Bragan's 2020 Reading, Pt. 2

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Bragan's 2020 Reading, Pt. 2

1bragan
huhtikuu 3, 2020, 3:57am

In these weird, worrying times, what is there to do, I suppose, but keep on reading?

So, this is me, keeping on reading for the second quarter of 2020, and hoping the world is saner when we reach the end of it than it is here at the beginning.

Unfortunately, even book-wise, it doesn't seem to be off to the very best start...

26. Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan



Meridia grows up in a house with ghosts in the mirrors, mysterious mists outside, and a staircase with strangely shifting dimensions. Also a cold, belittling father; a mother who often seems (possibly quite literally) to forget she exists; and vague, troubling memories of something very bad that happened when she was a baby. Eventually she grows up and gets away from that horrible place only to end up living with a mother-in-law who is a million times worse.

The fantasy elements here -- or maybe they're magic realism elements; I admit I've never been entirely clear on or cared all that much about the division between the two -- made this seem like it would be right up my alley. But while there were moments where those elements were interesting, mostly they just didn't do all that much for me. I get what the author is doing with them. There's a lot of taking the characters' personal issues and magically projecting them out into the world, so that marital infidelity might manifest as a descending mist, or the manipulative words of an abusive gaslighter take form as a swarm of bees. And that seems at least potentially interesting, but, I don't know, in the end it didn't necessarily feel like it added much to these characters' stories. And those stories themselves are just overwhelmingly awful, a constant cavalcade of oppressive, abusive nastiness. Which, again, could potentially be worth reading if I felt it was saying something really profound about abusive family dynamics or providing some moving emotional catharsis or something. I suppose I could see how some might find those things in it. But for me, mostly it was just... unpleasant.

Rating: 2.5/5

2bragan
huhtikuu 5, 2020, 8:53pm

27. Blandings by P. G. Wodehouse



A collection of several of Wodehouse's Blandings stories (including the novel-length Galahad at Blandings), featuring the dotty, pig-obsessed Lord Emsworth and his various relatives, all of whom are, of course, prone to get up to the usual Wodehousian hijinks.

Actually, this is a tie-in volume for a TV version I haven't seen, but never mind that one way or another. It also includes a couple of stories I'd read fairly recently, in A Wodehouse Bestiary, but never mind that, either. One of the great things about Wodehouse is that he's extremely re-readable. The plots, entertaining as they are while you're reading them, are so frothy and light that it's almost impossible to remember the details immediately afterward, while the writing itself always feels fresh and fun no matter how many times you encounter it.

I do still think the Jeeves & Wooster books are his best, at least of what I've read so far, but this one certainly provided me some much-needed smiles.

Rating: 4/5

3bragan
Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 8, 2020, 2:42pm

28. Jim Henson: The Works by Christopher Finch



A couple of months ago, I went to a local museum to see a traveling exhibit on Jim Henson and the Muppets. (You know, back in the distant Before Times, when museums were open and humans were permitted to congregate in groups.) I enjoyed it very much, which was no surprise to me at all. Like many people, I have adored the Muppets since I was a small child, and there is almost nothing that brings me as much pure, childlike glee as The Muppet Show. So of course when I saw this book in the museum gift shop, I picked it up. Although, to be honest, if I'd paid more attention to the price tag before I got to the register, I might not have. This is not a cheap book. But I can't regret buying it. It's a nice treat for Muppet fans: a big, colorful coffee table book full of great pictures, covering Henson's entire career and including lots of comments from (and lots of well-deserved appreciation for) the various talented people who worked beside him.

If you've read Jim Henson: The Biography, which I recommend, this makes a really nice companion piece to that.

Rating: 4/5

4bragan
huhtikuu 10, 2020, 12:43am

29. The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor



This is the third novel based on the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, and, like the previous ones, it's not strictly necessary to be familiar with the podcast's story in order to read it, although there are aspects of it you'll undoubtedly get more out of if you are.

This one focuses on what may well be Night Vale's most mysterious, weird, creepy, and darkly hilarious character: the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home. And it's really not at all what you might expect a story about this particular character to be like. There's a framing story with all the usual creepiness and dark hilarity, but the bulk of the novel is a sort of adventure tale, featuring heists, betrayals, piracy, moral compromise, and revenge. Which mostly doesn't feel very deep, and which has some flaws (like the rather artificial-feeling way the protagonist moves so slowly on her revenge plans as to make Hamlet look like a gun-jumper), but which was a quick, fairly fun read with some interesting twists and turns.

While I was reading, though, I was all prepared to complain that while all this was entertaining enough, it didn't seem to fit the character super-well, and that explaining too much about something fascinatingly mysterious can make it less interesting rather than more. (I think this is something the Night Vale novels, much as I've enjoyed them, have suffered from before. The first book certainly did exactly that with the Man in the Tan Jacket, and whatever I imagined the Smiling God to be, it was undoubtedly way more bizarre and mystical and scary than what It Devours! showed us.) I ended up being pleasantly (or maybe horrifyingly) surprised, though, by how well it all worked in the end this time. Having finished this novel, I certainly feel like I understand this character and her motivations much better, but I don't find her any less weird or terrifying. Not after reading the last fifty pages or so.

