Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Frontiers of Cousindom

Every so often Ancestry.com will send me hints about possible relatives.

In general I find that these hints fall into one of two categories.

The first one is “Hey! You have an ancestor with an Incredibly Common Name! We found another person with that same Incredibly Common Name! Go look at this!” The odds of this person actually being the same as your own ancestor are small – sometimes the hint is off by over a century, which is surprising considering that all of the dates are entered into Ancestry as well – but there have been times when they’ve scored so it’s usually worth a glance at least.

The second one is “Hey! We found Your Exact Ancestor! Everything you need to know is in this document, which your account does not actually allow you to view even though we said that it would when you signed up!” I’m not sure why they offer access to Newspapers.com as part of their pitch, for example, since in the fifteen months I’ve had an account I have never once actually been able to see a Newspapers.com document. I’ve seen plenty of offers to “upgrade” my account in order to do so, but since they lied to me the first time I strongly suspect that they’re lying to me this time as well and all I would be doing would be spending more money to not see the same documents.

But every now and then they do hit the nail on the head and the hint takes me to someone who is a) genuinely related to me and b) accessible through my current account.

This is how I found a cousin of some kind last week.

This man’s grandmother would have been my dad’s great-aunt, which as near as I can tell makes us … cousins, in that grand extended sense of being related in a way that is far too cumbersome to worry about actually defining and which likely wouldn’t be worth the effort even if I got it right. We have common great-great-grandparents and we're a generation apart. That makes us, what, second cousins, twice removed? Something like that, perhaps. 

I’ve ransacked this guy’s public family tree for information and documents and found out few interesting things about someone I didn’t know much about.

This particular great-great-aunt of mine always felt a bit glamorous in some ways, simply because she ended up getting married in Los Angeles in 1919 – a long way from home for a woman born in Philadelphia in the late 1800s – and died in Vermont about the same time I was born. That’s a lot of travel in an age that didn’t make that sort of thing easy, especially for women. There were some new documents and information about that, as well as a few others about where she lived in the interim with information that I didn’t know. I also never knew she had any children but apparently there were two, one of whom was this guy’s mother.

So, cool stuff. Three cheers for Ancestry on this one.

I am tempted to contact the guy and introduce myself – it worked at least once with another long-lost cousin on my mom’s side, a woman about my mom’s age with whom I am still in touch – but I’m not sure what I would say to the guy to be honest. On the one hand, the last time anyone on that side of the family contacted anyone on my side of the family might well have been 1950. They weren’t a dysfunctional family, as my dad used to say, but they weren’t close. On the other hand, perhaps there are stories to be learned.

We’ll see.

Monday, January 10, 2022

News and Updates

1. Christmas has now been mostly put away. The tree is taken down, the ornaments boxed up, and the stockings folded and put in their bin. I never did get outside lights up this year so those were easy. There is a rocking chair and a small table where the tree stood and the living room looks cozy if not quite as festive. But it’s a good place to hang out nonetheless.

2. We did squeeze in one other Christmas event before we put the holiday to bed, though. Lauren’s Squad (all but the one in isolation with covid, anyway) came over on Friday night for Friendsmas, which was celebrated with Mexican takeout and good conversation. They’re all in college now and they had stories to tell, and I miss having them about the place to be honest. I’m glad they came by.





3. Eventually we will get the Christmas card out. Really.

4. The NFL season has now ended and if I read the reports correctly the Eagles made the playoffs. I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand it’s always good when my team has good things happen to them. On the other hand, it does feel sort of out of kilter. But there they are, and for as long as they’re in I suppose I should pay attention to the playoffs. Fly, Eagles, fly.

5. Oliver is back at Small Liberal Arts College now for his last semester – he’ll be a college graduate in May. How on earth did this happen? Wasn’t he going through New Student Orientation last month? Someone really needs to check on the timelines as there seems to be a lot missing in there. Or maybe I’m just getting old and things are speeding up inside my own head. Nah. Couldn’t be. Must be the universe.

6. I may never get a dental appointment at this rate. Last May it occurred to me that I was about due for my checkup so I called over to my local dentist and discovered that this same idea had occurred to pretty much everyone in a five county radius. “How about December 16?” they said. “December? Like … as in Christmas? That December?” “Yes, sir, that’s the one.” Sigh. “Okay.” And then Lauren came home with covid on the 15th and I called them back to see if they still wanted me to come by and breathe on them for 45 minutes. Surprisingly the answer was no, so we rescheduled for sometime in March. By then the meteor may have hit and I won’t need to worry about it.

7. We’ve been bringing the rabbits up out of the basement and letting them hop around the living room now and then, since it seems harsh just to keep them down there. Yes, it’s warmer there than outside (it's currently +1F outside, which translates to about -17C) but it’s not that interesting down there. They seem to enjoy it upstairs even if we can only bring up one at a time since they are a) male and female and b) brother and sister, and that’s just too much of a redneck stereotype for us to deal with at this point in our lives. Mostly the rabbits stay on the big area rug since they can’t really get traction on the hardwood floor. It’s a kind of passive fence that way, though Miley has discovered how to make the long jump over to the runner. We let them bounce around for a while and then we take them back downstairs. They have, however, discovered that our cats are wussim who no longer possess whatever predator instincts they might have once had, and the rabbits enjoy bouncing up to them and harassing them until they leave. “What are you doing?” we ask the bunnies. “You are designed by Nature as a snack! Leave the predators alone!” But apparently our cats are no longer the top of the food chain around here.





8. Thanks to the miracle of technology I can now advise students on multiple continents over what should be semester break! This is most likely a good thing, though at times you have to wonder whatever happened to the entire concept of a semester break.

9. I cannot figure out how to take decent photos with my iPhone, which is a drag since the main reason I chose to get an iPhone was because it supposedly had a good camera. I have looked things up online and done all of the things they suggest and the photos invariably come out grainy and flat. It’s hard enough to get motivated to take photos at all anymore, let alone take them when you know going in they’re not going to be any good. Of course, it’s not like I did any better with my previous Android phone. I suspect I am just not going to take good photos from now on. Sigh.

10. Today there was a Long Meeting down at Home Campus – one of those all-day events that happen at the beginnings of semesters. Mainly what I got out of it was a broken mug – one of my favorites, which tipped over on the tile floor and shattered. Fortunately it was empty at the time, but still. A sad moment. I suppose I’m not really hard up for mugs, though, since I enjoy them and find it hard to pass up a chance to acquire more of them. I now have a little display cabinet of them in my office since there were too many to put in the kitchen cupboard – this way I can see them and if needs must I can still haul them out and use them. So next mug up, I guess.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Wisconsin Christmas Once Again

Christmas has come to an end, though in a more usual fashion for us than the last month has been.

We spent Saturday with Kim’s side of the family celebrating Ukrainian Christmas. It helps that everyone who can be vaccinated has been, and that a majority of the people present have already had covid on top of that. We figured we’d be okay.

It’s been a while since we were able to do this. We were set to do this in January 2020 but between work schedules and people with the flu (remember that?) we ended up putting it off until Easter but by Easter everyone was in lockdown. We didn’t get to celebrate January 2021 either for obvious reasons. This year we figured we had a window of opportunity so we took it.

