Avaland and Dukedom_Enough's Thread, PART I
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He (Michael) reads nonfiction (current events, economics, essays, SF-related...etc.) fiction (mostly SF) in all forms, and occasionally poetry. Oh, and Twitter.
She (Lois) also reads nonfiction (a bit of everything, really), fiction of all kinds and in all forms, poetry and essays.
Exhalation by Ted Chaing (2019, short stories)
Vast by Linda Nagata (1998, ebook)
True Stories: and Other Essays by Francis Spufford (2017)
Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevada-Lee (2018)
The Year's Best Science Fiction #35, edited by Gardner Dozois (2017)
People's Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams (2019)
√ denotes reviewed
BOOKS READ 2019:
√Perihelion Summer by Greg Egan (2019)
√Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks (1990, a re-read)
√Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett
√Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye (1964)
√The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick (2007)
MOST RECENTLY READ (LAST OF 2018)
√Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson (2018)
√Green Eyes by Lucius Shepard (1984)
The Women of Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell (2019)
Fascism: A Warning by Madeline Albright (nonfiction, in book & audio form, 2018)
Secularism: Politics, Religion, and Freedom by Andrew Copson (2017, UK, nonfiction)
The Mueller Report by Robert Mueller et al (dabbling in only, 2019)
√ denotes reviewed
Prairie Fever by Michael Parker (2019)
Conviction by Denise Mina (2019)
Feminism and Pop culture by Andi Heisler (2018)
Around the World in 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori (2018, UK, nonfiction)
Q2 2019 READ--------------
The Hungry Ghosts: Seven Elusive Comedies by Joyce Carol Oates (1974, short stories)
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips (2019)
√My Life as a Rat by Joyce Carol Oates (2019)
√Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaflan (SF, 2019)
√In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman (2018, nonfiction)
√Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page (fiction, 2018, Canadian/UK)
All that Remains: A Renowned Forensic Scientist on Death, Mortality, and Solving Crimes by (Dame) Sue Black (2019, UK, nonfiction)
√The Innocents by Michael Crummey (Nov. 2019, fiction, Newfoundland)
√Austral by Paul McAuley (2018, UK, SF)
√During-the-Event by Rpger Wall (2019, dystopian fiction, US)
√Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli (2018, T from the French)
√Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side by Julia Shaw (2019, nonfiction)
√The Amateurs by Liz Harmer (2019, post-apocalyptic fiction)
√The Wolf and the Watchman, by Niklas Natt och Dag (2019, Swedish historical crime novel)
√In Dust and Ashes by Ann Holt (2017, Norway, crime novel)
√My Heart Laid Bare by Joyce Carol Oates (1998, one of her "American Gothics")
√Finding Katarina M. by Elisabeth Elo (2019, due out in March, US)
√I Feel You: The Surprising Power pf Extreme Empathy by Cris Beam (2018, psychology)
√Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah (2018, UK)
√Out of the Ice by Ann Turner (2016, Australian)
√Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018, UK)
√Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey by Alice Robb (nonfiction, 2018)
√In a House of Lies by ian Rankin (2019, a Rebus novel)
√The Susan Effect by Peter Høeg (2017)
The Katarina Code by Jorn Lier Holst (2018, crime novel)
Abandoned: The Ice Swimmer by Kjell Ola Dahl
LAST of 2018:
√I Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck (2017)
Deaf Republic: Poems by Ilya Kaminsky (2019, poetry)
√Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates (2018, US)
√Scandinavian Crime Fiction by Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen (nonfiction, 2017)
>3 avaland: Lois, are you particularly interested in Ramakrishna or reading The Cauliflower for other reasons? I liked it very much, although it's a trip.
And I wanted to ask you about Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Have you read any of the other guides? Would you recommend this one? I'm interested in finding interesting authors, but not necessarily in reading lengthy literary criticism.
I have not read any of the other books on Nordic or Scandi crime fiction and I shopped around on Book Depository before I decided on this one. I'm not sure I'd recommend using a book like that to find interesting authors, although I will admit I ordered several older books by Kirsten Ekman after reading the book. How would you define "interesting" in your case? What do you like and dislike in a crime novel/mystery? Are you interested in social issues? history or historical settings? cultural insights? "foreign" or domestic locations, city or pastoral locations? a breathless run through the woods with the dogs after you? the cerebral buzz of complex criminal case? lightweight? humorous? Do tell!
(the mystery/crime "thought spot" thread has been recreated here in the 2019 group, it might be a place to find interesting authors over the next year)
The Susan Effect by Peter Hoeg (2017, Translated from the Danish)
I usually avoid books labelled as thrillers, but this is Peter Hoeg, so it can not be an ordinary thriller, can it?
Susan, a quantum physicist, has special abilities—like Høeg’s Smilla in Smilla’s Sense of Snow and Kaspar in The Quiet Girl. In this case, she “inspires candor,” and those in her presence feel the need to confess their secrets to her. Her entire family,—her famous composer husband (who also is gifted) and their precocious teenaged children—together are something to be reckoned with.
The story begins with the family being pulled out of Burma and or India following some trouble that would imprison them for a long time. But, in return for this rescue Susan is expected to use “the effect” to find out what the last report from a mysterious group called “The Future Committee” says. The now defunct commission had been made up of brilliant, youthful minds who were able to predict future events. Susan agrees under great duress. But someone else seems also to be interested in that same report. Thus begins a non-stop, breathless run through science labs, underground archives and renovated cathedrals with this intelligent, resourceful, innovative and often ferocious scientist. And as the futuristic story becomes more and more incredible, the reader can only laugh and hang on. There are flaws in this book, yes; but I love Peter Høeg’s brain and this was just what I needed to ring in the new year.
>5 avaland: Well, I'm not much for cozies or, alternately, blatant sex or descriptions of bodily functions gone awry, or for books in which none of the characters is likable. I'd say fairly nasty murders, thoughtful detectives, and complicated cases are my thing.
I'm in two minds about Høeg myself: I think he's got some good ideas, but he doesn't take them far enough. I'd enjoy his books more, I think, if he didn't stop too early, just when things are getting well underway.
I'm mainly referring to The woman and the ape and Smilla. The former I remember as being so facile and downright lazy ("oh look at us humans screwing things up, in contrast with a perfect species of primates". Smilla I felt was approaching an area of sense-making, but again stopped short after making a few very obvious points. Both works could have taken their thoughts a bit further but ended prematurely.
The woman and the ape I read for Danish class, selecting a name at random out of a list of "important contemporary Danish authors". It disappointed me, being essentially a 1950s pulp-sf story (in which
My other two books by him I read because I wanted to give Høeg his due: I generally give an author with at least a half-decent book two or three chances before giving up on them, and perhaps his other books would be better. They were (The history of Danish Dreams, his debut, was kinda ok), but not to the extent that I want to keep up with his writings. I even re-read Smilla eight or so years after the first time. People kept gushing about it, and I'd spent more time in Denmark at the time, so I figured things might have gone over my head the first time round. I still feel pretty meh about it. I think the book doesn't have as much to say about Danish colonialism as it thinks it does, nor does it go as deep.
And so I have stopped reading Høeg, he's had his three chances, and I won't be reading The quiet girl or The elephant keepers' children. So many other choices, as you say. A pity, but there it is.
