Straightforward and thorough how-to: If you tell me how to plant a certain type of seed indoors, for example, you’d better also tell me when to pot it up and harden off.
Don’t be skimpy on the details. I am new here.
Beauty: Great photography, good graphics, illuminating illustrations, lovely plants to take in with my eyeballs, etc.
Opinions: The personality of the writer-gardener is of utmost importance to me. If you are boring or are suppressing your personality in the interest of widening your book’s appeal, I’m out. The library shelves are stacked with boring gardening books. Even if I don’t like your personality, I would much prefer that you have one. It makes the writing so much more interesting.
Have opinions! State them! Let me decide if I like you and your work or not.
Inspiration: Show me the way. I want to know things but also be inspired to do things.
Plants in my zone: I know. You can’t show and write about plants in everyone’s growing zone all the time. But I’m not gonna’ lie–if I’m reading your plant book, I’m looking for plants I can grow in zone 5a.
(Weird to have a list with an even number, but here we are.)
With all that said…
My Favorite NONFICTION Books About Gardening and Plants
Anything by Aly Fowler
Alys Fowler doesn’t know it, but she is one of my mentors. I first got to know her through her book Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery. This is her memoir of kayaking (pack-rafting, actually) the canals of Birmingham, England.
It’s a beautiful book about finding nature wherever you are, and it’s also the story of how she left her husband and realized she was gay.
Fowler is a former presenter on the British show Gardener’s World (with which I am obsessed), and she has a whole catalog of gardening books under her belt.
These are three I own. I reread them all the time and have two of the audiobooks through Audible because I like listening to them whenever I need a hit.
Amy Stewart is a long-time gardening writer. She is one of the founders of Garden Rant, a favorite gardening site of mine. She’s also the author of The Drunken Botanist and the Kopp Sisters mystery series–Girl Waits with Gun is the first. You may recognize it.
Honestly, this is the only book of hers I’ve read so far. I loved it and plan to reread it this summer.
For those who don’t know, Vita Sackville-West famously had an affair with Virginia Woolf. She became a tangential member of the Bloomsbury set, which included Woolf and her husband, plus Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell and the crowd whose base was the famous Charleston farmhouse.
That was a lot, sorry, but I’m deep in the Bloomsbury life right now.
At any rate, apart from all this, Vita was also a writer and gardener. With her husband Harold Nicolson, she created a famous garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent in England.
This particular book, In Your Garden, is a compilation of Vita’s gardening essays, which she wrote for the London Observer.
This is another one that made me burst into tears from time to time. (The first was Burnout.)
I was born in 1980, often considered either the last year of Gen Z or the first of Millennials, depending on who you ask. This means that my childhood was a mix of 80s and 90s pop culture experiences, a little bit Workout Barbie, a little bit Reality Bites.
I’ve experienced the landmark events that helped shape the worldview of both generations:
-Child of baby boomers -Lived through dotcom bust -I wanted my MTV -Crippling student debt (paid off now THANK GAWD) -911 -2008 financial crisis -The rise of social media -Many others I’m not naming
One of Calhoun’s major points is that women’s midlife crises are essentially different from men’s. First, we have them. That’s something not many people know.
And second, they look “different” because gender inequality means that women are often still meeting gender role expectations while having their crises.
Basically, privilege tends to offer men more leeway for expressing their own personal crises. They’re not necessarily also meeting the caregiving expectations that women are. (That was a simple point with a lot of couching language, but it’s hard to generalize and be accurate here.)
I loved Calhoun’s framing of the generations and empathized with many of the feelings ascribed to women of my age, including:
-Constant money anxiety (whether it’s warranted for me personally or not)
-The pressure to succeed in my career while balancing family life; Boomer women paved the way for us here–both creating greater ability for women to have careers and supporting the “you can have it all” message–and the overwhelming expectations that come with it.
I used to feel this more acutely when my kiddo was smaller, knowing I didn’t even really want a career in the first place and constantly feeling “not good enough” as a mother because he spent waaaay more time in day care than I (or he) wanted.
As all moms know, somehow you make it work because there is no other option. I should note here that I am not the norm when it comes to Gen X/Millennial moms. I had a baby in college. I’m 40 and he’s in college now, while many women my age have younger children. So they’re still living through this pressure.
-Decision fatigue–blessedly, there’s a whole chapter on this and I felt it so deeply. On my last birthday, Ben, so solicitous and eager to celebrate me, asked what I wanted for my birthday dinner. All I could think was, “I don’t want to have to think about that.” So, that’s what I said. He chose something he knew I’d like and I didn’t have to make a decision.
