Review: The Night Ocean, by Paul La Farge

33027388[1]Note: This review is spoilery.  I can’t begin to discuss The Night Ocean without giving away things about the plot.  I don’t think it’s a problem since, if you decide to read it, you probably won’t remember what I said once you wade into the swamp, but if you’re a spoiler-phobe, then you need to go away right now.

I finished this book last night and thought, “Buh?” I didn’t begin to know what to make of it, and it wasn’t anything like I was expecting.  However since that latter response isn’t a fair one by which to judge a book, let’s toss it out and get back to the Buh? part. There is no good way to categorize The Night Ocean. It’s, in large part, a mystery written by a Marina Willet, whose husband has seemingly committed suicide.  She is trying to make sense of the events that led up to him disappearing from the mental hospital he was in and apparently walking into a lake to drown himself.

Charlie, the husband, is a writer who has recently published a book about H. P. Lovecraft, and  the young, gay fan with whom he lived for several months.  I confess I did some googling about this, and found that Robert Barlow did indeed exist, and Lovecraft did live with him and his family for a short time. Barlow became Lovecraft’s literary executor after the older man’s death. Opinion seems divided on whether there was any sort of romantic or sexual relationship between Lovecraft and the young man, but that’s not really important here.  What is important are the layers of contradictory history that are peeled back during the course of the novel.

There exists (possibly really, possibly not) a book entitled The Erotonomicon, purported to be the erotic diary of Lovecraft, detailing not only his affair with Barlow, but his sexual encounters with other young men. When Charlie discovers it, he believes it really is Lovecraft’s diary.  But then, when he tracks down Barlow, who was supposed to have committed suicide years earlier, he learns that Barlow was the author of the book.  Yes, it’s getting sticky now.

But when Charlie publishes his book, it immediately comes under attack and Charlie begins to unravel which is why he ends up in a mental hospital.  Marina, in attempting to find out the truth, discovers that the man Charlie thought was Barlow was… well he’s Barlow, but he’s also someone else.  Got that?  No, I didn’t either, not really.  And the story she hears about this man’s life… is it true?  Is it as much a lie as what he told Charlie, and was all that in fact a lie as well or was there some greater truth?

You have to be patient with this book because it rambles and digresses, and there are way too many people who are not what they seem to be.  And there’s no clear protagonist, so things can get really confusing.  But if you stick it out, you may find yourself enjoying it.  Honestly if I hadn’t I’d have bailed.  Yes, I was often impatient with it, but I kept on reading, and I came out of it thinking that it had been worth my time.  No, I didn’t love it, but I did like it, and if I was feeling a little more generous I’d have bumped it up to four stars.  But it’s not something I’ll read again, and I found it almost too oblique to take much pleasure in it.



Review: Food: A Cultural Culinary History, by Ken Albala

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.”
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

51o1TuD7cGL._SL500_[1].jpgProfessor Albala opens with the above quote from Brillat-Savarin, and goes on to prove the truth of it by exploring man’s relationship to his food throughout the millennia. This course of 36 half hour lectures covering everything from the food of the hunter-gatherers of the stone age, through the Middle Ages and Renaissance when trade brought exotic foods and spices to the table, to the age of expansionism and empire when trade empires were created, often on the backs of native people, and finally into the modern age where he discusses food trends, GMOs, nutrition, and counterculture food movements.

Professor Albala is an engaging speaker, so each lecture seems to fly by, and yet each is filled with information about how the availability of food changed human life over and over, beginning with the change from hunter-gatherer tribes to agrarian societies, a change that didn’t just have an impact on what we ate, but also on how hard we worked to get it, and on people’s roles in society.

He explains the importation of spices and non-native foods to Europe, and how they were costly and therefore exotic and destined only for the nobility.  And he explains how falling prices changed tastes, and changed what people spent their money on (tea and sugar.) He also discusses non-European societies and how their cuisines informed and were informed by trade and colonization.

Moving into the present, he explains the process of industrialization of the food chain, the rise of factory farms, and how counterculture food trends have been co-opted by big business.  He also does a very good chapter on GMOs, what they are, and why they both are and are not problematic.  In the end, Albala is upbeat about the future, discussing what he believes are probable changes for the better.  And it’s hard not to feel hopeful when he explains his ideas about why our food situation will improve.

This is another terrific course from The Great Courses, and one of the most informative and useful ones I’ve had the pleasure of listening to.  On the strength of it, I’m going to look for more from Professor Albala.

