The Woman in White

woman in whiteThe Woman in White, Wilkie Collins

How did I not know about this book?! That is the thought that was through my head the entire time I was reading. This book was a gift from a friend who thought the same thing while she was reading, and now we have become evangelists. We are going to begin carrying copies of the book around and handing them to passerby, and lobbying schools to include it in their curriculum, and leaving them strewn around English departments until it has been given its due. The fact that none of us know about this book is an outrage and a scandal, I say!

But, wait. I must slow my pen. I get ahead of myself. Let me explain more about this remarkable book.

Wilkie Collins, the author, was a Victorian author, a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens. And for a time, apparently was even outselling him. Woman in White was written as a serial in a magazine in London, and was one of the earliest suspense novels (or ‘sensation novels’ as it was described at the time.) We are introduced to one of the narrators, Mr. Walter Hartright, a drawing-master in London, as he is learning about and deciding to take a position as a drawing master in the country for two young women. The night he is about to leave he encounters a woman dressed all in white who is in distress, and speaking cryptically the entire time.

From there, we have many of the tropes of literature at this time. Crazy coincidences! Unscrupulous men! Pure, put upon women who do quite a bit of fainting! Terrible secrets! Romance! Secret societies! So many twists! But my goodness it was fun, and so engagingly written.

The most amazing, the most delightfully surprising, thing about this book are the characters. Apparently in his initial publishing of this book, Collins begged the reviewers not to give away the story or share too much about the suspense of the book, and so I won’t dive too deeply into the story. But the characters! His introduction states that he believes the source of all interest in a story starts with its characters, and so that is where he puts his efforts. This shows in the book as each character, even those we encounter for a few pages, is a thought out person. For his limited appearance, we all know Mr. Fairlie, a self-described and self-involved invalid, and the guardian of the Miss Fairlie the story revolves around. Ms. Michelson, the housekeeper, is a clear picture of a competent woman. Count Fosco, the larger than life character in the book, is a fascinating creation.

And what is truly wonderful, however is that the women are fleshed out as well! Marian Holcombe, sister of Laura Fairlie, is one of the most amazing, fully realized, intelligent women I have ever encountered in a work of fiction, in any century. The fact that she was written in the 1800s is truly astounding. I won’t pretend that this book is a feminist rallying cry or anything. The other characters in the book approvingly describe Marian as being as smart as a man. And her sister, Laura Fairlie, is a well-liked plot device in need of protecting, as befits a woman in a Victorian novel. But let us recognize the times. Marian is amazing.

Again, I am very surprised and disappointed that Collins is not more well-known and often-read in these times. Especially given that he is one of the creators of the suspense genre—this was written decades before the Sherlock Holmes stories, and that he was about as popular as Dickens in his time, he should be getting more respect in these days. And the book holds up! Collins was an excellent writer. He wrote this as a serial, as Dickens wrote many of his books, but it never feels like he was being paid by word or stretching it out. It feels like a full book on its own. Personally, I can think of a few other Victorians I would have set to the side to be able to read this book when I was in school.

So if you are a lover of the classics, a lover of good characters and strong women, or a lover of the suspense or mystery novel, I strongly encourage you to pick this one up. And tell your friends, because this book needs to be more well known. Personally, I’m going to start my Wilkie Collins booster campaign with the county school board today. By the time my kids are in high school, I hope this is part of the cannon.

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The Circle

The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)The Circle, Dave Eggers

I read this a while ago, and hadn’t quite gotten around to writing the review. But since the movie is coming out soon, this seems as good as time as any to catalogue my thoughts. So let’s begin, shall we?

The Circle is Dave Eggers attempt at a cautionary tale. The story chronicles Meg, the stand in for all of us, fresh out of college and with a serious lack of confidence and yearning to prove herself. Her college roommate, Amanda, who is gorgeous, rich, athletic, brilliant, and generally better at everything than Meg or any of us, is employed in the upper echelons of the Circle, a bit of a Google/Apple hybrid, and gets Meg a job there, too. The Circle has a giant campus, controls social media, online shopping, entertainment, biometrics, artificial intelligence, technology hardware, and so on and so forth. It has pioneered TruID, a program to ensure people are posting and purchasing things under their own names, which revolutionized the internet and also made The Circle the gatekeepers for most things online. They are prestigious, and a dream company to work for. They only want what’s best for all of us, and are our benevolent overlords, or would be if we would only let them. I’m sure you can intuit where this is going.

