wandering_star's 2020 vision

KeskusteluClub Read 2020

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wandering_star's 2020 vision

1wandering_star
tammikuu 3, 2020, 9:31am

A quick first post to say that I am once again looking forward to a year of hearing about everyone's reading, and discussing books, in this group.

I'm also reposting from my 2019 thread my list of favourites.

+++

These were my top rated books in 2019 (in reverse order of date read):

5*
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
The Lost Man by Jane Harper
Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck
The Watcher in the Pine by Rebecca Pawel
My Favourite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris

4.5*
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun
The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

And looking back, the books that have stood out and which I've been recommending are (in order of preference):

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (the story of a house by a lake in Eastern Germany and the people who lived in it over the course of the 20th century, told in a semi-experimental style)
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad (atmospheric scenes from the past, present and future of Bangkok, linked by the fact that all the characters live in the same place)
Milkman by Anna Burns (I gave this four stars because I found it a bit long, but the way that the author uses language to show all the social constraints on people, and all the things which couldn't be said, is really unique and powerful)
My Favourite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris (graphic novel - a misfit young girl draws her own life and the life story of a mysterious upstairs neighbour)
Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun (a young girl lives a peripatetic lifestyle in Europe after her charismatic but self-indulgent father flees Nazi Germany)
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (the Trojan war, retold from a feminist standpoint)
The Lost Man by Jane Harper (top-quality crime, in which the harshness of outback Australia is almost a character in its own right - the same author's Force of Nature was a 4* read for me this year)
The Cutting Season by Attica Locke (another excellent crime, bringing together two mysterious deaths, the historic one of a plantation slave and the contemporary one of a Latin American migrant worker)

2kidzdoc
tammikuu 4, 2020, 10:39am

Happy New Year!

3AlisonY
tammikuu 4, 2020, 2:43pm

Happy new year! Look forward to your 2020 reading.

4ELiz_M
tammikuu 5, 2020, 8:27am

Happy New Year! I always enjoy your reviews and am looking forward to what you're reading this year.

5raton-liseur
tammikuu 5, 2020, 8:42am

Happy new year! I'm looking forward to following your reading journey this year!

6dchaikin
tammikuu 5, 2020, 6:23pm

Quietly, mainly, but I'm following and taking notes on the gems that pop up. Happy New Year.

7wandering_star
tammikuu 10, 2020, 8:11pm

Hi everyone! Lovely to see you all here.

1. Lumberjanes, Vol 1 by Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters and Grace Ellis

I wasn't really planning for this to be my first read of the year. But it turns out that it's one of those 'Volume Ones' which is in effect the first chapter of a story, so before I knew it, it was over!

It also makes it a little bit hard to review, as this was a library book and the library doesn't have any of the other books in the series (my resolution for 2020 is not to acquire any new stuff, but I'm allowing myself to borrow books).

But for what it's worth: a group of friends are away at summer camp. One night they have sneaked out of their cabin and are having strange adventures in the woods. Their cabin leader catches them and hauls them over to the camp leader for a telling off, but her reaction to their story suggests that she'll be more forgiving than the cabin leader.

And - that's where the volume ends. Not a lot for £11, which is the full cost of the hard copy of the book.

It seemed fun and if there had been more I would have read on. But that's kind of all I can say by way of a review.

8wandering_star
tammikuu 10, 2020, 8:42pm

2. Lucia by Alex Pheby

This novel tells the story of Lucia Joyce, daughter of James, and someone who led an extraordinary and troubled life. She was a dancer, who took on a small role in a Jean Renoir film. She was friends with Samuel Beckett (with whom she may have had a short affair), had a relationship with Alexander Calder (who was teaching her drawing) and was treated by Carl Jung, but was diagnosed with schizophrenia in her late twenties and spent much of the rest of her life in institutions, until she died at the age of 75.

There is a controversial theory that Lucia was sexually abused by her brother as a child: Pheby picks this up in this book, as well as including similar mistreatment by her father and many other men she comes into contact with. He tells her story elliptically: many of the chapters are told from the point of view of unnamed men, and you have to watch out for the one sentence or reference which tells you how their lives intersected with Lucia's. But in almost every story there is something about the general cruelty of the world to the powerless, reflected in but much larger than Lucia's own life.

The chapters are also interleaved with a short story about an archaeologist discovering an Egyptian tomb, which appears to have been desecrated before it's been sealed. He concludes that this is because the dead woman in the tomb was believed by her family to have been cursed, and so they didn't want her to have the usual protections in the afterlife. This is a reference both to the family's destruction of papers relating to Lucia Joyce, and to Pheby's own efforts in writing this book.

So it's all very clever. And I do think in principle it's possible to write a clever book about someone who is treated appallingly without losing a sense of that person as a human being (for example, The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times which is similarly a 'clever' book about an abused child, which doesn't forget the person at the centre of the story). But I don't think that Lucia does that.

That is troubling in a human sense. But after a while it also started to make the book a bit boring. As I started each new chapter I knew that it would be about someone who is treating other people badly, but told through that character's self-justification. I knew that there would be one detail which was really gross, but told in the same bloodless way as the rest of the chapter. And I knew that the whole thing would appeal only to the intellect and not the emotions.

They are cold themselves, hungry themselves, hopeless themselves, differing from her only by degree, and there but for the grace of God go we, and all the sooner if we waste money we don’t have on matches we don’t need for children who misrepresent themselves on the street on New Year’s Eve, when the numbers reach the end and begin again.
It is hard, though, to misrepresent death.
It is equally hard to represent oneself as having a conscience when one does not.
She cares about none of this: neither that they do not care for her, nor that they might be induced to care for her once she is dead. It is a condition of care that it comes after the event, when one can be sure it is merited and after there is any practical requirement on one to do anything except feel appalled. Felling appalled is a very trivial matter, and something that can be done whilst going about one’s normal business without it impacting too much.

9lilisin
tammikuu 10, 2020, 9:11pm

Always great to find your thread and hope we will get a chance to see each other again this year.

10wandering_star
tammikuu 11, 2020, 4:35am

>9 lilisin: in the absence of being able to come to Japan, here's a review of a Japanese book!

3. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Keiko has never really understood other human beings. Things which seem perfectly normal to her (hitting two fighting teenagers with a spade, as the quickest way to stop them fighting; cooking a dead bird she finds in the park) make them react in strange ways. She feels fortunate, therefore, to have a job in a convenience store, where she always knows what is the appropriate thing to do.

I was good at mimicking the trainer’s examples and the model video he’d shown us in the back room. It was the first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech.

By close observation and imitation of normal people, and with a bit of help from her sister in coming up with plausible excuses why she's been working at the same convenience store for the last eighteen years, Keiko manages to fit in, as long as no-one asks too many questions. But one day someone does ask too many questions and Keiko concludes that a new approach is needed.

I actually really liked Keiko - particularly her description of the way that she copies the speaking and dressing style of age-appropriate colleagues. I'd actually have been happy to read a book about her quietly getting on with her existence, and am rather sorry that Murata, like her protagonist, felt that something needed to happen to bring events to a head. I enjoyed that part of the story much less.

11valkyrdeath
tammikuu 11, 2020, 5:46pm

Stopping by to follow your thread, looking forward to another year.

>7 wandering_star: I really enjoyed the first few volumes of Lumberjanes when I read them, but I do wish they'd stop collecting comics in groups of four issues and releasing them as a book. When it's a long ongoing series, those volumes always feel so insubstantial. I'd far rather they wait a bit longer and create a bigger book, but I guess they'd make less money that way.

12avaland
Muokkaaja: tammikuu 15, 2020, 5:25pm

Just now getting over here to say I'll be stopping by from time to time. I enjoyed the Convenience Store Woman also.

ETA: I've also enjoyed every Attica Locke I've read (3?)

13rocketjk
tammikuu 12, 2020, 8:41am

A belated Happy New Year and happy reading in 2020. Cheers!

14rachbxl
tammikuu 14, 2020, 3:18am

Found you! Looking forward to following your reading again this year.

15wandering_star
tammikuu 27, 2020, 2:34am

4. The Torso by Helene Tursten

Scandinavian thriller, which starts when a dog-walker discovers part of a human body on the beach.

The things I liked most about this were the interesting culture clashes between the Swedes and the Danes (the body washes up in Sweden, but has links to another similar murder which had taken place in Denmark); and the feminist angle (lots of senior women, who get varying degrees of respect from their male colleagues - and the bodies which pile up are not female - although that brings along some rather dated attitudes to homosexuality).

Other than that, though, I thought this was a perfectly fine, simple crime novel - nothing really stood out for me.

Jens Metz asked Jonny if he wanted a “little one.” Jonny said that he craved a Danish schnapps even though it was only ten o’clock in the morning. When the dark schnapps came, Jens toasted with his coffee cup and Jonny with his shot glass, just like two old friends. I wonder what the reaction would have been if I had been the one with the hangover and had arrived two hours late, thought Irene. She was quite certain that no one would have pounded her on the back and called her “dear friend” or offered her an eye-opener. The Danish colleagues would have thought that an intoxicated female police officer was an abomination, probably a drunk, and a bad cop.

16wandering_star
Muokkaaja: tammikuu 27, 2020, 2:42am

5. Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

A graphic memoir (ie comic book format, not gruesome, although it's sometimes also that) about the author's relationship with her elderly parents.

It's been billed as something funny, and to start off it is - particularly as Chast's parents concerns and preoccupations are very similar to my mother's (and elderly immigrants everywhere, I suppose). But as it continues it is brutally honest about the subject of her parents' decline and what this meant for the family in practical terms. And again, this hit harder for me because I'd laughed in recognition so much at the earlier parts of the book.

Really good, and to be recommended, but sometimes a tough read.

17wandering_star
Muokkaaja: tammikuu 29, 2020, 9:23am

6. Billion Dollar Whale by Tom Wright & Bradley Hope

An eye-watering story digging into the fraud behind the 1MDB scandal, in which hundred of millions of US$ were stolen from an account supposedly set up to finance infrastructure and other development projects in Malaysia.

The Whale of the title (a reference to what clubs and casinos call their big spenders) is a young Malaysian man called Jho Low, who from an early age loved to host lavish parties and throw lots of money around. On one occasion described in the book, while hanging out with Paris Hilton, Low spent €2m on champagne in a single night (needless to say, this bought more champagne than the whole club-ful of people could drink). But the authors are just as critical of the supposedly reputable banks, auditors and other institutions who were happy to accept and facilitate very dubious-looking deals, as long as a cut of the profits was rolling in their direction.

It's a well-written book, which helps to explain the financial flows just as well as it characterises Low's big-spending habits. One thing I found very curious was the way that Low managed to attract some genuine A-list celebrities to hang out with him. I mean, it's easy to imagine Hilton and the other Z-listers in the book making as much money as possible while they can. But Alicia Keys? Jamie Foxx? The authors explain how Leonardo di Caprio and Martin Scorsese were happy to work with Low because they got complete creative control of their work. (Low's company famously financed The Wolf of Wall Street, which it turns out Warner Bros were not willing to support because they didn't think an R rated film would make its money back. This meant that Scorsese got to crash a real Lamborghini in the opening scene - Warner Bros would have demanded he use a replica. One fascinating snippet is that one of the people who saw through Low very quickly was Jordan Belfort, the subject of Wolf of Wall Street, who after one of Low's parties apparently said "This is a fucking scam ... You wouldn't spend money you'd worked for like that.").

In a strange way, Low is a vacuum at the heart of the book. Other than wanting to be seen and to throw parties, it's hard to know what drove him. Perhaps if he ever stops being a fugitive from justice and comes to trial, we will be able to find out more.

Ordinary folk often get questioned by their banks for small transfers of money. But billionaires are not ordinary. By this point, Low was by far the biggest client that BSI had anywhere in the world, and he was making a lot of people in the bank richer than they ever could have hoped. He was referred to as “Big Boss” in the bank’s Singapore offices, and senior BSI executives would join him for parties in Las Vegas and on yachts. The bank’s senior executives would do all they could to keep Low’s business. Within days of Low’s email*, BSI’s top executives approved the $110 million transfer. “Intra family transfers are not always going to be logical,” a senior BSI banker wrote in response to the compliance officer’s concerns.

*claiming that a transfer that had been routed from one of Low's accounts through his father's account and into another of his accounts was a simple case of a Confucian son trying to give money to his honoured father, who then gave it back.

18wandering_star
tammikuu 29, 2020, 9:40am

7. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

Well, this was a lot of fun. The Alchemist's Daughter of the title is one Mary Jekyll. Yes, that Jekyll. Or perhaps it refers to one of the other characters - Diana Hyde, Catherine Moreau or Justine Frankenstein, or one Beatrice Rappaccini (who turns out to come from a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne).

As the story starts, Mary Jekyll's mother has just died, leaving Mary penniless. The family lawyer informs her that a certain sum of money has been leaving the accounts each month, for the care of "Hyde". Mary remembers that there is still a bounty on the head of Edward Hyde, a former contact of her father's, and thinks that this might be the solution to her financial worries. She contacts Sherlock Holmes to help her track down Hyde - but instead ends up meeting a number of women who were made monsters by their experimenting creators. (Or are they monsters? This is one of the things the women argue over - for they all chip in to the writing of the story).

In an afterword, Goss says that the germ of the story came from a question that she started asking while working on her PhD dissertation: "Why did so many of the mad scientists in nineteenth-century narratives create, or start creating but then destroy, female monsters?"