The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick
This 2008 novel is set in the world of Swanwick's 1993 The Iron Dragon's Daughter, though it's not a direct sequel. That earlier book envisioned a world of faerie wherein sentient dragons are not born, but constructed of cold iron in giant, Dickensian factories. Dragons are merciless, jet-propelled weapons of war, equipped with missiles and firebombs to use against the chosen enemies of the ruling, high-elven lords. Some reviewers thought Daughter pointed out a new direction in fantasy, but the future belonged more to George R. R. Martin. I decided to read Babel now because The Iron Dragon's Mother will be published in June.
Protagonist Will's life is upended by the arrival of a dragon in his rural village; he becomes its unwilling servant. Calamity follows disruption, Will becomes homeless, and a migrant to the capital city, Babel. Starting as a member of a criminal gang in the city's dark sewers, he rises through the brutal society of faerie and the vast, vertical tower itself, all the while raging against the rulers who destroyed his home and killed his family. As Will finds revenge within reach, he must ask whether he wants it.
Swanwick is hugely inventive in imagining the varied sorts of paranormal beings and places in his world. Allusions abound to other stories of the fantastic - e.g., that Will's home district is called the Debatable Hills is a nod to Jack Vance. Digressions include a brief police procedural, and a fantasia on what story one of the Public Library's stone lions might tell.
The Dragons of Babel is less dark than its predecessor. It didn't change the direction of modern fantasy either, but it's an excellent book. Swanwick is an amazing writer, and I clearly have no excuse for having so many of his books lying unread around the house.
Four and a half stars
In a House of Lies by Ian Rankin (2019, a Rebus novel)
A body is found in the trunk/boot of a car in a gully, handcuffs (possibly police-issue) around its ankles. It is clear this is not a recent murder, and it is suspected that the vehicle hasn’t been in the gully for long (relatively speaking). It is soon discovered that the body is of a young private investigator who disappeared over ten years ago.
This set-up allows for a readers’ favorite reunion of all of our Rankin favorites: Siobhan Clarke, Malcolm Fox, Morris Cafferty, and our intrepid, aging hero, John Rebus (always willing to stick his nose back into things, of course) The increasingly complicated and twisted case, hinting of past cock-ups (and a second, off-the-books review of an unrelated case) is crowded with an immense cast of characters, and between the cast and complexity readers must pay attention and keep their wits about them. I chose to read the book more or less non stop, rather than run the risk of losing ground. It was work, yes, but delightfully delicious work; it’s an excellent, meaty police procedural, and reading the 22nd (?) Rebus novel is now like being with family (it occurs to me that, although Rebus has a headstart on me, I’ve been aging along with him).
This is certainly not where I would suggest readers begin with this series, but going back to the first (1987) might not be the best idea either (depends on whether you are a completist, I guess). Maybe pick one from the 90s.
Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey by Alice Robb
Succinct, well-researched, and often riveting, Why We Dream offers a thorough look at just that: the purpose of dreaming. Robb begins with how dreams were thought about in ancient cultures, their place in, for example, spirituality and religion, and then moves us quickly forward into the industrial age and early discoveries about dreams and dreaming before moving into the modern age. Beyond expected (brief) discussions of Freud and Jung (and others), the psychological and psychiatric, there is a tantalizing review of fascinating the discoveries made related to sleep research and brain science (i.e. REM sleep). All of this comes together in a discussion around the purpose/s of dreaming; which are many and fascinating: aids to memory and learning, diagnosis, threat simulation, healing, self-preservation, emotional health, creativity, problem-solving, coping with death or trauma and so on. The book more or less ends on a current note, with discussions of lucid dreaming and the culture around it.
This is an excellent book, and I have certainly not covered here all that the 215 page book contains, but I have one personal beef with it, and that is author’s injection of herself into the book. Clearly, to write such a book, one must have a deep interest in the subject, but I would have preferred it without her personal experiences (perhaps I thought it self-indulgent) I did skip the intro because of this, and read lightly over the end when she discusses her involvement in lucid dream retreats. However, this now confessed, I realize her interest and passion informs the energetic narrative of the book which makes the book such a generally riveting read. So there.
>32 valkyrdeath: She, more or less, bookends the book with her personal interest in the field. There might have been one bit in the middle about attending a conference/convention in the Netherlands that brought scientists and enthusiasts together on the topic. Yes, plenty of notation and sourcing at the end of the book.
>33 lisapeet: I think you would still be very satisfied with the book. I thought it possibly the first book about dreaming that might escape being put in the New Age section of the bookstore....
That appeals to me
Vigilance by Robert Jackson Bennett
Content warning for violence.
Set in a future so near it's yesterday, this short novel imagines a TV reality show, Vigilance, wherein a major network, Our Nation's Truth, occasionally drops off armed gunmen in some public place in the USA - shopping malls are popular. The location is locked down, and the people caught inside try to survive. For each shooter who dies, $1 million goes to his beneficiary; the law enforcement officer or civilian who takes him out gets $5 million - but if the shooter kills everyone, he gets $20 million. That last is unlikely, though, because every American, pretty much, is strapped, anticipating a possible attack. After all, the warning sign at the door told them the place was one of the many registered targets. Mass shootings happen so frequently anyway in America, why not take the chance and shop or travel in a target spot? If you're killed, you weren't vigilant enough.
The book's ferociously paced action is confined to a single evening. We watch showrunner John McDean lead his team in building interest on social media, teasing possible targets (have to have enough women there), preparing the shooters, and lining up advertisers. When the killing starts, drones supplement the mall's cameras. Commercial breaks are saved for slow stretches.
Out in the city, bartender Delyna is sickened, not just by the televised carnage, but by the avidity with which her heavily armed patrons watch the bar's big screen. Back at the ONT network, the big bosses have some new software they want to use in this episode, but McDean is sure he's in complete control.
Given that the gun insanity of the US is impossible to satirize, still Bennett comes close. He covers the loving attention paid to the technical plusses and minuses of various types of firearm. He's especially good with his three-letter-named TV network. ONT's on air anchors and commentators are mostly algorithmically-generated, pretty, talking images, although there's also a show, The O'Donley Effect, with a live, ranting old man ("Shawn O'Donley") eating raw steaks on-air while screaming at the camera. Resemblance to actual networks and TV hosts entirely unintended, of course.
McDean has a theory: the elderly audience members are unmoved by the sight of dying children, out of denial of their own responsibility for the climatically-seared, failing country they've created. Take that or leave it, Vigilance is an exciting story. You'll want to shower, afterward.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018, UK)
Sylvie and her parents are in the wilds of northern England along with a professor and three of his students all attempting to experience what it was like to live during the Iron Age. Sylvie’s father is obsessed with period, and he and his family are brought along to assist the re-enactment.
This is a mesmerizing book on so many levels. It has been thoroughly reviewed by all prominent venues, it seems; and I’m not sure what I can add. It’s been touted as a “feminist” story and it can certainly be seen as that, but what struck me early on was how hauntingly current the story really was, despite all the berry-picking and talk of bog bodies and ancient ceremonies. This tiny book touches on themes of class, nationalism, ancestry, immigration, and domestic violence. The other thing that caught my attention early on was Sylvie’s connection with the land; a connection that is both respectful and laced with honest wonder that brought to mind the kind of close-to-the-land connection of regional literature.
So, yes, mesmerizing and haunting. It stays with the reader long after one has finished. It would be a great book to discuss with a book group. Note: This is my third Sarah Moss novel and I look forward to the other two in my TBR piles.
