Thursday, January 4, 2018

Books Read in 2017, Part 4

And so 2017’s books come to an end.

On to the next pile!


Under a Lucky Star: A Lifetime of Adventure (Roy Chapman Andrews)

I have no idea how Roy Chapman Andrews managed to hear himself think over the clanking din of his enormous brass balls.  There’s a reason they built Indiana Jones to look like this guy.  He was born in Beloit, Wisconsin in 1884 to a middling sort of family and eventually became an indifferent student at Beloit College, but after graduation he decided to make something of himself.  So he went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and essentially browbeat them into giving him a job sweeping the floors, and within a decade he was one of their top explorers.  He went whaling and brought back information that had never before been seen by scientists.  He spent years of his life traveling to Japan, China, and Mongolia, in places where he was often the first white person to set foot.  He lived in Peking in the 1920s, explored the Gobi Desert for years on end, discovering vast numbers of dinosaur bones in the process, and made the friendship of a Japanese madam in a whorehouse in Yokohama.  He dined with John D. Rockefeller and JP Morgan – he met an enormous number of famous and powerful people, for early 20th-century values of famous and powerful, and he was not shy about name-dropping when he wrote this book – and eventually became the director of the Museum itself, which confined him to New York City, where he lived in a small house built onto the roof of a hotel, a house that he remade into something akin to his house in Peking.  He toured the country giving lectures, had his own radio show, and was the sort of person who could – in the late 1930s, while the Depression raged and Fascism rose – skive off to Europe to self-diagnose his malaise, have an epiphany while drunk alone in a bar in Berlin, and then immediately arrange an archeological expedition to Central Asia with his Soviet counterparts as a cure.  He was also afraid of snakes.  He was a man of his times, though, and this book was written in 1942 and published in 1943, during the nadir of WWII, so there is some brutally casual racism – particularly toward the Japanese – and sexism (at one point he refers to Smith as a “girls’ college”).  He was a naturalist at a time when that meant shooting most of what he wanted to study and he was not shy about that either.  And there are some curious omissions here, such as the entire Great Depression (which appears but once, in an aside about not being particularly concerned with personal wealth – you’d think his fundraising difficulties as Museum director in the late 1930s were just the normal woes of any nonprofit).  But even with all that, this is a fascinating story of a bold and interesting man.

Bossypants (Tina Fey)

I read the first half of this in hard copy, and then – because Kim was coincidentally listening to the audio book and we were driving to visit a friend several hours away – I listened to the second half of it as read by the author.  Honestly, I think I prefer to read it myself, though I can’t say this is Tina Fey’s fault.  It’s just how I prefer to read.  This is a memoir of sorts, hitting some of the high points (comedic or otherwise) of Tina Fey’s life, though not exhaustive enough to be a biography.  She writes about her time on Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, in Chicago at Second City, and – my favorite parts – growing up in the Philadelphia suburb of Upper Darby at about the same time I was growing up perhaps a dozen miles away.  Let’s just say I recognized some of the landmarks, and her characterization was spot on.  There were a few laugh-out-loud moments and a few thought-provoking ones and the book went down smooth and easy like a cold glass of water on a hot day, and if you’re looking for something light and funny this is a good place to start.

Conde Nast Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Great Writers on Great Places, Vol. 1 (Klara Glowczewska, ed.)

This is another in my continuing series of books that allow me to travel without actually having to travel, which I suspect is probably more in line with my character than actually traveling.  Oh, I read the 21 essays in this book and thought “I’d like to go there!” for about half of them, and even the other half were interesting, but I know this is likely as close to those places as I will ever get.  It’s a good thing that these essays were all marvelously written.  From Florida to England, Ethiopia to the Himalayas, Jordan to Iceland, and a rather extended stay in Italy, the authors traveled, experienced the landscape and cultural bits, and then reported back to the rest of us what we were missing.  There were a few funny bits and some sad ones, and in the end you are left with the sense that it is indeed a great colorful world out there for those who wish to go see it.  I picked this up at a library sale and it came with a Vol. 2, but perhaps I’ll get to that another time.

