Thursday, January 7, 2016

Books Read in 2015, Part 1

I’m one of those people who is never without a book.  It’s what I do.  And for the last few years I have been keeping track of the things I read and writing little reviews of them, because it seemed like a good idea at the time. 

You will note that most stories that include that description also include phrases such as “as police later reconstructed the evening,” so I figure I’m ahead of the game here.

My reading was a bit less than it has been over the last few years, oddly enough.  Some of that I attribute just to being busy and having less time.  Some of it is the nature of the books I’ve read this year – there were more serious history books last year than in some previous years, and they tend to take longer.

But it’s not a contest.  It’s a record of places written down and visited.

Here it is.


The Amulet of Samarkand (Jonathan Stroud)

Bartimaeus is a demon, a trickster spirit from the Other Place, and a snarkily irreverent creature of great power.  Nathaniel is a boy in a version of London where the two great powers are London and Prague, where magic is just another skilled trade, and where the corridors of power are just as infested with betrayal and trickery as they are in any universe.  Nathaniel is a magician’s apprentice, and when he is humiliated by Simon Lovelace – a powerful magician and government minister – he eventually summons Bartimaeus to have his revenge.  And, of course, all sorts of things go wrong.  By the end of the book little is as it was, but it is a fascinating ride while it happens.  This is the first of a trilogy, one I have read before, but it was new to Lauren and we read it together.  She moved on to other things, though, and we never did get to the rest of the books.

Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (David Christian)

One of the classes I teach is called “World History to 1500,” and it is the most useless class in the catalogue.  It stretches from the Big Bang to Columbus, and it is thus impossible to give it any sort of narrative coherence or overarching story.  Or so I thought.  Big History is the idea that if you pull back from the details and look at the broad sweep of history – and by broad it means literally from the beginning of time to the present – you can see the Big Patterns that would otherwise get lost in the details of the rise and fall of empires.  This book does exactly that.  It starts with the Big Bang and the subsequent creation of matter, stars, and planets.  It moves on to the early formation of the earth and its lands and seas.  Life appears, then human life, then societies and only then civilizations.  It takes a vast overview of human civilizations, one that links things across regions and times to show new patterns and connections.  Not only is this densely written book both readable and entertaining – it is not a fast or light read, but it is one that entices you forward with ideas and revelations well said – but it is also exactly the approach my World History to 1500 class needs.  I wrote to the author to find out more and he graciously directed me to a wealth of sources and information designed to translate the concept of Big History into the college course.  I fully intend to revise that class along these lines, when next I have time to do so.  That was supposed to be autumn 2015, but I could only revise one class from scratch at a time and Colonial America won the coin toss.  Next time.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride (Cary Elwes)

The Princess Bride is one of the most generally beloved films of recent memory and ranks high on my own list of personal favorites – it’s got a cheerful little plot hiding underneath the drama, and contains within its script a list of life lessons summed up in memorable quotes that no other movie can match.  Indeed, I find myself quoting it even without meaning to do so, something I learned from this book.  The performances were winning, the editing apt, and frankly if you don’t like this film I’m not really sure what to make of you.  Elwes, of course, played Westley – the male lead in the film – and this is a light-hearted memoir of his time making the film, from the time he was cast through the actual production and ultimately to a 25th Anniversary Reunion event for the remaining cast.  Along the way Elwes shares a great many stories and – in little greyed-in sidebars – allows many other actors and crew to contribute their own memories as well.  If you’re looking for a tell-all, this is not the place.  Elwes is a relentlessly, aggressively upbeat writer and if his version of events is to be believed the filming of The Princess Bride constituted the finest assortment of human beings ever gathered together for any purpose at any time in human history, a time of nonstop friendship, laughter and good times unsullied by conflict or argument.  But if you just want something quick and interesting that has a few good stories about a favorite movie, this will do nicely.

Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides)

Cal Stephanides started out his life as Calliope, daughter of Milton and Tessie, granddaughter of Lefty and Desdemona.  Now grown, he sets out the story of how he was born twice – once as a girl, and again, some years later, as a boy – and the long family history that brought him to those points.  It’s a story of the 20th century, as Lefty and Desdemona flee from the Greek enclave in what is now western Turkey in the tumult that followed World War I and end up in America.  It is the story of the American immigrant experience, as three generations of the Stephanides family make their way through life in Detroit as that city prospers in the post-WWII years and then collapses in the 1970s.  It is the story of Calliope and her awakening and transformation into Cal, told as a memoir even as Cal is drawn toward love in Europe.  It is most of all a story of things betwixt and between, and what it means to be neither here nor there.  This was a birthday present from a close friend – she asked me what I wanted and I said, “a book that has meant something to you,” and this came in the mail not long afterward.  I’m glad she sent it.