Out of the Ice by Ann Turner (2016, Australian)
Laura Alvarado, an environmental scientist doing a stint in Antarctica, is asked to write a report on an old, abandoned Norwegian whaling station. The report would recommend, or not, opening the station and it’s community buildings to public tourism. While diving in an ice cave, Laura thinks she sees the ghostly image of a young boy. Could he be real? Other things seem somewhat out of place in the well-preserved station and back at base camp, other odd things seem to be happening. Laura, filled with dread and an urgent need to discover the truth, begins an investigation that will take her from the icy realm of Antarctica to Nantucket and Venice.
This thriller begins slowly, introducing to the reader not only our human characters, but also that of Antarctica, very much another character in the story. Turner’s descriptions are, as the book cover touts, “cinematic” and one gets a thorough introduction before the real action begins. The story will turn away from the icy continent as Laura’s investigation moves to other shores, before returning for the action-packed climax. Admittedly, I was far more enamored of the first two thirds of the book than with the last third. The scenes in Venice seemed somehow out of place, the uncovered mystery a bit over-the-top. and the attempt to also make the tale about “the meaning of family” seemed a bit forced. Yet, despite those disappointments, I did enjoy the book and would recommend it for those intrigued by our southernmost continent its history, landscape and wildlife.
Note: just found a really inexpensively-priced copy on eBay and ordered it.
>39 avaland: I've heard so many good things about Ghost Wall now, that I think I'm finally going to have to add it to the wishlist. Probably along with Vigilance, for if I ever work up the courage for it.
It would be a great book to discuss with a book group.
Oh, I'll have to keep Ghost Wall in mind for next year's book club selection (If I go back, that is-- on the fence at the moment -- I wasn't there when they picked the books and hence I won't be reading most of this year's books). I read her Cold Earth a few years ago and enjoyed it very much.
Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye
I bought and read this 1964 paperback in the year of its publication. This reread turned out to be both fun and timely.
Galouye looked ahead to the distant year 2034. There are aircars and slidewalks ("pedistrips"). The 33rd Amendment to the Constitution has outlawed smoking tobacco, so there are "smoke-easies" where one goes to smoke clandestinely.
And a giant corporation has built a computer that simulates a city. Not just the buildings, but the inhabitants, each of whom has the same degree of consciousness and interior life as you or I, living those lives unaware that they are just "...the surge of biasing impulses in simulectronic circuits." Simulacron-3's operators can look at the lower world through its denizen's eyes, or manifest directly to walk among them.
Protagonist Douglas Hall is putting the finishing touches on the project, after the suspicious death of the computer's creator. Odd things are happening: people and documents disappear, a crashing aircar almost kills Hall, and he is having momentary blackouts. The corporation's sinister CEO wants to repurpose Simulacron-3 from its intended use, market research, to seek sure wins of political elections, leading to a one-party state. Other people want the computer shut down permanently.
The twist in the story is that
The blackouts are the sign of the upper world's villainous project head logging into Hall's perceptions and reading his thoughts. The young woman who becomes Hall's love interest is connecting in directly from the upper world, looking to keep the middle world from being switched off.
As far as I can tell, this is the very first SF story to envision a world, and real, living people, existing as simulations in a computer. Philip K. Dick had been distrusting reality in numerous stories by 1964, but there was some degree of physicality to his simulacra; you might turn out to be a robot, but you still were made of physical parts in a single, real world. There are a couple of stories, by PKD and Stanislaw Lem, that may have got there first; I have to track them down. Of course, for years now people have taken this as a possibility for our own world, arguing about Roko's Basilisk and whatnot.
Or so I thought when I picked the book up. And here's where the book's timeliness comes in. Advertising, the molding of public opinion, is still with us, and not just for selling cars. A plutocrat using computers to win elections and lock in one-party dominance - where have we heard about that recently? The connection is especially rich when said plutocrat is described as having "tiny hands." Not the same kind of computer use - Galouye didn't forsee social media - but that editor understood something we mustn't forget.
A film, The Thirteenth Floor, was based on Galouye's novel; it's pretty decent, but had the misfortune to come out two months after the less smart, but much more stylish The Matrix. In this connection it's amusing to note that Douglas Hall manifests in Simulacron-3 by showing up in - a phone booth! - although he doesn't say "we're in." There's also a German TV series from 1973, Welt Am Draht, based on this book. The series is by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and I must really track it down someday.
This book also features an early use of lasers as a science-fictional weapon. They're nothing like the actual lasers of 1964 or today.
Books this old almost always have problematic presentations of gender and race. After meeting the love interest noted above, Hall remembers her as the 15-year-old daughter of his mentor. Heinlein wasn't the only period author to write about romance with someone previously known when a child. Majorly creepy. Also, if there's a person of color in the story, or anyone who's LGBTQ, I missed them.
This book is interesting as an early example of a now-common genre trope. The story is fast-paced and enjoyable, if one can overlook its faults.
Three and a Half Stars
I enjoy reading science fiction from the 50's and the 60's in order to see the outcome of the predictions. But the one thing that they all tend to get wrong is the hiatus in space exploration that has been in existence over the last 40 years.
Concerning the hiatus in space exploration, I do know of a few writers who imagined it. Best known would be Robert A. Heinlein's future history stories of the 1940s. He published a chart covering 1960-2600, in which spaceflight was suspended 2025-2075, while the USA was ruled by a fundamentalist theocracy. None of those stories actually centered on the hiatus; it's mentioned in retrospect in Methuselah's Children, a novel that starts in about 2125.
In 1965's The Man Who Wanted Stars by Dean McLaughlin, an expedition returns from Jupiter to find that Earth has forgotten them and given up space flight. With no working shuttles, the crew must crash land their ship, leaving only one survivor. The rest of the book is about one man's obsessive effort to get space flight going again.
In 1953's The Lights in the Sky Are Stars by Fredric Brown, the protagonist lives with his memories of the second Venus expedition, while the world has retreated to small bases on the Moon and Mars. Will there be a first Jupiter expedition?
Deaf Republic: Poems by Ilya Kaminsky (2019, poetry)(read in late 2018, speechless about it until now...)
In an unnamed, occupied country, a young, deaf boy is shot to death during a protest and his community goes collectively deaf and creates their own sign language.
I’ve never read anything quite like this collection of poetry, and on first read, I didn’t know what to make of it. And I’m fairly certain I’ve not before had the urge to immediately re-read a collection upon finishing it the first time. I find it difficult to write a review …
Part poetry, part performance, part… It’s unusual, riveting, harrowing, immersive, perhaps ground-breaking. It’s artful, and there is something hauntingly immediate about it. Read it (support the poet and even buy it!), and then read it a few more times.
Author's web page
That creepy romance aspect does seem to turn up far too often in that era of science fiction. I remember The Demolished Man had a woman going through some weird psychotherapy where she was reverted to childhood and the hero basically seduced her while she was in that state.
>61 dukedom_enough: Simulacron-3 sounds fascinating! I have so much on Mt. TBR though, who knows whether I'll get to it.
The Galouye book's idea has been done better, by now. I suggest Permutation City by Greg Egan instead, if you haven't read it already. Much more daring.
Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah (2018/UK)
Salim, a young man native to Zanzibar and now living in the UK, tells the story of his early life and brings it forward through to the present. Salim is a young boy when we meet him, and his father has moved out of the family home and into a room behind a shop. No explanations are given to the boy by either parent for this separation, and the father, who seems depressed and withdrawn, ceases to be an active part of Salim’s life. One might argue that this is a classic coming of age novel, and this event is the emotional loss that eventually (he is only 7 after all) will send him on his “journey” of personal growth, and so it will, but Salim doesn’t so much seek acceptance over the years as he craves understanding.
Gurnah’s prose is always lovely, and his stories are vivid with place and culture. He renders Salim with great care and affection, and irresistible to the reader as we follow him into adulthood. I have read all of Gurnah’s previous work and have enjoyed them all, but I would recommend someone new to his work start with one of his early books, Memory of Departure or Paradise, before taking on this novel.
Elsewhere I have read that this is a version of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (and it is where the title derives from). This is not a Shakespearean work I have read, so I cannot say but , HERE is an excellent review from the Washington Independent Review of Books.
Finding Katarina M. by Elisabeth Elo (2019)
I read Elisabeth Elo’s first mystery, North of Boston back in 2014. It is a delightfully complex book that introduces a hard-to-warm-up-to young, 2nd generation Russian woman protagonist in a story that fascinatingly mixes the perfume industry and the New England fishing industry. New authors can be risky reads, but I found Elo well worth the risk. And so, I was pleased to see recently i that the author had a new book out. And even more pleased and surprised to be offered a copy by author herself (she saw that I had read and liked the first book) with no obligations attached.
Finding Katarina M begins in the DC area where Dr. Natalie March has a visitor to her office—a young Russian dancer from northern Siberia who claims she is her cousin, a long lost relative on Natalie’s mother’s side. Natalie is skeptical at best, but becomes both shocked and intrigued when she is told that a grandmother, who was thought to have died in a gulag sometime after 1949, had escaped, and was still alive. When the dancer is later found murdered in NYC, Natalie feels a duty to inform the family in Siberia, and she is invited to visit. Almost from when her shoe touches Russian soil, her trip doesn’t go exactly as planned….
Finding Katarina M, is a different kind of book than Elo’s earlier book; this new one is a definitely a thriller: it moves fast and offers the expected suspense, anxiety and excitement. Natalie, a medical doctor, is a fabulous, no nonsense action hero: intelligent, resourceful, good in emergencies, and she wears sensible shoes (which any believable action hero would, right?). The setting of most of the book is in Russia, and in particular Siberia, which I found fascinating. I found myself sometimes thinking back to the snowy Russia of Rosa Liskom’s novel Compartment No 6. This is not to say that I didn’t find some parts a bit incredible, but I do love a book that can take me places and entertain along the way, and Elo’s new book does exactly this.
>90 janeajones:, >91 auntmarge64:, >92 rachbxl: I realize that's the third thriller I've read over the last few months which has featured intelligent, female protagonists who were not lawyers in high heels (it seems, years back when I had a long commute, there were some Lisa Scottoline titles listened to on audio, and this is where the lawyer in high heels comes from).
>92 rachbxl: It was low key but I still got lost in the story....
I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy by Cris Beam (2018)
There is a lot of noise about empathy these days, it’s being taught in schools, infused in business practices hoping to facilitate cooperation, and injected into marketing. Considering the number of hate groups has increased and the talk about walls, and the wall, are we really gaining any ground with all this noise?
Cris Beam is on a personal journey of discovery with regards to empathy; it is perhaps her own needs and curiosity that drives the narrative, but it isn’t limited, it’s an exploration. “For me, I like empathy because it’s interesting—it’s the only way to be intimate and expansive at once.” She introduces us to the subject by way of history, psychology & neuroscience before moving on to various illustrative, thought-provoking (and often powerful) examples. Along the way, there are bits that give pause; such as:
“Is empathy a skill to be optimized or is it a moral inclination to be nurtured?”
Not all empathy is created equal. There are different forms of empathy.
There can be problems with empathy “when it veers into altruism and helping.”
Do people empathize more with people who mirror them in some way?
The idea in the legal world of restorative justice...
Have the social scientists shown that empathy is meaningfully connected to helping behaviors and if so, how?
Forgiveness, human rights and remorse....
Some of the interesting larger scale examples she uses to discuss various aspects of empathy include of Maine's Truth & Reconciliation commission which provided a forum between the five native tribes of the state and the state run foster care system, the Sex Workers Outreach Project of New York, and several examples from South Africa, desegregation at one university but also meeting of families of victims with the imprisoned de Kock, nicknamed during apartheid as "Prime Evil."
In just over two hundred pages, Beam succeeds in sharing her exploration in a way that informs, stimulates and enriches, a worthy read if one has interest in the topic.
Touchstones don't seem to be working; here's the book's page:
*Edited to expand content.
My Heart Laid Bare by Joyce Carol Oates
Sarah Wilcox, lady’s maid in merry, old England, takes up her mistress’s clothing and jewels, and passes herself off as nobility. When caught, she is transported to pre-Revolutionary War America and manages to continue her artful schemes under many names, for many years, before her death in western New York state. It is the descendants of Ms. Wilcox which this novel is concerned with.
Abraham Licht and his children are a family of extremely talented confidence artists (a.k.a. swinders, grifters, hustlers, scammers) whose base of operation, or home if you will, is in western New York state and on the land of his forebear. The story of the Licht family is a wide-ranging, colorful family saga, which moves back and forth in time, following Abraham and his various children over the decades from the Gilded Age to the early 1930s. Told in an irresistible narrative voice, the book is hard to put down. It is inventive, often comic, fun to read, full of bits of American history and the endless schemes (or schemes within schemes) of Abraham Licht or is it Dr. Moses Liebknecht or A. Washburn Frielicht PhD or Lord Harburton Shaw or…. It is possible that the story might be a bit overstuffed, and the time changes sometimes a bit disorientating.
This is the fourth of five books in Joyce Carol Oates’s "Gothic Saga" or "Gothic Quintet," and was first published in 1998. I started this book in 2012 after reading the three previous books (all of which I enjoyed immensely), but at the time this one didn’t grab me so I set it aside. I read the fifth book when it was published in 2013. Why I thought to go back to this novel at this particular time is probably less a mystery than one imagines, for there is something very American about a family saga of con men and women. And one might ponder whether there is also something very American about their unwitting victims.
I have read now somewhere around 40 works that Oates has written and the books of this series remain some of my favorites. They make me think and they make me laugh. Intelligent fun with Americana. My favorite of the five will always be A Bloodsmoor Romance, which is a part spoof, part homage to the Alcotts and Little Women.
What I see going on around us is that for years it's been proper to act, and legislate, as though it's completely normal to want to help others. (This also goes for religion in general, I think.) What we're seeing is the backlash to being forced to pretend to care. We're taught that we shouldbe willing to give up things we would rather keep for ourselves (money, time, whatever) to feel good about ourselves, but we've ended up with
- people who are naturally empathetic and prone to volunteering/donating/feeling for others
- people who resent doing those things, and
- leaders who are now saying aloud that it's OK to be angry and take it out on others, because our gut feelings were right all along: the needy don't deserve it if they don't have it already.
Also, I have to say that I like empathy because it’s interesting seems very odd to me as a reason to put oneself forward as something of an expert. Not that she might not have some interesting thoughts, but the attitude immediately made we suspect. Nice review, though :)
That is an early question that comes up: is it something you are born with, or something that can be learned....