Here be monsters.

~~~

MARY: I don’t think that’s the right epigraph for the book.
CATHERINE: Then you write the bloody thing. Honestly, I don’t know why I agreed to do this.
MARY: Because we need money.
CATHERINE: As usual.

19dchaikin
tammikuu 31, 2020, 10:31pm

>16 wandering_star: That page you posted is so sad.

(Also, interesting about Billion Dollar Whale)

20lisapeet
tammikuu 31, 2020, 11:10pm

>16 wandering_star: That book walked the most incredibly fine line between hilarity and heartbreak. I think it helps to have or have had a parent with dementia to laugh at that very black humor, though maybe not necessary.

21wandering_star
helmikuu 8, 2020, 9:03pm

>19 dchaikin:, >20 lisapeet: Yes, and sad in a particularly gut-punching way because you aren't expecting it, and also because given the graphic format, the writer doesn't have to find emotional words to describe it - just showing what happened in a very simple and unadorned way.

22wandering_star
Muokkaaja: helmikuu 8, 2020, 9:37pm

8. The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years by Chinghiz Aitmatov

It's not uncommon for a book to take you somewhere which is completely removed from your personal reality. But I'm trying to think of another example of a book which has really conveyed a sense of life which is different from anything I've ever even read or heard about. Right now I can't think of one.

The setting of this book is a railway junction in the middle of the Central Asian steppe. Apart from the railway lines crossing each other, there is nothing for hundreds of miles around.

You must have the will to live on the Sarozek junctions—otherwise you perish. The steppe is vast and man is small. The steppe takes no sides; it doesn’t care if you are in trouble or if all is well with you; you have to take the steppe as it is. But a man cannot remain indifferent to the world around him; it worries him and torments him to think that he could be happier somewhere else, and that he is where he is simply through a mistake of fate. Because of this he wears himself out before the great, pitiless steppe and loses his will, just as that accumulator on Shaimerden’s three-wheel motor-bike loses its charge. The owner looks after it, but does not ride it or lend it to anyone else. So the machine stands idle—and that’s all there is to it—soon it won’t start up any more, its starting power is lost. It is the same with a man at a Sarozek junction: he fails to get on with his work, to put down roots in the steppe, to adjust to his surroundings; and then he finds he can’t settle down. Passengers look out from passing trains, shake their heads and ask: “God, how can people live here? Nothing but steppe and camels!” But people who have enough patience can live here. For three years, or four, with an effort. But then they pack up and get as far away as possible. Only two people really put down roots at Boranly-Burannyi—Kazangap and he, Burannyi Yedigei.

At the start of the novel, Yedigei is told that the old man Kazangap has died. Kazangap was already well established at the Sarozek junctions when Yedegei arrived in the 1950s, shattered by the experience of fighting in the war. Yedigei decides that, for all the Soviet teachings, Kazangap should be buried properly, in the old way, and so they set out by tractor and camel to take the body to the cemetery. The story of the journey is interleaved with the stories of Kazangap, Yedigei, and others who have stopped at the junction for a few years, as well as traditional Kazakh myths and legends. Through these, the book touches on the history of the steppe as well as the modern changes, including some of the brutality of Soviet politics (one character ends up in Sarozek because he fought for the Soviet Union in a way which later became seen as politically suspect: the scene in which the apparatchik interrogates Yedigei and twists his words into something incriminating is chilling).

It's not a perfect book. There is a science fiction-y subplot which contains some political critique which I don't think was needed - you get all that you need from the story of the steppe. And there's a love story which reads very differently to a female reader than I think the author intended. But regardless of these criticisms, it's a really interesting read, and one that I think will stay with me.

23wandering_star
helmikuu 8, 2020, 9:53pm

9. The Meaning of Rice by Michael Booth

A food-focused travelogue of Japan.

I generally avoid funny travelogues because I find they often get their humour by poking fun at the country they are about, rather than seeing a difference and thinking 'how interesting - I wonder why that is'. But a friend recommended this to me, and I did really enjoy it.

Yes, there is a little bit of 'lost in translation' style humour, but Booth is genuinely enthusiastic about Japanese food and admiring of the commitment and hard work of most of the people that he meets - and he shares my obsession with Japanese citruses!

This is followed by a slice of a remarkable fruit, the hyuganatsu, a citrus which – I later look up – spontaneously evolved following the freak pairing of a yuzu and a pomelo in a garden in Miyazaki in the 1820s. The hyuganatsu looks like a self-satisfied yuzu, plump with a beautifully smooth complexion. It is not only blessed with delicious, sweet orange flesh, but also has edible pith which is neither bitter nor astringent like every other citrus fruit I know, but sweet and delicately fragrant. I have a kind of pith phobia but this is fantastic. I add it to my mental list of those obscure local citrus fruits with which Japan abounds, like the dekopon from nearby Kumamoto, the vivacious sudachi (like a kind of mini lime with orange flesh), or the sweet kumquat, the 'kinkan'.

24wandering_star
helmikuu 9, 2020, 1:42am

10. Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem

An unexpectedly fascinating read about picking up bits of historical detritus on the banks of the Thames. Maiklem is a dedicated 'mudlark', but also someone with a vivid historical imagination - a battered shoe sole is not just a piece of ancient leather, but sends her off thinking about the Elizabethan woman who lost a shoe in the river. She has a knack for conveying the historical fascination, as well as her own delight in spotting the tiniest remains on the rivershore.

And the things that are there to find are remarkable - Iron and Bronze Age weaponry has been found on the banks of the Thames, but according to Maiklem, even a casual search can find Elizabethan remains, if you know what you're looking for. In fact I once had a look at the Thames foreshore myself, on an organised group visit with an experienced mudlark, and we found a lot of Victorian remains and one broken shard of Elizabethan pottery (associated with the Globe Theatre, not far from where we were standing.

But I would never have guessed that it's even possible to find fishbones! (at the shore in front of the old Palace of Greenwich) as well as fabric and wood remains. It turns out that because the mud of the Thames lacks oxygen, it is able to preserve all kinds of things, although the risk is that they fall apart as soon as they are recovered from the mud.

Maiklem has her own instagram @london.mudlark and also a specific instagram account for pictures linked to the book, @laramaiklem_mudlarking. The images there include a Roman bone game counter; a button celebrating the marriage of Charles I; the traces of wooden stakes from a possible Iron Age fish trap. Well worth a look (the instagram and the book)!

Sometimes the smell alone tells me where I am. At the tidal head, the river gives off the soft earthy scent of rotting leaves. On the Isle of Dogs, where the sand is dark with flakes of rust, the smell is hard and metallic. As the sun warms the thick strip of tar on the foreshore at Blackwall, the scent of sailing ships is conjured from the mud, while the oil-soaked sand at Woolwich releases traces of engines and machinery. At Erith and Vauxhall, when the tide is low, the fragrance of the foreshore is peaty and ancient. If time were odorous, it would smell like this.

25lisapeet
helmikuu 9, 2020, 8:35am

>24 wandering_star: I was going to say I had another, similar book by Maiklem on the same subject, but a little poking around turned up the fact that Mudlark: In Search of London's Past Along the River Thames was the American/Canadian version of the same book (and entering this gives the touchstone of the edition you mentioned. Amazon, of course, encourages you to buy both, heh. I haven't read it yet, but it appeals to the part of me that's constantly picking things up on my walks and putting them in my coat pockets.

26markon
Muokkaaja: helmikuu 9, 2020, 3:13pm

>22 wandering_star:, >23 wandering_star:, >24 wandering_star: - all of these sound interesting! Mudlark: in search of London's past along the river is the easiest one for me to get hold of, so onto Mt. TBR it goes.

27wandering_star
helmikuu 10, 2020, 8:39am

>25 lisapeet: ...it appeals to the part of me that's constantly picking things up on my walks and putting them in my coat pockets. In that case I think you would definitely enjoy it!

>26 markon: Thank you - I have had a good reading run recently. Continued in

11. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

This is a fragmented memoir about being in an abusive relationship. As such, it's sometimes a tough read (the abuse is mostly emotional/psychological, but occasionally physical). And yet it's the sort of book I want to go around recommending to people. It reminded me a little of Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation, a novel about divorce told in a similarly fragmentary manner. I think that works for these two stories because the structure creates a sense of 'how did I end up here', so far from what the narrators were expecting at the start of the relationship.

In the Dream House gives us a series of short images and episodes from the relationship - from the first excitement of lust and love, through the loved one's increasingly unpredictable behaviour, to terrible scenes of rage and jealousy.

You will remember so little about the dinner except that, at the end of it, you want to prolong the evening and so you order tea of all things. You drink it—a mouthful of heat and herb, scorching the roof of your mouth—while trying not to stare at her, trying to be charming and nonchalant while desire gathers in your limbs. Your female crushes were always floating past you, out of reach, but she touches your arm and looks directly at you and you feel like a child buying something with her own money for the first time.

And later:

The next day, after you say good-bye to your friends, you sit in the car in the parking lot as she talks at you—your friends hate me, they’re jealous. An hour later you are still there, your head bent tearily against the window. The new bride walks by and notices you in your car. You see her slow down, her face crimped with puzzlement and concern. You shake your head ever so slightly, and she looks uncertain but mercifully she keeps walking so you can endure your punishment in peace. By the time you’ve wound out of the mountains and gotten back to a freeway, the bite of the fight has sweetened; whiskey unraveled by ice.

Some of the episodes are told in stylistically clever ways, which could have seemed gimmicky except that there is always a reason for it which takes you back to what Machado is saying, and which makes sense emotionally. A short chapter which is a 'lipogram' (without the letter 'e') makes a point about what it's like when there is something huge that you can't talk to anyone about. A chapter in the form of a 'choose your own adventure story' conveys the sense that no matter what Machado did, it wasn't right, and there was no way to break out of the cycle of fights and anger.

28wandering_star
helmikuu 10, 2020, 8:55am

After that powerful read I needed something light, so I turned to

12. European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss, the sequel to >18 wandering_star:. In this episode, the intrepid and monstrous women of the Athena Club receive an appeal to rescue one Lucinda Van Helsing, apparently incarcerated by her father in a mental institution in Vienna. Along their way they meet more characters from Victorian fiction, from She and Carmilla as well as Dracula.

Early on in this book I wondered if the style would start to become tired - it's very similar to the series opener, with the characters chipping in to interrupt the narrator; both books are LONG; and I'm not sure that any of the main characters are especially three-dimensional. But they are fun, and I am happy to say that I was soon drawn in again. I'll give it a slightly longer break before I read the third in the series though.

“Bea, I’m worried about the two of you going into such a dangerous situation,” said Clarence. “Mrs. Norton, you’ve been describing all this very calmly, but a man who would conduct experiments on his own wife and daughter must be a man entirely without moral qualms. If Beatrice and Cat need my help . . .”
“That’s very kind of you, Clarence,” said Beatrice gently. “But you see, Catherine and I have natural defenses—I have my poison, and Catherine has her agility, her ability to see and smell beyond the human range, her fangs. You would not be protecting us—we would need to protect you.”
“Got it,” said Clarence. He looked a little nonplussed as he cut into his schnitzel.
“But it was chivalrous of you to offer,” she added.
He gave her a swift glance, as though wondering if she were mocking him, but Beatrice simply smiled and continued with her dinner.

29rachbxl
Muokkaaja: helmikuu 10, 2020, 10:02am

>22 wandering_star: Have you read Aitmatov’s Jamilia? I read it years ago, but I remember clearly being transported to another world in a way that I couldn’t remember another book having done.

30rhian_of_oz
helmikuu 16, 2020, 1:16am

>24 wandering_star: This sounds very interesting and has been added to my wishlist. I love the idea of "hidden treasure" searched for in plain sight.

31wandering_star
helmikuu 20, 2020, 10:15am

>29 rachbxl: I haven't - but I will look out for it now!

32wandering_star
helmikuu 20, 2020, 10:43am

13. The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

Malaya, 1931. Ren, a young orphan, working as a houseboy, makes a promise to his dying master, Dr MacFarlane - he will find the master's lost finger and bury it in his grave within 49 days of his death, so that the soul can progress into the afterlife. Fifty miles away, a teenage girl (Ji Lin) accidentally takes something from a man's pocket - a specimen bottle containing the top two joints of a severed finger.

One of the themes in the book is around the Malay myth of the were-tiger, a human who transforms into a tiger to hunt at night. One of the ways that you can spot a were-tiger is that one of their limbs is always damaged. In addition to missing a finger, Dr MacFarlane would say things in his dying delirium about wandering to distant districts, and it would then be reported that someone had been killed by a tiger in that spot. But the tiger attacks don't stop after Ren goes to work for a new master (another British doctor) - and there are a number of other mysterious deaths as well.

I really enjoyed this book at the start. I was drawn into the story quickly and enjoyed the setting, the signs of linkages and parallels between Ren's and Ji Lin's stories, and the interweaving of supernatural events. But, unfortunately, it started to annoy me after a while - both main characters keep going over and over the same ground in a way that started to grate; the way the stories linked together became more laboured; and I kept spotting things which were just wrong for the characters and the time (eg Ji Lin describes lotus seed pods as looking like shower heads - they do, but I can't imagine a girl from a traditional family in 1930s Malaya coming up with that comparison). By the end I was really just skimming to find out what happened.

A gust of wind shivers through the house, banging all the doors simultaneously. To Ren, peering out of the window at the top of the stairs, the trees are a waving green ocean surrounding the bungalow. It’s a ship in a storm, and Ren is the cabin boy peeking out of a porthole. Clutching the windowsill like a life buoy, Ren wonders what secrets lurk in the jungle surrounding them, and if his old master is in fact doomed to roam this vast green expanse forever, trapped in the form of a tiger.

33wandering_star
helmikuu 20, 2020, 11:15am

14. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

This was exactly what I needed after the slightly frustrating previous read. It's a short but hugely impactful book, which starts with a girl walking down the stairs to her sixteenth birthday celebration. Melody is wearing a dress that once belonged to her mother, Iris - in fact, was bought for Iris' own sixteenth birthday ceremony, but by the time that date came around, Iris was too pregnant with Melody to fit into it. Each chapter then takes us through the story of a different member of the family, and shows how families are made - how an event, an encounter, can echo forward through the years, and how responsibilities to each other are taken up and broken.

When I lean back against my daddy’s chest, I can feel his heart beating. Not the slow beat I’d remembered falling asleep to. This was fast and hard. This was a terrifying pounding in his chest that I had to lift my head away from. Iris was humming as she packed. Every so often, she came over and kissed us both on our cheeks. She was happier than I’d ever seen her.

34wandering_star
helmikuu 20, 2020, 11:30am

15. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Very enjoyable read, which transplants the basic structure of a heist movie (get the gang together; make a complicated plan; watch the plan unfold - or unravel?) into an urban fantasy genre. The setting is a sort of alternate Golden Age Netherlandish city, in which competing bands of ruffians run different scams and entertainment houses. Kaz Brekker took over one of the smaller gangs and has built it up into a force to be reckoned with. He's still a criminal, though, and he never expected he would be approached by one of the most respectable merchants in the town - but one of the city's enemies appears to have developed a new, much stronger, form of magic, and his wits are needed.

I liked this a lot. I liked the world-building and the different characters and their relationships to each other, as well as the adventure of the story. I would have been happy with less romance but it wasn't egregious.

He hadn’t been sure of the speed of the water, but he knew damn well the numbers were close. Numbers had always been his allies – odds, margins, the art of the wager. But now he had to rely on something more. What god do you serve? Inej had asked him. Whichever will grant me good fortune.

35raton-liseur
helmikuu 20, 2020, 1:32pm

>22 wandering_star: An intriguing book. Unfortunetaly, not available in French. I might look out for another book from this author. I have had Il fut un navire blanc/The white steamship in my wishlist for some time. It might be time to decide to read it? Have you heard about this title?

36wandering_star
Muokkaaja: helmikuu 20, 2020, 6:56pm

> 35 I haven't, but it sounds good from the description / reviews. I think I heard about The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years on LT, but a long time ago. I don't think I have ever seen the author's name elsewhere.

37sallypursell
helmikuu 20, 2020, 10:42pm

wandering_star, you read very interesting books I have heard of nowhere else. Adding to my monstrous TBR pile. Great reviews, too. Thank you.

38raton-liseur
helmikuu 21, 2020, 9:47am

>36 wandering_star: I've heard about this author through the French LT-equivalent, with the title I mentionned. Your review makes me think it might be time to try this new-to-me author! Do you plan to read other books from him?

39wandering_star
Muokkaaja: helmikuu 26, 2020, 6:57am

I asked a Russian friend of mine about The Day Lasts More Than A Hundred Years. He said: "That book was one of the hits of Perestroyka, everyone read it in the last days of the USSR! It was one of the books that killed the USSR: everyone was inspired and looked for great changes. BTW, the English translation of the title is wrong, because it is too literal, a mechanic translation. 'Vek' in Russian is not only 'a hundred years'. It has poetic connotations like 'eternity'. And Aytmatov's prose was, in fact, poetry. In Russian, his language sounds like a song."

>38 raton-liseur: I would be very interested to read his other books, and Jamilia looks like the best-known. But I am trying not to buy any stuff in 2020, and I don't think his books will be available from the library, so it will have to wait until next year. I would love to hear what you think of The White Steamship though, if you get to it.

40wandering_star
helmikuu 26, 2020, 7:05am

16. The Rental Heart and other fairytales by Kirsty Logan

Short stories (often super-short) which convey an awful lot of story in just a few pages. Although there are a couple with a contemporary and naturalistic setting, most of the stories have a fairytale quality. Some are twists on fairytales that we know - a kind of Cinderella story, an encounter with Baba Yaga (which doesn't turn out how you would expect). But more just have a fantastic or magical edge - women make men out of paper, or rent clockwork ones; a woman starts to eat light, a man to eat words. There's a lot of intense love and lust.

Because the stories were so short I ate them like a box of chocolates, but unusually they have grown in my memory since I finished reading them.

They made it seem so complicated, but it wasn’t really. The hearts just clipped in, and as long as you remembered to close yourself up tightly, then they could tick away for years. Decades, probably. The problems come when the hearts get old and scratched: shreds of past loves get caught in the dents, and they’re tricky to rinse out.

PS: I realised when I got to the story "The Gracekeepers" that I'd started reading a novel by Logan, going by the same name and presumably an expansion of the story. I abandoned The Gracekeepers part way through but now I think I will dig it out and have another go.

41wandering_star
helmikuu 26, 2020, 7:17am

17. Me by Elton John

I noted the reviews when this came out, but only became interested to read it after seeing the excellent biopic Rocketman. I enjoyed the film but didn't know much about Elton John's life so I thought I would give the book a go.

Towards the end of the book, he writes about helping the young star of Rocketman prepare for the role.

I’d invited Taron to Woodside and chatted with him over a takeaway curry, and I let him read some of the old diaries I’d kept in the early seventies to give him a sense of what my life was like then. Those diaries are inadvertently hilarious. I wrote down everything in this incredibly matter-of-fact way, which just makes it seem even more preposterous. ‘Got up. Tidied the house. Watched football on TV. Wrote “Candle In The Wind”. Went to London. Bought Rolls-Royce. Ringo Starr came for dinner.’ I suppose I was trying to normalize what was happening to me, despite the fact that what was happening to me clearly wasn’t normal at all.

That extract I think gives you a pretty good sense of what the book is like. All sorts of crazy experiences, told with a good dollop of self-deprecation, distance and humour. Cleverly, Elton doesn't try to to hide the more notorious elements of his personality - he acknowledges that he's sometimes a shit and has a terrible temper - but he does this in such a charming way and crucially, without giving many details of those on the receiving end - that the reader is very much inclined to forgive him.

I enjoyed this hugely.

42wandering_star
helmikuu 26, 2020, 7:27am

18. The Snake Stone by Jason Goodwin

Second in the series of detective stories set in 1830s Istanbul, with Yashim (former imperial eunuch) as the detective. I found the details of the crime story massively confusing and I'm still not sure I understand who did what to who! But despite that I enjoyed the book, especially because of the setting - I felt that I got a real sense of the late Ottoman period, as the Empire gradually became more Westernised, and the melting pot of different cultures which Istanbul must have been at the time.

43wandering_star
helmikuu 26, 2020, 8:04am

19. Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre

This is a difficult review to start because giving a synopsis of the story doesn't do anything to explain what it's like to read this book or what I enjoyed about it.

However, I guess a synopsis is where I should start.

Sometime in the distant future, after a destructive nuclear war, the world has become atomised into a few small and distinct communities, who live in tiny fertile valleys spread across a vast desertscape. One of the communities is a community of healers, whose most powerful medicine comes from the mysterious dreamsnake. But their ability to heal is limited by the fact that dreamsnakes are rare, and have never been successfully bred in captivity.

Snake is a young healer who is doing her period of apprenticeship among the other communities. When her dreamsnake is killed, she can't bear the thought of returning to her home having lost one of the precious creatures, so she sets out to find where they come from, a journey which takes her through various different communities within the land.

It's this journey, and in particular seeing the different communities, which I most enjoyed. I love sci fi that does good world-building, and I felt that each episode in a different community could almost have been a book in itself. And from the social attitudes, I would never have guessed that this was first published in 1978. It seems like a book ahead of its time.

Snake drew her knees up under her chin. Against the black rocks, the rattlesnake’s patterns were almost as conspicuous as Mist’s albino scales. Neither serpents nor humans nor anything else left alive on earth had yet adapted to their world as it existed now.

44wandering_star
helmikuu 29, 2020, 4:56am

20. Viking Britain by Tom Williams

More about Britain during the Viking Age than about the Vikings themselves - although I could probably have worked this out from the title. Williams talks a lot about how little we actually know about Vikings - we have such little written evidence that most of what we know is based on archaeology and a whole lot of informed guesswork - but also does a great job of trying to breathe life into the physical remnants which have come down to us, for example imagining that it was a young novice who had escaped a Viking raid who scratched the "Inchmarnock hostage stone" (image below).



(Not just his theory - there's a nice graphic of this here).

I sometimes got a bit lost in this book - partly because it's more thematic than chronological, but not obviously so. And the writer has a fondness for slightly ponderous jokes which distracted me from the narrative. But I did learn some interesting things.

The image of the Viking ship in full sail on the open sea, emerging blackly on the wide horizon, is a reasonably familiar one. Less commonly pictured in the mind’s eye is the glimpse of the carved bestial prow glimpsed through the trees on a quiet river bank. Yet it was the exploitation of England’s river routes – made possible by their light and shallow-draughted ships – that provided Viking armies with a means of swift and efficient movement through Britain’s interior that vastly increased the range of their attacks and the extent to which they were able to destabilize Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the second half of the ninth century.

45wandering_star
helmikuu 29, 2020, 6:13am

21. The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

Possible spoiler alert: about 40 pages into this book, it's revealed that we aren't quite where we thought we were. I don't think it's a spoiler to talk about this, because it happens so early on, but if you don't want to know the twist, please skip this post.

The first paragraph of The Second Sleep is:

Late on the afternoon of Tuesday the ninth of April in the Year of Our Risen Lord 1468, a solitary traveller was to be observed picking his way on horseback across the wild moorland of that ancient region of southwestern England known since Saxon times as Wessex. If this young man’s expression was troubled, we may grant he had good cause. More than an hour had elapsed since he had last seen a living soul. Soon it would be dusk, and if he was caught out of doors after curfew he risked a night in jail.

It turns out (as the eagle-eyed may have spotted from the reference to the Year of our *Risen* Lord) that this isn't the 1468 that we know. Some sort of apocalypse took place in the mid-2020s and after that, the calendar was reset not to 1, but to 666 (there is an explanation given for this - as there is for the archaic language used by the characters - but the 'real' reason has to be that it fitted with Harris' idea for the book).

The 'second sleep' of the title refers to the fact that before electricity, people all over the world slept in two periods, with about an hour of wakefulness in between - but it's also a metaphor for this second 'dark age' which is in our future.

It's a clever idea but I don't think Harris had any idea what to do with it in terms of plot. He writes a good page-turner, which keeps you reading quickly enough that you don't spot plot holes, but he can't make it work all the way to the end. Disappointing.

46wandering_star
Muokkaaja: helmikuu 29, 2020, 6:34am

22. Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

This very buzzed-about book focuses on a woman in her mid-twenties called Emira. In the opening chapter, she's at a friend's birthday celebration when she's called by Alix, who employs her as a childminder. Alix's house has been vandalised and she asks Emira if she can come and take the toddler for an hour or so, so that Alix and her husband can deal with the police without Briar getting upset. Emira takes Briar to the local fancy grocery store, where she's accosted by the security guard more-or-less accusing her of kidnapping the child - because Emira is black and Briar is white. Emira is terrified but keeps her cool, and calls Alix's husband who runs down and defuses the situation. Another customer films the whole encounter on his phone and tries to persuade Emira to sue the store - she's not at all interested, and just wants to move on, but a few days later when she runs into him on the train, they get talking.

The book touches on some really interesting issues. Both Alix and Kelley (the other customer) think they are helping Emira but in fact they both project their own views onto her and never once ask what she actually thinks or wants. Of course there is an extra twist in this from the fact that she's not just younger than them, but also black. The book's heart is definitely in the right place and I feel a bit churlish to critique it. But: I wish the book had been a bit deeper and more complex. Alix and Kelley are pretty one-dimensional and Emira is too perfect - incredibly sensible and grounded and always making the right decision. I wonder whether there's an element of wish-fulfilment in her character (the author worked as a childminder for wealthy New Yorkers for six years, although she's pointed out in every interview that she has a very different background from Emira).

That said, this was a quick and pretty enjoyable read, and credit to Reid for giving a story with such tough content a plausible feel-good ending.

47wandering_star
Muokkaaja: helmikuu 29, 2020, 7:05am

23. Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep by David K. Randall (audiobook, read by Andy Caploe)

The narrator of this audiobook made some hilariously bad choices. When you're reading out non-fiction, you do not need to put on different voices for people who are quoted in the book. You especially do not need to put on feminine voices for the women or do accents for the non-native speakers of English. And above all, if you can't do British or Australian accents, it's better not to try, than to make all the British and Australian scientists sound like comedy Dickens characters.

On the other hand, the bad narration is probably the most memorable thing about this book... There's nothing especially wrong with it, although it had too little about the science of sleep and dreams, focusing instead on the physical and mental impacts of not sleeping.

48rocketjk
helmikuu 29, 2020, 10:16am

>44 wandering_star: My wife and I took a vacation in Newfoundland about 10 years back, and we made a point of going to the far north end of the island where there is an excavation of a Viking village. Very interesting archeology. Viking Britain sounds like an enjoyable book.

49wandering_star
maaliskuu 6, 2020, 7:58am

>48 rocketjk: I didn't realise there were Viking remains in Newfoundland - how interesting! One place high on my travel wishlist is Orkney, partly because of the Viking remains there.

50wandering_star
maaliskuu 6, 2020, 8:21am

24. The Secret Museum by Molly Oldfield

Each chapter of this book is about a treasure or treasures which are kept in the vault of a museum, not on show to the public - because they are too fragile, too big or too small, in some cases too valuable, or from huge collections which haven't yet been fully catalogued.

Unfortunately the book is not quite as interesting as that sounds. Oldfield uses the objects as a jumping off point to other facts, which are not always well-connected to the original starting point. And - bafflingly - the photos are terrible - not all the objects are pictured, so sometimes the photos are just of one of the other things Oldfield has mentioned in that chapter, and in addition they are tiny.

I did learn a handful of interesting facts but overall a bit disappointing.

It’s an incantation, written in a child’s hand, with letters a centimetre high which aren’t joined up. It was written by King Ashurbanipal when he was a child and learning to write. This is his school exercise book. Just as you might still have a school exercise book or two at home, to remind you of when you were learning to write, the king must have decided to keep this clay tablet as a souvenir of his childhood, a marker of the days when his love of literature was formed.

51wandering_star
maaliskuu 6, 2020, 8:31am

25. A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

This book brings together 43 of the 76 short stories published by Lucia Berlin during her lifetime. The same characters recur in some of the stories, but as you read through them you realise that ultimately the stories are all about the same person, a character whose life has much in common with Berlin's - from a privileged childhood in Latin America, to a career as a teacher which is derailed by alcoholism, followed by a slow decline in the type of jobs she holds, and accompanied by passionate but destructive love affairs.

The stories are absolutely devastating, especially once you begin to piece them together. They reminded me of the collection Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, another of my favourite collections, both in the theme and in the quality of the writing.

I had called home. It was hard enough telling Ben where I was. I was too ashamed to ask anyone to post bail, so I waited another day for them to let me out on my own recognizance. Stupidly I got that by having them call the principal where I taught. She was a woman who liked me, respected me. I still had no idea how people were going to judge me. It baffles me now how blind I was, but now I’m sober.

The longest story, "Let Me See You Smile", is told from two viewpoints - a woman whose younger lover is facing charges for drug possession; and the lawyer who is representing him. It somehow manages to show both the appeal and the hopelessness of the characters' self-destructive / counter-culture lifestyle.

For a while, Jesse and Maggie slept every night on a different roof downtown. I couldn’t imagine why they did this, so they took me to one. First we found the old metal fire escape, and Jesse jumped high up and pulled it down. Once we were up the stairs and onto the ladder, he pulled the stairs up after us. Then we climbed, high. It was eerie and magical looking out onto the estuary, the bay. There was still a faint pink sunset beyond the Golden Gate Bridge. Downtown Oakland was silent and deserted. “On weekends, it’s just like On the Beach down here,” Jesse said.

52wandering_star
maaliskuu 6, 2020, 8:43am

26. Snap by Belinda Bauer

A heavily pregnant woman leaves her children in her broken-down car and walks up the motorway to the emergency phone. Some time later, the children have given up waiting, and walk after her - to find only the emergency phone hanging down at the end of its cord.

This is the opening scene of this novel, which then skips forward a few years, and gradually begins to look at the impact and implications of what happens.

Usually the plot of a thriller is described in terms of 'twists'. Snap didn't 'twist' so much as unfolded itself, and after each unfolding the story was twice as big as it had been before.

When they were hungry, they ate cereal straight from the packet. When they were thirsty, they drank from the tap. When they were tired, they leaned against each other on the sofa like penguins in a snowstorm and slept awkward, restless sleeps where they dreamed of hot, dusty tarmac and of nobody stopping.

53wandering_star
maaliskuu 10, 2020, 11:11am

27. Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence by Wendy R. Sherman

Wendy Sherman was Undersecretary of State during the Obama administration and lead negotiator on the Iran deal. This book covers her experience as a political activist as well as her time at State. It's an interesting behind-the-scenes look at high diplomacy, as well as a manifesto of the morality that can be expressed in what's often seen as a cynical line of work. Sherman also writes about the lessons and conclusions she drew from her experience in a way which is relevant to a wide range of lives and workplaces, but never tries to stretch the analogy too far to fit (a book that was written with an eye to how it would be promoted might have tried to explain how her negotiation experience was relevant for a pay negotiation or a conversation with a family member - fortunately Sherman never does that).

