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!
Even split between audiobooks and hard copy this month.
Really enjoyed Mama’s Last Hug and An Unconventional Family, so those reviews are coming soon.
What Ben read in March:
Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End by Kevin Alexander
Despite some complaints about the style and organization, it was a fun read. Tied together some of my other reading about American culinary trends and the recent cocktail renaissance. And it showcased both the brutal grind of the restaurant industry and how rewarding it can be.
Guitar Zero: The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age by Gary F. Marcus
Since guitar practice was soaking up some of my potential reading time, I figured I should look for possible synergy and read some guitar books. This one was very relevant, based on the author’s experience as a non-musical person (by his report even worse than me) trying to become a competent guitarist in his late 30s. As an educational psychologist by trade, he took a particular interest in questions of how people learn music and what factors are important in this pursuit.
A few of the notable takeaways:
Music is not inherent or hard-wired, but some elements of musicality are instinctive.
The popular “10,000 hours to mastery” trope is misleading. Quality of practice is just as important as quantity, and natural talent is not to be discounted. Jimi Hendrix was a better guitarist after 2,000 hours of practice than you will be after 20,000 hours.
But there is hope for everyone. With practice, even a person with zero natural talent can become a competent musician.
The Unholy Consult: The Aspect-Emperor: Book Four by R. Scott Bakker
This one was daunting to pick up, but I’ve come a long way with this saga and was determined to see the end. Unfortunately, it’s not really the end. It looks like we’re going to see yet another series before the story of the Second Apocalypse is complete.
I have a 75% love 25% hate relationship with this series. It’s original, imaginative, majestic, intense, exciting, unpredictable, philosophical, and truly an impressive feat of world-building. On the other hand it often puts stylistic pretensions ahead of clearly conveyed descriptions, it’s ponderous, abhorrently disgusting in parts, and populated with a cast of generally unsympathetic characters.
But the good outweighs the bad. I will read every single book that he writes until the Second Apocalypse reaches whatever resolution is in store. And when Bakker is on top of his game he comes up with some really epic quotes.
“Fool! You appeal to reason where there is none! You would put my hatred upon balance with my desire–show me the mad wages of my design! But my hatred is my desire. My ribs are teeth, my heart a gut without bottom. I am fury incarnate, outrage become stalking sinew and flesh! My shadow cracks the earth, falls upon hell itself!”
And damn if that ain’t the truth sometimes… 😉
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
The book that inspired Blade Runner. It was interesting to compare the two. The movie kept a lot of the same elements, but there are definitely some major differences. The book kind of builds up some sympathy for the androids, and then reveals them to be cold and lacking in empathy. The movie kinda goes the other way and gives the replicants (as they’re called in the movie) more empathetic treatment at the end.
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
A portrait of sports fanaticism, coming of age story, and self-deprecatingly humorous memoir, it was a fun read. While the review blurb on the back called it “tears running down your face funny, read bits out loud to complete strangers funny” I found it more, “snort quietly to yourself funny, read bits out loud to your wife funny.” But yeah, certainly funny. Read more like a bunch of sequential anecdotes than a continuous narrative, though there certainly was continuity of themes and characters.
Have you read any of these? Would love to hear your thoughts!
Time for another recap already! I would say, “Where has the time gone?” but I know exactly where it has gone and it has gone to gainful employment peppered with a few enjoyable social activities and far too little alone time for your resident curmudgeon. 😉
We went out to dinner for Valentine’s Day though and that was awesome.
Here’s January’s reading recap if you’re interested.
What Shannon Read in February :
I got lazy about reviewing February books, but here’s what I have so far:
I am, thanks largely to audiobooks, reading at a breakneck pace, which I fully admit I cannot maintain. I will inevitably tire myself out and end up reading, like, one book a month for half the year…Meanwhile, Ben, a constant and steady reader, will totally eclipse me in a real-life tortoise-hare situation.
