And just like that, it’s October, one of my favorite months of the year. It’s time for spooky and cozy things, but it’s still warm enough to conduct outdoor activities in comfort. For me that means drinking more hot coffee and tea, decorating for Halloween, and giving the garden a good clean-up.
To whit, here are some autumn-y garden shots, plus goofing around with the fam, and walking a happy dog through the park. Also, Elvis the polar bear has his Halloween costume ready to go. And we celebrated Ben’s 41st bday, but slacker wife that I am, I can’t find any photos of that…
That’s the life update you didn’t come here for. Now, here are the books you did come for!
What Shannon read in September:
Affluence Without Abundace and Catching Fire
These two formed a theme. Both focus on hunter gatherer societies. Affluence Without Abundace offers a look at an existing hunter gatherer society in the Kalahari. It reflects on the Bushmen’s natural tendency to work only as much as is needed for food and comfort (as do/did most hunter gatherer societies). And author James Suzman introduces us to members of the group, illustrating the many new challenges such a society faces as their home territory is eaten up by the larger society, allowing them little room for their traditional way of life.
Catching Fire offers a look into the development of fire, its use in cooking, and the place of cooking in human history. Richard Wrangham posits that cooking directly affected and encouraged sapiens’ development as a species. Fascinating!
The Wife Stalker and The Therapist
Funny to have read Affluence Without Abundace: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen along with a thriller bearing the hilarious title of The Wife Stalker. 🙂 Hey, everyone has their brain candy. That’s exactly what The Wife Stalker and The Therapist were. I do love relaxing with a good, cheesy thriller.
This is what I like to call a “smart thriller.” In my opinion, books like Pretty Things fall into a category apart from those like The Wife Stalker. These novels are signified by smart writing, good character development, and a thorough sense of place. The mystery moves the story along deftly while the reader is engrossed with the characters.
In Pretty Things, a woman whose mother is in need of expensive cancer treatment becomes a con artist. She needs to carry out one last big job to pay for an experimental treatment. (Ain’t that always the way it goes?) The target is a social media influencer overwhelmed by family secrets. It takes place in a historic mansion in Lake Tahoe.
All the elements of a smart thriler! And I thoroughly enjoyed this one.
A quick historical fiction read that centers on a nanny–one of my favorite protagonist types.
The Great Alone
I’m sure you beat me to this one. It’s been so popular that I ignored it like the book hipster I pretend I am. This is one of those novels that can be tritely described as “sweeping.” *eyeroll*
It’s the story of a family who moves to Alaska in the 70s, centering on thirteen-year-old daughter Leni. She comes of age in a small town surrounded by vast wilderness, growing up with a violent Vietnam vet father and a mother who is loving but cowed by and entirely devoted to her husband.
I’ll be honest, this started off slow and there were definite dips in the narrative with what felt like barely enough plot to keep me moving along with the story. But I am more tolerant of such issues in audiobooks and I did listen to this. So I was able to stick with it and I found it very much worth it in the end.
This is a heartbreaking story. It begins with the rape of a young second-generation Mexican-American teenager in the oil town of Odessa, Texas in the 1960s.
What struck me about the book was author Elizabeth Wetmore’s ability to incorporate a healthy number of characters, and to write from the perspective of each, without losing the story line. Somehow, we read from the perspective of more than five characters and can transfer between them with ease.
Anyway, it’s an excellent book.
That’s it for September. Tell me what you’re reading! And let me know if you have any good spooky book recommendations for October!
I guess I only blog once a month now, but since I don’t have a lot of readers, I feel like that’s OK. This space is mostly for me to get out my thoughts about books. If you enjoy reading them, thank you! Let’s be friends and talk about books. 🙂
I went back to the office. It was a rough transition, but we have a brand new building on campus, so that’s fun. Here’s my new cubicle. It needs some artwork.
Still gardening too. Here’s a local volunteer garden I have been helping with. I’m a little over halfway toward getting my Master Gardener certificate.
And that’s about it. What’s up with you? Tell me in the comments.