Rating: 4/5

5bragan
huhtikuu 11, 2020, 5:52pm

30. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite



Korende is a nurse in a hospital in Lagos, Nigeria, and she has a deepening romantic interest in one of the doctors she works with. She also has a sister who has a habit of killing her boyfriends, and sometimes calling Korende to help dispose of the bodies. And now her sister and the doctor have their eyes on each other...

This novel has gotten a lot of positive attention, so I'm very pleased to report that it lived up to my somewhat high expectations. It's a fast, engaging, breezily written, highly enjoyable read, and there's something that's just weirdly fun about it, despite the very dark subject matter (which includes not just murder, but also dysfunctional families and various kinds of domestic abuse).

Rating: 4.5/5

6avaland
huhtikuu 14, 2020, 5:08pm

Looks/Sounds like you have a nice start to the quarter with some clearly varied and good reads.

Loved the Muppets, too. I have been sad to see them bought to appear in car insurance commercials. I can hear Kermit singing "Rainbow Connection" now....

7bragan
huhtikuu 14, 2020, 5:22pm

>6 avaland: Yes. I feel like I've been in something of a mild book slump for well over a year now, and I may finally be coming fully out of it. Muppets and serial killers to the rescue!

I was a little sad about the Muppets doing commercials -- for Facebook? really? -- but the exhibit and the book both reminded me that commercials were actually a big part of their start, and that they'd have never gotten far without the money that brought in. (And I'm sure the recognition didn't hurt, either. They were very popular commercials.) It's not remotely the same thing these days, but at least you can't exactly accuse them of having finally sold out.

I get Kermit singing "The Rainbow Connection" randomly stuck in my head from time to time, and it's always very pleasant.

8bragan
huhtikuu 16, 2020, 9:47pm

31. How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler by Ryan North



The conceit behind this humorous guide to some of humanity's most important technologies and ideas is that it is an artifact of an alternate future, dug up from the fossil record, containing instructions for how to build your own advanced civilization if you get stuck in the past. Apparently it comes as standard equipment with your rental time machine.

It seems like a fun way to learn a lot about technology and history, and based on other things of his that I've read, I very much like Ryan North's sense of humor. So I was expecting this to be really interesting and really funny. And, well... It was mildly interesting and mildly funny, So, worth a look, but not quite as engaging as I was hoping for.

And how useful it actually might be if you were stranded in the past varies a lot. A few of the simpler ideas here I'm sure I could put into use, but for most of them, well, it might be a good overview of the basic ideas, but I'm quite sure that if I tried to put them into practice I'd quickly find the devil is in the details, and I'm really bad at details when it comes to doing anything practical. I can't quite figure out how to replace a storm door on my house. There is no way I'm inventing a steam engine from scratch with three pages of instructions.

Rating: 3.5/5

9bragan
huhtikuu 18, 2020, 2:28pm

32. Gutshot by Amelia Gray



A collection of short, strange, disturbing, surreal stories. Although calling some of these "stories" almost feels wrong. They're more like... I don't know. Tiny snippets of dreams? They definitely make for a weird reading experience. For many of them, I find myself coming away feeling as if they ought to mean something, but that there is no way of telling what. Like some kind of freaky zen koan.

It's all very interesting, and there's definitely artistry to it, but I'm not at all sure just how well any of it works for me.

Rating: It's odd, because this absolutely seems like it should be a love-it-or-hate-it collection, but I find myself not managing to reach either extreme, so I'm going to call it 3/5.

10bragan
huhtikuu 22, 2020, 6:10pm

33. The Ionian Mission by Patrick O'Brian



Book number eight in O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, featuring action on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars.

Although there is less action in this one than usual. Indeed, for much of the novel, there is incident after incident of utterly failing to engage with the enemy for one reason or another. You'd think this might be dull, but I found this one as pleasantly readable as any of them. And you'd think it would be frustrating, which is actually is, but it's frustrating the way I believe it's meant to be, as you vividly experience the characters' desire for battle and success along with them.

And, of course, there is O'Brian's usual low-key humor scattered throughout it all to make it much more fun, no matter what is or isn't going on, plot-wise.

Rating: 4/5

11bragan
Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 27, 2020, 7:57pm

34. Virus X: tracking the New Killer Plagues Out of the Present and Into the Future by Frank Ryan, M.D.



My reading during the coronavirus pandemic has tended more towards the escapist than the relevant, but this book from 1997, which had been languishing on my TBR shelves for years, kept sitting there giving me looks, like "Don't you think now is the right time to finally read me?" Well, far be it from me to deny a book when it starts doing that. I mean, that way lies madness, right?

And, honestly, somewhat to my surprise I did find that reading about the diseases people were concerned about in the 90s helped to take my mind off the one we're concerned about today. Well, at least until I got to the final chapters, about the threat of future pandemics and our global unpreparedness for them. That inevitably made the anxiety spike a little.

Several diseases are covered in a fair amount of depth, including hantavirus, Ebola, and AIDS. The section on AIDS, of course, is particularly dated, but it was actually kind of interesting to see a snapshot of where AIDS research was at the time. And I especially appreciated the detailed discussion of hantavirus, since I knew surprisingly little about that disease or its emergence, despite having lived in New Mexico at the time of the outbreak here in the early 90s.