It might be surmised from the history of President Clinton’s Cuba policy that courage is never rewarded in politics, but it’s more complicated than that. The lesson is the same one my father learned when trying to integrate Baltimore neighborhoods: one courageous gesture is rarely enough. Having begun to make a change, we are usually rewarded by being asked to take further risks until the job is done.

54wandering_star
maaliskuu 10, 2020, 11:18am

28. The Stars Now Unclaimed by Drew Williams

Epic space opera. An alternate universe made up of many hundreds of planets, many of which are still recovering from the effects of some sort of electric pulse, a century before, which knocked out most of their advanced technology. A representative of a group which think of themselves as an 'intergalactic aid agency' arrives on a planet to locate a young woman with psychokinetic powers - but it turns out other people are looking for her too.

I really loved the worldbuilding in this book, but unfortunately the plot was essentially fight - run - fight - run - fight. And when the weaponry is described in great detail before a big showdown that may or may not happen, it takes the tension out of the story. A pleasant enough read but not something which will stick in my mind.

The Barious might play into the stereotype that they’re all logic and reason when it suits them, but believe me, you can piss them off, and when they go, they stay. They build goddamned vacation homes in their wrath, revisit their fury whenever they feel nostalgic. Barious hold grudges like nobody’s business, and given that their construction made them twice as strong as the strongest human ever born, those grudges could have messy results.

55wandering_star
maaliskuu 10, 2020, 11:23am

29. Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

The story of two families, one African-American, one Korean, whose lives touched once in a violent incident in South Central LA. Twenty-some years later, another incident brings their lives back into a collision course.

Quant pretended to think about it, then shrugged. “He’ll turn up. I wouldn’t worry about D. He’s a smart kid.” It was what people said about Shawn when he was a teenager. As if being smart could keep him out of trouble. It had, in a way—Shawn had avoided the stupidest shit and the longest sentences; he’d managed not to rob a bank and get hit with federal time; he was also alive. But prisons were full of smart black kids. Graveyards, too.

A slow burner to start with, but once the reader finds out what the connection is between the two families, the story takes off. This book does what Such a Fun Age failed to do - all the characters are complicated people, the morality is not completely straightforward, and even when a character does something absolutely unforgivable, you can understand why in that moment they made the choices that they did.

56wandering_star
maaliskuu 10, 2020, 11:27am

30. The Unsuspected by Charlotte Armstrong

If you are ever tempted by a book which describes itself as 'domestic noir', put it back on the shelf and read this instead.

Published in 1946, this is the chilling story of a master manipulator. I concede that it is not a perfect book. There is one plot device which you couldn't get away with now (although I think that Armstrong knows she's pushing the reader and tries as hard as possible to justify it), and probably all the twists and turns become a little unrealistic in the end. But I was reading it too fast to care. It was so gripping that I even tried to read it while I was doing the washing-up! (it was an ebook so not as mad as trying to read a paperback at the sink, but still...)

Ever since they were little girls, and Tyl’s feet and eyes were too big for the rest of her, and she was unsure and shy, Althea, full of grace and pretty poise, had always been watching with her shining eyes. If Tyl had a friend or began an awkward progress toward something less lonely, Althea would manage to slip between and dazzle the friend away. Perhaps she never meant to do it. Perhaps she couldn’t help it. No good.

57avaland
maaliskuu 11, 2020, 5:54am

>30 rhian_of_oz: I thought this book sounded familiar, so I checked the cover art and indeed, I had this book in high school!

58wandering_star
maaliskuu 11, 2020, 7:31pm

31. Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

This book starts during the Biafran war, but that's really only the springboard to the story of Ijeoma. Her father dies in an air-raid, and her grieving mother sends her away to school, where Ijeoma meets and forms a passionate bond with another student, Amina - something which her mother, and all the society around them, are horrified by.

I really loved the first few chapters of this, for the language, which was simple in the way a child would tell a story, and also managed to make the story feel timeless, like a fable, as if it was the story of every family displaced and bereaved by war. However, that same style just didn't work as the story became more personal, more emotional, and as Ijeoma grew older - instead of being simple and clear, the style started to have a distancing effect. This meant that while you could intellectually understand everything that Ijeoma did, there was no emotional weight to it at all.

In the harmattan, the Sahara winds arrived and stirred up the dust, and clouded the air, and rendered the trees and bushes wobbly like a mirage, and made the sun a blurry ball in the sky. In the rainy season, the rains wheedled the wildness out of the dust, and everything took back its clarity and its shape. This was the normal cycle of things: the rainy season followed by the dry season, and the harmattan folding itself within the dry.

59wandering_star
Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 11, 2020, 8:14pm

32. Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

London in the 1870s. The Harriet of the title is a woman who is slightly simple, although not enough to stop her from going about independently. She's also rich - with the equivalent of about half a million pounds in today's money. One day she meets an impoverished but handsome clerk, who (like his pretty, flirty girlfriend) thinks it is a terrible shame that someone like Harriet should have all this money, which she doesn't really appreciate. He charms and flatters Harriet, and persuades her to leave her mother's home and marry him.

I didn't realise until the end that this is essentially a true crime book - albeit written in 1934 about a crime which took place in 1877. The book is published by Persephone so nothing about the cover gave this fact away, indeed it led me to expect something light, maybe comic, maybe heart-warming, so I spent a lot of the book wondering when someone would rescue Harriet and these terrible people would get their comeuppance. They do get their comeuppance in the end, but too late for Harriet, and learning from the afterword what happened to the real people after the events in the book finished made me quite cross.

Now that I know it's the story of a true and infamous crime, I can see that what Jenkins was aiming to do was to imagine how such a thing could have happened - not just the facts of the story, but how on earth you could actually starve to death someone living in the same small cottage as you. Jenkins shows subtly but clearly how selfishness and greed turns to evil - how each of the people concerned justified their actions to themselves, or went along with what other people proposed, and how once one decision had been made, it would take you to the next, and the next. Even more sadly, we see the gradual way that Harriet gets used to each little deterioration in her circumstances.

Lewis not only liked comfort, he was a vigilant guardian of property, and he became indignant at the carelessness which Harriet showed about the house. At first he pointed out to her what she did wrong and was mollified by her hearty agreement with him; but as the mistakes were repeated and repeated, he grew violently irritated and spoke to her sharply. Harriet was in a confused state of mind because she did not actually realize that she herself had done these foolish things; when Lewis complained about a tap that had been left running and flooded into the sitting room, she knew it was a sad mishap, but she thought it was unreasonable she should be blamed for it, since she was able to see how tiresome it was just as well as he. Everybody knew that water should not be allowed to soak into a handsome rug. She became gradually rather sobered, and though on the whole she was willing to put up with anything from him, the unfamiliar sense of being found fault with began to upset her.

It's well done, but my goodness, knowing what's coming I wouldn't be able to read this again.

60avaland
Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 18, 2020, 5:24pm

>58 wandering_star: I read her short story collection Happiness, Like Water and very much liked it, deemed it a favorite book read in 2015 (hmm, can't seem to find my review. I swear I did one...) Your comments are interesting - about the style of prose working or not working during different parts of the story. Hm. I might look for that book.

61wandering_star
Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 28, 2020, 2:06am

33. Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat

A cookbook of great charm and enthusiasm. The basic principle of the book is that the foundations of good cooking are knowing what the balance of salt, fat and acid is in your dish and your meal, and understanding the way that heat affects the flavour of food. Nosrat talks through the effect that salty, fatty, sour things have on our tastebuds and on the balance of other flavours in the food, before providing a relatively small number of recipes with a lot of variations.



Most of all though she encourages us to taste - to taste our food and work out what makes it good, or what would make it better. And she gives us a few suggestions to help us do this:

Salt enhances sweetness while reducing bitterness in foods that are both bitter and sweet, such as bittersweet chocolate, coffee ice cream, or burnt caramels. Though we typically turn to sugar to balance out bitter flavours in a sauce or soup, it turns out that salt masks bitterness much more effectively than sugar. See for yourself with a little tonic water, Campari, or grapefruit juice, all of which are both bitter and sweet. Taste a spoonful, then add a pinch of salt and taste again. You’ll be surprised by how much bitterness subsides.

(The Netflix show linked to the book is also fabulous - not just for the cooking but also for the food travel - Nosrat showcases a different cuisine for each one of the four elements in the book).

62wandering_star
maaliskuu 28, 2020, 1:51am

34. This is the End by Stella Benson

I got this book because I had read somewhere that Stella Benson (1892–1933) was one of these great forgotten writers waiting to be rediscovered.

I am afraid on the basis of this book that is not the case. It is true that there are nuggets of brilliance here, but they sit in a great pudding of meandering asides, long inconsequential scenes, and snobbery.

The story is that of a young woman, Jay, who has run away from her comfortable bourgeois family, works as a bus-conductor, and sends her family misdirecting letters describing where she is. The family set out to try and find her. And even though her letters are made up, the location they describe (perhaps) turns out not to be. All this is set against the backdrop of the grief and upheaval of World War One - the story takes place in 1916.

There are definitely interesting things about the book, and the style has elements which were probably groundbreaking at the time. Apparently Woolf was a fan of Benson's writing. But I can't say I enjoyed reading it.

Jay suddenly saw the whole world as a thing running away from its thoughts. The crowd that filled the pavement was fugitive, and every man felt the hot breath of fear on the back of his neck. One only used one's voice for the drowning of one's thoughts; one only used one's feet for running away. The whole world was in flight along the endless streets, and the lucky ones were in trams and donkey carts that they might flee the faster.

63wandering_star
Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 28, 2020, 2:05am

35. The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

This book starts with a Victorian family travelling to an island. The father of the family, Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, is an amateur scientist and has been asked to go to assist with an archeological dig. But we soon discover that the family has left London in a great hurry, trying to outrun some sort of scandal.

The focus of the book is on Sunderly's daughter, Faith. She's out of place - partly because of her awkward age (She had tumbled off the safe, hallowed shore of childhood, and now she was in no-man’s-water, neither one thing nor another, like a mermaid. Until she dragged herself up on the rock of marriage, she was difficult.) and partly because her interest in science is not appropriate for a young woman. She knows that there is something odd going on, and tries to work out what it is.

There was a hunger in her, and girls were not supposed to be hungry. They were supposed to nibble sparingly when at table, and their minds were supposed to be satisfied with a slim diet too. A few stale lessons from tired governesses, dull walks, unthinking pastimes. But it was not enough. All knowledge – any knowledge – called to Faith, and there was a delicious, poisonous pleasure in stealing it unseen.

Something changes at this point and the story goes in a way that I didn't expect. And then after a while, it does it again. I am not sure if what it was at the end quite connected up with what it was at the beginning. But it didn't really matter to me. I really enjoyed this and am enjoying even more thinking back on it. Faith is a great character and many things in the story take you by surprise but still convince you that the story works, which is not easy to do.

64wandering_star
maaliskuu 28, 2020, 2:49am

36. The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic by Emma

Emma is probably best known for her comic on 'the mental load' (you can read the whole thing here), which highlights the invisible 'mental load' of having the responsibility to identify everything that needs to be done to keep a household in order.

This book includes that comic and 11 others looking at various facets of injustice. The majority of these deal with everyday sexism, from the objectification of women, to the social constraints imposed on us, to the way that women's views are systematically undermined. (The image below is from one about how women's anger is trivialised.)



This is not always a comfortable read - but I think within the 12 chapters, everyone would be able to find something that would give them a different perspective on the world.

65kidzdoc
maaliskuu 29, 2020, 2:28am

>62 wandering_star: I'm glad that you read and liked Salt Fat Acid Heat. I bought a copy of it last year, on the recommendation of a neighbor of my parents, and finally opened it a couple of days ago. I'll probably read it in the next month or two.

66baswood
maaliskuu 29, 2020, 5:23am

>61 wandering_star: Campari and soda is one of my favourite pre-dinner drinks and I use orange segments to sweeten it a little and so next time I pour one I will do the salt test. If it works for me I will buy the book.

67wandering_star
maaliskuu 29, 2020, 7:39am

>66 baswood: please report back!

68lisapeet
maaliskuu 29, 2020, 11:36am

>61 wandering_star: I'm interested in that one also because I'm a huge fan of the illustrator, Wendy MacNaughton. You know how people say they could listen happily to their favorite actor read the phone book? I would say that I would happily look at her draw the phone book, except I actually think that would be really good. But you get my point.

69wandering_star
maaliskuu 31, 2020, 9:17am

>68 lisapeet: I've just looked at some of her other illustrations - they are great! Thanks for telling me about her.

70wandering_star
maaliskuu 31, 2020, 9:35am

37. Less by Andrew Sean Greer

This is the story of a failed author - Arthur Less. One day, in large part to avoid having to go to his ex-boyfriend's wedding, he decides to accept all the random invites which come his way - attend a conference here, teach a class there - and stitch them together into a trip around the world. But wherever he goes, there he is - and he is someone who is perpetually out of his depth and out of place.

This book contains some fantastic sentences; but as a novel it really didn't do it for me. I found the comedic intercultural misunderstandings pretty tired (and actively dreaded what was coming every time Less moved to a new country). And I never really felt it rose above mildly amusing escapades.

And yet - it won the Pulitzer and has many rave reviews on and off this site. I wonder why it didn't work for me? Perhaps because, although in my late forties (Less turns 50 during his journey) I don't see my life as one of youthful promise which has faded away. And I don't know enough about the literary world to get the jokes and references of what is being satirised.

The man releases him and starts to talk about what an amazing coincidence this is, and all the while Less is thinking: Who the hell is this? A jolly round bald man with a neat gray beard, in plaid flannel and an orange scarf, standing grinning outside a grocery-store-used-to-be-a-bank on Eighth Avenue. In a panic, Less’s mind races to put this man before a series of backgrounds—blue sky and beach, tall tree and river, lobster and wineglass, disco ball and drugs, bedsheets and sunrise—but nothing is coming to mind.

71wandering_star
maaliskuu 31, 2020, 9:43am

38. To Love and Be Wise by Josephine Tey

Now this was great! Golden Age detective fiction. A mysterious American turns up in the UK, contacts someone who is a friend of an old friend, is welcomed into the bosom of the family, and then disappears mysteriously one night. Could it be that he had become too close to one of the family members? Or is it something from his past which has caught up with him?

Walter had reached the stage when the very sound of Searle’s quiet drawl annoyed him into the need for momentary self-control.

72wandering_star
maaliskuu 31, 2020, 9:48am

39. Behind the Mask: A Superhero Anthology

Short stories, each one with a sideways take on a superhero theme. The best ones try and imagine their way into what it would actually be like to be a superhero - and/or describe more widely a world which has superheros in it. Probably my favourite, "Destroy the City With Me Tonight" by Kate Marshall, suggests that when you become a superhero, you gradually start to disappear - friends and family lose you from their memories, and people walk past without noticing you - at the same time as developing a strong connection to a particular city.

Two years in, the symptoms are getting worse. Her fingerprints have smoothed out, vanished. Her features blur in photographs. She can stand in a room for an hour before people notice her. She’s always wondered why you’d bother with a mask; now she gets it. It’s not to be concealed, it’s to be seen, to be remembered.

I found this a very patchy anthology - not much that really stood out.

73rocketjk
maaliskuu 31, 2020, 11:25am

>70 wandering_star: For what it's worth, my wife read Less for her book group and felt pretty much exactly the same way you did about it.

74sallypursell
Muokkaaja: maaliskuu 31, 2020, 6:45pm

>70 wandering_star: I thought it was sad. And then especially sad that this seemed the portrait of many gay relationships of long-standing in the time before mine. What a waste of so many men, especially. Women found a way to be unobtrusive.

I have a brother who is gay and has spoken to me of a similar feeling from the time when he was young, and how difficult it was for him to develop an authentic life. My brother had a very long-standing relationship with a man from Indonesia, who could not get a visa to the US after his student days. It was a tragedy, because this gentleman was a shining cultural light--the most famous living writer of Javanese, for one thing, poet, novelist, gourmet cook, and Javanese dancer. He was here to study, but also to participate in restoring the gamelon (a musical instrument, very difficult to play) in a museum in New York. He could play it, of course. He was a wonderful young man, spoke many languages, of course. What a loss to the United States not to accept him! He was gay, and not a Christian. That may have been all that was needed to condemn him. And then of course, he was a brown person.

This book made me think of my brother and his wife (not officially, of course), and how their relationship failed after very many years living on two sides of the world. "Tony" was there and in their little shop when the shop fell down in a serious earthquake on Java. My brother Tom was frantic, because we couldn't get any news, and no one would discuss Tony with us because we had no legal standing. We couldn't find out about the visa, either.

Anyway, this just spoke to me of the blighted relationships of gay men, and how the lack of support of the culture made their lives so difficult.
I didn't "enjoy" reading it, but I appreciated it.

75wandering_star
huhtikuu 5, 2020, 5:46am

>74 sallypursell: Interesting - I hadn't thought of it in this way at all. Thanks for the perspective.

40. Keep it Moving by Twyla Tharp (audiobook, read by the author).

I bought this after hearing Tharp on the Death, Sex & Money podcast. She came across as a fantastically no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it is character, and I wanted to hear more. This, her latest book, is the only one that she herself has read as an audiobook, so I snapped it up.

Tharp, a celebrated dancer and choreographer, is now 78. This is her manual for people who are getting older, not to help them hang onto their youth, but to stop the inevitable ageing process being something which limits them.

With the time you’ve got, choose to make your life bigger. Opt for expression over observation, action instead of passivity, risk over safety, the unknown over the familiar. Be deliberate, act with intention. Chase the sublime and the absurd. Make each day one where you emerge, unlock, excite, and discover. Find new, reconsider old, become limber, stretch, lean, move...  I say this with love: shut up and dance. That was the advice I gave myself for my sixty-fifth birthday. You might want to start now.

Her advice? Keep moving, be disciplined, stay positive. I find positivity easy, discipline not so much. It strikes me that Tharp may be the other way around.

I wouldn't say there was anything groundbreaking in the book, but Tharp has a nice line in impactful declarations, and there are definitely some ideas I'll take away from the book. In fact I wish I had had a paper (or ebook) copy rather than the audiobook, as it would have made it easier to take notes.

76baswood
huhtikuu 5, 2020, 5:39pm

>66 baswood: and >67 wandering_star: So I added salt (a good pinch) to my campari last night and it tasted much sweeter. Not a particularly nice sweetness - a bit too zingy, I am not planning to replace my usual tonic water and orange with salt, but who knows what I might need to do because of shortages in the supply of tonic water.

After that acid test I am now going to buy a copy of Salt Fat Acid Heat

77wandering_star
Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 5, 2020, 8:01pm

>76 baswood: I guess it was a tip about tastebuds rather than about mixing a good drink ;-)

78wandering_star
huhtikuu 11, 2020, 12:34am

41. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

From looking at the cover of this book I thought I knew what I was getting. Steampunk-y Victorian London; some sort of supernatural element; and an intrepid heroine who defies gender conventions of the time, maybe dressing up as a man to be able to do so; an enjoyable but throwaway read.

I was right in terms of the content, but despite that all my expectations were upended - including the fact that this book manages to be genuinely moving and poignant, as well as inventive, at the same time as hitting all the notes I usually enjoy in steampunky fantasy. The supernatural element is clever and something I hadn't read before (one character can remember all possible futures, but once a future becomes impossible, he forgets everything he knew from it - so for example, at one point there is a 36 in 37 chance that he will acquire some sheet music, so he knows how to play the tune - but the roulette wheel comes in at zero and through a chain of events, he doesn't get the sheet music, so his favourite tune is forgotten), and used in a subtle and effective way (we know important things about how the story will develop from the way a character's accent changes).

He felt like he had when he had broken his wrist. Altogether worse than pain was that maddeningly clear vision of having not tripped, not broken anything, when logic held up a lamp in the straight tunnel that time drove humans through, and showed that the walls were made of glass.

79wandering_star
huhtikuu 11, 2020, 12:53am

42. Masks by Fumiko Enchi

This compelling and disturbing novella tells the story of a household of three women - Mieko, her daughter-in-law Yasuko, a beautiful widow, and Harume, Mieko's daughter who was unacknowledged for a long time but has recently returned to the family home. The novella is in three sections, each named for a female spirit character in the Japanese Noh tradition - a once-beautiful woman being tormented in hell for her sensual life; a mad woman; and a bereaved mother or wife. Which mask represents which woman is a question which echoes another question in the book - observers of the family see a sexual tension and believe that either Mieko or Yasuko is pulling the other one's strings, but which one? The theme of masks refers of course to people pretending to be things that they are not, the archetypes which people project onto women, and to the limited roles permitted to women over the course of their lives.

Yorikata picked up the mask and slowly extended his arms up and out, holding it level with his own face. It was the visage of a coldly beautiful woman, her cheeks tightly drawn. The sweep of the eyelids was long, and the red of the upper lip extended out to the corners of the mouth in an uneven and involved line, curving at last into a smile of disdain. A haughty cruelty was frozen hard upon the face, encasing it like crystals of ice on a tree.

80sallypursell
huhtikuu 11, 2020, 7:45pm

>78 wandering_star: I loved this book. The little octopus on the cover was just the most inspiring thing I had seen for a while. But The Bedlam Stacks was more difficult for me. I have read it twice, but not reached the ending yet. I will, though.

81wandering_star
huhtikuu 13, 2020, 6:31am

>80 sallypursell: That's useful to know. It's available from my library and I was looking forward to reading it - I will probably still read it but without such high expectations.

82wandering_star
Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 13, 2020, 7:09am

I have started reading War and Peace, inspired by the Yiyun Li-led read-along, although I haven't been able to keep up with that.

I am enjoying it so much! Of course, it's a great work of literature etc etc, but I had not expected it to be so good to read. The humour and subtlety with which characters are described, particularly in Book One (the social settings) genuinely had me laughing out loud, and the descriptions of battles are so vivid but also such good depictions of the total chaos of war. I like the way that a battle scene will move smoothly from a large-scale overview to a tiny detail, and the way that Tolstoy describes incoherent leadership, or petty bickering, or self-aggrandising swagger, in a way which seems very neutral but actually completely skewers the person concerned.

As I often do with 'classics', I am both reading and listening to the audiobook version, so I get a double go at each scene. This is particularly useful as sometimes it is not clear at the start of a scene what the significance is, so I haven't paid enough attention to who is doing what - I can clarify this on the second go-round. I have also found some good resources - one of the other readers produced a great chart of how the characters relate to each other, and I've also found the Wikipedia article on War and Peace characters in order of appearance very helpful.

The written version I am reading is the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, and the audiobook is the version translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Apparently there is a lot of discussion about which is better (which I haven't gotten into) - but for me the Maude version is clearly superior - it reads much more smoothly. (I guess this probably means the P/V version is more accurate.)

For example:

The two commanders were much exasperated with one another and, long after the action had begun on the right flank and the French were already advancing, were engaged in discussion with the sole object of offending one another. (Maude)

vs

The two officers were greatly vexed with each other, and at a time when action had long since started on the right flank, and the French had already begun their offensive, the two officers were taken up with an exchange which had the aim of insulting each other. (P/V)

I absolutely love the 'engaged in discussion with the sole object of offending one another' - so recognisable as a behaviour, apart from anything else.

Right now I am at the end of Volume One Part Two (November 1805) and may come back and do bits of reviewing as I go along.

83wandering_star
Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 13, 2020, 6:58am

In the meantime I am occasionally taking a break to read something quicker, such as

43. In At The Deep End by Kate Davies

Very fun - style like an early Marian Keyes, story of a shy young woman discovering that she is gay (and then having a lot of explicit sex).

‘You ever been with a woman?’ she asked. ‘No,’ I said, flicking my gaze at her and away again straight away. I wasn’t drunk enough for that level of intense eye contact. ‘You should try it,’ she said. ‘Maybe I will!’ I said, in an Enid Blyton sort of voice. I started nodding and didn’t seem to be able to stop. ‘Do you need another drink?’

44. Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman

In 1972 Berlin, a junior CIA officer - given a boring job because she's a young woman and the station head resents her - is in a safe house and overhears a conversation that shouldn't be happening. Cracking start to one of the best thrillers I have ever read.

Funny how often curiosity was a liability in this business. When they’d first recruited her they’d assured her it was a strength, one of her greatest. Now? Compartmentalize. Avert your eyes. Mind your own business. Or maybe Herrington used that mantra only on her.

84SassyLassy
huhtikuu 13, 2020, 1:14pm

What a lot of reading here.

>48 rocketjk: >49 wandering_star: The Viking site in Newfoundland is L'Anse aux Meadows, not correct in either official language, but that's its name. It is believed this is the original Vinland, settled by Leif Erickson. It is also a UNESCO world heritage site. There are spots there where you get this amazing feeling of other spirits being present, not something I am normally prone to experience. The site is on the very northern tip of the island's Great Northern Peninsula. Almost directly across the Strait of Belle Isle from it, on the Labrador part of the province, is the Red Bay National Historic Site, where there was a Basque whaling station as far back as the early 16th century.

>51 wandering_star: Anything that is reminiscent of Denis Johnson is a book for me! Noted.

85wandering_star
huhtikuu 17, 2020, 8:05am

>84 SassyLassy: That sounds fascinating. I have quite limited historical imagination but a couple of times I have been to places where I had a vivid sense of what it would have been like at the time it was flourishing. It's quite a sensation.

Your mention of a 16th century Basque whaling station reminded me of my favourite ever Wikipedia entry, about the Basque-Icelandic pidgin spoken in the 17th century. I like this article because only a very few phrases of Basque-Icelandic pidgin have come down to us, but they include a high proportion of obscenities and then the rest are mostly orders. Fortunately we do know the word for 'kitten' so there was a gentle side to the conversations as well...

86wandering_star
Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 17, 2020, 8:58am

Have finished Volume One of War and Peace. Still enjoying it. I was particularly blown away by the passage just before Tolstoy describes the Battle of Austerlitz.

For a few preceding pages he has dropped in some metaphors about the army being like a huge mechanism. And then you get these three incredible paragraphs.

The concentrated movement which began that morning in the emperors’ headquarters and gave a push to all subsequent movement was like the first movement of the central wheel in a big tower clock. Slowly one wheel started, another turned, a third, and the wheels, pulleys, and gears were set turning more and more quickly, chimes began to ring, figures popped out, and the clock hands started their measured advance, showing the result of that movement.

As in the mechanism of a clock, so also in the mechanism of military action, the movement once given is just as irrepressible until the final results, and just as indifferently motionless are the parts of the mechanism not yet involved in the action even a moment before movement is transmitted to them. Wheels whizz on their axles, cogs catch, fast-spinning pulleys whirr, yet the neighbouring wheel is as calm and immobile as though it was ready to stand for a hundred years in that immobility; but a moment comes—the lever catches, and, obedient to its movement, the wheel creaks, turning, and merges into one movement with the whole, the result and purpose of which are incomprehensible to it.

As in a clock the result of the complex movement of numberless wheels and pulleys is merely the slow and measured movement of the hands pointing to the time, so also the result of all the complex human movements of these hundred and sixty thousand Russians and French—all the passions, desires, regrets, humiliations, sufferings, bursts of pride, fear, rapture—was merely the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the so-called battle of the three emperors, that is, a slow movement of the world-historical hand on the clockface of human history.


It's such a vivid description of a huge organisation coming to life - and then the poignancy of the loss of the battle being as unimportant and as important as Time.

I really enjoy the way that Tolstoy handles the scenes shortly before a battle - you get an image of the whole expanse, like looking at a painting of a battle, and then he zooms in to a little detail such as an elderly French general struggling to walk up a hill.

87wandering_star
Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 23, 2020, 1:50am

45. Nature's Nether Regions: What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell Us About Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves by Menno Schilthuizen

This book is about sexual selection - that element of natural selection which is not about your ability to survive (to feed yourself, say, or to hide from a predator) but your ability to pass on your genes through successful breeding. The two can be different - think for example of the cumbersome tail of the peacock. I had always assumed that there was something in the "physical attractiveness" of the male animal which let the female know the quality of his genes. Not necessarily - when a behavioural biologist attached white, red, or green feather crests to the heads of male zebra finches, female finches were disproportionately likely to mate with the white-crested males, even though zebra finches don't normally have crests at all, so there should be no "coding" to find a particular colour more attractive.

Most female animals put a lot of resources into a relatively small number of eggs, and so have an interest in being fertilised with high quality sperm; males put fewer resources into a large number of sperm, and so have an interest in trying to fertilise as many eggs as possible. But if you think that tells a simple story about animal behaviour (or even more the behaviour of human animals), it's time to think again - not least because it is also in the female's interest to have sons who will be successful at fertilising the next generation of females.

The evolutionary mechanisms that have been developed to allow males to be successful in fertilising females, and to allow females to choose which sperm is absorbed by her eggs, are astounding in their variety. The semen of a corn earworm moth contains a protein which shuts down the female's production of pheromones for a time, so that she becomes essentially invisible to other males. A banana fly's semen contains an antiaphrodisiac sex peptide which breaks down slowly enough that the female is not interested in sex again for up to a week.

And then of course there are the sex organs themselves. ...it is almost a law of nature: of all the organs that an animal is provided with, the greatest differences between species are not in their brains or beaks, or in their kidneys or guts, but in their genitals. Chauvinism has meant that male sexual organs are more often studied than female ones (Schilthuizen's comment, not my own) but when a scientist does look at the female sexual organs they match the male ones in complexity. Sadly, the study of vaginal sense organs is still in its infancy. But where people have looked, they mostly have found evidence for very delicate sensitivities in the female nether regions. In damselflies, for example, the inner walls of the vagina carry a plate on either side, each of which is covered with dozens of separate sense organs.