Explain Yourself, Whydon’tcha?

White RabbitSo, about three o’clock the other morning — you know, the hour when you get the whim whams, or make huge decisions about your life?  About then I got to thinking about a novel I’d written in Highlander fandom. It’s called “White Rabbit” and it’s about what Methos and Kronos did in the sixties, and how it affected them twenty years later. It’s still one of the things I’m most proud of. It works.  And for a long time (nearly 20 years) I really wanted to rewrite it and publish it as a mainstream novel.

So almost 20 years and I’m no closer to doing anything with it, than making copious and often contradictory notes on the process. Why? Apart from the fact that I’m a horrible foot-dragger about my work, I just never felt comfortable with the idea of taking the story out of its context.  I could do it, but I don’t believe I really wanted to.  So the other morning, when I couldn’t sleep, I made an executive decision. I decided to put it online for anyone who wanted to read it.

I’m not sure what kind of interest there is, but hey, I had fun writing it, and most everyone who read it seemed to enjoy it, so what the heck, right?  It was a labor of love, and it was a reflection of the love I had, not only for the Highlander characters, but for the music that I quoted throughout the story, and for the era itself. I grew up in the 60s, and it was an astounding time.

Anyway, if you want to read it, you can find the PDF here: White Rabbit  If you don’t, no harm, no foul.  A couple of disclaimers are in order here: I was and am a fan of male/male fiction, so that’s what you’re going to get here.  If you don’t like the idea of guys macking on each other (and more) please don’t read it.  Also, no infringement was ever intended; this is all about the contents of my head and heart at the time, and it was never intended to do more than entertain.

So enjoy.  Or not. Whatever.


Review: Goodbye, Vitamin, by Rachel Khong

27746288[1]I spent 15 years caring for my parents, both of whom suffered from dementia, which made reading Goodbye, Vitamin a little uncomfortable for me. It brought back a lot of memories of trying to ride herd on a parent who wants to wander, being accused of all manner of crimes, or on the lighter side, telling the same joke over and over again and getting laughs because nobody ever remembered the punchline.

In the end, as smooth and readable as  the narrative was, I felt as if I was experiencing all of those things from a very great distance, as if Ruth was never fully engaged in the everyday problems of a caregiver.  It’s too clean, too neat to convey the crushing weight of loving someone who is disappearing.

I understand that this book is about Ruth and her relationship with her parents, about how she has avoided dealing with them until she has no choice, and how she comes to know them better through this experience. (Her father at least.  Her mother remains something of a cypher) But I couldn’t help but feel that she is still holding them at arm’s length; that she is with them because her relationships hadn’t panned out.

All the characters seem so passive.

I still enjoyed the book, but weirdly I found very little in it that I could connect to.  It didn’t really speak to my experiences of being a daughter of parents with dementia. And maybe that’s a good thing because I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed a book like that.  At least with Goodbye, Vitamin, I could appreciate the humor she found in her situation even if it wasn’t the same humor I found.

So yes, I liked it. I didn’t love it, and I probably won’t read it again.  But I might read more of Khong’s work in the future.


Review: The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman

34037113[1].jpgFor anyone who, like me, was enchanted by Hoffman’s story of the Owens women in Practical Magic, The Rules of Magic should be a treat. It’s a prequel to the first book and takes place largely in the 60s, following Franny and Jet — the aunties of Practical Magic — and their brother, Vincent, through their formative years. We watch them learn who and what they are, see them fall in love in spite of the family curse, swear off love, and ultimately realize that a life without love is worse than any curse.  We meet their parents, their partners, and by the end, we see how Gillian and Sally fit into the family history.

The Owenses go entirely their own way in life which also brings them a measure of grief, but it’s one of the things that makes them so appealing.  They do spectacularly bone-headed things, but instead of rolling my eyes and slamming the book shut, I accepted that these were the mistakes they had to make.  It’s part of Hoffman’s talent that I never lost patience with any of them.

The themes of sisters and siblings continues in this book, as does the larger theme of family.  The magic is both light and dark, just as life is.  There’s romance and tragedy, but there’s also acceptance and hard-headed determination. I loved it.  I finished the book and wanted to go right back and reread Practical Magic. These are books that will make you happy and break your heart, and don’t all the best novels do that?