But that says something about how tired one’s brain is. I didn’t want to have to choose the food for my own birthday dinner, for heaven’s sake.
I think this book, like Burnout, helped me most by naming feelings I didn’t have names for. And by telling the stories of other women my age, which made me feel infinitely less alone.
Also, there’s a chapter on peri-menopause and menopause with a wealth of information I didn’t know. Did you know that peri-menopause can last 13 YEARS???
Healthcare community, we need way more education than we’re getting on this topic. My thanks to Calhoun for this chapter. I now know what to expect.
One of my gripes with books like this is the usual lack of “how to.” You’ll often get a lot of social commentary, a lot of “why,” but not much “what to do now that you know.”
Calhoun does pepper some “how-to” throughout the book and there is a final chapter called “New Narratives,” which offers some solutions she personally came up with to deal with this time of life–and the aforementioned feelings. But the book has more why than how.
I found it useful just the same and ended up buying a copy to reread in future.
`Tis the season when I give everything the brush-off in favor of gardening and outdoor activities. If you live in a Northern state or, you know, the Northern Hemisphere, I assume you understand why. Total desperation.
Special thanks to Mother Nature for giving us a real spring here in Northern Indiana. I’ve got all kinds of plant babies cookin’.
Terrible lighting and terrible phone camera photos, but clockwise from top left:
> Geranium phaeum ‘Raven’–a real stunner in the shade garden > Rhododendron maximum: (Great laurel aka azaleas, as they’re generally referred to around here) > Proof you can grow seeds in anything–those are plastic berry containers and they’re growing in the guest room under lights. > Matteuccia struthiopteris (Ostrich fern)–another shade garden special. I planted it last year and it was just getting going when the cold hit. Looking forward to seeing how big it gets this year.
And there is lots of porch sitting to be done.
We’ve gotten an awesome dog trainer and that nervous little muffin is getting schooled on proper behavior–not biting small children being one of the objectives.
And our crew is playing Dungeons and Dragons nearly weekly now. I feel like a qualified nerd now that I’ve played, even though I don’t understand half of what’s happening and why. If you follow me on Goodreads, you’re about to see Dungeons and Dragons for Dummies added to my current reads.
But my Jacob, our DM (that’s Dungeon Master for the unschooled), is awfully patient and helpful. He’s amazing at running our campaigns, writing fun adventures each week. He even does special voices for the characters we encounter.
In other news, my mom and I hit Chicago last week and it was so fun to get out into a big city and pal around. We went to the Art Institute first, always a joy. Then we walked around downtown, hit some shops, mourned the loss of Fields, stared at the river for awhile, and wound up at Navy Pier. That place was hoppin’. Did you know you can walk around with frozen margs there now??? Saving this info. for future trips.
Women Who Run with Wolves: A feminist new-classic. Meaning, it was written in the 90s so it’s somewhat contemporary, but it has a very Second Wave feel.
I recommend it for any woman looking to *eyeroll* step into her power. I’m rolling my eyes because that’s become a bit of a meaningless catch-phrase. But let me just say that if you know you have innate power but are having trouble accessing it, or are feeling powerless, it may help to read this book because it is about the natural power of being woman-identified in our world.
The House of Mirth and The Old Maid: MOAR Edith Wharton! I can’t get enough of her ever, so I’m now rereading the major novels and finally dipping into more of the novellas. The Old Maid is one such novella. I loved it.
Elizabeth and Her German Garden: Read this for the first time last year and it is now one of my favorite books of all time. I can see myself rereading it each spring. I got myself a very pretty Penguin version as a gift.
I have loved every book I’ve read in the past two months. If I had to pick a few favorites, other than the rereads, which are always favorites, I’d have to list every book.
I leave you now with a glimpse of my fussy spring mantel-scape, including my two Mother’s Day cards made by Jacob and Desiree’ (peep my hand in the mirror, haha).
Don’t worry, I didn’t write a personal essay today. Just a good ole fashioned round-up of books I read in the first quarter of the year.
How is the first quarter gone? I’m still reeling from 2020.
Per usual, books are keeping me relatively sane. Relatively. I’m following my bliss, as they say, with no real regard for the Classics Challenge or any other self-imposed structure.
That also means I’m nowhere near reading at the pace I managed last year. All my wordy power is going into the writing and proofing I do for work. Are one’s executive functions supposed to slow after 40?
Modpodge and themed mantels are also keeping me sane.
How about you? Tell me what weird (or normal if you’re like that) stuff you’re doing to sane.
