that it surprised me; so I guess what was memorable about it was less its own particulars than the fact that I enjoyed it so long ago.

Now it seems to me a bit manipulative, although not crudely so, and treats of themes that I am well tired of meeting as if by ambush around shadowy corners.

But this is not the fault of the book, which is unchanged--indeed, demonstrably so, for I am reading the selfsame edition that I purchased more than 40 years ago. This is one way that a book or movie or memento or landmark can be a mirror to us: if we know that it is a constant, then our altered perception of or response to it denotes a change in ourselves. In the case of this novel, I felt as if I had been conned, and yet at the same time it's hard not to feel elevated as well, even from the point in the story where the balloon goes aloft. Chesterton achieves his transformation competently and respectably, and the element of mystery still enchants.

I just don't think I'll be going along with it again. There's too much left that I've never read at all.

A sampling of passages that I liked:
Through all this ordeal his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy. (page 89)

[Syme speaking] "Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front..." (page 176)

The philosopher may sometimes love the infinite; the poet always loves the finite. For him the great moment is not the creation of light, but the creation of the sun and moon. (page 183)
When I first listed this book in my library, I rated it five stars based on the old memory. Now I find it very hard to rate, never mind classify; but I settled on three and a half stars just to hold as consistently as possible to my own ratings values. I would still recommend this book, though, to any reader who likes to think about things from different angles.

Apr 30, 7:26pm Top

Unf*ck Your Habitat: You're Better Than Your Mess, by Rachel Hoffman (2017)

I'm not usually drawn to self-help books. This doesn't mean that I don't need plenty of help; but books of "simple tips" delivered in a confidently chatty tone by somebody who obviously doesn't feel challenged by things that baffle or overwhelm me just don't do much for me except help me postpone the inevitable: I'm reading about it--isn't that enough for now?

When I saw this title mentioned in another thread, though, the subtitle grabbed me. Yes, I do think I'm better than my mess. So I downloaded the Kindle version. And read it. (Giving myself a bonus point for not thinking that downloading was enough of a first step and I could do the rest later.)

This book is a straight-talking, BS-foiling pep talk and practical guide for dealing with household mess and clutter, both ordinary and extraordinary. Its lively, conversational style and I-see-you candor contribute to breaking down resistance.

Getting started is the hard part, so the author puts a lot of emphasis there. She doesn't waste much time arguing why do it (if we're reading this book, we probably don't need much help with the "why" part) but concentrates on what and how. It all involves effort and motivation, and she delivers a kind, forgiving, but firm and matter-of-fact push.

Sure, who doesn't know that the way to tackle a big task is to break it down into small parts? and even give ourselves rewards and rest pauses along the way?

Hoffman is specific about what small parts to break it down into, and how many. No ducking, no excuses: she lays it out. Take five things off that flat surface. Just five.

And still, if you can't do five, you haven't failed. Do four. Do one. She allows you plenty of leeway to shape your plan into something that you can actually achieve. And she stresses that once you've made a little progress, your success will build on and feed itself.

I'm happy to note that I'm not her worst case. I don't have dirty dishes scattered around. I don't have laundry lying on the floor. I don't have groceries stacked around in bags with food going bad. But I do have piles of books and papers and miscellaneous clutter in many areas of the house, with a high concentration in one or two spots, and I do find it hard to dig into them.

Hoffman is like a skilled goalkeeper who anticipates moves and feints and evasions and fends them all off. She sets out a model that a person like me, who always has something she'd rather do, can follow.

And when it comes to white vinegar, behold, she's made a believer of me. That alone was worth the time and price.


P.S. Yup, I did take five things off that corner table. And yes, it felt good. Now to do it again.

Apr 30, 8:31pm Top

>35 Meredy: Oh, I am seriously going to track down that book. It's a great reminder because yes, five things is certainly do-able. And my own clutter is making me horribly depressed.

Glad to see you posting, by the way. Your voice is missed.

Apr 30, 10:29pm Top

>34 Meredy: I read this within the past two years and enjoyed it quite a bit. Its metaphysical bit caught me unawares but its allegorical aspect sustained me as I read on. I found it a quaint treatment of early days undercover work.

The theme you mention of isolation being the terror is something I have always seen in horror stories; the horror story is always about isolating the victim, even in a crowd.

My copy had some commentary about the book and apparently Chesterton's response to criticism of the story's fantastical elements was to tell people to read the title: it's a nightmare.

May 1, 6:48am Top

>35 Meredy: This sounds like something I need. I've been going through an "I have too much stuff!" phase recently so it would be good to get some advice on how to act on my feelings.

May 4, 2:28pm Top

So great to hear from you, each and all. I've missed you too, even though I've been around and reading quietly. I don't like to call it lurking.

I'm not tuning out again now, just working on a tough one.

