Review: The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu, by Joshua Hammer

29431307[1].jpgI admit defeat on this one, though it’s at least in part because my library loan was up and I had to return the book before I could finish it.  My reading has slowed a bit in the last couple of weeks for various personal reasons, and this book took the hit.  Why?  Well it wasn’t what I thought it would be for one thing.  In spite of the title, this story is more about Al Qaeda’s occupation of Mali, and its determination to erase any history or culture not acceptable to Shariah.

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.

So after slogging through increasingly uninteresting (to me) chapters, I finally put it down to read Swing Time, and listen to The Water Knife.  Both are slow going right now, but they’re holding my attention.

So I’m admitting defeat, and listing this as a more-than-half-finished bail.  I wish I could say otherwise, but there it is.

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A Gentleman in Moscow still on the bestseller lists.

moscow[1]I ran across this article — What’s Kept “A Gentleman in Moscow” on the Bestseller Lists? — in Omnivoracious and wanted to share it because as much as I’ve loved many of the other books I’ve read this year, this remains my favorite of 2017, one that I want to revisit, but am holding off on rereading because there’s so much else to read.

After 56 weeks on the best seller lists, it’s still selling well which both is and is not a surprise to me.  Yes, I love it, but I never actually expect  to be in step with a popular taste. It’s not that my tastes are so rarified and elite, but rather that they’re often what people call “weird.”  This touches a lot of comfortable notes for me, and I guess I’m not as alone in them as I thought I was.

In any event, I wanted to take the opportunity to plug my favorite book of 2017 (So far. You never know, right?) Here’s a link to Amazon.com’s product page for A Gentleman in Moscow, where you can find hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audiobook versions.  Here’s a link to the page at Thrift Books, another favorite seller.  And from Powell’s books, where it’s a staff pick, the link to their used hardcover version.

 

Review: Seven Brief Lessons in Physics, by Carlo Rovelli

25734172[1]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.

What I did get out of it was how very beautiful, vast, and magical Physics is, and how much Rovelli loves his subject.  Indeed, his love for the universe and all the things that come together within it shines out from every word of this book.  It became almost a gorgeous fairytale filled with more magic than I can grasp.

This is a book I’d attempt again, but next time as an ebook or hard copy.  The audiobook, usually the best way for me to comprehend difficult scientific concepts, failed me this time.  Or maybe it really didn’t.  I’m reminded of listening to the late, great David Bohm talking about quantum theory, and stopping in mid lecture to say, “You realize that none of us understand this either?”  His audience laughed.  I laughed on the commuter train carrying me home, and we all appreciated his honesty.  I got what I could, and that’s more than I had before I began.

Review: Sourdough, by Robin Sloan

33916024[1]Robin Sloan won my heart with his Penumbra stories, a pair of gently humorous fantasies about books, and readers, and mysterious doings.  When Sourdough popped up in my Book of the Month Club queue I really didn’t know what to think or expect, but I trusted him enough to take the chance, and he didn’t let me down.  I was hooked by the end of the first chapter.

Sourdough explores the idea of food as a spiritual and intellectual pursuit.  Food rescues Lois from the hellish sterility of her high tech job, soothing her rebellious stomach, and providing warmth and a touch of humanity to her day.  But when the restaurant which arguably saved her sanity, has to close, Lois is given a precious crock of sourdough culture to care for.

We watch as she moves from caretaker to active user of the starter, and from there to professional baker, all the while coming to know the starter as a mysterious, moody partner in this process.  She learns who she is and begins to understand her niche in the world.  Along the way we meet the Lois club of San Francisco (and Sloan assures us that there are Lois clubs all over the world) filled with wise Loises who enjoy our Lois’ bread, and give her good advice.  And for a brief, wondrous stretch of the novel, Sloan gives us a deliciously funny horror story about out-of-control bread, and heroic goats.