I am generally a fan of Dave Eggers, who, for all his faults, I find to be an engaging writer. So let’s start with what I liked. I, well, loved is the wrong term, but I thought the oppressive concern The Circle had for their employees, the yearning for them to be a part of The Circle for everything, for the company to be a family, made me cringe. The Circle is all of the worst of Silicon Valley on steroids. They have dorms for employees to sleep at in case they stay at work too late. They have numerous social groups that they require invite their employees to join. They have happy hours or social outings or team building events almost every night. They have rec rooms and gyms and cafeterias for all the employees to use, so why wouldn’t you?

Early on in the book Meg is invited to speak with her boss and chastised on a few occasions for going home on the weekends, for not having a high ‘social ranking’ (for interaction with her Facebook and Twitter stand ins), for not joining any of the social groups. These conversations are all too realistic and were legitimately squirm inducing for an introvert and anti-forced-fun individual like myself. Imagine the flair scene from Office Space times 1000 and even more uncomfortable because the boss sincerely believes what he’s selling. *shudders*

The other thing that he nails, at least from my limited experience, is the bizarre psychology of rating everything and everyone all the time. This is a weird thing we do these days, right? And we’re obsessed with it! Not just obsessed with the chance to rate everything constantly, but also that anything less that CONSTANT PERFECTION is terrible, and anything less than total love means that we’re failures. And there are many disruptors who think this is good! There’s even a couple of tech bros who now want to replace tips with a rating system in their app that will pay out ‘tips’ based on your rating that you can basically only spend in-app. *shudders* This is so terrible for so many reasons. But psychologically, it means we are now obsessed with either our publicity* or our popularity, and expect constant approbation. At one point, Meg is debuting a new feature and The Circle administration does an instant poll asking, “Is Meg just the best?” And she ends up obsessing over the 6% or so (I can’t remember the exact number) who said no, thinking constantly about how 6% of the employees hate her. And, yeah, that’s about what all of this does to us.

Okay, now that I’ve explained some of the things Eggers absolutely got right, I will admit that I still didn’t care for the book. My first complaint is, admittedly, rather nitpicky. But I think it’s an important nit to pick. The introduction to the book explains how one of the ways that The Circle had managed to capture almost all of the internet was through the TruID program, which wouldn’t let anyone post or comment or buy things without authentication of their real self. This cut down on trolling and online bullying, and made everyone love The Circle. Throughout the book, this is a major theme. That part of the way The Circle is able to get everyone to love the and the work they do—because by being transparent, and making sure people can’t hide behind pseudonyms and anonymity they’ve ended this online cruelty and will make people behave better. This is, quite frankly, the type of thing that people who didn’t use the internet much said back when blogs were first a thing. In reality, though, verified checks and getting people to use their names is not such a check on cruelty. That’s just, really, really not how the whole thing works and it makes me think that anyone who says it is doesn’t actually know that much about social media and the internet.

And then there’s how Meg is kind of a wuss of an audience stand in. She’s supposed to be all of us, hesitant about some of this and then embracing it quickly. Okay, yeah, that happens, but she doesn’t really put up a fight at all. Come on. Let’s make the audience stand in a little less easily manipulated.

But the real issue for me is what is always the cardinal sin of a book. Giving your message with a sledge hammer. Remember how I said you could see where everything was going from the set up? Yeah, we know everything that is going to happen. Maybe not the details, but definitely the broad strokes. And we know how we’re supposed to feel.  There is actually, literally, a shark discovered by The Circle’s science expeditions that viciously devours anything it comes in contact with, even if the shark isn’t hungry, and no animal can stand a chance against it. Yeah, that happens. Can you guess what it represents? Here is an actual video taken of me at the exact moment I read that part of the book.

