Bragan reads more books in 2018, part 4
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So, moving right along to the more books that I'm reading:
93. The Best American Essays 2011 edited by Edwinge Danticat
I've really enjoyed some of the many yearly "Best American" collections, especially the "Best American Science and Nature Writing", so when I came across this 2011 collection of essays at a library sale a while back, I figured I'd give it a go, too. I have to say, my feelings about this collection are a little more mixed than they usually are about the science and nature ones. The best of the essays here are excellent. (Bridget Potter's "Lucky Girl," about her experience attempting to obtain an abortion in 1962, particularly sticks in my mind.) The rest mostly range from okay to very good, with only one that I'd unhesitatingly call bad. (That would be Bernadette Esposito's "A-LOC," which was just incoherent, and filled with ridiculous New Age claptrap to boot.) And it features a gratifyingly diverse collection of many different kinds of voices.
But even many of the very well-written essays, taken one after another, started to feel a little unsatisfying to me. There is, perhaps, a limit to my appetite for random snippets of navel-gazing from strangers, and there is quite a bit of that here. Enough of it, in fact, that one of the pieces included -- Christy Vannoy's "A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay" -- itself acknowledges and satirizes both the self-indulgence of the whole exercise and the tendency of essayists to focus squarely on their personal suffering. Which, hoo boy, do the essays here do. It really is a cavalcade of depressing events: cancer, abuse, hospitalization, dementia, violence, and death. So it's sometimes an affecting or a thought-provoking read, but never a happy one. Mind you, the essays that I think work the very best are the ones that look outward as they look inward, ones that position the writers' negative experiences in some kind of larger context, even if only implicitly. And the essays that do that most effectively probably make the entire collection worthwhile.
Rating: It's hard to know how to rate this, but I'm going to be generous and give it 4/5.
This is the third book in a loosely connected series that also includes The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit. I really, really enjoyed those two books. I enjoyed this one, too, but I'm afraid not quite as much.
I remember commenting, after reading the first one, that I found it so much fun, found the worldbuilding so interesting and the characters so charming that I was at least a hundred pages in before I realized that very little had actually happened, and that much of what I was reading could reasonably described as exposition. Even after realizing it, though, I just didn't care.
Well, with this one, I did notice that very little was happening, and I did care. It felt a little slower, a little less satisfying, I'm afraid. There was still a lot to like about it, though. The universe Becky Chambers has created is still entertaining and interesting. The characters are likeable and very real-feeling, even if their personal stories are not quite as compelling as those of the main characters from A Closed and Common Orbit. And there's some nice, thoughtful thematic stuff about human restlessness, the disruption that happens when two cultures encounter each other, and the importance of finding your own place in the world while still carrying the heritage and history of your community with you. I did find the ending somewhat emotionally affecting, too.
So, bottom line, it was still an enjoyable read, but I'm afraid the first two got my expectations up just a little too high. In any case, if she writes more in this series, I will absolutely be there.
Robert Bloch is a pretty big name in horror fiction. He wrote Psycho, the novel on which the Hitchcock film was based, not to mention that episode of classic Star Trek where the Enterprise crew meet Jack the Ripper. (What can I say? I'm a big Star Trek fan.) So I was expecting something at least moderately impressive from this, the first novel of his that I've read. Unfortunately, that isn't what I got.
Arguably, this isn't even so much a horror novel as it is a thriller with some supernatural/horror elements. But it's just not all that thrilling of a thriller. It's not awful or anything, I guess, but it's also just not that engaging. Bloch makes some attempt to make the characters three-dimensional, but it doesn't really work all that well. And while the plot does start out with some mildly interesting mysteries, most of them end up getting explained in a giant infodump, and the answers turn out to be neither particularly surprising nor particularly interesting. (Although, in fairness, I suppose they might have seemed slightly more so in 1989, when this book was published.) There is one final little twist at the end that could have been pretty cool, if it weren't done in an incredibly rushed and unsatisfying way. But, of course, it was.
So, generally, this was just kind of a disappointment.
This is a collection of essays (mostly more-or-less academic essays) on the subject of cult TV shows. Which is kind of a slippery subject to pin down, really. Quite a few of the authors wrestle a bit with the definition of the term "cult TV," but the general consensus is that a cult TV show is defined not by any inherent property of the show itself, but by the unusually attentive and dedicated audience it attracts. Which sounds about right to me.
The book covers a variety of subjects in addition to the question of what cult TV even is. There are essays about how fans interact with the shows, about production aspects of such shows, and so on. One of the most interesting is a piece by Jane Espenson, a writer who knows a great deal about creating cult-worthy television stories, outlining what she sees as the rules for keeping viewers engaged. There are also short commentaries on various shows from various time periods, with approximately equal representation for US and UK shows.
In general, the essays are kind of a mixed bag. I don't think any one of them really goes into entirely satisfying depth on the subject. Some of them are pretty dry, or slightly more obscure in their language than they really need to be, and there were one or two of them I wanted to argue with, or spotted factual errors in. (To the person who couldn't spell Captain Sisko's name properly: shame on you! Shame!) It's also somewhat dated, as it was published in 2010, and the landscape of television and how people watch it has changed significantly in the last few years. It's rather telling that the word "Netflix" appears nowhere in the entire book.
