Review: The Great Courses: A Day’s Read, by Arnold Weinstein, Emily Allen, Grant L. Voth

51JgdG8wgIL._SL500_[1]Short fiction is not something I’ve ever given a lot of thought to.  I read a good bit more of it last year than I have in a good long time, and have come to appreciate the short story and novella forms. It was with that in mind that I tackled A Day’s Read, from The Great Courses, wanting to know more about both the forms and works that are good, even great representatives of them.  In a series of 36 lectures, Professors Weinstein, Allen, and Voth explore 36+ works of literature which can all be read in the course of a day, some in only a few hours.

It’s a wide-ranging collection of stories that spans several centuries and a number of different countries.  Well-known authors such as Kafka, Hemingway, Balzac, and Joyce are represented along with authors who are lesser known but no less deft in creating small gems.  In the course of the 18+ hours, I compiled a huge list of things that I very much want to read, and authors I want to get to know, such as Borges, Calvino, Lagerkvist, Satrapi, Hersey… most of the authors represented here, in fact.

The lecturers break the works down by theme, which is an excellent way of approaching such a broad selection, but in the end, it’s the stories themselves, the allure of the whole, that tempts me. But you can’t organize everyone’s subjective responses to this information, and so theme — Who are we?  How do we love? — is a good starting point.

I’m a great believer in understanding what we read.  I don’t just mean comprehending the words on the page, but understanding their context in the world, and in our own lives. Approaching literature in easy bites, learning what ideas and concerns drove the writers represented here, makes it easier to approach their longer works with a greater level of comprehension. This course can go a long way to easing the reader into a greater understanding of not only the works presented but literature in general.

 

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(A very personal) Review: The Dead, by James Joyce

January has proved to be — forgive the word play — something of a dead month in terms of reading.  After having come down with the flu… or something… right after Thanksgiving, I pushed through December on holiday energy, and then flattened out completely.  I finished three books that I’d been reading in December, and then stopped reading, except for audiobooks which haven’t really held my attention.  (The exception — A Day’s Read — will probably be the next thing I review.)

19179741[1]Because of this slump, I went back to an old favorite a day or two ago.  I started rereading The Dead, which is the last story in James Joyce’s Dubliners, and a novella in itself. I chose it because it was one of the titles I encountered in the audiobook I’m currently reading, and the discussion of it reminded me not only of how much I love the story, but of how much meaning can be taken from even a short read.  Over the years I’ve found so many different things to ponder in this story, and I thought that refreshing my acquaintance with it would be a good start to the year.

This time I found myself focused more on Gabriel than anyone else, focused on his nervous self-consciousness which reminds me so much of my own. I watched him fret over his speech, still stinging from a criticism which may or may not have been mean-spirited, it’s hard to tell when we can only see it from his point of view. I found myself impatient with him because he mirrored the things in myself that make me impatient. And yet this time, I saw what a huge thing it was for him to turn away from the possibility of irrational anger and toward a deeper, greater understanding, not just of his wife and their marriage, but of life and love in general.

Gabriel is changed by his willingness to go beyond his own insecurities to understand and feel empathy for his wife’s sorrow.  We can redeem ourselves, I think Joyce is telling us, if we step outside of our own heads and attempt to understand the lives of those around us.

I made the right choice of reading material.  The story refreshed me, helped me shake off the mental fatigue I’d been feeling. I’m not sure what I’ll read next, but I know that I’m ready now to move on. More than that, I want to recommend this story to everyone as one that touches concerns that we all share because we’re all human beings.

And if you simply can’t bring yourself to dive into Joyce’s prose (which is beautiful, and not Ulysses) seek out John Huston’s last film The Dead, for a heartbreakingly beautiful cinematic version of this story.  Below, the final scene, with the late, lamented Donal McCann as Gabriel.

Found objects: A poem

(I’ve been going through old files and found this poem I wrote for a friend.  I still like it.)

Winter Harvest
For Olympia

December. A pomegranate on my desk
to remember a girl taken from her mother
by a man who desired a wife. Persephone
might have returned to her old life,
none the wiser in the ways of man and woman,
but she gave in to her needs, ate the fruit of wisdom,
swallowed its seeds.

Her grieving mother, remembering, perhaps
her own lost girlhood could not face the loss of her fairest flower.
And so the earth lies down to sleep
from the hour when Persephone flees her mother’s love,
and leaves the earth above to join the man who made her wise.
She does not miss blue skies or rain,
Or summer’s softness on her skin,
when his heat warms her once again.

The Seeds

 

 

A trip to the library, has made a new girl of me…*

*from: She Loves Me

So this morning I was going through all the book deal emails in my inbox, and saw that Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was on sale for $3.99 today.  I’d been wanting to read it, but as I’m on a self-imposed book-buying sabbatical, I thought… hmmm, first I should check with the library.  If they have it, which they should, I’ll put it on my wishlist and pick it up when I’m ready to read.

They did indeed have it, and I did list it, but what made me smile was that in spite of this being a relatively old book — nearly 40 years old — and in spite of there being a lot of copies available through my library, there were substantial wait lists for all the copies.

This made me happy for a couple of reasons.  First, in spite of whatever problems this book may or may not have (I won’t know until I read it.) there are still plenty of people engaged enough to be reading an older, highly political, and apparently populist history.  That alone is heartening.

But the other thing that made me happy was realizing how many people use the library. This is A Good Thing, and I need to do more of it.  In terms of enlightened self-interest, it saves me money.  And it makes use of a valuable resource, one which we desperately need.  A library is not an elitist organization, it’s a populist one.  It’s open to all of us no matter what our economic status is, or the color of our skin, or the gods we do or do not worship.  We are given the opportunity to read books of all kinds for free just by presenting our library card, or in the case of the ebooks and audiobooks I use, just by registering with their app.

No, I can’t always get exactly what I want when I want it, but I’m not a baby.  Or at least I’m trying not to be by refusing to give in to the urge to instant gratification all the time.  No, I can’t keep the books, but the older I get the fewer appeal to me enough to want to reread them even once.  I’m also aware that at my age, I only have a limited amount of time left to read, and I would much sooner leave this world learning new things, experiencing new stories and engaging with new ideas.

Your mileage may vary, and that’s fine.  All of my friends who are readers have different takes on how and what they read.  But no matter what your reading style, please consider supporting your local library.  The more use they get the more useful they become.  Think of the kids — I was one — who spend hours not just in a local library, but in school libraries.  They need these places to be there for them.  Help future generations of bookworms have a place to go.  Think of it as a political statement.

The future will thank you.

Review: Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn

10917689[1].jpgI spent just under a week with Geek Love — I should have burned through it in a couple of days, but I found it rough going — and I’m not sure I’m going to make any sense when I talk about it.  But I’m committed to the review so here goes:

I really hated this book.  More than that, I hated that I enjoyed it. I felt wrong enjoying it, as if I was at a carnival gaping at the freak show, feeling a frisson of delicious horror while thanking the powers that be that I’m a norm.  And yet… and yet, the community of people who accept you for who and what you are and vice versa, that’s a rare and wonderful thing, and in a way I felt envious of the Binewskis and the rest of the people in their show. If it hadn’t been for the malignant Arty, they might have rattled on fairly happily for years.

Oh who am I kidding?  These are human beings in a fishbowl.  They make their living being gaped at because they’re “different,” and their hermetic existence magnifies not the physical differences, but the mental and emotional ones.  It’s like an object lesson in why it’s so bad to crawl into your own head, and have no one who can or will pull you back out.  The Binewskis are us in our desire to be loved, to be needed, to be unique.  The path they choose is not all that far off of the ones so many of us choose in our desperation to be special in the world.

There’s nothing especially awful about these characters, except perhaps for Arty and even he is a slave to his own needs.  There’s also nothing especially nice about them.  They’re just people who happen to be different from most of the rest of us.  But Dunn pushes us to the edges of the acceptable, the bearable, with her characters and and how they pursue what they see as valuable, so we’re always off kilter in our responses.  If there were no knives and drugs, no flippers or hunchbacks, or conjoined twins, their stories would be sordid tales of a dysfunctional family.

So in spite of the setting, the carnival, the freak show, the geeks and simps, and the grotesquerie, Geek Love is at bottom, a family tragedy, and I don’t feel a bit sorry for any of them even though they break my heart.  This is not a book I will ever return to which is a shame because it is beautifully — if sometimes confusingly — written.

Review: Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally), by John McWhorter

28696604[1]I literally, like, worship John McWhorter.

“No,” you say, “You don’t “literally” worship him. And quit using “like.””  “Thank you,” sez I, “that’s exactly the response I was looking for. ”

Language is a living thing, and like all living things, it grows and changes. As much as the use of “literally” to mean something that is figurative may make you tear out your hair, there are two things you should remember.  First, that this is what language does, even to the point of some words coming to mean their exact opposite, frex, fast means something that is rapid.  It also means something that is held immobile.  Second, many of the words we use regularly, and think of as proper usage have already changed dramatically.  Why don’t we care?  Because that happened long before we learned to speak.  It’s the newness that drives people crazy.  They believe language must be frozen in dictionary form for eternity.  But it doesn’t work that way.