I do not like being told what to think, and I do not like heavy handed metaphors! They are even more irksome than the somewhat irritating sex scenes, and some of the more poorly thought out plot points. (Listen, the problem with there being absolutely no privacy isn’t that there are major skeletons in everyone’s closet. It’s that all the little things can be twisted and that no none is perfect and also that then there’s no privacy).

So, overall, I have to rate the book only a three out of five stars. There were some really good points. But overall, it was just too obvious, and too uncomfortable, and too heavy handed in too many sections for me to, in good faith, rate it higher.

*I have had both Facebook and Twitter let me know which of my posts on my personal account are doing well and also let me know how to pay to boost them. Like I need to be doing A/B testing on my random thoughts on the podcast I’m listening to? Like I should keep track of the pictures of which of my kids gets the most interaction? This is so, so, bizarre.

Meet Me in Atlantis

Meet Me in AtlantisMeet Me in Atlantis, Mark Adams

What if—bear with me here—what if someone wrote a book about Atlantis that 1) was objective and not crazily hyperbolic about definitely finding Atlantis/proving the whole story is aliens/talking about time travel, 2) was skeptical yet still managed to treat Atlantis hunters objectively and with respect, and 3) was a ton of fun while discussing Plato in depth and debating the translation of ancient Greek. Crazy, you say? Mark Adams thought it was just crazy enough to work.

This was a really fun read. Adams begins by summarizing where, exactly, the mythology comes from (details that I had actually not known before): in two of Plato’s last dialogues, Timaeus and Critias, in which Plato also discusses in detail the creation of the world and the World-Soul.  As part of this discussion, his speakers also mention a past society with the following details:

  • It was a nesos, usually translated as “island”
  • It was an advanced power that sent warriors to attack Athens and Egypt 9000 years before the time Plato was writing (so about 11,000 years ago now)
  • It had a large central plain and concentric circles of some sort
  • It had a ton of really huge canals, just really enormous, and one canal leading in and out of the canals
  • It was beyond the Pillars of Heracles, probably the Strait of Gibraltar
  • They had a giant temple to Poseidon
  • They were completely wiped out through an earthquake/flood combo and were swallowed up by the waves never to be seen again.

Got all that? There’s a lot more measurements (so many measurements) for all of the canals, the size of the plains, etc. and information about how many kings there were in Atlantis, and how they had a whole thing about sacrificing bulls (leading some people to think they were Minoans), but that’s less important. Oh, and how Plato, while swearing this is totally true, has his speaker relay it as something he heard from a friend who heard it from his completely real Canadian girlfriend this Egyptian priest he knew who swears it happened.

Adams tackles all of this and sorting through what it call could possibly mean from every angle, and with a great deal of wit and objectivity. He speaks with archeologists and anthropologists, philosophers and Plato experts, and the world’s leading Antlantologists—Atlantis hunters and experts. What I loved most about this book is that he approaches basically all of the theories with the same fresh, skeptical eyes. He looks into numerous possible locations for Atlantis with enthusiastic Atlantis searchers. He talks about the numerous earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis that have wracked the Mediterranean and could be the foundations for a myth, examines other flood stories, and talks about the many other unsolved mysteries of the time, like who were the Sea Peoples? He examines Plato’s obsession with Pythagoras and whether the whole thing is an elaborate number code, and even discusses the possibilities of people sailing from the Americas with an open mind examining all the evidence. It was incredibly refreshing to read something that treated many viewpoints as potentially valid and didn’t dismiss anything out of hand! (Well, except aliens and time travelers. He was rather dismissive there.)

And the book was incredibly well informed! I learned a lot. Not just a lot of crazy theories, I mean a lot of actual history and philosophy and anthropology. I have joked that I’ve probably reached about the limit of what History Channel and Science Channel documentaries and popular books will teach me about the world—I probably need a real course of study to learn more. But this book had all sorts of trivia I didn’t know about before. Did you know that Malta has what are possibly the earliest free standing stone structures we know of? I didn’t, because who knows anything about Malta except they had the Knights of Malta and a bunch of falcons? But I’m so glad I know about it now. (I’m going to try to work it into conversation at the next party we go to.) I didn’t know Plato was interested in Pythgoras’ weird numbers cult and may have worked bits of it into his works. And I actually didn’t know about how many times Mediterranean cities were wiped out by catastrophe! I wonder if it was a particularly unlucky region, or just one of the few that left enough clues that there was something before the flood.