Brit-Think, Ameri-Think: A Transatlantic Survival Guide (Jane Walmsley)

I first discovered this book in an airport in 1990.  I had just taken my first flight – a puddle-jumper from Philadelphia to New York City – and had a six-hour layover before continuing on to London to visit my friend Julie at Cambridge.  I enjoyed the bit of it I read, and always meant to buy a copy but somehow never did.  It was thus something of a triumph to come into this copy – an original 1986 British edition rather than the more recent (and since revised) Penguin edition, and full of jaunty illustrations.  Walmsley writes in broad stereotypes that contain large grains of truth as long as you don’t think too hard about them, and she can often be illuminating.  For example, Americans, she says, consider death to be optional, which explains their attitudes toward self-improvement, dieting, and any number of other things, while Britons just live their lives in the full knowledge of their limited span on earth and thus spend their lives in a state of quiet resignation that makes it seem futile to complain about discomforts.  As an American who has visited Britain a couple of times, I can’t say that anything in here struck me as particularly wrong, though some things were of more limited application than Walmsley claims (she’s very focused on a fairly affluent, cosmopolitan section of each country’s population, for example, which means that her observations may not penetrate very far into the rest of American or British society).  The book is clearly a product of the 1980s, with the cultural references and political sensibilities of the time, and this can be jarring thirty years later in a much more polarized and downcast time, but it’s a fun book that has some useful insights to offer.

A History of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr)

This is a dense but readable history of Britain from the end of WWII, in 1945, though to when it was published in 2007.  As such the first part of it covers much the same ground as David Kynaston’s New Jerusalem series that I’ve been keeping up with, but it is much more of a traditional history, focused on the political leaders, broad cultural developments, and economic shifts of the period rather than the immersive day-to-day social history that Kynaston wrote about the everyday lives of ordinary Britons.  Marr does a good job of walking through the main political, cultural, and economic developments of the post-WWII period – the New Jerusalem of Attlee, the reaction that brought Churchill back to power, the grappling with being a declining imperial power, the hard times of the 1970s when Britain was deemed “ungovernable,” the Thatcher revolution (while generally evenhanded and willing to cite flaws wherever he sees them, Marr clearly admires Thatcher and her policies), and the drift of the Major/Blair years.  This is a book that was not meant for the American market, and as such it is enlightening for an American reader to see how the US is portrayed – generally as an ally, often as a threat, and not uncommonly as a rather dimwitted source of dubious cultural values imported into Britain (consumer culture and the flashy, substance-light, almost-but-not-really-left politics of style popularized by Bill Clinton and adopted by Tony Blair being among the things that Marr is not entirely happy about).  Marr also reserves his epilogue for a warning on climate change, something else that would not likely have been included in an American book.  Marr is a lively writer who can toss off an occasional epigram worth remembering (“When you free people, you can never be sure what you are freeing them for”), and this is an invaluable asset in a book as long and detailed as this one.

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey (Chuck Palahniuk)

Chuck Palahniuk isn’t the easiest author to read in the best of circumstances, and in this book he sets out to make it harder by making the title character the empty hole around which the book orbits, and then telling the story in so many different voices that the list of “Contributors” is nearly five pages long.  The subject matter only complicates things further.  For all that, though, it is an entertaining book and one that has a lot to say.  Buster (“Rant”) Casey is a high school rebel, masochist, ladies’ man, and the epicenter of the world’s worst outbreak of rabies.  He lives in a not-too-distant future where people have been sorted into Daytimers and Nighttimers in order to ease crowding – curfews are strict and violators subject to severe punishment – and where one of the primary forms of entertainment is Party Crashing, a fairly rule-bound automotive game where the goal is to crash into other participants.  Rant, whose fiery death is presaged from nearly the first page of this book, starts out in the small town of Middleton before moving to the unnamed big city, where he joins with the Party Crashers.  Each chapter includes anywhere from a few to a handful of people telling the story as they saw it – Echo Lawrence and Shot Dunyun (fellow Party Crashers with their own backstories), Irene and Chester Casey (Rant’s parents, which gets surprisingly complicated once the time-travel is figured in), Bacon Carlysle (“Childhood Enemy”), Green Taylor Simms (“Historian”), Tina Somebody (Graphic Traffic newscaster) and so on – and these extremely unreliable narrators often disagree fiercely with each other over the events of the story.  Rant is only seen by others and has no voice himself in the book other than what other people report him saying.  If you want a thought-provoking but often somewhat mystifying book, this is your place.