Edited: May 5, 8:33pm Top

The Nero Wolfe mystery series, by Rex Stout (1934-1955)

Fer-de-Lance (1934)
The League of Frightened Men (1935)
The Rubber Band (1936)
The Red Box (1937)
Too Many Cooks (1938)
Some Buried Caesar (1939)
Over My Dead Body (1939)
Where There's a Will (1940)
Black Orchids (1942)
Not Quite Dead Enough (1944)
The Silent Speaker (1946)
Too Many Women (1947)
And Be a Villain (1948)
Trouble in Triplicate (1949)
The Second Confession (1949)
Even in the Best Families (1950)
Three Doors to Death (1950)
Curtains for Three (1950)
Murder by the Book (1951)
Prisoner's Base (1952)
Triple Jeopardy (1952)
The Golden Spiders (1953)
The Black Mountain (1954)
Three Men Out (1954)
Before Midnight (1955)

As a young person in the 1960s and 1970s I read many or most of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe detective series, randomly, without giving a thought to sequence. Over the ensuing years I forgot nearly everything about the plots, and indeed could no longer tell even from a synopsis whether I had read a particular title or not. My library list was guesswork.

What I never forgot, however, was the basic setup (a private detective in New York with an extraordinary mind, an extraordinary appetite, and an extraordinary household), the main characters (Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin) and principal supporting characters (Inspector Cramer, chef Fritz Brenner, operative Saul Panzer, and the rest), the nature of their relationships, and Wolfe's style of solving cases. Oh, and the brisk charm, unfailing resourcefulness, and steady competence of the first-person narrator, Archie.

When was the last time you remembered some hyped "unforgettable" novel or movie or character for more than a week? After more than 40 years, these fictional personalities were as distinct in my mind as neighbors and playmates from my childhood and schoolmates from my youth.

In 2016, I decided to (re)read the entire series, in order. In the midst of the storms of the past two years, they have been dependable comfort reads, and I've returned to them again and again, sometimes taking up several in a row. There's the list, above, of the first twenty-five, all I've read to date. Depending on how you count them, there are about as many left. So I'm at or just past the halfway mark.

With my dread of scarcity, I find myself already wanting to ration the remainder. Yet somehow that doesn't seem to suit the spirit of the series. The stories move right along, keeping us engaged, and they are never sentimental. The pairing of Wolfe the sedentary genius with Archie the man of action produces a chemistry that is usually effervescent and sometimes explosive. You might call them yin and yang except that they consistently overlap--in ends and means, if not in methods--and frequently abrade. Their sparring seasons the main dish of detecting and solving, without ever becoming pointless bickering. Even when one of them is deliberately goading the other, their reciprocal annoyance not only entertains us but also advances the story.

The novels are rooted in the culture of their time and place and reflect certain social attitudes that prevailed in that period but are no longer considered acceptable. Archie's cheerful chauvinism would produce howls of outrage among readers today but is not false to his milieu. Depictions of casual racism and the use of politically incorrect slang, judged by 2018 standards, would never pass muster with a twenty-first-century publisher. Especially in the early novels, there are a few passages that are hard to read, even for someone who is opposed to the rewriting of history.

Likewise, the passionate condemnations of communism that we meet in the novels of the late forties and early fifties may sound both extreme and quaint today, as Americans seem to reserve their fiercest vituperation for their fellow countrymen. Yet the strong personalities, the solving of perplexing puzzles, and the righting of wrongs constitute a satisfying mix that transcends the cultural boundaries of their own era.

In the nineties, a paperback reissue of the series incorporated new introductions written by various authors and reflecting on the series. One of them, Randy Russell, pointed out in the intro to Trouble in Triplicate that once one gets used to being dazzled by Nero Wolfe, the "brain in a jar," it's Archie that keeps us coming back, with his humanity, his humor, his admiration for Wolfe, and his confidence that by being an indispensable member of Wolfe's team he is also an agent of truth and justice. Sometimes a perpetrator does go free, when Wolfe, for reasons of his own, engineers it so; but the bad guys never win.

In a mad world, that's a very secure and comfortable place to come back to.

May 5, 8:31pm Top

(That wasn't the tough one.)

May 6, 4:51am Top

>40 Meredy: I loved your post.

May 6, 5:44pm Top

>40 Meredy: Did you like the TV series?

May 6, 6:56pm Top

>42 pgmcc: Thank you.

>43 suitable1: Never saw it. Didn't even know there was one until recently. I quit watching TV around the time that Lou Grant went off the air, and I haven't missed it. (I do watch a lot of movies, mostly old and mostly on DVD.) I can't think of a single living actor who could fill the part of Wolfe. Possibly Peter Ustinov might have done it, back when. But how could it possibly measure up when so much of what makes the novels work is the voice of Archie?

I did watch some of the Cadfael series on DVD, and loved Derek Jacobi in the part, but what they did to the stories was awful. If the Wolfe series got anything like the same treatment, I wouldn't have hung in with it for long.

What's your opinion?

May 7, 9:21am Top

>40 Meredy: You know I love this series as well, and you can probably see why Jim Butcher's Dresden files echo it for me, although the writing is not as masterful, the spirit of Archie lives on in Harry Dresden.