Later in the book, the author goes into some of his own ideas about emerging viruses. One is the very reasonable-sounding hypothesis that new diseases, since they tend to arise out of contact between humans and animals already carrying a version of the virus, are spurred on by humans encroaching onto or destroying animal habitats and generally wreaking ecological disruption, including via climate change.

His other idea is that viruses which have co-evolved with their hosts (often to the point where they provoke few symptoms in that species) can be viewed as having a genuinely symbiotic relationship with those hosts, and that their ability to mutate to infect other, unprepared species in times of environmental disruption works to their hosts' advantage by attacking competitors or predators. I honestly can't decide whether that way of looking at it is deeply insightful or mildly nuts, but either way it's interesting.

Rating: 4/5

12bragan
huhtikuu 30, 2020, 12:11am

35. Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho



A fantasy novel set in an alternate, magical version of Regency England. The Sorcerer to the Crown is one Zacharias Wythe, although there's a lot of resistance to his holding that title, as he came to it under somewhat mysterious circumstances, and also because English society is not at all thrilled with having a black man holding the foremost magical office in the country, even if he was personally raised and mentored by the last person to fill the position.

When Zacharias makes an appearance to give a speech at a school for magical girls -- a school to teach them how not to use their magical gifts, that is, because of course women are supposed to be too delicate for such things -- he makes the acquaintance of the delightful, and memorably named, Prunella Gentleman, who turns out to have a mysterious magical background of her own. His path quickly becomes entwined with hers, as he tries to avoid assassins and to solve the problem of England's declining magic levels.

It's a fun read, with some entertaining magical shenanigans, a sense of humor that really snuck up on me, and a romance that actually worked for me, when so many romances in fiction don't.

Rating: 4/5

13bragan
toukokuu 2, 2020, 12:21am

36. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green



John Green's latest YA novel features Aza Holmes, a high school junior who suffers from sometimes-devastating clinical anxiety; her Stars Wars-obsessed BFF Daisy; and Davis, her childhood crush, whose billionaire father has recently mysteriously disappeared.

It's hard to know quite how I feel about this one. There's some fun, smart, entertaining dialog. And Aza is a good, rather charming character, whose mental health problems are handled in a very insightful, realistic, clueful way that takes them very seriously without ever getting too Very Special Episode about any of it. And I did find the ending a bit touching.

But, I don't know, while it was a perfectly fine read, overall, I felt my enthusiasm for it waning a bit by the time I was maybe halfway through. It seemed like there was a lot of talk, but rather less substance to it, and I think I did kind of expect at least a little bit more plot from a novel featuring a missing billionaire. There was not much of that, though. Mostly there was a lot of various characters waxing philosophical. And, well... The thing is, John Green can do some top-notch waxing philosophical. I've been listening to his podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed lately, and it's a freaking brilliant combination of humor, introspection, and philosophical musing. I give it the full five stars. But I think that sort of thing works better (or at least more consistently well) coming from Green himself than from his characters. Or maybe I'm just very vaguely disappointed because the novel feels like it's trying to do a lot of the same things the podcast does, and that just leads me to compare them unfairly.

Then again, maybe it's just that this really wasn't the right time to be reading a book focusing in great detail on someone who is terrifyingly obsessed with the idea of catching an infection. Because, I'll be honest, following Aza into that particular mental spiral didn't do any favors for my own emotional balance at this exact moment.

Rating: an ungenerous 3.5/5

14bragan
toukokuu 3, 2020, 9:49pm

37. Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language by Emma Byrne



This short (about 200 pages) look at naughty words covers a lot of ground: how swear words do or don't differ from other kinds of vocabulary in the way our brains handle them, the different functions of swearing in society, how men and women use bad language differently, even how apes who are taught to communicate with signs do something that looks a lot like spontaneous swearing.

Mostly it's not terribly in-depth, and some of it covered ground I was familiar with already, but it was fairly interesting on the whole. Byrne's writing is casual, earthy, interestingly opinionated, and laced with humor. Although some of her sense of humor works better for me than others. Early on, there's a bit too much of the feel of "Hey, I'm writing a book about swearing! Look, I'm going to say 'fuck' every couple of paragraphs, isn't that entertaining?" Which can get old pretty fast, even from someone who claims to be pretty foul-mouthed normally.

Still, it was mostly a fun read, but I did have one major problem with it, and it was a bit of a frustrating one at times. The author is British, but the copy of the book I have is an American edition. It seems pretty clear that it was edited a bit for the American audience -- with a few British terms and customs explained, and references to "soccer" instead of "football" for instance -- but Byrne is still very clearly writing throughout from a British perspective for a British audience. And as she herself points out, swearing is something that varies hugely from place to place and culture to culture, and a lot of the examples she uses and analogies she draws are very, very specific to the UK and hard to relate to for American readers. Or even hard to understand. I mean, if it weren't for Monty Python having given me at least a vague idea of what a blancmange is, there's a whole extended food analogy she uses in here that I doubt I'd have been able to make heads or tails of. Now, it isn't that British swearing isn't interesting, even to us famously parochial Americans. And I certainly do not remotely fault a British writer for writing a British book for British audiences. But I am looking a bit askance at her editors. Honestly, the less-than-half-assed attempt to translate this into something accessible for Americans just made the whole thing more confusing, as my brain kept trying to leap back and forth across the Pond while I was reading, unable to ever settle into either processing things from my own American POV or making an imaginative leap into pretending to be British for the duration.