February in Review

Interesting month and not one I’d willingly live through again.  Nevertheless I got a nice amount of reading done.  So first the list:

  1. The Gene: An Intimate History  by Siddhartha Mukherjee — The narrative is a wonderful combination of science, history, and personal commentary, generally well-balanced the way good science writing should be.  The subject is one that concerns us all whether we realize it or not.  Full Review
  2. Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman — Once again I began reading in mid-series, and had to step a bit to catch up.  Not a lot, Hartman is too good a writer to make her books too dependent upon what came before. She integrates all the important information in the narrative without ever sounding like she’s saying “Previously in this universe…”  Full Review
  3. When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Chanel, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Their Friends by Mary McAuliffe —  So in the end, and in spite of my initial feeling that When Paris Sizzled was dry and a bit slow, I feel as if it gave me a far better understanding of that moment in history than many other histories have done. If you tackle it, have patience, and you’ll be rewarded.  Full Review
  4. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr — I’ve seen reviews that are impatient with the book, that ask, “Is it just me?” Clearly not because there are a number of them.  And for those who express their lack of enthusiasm with examples, it’s often that they found it slow, or that there was too much that was metaphorical or symbolic.  And yes, I think all that can be said to be true, so be warned.  If what you want is a direct, action-oriented narrative where you don’t have to think too much about what it means, then this book is NOT for you.  But I loved it.  Full Review
  5. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman — As I wrote in my review of Tess of the Road, I was so enthusiastic about this universe, and writer that before I finished the book, I’d bought the first two in the series. I can report that the first of these, Seraphina, did not disappoint.  Full Review 
  6. Shadow Scale (Seraphina, #2) by Rachel Hartman — Upfront I have to say that much as I loved Seraphina and Tess of the Road, Shadow Scale is probably my favorite of the three. I recognize that’s a bit odd since the sophomore entry in a series is often the weakest, but in this case I think Hartman has enlarged upon not only her universe, but her themes as well, and that’s all to the good.  Full Review
  7. Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person
    by Shonda Rhimes — I am convinced Shonda Rhimes and I are twins separated at birth.  No, really.  I may be way older than she is and we’ve got different skin colors, but those are meaningless details compared to the way I heard myself in almost everything she says in this book.  We both describe writers as professional liars, for heaven’s sake!  That has to mean something, right?  Full Review
  8. Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook  by Christina Henry — Of course I tend to like reimaginings of classic tales, so right from the get-go I was inclined to enjoy Lost Boy. It’s a dark retelling, more Lord of the Flies in tone than a children’s story, making Peter Pan into the sociopathic villain of the piece, while his erstwhile best friend, Jamie (later to become Captain Hook) is the hero.  Full Review
  9. The Lost Plot (The Invisible Library #4) by Genevieve Cogman — I’ve been enjoying this series, so when The Housemate told me that it had come from the library, I was thrilled.  Alas, though this installment is good, I found that it lacked the excitement of the first three, though I’m still not quite sure why.  Full Review
  10. The Three Kingdoms of Ancient China: The History and Legacy of the Reunification of China after the Han Dynasty   by Jin Fang — It’s not remotely what I was interested in, which is at least in part my own fault since I should have taken the time to do more research about what it is I wanted to know (more of the information Professor Albala gives in the Food lectures.) But more problematic, it’s a dry recital of names and dates that manage to impart only minimal information to anyone not already familiar with Chinese history. There’s no real context, or at least I could find nothing that felt like a thread to follow. Full Review
  11. The Magicians (The Magicians, #1) by Lev Grossman — It started slow, which is fine, but it did pick up, and I remained interested through the first two thirds of the book.  And then it became harder and harder for me to want to finish it.  In fact, as I was reading last night, I raced through the last 100 or so pages thinking, Will this never end? Full review

I bailed on several books over the course of the month for various reasons, but my reading wasn’t advanced enough to count them in this list. In no particular order they are: Introducing Fractals, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, Altered Carbon, and a John McWhorter book that I plan to tackle another time.


  • Books by women: 7
  • Books by PoC: 3
  • Non-Fiction: 4, (2 history, one autobiographical, and one science)
  • Total: 11


This month’s clear fiction winner was All the Light We Cannot See, which caught me by the heart. Not only is it a wonderful story, but it’s so beautifully written that it often brought tears to my eyes.  In non-fiction, it was Year of Yes.  Shonda Rhimes spoke to me.