Now, in case you just came for the books, here is…
What Shannon Read in August
Some Notes ‘n’ Things
The Great Gatsby:
Still great! I hadn’t read this in so long. It’s a summery book in my mind, so I went for in the 90-degree melee that was August, and I read it in about two days. I know we’re not supposed to call classics “readable” but I must say, this one is, OK? I’d forgotten how easy it is to get wrapped up in the story. Does good writing sometimes make you forget about the writing entirely because you’re so involved in the story? Let’s discuss.
Also, why is everyone but Nick a terrible person?
Also a re-read for me. This is about a woman who chaperones the famous Louise Brooks on her first trip to New York to become a dancer. I love the characters, the simultaneous story lines, and the glimpse into 1920s Kansas and NYC. Recommend.
Good historical fiction, but will not be a favorite for me. This one is about a Florence Nightengale-trained nurse who in 1859 travels from England to care for a young Irish girl, “the wonder.” The girl has been fasting for months, taking in nothing but water. This is ostensibly for religious reasons, but the reader, along with the nurse, gets to the bottom of the mystery as the nurse observes the girl and her family day in and day out. Watch out for the English bigotry against the Irish.
The Underground Railroad:
Why did it take me so long to read this? You probably beat me to it and already know that this is a heart-breaking and wonderfully written novel about living in and escaping from slavery. 10/10
My sister-in-law Susannah, founder of Wines and Bends, is a wine afficianado. When she and her family moved here during quarantine, we became a tightly-knit crew, mostly hanging out with each other. We had wine at pretty much every gathering and I learned a ton from Susannah just by asking about the different wines. That led me to Cork Dork, the memoir of a journalist turned sommelier in NYC.
This book tells the story of wine and serving wine in restaurants, while offering education on the sciences of taste and smell–oh, and there are about 100 types of wine mentioned, so I now recognize many more in every day situations than I ever did before. The process of becoming a somm is explored in detail. What a fascinating world. I’d recommend it even if you’re not that interested in wine. I wasn’t and now I am.
The Four Winds:
This is an epic tale of one woman struggling to keep her children safe in Dust Bowl Texas and small town California of the 1930s. I listened to the audiobook and fell in love with narrator Julia Whelan. I will now listen to pretty much anything she reads.
The book itself totally grabbed me. Though melodramatic at times, I found the writing generally excellent and the characters engrossing. Many driveway moments were had.
That’s it from me! What are you reading? I’m on a total historical fiction kick, so let me know if you have recommendations!
It’s August. What happened? I blinked, went to New Orleans at the end of July, my sister-in-law, brother-in-law, and nephew moved, and now here we are.
We are going to miss those folks like crazy. We became a tight crew during the raging-est part of the pandemic.
I’m also going back to the office tomorrow for the first time in months and months. My anxiety knows no bounds and I have no idea what to wear. I just know I can’t show up in my Metallica tshirt the way I do for Zoom meetings.
But here we are.
Anywho, here’s what I read in July. Mostly audiobooks, with some library books sprinkled in. I’ve now got a yen for contemporary gothic novels, especially if they are about spinsters or mansions or nannies. So hit me up if you have suggestions!
What Shannon read in July
Flowers in the Attic:
When I was a teenager, I read every V.C. Andrews book I could get from the library. I thought it would be good fun to revisit Flowers in the Attic as an adult and see how it held up. I listened to the audiobook and it was weirdly engrossing. Seriously, I’ll probably reread it again sometime. That said, the melodrama was almost unbearable at times. Still good fun.
Like One of the Family:
This is a classic about a black domestic worker and her experiences throughout her working life, as well as during the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. If you don’t understand what domestic workers have been through in the U.S., and what many go through even now, I recommend reading this one. The way Childress handles the subtleties of racism may be illuminating. Or, as it did for me, the book may reinforce your understanding and remind you that we still have a lot to fight for in this country.
Okay Fine Whatever:
One of those fun memoirs about trying new things. Lots of good fish out of water moments for Hameister, but mostly I remember the sex-capades, to be honest. I can’t recall if the book focused a lot on those or if they just stood out to me. I feel more informed about polyamory though.