Schilthuizen argues that this is the result of an evolutionary "arms race" in which first one sex, then the other, evolves in response to the previous evolution - say for example that an evolution brings males of a particular species the ability to be more successful in inseminating females. The next round of evolution produces females better at controlling or resisting this ability, causing a further round in which males evolve another tweak. Fascinatingly this even takes place within hermaphroditic species. When banana slugs mate it takes 12 hours for the male organ to reach its maximum length. This has not been observed very often (partly because of the patience required) but in one case the penises were recorded at 80cm long, on a slug body measuring around 13cm. This is apparently because the longer the penis, the more likely is that the slug will be able to insert more sperm into their partner than they receive.

Schilthuizen is maybe slightly too fond of dad jokes. But he writes in a clear and accessible way. You may be able to tell from this review that the book is much more "wow here's a cool thing about an animal" than really about "What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell Us About Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves" as the subtitle says. But that's OK with me - I enjoy cool things about animals.

88lisapeet
huhtikuu 23, 2020, 8:52am

>87 wandering_star: I enjoyed his Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution, but had the same basic takeaway—it was interesting and accessible, definitely not scholarly. And yes on the dad jokes.

89wandering_star
huhtikuu 24, 2020, 4:17am

>88 lisapeet: That looks good too! I'm quite interested in what the original behaviour was that has turned into an adaptation to living with humans. For example someone told me once that seabirds used to follow breaching whales because of the churn in their wakes which brought some fish closer to the surface - in the same way that they now follow ships.

90wandering_star
huhtikuu 24, 2020, 4:23am

46. Change of Use by Candia McWilliam

A short story, published as a standalone small-sized book. It focuses on a care home, some of the inhabitants and some of the people who work there. It's perfectly fine, but not sure why they decided to publish it on its own.

The distinction between his younger days and his later years was this for him: then he had been blind to the beauty of habit; now it was a luxury, a conscious indulgence as irresistible as yawning, stretching, surrendering to sleep.

91wandering_star
Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 29, 2020, 8:29pm

47. The Game by Laurie R King

Every other book that I've read in this series (featuring a later-in-life Sherlock Holmes and his intrepid young wife) is a mystery story so I was a bit surprised when this turned out to be a spy story. Regardless, it started fairly well, but sagged hugely in the middle. I think the author either wanted to fit in all her research into Raj-era India, or fell in love with her own descriptions. I may also have been cranky because I am a bit bored. It got exciting again for the end, but I almost didn't plough all the way through the long descriptive bit in the middle.

"Pig sticking is the unofficial sport of British India. Great fun. Though not, I fear, for the ladies.” He smiled at the thought. I smiled back, automatically plotting how I might go about learning to stick pigs—until I caught myself short. I didn’t even like fox-hunting, much less what sounded like a rout fit for overgrown adolescent boys, scrambling cross-country after a herd of panicking swine.

92wandering_star
huhtikuu 24, 2020, 4:36am

48. Us by Zaffar Kunial

I read an article in the Guardian which interviewed several writers about what they are reading during the COVID restrictions. I think it was Jeanette Winterson who said she read a poem out loud every day. This seemed like a useful way of slowing down, so I went to my library's ebook list and borrowed this book, essentially at random.

What a find! I found Kunial's poems absorbing and moving in a way that I have rarely experienced before. He writes a lot about his family history - his father is from Kashmir, his mother British with Irish roots. Some of my favourites of these poems were those in which something makes him think of his childhood, and into his family's past - such as this one:

A Drink at the Door

As I had asked for a night-light, the chamberlain had brought me in, before he left me, the good old constitutional rush-light of those virtuous days …
– CHARLES DICKENS, Great Expectations

That’s what I’m reading here. I mean the Dickens.
That and some downloaded contemporary
I keep switching from, on my lighted Kindle.
But it’s not the light that came with this reader
and candles the cold, framed screen; it’s the trick
of the light in this pub that detains me.
And not in this place alone. What is it
this yellowed, well-thumbed light has borrowed from?
By a less lonely table, a dog’s ear
twitches. Somehow the glow pooled round my pew
hosts its own table talk. As mahogany
is a wood of a certain age, so too
this light is dated, refracted by it
and the dark matter that’s caked in the grain.
And it’s refracted, beyond that, by smoke
at the back of this malt, death and life mixed,
as familiar as a browned penny,
particular as fog. And it picks up
a dim street in Dickens, a door that gives
to this light, refracted here by the din
and the sharp bark of that dog. The Bear.
That was it. Dad’s early haunt. Those big doors
that looked locked. And there, ensconced, hours later,
the same filament in frosted, smoked glass.
*
Like a burr stuck in the folds of my scarf,
this light has trailed me longer than I knew.
Out there, the darkness also has a hand
in these refractions. That and the bitter
cold I’m in from. If I keep losing you,
please bear with the thought of light. Like this shot
of malt bears its long, peat finish, sea-noted, late …
There’s a low fire breathing, and an argument
somewhere. And I’ve come to an inn. In Orkney.
1824. In his Irish burr,
I hear the landlord attempt to intervene.
Four generations later, his descendent
pokes at the grate of his pub in Aberdeen.
And his wayward daughter asks for a light
in a West Midlands asylum, home for life.
And her daughter, between trains, wanders out
to Needless Alley, looks in at The Windsor,
catching the eye of my eventual father.
Shortly they’ll see, in this same light, they share
the one brand of cigarette.
The refractions
will go on, past my stay; I’m only here
for one. A drink at the door. A last drop
trails down the glass. I’ll pack my Kindle away.
Exit this light that has taken me in.

93wandering_star
huhtikuu 24, 2020, 11:47pm

About one-third of the way through War and Peace now. One of the things I'm really struck by, and I think something which makes it such a pleasant read, is the psychological acuteness - which is very recognisable as human nature, even now. For example, I have recently read two different scenes in which someone is having confusing or troubling thoughts about themselves, which makes them behave angrily towards other people, as a way of displacing those feelings about themselves.

I know that human nature doesn't change, and so it's not surprising that a writer should have recognised this pattern of behaviour, even before modern psychology was invented. But when you read classics you don't always get this jolt of recognition - more things have to be explained in terms of the social norms and expectations of the time.

For example, I was talking with a friend who is reading Middlemarch as her COVID reading project, and I realised that I did not have the same simple enjoyment and recognition of human nature when reading that. Could Dorothea be a modern character, with the way she falls in love with Casaubon? Even the famous line which introduces her - "Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress" - is not really something recognisable to a modern ear. I can imagine what this might look like but I don't know immediately, in the way that I do with some of Tolstoy's descriptions of human interactions.

94Nickelini
huhtikuu 25, 2020, 5:48pm

>41 wandering_star:

Interesting! I've been enjoying memoirs lately, but have been on the fence about Me. I finally saw Elton John in concert last year, and I really get the impression he's just not a nice person. Not that the subject of a memoir has to be likeable, but I wasn't sure I wanted to spend time with him. For sure he's had an interesting life. Thanks for the push toward reading this one.

95rachbxl
huhtikuu 26, 2020, 2:53am

I'm enjoying your thoughts on War and Peace (as well as your other reviews, as ever). I started it almost 10 years ago and was really surprised by how readable it is. I read a couple of hundred pages, but then I left it at my dad's, and, assuming I would get it back soon enough (possibly rash, given that we don't even live in the same country as each other), I went on to other things, intending to pick up the thread again when I got the book back. For one reason and another (mainly the fact that my dad had put it somewhere for safe keeping, but couldn't remember where), I didn't get it back for several years, by which time it was too late. I should just have got myself another copy right away! I would love to give it another go. I really like your idea of reading and listening to two different translations, by the way.

96wandering_star
huhtikuu 29, 2020, 8:26pm

Thanks! It wasn't a deliberate choice but it has worked out well.

I stayed up late a couple of nights ago to finish Volume Two - what a spectacular sequence. It was such an emotional rollercoaster that I feel I need a small break from the book - but nothing else I have picked up is anywhere near as engaging! I do need to catch up on the audiobook (I have just got to the start of the final sequence of the volume) but I feel it may be even more gruelling listening to the story when I know what is going to happen.

I have been getting more out of sync between listening and reading recently since I have not been commuting to work. The only thing that's helped is I've been having a lot of dental work and my dentist was happy for me to listen to my device while she dug around in my mouth. I wonder if the Battle of Austerlitz will always remind me of my root canal treatment! The dental treatment is over now but where I am some restrictions may be eased at the end of the month and so I may have more opportunity to listen while I go for walks.

>94 Nickelini: I think you are right about him, but he was a good person to spend time with, at least via the pages!

97sallypursell
huhtikuu 29, 2020, 9:23pm

I read War and Peace ages ago, and I remember really liking it, but not why. I know it is a favorite of my daughter's. Your great comments have inspired me to re-read it. Thanks!

98wandering_star
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 4, 2020, 4:25am

49. Woods etc. by Alice Oswald

Another book of poetry. Alice Oswald writes poetry inspired by nature, and I have enjoyed her poems before. I think this time though, they suffered from being read so close to the poems in Us. The poems in Woods etc. have some lovely writing and, like Us, frequently do that poetic juxtaposition thing where all of a sudden you see something in a new way. But compared to the intensely personal and moving poetry of Zaffar Kunial I felt there was something missing.

Here are links to three of the poems I liked best:

Moon Hymn

Hymn to Iris

The mud-spattered recollections of a woman who lived her life backwards

99wandering_star
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 15, 2020, 5:05am

50. That Old Black Magic by Cathi Unsworth

This novel draws on a real-life historical mystery (click on the link for details/spoilers), combined with the story of Helen Duncan, the last person in the UK imprisoned for witchcraft. It's a well-imagined portrayal of the home front during WWII and the way that desperate people were turning to spiritualism for comfort. Some of the characters were vivid and memorable. But for some reason despite the content it failed to be either thrilling or scary - perhaps because the story became too complex and spread-out.

Most of the space on the seat was taken up by a woman dressed entirely in black, with thick bobbed hair of the same raven hue. Her face was the image of the full moon against her dim surroundings, wreathes of smoke from her cigarette standing in for clouds.

100wandering_star
toukokuu 4, 2020, 10:25am

51. Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik

I think this is one of the best popular science books I've ever read. Miodownik is a materials scientist and in this absorbing book he takes ten materials (broadly defined) and tells us about their history, their science, their significance to our lives.

He says in the introduction that he found it hard to narrow down to ten subjects, and in the end he has chosen ten substances all of which appear in a photo of him sitting in a roof garden, having a cup of tea. From glass and porcelain to graphite and chocolate (it turns out there is a lot to say about the melting point of cocoa butter and the way its crystal structures affect the texture of chocolate).

We learn about ancient technologies such as pottery, to futuristic ones such as aerogels and self-healing concrete, which has dormant bacteria embedded in it which ‘wake up’ if a crack in the concrete lets water reach them, and start excreting calcite, which stops up the crack.

But the most remarkable thing in this book is ingenuity of humans, whether their technological breakthroughs were the result of trial and error, experience (the science of samurai sword-making in the fifteenth century surpassed any ability to work with steel until five hundred years later), or high-tech understanding of processes at the molecular level.

Miodownik writes,

You don’t have to go into a museum to wonder at how history and technology have affected human culture; their effects are all around you now. Most of the time we ignore them. We have to: we would be treated as lunatics if we spent the whole time running our fingers down a concrete wall and sighing.

After reading this book you might be tempted to marvel at a concrete wall, the teacup in your hand, the paper of the book or newspaper you are reading, and many more things.

101wandering_star
toukokuu 7, 2020, 8:44pm

End of W&P Vol 3 Part 1. It occurs to me that one of the themes of the book is that big things happen because small things happen. Someone refuses a request because it's asked at the wrong time (they are angry with someone who isn't the requester, or preoccupied with a different decision they have to make), or does something positive not because they are driven to do it but because of the mood they were in.

Of course for most people, the consequences of an irrational decision don't shake the world. For kings and emperors...

There is a scene where the Emperor has asked the nobles and merchants to assemble because he is going to ask them to contribute towards the army. At the start of the scene the nobles are bickering over the question of how much they should offer. But when the Emperor arrives, they start to outbid each other in their offer, in a sort of collective madness.

The sovereign left the next day. All the assembled noblemen took off their uniforms, planted themselves at home or in the clubs again, and, groaning, gave their stewards orders about the militia, astonished at what they had done.

Interesting that Tolstoy sees this contingent nature of decisions and concludes that people are being acted on by great historical forces - I would conclude the opposite.

102wandering_star
toukokuu 7, 2020, 9:00pm

52. Storm Front by Jim Butcher

I am quite partial to that sub-section of urban fantasy which is basically crime novel + magic. In these books, the world is the one that we know, but most humans don't realise that there are magical beings around us. A specialist police unit works on crimes committed by or on these magical beings, with assistance from someone from the world of magic - a sort of supernatural PI or consulting detective.

This was a fun but fairly forgettable example of the genre - not helped by being incredibly similar to a previous book I'd read, Hot Lead, Cold Iron, in both subject and style - they're even both set in Chicago, although this one is contemporary and Hot Lead, Cold Iron is 1930s.

Marcone’s eyes abruptly shone with a terrible, cold, money-colored anger.

103karspeak
toukokuu 8, 2020, 12:27pm

>102 wandering_star: What are some of your favorite books or series from this sub-genre?

104sallypursell
toukokuu 8, 2020, 6:41pm

>102 wandering_star: >103 karspeak: I like them, too. But I don't really know enough to say what my favorites are. So I want to know yours, wandering_star.

105wandering_star
toukokuu 8, 2020, 10:20pm

Definitely the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. I love the way that it's a recognisable picture of modern London, with its long history and modern diversity, but also brings in really ancient traditions of English folklore. Also there is an overarching story going through the different books in the series, which adds an extra layer.

I also really enjoyed Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw, the first in a series featuring Dr Greta Helsing who is a doctor to the supernatural residents of London.

I think the Monstrous Gentlewomen series also just about fits into this category.

106karspeak
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 9, 2020, 11:52am

>105 wandering_star: Thanks, I quite like the Rivers of London series, but I hadn't heard of the other two. FWIW, I was underwhelmed by Storm Front, also, but my sister loves the series and kept raving about its plot arc. I kept reading, and the series definitely keeps building and improving. I think I might have skipped some of the earlier books to get to a place where things were further along.

107sallypursell
toukokuu 9, 2020, 6:42pm

>105 wandering_star: Thanks! I've bought the first of the latter two, but not yet read them. Now I feel more confident in them

108wandering_star
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 14, 2020, 9:48pm

53. A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

I almost hurled this book from me during the first chapter. It had the unmistakeable stamp of a book by a non-British author set in a period British aristocratic milieu. (I try not to be too pedantic about things like anachronisms but sometimes if the whole voice/tone is off it affects the whole reading experience.) In this case the thing which tipped me over the edge was the idea that an upper-class Victorian Englishman, at a time of great duress, would describe his wife as 'the missus'...

For whatever reason, I kept going, and I am so glad I did. Because soon I was enjoying the story so much that I could take things like that in my stride.

The basic premise of the story is that Sherlock Holmes was, in fact, a woman - or perhaps more accurately, he was a character invented so that Charlotte Holmes could make the most of her observation and detection talents, in a socially acceptable way. So she poses as the sister, saying that Holmes is ill, but listening from the next room.

This book was great fun. I am on a self-imposed book-buying ban at the moment, but I did go hopefully to my library website in case they had the next in the series available. (Unfortunately they didn't).

Much to Lady Holmes’s relief, her youngest child also exerted a heroic effort in the direction of small talk. Instead of startling and discomfiting visitors with such comments as “I see you no longer write in your journal” or “I’m sorry the trip to Bath wasn’t as successful as you’d hoped it would be,” she learned to smile, nod, and chat about the weather. This last was not accomplished without trial and error. In the beginning she had a tendency to correct old squires’ exclamations of “We haven’t had so much rain since I was a boy in short breeches” by quoting concrete records from parish registers, which demonstrated that there had been far greater precipitation a mere five years ago.

109sallypursell
toukokuu 14, 2020, 11:37pm

>53 wandering_star: That sounds like fun!

110wandering_star
toukokuu 15, 2020, 6:25am

>109 sallypursell: It really was! And so was

54. The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

An enjoyable, lightly metafictional crime novel. Lightly metafictional because the narrator of the novel is a writer called Anthony who has written books, TV shows and films which have the same names and content as the books, TV shows and films written by the real Anthony Horowitz - and because of a few other little touches such as telling the reader on p43 that Chapter One includes "a clue which would indicate, quite clearly, the identity of the killer". (Which of course sent me back to Chapter One to read it twice again, much more closely, without seeing anything that could possibly be a clue... although when I went back one final time after finishing the book, I realised what the clue had been).

Why do this? Narrator Anthony (and possibly the writer too) laments at one point that after writing twenty-two episodes of his TV show Foyle's War, he's pretty much covered every variation possible of murder stories. The conceit of this book is that the writer is contacted by an ex-policeman who had once been a consultant on one of his TV shows. Hawthorne is still informally advising the police on tricky cases, and he pitches an idea to Anthony - come along on one of my investigations, write a book about it, and we'll split the profits 50-50.

This could have been irritating if overdone, but it's handled perfectly. It's fun, the relationship between the two men is intriguing, as is Hawthorne himself - a good detective but someone who doesn't suffer fools. ("For him, politeness was a surgical mask, something he slipped on before he took out his scalpel.") And it's a great story - several twists, but not so many that it becomes ridiculous. Unusually, I worked out the solution just before the final reveals, but that was also quite satisfying.

Happily, my library does have the second book in this series...

111avaland
toukokuu 15, 2020, 3:09pm

>92 wandering_star: Loved the poem! (but I hear the voices of at least two of my instructor telling me I can't do some of the things he did in that poem :-)

I also nod along with your recommendation of Attica Locke. I've also read several of her books and enjoyed them.

112lisapeet
toukokuu 15, 2020, 3:25pm

>92 wandering_star: Oh, how'd I miss that poem? It's great, and I love the juxtaposition in it.

113wandering_star
toukokuu 17, 2020, 8:53am

>111 avaland: >112 lisapeet: So glad you like it too. Yes, the way that he drifts into thinking about another place and time and we don't yet realise that's what he's doing.

114wandering_star
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 17, 2020, 10:50am

55. Ms. Marvel Vol 1: No Normal by G Willow Wilson

I'm not sure it's right to review comic-book formats where one volume only takes you about one-fifth of the way into the story. In this volume, you get the origin story and early superhero exploits of Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani-American teenager who one night stumbles into a mysterious fog and has a vision of her idols - Iron Man, Captain America and Captain Marvel. She acquires magic powers (and a cool but, it turns out, impractical costume) and for the rest of the story in this volume, we see her discovering what her powers are and starting to learn to control them.

I enjoyed this - Ms Marvel/Kamala Khan is an engaging character, and I liked the drawing style. I also really liked the idea of being incredibly clumsy at first and not quite being able to control your powers. The actual bit of the story where she is a superhero and fights bad guys didn't seem to have quite come together but maybe picks up later in the story.

115wandering_star
toukokuu 17, 2020, 10:45am

56. Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News by Emily Maitlis

Emily Maitlis is a senior BBC journalist who presents the BBC's most prestigious TV news programme (Newsnight).

From the cover and the introduction to this book, I thought that it was going to be a bit of an examination of the role of the media today, and how a media organisation can make sure that they are getting things right. This is a subject that I am very interested in - how to build public trust, how it's possible to get it back when it's gone, and how to talk about the complexities and trade-offs of current affairs and policy in the face of populists shouting from the side that it's all really very simple.

Instead this is basically a series of anecdotes, the most interesting (or perhaps just the funniest) from her 20+ year career. A lot of them take a similar format. Preparing for an interview Maitlis works out the key question that she should be asking her interviewee, tries to figure out a way to lead up to the question, manages or doesn't manage to ask it in the interview, and examines herself afterwards to see if she got it right (but doesn't talk in much detail about that examination).

So - it's fine. Unsurprisingly, she writes well. But however good the writing about, say, Steve Bannon ("Bannon had always seemed to me to have the extra-sensory perception of a wild animal predicting an imminent tsunami. Except his antennae brought him towards the scene of crisis, not away from it."), the chapter about that episode told me nothing really new. There wasn't much in this book which gave me new insights or a different perspective on things. Weirdly the most interesting chapter was one about interviewing a male stripper who had a very nuanced and unexpected perspective on the #metoo movement (her report at the time is available here (to read) and here (to watch), if you're interested).

116wandering_star
toukokuu 17, 2020, 10:14pm

Latest thoughts on W&P (now three-quarters of the way through).

Because the story takes place over so many years, and we follow the characters pretty closely, people are able to change - I know that people often change in fiction, but they rarely change back!

In W&P people change their plans, their opinions, their views of each other, all the time - in a way that is so recognisable from our own lives.

Tolstoy also gets the reader to change their minds, through the way the story is revealed.

The storyline that I am reading at the moment includes a young man trying to decide which of two women to marry. I am totally shipping one of the possible couples and have been since they first met - but then Tolstoy gives you a couple of chapters from the other woman's viewpoint and now I am feeling very sympathetic to the other woman.

I love the ambiguity and ability to change. I've also been struck by the way that things which look like they are foreshadowing a particular event don't always come out. It's possible, for example, for someone to be ill and to recover (like real life, but not that common in fictional stories - I was struck by this when watching Dickinson recently, where a character suddenly has a sniffle and I thought, time to start measuring the coffin!)

117wandering_star
toukokuu 22, 2020, 8:03am

Further thoughts from today's reading of W&P.

No characters are just background. Every time we see an individual, they are a person in their own right.

During one of the battle scenes there is a young officer. He appears in only three sentences, before he dies. And yet, he is a vivid character - we can imagine who he is.

A young, round-faced little officer, still a perfect child, obviously just out of cadet school, commanding quite diligently the two cannon entrusted to him, addressed Pierre sternly.

...

“To your places!” cried the young officer to the soldiers gathered round Pierre. This young officer was clearly carrying out his duties for the first or second time, and therefore addressed both the soldiers and the superior with special precision and formality.

...

The young little officer, still more flushed, commanded the soldiers still more diligently.

...

Suddenly something happened; the little officer said “Ah” and, curling up, sat on the ground like a bird shot down in flight.


And then, pages later, Pierre wanders back through the same location.

There were many dead whom he did not know. But some he recognized. The young little officer sat in the same curled-up way, by the edge of the rampart, in a pool of blood.

It's a bit like the little girl in red in Schindler's List - except that there isn't just one of him in the novel. Despite such a massive canvas, when we look at a person, we really see them. I think this links to the overall message of how hard it is to take a life.

Violent death is often described in a way that emphasises how incomprehensible it is:

But Pierre, much as he tried to recall later, did not hear the slightest sound of the shots. He only saw how the factory worker suddenly slumped down in the ropes for some reason, how blood appeared in two places, and how the ropes became loose under the weight of the sagging body, and the factory worker sat down, lowering his head and tucking his legs under unnaturally.

And the idea of death and killing frequently comes up as something which is impossible to understand - both from the point of view of someone who is (or thinks they are going to be) killed, and from the point of view of those who have killed someone else.

It's not that common to see this depth of humane-ness in a work which deals with large-scale death and devastation.

118sallypursell
toukokuu 22, 2020, 2:48pm

I'm impressed by your takeaways on War and Peace, wandering_star.

119wandering_star
toukokuu 22, 2020, 11:11pm

>118 sallypursell: Thanks - I'm doing them partly as an outlet for my enthusiasm (always nice to tell other people about things which are good), partly because I already know I will read this book many times and I will probably find different things in it each time, so it'll be interesting to see how that changes. And a tiny bit because I think it will be impossible to post a "review" on LT as I do for my other reading - both too much and too little to say!

120lisapeet
toukokuu 22, 2020, 11:25pm

This is really making me think I want to read W&P. I hadn't thought of it in terms of being such a nuanced portrait of human nature... not sure why it wouldn't be, if so many people hold it in such high regard, but there you go. It was just one of those immovable objects in my literary landscape, and now I'm rethinking that. A bucket list book, then.

121wandering_star
toukokuu 26, 2020, 9:06am

57. The Exit by Helen FitzGerald

I made the mistake of starting this book one evening, and wound up finishing it at 2am. It's a domestic noir thriller, set in a nursing home. Rose, in her 80s, has dementia. She bonds with a new member of staff, the slightly surly youngster Catherine. Maybe this new girl will finally listen when Rose tells her about the terrible things that have been happening...

Honestly, this book was probably better read fast than read slowly. It's not the most original story or the most plausible plot in the world. But I really enjoyed it. Both Rose and Catherine, who take turns narrating the story, are great characters, fun to spend time with, and sympathetic against the odds. ("I was ageist, so shoot my firm optimistic face. I wasn’t one of those young people who help old ladies cross roads.") Bits of the story were unexpectedly moving. And at the same time the narrative was gripping enough to keep me up into the night. Hard to ask for more.

122wandering_star
toukokuu 31, 2020, 9:16pm

58. How To Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran

This is the story of Johanna Morrigan, growing up in a large, crazy, skint family in Wolverhampton, discovering music, renaming and reinventing herself, getting a job writing about music, losing herself trying to fit in with her new environment, and eventually recovering herself again. (Last year I read the sequel, How To Be Famous).

I really enjoyed this. First of all, Moran is a great comic writer. There are several laughs on every page. But there are also two more meaningful themes that pervade the book. The first is the power of music - and the book really starts to take off when Johanna/Dolly discovers it:

The first time I hear The Stone Roses’ ‘I Am The Resurrection’, I dance in my bed, lying down, with the headphones on – arms cast out wide, feeling excited, for the first time, to come from a battered industrial town. Things happen in these kinds of towns that could never happen anywhere else – proud, poor kids make things happen with more heat, and intensity, and attack, than could ever be managed somewhere with pleasant villages, or well-tended gardens.

The second is the whole question of what it is like to be a teenage girl, growing up in a world where a lot of the expectations about you are not made by teenage girls. And so Dolly has to learn by trial and error - what does she actually like? Who is she, in fact?

The thought I can’t have is 'I don’t want to do this' – because how do I know if I don’t want to do this? I’m still terra-forming me.

Reading this book makes me regret the fact that I didn't spend my teenage years/early twenties trying on lots of different approaches, working out who I was. (I don't tend to regret much, because I am pretty happy with where my life has ended up - but this seems like it could have been fun - mostly - and a valuable process to go through).

123wandering_star
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 31, 2020, 9:30pm

59. Waterland by Graham Swift

One thing I did do a lot of as a teenager was read, including this book. I don't remember exactly when I read it, but I found in my copy a postcard dated December 1990, which is the right sort of time.

I remember buying this book because I found the cover so amazing.



I've never wanted a book simply on the basis of the cover design, before or since.

I also remember loving the book, although this time around, 30 years (!) later, I did not love it.

I think maybe when I read it before, it was one of the first of this kind of book that I had read - a chopped-up, meandering narrative, and some stylistic tricks (such as the last sentence of a chapter running into the title of the next chapter). At that point I had read A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, and had looked in the shop at If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, though not yet read it. So all of this was very new and exciting to me.

I do still love having to piece together fragmentary narratives - and this one weaves together so many strands. The narrator is a history teacher, told that he will not have a job beyond the end of the school year. He more or less gives up teaching the French Revolution and instead talks to his class about his childhood, his family, and the history of the flat East Anglian Fenland where he grew up. The themes of memory, history and story, and the unreliability of all three, circle round each other.

Despite (or maybe because of?) now living in the featureless Fenland that Swift describes, this time around I can't really feel again what I loved so much. I found the rambling narrative rather dense and tiresome, and I'm not sure how credible the main female character is. (Of course, when I was a teenager, the book was telling me what women were like and not the other way around). I actually had to force myself to finish the book - there were many moments when I would have liked to give up.

What is a history teacher? He's someone who teaches mistakes. While others say, Here's how to do it, he says, And here's what goes wrong. While others tell you, This is the way, this is the path, he says, And here are a few bungles, botches, blunders and fiascos... It doesn't work out; it's human to err (so what do we need, a God to watch over us and forgive us our sins?). He's a self-contradiction (since everybody nows that what you learn from history is that nobody - ).

124Nickelini
toukokuu 31, 2020, 10:37pm

>122 wandering_star:

I'll have to bump that up my TBR pile. Sound good

125wandering_star
Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 6, 2020, 7:23am

https://www.britishmuseum.org/vikings-live

This is without question my favourite out of all the arts/culture stuff which has been put online because of the pandemic. Because (a) who isn't fascinated by Vikings? and (b) it can be nice to see a theatre production online if you aren't able to see it live, but it's a shadow of the real thing - acoustically and experientially. It turns out that a live tour of an exhibition gives you lots of extra information and enthusiasm from the various guides and experts being interviewed, as well as some real close-up views of key items.

Weird to come across Smolensk and Yaroslavl in this context after being there with War and Peace a thousand years later.

126wandering_star
Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 2, 2020, 9:34am

60. Mr Godley's Phantom by Mal Peet

Martin Heath was one of the first British soldiers through the gates of Belsen at the end of the war. Now demobbed, he's haunted by what he saw, and unable to settle back to civilian life. He gets a letter from his old commanding officer - who has suggested him for a job, working for the elderly Mr Godley. Godley lives in a crumbling manor house, far from anywhere, with two servants, rattling round in the place - and the memories of his son, who died in the First World War, and his wife, who killed herself from grief.

A great sense of eerieness and foreboding hangs over the start of the book. And on the cover of my edition, there's a subtitle: 'an infection of evil'. But in this scenario, who should be afraid of whom?

Your answer to that question will change half a dozen times in the course of these 150 pages. As will your view of what the genre of the book is. Horror? Ghost story? Crime? Or a moving fiction looking at bereavement and grief? Can it be all these things at one time?

It only took me a few hours to read the book. But you could probably keep thinking about it for as long again. Who, in all this, was the perpetrator, and who the real victim?

HE WAS ATTRACTED to the place, felt a sort of affinity with it, as soon as he saw it. Burra Hall was, he supposed, a mere hundred years old, if that, but occupied its leafy cleft in the moor as if it had always done so; as if, in fact, it had been formed by the same geological upheaval that had created the rocky hill behind it and the heaped, harsh slabs that capped it. The house was built of that same granite, but its architectural details – window bays, lintels, the two columns that supported the portico – were of a more mellow and paler stone.
Out of habit he worked out a plan of attack on the place. The Bren gun on that higher ground to the right. Good cover: gorse, jumbled rock. Move the platoon up along the dead ground between the lawn and the paddock. Grenades, then—