McWhorter is a brilliant scholar and lecturer, who can counter every argument you can come up with against some new usage in about half a dozen different ways without breaking a sweat.  He explains how meanings change, how spelling and pronunciation change, and how grammar changes. He also explains why they do, how vowels shift from generation to generation, changing the pronunciation of a word over time.  He discusses how word meanings change, citing examples such as our word “silly” which comes from the Old English “sǣliġ” which meant blessed, which later came to mean “innocent” and from there took on a negative connotation of weak-minded or silly.

Drawing examples from Chaucer, Shakespeare, Herman Melville, and even more contemporary sources such as Saul Bellow and F. Scott Fitzgerald, he cites examples of the huge changes English has gone through, continues to go through, will continue to go through, will we or nil we.  As such, this book is an excellent primer on how not to be too pole-up-the-ass about casual usage.  Yes, it’s important for people to know how to communicate clearly in formal settings, but as he quite rightly points out, no language has ever devolved into meaningless babble in spite of the constant changes that it undergoes, and no language ever will.

Whether you’re a language purist or someone who loves watching language evolve, I think you’ll find yourself fascinated by this book.

Review: Black Moses, by Alain Mabanckou

35419150[1].jpgSo I’m starting 2018 with a book I didn’t care for.  That doesn’t bode well, does it?  It’s an ARC I’ve been working on for months, and couldn’t seem to force myself through, so I finally decided that I’d had enough, and called it finished at about the 50% mark.

The original title of this book is “Little Pepper,” referring to the nickname given to Moses after he gets revenge for his best friend with a dose of very hot pepper.  He is a little pepper; sharp, hot, taking no shit.  Don’t really know why the title was changed, and I don’t think it did the book any favors since “Black Moses” sets up very different expectations.

It begins in an orphanage in Pointe-Noir in the Congo on the eve of the country’s rebranding as The People’s Republic of the Congo, and it follows Moses’ adventures in this new world.  I wish I could say it intrigued me, it didn’t.  I wish I could say it held my interest, but I’d be lying because I had to read virtually every page at least twice.  Maybe this is a failing on my part, but I never connected with the narrative.

When a book makes me mutter “I really don’t care.” or “I have no idea what I just read.” over a period of months (This book should have taken me a couple of hours to read.) I know there’s no point in pushing myself.  Your mileage may vary.

2017 Reading Wrap-Up

Year-end recaps are big deals, so I thought I’d give it a shot as a way to close out a good reading year.  These are the books I’ve read in 2017, and some thoughts about each.  It’s been an up-and-down year in terms of quality and my level of interest, and when a book lost me early on, or when I stopped reading but plan to go back, I haven’t bothered listing them.  (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and Native Son both fit into this category.)  If I made an effort and read any substantial percentage of the book before I declared, “I can’t even,” and I know I will never pick that book up again, it’s on the list because it is the very definition of “finished” for me.  That alone deserves mention, I think.

There is not a particular order to this list, at least not in the first sixty or so entries.  When I was getting used to Goodreads, I had to enter a lot of books into my list well after the fact.  Beyond that, they’re more or less in reading order.

