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Books read, early June. - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Books read, early June. [Jun. 16th, 2012|10:07 am]
Marissa Lingen
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Anthony M. Amore and Tom Mashberg, Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists. If you watch Criminal Minds, you will have seen what the authors are doing before. They are very carefully not aggrandizing these criminals. They are very much trying not to make them glamorous, not to puff them up in media. This is entirely reasonable; the criminals they're describing don't deserve it. Except. They're describing a 5% recovery rate on stolen Rembrandts. Five percent. So when the authors talk about what we know about thieves of fine art, they are talking about the small fraction they've caught--and they give no justification whatsoever for why the vast majority of cases still unsolved should be in any way like them. So this was mildly interesting but far overstepped what it had data to talk about. Only recommended if you have a very specific interest in the subject and a great many grains of salt.

Mike Carey, Linda Carey, and Louise Carey, The Steel Seraglio. Structurally a bit weird (I don't mean the chapters, I mean the sections), but I did like this quite a lot. There is the chapter about the cook under regime changes that is the chapter that is just perfect for me. And there are things that are structurally inevitable for the story, but then there are also the things that are moving pieces that didn't always move in ways I could anticipate, so I liked that very much. It's the story of a bunch of women who take charge of their own fate in rather nasty circumstances, but not grimdark circumstances. It's got fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, true love...wait, I am not actually describing anything very much like The Princess Bride at all, tonally. Or in setting: it's all deserts and like that. But still: fun stuff.

David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years. As markgritter mentioned when he read this, there were a couple of lines that were howlers that were getting a lot of attention. But other than those, I found this really interesting. I particularly appreciated how Graeber did not fall into the trap of treating Eurasia as though it had a gigantic wall somewhere around Greece, whereby Europe and Asia were Totally Totally Separate For All Time Until 1700 Or So, when, seriously, no. In some ways this feels like the tip of an iceberg. But that's all right, I'm glad to keep reading icebergs.

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus. The title is enough to tell you whether you want to read this book. If you see the title and go, ooooh, then yes, you do--although if you go meh, you might still want to. It is what it says on the tin. I am not myself a circus person, but Morgenstern does a beautiful job with it. (It is substantially a people kind of circus with very little of the animal kind, just to differentiate. More Cirque du Soleil than Ringling Brothers.) The structurally inevitable ending is handled beautifully, there are lots of lovely intermediate moments, it is highly visual without making highly non-visual me want to gouge my eyes out. And there are lots of points of quiet. This is undervalued, I feel, and very welcome. What I do not understand, though, is people who are claiming that it is in some way magical realism or some other term that means "not really a fantasy novel." It is really a fantasy novel. It is about a magical duel and a magical circus. It is a fantasy novel, really really. Really.

Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud, A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron, Forgotten Heroes of World War II. Oh, this book, you guys. This book was so good and made me so angry. It's mostly about the Polish fighter pilots who flew with the RAF during WWII, but it gives a lot of background about the Polish military and how imperialism from both Germany and Russia has affected our view of Poland in the west. It makes me a little queasy about ever having heard a Polack Joke. Lynne Olson has now moved into my Read Everything By This Woman column. I am specifically focused on non-military nonfiction at the moment, and this was good enough to break that rule for sure. It was particularly good in dealing with some of the ways Germany treated Poland differently from its other conquered territories--I'm in the middle of an interminable volume of Polish history that has handled some issues here much, much worse, so having Olson & Cloud do it well as a side note to the main thrust of their work was simultaneously wonderful and frustrating, as I wanted to grab the other author by the shoulders and go, "See? SEE? This is how it's done."

Tony Perrottet, Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists. This was on my "recommended at 4th St., should probably read some of those before next 4th St." list. Also with the non-military nonfiction. Perrottet and his pregnant girlfriend did a lot of traveling in the ancient Mediterranean, and he researched what kind of recreational travel the Romans did and talked about it. It was light and chatty and fun, as long as you didn't mind hearing about the modern travelers' adventures also.

Mary Roach, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. This was also light and chatty and fun, and full of putrefaction. Two major caveats. One is that Mary Roach seemed to feel that people needed a great deal of hand-holding to deal with death and corpses, and...really? Someone who was going to pick up an entire book on this topic seems likely to be at least a little willing, to me. The people who are going to go, "Oh ick ack!" and run away are not going to read this book. The other caveat is that she really had some unexamined bits about why, exactly, we sometimes get unsubstantiated rumors about other cultures and which other cultures we get those rumors about. She just didn't think to stop to ask, and as a result there was a whole bit about China that could have been a lot better. On the other hand, her urge to do the Jumble with her mother post mortem was one I could relate to extremely and found rather sweet. I was not left alone with my grandfather after he died, but if I had been, there might have been several puzzles completed, and I am, I find through some discussion, not the only one with this reaction.