We got there in the late afternoon and settled in, visiting, snacking on various cookies and assorted other goodies, and hanging out. That’s what holidays are for, after all.

















Eventually it was dinner time. Ukrainian Christmas is a lot like Italian Christmas in that there is far more food than anyone could possibly eat, all of it tasty, except that the nature of the carbs changes. Also, Kim’s side of the family is a lot more mobile than my side of the family – where my side has the ability to sit down at a dinner table and then not move for several hours, Kim’s side is a kaleidoscope of activity. And yet dinner gets eaten and conversations get had all the same.

There were gifts, mostly for the young’ns.





And then we played the dice game. For those of you new to this space, the dice game is where you buy two gifts within a set budget, wrap them, and put them in six piles on a table. Everyone takes turns rolling a die and picks a present from the appropriate pile until everyone has two unwrapped gifts in front of them. Then you set a timer and get a couple of pairs of dice and do quick rolls – if you get doubles, you can forcibly swap with people. It’s a fun way to do gifts without stressing out about it – there is general kibbitzing and oohs and ahs, and the swaps can get pretty ruthless.







Kim and I still had the gifts that we’d bought in 2019 for the January 2020 version of the game so we brought those. They were still good, though admittedly the “2020 Life Hacks Day-By-Day” calendar was a bit of a curio.

I ended up with an egg cooker that I gave to Lauren afterward – she will make much more use of it than I will, in her college dorm – and a knit Cthulu hat (here modeled by Lauren). Good for the Wisconsin winter and for consuming the souls of people who have irritated me recently – the perfect gift, really.





Merry merry, one more time.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Thoughts on the Anniversary of the Trump Insurrection

It’s been a year.

One year ago today the United States of America was attacked by internal enemies.

One year ago today a disgraced, two-time-popular-vote-losing, justly impeached (and soon to be twice impeached – an American record), openly corrupt, calculatingly cruel and overtly fascist president opened the gates for an insurrection whose sole purpose was to preserve his palsied grip on power in direct contradiction to the clearly expressed will of the American people and the decisive outcome of the Constitutional process of electing a new president.

One year ago today American patriots watched in horror as this president’s hell-bound minions swarmed into the US Capitol in a violent attempt to keep in power in the hands of the exact sort of tyrant the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution to keep it out of. This treason had been planned at the highest level of the disgraced president’s government and was supported by insurgents within Congress itself, and as more evidence comes out this only becomes more obvious.

One year ago today this treason nearly succeeded in destroying the American republic. But for the actions of a few principled men and women who refused to bow down to the screeching demands of an authoritarian madman and his raging mob – many of them now actively being purged from office by the Republican Party – the United States of America would be a dictatorship today, a hellscape of right-wing extremism and a grim warning to humanity that even well-established civilizations can collapse into darkness.

It very nearly happened. It can still happen. There are a lot of people in this country working very hard to make it happen and who will gladly destroy anything or anyone who gets in their way.

While some of the foot soldiers of this insurrection have gone to jail, the leaders remain largely unpunished and free to continue their assault on the United States of America. They remain free to walk about the country. They remain in Congress. They remain on the airwaves.

They will not stop until they are successful or destroyed.

It is up to American patriots to make sure they are not successful.

Every thrice-damned insurrectionist who set foot in the Capitol building that day must be brought to justice and removed from the possibility of taking part in any such actions in the future, and every would-be tyrant who planned, incited, and led that insurrection – from the top down – must be made into examples fit to deter similar treason in future generations.

The stakes are clear.

An insurrection that goes unpunished is called a dress rehearsal.

An insurrection dealt with is called an object lesson.

Your choice, my fellow Americans.

But choose quickly. The lamps are going out all across the United States, and whether they will be lit again in my lifetime is an open question.

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Books Read in 2021 - Part III

And so the books of 2021 come to an end.

Here’s to a more stable and more focused 2022!

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Shrill (Lindy West)

I bought this book because of a quote I read online from West – a definition of “trumpet” that had me laughing for days – but this isn’t the book that was from. While there are flashes of humor in this one, it is mostly a passionate exposition of what it is like to be (in her words) fat, female, and feminist in the modern United States. Hint: it’s not pretty, and if her experiences don’t make you as angry as she is then you’re not paying attention. There are legions of entitled trolls – overwhelmingly but not quite entirely men – who regard her body as theirs to own, to savage, and to reject and who are willing to make this clear in brutally callous harassment that borders on and occasionally crosses over into criminal. She describes her reactions to the rape jokes that permeate standup comedy, for example – “jokes” that male comedians often simply refuse to accept are harassment, instead feebly defending them on the grounds that “it’s just a joke” or “you should be able to take it” or some such asshole argument. She describes her growing up, her family, her experiences in love and sex, and all the while in the background is her incandescent anger at being treated as an object – and not a worthwhile object at that. All she has to do is let the trolls speak in their own words – which she does throughout the book – and any sane human being instantly reaches for a baseball bat. The fact that so many bats are not reached for in this country tells you all you need to know about the war on women that is being waged these days. You should be as angry as she is. Damn right you should.

Martini 524 (James W. Smith)

This is an unpublished typescript that one of my students let me photocopy, and it was fascinating. James Smith was a crewmember of a PT boat during WWII and apparently he took copious notes during his time in the service. Eventually he typed them up and gave them to his crewmates, and somehow this came down to my student, who thought I’d appreciate it. And he was right! Smith starts his narrative at the beginning of his training, learning how to man one of the smallest and most fragile warships in the US Navy (PT boats were made of wood, not steel) at a base in Rhode Island. He describes the boats themselves, the crewmembers, and pretty much every aspect of the experience. Afterward he and the rest of the crew of PT 524 (the Bet Me) were loaded onto a tanker and taken to the Panama Canal, where they worked their way through and got loaded onto another tanker and taken to the southwest Pacific. The task force – codenamed “Martini” – went for a few patrols, made contact with the Japanese forces there, and ended up taking part in the furious action surrounding the recapture of the Philippines, notably the Battle of Leyte Gulf – one of the largest naval battles ever fought. Through it all Smith is an entertaining writer, allowing for the attitudes of his time, and he also describes the daily life on board, the bartering (and outright stealing) of supplies that got you through the days, the shore leaves, and the repairs and training that were a constant part of life on a PT boat. I hope that someday this does get published or at least donated to an archive or museum where it can be more widely known.