The Rapture of the Nerds: A Tale of the Singularity, Posthumanity, and Awkward Social Moments (Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross)

Many years ago I watched Roger Ebert and a colleague (might have been Gene Siskal, might have been someone else) discuss a movie that they had co-written and managed to get made.  It was, they cheerfully admitted, a terrible movie, but they had had a hell of a good time writing it.  Every day they would get together and toss off increasingly weirder ideas that made no sense given what had come before in the story, and run with them – why not THIS?  how about THAT? – as if it were a contest.  The resulting mess was borderline incoherent but entertaining in a way, and for most of this book that interview was playing through my mind.  Doctorow and Stross are both accomplished writers and they clearly had a hell of a good time writing this, but every few pages something new, increasingly weirder, and not altogether consistent appeared.  I wonder which one of them won the contest.  For all that, it was an entertaining book.  Huw Jones is a Welshman, at least at the beginning of the book.  He lives in a late-21st-century world where most people have gone off to join the Cloud – a collection of uploaded memories and personalities stored in vast arrays across the solar system – and where both gender and sex are as mutable as picking a day’s outfit and just as easy to change.  The plot mostly involves getting Huw into deeper and deeper conspiracies and then letting him rant and rave while he bulls his way through them.  Along the way he (or she, at times) gets trapped in a kangaroo court in Libya, visits a backward and insanely theocratic United States (clearly neither Stross nor Doctorow care for much of what makes up the modern US and they are happy to extrapolate further madness from it), and ends up lost in the cloud trying to secure the future of humanity by arguing with his parents.  If that sounds disjointed, it’s because it is.  It’s also heavily laden with the kind of cyberjargon that appeals to technophiles and the political snark that identifies itself as being part of a left that has sadly disappeared in the US.  It was an interesting book, though I’m not sure who I’d recommend it to.

Dear Committee Members (Julie Schumacher)

Oh how I needed this book, given the vicious assault on Wisconsin by our illustrious Sock Puppet Governor in his biennial budget.  Jay Fitzger is an English professor at Payne University, and as such he is constantly plagued by requests from students, former students, colleagues and others for letters of recommendation for scholarships, residencies, jobs, and the like.  This slim book is presented as a chronological catalogue of an academic year’s worth of those letters, and for anyone facing the indignities of modern academia – the bored and entitled students, the slash-and-burn attitudes of political leaders and administrators, the increasingly unlikely possibility of tenure or even respect – it will provoke a wholly disproportionate number of laugh-out-loud moments no matter how painful those moments may be.  Fitzger is a crank, a deservedly dumped husband and boyfriend, and a man whose own writing career has completely tanked, and those themes run as a story arc through many of the letters, particularly to those addressed to his former colleagues, ex-wife, and ex-girlfriend in their various professional capacities.  Other letters are one-offs, written on behalf of students to employers, filling out more of Fitzger’s character but otherwise just stand-alone funny.  It ends on a somewhat reflective note for all that, though Fitzger’s nature remains true to the end. 

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding (Kristin Newman)

I like reading memoirs because people are interesting.  I also like travel memoirs because I like to think that I could have done those things or that someday I may yet just up and go somewhere and do them, even though I know very well that I wouldn’t and probably wouldn’t enjoy them even if I did.  It’s a strange little genre for me that way.  Newman is a television writer, which means she has both a fairly high income and a lot of free time, and she loves to travel, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone.  She loves to go places she’s never been, stay for weeks or months at a time, and “do the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it,” which is a more imperative way of expressing the old adage, “When in Rome…”  For Newman, the things you are supposed to do include visiting beautiful and scenic places, eating local food, engaging in a phenomenal amount of drinking and socializing, and hooking up with a wide variety of local men.  She frames her story around growing up, living a full life (she seems to know a lot of wealthy and welcoming people who are happy to bring her along to places most of us will never gain admission to), friends, and finding love or at least sex (there’s a lot of both), and she seems to have had a grand time doing it – and good for her, I say.  On the other hand, she comes across as whiny, privileged, shallow, and not a little unlikeable, flaws that are only partially mitigated by her willingness to admit them and invite the reader to judge her accordingly.  Eventually she does find someone to love for real, perhaps where she least expected it, and the story ends on a happy note.  She’s a good writer, as you would expect from someone who makes a living doing that, and I liked following along on her travels secondhand, though I’m not sure it would have been nearly as enjoyable if I had been there with her.

Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel)

On a stage in Toronto, Arthur Leander – once famous, now getting old – dies of a heart attack while performing Shakespeare.  In a sense, he’s fortunate, because that night the Georgia Flu spreads to Canada and within days nearly all of the city – indeed, nearly all of humanity – has been wiped out.  Two decades later, Kirsten Raymonde, who was onstage that night, continues to perform Shakespeare as part of the Traveling Symphony, an itinerant band of musicians and thespians plying their trade in the remnants of civilization surrounding the Great Lakes.  But to frame this as a post-apocalyptic story is to miss the main point of the novel.  This is a post-apocalyptic story the way Groucho Marx’s old show “You Bet Your Life” was a quiz show – yes, the quiz (and in this book the apocalypse) is there and it defines the parameters of the action, but really it’s just backdrop for the important stuff.  And in this case the important stuff is the life of Arthur Leander, whose loves, friendships, and decisions flow through the characters of the novel in tightly-spun eddies, knocking them off balance and righting them again before shifting them off in new directions.  This is a bittersweet character study more than an adventure novel – indeed, what in most post-apocalyptic novels would be the apex of the drama is handled surprisingly anticlimactically – one that is told in flashbacks and foreshadowings, long asides and introspective meanderings that loop back onto themselves and reveal the connections a single life can have even when all else seems to have collapsed around it.  It’s a crystalline novel that way, and a haunting one.

Life of Pi (Yann Martel)

Piscine Molitor Patel – Pi for short, a nickname he cultivates assiduously because otherwise he gets called Pissing – spends most of this book adrift in a lifeboat in the Pacific with only a 450lb Bengal tiger named Richard Parker for company, which means that his days are filled with speculation, animal husbandry, and a fair bit of misery.  It doesn’t start out this way.  In the brief initial section of the book he is a boy in Pondicherry, India, learning the ins and outs of zookeeping with his family and applying for membership in as many different religions as he can.  He is a deeply spiritual boy and he says that his story will make you believe in God, though mostly it makes me believe in the virtues of land travel.  It’s a lyrically written book and the last little bit does throw in a surprising number of questions to make you consider reframing the story – how reliable of a narrator is Pi, after all – but when you’re done you come to the realization that it is effectively three different books with little to make them a unified whole.  Lauren and I enjoyed it though.

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure – The “Good Parts” Version (William Goldman)

This is the book upon which one of my favorite movies is based, and even as I read through the story I could hear many of the lines being spoken by the actors in the film – Andre the Giant as Fezzik, Mandy Patankin as Inigo Montoya, Wallace Shawn as Vezzini, Cary Elwes as Westley, Robin Wright as Buttercup, and so on.  It made the book that much better.   It is, as Goldman promises, a story of “Fencing.  Fighting.  Torture.  Poison.  True love.  Hate.  Revenge.  Giants.  Hunters.  Bad men.  Good men.  Beautiful ladies.  Snakes.  Spiders.  Beasts of all natures and descriptions.  Pain.  Death.  Brave men.  Coward men.  Strongest men.  Chases.  Escapes.  Lies.  Truths.  Passion.  Miracles.”  Westley and his true love Buttercup face off against Prince Humperdink and Count Rugen, aided by Fezzik and Inigo.  It’s a great story, particularly when Goldman gets out of his own way and tells it.  This happens haltingly, as he frames the story as an abridgment of an earlier “original” work, mostly forgotten and both long and dull, from which Goldman has extracted the good parts the way his father did for him when he read it out loud to a young Goldman recovering from pneumonia.  The long digressions – particularly in the two forwards (the 30th Anniversary forward and the 25th Anniversary forward) get a bit grating at times.  But when Goldman stops with the artifice and gets on with the story, it is a glorious tale.  This version also has what purports to be the first chapter of the sequel, Buttercup’s Baby, where we get to see some of what happens after the story (though again, salted with Goldman’s counter-narrative).  Having read this and Cary Elwes’ memoir this year, it was pretty much inevitable that I would watch the movie again.  This was not a chore, really.

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Rick Perlstein)