The Collapsing Empire (John Scalzi)

You pretty much know what you’re going to get from one of John Scalzi’s books.  It will be a light, fast read, entertaining and generally well written, painstakingly diverse and equally painstakingly not making a big deal of being so, with a few funny lines and some well-paced action.  And if you’re lucky you can get it autographed on a book tour, as he was gracious enough to do for me with this copy.  This is clearly the first of a new space opera series, now that the Old Man’s War series has matured.  Humanity long ago lost track of the Earth and now lives in widely scattered settlements connected by the Flow, a dimension outside of the usual time and space that allows the appearance of faster-than-light travel without the mucking about with the time stream that this often entails.  These settlements are also linked by the Interdependency, ruled by an emperox and led economically by a powerful set of guilds.  Cardenia is about to become emperox, much to her dismay.  Marce is the son of a count on the planet End, which is called that because it’s as far from the Hub as the Flow goes.  End is in the middle of one of its periodic rebellions, but this one is both different in nature, being orchestrated by one of the guild houses, and far more significant, since the Flow is collapsing and humanity is facing a dismal future in a universe where its settlements really are interdependent and likely to fail without the connections made possible by the Flow.  The book moves along nicely, and it comes to an end precisely where you’d expect the second book to pick up.  So now we wait for the second book.

A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry (Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger)

Everything eventually becomes tourism, and atomic bombs are no exception.  There are museums, visitor centers, and guidebooks for many of the sites that were and remain important to the American nuclear arsenal, and in this entertaining book Hodge and Weinberger decide to go on a road trip to see them all.  Their journey takes them to some of the old Manhattan Project sites in Tennessee and New Mexico, missile silos in Nebraska, and eventually to Kazakhstan, Russia, and Iran.  Along the way they meet any number of people of varying helpfulness (Russian nuclear personnel are distinctly unconcerned with allowing Hodge and Weinberger to see anything of interest, while the missileers of the American midwest are, not surprisingly, fairly open) and see more than their share of interesting things.  They don’t really get to their main point until the epilogue, where – their travels now behind them – they finally feel free to express themselves.  There are many skilled and passionate people involved in nuclear weapons work, they write, and nobody’s got a plan for any of it.  Why do we have these weapons?  What purpose do they serve?  How do they fit into the warfare of the future?  Diplomacy?  Anything?  This was written in 2007, so it stands as a monument of a time when people felt that there was something to be done with nuclear weapons – when American policy was not in the hands of an idiot who casually demanded that the US triple its nuclear weapons only to have military officials solemnly declare he must have been joking, when Russia was seen as a bumbling former enemy rather than the unseen hand behind the American presidency, and when North Korea was still a joke.  The book has a certain playfulness to it, despite its serious topic, and you just can’t imagine that tone being taken with a similar book written today.

Artemis (Andy Weir)

Jazz Bashara lives on the moon, in a city called Artemis.  It’s the only city there, and like any city it has its class structure and its immigrant culture.  There are the wealthy and the poor, and – in the grand tradition of chain migration – each trade seems to be dominated by a single ethnic group.  In Jazz’s case, her father, like most Saudis, is a welder.  Set in a near future where the Kenyans largely control space travel, Artemis is a city on the make.  Jazz works as a porter – a glorified delivery girl – and moonlights as a smuggler.  When one of her clients tempts her into a drastically stupid and illegal job that has deadly consequences, it launches into motion a series of increasingly desperate moves by Jazz, her law-enforcement nemesis Rudy (with whom she is on friendly if vaguely antagonistic terms), old friends and second-hand loves, Artemis officials and Brazilian mafiosi that ends with a suitably raucous bang that has more than a few tonal references to Casablanca.  Jazz is an endearingly disheveled heroine and the narrative moves along smartly, and if the book is not quite as good as Weir’s first novel, The Martian, well, that’s a pretty high standard to match.  For anyone who is looking for a combination of crime thriller, space science fiction adventure, and accessible primer on low-gravity science, this is a good place to start.

