Sunday, January 11, 2015

Books Read in 2014, Part 3

The story continues!


Absurdistan (Gary Shteyngart)

Misha Vainberg is a Russian Jew stranded in Leningrad when this novel opens.  He’s fat (a fact to which he alludes on nearly every page of this 1st-person narrative), wealthy, and the son of Boris Vainberg – noted Jewish dissident from Soviet times, gangster in the post-Soviet era, and 1,238th richest man in Russia.  Misha just wants to go back to New York, his home for years before the novel opens and the place where his girlfriend lives, but the Americans won’t let him back in the country because his father killed an Oklahoma businessman.  So he sits in Russia with his American expatriate friend Alyosha-Bob, bemoaning his fate.  When his father is assassinated it sets off a wild and chaotic chain of events that eventually leaves him in Absurdistan, a former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea where Misha plans to buy a Belgian passport and use it to get back to New York.  But when the Absurdis fall into perhaps the most inept and cynical civil war ever perpetrated things spiral out of control even further and Misha finds himself stranded once again.  This is indeed an absurd novel, part Catch-22, part Portnoy’s Complaint, parts of many things, deliberately ironic and off-kilter, and at times very funny (the grant application Misha writes to try to get a Holocaust museum built in Absurdistan is priceless).  There is a lot of sex in here, much of which is accompanied by a great deal of overthinking on everyone’s part, and a fair bit of violence.  One of the more interesting running jokes of the book is the off-stage character Jerry Shteynfarb – clearly modeled on the author and treated with dripping contempt throughout.  It’s a strange novel and inextricably bound up with its Russian Jewish point of view, but a fun one.

True Brews (Emma Christensen)

This is a recipe book and a guide to making hard cider, mead, sake, and other fermented beverages at home.  It’s pretty straightforward, really – there’s a general introduction, written in the relentlessly perky style of someone who has an obsession they’d like you to share, followed by several sections of recipes.  Each section starts with an interview with a professional in that particular field, followed by a base recipe and then a number of variations.  One of my goals this summer was to learn how to make mead, so this may or may not have been a good book to have, depending on whether I ended up destroying the house or not.

Futureshocks (Lou Anders, ed.) 

There is only so much dystopian science fiction you can read before it all begins to blend together.  This is especially true for short stories, which simply don’t have the room to maneuver that they need to differentiate themselves from the herd.  Thus this collection.  Each story is set in a world not that far removed from ours in time, space, and/or culture, but with a few things amped up or altered to provide a grim future for the story to occur within.  Each story is well written, nicely plotted, and generally of the high quality that you would expect in an anthology edited by Anders.  And none of them are particularly memorable.  They slide from one to the other, interesting enough to read but not incisive enough to get past the level of general entertainment.  Perhaps some of them may one day be expanded into a novel-length story, and at that time they might become more individual.  I’d read them then.

Wolf et al v. Walker et al (Barbara B. Crabbe)

I’m never sure whether to include judicial decisions in these reports, but then it’s my list and I can do what I want with it.  This is the decision of the US District Court for Western Wisconsin that overturned the Wisconsin laws and constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.  There has been quite a kerfluffle over this decision, as you would expect, but my guess is that few if any of the people loudly protesting the idea of civil rights for gay people have actually read what they’re protesting about, and thus it is my considered opinion that they can shut up now.  I’ve read it.  It is a carefully considered, fairly cautious decision that simply notes that the “defendants are making the same mistake as the Court in Bowers when they frame the question in this case as whether there is a “right to same-sex marriage” instead of whether there is a right to marriage from which same-sex couples can be excluded.  … The question is whether the scope of that right may be restricted depending on who is exercising the right.”  And the answer, of course, is no it may not.  Constitutional rights are not subject to the whims of legislatures or rogue regimes, no matter how far they have subverted the machinery of state government.

Doctor Who: Volume 1: Fugitive (Tony Lee [writer], Al Davison and Matthew Dow Smith [art])

A friend of mine bought us an entire raft of Doctor Who graphic novels as part of a Humble Bundle promo, so despite the fact that I’m not much of a comic book reader I figured I’d download them and try them.  This is the first volume, and it was an entertaining read.  The Doctor (clearly David Tennant’s 10th Doctor) finds himself in 1920s Hollywood, where things quickly go wrong and he ends up in a rigged interstellar court headed for a bad end.  There are adventures galore – and not a few silent film references – and then it all ends with the sort of cliffhanger that you would expect it would.  It’s a colorful story and reads quickly, but I suspect that the best part of it is a bit wasted on me – I’m the sort of person who reads the words and barely skims over the artwork, and I would not be surprised if I missed a few critical things.  But it was fun, and I’ll get to the rest of them eventually.

