Friday, January 3, 2020

Books Read in 2019, Part 3

Part 3 and last!


Savages (KJ Parker)

Calojan is the best general in the Empire, in this story set long after the events of most of the other books Tom Holt has written under Parker’s name.  He never loses, and he needs this track record if the tottering old Empire is to survive.  Raffen starts the story by watching his family being executed and then being left for dead but turns out to be clever and adaptable.  Chauzida is the king of the Aram Cosseilhatz – nomadic warriors intertwined with all of these stories.  Aimeric is a wastrel with some talent for organization and a useful friend named Orsella.  Parker simply sets up all these pieces and lets them run in this tightly paced yet still sprawling story of a decaying Empire at war.  It’s hard to know who the real savages of the title are, and if there is an overall story rather than a series of historical inevitabilities it’s hard to see.  But as always with Parker it’s the writing that pulls you along and makes you want to read more.  He has an almost hypnotic ability to suggest deep history in a short space – a particularly well turned paragraph describing the many things people tried to do with an architectural disaster of a room in the City's palace being just one example – and the characters are the usual assortment of sharply drawn men and women on the make: thoughtful, reflective, hemmed in by their choices, and neither as good nor as bad as they like to think of themselves.  I’ve read a lot of Parker this year, and I can’t say I regret that. 

Naked (David Sedaris)

David Sedaris is probably best enjoyed in small doses.  He’s a wickedly sharp writer, particularly when he’s writing memoir-style pieces – his fiction is less interesting – and he can be very funny.  But his default writing persona is The Incredibly Self-Absorbed Asshole and after a while that grates on you.  You want him to show some empathy, pull his head out of his own ass, and stop being such an insufferable snob – and, eventually, toward the end of each piece, he generally does have some kind of reckoning along those lines.  But it can be a long slog to go through that with a book’s worth of such essays.  Some of the essays in this book I suspect I have read before – or heard before, since they’re generally better when read aloud by the author – and some of which were new.  He describes his mother, his time hitchhiking with his friend Veronica, his week at a nudist camp (the title piece), his time as a migrant farm worker in Oregon, and so on, and they’re all well written but a lot to take in at once.

Great Plains (Ian Frazier)

Ian Frazier loves the Great Plains – that region of the United States (and Canada, though he doesn’t deal with that part in this book) where the rains are scarce, the vegetation is thin, and the skies are wide.  For some years he lived in Montana and simply traveled around in his van, seeing the place.  He intersperses detailed reports of his traveling (often simply listing rivers, describing every single aspect of a scene, or recalling exact conversations) with long historical excursions through Native American and frontier history.  This is a reprint of something that originally appeared in the late 1980s so some of the things he describes as current are long since gone and forgotten like the history he brings up, but it remains a fascinating glimpse of a region often forgotten.  Frazier is a good writer when he gets out of his own way and he has a journalist’s talent for finding interesting people and things to write about.  For those interested in follow up, there is an extensive section of notes at the end of the book with sources and commentary.

Quite Enough of Calvin Trillan: Forty Years of Funny Stuff (Calvin Trillan)

Calvin Trillan has been writing short pieces for The New Yorker since the Johnson Administration and this is a collection of essays, ruminations, and verse from that period.  If you’re looking for erudite, gentle, and rather dry humor this is your place and Trillan is your guy.  They’re all of a piece, sharing the tone and concerns of someone who sees New York City as the center of the universe.  Trillan mines his Jewish ancestry, his upbringing in Kansas City, his personal foibles and curmudgeonly beliefs, and his general status as an affluent New Yorker in all sorts of ways, and it was a nice break from the general shrieking madhouse that is the world these days.  I read this during the week where it became clear that der Sturmtrumper was blackmailing a sovereign nation into working on his reelection campaign and his minions were loudly shouting that this was perfectly acceptable conduct from the leader of the United States, so any break from that kind of treasonous insanity was welcome.