He closed his eyes, shook his head. Stop it.


127rachbxl
kesäkuu 4, 2020, 4:21am

>122 wandering_star: Ha! That was my reaction too. Like you, I largely spent those years reading, and have never really regretted it, but this book did make this particular alternative (or not even alternative - surely I could have done both?!) sound quite attractive. More attractive to my 40-something self than it ever was to the teen me, anyway.

128lisapeet
Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 4, 2020, 7:49am

>122 wandering_star: Interesting... your review makes me more inclined to pick up the book. I had imagined it, I guess because of the cover etc., as kind of a smart pretty party girl tell-all. I didn't get the class and music angles, which make it 100% more appealing to me.

I was one of those teenage/early 20s girls who DID explore a lot, which included being around a really great art and music scene (early 80s downtown NYC). It was valuable and it was fun, if undoubtedly risky—a lot of folks I know didn't come out the other end so easily. But it was a great experience for me, and I'm still dining out on a lot of my reminiscences... with the luxury of having walked away from the excesses but kept the interesting, fun cultural stuff.

129wandering_star
kesäkuu 4, 2020, 9:07pm

>127 rachbxl: Exactly! I definitely started getting younger in my 20s.

surely I could have done both?! - isn't that the plot of Booksmart?

>128 lisapeet: The perfect outcome.

130wandering_star
Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 8, 2020, 3:15pm

61. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

What is there to say? I am glad I posted about this as I was reading it, as it seems impossible to sum up the whole thing in a short review. I have to say it was *not* a strong ending, with Epilogue Part Two being in its entirety about Tolstoy's critique of historiography - which is fine, but extremely repetitive, and meant I had to go back and re-read what turned out to be the final scenes featuring any of the characters.

I was surprised how readable and enjoyable this was. The characters are so rich - I will miss spending time with them. I was talking to my mother about the ending and she said she thought Tolstoy didn't know how to say goodbye to them either - that's why the story ends in a slightly unsatisfactory way.

I will miss, in particular, the Rostovs as a family. They are so loving towards each other. (I still vividly remember the very early description of how guilty they all feel for not loving the very proper and absolutely awful Vera). I think of all the characters I may be most like Count Rostov - easy-going, over-optimistic, a bit extravagant (although I hope I don't cause the financial ruin of my family). I also recognise myself in the scene where Pierre meets the French officer - he goes in with great plans of keeping his identity secret and not engaging, but as soon as the French officer is nice to him he spills the beans about everything including his secret love for Natasha.

The depiction of the Rostovs in particular, as well as the elements I mentioned in >117 wandering_star: about everyone who appears being recognisably an individual person, make me think that an important theme of the book is about the importance of love and human connections in the most terrible of circumstances. I know there's a lot more going on, but this is what resonated with me this time around.

I am sure that I will read this many times again. Perhaps not every year - that feels a bit daunting - but it might be a book that I always have on the go, in the background, so I can read a few pages whenever I feel like it.

131AlisonY
kesäkuu 9, 2020, 3:33am

>122 wandering_star: I read Moran's column every Saturday in The Times, and I'm regularly in awe of what a smart writer she is. I understand that this book is semi-autobiographical - she's had an interesting start to life, being home-schooled within a very large family who had a fairly meagre income on a poor estate. That doesn't usually make for stories of huge success, but yet she's been successful from an early age.

>130 wandering_star: You've definitely sold War and Peace to me, although after 2 huge books already this year perhaps not just yet.

132wandering_star
kesäkuu 9, 2020, 10:02am

>131 AlisonY: One of the things I find most impressive about Caitlin Moran is her ability to take a subject which has been made very complicated, and express it in really simple and vivid terms. I particularly thought this when I read her essays in How To Be A Woman - there are so many things about feminism which people get tied up in knots about, but the way she frames them, they are not just simple but obvious.

I would love to know how much of this is accurate to her own life. I especially wonder how she knew that she was a good writer (I believe one element that's true is that she started writing for a music magazine in London when she was about 15).

133wandering_star
kesäkuu 9, 2020, 10:32am

62. Stoner by John Williams

William Stoner goes from his parents' farm to study agricultural science at the local university. But one day during the mandatory English Literature introduction class he is struck, dumb, by a Shakespeare sonnet, and so begins his life as an academic, never leaving the institution he started at. This book is very well written but so, so sad - a litany of miscommunications and misunderstandings which leaves Stoner leaving a small, constrained life, in which almost every element of joy is taken from him. He marries a woman with whom he has nothing in common, and is unable to stand up for what he wants as she arranges their lives. A colleague whom he is intrigued by, but too awkward to be able to get to know better, becomes a bitter professional rival.

All this is almost even sadder because the reader can see that even the characters who destroy Stoner's life are themselves deeply unhappy - and you also believe that whatever their motivation at the start, they really come to believe the stories they tell which justify their own behaviour.

Stoner tried to explain to his father what he intended to do, tried to evoke in him his own sense of significance and purpose. He listened to his words fall as if from the mouth of another, and watched his father's face, which received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist. When he had finished he sat with his hands clasped between his knees and his head bound. He listened to the silence of the room.

134wandering_star
Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 9, 2020, 10:50am

63. Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

After that I had to read something which I knew would be light and enjoyable, so I turned to the fifth instalment in the Rivers of London series, my favourite urban fantasy. I like these because of the way they build on English folk traditions but bring them up to date; I like the relationships between young mixed-race PC Peter Grant and his extremely old school gaffer, Nightingale, plus the rest of the gang; I like the humour and the way the stories gallop along. In this instalment, Peter heads out of London to a town where two young girls have disappeared - and we learn a little bit more about the magic in this world. I don't think this is the best in the series - there is a LOT which is not properly explained in the way that the story turns out - unless there is an explanation to come in a future volume. That said, I did enjoy it and it was a good pick-me-up after the ravages of Stoner.

Doing magic on the fly, even something as basic as an impello variant, is incredibly difficult. Nightingale said that when he was training only half his peers could perform while under physical stress. Which is why, in the Folly, boxing practice goes, jab, jab, right, duck, roundhouse, uppercut, lux, jab, jab, impello. I stripped away the sound of my own breathing and the impact of my feet on the grass so that in my head there was only the pounding of my heart and the right formae – and then I twisted that shape in the Yale lock of the universe.

135wandering_star
Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 10, 2020, 4:11am

English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven't yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don't think my first language can be written down at all. I'm not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs.

This is the narrator of 64. Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, a woman who lives in a small cottage on the side of a hill, and notices the things around her with a slightly alien, affectless eye.

The book's title came from an incident in which the woman's neighbours are planning some sort of celebration, and they put up a little sign by the pond, which says 'pond', to warn the children not to fall in. This drives the narrator into a rage. One sets off to investigate you see, to develop the facility to really notice things so that, over time, and with enough practice, one becomes attuned to the earth's embedded logos and can experience the enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things. Yet invariably this vital process is abruptly thwarted by an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible until eventually it is all quite formidable.

(I think she means the Greek logos by the way - the divine reason implicit in the cosmos - rather than logos as in company logos - although it was only when I came to copy this out for the review that I noticed that).

So I think that is the manifesto, the desire behind the writing of this book - to try and really notice things as they are, rather than as they are named and described for us.

At its best, I think, this book startles you into seeing things differently, or thinking about things in a way you haven't before. They are very nice to eat, oranges, when you've been having sex for ages. They cut through the fug and smell very organised, and so a sort of structure resumes and then it is perfectly possible to make a plan, such as going out somewhere nice for dinner. I would never have thought of describing the citrus smell as organised, but I can see that it's sharp and appealing enough to jerk you into a new frame of mind.

The narrator is not very keen on other people. She often seems to have a man, or perhaps different men, about the place, although she doesn't seem to enjoy it very much. They move about your home depositing things here and there, making ordinary noises along the way, like it's perfectly acceptable. It's ridiculous and quite untenable to become enraged and put off by such gentle armaments as this, yet I cannot settle, and so I drink.

Goodness knows I am keen on a bit of solitude myself, but I think these two things in the book work against each other. If we are to try and really see the world around us as it is, it would be nice to see some positive things in it, rather than to read everything as at best baffling, at worst a vague threat. Maybe I am a more optimistic person than the author! But moving about in deep and direct accordance with things does not, so far, seem to bring her much enriching joy.

I enjoyed reading this, but it was probably on the boundary line of how experimental I like my fiction. It's best to read it in small, intense bursts, like poetry.

136raton-liseur
kesäkuu 10, 2020, 8:23am

>133 wandering_star: Interesting review that gives a different perspective on a book that has been fashionable in France a few years ago. If I remember well it was marketed as a book praising books and culture, not as a sad, missed life.

Would you recommand it anyway? And would you consider it an easy read (I'm trying to determine if it's a book I could read in English or better in translation)?

137wandering_star
kesäkuu 11, 2020, 9:11pm

>136 raton-liseur: Thanks - interesting question. I believe, from the foreword to the book, that Williams himself did not think that the book was very sad - and there is some solace for Stoner, including from literature. I guess that it depends on your overall levels of optimism. If you believe that 'most people lead lives of quiet desperation' then this is simply a close-up portrayal of one of those desperate lives.

I am optimistic to the point of un-realism (I have a whole category of clothes that I had to buy because I went on holiday expecting it to be warmer than it actually was) so I found it quite relentless. I couldn't enjoy Fleabag for the same reason - every single person in it was so desperately unhappy, I couldn't square that with the funny tone. Obviously many people loved both Fleabag and Stoner, so I wouldn't let my thoughts put you off. It's certainly technically very good (quality of writing etc).

In terms of whether it's an easy read - it's somewhere in the middle I would say. The structure and style are not complex, but the sentences can be quite long and meditative. Maybe have a look at some of the quotes on goodreads (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/search) for a sense of the language?

138wandering_star
kesäkuu 11, 2020, 9:35pm

I realise I missed out a review. Pond should have been book number 65.

64. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

This is one of three books that came out at roughly the same time, which retold Homer's stories through the eyes of the female characters - along with this, there was Circe by Madeline Miller and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. Both of those books took one particular female character as their focus and narrator - Circe from the Odyssey, and Briseis, a woman taken captive by the Greek army and given as a slave to Achilles. Hayes, instead, aims to tell a whole epic through the stories of many different women - some well-known to the modern reader, such as Penelope - others more obscure.

Like the other two, where this book stands out is in taking the story elements from the myth and imagining emotions and motivations into them - what would it actually have felt like, on a human level, to be involved in this epic actions. It's also interesting to see the well-known stories unfold from a different angle. However, somehow the changing focus on different characters, combined with a chopped-up timeline, this broke down my engagement with the story - there was nothing to pull me along narratively. I enjoyed it while I was reading it - but it was easy to put it down and forget I was in the middle of it.

Overall, I think this book suffered from being published so close to the other two. It is good, but the other two are brilliant, and so it doesn't stand up to the comparison.

He turned the apple round, admiring its gleaming warmth. No wonder they were arguing over such a lovely, solid trinket. He saw the letters engraved on its flesh: ‘For the most beautiful’. He felt a brief spasm of sadness that the writer had used the feminine ending: ‘kalliste’. Had it read ‘kallisto’, he would certainly have kept it for himself.
‘Yes,’ said Aphrodite, who recognized desire when she saw it. ‘It is very pretty, isn’t it?’
‘As are you three ladies,’ Paris said, with practised gallantry.
‘We’ve heard it,’ said Athene. ‘Now choose.’

139raton-liseur
kesäkuu 12, 2020, 6:29am

>137 wandering_star: Thanks! Another proof that the reader makes the book, not as much as the author, but we are part of the process!
I might give a try to Stoner, but not in an immediate future. I am not in the mood of being reminded of "lives of quiet desperation"...

140wandering_star
kesäkuu 12, 2020, 9:11am

>139 raton-liseur: I like that thought :-)

141lilisin
kesäkuu 12, 2020, 9:20am

You are just plugging along! I feel like you're having a particular good reading year in terms of quantity or are you always this prolific with your reading?

142wandering_star
Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 12, 2020, 10:29am

66. Then We Take Berlin by John Lawton

It was only a few months ago that I described Safe Houses as one of the best thrillers I have ever read. Is it too soon to use the same description again? Perhaps I can get round that question by saying that Then We Take Berlin isn't quite a thriller. It has the plot of a thriller, but not the pace of one, and that is to its advantage.

The book starts in 1963. Joe Holderness, nicknamed Wilderness, has been flown to NYC to talk about a possible job - helping a wealthy businessman get his last surviving relative out of East Germany. But Wilderness has history with Frank, the man brokering the job, and doesn't know whether to trust the offer. We then go back to Wilderness' youth - learning the family trade of burglary, joining the army, getting into trouble, being pulled aside because of his test scores and being trained up as an intelligence officer (I would love to know whether Kim created the template for spies who are excellent mimics and good at languages, or whether that existed before Kim). Wilderness winds up in post-war Berlin, and meets Frank for the first time. It's at least two-thirds of the way through the book by the time we are in 1963 again.

Lawton is excellent on the utter grimness of defeated Berlin (and the grimness of much London life during wartime as well). I liked the way that the story gradually unfolded. There are twists, but because of the pace they feel more realistic than the more conventional thriller ending where you get half a dozen twists and counter-twists in the last few chapters.

I have reserved the sequel at the library, but I wonder whether it will be able to have the same feel to it with so much of the backstory already told? It might end up being shorter and tighter, hopefully not less interesting.

“It didn’t survive the raids. It wasn’t there. We built this from scratch last year. Ballroom, gym, shop . . . you name it.” Wilderness stared. “Ballroom? A bloody ballroom?” The building all but shone. In a city where people shuffled around in rags, half-starved, picking over the contents of dustbins—a city in which that which was not grey with ash was yellow with vitamin deficiency—where people lived in holes in the ground . . . we had built this?

143wandering_star
kesäkuu 12, 2020, 10:29am

>141 lilisin: I am definitely reading more this year. I generally average between 100 and 120 books in a year, so am ahead of where I would 'normally' be. I think it's due to having a lot more weekends and evenings to myself than I normally would. And enjoying the escapism of getting into a good book!

144lisapeet
kesäkuu 12, 2020, 11:08am

>133 wandering_star: I read Stoner probably ten years ago... I remember thinking it was a really interesting, and sad, exploration of whether living a life of the mind is ever enough. I wonder, though, if my opinion of it would change now.

145thorold
kesäkuu 12, 2020, 12:35pm

>142 wandering_star: whether Kim created the template for spies who are excellent mimics and good at languages

There's a nice book by Peter Hopkirk, Quest for Kim: in search of Kipling's Great Game, that looks at where Kipling got his ideas from. Disguise is a staple of Great Game lore in real life, but it might well be Kipling who established it as a convention for fictional spies. He was almost certainly responsible for making writers see the spy-training process as a key part of the story.

146SassyLassy
kesäkuu 12, 2020, 4:26pm

>133 wandering_star: A book I really liked, no matter how melancholy, but at the time I read it, I still had Willa Cather's The Professor's House in mind as I had recently read it. The two novels deal with roughly the same time in American life, and the contrast between how they each dealt with their lives reinforced my reading of each.

>142 wandering_star: >145 thorold: Whether Kim was the template or not, I like the idea of him as such. Great thought! Will look for the Hopkirk, always an entertaining writer.

147wandering_star
kesäkuu 14, 2020, 7:55pm

>145 thorold: Thank you - how interesting! Then We Take Berlin definitely foregrounds the training process.

148wandering_star
kesäkuu 14, 2020, 8:03pm

67. Love In A Dish by MFK Fisher

This is a short collection of essays and extracts, compiled as part of the Penguin 'Great Food' series (one of those where they produce a dozen or so very short books on a particular theme).

MFK Fisher regularly crops up on lists of the best writers about food. Despite the fact that I found the essays quite dated in both content and style, I can see why.

Firstly, she has a lovely evocative way with words, whether describing something delicious, or the hopeless feeling of looking into an understocked fridge (pantry in her case):

I took a while to get into what is basically an easy rhythm of marketing, and a couple of times I found myself facing one withered lemon, a boiled potato, and a bowl of subtly rotten green beans for supper.

Secondly, she has had some amazing experiences, which must have been even more amazing and unattainable at the time that she was writing - this is from an essay about the different kitchens she had living in Provence:

At the markets, we would fill the two string bags we carried with us, and the two or three woven baskets, all bulging with hard vegetables at the bottom and things like wood strawberries on top, and head for our favorite taxi at the top of the Cours Mirabeau, picking up packages along the way – a square of Dijon gingerbread and a pot of Alpine honey at the little ‘health-food store’ on the Place Forbin, an onion tart for a treat at the pastry shop on the Rue Thiers, a bottle of vermouth at the Caves Phocéennes.

And of course, she has the enthusiasm and strong opinions of all engaging writers.

149wandering_star
kesäkuu 14, 2020, 8:16pm

68. The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

The Plumb children have always known that they will come into money. Their father's inheritance - known by the family as The Nest - is waiting for them, to be distributed when the youngest child, Melody, turns forty. But less than a year before this happens, the eldest, charismatic fuck-up Leo, does something catastrophically stupid which burns through the vast majority of the money. And suddenly, for the whole family, the consequences of of years and decades of bad behaviour and poor decisions are staring them in the face.

If you don't like to read books about 'rich people problems' then this is not for you. But I enjoyed it tremendously. It's an easy, fluent read but there is also a lot of craft that has gone into it. For example, the way that little snippets of information or glimpses into a personality are built up. Not to mention - how does the writer create that enjoyable sense that you can see the doom coming over the horizon, without a sense of predictability? How are her characters so monstrous that you want them to get their comeuppance but you also, in the end, want them to be happy?

He thought about the money all the time and the day he would just pick up and leave. What had kept him from doing it years ago was the hope that Victoria would tire of him first, fall in love with someone else and leave him so he could avoid a financially decimating divorce. When it became clear she never would (why couldn’t he have married someone just as beautiful but not so strategic?), he surrendered fully to the more libertine aspects of his life.

150wandering_star
kesäkuu 14, 2020, 8:40pm

69. I'm Coming to Take You to Lunch by Simon Napier-Bell

Ostensibly this is a book about how Wham! got to be the first Western group to play in China (in the early 80s). In fact it's really a memoir by their manager about his time spent managing Wham!, trying to fix up the China concert, and assorted other projects (including getting Graham Chapman of the Pythons to write a comic musical about Jeremy Thorpe).

I wanted to read this book because I thought it would be interesting about China. In fact it's at least as interesting about Wham! For example, although most people would think of George Michael as the key member of the band, Napier-Bell's view is that the band was built around Andrew's natural character - self-confident, happy-go-lucky guy who knows how good-looking he is - with George trying to mimic this persona rather than his natural self-questioning seriousness. I also enjoyed Napier-Bell's description of hearing Wake Me Up Before You Go Go for the first time (he called both his boyfriends and told them they could go ahead with the expensive projects they'd been asking him for money for).

The China stuff was good too, although I suspect an element of exaggeration for comic effect. Do I believe that in 1983, a Chinese record company executive asked why the British government let the Beatles break up, given that they were good for the UK's image? Yes, probably. Do I believe that Napier-Bell was so careful never to ask a question to which he might receive the answer 'no', that the way he got final confirmation that the gig was agreed was by asking for a plan of the Worker's Stadium with the seating laid out as it would be on the concert date? (It showed the stadium setup for a concert for basketball game, and on the stage it was written the word Wham!) Maybe. Do I believe that the group's royalties were paid in the form of 6000 army-manufactured bicycles? Hmmmm.... not sure. Particularly given that the last line of the book is, "the truth seemed so unnecessary". (This is about one of the more engaging minor characters).

The real Napier-Bell is obviously much more competent than the persona in the book. (Also, he wrote the lyrics to You Don't Have To Say You Love Me, one of my favourite songs). I really liked their marketing technique for the Wham! concert. Each ticket came with two free cassettes - Wham! songs covered in Chinese on one side, the originals on the other. The ticket was the same price as one cassette, so anyone could borrow enough money to buy a ticket, then recoup the money by selling the spare cassette. This was aimed at getting Wham! songs known by the public before the concert. And sure enough when Napier-Bell arrived in Beijing before the concert, he heard Wham! songs coming from a couple of windows.

I leant against the wall and watched the dancers. Their dancing had no recognisable form: they just lurched from side to side, occasionally hiccuping their bodies into the air, rarely in rhythm. There was no sexuality, just extrovert movement. But none of this mattered, for in that room I saw something I'd not seen during my previous visit to Beijing. Smiles! They burst out all over the place as people chattered or danced or just leant against the walls and listened.

151wandering_star
kesäkuu 21, 2020, 3:56am

70. From the Tsar's Railway to the Red Army by Mark O'Neill

This is one in a series of "China Penguin Specials" - short non-fiction books (like a Kindle Single) about some aspect of China. This one covers China's relationship with Russia in the first half of the twentieth century, and specifically Chinese people living and working in Russia. Chinese labourers were the majority of the workforce supporting expansion into the Russian Far East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (building railways for example, as they did in the US).

The railways not only brought Russians to the Far East; they enabled Chinese to reach Europe. On their morning promenade, the rich ladies of St Petersburg were astonished to find pedlars from China on the city streets, selling paper flowers and other items they had made; those who had nothing to sell turned to begging. Among the arrivals were better-funded migrants from Qingtian, Zhejiang province, who opened small shops and sold products from their hometown, such as flowerpots, carvings, handbags and other leather goods.

It turns out that more Chinese workers supported the Allied effort in WWI in Russia than in France and Belgium - unsurprising perhaps given geography, but I had never heard of this.

Following the war many of the Chinese who stayed on in Russia became Bolsheviks and/or joined the Red Army. 70 Chinese soldiers were part of Lenin's 200-man bodyguard corps.

The book is not particularly coherent or well-written but I think tries to bring together as much as is known about this interesting historical footnote.

152wandering_star
kesäkuu 21, 2020, 4:02am

71. Appointment with Yesterday by Celia Fremlin

I picked this up after seeing Celia Fremlin praised as an early writer of what is now called 'domestic noir'. I think I bought three of her books at the same time. I can only hope that the others are better than this, which was an unhappy mixture of genuinely awful events and dated social commentary (which comes from the fact that the main character, a woman on the run, makes enough to live on by working as a cleaner - there is a *lot* about the relationships between her and the women who employ her).

Nobody, she reflected, ever brings their real selves with them on to a tube train. None of us have. We have all left our identities behind in some vast spiritual Left Luggage office: and no one could guess—no one, possibly, could ever guess, just by looking—that there is one among all these glazed faces that has left its identity behind not just for the duration of the tube journey, but for ever.

153wandering_star
kesäkuu 21, 2020, 4:09am

72. Transactions in a Foreign Currency by Deborah Eisenberg

Seven phenomenal short stories, each one about a woman who has been unmoored, whether by a feckless man, by bereavement, or in "Days", by giving up smoking; or who has never been properly anchored in the first place.

I find that often between opening my eyes in the morning and putting on my final piece of clothing, three or four hours will elapse. Sometimes I am on my way out the door when something happens - the phone rings, or I notice that there are dishes in the sink, or I remember that I should get a load of laundry together, or I catch an unnerving glimpse of myself in the mirror, or I realize that I have errands that lie in opposite directions and that none of them is really important enough to take precedence over the others, or important enough to do at all, when it comes down to it, and that I don't have enough money to do all, or maybe even any, of them, and I probably never will, and even if I should, so what - and there I am for the rest of the day.

People quite often ask me what I do with my time. I don't know what to tell them. Actually, I don't know what they are getting at. What it really is that I don't know is why they want to make me feel the way they are obviously going to make me feel when they ask me this.


(from "Days")

My two favourites were "Days" and "A Lesson In Travelling Light", about a woman who is with a man with no real home, as they travel around the country crashing with one or other of his friends for a week or two.

I wondered if he ever thought about places he had lived, other faces, old girlfriends. Once in a while he seemed bowed down with a weight of shelved memories. Having freight in storage, though, is what you trade to travel light, I sometimes thought, and at that those moments I thought it was as much for him as for me that I wanted Lee so badly to stay with me.

There's something so powerful in that line, having freight in storage is what you trade to travel light.

154AnnieMod
kesäkuu 21, 2020, 5:24am

>153 wandering_star:

I have her collected stories somewhere around the house - probably need to find the book.
Interesting last few books (even if some did not work out).

155lisapeet
kesäkuu 21, 2020, 7:48am

>153 wandering_star: I love Deborah Eisenberg, and will read anything of hers, even if it doesn't quite end up jelling for me (I liked but didn't love the last collection). That one is a great collection (and I'm really regretting giving away my copy of her Collected Stories).

156wandering_star
kesäkuu 23, 2020, 8:51am

>154 AnnieMod:, >155 lisapeet: I have just looked at the Collected Stories and have book envy... I am trying not to buy anything this year, and have only bought two books, after quite a tough day at work and both secondhand copies from the Best American series, which I like to look out for.

157wandering_star
Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 23, 2020, 9:54am

73. Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin

In the world of this book, the new global craze is the "kentuki", little furry remotely-controlled house robots. The twist is that the remote controller really is remote - you can either buy the robot, or buy a connection to someone else's robot - and you don't know where you are unless you can work it out by looking through the robot's eyes. The "keepers" are motivated by having something to care for; or to be an exhibitionist in front of; or simply to keep up with the latest craze. The "dwellers" might be motivated by loneliness; for a desire to see a different life; or all the darker desires that you've probably already thought of. You can't choose who you get - a "dweller" and a "keeper" are automatically linked to each other when they first log on - although one of the characters in the multi-stranded story is a young man who's worked out a good business idea - buy and nurture as many kentuki connections as possible and then sell them to someone who wants to be able to choose what they're getting.

So - an interesting idea, lots of potential. The book was.... fine. It frustrates me that I don't have anything more to say about it. But that's it. The writing was OK, the various strands of stories showed some interesting takes on the scenario (one short but poignant sequence is in a nursing home where the "dwellers" terminate their connection as soon as they see where they are), but it didn't really take me anywhere very surprising, once I had worked out the scenario. I had seen it described as horror, or as disturbing, - maybe I already have a very sceptical view of human nature but I didn't think it was really either.

There were people willing to shell out a fortune so they could spend a few hours a day living in poverty, and there were people who paid to be tourists without leaving their houses: to travel through India without a single day of diarrhea, or to witness the arctic winter barefoot and in pajamas.

158wandering_star
kesäkuu 23, 2020, 10:03am

74. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

Memoir by a therapist, about a period in her life where she was going to therapy after an unexpected and devastating break-up. Her sessions with her therapist are interleaved with descriptions of some of her (presumably fictionalised) clients, as well as a lot of information about psychotherapy in general (eg short, clear descriptions of the kinds of defence mechanisms people use).

I can't remember where I got the recommendation for this book from - it was fairly recent - but I am glad that I did, as I would never have picked this up based on the cover/description. It's funny and accessible but also gave me a huge amount to think about, based on some of the things which Gottlieb says to her clients, or her therapist says to her.

Here Gottlieb is explaining the way that (despite being a therapist herself) she was avoiding talking to her therapist about what was really going on:

Here are some questions I’ve asked Wendell: “Is it normal for a fridge to break after ten years? Should I keep this one longer or pay to repair it?” (Wendell: “Are you really here to ask me something you can ask Siri?”) “Should I choose this school for my son, or the other one?” (Wendell: “I think you’ll benefit more from understanding why this decision is so hard for you.”)

This is a funny passage - but I also think the final sentence is a great question to ask yourself if you are struggling to make up your mind about something.

159avaland
heinäkuu 3, 2020, 3:59pm

>135 wandering_star: Insightful comments on Pond which I read and enjoyed earlier this year. It was a nice revisit, thanks.

I always enjoy hearing about what you are reading.

160sallypursell
heinäkuu 3, 2020, 11:55pm

>106 karspeak: Have you read A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin? The first volume was a little slow-going, but evocative. I thought later books in the series were better.

How about Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews? That series also seems to get better as it goes.

There is a series I like that seems a little YA, but it is dark for that. That's fashionable, of course. I'll have to think on the title, although the story is clear to me.

161sallypursell
heinäkuu 4, 2020, 2:35am

>158 wandering_star: >159 avaland: I'm with avaland; I always enjoy hearing about what you are reading.

162karspeak
heinäkuu 4, 2020, 9:45am

>160 sallypursell: I’ll look into those, thanks!

163wandering_star
heinäkuu 10, 2020, 8:48pm

75. Child Octopus: Edible Adventures in Hong Kong by Matthew Amster-Burton

A weirdly po-faced novella-length book about a week the author spent in Hong Kong with his daughter, and everything they ate there.

Iris’s wonton noodles were part of the Hong Kong food pantheon: very thin, chewy egg noodles in fish broth, garnished with a few scallions and topped with six plump shrimp wontons. The noodles are barely cooked, designed to soak up enough hot broth to become edible by the time the broth has cooled enough to slurp. The wontons feature slippery wrappers and big chunks of tender shrimp.

164lisapeet
heinäkuu 11, 2020, 8:20am

>163 wandering_star: That just made me so hungry.

165janemarieprice
heinäkuu 11, 2020, 10:41am

>164 lisapeet: Agreed! A good wonton soup is so so satisfying.

166wandering_star
heinäkuu 13, 2020, 9:30pm

>164 lisapeet: >165 janemarieprice: True - and nothing else has that same wonderful combination of textures.

167wandering_star
Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 14, 2020, 9:32pm

76. The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marian Keyes

After an abortive period in New York as a celebrity writer, Stella Sweeney is back in Ireland, wondering where her life went wrong. I do like Marian Keyes but this is not one of her best. She often uses the chick-lit genre to write perceptively about a particular issue (grief, addiction, coercive control), but not in this one - instead there is a pretty far-fetched story with an unconvincing romance and an even more unconvincing twist keeping the star-crossed lovers apart. Keyes is a great comic writer so it was fun to read, just a bit unsatisfying when I came to the end.

Perhaps one day in the far-off future, when I’m about eighty-nine, I might look back and say, “When I was a young-ish woman I fell in love with an intense charismatic man. He was way out of my league and when it ended it nearly killed me, but every woman should experience that sort of love once in their lives. Only once, mind, you mightn’t survive a second bout. A bit like dengue fever, that way.