This author wrote a fun New York Times article on this topic and it is better than the book. She essentially has one idea that she and an editor managed to streeeeetch out over way more pages than were necessary in her book. Most of the book is filler–stories from the time she spent researching and observing exotic animal trainers. If you like animal stories, you’ll like the book. If you want the straight deets on how she applied what she learned to her marriage, read the article.
That said, this whole concept rubbed me the wrong way. A lot of the “training” she was doing with her husband surrounded “second shift” work. It seems to me she is required to do a lot of the emotional and physical labor in her marriage and that needs to be addressed head on. Because women shouldn’t have to train their husbands. End rant.
In times of trouble, I turn to David. Whenever I’m taking life too seriously, his essays remind me that life is here to be experienced and that, when viewed from a distance and some added humor, one can experience life as something to be marveled at, laughed at, and enjoyed–even when it’s not the way you want it. You know, as long as your life is essentially going well.
Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey
I also turn to Bronte in times of need. These rereads are straight comfort reading for me. I listened to both while walking and ModPodging.
I do not give a crap about the early presidents, but this was excellent! Thanks to my sister-in-law for lending it to me. Coe writes a smart, funny, and feminist *praise hands* bio of Washington that will keep you entertained from the first page. Just read to the “thigh men” part and you’ll be hooked.
1. Tate’s therapist is a creep who, if he’s still practicing, should have his license taken away. Tate does not know this and presents her attachment to him with zero self-awareness. 2. Definitely don’t listen to the audiobook. She narrates it and it’s terrible. 3. The writing is pedestrian at best. 4. Why did I read to the end?!?!
And that is that! What are you reading? How are you staying sane?
I listened to it via Audible, then bought the hard copy, and now I listen to various sections on repeat to remind myself I’m not alone in the world.
I’d say that’s a joke, but I think you know I mean it.
I began researching and reading books about burnout and midlife crises last year because, call me basic, I turned 40 and found myself in a classic scenario: burnt out from working despite my “good” job with great coworkers, utterly depressed by the prospect of working for another 25 years (or more, depending), facing an empty nest (despite how proud I am of my grown-up kiddo), and approaching a future that looks like a big question mark.
COULD I BE ANY MORE PEDESTRIAN?!
All I need is a high school reunion to lose weight for. If I were a man, I’d already own a Ferrari. Or at least a Miata.
Add quarantine, plus a change in my meds, and I eventually became someone I didn’t know. I vacillated between total depression and going down to the basement to smash things. Two sides of the same coin, really.
All these feelings were uncomfortable and my response was to do what I always do: freak the fuck out for a while and then turn to books for answers.
What i read
I wasn’t attracted to any of the midlife classics, like Passages by Gail Sheehy. And I certainly didn’t want to read anything like The Middle Matters: Why That (Extra)Ordinary Life Looks Really Good on You by Jo Baker. I mean, does that title reek of uber-Christian-direct-sales mogul or what?
But if you identify as a woman in this society, you know that thanks to gender expectations and a raging patriarchy, women tend to face a different kind of midlife crisis than men.
This kind of crisis is often alluded to in novels right before the woman kills herself because, say, she pinned her hopes on an affair and of course that didn’t resolve any of her real issues, so she throws herself in front of a train.
Right now, I need books that recognize that my need to smash things is not just due to the midlife issues listed above. It’s also the product of fatigue from a life lived under the expectations of caregiving, including tending to the feelings of others above my own and being charged with wrangling an overload of details.
A bitch be tired.
When I found Burnout, I listened straight through on Audible, going for long walks so I could spend more and more time with it. If it were a TV show, I’d have binged it.
The audiobook is read by the authors, two sisters who happen to be great readers. They trade off reading and I felt like a good friend was talking to me throughout.
Burnout starts with an explanation of the stress response–a neurological and physiological reaction in the body–the basics on how it evolved, and why, in post-industrial life, we don’t have an outlet for it so we can “complete the cycle” of this stress response.
Here’s the explanation of the stress response as it developed in early humans.
I’m sorry I didn’t type this out. It was just too much for me to reinterpret.
I finally understand why I sometimes cry when I exercise. I’m filled with the effects of a stress response on a regular basis and when my body experiences the release of exercise, akin to running from the lion and getting away (or killing it), my body says, “Aaahhh, finally, the lion is dead. We’re safe.”
As I understand it, the crying is my body exhaling and returning all systems to their normal baseline.
Why this evolutionary function doesn’t work for modern life
Well, when someone is an asshole to me at work, my body unleashes a similar stress response. It doesn’t know the difference between running for my life and someone repeatedly talking over me in a meeting. It simply “knows” it is experiencing stress and therefore initiates the pre-programmed stress response.