Yes, it’s kind of crazy, but in the same delightful way Penumbra was.  And I found myself looking at food differently after reading it.  Today I went shopping and spent a lot of time just staring at the produce, thinking about how remarkable it all was.  My concentration apparently provoked a gentleman to come up to me as I stared at a mountain of fat, shining, deeply green jalapenos, and say, “Yes, this is the good stuff.”

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.

Sourdough is the sort of book that should make your heart happy. This one goes on my Keep Forever shelf.

Review: Sheriff Poole and the Mech Gang, by Charles de Lint

19400886[1]I’m only now starting to become familiar with de Lint’s southwestern stories.  Oddly, I’m finding them darker than the Newford tales, though no less enjoyable.  This story of robot gunslingers, aliens, and something which is never really named, leaves me with more questions than answers, and I’m hoping de Lint will expand on the theme and characters in the future.

Dan Cutler has animatronics in his blood and bone.  For generations his family has worked carnival machines, and his father created The Mech Gang, a group of mechanical outlaws that staged shoot-outs with Sheriff Poole, a far more sophisticated clockwork man, whose secrets Dan’s father was never able to figure out. When he died in a mysterious explosion, Dan continued his father’s work, which included driving off alien attackers at regular intervals. When the why of those attacks becomes clear to all of them, Dan’s life changes dramatically.

As I said, 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.

This story is full of wonder in many senses of the word.

Review: Hannah’s Dress, by Pascale Hughes

35059190[1].jpgI’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. She does tell more contemporary history, but the stories of the Jewish families who were among the first to make their homes in this particular street takes up most of her narrative.

So I don’t really understand why this book didn’t touch me. It’s well written, the subject matter is one of my most enduring interests, and yet, I felt removed from it as a reader. Possibly it’s Hughes’ writing style that never quite meshes with the way I think. Or possibly I sense that there was a point for which she was reaching, but which she never quite grasps. It never felt pulled together for me. And that’s a shame because it’s clearly a labor of love for Hughes.

Nevertheless I give her points for her scholarship, her pursuit of the details of people’s lives. I wish I’d found it more engaging.

Review: We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

22738563[1]I’d been wanting to read this for a while now, so on impulse I picked it up yesterday evening and read it last night.  It’s a fast read, under half an hour, but it packs a lot of information into that short space of time.

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. It’s clear that she doesn’t perceive men as the enemy.  It is rather sexual politics which preserve some bizarre status quo that helps no one, harms many, and only divides people.

Adichie wants to see us united.  She wants an inclusive society in which men and women are equal partners in everything, in which we help one another rather than seeking to hold sway.  Power with, not power over.

This was originally a TEDx talk, and it has all the intelligence and good humor you expect from them.  Well worth reading, and definitely worth thinking about more deeply.

Review: Go Ask Alice, By Beatrice Sparks

6146933[1].jpgOkay so I’m late to the party on this one.  But I was nineteen when this was published, and pretty much past the point of caring about the kids-and-drugs message.  But I figured that it was an influential book for a reason, so why not give it a try?

The result?  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.   I didn’t know that before I began reading, though within pages I was certain I was reading fiction.  There was something about the vocabulary that was dead wrong for a 14/15 year old girl.  Later, her use of slang was ludicrous, presumably to show how deeply she’d become enmeshed in the drug culture, and how it changed her.

This is propaganda, and it’s sensationalistic propaganda.  I’m assuming that it was intended to convince young people that drugs will destroy your life.  It’s a noble intention, I suppose, I tend to not like to think of children doing drugs.  But because it’s false, and because it’s so badly written, it’s one of those good intentions you’ll find on the road to Hell.

I know they made a movie of this book, I saw some of it, though I only remember that I found it hilariously bad. Now I see why.

September 2017 Reading Recap

Autumn at last! My favorite season.  Nights get cooler, and lying in bed reading is even more wondrous.

So to recap:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The Miranda by Geoff Nicholson — Nicholson has produced a protagonist who isn’t particularly admirable or likeable, and isn’t particularly anything.  He seems to be a good example of the banality of evil, and yet I’m hard pressed to think of him as evil.  He’s just sort of dull.  And then again, he isn’t dull at all.  Joe is a cypher, and I never quite figured out what made him tick.  And yet, when his stalker does confront him, I was in his corner.
  4. 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.
  5. 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*

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.
  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.