168wandering_star
Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 14, 2020, 8:39am

77. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

A recommendation from rachbxl's thread. This fascinating story focuses on Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in the 1935 Second Italo-Ethiopian War, in particular through the character of Hirut, a young servant turned warrior, and her difficult relationship with her mistress Aster, wife of a commander who becomes a leading soldier herself. It talks a lot about women in war, but I was also struck by how much it was about the physical elements of battle, the violence on bodies. When the women decide to take up arms there is a sequence where the commander Kidane wants to warn them off:

He wants to remind her she has never been in a war. She was not raised to anticipate assaults. She was not taught from an early age about the body’s abilities to withstand force. She did not learn how to maneuver in the dark, through hills and rough mountains, all in the guise of boyhood games. She was instructed on how to shoot, yes, but what does she know about what to do if attacked?

But at this point in the book the reader has already seen so much violence done against female bodies, that these cautions ring hollow. Of course women know about their bodies' abilities to withstand force.

It's a complex story which demands attention. It also challenges the reader, by giving you sympathy towards characters who then do terrible things. But does that make them terrible people? I have to say that there were some characters whose motivation I never managed to work out. But I enjoyed the complexity in front of me.

169rachbxl
heinäkuu 14, 2020, 8:59am

>168 wandering_star: Nobody seems to be enjoying this one as much as I did! For me it was absolutely the right book at that particular moment, and it probably helped that I had no expectations at all as I knew nothing about the book. In fact, based on Mengiste's previous novel, Beneath the Lion's Gaze, which I thought was good but forgettable, I was prepared to enjoy it much less than I did, so it was a great surprise to get so caught up in it.

170wandering_star
heinäkuu 14, 2020, 11:48am

>169 rachbxl: I don't think I enjoyed it as much as you did but I am glad I read it. Actually when I first started it I wasn't in the right mood at all - too much going on at work meant I didn't have enough brain left over to concentrate - but because of your enthusiasm I didn't give up on it, just put it aside for a few days and started again from the beginning when I could give it enough attention - and that time I liked it much better.

171wandering_star
heinäkuu 14, 2020, 12:02pm

78. Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

(This is the second book in a series, but I haven't read the first.)

DI Manon Bradshaw has left the force in London and moved back to Cambridgeshire. The move was partly motivated by a desire to protect her adopted son Fly, who is black, from racist London policing. But it does mean that some of her original team have leapfrogged her in rank, so the relationships are a bit weird. And worse, the move does not protect Fly, when a visiting businessman dies of a stab wound in a park. Fly's footprints are found in the blood and so to the senior officer, it looks like an open-and-shut case. Because of her close link to the case, Manon is shut out of the official investigation, so has to work on her own to prove her son's innocence - although in the process she learns many things she did not know about him.

A separate storyline meanwhile gives the reader some insight into another reason why someone might have wanted the businessman dead. So there are two questions driving the reader on - what actually happened, and will Manon get enough information in time that Fly is not damaged for life?

I start a LOT of crime novels that I don't finish, because the style grates on me or the characters are horribly cliched or it's too male-gaze-y. It's a joy to find a new series that I know I will enjoy. I liked practically everything about this book - the personalities, the way the story of the crime and detection unfolded, the way it was written. (I do have one complaint which is that there is a throwaway remark which, taken with the blurb from the first book in the series, is a serious spoiler for that first book. Hopefully I will be able to forget the solution before I get round to reading it!)

Ellie looks nervous. Manon knows she can make people tense – that it is her specialist skill. She contains ruthlessness.
Ellie has unwound her scarf and is squeezing it on her knee with her fist. Manon frowns at her. Sometimes, she thinks, the people she hates most are the ones who deny their ruthlessness. They view themselves as blameless in all turbulence, thinking they can’t be cold. Forgetting, for example, a seven-hour hole in their alibi.

172wandering_star
heinäkuu 14, 2020, 12:13pm

79. Under the Jaguar Sun by Italo Calvino

Three short stories, written between 1972 and 1984, each focusing on one of the five senses. Calvino was apparently thinking of a book, with a framing story as well as a story about each sense.

In 'Under the Jaguar Sun' a couple travel around Mexico, tasting the different cuisines. The wife becomes fascinated by the idea of how the flesh of a human sacrifice would be cooked and served, and the husband starts to contemplate the idea of fusing with his loved one by being eaten.

In 'The King Listens', my favourite story, a king who has taken his crown by force sits on his throne and listens to all the sounds of his palace and his city - the ones which support his reign, and the ones which may one day undermine him.

The palace is a clock: its ciphered sounds follow the course of the sun; invisible arrows point to the change of the guard on the ramparts with a scuffle of hob-nailed boots, a slamming of rifle butts, answered by by the crunch of gravel under the tanks kept ready on the forecourt. If the sounds are repeated in the customary order, at the proper intervals, you can be reassured, your reign is in no danger: for the moment. for this hour, for this day still.

In 'The Name, The Nose', three intertwining stories all feature men who become fascinated by a woman whose face they can't see, and try and track her down by her unique scent.

173thorold
heinäkuu 14, 2020, 4:02pm

>172 wandering_star: Three short stories, written between 1972 and 1984, each focusing on one of the five senses

That gave me an odd sense of déjà-vu, but I was sure I hadn't read that particular Calvino book...

Turns out that Nadine Gordimer does almost the same thing in a book I read a few weeks ago, Beethoven was one-sixteenth black, from 2007 — there's a set of stories under the heading "Alternative endings" that deal with the first three of the five senses. Sight, hearing and smell. She doesn't say what happened to touch and taste. She was probably thinking about Calvino when she wrote them. Must read that one and compare!

174wandering_star
heinäkuu 14, 2020, 9:18pm

>173 thorold: How interesting! The two writers have such different styles - it would be interesting to see what they each did with the subject matter.

175wandering_star
heinäkuu 14, 2020, 9:23pm

I am moving house this weekend and during the packing up I discovered a little cache of short stories which I had torn out of magazines and newspapers, I think during a previous move, and which it turns out I have been carrying around the world in some cases for over a decade. Actually I think in one case for over two decades, if I look at the date on the newspaper, which is extreme pack-rat behaviour! Anyway, I have read them all now. The best of the bunch was Mona Simpson's short story Dependents, narrated by a Filipina housemaid describing her life and the family she works for.

176wandering_star
Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 14, 2020, 9:29pm

80. The Bellini Card by Jason Goodwin

Very much like the last episode in the series, The Bellini Card combines a fascinating and well-drawn setting with a plot which is too twisted and perhaps Byzantine (see what I did there) for me to really follow or appreciate.

In this case, the setting is Venice under Austro-Hungarian rule (a period in history which I didn't even know took place). The new Sultan receives word that in Venice there is a portrait by Bellini of his great-grandfather, Mehmet the Conqueror. He asks Yashim (the eunuch detective and main character of this series) to track it down. At the same time, the Sultan's senior advisor warns Yashim off. To square this awkward circle Yashim despatches his friend, the Polish Ambassador, to Venice. Conspiracies and mysterious deaths ensue.

I did enjoy reading this, but as I say, more for the setting than the story.

“Lies beget lies,” he said. “Until, one day, someone needs the truth.”

177lisapeet
heinäkuu 14, 2020, 10:28pm

>175 wandering_star: What a great find! Hope that portends well for the move.

178wandering_star
heinäkuu 16, 2020, 9:45pm

>177 lisapeet: Well, it's making progress. And the thing with moves is that, like exams, they happen at the set time whether you are ready or not. And in some ways that is a relief!!!

179wandering_star
heinäkuu 16, 2020, 10:00pm

81. American Ghosts and Old World Wonders by Angela Carter

A collection of short stories, which like Under the Jaguar Sun was published posthumously. Carter had in fact suggested that seven of the unpublished stories she left could be put together into a book; her executors added two more.

The first section, "American Ghosts", contains four stories, with a roughly Western theme - an episode from the childhood of Lizzie Borden; a story inspired by the fact that John Ford was the name of both a seventeenth-century writer of revenge tragedies and a director of Westerns (this actually works surprisingly well); one which imagines a sequel to the story of the opera Der Freischütz, set in the Wild West; and an expectation-upsetting story about a young Englishman who visits a reclusive former Hollywood star.

The stories in "Old World Wonders" are lusher. "The Ghost Ships" starts from the historical fact that in 1659 the General Court of Massachusetts ordered that anyone celebrating Christmas in any way was to be fined five shillings, and turns this into a fantasy in which three ships laden with old-world sensuous excess come sailing up to Boston Bay.

But now the piecrust heaved itself up to let tumbling out into the water a smoking cargo of barons of beef gleaming with gravy, swans upon spits and roast geese dripping hot fat. And the figurehead of this jolly vessel was a boar's head, wreathed in bay, garlanded in rosemary, a roasted apple in its mouth and sprigs of rosemary tucked behind its ears. Above, hovered a pot of mustard, with wings.

"In Pantoland" comes from the same lavish, over-the-top theatre world as Wise Children and Nights at the Circus, both books I love. The last three stories are inspired respectively by Cinderella, Jan Svankmajer's film of Alice in Wonderland, and portrayals of Mary Magdalene.

A rich and varied collection. (and apologies if the quote makes people hungry again!)

180wandering_star
Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 27, 2020, 8:39am

82. IQ by Joe Ide

IQ - Isaiah Quintabe - is a private detective in South Central LA. His greatest detective strengths are in his observational skills and his ability to make deductions from what he sees (the author bio mentions that Joe Ide loved Sherlock Holmes stories and was fascinated by the idea that someone could vanquish their enemies armed only with their intelligence). But he's a long way from Victorian London. The case he is working on concerns a famous rapper who has narrowly escaped a hit. One of his crew is obviously providing inside information to the contract killer - but which one?

A fun read, and I definitely recognised the point from the bio - there's a great pleasure in seeing skinny, poor, but smart Isaiah get the better of big, violent men, and those who think that money can get them anything they want.

She liked his eyes. They were almond shaped and had long lashes like a girl's. "You not gonna invite me in?" she said. "I walked all the way over here from my mama's house."
"Stop lying," he said. "Wherever you came from you didn't walk."
"How do you know?"
"Your mama lives on the other side of Magnolia. Are you telling me you walked seven miles in the heat of the day in flip-flops with all those bunions growing out of your feet? Teesha dropped you off."

181wandering_star
Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 27, 2020, 8:40am

83. The Unfortunate Englishman by John Lawton

This is the sequel to >142 wandering_star: Then We Take Berlin. It starts at the point the previous book ends - with Wilderness in trouble that he can only get out of by agreeing to rejoin MI6.

There are two people who could be the 'unfortunate Englishman' of the title. The first is a British civilian who is approached by MI6 to do some business for them in the Soviet Union, given that the unfortunate George Blake affair has left them with few usable assets. Flattered to be asked, Masefield becomes intoxicated with the role and starts to overplay his hand. The second is a Soviet spy who has successfully become integrated into British society as a Canadian ex-military officer - almost become an Englishman in the way he thinks about himself too. These two stories intertwine - and Wilderness' collaborators/nemeses from the first book, CIA Joe and KGB Yuri, also come into the story, each with their own private goals.

When I read the first book in the series, I wondered if the sequel would be as good given that I had so enjoyed learning Wilderness' backstory. There is of course less backstory in this one, so it is a tighter read, but it still has enough complexity and jumps forward and back in time enough to be interesting.

Light scarcely penetrated Erno’s room. The seasons never changed. Something always to be concealed from the sun, something always needing to be consumed by fire.

182wandering_star
heinäkuu 27, 2020, 11:01am

84. Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson

A zingily-written psychological thriller.

In the opening scene of the book, a new resident turns up at a neighbourhood book club. The book club is usually pretty tightly structured but she manages to upturn everything and get everyone drunk and spilling secrets within an hour or so. In particular, she seems to be trying to goad Amy, our narrator, into telling the worst thing she ever did in her life. Is this an uncomfortable coincidence? Or does she know the big secret that Amy has been hiding under her suburban-mom lifestyle?

I have been struggling to get into a book lately, so I wanted something which would definitely grip me. I remembered reading the first chapter of this book as a sample from Amazon Kindle, and thought that it might do the trick - and indeed, it did. Very enjoyable.

Tate had never recovered from being pretty in high school, and she brought an eau-de-tenth-grade-lunchroom to neighborhood politics.

183avaland
heinäkuu 28, 2020, 6:15am

>179 wandering_star: Oh, dear; I don't have that collection! How did I miss that?

>168 wandering_star:, >169 rachbxl:, >170 wandering_star: She just showed up on the Booker list

>182 wandering_star: Great quote!

As always, you are reading some interesting books.

184wandering_star
heinäkuu 29, 2020, 4:33pm

>183 avaland: That's a really interesting Booker longlist! My library usually gets ebooks (where available) of the full list, so I will keep an eye out for that.

And yes, the narrator's voice is definitely one of the things which lifts Never Have I Ever above the pack of domestic noirs.

185wandering_star
heinäkuu 29, 2020, 4:46pm

85. Severance by Ling Ma

Timely, perhaps, to read this now, given that it is set in the aftermath of a respiratory disease which originated in China.

In this case, the disease is "Shen Fever", a fungal infection of the brain which turns sufferers into almost-zombies, who repeat over and over again a particular action which they used to do in their daily lives, whether that is laying the table for a family dinner, or getting a beer from the fridge and settling down to watch TV.

But in fact this novel is not really about a dystopian post-apocalypse, but about why we do what we do - and how much our decisions are driven by habits from the past, whether that is the country we emigrated from, a former love affair, or the hangover of a (slightly) less brutally capitalist age. Even before Shen Fever strikes, Candace and her friends attempt to live in New York in a way which is no longer really possible in this gig-economy, new media age.

Severance is really asking us - when will we see that the world has changed, and change ourselves accordingly? So perhaps the timeliness of me reading this is not in fact COVID, but instead that I read it in the week where NYC's climate was reclassified from humid continental to humid subtropical.

In the face of coming disaster, can we change our behaviour? Or is human nature stuck where it is?

I don’t understand this festive mood, Jonathan said, indicating outside the window. Well, they won’t have to work tomorrow, I explained. So? he asked, cutting a plantain with a plastic knife. I was like everyone else. We all hoped the storm would knock things over, fuck things up enough but not too much. We hoped the damage was bad enough to cancel work the next morning but not so bad that we couldn’t go to brunch instead.

186wandering_star
heinäkuu 29, 2020, 4:46pm

I am reminded of this cartoon from The Economist:

187lisapeet
heinäkuu 29, 2020, 5:07pm

>185 wandering_star: I really do need to read that.

188sallypursell
elokuu 15, 2020, 7:00pm

189wandering_star
elokuu 22, 2020, 5:37am

86. Hidden Figures: The Untold Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

This is the book which inspired the Oscar-nominated 2016 film. Shetterly's father worked at NASA, and in her introduction she comments that as a child, "I knew so many African Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did". The film, and the book, focus on a few individuals, but there was a significant cohort: "I can put names to almost fifty black women who worked as computers, mathematicians, engineers, or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 through 1980, and my intuition is that twenty more names can be shaken loose from the archives with more research."

For me, the film did a good job of turning the history into compelling stories - and the book added much more context, both on the science and on the social and political dynamics of the time. A 1941 Executive Order desegregated the defence industry, but many far-sighted African American individuals worked hard to recruit the most talented people from their community - and the overwhelming importance first of the war effort and later the space race led to a desire for talent from all races and backgrounds.

Reading this book one can't help but think of all the talent that must be wasted because people are not looking for it in particular places. Katherine Johnson, who calculated the orbital mechanics for the first spaceflights, (John Glenn refused to take off until she, specifically, had verified the calculations), was born at a place and time where the odds were more likely that she would die before the age of 35, than that she would finish high school.

190wandering_star
elokuu 22, 2020, 5:49am

87. Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine by Hannah Fry

A week or two after I read this, an algorithm became front page news in the UK for several days on end (for non-UK readers, it was about assignment of grades to school pupils, since they weren't able to take exams this year). A good reminder of the pervasiveness and importance of algorithms in everyday life.

This is a very useful introduction to/demystification of algorithms. It explains the different things they can do and the ways that they do them. It highlights the way that they are already affecting people's lives in a very wide range of situations. It explains how they can be better than human judgement and how they can be influenced by human prejudices. And, unfortunately, how we fail to interact effectively with them: "...this bias we all have for computerized results – we don’t question them. When a computer generates something – when you have a statistician, who looks at some data, and comes up with a formula – we just trust that formula, without asking ‘hey wait a second, how is this actually working?’"

Fry sets out a better way:

Imagine that, rather than exclusively focusing our attention on designing our algorithms to adhere to some impossible standard of perfect fairness, we instead designed them to facilitate redress when they inevitably erred; that we put as much time and effort into ensuring that automatic systems were as easy to challenge as they are to implement.
...
Imagine that we designed them to support humans in their decisions, rather than instruct them. To be transparent about why they came to a particular decision, rather than just inform us of the result.


A couple of further quotes which I found interesting, one more from this book:
There’s a trick you can use to spot the junk algorithms. I like to call it the Magic Test. Whenever you see a story about an algorithm, see if you can swap out any of the buzzwords, like ‘machine learning’, ‘artificial intelligence’ and ‘neural network’, and swap in the word ‘magic’. Does everything still make grammatical sense? Is any of the meaning lost? If not, I’d be worried that something smells quite a lot like bullshit. Because I’m afraid – long into the foreseeable future – we’re not going to ‘solve world hunger with magic’ or ‘use magic to write the perfect screenplay’ any more than we are with AI.

And a related quote from an article in today's FT by Tim Harford:
“When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution,” writes the psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow. The difficult question here was: could we give students the grades they would have earned in the exams? The easier substitute was: could we make the overall pattern of exam results this year look the same as usual?

191wandering_star
elokuu 22, 2020, 6:02am

88. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

This starts out as a traditional cosy murder mystery, set in an English village in the 1950s (including, unfortunately, the snobbery and mild sexism which were part of the style at the time, but wouldn't need to be included in a modern pastiche). Then, suddenly, we are in the modern day. The wildly popular author of the cosy mystery has died, in an apparent suicide, and the final chapter of the book is nowhere to be found. His publisher tries to track it down, and along the way starts to have suspicions about the nature of the death...

Clever idea, but I didn't love the book. The cosy mystery is occasionally quite tiresome and one of the key elements of the final reveal is rather silly. The author also takes the opportunity for a bit of musing on the crime genre and why it is so popular.

“He paused. ‘There is something about the village of Saxby-on-Avon that concerns me,’ he went on. ‘I have spoken to you before of the nature of human wickedness, my friend. How it is the small lies and evasions which nobody sees or detects but which can come together and smother you like the fumes in a house fire.’ He turned and surveyed the surrounding buildings, the shaded square. ‘They are all around us.”

192kidzdoc
elokuu 28, 2020, 4:35pm

Nice review of Hidden Figures. My father, having earned bachelor's degrees and master's degrees in Electrical Engineering from Howard University, one of the leading HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and NYU, was unable to find a job in private industry in the early 1960s, as he was told by companies such as Lockheed* that they weren't hiring or had met their "quota" of Negroes in professional positions, despite his cutting edge knowledge of transistor technology that White engineers and recent graduates did not have, thanks to his Howard education. (Because of that knowledge he taught graduate courses at NYU for a few years.) He worked in the Post Office building near Grand Central Terminal for several years, until he applied for and won a civilian aerospace engineering position with the U.S. Navy at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he worked for 30+ years until his retirement two decades ago. I should probably buy this book for him.

*It was Lockheed, I think, who called him in for an interview in its facility on Long Island, and the secretary who "greeted" him and his interviewer were flabbergasted, as they assumed from his last name that he was Jewish. He was dismissed quickly and rudely, and wasn't granted an interview.

193janemarieprice
elokuu 28, 2020, 10:07pm

>192 kidzdoc: Has your father been to the Brooklyn navy yard of late? It's had quite the successful transformation to small scale local manufacturing.

194kidzdoc
syyskuu 2, 2020, 12:50pm

>193 janemarieprice: I seriously doubt it, Jane, but thanks for mentioning this. We've talked about taking a drive to Jersey City and NYC to revisit old haunts, including my maternal grandparents' home in the North Bronx and the places that we and my extended relatives lived in JC and NYC. I'll suggest a visit to the Brooklyn Navy Yard when we go, possibly next month.

195lisapeet
syyskuu 2, 2020, 1:21pm

>194 kidzdoc: Well, anyone in the North Bronx should give a holler and I'll have y'all over for coffee and cookies (or whatever), if it's nice enough to sit outside. Northwest Bronx here.

>193 janemarieprice: I still haven't been over to the Navy Yard, though I've heard about so much transformation. I used to love seeing it behind its walls from the subway as it goes over the East River, whichever line it was.

196wandering_star
syyskuu 3, 2020, 3:10pm

>192 kidzdoc: Thanks for telling that story, Darryl. What an awful experience at Lockheed, although sadly I don't expect it was an isolated example. I think your father might enjoy Hidden Figures.

197dchaikin
syyskuu 8, 2020, 1:31pm

>192 kidzdoc: I know we’re primed to be upset lately, but this is a really upsetting story. Thanks for sharing and for giving us a little more appreciation of your father.

W_S : having just caught up here, just wanted to say I really enjoy your thread and loved your posts on War and Peace.

198wandering_star
syyskuu 12, 2020, 11:14am

>197 dchaikin: Thank you!

89. The Snow Leopard Project: and other adventures in warzone conservation by Alex Dehgan

A memoir of the author's time working on biodiversity conservation in Afghanistan - an almost insanely ambitious goal given the wider circumstances, but Dehgan makes a good case for this work being an important element of supporting a sense of Afghan identity after all the decades of upheaval. Dehgan comes to the role having studied lemurs in the field in Madagascar, worked on environmental law in post-Soviet countries, and working at the US state department, an unusual skill set which suits him well for the role.

The task would be difficult enough for the remoteness, poverty and corruption, without the additional challenges of operating in a not-quite-postwar environment. The park needed practical infrastructure in the form of signage, bathrooms, waste facilities, a visitor center, hotels, food, and parking. Some entries on the to-do list for creating Band-e-Amir were unique to Afghanistan: “Developing clearly marked and mine-free horse trails around the lake system” was a task claimed by the Asian Development Bank.

As well as learning about Afghanistan's wildlife, and examples of places where biodiversity preservation has worked, there are many other interesting snippets, including about Afghanistan in the time before war. I had never known that Bamyan province, and its Buddha images, had had an economy based on travel and tourism for centuries (tourism had been the province’s main source of revenue, as well as the second-most important source of revenue for Afghanistan in 1979)

Dehgan is not a particularly good writer, and I don't think he's a very good storyteller either, in the sense of picking the right details and developing the story narrative in a way that draws you along. But the experiences he and his team had were interesting and unique enough to override that.

199wandering_star
syyskuu 12, 2020, 11:34am

90. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee

The first in a series of detective novels set in India under the Raj, featuring Captain Sam Wyndham, newly arrived from the UK, and his assistant Sergeant Banerjee. I like the idea, and it makes good use of the insider/outsider perspective of the two detectives (Wyndham British, but new to British India and sceptical of authority after his experiences in World War One; Banerjee from Calcutta, but not likely to be listened to by established Raj officials and thrown out by his own family after the Amritsar massacre for colluding with the British). And, in one of the great traditions of crime writing, the subject is not so much criminality as vice and collusion within the establishment itself - Wyndham even narrates in the world-weary drawl familiar to us from the noir genre. The crime and detection story was just OK though.

From inside came the sounds of the Sunday-morning service; English voices busy mangling some poor hymn. I imagined it was the same in every outpost of the empire, from Auckland to Vancouver. Each Sunday, that peculiarly dispiriting sound of piano or pipe-organ accompanying flat, discordant voices murdering the same songs resonated across the world. It was both depressing and oddly reassuring.

200wandering_star
syyskuu 12, 2020, 11:46am

91. Alice in Bed by Judith Hooper

A really interesting reimagining of the life of Alice James, sister of Henry and William James - and, the book argues, as great a mind as either of her brothers. Her life is limited by serious illness - but then, both Henry and William James also suffered heavily from both physical and mental ailments, so the explanation for Alice's relative obscurity cannot purely be based on her health.

From her sickbed, Alice writes acerbically about friends, relatives, and politics at the time. (Much of this is substantiated by the diary she kept, which was published some time after her death, despite the family being worried that scandal would follow because of her candid comments about relatives and friends.)

She also remembers her life, and we see how her options were restricted and underestimated because of the limitations of roles for women at that time. Alice has a keen eye too for the way that her friends gradually make compromises for the sake of becoming wives and mothers. As her brother reflects when he reads her diaries after her death: "To possess her gifts and be told that the only way to be a successful female was to be sunny, self-denying, and receptive." Or as the fictional Alice says in this book, "Some days I could fling myself against the walls of my rooms like a wasp in a jam jar."

Funny, passionate, thought-provoking. This was a slow burner of a book but one I really enjoyed.

201wandering_star
syyskuu 12, 2020, 11:51am

92. Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Fantasy, set in a world where decades past there had been a war between the gods and the Craftsmen and Craftswomen (more or less, those with magic powers) in which the Craftsmen and Craftswomen had fought to set humanity free from religion. The gods, in general, lost, but there is one city in which a god still rules - Kos Everburning, who did not join the war. At the start of this book however, Kos disappears - and the search to find out why this happened, and whether it's possible to bring him back, brings in a range of priests, Craftspeople and politicians, each with their own intentions. There was a lot to like about this. I liked the worldbuilding, the writing, and the ideas behind the characters and the story. But there was too little emotional weight to any of this for the story to be really involving or memorable (surprising, in a story which hinges on ideas of faith and passion).

His angular mouth had trapped an approving smile and did not relinquish it no matter how it struggled.

202AnnaSEEX
syyskuu 13, 2020, 9:11am

Tämä käyttäjä on poistettu roskaamisen vuoksi.

203baswood
syyskuu 13, 2020, 12:32pm

>198 wandering_star: I was one of those tourists to Band-e-Amir and Bamiyan before the more recent wars. In 1976 you could still get on a tourist bus for a weekend tour. I hate to think of those communities having to deal with the after effects of war zones.

204wandering_star
syyskuu 14, 2020, 8:44am

>203 baswood: What an amazing experience to have had. It sounds beautiful, from the descriptions in the book. More generally, I find it so hard to imagine what war zones used to look like before they suffered the bombs and bullets. It's important to remember that it was not always like that, I think.

205wandering_star
syyskuu 14, 2020, 9:07am

Speaking of bombs and bullets...

94. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Orwell's memoir of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Incredibly vivid - he plunges you into the heart of the action, with the smells and sounds and sights all around you. In fact, it starts right there with Orwell in Spain - I couldn't help thinking that if a similar book was written now, the author would give you endless opening chapters on their motivation and the logistics of getting there. (This is a good thing, by the way - I find a lot of contemporary memoirs quite self-indulgent).

I was struck by the contrasts, between those parts of Spain suffering from the war and those going about their normal business. This even applies within the same city - when Orwell has decided to leave Spain and needs to stay out of trouble until he can go, the easiest way to do this is for him and his wife (who's been there all along, staying in a Barcelona hotel) to pretend to be English tourists and go to a nice hotel or restaurant, where no-one will spot him as a fighter.

I was also struck by the occasional echo with War and Peace - in particular, about prisons and hospital conditions and the importance of getting messages to people in positions of power who might be able to help you out of a desperate situation.

When I first reached Barcelona I had thought it a town where class distinctions and great differences of wealth hardly existed. Certainly that was what it looked like. ‘Smart’ clothes were an abnormality, nobody cringed or took tips, waiters and flower-women and bootblacks looked you in the eye and called you ‘comrade’. I had not grasped that this was mainly a mixture of hope and camouflage. The working class believed in a revolution that had been begun but never consolidated, and the bourgeoisie were scared and temporarily disguising themselves as workers. In the first months of revolution there must have been many thousands of people who deliberately put on overalls and shouted revolutionary slogans as a way of saving their skins. Now things were returning to normal.

I listened to this on audiobook while visiting my sister who lives in Berlin - mainly while running in the park close to her flat. Each day I ran past a large statue - in a nice coincidence, on the last day I discovered that it was a monument to Germans who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

206wandering_star
syyskuu 14, 2020, 9:20am

95. The Lightness by Emily Temple

A young woman arrives at a Buddhist retreat, in search of her father who attended the retreat the previous year, before vanishing. The retreat is nicknamed the Levitation Centre because of persistent rumours that the goal, sometimes achieved, of the asceticism is to reach a state where you are able to levitate. Olivia is attending a programme which is aimed at troubled teenage girls. She is immediately drawn to, and then befriends, a trio of girls who stand a little bit apart from the others - including the mysterious Serena, who seems to be allowed not to participate in the camp activities.

This started brilliantly. The writing is fantastic - it has a real sense of hypersaturated teenage emotions like the photos that one of the three girls pins up around her bed. Temple conveys well the passions and powers and constraints of teenage girls. And as Olivia becomes closer to Serena and the others, there is a nicely handled sense of oncoming doom.

Unfortunately, I don't think that Temple resolved the tensions and the different threads very successfully. By the time the denouement happens, there is too much going on but also too little emotion. But I think this is her first novel and I will definitely be interested to see what she writes in the future.

I know a lot of people who can’t remember themselves as teenagers. They look back and see only smoother, pinker versions of themselves, the actual feeling of those frantic years replaced by anecdote and snapshot. Oh, look, weren’t we babies, weren’t we thin, remember the time we, etc. We were so bad! We weren’t so bad. Who can say? Me, I can’t forget. I remember the girl from that summer as though she were sitting beside me: a fearful girl, but insatiable too, possessed of a fundamental savagery.

207kidzdoc
syyskuu 27, 2020, 10:43am

>205 wandering_star: Nice review of Homage to Catalonia. I read it years ago, possibly before my first visit to Barcelona, and now that I've spent time in over half a dozen other Spanish cities I'd like to give it another go.

208wandering_star
lokakuu 3, 2020, 8:43am

>207 kidzdoc: Thanks, Darryl. It would be fun to read it *in* Barcelona... when that sort of thing is possible again...

209wandering_star
lokakuu 3, 2020, 9:18am

96. In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin

With the discovery of a body in a parked car in some woods, a cold case is reopened. The family had always been unhappy with the police response - suspecting at best, inattention to the case because the victim was gay, at worst a cover-up as his partner was a senior policeman's son. So in addition to trying to solve the murder, the police also need to review the way the initial investigation was conducted.

There are rarely good guys in Ian Rankin's crime novels, but this is a particularly bleak example, in terms of police corruption both past and present and everyone seeking to use the case to settle old scores.