Total Oblivion, More or Less (Alan Deniro)

Macy Palmer has come unstuck in time, though in her defense so has everyone else. One day she's your basic early 21st century American teenager living in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, and the next there are Scythian hordes carving up the northern US, an Empire centered on Nueva Roma (somewhere near what used to be New Orleans) in the south, and a deadly plague capable of giving people boils that look like creatures and turning them into paper if stung by wasps. Then it gets weird. For all its post-apocalyptic structure and surrealistic details, this is basically a coming-of-age story set on the Mississippi River. Macy and her family get sent to a refugee camp and then make their escape down the river on a paddle wheeler called The Prairie Chicken, trying to make it to what was once St. Louis. Along the way they have adventures, nearly die, and the family – ivory tower dad Carson, defeated (and pregnant) mom Grace, older sister Sophie, maddening brother Ciaran – gradually falls apart, particularly after Grace gets the plague, gives birth, and dies. Eventually Macy continues the journey south to Nueva Roma – helped along the way by a TARDIS-like nuclear submarine with a legendary skipper – and gets tangled up in intrigue there. Macy grows up, the world gets only vaguely more comprehensible, and that's life really.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (V.E. Schwab)

Never pray to the gods that answer after dark. Adeline LaRue will spend centuries regretting – though, in some ways, being grateful for – not listening to this advice. As the story opens, she is a young woman in a small village in early 18th-century France, desperate to avoid being married off to someone she does not like and sentenced to the kind of narrow, bounded life this will inevitably bring her. On her wedding day she runs to the woods and prays to the Old Gods for relief, for freedom, and with her eyes shut she misses the sun going down. At that point an Old God – at first known simply as The Darkness though later she gives it the name Luc – answers her prayers, and in exchange for her soul he grants her absolute freedom in the twisted way that such gods interpret things. She cannot be remembered. She cannot leave a mark of any kind. She cannot say her name or tell her story. She cannot die, though she can suffer. She can live like this until she surrenders to him. And – as with Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope, which features a similar heroine though without the Old God part of the story – much of the novel is centered on how exactly someone who cannot be remembered can live in a world dependent on memory. She can’t hold a job. She can’t keep possessions or own a home. She simply exists in a never-ending series of nows, punctuated by the cat and mouse game played between her and Luc – cruel and capricious, as the Old Gods tended to be. The story bounces around in time, each chapter introduced by a place and a date, each section introduced by a work of art whose meaning becomes clearer over the course of the book. We watch Addie grow up in her village, meeting her family and the old woman in the forest who teaches her of the Old Gods. We follow her life over the three hundred years of the story, as she navigates first France and then elsewhere, trying to find her place in a world that steadfastly refuses to recognize her. We see her become a story, an idea – ideas, we are told, are wilder than memories and have their own rules – and an inspiration, a muse. And in roughly alternating chapters as the older story slowly catches up, we follow her in 2014 New York City where she meets Henry – the first person she finds since before her bargain with Luc who remembers her, the first person to whom she can say her name and tell her story. Henry, Addie, and Luc’s stories will merge and separate, intertwine and unwind, in a powerful meditation on love and memory and what, exactly, it is that makes us human, in a story that never quite settles into predictability and doesn’t quite end, not really. It’s a wonderful book. I listened to the audio version on a long car ride and as noted I’m never sure whether to include those here, but it’s my blog and I set the rules, so here it is.

Round Ireland With a Fridge (Tony Hawks)

What would you do if you woke up after a night out drinking to discover that you had made a bar bet with a friend – a bet you have no memory of making – that you could hitchhike around the circumference of Ireland in less than a month while accompanied by a dorm fridge? If you're Tony Hawks, you decide to buy a small refrigerator, fly to Dublin from your home in London, and set out. At the outset Hawks finds an ally in Gerry Ryan, a nationally broadcast radio host who adopts this quest as his own and promotes it on his show, and between this and Hawks' own willingness to roll with whatever comes his way it becomes an adventure in the kindness of strangers. He ends up as something of a national figure himself – at one point a group of art students paint "Fridge Man" on the back of his jacket – and as he makes his way counterclockwise around Ireland he runs into all sorts of people willing to give him a ride, take him to the pub, and even on occasion put him up in their own homes. Hawks is an engaging writer and this is a story that seems designed to be told in a crowded and dimly lit pub over a pint or two. It's an older story – this all happened in the mid1990s – but in a frantic and divided age it is good to read something that speaks to a more civilized and welcoming sort of humanity.

The First Ten Years: Two Sides of the Same Love Story (Meg Bashwiner and Joseph Fink)

Meg Bashwiner and Joseph Fink became a couple in New York City in 2009 when they found themselves working together for the Neo-Futurists, an avant-garde theater troupe. A decade later they were married, touring with the Welcome to Night Vale company that they had founded, and living in both upstate New York and Los Angeles. This is, in some ways, the story of that decade. Each of them wrote one chapter for every year of their relationship without consulting the other. And then they put those chapters side by side so you can see the differences in emphasis, in what each felt was worth remembering about each year, about how sometimes even the events and descriptions don’t match. In some ways, though, that’s the main point – how relationships grow and thrive, despite challenges and despite the fact that each participant is seeing things and remembering things in their own way. It’s a sweet story in many ways – their relationship has to survive a great many challenges, from their own awkward steps toward becoming a couple to the vast stresses and strains of running a touring performance company with no experience or training for it, and they do so with an open sense of wonder and deep affection for each other that permeates each page. Both Fink and Bashwiner are good writers – Fink is more aphoristic and has a better sense of how to put words together, but Bashwiner has the better ability to get to the emotional heart of the matter and is the better storyteller – and it’s a lovely little book that way.

Atomik Aztex (Sesshu Forte)

I bought this book for half a buck at a library sale because the title was interesting and even now having read it I’m still not sure if it was money well spent or not, but sometimes you just have to succumb to the sunk cost fallacy and finish what you started. The plot of the book is complex, largely because there are many layers of parallel universes that seem to blend and separate largely at will, but as near as I can figure out it centers on an Aztec warrior named Zenzontli – a man with an unwarrantedly high opinion of himself, as the other characters are at often pains to point out, who ends up in all sorts of trouble in many and varied ways. The key conceit of the book is that the Aztecs stumbled across the secret of parallel universes powered by human sacrifice, so whenever they are threatened they can simply skip to the ones where they win. But things seem to be breaking down, and Zenzontli keeps shuttling back and forth between a universe where he is a noble Aztec lord in Mexico (which, somehow, ends up with him and a troop of warriors fighting Nazis in Stalingrad) and a universe where he is a slaughterhouse worker in Los Angeles trying to unionize the workforce. There’s precious little to differentiate the two universes except spelling – the noble Aztec lord insists on using k’s and x’s in odd places (thus the title) – and Forte is one of those authors who views himself as experimenting with the novel’s form when mostly he’s just writing five-page-long paragraphs that deliberately defy easy comprehension, which I am sure he regards as a victory but which get tiresome for the reader. It’s a short book but it feels much longer, and I don’t expect I will ever read another of Forte’s books.

The Long Haul (Finn Murphy)

This is another one of the books that I listened to as I traveled from Wisconsin to Philadelphia this year, but I’ll count it. Finn Murphy was (is?) a “bedbugger” – a trucker who specializes in long-haul moves. They are, if he’s correct, the bottom of the social pyramid among truckers, but he loves his job and his life and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He tried at one point, in fact, but ended up coming back. He starts his story as a kid in Connecticut, working at a gas station next to a trucking company and idolizing the movers and drivers who worked next door. Eventually he joins them and launches his own career as a driver – much to the dismay of his parents, particularly after he drops out of Colby College after his junior year to pursue this. But Murphy is a natural storyteller, articulate and humane, and he gives a fascinating view of both the world of long-haul moving truckers and the people he deals with – the “shippers” whose stuff he hauls as well as the crews he hires. This was a fun book to listen to and it succeeded in making me think more about the people I see on the road and how their lives are set up.