What Ben read in February :
The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story by Julia Reed
Very conflicted about this book. To find an author who clearly shares almost the exact same love for New Orleans that I have was delightful. To then find out that I find that same author unlikable is very troubling. This person is me! This person is living a life I would love! I don’t like this person at all! Wait, uh oh…
She clearly comes from a very wealthy background, and sort of tries to play it off like it’s no big deal while at the same time going oddly far out of her way to drop names. She is admittedly rash and irresponsible, but nothing can ever really go wrong because she has seemingly bottomless funds and a squadron of domestic helpers at her disposal. She does at least see the help as individuals and care about some of their lives. Make of that what you will.
When Katrina comes she tosses last night’s champagne and lobster shells in the trash and decamps to her parents’ house a few hours away, where they promptly spot her an extra 5 grand just to tide her over. She returns to find her house basically unscathed and spends the rest of the time buddying up with the National Guard and talking about how the grossly corrupt governor she used to be friends with would have handled the crisis better.
The book left me with Hall and Oates in my head:
“You’re a rich girl, and you’ve gone too far
‘Cause you know it don’t matter anyway
You can rely on the old man’s money
High and dry, out of the rain
It’s so easy to hurt others when you can’t feel pain…”
Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, and Revolution of the Electric Guitar by Alan di Perna and Brad Tolinski
An enjoyable survey of my somewhat newfound hobby. Some of the Gibson/Fender/don’t-forget-McCarty history was already covered by the more narrowly focused “Play It Loud” but it was fun to get another perspective on those years, and this book moved quickly enough that I didn’t feel bogged down in covering the same ground.
While most of the book is history, the authors do get current enough to cover the White Stipes/Black Keys “garage rock revival” movement, and make some interesting points about how formerly scorned guitar brands/models are now getting their time to shine as cool vintage artifacts.
There’s some late musing about what the future of the instrument might be and its overall significance. That part is brief, but to the authors’ credit they do support their musings about the future with themes developed throughout the book.
For any one specific guitar topic, there’s probably a more detailed book. But if you want a one-book course on The Electric Guitar In History and Culture this would be a great contender.
King of Ashes by Raymond Feist
Bringing back a beloved name in epic fantasy. Feist is a guy whose work I read a lot back in the day, and then kinda felt like I outgrew it. But while browsing I saw that he had just published book one of a new series and decided to give it a shot for old times’ sake. Turns out our man still writes some very enjoyable character-driven page turners.
Sins of Empire
Fun epic fantasy in a world that includes both magic and gunpowder. It’s book one of a series, but there was an earlier series featuring some of the same characters. I might read that too even though now I’m thoroughly spoilered up. Seems like some heroes lived long enough to become villains.
The Castle on Sunset
Fascinating look at the history of the Chateau Marmont. Hotel histories are kind of a thing for me now, after I read about The Plaza last year. Fascinating how so many hotels are almost completely anonymous, but then some become huge cultural icons. Lots of Hollywood gossip and history wound up in this one, although it gives disappointingly short shrift to the Sunset Strip era of our lifetime. Would have appreciated a little more rock n roll along with my Hollywood.
This one was really good: dense but readable, and full of huge ideas. Pretty impressive to read how many of the concepts that we think of as being products of the modern scientific mindset were actually formed in ancient Greece in the first century BC. I may have to read some Lucretius at some point, the book hypes it up so much.
Shannon again: As you may be aware, Ben and I have a friendly competition every year to see who reads the most books. You’ll see I’ve made a good effort in January, but note that I am also famous for my reading slumps. I will inevitably stall out and have some 1-3 book months, and I fully expect Ben to win our challenge in 2020, as he has the past several years. 😀
Ben responds: I think Shannon may be overstating my chances for the 2020 race, but I’m not giving up. Gonna try to bring the noise in February. Taking my inspiration from the words of professor Gerald Lambeau, “So, let this be said: the gauntlet has been thrown down, but the faculty have answered, and answered with vigor.”