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

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Books read, late August. [Sep. 1st, 2012|05:13 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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Not feeling very good this last fortnight, which means lots of books again.

W. H. Auden, Complete Works: Prose Vol. 2, 1939-1948. This was very like reading a mostly book-focused blog from these years. It was a lot of book reviews, some theater reviews, some essays, mostly short, some longer. And it was all very flavored by the time. When he didn't like a philosophy book he read in 1944 and found it unsatisfactory, he did not hesitate--as one of us would probably now hesitate--to use the analogy of being transported to Poland and put in German uniform. Because it was contemporary politics. It was like saying, "Okay, but what if we were in Syria?" Uncle Wystan is wrong about a great many things, some personal and some artistic, starting with the work of women in general and Dorothy Sayers in particular. But he's greatly entertaining to read, and a book like this is like a bag of potato chips is purported to be. (I've never actually had this experience with potato chips. I don't really like potato chips. But the compulsive "just one more" thing.)

Robert Jackson Bennett, The Company Man. Everything about this cover--as I said earlier in the month about the Bornikova book, but in a different way--everything about it says, "GO AWAY NO MRISSAS WANTED." Everything except three words: Robert Jackson Bennett. Bennett had previously sent me a copy of his later novel, The Troupe, and I'd liked it very much. So despite the fact that the cover clearly claims that this is both horror (I don't like horror) and American gothic (I am one of those commies who hates America--wait, no, that's not right--but I am not so fond of American gothic--nor yet of the obvious, which is not what they meant, obviously), onwards with The Company Man. And it did the things it claimed on the cover that I would not like. And it did more things I do not like, like having the hero with a serious gritty drug problem, and not just drugs but opium, which, seriously, so tired of the opium. And I liked it anyway. Which goes to show. That I must buy ALL THE BOOKS, or at least get them from the library! Wait. No. That is not what it goes to show. (Well, okay, it might be. But probably not.) Samantha's romantic decisions didn't make much sense to me, but the trolley car and all the moving pieces that fit around it and everything...the way the whole plot unfolded, with the 1920s feel and the company and the police and the union interacting, and...yes. I liked this. Even though it had all the hallmarks of things I don't like.

Phillipa Bornikova, This Case Is Gonna Kill Me. Discussed elsewhere

Ally Carter, Out of Sight, Out of Time. This disappointed me. The way the ending unfolded really did not feel satisfying to me. There were fun sequences in the middle, but the people who turned out to be bad were utterly predictable to me, and the source of information in the end was...meh, not at all fun and cool, I thought. It was a fast read while I was in it. It just wouldn't bear any thinking about even while reading it, and I feel like readers deserve better no matter their age.

Colin Cotterill, Grandad, There's a Head on the Beach. This is not a Dr. Siri book. This is his other series, Jimm Juree, and after two of them, I think I am done. They're contemporary, not historical, and...Jimm just hits me wrong. It's possible that she is keenly observed from Cotterill's observation of young Thai women? It's just that she--and the rest of the people in the series--just don't seem like people he likes very much. Or respects very much. And without the fun historical details, without the magical realist stuff, and without good characters...why am I here again? Oh, right: I don't have to be. Onwards, then.

George Dyson, Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. So I picked up this book and actually said, "AWW BLESS," aloud, because George looks just like his dad. (I am reliably informed that he's bigger. This is not surprising.) And he kind of rambles like him, too. The bit about William Penn, for example, while unobjectionable, had not a great deal to do with the main thrust of his point about early computing. Also, this book reinforced my theory that books about mathematicians and their pals are so gossipy. I don't know if this remains true in the era when computer scientists have diverged significantly from mathematicians, but mostly I've read about early computing rather than middle/late. Anyway! This did get into crunchy, interesting stuff, and the digressions were interesting digressions.

Åke Edwardson, Sun and Shadow. This is much shorter than the Stieg Larsson books but should hit some similar buttons for people who are addicted to those and are missing them now that there aren't more. Darkish Swedish murder mystery, slightly dubious use of sexual content. Not a favorite, not horrible.

Alan Hirshfeld, The Electric Life of Michael Faraday. Nineteenth century physicists and chemists: all pretty crazy. (And most of them fought with Lady Davy, apparently!) Which makes biographies of them a good bet when well-done. This was a short, fun one. Recommended.

Jonathan I. Israel, A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy. I had hoped that this would be a small and readable pocket thing that I could recommend to people who didn't have the time to read his larger things, one of which is the monstrosity I'm reading when my neck will stand it. Unfortunately it is not only shorter, it's less interesting. Still interesting about Enlightenment philosophers and political attitudes, just--so much less scope as to make me not bother recommending it really. Alas.