>43 suitable1: & >44 Meredy: I did enjoy the TV series after about the fourth show, when the actors settled into their roles. It did stick to the stories better than the Cadfael TV shows. Timothy Hutton was not my idea of Archie in looks, and yet his acting was such that he grew into it. The actor who played Wolfe was much too bombastic and loud in the first few shows, but as I say, he settled down later. I really loved the setting of the house. The colors! Also the costumes. And I enjoyed the fact that it ended up being like a small drama company, with the same actors playing different parts throughout the series, except for Wolfe and Archie. As with all productions, it had its good points and bad, but all in all, I wish I owned the second season as well as the first, but I do not, and I won't pay the asking price for it right now. Maybe I will invest in a used set sometime.

I plan to walk down the south side of west 35th street on my trip to NYC in June. :)

May 7, 3:29pm Top

>44 Meredy:

It's been long enough, that I don't remember details. We did enjoy watching and liked the same actors showing up as different characters.

May 22, 2:51pm Top

I'm partway through Lord Jim (Conrad, 1900) but digressed to reread something entirely different. I'll get back to it soon. I recently read The Master of Ballantrae (Stevenson, 1899). I enjoy such older works and take comfort in the mastery of style and the impeccable educated English, rare to find among today's authors. Long descriptions don't bore me, and the character psychology fascinates me. The best part is knowing that I can trust the author, so I let my readerly guard down and just relax into them.

I think of those as very old classics, and yet I must recall that when they came out, my grandfather was in high school and in all likelihood read them when they were new.

May 25, 6:17pm Top

The Bletchley Girls: War, Secrecy, Love and Loss: The Women of Bletchley Park Tell Their Story, by Tessa Dunlop (2015)

The subject matter of this book is inherently fascinating: the highly organized, profoundly secret listening and decoding operation that was the key to the Allied victory in World War II. The young women who performed long hours of drudgery over radio messages, computing machines, and bits of code without knowing what they were a part of or what anyone else was doing were crucial to its success.

What's sad about this book is that the author is out of her depth. It's almost as if she herself, like the girls, were simply recording what she heard without an idea of how to fit it into a bigger picture.

As a work of nonfiction, the book has two basic flaws: organization of content and delivery of content.

(How much else is there?)

Author Dunlop interviewed fifteen women, both in person and in written form, who had served in some capacity at Bletchley Park during the war. The opportunity to gather this primary material from living sources won't last much longer; these women, most of whom were among the youngest recruits in Britain's war effort, are in their nineties. So Dunlop has performed a real service to history in gathering it.

Unfortunately her choice to break up the narrative threads into parallel vignettes arranged by topic rather than by speaker erodes the continuity of each speaker's recollections. Fifteen is too many threads to track mentally. Each individual young woman lacks wholeness--a Gestalt, if you will--because we can't readily follow and integrate her story without constantly looking back: "Who's Ruth again? Which one is Pat?"

I didn't keep that up for long and quickly regressed to treating names as arbitrary labels not meant to do anything but supply a dialogue tag. The only personality I managed to follow at all was the aspiring actress, whose name I don't remember now.

Not even distinctively titled Lady Jean came together well enough for me to gain a sense of who she was as much as I would expect to with a fictional character.

Not that telling each young woman's story linearly would necessarily have been better. They didn't all hit the same checkpoints, there would have been a lot of echo and repetition, and it might have been difficult for a whole picture of the Bletchley Park experience to emerge from it.

But that is the author's challenge: to select, arrange, and present the material effectively to the reader. If you don't know how, it isn't wrong to try; but if you don't know how, you're apt to leave your audience dissatisfied.

No amount of successful wrestling with the subject matter, however, would have canceled the detractive effects of poor writing. I would not have wanted to be the editor responsible for cleaning up the manuscript. The acknowledgments section thanks various people for contributing content review and grammatical support and includes the obligatory "Any errors are entirely my own," to which I can only say, "They sure are." Reviewers and editors seldom say "How about dangling about forty more modifiers?" and "Let's add a couple dozen more wrong word choices just for flavor."

Lists of examples would be tedious and painful. I can supply them if someone is perishing to see them. Open to any page and you'll probably find at least one. I'll settle for one instance each:

"But stuck on a train, with bombs dropping in the station,...Britain was a long way off."

Britain was not stuck on a train.

"It is well known that the Nazi machine swallowed Austria, then Czechoslovakia, while Britain prevaricated."

"Prevaricated" means "lied." Perhaps she meant "temporiz(s)ed" (stalled or delayed).

I gained some interesting glimpses of the time and place, mostly in the way of social history, such as how people responded to the call of duty and how the fact of war seemed to be gathered into the fabric of everyday life. The young women's relationships to their families, friends, and lovers adds a dimension to that.

And I did absorb the one very impressive fact that all those young people, thousands of them, respected and protected the secrecy they were obliged to maintain, even long after the war ended. I don't have any confidence that the young people of today, with their tell-all social paradigm, could or would do anything of the sort.