Rating: 3.5/5

15bragan
toukokuu 6, 2020, 7:42am

38. A Grimm Warning by Chris Colfer



Book three in the Land of Stories kids' series, about an alternate dimension full of fairy tale characters and the twin brother and sister who discover they have an important connection to it. In this one, they have to deal with a two-hundred-year-old army that is coming with the intention of conquering the Land of Stories for Napoleon, among other things.

I thought the first two books were fun, if a little slow to get going, but I'm afraid I didn't find this one nearly as engaging. Honestly, I thought the plot was a bit dull -- much more so than it seemed like it should have been, given the premise -- and a lot of the story details just didn't quite work for me. It did read pretty fast, but somehow it felt like it was dragging a bit, anyway.

Oh, well. At least I still find this series' version of Little Red Riding Hood weirdly entertaining. And it this installment does set up some potentially interesting mysteries for the second half of the series.

Rating: 3/5

16bragan
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 9, 2020, 7:09pm

39. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich



This is one of those works that sits just on the dividing line between "novel" and "collection of linked short stories." It gives us a series of glimpses into the complicated lives of members of several related families on a Chippewa Indian reservation, their stories intricately intertwined and told in multiple perspectives that skip back and forth through time. Which can be a little hard to keep track of, especially towards the beginning when you're still learning who all the characters are, but it turns out to be very much worth the effort.

This was Erdrich's first novel, and I do think maybe it shows, just a little bit. The only other novels of hers I've read are The Plague of Doves and Shadow Tag, but I remember finding both of those to be effortlessly beautiful reads that pulled me along compulsively. Whereas this one, in places, perhaps feels like it's working a little harder at to achieve its effect. But when the writing is at its best, wow is it good.

Rating: 4/5

17bragan
toukokuu 9, 2020, 7:08pm

40. The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass by Edward O. Wilson & Robert Hass



This is the text of a conversation held between Edward O. Wilson (biologist, science writer, and long-time advocate of a meeting of minds between the sciences and humanities) and Robert Hass (former Poet Laureate of America), held in front of an audience at the American Museum of Natural History.

It's a brief conversation, so they're really only touching on most of the topics they cover, but they are interesting topics, including the evolution of human nature, environmental conservation, and how we think of ourselves in relation to the natural world. Hass, perhaps unsurprisingly, is particularly good at coming up with insightful and eloquent ways to put things. I've never actually read any of his poetry, but now I'm thinking maybe I should, despite not being much of a poetry reader in general.

Rating: 4/5

18auntmarge64
toukokuu 10, 2020, 5:33pm

>5 bragan: I've been wondering about My Sister, the Serial Killer. It does sound good, and I realize it's already on my TBR list at the library, so now I'll really look forward to reading it.

19bragan
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 10, 2020, 10:21pm

>18 auntmarge64: Everybody kept telling me how good it was, but I was still pleasantly surprised by how good it was. So often that kind of buzz ends up not actually doing a book any favors. :)

20lisapeet
toukokuu 11, 2020, 7:00am

>17 bragan: I've had that sitting on the shelf for years—I remember getting a wave of galleys oriented around the natural world, and that one slipped through the cracks. It's a pretty little book, too, and Wilson is always interesting (though I know he rubs some in the scientific community the wrong way). Thanks for the reminder!

21bragan
toukokuu 11, 2020, 11:40am

>20 lisapeet: I got it as an extra freebie with an ER book. Which is the second time that publisher has done that for me. The first time, they send me Tinkers, which I would probably have never read otherwise, and which really impressed me, so I very much appreciate them doing it.

Anyway, glad to have reminded you! Whether one agrees fully with Wilson about everything or not, it is an interesting little read, and certainly worth the small amount of time it takes to finish it.

22dchaikin
toukokuu 11, 2020, 1:44pm

Just catching up here for the first time since February. Lots of books. Glad you liked My Sister, the Serial Killer, as I should get to that soonish. Also intrigued by your comments on Love Medicine. I haven’t read Erdrich and keep telling myself I should. It’s nice to get a sense of her first book.

23bragan
toukokuu 11, 2020, 2:48pm

>22 dchaikin: Erdrich really is an amazing writer. I wholeheartedly recommend her.

24lisapeet
toukokuu 11, 2020, 6:04pm

>21 bragan: That may have been how I got it too, come to think of it, or along with something else I requested from the publisher. Bellevue was always throwing in extra books, some of which I've really enjoyed.

25bragan
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 12, 2020, 1:39pm

41. The Walking Dead: Compendium One by Robert Kirkman,, et al.



This is a massive collection of the first 48 issues of The Walking Dead comics. I bought it years ago, when I was more into the TV show than I am these days. (The show still has its moments, but at this point I sort of feel like I'm watching it more out of habit than anything else.)

Having finally gotten around to reading it, I have to say that I think I would have enjoyed it more -- if "enjoy" is quite the right word for something this relentlessly brutal -- if I hadn't seen the TV series first. A lot of the details are different, particularly when it comes to who lives and who dies, but the general outline of the plot is basically the same, so there's not really much suspense about what's going to happen. And I imagine a lot of what probably made it interesting to readers when it first came out was the shock value of how dark it is, and the way it might make you wonder, geez, just how bad is this going to get? Which, again, is not quite so impactful once you've already seen this stuff play out once, although it is worth pointing out that the comic is probably actually a notch or two darker and gorier than the show, which is saying something.