Don’t Go There!  From Chernobyl to North Korea: One Man Loses Himself and Finds Everyone Else, in the World’s Strangest Places (Adam Fletcher)

Adam Fletcher – the man who tried to tell me how to be German in fifty easy steps – is living the aimless life of a mitlaufer, a word that his German girlfriend Annett translates as “also ran” or perhaps “hanger on.”  A British expat living in Berlin, not doing much of anything, in full retreat from his own life and past, he decides one day that the solution to this is to go traveling – and not just anywhere, but to strange and challenging places.  Istanbul in the middle of what turns out to be time of riots and protest.  China in the deep winter, much of which he and Annett spend trapped on a bus.  Chernobyl.  Ghana.  A Hara Krishna ashram in Argentina.  Israel.  Transnistria and Moldova by himself, once Annett finally gets tired of it.  Liberland, a self-declared libertarian ministate on the border between Croatia and Serbia.  North Korea.  And, perhaps the most difficult of all, his old hometown of Thetford, England, which he fled in a panic of stories about how awful it was, stories that might or might not have been true.  As with any such travelogue, it’s mostly about Fletcher’s journey of self-discovery and the rediscovery of his own life with Annett in Berlin, but Fletcher is an entertaining writer who manages to stay on the proper side of the Life Lessons while occasionally turning a good phrase (“Boredom is a luxury good,” is the one that will likely stick with me).  It’s an entertaining look at a life neither terribly well nor poorly spent but deeply thought over once he gets going, and worth a read.

Metro Stop Paris: An Underground History of the City of Light (Gregor Dallas)

The framework of this surprisingly dense book is the deceptively simple idea that since the Metro is the easiest way to get around Paris, it might be a good structure for a book about the various sights and events of this most storied of cites.  What I originally thought would be a fairly light travel memoir sort of thing turned very quickly into a deep and fascinating dive into French history.  One stop launches Dallas into a thorough examination of the relationship between Andre Gide and Oscar Wilde and how it all intertwined with Alfred Dreyfus.  Several take you through events from the 18th century – both Revolutionary and pre-Revolutionary – and others take you all the way back to the medieval city, precious little of which remains for the modern viewer.  Dallas is particularly fond of Emile Zola and returns to him at several stops.  Anais Nin takes up much of a chapter, as does Clovis, who ruled the area in the 5th century CE, and one other chapter is taken up with the sad history of the Huguenots and in particular Gabriel de Montgomery.  French history has a qualitatively different feel than British or American history and Dallas makes it come alive.  This isn’t a quick read, but it is an enjoyable one.

The Amberlough Dossier (Lara Elena Donnelly)


Imagine if you will a fantasy novel – not a swords and sorcery secondary world story full of magic or dragons but simply an alternate world, one that has different politics, history, and culture but follows the same sorts of natural laws and rules of human behavior that this one does.  It has politics, intrigue, sex (a lot of sex, of many different varieties), family, secrets, and theater.  And instead of being set in some vaguely medieval environment, imagine it set in something very much like Weimar Germany.  If you can do that, you’ve come to Amberlough and here you will meet the main cast.  Cyril is an intelligence agent with a few bad mistakes in his past.  Aristide is his lover, a man who ostensibly makes his living onstage at the Bee – Amberlough’s version of Caberet – but who has secrets of his own, secrets that provide him with his real income.  Cordelia is a stripper at the Bee, a colleague of Aristide, and a tougher and more intelligent woman than she gets credit for.  Amberlough – the capital city of the region of that name – is roughly Berlin circa 1928, a city of decadence, political intrigue, and a pervasive sense of dancing against the dying light of a better, more tolerant time as oppression and repression loom.  The Ospies – the One State Party members who would like to unify the four states of Gedda into a single polity, regardless of the wishes of those who live in those states – function more or less as the Nazis in this scenario and as they come closer and closer to seizing power the echoes of Fascism become louder and louder.  This is a lushly written story of resistance to authoritarian violence, one whose relevance to our own time is uncomfortably clear.


It’s maybe three years after Amberlough and the resistance is doing its best.  The Ospies control Amberlough in what is clearly an analogue of Nazi Germany though – so far – without the virulent racism that led to the Holocaust in the real world.  Aristide is living in exile in Porachis, having somehow wormed his way into the good graces of some fairly elite echelons of Porachan society.  Cordelia, it turns out, is running the resistance.  She’s now known as Spotlight, the leader of the diffuse guerrilla movement called Catwalk which has been plaguing the Ospies since they took over Amberlough.  Cyril is missing and presumed dead.  Throw in Lillian (Cyril’s sister), Jinadh (a Porachan minor royal and the father of Lillian’s son Stephen), Memmediv (the mole whose actions led to Cyril’s fate but who now is content to work against the Ospies for his own reasons) and you’ve got an intriguing middle chapter of a story.  Alliances come and go, tensions ratchet up, and eventually the die is cast for the last chapter.