All in all, there is a lot to recommend this book. Mark Adams is an engaging writer, and I breezed through this book. I was amazed at how much it taught me, and how fascinating the Atlantis mythology is. I’m not sold on the Atlantis hunt (and Adams isn’t really trying to sell anyone on it, either). It seems to me the kind of thing that has a kernel of truth but is probably a composite of destroyed civilizations. But it definitely pulled me in to the mystery, and kept me entertained for the journey.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

jonathan strangeJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

This sprawling, 1000+ page story of magic’s return to England is truly amazing. Set during the Napoleonic wars, it takes place in an England where Magic is—or at least was—very real, with an alternate history where John Uskglass the Raven King had ruled over the North for centuries, faerie roads used to be common, and many groups and clubs of learned men meet to discuss and write articles on the history of magic. At this time, however, it has been generations since the last faerie road has closed. And this is the mystery at the heart of the book: what has happened to British magic, and when it will return to England?

When the book begins, we are introduced to a group of theoretical magicians—men who study magic, not perform it—with a new member asking the impolitic question of why practical magic no longer exists. Through this discussion we eventually come to Mr. Norrell, who offers to prove his practical magic in a dramatic fashion if all theoretical magicians will renounce their claim to the title of magician. His success brings him to London, where he endeavors to restore magic to its rightful, respectable place, aid the war effort, and win high regard—but only for his own particular thoughts on magic. We are eventually introduced to Jonathan Strange, charismatic, impulsive, and a brilliant natural at magic, who stumbles into his career as a practical magician.

This is the bare-bones of a story that takes us throughout the Iberian peninsula in the war, through the way magic begins to effect numerous characters throughout the story, introduces us to an amoral faerie, the Man with the Thistledown Hair, and sees magic reintroduced to England. And most of all, dives in depth into the story of the Raven King and the history of the England just off to the side of our own world, where many similar things have happened, but in very different ways.

The world building in Jonathan Strange is truly staggering. Many characters in the tale have their own tales. The background story of Jonathan Strange, for instance, doled out in one or two longish chapters, could have been its own standalone short story. Almost every character we encounter is fully fleshed out, and their own story expertly woven into and important to the larger narrative. Even more amazing, though, is her story of magic. The alternate history, and the tale of the Raven King, dips in and out of the story at all turns, with the Raven King overshadowing everything that is done with magic, and even politics in the Britain of the book. In addition, footnotes are given for numerous references to magic and history, and citations of other books within this world, with each footnote being its own tale again. For instance, take a look at just this one footnote in the book, a fairly representative one:

One autumn morning the Cumbrian child went out into her grandmother’s garden. In a forgotten corner she discovered a house about the height and largeness of a bee-skep, built of spiders’ webs stiffened and whitened with hoar-frost. Inside the house was a tiny person who at times immeasurably old and at other times no older than the child herself. The little person told the Cumbrian child that she was a songbird-herd and that for ages past it had been her task to look after fieldfares, redwings and mistle-thrushes in that part of Cumbria. …

…and on for several more sentences to the end of the tale. To say nothing of the occasional three and four page footnote. David Foster Wallace has nothing on Susanna Clarke.

I also loved the way Clarke brought in other topics in a subtle way, an excellent example of “show don’t tell”. The book is not a polemic or a treatise on social justice issues by any means. But any careful reading will pick out the way the same magickal affliction affects an aristocratic woman and a servant in very different ways, with the former an invalid who everyone can tell is ailing the latter forced to carry on in the same manner. Or the way some of the problems may have been solved earlier if people were expected more to listen to and pay attention to sidelined women. These issues only arise here and there, but are certainly present to anyone who cares to pay attention.