Greg Rucka, Finder. I think the genre here is thriller. It's about a bodyguard. It was fun. I only wanted to punch the protag when the author wanted me to want to punch the protag, isn't that nice? It's such a step up from a lot of thrillers, where I want to punch everybody all the time. Anyway it is non-speculative and has nothing to do with any of the other things called Finder. But is former-military-nerd-character fun anyway if you like that sort of thing, which I do from time to time.

Mari Sandoz, The Beaver Men. Grandpa's. This had one of the most inappropriate covers ever. (No, not that. Honestly, people, this is a family lj and one of my grandfather's books. Elevate the tone for just half a minute.) It was a rough-and-ready mountain man--essentially, yes, a voyageur, as it should be--standing against a backdrop of an American flag. Except, um. Most of the action took place in...oh guess where? Look at the map! Where are there the most beavers? Yes! Canada! Now look at the timeline. This is a history book. When did most of the action take place? Yes! Before there was a United States; certainly before there was a United States flag. So the poor voyageur was given an American flag for backdrop because...? Because...? Um, USA! USA! Right then. Also it was a book that will make attentive Minnesotans feel the sense of living in Baja Canada rather keenly, because there are all sorts of Canadian officials and historical figures we've gone and named things after. Not just "explorer who wandered around the North including us and them," either. Explicitly Canadian officials. Other than that, there were a few dated references on the First Nations cultures, particularly right at the beginning of the book, but it was a pretty straightforward history of the trapping and hunting trade. For the number of years I spent in Nebraska, should I admit that this was my first Mari Sandoz? Well, it was. She and Willa Cather are the two people they try to force-feed you when you are a little girl in Nebraska who shows a writing bent, and read O Pioneers! and then Ran And Hid. (It was so little like books with space pioneers, and it did not deserve the exclamation point. I am Just Saying. Nobody in that book was enthusiastic enough for an exclamation point, much less so enthusiastic that the exclamation point could not be contained in the book and had to migrate out to the title. Very few books are enthusiastic enough for a ! in the title. See also: churches. It's a lot to live up to. It's very risky. It's like walking up to a crowd of people and saying, "I'm extremely brilliant and hilarious. Here, listen." You might well be moderately interesting and funny, but once you have said you are about to be brilliant and hilarious, up go the standards, and I feel that way about ! in your title. Unless it goes at the front like !Tang. But I digress yet again.) But I am past that now. Which doesn't mean I'm diving eagerly into these things. I'm just not shying away from the ones Grandpa had.

John Scalzi (scalzi), Redshirts. Discussed elsewhere.
LinkReply

Comments:
From: athenais
2012-06-16 03:27 pm (UTC)
Tony Perrottet, Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists: I'm pretty sure I read this ten years ago when it was called Route 66 AD. I wonder why he's renamed it and repackaged it? Or, perhaps, why his agent and publishers thought it ought to be. Not sure about his history, but his travel writing is pretty amusing.

I might have to read A Question of Honor now. Thanks.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-06-16 03:29 pm (UTC)
It says on the cover that it used to be called that, yes.
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[User Picture]From: redbird
2012-06-16 03:56 pm (UTC)
Have you read Lionel Casson's Travel and Tourism in the Ancient World. Again, what it says on the tin, with the note that the "ancient world" here is more or less what you'd study if you took a classics degree, rather than all of Earth at a certain time period. But it's very good on Greece and the Roman Empire and the long history of tourism to and in Egypt. (Egypt has a lot of history. I could have said that (if I remembered enough Greek) to someone in Alexandria two thousand years ago, and the reaction would have been "well, yes, and the sky is blue" or "yes, which bit are you thinking about?")
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-06-16 04:34 pm (UTC)
I have not, but my library doesn't have it. It does, however, have his book about ancient libraries, so that's now on my list.
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From: vcmw
2012-06-16 04:04 pm (UTC)
I am so much more likely to read The Night Circus after hearing you say it is unambivalently fantasy. I've been quite curious, but literary North American magic realism is only very occasionally my cup of tea.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2012-06-16 04:23 pm (UTC)
Re: The Night Circus and genre classification, I'm fairly certain that's a taste hierarchy issue. (Fantasy novels are Teh Suxx0r, you see, and invariably about Thugor the Barbarian and his ilk, whereas The Night Circus was good!)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-06-16 04:36 pm (UTC)
The thing is, if what people mean is that people who don't like fantasy novels should give it a try, that's a welcome thought, but the fantasy is overt enough that I don't see why they should be more willing to give it a try than anything else in the genre. If we're talking about non-usual but willing readers, well and good; if we're talking about hostile readers, they won't like it any more than anything else in the genre, I wouldn't think.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2012-06-16 05:50 pm (UTC)
See, I think you're generalizing from one Mrissa, and not taking into account that there are a (non-trivial) number of readers out there for whom having something flagged as A) award-worthy and B) non-genre (i.e. "art") means that they will be able to read literally the exact same text and enjoy it more.