The further down he dug into the Bloom case, the more he found. Not hard facts as such, but hints and trails and links. Trace evidence, in a way. You looked for it at the scene of a crime, but that wasn’t the only place you could find it. Rebus had been good, of course, one of the best – it was the reason Complaints had never been able to kick him off the force. But in covering up the flaws, mistakes and misdemeanours of others, he had left the faintest trace evidence of his own.

210wandering_star
lokakuu 3, 2020, 9:26am

97. Why I Read by Wendy Lesser

A book about reading and books. Lesser separates her thoughts out into various themes - "Novelty", "Authority", "Character and Plot". At times I found this a bit forced but then I just decided to think of them as a series of headings on which to hang collections of thoughts, each leading to the next.

I really enjoyed this - Lesser writes so well, and as all books like this should, it inspired me to want to read many other things, whether that's when she is providing insights into a writer I know and like:

Mantel is a great hater, and part of that greatness lies in the subtlety and modulation of her hatred. When she shows us More being casually cruel to his long-suffering wife (he insults her in Latin, a language she doesn’t know, while she serves dinner to his guests), we think we will never forgive this man. And yet at the end of the novel, when Cromwell repeatedly visits the imprisoned More in an effort to get him to capitulate to the king and save his own life, we find ourselves adopting the same grudging admiration that Cromwell feels toward this now pitiful figure.

or talking about authors I have not yet read.

It dragged a bit at the end when Lesser started talking about her own process instead of about other people's writing - but overall I got a lot out of it.

211wandering_star
lokakuu 3, 2020, 11:29am

98. On The Overgrown Path by David Herter

A wonderfully eerie novella, which starts when a man wakes from a doze on a train.

A JOLT. A SHUDDER. Sunlight shivering on his eyelids. The perpetual rattle rising to a shriek. Waking, J––––– wipes his eyes. The cabin’s bench, which hours ago had seemed so plush, is stiff against his shoulders. Through the window, mountains have stepped aside for an alpine valley. The crisp air brings it nearly into his lap—a slope of white cedar leading down to cluttered steep-roofed cottages, with drifts of smoke here and there against the snowy trees.

They are in the mountains - already diverted because of snow, and temporarily stopped while another snowfall is cleared from the track. The porter can't tell him where they are - and when he goes for a walk in the town, and finally finds someone to tell him where he is, it's a string of syllables that he can't reproduce. The locals can't even tell him what country they are in - for this is Central Europe in the early years of the last century, and the village is in a border area which often changes hands. The man follows some distant, beautiful music - but he can't find the source, and when he returns to the tracks his train has gone. Another one will come through in a few days, he's told - and they can find him somewhere to stay in the village until that happens. But in that time, what will he discover?

Very atmospheric.

212Nickelini
lokakuu 3, 2020, 12:38pm

>98 wandering_star:
That sounds interesting!

213wandering_star
Muokkaaja: lokakuu 6, 2020, 12:22pm

>212 Nickelini: Yes - it was not what I was expecting, but I really enjoyed it!

It's pretty short, as well as atmospheric - I remember thinking while I was reading it that the best way to experience it would be at the coldest time of the year, to curl up in a warm spot and read it in one or two sittings.

214wandering_star
lokakuu 6, 2020, 1:23pm

99. Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

This book is blurbed on the cover by Anthony Horowitz, which makes sense - it's very much in the vein of some of Horowitz's crime novels, where the pleasure in the reading comes from the cleverness of the plot and the references to tropes of the crime genre, rather than by its realism or grippingness (if that's a word). The owner of a crime bookshop is contacted by an FBI agent about a series of deaths - which she believes are all murders, linked by the fact that each one is a copy of a murder from a blogpost he once wrote about "perfect" literary murders.

This was perfectly OK but not quite cleverly plotted or well-written enough to be really satisfying, unless you are a big fan of this micro-genre.

Being an avid mystery reader as an adolescent does not prepare you for real life. I truly imagined that my adult existence would be far more booklike than it turned out to be. I thought, for example, that there would be several moments in which I got into a cab to follow someone. I thought I’d attend far more readings of someone’s will, and that I’d need to know how to pick a lock, and that any time I went on vacation (especially to old creaky inns or rented lake houses) something mysterious would happen. I thought train rides would inevitably involve a murder, that sinister occurrences would plague wedding weekends, and that old friends would constantly be getting in touch to ask for help, to tell me that their lives were in danger. I even thought quicksand would be an issue.

215avaland
lokakuu 6, 2020, 6:42pm

>211 wandering_star: I've liked the David Herter I've read. Come to think of it, I've not checked to see what he's done since concluding that trilogy (you have just read the first of that!) But, now I have checked and see there are two of his books I have not read, both published with unknown-to-me small presses...but,hey, something to explore.

>209 wandering_star: It's hard for me not to like an Ian Rankin. I still have one here somewhere to read, maybe the short stories?

216wandering_star
lokakuu 14, 2020, 3:57pm

>215 avaland: I don't think I had heard of any books by Herter other than this one. I would definitely pick up others. I will look out for your reviews!

Looking at my thread I see that the new format pages don't show the italics I have used for most quotes - I hope this gets fixed!

217wandering_star
lokakuu 14, 2020, 4:09pm

100. Saman by Ayu Utami

A rather disjointed novel, Saman starts off focusing on Laila, a young Indonesian woman on holiday in New York, where she is waiting in Central Park for her lover to join her. As she waits she thinks back on their first meeting - a journalist, she was visiting an oil rig where the man who became her lover was working. After an industrial accident, Laila contacted Saman, an old university friend of hers and now a human rights advocate, to help ensure that the death of one of the workers was not covered up. The story then switches to focus on Saman - having trained as a priest, he became a human rights advocate when a village that he knew was pressured to sell their land to a conglomerate. This is the part of the story that I enjoyed most, although it is extremely bleak. The third part focuses on another schoolfriend, who reminisces about school days, before a final chapter where Saman is helped to escape Indonesia and go to New York, where another of the group of schoolfriends seduces him. The last section of the book consists exclusively of emails between Saman and his new lover, talking (unconvincingly in my view) about sexual matters.

Overall a puzzling read, although I understand that it was groundbreaking in Indonesia at the time because of its frank discussion of female sexuality.

That could be interpreted as a sign that Sihar is avoiding her. And that would make her curl up inside. It would be like waking her up just to tell her that the lizard shit that fell on her lips is not a nasty dream.

218wandering_star
lokakuu 14, 2020, 4:17pm

101. The Trouble With Reality by Brooke Gladstone

A long essay, essentially, published in 2017, about the causes and consequences of the erosion of a sense of common understanding of the world - a shared reality.

"Part of the problem stems from the fact that facts, even a lot of facts, do not constitute reality. Reality is what forms after we filter, arrange, and prioritize those facts and marinate them in our values and traditions. Reality is personal."

I really like "On the Media", the podcast co-hosted by Gladstone, and the way that it analyses and unpicks the way that news is presented to us. Unfortunately I think this book would have been better read in 2017, rather than now when we have all had three more years to think about this stuff - I don't disagree with any of it but it didn't tell me anything I didn't already know - and importantly, it didn't really come up with any ideas for how we can progress from the state we are currently in.

219wandering_star
lokakuu 14, 2020, 4:20pm

102. Mooncop by Tom Gauld

A short graphic novel about a policeman on the moon. The moon colony is gradually shrinking as people return to earth. A very quick read, but rather sweet and poignant.

220wandering_star
Muokkaaja: lokakuu 30, 2020, 4:17am

103. Off With His Head by Ngaio Marsh

This is actually the first Ngaio Marsh I have ever read - I hadn't realised that she was so much one of the Golden Age of crime writers, with a cerebral policeman sleuth (Roderick Alleyn) along the lines of Michael Innes' Appleby. I would have read her earlier if I had known!

Soon after I started reading this, an episode of Shedunnit focusing on 'locked room mysteries' popped up on my podcast feed, and I realised that this is what I had here - an 'impossible mystery' in which a man is beheaded apparently in full view of a watching audience, none of whom saw anything. The setting is a traditional village ceremony, which also adds a nice tone of folk horror to the novel, and so a bit of edge to the cosiness.

Quite daft - but I enjoyed it a lot!

‘It hasn’t altered,’ Dr Otterly said drily, ‘since the last time you asked.’ ‘It’s got to alter some time, somehow,’ Fox observed unexpectedly.

221wandering_star
lokakuu 30, 2020, 4:24am

104. Akin by Emma Donoghue

An elderly man is finally about to leave on a trip to France to discover his roots, when he unexpectedly inherits responsibility for a great-nephew, whose existence he knew of, but who he had never met. For want of other options, he takes the nephew with him to Nice.

This is not a book that I was in tune with. I didn't really get the relationship between Noah and the 12-year-old Michael, and in particular I found Noah's attempts to discover his roots tiresome as he lurched from one dramatic assumption to another on the basis of very little evidence, and then spent ages dwelling on his latest theory. I think I might have given up on this book, if it wasn't for the fact that I have struggled to finish a book recently, and I decided I had to push through. And the quality of the writing itself is good, even if I didn't enjoy the story.

Noah drew it on the air. “Like a twisted rope ladder.”
But the roving beam of the boy’s attention had swung around, and clicked off.
Strangers, still. It didn’t help that they were technically related, Noah decided. When the human genome was mapped, pages of gobbledygook were found after each legible gene.

222wandering_star
marraskuu 4, 2020, 7:03am

105. On Lighthouses by Jazmina Barrera

This is one of those books which takes a slightly niche subject and uses it as a jumping-off point for a collection of interesting information and musings by the writer. Some of the best of these I have read have had maritime themes (eg Philip Hoare's Leviathan), and during lockdown I enjoyed an excellent online reading/discussion with the author (thanks to a tipoff by lisapeet). So I was excited to read this.

Unfortunately I think the main thing that I learnt from this book was perhaps that it's quite hard to write a book like this. There were some interesting facts and ideas - for example a story that when Louis XIV’s corsairs kidnapped the keeper of an English lighthouse, the King requested that he be returned to his duties: "I am at war with England, not with humanity". But Barrera too often mentions these things and moves on - when the ideas are interesting enough to merit more than a paragraph:

The Hells of many mythologies can only be reached by boat, they are surrounded by water because as Delumeau notes, in antiquity the ocean was associated in the collective mind with the most awful images of pain and death, the night, the abyss.

This would be all right, I think, if the book was mainly made up of short gems for the reader to think about. But there is a lot of extremely banal description of Barrera's travels to different lighthouses (Danielle drove us to her home in a small car with a GPS and alarm that went off every time she exceeded the speed limit. The further we got from the station, the better the weather became. There were also fewer people and more cows.)

Would have been better either shorter or longer, I think - long enough to really explore the ideas, or shorter by only containing the good bits.

223wandering_star
marraskuu 4, 2020, 7:05am

106. The Allingham Minibus by Margery Allingham

An anthology of short stories by Margery Allingham - mostly not the detective stories which she is famous for, but ghost stories. Pretty good ones, too.

The first one starts:

Dornford killed Fellowes somewhere in Australia. Apart from the fact that it was a reprehensible sort of thing to do anyway, it was particularly unpleasant because they were friends and it was done for gain.

If that makes you want to carry on reading, you will enjoy this collection.

224wandering_star
marraskuu 4, 2020, 9:09am

107. Worst Case Scenario by Helen FitzGerald

Speaking of first lines - this is the first line of Worst Case Scenario:

Every time Mary tried to relax in a bath, a paedophile ruined it.

It probably is quite a good 'shop window' for the book as a whole - jarring, grotesque, but made me laugh partly out of shock.

Mary is a social worker, who works particularly with released criminals, including sex offenders. She's good at her job - but she is so burnt out - and her husband is about to sign a contract which will make them rich. So she has decided to quit, and her patience with both the bureaucracy of the system she works in, and the less savoury of her clients, is at an end. So she starts to say exactly what she thinks, and to cut corners to achieve results. And inevitably, a series of terrible things start to result.

I found this book incomprehensible. Not in the writing - it’s a genuine page turner - but in what was the point of the story? The story is seen through Mary's eyes (and the author's note tells us that FitzGerald was a criminal-justice social worker for more than fifteen years), and it is cleverly done in the sense that the reader feels sympathetic to Mary even as her decision-making gets worse and worse. But the eventual punishment does not seem to fit the crime, and everything ends up in such a terrible tangle that it is very depressing and out of keeping with the general dark-humour tone of the book.

225wandering_star
Muokkaaja: marraskuu 4, 2020, 12:31pm

108. Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

Jamie is a poet, and she writes beautifully about nature. Surfacing is somewhere between a collection of essays and a book about how human beings exist in their surroundings.

The first part of the book is about the time that Jamie spent with two different groups of archaeologists, one conducting an excavation into a 500-year old village in western Alaska, the other into a neolithic village in Orkney.

Writing about travel to other places is supposed to make you want to visit them too, but I actually don't want to go to Alaska because I have seen it better through Jamie's words than I would with my own eyes.

We chose to sit quietly, and in a short space of time, maybe twenty minutes of looking out over the landscape, I realised my eyes were adjusting, my vision sharpening. There was the close-at-hand, flowers and bright berries where we sat, then the middle distance, which resolved itself into bands of different grasses, each swaying in the breeze in its own way. In the far distance, a heat haze shimmered from the land. Black wavering shapes were ravens rising and falling through the air.

In these sections of the book, Jamie imagines the lives of the people who lived in the settlements being explored - imagines them into existence as human beings like us, no matter how different they are from us in time or in the way they lives. It's also a little bit about what happens to people who are forgotten in the historical narrative. The local villagers in Alaska interact well with the archaeologists, examining the relics uncovered and telling their own stories about using similar items in their childhood. In Orkney, on the other hand, the locals are uninterested - they see themselves as the descendants of the Vikings who conquered the stone age peoples, rather than feeling a connection to these early settlements. This is the loose thread which links into the third part of the book, in which Jamie excavates her own memories, of a trip to Tibet in early summer 1989, as China was being roiled by student demonstrations.

PS: after reading this, I went to the fascinating exhibition at the British Museum on life in the Arctic. One of the most memorable parts of this was a series of photos by an Inuit photographer of Inuit communities going about their lives in the Arctic - fully in their element even though it is an environment which people from anywhere else in the world would find alien and hard to live in.

For example, this one, of Marie Rexford of Kaktovik, Alaska, preparing muktuk (frozen whale skin and blubber) for the village’s Thanksgiving Day feast.


The exhibition is also very clear about the threats posed to this way of life by climate change - the tools and techniques that have worked for hundreds of years are not suitable any more.

Rereading the notes I'd made from Surfacing for this review, I came upon this, which made me reflect again about what I'd learnt from the exhibition.

‘He who loses his language loses his world.’ So wrote the Gaelic poet Iain Crichton Smith/Iain Mac a’Ghobhainn. One wonders if the converse is true. If one loses one’s world, one loses one’s language. The world of things, of making, of the land and animals and the stories and the hands’ work.

226wandering_star
marraskuu 4, 2020, 12:45pm

109. Ms Ice Sandwich by Mieko Kawakami

This novella is told through the eyes of a schoolboy who has a crush on a shop assistant who he has privately nicknamed Ms Ice Sandwich. There is something about Ms Ice Sandwich - maybe her looks, or maybe her manner of detachment from the world - which rubs people up the wrong way, but our narrator, a bit of a misfit himself, is oblivious to them. In addition to his crush on Ms Ice Sandwich he has a developing friendship with a schoolmate - who, like him, is in a single-parent family.

I have read quite a few books by Japanese female writers which have a similar style - naturalistic but quirky, apparently extremely simple but perhaps hiding a deeper meaning. Although I usually enjoy them while I'm actually reading them, at the end they sometimes leave me a little unsatisfied, because I'm not sure how much there actually is in there. This was a little like that for me.

Mum’s face is awesome whenever she gets annoyed, if there was an animal that didn’t know what being annoyed meant, then just one look at my mum’s face and they’d get the idea. You could make a rubber stamp of Mum’s face as a demo.

227avaland
marraskuu 4, 2020, 1:56pm

I don't know how I keep missing your thread....

>218 wandering_star: I read Gladstone's The Influencing Machine back in 2011 (apparently I really liked it; I gave it five starts) but I haven't followed her much since then.

Regarding our previous discussion of David Herter. I see on wikipedia ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Herter ) that he is listed as having seven books. I have read five of the seven. As mentioned, On the Overgrown Path is the first in a trilogy, and there are the earlier SF novels, Ceres Storm and Evening's Empire. The latest books are dated 2010 and 2012 and published by small presses (which is probably why I missed them). The trilogy was the best of what I have read of his work.

>225 wandering_star: Very nice review. It does sound like a book I might like, and very tempting. I think I will put that on some wishlist or another (sooo many books!).

228wandering_star
marraskuu 6, 2020, 7:57am

>227 avaland: thank you - I'll definitely look out for the other two books in the trilogy.

229wandering_star
marraskuu 6, 2020, 8:39am

110. Patriot Number One: American Dreams In Chinatown by Lauren Hilgers

This book follows the story of a Chinese activist, Zhuang Liehong - he gave himself the online name "Patriot Number One" when he started his protests against local corruption in Wukan village - both through the protests and their aftermath, and after Zhuang's emigration to the US.

It is a well-told story, although rather dispiriting. The Wukan protests were notable in that they led to an experiment with real village democracy, which many China-watchers at the time optimistically thought might be a model for a gradual spread of grassroots democracy through China. But following the story past the initial excitement shows what a tough task lay ahead of the new village leadership once they had been freely elected. The villagers' expectations far outstripped what they had the power or authority to do.

Zhuang's life in the US is also a story of great dreams brought down to earth, although by following him closely, Hilgers shows us the struggles and the gradual, step-by-step progress of an immigrant trying to build a new life in an unfamiliar environment.

The new house was also the most family-friendly place they had lived. Across from Zhuang and Little Yan, the landlord’s young son and daughter shared a room, doing their homework, arguing, and playing games. The landlord, a man from Fujian, spent nights working in a Japanese restaurant, doing tricks over a big grill in the middle of the restaurant, chopping up noodles and setting onions on fire for effect. During the day he drove a fancy black SUV for a local car service. He owned a home but worked three jobs and rented all but two of the rooms to make ends meet. “I respect him!” Zhuang said. “He’s really been successful in New York!”

230lisapeet
marraskuu 9, 2020, 6:31pm

>225 wandering_star: Oh, this looks interesting! Wish listed. And I’ll check out the exhibition too (I’m sorry but those chunks of fish in the photo you posted look like Allsorts to my licorice-addled brain).

231wandering_star
marraskuu 12, 2020, 10:35am

>230 lisapeet: - completely - something sweet, or those slices of fancy translucent soap that used to be popular!

232wandering_star
marraskuu 12, 2020, 10:58am

111. Reality and Other Stories by John Lanchester

A collection of short stories - mainly ghost stories or speculative fiction - linked by the fact that they feature something very modern - a mobile phone, a selfie stick, an audiobook.

It's a pretty variable collection. The four ghost stories are fun to read, but far from original. My two favourites were probably "Signal", in which a couple take their children for Christmas to stay with an old friend who has become rich - his house is on a remote country estate so perhaps it's not surprising that they keep bumping into a man who is trying to find a signal on his mobile phone - although he never seems to be there at any of the meals or group events. I enjoyed this partly because of the narrator's voice, which is witty and just on the right side of exasperated:

"This was a characteristic that had been salient from the time we first met, at university: his ambient, all-purpose, omnidirectional vagueness. It was a well-meaning vagueness, but it could also be highly irritating, and there were certain situations in which it more or less guaranteed disaster, such as anything involving social life."

I also enjoyed the final story, "Charity", which brought in a note of genuine horror which wasn't so much there in the other stories.

The most science fiction-y story, "The Kit", is too long for a payoff which is a bit obvious and has been done many times before - I was just listening to a programme about Ray Bradbury and one of his stories was quoted which did the same thing.

The remaining three are almost thought experiments. Two of them fell a bit flat for me; I think my favourite story of the whole collection is the third, "Reality", in which reality show contestants come to realise that truly, hell is other people.

Overall - this was fine. I got the Kindle book for 99p, which seems reasonable. It would not have been worth the £10.99 hardback cover price...

233wandering_star
marraskuu 12, 2020, 11:12am

112. Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward

The first three chapters of this book read like separate short stories. In the first, a young woman wakes up convinced that an ant crawled into her eye while she slept; her girlfriend has to decide whether or not to say she believes her. In the second, a Cypriot boy swims out to sea after his friend's precious football - and his life diverges into three possible futures. In the third, a British couple who have retired to Brazil go to an expat party.

But then the book swerves away from naturalism, and as it continues, we see how these stories link together - and realise that the different possible lives of Ali (the Cypriot boy) introduced a key theme of the book.

Each chapter starts with a ‘thought experiment’ that some philosopher has actually proposed - for example, if a brilliant scientist was raised in an entirely black and white environment, but knew all the science about light and colour, what would be different when she saw something red for the first time? - as well as a short quote from a poem. The whole story, in a way, is one of these thought experiments, told in a way which highlights the things which can't be explained - the creativity and emotions of human life.

This was a really interesting read, and rich in the way that it asks these questions about what it means to be human, which could be so cliched in a different writer's hands. For example, there is a lot of description of sensory perceptions, which touches on the question of how we know we are actually perceiving what we think is around us, and couldn't be just a 'brain in a vat'.

One thing I really like about reading science fiction is to have those moments when you think, 'yes, that is what it would be like' about a situation which could not actually happen - in this case, what would happen if you realised that you had woken up in a parallel universe:

When Eliza was in town, she stayed at a hotel and Arthur would visit her. He tried to remember the hotel, where it was, what it had looked like. The streets below were unfamiliar. Roofs, lampposts, trees he recognised in general, but nothing in particular. It was the opposite of déjà vu. Never seen. Only the way the morning light glanced off the metal rails and, in the distance, the roof of the Astrodome, seemed exactly right.

234wandering_star
Muokkaaja: marraskuu 21, 2020, 12:29pm

113. Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Triptych by Marie Vieux-Chauvet

What is courage if not a mixture of rage and despair?

Another really interesting book. Published in 1968, at a time when Haiti was under the violent repression of the Papa Doc Duvalier dictatorship, it was seen as so politically outspoken that the author's husband bought up all the copies he could find in Haiti. It consists of three novellas - "Love", "Anger" and "Madness", although any one of the three novellas would fit with any one of the titles.

"Love", set in the 1930s, centres on a remarkable character, Claire. Orphaned young, she was left to look after her two younger sisters and, despite her youth and inexperience, to run her father’s cane fields. She is marked out by the fact that her skin is much darker than her parents' or her sisters' - and even though the whole family insist that she is just a little tanned, the difference it makes is so stark that as a young woman, she cannot believe that any suitor is serious. The novella focuses on her in later life, desperate for some love or passion, to the extent that she cuddles a doll as if it was her baby, and quietly encourages her youngest sister in trying to seduce their brother-in-law.

Outside the family circle, Claire rages at the local petty dictator, who uses his power to abuse women and shoot protestors in the street. The same environment continues in the next two novellas. In "Anger", a family wake up to find that their valuable orchard is being walled off from their property by uniformed men. The men of the family are full of rage, but decide that their only asset which might help them to regain their property is the family's beautiful daughter, Rose. In "Madness", a poet, trapped for days inside his house, watches what he calls 'the devils' run riot in the town.

Our serene little faces, that’s just for the sake of appearances; our satisfied little smiles are for others to envy. It comforts, makes life easier when others think we are the blessed of this earth. No need for me to pry into your private life. I know what’s there. All private lives are alike. Why would you be different from me? Suffocating fear makes freaks of all of us.

Very powerful.

235rocketjk
marraskuu 13, 2020, 11:35am

>That does indeed look like a powerful collection of novellas. I've just finished a book of short stories by a Haitian-American writer, Foreign Shores by Marie-Helene La Forest. I will be posting about it on my CR thread today or possibly tomorrow.

236thorold
marraskuu 13, 2020, 11:40am

>234 wandering_star: Very powerful

Yes, that's almost an understatement: one of those books that practically blasts you out of the room when you open it...

237wandering_star
marraskuu 15, 2020, 6:01am

114. Mislaid by Nell Zink

I started off thinking this book was brilliant and finished it forcing myself to turn the pages.

The good part is that Zink is a really funny writer - the book, particularly the first third or so, fizzes with quotable lines.

The problem is that the characters and plot are essentially there for the purposes of hanging jokes on. After a while, the humour loses its impact - particularly as it delights in being shockingly flip about things like underage sex and race relations. For example, one of the main characters spends most of the book pretending that she, and her blonde daughter, are African-American - largely for the purpose of providing scenarios that Zink can be funny about. If you look hard at some of the quips you may find some interesting comments about race relations in the USA - but without any depth or seriousness, the plot collapses under its own flimsiness.

Less privileged men sometimes fancy themselves egotistical sociopaths, but they don’t know the half of it. They don’t even know how it’s done. In most cases they’ve even apologized for something at some point in their lives.

238wandering_star
Muokkaaja: marraskuu 17, 2020, 7:56am

>235 rocketjk: Thanks rocketjk, I will look out for your review.

ETA - that does look very good!

239wandering_star
marraskuu 17, 2020, 8:01am

115. The Smiling Man by Joseph Knox

A man dies in a hotel room in a closed hotel in Manchester. But when the police come to try and find out who he is, they hit a dead end. Not only has he cut all the labels out of his clothes, but at some time in the past he has had his fingerprints and teeth patterns surgically altered. And yet there are a couple of clues on his person - sewn into his trousers with orange thread. So does he want to be found out, or not?

This is an excellent crime novel but over my personal goriness threshold. So the writer will be joining Minette Walters on my list of 'excellent crime writers but too gruesome for me'.

The nurse was a sick-looking man with grey, translucent teeth. He sucked them, audibly, as we walked. I wondered if he’d begun working here as a healthy person and then slowly absorbed the aura of madness and death surrounding him. I wondered what I was absorbing in my line of work.

240wandering_star
marraskuu 20, 2020, 11:23am

116. Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation by Annie Zaidi

Each chapter of this book starts with some thoughts about a particular aspect of the author's sense of belonging (the place she grew up, her family's ancestral village, her religion, the city she lives now) followed by her thoughts on the political violence and discrimination exercised against a particular group in India - the adivasis (indigenous groups), the urban poor, Muslims, women.

Zaidi is a woman, with a Muslim name and ancestry (although one of her parents is Hindu), a rights activist, but at the same time an English speaker, middle class, university education. As such she is aware of the privileges that she has, as well as the ways that the Indian state is becoming increasingly intolerant of the Other. Much of what she writes about is not new, but it's shocking to see it all there written down in one place. The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the state can evict the forest-dwelling tribes from their familiar territory - affecting over a million people. A municipal councillor in the Punjab, whose first language was Urdu, took his oath of office in that language and was charged with ‘malicious intent of outraging religious sentiment’. "States like Rajasthan have been using Hindi as the sole official language although a significant chunk of their population does not consider it a mother tongue. What this translates into is the state talking to people who cannot talk back."

In addition to this sobering assessment of modern India, I enjoyed Zaidi's thoughts on belonging - what it means now and has meant in the past - as well as the way that identity can be manipulated to highlight differences and shatter former solidarities.

In north India, where my family is from, a corpse is sometimes referred to as mitti. Soil. Earth, if you prefer, and when you want to emphasise your relationship with the land, you might declare, ‘Yahaan meri purkhon ki naal garhi hai’, ‘This is where my ancestor’s umbilical cord is buried’.

The pdf of this book can be downloaded (free) here.

241wandering_star
Muokkaaja: marraskuu 20, 2020, 11:32am

117. Straight From The Horse’s Mouth by Meryem Alaoui

Narrated by Jmiaa, a Casablanca prostitute, as she talks about her life, this is a weirdly feelgood book given the subject matter. The plot and characterisation are pretty thin, but I still rather enjoyed it - and it's certainly a perspective you won't find elsewhere.

She missed her true calling. She should have been a muezzin, her voice is so loud. They fight so much, she and her husband, that in the neighborhood, we follow their drama the same way we followed Guadalupe when that soap had just aired.

242kidzdoc
marraskuu 21, 2020, 12:07pm

Great review of Love and Other Thought Experiments, Margaret. I'll try to get to it in early 2021.

I also enjoyed your review of Love, Anger, Madness. Given that you and Mark thought highly of it I just purchased the Kindle edition of it, which is currently on sale for $6.99 in the US.

243markon
marraskuu 21, 2020, 4:07pm

>240 wandering_star: Thanks for the review/description of Bread, Cement, Cactus. I don't think I can get to it soon, but it's headed into the pile of things I intend to read someday . . .

244wandering_star
marraskuu 29, 2020, 11:21am

>242 kidzdoc: I hope you enjoy both of them, Darryl!

245wandering_star
marraskuu 29, 2020, 11:45am

118. The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

Triggered by a throwaway remark of her father's, teenage Giovanna becomes increasingly curious about the family that he is estranged from. Eventually her continued interest persuades her parents that they should let her meet that side of her family. Initially fascinated by then, Giovanna eventually begins to feel like she's a different person when she's around them - they even have another name for her, Giannina. But her father and her aunt have such different explanations for the thing which caused the family to split, and Giovanna finds herself watching her parents more closely; at the same time, her meetings with her aunt eventually lead to the revelation of a secret within her parents' marriage.

This is really the story of a young girl growing up, and the way that the process of growing up involves reacting to how other people are - either modelling yourself on them, or wanting to be different - first Giovanna and her parents, then Aunt Vittoria and her friends, then the local boys, then a young man who, like Giovanna's father, has started out in the poor districts of Naples and is now making an academic career.

I think that one of the remarkable things about the way Ferrante writes is that the narrator can describe their own feelings and responses simply and clearly, without becoming overly naval-gazing. That, plus the fact that while the location of the story is very strongly Naples at a particular time and place, it is easy to see the universal relevance of how the characters behave with each other.

He was excited by the contact with my hand, I realized. How is it possible, I said to myself, that boys are so stupid, how is it possible that those two, if I merely touch them, if I simply let them touch me, go blind, they don’t see and don’t feel the disgust I feel for myself. Corrado was upset because I wasn’t sitting next to him, Rosario was happy because I was next to him with my hand on his. With a little shrewdness could one make them submit to anything?

246wandering_star
marraskuu 29, 2020, 11:55am

119. The Ritual Bath by Faye Kellerman

I picked this up because it appeared on a list I saw of the ten best crime novels. It was the only one I hadn't heard of, so I was intrigued.

A woman is assaulted in an Orthodox Jewish community outside LA. Is it a hate crime? Could it be linked to a series of rapes which are taking place through the city? Or is the criminal within the community itself?

The setting is quite interesting - there is a lot of information about the community - but most (too much!) of the story was focused on the burgeoning feelings between the policeman on the case, and one of the women in the community. This wasn't just implausible, but written in a way which would have seemed like male wishfulfilment if the author had been a man. For example: He wanted to hold her, but resisted. Though he had only comfort on his mind, she was distraught enough to misinterpret his intentions. (Sure - you've told this woman you like her, she's told you she hasn't, but when she cries you just want to comfort her!)

247wandering_star