But, despite all that, I was quite fascinated by this volume, mostly because a lot of the authors in it are addressing something that I myself have really been trying to get to grips with in recent years: the "mainstreaming of the cult." I grew up as what the authors of this book would call a "cult TV fan" in an era when that was something misunderstood and often seen as mock-worthy -- see William Shatner's infamous SNL "Get a Life!" sketch -- and when shows that stood out in any way or demanded too much of their audiences struggled to stay on the air if they ever made it there at all, while facing great pressure to appeal to a more mass audience. And now, shows -- often the most successful shows -- are designed to work only for people who pay very close attention episode to episode. Rabid fan audiences are carefully cultivated and encouraged (and seen as a useful cash stream). Terminology -- "shipping," "cosplay", "fanfic" -- that was once obscure subcultural lingo gets tossed around casually on my actual TV, and activities that were once marginalized subculutral practices -- like cosplay and fanfic -- are now much more widely recognized and accepted. I'll be honest, I'm having a hard time adjusting to it. It constantly boggles me. So it was extremely relevant and interesting to me to read others' attempts to explore or explain some of these changes in terms of how the business of making television has evolved since the days when I was laughed at for wearing a Star Trek t-shirt.
Rating: Objectively, I think this mixed bag of essays is worth about a 3.5/4, so that's what I'm giving it. But, being extremely relevant to my interests, it felt rather better than that to me.
Sadly, there was no discussion about Seinfeld...
This is a cute kids' book about two sisters who are content in their boring existence (even if they do wonder what happened to their parents), until they are kidnapped by a crew of female pirates. It's fun and amusing, with some charming illustrations, and while it's clearly aimed at kids, there are a few jokes in here for us older folks, too. (For instance, there's a pirate named Captain Ann Tennille. I do not expect there are many children who will get that reference, but I laughed out loud.)
The one thing I'm not thrilled about is the part of the adventure involving the fat pirate cook. Come on, can't we have a story about women that doesn't involve harping on their weight? Or giving kids the impression that all one needs to stop being fat is a better attitude? Because there is a bit of that here, and I look askance at it.
That aside, though, it's enjoyable, playful, and pleasant.
Rating: I'm almost tempted to dock it half a point for the fat pirate thing. But I'll give it a 4/5, anyway.
The third collected volume of the dark fantasy/horror comic Monstress. I don't know how much there is to say about this one that I didn't already say about the first two. The artwork is still incredibly gorgeous, although it's still not always the easiest thing in the world to follow all the action. The world-building is still rich and complex. The story continues to get more interesting. And I continue to slightly regret not waiting until the whole thing is over to start reading it, as it's depressingly easy to lose track of everything that's going on between installments.
I will say that the more I read of this, the more impressed I am by the unexpected things it does. Like the way it completely reverses the traditional ratio of male to female characters for this kind of thing and feels no need to justify or even draw attention to this fact. Or the way the man-eating Lovecraftian monstrosity turns out to be a surprisingly complicated and interesting character.
Anyway. I'm still definitely enjoying this (even if I do sometimes feel as if I'm missing things in it), and I'm now really looking forward to volume 4.
After Nelson Mandela's release from prison, South Africa appeared to be poised on the brink of a bloodbath between blacks fighting for freedom and power in their own country, and whites who felt frightened, threatened, and unwilling to concede any power of their own. Then Mandela sat down with General Constand Viljoen, the leader of these right-wing whites, and actually got him to agree that all-out war was in nobody's best interest and to find a peaceful way forward.
This graphic novel -- graphic work of non-fiction? -- tells the story of this time and these events. It's based largely on a conversation between Viljoen and author John Carlin, a journalist working in South Africa at the time, and so it's essentially presenting this story from Viljoen's point of view. Which is... uncomfortable. Definitely uncomfortable. But interesting.
Interesting, but not entirely satisfying. It's clearly really just scratching the surface of a complex and turbulent history and it mostly left me feeling like I really want to go and read something meatier on the subject. Which, of course, is not at all a bad effect to have.
(Note: This was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book.)
Tandy Caide, CPA, is a rather strange woman who lives in a small midwestern town where meth labs blow up on a regular basis. During the year the high school puts on Annie as a musical, she gets romantically involved with the new vocational agriculture teacher, and separates from her husband, and has several other interesting experiences.
I have to say, I never really quite clicked with this book. It's not that it's bad, but it feels to me as if it's trying just a little too hard to be quirky and offbeat, although not in the fun, charming, Northern Exposure kind of way. I did at least like it better as it went along, though, and the main character did eventually grow on me.
This is an interesting hybrid of fiction and non-fiction. The fiction part is a story set in Terry Pratchett's Discworld universe, in which wizards accidentally create an entire non-magical universe, one that looks quite familiar to us, but entirely bizarre to them: there are just all these big round balls, and no discs on the backs of turtles anywhere. The non-fiction parts look at the evolution of this real universe, of one familiar planet in that universe, and the life on that (or, as the case may be, this) planet.
And while the fiction part is typically delightful Pratchett, I have somewhat mixed feelings about the non-fiction. There's a lot of good and interesting scientific information, cosmic perspective, and discussion of the philosophy of science, delivered in a readable and fairly entertaining fashion. But there's also a lot of speculation and opinion from the co-authors (a biologist and a mathematician), some of which I'm more on board with than others. And it's also really dated. This was originally published in 1999, with an updated edition in 2002, which might not seem that old, but science has definitely marched on since then. Especially as the authors are trying to be very cutting-edge, and some of the potentially interesting ideas they mention have completely failed to pan out.