(The link is to a silly comic, but it does communicate the point I'm trying to make here.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-06-16 09:27 pm (UTC)
Sigh, yes, I guess so.

It just makes me feel like jumping up and down and saying, "THIS IS ART!" in one direction, and, "NO REALLY IT'S A FANTASY NOVEL!" the other way about literally everything.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2012-06-16 05:55 pm (UTC)
Did the Poland book go back to Kosciusko and the '93 Constitution and how Poland promptly got screwed into nonexistence by Russia, Prussia, and Austrian, and then strung along with heartbreaking cruelty by Napoleon? If so, I'm going to take a look at it, though I've already read about the heartbreak of the Falais Pocket.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-06-16 09:29 pm (UTC)
Not in any detail. Somewhat, but not a lot. The Kosciuszko bio I have is better for that. The two-volume history of Poland I'm in the middle of is...not nearly as good as you'd hope in that regard.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2012-06-16 10:07 pm (UTC)
*sigh* two hundred years of denied existence casts a loooooong shadow.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-06-16 10:09 pm (UTC)
And Olson and Cloud did a really lovely job making that visceral. They really did. I was incandescent with rage at so many spots reading that book. But the main thrust of their book was about the WWII fighters, so they had to do some of the sections rather quickly.
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From: diatryma
2012-06-16 07:37 pm (UTC)
I'm going to be paying attention to your nonfiction for a while because you seem to pick good nonfiction. My own nonfiction-picking skills are not so good-- I'm in the middle of two books that are really, really academically-written. Although only one of them has a colon in the title.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-06-16 09:29 pm (UTC)
Well, I do like really academic stuff, too, but I try to flag it clearly.
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From: diatryma
2012-06-17 01:08 am (UTC)
I've found a couple tough ones lately-- one is just not written for a popular audience and drags, and one has been a little too steeped in things I don't actually know. I was dreadfully spoiled by The Girls Who Went Away, which is perfect for how I read nonfiction.
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[User Picture]From: firecat
2012-06-17 09:17 am (UTC)
If you're interested in art heists you might try Robert Wittman, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures (he headed the FBI art crime team).

One is that Mary Roach seemed to feel that people needed a great deal of hand-holding to deal with death and corpses, and...really?

Yeah, I had a problem with that too.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-06-17 11:32 am (UTC)
This was actually a case of "markgritter has this in the house, hey, free book!", but I will make sure I use him as my guinea pig call his attention to this comment.
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[User Picture]From: zalena
2012-06-17 02:19 pm (UTC)
I loved O Pioneers! but agree about the exclamation point. (So many shades of Walt Whitman.) However, I did not encounter it until my mid/late twenties and was fully prepared for its operatic prairie tragedy. (And I just checked... it was made into an opera in 2008.)

My first Cather book was Song of the Lark and as I was at that time also a girl from Colorado studying to become a classical singer the book was absolutely devastating to me. The older I get, the more I feel that Cather was right, and I was also right not to go down that role and make those sacrifices.
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[User Picture]From: auriaephiala
2012-06-17 08:25 pm (UTC)
Many thanks for the reviews. Always interesting.

all sorts of Canadian officials and historical figures we've gone and named things after

My goodness! For example?

Re A Question of Honor: I was influenced at a young age by reading Sacha Carnegie's historical novels set in Poland & Russia in the 18th century and all featuring highly noble, brave and intelligent Polish heroes/heroines. (Besides, of course, having friends whose families came from Poland...) Have you ever read any of the Carnegie novels (Banners of War/Love/Power/Courage/Revolt etc.)?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-06-17 08:48 pm (UTC)
Well, just for one example the picture in my bathroom is from Frontenac State Park. Which is here, not across the border.

And no, I haven't read any of the Carnegie novels.
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[User Picture]From: toadnae
2012-06-18 08:15 pm (UTC)
I think a fair amount of the hand-holding was that Stiff was the first of the Mary Roach books in that genre, and everyone was a bit afraid of it. Her later books do much less hand-holding.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-06-19 01:22 am (UTC)
News I Can Use, thank you.
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