  1. 51IAJUfWxYL._SY346_[1]Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, #1) by Robin Sloan — This was not the first book about books that I read this year.  I think that honor goes to #4, which makes it a miracle I persisted.  But it was the first one which captured my imagination so completely.  How can you not love a book about a quirky bookstore and a secret society?
  2.  The Dispatcher by John Scalzi — A wonderful audiobook read by Zach Quinto.  It was chilling, compelling.  I believe I will reread this at some point.  Also?  My first Scalzi.  What took me so long??
  3. 22793545[1]A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar — Oh my, where do I begin with Lavie Tidhar and this book?  First, he was recommended by Neil Gaiman and  that is certainly a recommendation to take seriously.  It’s a wildly transgressive book about Hitler as a private-eye, it’s got some really creepy sex scenes, and the conclusion pretty much blew my mind.  It left me laughing in that horrified way where you’re sure you shouldn’t laugh but you just read something so audacious that you can’t help it.  I love this guy.  I’d read anything he wrote.
  4. The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison by Mikita Brottman — I had high hopes for this book.  I loved the documentary “Shakespeare Behind Bars,” because it not only showed us how the prisoners changed via  their involvement with performing Shakespeare, but we learned about their lives prior to their incarceration, about what brought them to prison, and how they felt about it.  By comparison, Brottman’s book is mostly about her.  She makes horrible choices for her reading group, talks endlessly about how she feels about the books, and about her perceptions of the prisoners’ behavior, and is hilariously surprised when they’re not interested in continuing their book club once they’ve been released.  I could have told her they wouldn’t be; she gave them nothing but a break from the boredom.  I found this to be an intellectually and even emotionally dishonest book.
  5. Ajax Penumbra 1969 (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, #0.5) by Robin Sloan — A prequel to #1, and very lovely.
  6. The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo  — I was not familiar with Kate DiCamillo’s work before this, but I really loved it.  It’s magical, humane, down-to-earth, hilarious, sad… it really does pack in the feels.  On the strength of this audiobook, read by Juliet Stevenson, I would read anything by DiCamillo.
  7. Mistress of the Art of Death (Mistress of the Art of Death, #1) by Ariana Franklin — I have one of my oldest and dearest friends to thank for this introduction to Ariana Franklin’s work, and to this series in particular.  Barbara told me about it months before she gave it to me as a gift.  I loved it.  I loved the characters, the writing, everything about it.  I want more.
  8. Spartan Gold (Fargo Adventure, #1) by Clive Cussler  — I had always meant to read some Clive Cussler because one of my dearest friends (now deceased) was the inspiration for Dirk Pitt (Or one of them anyway, I forget exactly how he phrased it.  He and Cussler were buds back in the day.)  But for some reason which I do not now recall, I ended up reading a book in a different series.  It was fun, but once I finished I forgot everything about it.  Potato chip book.
  9. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett — This is one of those why-haven’t-I-read-this-before? books.  No clue.  I did enjoy the heck out of it, and am curious to read more Hammett, but I didn’t rush right out and get more, so it’s anyone’s guess when I will.
  10. Paper and Fire (The Great Library, #2) by Rachel Caine — The second book in the Great Library series, and like most middle books in a trilogy, it is a bit of a let-down from the first, while it sets up both plot and characters for the big finish.  Book #3 is due out in mid-July (when I’m writing some of these descriptions) and Glinda will be adding it to our shared library.  My commentary on it will doubtless appear further down on the list.
  11. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles — After reading A Gentleman in Moscow, I was anxious to read more Towles.  Any Towles.  Alas, it was a let-down.  The writing was spot on, but the plot and characters did nothing for me.  And there didn’t seem to be the same sense of playfulness I found in AGiM, which is a shame because that was one of those most beguiling qualities of AGiM.  This won’t stop me from reading anything else he writes.  I want to read it all.  But now I know that I may or may not love it with every fiber of my being.  Eh, you can’t win ’em all, right?
  12. So, Anyway… by John Cleese — Since I’m writing this description after having written my review of Eddie Izzard’s book, I feel I have to point out that I loved it.  It was everything I’d hoped for and more, which makes my disappointment with the Izzard somewhat more curious.  I realize this comment is supposed to be about Cleese and has become about Izzard and me.  That won’t do.  I’m stopping this review-ette right now as it’s become too silly.
  13. Central Station by Lavie Tidhar — Diaspora, aliens, mind-plagues, data vampires, sad cyborg soldiers… It’s all here in a dense and deeply moving narrative.
  14. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson — There’s a Zelig-like quality to this story of a centenarian who escapes his nursing home and goes on an adventure that includes an elephant and a whole lot of vodka and history.  I loved it.
  15. 30323585[1].jpgThe View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman — Neil is one of my favorite authors, and listening to him talk is a significant pleasure for me.  In this audiobook, he covers a whole lot of ground, not just about books and writers (I took notes, I trust his judgment.) but many other things.  Wonderful book.  Wonderful audiobook.
  16. Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor — This was a weird one.  I started out loving it.  By the end I just hated it. I took all the Jodi Taylor books off my wishlist and removed this one from my library.  Why?  I honestly don’t recall now, that’s how much of it I’ve blocked from memory.
  17. Night by Elie Wiesel — I was afraid to listen to this at first.  I was sure it would tear me apart, but I was wrong.  The matter-of-fact, emotionless narrative didn’t allow for the release of tears or the expression of rage, shame, and grief.  There was no release. Only later, when I listened to Wiesel’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, did the full meaning of what I had heard come crashing down on me.  Then the tears began.  This is something I wish I had never had to know about.  It should never have happened; we need to learn from the fact that it did. What I have since learned is that there are people who say the entire narrative is a lie.  In my opinion, this is tantamount to Holocaust denial, and Holocaust deniers are right up there with people who torture animals and abuse children.
  18. Ink and Bone (The Great Library, #1) by Rachel Caine — I was riveted by this story of a society where the ownership of books is illegal.  You can read, but only the things you can download to what they call a blank, and those titles are determined by The Library.  Nothing deemed dangerous in any way will make it to those blanks.  As a result collectors pay enormous prices for physical books.  Some people eat the books they buy, literally.  And some people want to burn all books.  This is the first of a trilogy, and it’s also the first time in a long while that I’ve wanted to bother to read all the books in a series.  It’s just that good.
  19. 51g6aenHgpL._SY346_[1]A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles  — I love this book with the fury of ten thousand suns.  I’ve given it as a gift.  I proselytize about it every chance I get.  I can’t effectively express how deeply and wonderfully it touched my heart and mind.  I love the characters, I love the plot, I love the writing.  There is nothing at all about it that isn’t perfect.  Probably you think I’m unreliable in my effusive recommendation, but that isn’t so.  I’m 100% right about this book.  I own the audiobook, the e-book, and the hardcover.
  20. The Museum of Literary Souls by John Connolly — This was an odd sort of fantasy, and I’m still not quite sure what I thought of it.  I enjoyed it, but forgot most of it after I finished, so I guess that’s what I thought of it.
  21. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead — I consider it nothing short of a 31333015[1]miracle that I read this before it won the Pulitzer Prize. My reading is not usually that timely.  I can’t even tell you why I picked it up to begin with except that everyone was raving about it, and I was trying to add some diversity to my reading.  It did not disappoint.  In fact it remains among the high points of my reading year.  Beautiful, complex, fantastical.  Just a wonderful book.
  22. 61xs3FRwoGL._SY346_[1]Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders  — I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like this book.  I actually started out with the audiobook which is a full cast recording, with wonderful actors voicing the parts.  Another high point in my year, and a book I’ve since bought in hardcover, which is something I do when I love a book so much I want it in every possible format so I will never be without it.
  23. At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories by Kij Johnson — After reading The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe last year, I wanted more Kij Johnson so I picked up this book of short stories. They’re wonderful, particularly if you love stories about animals.
  24. Binti (Binti, #1)  and
  25. Home (Binti, #2) by Nnedi Okorafor — I’m enjoying this series tremendously, watching a brilliant young woman who has left her tribal homeland to travel to other planets.  Her encounters with alien life forms is not what we’ve come to expect from science fiction, it’s deeply thoughtful and complicated as such things must inevitably be.  I’m so looking forward to #3 which won’t be available until early 2018.
  26. A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson — A star-crossed love story, technology, gods walking the earth; what’s not to love?
  27. Bach and the High Baroque (32 Lectures) (Video Course) by Robert Greenberg — Since Bach is my favorite composer, I had to listen to this.  And Greenberg does a fine job of illuminating the man, his music, and the times in which he worked.
  28. 15819028[1]The Golem and the Jinni (The Golem and the Jinni, #1) by Helene Wecker — Oh lord this one just broke my heart.  There’s so much here that I can’t really unpack it all in a short recap.  But I really recommend it.  It’s one of the better books I’ve read this year.
  29. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins — I didn’t expect to enjoy this book when I started because I didn’t much care for the protagonist.  But I grew to like her, and more important, to understand who she was and why she had become that person.  I’m fully prepared to read more Paula Hawkins on the strength of this one.
  30. The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler — An odd mystery involving an old book, and a family secret.  Fun, but nothing deep.  Another book about books.
  31. A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky — Nothing happens.  Characters wander around, discussing stuff, but nothing actually happens.  WTF?  I finished it, but I have no idea why.
  32. The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan by Steve Wiley — I wanted to like this, but didn’t.  I think Steve Wiley and I live in different Chicagos.  I like mine better.
  33. Kabul Beauty School: An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil by Deborah Rodriguez — You might find yourself tempted to pooh-pooh the value of Rodriguez’ attempts to start a beauty school  in Kabul Afghanistan, but that would be a mistake.  What she gives to her students is a way to move beyond the repressive society in which they’re forced to live.  She helps them become breadwinners, and to create a community in which they can express themselves freely.
  34. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle — LaValle’s foray into the Cthulhu mythos is set in 1920s Harlem, and is creepy as hell.  When I watched the Anansi segments of American Gods, I was reminded of Tom.
  35. An Almond for a Parrot by Wray Delaney — A kind of Moll Flanders knock-off, but on the whole I think it’s one of the better and more engaging historical romances I’ve read in the last few years, with memorable characters. If the plot has bumps along the way, they’re not so large or troubling that they take away from the enjoyment of the book.
  36. A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell — Mary Doria Russell always breaks my damn heart, and Thread of Grace is no exception.  I read her books because I can’t not, because they’re beautiful and smart and they make me think about what it is to be human.
  37. The Gentleman by Forrest Leo — Not really as giddily entertaining as I was led to believe  from the breathless praise heaped on it, but it was fun.  Pretty lightweight, but decent mind candy.
  38. The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein — I forced myself to finish it, and now all I remember is that I had to force myself to finish it.
  39. 29939353[1].jpgLillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney — Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is one of those wonderful, memorable, upsetting stories that remind me that art should ruffle your feathers, not just make you feel happy and comfortable and loved. If you like wit, and grace, and a healthy tot of cynical humor, Lillian is the woman for you.
  40. The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George — M. Perdu, who considers himself a literary apothecary helps to heal hearts and souls with his books.  But he is unable to heal his own heartbreak.  It’s a beautiful novel about adults, and I loved it, which made George’s second book a much bigger disappointment.  If you want to read one, please read this one.
  41. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell — Mitchell’s first book and astonishingly complex for a debut novel.  I didn’t find it as compelling as Cloud Atlas, but it’s damn good.
  42. Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson — This was one I bailed on.  It was just too rah-rah, isn’t all this so wonderful? There’s only so much fanboying I can deal with.
  43. Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda Hirshman — Fascinating account of the first two women to sit on the Supreme Court.  Ginsburg is more interesting to me, but the cases they heard were so important to the country that it hardly matters if the details of their private lives, thoughts, and beliefs are particularly exciting.
  44. Of Books, and Earth, and Courtship: a Dominion of the Fallen Story (Dominion of the Fallen, #0.6) by Aliette de Bodard — This is one of those stories which I think I enjoyed.  I finished it so I must’ve liked it well enough to invest the time.  But I remember absolutely nothing about it.
  45. Lucretia and the Kroons by Victor LaValle — Scary, scary story about a youngster who braves true horrors for the sake of friendship.  I’ll say again: I love Victor LaValle’s work.
  46. Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco  — Immensely interesting look into what it’s like to work for the President of the United States.  Controlled chaos seems to be the rule, and Obama comes across as being exactly the sort of smart, amiable guy he always seemed to be, and the calm heart of the storm.
  47. Nights in Berlin (Francis Bacon #4) by Janice Law — I still can’t figure out why Law chose the artist Francis Bacon to be her hero in a series of mysteries.  I think it detracts from the story, but eh, who am I to judge?  Not a bad story.  Workmanlike.
  48. Goblin by Ever Dundas — One of those stories that leave you wondering if the protagonist is insane or is really dealing with the kind of crazy you’re reading about.
  49. A Natural History of Hell: Stories by Jeffrey Ford — Another collection of short stories that made me a fan of the author.  Jeffrey Ford writes unsettling things, and I love them.
  50. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin — I think I must be the only person who recognized this as a loose retelling of Silas Marner.  It’s lovely, filled with books and quirky small town personalities.  Definitely one of the better books-about-books I’ve read this year.
  51. Music as a Mirror of History by Robert Greenberg — I’ll listen to Robert Greenberg talk about music all day if I’m given the opportunity.  In this one, he contextualizes musical trends by linking them to the events of the eras in which they arose.  His knowledge of history is only a little less comprehensive than his knowledge of music.  You will always learn something from Dr. Greenberg.
  52. Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Pääbo  — Often highly personal, this account of the years of effort to sequence Neanderthal DNA is fascinating.  I had no idea how difficult a task it was.  There’s a bit of information toward the end about discovering the Denisovan genome which blew me away.  Wonderful book.
  53. The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein — This is a fast read. There’s nothing heavy here, not even philosophical questions which might have been heavier in different hands. But narrated by a less-than-serious hero, the story never indulges in too much moralizing about the inherent dangers of unfettered technological development.
  54. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald — Another book-about-books, an outsider in a small town becomes part of the community through books.  I could have done without the romance aspect, but it wasn’t intrusive.
  55. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly — If you’ve seen the film, you’ve only gotten the highlights of this remarkable story of how a group of women of color helped this country into space.
  56. Mad Country by Samrat Upadhyay — These are stories which require a good deal of thought. They don’t easily give up their meaning, and even seem to lead nowhere in some cases. But when taken as a whole, as pieces of a larger narrative, they describe our desire to escape life’s difficulties, and the way in which our own personalities will always color those escapes.
  57. The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich — When I got tired of muttering, “That makes no sense!” or just “Oh for godssake!” I quit reading it.  It’s a convoluted way of getting the two guys into bed together, nothing more.  If he’d written it more honestly, I might have stuck with it.
  58. The Little French Bistro by Nina George — A disappointment after George’s first novel, but that it’s populated by adults, not teenagers or even twenty- and  thirty-somethings is really refreshing.
  59. 41suCrT7TCL._SY346_[1]The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson  — Yes, okay, liking this book.. hell, reading it at all, probably does make me Queen Nerd.  But don’t you ever wonder about stuff like seeds?  About how they evolved?  About their whys and wherefores?  No?  What’s wrong with you?