One Summer: America, 1927 (Bill Bryson)

The title of this book is somewhat misleading.  While Bryson maintains a focus on the events of the summer of 1927 – a busy summer, by all accounts – he mostly uses it as a prism to examine the US throughout the tumultuous decade of the 1920s.  And the sections – organized by month and theoretically focused on a specific individual (Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge, Sacco and Vanzetti) – actually double back on each other and contain all sorts of digressions into other figures such as Philo T. Farnsworth and Kennesaw Mountain Landis.  All this is to the good, though.  If you’re looking for a light, fun, fascinating history of the 1920s you should pick up this book immediately.  It’s typical of Bryson’s style – full of dry humor and “wow, I didn’t know that!” facts that even this professional historian found surprising now and then – and you will emerge from it both enlightened and entertained.

Various textbooks previewed for 20th-Century History Class (note: each of these I read about 100-200 pages of before making a decision and moving on to the next book)

The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century (David Reynolds)

This book seemed to promise a general analysis of how WWI – by any account the single most important event of the 20th century – shaped and determined nearly everything that came after it.  But it was heavily focused on the UK and, honestly, rather plodding – it never really seemed to get started.  So I set it aside and went to look for other, more useful things.

The Oxford History of the 20th Century (Michael Howard and Wm. Roger Louis, eds.) 1

This had an interesting thematic approach but at the expense of a useful structure for the class.  Plus a book that is well over 300 pages of agate type is both intimidating to students and hard on the professor’s eyes.  Possibly useful as supplementary reading, if I scan and enlarge it.

A History of the Twentieth Century (Martin Gilbert)

The polar opposite of the Oxford History, it has almost no thematic history whatsoever – indeed, it is little more than a catalogue of events, one after the other, for over 700 pages (impressive, considering this is actually “the concise edition” of the original work).  At first this is rather dull, but as you read along it acquires a certain narrative force.

The Crowfield Curse (Pat Walsh)

William is a lay brother at the Crowfield Abbey in mid-14th-century England – an orphan taken in by the monks in exchange for his labor.  One day out in the woods he comes across an injured hob – a fay creature, normally invisible to humans – and takes it back to the abbey for treatment.  Somehow this gets tangled up in a different story of an angel buried in the forest centuries earlier after a confrontation with the Dark King of the fay, an angel sought by the mysterious Jacobus Bone and his companion Shadlock.  There’s a lot of moving pieces in this YA novel, and Lauren and I enjoyed it together as a bedtime story.  It leaves a lot of room for a sequel, and perhaps we will seek it out.

Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor)

In a desert Africa sometime in a future not too far from ours but far enough that today is neither remembered nor missed, the Nuru people are exterminating the Okeke.  Out of a brutal Nuru rape of an Okeke woman comes a half-blood, an Ewu, named Onyesonwu (which translates to the title).  Onye, as she is called, will be an outcast, a sorceress, and – eventually – a figure of great power.  In this book she will discover who she is, why she is, and what it means to rewrite the Great Book.  This is a violent, intense, passionate story full of life and death, sex and rage, magic and physical reality.  It is a story that deals head on with issues such as rape, female genital mutilation, and genocide, but also with love, friendship, and loyalty.  It is a story that will stay with you, and – while not for everyone, perhaps – it is a story that deserves every award it has won.  Okorafor’s voice is rich, vibrant, and deep.  The story of Onyesonwu, Mwita, Luyu, Dita and Binta carries the reader across the African deserts, though a cultural landscape few Americans understand, and into a place that rewards close reading.  One of the best books I’ve read in a while.

A Tourist Guide to Lancre (Terry Pratchett, Stephen Briggs and Paul Kidby)

After the intense experience of Who Fears Death, I decided I needed something light, and what could fit that bill better than a few Discworld Mapps.  This one covers Lancre, the mountainside kingdom whose main export is witches.  It comes with a handsome map (or mapp, as the title insists) and a small booklet introducing the place as written by Gytha Ogg (one of the Lancre witches) and Eric Wheelbrace, a parody of the sort of English gentleman whose main joy in life is walking through the countryside and across the rights of way that he insists exist wherever he wants to walk.  It’s a fun little book.