ETA: I think there is a lot of understandable confusion between sympathy and empathy.
I am a person with an overabundance of empathy, and I thought it might be interesting to think about the subject a bit more objectively and bought the book. I don't think she puts herself forward as an expert, per se, although, as I mention, she is exploring the subject and does it write about it reasonably quite well. There are acknowledgements and copious notes on sourced material.
The subject and your points could make for an interesting book club or general subject discussion.
I am currently reading a book on EVIL! There is a bit of overlap between the two books (i.e. discussion of psychopaths/sociopaths).
In Dust and Ashes by Anne Holt
A retiring detective drops the file of a older, settled case—husband kills wife—onto the desk of young Detective Henrik Holme. The husband and wife had lost a toddler as the result of an accident some years prior and it has been the cause of the couple’s falling out. Despite the straightforward evidence, something about the case has always bothered the older detective and he wanted to leave it in someone’s hands. Henrik, in his spare time, takes a look and soon suspects that the husband, who has already served his time in prison, might not have been the her killer and sets out to convince his mentor, Detective Hanne Wilhelmsen, of the same. At the same time a current case about the suicide of a right-wing blogger has also come to Hanne’s attention, and when the two detectives put their heads together they find that the two cases might really be connected….
Sadly, this is the last installment of Ann Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen series. Hanne is a brilliant, but anti-social detective who, over the course of the books, is shot and the resulting injury confines to a wheelchair (which makes her a bit more anti-social). These books are wonderful police procedurals, complex and brainy. And the relatively recent addition of the young Hendrik Holme—also brilliant, a bit quirky, and somewhat less anti-social—has been a plus. I highly recommend them, although very few were published in the US (apparently we weren’t ready for a lesbian detective).
*the Book Depository has all the Wilhelmsen series, as also Holt’s Vik & Stubo series which was published in the US during the 2000s.
ETA: redid the paste in of the image address and they seem to be working now.... hope I won't have to redo them all!
Which one? I've read Scott Peck's People of the Lie, which gave me nightmares, and several books on psychopaths (I know one personally, and then there's the Great Orange One). Boy, are they damaged.
Come to think of it, I do remember seeing that 2nd Scott Peck book in the 80s. It wasn't a topic I was interested in back then (I had very small children, not sure much reading of adult books was happening at the time).
I'll take a look at the Shaw book. Or, I could just turn on Fox
ETA: I took a look at the Amazon description, and I think they're very different books. Peck discussed cases he'd had in his practice, so it was much less theoretical.
She did tell a story about getting a letter from a man in prison, who had, in a rage, killed his grandfather because believed he had been abused by him. From prison he told her he know believed he was not abused by him and that the memories were false (because he had exhibited 'classic' psychological signs of abuse psychologists repeatedly suggested he had been abused). I don't have the book at hand at the moment so this is from memory. Perhaps she will offer more from her experience, but we'll see. At the beginning, when discussing attitudes towards evil, she posed the classic question: if you could go back in time would you kill baby Hitler? That was an interesting discussion.
The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt Och Dag (2019, Sweden)
It is 1793 Sweden and a horribly maimed torso is pulled from the dingy lake water in Stockholm by the local watchman Mickel Cardell. The case is handed off to the brilliant Cecil Winge who, chronically hindered by tuberculosis, retains the services of Cardell to assist him in an investigation that will take them into the tangled depths of the city.
The first part of the story seems to move slowly but it is only because we are adjusting to this time and place in history in all its dark, grubby, crowded glory. Once one begins the second part (there are four)—which, by the way, seems unconnected to the first part—you are a more-than-willing prisoner to this story and there is a danger that you will not leave your literary seat even if offered a key to the door!
The historical detail is delicious. The Stockholm described is grubby, crowded and often gruesome; busy with activity—the everyday toils, schemes and pleasures of the populace. It is a dark story that is not without light, however. And while we expect a resolution to our puzzle, a solving of the crime, the ending has a unexpected twist-of-a-kind that is wonderfully satisfying.
I’m hard-pressed to think of another book I can compare it to. The book that kept popping up in my mind was Oliver Twist, with its grubby world and memorable characters, but this book is much darker, set historically earlier but yet is more modern in its noirishness. This dark, detailed historical crime novel—while not for those of delicate sensibilities—is a truly riveting, magnificent read.
The Amateurs by Liz Harmer (2019
PINA, the world’s largest tech company, has “invented” a technology dubbed “Port” that responses to people’s desires and nostalgia and allows them to go to whatever time or place, real or imaginary, they wish. However, it seems no one is willing or able to return.
“People had left in trickles. For a long time, their leaving had barely been noticeable—until things began to collapse: workers not showing up to clear debris on the highway, police not coming when called. What PINA called “the first wave” had included a flood of think pieces and blog posts and interviews and rants, and an unholy number of tweets about the merits of leaving or not, comparing the art of leaving to suicide… …One percent of the population left and you hardly knew it. But the so-called “second wave” was more frightening. The grip of society fell lank, like the hands of a patient whose anesthesia was taking effect. Even close to the PINA campus there was, along with the clicking of crickets and howls of God knew what—mountain lions? bears?—a night chorus of gunshots and squealing tires. Then came the third wave: the grid went down and the darkness expanded in every direction…. “
Set in a time that could be today, The Amateurs follows two survivors of the fad (?), The first , Marie, is an artist still living with her dog above her once thriving art shop in the Ontario area. She is one of a community of forty-two, and who meet regularly in the town’s Anglican cathedral for support, and to discuss pressing issues related to their survival. Second is Brandon, the young, Ivy-league-educated, spin doctor person for Albrecht Door, PINA’s brilliant, perpetually optimistic leader. Both Brandon and Doors are among the thousand or so survivors at the PINA campus. Both Marie and Brandon are well thought out characters who evolve over the course of the book
The Amateurs is an addictive novel, the prose is seductive, the setting so close to “now” to be uncomfortably familiar. While the idea of “Port” is science fictional, the response to it is completely recognizable Why are some never tempted by Port and so many others are? Why does it seem that no one is willing to return? This is not your usual dark & dirty post-apocalyptic tale, (perhaps because it is set before desperation sets in?). While I might have a tiny reservation regarding the ending, the book is engaging, thoughtful, and wields a powerful meditation on desire and longing. (And it’s kind of fun). Once started, it is hard to put down.
Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
A re-read of Banks's third Culture novel. I was immensely impressed when I first read this 1990 book, soon after publication. A bit less so this time.
Banks's Culture is a utopian, advanced interstellar civilization, spanning a good part of our Galaxy. Its citizens have access to essentially unlimited resources throughout their long lives; work is optional. Their very bodies have been engineered for long lives lived well. Fully automated luxury gay space communism, per the meme. Banks is excellent at situating his utopia within a vastly diverse universe, filled by polities at all levels of technological and intellectual sophistication, from near-peer cultures, to small-scale galactic empires of a few thousand stars, to spacefarers who lack even primitive versions of FTL drives, to single-planet states, finally to neolithic groups who think the world is flat.
That part of the Culture that deals with exploration and other civilizations is called Contact. As the Culture looks out at the less-sophisticated parts of the galaxy, it sees so much unnecessary misery and cruelty. War, despotism, disease, violence. Occasionally, the opportunity arises to help - discreetly, with carefully placed interventions. That's when Special Circumstances gets involved.