I’ve read this book twice now. And each time it’s been just as surprisingly delightful, intriguing, and just so, so impressive. I guess there’s more detail in something like The Silmarillion, but Clarke still has my admiration because she made it interesting, too. I know the thickness might be off putting to some, but I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s a wonderful story, amazing world created, and for anyone willing to put in the thought and time discussions a-plenty to be had.

Mort

MortMort, Terry Pratchett

We return to Discworld with Mort, following the story of Death as he goes through a mid-eternity crisis, and his chosen apprentice, Mort, as he decides whether or not to become Death. In the process we meet Death’s butler, his adopted daughter, learn about Afterlife and theology on the Disc, and watch Mort deal with the how to address that whole fate thing and how much we should mess with it.

Death is a recurring character in Discworld, having made cameos in the previous books, and giving him his own series was a good idea for a spinoff. It occurs to me that the reason almost endless spinoffs for something like Discworld can work is that, freed from the necessities of weekly episodes and annual seasons, an author can wait until he actually has a good idea to write a story. It’s a truth that serves books well and I’m grateful for it.

Mort is, well, not exactly a prequel but it does take place before the other books, with Rincewind of the first book making a brief appearance early in his wizarding career. It is certainly a stand alone book, however, that a person could pick up without fully knowing the world, although having a working knowledge of how exactly the whole thing works what with the world turtle and all does add a certain something. The only mild drawback I’d say is that, by making this a book anyone can drop in on, Pratchett does need to repeat some things.  It’s not so much a problem that he goes over the same information on the inner workings of Discworld, but he does seem to be overly found of a few phrases, such as how the light moves lazily on the Disc due to the magical field, that are used more than they need to be. But I suppose if one waits more than a week or so between reading his books it wouldn’t be as much of a problem. And it’s a bit hypocritical of me to complain about this when I was just criticizing a book for going too far in the other direction.

And, honestly, what complaints I may have are minimal. Pratchett’s skill at weaving a tale, his humor, and his deftness of dealing with what can be grim topics with wit and just a touch-hardly any, really, it doesn’t get in the way at all-of compassion is on full display in this book. It’s not everyone who can take a story about Death and turn it into a fun book that isn’t either too dark or too kitschy or too much of trying to make it be a whole thing and making a statement. Here it’s just that Death is, and he’s trying to get through existence as best he can, just as all of us are. I greatly enjoy the way Pratchett plays and subverts tropes, done throughout in this book. And he’s a clever writer. His descriptions of Death capture the doom and gloom and seriousness with a few creative twists, and he pulls us into scenes quite creatively. I’m glad I finally started reading Terry Pratchett. He’s quickly become a favorite for all of my light-hearted reading needs.

Michael Tolliver Lives

michael tolliver livesMichael Tolliver Lives, Armistead Maupin

Armistead Maupin is known for his Tales of the City stories, a daily serial in the San Francisco Chronicle throughout the 70s, chronicling a unique time and place that will never be recaptured. People look back on these books with real fondness, and through it Maupin had a unique view point to capture the sexual revolution, the first glimmer of gay rights, and the destruction of the AIDS epidemic. Sadly, all of this is what I have picked up from reading *about* Maupin. I never read any of the Tales of the City stories. Instead, I picked up Michael Tolliver Lives, which catches up with a lead character several years on. Why did I start there? Because this was sitting there waiting to be taken at the Library Book Sale, my main source of reading material, and the others were not!

It’s a shame I didn’t read the others first, because then maybe I would have liked this book. Instead I felt myself unable to connect with any of the characters, not particularly interested, and thinking that everything felt superficial and like a caricature.

Michael Tolliver Lives catches us back up again with Michael Tolliver, an aging gay man who’s been in San Francisco from the beginning (he featured in the earlier books), now married to a younger man, running a landscaping and nursery business, and dealing with the death of his conservative mother in Orlando, FL, and his more-or-less adoptive mother back home in San Francisco. For all that, there didn’t seem to be much conflict or tension in the book, and everything proceeded as you’d expect. The book seemed to stay on the surface of the story. And much of this is because some of the conflict had already been introduced before, I’m sure. Much of the relationships were told, not shown—because it was just a reminder of what the reader should already know.