Some final thoughts:  I read a lot of longish things this month, following up at the end of the month with a binge of the shorter things I’d been meaning to get to.  I discovered what a strange and amusing man Nick Offerman really is, and rediscovered my love of Charles de Lint.  I finished the Jackaby series which got better and better as it went on, was disappointed in a couple of choices, and moved back, right at the end, to reading more classics.

It wasn’t as diverse a month as I could have hoped, but there were a couple of women and PoC represented, and one foreign language story.  Non-fiction was also not as represented as I usually like, but the Symphonies course was quite long, and the forensics book affected me so negatively that I had to bail.

In October I’ll be talking about Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (he’s becoming a great favorite dystopian writer,) Behind Enemy Lines, an account of a young Jewish woman who worked in the resistance during WWII, and a few ARCs which I’ve been collecting and not reading; shame on me.  It’s just a bit difficult for me to hold hard copy books sometimes because of the nerve problems in my hands.

Okay, gotta get back to reading.  See you later!

Stats

  • Books read: 16
  • Rereads: 1
  • Bailed: 1
  • Books by women: 3
  • Books by people of color: 3
  • Books in translation: 1
  • Books by LGBT authors or with LGBT themes/characters: 5
  • Books about books: 1
  • SF/Fantasy: 7
  • Mystery/Thriller: 2
  • Mainstream fiction: 2
  • YA: 1
  • Audio books: 2
  • Non-fiction:  3
  • ARCs: 1
  • Favorite of the month: It’s particularly tough this month to choose.  I loved the Jackaby books which just got better with each new volume.  And Professor Greenberg is always a joy to listen to. But in the end, I think the one that gave me the most pleasure was Paddle Your Own Canoe.  Nick wins by a (moustache) hair.
  • Least favorite: Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge

Review: Master and Man, by Leo Tolstoy

29542727[1].jpgCount Leo Tolstoy, that most Russian of Russian writers, fervent Christian, pacifist, and anarchist, is possibly one of the most influential writers of the 19th century.  His work informs not only fiction, but social and political thought as well.

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.  We see Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov, a wealthy businessman, set out on what should be a short trip to purchase some land for a fraction of what it’s worth.  It’s winter, the weather is threatening, but he insists on going, and only his wife’s pleading makes him take his servant, Nikita.

Because of Brekhunov’s ineptness and stubbornness, the trip turns nightmarish as they lose their way over and over until finally they are trapped in a deep drift in the middle of a violent snowstorm.  It is only at the very end of his life that Brekhunov discovers that his wealth is meaningless, and the only thing worth doing is to care for his fellow man.

Too little, too late, fella.

Tolstoy, who came from a wealthy, aristocratic family himself, has no real patience with either master or man, showing us that they’re both fools for believing the master to be superior.  Nikita, a binge-drinker, has pledged not to drink, but longs for his vodka.  He allows Brekhunov to cheat him of his rightful wages because he’s too intellectually lazy to figure out how to approach the issue, just as he’s too lazy to confront his wife about her affair with their boarder.  As they travel, instead of recognizing the potential for disaster in their situation, Nikita dozes off over and over, trusting Brekhunov to get them where they’re going safely, and each time, he awakens to find themselves in worse straits. His unthinking trust in Brekhunov nearly kills him.

The story itself is a little heavy-handed, but Tolstoy was writing in the 19th century when moral tales were always a little obvious.  In the 21st century, they seem clichéd.  And yet it seems that we haven’t really learned these lessons.  In many countries, the United States included, the people are being led by men who have no business being in charge of a sledge in the snow much less a country.

Master and Man is a short, worthwhile read, and a good introduction to Tolstoy’s thought.  It’s certainly an easier place to begin than War and Peace, which is how I introduced myself to Tolstoy.