The Invited and The Companion:
Great spooky, gothic fun.
I loved the protagonist, who is a Victorian spinster with a terrible father who is trying to marry her off. There’s a loving housekeeper, some will-they-won’t-they action with a fiancé, and, wait for it, a dead mother who lives in the woman’s neck. Yep, I thought it would be too weird for me too, but I loved this book. Again, good gothic fun. This was my favorite book of the month.
And that’s all she read! Thanks for visiting.
I leave you now with a great view of the Mighty Mississippi and a pic of us at the New Orleans Audubon aquarium–a rare moment when no alcohol was being consumed. Don’t worry, we fortified with daiquiris directly before.
Abbi Waxman – Is there anything better than discovering a new-to-you author who has written a ton of books? I feel like I could now read all of Waxman’s. Her style is a little bit chick lit, a lotta’ bit LA. I loved The Bookish Life of Nina Hill for its set-in-her-ways protagonist, the ensuing love story, and the fun LA setting. There’s also a good bit of family drama for those that like such things.
Orfeia – I never read fairy tale reimaginings, but this book was so beautiful with its bronze leaf cover design that it called to me from the library shelf. And the story was fascinating. I don’t have a lot of patience for ethereal atmospheres, but I loved this book anyway.
Beyond Anne of Green Gables – I knew L.M. Montgomery had other series and stand-alone novels, but didn’t delve into them until I saw Jane of Lantern Hill on a list of #CottageCore books. I’m fascinated by that whole trend and it’s probably no surprise. I read Jane (not sure why that pic is so blurry…) and then The Blue Castle and loved them both.
Daddy Long Legs – A very dated epistolary novel. It was enchanting. Highly recommend.
The Creative Spark – Here’s a man who really wanted to hammer home a point and, while the evolutionary history was really interesting, I’m not sure he made it.
And that’s it. Not too terribly exciting, but July should be more fun because I just reread Flowers in the Attic. Oh the melodrama!
I leave you now with the gorgeous garden of a historic mansion in our city. If only mine looked half as put-together!
`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 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!
Welp, I upped my game and managed three-ish reviews this month and none of them were books I actually read in June. A slow start, but here we are.
Happy 4th to the Americans and happy weekend to everyone else! I’m not particularly proud of my country at the moment, but I’m doing my best on my own anti-racist journey and hoping to encourage others to embark on the same.
–After the Flood: SO good. Will review it shortly.
-Two rereads: It Was Me All Along because I’m a sucker for a weight loss/eating disorder memoir; and Somewhere Towards the End because I never want to stop reading Diana Athill’s thoughts on aging and life in general.
-Can’t say enough about Nothing Good Can Come from This. Another book that made me feel seen.
The Obstacle is the Way: What a load of schlock.
What Ben read in June:
The Genealogy of Morals: It was good to come back and revisit this. I hadn’t read much Nietzsche since college days.
Legend: Another reread, this is the book that got me started on the delightful fantasy of David Gemmell. Mostly a pretty light action/adventure, it does also dabble in philosophizing about life in the shadow of death.
The Rap Yearbook: This was a fun read, and denser than you might expect from looking at it. The author has a rather frenetic, wisecracking style which complements his enthusiasm for the topic. He chooses the rap song that he deems most important for each year. Not necessarily “best” or “his favorite” but the one that mattered most in the history of the genre, and supports his choice with an essay, supplemented with charts, graphs, and illustrations.He often allows critics a little sidebar to make their case for an alternate pick. It was fun to get an inside perspective on genre trends that I had observed casually without really unpacking and dissecting the way a true aficionado like Serrano would.
Shameless Garden Update
Here is a shameless garden update because I can’t stop myself. It’s my new obsession.
My lovely mother came over last weekend and helped me dig out the rest of the rockery area. Seriously, she is amazing and I am so grateful. It would’ve taken me three days to do the work we did together in a couple of hours.
The dirt we dug up waiting under a tarp (to prevent washing over the yard in the rain) waiting to be hauled away:
It doesn’t look like much under that tarp, but…it is.