Just the Funny Parts (Nell Scoville)

Nell Scoville is a writer. She started writing for magazines and eventually someone told her that she should write for television and that ultimately became her career. She divides her career into four phases: 1) Who is Nell Scoville? 2) Get Me Nell Scoville! 3) Get Me a Younger, Cheaper Nell Scoville! and 4) Who is Nell Scoville? and she works her way through a long and varied career as the only woman in too many rooms. It’s a funny book – she’s a genuinely talented comedian and writer and she’s hung out with a lot of similarly talented people, many of whom she quotes – but there’s a hard edge of feminism underneath it, as she recounts the sheer vulgar sexism that is the lot of women in her field. How she managed to get through her career without slapping someone who richly deserved it I do not know. She likes the shows she works on (mostly), and there are people she adores (such as Lily Tomlin) and people she doesn’t – Dave Letterman in particular comes off as a deeply ambivalent figure in profound ways – and it’s a good book but in the end not a happy one, for all that it works out well for her.

Bourdain: the Definitive Oral Biography (Laurie Woolever)

This is a donut of a book, with substantive commentary encircling a missing center. That center, Anthony Bourdain, died in 2018 – one of the few celebrity deaths that I felt as more than just the passing sadness that one feels whenever someone dies. His longtime assistant, Laurie Woolever, assembled something like a hundred interviews with people who knew him – family, friends, colleagues, coworkers, and the like – and then simply cut and pasted them together in roughly chronological order to form chapters, without adding explanatory commentary or editing for consistency. What emerges is a Rashomon-like portrait of a complex man, a larger-than-life figure in some ways, and above all an addict – if not to heroin, then to work, reading, television, career, or lovers. Perhaps the most heartbreaking line in the book comes when one of those interviewed refers to Bourdain's addictive personality, pointing out that “this is why we’re talking about him instead of to him.” Bourdain comes off as a complex and three-dimensional character – loud, generous, incisive, self-destructive, brilliantly talented, sometimes angry, always the center of attention though not always happily, and deeply, deeply human. If there is a villain in this piece (other than his mother, who comes across as cold and grasping) it is his final girlfriend Asia Argento – invariably described by all who mention her at all as manipulative, volatile, controlling, and unhealthy, and directly blamed by many for Bourdain’s suicide. Argento was conspicuously not interviewed for this book, though both of Bourdain’s ex-wives and several of his ex-girlfriends were. It’s a portrait of a man who should still be with us, and the world is a poorer place for his absence.

A Little Hatred: Book 1 of the Age of Madness (Joe Abercrombie)

This is the book where my lack of bandwidth this year really became apparent. It’s a marvelous story told by one of my favorite authors, a writer who genuinely knows how to craft a sentence. It has sharply drawn, three-dimensional characters, a bleak and biting sense of humor, and an intricate and well-crafted plot. And it still took me nearly a month to read, with long periods of getting nothing read at all. That said, however, it was definitely worth the time. It’s a few years after the events of Red Country and industrialization has come to the Union with a vengeance in a way that feels very reminiscent of 19th-century England. The capital is mostly profiting from it, but in Valbeck – roughly standing in for Manchester, perhaps – there is misery, fouled water and air, and a rebellion planned by the Breakers in the name of the workers. Savine dan Glokta (daughter of Arch Lector Sand dan Glokta, the former government torturer from the First Law Trilogy and now one of the most powerful men in the Union) is one of the winners of industrialization, though – powerful, intelligent, and wealthy, and about to be swept up in the events at Valbeck. Crown Prince Orso, her lover and the wastrel heir to the throne, spends his days wishing he were a better man.  Gunnar Broad was a ladderman in the Union army – one of the most dangerous and feared positions in the military – but forced from his home by the Union’s equivalent of the Enclosure Movement he ends up with Valbeck’s Breakers and Burners (two different, though uneasily allied groups), who want reforms for the workers by whatever means necessary. Meanwhile the North is in flames again, as Scale Ironhand’s nephew Stour Nightfall is pushing the Dogman’s Northerners and Union forces out of Angland and burning everything in his path, much to the weary disappointment of his lieutenants and the frantic rage of his opponents, Leo dan Brock and his mother, Finree dan Brock, who commands the Union army there. Rikke, the Dogman’s daughter cursed or blessed (or both) with the Long Eye, finds herself in the middle of it all. From this kaleidoscopic set up Abercrombie will let things spin out as his ruefully self-aware and darkly funny characters try to keep up with events without getting destroyed by them. There aren’t really villains in Abercrombie’s world – just flawed characters working for and against each other for what seemed like good reasons at the time in a worn down world – and that draws you in.

The Trouble With Peace: Book 2 of the Age of Madness (Joe Abercrombie)

Things spiral into chaos in the second installment of this story. The chaos starts small, with the return to something like power for Savine dan Glokta, eventually wed to Leo dan Brock, the hero of Angland for his actions in the previous book. But all is not well in the Union, and the newly crowned King Orso will find his reign tested by the treasonous machinations of his own Closed and Open Councils. Stour Nightfall is now King of the North, except for Uffrith which belongs to a much transformed and far more fearsome Rikke. And with those pieces in play the rebellion against the Crown draws allies and strength culminating in a vast battle that takes up most of the last third of the book and is, for all its size and ferocity, little more than a distraction from the larger story of the Breakers and Burners and their Levelling assault on the Union from within. Events overtake events, and the changing historical models Abercrombie draws from come thick and fast if you pay attention. Abercrombie is a master of shifting points of view and his worn down characters try to make sense of the bleak world they inhabit, usually without much success. While Leo ends up manipulated by everyone around him, Orso and Rikke have grown into independent forces. The conflict will end poorly for pretty much everyone in one way or another, and then with the gently written but nevertheless gut-wrenching twist at the end it’s on to the third book – a task for the new year.


Books Read: 36

Pages Read: 12,045

Pages per day: 33.0



Happy Reading!

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Books Read in 2021 - Part II

Books, part the second!

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World Travel: An Irreverent Guide (Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever)

I miss Anthony Bourdain. The world is a poorer place for his absence. Shortly before he died, he and his assistant, Laurie Woolever, were making plans to write a travel guide of sorts – one that would cover the world (or at least those parts that Bourdain had visited in a long and peripatetic career) and some of the best places to eat therein. After his death, as Woolever writes in the preface, there was a period of debate over whether to proceed and if so how, and the end result was this book. It’s an odd combination of general tourist guide on the one hand – each chapter is a country, arranged alphabetically, with information on how to get there and what transportation from the airport to the main cities will cost – and a Bourdain-style eating tour on the other, with a couple of chosen restaurants listed for each place, including costs, menus, and such. Throughout are quotes – often quite long – about each place taken from published works, television show transcripts, or just random writings by Bourdain, all set off in blue ink so you can see at a glance what is his and what was added by others. There are also a handful of essays from friends, colleagues, and in one instance Bourdain’s brother, all on the general theme of what it was like to travel and eat with Anthony Bourdain. It’s a lot of fun for those of us who are dedicated fans, and if I ever find myself in any of these places perhaps I’ll look some of these restaurants up and give them a try, but this book is perhaps something best left to the hardcore fans.