There were some people who apparently loved this book, but I think all of them are people who loved these characters from before, and enjoyed checking in. Some series you can drop yourself into. Some you can’t. This book was for people who had loved Tales of the City and looked forward to seeing what everyone was up to now. It was the reunion special. But just like I wouldn’t watch Fuller House without knowing the first one, don’t pick this up unless you already know and love Michael Tolliver and his life.

 

My Year in Books

There was a time, before I had kids, when I looked at the 50 Books challenge and scoffed. Not even one book a week? How was that a challenge? Try to stretch yourself people! Now I find myself in a position where 50 books a year isn’t just a challenge, it’s an impossible dream. But still- I did 37. While working, raising three kids, and #resist-ing. So that’s not too bad, right? Right?

I hope for 40 next year. But my real challenge for 2018 isn’t for 50 books, it’s 52 blog posts. One review a week shouldn’t be too much to ask of myself. I didn’t come even close to that schedule—or keeping up with my reading habit—this year. But that’s what New Year’s Resolutions are for, I suppose.

So, without further ado, my incredibly brief reviews of the books I’ve read this year. With links to a full review on the rare occasions they’re available.

Earth is Room Enough, Isaac Asimov—A collection of Asimov short stories, all of which take place on Earth. Asimov is at his best at a short story writer, and this was entertaining enough. I don’t think any of these are my favorites that he’s written, but they were a perfectly cromulent way to pass the time.

The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible—and Other Journeys through Knowledge, James Burke—In the vein of How We Got to Now and other such stories, this book aims to explain how discoveries in one era can lead to unintended inventions and discoveries elsewhere. I thought that the connections were less compelling than those in other, similar books, and Burke isn’t the best of writers. There are other such books and miniseries done better.

The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris—A while back there was a Facebook quiz thingy asking people to list the 10 books that had most influenced one’s life. Two of my friends listed this. I picked it up at a library book sale and it was fascinating and beautifully written.

The Fragile Absolute, Slavoj Žižek—As might be evident from the fact that I write a book review blog and happily read Umberto Eco and Zeynep Tufecki, I am a huge nerd. Despite some earlier plans, though, I eventually decided a life in academia wasn’t for me, and that academic writing tended towards pointlessness and preening with no meaning. Sometimes I regret that decision. Then I read a ‘popular’ philosopher like Žižek and realize all my worst thoughts of academia are correct and I made the right decision. And on a related note.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Kim Edwards—The book opens (and this isn’t a spoiler; it’s on the back cover and everything) with a doctor’s decision in the 1950s to tell his wife that one of their twins, born with Down syndrome, was stillborn, and asks his nurse to take the girl to an institution. The book covers how this lie affects everyone’s life for years. It was poignant and well written, and I’ve been talking about it with others all year.

The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson—Bryson is always hilarious, and his tangents informative and fascinating. My mind is also a weird musty attic for pieces of trivia, so anyone who provides as much as he does is a valued companion to me. Sadly, Bryson is also a grump and, in his old age, a curmudgeon who turns his astute judgments on the absurdity of society to complaints about Kids These Days and their clothes. This book was fun enough for a Bryson fan, but if you’re a newcomer pick up a younger and more cheerful book first.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein—There’s a prison colony on the Moon that wants freedom, and so a super computer and three unlikely leaders plot a rebellion. I’ve read other Henlein books and this is similar in that it starts off interesting enough and then gets sort of strange and goes off the rails. Also this was written when he was quite firmly in his extreme libertarian phase, so there’s that. He has some… interesting… ideas about government and feminism, I’ll give you that.

An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, Brock Clarke—Until I was looking through my Goodreads list of books I’d read this year, I completely forgot this book. Which should probably tell you all you need to know.