Was, rather. Filthy Hands Property Preservation came over yesterday and hauled it away for us. Took two guys around 45 mins. to shovel it into their truck.
You have to pay to get rid of dirt. Not a thing I anticipated when I started gardening. I do not understand the world sometimes.
Rocks laid out and representative of Neighborhood Squirrel Watch on back porch:
All the rocks and bricks were given to me by neighbors and this week I received enough to finish the job. More shameless updates to come.
In the meantime, here are Steven Q. Squirrel and his lady friend availing themselves of the birdseed I threw in the yard for them. Because of my habit of throwing seed off the porch to them, some of it has landed in the mulch bed and germinated. So we are growing an accidental millet crop.
Quarantine continues to make me real weird. 😉
Happy reading and, if you garden, happy gardening!
We’re still over here reading. It’s just been a helluva spring, as I know it has for everyone…everyone on the planet, really.
My work picks up the pace in the spring and this year our efforts were especially dependent on those assigned to digital projects. Who knew a writer could be so gainfully employed? 😉
So I had my hands and brain full. Too full for blogging.
I found relief in the yard, planning my garden, starting a gardening log…
…and sourcing plants and rocks for a rockery, which I’m determined to have, but to create at no cost.
Rockery area “before”:
It took around 2 hours to get this far, hacking away at the tree roots and fighting the 90-degree heat before it claimed me.
Much progress was made in other areas.
Bed on south side of house “before,” clogged with myrtle (bah!), hostas past their prime, and baby maple trees (no bueno):
The same areas after…
Hydrangeas and baby pink muhly grass presided over by Ernesto the Gnome:
I feel like that side of the house can breathe again.
In my other life as a collagist, I am once again part of #the100dayproject, completing collages and sharing them on Instagram.
These creative endeavors have contributed much sanity as the world has erupted around us with disease (bad) and protests (much needed). We have been quarantined and working from home like the rest of the world. And, like others who understand the evils of the legacy of slavery, we have gone out to support the Black Lives Matter movement in our community.
A protest and march that met up at our courthouse:
In the meantime, and this is what you came for, Ben and I are reading.
I continue listening to audiobook thrillers as a means of escape…blessed escape…
What Ben read in April/May:
Wrath of Empire by Brian McClellan
After the first book (Sins of Empire) I was interested in the series but not 100% sure if I was going to commit to it. But Wrath of Empire won me over, leaving all the preliminaries behind and cranking up the pace of action and intrigue from “brisk” to “rocket.” Six hundred and thirty nine pages with hardly a dull moment. I’m excited for book three.
The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick
Slow at first compared to the show, but picked up a bit as it went along. Ending is a bit enigmatic, calling the nature of reality into question. There are many references to the I Ching, and if I were more familiar with it I bet there would be some additional insights to be gleaned.
Side Glances Volume 1 by Peter Egan
Nostalgic look back at one of the great automotive monthly columns. Starts before I started reading it, and runs up a few years past when I first began.
Side Glances Volume 3 by Peter Egan
What happened to Volume 2? I’ll have to ask Chase (who lent them) next time I talk to him. This volume picks up toward the end of my tenure as a Road and Track subscriber, though I continued reading his column (courtesy of free Tire Rack promotional copies of R&T) until he stopped writing it in 2013. Egan remains an occasional contributor as an “editor at large” and is generally considered to be one of America’s all-time great automotive journalists.
Magic Kingdom for Sale by Terry Brooks
A throwback reread of a fun, fairly light fantasy novel from one of the big names in the genre. I was amused to note that I happened to pick it back up at the same age as the protagonist, 39. It was fun to revisit, I may re-read the rest of the series if the spirit moves me.
Trouble is What I Do by Walter Mosely
This one was a little short but packed a punch. Mosley seldom disappoints. And in the middle of a fairly self-contained story he dropped a major twist into the life of Leonid McGill, the main character in his 21st century noir series.
If you’ve read this far, thank you! And thanks for stopping by. I aim to be a more regular blogger (famous last words) and if we’ve connected in the past, please comment or like and let me know you’re here–I’d love to reconnect. If you’re new to this blog, welcome!