Rating: It's very hard to know how to rate this. It's a fun read if you're a Discworld fan, and a lot of the science stuff is good and thought-provoking. But I don't think I can really recommend it if you're reading it for the science, just because it is so dated. Based on that, I'm going to give it a 3.5/5, but I feel a little bad about it.
Now, it's done. Will I have to leave Club Read now?
(edited to fix typo)
As for what you have to expect... Well, a lot of fun with fantasy tropes (and sometimes those from other genres, as well), a lot of humor ranging from ridiculous puns to really sharp satire and everything in between, and some real depth and humanity under the silliness. Also some great characters.
>22 ELiz_M: Thank you! I was thinking as I read the above comment that I should maybe just go find that post and link to it, and you have saved me the trouble. :)
I'll not that if you scroll down from that one a few posts, there's a bit more discussion of the subject, too.
In 1954, a US Marshal comes to a mental hospital on a small island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient from a locked room. But things are not at all as they appear to be...
I saw the movie version of this ages ago. Long enough ago that I didn't remember most of the details, just that it was nicely atmospheric, that it had a surprising (and hard to forget) ending that somehow worked much better than it seemed like it ought to, and that I liked it.
I liked the book, too, although this may actually be one of those times when a story works even better as a movie. Having been spoiled for it by the movie made this not exactly the reading experience it was meant to be, though, and I do kind of regret that. Although if I'd read the book first, likely I'd be thinking that about the movie instead.
Hmm. Let's see if I can make the spoiler-hiding code work!
And now I sort of want to go back and watch the movie again, as my memory of how it all plays out on the screen is extremely vague.
When you get a chance, take another look and let me know what you think.
This novel is actually a series of nested stories of different genres set in time periods ranging from the 1800s to the post-apocalyptic future, loosely connected in ways both obvious and subtle. It's interesting, because the individual stories are decent but hardly exceptional, but the way it's structured is fascinating, and leads to the whole feeling like more than the sum of its parts. It is a structure that requires a certain amount of patience and attention, though, as first you're basically reading stories that don't seem to have endings, then later returning to pick up the threads of events that you've already moved on from. But it works, or at least it did for me. More in an intellectual way, perhaps, than a visceral one, but well enough, nevertheless. Certainly the more I think about it, the more connected the individual stories seem to be, in terms of recurring themes and motifs, and there's something interesting and satisfying in that.
104. Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris
I'm pretty sure this is the only autobiography in history written in the style of a Choose Your Own Adventure story. And Neil Patrick Harris really commits to the format, complete with alternate endings in which he drowns in quicksand or something. Or you do, because the whole thing is in second person, which I found surprisingly easy to just go with. But then, like NPH, I grew up with Choose Your Own Adventure books and have immense nostalgic fondness for them. So I found the format fun. Of course, there is one difference between this and an actual Choose Your Own Adventure book, which is that (goofy bad endings notwithstanding), the "choices" aren't really choices about how the story is going to go -- since, one way or another, it's just the real events of this one guy's life. Instead, they're mostly choices about which bit of his life you want to read about next, with the result that you end up jumping back and forth in time a lot and getting things all out of order. And, entertaining as I found the gimmick, there were times when I really wished for a little more linearity.
Gimmick aside, it's a pleasant read as celebrity memoirs go. Harris talks about his personal life with lots of cute, warm gushing about his husband and kids, and about his career with the requisite amount of name-dropping but not too much catty gossip. The tone is breezy and light and relentlessly, amiably humorous, and the reader's "choices" often lead to odd little asides featuring things like cocktail recipes or card tricks. If it were done in a more conventional format, I'm sure it would be a lot less memorable, but still likable enough.
(Side note: As it happens, I know someone who attended high school with Neil Patrick Harris. She told me once that he was a bit of a dick back then, but in retrospect she thought it was understandable, given the pressures of being that famous that young. I was a bit curious as to whether this volume would reinforce or refute that assertion, but it didn't really do either one. Which, fair enough. If I were writing an autobiography, I don't think I'd want to spend much time dwelling on what people thought of me in high school, either.)
A collection of stories about the lives of women -- even the one or two that are from a male POV are really more about women -- and about relationships between men and women or between children and parents. They're mostly the kind of literary stories in which not much actually happens and in which there doesn't even necessarily seem to be a well-defined beginning, middle, and end. The one exception, perhaps, is "Uglypuss," about a woman's attempt to get at a cheating man by way of his cat. As a cat lover, I found that one highly disturbing, and part of me wishes one fewer thing had happened in it, honestly. It's definitely an effective story, though. And, like all of them, it's well written. Atwood's prose isn't showy, but it's smooth and beautiful, and full of subtlety.
I really liked this book, but I'm not entirely sure I can describe it, or describe why I liked it. It's a strange, strange novel centering on a woman named Carolyn who was one of twelve children who were "adopted" by... Well, they call him "Father," and he appears to be some sort of ancient and terrible god. And now he's gone missing. But, yeah, that doesn't really give you the sense of what it's like at all. It really is just wonderfully strange, with zillions of details that don't necessarily make any real-world sense or have understandable explanations, but which somehow add up to something weirdly convincing and deeply fascinating. And every time I thought I was getting a feel for it, it seemed to turn into something else I wasn't expecting. But in a good way. A crazy way, but a good one.