Death’s Domain (Terry Pratchett and Paul Kidby) )

Very much like A Tourist Guide to Lancre, this booklet-and-mapp collection focuses on the house and land of Death, who lives outside of time and space, thus making this mapp a bit more conceptual than most.  It’s hard to describe a place that exists mostly because its resident insists that it should (what need has Death of a bathroom, for example? – this gives the bathroom a certain “almost but not quite” quality perhaps best exemplified by towels that are rock hard but are there because bathrooms should have towels.  The character of Death has always been one of my favorites in Discworld, in part because of his gently mystified view of humanity and in part because of his willingness to be exactly who he is.

The Compleat Ankh-Morpork City Guide (Terry Pratchett) 

If you’ve ever seen a 19th-century city guide – the kind that nearly all American cities of any size at all issued nearly annually in those days before telephone directories – you’ll know exactly what this book looks like.  It is a comprehensive guide to the leading city of the Discworld, complete with a large (roughly 30” square) and detailed double-sided map of the city.  The city guide includes long sections discussing lodgings, pubs and restaurants, clubs and societies, temples, guilds, and so on, as well as an exceedingly fine-grained street index and a long directory of merchants of every kind.  All of these sections – even the street index – are annotated and speak to a depth of creation unusual in any secondary world.  Plus, if you look carefully, there are all sorts of references and jokes ranging from allusions to the Discworld novels (Ronnie Soak is listed in the merchant directory as a dairyman with no further explanation given) and beyond (there are apparently two goldsmiths in Ankh-Morpork: a Mrs. Niebelungsson and a Mr. Sauron [“rings resized”]).  It is a strangely absorbing book that way.

Under the Shadow: The Atomic Bomb and Cold War Narratives (David Seed)

What is it about literary theory that turns fascinating subjects into dreary slogs?  This should have been a much more interesting book than it was.  Seed looks at some of the atomic bomb fiction that was produced in the second half of the 20th century (nobody could possibly look at it all – believe me, I’ve tried) and tries to fit it into a larger framework of the Cold War.  He does a nice job of introducing a number of works, some of them more famous (those, such as Fail-Safe, he tends to hang chapters on) and others less so (often used as examples to flesh out the chapters, though Mordechai Roshwald’s now-neglected Level 7 does get a chapter of its own).  And he has a lot to say about them.  But even for this historian who teaches a class on the atomic bomb and who reads thoroughly in the subgenre of science fiction under discussion here (few of the books Seed mentions were new to me), this was a heavy and often ponderous book to read.

The Magician King (Lev Grossman)

Quentin Coldwater and his friends Eliot, Janet, and Julia, are now kings and queens of Fillory, the magical world they managed to break into in Grossman’s first book in this series (The Magicians).  It was a costly victory, but they have now settled into lives of ease and luxury.  Naturally, Quentin is restless.  When an encounter with the Seeing Hare goes horribly wrong, he decides to go on a voyage to the Outer Island, for no other reason than the fact that it isn’t just hanging around the castle doing what he’s been doing, which hasn’t been much.  And at that point things get complicated.  There are side trips to Earth and to the Neitherworlds – a portal plane between worlds – and a long quest to collect seven golden keys that will save magic and, with it, Fillory itself.  But there is a cost to this.  The hero is not the one who triumphs, Grossman says several times in the book.  The hero is the one who pays.  Woven throughout this novel in alternating chapters is the backstory of Julia and how she became one of this group without going to Brakebills, the school of magic that provided entry into this world for Quentin and most of his friends.  Julia’s story is dark, painful and angry, a bleak counterpoint to Quentin’s life, and is as much a focus of this novel as Quentin’s own story.  A minor character in The Magicians, Julia is in fact a far more compelling figure here than Quentin, though he has matured and deepened also.  And when it all converges at the end, as it must, the hero is indeed the one who pays.  Yes, there is magic, Grossman says, but it is neither pleasant nor free and those who tangle with power must pay the price whether they win or lose.  A much more complex, nuanced, and thoughtful book than The Magicians, this is the rare middle volume of a trilogy that easily surpasses its predecessor and recasts it in more a more favorable light.