  60. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman — Only Neil Gaiman can make sadness seem so beautiful.
  61. The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan — Reminiscent of The Little Paris Bookshop, and ultimately more of a romance than anything else, this novel is still a lot of fun, and tremendously bookish.
  62. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff — I thought I’d read this years ago, but it turns out I was simply recalling the movie.  It’s very like the film, but honestly I think it’s too short.
  63. Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans by John M. Marzluff — This book was an enormous disappointment to me, so much so that I returned it to Audible.  Bad science writing careening wildly from boring anecdotal passages to highly technical ones.
  64. 35162756[1]The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell — A reread, but one I hadn’t read since it was originally released.  I had loved it the first time around and always meant to reread it, but a span of years and experience changed my perceptions of the book.  I still loved it, but in a more thoughtful way.
  65. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden — It took me a while to warm up to this fairytale novel, but once I did I loved it.  It’s slow, and quite beautiful.
  66. Dinner with Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship by Isabel Vincent — This touched me on a personal level.  I had an Edward — the person I mentioned in #8, Spartan Gold.  I miss him.
  67. Strange Practice (Dr. Greta Helsing, #1) by Vivian Shaw — Shaw knows her background material and respects it, even though she doesn’t take it too seriously. If I have a quibble it’s that sometimes the characterization is a little flat. I didn’t get a lot of feeling for the emotional lives of the characters and how they related to each other. I got those things explained to me from time to time, but got no visceral sense of who they were.
  68. Map of Days by Robert Hunter — What begins as a strange and lovely creation myth, a story of nine siblings who create our solar system, segues into a reminiscence by the narrator about the time he led a friend astray. The friend is the creator of Earth, seen in the story as a disembodied face, always looking upward, looking for the sun. It’s a story of the face’s obsessive love for the sun, and how that threatens all life on earth. And it’s a tale of guardianship, the story of the narrator who, in saving the earth betrays his friend, the face, and who becomes the face’s guardian and monitor.
  69. 48800[1]The Third Man by Graham Greene — Greene and I have a long-standing relationship.  I’ve been reading his work since I was in college back in the 70s, and have been up and down about it.  My visceral response is often at odds with my intellectual one.  In this case I came to the book with clear memories of the film, which is one of my favorites.  And frankly, this is one book which proves that the film is not always inferior to the book.  It also shows quite clearly how much input Carol Reed had in the script, and I feel it was all to the good.  Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful story and I would still recommend it to anyone who wants to read Graham Greene.
  70. Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell — Mary Doria Russell is one of my favorite authors.  I would read anything of hers… and actually have read everything so far.  Epitaph is the sequel to Doc, and focuses more on Wyatt and his brothers than Doc Holliday, and leads up to the events at the OK Corral.  It gave me the sense of how an event could last for thirty seconds and become an iconic event in the history of a country.
  71. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari — Interesting, challenging, but ultimately not as convincing as I would have hoped.  I was with him through most of his arguments, but when he presented his conclusions, my response was often, “Um… what?  Where do you get that?”
  72. Stockholm Delete by Jens Lapidus  — The one I didn’t finish. I really wanted to, but after a month when I was only halfway through it and found I was forcing myself to read, I gave up.
  73. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie  — A perfectly charming book that reads like a fable.  If there’s a moral to this story it’s that you can’t use books.  Books use you.
  74. The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster and the Year that Changed Literature by Bill Goldstein  — A good, solid piece of scholarship that did cast some new light on people I thought I knew well.  It reminded me of why I don’t often read bios of most of these people.  They weren’t very pleasant.
  75. Marlene by C.W. Gortner — I shouldn’t have been disappointed, but I was.  This was like Real Person Fanfic, something that’s always given me the wiggins.  I don’t want to read sex stories about real people. Ugh.
  76. The Changeling by Victor LaValle — Not my favorite LaValle, but still a damn good book that gave me chills.
  77. The Many Worlds of Albie Bright by Christopher Edge — A lovely, light-hearted book about a child’s grief.  Boy, I never thought I’d ever write something like that, but there you are.  Edge has a deft touch, never allowing Albie to wallow even though we do feel his loss.
  78. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin— A re-read, though in fairness, the last time I read it was in the mid-1970s.  It’s a  great example of how time and your stages of life can change your perceptions of a story.  I saw a whole new novel this time around, and it was fascinating.
  79. 32619967[1]Pachinko by Min Jin Lee  — One of June’s clear winners, and a total surprise to me.  I let myself be led by the folks over at Litsy, who loved this book, and I am so glad that I did.  It’s a book with heart.  Thank you, Littens!
  80. Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard  — Possibly the biggest disappointment of June, at least in part because I was expecting so much more… or different… or something.  I still really don’t know why I was so let down.
  81. The Women in the Castle: A Novel by Jessica Shattuck — I finished this just in time to bring my half-year total to 81 books.  It’s wonderful.  Briefly, it’s a story about the immediate aftermath of WWII in Germany, and the toll of war and its repercussions on the human psyche.
  82. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay — I hope that readers will understand what it is Gay is saying here, not just about being fat in a world that values only thinness, but about being female in a world that values us as objects, not people.  Hunger isn’t just about Roxane Gay.  It’s not just about being fat.  It’s not just about being different or challenging society’s expectations.  It is about being female in a world where everything you are is public property, and where you are expected to take up as little space as possible.
  83. 30517272[1]Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson — I can’t improve on Lawson:  “I’m fucking done with sadness, and I don’t know what’s up the ass of the universe lately but I’ve HAD IT. I AM GOING TO BE FURIOUSLY HAPPY, OUT OF SHEER SPITE.”
  84. Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher — I ended up with more respect for Carrie than ever before, but a deeper sense of sadness that she’s gone too soon, and as a result of her own emotional problems. I hate seeing her as a cautionary tale, but I can’t help but feel that she might enjoy being thought of as a terrible warning.
  85. Ash and Quill (The Great Library #3) by Rachel Caine — After a bit of a slow second book, this series picks up again with Ash and Quill, and races to an unexpected (for me) cliffhanger that had me shouting at my Kindle at one in the morning.  Yeah, that good.
  86. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle — An old favorite from my childhood, one I’ve read dozens of times.  I decided to read it again on the strength of the first movie trailer which looks fantastic.  I was not  wholly disappointed, but I did realize that I’m past the point of being uncritical about it.
  87. Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson –  Hanson is what I think of as a great science writer. He engages our imaginations while imparting facts, and I suspect that is at least in part because he has such a lively sense of wonder that he can’t help but infuse even the most prosaic of information with a feel of awe as if the evolution of feathers or seeds, or whatever else he’s writing about is pure magic. And in a sense, the things he writes about are magic, or as close to as we get in our world.
  88. Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill –What caught my eye, and my imagination was this comment about how time will not change (Iris) Murdoch’s novels, and yet with each subsequent generation that discovers them, they do change; every reader changes them.  Hill says: “…because until it is read, a book is a dead thing.”  That’s true.  Books depend on us as much as we depend on them.  They must be read to live.  I underlined that in neon pink, in keeping with the color scheme established by the Roald Dahl fan who owned this book before I did.  …  This is a book with heart, not just because of its contents but because the physical copy I own has been well read, loved, perhaps shouted at, as I did when Hill went on a rant against e-readers.  And I will concede this one point to her: No ebook could ever be so beautifully aged.  People who insist on pristine copies miss a lot of the deeper beauty of a physical book.
  89. 41f6b9uCFpL[1]Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West — I didn’t find Shrill as laugh-out-loud funny as Furiously Happy, nor did it make me break down in tears as did Hunger.  It made me furious, it helped me — here’s that word again — assimilate a lot of the experiences I’d had in my life and understand how they’d shaped my attitudes.  It helped me to forgive the unintentional hurts and view the intentional ones with a resolve never again to let anyone make me feel like a bug to be squashed.  And remember: “They talk to you this way until you make them stop.”
  90. Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini — Avast, ye lubbers, here’s a fine tale of hearty men, stout ships, proud wenches, (well, one anyway) and brave deeds! … I’m declaring this one a No Guilt read.  Read what you want, put it down when you want, pick it back up only if you want, and have some fun with it.  It’s not to be taken too seriously.
  91. Parnassus On Wheels by Christopher Morley — There’s a lot of charm to this book.  The characters are all too human, but in the end they have become sympathetic and appealing, and I found myself cheering for them.  So while I’m not at all sure why I spent the $0.99 on the ebook, I’m heartily glad I did.
  92. The Golden House by Salman Rushdie – The Golden House is far greater than a fictionalized view of the House of Trump. Rushdie is not heavy-handed, he doesn’t make this a thinly veiled portrait of an easy target, but creates Trump-flavored touchstones in an attempt to do much more than simply criticize or satirize a single figure or family. Rather, peppered as it is with popular culture touchstones, it becomes a portrait of an age in American life, and not a pretty one.
  93. The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami – I still have no idea what actually happened.  I mean, I know what the book says happened, but I don’t really understand it at a visceral level except as a fairytale that doesn’t seem to make any sense.  To be fair, I find a lot of fairytales from outside the most familiar cultures make little sense to me, and this is more alien than I’m used to.  I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be clear on why.
  94. Jurassic Park  by Michael Crichton – I’m willing to give props for a compelling story told in such a break-neck fashion that had I not been paying close attention to the text, I might never have caught these problems. Or at least they might not have gotten up my nose so completely.  What you have is a decent thriller with a great plot and a damn good hook: cloning dinosaurs.  It was timely then and it still is, it plays to our fears and our desires, and Crichton knows how to manipulate both.
  95. 28194[1]Inkheart (Inkworld, #1) by Cornelia Funke –I can’t help but feel that Inkheart is a lesson about human character, and how we have the ability to change the things about our lives and behaviors, if we wish to.  It’s a valuable lesson for young people, though I wonder if it’s a little too complex for the target age group.  But all that aside, it’s just a hella good story.  I devoured it and want more.
  96. The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library, #1)  by Genevieve Cogman — It’s a quietly hilarious book.  There are laugh-out-loud moments, but mostly the humor makes you grin and think, “I like these people.  Even the awful ones.” or “Irony so thick you need waders.” Don’t expect anything too heavy here.  There is violence, blood, and some ookiness likely to make you cringe a bit, but the story itself isn’t a dark one.  Rather it strips down to a fairly tame detective story about the search for a special book.
  97. The Clockwork Dynasty  by Daniel H. Wilson — Do you ever find yourself reading a book that you should be loving, and you’re having trouble motivating yourself even to finish? You don’t think it’s a bad book, quite the opposite, you think it’s a good one. It’s competently written, and the plot and characters should be totally compelling. But they’re not, not to you. So you check the reviews that have posted and find that you’re pretty much in the minority. Almost everyone else loves it. So what’s up?
  98. Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster — The characters, all seen through the eyes of the narrator, Judy Abbott, are both amusing and quite human. She — Judy/Jean Webster — has an eye for human silliness, but a forgiving one.  It’s a humane book that made me smile and gave me some warm fuzzies when I needed them.
  99. The Lonely Hearts Hotel  by Heather O’Neill — It’s dry, and slightly removed from the visceral responses that most narratives would evoke.  I think it’s supposed to engage our emotions on the same level that this life engages Pierrot and Rose.  In that sense, it works beautifully.  I saw my own world from the outside, and found it sad and shocking, but unsurprising.  I loved reading this book.  I don’t honestly think I’ll ever read it again.  I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad one.
  100. Dubliners by James Joyce — As for the stories themselves, I began to see that they were all about who people think they are and why.  They’re brief glances into events, even moments of the characters’ lives that are so telling, that make their identities so clear that you come away from each one understanding what they hope for, and why they are suffering.
  101. Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix — I enjoyed the heck out of it.  And if it’s a little lightweight, that’s fine.  I don’t need buckets of gore with my horror.  I like it when my imagination is a big part of why I have The Wiggins.  I don’t often smile when I think about horror stories, but this one does make me grin even as I think, Well, I’ll never look at IKEA the same way again.
  102. The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge by Jeremy Narby — I’d wanted to read this when it first came out but never got around to it.  And I’m glad I waited, because it clarified my thinking about aspects of my own writing that needed some clarity.  But beyond that I found it a fascinating examination of mythological imagery, shamanism, hallucinogenic substances, and DNA.
  103. 19887474[1]The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1)  by N.K. Jemisin — This is a world so unlike any I’ve ever read, that even without the superb writing, and the deeper issues, I would have been hooked.  But with the story of the Orogenes removed from all familiar context, Jemisin does allow us to view it from the outside, without any the baggage we may carry about our own Orogene analogs. And in doing that she shows us our own truths.
  104. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction  by Alan Jacobs — If you’re a reader, you probably enjoy books about reading.  This year it’s been the primary theme of my reading.  And I don’t think you can do better than to read Alan Jacobs’ wonderful, immensely readable ruminations on the nature of books and the pleasures of reading.  If you’re a reader, you should read Alan Jacobs.
  105. Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet by H.P. Wood — I loved this book, just enjoyed the heck out of it. I gave it five stars on Goodreads as soon as I finished it, then fretted about that rating because I thought that I was putting myself in a position of having to defend my enthusiasm for a book which I thought was a bit didactic. However, as I discussed the book with The Housemate — a voracious reader herself — I realized that while Wood’s message did seem a bit anachronistic in context — her characters are diverse in terms of race, nationality, and gender/sexuality — she has actually given us a context which goes beyond that of time and place, a society of outsiders who understand what it is to be different at a bone-deep level. Because of this, her story is neither didactic nor anachronistic, but timeless in terms of how “different” people are forced to live in society.
  106. Jackaby (Jackaby, #1) by William Ritter — I enjoyed the story enough that I immediately bought the second volume, which is probably the best recommendation I can give.  It’s well written, fast-paced, funny, and there’s a genuine mystery or two rattling around in there.  One I guessed at pretty quickly, one I was dead wrong about.  I’m glad about the latter, it’s really what keeps me reading a mystery.  If they’re too obvious, I lose interest.  Jackaby himself is more personable than Holmes, and the other characters are well drawn enough to engage my interest.  If some of the portrayals, most notably Abigail, are a touch anachronistic, I’m willing to overlook that because I like them and the way they fit into the story.
  107. Beastly Bones (Jackaby #2)  by William Ritter — The second Jackaby book has proved to be as charming as the first, if even more verbally anachronistic.  Never mind all that.  As The Housemate quite rightly pointed out, “It’s an alternate universe!”  Nowhere in ours do we find cranky toads that spew sulphurous smoke from their eyes, and at no point did Darwin decide to keep secret creatures that morph into the animals they prey on.  Or as Abigail Rook herself puts it, “Working as his (Jackaby’s) assistant tends to call for a somewhat flexible relationship with reality.”
  108. The Miranda by Geoff Nicholson —  What can you say about a man who tortures people for a living?  That’s what Joe Johnson used to do for the government.  He’s a psychoanalyst who fell into treating torture victims and was recruited to help prepare contractors for the possibility that they will be kidnapped and tortured during the course of their jobs.  Yeah, I’d say it’s all fairly weird and that I find it hard to believe, but Nicholson manages to sell Joe as a man who believed in what he was doing until he didn’t anymore.