And, honestly, I think the show in general does a better job with its character development. Not everyone in the series is equally fleshed-out, for sure, but I think I find most of them a bit more believable, their motivations more grounded, their characters a bit more nuanced than they are here. Even though "nuanced" is not actually a word I would have expected to use when talking about this particular show. But, for instance, the villainous Governor here is really one-dimensionally evil, to the point of being a little bit over the top, and not in a good way. Whereas the TV version feels a lot more human. They're both scary, but the TV character is scary in a way that I think is a lot more interesting.

Rating: 3.5/5

26bragan
toukokuu 16, 2020, 10:25pm

42. The Book of Dragon by Steven Brust



This volume contains books eight and nine (by publication order) of Steven Brust's series about Vlad Taltos, an assassin and crime boss (or, depending on where you are in the timeline, ex-assassin and ex-crime boss) and the strange and interesting fantasy world he lives in. The novels included are:

Dragon: This one is set early in Vlad's history, and sees Vlad briefly joining the army, for reasons that seemed... well, maybe not even all that good at the time, actually. It's enjoyable enough, because Vlad is always a fun character to hang around with, but the story is really, really slight. And I didn't love the way the narrative jumps around in time constantly, telling its story entirely out of order. Brust handles these time shifts deftly enough that they're seldom confusing, which is no small feat when they're happening in the middle of paragraphs, but I can't help thinking, not for the first time, that when Brust tries to get clever with structure, he might be doing it mainly to distract from the deficiencies of the plot.

I did like the way the battle scenes are handled here, though. They work for me in a way such things often don't, largely because they're told from the POV of neophyte soldier Vlad, and he doesn't assume I can follow the action any better than he can.

Issola: For this one, we're back in what we might think of as the present tense of the series. And this one has a very different feel to it, with important, high-stakes stuff going on, involving gods and other mythic entities. There's also a lot exploration of the world's history and mythology, which I found extremely interesting.

I was a little worried at the end, when we were looking at what was shaping up to be an epic confrontation with very few pages left for things to happen in, that it would ultimately fizzle out into something of an anticlimax. But what we got instead was a fascinating, game-changing turn of events that I did not at all expect, right up until the moment where I suddenly did. Now I'm really looking forward to seeing where things go from here on out.

Rating: 4/5

27bragan
toukokuu 19, 2020, 6:31pm

43. Futurama and Philosophy: Bite My Shiny Metal Axiom edited by Courtland Lewis and Shaun P. Young



I love the concept of these "pop culture and philosophy" books. They seem to promise such a nifty combination of things. An analysis of various themes in stories I love from a philosophical point of view, combined with the use of something entertaining and accessible that I already enjoy to explain complicated philosophical concepts? As Bender would say, sounds like fun on a bun! But the actual result, at least in this case, is... well, it's okay, I guess. The best of the essays (like the one on Popplers and the ethics of meat-eating, or the one on time travel paradoxes) give a decent, if very broad and very brief, overview of their subject matter in a way that feels genuinely relevant to the show, without sucking all the humor out of it. Some of the weakest, on the other hand, seem to mostly just be explaining social commentary jokes I got perfectly well the first time. (And then there's that essay on Hegel. I don't know what that one's doing. It does not appear to be using words in any of the ways in which words are actual used by human beings.) Most of them are somewhere in-between, though. Vaguely interesting, perhaps, but shallow at best. And very few of them introduced me to any ideas that were genuinely new to me. Likely the collection as a whole is a bit more worthwhile if it's your first-ever introduction to philosophical thinking, and you really want that spoonful of pop cultural sugar to swallow it down with.

Rating: 3/5

28bragan
toukokuu 23, 2020, 6:11pm

44. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.



It took me a while to decide how I felt about this novel, because it took me a while to get to grips with its protagonist. Eleanor Oliphant is a strange, repressed, emotionally isolated, deeply awkward woman whose incomplete grasp of social norms is matched only by her willingness to judge other people by her own bizarre standards. And for most of the early part of the novel, I felt deeply conflicted about her. She can be highly amusing, but as it becomes clear (gradually, but starting very early on) that there are reasons why she is the way she is and those reasons are utterly horrific, I wasn't sure I could feel comfortable about laughing. There were times I felt a great deal of empathy for her, and others when she just seemed frustrating, annoying, maybe even a little creepy. And I often found myself wondering: is she really just a caricature of a weird loner type? As a bit of a weird loner type, myself, should I be offended?

But Eleanor, it turns out, is not any kind of caricature. She is wholly and utterly herself and as her story went on, I found myself charmed by her, in her own strange way, found myself caring deeply about her, becoming deeply invested in her growing connection with her new friend Raymond, and rooting for her to find all the things she needed in her life but didn't even realize she could have.

In the end, well, I feel as if I could probably find aspects of the novel to criticize, but I don't remotely want to. It left me with exactly the right, warm, satisfied feeling as I turned the last page, and I'm really just glad to have made Eleanor's acquaintance and taken the time to get to know her.

Rating: 4.5/5

29rhian_of_oz
toukokuu 24, 2020, 7:54am

>28 bragan: Nothing really to add other than I loved Eleanor.