I discovered a new author in Rachel Hartman, and will follow her Seraphina/Tess series as long as it remains at the current high level of quality.  I was a tiny bit disappointed in the last Invisible Library book, but not enough to stop reading the series.  I learned a great deal about history and genetics. And I want to read more Christina Henry because I love her dark take on familiar stories.

A pretty good month in spite of external problems. I look forward to March and a stack of birthday books!


Review: The Magicians (The Magicians, #1) by Lev Grossman

6559147[1].jpgThis is a reread for me. I read it first back in 2009, I believe, when it first came out, and I remember liking it, but for some reason never picking up the next book in the series. So flash forward to me thinking that since I’m a fan of the series, I really should go back, reread  the first book, and then finish the trilogy.  Makes sense, right?

I kind of wish I hadn’t. It started slow, which is fine, but it did pick up, and I remained interested through the first two thirds of the book.  And then it became harder and harder for me to want to finish it.  In fact, as I was reading last night, I raced through the last 100 or so pages thinking, Will this never end?

I simply didn’t understand why I was having that response until I started to poke and prod at what I’d read.  It was then that I realized that the largest part of the problem is the characterization. First, there are simply too many important characters. It’s very hard for a writer to juggle more than a few and Grossman gives us about a dozen people to follow, and many of them remain quite flat and uninteresting.  Even the main characters are never as dimensional as the characters in the TV series. Only Quentin comes close to being a fully realized character, and I found that he reminded me of Holden Caulfield, the embodiment of whiny adolescent angst, but with magic.

Oh I know there are the book purists out there who insist that the book is always superior to a filmed version and will hear no argument to the contrary, but I’m here to tell you that isn’t true.  Each medium is its own thing and it’s perfectly possible for a great book to be turned into dreck in the wrong hands, or a mediocre book to be made great in the right ones. But in the end, you can’t judge them against one another, you can only make comparisons.  And in this case, in the comparison I made between the levels of interest I had in the characters, the TV series won handily.  It made me sad because I know I’d enjoyed the book the first time around, but this time I found I was rolling my eyes and muttering “Get on with it!”

There are other problems, but I’m not going to belabor the point that the book didn’t hold up for me, that the series had taken the story into truly magical spaces that the book never touched. I’ll just say that it was a disappointment and leave it at that.  But I won’t be bothering with the other books in the trilogy.


Bitch-slapping folk songs

I got an earworm this morning: Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag, by Country Joe and The Fish.  For those of you who don’t remember the 60s, yes, there really was a group with that name, and the song was a whacked-out anti-war ditty.  And I could only remember the chorus.  Here’s a video of it, just in case you don’t believe me.  You’re welcome.

I have no idea why this song suddenly attached itself to my brain, but after about two minutes of singing the chorus over and over again, and yelling “SHUT UP SHUT UP!” I trotted out my trick to dislodge earworms.  I sing a song to which I know all the words.  By the time I finish, the earworm is generally gone.  Normally I sing Pentangle‘s Lord Franklin, but this time, for whatever reason, I opted for their version of John Reilly, an English folk version of the disguised lover trope. (Wikipedia says it’s 17th century, though I’d have guessed later.  Eh, doesn’t matter.)

I couldn’t find the Pentangle version video, so here’s Joan Baez singing it.

I don’t know why I chose it.  The song annoys me.  It’s about a woman minding her own damn business in her garden when some guy shows up and says, “Hey, why don’t we get married?”

Instead of telling him to sod off, she answers politely, maybe figuring he’s a dangerous nut.  She says she can’t because she has a love who is a sailor.  He’s been gone for seven years, but she’s keeping the faith.  I’d like to think it’s just an early version of wearing a fake wedding ring so guys won’t hit on you, but I doubt that was the intention.

However, rather than being put off, the guy says, “Well heck, he could have been killed in battle or drowned.” Both are not only possible but likely given the time frame. But then he says, “Or he could have found another woman and married her.  What about that?”

So she tells him that if he’s dead, he’s dead, but she’s still waiting.  Then she says that if he’s married some other woman, she wishes them both well.

This guy might be someone who doesn’t easily take no for an answer but that’s just too fucking self-effacing for words.  But then suddenly he grabs and kisses her and says, “Don’t worry, I’m your lost love, John Reilly!” Oh hell no!  She should have smacked crap out of him and told him to get lost.  Seven years of her life wasted waiting for this jackass?  I don’t think so.