The Toyminator (Robert Rankin)

Reading Robert Rankin is the literary equivalent of eating cheesecake – very good but very rich, and not something you’re going to do as often as you think you will when you start.  Some authors are potato chip writers – you can snork down book after book.  Others, like Rankin, you read one book at a time and then take a break.  This is because Rankin writes with such density and has such fun with the language.  His dialogue is wry and often absurd. His plots are thick with detail.  And his books teem with references unhighlighted that the aware may enjoy and the unaware pass over.  In this book – the sequel to The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse – there is trouble in Toytown.  Former mayor Eddie (a talking teddy bear) and his human (“meathead”) sidekick Jack reunite to form their old private investigation team and are immediately drawn into a web of crime and deceit that will eventually lead them through the portal and into a version of Los Angeles that has clearly been set up as a jaundiced Englishman’s takedown of American culture – everything from television and movies to UFOs and a cutting satire of the American Dream.  Plus, there are evil chickens.  It’s a hard plot to explain and really there is no need – the joy of Rankin is in the writing and the ideas.

Fish (Gregory Mone)

Maurice – Fish, to everyone including his parents – lives on a farm in Ireland sometime in the indeterminate past when horses drove agriculture and pirates roamed the Atlantic.  His family is poor and Fish hates farming, so when the family horse dies and he is sent to the city to be a messenger boy for his Uncle Gerry, it’s almost a blessing for him.  But when a delivery goes terribly wrong, Fish finds himself pressed into the crew of the Scurvy Mistress, where he learns to become a pirate.  This will involve making a few friends among those of similar age in the crew (Daniel, Nate, and Nora), figuring out a mystery that has eluded Captain Cobb, and trying to survive a mutiny among the crew.  It’s a fast-moving and generally good-hearted YA novel that Lauren and I enjoyed reading together at bedtime, and we were sorry to see it end.

The Penguin History of the 20th Century (JM Roberts)

After having read a number of these histories for my class this fall, this was clearly the best of the bunch and the only one I managed to read all the way to the end.  Granted, this may be damning with faint praise, but still.  Roberts is a good writer and his chapters are well organized and can sustain longer arguments than simply “This happened which made that happen.”  I did actually learn a lot, and once in a while – once in a very great while – he’d sneak in something funny, in an exceedingly dry British sort of way.  I can assign this book to my students without regret.  The fact that this is a British book had some other interesting consequences as well.  The US is not the center of attention, for one thing.  And one of his running themes is the declining importance of faith and religion in the Western world, an argument that can only be made outside of the US and which shows just how bizarre the US is on that score compared with other similar nations.

And If I Perish: Frontline US Army Nurses in World War II (Eveylyn M. Monahan and Roesmary Neidel-Greenlee)

US Army nurses served in all of the major campaigns in the ETO during WWII, but received little recognition for it.  Their rank was honorary only.  They were paid half what the men were paid.  They were not counted as veterans until the 1980s.  This book seeks to bring their service back to the forefront, and it does a very nice job of it.  Based on archival research and interviews with many surviving nurses, it runs through the North Africa campaign, the invasion of Italy (Anzio was particularly hellish), the Normandy invasion, and the conquest of Germany, as seen through the eyes of the nurses.  It is filled with compelling details and stories, and by the end you find yourself with a new perspective on WWII, which for a professional historian is sometimes a difficult thing to achieve.

Imperfect Birds (Anne Lamott)

I’m not really sure why this book didn’t do much for me.  I normally enjoy Anne Lamott’s writing, and the story was well told.  Rosie is a teenager.  Her mother and stepfather care for her but don’t really understand her problems, and her problems are getting out of hand.  I suppose there would have been further explanation and resolution had I continued, but having just finished a long book I was required to read, slogging through another one that didn’t do much for me that wasn’t actually required didn’t appeal to me, so I stopped.  It was good, though, so perhaps I may get back to it when I am in a more receptive mood.

The Human Division (John Scalzi)

In this installment of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe, things are not right in the human part of the galaxy.  The Earth is not happy about the fact that the Colonial Union had kept them in the dark about so much of the rest of the universe for so long and used them as a breeding pool for colonists and farmers.  The Colonial Union, while contrite, is not happy about having to deal with an Earth that remains fractious, suicidally self-interested, and generally unable to grasp any larger point about the universe at all.  Meanwhile the Conclave – an alliance of some 400 of the 600-700 known alien species – is working to limit humanity’s reach, and possibly destroy it altogether.  Into this comes “the B team” – Ambassador Abumwe, of the Colonial Union diplomatic corps, and her assistants and attached personnel, notably Hart Wilson, Lt. Harry Wilson of the Colonial Defense Forces, and – eventually, Captain Sophia Coloma of the Clarke.  There will be plots, twists, skullduggery, and action aplenty in what is clearly part one of a longer story.  It’s typical Scalzi – well written, fast-paced, light reading, with a few nods to a larger 21st-century humanistic morality and a few more to the golden age of science fiction (tm), circa 1960.  It’s not the most profound thing I’ve ever read, but it was a lot of fun.