30bragan
toukokuu 24, 2020, 8:48am

>29 rhian_of_oz: Once I got used to her, I became terribly fond of her.

31bragan
Muokkaaja: toukokuu 28, 2020, 11:00am

45. Love Among the Chickens by P. G. Wodehouse



A writer is persuaded by an old friend of his to join him on his newly purchased chicken farm, which the friend is convinced will make him instantly rich despite the fact that he knows nothing about chickens and has no desire to learn. Needless to say, it doesn't go that smoothly. Meanwhile, the writer takes a fancy to the neighbor's daughter and hatches up an incredibly foolish scheme to win her father over.

What is there do say about this short novel, really? It's P. G. Wodehouse, which means that it's frothy, feather-light (no pun intended), silly, witty, ridiculous, and guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Rating: 4/5

32bragan
toukokuu 30, 2020, 10:43pm

46. Sky Walking: An Astronaut's Memoir by Tom Jones



Tom Jones, an astronaut with a background in planetary science, joined NASA in the first wave of recruitment after the Challenger accident and flew four shuttle flights between 1994 and 2001. He covers those flights, and his other astronaut activities, in considerable detail here. His writing isn't flowery or thrilling, but, despite the usual NASA fondness for acronyms, it is very readable, and includes moment-by-moment accounts of takeoffs and landings, which I always find deeply interesting. One thing I am very much struck by in this account is the way that small mishaps -- which occur in space, as they do everywhere else -- can loom very large. Sometimes if you miss throwing the right switch at the right time, the consequences are minor and you figure it out and go on with things. But sometimes a small mistake in putting your space suit on causes you hours of misery. Sometimes you don't get to make a spacewalk you've been training to do for the last year of your life because a door gets stuck and you can't get out of the spacecraft. And sometimes, as the fates of Challenger and Columbia remind us, the results can be tragic and deadly.

I don't know, maybe it makes me feel a bit better about the problems that crop up with my own job.

Rating: 4/5

33bragan
kesäkuu 1, 2020, 1:36pm

47. All Systems Red by Martha Wells



This is the first book in Martha Wells' Murderbot series. "Murderbot" is a Security Unit, a sort of artificially constructed cyborg created and owned by a giant corporation that rents them out, along with other equipment, to planetary exploration teams. It -- and I feel uncomfortable calling a sentient being "it," but that's the pronoun it uses for itself -- has found a way to disable the governor that forces it to obey human commands, but mostly just uses its newfound freedom to half-ass its assigned jobs while spending as much time as possible watching television (or the futuristic equivalent, which still basically seems to be television even if you can get it on a direct feed into your brain).

From everything I'd heard about this series, I was pretty sure this was one I was going to really enjoy, and, happily, it very much lived up to expectations. I became instantly fond of Murderbot, and found it sometimes almost disturbingly easy to relate to. (Oh, buddy, I, too, like feeling emotions about reality much less than I like feeling them about fictional stories.) The writing was a lot of fun and I found the plot, which starts with one of Murderbot's clients nearly being eaten by a scary animal they really should have been warned about and gets more dangerous from there, very engaging.

The ending definitely made me feel some of those emotions I like feeling about fictional stories, too. I am absolutely going to be on board for the rest of this series. In fact, I've already ordered the rest of the books.

Rating: 4.5/5

34stretch
kesäkuu 1, 2020, 1:57pm

>33 bragan: I've heard so many good things about Murderbot lately, this is definitely moving to the top now. I'm most curious how a whole series is written and it's just now getting on the radar.

35bragan
kesäkuu 1, 2020, 2:11pm

>34 stretch: I'd been hearing about it for a while, although it seems to have had a sudden surge in popularity recently. The first few books in the series are very short, I think qualifying as long novellas, and the just-published one is the first truly full-length novel, so I guess that sparked some extra interest. (I will say that the short length worked really, really well for this one. It could easily have been a lot longer, but it would almost certainly have suffered for it.) I also think that when the recent novel was released, there was a deal from the publisher where for a limited time you could download the earlier ones as ebooks for free, which no doubt generated a lot of publicity.

36bragan
kesäkuu 4, 2020, 12:08am

48. Brief Cases by Jim Bucher



A collection of eleven short stories set in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, including several from the POV of various secondary characters, and, oddly, three pieces featuring the teenage son of Bigfoot.

Some of these I quite enjoyed, and the best of them reminded me of my I like this series so much, which I think I was beginning to forget after quite some time with no new installments. A lot of them, though, were just... okay. Perfectly readable, but completely lacking in any real spark. The more I think about it, the more I think Butcher's talents really probably really do just work best at novel length. Indeed, the longer stories in here are mostly the better ones.

Anyway, it's probably worth reading if you're a fan of Harry Dresden and his weird supernatural world, but mostly it's just made me look forward to the next novel-length volume.

Rating: 3.5/5

37bragan
Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 11, 2020, 4:12am

49. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction by Brian Boyd



As the title suggests, this work focuses on what we can say about human nature from an evolutionary perspective and what that tells us about our impulses towards storytelling and our love of fiction. The main point is that humans have evolved as intelligent, highly social creatures with strong drives to be interested in the minds and actions of others, and that fiction in its various forms serves as a form of "cognitive play" that allows us to indulge and exercise those interests, practicing our social understanding and problem-solving abilities in much the same way that a cat plays by practicing its pouncing. Boyd maintains that understanding fiction in this way can lead us to take new perspectives on human storytelling, including making central the question of how authors work to capture their fellow humans' attention by sparking off those innate interests.