A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisine (Anthony Bourdain)

This is one of Bourdain’s earlier books, published in 2001, and it reflects both the times and Bourdain’s early, more testosterone-driven writing. As he matured over the years Bourdain got more even-keeled, but even so this is an entertaining and enjoyable book. It’s basically a series of essays around the general theme of “Send Anthony Bourdain somewhere out of the usual path of American tourists and have him eat exotic things and report back about them,” and there are chapters here on Vietnam, Cambodia, Scotland, Russia, Morocco, and – of all places – San Francisco, as well as others. At one point he ends up in the little Mexican village where most of his kitchen staff in New York City are from, eating with their families. Even in familiar places he goes to unfamiliar restaurants and generally eats things that the average American won’t touch – he was a far more adventurous eater than I will ever be, for example. Some of the appeal of this is the food but most of it is just Bourdain reacting to both food and circumstances (his trip through Cambodia is awful though he just loves Vietnam, and his “I’m going to try to be nice except I just can’t” rant against vegans in San Francisco is definitely a more jagged Bourdain than he became in later years – he would have managed to be more polite, though I doubt his opinions underneath ever changed). It’s a fun book and one that is almost impossible to read without hearing it in his voice.

Dave Barry’s History of the Millennium (So Far) (Dave Barry)

Nothing ages so fast as humor, and no form of humor ages as quickly as political humor. But if you can put your mind back into simpler days at the beginning of the current century, this is a fun little book. I’ve enjoyed Dave Barry’s writing since I stumbled into his stuff back in the 1980s and he is nothing if not consistent – light, mildly absurdist satire of daily life and its foibles, often with a political undertone that says “they’re all nuts.” He’s funny, and I appreciate the fact that he got his start in the Philadelphia area because hey, local pride. Every year he does a “year in review” column where he goes through the events of the past twelve months – some of which actually happened (those are usually set off by the phrase “I am not making this up,” because they can be hard to tell apart from the ones he did make up). The column for 2020 was a much needed break after a hard year, really. These are the columns from 2000 through 2006, plus a long chapter skimming through the millennium prior to that in much the same style. There are a lot of names I’d forgotten about (Elian Gonzalez? William Hung?), but the overriding impression I got from it is that it was a lower-stakes time. In an age where the US has barely survived four years of increasingly overt Fascism capped by an actual insurrection against the legitimate government of the country by hardcore right-wingers – an insurrection which the Republican Party steadfastly refuses to acknowledge, let alone investigate – the kind of gentle “both sides are idiots” humor that Barry offers here is a bit jarring. I suppose that’s more a commentary on the present than on Barry, but there you go.

Dead Lies Dreaming (Charles Stross)

The tenth installment in the Laundry Files is a bit of a divergence, given that never once does any character from the Laundry actually appear in the book. It clearly takes place in the same world as the Laundry Files and there are occasional references to things that exist in that world, but the characters are different and you get the feeling that this is a temporary diversion designed to set up a much larger collision down the road. Jeremy Starkey – “Imp” to his diverse collection of friends – is a transhuman, someone with minor magical powers (a dangerous thing to be in the world of the Black Pharoah’s England, both for political and sorcerous reasons), and all he wants to do is get enough money to make his films. His friends – generally referred to as Del, Game Boy, and Doc – are similarly transhuman (and similarly non-hetero in various ways), and at the opening of the book they’re robbing a toy store. Wendy is a former cop turned private security guard, also transhuman and deeper than she appears. Eve Starkey, Imp’s sister, works as the personal assistant to Rupert de Montforte Bigge, a high priest of the Mute Poet and a ruthless and bizarrely rich corporate titan. All of this – plus a team of Transnistrian mafiya hitmen and Rupert’s personal muscle (known throughout as “The Bond”) – will converge on an ancient book of great evil, a cursed object that must be retrieved by one of the blood. Stross weaves the Starkey family history throughout the book, and in the end much has changed though how much remains to be done is unclear. Stross is a marvelous writer for both plot and the simple art of putting sentences together, and this book pulls you right along and leaves you waiting for the next installment in the Laundry Files.

Project Hail Mary (Andy Weir)

On a spaceship in the interstellar void a man wakes up with two dead companions and no idea who he is or why he is there. Over time he works out the answers to those questions – he is Dr. Ryland Grace, a former academic biologist who left the field to teach middle school science, and his mission is to save the earth from the astrophage, microscopic alien life forms who live on light and are rapidly dimming the sun to the point where life on earth will become unsustainable. From there the story branches out into both past and future. Weir gives us flashbacks of how the astrophage were discovered and how humanity reacted with the Hail Mary, the spaceship Grace finds himself traveling on. Perhaps the most compelling character in this part of the story is Eva Stratt, the person in charge of Project Hail Mary – a ruthless but sympathetic administrator who drafts Grace into her domain. Weir also continues the story forward into orbit around the star Tau Ceta, where the solution to the astrophage problem may lie. Here the most compelling character is Rocky – a sentient alien life form whose planet had a similar project that ended up at Tau Ceta as well. Grace and Rocky learn how to communicate and how to overcome the vast challenges that this project entails, and the end result isn’t quite what either of them expected but it seems to work. Weir is an entertaining writer with a dry sense of humor that leavens the hard science that fills these pages, and the book flies by quickly. It’s a First Contact space adventure with three fully-fleshed-out characters, which is not an easy thing to do.

Death’s Apprentice (KW Jeter and Gareth Jefferson Jones)

In a grim, rainswept city ruled by the Devil himself, there are three hard men. Blake was a soldier taken in by the Devil and is now cursed to wear his coat, a garment that has become part of his body and taken half of his soul. Nathaniel was sold to Death by his drunken father and is learning the trade. Hank is a hit man, a giant, and is psychologically incapable of fear (a condition the authors repeatedly describe as “pantophobia,” which is in fact precisely the opposite condition – I’m not sure how that got past the editors). They will join forces in the search for an infant, and a literal pandemonium will break loose. This was a library remainder and probably for good reason – it reads smoothly but there is about half again as much in this book as there needed to be and it can be difficult to keep track of who is doing what or why the reader really should be concerned about it. Overstuffed, determinedly weird, mostly combat and explanations, and the first of a planned trilogy that probably would have followed the infant rather than the three men had it been published, this is a book that had a lot of interesting things in it but didn’t quite come together into a successful story.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Imaginarium (Paul Kidby)

Paul Kidby illustrated many of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, and his visual style is nearly synonymous with the series for many people. An untrained artist, he approached Pratchett with some samples of his work and spent a career following up on that. This is a large format collection of some of these illustrations – one per page, usually – divided into sections, each section introduced with a brief comment from the artist. If you’re a hardcore Discworld fan this will be a fascinating collection, and if you’re not you should probably skip over it. I am, and I enjoyed this Father’s Day present from my family.