  109. Ghostly Echoes (Jackaby #3) by William Ritter — While these books are quite funny, they’re also becoming progressively darker.  Ritter walks a fine line and he does it well.  He ups the ante while keeping the tone light.  And he gives us the usual cast of characters: Jackaby, Abigail, Jenny, Douglas, Charlie, Ogden the frog who must not be stared at, and so on, but introduces some major players who will doubtless be critical in the fourth book.  There are revelations, complications, weirdness, hilarity, and some genuinely dark moments that gave me pause.  It’s all these things that keep me coming back, breathlessly pursuing the storyline and yet not wanting to finish, not just yet.
  110. 11490765[1]The Horrid Glory of Its Wings  by Elizabeth Bear — Try to imagine that girl, whose life would probably have been better if she’d died young the way everyone expected her to, meeting a harpy in the alley.  Imagine her watching this mythical bird who survives on people’s garbage, turning dead rats and maggoty meat into gleaming bronze feathers.  Imagine her seeing an image of her own pain and ugliness in something so powerful and transcendent.
  111. Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger — The story is so utterly unengaging that I confess I skimmed the last quarter of it, including the big battle.  I think there was a big battle.  Honestly, by the time I reached that point, I didn’t much care if everyone died or not. Krueger even managed to make Chicago feel dull to me, which is no small feat because I’ve lived in that city my whole life, and I adore it.
  112. The Symphony , By Professor Robert Greenberg — I never listen to a Greenberg course without finding that there is some composer or piece of music that now speaks to me where before he/it felt like so much noise.  In this survey I came to a greater understanding of Bruckner, a composer I’d sorta enjoyed, but never cared enough to explore more deeply, and discovered that I actually like the music of Charles Ives, Roy Harris, and Samuel Barber.  Sadly, even Robert Greenberg hasn’t been able to make Hector Berlioz remotely interesting to me. *yawn*