The Keeper of Lost Causes, Jossi Adler-Olsen—A Scandinavian murder mystery! This was an enjoyable thriller, and I enjoyed the troubled detective enough for his type. If you enjoy the genre you’ll likely enjoy this book. I’ve read a few of these types now, and personally I find the Scandinavian thrillers to just be a bit too tortured and cruel, but I have a lower tolerance for that sort of thing than most.

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, Denise Kiernan—This book was absolutely fascinating. I had no idea of the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was basically created from whole cloth to center around uranium enrichment factories. It was a secret city that didn’t even appear on maps until well after the war ended, and women and men were employed there in almost every conceivable position. If you liked Hidden Figures, you’ll probably like this book.

Armada, Ernest Cline—Ready Player One was absolutely amazing. I loved it. But you can only go to the well so many times, you know?

What is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi—This was, hands down, the most creative book I have read in a long, long time. I read a lot and it is rare that I read something that is entirely original, but this is. I have spent all my time since I read this book wondering why everyone isn’t talking about it and how amazing it is.

Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks—There is always interest to be had and things to be learned with Oliver Sacks. That being said, this wasn’t my favorite of his books. It didn’t have quiet enough variety and just didn’t capture my attention they way others have.

The Secret of Lost Things, Sheridan Hay—This was a book I took with me on summer vacation, and about where I would assign it. It kept me entertained, it passed the time. It didn’t do much more than that.

Flight, Sherman Alexie—I had never read anything by Alexie, and this showed up at a library book sale. It was something, that’s for sure. I read it a few months ago, and I’m still working out all of my feelings, which I take as a good sign in a book. A troubling read, but a worthwhile one.

Murder in the Dark, Kerry Greenwood—I *love* Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries on PBS. Because I am a white, upper-middle-class woman and we are obsessed with British* crime dramas. This was the first of the books I’d read, though, and it was great fun. If I ever have time to dive into a series again, I’ll definitely pick them up.

Strangers in a Strange Land, Charles Chaput—Not to be confused with Stranger in a Strange Land, by Heinlein, a very different book indeed. Chaput thinks that traditional Christianity is under attack, and that liberal views, particularly those on sexuality, are to be blamed for most of our current ills. He also thinks that civil authorities letting gay people be married is a far greater threat to our Church than, say, objectivism. He has some great things to say about the ideal society and civics, he just seems to have trouble identifying the actual problems.

Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep TufeckiAre you part of the #resistance? Good. Get this book. Read it. Bring it to your Indivisible or Flippable or Swing Left or whatever group and have them read it and talk about it together. And follow Tufecki on Twitter. I didn’t think everything about this book was perfect, but she has important things to say and we need to think about the questions she’s raising.

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obrecht—A moving tale told through the perspectives of a woman in the aftermath of the Balkan Wars and her grandfather. It tells the history of the place, and the story itself, and is imbued with magical realism and a painful sympathy for the region.

The Winter People, Jennifer McMahon—A suspenseful thriller and a modern day ghost story. The genre isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but the book was a page turner, and if you enjoy this type of book I think you’d love this one.

Getting Better, Charles Kenny—I know everything is horrible right now, especially in the developed world. But that’s exactly why a book like this is important. For one thing, it gives you some hope. For another, while so many on the right are trying to tear down the current order, and many of the far left (my political home) are too disillusioned and disappointed to vigorously fight for it, this book reminds us of the tremendous successes of post- WWII liberalism. I’d like to give a copy to everyone.

Nightfall and Other Stories, Isaac Asimov—Asimov is amazingly prolific, and as I mentioned about another collection (old sci-fi paperbacks are usually $.25 on half-price day at the library book sale, so I have several) he wrote so much that his short stories can be hit or miss. But “Nightfall”, the title story of this collection, is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.  Reading the whole book was worth it just for that.

The Best American Essays, 2003, Ed. Anne Fadiman—I love the “Best American” series, and I adore essays and long form articles, so I loved this book. My favorites were Katha Pollit’s very honest “Learning to Drive”, and “Home Alone”, which surprisingly had me cheering on a defense of Martha Stewart and her fans.