Half a King (Joe Abercrombie)

We live in a golden age of YA fiction, with any number of great writers focusing on coming of age stories designed to appeal to young adults but worth reading even for those of us who passed that stage a long time ago.  This is the first volume of Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea series – a different universe from his First Law series – and I was curious as to how his talents would translate.  From this book, pretty well.  It’s a grim world though far less grim than the First Law, and the writing has a bit less of the bleak humor that made the First Law universe so morbidly appealing, but overall the book is well written and fast-moving.  Yarvi is the second son of the King of Gettland, a small kingdom in what was probably once Scandinavia millennia prior (there are any number of references to “elf” cities or other things, all of which have the hallmarks of vague references to our own civilization long after some apocalyptic event – apparently we become elves in the future).  With his withered left hand and peaceable if Machiavellian temperament, he is ill-suited to be the sort of warrior king that Gettland demands, so he is happy to be studying to be a Minister – a sort of cross between a priest, a shaman, and a healer.  When his father and older brother are killed, however, he becomes the new king.  And when he is subsequently betrayed (as predicted on the jacket cover, so it’s not any great spoiler), he becomes many things.  Oar slave.  Fugitive.  Supplicant.  Friend.  This is a story of revenge served cold, of events shaping a clever but callow boy into a man.  The ending feels a bit forced and the world is a bit thinner than prime Abercrombie, but it works well.

Half the World (Joe Abercrombie)

One of Joe Abercrombie’s strengths as a writer is dealing with multiple POV characters.  Probably his most virtuouso performance of that came in a single chapter of Heroes describing a battle, where the point of view shifted from soldier to soldier as each was killed, following the killer until moving on to the next.  With Half the World, Abercrombie pulls off another POV switch, though perhaps a less ambitious one.  Yarvi now recedes into the background, a mover of events and puller of strings, but the focus here is on two younger characters.  Thorn is a natural born soldier, but unfortunately for her Gettland doesn’t hold much with female warriors.  Brand wants to be a soldier but he thinks too much for the kind of blunt warfare that the Shattered Sea kingdoms practice.  When he quietly stands up for Thorn after she is mistreated by her training master, it sets off a long adventure.  Gettland is in trouble and needs allies.  Yarvi is sure those allies can be found in the Empress of the South, which is a long hard boat trip away.  He recruits Brand, Thorn, and a crew of strong but seriously disreputable men – and two other women, one a merchant and one whose exact nature is unclear but who is there to train Thorn to be a killer – and off they go.  They bond, they fight, they work, and if it isn’t how they think it’s going to be, it still moves along.  Thorn makes her name and becomes tale told by bards.  Brand earns his name as well.  And despite the middle third where the YA nature of the book does actually become clear, they find each other.  The last part of the book takes place back in Gettland, where great events are afoot, and it sets us up for the final volume of the series pretty well.

Half a War (Joe Abercrombie)

For all that this is essentially a Viking saga, with burly bearded warriors, longboats, queens, and thralls, it is also set recognizably in the distant future, a place where our own society is dimly remembered, where our ruins shadow the kingdoms of the Shattered Sea as those of Rome shadowed dark-ages Europe, and where we, the creators of those ruins, are seen as elves – mystical creatures beyond human abilities or knowledge who destroyed themselves.  It’s probably not a coincidence that those who walk through the hearts of the old elf ruins sicken and die a couple of weeks later.  Abercrombie once again shifts POV characters, leaving Thorn, Koll, Rin, and Brand from the second book and Yarvi from the first to serve as important but noncentral characters.  Here the burden is shouldered by Skara – princess of Throvenland, a kingdom destroyed by the High King and his mercenary Bright Yilling, who worships only Death – and Raith, a vicious young warrior of Vasterland.  Here all the schemes and plans of the previous books converge until little is left standing, though both Skara and Raith will grow, mature, deepen, collide and move apart.  Abercrombie is good at developing characters with depth – even his villains have a certain sympathy to them, though in a twisted sort of “be glad you don’t have to hang out with this guy” kind of way (Bright Yilling has some of the best lines in the series).  And when it all comes crashing down at the end, the world of the Shattered Sea will be a very different place than it was before.  Abercrombie leaves room for a next book, and I hope he follows up on that.