Muokkaaja: marraskuu 29, 2020, 12:28pm

120. White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

An interesting book about the way that white people protect themselves from having to think difficult thoughts about the racism embedded within society and their own role in this. DiAngelo argues that the dominant view of racism in white society is of deliberate, bad acts, committed by the worst of us - which means that we can comfortably pat ourselves on the back that we are not like that, we are good people; and therefore we believe we have nothing to learn.

As African American scholar and filmmaker Omowale Akintunde says: “Racism is a systemic, societal, institutional, omnipresent, and epistemologically embedded phenomenon that pervades every vestige of our reality. For most whites, however, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen."

This makes any discussion of racism difficult as - believing in a good/bad (not racist/racist) binary - the immediate response to feedback about our own behaviour is to be defensive - you are saying I am a bad person, and in fact I am a good person! - rather than considering what knowledge we lack, or being curious about the other person's perspective, or the history which might make something offensive. This defensiveness then derails any discussion of racism.

Instead of this approach, DiAngelo suggests that white people should recognise that our perspectives come from a place of being part of the dominant narrative, and that rather than thinking of racism as a simple binary, we should see it as something which is likely to be baked into assumptions, and strive to be less racist rather than trying to deny that we are. In this way, feedback about the impact of what we do or say would be welcome information that would help us to be better, rather than a horrifying undermining of our self-image.

The racial status quo is comfortable for white people, and we will not move forward in race relations if we remain comfortable. The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out—blame the messenger and disregard the message. Or we can use it as a door in by asking, Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true? How does this lens change my understanding of racial dynamics? How can my unease help reveal the unexamined assumptions I have been making? Is it possible that because I am white, there are some racial dynamics that I can’t see? Am I willing to consider that possibility? If I am not willing to do so, then why not?

A simple book to read but a lot to think about.

248wandering_star
Muokkaaja: joulukuu 4, 2020, 9:19am

121. The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

This is the second book I've read by Elizabeth Jenkins and the second which completely overturned my expectations as to what it was going to be about.

The first scene takes place in an antique shop. Imogen is examining a pottery mug - beautifully glazed, but cracked. She loves how it looks but knows her husband Evelyn will take one look at the crack and scoff at the idea of buying it, so she sadly puts it back on the shelf. And so we enter into the story of their marriage. Evelyn, a celebrated lawyer, presumably loved and indulged Imogen at the start, but has gotten into the habit of being constantly faintly exasperated by her lack of practicality. The reader can see that what might have started as a bit of a joke - the way that she just never knows what is the right thing to do - has become embedded in both their minds, as well as in that of their eight-year old son, in whose behaviour we see the real contempt that underlies his father's attitude. As it emerges that Evelyn is spending increasing amounts of time with a neighbour, the thoroughly practical and opinionated Blanche, Imogen feels increasingly undermined but at the same time, can't imagine that Blanche's frumpy heartiness could represent a real threat, could it?

Like Harriet, the other Jenkins book I have read, this book is written in a light tone which belies the bleakness of where the story goes, particularly in the way that Evelyn's views get inside Imogen's head. Although, thank goodness, it is not as completely depressing about human nature as Harriet was. And at the end, thinking back, there are enough hints that perhaps this is not such a happy ending for Evelyn as it appears. A point where Imogen’s good friend notices that Blanche won’t even listen to opposing views, never mind compromise to them - a note from the other romance in the book, that the man is at the stage of infatuation where everything the woman does is charming - and a hint that Blanche's devotion will wane now that she has him - suggest that in the future Evelyn may not find Blanche someone he can so effortlessly be himself with. But I put this together after quite a lot of thinking about the ending.

In the afterword, I learnt that Jenkins wrote it after she had a relationship with a married man who, after his wife died, married someone like Blanche. (As it was being published he tried to restart his relationship with her - she simply sent him a copy of the book). Carmen Callil commented to Jenkins that Evelyn was obnoxious and Jenkins said, of course, you never met him did you. Perhaps this explains some of the ambiguity in the book.

Mrs. Leeper was ebullient in her welcome, and delightfully pretty. Her head of curls tied up with ribbon bore an ominous likeness likeness to the coiffure worn by Roman ladies just before the barbarian hordes overwhelmed the Roman Empire.

249wandering_star
joulukuu 4, 2020, 8:28am

122. Eiderdown by Edward Posnett

This comes as a single unit for the Kindle but is really just an essay - about the way that eiderdown is gathered in Iceland - traditionally, the farmer allows the ducks to nest on his property, protecting them from predators, then collects the down from their nests after fledging season is over and the ducks have left. The down is the softest feathers, which the birds themselves pluck out, to provide a soft nest for the chicks. Included the excellent fact that "the Icelandic word for “windfall” is hvalreki, literally a beached whale".

250wandering_star
joulukuu 4, 2020, 8:43am

123. Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature, edited by Jacob Weisman

A terrific collection of stories, whose common theme is that they are sci-fi adjacent, by writers who aren't normally thought of as sci-fi authors. I didn't enjoy every single story but they were all interesting - I think this had the highest overall quality of any sci-fi anthology I have read - with a wide range of styles.

"Portal" by J Robert Lennon is a naturalistic story about a married couple, who just happen to have a magic portal in their back yard (although like the marriage, the portal is past its best days). "Five Fucks", by Jonathan Lethem, is about two people who reshape the universe every time they have sex (I would have read a whole book based on this story). The main characters in "LIMBs" by Julia Elliott are elderly residents of a nursing home where scientists are trying to develop ways of regrowing their memories through different combinations of stimuli - but as their memories return, their personalities do too.

Perhaps my favourite was "Lambing Season" by Molly Gloss, probably the lowest-key first contact story you'll ever read. (Set in remote ranching country, it was a particularly interesting read the same week as the mysterious Utah monolith made the news...)

In May, when she brought the Churro sheep back to Joe-Johns Mountain, the pieces of the wrecked wing had already eroded, were small and smooth-edged like the bits of sea glass you find on a beach, and she figured this must be what it was meant to do: to break apart into pieces too small for anybody to notice, and then to quickly wear away.

251wandering_star
joulukuu 4, 2020, 9:10am

124. Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki

Another one of these simple-but-quirky Japanese novels. I really liked this one, though. Tomo lives in a block of flats which is due to be torn down - so the flats around him are gradually emptying out. Before long only a handful of neighbours remain, one of whom is a young woman who is slightly obsessed with the house next door - a sky-blue detached house where a few decades back, a couple of minor celebrities used to live. Set at a time when the older districts of Tokyo are constantly being renovated, the story is suffused with a gentle nostalgia and a sense that even getting rid of older and broken-down things can be in some ways a loss.

His home town as it existed in his memory seemed distant to him, like something that belonged to another person. It was almost as though he'd mistaken a place he'd seen on TV or in a film for a thing of his own, or else that the sights seen by someone in one of the thousand or so different flats on that estate had somehow snuck their way into his mind and still remained there. That was how it seemed from time to time.

252wandering_star
joulukuu 4, 2020, 1:10pm

I passed Surfacing (>225 wandering_star:) onto my mother and she has messaged to say "the short chapter 'Eagle' is masterly - a swoop as graceful and beautiful as the flight of that bird itself".

253dchaikin
joulukuu 8, 2020, 1:19pm

Just stopping by the say hello. I just did another deep catch up, and it’s left me with numerous titles and ideas to ponder. The Tortoise and the Hare struck me ( >248 wandering_star: ) especially because of its nonfictional element embedded in there so bitterly. Lots of other titles did do. Anyway enjoy your reading.

254wandering_star
joulukuu 11, 2020, 9:56am

>253 dchaikin: Thanks Dan - you too!

255wandering_star
joulukuu 11, 2020, 10:14am

125. Into The London Fog: eerie tales from the weird city ed. Elizabeth Dearnley

The editor of this book has made the interesting choice to add in, to the collection of Victorian-era ghost stories and chillers, some essays through which the reader can experience London from alternative points of view.

One of these is an extract from the autobiography of the Jamaican writer Claude McKay about his visit to London in 1919 - "the English as a whole were a strangely unsympathetic people, as coldly chilling as their English fog", but he made friends in a club for Black and Asian soldiers (he brought them copies of African American magazines, and wrote about the club too for a magazine called Negro World).

Another one of the factual sections is about London during the blackouts of WWI - which certainly are not as well known as the WWII ones. I was struck by the author's description of public cynicism about the war: "Any popular songs which celebrated the splendour of the forces, or any people or group of people who tried to make a sentimental fuss of the fighting men, were rewarded by a riposte of derision ... nothing, I think, was stranger than this human and heroic passion for turning misery into farce, and sacrifice into a joke." (from London in My Time by Thomas Burke, 1934).

Worth the price of the whole volume was the essay "Street Haunting" by Virginia Woolf (available here), which wonderfully describes one of the main pleasures of living in a city, the ability to step into so many alternative lives.

Compared to things like this, the fictional stories were pretty underwhelming - it seems that what was scary then is not often enough to scare even a weedy reader like me, now - although one interesting one was "The Lodger" by Marie Belloc Lowndes, probably the first fiction inspired by Jack the Ripper, notable both in that it was written while the killings were taking place, and that it foregrounds the victims and potential victims rather than glorifying the killer.

This is one of a series of themed collections of old genre stories. I've looked at a few of the others but none seem to combine the fiction and non-fiction in the way that this one does.

256wandering_star
joulukuu 11, 2020, 10:28am

126. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors

Sonja is learning to drive. That is, she's failing to learn to drive. Her first instructor insists on changing gears for her, and her second keeps putting his hand on hers. The occasional dizziness doesn't help either.

But even worse than learning to drive, is learning to fit in and seem like a normal person. Sonja wants this - in one sad moment she wishes her mother hadn't indulged the young Sonja's dreaminess, so she would have been forced to fit in.

But looking at the people around Sonja, what is normal anyway? Normal people "make themselves angry just to feel alive", they think with their genitals, they adore the ultra-gory Swedish crime novels that Sonja translates, they desperately search for meaning in the smallest things.

Sonja sees all this and so, although she tries in spurts to fit in, she never really manages to follow through with it. Both her sister and former best friend have grown apart from her - at school her sister used to tell her, you don't need to like the guy straight away, just go out with him until he grows on you; and her best friend Molly, the one she originally moved to Copenhagen with, "It's as if Molly's face has acquired a barred grille, the sort you see in front of jewelry stores. She can yank down the grille in a trice, so that no one can barge in and help themselves to the wares. The technique frightens Sonja."

This book started out quite puzzling, became funny, and in the end produced a lot of sympathy for Sonja and her attempts to find a place in the world.

257dchaikin
joulukuu 11, 2020, 1:22pm

>255 wandering_star: the nonfiction seems like a nice touch and a fun mixture. >256 wandering_star: interesting. And the quote on the barred grille...

258wandering_star
joulukuu 16, 2020, 6:26am

>257 dchaikin: Yes. I actually am feeling like I may need to read this book again.

259wandering_star
joulukuu 16, 2020, 6:34am

127. Real Tigers by Mick Herron

Third in the series of books about the washed-up spies in Slough House, an outpost of MI6 where they send the addicts, the fuck-ups, the incurable arseholes, to do tedious grunt work until they quit, because it's easier than sacking them. It's also, sometimes, useful to have a few people who are semi-attached to the system, for work which you wouldn't want a regular agent to do - as is the case here.

I enjoy this series, which takes the cynicism of a good spy novel as its starting point, adds in black humour, and gets bitterer from there. The writing is great and the plots are satisfyingly complex. It's been a while since I read the previous two but I have a feeling this might be the best yet.

‘I hope life’s treating you better.’ ‘Water under the bridge.’ But he said this with the air of one who spent a lot of time on bridges, waiting for the bodies of his enemies to float past.

260wandering_star
joulukuu 16, 2020, 8:14am

128. Business As Usual by Jane Oliver with illustrations by Ann Stafford

And in complete contrast, here's one of the sweetest and most charming books I've read this year, like eating a bonbon after a strong black coffee. In the early 1930s, a young Edinburgh woman decides that before her marriage, she's going to spend a year living on her own in London - or trying to, at least. We hear about her adventures through her letters to her fiance (a rather joyless doctor called Basil) and her parents. We learn about her personality not just through the letters but the amusing illustrations that she scribbles on any piece of paper to hand - not just the writing paper but, we learn, on odds and ends of paper at her new job. And we see her at work through a series of internal memos from the place she ends up, a thinly disguised version of Selfridges.

When Hilary arrives at the shop for the first time, she mistakenly goes in through the main entrance. "One of those large, buttoned men they keep loomed up at me" and offered assistance, until she said she was there for an interview "and I think that his face went through the funniest transformation I've ever seen in my life. There was a sort of convulsion, and when it was over all the deference had gone. However, he did indicate a door with a curtain over it, and told me that if I went that way no doubt I should find someone to direct me."

One of the nice things about the story is that Hilary can see both sides. She could, in fact, be a customer - and while she is genuinely trying to make a go of living off herself for a year, she knows how lucky she is, and has sympathy for all those - her colleagues and otherwise - who don't have a choice. This understanding, and the way that some of the tough realities of 1930s life intrude into the light comedy, mean that the book is still readable now in a way that something which was pure froth might not be.

After reading this I joined a Zoom discussion with the publisher, who said she'd picked up an old copy of the book at a secondhand sale in London. She starting reading it on the train home and by Didcot (about half an hour later) knew that she had to publish it. She also mentioned that the author Susan Hill had ordered a copy, and within a week had ordered two more to send to friends.

261dchaikin
joulukuu 16, 2020, 10:20am

Kind of fascinated. Also, after reading Cather and Nabokov’s 1930’s novels and not finding the slightest reference to a Great Depression, I’m intrigued what “tough realities” Oliver captured.

262avaland
joulukuu 20, 2020, 6:37pm

Wow, I had a lot to catch up on.

>247 wandering_star: I have this in the TBR pile. I appreciate your thorough review.

263wandering_star
joulukuu 28, 2020, 11:32am

>261 dchaikin: Dan, I wouldn't want to give the impression that Business As Usual represents gritty realism! But there is recognition that some people are living very precariously - and sympathy towards them. There is also a character who has to deal with an unwanted pregnancy, and she too is treated sympathetically, which I think must be fairly unusual for light 1930s fiction.

264wandering_star
joulukuu 28, 2020, 11:43am

129. Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

I bought this after listening to an episode of the Shedunnit podcast, which focuses on Golden Age detective fiction, about the author, who was popular during the Golden Age - praised highly by Dorothy L Sayers for example - but who is now almost unknown. She wrote under the name of ECR Lorac as well as Carol Carnac.

Crossed Skis starts with a group of people heading off for a long-anticipated skiing holiday in the Alps. It's 1951, rationing is still in place at home, and they are looking forward to getting away from it all. Late on in the arrangements, a couple of people dropped out, but they each found someone to fill their place - so although the group don't all know each other, it promises to be a jolly trip. Their story as they travel out is interleaved with the aftermath of a brutal murder in London - where the perpetrator appears to have left the scene holding a pair of skis.

I really enjoyed Crossed Skis and would highly recommend it to any fans of the genre.

265Nickelini
joulukuu 28, 2020, 11:51am

>264 wandering_star:
Sounds interesting. Not sure I’m a fan of this genre or if I’ve even tried this genre. Title noted

266wandering_star
joulukuu 28, 2020, 11:59am

130. Pages For You and 133. Pages For Her by Sylvia Brownrigg

These two novels, published 15 years apart, tell the story of two women, Flannery and Anne. Pages For You is about their passionate university romance. In Pages For Her, they meet again a decade and a half later (although not until page 180 - the first third of the book describes Flannery's marriage, to a man who is the kind of Grade A shit* that I'm a bit tired of reading about, and the second third allows us to catch up with Anne too).

The writing is really terrific and I enjoyed the first book enough to more or less immediately buy and read the second. And yet, in the end, I feel a little bit disappointed.

Pages For You starts with a short prologue in which one of the woman says that she has written the pages which follow "to show you that I am finding a story, the story of how we might have been together, once". This made me think that there would be an element of unreliable narration in what followed - and maybe some suspense about which of the women it was that was imagining the possible relationship with the other. But that's not what happened - the prologue is never returned to again. And in the end I did not find Flannery a character interesting enough to hold up two books. It's true that we are told that she has hidden depths, when you get to know her - but I didn't quite find this borne out in the books.

Pages For You I think is the better book - brilliant on the way that the attraction between the two women develops, and worth reading for that, even if it fizzles later.

So they moved to the safer-seeming kitchen, where they sat down at the round table and talked some to each other in fond voices, the scattered chat of new friends; while the air around them wondered if they'd soon be more.

*Here's a telling passage about Charles, Flannery's husband:
Charles did not know about Anne.
That is, Flannery had told him about her, a few times in recent years, but it had not stuck. This was not surprising. Charles only had room for so many of Flannery's stories in his mind, after which they spilled and fell out of it, like pieces of Lego from the crate in Willa's room. Much of Charles's squarish head was crowded with his own great stories, thoughts about his work, memories of romantic conquests, and probably furtive desires for more in the future. Apart from a few vivid landmarks, the finer details of Flannery's past were blurry to him, smears out of a train window.

267wandering_star
joulukuu 28, 2020, 12:35pm

131. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

A strange and wonderful novella. A man, called Piranesi even though he doesn't think that's his name, lives in a strange labyrinthine building which seems to cover the whole world, with oceans on the bottom floor and clouds in the top.

From time to time a man, who he calls The Other, appears and gives him instructions, or objects, or multivitamins. Apart from that his only companions are the birds, and a number of human skeletons who lie scattered about the halls. Piranesi has lived like this for as long as he can remember, without change. But one day, another mysterious figure appears, and sets Piranesi wondering about how he came to be where he is.

I don't think it's possible to say more about this without giving too much of the story away. But the book is weird, and beautiful, and moving. Definitely worthy of all the accolades.

Though the Coral Halls are dry now, it appears that at one time they were flooded with Sea Water for a long period. Coral has grown there, changing the Statues in strange and unexpected ways. One may see, for example, a Woman crowned with coral, her Hands transformed into stars or flowers. There are Figures horned with coral, or crucified on coral branches, or stuck through with coral arrows. There is a Lion enmeshed in a cage of coral and a Man holding a Little Box. The coral has grown so profusely over his Left Side that half of him appears to be engulfed in red- and rose-coloured flames, while the other half is not.

268markon
joulukuu 28, 2020, 3:56pm

>267 wandering_star: I enjoyed Piranesi - found the writing and the "building" that Piranesi lived in beautiful. And was happy to let it be that without looking for any meaning behind it.

269lisapeet
joulukuu 28, 2020, 8:52pm

>267 wandering_star: I was thinking this was a long book, for some reason... maybe conflating it with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I think I'd be more inclined to try it out given that short length.

270wandering_star
joulukuu 30, 2020, 11:01am

132. Flake by Matthew Dooley

A graphic novel which hits that very British note of being comic but bleak - a bit like the humour of Alan Bennett in his Talking Heads series of monologues.

Howard drives an ice-cream van. He has his routine, and he gets by all right, although business is not so good this year. His half-brother Tony controls the ice-cream van business in every other part of the northwest, but surely Tony wouldn't try and undermine his own family member, would he...?

271wandering_star
joulukuu 30, 2020, 11:10am

134. A Quiet Place by Seicho Matsumoto

Tsuneo is away from home when he gets the news that his young wife has died of a heart attack. Although it is a great shock, he did know that she had a weak heart. But what he can't work out is, what she was doing in that part of town when she died? He can't quite get the question out of his mind and starts to do a little bit of digging...

Written in 1975, this is a low-key crime novel, perhaps more interesting for his descriptions of a changing Tokyo than for the story itself.

272wandering_star
joulukuu 30, 2020, 11:48am

135. Come Let Us Sing Anyway by Leone Ross

An incredibly varied collection of short stories. Some are magical realism-adjacent, naturalistic stories in which you can't quite tell whether a detail is fantasy or metaphor (in the first story, a women's children are described as a cube, a seven-sided polygon, a 'perfectly satisfactory and smooth-sided sphere'); there are short sharp tales which skewer racism or sexism (the second story is a series of short episodes which you gradually realise are all tales of young black people being killed by police); there are lush erotic adventures. I can't think of another collection by a single author which shows so much range.

My favourite was "President Daisy", the story of a train journey a young girl is making to live with a family member, and an encounter she has with a stranger. I found an extract from the story, read by the author, here. It's one of the first type - is it a completely naturalistic story, or could it be an encounter with a guardian angel?

From "Love Silk Food":

Mrs Neecy Brown’s husband is falling in love. She can tell, because the love is stuck to the walls of house, making the wallpaper sticky, and it has seeped into the calendar in her kitchen, so bad she can’t see what the date is, and the love keeps ruining the food – whatever she does or however hard she concentrates, everything turns to mush. The dumplings lack squelch and bite – they come out doughy and stupid, like grey belches, in her carefully salted water.

273wandering_star
Muokkaaja: joulukuu 31, 2020, 7:27am

136. Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch

I was expecting this to be mainly a memoir by the author, a British lawyer and journalist of Ghanaian, Jewish German and Yorkshire heritage. I am also mixed race (white and Chinese) and have been struck by how recently it is that the existence of separate mixed identities have been recognised. The first time I can remember someone talking about their mixed race identity was Tiger Woods (who is half Thai), and he didn't become famous until I was already in my 20s. Hirsch is a bit younger than me but similarly found it hard to assert her own identity as she was growing up, and while she recognises that she has great social and economic privilege, somewhat regrets her half-way status.

However, although we do learn about Hirsch's experiences, identity and family history, this book is mostly not about her but about racial prejudice in the UK, particularly racial prejudice against those who are black or mixed race black. Pretty sobering reading, unfortunately.

It is our history, as British people. If we were able to see a different version of it - not a carefully curated, highly selective, politically convenient one, but an honest one, in all its nuances - it might give us all a chance to carve our individual and collective relationship with Britain in a more realistic way. That might allow Britain to evolve out of its current state of ideological conflict, in which white British identities are pitted against others, in spite of the shared past from which those identities have emerged. For people like me, born into the midst of this conflict which we played no part in creating, that might make Britishness an identity that we could more easily embrace.

274wandering_star
joulukuu 31, 2020, 7:32am

This seems like a ridiculous transition from the last book but anyway...

137. The 13 Clocks & The Wonderful O by James Thurber

A re-read of a childhood favourite since I am at the family home for Christmas. The 13 Clocks is a fairytale about an evil prince and an impossible quest. It is great fun but the real treasure is The Wonderful O, the story of a man who hates the letter O and wages war on it.

“All they have is fifes and drums and cymbals,” gloated Black.
“And zithers and guitars,” said Littlejack. “And dulcimers and spinets, and bugles, harps and trumpets.”
“Much good they’ll get from these,” said Black, “or any others. I haven’t finished with the O’s in music, in harmony and melody, that is, and compositions. They’ll have no score, and what is more, no orchestra, or podium, or baton, and no conductor. They can’t play symphonies, or rhapsodies, sonatas or concerti. I’ll take away their oratorios and choirs and choruses, and all their soloists, their baritones and tenors and sopranos, their altos and contraltos and accompanists. All they’ll have is the funeral march, the chant and anthem, and the dirge, and certain snatches.”
“They’ll still have serenades,” said Littlejack.
Black made an evil and impatient gesture. “You can’t serenade a lady on a balcony,” he said, “if there isn’t any balcony. Let them hum their hymns and lisp their litanies.”

275kidzdoc
joulukuu 31, 2020, 9:13am

Brit(ish) is on my list of books to read in 2021. I'll have to finish it by the spring so that I can discuss it with you.

276wandering_star
joulukuu 31, 2020, 11:21am

>275 kidzdoc: I would like that, Darryl!

277wandering_star
joulukuu 31, 2020, 11:28am

138. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I found this a surprisingly interesting read. It's not much good in terms of the story - in an afterword Bradbury commented that someone read an early version and suggested doubling the length to make it a full book, and that padding shows - but there were some unexpected resonances with the modern day in the idea that you can distract people with the fast and the shiny, reduce their sense of empathy and understanding of complexities, and then send them off hating whatever it is convenient for you that they hate.

"Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!"

278wandering_star
joulukuu 31, 2020, 11:40am

139. Happiness, As Such by Natalia Ginzburg

A novel, told mostly in letters, about the way that we each imagine ourself as the centre of our own worlds, and the way that we misunderstand and misinterpret other people. It centres around an Italian family - son Michele has moved to the UK, possibly to escape from political persecution (it's the early 1970s) - his parents are divorced and his father is dying, and he gets letters from his mother and sisters, and friend Osvaldo, talking about him, each other, and a young woman Mara who has a baby who may or may not be his. They tell stories that make themselves look good, they bad-mouth each other, and we gradually come to understand them and the relations between them.

There are some lovely subtleties, such as echoes in the interactions between different characters. Two chapters start with a woman bad-mouthing another to Osvaldo (first his ex-wife Ada complains about Mara, two chapters later it's Mara talking about Ada); two characters, writing to two different recipients, sign off their letters with the line, "I wish you happiness, if there is such a thing as happiness". Even the terrible Mara who lurches round Italy looking for people to take advantage of, is allowed a moment of humanity: "I want to get married to a man who won't hurt me because I'm already good at hurting myself".

This is one of those books which is easy to read very quickly, but also has a lot of depth.

Your friend Mara has left Colarosa. She wrote to me from Novi Ligure where she is staying with her cousins’ maid. She’s not doing well, she doesn’t have anywhere to live, and has nothing to call her own, except for a black kimono with sunflower embroidery, a fox-fur coat and a baby. But I feel like all of us are vulnerable to the gentle art of ending up in terrible situations that are unresolvable and impossible to move out of by going either forward or back.

279wandering_star
tammikuu 2, 9:49am

93. Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It by Gabriel Wyner & 140. How To Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately by Boris Shekhtman

Two books pitched at the foreign language learner. Other than the common topic, though, they couldn't be more different.

Fluent Forever rubbed me up the wrong way with its exuberant over-promising (“Once you’ve done this, your daily reviews become enjoyable, because most of your time is spent saying to yourself, “Holy shit! I can’t believe I still remember that! I am a rock star!”), but did contain a few useful tips and resources. For example, if you're struggling with pronouncing a sentence, start with the last couple of syllables and then keep saying the sentence, adding a word or two to the front each time. This is really useful (although after reading about it I realised that my teacher was using the technique with me). The main suggestion though was to use a spaced repetition system such as Anki - and it's true that Anki is brilliant - but unfortunately I was already using it. The author of Fluent Forever has a website and app, mostly paid content but some of the book's resources are also available here.

How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately, despite its huckster-ish title, has a much higher useful tip to page ratio (it's only 86 pages long). It was written by someone who taught Russian to US Foreign Service officials. Some of the tips are indeed about improving your language 'immediately' - that is, improving the way you use the language that you already know, such as suggestions for how to make conversations with native speakers go better, avoiding those terrible conversations where you can only manage a one- or two-word answer until the native speaker gives up and goes to talk to someone more interesting. There are also tips about the most useful kinds of vocabulary to memorise if you want to sound more natural as a speaker, for example.

280Nickelini
tammikuu 2, 12:09pm

>279 wandering_star:
Those both look interesting. I’ll have to check them out as I try to get back to my Italian study. What language are you trying to learn?

281wandering_star
tammikuu 3, 7:51am

>280 Nickelini: I'm learning Japanese! I'm going to move there for work later in the year. I am lucky in that my employer is giving me some time for language study, so I don't have to fit it around too many other things. It's a really interesting language - but complicated!

282wandering_star
tammikuu 3, 7:52am

And the final book of the year is 141. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers.

I read all these books before around the time of the BBC television series, ie the late 80s. I think this is the longest of Sayers’ mysteries (at least, it’s the fattest of the ones on my shelf) and that’s because this is the book where Harriet Vane decides whether or not she is going to marry Peter Wimsey, and so a lot of the book is about the options and roles available to women of the time. This is framed through the setting of Harriet’s old Oxford college. She goes up for a reunion, and because of that when the college starts suffering some very disruptive anonymous behaviour, they ask her to come and have a discreet look around. The stress within the senior management team, all suspecting each other, leads fissures to develop. This had a slower start than I am used to from crime novels these days! But I enjoyed reading it.

“I quite agree with you,” said Miss de Vine, “about the difficulty of combining intellectual and emotional interests. I don’t think it affects women only; it affects men as well. But when men put their public lives before their private lives, it causes less outcry than when a woman does the same thing, because women put up with neglect better than men, having been brought up to expect it.”

283wandering_star
Muokkaaja: tammikuu 5, 6:20am

So. That’s 2020. I read more books this year than usual - mainly because of the lack of other things to do, for most of the time. I also feel that it was a good reading year, overall - although when I look back at the ratings I gave to books, there are relatively few 5s and 4s. I think though that I spent much less time getting frustrated by bad books or ploughing through something which was not doing it for me.

Another strange thing when I look back is that some of the books I read at the start of this year feel like I read them years ago. Perhaps because I read so many other books in between, or perhaps because it’s just been a long year…

The big read of the year was of course War and Peace, which I really enjoyed and I am glad I have read. It did drag a bit in places but the highs were very high and the characters still live with me.

Other highlights of the year were:
A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward
Alice in Bed by Judith Hooper
The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
Red At The Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Transactions In A Foreign Currency by Deborah Eisenberg
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
Us (poetry) by Zaffar Kunial

Non-fiction of various sorts:
Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast
Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik
Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch
Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat
Me by Elton John

And in crime and thrillers
Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner
The Unsuspected by Charlotte Armstrong
Then We Take Berlin by John Lawton
Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman
Real Tigers by Mick Herron

My new thread is here - see you there!

284Nickelini
tammikuu 3, 3:19pm

>281 wandering_star:
Japanese! Good for you. That's a challenge for English speakers. Good luck! (As I struggle with my Italian, a much easier language)

285dchaikin
tammikuu 4, 1:19pm

I just caught up with this thread. Happy to read a review of Brit(ish). I was also happy to read your review of Piranesi. Yours is the 3rd i’ve read two days (although it’s posted earlier). I’m really intrigued.

286wandering_star
tammikuu 5, 6:21am

>284 Nickelini: Thank you! And good luck with your Italian too.

287japaul22
tammikuu 5, 8:00am

I always enjoy following your reading! I'll be following along in 2021!