But because I can’t just punch the asshole in the face for obvious social reasons, there’s no release. The response is initiated, but never completed. I remain tense, alert, with blood pressure elevated, etc.
I can go home and dance it out, and the Burnout writers recommend this, but divorcing the body from an immediate release takes its toll on the body. Oh, and also, five more things have stressed me out by the time I get home, so now I’ve got a backlog.
What to do about stress
Following chapters describe actions we can take to help our bodies “complete the cycle.” Exercise, as we have all pretty much guessed, is one key.
They also go into the stressors of modern life, apply the stress response and its completion to these stressors, and–this is what I had hoped for–discuss particular stressors faced by women in our illustrious patriarchy.
I could go on, but i won’t
This is a super long post and you’re probably already tired of reading–I know I’m tired of typing. So, I’ll let you get your paws on the book and fill in the blanks.
Please read or listen to it–this info. is also relevant for men. Everyone needs a better understanding of the body’s reaction to stress because everybody has stress, whether it’s induced by gender expectations or not.
And if you’re feeling the midlife crunge like I am, know that you’re not alone.
I now take off my glasses to read up close, but it’s cool. It’s also “the new hotness,” according to Emily and Amelia. I’ll let you enjoy that section on your own.
I find books about depression uplifting. Generally speaking, that is, they give me hope.
I myself am a highly functional depressive. I take medication and employ a regimen of tactics, such as regular exercise, therapy, and eating green things I don’t like, to keep myself functional.
Chief among these tactics is reading books by other depressives and by “experts,” both of which tend to buoy me in one way or another.
Matt Haig’s popular memoir/self-help/overview of depression, Reasons to Stay Alive, certainly fit the bill. I listened to the audiobook version read by the author and enjoyed it so much that I bought a hard copy so I could highlight favorite passages.
Haig begins with the story of his breakdown. As an adult in his 20s, Haig was living with his girlfriend and depression hit him like a ton of bricks. He became suicidal and his despair was accompanied by panic attacks and a raging case of agoraphobia.
The content of the book is mostly autobiographical, but Haig peppers his experiences with research about depression and anxiety, as well as helpful tips, and–I loved this–literary references.
He’s interested in the lives and coping mechanisms of famous depressives–especially those who chose to live with depression (until dying naturally, that is). The blurb for the book says it is about how to make the most of the time you have and that, I think, is the truest way to encapsulate the content. The chapters are short, sometimes consisting of a single quote or a list.
I loved the book because I personally identified with something in almost every chapter: the exhaustion that accompanies depression, the social anxiety, the anhedonia, the fear of one’s own uncontrollable mind. I know many other depressive people have felt the same way in reading this book.
Sometimes it helps to read a book like this just to hear someone else say the things you’ve only said to yourself.
But also, Haig shares some hope. He shares exactly what works for him. Mainly reading and writing. But also exercise, especially running, healthy eating, facing his fears, the love of his wife and family, regular time outside, and many other tactics in his own regimen.
Is that gonna’ stop me from signing up for this year’s? Also heck no!
I may not have finished a single effing Classics Challenge (hosted by the lovely Karen of Books and Chocolate), but each year I reap the benefits anyway.
I read wonderful new-to-me classics. I delve into authors I’ve been meaning to read for years and haven’t gotten around to. I read novellas, plays, children’s books, novels I know the names of but not the stories.
One of the more fun things about reading the classics is that I suddenly understand certain cultural references and see them everywhere.
To wit, last year I read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and noticed that one of my neighbor’s wifi networks was named NEWLAND ARCHER. Hah! I’m in on the reference. What a time.
1. A 19th century classic: any book first published from 1800 to 1899
2. A 20th century classic: any book first published from 1900 to 1971. All books must have been published at least 50 years ago; the only exceptions are books which were written by 1971 and posthumously published.
3. A classic by a woman author.
My default reading style is pretty much this categeory and I have too many ideas to even contemplate settling on something at this point…
4. A classic in translation, meaning any book first published in a language that is not your primary language. You may read it in translation or in its original language, if you prefer.
5. A classic by BIPOC author.
6. A classic by a new-to-you author, i.e., an author whose work you have never read.
7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author–a new book by an author whose works you have already read.
Brimming with ideas here.
8. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title. The animal can be real or metaphorical. (i.e., To Kill a Mockingbird).
9. A children’s classic.
10. A humorous or satirical classic.
11. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction). It can be a travelogue or a classic in which the main character travels or has an adventure.