Cheradenine Zakalwe is one of Special Circumstances' most capable agents. Originally from a single-planet civilization riven by war, he can function effectively in what Culture natives would think impossibly primitive situations. An extremely resourceful commander and tough fighter, he has repeatedly, with the Culture's backing, forged a path to what the Culture regards as the least-bad outcome possible for lesser worlds. In Zakalwe's hands, absolutely anything can become a weapon. Zakalwe himself is a weapon used by the Culture.
But the use of any weapon raises moral questions.
At the start of the book, Zakalwe's Culture handler, Diziet Sma, finds she needs him to leave retirement for one last job, to avert a looming interstellar war. The chapters wherein she locates him, briefs him, and helps him with the new mission alternate with ones about his earlier history, both before and after meeting Sma and the Culture. The history chapters move backward in time, converging on the shattering event that made Zakalwe the deeply wounded - and frightening - person he is. A retrospective chapter in the middle of the book tells the story of four children: Cheradenine and his sisters Livueta and Darckense, the heirs to a great family on Zakalwe's home planet, plus their adopted brother Elethiomel. The four play and squabble as children do, not understanding how their world is building to a war. As the history chapters move further back, the reader comes to realize that something terrible happened between these children in that war, something connected with the image of a chair, and that Zakalwe's life is lived in the shadow of that terror.
That event is revealed near the book's end. Zakalwe is motivated by
Content warning here for images of extreme violence against women.
This image is less shocking on the second reading. The book is built around it, and it's not as original or clever as it seemed in 1990. The SF field has, in some sense I guess, moved on.
Banks throws in a further twist at the very end. We learn that
As Zakalwe's story proceeds, we visit a wide range of planets. In maybe a dozen instances, Banks makes vivid some civilization, place, or person with but a couple of pages of description. These bits are the bulk of the book, and do fascinate. The city in the canyon where lies Zakalwe's mission is especially well and lovingly drawn; I'd love to visit. Diziet Sma and her robot sidekick Skaffen-Amtiskaw are drolly funny. Banks raises the question of just what business the Culture has in interfering - helping other societies seems to go along with imposing the Culture's values on them.
Banks's Culture novels are a major part of contemporary SF. Use of Weapons is a fine read, but diminished in light of its now-patent flaws, and not the place to start with this writer.
I haven't yet finished reading all of Banks' Culture novels (I'm savouring them; only got a few left unread), and I will undoubtedly reread a few in the future. Use of weapons, though, I don't think of as a candidate for a future reread. I seem to remember it builds too much towards those two reveals, and that diminishes its rereading value.
Review to follow.
Enjoyed catching up. That’s a lot of JCO novels, Lois.
My former boss sent this to me just a few days ago:
Perihelion Summer by Greg Egan
As calamity looms in Earth's near future, some people lay plans to escape death, but most do nothing, in denial about the danger. I'm not reviewing this morning's newspaper; Australian author Greg Egan's latest novel is both a thriller and a parable about climate change. Since it's in part a thriller, please note that I'm revealing a lot about the plot, behind the spoiler tag.
A primordial black hole, 1/10 the mass of the sun, is approaching the solar system. Astronomers have only an approximate trajectory at first, and can't say how close to Earth the body, which they've named "Taraxippus," will pass. Matt will ride out the visit in mid-ocean, on an innovative ship designed to be nearly self-sufficient, using aquaculture to provide a sustainable food source. He and his partners in the venture will be safe from any 50-meter tidal surges Taraxippus may cause. Most fellow Australians Matt talks to treat him as an eccentric - the danger seems remote to them.
And the deniers appear to win their bet; Taraxippus' maximum tides are indeed small. But
And southern summers will be very much hotter.
Most of the book follows the efforts of Matt, his shipmates, and others, to flee as killing daytime heat and humidity mount. The rich, northern-hemisphere countries will take only a few refugees. Antarctica becomes the destination for thousands at sea. The fate of hundreds of millions left behind is indicated by Matt's expedition to Perth, Australia, searching for his sister and parents: he finds a dark, burnt-out city, passable only at night, with small crowds of people huddled in the shrinking number of air-conditioned buildings, awaiting the coming day's deadly rise in temperature. In this second round of disaster, denial is irrelevant - most people have nowhere to go.
Your standard technothriller writer might spend hundreds of pages on the horror of this mass dying. In this 200-page novella, Egan mostly leaves that to our imagination. Since this is Egan, the reader knows that he's worked out the astrodynamics of the black hole encounter and Earth's new orbit, as well as the clever mechanical scheme of the aquaculture ship. Egan also refuses a common thriller trope. While Matt is in Perth, the ship is hijacked by gun-toting men. Matt and his fellows work out a plan to kill the hijackers, boarding the vessel secretly - only to learn that their women shipmates have negotiated the hijackers' withdrawal, with no one harmed. The point is not excitement, but the rational human mind making the best of circumstances, on a planet where severe global warming has been advanced by centuries.
Would our minds be more concentrated by danger if the worst threat were immediate, not decades in the future? Egan is doubtful. But we, at least, facing climate change, have one advantage over his characters.
We can still do something.
But we have been reading! I'm behind about 6 reviews now... and I've read some excellent books....(and new ones come into the house on a regular basis).
"Exhalation" by Ted Chiang, collected in Exhalation
Chiang is the best at imagining and inhabiting radically different worlds. The story's unnamed narrator belongs to a people who are mechanical, in some way, by our standards. Daily, they open their chests to replace their "lungs" - aluminum, compressed-gas storage tanks. The story is a perfect gem of alterity, breathing life into the protagonist, who makes a huge discovery about the world's future.
"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang
I first read this story in 2007, in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Time travel, set in the medieval Muslim world, specifically Baghdad and Cairo. The gate transports anyone traversing it 20 years into the future, or the same span into the past. The merchant, telling his tale to the Calif of Baghdad, relates meeting the gate's builder, hearing stories of its other time travellers, and finding his own use for the gate. The secondary tales-within-tales, and the somewhat flowery language used in the story, point to the 1,001 Nights as Chiang's model. Travellers' lives can be made better or worse via the gate, and no one escapes the fate appointed them by God.
Such a story risks orientalism, but I think chiang doesn't overdo his hommage. It's a story of presumable superscience that seems like magic to medieval people; charming enough, but no more than that.
Four Soldiers (Quatre Soldats by Hubert Mingarelli (2003, translated from the French, 2018)
Four Soldiers is a short book, perhaps novella length, that tells the tale of four young, illiterate Red Army soldiers—Pavel, Sifra, an Uzbek named Kyabine, and our narrator Benia— during one season of the Russian Civil War. The unit has set up camp somewhere near the Romanian border for the winter and the story follows the friendship of the four while they wait for the actual fighting. It’s a slow story, engrossing at times, amusing at others. The climax comes at the end when the four, now five, faces combat.
I very much enjoyed this book, there is a sense of authenticity about it. That said, I found Mingarelli’s more recent (and also short) book, A Meal in Winter much more powerful and prosaic. And I’ll be watching for his next.