The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fforde)

It was a long year and a half and looked to get even longer, so it seemed a good time to revisit an old favorite series. When the boundary between fiction and reality is porous, someone has to police the border and that someone is Thursday Next, a detective for SpecOps 27, the division tasked with investigating literary crimes in a 1985 Britain where such things are considered serious offenses. She's a veteran of the Crimean War (still going on in 1985), her father works in the Chrono-Guard (SpecOps 12) though he went rogue and is now careening through the timelines with occasional visits to see his daughter, she has a pet dodo named Pickwick (made from reconstructed DNA), and her great but largely self-thwarted love interest is Landen Park-Laine, which makes more sense once you understand that a) Park Lane is the British equivalent of Park Place in Monopoly, and b) Fforde adores puns and allusions of all sorts. This is even more clear with Jack Schitt – a soulless corporate enforcer from the Goliath Corporation, which rebuilt England after a rather different WWII than we know in our timeline (there are occasional references to a German occupation) – and the main villain, Acheron Hades. After an attempt to capture Hades goes badly awry, Next transfers from London to the Swindon office of SO27. Eventually Hades uses the Prose Portal (invented by Thursday's uncle Mycroft) to enter Jane Eyre and kidnap the heroine, after which all sorts of literary shenanigans ensue. Fforde is a delight to read if you enjoy following odd little references (some of Thursday's colleagues include her boss, Braxton Hicks, and her fellow detective Bowden Cable) and long-form humor, and this opening volume of the first four-book arc of Thursday's story has one of my favorite bits of dialogue ever:

“We’d like your opinion on this. It was taken yesterday.”

I looked at the photo. I knew the face well enough. “Jack Schitt.”

“And what do you know about him?”

“Not much.”

Lost in a Good Book (Jasper Fforde)

Thursday Next is now famous after her adventures in Jane Eyre and she hates it. It interferes with her SpecOps job and her marriage to Landen, and she’d much rather just get on with both. But when a train ride with a Neanderthal goes badly awry and a copy of a long-lost play by Shakespeare turns up mysteriously in an aristocrat’s family library – and becomes an opportunity for a neofascist politician to curry favor with voters – Thursday gets thrown back into the thick of LiteraTec action. To complicate matters Landen gets eradicated by a rogue ChronoGuard agent so that he died at age two, the Goliath Corporation is still angry at her for what happened to Jack Schitt, and she is pursued by another enemy with a personal grudge who is trying to kill her through aggravated coincidences. To solve these problems she figures out how to enter and leave books on her own, which – after a series of other equally outlandish events – ends with her apprenticed to Miss Havisham of Great Expectations as an agent of Jurisfiction, the in-book equivalent of SO27. From there it gets odd. Fforde is up to his usual wordplay (a section on grammasites remains one of my favorites) and puns (there’s a long-running joke regarding the unfortunate fate of SO5 agents assigned to tail Thursday – agents with names like Dedmen & Walken, or Lamme & Slorter) and a side plot involving the extinction of all life on earth that somehow seems less important than any of that. If you follow Fforde at all you will recognize some characters who will play a much larger role in their own spinoff being introduced here, but for the most part you just try to keep up with his imagination and enjoy the ride.

The Well of Lost Plots (Jasper Fforde)

After the events of Lost in a Good Book our hero retreats to the Bookworld for some rest and recuperation, switching places with DS Mary Mary in a disused police procedural that will eventually turn into Fforde’s first Nursery Crimes book if you know what to look for. Thursday spends her days training as a Jurisfiction agent under Miss Havisham and trying not to forget her eradicated husband Landen. Fforde keeps a lot of balls in the air as far as the plot goes – Thursday’s battle with mnemonomorph Aornis Hades, her trying to fit into Caversham Heights and train the two Generics into becoming actual characters (and the problems that happen when they do), and the underlying issues with the rollout of UltraWord all dart in and out of the plot – but the main joy of reading these novels is Fforde’s dizzying parade of allusions, puns, and creative ideas. In the end things turn out well for certain values of well, and Thursday Next is off to the concluding volume of her initial four-book series.

Something Rotten (Jasper Fforde)

In this final installment of Thursday Next’s initial arc, she is once again back in Swindon and trying to tie up all the loose ends from the previous books. An increasingly Fascist Yorick Kaine is now the Chancellor of England, stirring up xenophobic hatred against the Danes and opposed mainly by President for Life George Formby. Landen is intermittently uneradicated – more and more as the book goes on – while the 13th-century St. Zvlkz has reappeared with his Seventh Revealment, which is about the fate of the planet hinging on the outcome of the 1988 SuperHoop Croquet championship between the Reading Whackers and the Swindon Mallets, croquet being a much more violent sport in this world than in ours. There’s a side plot about the Neanderthals and another about Danish literature, while a third revolves around the efforts of England’s most feared assassin – The Windowmaker – to kill Thursday before the SuperHoop. But mostly you read this for the worldbuilding and the deep dive into Jasper Fforde’s imagination. There are several one-off books that continue Thursday Next’s story, but for now I will take a break and read elsewhere for a bit.

Born a Doofus (Adam Huber)

Bug Martini is my favorite web comic. The art is clean and interesting, Huber’s sense of humor is right up my alley, and most strips have multiple punchlines so you’re almost always going to find something funny in them. I started following the strip when it was still called Bug (he changed it because “Bug Martini” is easier to search for, I think) and I have done my best to share these strips with the world. I very nearly got Huber to come to Home Campus to give a presentation, in fact, and we had actually gotten everything arranged before the world caught fire in March 2020 and burned that down too. I still have hopes. When he announced that he was going to do a Kickstarter to get his first collection published – a project he did largely himself, it turns out – I was on board from the get go. It took a while longer than either of us expected but given the state of the world during that time it’s quite an achievement that the book is here at all. And it’s just as wonderful as I thought it would be.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Books Read in 2021 - Part I

Last year was the year where I didn’t read very much at all, at least not compared to most years. I spent the spring working 150% of a job (because hey – kids in college, plus as an adjunct you never say no to any offer, since the only thing universities ever remember is the last thing you told them and if you say no once they will never offer you a job again) and I was full time over the summer as well. Nice problems to have in this economy, granted, but first world problems are still problems. The fall was all about family matters and finding the focus to read in there was not easy.

On top of it all we started out the year with a treasonous insurrection as the disgraced, two-time-popular-vote-loser and his slavering minions attempted to overturn the will of the American people and install him as the kind of tyrant the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution to prevent. This simply made obvious what the GOP has been arguing for the last three decades – that they and they alone have the right to rule this country and they will destroy any law, person, legislative body, or Constitutional principle that gets in their way of their quest for absolute power. Also, the plague has endured for another year thanks to the efforts of American conservatives to sabotage any effort to stop it, in the name of their infantile definition of freedom (“Don’t WANNA! Can’t MAKE ME!!”) – a definition that a genuine conservative would find abhorrent. And on top of that any doubts that climate change is already here were put to rest by the extreme events of this year, at least for anyone with more than seven working brain cells.

So it was a tough year to read, even for escapism.