But, fair warning, it's also a damned brutal one. "Father" is not a benign deity, and neither are his proteges, once he's done twisting them into the shapes he wants for them. There's an astonishing amount of cruelty in this book, much of it disturbingly inventive. It's not for the faint of heart, or for those who might be triggered, by, well, pretty much anything. And yet, dark as it is, it's also strangely fun. And incredibly creative.
Hard to believe that this was actually the author's first novel.
A short collection of essays by Christopher Hitchens about living with the cancer that would eventually kill him.
I confess, I don't have a deep familiarity with Hitchens or his work, and I have slightly mixed feelings about what I had seen from him before reading this. But I did very much appreciate the thoughtful, candid, unsentimental way he writes about what he calls his deportation to the land of the unwell, and about the various physical, social, psychological, and philosophical aspects of that journey.
>36 bragan: I've read only one book by Hitchens (God is Not Great), and while I agree with many of his conclusions about religion and violence, I thought he was much too sarcastic. I'd have rather heard the argument straight out.
I have God Is Not Great on the TBR shelves and keep not getting around to reading it. But I have similar problems with a number of atheist writers. Even if I agree with what they're saying -- and I usually do, at least to a large extent -- I don't always think that how they say it is terribly helpful. Hitchen's dry, sarcastic humor does actually work fairly well in Mortality, though, I thought.
A globe-spanning disease has left a small but significant fraction of the population with lock in syndrome: perfectly conscious but unable to move their bodies at all. These people are still able to participate in the world, however, by using remote-operated robot bodies or, sometimes, by interfacing with the brains of other people. One such person is FBI agent Chris Shane, who is about to have a very difficult first week on the job.
The setup is an interesting one, and it's handled pretty well. The mystery plot is also interestingly set up, although once we start actually getting the explanations for whodunnit and how and why, I found some of the details a little hard to follow. That may be my fault and not the book's, though. I probably shouldn't read detective stories while I'm tired.
In the end, my feelings about this one are pretty much exactly how I've felt about the other couple of Scalzi novels I've read: it's solidly readable, but not actually very memorable, aside from the nifty premise.
Rating: A slightly ungenerous 3.5/5
I was going to describe this as "Neil Gaiman's retelling of the Norse myths," but on reflection I'm not sure that's quite the right word. "Retelling" covers a lot of territory, including works with only a vague resemblance to their source material, and I have the strong impression that Gaiman is sticking very close to the originals. So it's probably better to call this a "telling" of the Norse myths, one more among the many that people have done over the centuries. And it's fairly simply told, without lots of novelistic elaboration, but Gaiman does bring a subtle and entertaining sense of humor to it, as well as perhaps bringing a little bit of humanity to the characters. (Well, all right, "humanity" isn't quite the right word either, when applied to gods, but it's close enough.)
I think I had read other versions of most of these myths before, at some point or another, but not recently enough that I remembered too many of the details about them, and I found them very interesting to revisit. Some of the stories are strange and deeply mythic, some silly, and some dark, but on the whole they're all interesting and imaginative, sometimes in ways that leave me wondering at how humans even came up with them and what creative genius lost to the mists of time invented this or that particular detail.
I'm also a little amused at how strongly my main takeaway about Norse mythology here is just that the Norse gods are dicks. Entertainingly so, often enough, but dicks nonetheless. Especially Loki, the patron god of internet trolls, who is hilarious until he isn't... and then really, really isn't. (I just kind of wish I could have kept him from being Tom Hiddleston in my head. I mean, I like Tom Hiddleston, but it was just distracting.)
This short book explores the way we think about land ownership in America, how bound up our ideas on this subject are with our belief in progress, and how it affects us in ways both large and small. Mansfield covers the past, the present, and the future, from land deeds issued by the English government in colonial times, to people fighting eminent domain today, to the looming specter of losing a great deal of land to the sea entirely too soon.
It's one of those books that really forces the reader to take a close look at an idea that's so taken for granted in our society that it's surprisingly hard to even notice, and it does so in a really interesting way.
I do have a couple of small quibbles with it... For one, although Mansfield is very much talking about the United States as a whole, aside from one chapter in the beginning about the desert southwest, he focuses entirely on his native New England for his examples. Probably this makes sense; it's where he is, it's what he knows, it's the area with the longest colonial history, and there is certainly plenty enough to say about it. But I would have liked a little more of an attempt at inclusivity. The second thing is that for much of the book, I found myself sort of wishing for a unifying thesis statement for what mostly seemed like a collection of fascinating but disconnected thoughts. I do think the epilogue helped to tie it all together a bit more, though.
Anyway, those are pretty minor points. In general, this is a really interesting, thoughtful, thought-provoking, and beautifully written book, one that goes beyond the cliches that normally get trotted out when talking about things like Native Americans' relationship to land or the struggles of rural people holding out against corporate land grabs. And I think works like this, ones that challenge us to re-examine our assumptions about how our world works, are both exciting and important. Honestly, quibbles notwithstanding, I'm surprised by just how good this was.
(Note: This was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book.)