  113. The Dire King (Jackaby #4) by William Ritter — Briefly, the story picks up immediately after the end of Ghostly Echoes, and follows the characters through to the end of their mission to save the world from the Dire King and his plan to wrench open the veil between this world and the world of magic, allowing all manner of magical creatures, benign and otherwise, to flood the human world, presumably with some, ah, dire consequences.

  114. 51CD8MTSM1L[1].jpg

    Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Principles for Delicious Living  by Nick Offerman — I believe him to be a kindred spirit.  He’s smart, he’s funny, and he doesn’t give a damn what people think of him.  I like his politics, I like his attitudes, and I like his style.  If that’s not a kindred spirit, I don’t know what is.

  115. The Day I Became an Autodidact by Kendall Hailey — I’m glad I chose to revisit this book though I doubt I will again, unless I live another 30 years, and consider it an anniversary of sorts.  Revisiting books you loved when you were younger can be dodgy.  This one held up, thank goodness.  If you love the idea of self-directed education, if you like smart young women with a bit of sass on them, this book may well appeal to you.
  116. Soul and the City: Art, Literature, and Urban Living by Arnold Weinstein — Professor Weinstein is an excellent guide, citing not only literature, but fine arts, film, and every other art form  that has been used to express what the city is.  This is one of the shorter Great Courses I’ve listened to, but there is so much material here, that the sources would make for months of reading and viewing if you found yourself wanting to explore the subject more deeply and broadly.

  117. The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee — I am not a fan of opera by any stretch.  I’ve tried, honest-to-god I have. The world of opera is interesting though, and if there’d been more of that rather than of the operatic drama I might have enjoyed this book more.  It is an opera, after all, with the loves and hates, the villain, the hapless heroine, the hero who dies (maybe, maybe not, in this it’s all up in the air until the very end.)  It’s an opera within a novel about opera, and I wish I’d liked it more than I did.

  118. Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime  by Val McDermid — There was nothing at all wrong with this book, in fact it was excellent.  But I bailed because I found myself becoming too emotionally involved in the whole process of death and decay.  Sometimes it’s unbearable to think about what happens to our loved ones after they leave us.
  119. Magpie Murders  by Anthony Horowitz — I know I’m making it sound as if I hated this book, which is not the case.  I enjoyed it.  Possibly I’m being hard on Horowitz because I think it could have been even better than it was. Though given the difficulty of what he was doing, I’d say he did a pretty good job.  It’s clever, and filled with red herrings, and people with motives for all sorts of mayhem, and the mysteries are pretty good.  I gave it four stars on Amazon, which might have been a bit generous, but only a bit.  And on the strength of MM, I’d be willing to read more of his work.
  120. Somewhere in My Mind There Is a Painting Box  by Charles de Lint — One of the Newford stories, I believe, and a lovely one about a young woman who longs to express herself through art. She finds an abandoned paintbox, and confirmation that her own brush with magic was real.
  121. The City Born Great  by N.K. Jemisin — Great cities have souls.  If you’re alive to that kind of thing, you can feel it as you move from city to city.  And in time, Jemisin tells us, they begin to breathe, and think, and find their way into the world as living creatures.
  122. Crow Roads by Charles de Lint — A little darker than #13, above, but with similar themes of a young woman finding herself through an encounter with magic.  De Lint’s work is always beautiful, and magical.
  123. Master and Man (Xist Classics) by Leo Tolstoy — In Master and Man, it becomes clear that Tolstoy detested the monied classes.  He found them foolish, thoughtless, and blind to everything but the making of more money.  And these days?  Well it’s impossible to disagree with his assessment.
  124. Go Ask Alice  by Beatrice Sparks — For the life of me I cannot understand why this piece of crap remains popular.  It’s terrible.  It was published as a piece of non-fiction, a diary written by a teenage girl who falls into the drug culture almost by accident, and has her life ruined as a result.  It’s not a diary, it’s fiction, and cruddy fiction at that.
  125. We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — Adichie discusses contemporary feminism primarily from the point of view of being a woman in Nigeria, a seemingly overwhelmingly sexist country, exposing the institutional sexism that harms not just women but men, forcing the latter into rigid gender roles as surely as it does women.
  126. Sheriff Poole & The Mech Gang by Charles de Lint — This story left me with more questions than answers.  But the tight narrative doesn’t allow for much speculation as you read.  It’s only afterward, while thinking about that last image of the Sheriff telling Dan and his wife about life in the old west, that so many questions come pouring out.
  127. Hannah’s Dress: Berlin 1904 – 2014 by Pascale Hugues –I’ve learned over the years to tell a story in the small details. The bouquet of plucked dandelions scattered around the place where a child was kidnapped, is a lot more affecting than the screaming and crying and screech of tires. That’s what Hughes is doing in this book, she’s telling her story in the details, in vignettes about the lives of the people who essentially created the culture of the street she lives on, both while they lived there and afterward. And in doing this, she tells the story of the Holocaust and how it touched Berliners.
  128. Sourdough  by Robin Sloan— It made me want to cook.  It made me want to start baking bread again.  It made me happy that bread and cheese exist, that crickets sing and goats love to eat, that Robin Sloan is a nerd (Lembas bread!) and microbes work tirelessly to give our world flavor and scent. There’s a love story, too.  You won’t catch it immediately, but it’s there, hidden beneath talk of cooking, spicy soup, and the history of a completely mythical people called the Mazg who sing to their sourdough culture.
  129. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli— Theoretical Physicist, Carlo Rovelli takes us on a quick tour of his discipline, covering seven different aspects of Physics. And as with all books about this subject I understood only a small portion of what was being said.  Mostly it was words, words, words, then something that made me go “Oh yeah, I get that.  How cool!”  Then words, words, words.  Possibly others will find it more accessible than I did, or possibly I was attempting to create visual images of what Rovelli was describing, something without which I find it hard to hang on to a concept.
  130. Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4/Day by Leanne Brown — Not a bad cookbook, but better for the tips than the recipes.
  131. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts  by Joshua Hammer — Yes it did tell the story about the efforts to protect precious Islamic manuscripts from those thugs, but that was a minor part of the book, and seemed to grow less important as the story progressed.  Alas, that’s the part of the story I wanted, not the history of the jihadis in that part of the world.