Rick Perlstein is three volumes into his majestic series of histories of the modern American right wing, patiently exploring the roots of the batshit insanity that has claimed a once-proud Republican Party and stands ready to destroy the American republic.  In Nixonland, Perlstein focused on the late 1960s and the Republican Party of the Southern Strategy.  His most recent book, The Invisible Bridge, tells the story of the emergence of Ronald Reagan as a viable savior of the right wing in the mid-1970s.  Before the Storm tells of the genesis of it all, the quixotic presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964.  Beginning his story in the deceptive tranquility of the Eisenhower years Perlstein is nothing if not exhaustive, filling his story with a wealth of facts, events, and well-researched ideas.  Yet he writes well and entertainingly so that you get carried along with the story.  Perlstein delights in the behind-the-scenes players, the kingmakers, the fundraisers, the crackpot true believers whose tireless work created the New Right and unleashed it like a virus into the unsuspecting body of American politics.  The sheer savagery of their views – notably the racism, the Machiavellian tactics borrowed directly (and explicitly) from Trotsky, and the cold callousness – can get bleakly depressing, but if you want a clear narrative of how American politics has become so dysfunctional, so radically extreme, and so utterly heartless over the last half century, this book is a good place to start, while the others in his series – I’ve read Nixonland and on the basis of these two books I eagerly look forward to The Invisible Bridge – are required follow-ups.  Few figures emerge from Perlstein’s narrative with dignity intact, even those on the left (Kennedy in particular is treated fairly harshly).  Oddly enough, the one person who does come off sympathetically is Goldwater himself – an honorable crank well suited for the Senate, where his uncompromising beliefs on the outer edges of American politics could serve as a counterpoint without being asked to form the basis of an actual competent government responsible for the safety or welfare of American citizens.  Not personally racist, yet willing to work with open racists and use them for his own ends, Goldwater never seems to have figured out how easily his views gave aid and comfort to racists.  A man who treated his employees well, paid them highly, and hated unions, he never seems to have foreseen where the open anti-worker bias of his backers would lead.  A man whose family fortune and home state were critically dependent on government largesse, he never seems to have figured out why his libertarian stand was simple hypocrisy.  Indeed, he spends most of the book not really foreseeing or figuring out much of anything – how he would be drafted into the campaign, how he would become a pawn of so many other people’s vicious plans, or even how anyone with a hope of victory should actually run a presidential campaign (the slipshod and shockingly incompetent nature of the 1964 Goldwater campaign is a running theme).  One ends up glad that he lost, yet oddly sorry for the toll it took on him.

Dragons at Crumbling Castle (Terry Pratchett)

Terry Pratchett wrote for most of his life, and this collection of short stories is from his earlier work as a newspaper columnist in his teens, when he contributed stories for a feature named “Children’s Corner.”  These stories have been lightly edited, but retain the feel of early Pratchett.  They are all aimed squarely at an audience of 10-year-olds, and they all have a whimsical air to them.  There are some precursor stories to his Carpet People series, as well as more than a few fantastic elements.  The book itself is clearly geared to the same audience, as it has a brightly colored cover and is filled throughout with exuberant drawings reinforcing the whimsical nature of the stories and typographical tricks to reinforce it even further.  It’s a pleasant if extraordinarily lightweight collection, and it was a nice change of pace after five hundred pages of Barry Goldwater.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)

I reread this every couple of years just to remind myself how much fun it is to read, and this time I got to share it with Lauren, who still enjoyed reading stories with Dad at the time.  There’s nothing much to say about the book that I haven’t already said in this space, other than the fact that sharing it with my daughter was a real treat.

Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present (Cynthia Stokes Brown)

This is a much slimmer volume than David Christian’s, but not as well written.  It covers much the same material and provides a slightly different framework for it, which I found useful for my planned revisions to my world history class.  There are some odd historical errors as you creep up to the present, which made me question the reliability of the work as a whole, but by and large it was an entertaining journey through a lot of history using a long-focus method of trying to make sense of it all.

Ties That Bind: Stories of Love & Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps (Dave Isay, ed.)

StoryCorps works on the principle that people are interesting – that they have stories worth sharing, worth preserving, worth hearing.  These are ordinary people, nobody you’ve ever heard of, with stories of ordinary life, and they are moving, captivating, heart-wrenching stories of love, friendship, and humanity.  It is when you read these stories that you realize how extraordinary even the ordinary is.  If you can read this book without tearing up, you have a harder heart than I.

The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (Carol F. Karlsen) 

Back in the fall of 2014 I learned that a friend of mine was going to teach a class on witchcraft and I felt he needed to hear the story of the Witch of Riddley Creek, a story that is often unjustly forgotten.  Somehow this spiraled into me giving a guest lecture in the class in the spring.  This was the book I used to get most of the background material for that lecture.  It’s an older book, but well worth the time.  Clearly written and full of both fascinating stories and statistical evidence, this is perhaps the best place to start for someone interested in the subject.

Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior (Kate Fox)

This book fits into any number of the little slots in my world.  It is a book about people-watching – Kate Fox has spent her life observing people and working out the rules that govern their behavior in ordinary situations, something I’ve always found fascinating and have done on my own in a scattershot sort of way since I was old enough to understand the concept.  It’s a book about the English, a group of people I more and more feel an affinity toward and, having read this book, do so even more now.  I’m clearly not English – even an American as introverted as myself would be considered rudely outgoing by most English people if this book is to be believed, and the rules governing food and eating struck me as absurd – but there are a lot of things that resonated very well with me.  I’ve got the English attitude toward religion pretty much down pat, for example.  And this is a funny book.  Fox has a dry sense of humor that works its way into every aspect of the book – something that she insists is also a hallmark of pretty much all English social interaction.  For a 500+pp book of sociology, it was a very entertaining read.

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