Actually, what I really want is a version where she says, “Oh John, for fuck’s sake cut it out.  I know it’s you.  You don’t look all that different.” (Except maybe for the eye patch, the peg leg and the parrot on his shoulder.) “Where do you get off testing me? You’re the one who’s been off gallivanting not me.”

That probably wouldn’t have become a popular song, though, right?  Didn’t think so.  But lordy I’m tired of the songs where men are the ones off having adventures, while the good little women stay home, chaste and honest, in spite of never getting as much as a postcard from St. Kitts: Having a great time fighting the French. Love, John.

One of the other songs I tend to sing to get rid of earworms is Cruel Sister in which a guy comes courting the elder sister, but loves the younger one, so the older girl kills her little sister to have him to herself.  Thinking about all this pissed me off as much as having that earworm. We need some folk songs about female pirates, girls who dress up as boys to fight in the army, and rakish women who gamble, drink, and ruin tender young men. We need a Joanna Reilly where she comes home from a seven year jaunt to test her man.

Until then I’m going to start singing Christmas songs in Latin to get rid of my earworms, I swear.


Review: The Three Kingdoms of Ancient China: The History and Legacy of the Reunification of China after the Han Dynasty, by Jin Fang

28924924[1]I’m currently listening to Food: A Culinary History from The Great Courses, and when we got to the segment on ancient China I was blindsided by how interesting it proved to be.  Not that the rest of the course hasn’t been interesting, but because Chinese history has never been a particular interest of mine.  But today I came away from that lecture with a desire to read more about the Han dynasty.

Unfortunately as my funds are limited, I had to forego some of the pricier volumes.  I found The Three Kingdoms of Ancient China for a reasonable price on Audible and thought it might prove to be a good jumping off point.

Yeah, no. Not so much. It’s not remotely what I was interested in, which is at least in part my own fault since I should have taken the time to do more research about what it is I wanted to know (more of the information Professor Albala gives in the Food lectures.) But more problematic, it’s a dry recital of names and dates that manage to impart only minimal information to anyone not already familiar with Chinese history. There’s no real context, or at least I could find nothing that felt like a thread to follow.

That isn’t to say that I didn’t take away anything from the essay.  I did get a vague feel for the kind of intrigues which brought down the Han dynasty. But a lack of familiarity with Chinese names is an enormous handicap here because there are no personalities to the players. It’s more (Name 1) overthrew (Name 2) at (Place name) about (Date) which gave rise to (Name 1) claiming the throne.

I was looking for a social history and got a timeline. So kudos to Jin Fang for a clear and concise timeline, but I don’t think I’ll be getting any more of his work. Instead I’m going to spend some time figuring out exactly what it is I want to know, and then figuring out where I can find it.


Review: The Lost Plot (The Invisible Library #4) by Genevieve Cogman

34889952[1]I’ve been enjoying this series, so when The Housemate told me that it had come from the library, I was thrilled.  Alas, though this installment is good, I found that it lacked the excitement of the first three, though I’m still not quite sure why.

The story involves a rare book, of course, and several factions who want to find it. When the neutrality of The Library seems about to be compromised, Irene and Kai are sent to investigate and, if possible, fix the problem. What they find are warring dragons, possible fae intervention, a gangster who involves himself in the mess, and a librarian who is being extorted.

The characters seem tired to me, as if their hearts really aren’t in the job, or possibly as if the author didn’t entirely have her heart in her story. And while I applaud the inclusion of a non-white character, it felt as if there was no real meaning to the inclusion. The character is ineffectual, and seems to exist just so that occasionally someone will trot out a prejudice so the reader will think, oh that’s awful! And as I considered this, I realized that in spite of the Chinese names of the dragons, I never felt that I was reading Asian characters.

The other thing that bothered me was that the concept of the Language began to show cracks.  I had liked the conceit at the start of the series, but by this fourth volume I began to wonder why it was used in some circumstances but not in others, for example, when Kai and Everiste are searching for the rare book, why does Everiste, a full librarian who can use the Language, not use it to tell the book to show itself?  If they think that it’s in the same room they are, it would save a lot of time and searching, wouldn’t it?

I doubt I’d be picking things apart quite this much if I hadn’t felt that this was the weakest entry in the series.  The ending, though it was reasonably satisfying, felt a little glossed over to me as well, and so overall I am not sure how I feel about the idea of more books in the series. I will certainly pick up the next one, if there is one, but perhaps not with the same feeling of excitement.  And that’s a shame.