12. A classic play. Plays will only count in this category.
How about you? If you’re participating in this challenge or just plan to read some classics this year, please share!
I was entering the 35 books I forgot to log into my dorky reading spreadsheet the other day and Ben simply said, “Serves you right.” 😀
So in case you thought we weren’t competitive about our reading challenges after all these years…well, we are.
The truth is that I read 85 books this year, 25 more than my Goodreads Challenge goal if you’re keeping track (clearly I wasn’t).
My belief is that it’s all thanks to audiobooks because I had a hell of a time concentrating in the quarantine world. I’m not entirely sure why. I would settle into bed with a book at night, suffer through a few pages, toss it aside, and pick up my phone.
Anyone else struggling like this?
In the meantime, I ran through audiobooks like a fiend, getting anxious when I finished one and immediately starting the next. They have been my only real and satisfying means of escape this year, a year when work got busier than ever and life got weirder than ever.
But enough about me–how ’bout those books!
2020 Wrap-up and Nerdy Book Stats
Total books read: 85 Fiction: 51 Nonfiction: 34 Female authors: 70 Male Authors: 15 Nonbinary/Trans authors: 0 – Again. Gonna’ add some to my library holds immediately. Non-white authors: 10 – Better than last year, but certainly not good enough. E-books: 9 Audiobooks: 45 – A real record for me. Re-reads: 9 – Started an official re-reading project in 2019 and kept on keeping on in 2020.
These numbers won’t add up to my total books read because some books fit into more than one category.
I stopped paying attention to the categories for each about halfway through the year, I’m afraid. But I still managed a good number of classics and historical fiction. And those were the goals, so I’m calling it a win.
Every year, the Classics Challenge encourages me to discover new-to-me authors and this year did not disappoint in that regard. I delved into the world of Edith Wharton and fell in love.
I read all of these:
My favorites were The House of Mirth, The Custom of the Country, Summer, and The Age of Innocence – in that order.
I will, in all likelihood, attempt it again this year. The worst that can happen is that I won’t finish again, and it will be totally worth it!
Ditto the When Are You Reading? Challenge. Not an excuse, but I had the hardest time finding well-written historical fiction this year. There’s a lot of crap out there. (Also an applicable blanket statement about 2020.) Stillwater and The Shadow King were excellent though.
Some 2020 Favorites
Below are some few of my favorite books read this year. All in all, I’d say it was a great success.
What about you? If you have reading wrap-ups, please link them in the comments so I can check them out! Or, just let me know what your favorite/least favorite books were. I’d love to see.
Thanks so much for stopping by and Happy (belated) New Year!
Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of The Beatles: The title is a reference to their use, for the first time, of a state-of-the-art 8 track solid state (as opposed to the older valve state technology) mixing desk. This “making of an album” story is partly an exploration of how the Beatles and their producers utilized (and in some cases drove) the advances in studio recording techniques. But it inevitably becomes even more a story of the unmaking of the Beatles, and how they managed to create a masterpiece amid the chaos of their impending breakup. Stylistically the writing doesn’t dazzle, but as a work of rock and roll history it shines.
The Architecture of Happiness: This book was absolutely charming. The author begins with an argument against the idea of taking architecture seriously at all, then spends the rest of the book turning that initial premise upside down. De Botton’s idealism sometimes gets ahead of his rhetorical rigor, but he puts forward so many intriguing ideas that I’m not inclined to hold that against him. One concept that was particularly striking was that a society often finds most beautiful those qualities which it most sorely lacks. Thus a palace in the seething hive of corruption that was Medici-era Venice might be filled with references to virtue and nobility. A society beset with chaos and instability might value the tranquility of abstract and symmetrical design. And the more we lose contact with the natural world, the more we emphasize its beauty. De Botton also introduces a useful rubric for the vast majority of us not trained as architects to begin evaluating successful architecture. He emphasizes the successful combination of opposing elements, particularly order and complexity. We can look for other balances as well: history and modernity, natural and manufactured, luxury and modesty, masculine and feminine, or whatever elements might be in tension for a particular project. A student of philosophy as well as an architect, de Botton asserts the Aristotilean idea that beauty is most often found in a balance between extremes. He closes with the admonition to future builders: “We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.”
Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present: If you wanted to read just one book of 300 pages or less that explains the Western world today, this one would be hard to beat. Even with some apparent tangents to explore the biographies of less-central figures, Blom paints a concise and balanced portrait of how the Medieval-style social structures were transformed, partly by a renewed interest in Classical scholarship (see The Swerve, which I have read previously and was therefore tickled to see the author reference), but also by the environmental pressures of the Little Ice Age, which threw a wrench into the formerly stable model of subsistence agriculture. Blom insightfully traces a line from a society structured around an absolute faith in Divine Will of God to a modern society which places its faith in the Invisible Hand Of The Markets. In some ways it was a massive revolution, and yet in other ways the new system still relied on faith-based doctrines to keep everyone working to the ultimate benefits of the elites. And of course it is no great leap to imagine that just as the previous order was unable to survive that historic climate crisis, the current order may not survive this one. Along the way he touches on many of the biggest intellectual icons of the era : Montaigne, Spinoza, Voltaire, Locke, Descartes, Shakespeare etc. We also get useful overviews of Colonialism/Mercantilism, the struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, rivalries between the major European powers, Jewish life in Europe during that period, and how the rise of trading economies was linked to an increased openness to new ideas and influences. Do not skip the Epilogue, which is where Blom makes his strongest effort to apply the lessons of the Little Ice Age to our current time of global warming.
The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business Ranges across a variety of industries, from sports stadiums to health care to air travel to illustrate how the wealthiest people opt out of the often-deteriorating systems that the “rest” of the people have to use. In an economy where the richest few percent control an ever larger share of wealth, there is plenty of incentive for businesses to cater to the ones with the money. And when the richest and most influential people don’t have to use the shitty public version of something, they tend not to support it politically, which can lead to a vicious spiral. But it’s not all gloom and doom. Schwartz does examine some businesses that make a point of being more egalitarian, and are successful. And there are also some models of letting the rich pay more for a VIP experience without worsening the experience for everyone else. For example: a music festival that has a VIP tent, but instead of putting it front and center blocking everyone’s view, they put it off to the side where it doesn’t take anything away from the experience of general admission ticketholders.
Gideon the Ninth: I’ve often lamented how overblown the promotional blurbs are for new sci-fi and fantasy books. This one delivered on everything advertised, so let’s give some credit where it’s due. “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space! Decadent nobles vie to serve the deathless Emperor! Skeletons!” Yup, 100% as advertised. Thanks Charles Stross. Soooo many skeletons. Though for such a dark and pulpy book, the lesbian romance was more cute than salacious. “[something covered by the library sticker] …and gleaming. A profane Daria.” Not sure what the first part said, but yeah, that’s an excellent analogy, person-whose-name-is-also-covered-by-a-sticker. “Muir’s writing is as sharp as a broken tooth, and just as unsettling.” Well, maybe not thaaaat unsettling. But I’ll allow it V.E. Schwab (if that is your real name). “Punchy, crunchy, gooey, and gore-smeared, Gideon the Ninth is a pulpy science-fantasy romp that will delight and horrify you to the bitter end.” Kameron Hurley definitely read the book and got it. “Necromancers! Dueling! Mayhem! Gideon the Ninth is disturbing and delightful in equal measure — I loved it to pieces.” My old friend Yoon Ha Lee, delivering the straight dish.
The Sun Also Rises: You know I always have to get my summer Hemingway in. But I don’t always know which book(s) to choose. This year though, the desire to read The Sun Also Rises sprang up seemingly of its own accord. I discovered that it’s a good book to re-read when you’re older and more cynical. I was much less sympathetic toward Jake and Lady Brett’s nonsense this time around. But even while scoffing at the reality TV-style drama and recriminations of the main characters, I enjoyed, as always, Hemingway’s keen enjoyment of simple things. The big drama of the book is in Paris and then at the bullfighting festival in Pamplona. But the little side trip Jake takes with his friend Bill to go fishing is one of the most charming sections of the book. Hemingway’s appreciation for a good meal, a drink with a friend, a joke with a stranger, the beauty of nature, and reading in bed are all amply demonstrated. It always unsettles me a bit that a man with such a keen enjoyment of life’s everyday pleasures would end up killing himself. Bonus note: This book has one of my favorite quotes: “How did you go bankrupt” “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
A Red Death: This is jumping back to a book that I missed in the Easy Rawlins series. Reliant as I’ve been on what’s on the shelf at the library, I’ve kept most of the series in order. But this one had escaped me until now. I’m glad I doubled back for it, because it sheds light on the early stages of Easy’s relationships with some of the prominent characters in later books, most notably his business partner Mofass and his best friend’s wife Etta Mae. It occurred to me that this series would be fun to pair with Mad Men for some kind of analysis of mid-century America. They cover similar time frames, centering on the 50s and 60s (though the Rawlins books cover a slightly wider spread). Mad Men is East Coast, mostly white, and deals with the upper echelons of wealth and power. The Rawlins novels are primarily Black, West Coast, and deal primarily with poverty and the underworld. Though both are willing to cross over a bit. Mad Men detours into the seedier side of society and Easy Rawlins sometimes finds himself enmeshed in the machinations of the rich and powerful.