But as a complete product delivering its content effectively, the book falls short. I see its best use as a well-documented contribution to the literature on the history of the war and not as a finished work able to stand on its own. I'll give the author an A for effort and hope her raw source material finds a place in some archive.

May 26, 4:26am Top

>48 Meredy: I had much the same feeling when I read it -- at least a year ago, according to my LT catalogue. And so my response was to look for other books to fill the gaps (which you could drive a bus through with plenty of space to spare). The ones I tracked down in the Durban library system were The Code Breakers, The Secret War (which sketches the efforts of the Germans, Russians and others and so gives a more balanced view), and The secret life of Bletchley Park. I'd suggest trying all of these, and the Bletchley Park Museum web site. If you know of any others, I'd gladly go and search for them.

May 28, 8:10pm Top

?? Somebody flagged my review (post 40 above) on the book page as "not a review." How odd.

May 28, 10:32pm Top

>50 Meredy: Maybe we need an "Is too!" button.

May 28, 11:06pm Top

>51 Jim53: There is one, and I used it. Now I'm curious to see what happens next.

I don't flag "not a review" unless it's something like just the author's name, or "fiction," or "read Dec. 2017"--that sort of thing. Even if all it says is "Great!" or "Boring," I think that can be considered a review. I can't guess what somebody thought was disqualifying about my review, unless all they saw was the list at the top.

May 29, 2:13am Top

Well, the flag has been removed. Maybe it was a mistake--but you can cancel your own flags, I think. So I don't know. Anyway, someone took care of it, so that's all right.

May 29, 10:47am Top

>53 Meredy: I don't think you can counter someone's flag against you, but if another user, or several, counter it, it will go away. In the "Flagger" group, they have a dedicated thread for folks to ask others to counter unjust flags. Many users don't take the time to find out what the flags are for, and what is or is not allowed to be flagged. :(

May 29, 2:21pm Top

>54 MrsLee: Sorry, I meant that if I flag something, I can unflag it--and maybe my flagger did the same. But I did mark the "Is too!" button, and the one flag did disappear. As far as I know, no one has ever flagged me before. I don't post nonreviews.

I didn't even know there was a "Flagger" group. I'll check it out.

May 30, 8:22pm Top

>48 Meredy: Oh, her misuse of words made me want to shriek! It really was sad that someone more...more qualified wasn't the one to write this book.

May 30, 8:44pm Top

>56 Marissa_Doyle: Yes. That's exactly why I hope her raw material will be available to a future actual author.

My reading journal is my usual outlet for those shrieks. Sometimes I just make notes according to what moves me, and sometimes I make notes with a vengeance. This was a Kindle book, so there are a lot of one-word and phrase highlights, some of them making me wish I could do it in color, such as lurid red or bile green. As usual, I try to be merciful to my kind readers and spare them exhaustive lists, but sometimes I really feel like sending my markups to the author.

May 30, 9:18pm Top

Setting up a new computer is worse than getting married.

Despite the inevitable procedural hassles, starting a new life with someone who already had a name and address, knew how to feed himself, remembered my history as well as his own, and didn't have to be told where to put everything was a treat compared with breaking in a new computer.

And if he had flitted dizzyingly around and around, jumped up and down, constantly butted in, and kept up a stream of shrill nonsense chatter like Cortana, the marriage wouldn't have lasted ten minutes.

May 31, 9:15am Top

>58 Meredy: Ah Meredy, I love you. You sum things up so perfectly!

May 31, 12:38pm Top

>58 Meredy: I miss your six word reviews. They are masterful.

May 31, 12:52pm Top

>60 pgmcc:

She does have a way with words.

Jun 8, 8:03pm Top

Oh, thank you, my dears. I'm sorry not to be keeping up better, but at least the new computer is fairly well launched and I can get back to a few less maddening pursuits. Here's what we might call an omnibus review:

Ditched in the Past Twelve Months

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I love this author's name. I used to see it fairly often in citations when I was editing textbooks and scholarly books in the social sciences. I was excited to read his book and interested in the subject matter. But I couldn't get past about the 40% mark. I abandoned this book in July of 2017 for reasons now largely forgotten, but I think it had something to do with an unclear line between academic prose and popular nonfiction, one effect of which was a sense that the author wasn't at ease with his style. Another seemed to me to be some unsubstantiated assertions--maybe because he was leaving out the dense stuff. As soon as a nonfiction work starts deviating from the rational and supportable, I become very severe with it. Anyway, I couldn't get through it.

The Troubled Air (1951), by Irwin Shaw

Abandoned as a read-aloud on 11/29/2017 after a couple dozen pages. It was a long shot that it might appeal to either my husband or me, never mind both, and it didn't. Besides, the exposition was exhausting of attention, and there were way too many names.