  132. Swing Time  by Zadie Smith — Smith gives us a far-ranging exploration of blackness in Europe, America, and Africa, of social and economic inequities, of unrequited love, romantic, familial, and between friends.  And it really is too much to assimilate, even in a book this long.  I found myself reacting to certain passages, places where I knew how I felt about the situation. But in other places, long stretches,  I simply felt that I was wandering aimlessly, looking for any landmark that might help orient me.
  133. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi — In the end, the book pulled me in and I finished by racing through chapter after chapter.  I had no idea how it would end, and when it did, I felt like it was one of those endings where the author had to do something to break the stalemate, so he did the most expedient thing. It didn’t feel like any sort of ending at all to me.  Flawed but interesting
  134. Timeskip by Charles de Lint — It’s a Newford story, and two of the characters are Newford regulars, Geordie Riddell, and Jilly Coppercorn.  Because it’s a familiar universe and familiar characters, and because de Lint’s voice is both enchanting and gentle, there’s a kind of comfort to it in spite of a bittersweet ending.
  135. The People of Sand and Slag  by Paolo Bacigalup — And in the end, though they’ve become like gods, they still have all the faults of humans but magnified now that there are no consequences.  As a result they’re casually cruel and thoughtless. They seem to have lost the ability to care about anything, to value traits like love and loyalty.
  136. The Witches of New York by Ami McKay — There’s something about this novel which reminds me of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, which is not at all a bad thing.  Both books are (roughly) set in Gilded Age New York, and both deal with outsiders, people who are not like everyone else, about how the outcast must find his/her own niche in the world, and defend it against foes from all sides.
  137. The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living  Meik Wiking — I confess I raced through this lightweight little book, looking for inspiration to make my life more hyggeligt. I got told “Buy candles” and learned a lot about how to drive Danes crazy with the wrong kind of light bulbs.  There are some recipes too, and ruminations on coziness in other countries, and whether it’s a social thing or an individual one. Nothing exciting, really, unless you’re utterly new to the concept of hygge.
  138. Caraval (Caraval, #1) by Stephanie Garber — I’m afraid I’m going to be a naysayer here.  I found Caraval contrived and manipulative, full of self-conscious double- and triple-think.  And the most annoying thing is that I wanted to like it a whole lot more than I did.  I even gave it four stars before I relented, because once I took the time to think about it, I knew I’d been disappointed.
  139. Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature  by Pamela Bedore — In this series of 24 lectures Bedore covers, among other topics, the earliest Utopian writings of More, Swift, and Voltaire, the American utopians, the birth of utopian Science Fiction, feminist utopian thought of the 1970s, and later the dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale, and the move to young adult dystopian literature. They’re all highly informative and interesting, and I found myself adding a number of titles to my wish lists as a result.  This is one of the Great Courses, and well worth what I paid for it over on Audible
  140. Herland  by Charlotte Perkins Gilman — Hard on the heels of finishing the course on utopias and dystopias, I decided to tackle Herland, a book I’d been intending to read for decades.  To my delight it wasn’t nearly as earnest and didactic as I would have expected a feminist utopia of the early 20th to be.  Rather it was gently humorous and even-handed, suggesting that it is not so much a utopian vision, but a suggestion that in the relations between the sexes we can do a whole lot better without going to extremes.
  141. The Yellow Wallpaper  by Charlotte Perkins Gilman — There’s an uncomfortable quality to knowing that Gilman’s own experiences of marriage, motherhood, and post-partum depression informed this story of a woman whose physician husband and physician brother both, predictably, diagnose her illness as “hysteria” and prescribe involuntary confinement, and absolute rest without any sort of stimulation at all, particularly intellectual stimulation. For a writer, it has to have been hellish.
  142. Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques  by James Hynes — But it isn’t just for writers, or at least I don’t think it ought to be, necessarily. Readers could benefit from listening, and learning what it is they’re seeing on the page, learning what kind of planning goes into the books they enjoy, or perhaps why they didn’t enjoy a particular book as much as they thought they would.  Yeah, I know that’s a lot of work, and no, it doesn’t have a plot or a romance, or even a happy ending where the antagonist is foiled and the protagonist lives happily ever after, but if you love fiction, why not learn more about it?  Writing has made me a better reader.
  143. Gentleman’s Agreement  by Laura Z. Hobson— It’s odd how a book can seem both dated as well as shockingly timely. This is clearly a mid-century book, right down to the vocabulary. And yet the themes are so completely contemporary — anti-semitism, shades of prejudice, racism — that there were times I had to stop reading because I would begin to feel sick that we’ve progressed so little since the post-WWII era.
  144. Men Explain Things to Me  by Rebecca Solnit — In a series of six essays, Solnit explores the current state of relations between men and women, not just in the US, but throughout the world. It’s not pretty. The title essay, in which Solnit describes an encounter with a blowhard who fails to realize that she is, in fact, the author of the book he’s recommending to her, is wryly funny. But many of the others, which deal with violence against women, are anything but. From the gang-rape, torture, and murder of Jyoti Singh in Delhi, to a campus policeman advising co-eds not to behave like sluts if they don’t want to be raped, the accounts are horrifying, infuriating, and depressing because rape culture feels systemic and unchangeable.
  145. The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman by Nancy Marie Brown — The story of Gudrid should have been riveting. This is a woman who traveled from her Scandinavian home to Greenland, Iceland, and the area of the Americas known to Vikings as “Vinland,” for its wild grapes. In her old age, she made a pilgrimage to Rome and became a nun. But the book goes every which-way, bouncing from her life, to archeological information, to Erik the Red, and back again, never quite allowing the reader to come to know Gudrid on a level where we could feel engaged with her life and adventures.
  146. 0062684922.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_[1]Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History  by Katy Tur — I’ve been around for a long time and I’ve seen a lot of presidential campaigns, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as insane and disheartening as Donald Trump’s campaign to become President of the United States and his subsequent victory. With that in mind, I decided to let Katy Tur immerse me in the whys and wherefores of his campaign in hope of understanding how a reality TV star with no political experience at all could bamboozle enough people into voting for him that he managed to beat out many more competent politicians.
  147. The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries  by Neil deGrasse Tyson — It kept me riveted for the approximately seven hours of this course. I was left wishing that it had been twice as long, and it may end up being an audiobook that I revisit during my planned re-reads next year.  Good science writing is clear and concise, and it helps the reader/listener to grasp the gestalt of the work.  This is hella good science writing.
  148. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz — I was warned that this book would make me ugly cry, but I thought “Sure, a young adult book is going to tear me open and jump on my heart.  Sure.”  Dammit, I ugly cried.
  149. The Masked City (The Invisible Library, #2)  by Genevieve Cogman — The plot of the second book is more focused than the first, and while the spectre of Alberich looms over events, this isn’t just Irene having to fight him again, which is all to the good.  We have new bad guys, and some serious political maneuverings. Cogman ups the ante in pushing Irene to the limits of her abilities, and sets up a confrontation for a future book.
  150. Bonfire  by Krysten Ritter —  I know Ritter from Jessica Jones where she blew me away with her hardass/badass characterization. I was both surprised and not to find that she also writes, and writes well.  Bonfire is a solid, serviceable thriller which, if a little predictable, still delivers the goods.  I didn’t love it, but I did tear through it in a couple of hours because her writing is smooth as silk, and she knows how to keep a scene moving, and how to create characters who are interesting if not complex.
  151. Artemis  by Andy Weir — I pre-ordered this as soon as I knew it was being published, all on the strength of The Martian, which I loved. So now I can tell you that Sophomore Slump is a real thing.  Artemis isn’t a bad book, it’s just not a great book.  I’m not sure it’s always a good book, but I’m up and down about that.
  152. 34346496[1]Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics  by Lawrence O’Donnell —  I would urge you to read this book if you’re at all interested in the people and politics of that era and especially that campaign.  I was fascinated by the portraits of the major players from Johnson, who crippled himself by adhering to a losing strategy in Vietnam to the detriment of his legacy in other areas such as civil rights, Nixon who was a brilliant politician, but who put all that intellect to work in self-serving ways, Bobby Kennedy who was opaque and manipulative, and Eugene McCarthy who was a decent human being but utterly unfit to be president.  They, and the more minor players in this drama, are wonderfully drawn by O’Donnell in this rich narrative.
  153. The 30 Greatest Orchestral Works  by Robert Greenberg — If you listen to classical music this lecture series, like Greenberg’s other series on music, can greatly enrich your listening. I always come away from one of his series with a new appreciation for a composer or a work I’d never given much thought to.
  154. Howl’s Moving Castle (Howl’s Moving Castle, #1) by Diana Wynne Jones — For those of you who, like me, have remained stubbornly ignorant of this tale, it is in brief, a story of a young woman who is cursed by a wicked witch, and who sets out to find someone who can lift her curse. Along the way, Sophie meets Wizard Howl, his apprentice, Michael, his fire demon, Calcifer, and a whole cast of memorable characters all of whom have their own agendas.
  155. Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt — I can’t honestly say why I enjoyed the book, or even why I finished it.  Every time I picked it up, I thought, “Do I really want to do this?” Obviously I did, in spite of what felt like a plot so thin you could see through it. But in the end it didn’t matter. Like a Wes Anderson film, the parts proved to be far greater than their sum, and just as enticing, at least to me. The dialogue, hilariously stilted, (everyone speaks in the same voice) threw me out of the story repeatedly, and yet I enjoyed it. The characters, awful as they sometimes seemed, were still charming and funny.  It’s a dark, dryly funny story, violent, and weirdly sexual.
  156. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan — Honestly, I’m embarrassed to admit that I bailed on this about two thirds of the way through. Normally I love Sagan and I was thrilled to find this book on sale at Audible because I’d been wanting to read it, but listening to it was — through no fault of the narrator, Cary Elwes — like riding a merry-go-round.  After the first chapters it was all territory he’d covered.  The redundancy of his argument became tedious; every chapter had the same message: Science is the most reliable way of understanding the world. Pseudo-science is foolishness.
  157. The Librarian of Auschwitz (Kindle Edition) by Antonio Iturbe — The other characters, most of whom were also real people, are all interesting in their own way, and the events that occur are often well-documented, and yet the narrative never really came together for me in any meaningful way. I enjoyed it, but found it often awkward (possibly a problem with the translation) and not always as involving as it ought to have been. I think the author tried to tell too many stories too deeply, and ended with a scattered narrative that kept most of the characters at arm’s length.
  158. Unearthing the Past: Paleontology and the History of Life (The Modern Scholar)
    by Jeffrey S. Martz — This series of lectures failed to hold my interest when I began it, but I’m not sure if that was the fault of the material or of my concentration.  When I picked it up again earlier this week, I found myself fascinated by the information, first on what paleontologists actually do, and then the timeline of the history of life on earth.
  159. Snake Agent (Detective Inspector Chen, #1)  by Liz Williams — The Housemate has been raving about these books for several months, so I thought I’d dive in in December, a month which, so far, has not been what I would call either comforting or joyous.  Fortunately, she was dead right about the Inspector Chen novels. Snake Agent, the first of the series, is an intriguingly different sort of detective fiction which takes place in a world where magic, magical creatures, gods and goddesses, heaven, hell, demons and ghosts all have a role to play in the mystery of a young woman whose soul is stolen after her death, and wrongly sent to Hell.
  160. The Burning Page (The Invisible Library, #3)  by Genevieve Cogman — The third book in the Invisible Library series does not disappoint, and by the end it seems to raise the stakes in intriguing ways. I would have expected Irene’s nemesis in this volume to be Lady Guantes who, after the second book, had reason to want revenge. But the plot is more complex than that.  There is fallout from book two, but it’s not what we might expect.
  161. A Long Day in Lychford (Lychford, #3)  by Paul Cornell — I can’t give a thumbs up. Nor am I willing to give a thumbs down because it’s an interesting idea, and the writing, despite my problems with it, is clear and competent.
  162. The Woman in the Water (Charles Lenox Mysteries, #0)  by Charles Finch — Once again I found myself at a disadvantage by joining a series in progress.  The Woman in the Water is a prequel to the Charles Lenox mystery series, and recounts his very first important case, that of two murdered women found in the vicinity of the Thames, one in a trunk, and the other, covered in flowers and laid on a door.  The latter becomes known as the Thames Ophelia because she floated down the river and was beached on the shore.
  163. The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye(Millennium #5)  by David Lagercrantz — It’s officially over between me and Lisbeth Salander.  No hard feelings on my part; I’ll always remember the good times of the Stieg Larsson books, the intelligence, the tension, the memorable, sadistic villains, and wonderful supporting characters.  I tried, I really did, to like David Lagercrantz’s take on the universe, but the previous book left me feeling let down. And this one?  I pushed myself halfway through it and finally bailed.  Yeah, it’s over.