Up In Arms: How The Bundy Family Hijacked Federal Lands, Outfoxed the Federal Government, and Ignited America’s Patriot Militia Movement: Temple, an investigative journalist, paints a vivid portrait of the Bundy family’s defiance of the Federal government, particularly the Bureau of Land Management. The Bundys, with their wildly flawed Constitutional scholarship, religious zealotry, and disregard for environmental consequences don’t come off looking like heroes. But the federal authorities were hardly pure themselves. The agent in charge of the attempted confiscation of the Bundy herd was aggressive, abrasive, and (it later came to light) abusive and corrupt. The extent of federal land ownership in the West is more fraught than I once realized. East of the Rockies, the proportion of federally held land is quite small. But out west, particularly in Nevada it is wildly different. Eighty-five percent of NV is controlled by the federal government. So the state only controls 15% of its own territory, which sounds kind of insane. Utah, Idaho, and Oregon all control less than half their geographic territory.
The Art of War New Norton Translation: This is a new translation of the oft-cited classic. I haven’t settled on a favorite, but this one was enjoyable to read. Nylan, who has a strong publication history of Chinese scholarship and translation, employed a team that included a former military officer and a poet, along with, as she puts it “the usual sampling of academics.” I did miss the concise, evocative, and popular line from the Griffith translation: “In death ground, fight.” Nylan’s translation renders it less elegantly, if no less emphatically, “And always, always in the deadlands, fight like hell.” On the plus side, chapter 12 yields this delightfully Yoda-esque injunction: “When nought’s to gain, move not. Over things of little worth, fight not. Save in direst need, war not.” And if you’ve ever been tempted to wade into the comment section of a social media post to tell strangers how wrong they are, that passage is for you.
Sword of Kings: The Saxon Tales (I swear they used to be called The Saxon Chronicles but it’s definitely Tales now) are still going strong. This book had a little bit of an odd feel to it, with protagonist Uthred’s motivations seeming a bit contrived, and his strategic thinking taking a big step backward from the last couple books. That kind of annoyed me, because I had enjoyed seeing him develop from a young and easily manipulated hothead into a canny leader who is still physically formidable but relies a bit more on his brains than he used to. But human development isn’t strictly linear, so we’ll chalk it up as either a temporary lapse or the workings of Fate, in which he so staunchly believes.
Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion: I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I did The Architecture of Happiness. The author’s tendency to make sweeping generalizations with little or no support is on full display. But he makes some salient points about the psychological functions that religions have traditionally served, and how the modern secular/atheist culture does not necessarily adequately replace everything that religion provided (and continues to provide) for many believers. Overall it was still enjoyable, despite my occasional bouts of scoffing at what struck me as inaccurate assumptions. And it’s always good to read things that we don’t necessarily agree with to broaden our perspectives or sharpen our own arguments. In this case perhaps a bit of both.
Peace Talks: This book is one of those in-between books in a series. It definitely moves the plot forward, but spends a fair amount of time on setup. And the ending is really just the beginning of a larger struggle. So as a stand-alone work it does not completely satisfy. But the Dresden Files world is just such a fun place to hang out that I don’t really care.
Folding the Red into the Black: Mosley tries his hand at political theory with his vision of an UnTopia. He worked on, but ultimately abandoned a PhD in political science, so he’s fairly qualified to write on the topic. His insights into human nature, which serve him so well as a novelist, seem more pointed than his loosely-stitched political theory. But while he’s short on the specifics of implementation, he basically advocates for something along the line of a European social democracy: a robust safety net to guarantee that everyone’s essential needs are met at a basic level, along with a free market for those who wish to pursue a standard of living above that most basic tier. He advocates for a tax on robot labor, a shorter work week, and strong checks on the tendency of corporations to bend government to their own advantage. His vision is for people to be “free to be who we are, but bound to help all others along our way.”
Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands An engaging, character-focused look at the Crusades. Jones is the right kind of historian for me to read for fun: authoritative enough to take seriously (he quotes only primary sources in this book), but engaging enough in style to be an enjoyable read rather than a slog in search of knowledge.