Thinking, Fast and Slow (1990), by Daniel Kahnemann

Abandoned as a read-aloud on 12/13/2017 after about 50 pages. My husband and I have read a number of books on the general theme of brains and thought and consciousness, and this one didn't promise to offer anything new.

The Man Who Loved Children (1940), by Christina Stead

Abandoned on page 30, 2/12/2018, as noted in post 30, above, for surpassing obnoxiousness. If I wasn't scathing enough in my remarks, I'll be glad to amplify them.

Corrupting Dr. Nice (1998), by John Kessel

Abandoned as a read-aloud on 5/9/2018 at 16% for amateurishness and lack of movement. The author seemed too interested in showing off his research to be selective about what to show versus what to tell. The formula of jarring juxtapositions--e.g., T-shirts and jeans in ancient Rome--grew repetitive very quickly. And I had no interest in the characters.

Gardens of Water (2008), by Alan Drew

Abandoned as a read-aloud on 5/23/2018 after roughly 15% for being utterly flat: the level of detail is consistent across scenes, creating the impression that everything is equally important and therefore that nothing is important. You can't tell figure from ground. You don't know what to fasten onto as significant and what to filter as texture and atmosphere.

We held out through the big earthquake scene, and then we said, if the author can make a massive earthquake seem uneventful and boring, we're not going to stay with him for the long haul. It takes us months to read a book of this length in weekly 90-minute sessions, so it has to warrant that kind of commitment--as well as appealing to our disparate tastes. This one fell, shall I say, flat.

Which is not to say that it mightn't work as a solo read; but I was not interested in the juvenile romance or the Americans supplied by central casting, so I probably won't go back.

Jun 9, 12:28am Top

>62 Meredy: I have several abandoned books in my 2018 reading and might follow your omnibus post approach if I can gather up the energy.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is in there. I have some serious concerns about that book as I have mentioned in another post. I think the author undermined his entire hypothesis with his demonstration of ignorance regarding statitical analysis and hypothesis testing. He also undermined the findings of the entire Psychology profession.

Jun 12, 2:46pm Top

I'm reading The Immortalists concurrently with John McCain's The Restless Wave and Godsong, a new translation of the Bhagavad Gita.

I've observed over my lifetime that something can be found in common between just about any two things or subjects; but the overlap among these doesn't require digging or even squinting one eye. It's boldly conspicuous: they're all about death. Not so much so if taken separately, but together--what a meditation.

As always, I treasure the resonances that such overlaps create. The way one illuminates the other makes each one significantly more than it would be alone.

McCain's memoir also brackets a timeline and some events that are significant to one of the main characters of The Immortalists; and of course we know that the Gita takes place on the battlefield. More resonance.

Jun 12, 3:15pm Top

I know what you mean about Kessel. I knew him when we we're both at NCSU and read several of his books then. As I recall--it's been a long time--I thought this one read like an early draft. I looked back at another of his a couple of years ago, probably Good News from Outer Space, and I thought it had not aged well at all.

Jun 13, 10:49am Top

>62 Meredy: Maybe Csikszentmihalyi best serves as the popularizer of the name for a familiar experience? I never finished his book either, but still use the term.

Jun 13, 12:24pm Top

>66 stellarexplorer: I believe he coined it in that application.

Edited: Jun 16, 12:29pm Top

I gave four stars to The Immortalists and have gone on to Circe, which is what I went to the library for when I was distracted by The Immortalists on the "Your Lucky Day" shelf (new releases, one lending interval, no renewals).

Circe: First impression

In 35 pages, I'm quite taken with it, despite a conspicuous grammatical error on the first page. I pored over Bulfinch's Mythology as a child and loved the stories, the style, and the transcendent quality, so in a way this is familiar territory, though differently viewed, like seeing a city as a resident rather than as a visitor.

This novel has the mythmaking quality of Orson Scott Card's early work and the evocation of an ancient world that Ursula K. LeGuin tried for in Lavinia--and missed--together with the graceful prose of an author who seems to know the cadence of ancient verse, which comes through not just in the KJV but even in modern translations of the Bhagavad Gita and other heroic scripture.

Not that it doesn't aim squarely at the 21st-century reader, but it traverses boundaries without leaving its soul behind in some other realm.

So far.

This is my impression in 35 pages. That people are reading this in best-seller numbers is a cheering thought.

Jun 18, 6:18pm Top

>68 Meredy: I have been wavering over this one, so I am encouraged by your brief incursion into its pages. (BTW, your name came up today when chatting w/ MrsLee and Jim53 over lunch -- the small but lovely Green Dragon meet-up in Philadelphia today. We were all grateful for your recommendations and articulate and useful reviews. Because we had each at some point or another benefited from your guidance!)

Edited: Jun 19, 2:12pm Top

>69 jillmwo: How lovely to think of you all together! I've met MrsLee and know what good company she is. I wish I could have been there too. Thank you for thinking of me.

I'm nearly halfway through Circe now and still enjoying it. It's by no means flawless, but still strikingly well done. I have, in general, little patience with novels and stories that blatantly milk old stories for material, because I like the old stories the way they are, and I want authors to make a coach out of a pumpkin, not a coach out of a coach.