  164. Uprooted by Naomi Novik — Sometimes I look over the reviews of a book before I post my own, just out of idle curiosity, and I was interested to find that there is almost no middle ground on Uprooted. People love it or they hate it. Me, I loved it in spite of its flaws, which I count as hella good story-telling.
  165. Ghosts of Wind and Shadow  by Charles de Lint — Ghosts is a short story filled, as is most of de Lint’s prose, with the magic of music, which cuts through the world’s darkness (often of human origin.) The Newford universe is a warm, comforting place to retreat to when you’re sick or sad, or just want a quiet pleasure.

  166. Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore  by Matthew J. Sullivan — It’s a book filled with damaged people, though Lydia, who survives a horror I can barely imagine, may be the most damaged of all.  So much so that I found it uncomfortable to be inside her skin for the bulk of the novel. I wanted to shake her and say “Get over it!” all the while knowing that there is no way to get over what she’s been through. Her connection to another damaged soul sets the mystery in motion, and eventually leads to a solution both sordid and heartbreaking.
  167. What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton —  I suspect a great many people are going to be reading this through glasses colored by their political beliefs, which is to be expected, but I would hope that if they’ve gone to the trouble of reading what she has to say, that they will try to do it without preconceptions of how they will react.  Read with an open mind as you’d read anything. That’s the only way to get the value of any book.
  168. Death in Venice  by Thomas Mann — This is a story I’ve read any number of times since I first encountered in college, and I decided to try an audiobook this time around.  Big mistake.  I don’t know what the problem was, but it felt like a wholly different book to me, and not one that I particularly enjoyed.  Possibly it was the narrator, a number of people have expressed negative opinions on his work in their reviews.  Possibly it’s a different translation, but I see no indication of who the translator was, and I really don’t have the energy to compare the audio and hard copy versions side-by-side.  Bottom line: this didn’t work for me.
  169. 41gz9KEeiQL._SL500_[1]Great Masters: Brahms- His Life and Music (Great Courses) by Robert Greenberg —  Back in the day, I was not a fan of Brahms’ music.  Emphatically so. As a result I believed the critics who said he was not deserving of the praise heaped on him.  And then two things happened.  First, I fell hard for the Academic Festival Overture, and began to listen to other works of Brahms with a more open mind.  Second, I listened to this course.
  170. Practical Magic  by Alice Hoffman — No matter what you think you may know about this book, if you haven’t read it, you can’t know what a joy it is, or the sheer pleasure of the prose, which is lovely and rich. I want more of the Owens women (Thank goodness Hoffman has written a prequel!) and more of Alice Hoffman.
  171. Heart of Darkness  by Joseph Conrad — This last book of the year left me deeply unsettled, so much so that I’m finding it impossible to craft a coherent review. There is so much to unpack here, and I’m not certain I’m up to it.  Perhaps I’ll revisit the book in the future and have more to say.  Perhaps not.

Statistics:

  • Books Read: 171
  • Books by Women: 74
  • Books by People of Color: 21
  • Books about Books: 29 – not as many as I thought
  • Non-Fiction: 50
  • Rereads: 8

Final thoughts:

A mixed bag, as we used to say in the 60s. There were some astoundingly good books and some astoundingly bad ones.  There were some delightful surprises and bitter disappointments. I learned a great deal this year which reminded me how much I’d enjoyed being in college. Still, I prefer being an auto-didact to formal education.

I read widely and, I hope, deeply. I read quite a few books by women, not as many by people of color, or from other countries and cultures as I would have hoped, but better than I have in the past.

The clear winners for me:

There were other great reads, but these three left me with the most indelible impressions.  I feel richer and happier for having read them.

Onward to 2018!

Review: Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman

6582537[1]I’ve heard good things about this book for so long, but never thought about reading it until this month.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe the impression I got that it was a fantasy romance, something I don’t generally read much of, kept me from looking seriously at it. And I can’t tell you why I picked it up this month either because all I remember thinking was, “I need something gentle.”  Honestly it’s been a rough few months, and I couldn’t handle more dark visions or political rants.

I’m not going to keep you in suspense any longer; I loved this book.  It was nothing like what I expected and yet it was exactly what I needed.  It is gentle even though the characters and situations can be harsh.  It’s a fantasy filled with magic, but honestly you don’t have to believe in the magic to love this book.  You can explain it away if it makes you feel better to do so.  It’s romantic and yet not a romance.

Sisters, and sisters, and sisters populate this book.  Fair and dark like Snow White and  Rose Red. Wild and cautious, practical or flighty.  They clash, they protect each other, and they work magic even without knowing they do.  They draw both good and bad to themselves, and the joy we take in this book is watching them deal with both.  I don’t wish they were my sisters, and yet I see myself and the women I think of as sisters in them.

More than anything this is a contemporary fairytale.

No matter what you think you may know about this book, if you haven’t read it, you can’t know what a joy it is, or the sheer pleasure of the prose, which is lovely and rich. I want more of the Owens women (Thank goodness Hoffman has written a prequel!) and more of Alice Hoffman.

Review: Great Masters: Brahms- His Life and Music (Great Courses), by Robert Greenberg

41gz9KEeiQL._SL500_[1].jpgBack in the day, I was not a fan of Brahms’ music.  Emphatically so. As a result I believed the critics who said he was not deserving of the praise heaped on him.  And then two things happened.  First, I fell hard for the Academic Festival Overture, and began to listen to other works of Brahms with a more open mind.  Second, I listened to this course.

I’ve said before that Professor Greenberg has a knack for sharing his enthusiasm about a composer, and he purely loves Johannes Brahms.  He also has a knack for contextualizing composers and their music in terms of not only their life experiences, but historical events and trends as well.  And in this case he does a beautiful job of giving us a young Johannes who was set to play piano in Hamburg brothels when he was just a child. A natural musician and composer, a man who was a puzzle even to those closest to him, and a composer who, in holding to the rigorous musical forms of the past while expressing the spirit of German romanticism, produced work that made him the true heir to Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach.

Brahms had issues. His childhood experiences in Hamburg brothels soured him on women, and though he fell in love several times in his life, he never married. Possibly this was as much a result of his mania for freedom which kept him from taking any real jobs for most of his life, as it was the trauma of those early years.  But he led what appeared to be a happy, orderly life, had a great many friends in spite of his famously wicked temper and general grumpiness, made a good deal of money, which he then gave away freely, and not incidentally produced some glorious music.

I admit that the professor has some weird verbal tics. He’s often over dramatic (You should see one of his video courses!) and a bit goofy, but his information is top notch and I don’t think you could do better for clear, concise, and memorable learning experiences on music and music history.  His Great Masters series, of which Brahms is one, is reasonably priced through Audible, possibly a bit less so directly from The Great Courses. But so far I consider them well worth the price.  In fact, I sometimes find myself thinking longingly of listening to yet another of Greenberg’s courses.  They’re that good.