Well, this YA novel has one doozy of a premise. It seems the United States fought a civil war over reproductive rights and abortion, with both sides ending up the losers. In the end, a bizarre "compromise" was worked out. Now, life is considered inviolate from the moment of conception until the age of thirteen. But if, at that point, the kid isn't working out, you can have them "unwound": basically, cut up for parts. Since every single part of the person is still alive, wherever they might end up, they're technically not dead, so it's okay. Right?
Which sounds like a particularly pointed political satire, but, oddly, it isn't. There is a bit of mocking commentary on the way in which we've let issues like this divide us, but Shusterman somehow manages not to come down one way or the other on the whole pro-life/pro-choice debate. I can't decide whether that's rather clever, or just deeply disingenuous.
Either way, it's a premise as absurd as it is horrifying, and Shusterman piles a few more absurdities on top of it all, too, in ways that give the suspension of disbelief quite a workout. But what he does with those absurdities isn't bad. The plot is a variation on a fairly common YA dystopia kids-on-the-run narrative, and more than a little rambly, but it's interesting enough. The writing is very readable, if perhaps a bit too prone to summarizing events the author wants to skim over. It definitely gets some points from me for not insisting on the usual tedious YA love triangle, for whatever that's worth, and the little bit of romance there is didn't annoy me the way it sometimes does. It also features one scene that is possibly one of the most effectively, disturbingly, hauntingly horrific things I've read in recent memory. Overall, I'd probably call the novel just "not bad," but that bit was genuinely impressive.
I should point out that this is actually the first book in a series. But while it definitely ends with a sequel hook, it stands on its own well enough. I'm not sure if I'm going to want to continue on with the later books or not.
Two old ladies live next door to each other in a fancy neighborhood in Cape Town, South Africa. They seem to be extremely different -- starting with the fact that one is black and one is white -- but have, perhaps, quite a few things in common... including a generous helping of bitterness. And they thoroughly hate each other's guts.
This is one of those books I feel like I sort of wanted to like more than I actually did. The main characters are interestingly complicated (even if one of them is more developed and clearly dearer to the author's heart than the other), and the novel dips into some important and difficult themes -- racism, the terrible history of South Africa, the difficulties faced by professional women -- in a fairly nuanced way. But after a while, I fear I grew a little tired of these women's company. That feeling lessened by the end, at which point we know enough about them to feel some real sympathy for them. But the more their relationship developed, the less realistic I felt their dialog was. And in the end, I'm left not entirely sure how I feel about the novel as a whole. There's a fair amount in it that felt interesting, or touching, or insightful, at least a little. But perhaps just not quite as much as I wanted.
This isn't a book about the science of weaponry or anything like that, but instead focuses on various oddball problems faced by the military in its attempts to keep human bodies alive and functional on battlefields and in ships, and the science and technology it's explored for that purpose. And, OK, also on things like attempts to create demoralizing stink bombs to drop on the enemy. If you've read any of Mary Roach's previous books, this one will feel very familiar. It's quirky and breezy and cheerfully willing to look at subjects that other people politely (or disgustedly) turn away from, whether it's the scourge of diarrhea, the use of maggots to clean wounds, or the details of reconstructive surgery on someone who's had his genitals blown off.
I will say that I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as some of her others. I think that may be partially because her approach to things has gotten a little too familiar by now. (Ho, hum, she's talking about feces again.) Also partly because even though she is deliberately not talking about the killing-people parts of military technology, war is a subject that feels uncomfortable and sad to me in ways that even the discussions of death in Stiff didn't. Hell, Stiff genuinely helped me to feel more comfortable with the idea of death and dead bodies, and that was a really good and useful thing. But I don't want to get comfortable with, or have fun with, the idea of war. And I think that made it a little weird to read.
But, still. Even not-quite-as-enjoyable Mary Roach is still full of bizarre and fascinating facts and stories and entertaining little asides, and this one certainly still has all of that. Especially as the military has apparently come up with some very, um, creative ideas over the years.
Rating: Reservations aside, I'm still going to give this one a 4/5.
The stories in this collection are hard to describe, and it's even harder to know quite what to think about them. Some seem like proper, if odd, stories, others more like little... conceptual snippets? They're almost all very meta, in one way or another, with lives and characters and stories and story creators all tangled up to the point where it's impossible to tell them apart. (So, very much like Yu's novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which I also found hard to describe or know what to think about.) There's real cleverness and intelligence here, and the best of the stories are strangely fascinating, but few of them felt at all satisfying. It's as if the writer is grasping at something complicated and deep, but even he is perhaps not entirely sure what it is, so he's just letting us see him grasping. Which is interesting to watch, at least, whatever else it might or might not be, but did kind of leave me feeling like I wanted something a little bit more.
Rating: This is one of those books that seems almost impossible to rate. I'm going to call it 3.5/5.
>19 bragan: I read the first Science of Discworld book when it was fairly new, and I found the non-fiction sections very uneven. Some I enjoyed and others I found tedious to the point of struggling to get through them, and I generally like reading science books. The concept of lies-to-children is one that's stuck with me ever since though.
>32 bragan: Cloud Atlas has been a book I haven't been able to decide whether I want to read or not for a long time now, but I think I will try and give it a go at some point.
>33 bragan: I know pretty much nothing about Neil Patrick Harris but I like the idea of a Choose Your Own Adventure style autobiography just due to the fact that I also grew up with those books.