Graham Joyce, Some Kind of Fairy Tale. This is like a beautiful Pre-Raphaelite painting with Zippy the Pinhead scrawled in the bottom corner. Graham Joyce is doing this modern fairy tale thing, with the story of a family distorted and damaged by the disappearance and reappearance of one member who goes away with the Fair Folk. (And if you think she hasn't, you're a very hostile reader.) And it's got these bluebells, and this mud, and it's in places lovely and in places earthy, and it's what it meant to be. Except there's this policeman with a speech problem--he can't say his r's. And the way he's handled is really awful. Just really terrible. He's not a major character, but he mars the book something fierce. It's the reason some people are just terrified of having their books out in public, frankly, because the ways in which you are a small and mean-spirited person will sometimes make themselves known, and here is one. Graham Joyce apparently thought that having this man calling Richie "Wichie" and making him fat would be a good thing for this book with a ring dropped on a mossy rock in a moment of anger and grief. I have no reason to think that Graham Joyce is cruel to waiters or kicks dogs. But when someone who is otherwise a quite reasonable and intelligent adult person has a problem with their speech, Graham Joyce is the ass who is snickering in his sleeve going, "She said Thtephanie for Stephanie, har har har, I should put something like that in a book, that'll make it--" Look, I don't even know what that was supposed to make it. Comic relief? Sympathy for an already sympathetic character who was a teenager who was locked up for his girlfriend's murder when we already knew she wasn't murdered? It was a bad misstep. He should feel ashamed he wrote it that way. And such a minor character, too. It's a shame.

John McWhorter, What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What It Could Be). Most of this was straightforward and sensible and interesting. I felt like there was one way in which his convenient acronym IDIOM for what language is led him astray, and that was his insistence on O, language is Oral. It looked to me like what he meant was more like E, language is Experiential. But IDIEM is not nearly as convenient an acronym. Here is what I mean: for example, ASL is a language, and it is not oral, and in general McWhorter is the kind of person who thoroughly avoids being a total bigot like that. Also what about written Chinese? There are things you can do with puns and idiom in written Chinese, and you can communicate across spoken Chinese languages with written Chinese, and it is a living thing. But it is not oral. Does that make it not a language? I don't think that's right. I think McWhorter was reacting against the people who try to act as though formal written language is more real than informal experienced language, and I get why he's having that reaction, but I think there is a great deal of baby in with that bathwater. Possibly quadruplets. And at the end of the chapter about how language is oral, he was talking about informal written language, even, and I think we don't fully know how texting and IMing are going to shape people's oral language, but it's not a one-way street. So that is my 20% gripe with his acronym. Groovy Acronyms Lead Us Astray By Mris Age 34. I thought of trying to make that a groovy acronym, but I read kind of a lot of books this fortnight, is the thing, and I have to eat dinner eventually, and I'd like to do other things this afternoon. So. Onwards.

Ryu Murakami, Audition. "Not the same as the movie?" said alecaustin, and here is where we run into the problem of getting recommendations from lists that don't go into detail about why they think authors are important and influential, because yes. The same as the movie. Not as grisly as the movie apparently is. But yes. So this is a Japanese novel (I should learn how to do the thing where the surname is in small caps and do it all the time, because his surname is Murakami, but the cover of the novel said Ryu Murakami, so we'll go with that) wherein a middle-aged man holds an audition for a fake movie in order to meet women so that he can remarry after his wife's death. This, of course, cannot possibly end badly. (Although--how it does end is mostly explained by the main character, and I have no reason to believe his explanation. He has had really pretty messed up ideas throughout. Why shouldn't he be wrong about this also? He seems to have pulled it out of an orifice. The only reason I have not to disbelieve him is that the author does not intervene with another explanation.) "Not as grisly as the movie": still plenty grisly. In this edition, the translator seems to have decided that you were the one who wanted to read a Japanese novel, you had better know something about Japanese culture. Which is a perfectly cromulent decision and makes for a sleek and streamlined novel that read pretty smoothly to me, since I did have those bits of information already. It also means that this edition would not be very comprehensible to at least some of its thriller audience who might not have minded having their hand held a tiny bit. Tradeoffs. But: I don't want more like this. This was enough, thanks.

Lynne Olson, Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood With Britain In Its Darkest, Finest Hour. This ended up being more generally about Anglo-American relations during WWII, specifically around London, than I expected. But it was still interesting about that, and interesting in particular about a few key figures in that relationship. I like Lynne Olson. I had to wonder whether she was handed that title by her publisher. Also, am I the only one who now pictures David Strathairn playing Edward R. Murrow in all historical contexts, after Good Night and Good Luck? I am. Okay then.

