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.

Advertisements

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.

 

 

Review: Two by Charles de Lint

32331613[1]I forgot about Charles de Lint.  There was a time when I couldn’t get enough of his writing, having picked up Moonheart on a whim, fallen in love with it, and forced it on all my friends who also fell in love with it. Each of us, Karen, Glinda, and I, ordered a hardcover copy from the UK because we had to have the hardcover.

But over time, I turned to other things, other authors, and forgot about the magic of de Lint’s world, which is a shame.  It’s a beautiful place where everything is alive, everything has a spirit, a meaning.

In Somewhere in my mind there is a Painting Box de Lint gives us a young woman hungry for a bigger life.  She wants to be an artist, but without money or training, she’s not likely to accomplish much.  One day she finds an abandoned paint box that had belonged to an artist who worked in the area years earlier.  Since he disappeared with an apprentice, his work has become famous, so when Lillian sees the artist’s name on one of the panels, she knows exactly who the box belonged to.

Lillian knows there is magic in the world, she’s experienced it, she expects it.  So when she encounters the young apprentice in the woods, looking not a day older than he was when he and the older artist disappeared, she accepts his tale of having crossed into another world, one so beautiful and brilliant that neither he nor the older artist ever needed to paint again.

19013595[1]The second book, Crow Roads, gives us a story set in the past, about a stranger who comes to a small town, antagonizes the boys and challenges one of them to a contest. After he fights with them, he seduces Annie, the narrator of the story, and then disappears.

She knows she’s been touched by magic just as Lillian knows.  They understand and accept.  But both women find that the encounters put them at crossroads in their lives, and force them to make choices which, even a day earlier, were not remotely available to them.

These are stories about girls becoming their own women, growing, coming to understand who they are, what they want from their lives, and what they have to do to get it.

These are stories about choices, and the not-always-reliable lure of magic.  They made me sorry that I’d stopped reading de Lint.  But it doesn’t matter, because I’ve begun again.  Like meeting an old friend.

Review: The City Born Great, by N. K. Jemisin

32304041[1]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.

There are enemies.  There are always enemies, but a great city will defeat them with the help of its chosen midwives, people who love their cities so much that they become a physical part of them.

It’s a beautiful idea, particularly if you live in a city you love, as I do. If you feel the rhythm of your city’s life and cherish it, and the people in it.  And Jemisin’s prose, though spare, spares us nothing of the fear, and hope, and joy of New York becoming a living city in the presence of Paris, Sao Paulo, and many others who gather there and await the birth.

It is a beautiful story.  I finished it and wanted to reread it immediately.  I didn’t.  It was late, I had two more Kindle singles to get through, and I was growing tired. But I know I will in the future, that’s how much I loved it.  Every time I read something by Nora Jemisin I recall again that she is a Hugo winner, and think, “Well of course.”

Review: Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz

32970179[1]It’s an interesting conceit to write a mystery novel within a mystery novel.  Right from the start I was wondering how Horowitz was going to connect the two, and how the internal mystery novel would inform the events of the external one, events which we hear about right at the beginning.  When editor Susan Ryeland tells us outright that her client’s novel, “Magpie Murders” changed her life, she doesn’t mean it in the sense that most of us do when we say things, like “I love this book, it changed my life!” or “You must read this, it will change your life.”  She means that she lost a great deal as a result of sitting down and reading that manuscript including her job.

I enjoyed the mysteries (all of them, there are a handful) because they kept me guessing.  In some cases I was right, in some I was wrong, and that’s a good thing.  If a mystery is too predictable, it’s not fun.  But I’m still a little unhappy about the actual writing because I felt that too often Horowitz’s narrators were telling us what to think about people and events, and I didn’t feel that was quite fair.  It felt as if he often had Ryeland, or the detective hero of the internal mystery, Atticus Pünd, stepping back to tell us that this thing or that would never happen, and so we could eliminate this other thing.  It bothered me because that’s not quite playing fair, in my opinion.  We don’t need to be told what to think, we need to be given the clues, and allowed to make up our own minds.  If a clue needs to be discounted, the detective can always tell one of the other characters so.  But the introspective pauses seemed too much.

I’m probably not explaining as well as I’d want to.  Possibly I’m still not absolutely sure what it is about the narrative that irritated and befuddled me.  I thought it might be a weakness in the style of the fictional author that the editor would pick up on, and wondered if it meant something sinister.  But no, Horowitz does it throughout both novels, so it’s a weakness in his writing.  He also doesn’t hold his point of view as well as he should.  I’m not a stickler for that, but there were times when I didn’t note him switching from one character to another, and it was jarring.

I slogged through the first half of the book, wondering what on earth readers saw in Pünd who had no discernible personality that I could see.  The second half moved along at a better pace, and had characters who, if they didn’t scintillate, at least were livelier than Pünd and his assistant.

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.

All things considered, it was worth my time.

Review: Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee

33382987[1]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.

It started out pretty well, but after a few hundred pages Lilliet, or whatever she was calling herself at that point, wore thin with me.  She’s so passive and seemingly indecisive that by the end I was shouting at my Kindle “For God’s sake just make up your mind!” She lurches through the book doing what people tell her to do, resenting it, making a move, changing her mind, backsliding, trying to decide what she feels… it was like reading the diary of a teenager. Basically Lilliet is a bore as are the people around her.  The only truly interesting character in the entire book is a real person, Pauline Viardot, a famous soprano and voice teacher who lived for many years en menage with her husband and Ivan Turgenev.  Viardot is vibrant and charming, in this book, and provides some of the best passages.

Other than that, the book is filled with people giving up love for the sake of someone else, descriptions of operas, and really endless descriptions of clothing and jewels.  I admit I skimmed the last hundred pages because I simply wanted it to end.  I don’t really know what else to say about it.

Opinion seems divided on this one, and that’s fine.  However you feel about a book is how you feel about it, and it’s perfectly valid even if everyone else felt differently.  The thing is, I wanted to love it, I truly did.  And that made my disappointment the greater.

Oh well…

Review: Soul and the City: Art, Literature, and Urban Living, by Arnold Weinstein

2287758[1]I’m a city girl.  I love Chicago and have lived here all my life.  I can barely imagine living anywhere else, though Copenhagen is a close second.  I found this survey of how art describes the city to be fascinating, even though it’s mainly focused on European cities, and then on the city in previous centuries.

It’s a dark course, at least in part because the city is a dark concept in many ways.  Urban crime, urban grime, the manner in which isolation increases in a city environment (I don’t find that true, but then I’m an introvert for whom the city provides just enough contact with others.)  Art describes this as surely as it does the vibrancy of the city, and the way the arts flourish within it.

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.

As with most of the Great Courses, I recommend this one unreservedly.