>52 bragan: I always enjoy Mary Roach books but I hadn't been able to work up as much enthusiasm to read that one because of the war connection, but I'm glad to know it's still an entertaining read. I'll certainly be getting to it eventually but maybe after I've caught up with all the others.
>53 bragan: The Charles Yu sounds like it could be interesting but potentially a bit frustrating too. I get more and more tired of short stories that don't seem to go anywhere.
The lies-to-children thing was probably the best concept in The Science of Discworld, really.
I put off Cloud Atlas for ages and ages, thinking it was the sort of book I really ought to read when I had a lot of time and mental energy to devote to it, and I think that was actually a pretty good call.
And, funnily enough, I think I've grown more patient over time with short stories that don't go anywhere. But even so, eventually you start to want something more.
I picked this book up shortly after it came out, because I'd heard a lot of good things about it, but then had trouble motivating myself to actually read it. Because, to be honest, I found the Iliad kind of a tedious read, even in Robert Fagles' lively translation. The Odyssey was much more my kind of story. But then Madeline Miller came out with a new book based on the Odyssey, which I decided I very much wanted to read, and I figured I should read this one first.
And I'm very glad I did. It's really, really good. It's the story of Achilles as told by his companion and lover Patroclus, and in this rendition that story is first and foremost a tragic love story. One that I found extremely affecting, and I say that as someone with very little romance in her soul. I'm also impressed with the way that Miller portrays the Greece of myth, complete with gods and larger-than-life heroes, while somehow still making it all feel very real and grounded and human.
I watched Avatar: The Last Airbender for the first time a few years ago, and I was genuinely astonished by just how good it was. Not even "good for a kids' show." Just plain good, with no qualifiers whatsoever.
Anyway, this little book is ostensibly put together by Aang and his friends as a present for his son, but it's really mostly just a very short guide to some of the people, places, events, and cultures from the series. If you've watched the show (and have even a passing familiarity with the sequel), there's absolutely nothing new here, and I'm not sure it really captures the series' spark. But it is pretty, with lots of colorful illustrations and some fun little inserts, including a couple of very cool postcards from places depicted in the show. To be honest, it's probably as much a collector's item as it is a book. But it's not a bad collector's item.
Rating: I'm going to call it 3.5/5.
In this science fiction novel from the 1950s, our protagonist, Jay Vickers, learns about some fantastic new products on the market, from ridiculously cheap housing to a razor blade that never dulls to a car will run literally forever. Then he learns some even stranger things about the world, the universe, and himself.
There are some interesting ideas at the heart of this book, and some also-interesting social commentary. The details, though, are a little bit silly and very woo-woo. Actually, it reminds me in a lot of ways of the last Simak novel I read, All Flesh Is Grass, although it lacks the oddball charm of that one.
In the end... Well, I'm not sorry I read it, but I can't really call it Simak's best.
Lulu is an opera singer, and a new mother, and a lover of stories. Particularly the fairy tale-like stories her Polish grandmother would tell about her own mother. But the stories are troubling, too, as they include a deal made with the devil for the birth of a daughter, and a curse that may have been passed down through the family, mother to daughter.
It's a beautifully written novel, with smooth, lovely prose, and it does some interesting things in weaving Lulu's real life with the fantasy of her stories. I'm also rather impressed, because opera and babies are two things I have very, very little interest in, and it actually managed to make me feel a connection to both.
I will admit, though, that at some point I started to feel just a little impatient with it, as Lulu's own story felt like it ought to be going somewhere but seemed not to actually be progressing at all. But the ending, while it perhaps didn't entirely satisfy that feeling, did work for me in its own quiet way.
A collection of very short essays from the 1970s in which Lewis Thomas, a medical researcher, muses about various topics related to medicine, biology, and nature. He is particularly interested in mitochondria, social insects and the ways in which human society does or doesn't resemble theirs, and the importance of basic research in medical science.
This is regarded as a real classic of science writing, or at least of writing by a scientist, so it's a little surprising it took me this long to get to it. I must say that, when I first started it, I didn't exactly think it was living up to its reputation. The essays here are really tiny, more a series of individual thoughts than anything else. And Thomas not infrequently uses some technical terms without explaining them, which I didn't find too much of a problem, but which does make it feel less accessible than I was expecting. He also engages in a fair amount of speculation and the occasional flight of fancy that aren't at all scientific, which bugs me possibly more than it ought to.
But the more I read, the more I came to appreciate Thomas's writing. It's rather beautiful, always thoughtful and often thought-provoking, and laced with subtle wit. And although it is very much of its time, aside from a few now-humorous remarks about computers, it's actually aged quite well.
So. Do I still think Lewis Thomas is over-hyped, for lack of a better phrase? Well, yes, a bit. But he is still good.
Owen Wedgewood is a fancy chef whose life is disrupted severely when his employer is killed by Mad Hannah Mabbot, a ruthless but principled pirate captain who then kidnaps Wedgewood onto her ship and demands that, once a week, he serve her a gourmet meal made with whatever poor ingredients he can find on board.
The story of Wedgewood's captivity and Mabbot's causes and vendettas is interesting enough, even if some of the details stretch the suspension of disbelief pretty far. And there were bits of the novel I found myself nicely caught up in. But I have to say, for the most part it just didn't grip me nearly as much as I was hoping it would. I'm not at all sure if that's the book's fault, or if I somehow just wasn't in quite the right mood for it. I do suspect, though, that if I were more of a foodie, I'd be a lot more charmed by all the passages about cooking and eating.