Network Effect: I LOVE Wells’s Murderbot series. Network Effect is a full length novel, where the previous entries in the series were more novellas. The longer format does not pose any problem, it’s just more of a good thing. Network Effect functions as a swashbuckling space opera, a dystopian critique of corporate profiteering run amok on a galactic scale, part of a series-spanning meditation on the nature of personhood, and a storyteller making an argument for the importance of her craft in how we define ourselves.
Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth, and the Case of Two Missing Girls: The title does not undersell the harshness of this true crime odyssey set on the desolate plains of Oklahoma’s forgotten lead-mining country. And the subtitle “Murder, Meth, and The Case of Two Missing Girls,” is equally apt. Miller makes herself and her own precarious mental state a leading character in the book. I never completely warmed up to that approach, but her material was compelling enough for me to work through it. Miller does an outstanding job creating atmosphere as she describes the Oklahoma prairie and the towns that figure in her story. The dark, grim, small-town claustrophobia is one of the most haunting impressions from the book, along with the horrifying quote: “Out of respect for the families, and to avoid sensationalism, the DA’s office does not detail all that is included in the photographs. From what I learn through some of the confidential witnesses and law enforcement, the photos include the very things that the mind tries to protect you from.”
Mr. Campion’s Seance: A take on the classic British Whodunnit, anchored in the WWII years and spanning subsequent decades, it typecasts itself very knowingly and self-consciously. A fun read and features enjoyable characters. Maybe a little more style than substance, but sometimes that’s fine
Otaku: Have you ever wanted to read a feminist, post-global-warming-apocalypse, cyberpunk action adventure written by a former NFL punter? You should.
A Pale Light in the Black: I’ve been a fan of Wagers for a little while now. They (not going by “she” anymore) always deliver a lot of fast-paced space opera fun along with well-executed social commentary. Trying to cram too much obvious social messaging into a fun-loving work of fiction can often come off as awkwardly heavy-handed, but while Wagers lays it on fairly thick, they do it with such endearingly human characters that I never find myself complaining.
Blacktop Wasteland: High-octane (pun intended) fun featuring a trying-to-go-clean getaway driver. There’s a last bit of of polish that’s lacking, a little too much telling vs showing, but it looks like this may be the author’s first publication so he is certainly one to watch. Will he become the Walter Mosley of the Mid-Atlantic region? I’m inclined to guess he’ll stay a step behind, but I’ll happily read his next book if and when it arrives.
That’s all she (he) wrote!
Stay tuned for the Shannon list. It’s a doozy. Thanks for stopping by!
HIGHLY recommend the audiobook version of Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, narrated by Marin Ireland.
It’s the story of Lillian, a 28-year-old woman from rural Tennessee who moves to the home of her wealthy high school friend Madison to take care of Madison’s stepchildren.
The two met at an elite boarding school some years before, to which Lillian had a scholarship and which she thought of as her way out of the sticks. Lillian and Madison, her randomly assigned roommate, became fast friends and played basketball together.
Lillian is everything I love in a protagonist: weird, dark with a tender side, funny, selfish, fallible, and self-aware but not enough to prevent the drama of the novel.
And narrator Marin Ireland’s reading from Lillian’s perspective is *finger kiss* perfect. I loved every minute of her reading and took a couple of extra long bubble baths to listen to more.
Lillian is also poor and Madison is astonishingly wealthy. I always enjoy seeing what rich people get up to through the eyes of characters who have less money. I empathize with that. Can’t think why…
Lillian and Madison’s relationship is weirdly, I don’t know, entangled, or something. And we don’t quite know why at the beginning of the novel. The two are attached. And we very slowly learn that, actually, Lillian took the fall for Madison in high school when she got into some big trouble. In fact, Lillian was actually kicked out of her boarding school because of this incident. And she never quite got her life back on track. But she remained in touch with and attached to Madison anyway.
When Madison asks her a very, very big favor to begin the novel, Lillian surely owes her absolutely nothing, but agrees to help her anyway. And we find out that Madison wants Lillian to care for Madison’s new stepchildren who have this teensy little problem.
They burst into flames when they’re upset.
It’s wild. I thought I would hate it. I have a very low tolerance for magical realism. I am annoyed by fairy tales and I find fantasy that isn’t Lord of the Rings irritating. And yet. This kids-bursting-into-flames novel is so well done. So believable. That I couldn’t get enough.
It was ridiculous and I loved it.
The resulting character development and sheer fun of the story is worth suspending your disbelief. And Kevin Wilson doesn’t make you work very hard to do it anyway.
He even rewards you with a fairly happy ending. A satisfying one anyway. I won’t give it away. But read this one if you are at all tempted. And let me know how you liked it.