Austral by Paul McAuley (2018, UK)
Set in a post-climate change Antartica, Austral is a thoughtful thriller, a long chase scene with lots of story along the way. Austral, is also the name of our narrator, our heroine (or perhaps anti-heroine depending on which way you look at it). The book begins:
My birth was a political act. Conceived in a laboratory dish by direct injection of a sperm into an egg, I was customized by a suite of targeted genes, grown inside a smart little chamber to a ball of about a hundred cells, and on the fifth day transferred to my mother’s uterus. I drew my first breath among the snows of the south, spent much of my childhood in exile on a volcanic island and most of the rest working in the farm stacks of a state orphanage. I’ve been a convict, a corrections officer, and consort to a criminal. I committed the so-called kidnapping of the century, but first and foremost I’m a husky. An edited person. Something more than human, according to Mama and the other free copouts. A victim of discrimination and intersectional inequality, according to do-gooders trying to make excuses on my behalf. A remorseless monster driven by greed and an unreasoning lust for revenge, according to the news feeds which sucked my story to the bare marrow….
The story captured me then and there, and more or less never let me go. We follow Austral and her young kidnap victim across an intriguing and vivid Antartic landscape as they attempt to survive a pursuit by more than one entity.
I admit that Austral kept appearing in my mind as a certain very tall, blonde actress who was then (during my reading) on the cast of a very popular television show which shall not be named. I tried to shake that but eventually just let it be (I don’t think it took anything away from the story). I’ve noted before that I don’t read much SF these days beyond dystopias and similar post apocalyptic tales, but, I have read most of Paul McAuley’s work over the decades and do keep my eye out what he produces. And, of what of I have read (and can remember), this is one of his best.
During-the-Event by Roger Wall (2019)
The results of climate change have brought about mass extermination to reduce the population. And when the machines came to a small town in North Dakota to raze it, D.E. was a newborn being babysat by his grandfather and they survived. For seventeen years the two have lived alone in cave high up on a butte, scavenging and foraging. When his grandfather dies, loneliness forces D.E. (named for “During the Event”) to leave his wilderness home and explore the world he has been taught to distrust.
Part Hero’s Journey, part Bildungsroman, During-the-Event is a beautifully written book, written evocatively close to the land, especially the first part (and how many dystopias are set in places like North Dakota?) When D.E. leaves what has been his home, we leave with him, mourning his loss of innocence. Some of what he faces seems jarring, perhaps improbable (not sure I found one part credible), but we as readers are carried along, invested in D.E.’s future, hoping for the best in this riveting story.
Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side by Julia Shaw (2019)
As noted by the subtitle, this is generally a scientific look—rather than a philosophical look—at what we call evil. Shaw, a criminal psychologist, has chosen to discuss the topic through the lens of issues we deal with in contemporary society. She has broken the discussion down by chapter into subtopics which include: the “neuroscience of evil,” murder, “deconstructing creepiness”, sexual deviance, predators, “two-faced technology,” groupthink, money and complicity. At the end of the book, the author offers a list of “Ten Things Everyone Needs to Know about Evil” based on what we have just read. I reproduce it here because it gives some hints at the complexities the topic discussions offer:
1. Calling people evil is lazy.
2. All brains are a bit sadistic.
3. We are all capable of murder.
4. Our creepiness radars suck.
5. Technology can amplify dangerousness.
6. Sexual deviance is pretty common.
7. All monsters are human.
8. Money distracts from harm.
9. Culture cannot excuse cruelty.
10. We must speak of the unspeakable.
This is an extremely thought-provoking book. I took copious notes, dog-eared pages, and re-read. I also sometimes skipped sections because I thought I was not up to what I imagined to be the horror of a specific topic, but as I moved further into the book I went back and read those sections, too. And it’s no accident that the most powerful topic,in my opinion, that of complicity, is discussed last. Shaw’s intent is to educate, inform, and correct misinformation so that we can work to address the underlying problems (so we as a society can avoid suffering the full effects), and so we can speak up and take action, as necessary.
This would be a great book for a book group (it’s less than 300 pages), even if only certain topics/chapters were discussed.
(it occurs to me that reading this is very much the opposite of "reading to escape.")
Hidden biases are determined by something called the Implicit Association Test, which anyone can take here:
>145 lauralkeet: That sounds like an interesting book, Laura (and seems like a great BC book). I agree with the premise but I believe people who are or can be made aware of this can work to overcome their biases, which is probably where she goes with the topic?
"What's Expected of Us" by Ted Chiang
A simple gadget proves to its users that they have no free will, that their every action is predetermined. Trouble ensues. The premise here requires a sort of clockwork determinism that, as I understand it, isn't really what modern determinists mean. Chiang brings out the implications of his idea splendidly. But then, I would say that.
>141 avaland: Come to that, During-the-Event sounds like it might be up my alley, too... (I had to hunt around for it on LT, though... Your touchstone goes to the wrong thing, FYI, and apparently search gets confused if you don't put the hyphens in.)
>142 avaland: And dammit, so does this one! What are you doing to my wishlist?! :)
I've also recently picked up Exhalation and am very much looking forward to reading it.
Her Silhouette Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan (SF, 2019, US)
This well-written, intense novella tells the story of .Bee, a telepath, who is imprisoned in a elaborate cave system on the planet Colel-Cab with a fellow telepath. She has no memories of her crime or what came before. But then another voice breaks through….
This is an intimate, internal story, narrated by .Bee herself. The first part of the book takes place and is grounded, so to speak, in the cave system but after that—without giving anything away— her reality is more fluid (there is a water motif throughout the book) and reflects her inner struggle. The second half of the story is like being caught in a group-shared lucid dream and it can be confusing at times. But, all that said, this was a quick, intriguing, worthy read.
In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman (2018)
This short book is based on Lightman’s TED talk about the importance of “letting the mind go fallow” in this age of nonstop stimulation, continuous connection and over-scheduling. He discusses—and warns us—of what we might be losing because of it—creative thought, a solid sense of self, and a “replenishing of the mind.” It’s an interesting and thoughtful conversation. For just one example, he points out and discusses the great irony of modern technology, so-called labor-saving devices that did not create more leisure time, and more efficiency in the workplace that only heightened expectations. He discusses the cultivation of divergent thinking and the renewal of self in mental downtime. There is a lot in this little book and Lightman is a modern Cassandra, but are those who really need to hear his warnings really listening?
I picked up this book because I expected it would echo some of my own observations, thoughts and concerns, and it did, but also because the author stretches those thoughts even further. The book would be fabulous for a book group discussion.
New England House Museums: A Guide to More Than 100 Mansions, Cottages, and Historical Sites by Robert J. Regalbuto (2018)
A good resource for those who live in, or frequently visit the New England area, enjoy history, art, architecture and/or old or interesting properties. Each entry is a page, sometimes two if a picture is included. The text is informative in tone, and gives a brief summary of the property, it's history and any special significance. However, it should be noted that it is not exhaustive. Not included, for example, are the "Castle in the Clouds" (the Lucknow Estate, built in 1913/4 in the Arts & Crafts style), and the Franklin Pierce homestead, both in NH, the John Ward House in Salem, MA (1684, notable for being one of the least altered 17th century houses) and Ventfort Hall and Gilded Age Museum in Lenox, MA just up the road from Wharton's "The Mount." Still, there is more than enough locations to keep one busy for a long, long time. I think it could be improved by suggesting things; such as, if you are visiting any one of the houses in Concord, MA (Alcott, Hawthorne or Emerson) you could include a slight detour to Sleepy Hollow cemetery and see their gravesites (not handicapped accessible though), or that Fruitlands in Harvard, MA has a lovely restaurant on site, so you could make a day of seeing the farmhouse, the art museum, the Native American museum and Shaker house, all on the same property. But then, perhaps it would make the book too big to keep handy....