Mainspring (Jay Lake)

Hethor Jacques is a man with a problem.  A clockmaker’s apprentice in New Haven, Connecticut, he has just been visited by the Archangel Gabriel who has commanded him to find the Key Perilous and wind the Mainspring of the world.  On a planet where the earth is visibly clockwork – where the brass gears of God spin the planet along its track by meshing with the Great Southern Wall along the equator – this is no small charge.  Hethor’s journey will take him far from New Haven – to Boston, where he will meet the Viceroy who, even in 1900, rules America in the name of the British crown; to Her Majesty’s Ship of the Air Basset, a Royal Navy fighting airship; and – eventually – to the Great Southern Wall itself.  Along the way he will find friendship and enemies where he least expects them, learn about a world more complex and troubled than he ever imagined, and maybe, just maybe, find love in the bargain.  Lake’s clockwork world is made of brass and oil and no small amount of sweat – it is a steampunk vision of faith and politics, complete with a Brass Christ and a theological argument that runs its entire length.  I bought this because it looked interesting, but held off reading it until he finished the series.  When Lake died recently I went back and checked and, sure enough, he had.  So now I have all three volumes, and all I can do is regret that he won’t be around to write more fascinating stories like this one.

Escapement (Jay Lake)

Hethor Jacques does not appear in this second installation of the Mainspring universe, except once or twice in passing reference.  Instead, the focus of attention shifts to three other characters – two returning faces from Mainspring, both minor characters in that book, and one new one.  Thus we greet again Chief Petty Office Threadgill Angus al-Wazir, late of Her Majesty’s Ship of the Air Bassett and now tasked with the unenviable mission of keeping watch over Doctor Ottweill, a mad and maddening engineering genius whom the British government has commissioned to drill a hole in the miles-high Wall that girdles the Earth at the equator.  Thus also we meet Emily McHenry Childress, Librarian at Yale and the person who sent Hethor on his way several years earlier.  Through a series of actions she will end up on a Chinese submarine masquerading as a much more important person than she actually is and hoping that she can stave off a dire threat to the world.  And, most intriguingly, we meet Paolina Barthes, a teenaged girl growing up on the Wall (a Muralha, in her native Portuguese).  Paolina is a genius, a wonderworker, and an independent spirit who has had it Up To Here with the shiftless, brutal men who run her little village.  When she creates a Gleam – a mechanical device that allows her to tap into the rhythms of Lake’s clockwork world – she flees her village and sets off a chain of events that will eventually draw all of the characters into the larger narrative.  Fast-paced, fascinating, and a good set-up for the third volume of this series.

Pinion (Jay Lake)

The cast increases severalfold in this concluding volume of the Mainspring universe, and the action spreads out across the globe.  Paolina, Childress, and al-Wazir are all back for more and Hethor Jacques makes a reappearance as well.  Other old characters – Kitchens, Boaz – reappear as well, promoted to major character status, and new major characters (Wang, Gashansunu) appear as well.  There are a lot of balls in the air, in other words, and only once – and only for about half a chapter – are they all in the same place at the same time.  Mostly the reader is left to follow their adventures separately, each with their own subtitled sections of chapters, as the action gradually builds to a conclusion.  The major empires of the Northern World are now at war, and this sets in motion a dizzying array of plots, sideplots and counterplots – if there is a flaw in this book it is that the kaleidoscope of viewpoints obscures the narrative flow (the drilling project so central to the previous book is largely relegated to insignificance here) and does not reward a reader who can devote only so much time per day to the book.  New and other central characters who don’t get their own subsections weave their way through the plot as well.  The plot soars through theology, politics, love and identity, and Lake does a reasonable job of tying together most of the loose ends, though he is not above leaving a few of them dangle or resolving them with rather swift brutality on occasion.  This is the weakest of the three books in this series, but still a very good book.

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