But this one has a freshness and distinctiveness that make it more than palatable, partly with the author's skillful rendering and partly with the original ideas she weaves into it in a way that matches the old cloth, so you might well think they were always there--somewhat as Jim Butcher does with the ideas of magic in the Dresden Files. I particularly like the way she shows us the immortal's point of view as opposed to the mortal's; for instance, why prayers seem to go unanswered and why the gods love their monsters.

Jun 19, 5:26pm Top

>70 Meredy: I think I've taken a bullet on Circe. I'm also interested to hear more about your sense of UKL's failure in Lavinia--I loved it but wasn't entirely satisfied, and you might help me understand why. In your copious spare time, of course ;-)

Jun 23, 2:04am Top

I've finished Circe. It's not a great novel, as greatness goes, but I liked it a lot and gave it four stars. I hope I can manage to say a little more later.

>71 Jim53: I wish I could tell you. I read Lavinia before I was keeping actual reading journals and instead writing my notes on tiny little scraps of paper that I never kept in any order. So now, some years later, all I can give you is a vague recollection that it had something to do with the sense of forcing the story to fit into a box of a certain shape; whereas with Circe, I felt as though the author were opening the box and letting the story out to assume a shape of its own. Here, though, Miller managed skillfully to weave in all the pertinent data points from the mythology, without making it feel contrived.

Maybe my dissatisfaction with Lavinia had something to do with the part about invoking the poet, and/or with Lavinia's having no voice in the tales.

Ultimately I'd say my disappointment was probably that it made promises but didn't really deliver; because that's what it usually comes down to. With a pro like Le Guin, and a long list of wonderfully imaginative, resonating works behind her, I didn't expect the letdown; but it's also true that she chose the constraints of an existing narrative instead of making it all up, and maybe that just wasn't the right approach for her.

Jun 24, 10:06pm Top

>72 Meredy: Thanks for your thoughts. I suspect you're right that this wasn't the sort of approach at which she would excel. I'm looking forward to reading Miller's book.

Jul 4, 5:43pm Top

Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, by Susan Tive & Cami Ostman (Eds.) (2013)

A collection of abbreviated memoirs by women in repressive religions from Jehovah's Witnesses to Orthodox Judaism, from Mormonism to Islam, who experienced an inward struggle against the beliefs and practices they had been taught but nevertheless remained--until something brought them out. Whether by some crisis or by slow erosion that led to essential loss of faith, these women came to a "worldly" perspective on their former lives and share that transformation in their stories.

Not so surprisingly, sex plays a prominent role in both the women's attraction to and their rejection of their lives in those communities.

I see this as a well-intentioned work that explores an important topic--what causes people to lose the conviction of their faith, what makes them cling to their extreme beliefs and practices despite that loss, and how they ultimately escape their spiritual captivity--but that doesn't live up to its promise. It does reveal glimpses and in some cases much more than glimpses of life for women and young girls inside "extreme" religious sects. But it doesn't show much about why they joined or why they submitted and stayed, nor much about how they got out. Several of these stories are clearly (from a compositional perspective) fragments that set up an "and then what?" expectation but don't tell us what happened next.

It's a worthy idea that merits further exploration and discovery, but to me this collection doesn't satisfy.

Jul 9, 9:02pm Top

Disclaimer: I can't review this book without touching on politics. My purpose, however, is not to advance a political position but to share my view of a book I consider important.

Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, by Karen Dawisha (2014)

I read Putin's Kleptocracy between November 20 and December 8 of 2017. After only 66 pages I wrote in my notebook: "If Trump were following Putin's playbook, what would he be doing differently from what he's doing now, on Nov. 25, 2017?"

The hardest thing about it for me, reading it in the last months of 2017, was to avoid seeing a subtext commenting on the current U.S. presidential administration and the bizarre, malignant conduct of our president. However, it was published in 2014, well before the effects of the 2016 election were seen or even imagined. So in spite of myself I had to try to read it in its own terms and not as an ominous parallel to the present horror of American politics.

Turns out it's worse than I thought it was. A lot worse.

Not that I ever thought I knew very much about Russia; but I'm old enough to remember Khrushchev, and the Cuban missile crisis, and Gorbachev and glasnost and perestroika, and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, not to mention Sputnik and Laika and Francis Gary Powers. And I've read a few books, including Colton's political and social history of Russia, Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Probably it's not possible for an ordinary person to know much about Russia, no matter how much we read. I see it as vastly unknowable. Sometimes I've pulled up a map of Russia and its neighbors, including countries that used to be part of the USSR, and gazed and gazed at it, zooming in and out, panning, studying, noting place names and topographical features and proximities, just trying to gain the smallest grasp of the meaning of that space.

And I always come away wondering why anyone would even want to try to govern that unimaginable immensity.

(Sometimes I wonder the same thing about the United States, and it's only about 53% the size of Russia.)