The Innocents by Michael Crummey (Due out Nov. 2019, fiction, Newfoundland)
Set in the early 19th century, this is a tale of two children trying to survive in an isolated part of Newfoundland after their parents and younger sibling dies. Not yet adolescents, the two—Ada and Evered—have little knowledge of the outside world and of the adolescence that will soon be upon them. What they do know the life they had with their parents, living close to the land, following the rhythm of seasons: catching the cod, salting and drying, the planting and preserving, foraging. They face all manner of adversity. Several ships will pass into the cove, including one ship that came through yearly to buy their father’s dried cod catch. They refuse one offer to be taken to the closest town, preferring to stay with what they know, as difficult and isolating as that life is.
Beautifully written, this tale of perseverance and survival—which seems to be about something even beyond just that—is immersive and riveting, it grabs the reader at the very beginning and never lets go. It's definitely a 5-star read. If you have not read Michael Crummey, who also writes short stories and poetry, this is a great book to start with.
Dear Evelyn: A Novel by Kathy Page (2018)
It is the eve of WWII and Harry Miles rushes to the library entering at the reference library doors just as Evelyn Hill exits, several books in her arms. A copy of Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” escapes her grasp and falls. Harry picks it up. “Is it any good?” he asks. “I’ll find out when I read it, she tells him.” And so begins a relationship, and the story of a marriage that lasts for decades until death separates the two. And from the dust jacket: It “explores how two very different people come together to shape and reshape each other over a lifetime.”
While not a completely epistolary novel as the title might suggest, the book does include many letters during the war years, some of which the author has taken in part, or whole, from her own father’s letters. A captivating story from beginning to end, this is a beautifully-written story; intimate, compassionate and remarkably honest.
As I read this book, I often thought back to another book I read last year about a marriage, Lily Tuck’s I Married You for Happiness, a very different telling, of course, but equally captivating.
All that Remains: A Renowned Forensic Scientist on Death, Mortality, and Solving Crimes by (Dame) Sue Black (2019, UK, nonfiction)
This is an amazing book; part memoir, part science, and by one of the UK’s most celebrated professionals in the forensic anthropology field. Sue Black is a brilliant, respectful, and generally cheerful sort of person—the perfect mix in a person who writes a very accessible book on what could be an extremely morbid subject. She provides a fascinating discussion of what we are made up of, and discusses death and dying with great honesty and common sense. She shares with us about the deaths—the kind of deaths—of several of her family members (and their responses to each of them) before moving into mesmerizing chapters on all manner of fascinating forensic cases. The most difficult chapter to read is one on her work in Kosovo around war crimes. She describes the work, some of the complications and difficulties they encountered, and how the professionals get through that kind of grim work. Finally, Black discusses forensic cases around large scale disasters before concluding.
I put off attempting to write a review of this riveting and completely absorbing book for quite a while. I didn’t feel up to the task, and still don’t feel I’ve done it justice. Sure, parts of it is grim, but Black’s telling is so respectful and professional, so down-to-earth. I learned much from this book and as said by someone elsewhere: for a book largely about death is it amazingly life-affirming. This could very well end up my book of the year (and it’s only early June!)
Recommended for fans of crime novels who fascinated by the forensics and those interested generally in science...etc. It's very hard to put down....
Any diagrams and pictures in the book? My library seems to only have the kindle version - so I wonder if that will be adequate or if I should look for a paper copy.
I like to read about mummies and bog bodies, too :-)
My Life as a Rat by Joyce Carol Oates (2019)
At twelve years old, Violet Kerrigan is the youngest child of a large Catholic, working-class family in western New York in the 1990s. We are introduced to Violet amidst intricate and powerful family dynamics. One night she hears her oldest brothers come home late and creeps downstairs to spy on them and discovers them in the garage area talking excitedly but quietly, while washing a bloodstained baseball bat. She listens to their conversation and watches them bury the bat. When a young black teen is found badly beaten (and dies the next day of his wounds), Violet begins to wonder and puts the clues together…. Her brothers and others become suspects and the investigation continues without the whole truth. A few days later after one brother maliciously causes her to slip on the ice, the distressed and injured girl breaks down and blurts out the truth to her teacher.
"A painful truth of family life: the most tender emotions can change in an instant. You think your parents love you but is it you they love, or the child who is theirs?"
In this fast moving story, we are meant to observe the legacy of violence and the consequences of Violet’s actions over the next 14 or 15 years. She is put into a safe house; her parents disown her, and she is then placed with a childless aunt and uncle. She is emotionally damaged, has trouble functioning, and a cycle of abuse by men begins. It is as if, Violet notes, she is the one serving a prison sentence. Oates is very good at putting the reader in someone’s head and so we share Violet’s intimate thoughts and feelings as she struggles. It’s a very, very uncomfortable place to be at times, and, to be honest, as reader, I began to weary of it and almost put the book down. But, stay with it for a few more pages as a miniature bulldog appears in the story and it signals a change. The story comes to a somewhat unexpected suspenseful climax and leaves us with a sense of hope.
"The Lifecycle of Software Objects" by Ted Chiang
Stories about artificial intelligence, AI, often presume explosive growth in their sophistication and power, once they reach a certain point. Instead, Chiang imagines them as slow to develop, and childlike. This novella, the longest in the book, follows their development over many years through the eyes of those people who dedicate time, attention, and money to their improvement. Tension exists between those who think of the "digients" as a sophisticated hobby and those who believe them to be as worthy of dignity as humans. Also present are those who want to hurt or deform them, treating them like game characters. Believeable problems arise - the digients' software environment becomes obsolete and money must be found to port them to a more fashionable one. Anybody still running Windows XP out there?
The novella grows into a consideration of love, of who merits love, and of how different loves compete for our limited time in the world. Chiang's prose is a bit flattened here, possibly reflecting that his humans are a bit out of their depth. I'm reminded of his earlier "Hell is the Absence of God," written in what I call "Readers Digest" prose, deliberately falling short of what the characters in that story would need to come to grips with the cosmos they inhabit.
Four and a half stars
"Dacy's Patent Automatic Nanny" by Ted Chiang
A steampunk (strictly, "clockpunk") about a robot nanny built by just about the last person you'd want to influence childcare.
Three and a half stars
I finished the whole book and while I do think "The Lifecycle" was the strongest and most complex story in the collection, they were all interesting and well done. It harked back a bit to my sf-reading experiences, in my early teens, when so much of it was fuel for Deep Thoughts and wondering about the universe (Dangerous Visions, I'm looking at you).
I definitely want to check out (in both senses of the word) Stories of Your Life and Others now.
I have just gotten a copy of My Life as a Rat and I hope to begin it soon.
Well, I couldn't resist your suggestion of Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side and it arrived today. It seems to me to be the right book at the right time. I'm so glad you pointed it out.
ETA: I just assumed that the author was from the US, because so much of the non-fiction I read is from US authors, but I see she's German, educated here in Vancouver at UBC and teaches in London. Sweet!
>187 Nickelini: Interesting. I had not noticed where she was from. I still think about some of things she talks about in that book. I'm listening to Madeline Albright's Facsism: A Warming and her chapter on this and the discussion of complicity haunts.