Except for the title story, most of the works in this collection are very short, and all of them have some sense of strangeness to them, whether it's a truly surreal premise or simply a slightly dreamlike feeling to the narration. As is usual with any story collection, I liked some a lot better than others, but the best of them are compelling, and even the ones that aren't are interesting, in the good sense of the word. The writing is good, too, with a very assured and original voice.
It is extremely difficult -- indeed, pretty much fundamentally impossible -- to say how people in the future will look back on our own era, because any society's opinions about past generations reflect that society's own culture and concerns more than they do the actual details of history. We can't know what the future will think of us, because we don't know anything about it. This is, essentially, the premise of this book. But Chuck Klosterman then goes on to speculate freely, anyway. Bearing in mind that our most logical guesses are almost certainly wrong -- as the most logical guesses of people in the past usually were -- what can we say or imagine about what literary works of the present will still be read in a hundred years, or whether future scientists will regard us as having been utterly wrong about how the world works, or even if civilizations of the future will have rejected things we regard as beyond question, such as the value of democracy? Probably nothing, but recognizing this fact doesn't stop Klosterman from having lots of rambling thoughts about it all, or from running those thoughts by other people to see what they think.
And for an exercise that seems to be premised on the idea of its own futility, it's surprisingly fascinating. I found myself disagreeing with Klosterman a fair amount -- at least as much as it's actually possible to disagree with someone who is, the entire time, asserting that he's probably wrong -- and often found myself looking up from the book and staring off into space as I had lively internal debates with Klosterman or with myself about whatever he'd just said. There is a bit of a feeling of self-indulgence about much of it -- a sense that Klosterman is just trying to get a grip on his own slippery thoughts on the subject, and that he's paying particular attention to certain topics, such as rock music, simply because they're the things he personally happens to be the most interested in. But, you know, I was absolutely fine with that, and more than happy to just go along for the ride through his brain. And there's quite a lot in here that I found insightful or thought-provoking or just plain fun to contemplate. Indeed, I think this is possibly the most pure intellectual fun I've had reading a work of non-fiction in quite some time.
Patricia is an old lady in a nursing home, and she has memory problems. Meaning that she has trouble remembering a lot of things, but also that she remembers more things than she should. In fact, she remembers living two completely different lives, lives which diverged in a single moment when she decided on her answer to a marriage proposal.
It's interesting trying to decide exactly what I think about this book. I will admit that for quite a while, I felt a little disappointed with it, even though I never thought it was bad. I was, I think, expecting more science-fictional exploration of Patricia's two sets of memories and what they mean, but we don't really get that at all. Instead, we're given the full life story of both versions of Patricia, in alternating chapters. They're both reasonably interesting lives, and both Patricias feel like well-rounded characters. But much of those stories are more summarized than dramatized, which doesn't always make for the most satisfying read. And one of the two worlds she inhabits -- neither of which is our own -- felt quite implausible to me in terms of how fast certain kinds of technology develop. It also seemed, at first, that the contrast between the two lives was making a very unnecessary and heavy-handed statement about how freedom and self-determination and love are much better than oppression and sexism and abuse. Which is certainly true, but not exactly something I needed to be told at novel length.
But as things went on... Well, the tendency to skim over and summarize large parts of both lives never goes away. But the good life vs. bad life dichotomy gets a lot more complicated, and the contrast between how things do or don't progress in the two worlds ends up having a worthwhile point to it. And even if I never got quite as emotionally invested in either of Patricia's families as I might have liked, I did care about both of them. So it turned out to be a much better reading experience than I thought that it was going to be early on, and in the end I am glad to have read it.
Rating: Given my changing feelings about it, this one is hard to rate. I'm giving it 3.5/5, but I did like it enough by the end that that feels a little bit stingy. Just a little bit, though.
Since we don't get a new Doctor Who episode on Christmas this year -- we have to wait until New Year's! -- I decided to fill the void in my life by reading this novelization of last year's Christmas special. Although, I must admit, I had mixed feelings about that episode; there were some aspects of it I really liked and others that greatly irritated me. Paul Cornell's adaptation evens those mixed feelings out a little, though, I think. Some of the more emotionally affecting moments in the episode hit me less strongly in this form, but others actually worked a bit better. And the things that bugged me bug me slightly less here. It helps that Cornell appears to agree with me that some of the First Doctor's dialog was quite out of character. He doesn't change it -- this is a very faithful adaptation -- but he does at least acknowledge its weirdness, which I found sort of comforting.
It's interesting, actually, to contrast this with the previous New Who novelization I read, Steven Moffat's The Day of the Doctor. That one was complex and experimental and meta, and added lots of lots of content that wasn't actually in the episode. This one, in addition to being very faithful, is also very straightforward. In fact, especially towards the beginning, it seems to be very deliberately echoing the style of Terrance Dicks' old Target novel adaptations of the classic series. It is less bare-bones than those tended to be, though, and adds in a fair bit of character stuff from various POVs, some of which I think really does enhance the story, as well as an entertaining in-joke or two.
Rating: I'm not entirely sure how to rate this, especially given my complex feelings about the episode itself, but it does what it's trying to do quite well, so I'm going to go with 4/5.