Belgium: A History (Bernard A. Cook)

Since we now have an actual Belgian living with us I figured I should learn a few things about the place, so I checked a couple of books out of the library.  This looked like a good introduction, and in some senses it was – it covers a lot of ground in a fairly small number of pages – and in other senses, well, let’s just say that Cook is a fairly typical example of why books written by historians don’t get read very much.  But if you can fight your way through his dull, dry prose, you will in fact learn a few things about the country he describes.  Mostly you learn that Belgium is a small place that has been fought over by larger powers for millennia, that it has existed as an independent nation for less than two centuries, and that it is a sterling example of what happens when cultural differences cannot easily be bridged through political processes.  Cook walks through the history of what will become Belgium from the first vague reference in a Roman text though the swirl of medieval and Renaissance provinces to independence in 1830, and from there through the beginning of the 21st century as the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north conflict with the French-speaking Walloons in the south.  I was surprised at how Catholic the country is – in my mind I had always previously lumped it together with the fiercely Protestant Netherlands that way – and Belgium clearly has an interesting history.  Perhaps a better writer would have made that fact more obvious, though.

The Politics of Belgium: Governing a Divided Society (2e) (Kris Deschouwer)

On the plus side, Deschouwer is a better writer than Cook, which, granted, is not hard.  On the down side, this is a pretty dense monograph about what it means to try to govern a society that has slowly dissolved into mutually incompatible groups based on language and territory.  Deschouwer starts with a brief overview of Belgium’s history since independence in 1830 and then spends the rest of this jargon-filled, chart-laden book minutely parsing out the political parties that rule the country, the governance structures in which they work (or don’t quite work, as the case may be), and the issues that are pretty much structurally incapable of being resolved with which they deal.  For a country the size of Maryland, it is remarkably divided – there isn’t a single political party today that even pretends to represent the whole country, for example, though there are “party families” that do.  But the Flemish version and the Walloon version of those parties often have very different goals and methods.  Add in a newly federalized and highly decentralized political system with near-constant elections, incredibly flexible arrangements for who actually serves what term in what body regardless of election results, and a strong attachment to the superstructures of the EU, and it’s a wonder the country still functions at all at a national level.  The entire concept of a government that comes to power only after a detailed contract with its coalition partners spelling out what issues will be addressed on what timeline, from which no deviance is tolerated without further detailed negotiation, is something that doesn’t really translate well to outsiders, I think – at least not to this outsider, anyway.  How does that even work in practice?  If you think American politics is complicated, Belgian politics will be an eye-opener.  This was a useful book, though between it and Cook’s I still have no real idea of the culture and everyday life of the country.  I’ll have to keep reading, I guess, and it does help to have someone living with us who can talk to us about what it’s like to live there.

Science Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness (Zach Wienersmith)

For a book that has barely sixty 3”x3” pages, it does pack in an outsize amount of fun.  The book is pretty much exactly what the title indicates – a quick walk through any number of scientific fields in which nothing in particular is incorrect yet taken as a whole it still doesn’t quite feel right.  For example, the entry on thermodynamics reads, in its entirety, “The study of how everything is getting worse all the time, and how if you speed that up a little you can run an engine.”  This is, of course, 100% accurate and completely useless as far as understanding thermodynamics.  It was a fun way to end the reading year.

Total Books: 68
Total Pages: 21,237
Pages/day: 58.2

Happy Reading!

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