All of which sounds like extremely rich territory to explore, but I have to say that I didn't really find this nearly as fascinating or full of new insights as I'd expected. Which I think may be due in large part to not being the expected audience for this book, coming as I do from a science, rather than a litcrit background. Boyd's main theses sound very nearly self-evident to me, but he spends a lot of time defending them from expected (and, I'd guess, correctly expected) criticism and hostility from those invested in current notions of postmodernist literary "Theory." Really, much of what he has to say about the way in which such folks think about fiction is so ridiculous in my view that if I hadn't myself dipped a toe or two into the subject in the past, I'd assume he was just setting up straw men, but sadly I think I do know just enough about it to know that that's probably very much not the case.

Boyd also provides a couple of examples of what he thinks it looks like to view literary works through this kind of evolutionary perspective, using two familiar but almost amusingly different works of fiction: The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who. To be honest, I found his discussion of The Odyssey rather tedious. He seems to be belaboring much the same points about it over and over, none of them very vividly or in a way that seems incredibly valuable, so I'm not sure it's doing any favors for his idea that this is a useful way to approach things here. The chapters on Horton Hears a Who, on the other hand, were surprisingly interesting, made some better points, and even taught me a few new things about Dr. Seuss.

Rating: 3.5/5

38bragan
kesäkuu 12, 2020, 8:48pm

50. This Census-Taker by China Miéville



This novella centers on a boy who lives halfway up a large hill, or maybe a small mountain, with his father, who might or might not be a murderer, in a decaying world that seems like it might be, but might not be, post-apocalyptic. And, yes, there is a census of some kind, and a census-taker, or census-takers, of some kind, but all of that also might or might not be quite what it appears to be.

Really, the whole thing is just odd. Which, of course, is pretty much what you expect from Miéville. And there's a lot of the kind of oddness I usually love in Miéville's stuff: inventive weirdness, touches of wonderfully effective creepiness, strange but vividly rendered places, and the sense that we're getting small glimpses into a much larger world. But in the other Miéville books I've read, all of that generally does seem to exist in the context of a coherent story of some kind. Or at least a semi-coherent one, one that makes sense by its own odd logic, if not necessarily by ours. Which this one, though, I'm left feeling completely uncertain what any of it meant or what I'm supposed to get out of it. And, I don't know, maybe that's actually the point. Or maybe I'm just missing something important and obvious, and I really shouldn't have read this while on night shifts, when my brain function is, to put it charitably, variable. But either way, while I did find it very intriguing, I can't say I exactly found it satisfying.

Rating: 3.5/5

39bragan
kesäkuu 13, 2020, 3:01am

51. I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf by Grant Snider



A collection of cartoons and humorous little illustrated verses about books, reading, and writing, with a few nerdy jokes about language thrown in. Like many book people, I'm a sucker for this sort of thing, and this one did not disappoint. It's cute, fun, and sometimes very, very relatable. (Well, really, don't we all judge people by their bookshelves?)

Ratig: 4/5

40bragan
Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 28, 2020, 4:03am

52. Secrets of the Lighthouse by Santa Montefiore



Ellen is unhappy living with her hoity-toity mother in London, and does not actually want the man she's agreed to marry, so she runs off to live with her mother's estranged family in Ireland, where she learns some family secrets and falls in love with a man who's rumored to have murdered his wife. Meanwhile, said wife's ghost is hanging around, feeling jealous.

I feel kind of bad about the fact that I did not like this book. I got it through LibraryThing's SantaThing book exchange last year, and for this one my Secret Book Santa seems to have done exactly what I asked: sent me a book they really liked, rather than one they'd guess would closely match my own tastes. I've had a lot of success asking people for that in the past. It's a really nice way to expand one's reading horizons! But, of course, there is always the possibility that what you end up with is just not going to be your sort of thing. And, in this case... Well, I appreciate the thought and salute the attempt, but... Yeah. It's really, really not my sort of thing, and I tried, but I could not manage to like it.

The ghost story aspects were at least kind of interesting, as some of the story is narrated from the ghost's POV. I'm afraid I didn't much care for the writing, though. It's readable enough, I suppose, but not exactly what I'd call deft. And the love story was just terribly shallow and impossible for me to believe in. It genuinely seems to be based on nothing but the fact that they both have pretty faces, but it's somehow presented as a romance for the ages because... Well, because it just is. I mean, that's pretty much exactly the way it's explained. As for the family secrets, they're so incredibly obvious right from the beginning that it's genuinely puzzling to me how all the characters are apparently so shocked when they come out.

And I couldn't really dredge up much liking or respect for the main character, I'm afraid. From her cowardice in not dealing with her problems to her little acts of dishonesty, to the shallowness of her love affair, to her obliviousness to the blindingly obvious, to the fact that every time it's mentioned that she's actually thirty-three I felt startled all over again because she acts entirely like a sheltered twenty-year-old, very little about her appealed to me. And not really in an interesting way that sets her up for satisfying character growth by the end, either.