>70 bragan: Worse than the wait until New Year for another episode is the wait until 2020 before we get a new series!
Worse than the wait until New Year for another episode is the wait until 2020 before we get a new series!
I knoooooow! What am I going to doooo?! Well, read more Doctor Who books, I guess. I've still got one more on the TBR pile.
Although I suppose it's a little funny for me to be complaining about the wait, because, while I like Jodie Whittaker and love the companions, I've been much less than happy with a lot of the writing this season. I feel a little like the person in the old joke: "This food is terrible! And such small portions!" But really, even when I don't entirely like Doctor Who, I still love Doctor Who. :)
Aw, sorry to hear that Betty! I've enjoyed this season very much. The general public seems to have too--best performing series since the heyday of Tennantmania, and beating several records of that tenure too. As a fan of Capaldi's Doctor I'm sorry that his era crashed so badly in public's estimation, but very glad that Thirteen saved the show.
For me the last ep was the only really weak one, and that may have a lot to do with where it was placed. It didn't deserve to be seen as a "finale"--although, maybe it's not? Maybe the New Year's ep will readjust how the sequence is perceived?
For what it's worth, I liked the last ep of the season better than some of them, at least, although I didn't love it, either, and I do agree it didn't feel very finale-ish. But I am still looking forward to New Year's, especially as it appears that it's going to feature
I agree that Patricia's two lives needed to be described more expansively, which would make for a longer book - and I rarely want a book to be longer. The turn that one of the worlds takes, where
And I did sort of find myself sadly reflecting on the fact that it's only the optimistic timeline that seemed implausible to me. Sigh.
Anyway, we come to what I strongly suspect will be my final book of the year:
125. The Re-Origin of Species: A Second Chance for Extinct Animals by Torill Kornfeldt
There are scientists who, right now, are working on things like resurrecting the mammoth or back-engineering a chicken into something resembling a dinosaur. Some of these de-extinction projects, especially ones focused on recently vanished or still-vanishing animals, involve cloning. In others, it's more a case of altering existing creatures to recreate features of their extinct relatives, such as giving a modern elephant wool and a high tolerance for cold. But this book doesn't focus so much on the how as on the why, and on the question of what you then do with the resulting animals and whether it's a good idea. It turns out that that's a very debatable question, as the ultimate aims of some of these researchers involve re-introducing these animals into the wild, and people can and do make some pretty good arguments about why that's either highly desirable or terribly misguided.
It's a really interesting question, and one that we definitely want to be thinking about before we have the technology to make it happen and not after. I will confess, though, I didn't find the book to be quite as fascinating as I'd hoped. I think part of it is that I would have liked a rather deeper dive into the ecological science of the issue. (What Kornfeldt does describe about the possible ecological roles of creatures like mammoths is really interesting.) I also think that the author's presentation of the arguments of the various scientists she's interviewed as they consider the subject is a lot more interesting than her own musings about her mixed feelings on the subject, which aren't bad, but do get a little repetitive. I also can't help but wonder if the writing reads a little better in the original Swedish. There's nothing wrong with it, mind you, but there is so often a slightly unnatural quality to writing in translation, and I think there is a bit of that here, too. (Also, just as a slightly amusing side note, according the the translator's note, a lot of the scientists were originally interviewed in English, but transcripts of the original English interviews weren't available, so they've been re-translated back into English from Swedish. Which has the slightly odd result of making the Americans among them sound like Brits!)
Anyway, the upshot here is that I didn't find it to be one of those page-turnery works of non-fiction, but I did find its explorations of the questions it raises interesting and very much worth considering, and I very much like the way Kornfeldt even-handedly gives us the perspectives of various people who disagree with each other. I've read a bit about these de-extinction projects before, but I think this one offers a perspective on them that my previous exposures to the idea were lacking.
(Note: This was a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book.)
Anyway, thanks for the review of this. I've had it sitting on my Darwin shelf for a while (a broad category that includes all evolutionary/natural science history/evolutionary biology subjects, including David Quammen and some current dinosaur books) and was wondering how it was. I'm still definitely interested. Funny about the translation—the last book on the subject I read, Darwin Comes to Town: How the Urban Jungle Drives Evolution, bore the traces of some translation awkwardness (Schilthuizen is Dutch), but it was more charming than anything else. If anything, it served to remind me as a reader that there was indeed a human being, with all his attendant opinions and quirks, behind this well-researched and factual account—always good to remember.
The Re-Origin of Species isn't nearly as great as Quammen's stuff tends to be, but, yes, I'd say it's definitely worth reading if you have an interest in the subject, just because it does bring up a lot of thoughtful questions I haven't seen addressed as strongly elsewhere.
And it's odd, because I honestly can't put my finger on any way in which the translation feels awkward, specifically. But it still feels like a translation, somehow. Like there's something slightly unnatural about the way it flows that I can't really identify, but still find distracting. At least one of the other reviewers on LT seems to have thought the translation is really good and reads smoothly, though, so I suspect I might just be extra-sensitive to it.
I'm sensitive to translation awkwardnesses as well, though sometimes they work for me and sometimes they don't. I think people's reading "ears" are as varied as their musical ears, so that makes sense to me.
I do often tend to really hear the words I'm reading in my mind (as opposed to visualizing things as I'm reading), and I suspect that's probably one of the things that makes me more sensitive to it. Hard to say, though.