Oh dear. Due to an overloaded prefrontal cortex, I have had neither time nor presence to blog about books and I’ve really missed it!
Finally dropping in to recap an entire quarter of a year of reading for internet posterity (hah) and to hopefully reconnect with reading friends.
Due to sheer volume, I’m separating a usually combined recap into his and hers. This post is all about Ben’s reading, though I (Shannon) am posting on his behalf. All mini-reviews are his.
I promise to pepper with unrelated images for your entertainment.
Do comment and say hello if you stop by and haven’t totally given up on us. We’d love to hear from you whether or not you’ve read any of the same books!
What Ben read July – October:
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.
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.
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
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.
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!