Rating: an apologetic but firm 2/5

41bragan
Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 24, 2020, 12:39am

53. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander



The United States locks up a proportion of its population that is almost unheard of among other countries, and an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of those incarcerated are African-American men. We know this. But it is, I think, entirely too easy not to understand what it truly means.

Michelle Alexander takes a good, long, hard look at this reality, at how it's come to exist, how it perpetuates itself, what its consequences are, and what would have to happen in order to change things. The roots of the situation, unsurprisingly, lie buried deep in the racist history of America, but the truly difficult and insidious thing, as Alexander shows us, is that the system as it currently exists does not even require anyone involved to be consciously and deliberately racist in order to keep producing these horrifically racially unbalanced results. The real heart of the problem lies in the War on Drugs, whose policies result in levels of gross injustice that I truly believe would be unconscionable even if they didn't work to create what Alexander calls a "racial undercaste." But they do, thanks to the disproportionate rates at which African-Americans are targeted by police looking to make drug arrests and the increased likelihood that they will go to jail for the offense. And it isn't just the fact that so many more black men are locked away that's the real problem. It's the fact that once someone has a criminal record, often even just for a minor possession charge, it becomes perfectly legal to discriminate against them in some pretty major ways. Ex-convicts may find it impossible to get jobs or housing, they can and are denied access to programs like food stamps, and with a felony conviction they may lose the right to vote. Essentially, they become second-class citizens, which is where the comparison to Jim Crow laws comes in, although Alexander is very careful to acknowledge the differences as well as the similarities between the two.

Alexander's points and arguments here are carefully thought-out, well-stated, and relentlessly rational. She is, I think, especially good at addressing, in a clear and non-judgmental fashion, that naive little voice that kept popping up somewhere in the back of my head whispering, "Well, yes, but, still, if they would just not do the crime, it wouldn't be a problem, right?" And I appreciated that, the way she gave me exactly the points I needed to hear, when I needed to hear them.

I feel a little bad that it took me this long to get around to reading this, after having it on my shelf for many years. And the fact that it was written during the Obama administration does make some aspects of it feel a little strange and dated right now. But I think I'm actually glad that I finally picked it up at this particular moment, when it begins to feel like perhaps there might be the possibility of a spark of hope that things might change in the realm of law enforcement. Because otherwise it would be impossible to feel anything but thoroughly depressed and infuriated after reading it.

Rating: 4.5/5

42janemarieprice
kesäkuu 24, 2020, 9:44am

>41 bragan: I read a similar book a few years back Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire. It is truly astounding how far off the US is from virtually every other country.

43bragan
kesäkuu 24, 2020, 10:50am

>42 janemarieprice: Utterly astounding. Even when you think you understand how crazy it is, reading about it still kind of hits you in the face all over again.

44dchaikin
kesäkuu 24, 2020, 1:47pm

>41 bragan: this was a major eye-opening book for me. Great review, which captures the main points.

>37 bragan: "The main point is that humans have evolved as intelligent, highly social creatures with strong drives to be interested in the minds and actions of others, and that fiction in its various forms serves as a form of "cognitive play" that allows us to indulge and exercise those interests, practicing our social understanding and problem-solving abilities in much the same way that a cat plays by practicing its pouncing. ”

That one sentence gives me a lot to think about. Sounds like the rest of Boyd’s book doesn’t quite match up, but it’s a terrific starting point

Of course, enjoyed catching up.

45bragan
kesäkuu 24, 2020, 9:56pm

>41 bragan: Very eye-opening. Even the things I already knew suddenly came into a very different focus for me.

As for Boyd, I'd say if that sentence is a new thought to you at all, you may be more its intended audience than I was, and might possibly get a little more out of it.

46bragan
kesäkuu 28, 2020, 3:59am

54. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides



Alicia Berenson killed her husband and attempted to kill herself, and she hasn't spoken a single word since. Our narrator, a psychotherapist, transfers to the mental hospital she's resident in specifically to work with her, but he's clearly pretty messed up in his own right.

This seems to be this year's big, hot thriller novel, and, I have to say, for most of it I just kept wondering why. The question of exactly what happened the night Alicia's husband died is mildly interesting, maybe, but far from compelling. The ending must be the thing that people appreciate about it, but... Eh. It's sort of clever, I guess, but in a way that feels a bit artificial and not entirely convincing.

I found it all readable enough, but in the end it's just... sort of relentlessly okay. Which isn't exactly what I was hoping for.

Rating: 3/5

47avaland
kesäkuu 28, 2020, 7:14am

Wow, I can't believe how much I had to catch up on here! Your reading is always interesting.

>37 bragan: Excellent review. I was ready to chase down that book from your description but then continuing with your comments I thought not (too many books in the TBR pile)

>38 bragan: You remind me that there must be a few Mieville books I haven't read. I did read This Census-Taker though (but horrors! I went to check my review of it and it's not in my virtual library!)

48bragan
kesäkuu 28, 2020, 7:35am

>47 avaland: I don't recommend against reading On the Origin of Stories, but it definitely wasn't quite what I was hoping it would be.

I've still got a couple more Mieville books on my TBR shelves, too, that I've been meaning to get to for ages.

49bragan
heinäkuu 2, 2020, 10:20pm

Continuing this thread with my reading for the third quarter of the year here.