And yet, I tried.

This is what I managed to read in 2021.

Enjoy

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Humans (Brandon Stanton)

I’ve always loved books like this, where the author goes out and finds ordinary people and gets them to tell their stories, because people are interesting and they all have stories. Brandon Stanton started Humans of New York by simply walking around his city and asking people to talk to him and let him take their photograph, and the stories he found were inspiring, heartbreaking, cheering, scary, and more. This book is one of his later ones, after he began traveling the world and asking people in other places to talk with him. There are people from Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan. Britain, Ghana, Poland, Spain, Indonesia, and Canada. And yes, from New York City too. If you can get through this book without tearing up you have a heart of stone, and if you can get through it without a sense of common humanity and dignity, of empathy with the stories of everyday people – all beautifully photographed so you can see who is talking to you – then there is no hope for you.

The Time-Travelling Caveman (Terry Pratchett)

This is the fourth and likely final collection of the short, cheerful stories that Pratchett wrote for younger readers early in his career when he still worked for the local newspaper. They’re clever and often at a bit of an angle to reality as we know it, and you can see the talent in them. Pratchett himself slightly revised them for publication and they’re profusely illustrated and full of typographical tricks and oddities, and if you’re looking for a light read you will find it here.

Shakespeare’s Pub: A Barstool History of London as Seen Through the Windows of Its Oldest Pub – The George Inn (Pete Brown)

The first thing you have to understand about this book is that the title is pure clickbait – Shakespeare himself appears in the book for maybe half a dozen pages, mostly for Brown to point out that while he lived and worked in the area, undoubtedly knew about The George, and quite possibly stopped in on occasion, there is no actual evidence that he ever set foot in the place. There’s more evidence for Chaucer and Dickens having done that. But the subtitle is accurate. The George has been in Southwark – the neighborhood at the south end of London Bridge – in one form or another since the 1300s and you can get a pretty good view of London’s history by following the twists and turns of events at The George. Brown is an engaging writer, sneakily funny in a very British sort of way, and he does a good job of walking you through the history of Southwark, of pubs in general, of the golden age of stage coaches and how they disappeared almost overnight due to railroads, of Puritans and kings and brothels, bears, and staged plays (which is the most direct connection between The George and Shakespeare, as they performed his plays in the courtyard into the 20th century), and the differences between alehouses, pubs, and inns, and at the center of it all is The George – a place you can still go to for a pint even today, though you may have to wade through the tourists to get there.

The Keillor Reader (Garrison Keillor)

I discovered Garrison Keillor in high school when my girlfriend at the time introduced me to A Prairie Home Companion, and I have never really stopped listening to him. There is something about the way he tells stories – slowly, discursively, in a flat midwestern cadence that I can’t help but hear when I read his books – that appeals to me. He tells stories of people just making their way through the everyday indignities and joys of their lives and if there aren’t any earth-shattering events in any of those stories there are enough small epiphanies and heartbreaks to add up. There is a melancholy here, and a quiet determination, and mostly there is the story because that’s all there ever is. This is a collection of previously published pieces, some of which I’ve read before and some of which I’d heard before and at least one of which I saw him perform live, but you go along for the ride and enjoy it. I found this book second hand somewhere – an autographed copy that the original owner had apparently read halfway through, found one bit where Keillor’s humor clearly did not come through and circled it in querulous black ink, and then must have decided it was no longer worth keeping, and now it is mine and on a cold winter’s night out here not all that far from the prairie, Keillor is a welcome companion.

The Constant Rabbit (Jasper Fforde)

Jasper Fforde’s mind must be a fascinating place, though it has been a while since the last time he gave us a glimpse inside. This particular story is a stand-alone novel of yet another alternate version of Britain in the near future – something he seems to specialize in, though every version he offers is different and entertaining in its own way. This one would be a thinly veiled satire of British race relations if Fforde had decided to veil it at all. The basic set up is that sometime in the 1960s the Event anthropomorphized a population of British rabbits (as well as some foxes, weasels, bees, and – in Africa – a few elephants), giving them intelligence, human-sized and humanoid bodies, and a taste for literature. After an initial feel-good sort of welcoming period the usual xenophobia set in and in the early 21st century British rabbits are subject to regulation, restrictions, and increasing persecution at the hands of the state now that the UKARP government is in power. Substitute the word “Muslim” (or, for Americans, “black”) for “rabbit” and the basic outline of the set-up is clear. Peter Knox is a divorced father who lives in the village of Much Hemlock and works for the government as a Spotter – one of the few humans who can identify individual rabbits – for the agency that regulates them, and while he is troubled by this he continues to make the moral compromises he needs to make to keep his job. Into his small town comes his old college crush, a rabbit named Constance now married with children of her own, and her family’s moving in next door creates exactly the kind of racism and backlash that often happens against minorities in the US and UK. Combine that with the Rehoming – a massive government project designed to sequester all of the rabbits into one Mega Warren (a nod to the American practice of putting Native Americans into reservations) and pretty soon it will all boil over, and Peter Knox will have to take a stand one way or the other. Fforde gives you enough foreshadowing to let you know that big things are coming but not enough to give them away entirely, and while this is a more melancholy tale than most of his work the subject perhaps deserves such a treatment.

The Crooked Path to Abolition: Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution (James Oakes)

This is a constitutional and legal argument, one that posits a dual framework for interpreting the Constitution with regard to slavery. On the one hand there was the proslavery Constitution – the document that recognized and protected slavery, included the 3/5 Compromise that so distorted federal politics in favor of slaveholders, and obligated Northerners to return fugitives back to slavery. On the other hand there was the antislavery Constitution – the document that presumed liberty, that referred to slaves as “persons” and never as “property,” that included protections for all persons up including due process in legal matters, and which left the obligation to return fugitive slaves unenforceable. In this short but dense book, Oakes follows Abraham Lincoln (whom he clearly admires) through a winding, often obscure, path toward making the antislavery Constitution the law of the land. He has some interesting points – the idea that the federal consensus that the national government could not interfere with slavery within a state is nowhere stated in the Constitution, for example, and his efforts to situate the Northern response to slavery during the Civil War into this larger context are enlightening if occasionally tortuous – but on occasion he does seem to be looking for reasons to excuse Lincoln’s conduct rather than accept it as just what happens when a 19th-century American white man confronts the thorny issue of race-based chattel slavery in a halting but ultimately progressive sort of way. The idea of an antislavery Constitution can be applied more broadly to civil rights and liberties in general, now that slavery has been banned by the 13th Amendment, and it would be a worthwhile project for an enterprising scholar to follow up on this book that way.