The Quiet American, Graham Greene—God, this book is amazing. I kind of want to read it again right now. Why Greene isn’t more held up as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, I don’t know. An amazing spy novel against the backdrop of Viet Nam, before Americans were even in the thick of it. It’s less than 200 pages and has more to say about colonialism, neoliberalism, revolution, and human nature than almost any other book I’ve read.

Disarming Beauty, Julian CarronDisappointing. This collection of essays circled back and occasionally repeated itself, but never built on itself. The whole was less than the sum of its parts.

The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar and the Geography of Desire, Richard Adams Carey—An incredibly engaging read. Carey does a wonderful job of talking about the history and future of caviar, going into detail regarding high end importers, the agents enforcing endangered animal treaties, environmental regulators, organized crime, and the politics of biologists. A great example of the genre of digging down into a rarely examined piece of life.

The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher—Rod Dreher thinks that Christians need to remove themselves from current society to the extent possible to defend the faith because traditional Christianity is under threat from people wanting cakes at their gay weddings and gender theory in schools. It’s basically just like communist Eastern Europe, an analogy he actually uses. But let’s leave that aside for now. The bigger issue is, how does one write an entire book about having lay people exercise a Benedict Option and never once mention lay Benedictine Oblates! I mean, that just seems obvious.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2009 ed. Elizabeth Kolbert­—The Science and Nature writing series is my favorite, and this was no exception. It’s a bit depressing—Kolbert is the author of The Sixth Extinction, and her knowledge of and interest in ongoing environmental catastrophe shows. But there’s plenty of other topics to round it out. Try reading Atul Gawande’s “The Itch” without scratching for weeks. I’m itchy again just thinking about it.

A Long Way Down¸ Nick Hornby—Four people contemplating suicide on New Year’s Eve meet each other and form connections instead. Entertaining, if you like Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) you’ll like this one, too.

Arkwright, Allen Steele—You know all those books by Clarke and Asimov and Heinlein that start out with humans on a planet we colonized long, long ago? This is the prequel. It should be a must read for any sci-fi fan.

Murder at the Dacha, Alexei Bayer—A murder mystery in Soviet era Moscow. Well paced, well written, and a good mystery novel that also paints a picture of life at this time and place.

Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett—The first in Pratcett’s Witch series in Discworld, it follows a girl who was accidentally made a wizard when women clearly can’t be wizards. I still don’t understand how I made it so far in life without reading Pratchett, but I’m doing my best to make up for it now.

Well of Lost Plots, Jasper FfordeThird of the Thursday Next series, our protagonist has taken refuge in Book World while she tries to un-eradicate her husband and plot how to take out Yorrick Kaine, a would-be dictator who’s escaped from fiction to the real world. And if none of that made sense, just start with The Eyre Affair and keep reading.

St. Francis and the Foolishness of God, Marie Dennis, Fr. Joseph Nangle, OFM, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, & Stuart Taylor—My only problem with this book is that it was clearly written to be studied at a prayer or small faith group, with discussion questions and everything, and it wasn’t presented that way up front. There’s limited utility if you’re reading it on your own.

The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian GreeneGreene traces the history of the scientific quest to determine reality and its beginnings from Galileo and Newton and on through modern string theory. It’s fascinating. Also, the difference between discussions at physics conferences and weed intensive college dorms is apparently just how many math equations are used.

Something Rotten, Jasper Fforde—Having left the safety of Book World, Thursday Next is now back in real-world England trying to take down Yorrick Kaine by ensuring Swindon wins the biggest croquet match of the year, deal with a mopey Hamlet, and find reliable child care.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco­—Umberto Eco is amazing. I still think Baudolino is my favorite, and a far too underrated book, but I will always have great love for this one. My fourth (?) time reading it, and I always discover something new.

And that’s it! I suppose not a bad showing on my part, but I could certainly do more writing. My main goal for the coming year.

Happy New Years, all, and Happy Reading.

 

*Okay, technically this one is Australian, but it’s on our PBS station that shows entirely BBC shows, so I think it counts as British Crime Drama.

^My youngest is 19 months, so I figure another 16 years or so until I have spare time.