But if there can be people who know a lot about Russia, Karen Dawisha has to be one of them. Her list of academic credits and publications is one set of credentials; her meticulously sourced and annotated present document is another. Backmatter, including bibliography, notes, and index, runs to nearly 100 pages.

Delivered in an appropriately dispassionate tone, without exclamation points, Dawisha's scholarly narrative offers very little in the way of concession to the lay reader. It painstakingly traces Putin's rise from KGB agent in St. Petersburg to multiterm president of Russia, delivering documented facts, analysis, and supportable inference within a historical, social, and especially economic context.

Rather than writing my customary critical commentary, with reasons and examples, I'm going to confine my further remarks to a selection of quotations (in quotes) and brief notes (mine, not in quotes) that point to the kind of dark light this book shed on my understanding of Russia's place in the present world order. Page references that precede the excerpts refer to the paperback edition.

1, "110 billionaires control 35 percent of the country's wealth"

3, "restoring Russian greatness"--the pretext for giving total license to the elites

My note, 7: Entire introduction is stunning and revealing--a summation of what Putin is and what corruption means in Russian government. And it also strikingly suggests--without intent, because Trump was not on the horizon in 2014--exactly how Putin knew how to own and manage Trump (and why Trump favors him).

11, IKEA CEO was told it would cost $5-$10 million to have a meeting with Putin

38, Putin installed in the Kremlin "people who were connected to him personally...they promote their friends and do not forget to punish their enemies."

53, few Russians knew how to run a business--hence problems with capitalism in 1980s-1990s

66, Putin decided to "reveal his KGB past so he couldn't be blackmailed for it"

80, "Putin's story is not just the story of cowboy capitalism. It is the story of how an extremely adept political figure was able to gather around himself a group of varied individuals who were devoted to Russia, to be sure, but also, and indeed even more so, to their personal survival and prosperity. It is the story of law enforcement's continuous efforts to stop the accruing of wealth by this group, and its ultimate failure."

100, Putin is seen as the monarch--the sovereign--and his people "the new nobility"

124, Putin's "ability to deflect criticism, to admit that something happened but that he was on the sidelines, or even himself a victim of others' venal or politically motivated actions"

164, Putin specialized not in developing business but in controlling it. "Putin demonstrated that it was he who would select those who would become and remain wealthy."

165, "loyalty, a trait that Putin values above all"

183, as head of FSB, Putin eliminated the two directorates responsible for "investigation of high-level economic crimes, such as those surrounding the oligarchs and the Family...replaced with six new ones filled with Putin loyalists from Petersburg"

193, bombings of Russian civilians committed as political acts by security services, intended to destabilize the country

196, Putin expects to be destroyed as soon as he steps aside, so he has to win--"you'll put us to the wall and execute us" was the way his PR chief quoted him

202, Putin's priority right out of the gate was authority--and elections required "calm and order"

220, the apartment bombings "were regarded at the time [1999] as absolutely critical in promoting Putin's candidacy." ... "merciless extermination of the adversary," no matter the cost

222, "Putin's objective, and the objective of those who came to power with him and helped bring him to power, was to restore the idea of Russia as a Great Power..." (cf. p. 257)

224, "It is the contrast between Putin's open statements supporting democracy and his covert promotion of an authoritarian blueprint that is the key to his presidency and provides the core reason it is possible to see the shape and direction of his entire rule from this early period."

243, election irregularities and fraud in 2000 Russian election

250, Moscow Times reported "'Putin would not have won outright on March 26 without cheating'"

256, Putin targeted the media from day 1

257, Putin's idea of patriotism is the KGB's: "'the country is as great as the fear it inspires, and the media should be loyal'"--is this what "make Russia great again" is code for? great = feared? (cf. p. 222)

267, his inauguration, with the management of media coverage, staged and controlled--"the founding event of Putin's spectacle-driven presidency"

273, plan to "control the political process" and silence the opposition media by "driving them to financial crisis"...274, "tax police" swarming the media offices with masks and guns

275, Putin's view of dictatorship and authoritarianism: a "strong state" is necessary for the protection of civil, political, and economic freedoms.

293, Putin's "vertical of power": "suppress opposition, control the mass media, diminish federalism, and remove the legislature as a source of independent activity"

306, the cultural and intellectual leaders in 1999-2000 did not accept the "change of regime type" from more to less freedom--but Putin had already taken control, corrupt from the beginning

310, at his inauguration, Putin wanted opponents in Moscow population to understand implicitly: "This is my country and my city, and I can rule without you."

312, Putin's accomplishments in seizing control in his first 100 days "should be registered as a singular achievement in the annals of authoritarian rule."

318, the Kremlin's propaganda message in the anti-American "information war" at the time of annexation of Crimea in 2014: collapse of Soviet Union was imposed by the West, which was blamed for Ukraine invasion

325, billions in Western pension funds are invested in 16 Russian companies

330, "In any Western country, this [corruption] would be called criminal malfeasance. In Russia it is called government."