Thomas Parkes, The American Short Story. Grandpa's. I remember this book. "I should hope so, Mris," you may be saying, "since you just finished it this fortnight." No, but I mean, I remember Grandpa getting this book for Christmas. From one of my poor, frustrated godfathers. When he had gone and bought himself other things he wanted more, right before Christmas, and my poor, frustrated godfather had no idea what to get him and settled on this. And then I remember it sitting in the magazine rack beside Grandpa's armchair for Really Quite Some Time, with a slow-moving bookmark. And now I know why. This. This is not a book. No. It's a pair of red flannel longjohns. That is, it's a very thorough way of covering your ass. Because that The in the title: Mr. Thomas Parkes meant it. He is attempting to give you the definitive volume, slightly over a thousand pages, of short works of American fiction. It is the most conventional set of choices he could make. He has included exactly so many women, black people, and so on, so as to prevent anyone saying he hadn't included any. And it has the things you'd expect and nothing surprising. If you said, "It has two works by science fiction writers, one of whom accepted the label," with some thought you could come up with Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut as the likely acceptable choices, and you would be right. And what can you say about a volume like this, as a volume? There are plenty of things to be said about the individual stories. But as a volume, a thing that includes the entire text of both The Turn of the Screw and The Red Pony--as a reference work, it is quite useful. You might at some point urgently want, say, "A Rose for Miss Emily" to make an argument about it, and there it would be. You might want the really obvious Washington Irving, and there it is. As a book--you might as well review my Kindle. Except that my Kindle displays personality, whereas this is like a thesaurus. Well. We have a thesaurus in the house, too, and so did Grandpa, and if he hadn't had one, it would have been a sensible thing to give him if he'd gone and gotten himself all the things he really did want already. Still. This is the book that is in commemoration of the year we instituted the pre-Christmas book-buying ban. I remember it well.

Madeleine Rosca, The Clockwork Sky. Discussed elsewhere.

Walter Stahr, John Jay. John Jay is the oft-neglected Founding Father, and so I felt the need for a good biography of him. This is not it. From this biography, despite acknowledgments of Jay's unpopularity, you would get the impression that John Jay was A Generally Nice Guy Who Did A Few Things. Is this useful? It is not. Also, this book is very much skewed to trying to place John Jay in Stahr's presumed reader's comfort zone rather than being genuinely informative. For example, he referred to Jay early on as coming from a "strong and simple faith." And I channeled my godson: "What does that even mean?" Seriously, for a man of Dutch and French ancestry who is Anglican in the late American colonial period, what does it mean? What is his attitude towards the Sabbath? How does he feel about the religious authority of the king or the archbishops? There are so many questions that "strong and simple faith" just...does not answer. At all. And they turn out to be highly relevant to how this man would and did interact with religion and rebellion. This is just an example of the place where Stahr went for something pleasant-sounding that didn't actually have meaning. Not a good biography. Not recommended.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: timprov
2012-09-01 10:27 pm (UTC)
Granddad, There's a Head on the Beach did have a lot of Sissi in it, which is pretty much what I've been reading them for.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-09-01 10:28 pm (UTC)
That's funny, I felt it had not nearly enough Sissi.
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[User Picture]From: timprov
2012-09-01 10:28 pm (UTC)
Well, that too.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2012-09-01 11:19 pm (UTC)
So the Bennett (and I can tell already that I will have a terrible time not calling him Robert Russell Bennett, famous composer/arranger for bands)...would it make someone happy who ran out of Sayers and said, "More like that, please, but not if your name is Jill Paton Walsh"?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-09-02 12:11 am (UTC)
Err umm. Totally different part of the '20s. This is American '20s, not British '20s, and it's way, way noirier.

You might like him anyway, but not at all in the same way.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2012-09-02 12:11 am (UTC)
Also there is a speculative element.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2012-09-02 12:16 am (UTC)
I like Hammett fine, and a speculative element might make up for the horrorness. If the terrible city library gets it in, I'll probably look at it...
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[User Picture]From: wordweaverlynn
2012-09-02 05:04 am (UTC)
The complete prose of Auden in 4 volumes is on my Amazon wishlist. Because I encountered his essays in The Dyer's Hand when I was 12 or so, and they changed my life.
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[User Picture]From: tool_of_satan
2012-09-02 02:52 pm (UTC)
McWhorter's earlier The Power of Babel is good. I also found his Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (about the English language) interesting, although one has to keep in mind that his key theory is not too widely accepted.
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[User Picture]From: dancing_crow
2012-09-02 04:11 pm (UTC)
I first encountered George Dyson in The Starship and the Canoe which made me absurdly happy. And then I read about his tree houses and further adventures in kayak building, and I am pleased to hear he seems to have embraced more of his intellectual heritage? So I shall go find that now. Thank you!
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