Sex & Bowls & Rock & Roll: How I Swapped My Rock Dreams for Village Greens (Alex Marsh)

Much of this vaguely memoirish book is based on JonnyB’s Private Secret Diary, a blog I used to read about a decade or so ago that was actually fairly influential in teaching me how to write blog posts as opposed to the academic writing that I had mostly been doing up to that point. Marsh was living in London with his LTLP (Long Term Life Partner) when, for reasons he goes into in the book, they decide to move to a small village in Norfolk. She keeps her career, which apparently pays well enough for them to do that, while he becomes a househusband. This is a bit of a shock for him, and he fills his time in various ways. He ruminates on his long-lost and not overly successful career as a musician, from his schooldays band through several iterations of young-adult-days bands to an ongoing attempt to get some kind of band together in the village. He takes up bowls, which is similar to bocce. He starts to keep chickens. He and the long-suffering LTLP renovate the little house they move into. And all the while he introduces you to the neighbors – Len the Fish, Short Tony and his wife (Mrs. Short Tony), the Chipper Barman, John Twonil, and so on. Marsh plays the role of the clueless but harmless egocentric, a legend in his own mind and forever the center of his own universe, forever making plans that don’t quite live up to his expectations. Others humor him, and he seems vaguely but uncomfortably aware of this. How much of this is true and how much is just a persona is probably not important. It’s a pleasant walk through the oddities of life in a small English village, as narrated by the guy you enjoy drinking with down at the pub but probably don’t want to rely on for more than the occasional decent effort down at the bowling green. It’s a bit different from the blog (which is still out there somewhere, archived in the way that all things online are), but still fun.

The Gameshouse (Claire North)

Behind the events of the world there are the players and behind the players there is the Gameshouse, a place where lives are lost and won, where battles are fought across the scale of the world, where the workings of civilization are altered by players interested only in the game, only in victory. This is an interwoven trilogy of novellas, bound together in a single volume and spanning centuries. In the first we meet Thene, the abused Jewish wife of a Venetian lout. She is a woman of keen intellect, cold anger, and deep passion and she must make sure her candidate becomes a tribune of early-17th-century Venice, regardless of cost or qualification. In a hypnotic first-person-plural voice North guides us through Thene’s story, only to deposit us in Thailand in the 1930s to follow Remy Burke, who drunkenly made a foolish bet and now must play a lethal game of hide and seek in a place where a six-foot Frenchman cannot blend in. Remy must win or lose his memories and the cat and mouse game that follows is told in a more conventional though still captivating voice. Ultimately these all come together when Silver, the hidden narrator of the first two stories (though this is never explicitly declared) challenges the Gamesmistress for supremacy and tells his own first-person story. His challenge sparks a decade-long conflict that will topple governments, start and end wars, shatter economies, and leave a trail of blood and betrayal across the globe. And in the end there is the coin, turning, turning, always turning, because luck may sometimes be merciful but the game never is.

The Body: A Guide for Occupants (Bill Bryson)

Bill Bryson has written a great many books, all of them worth reading, and they tend to fall into one of three categories. I discovered him with his travel memoirs, where he will go somewhere interesting (generally in the US, the UK, or Europe) and take you along for the ride. Then I found his books on the English language, a side interest of mine since I was in college. This is one of his third category - popular science books that take a great deal of information and condense it down into an enjoyable form for nonspecialists. In this book Bryson focuses on some of the science of the human body. There's a chapter on the brain. There's another on sleep. There's one on bones and another on diseases and the immune system, and so on. And if there is running theme throughout all of it, it is how little we actually know about any of this. Bryson will pick a subject, go into the history of how we know what we know about it while highlighting the often-forgotten heroes of the past who sacrificed themselves to get this knowledge, move on to how things work or don't work, and then, invariably, point out that we have no idea why it works this way or even whether it really does. And suddenly you understand why medicine is an art more than a science.

84K (Claire North)

In a worn down and worn out future Britain ruled by the Corporation – a gradual development that happened when companies that owned companies that owned companies eventually merged and contracted out all of the functions of the British government – criminal justice is a matter of fines. Each offense has a cost to society, adjusted by the value of both victim and perpetrator and mitigated or aggravated by any number of other factors, and those who can afford the fines pay them and go while those who can’t get sent to the patty lines making meat patties as a form of slave labor. The man called Theo Miller – not his real name, though what that might be is never said – is a claims adjustor, carefully weighing up the costs of crimes so that penalties might be paid. But some crimes are personal, and some things reach into the upper echelons of both Corporation and government, and sometimes those things intertwine, and that fact will turn the world upside down for both the man called Theo Miller and for the Corporation. There will be rebellions, both large and small, and whether they succeed is up to how you define that term. This is a bleak and fragmented novel, where paragraphs occasionally start and stop at random points as if a thought not fully formed had been abandoned, where the story is told from several different timelines of current and flashback, and where the logic of privatization and the commodification of human beings gets taken to its logical endpoint. As with all of North’s books the plot can get hard to follow and she has a hard time ending the story, but it is the characters and the tone that make it compelling.

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design (Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt)

I have long been fascinated by the underlying mechanics of things – the little design choices or logistical decisions that make things work even if nobody really notices them – and this book was therefore a pleasant discovery. It’s based on a podcast of the same name and each chapter is divided into a welter of small subsections, each about 2-3pp long, focusing on this or that aspect of urban design. They talk about everything from the codes spray painted on streets and buildings to traffic flow design to signage to the design of municipal flags to architectural features and more – all of which are out there in the open for all to see and serving an important function in the urban world, but few of which are seen or discussed by the people who live there. If you’re interested in looking carefully at your surroundings and seeing them as if for the first time, this is a book to read. Plus it occasionally references Philadelphia, which is nice to see.

The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of the War (Malcolm Gladwell)

Is it possible to enjoy a book without thinking much of it? Gladwell is here to answer that with a resounding yes. This is a fascinating peek at some of the arguments over how to use bombers – relatively new weapons – during WWII, and Gladwell is nothing if not an excellent storyteller. But in the end you get the rather disheartening feeling that he’s making much of not much at all, and in the process he’s papering over a lot of things that really needed to be brought to the foreground. It’s a discursive book, as befits something that started as a podcast before being turned into a hardcover. Gladwell looks at Carl Norden, the inventor of the Norden bombsight – a crank whose greatest achievement was figuring out how to get a bomb to hit a target from several miles up, though whether it actually worked is a matter of conjecture. He looks at the invention of the B-29, the most expensive project of the war for the US and a plane that could reach Japan from thousands of miles away. And he looks at the conflict between the Bomber Mafia of the title – a group of theorists within the US Army Air Corps who advocated for daylight precision bombing of strategic targets (Gladwell focuses particularly on Haywood Hansell) – on the one hand, and advocates of what was blandly called “area bombing” (basically destroying entire zones of cities and whatever happened to be in them at the time) on the other. The Royal Air Force focused on area bombing, as did Curtis LeMay – Hansell’s main opponent in the US and the architect of the final bombing campaign against Japan. It all culminates in the firebombing of Tokyo in early 1945, an attack that destroyed much of the city and killed more people than died at Hiroshima, though nobody seems bothered by that these days since they were killed with good old-fashioned explosives rather than atomic bombs. Gladwell has a sneaking fondness for LeMay that is frankly disturbing and he is willing to be fairly loose with both history and morality to make his points, all of which leaves a sort of empty feeling in someone who has actually studied these issues. We listened to this book on a long car trip (I’m never sure whether to include audiobooks in these lists, but they’re my list so I can do what I want, I suppose) and it was enjoyable for the stories as long as you didn’t think too hard about them.