331, key passage: "Putin alone decides who and what will be profitable. There is no more important rule in today's Russia."

340, Russia's money laundering and scamming relies on partnering with Western banks and institutions.

348, Putin thinks Russia likes totalitarianism

348, the "public lie" is standard for Putin's Russia

349, Putin's hold on total control and his belief that everything is a zero-sum game

349, "In an effort to live his life beyond the control of others, he has forced a whole people to submit."

In April I read Karen Dawisha's obituary in the New York Times. It says she died of lung cancer at the age of 68. I suppose I should believe that.

Putin's inauguration on May 7th for a fourth term took place in the gilded hall where Nicholas II was crowned. If Trump was watching, it could only have been with envy as Putin came through those lofty golden doors and advanced on a red carpet to take the podium.

Today, on the eve of President Trump's meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, I wonder if Trump knows even one-tenth of what little I know about Putin. And how much we're going to pay now for his unconscionable ignorance.

Jul 9, 9:16pm Top

Ok, that's one of the ones that have been slowing me down a little bit.

Jul 9, 9:45pm Top

Shedding a dark light indeed. This sounds both fascinating and terrifying.

Jul 10, 5:24am Top

As a non-USAnian, I have to ask how many BRICS (ex-)leaders regard Putin as a role model. Though I doubt whether the one I'm thinking of has the intelligence to copy the master.

Jul 10, 6:42pm Top

>75 Meredy: It sounds terrifying and fascinating - I shall add it to the list of books to look out for, in my quest to find out more about other places in the world and to try to understand the world and its peoples a little better.

Jul 13, 5:18pm Top

In the "terrifying and fascinating" category, I'll soon have another entry, one of a very different kind; but meanwhile I've just finished Howard Fast's The Jews: Story of a People, which I've been reading off and on (as a take-along and filler on my Kindle) for five months. In its own way that one is terrifying and fascinating too. Like the Putin book, it resonates disturbingly with current events.

Edited: Sep 14, 4:54pm Top

I've put aside everything else for the moment to tackle Woodward's Fear. It arrived yesterday, by Amazon preorder, and by the time I added it to my catalog today, 165 others were ahead of me and there were already three reviews. This book has sold a million copies already.

When I write my comments about the book, I'm going to mention the physical article, the hardcover, as well. Briefly, the material product, not the written document but the book itself, shows clear signs of sloppy, rushed production with poor QC. There's an irony in the money-grab here.

Sep 14, 4:36pm Top

>81 Meredy: I am delighted to see a post from you. I also am delighted to have a reason to post back. Touchstones have been having a bit of fun. Your "Fear" link goes to "Fear" by Anatoli Rybakov, a Russian. I am sure there was no collusion in this touchstone incident.

Sep 14, 5:02pm Top

>82 pgmcc: No collusion, haha. No, that was my mistake: I forgot to check the touchstone before I posted. Thanks for the correction.

I made haste and managed to read John McCain's very informative book before it became an obituary. Unfortunately I'm expecting that I'll have plenty of time to read Woodward's account before anything happens to reverse the tide of events here. (Gross metaphor)-> A lot of things will float in a pool of sludge that would sink in clear water.

Sep 14, 5:22pm Top

>83 Meredy:

You remind me of a incident that occurred when I was a teenager. I was on holiday in Donegal and one the great things to do was to go out fishing with nets over night. The boat owner needed people to handle the boat, help pull in the net, etc... Well, the owner of the boat had three brothers, myself and a friend helping one night. Now, to put this in context, the boat owner and the three brothers were also farmers, in particular dairy farmers.

The three brothers had a nephew staying with them and they brought him along for the trip. Now the nephew was not well liked. He seemed to have character traits that assisted him make enemies instantly.

My friend and I were not too happy with his coming along but we were not going to say a word with his three big, hard-working uncles looking after him.

We were draft-net fishing. We would travel to a likely sandy beach and pull up to shore. We would then anchor one end of our net to the shore and take the boat out gently while paying out the rest of the net, and form an arch of net by chugging in a curve until we had left the next forming a curve from our initial landing point to the next. Then we would start drawing the two ends of the net together and gradually haul the net in with, fortunately, a reasonable number of fish inside.

As we were approaching a beach with the intent of starting a shot of the net, we were jumping out of the boat to help pull it close to the shore. The three brothers' nephew was reluctant to jump out into the water and one of his uncles said, "Jump in!" to which the nephew replied, "but what if it is too deep?"

His uncle, in his big, deep, drawl of a North Donegal accent said very slowly, "Sure you needn't worry about that. They say shite floats."

At that point we realised the nephew was not well liked by his uncles either.

Sep 15, 11:43am Top

>81 Meredy: The initial print run was 750,000 copies as I understand it. And if you didn't pre-order it, buyers at Amazon are currently told that there's a 1-3 week time lag in shipping.

>84 pgmcc: What a wicked (albeit admittedly amusing) story.

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