One of the things that sets the Amberlough series apart from most trilogies is that the Big Events that would usually be the climax of volumes happen between books.  The Ospies come to power and set up their Fascist state between Amberlough and Armistice.  And they fall from power between Armistice and Amnesty.  By the time this third book opens, perhaps five years after the events of the second book, the Ospies are gone and Amberlough is in the middle of its first post-Ospie election – it is, to continue the Weimar metaphor, roughly analogous to the late 1940s in our world, though it was not necessary to have a World War to get there.  Aristide is now a partner in a shady import/export business with ties to the new Amberlough and any number of other places.  Lillian is angling for a position in either of the new governments that might come to power after the election.  Cyril returns as a pawn in a larger power struggle, a shattered PTSD shell of his old self.  Lillian’s son Stephen is an unruly private schoolboy.  Memmediv is just an offstage name caught up in offstage crises.  And Cordelia is dead, a martyr of the revolution that toppled the Ospies between Armistice and Amnesty and for that reason gradually losing the earthy humanity that defined her and slowly becoming mythic.  Donnelly is a writer who focuses on the textures and small moments that ground the larger story, using them to illuminate broader themes of regret, loss, and opportunities not taken.  In both of the final volumes of this series the character who looms largest is the one not there, the hole in the center of the story’s donut around which the other characters revolve.  There is plenty of action in all these books but ultimately they are about the quiet moments, the identities we adopt and shirk, and the things we do for love.  This series may well have been my favorite books of 2019, and I will no doubt be recommending these books to friends for a long time.

That’s the Way it Crumbles: The American Conquest of the English Language (Matthew Engel)

Matthew Engel is at pains to say he is not anti-American and further that he even likes many of the quirks of American English.  It’s simply that he likes British English better in most cases and would prefer for the two dialects to remain as separate as possible, which he acknowledges is a losing cause and has been for centuries.  One of his main points in this dense but entertaining book is that a surprising amount of British speech today actually consists either of naturalized American words, which he indicates by printing them in bold in the text, or of words that died out in Britain but were reimported from the US at some point, which he indicates by printing them in bold with a dagger.  He goes through this process more or less chronologically, attributing sources when he can (Noah Webster is an obvious one, but PG Wodehouse as one of the most active importers of American words in the 20th century came as a bit of a surprise), and there is a list of them by time period and source in one of the later chapters.  It is surprising, reading that list, which ones Engel feels still need to be defined for a British audience and which ones he is content to let stand.  The book is updated through 2018 and there some marvelous asides regarding the current political descent of both countries into madness, but mostly he focuses on his beloved words.

Strange Planet (Nathan W. Pyle)

You’ve probably seen these cartoons if you were online at any point in 2019.  They feature bulbous aliens with big black eyes trying to live normal human lives and speaking in an odd sort of meta-language designed to highlight the absurdities of everyday experience, and they’re quietly funny in a pleasant sort of way. 

“I found this,” says one alien, holding a cat. 
“Great,” says the other.  “It’s vibrating.” 
“That means it’s working.
"What does it excel at?”
“Scratching.  Also hiding.” 
“An ideal companion.” 

My favorite sequence shows the aliens late at night, as one hears a noise and rushes off with a baseball bat. 

“Identify yourself!” it says.  “I am holding recreational equipment!”  It turns to the other alien and says “I am going to haphazardly swing this object.” 
“Shall I accompany?” 
“You are safer here given what I just said.” 
“OK, I prefer this plan.”  There is a short pause, and then the bat-wielding alien returns. 
“What did you discover?” 
“The vibrating creature was knocking over objects for no reason.  Also our furnishings resemble a hostile being.” 
“Did you strike our furnishings?”
“Our furnishings did not respond to my verbal warning.” 

It’s perhaps not a cartoon for everyone, but I liked it.

Three Moments of an Explosion (China Mieville)

One of the things you always know you’re going to get when you pick up a China Mieville book is good writing – the man can string sentences together.  You also know you’re going to get something just a bit outside of whatever you consider normal.  Sometimes more than a bit, really.  All of this is on full display in this collection of short stories.  The title story leads off – a very brief snapshot of exactly what it says it’s about, though with the added idea that such things have been thoroughly monetized by nanotechnology.  There are straightforward horror stories, stories that don’t quite end so much as stop, a long story involving competing archeologists and the things they find, and a few meditations on what might be out there beyond our meager reach.  I liked the stories in the first part of the book better than those in the second, but they were all worth reading.

Fortunately, the Milk (Neil Gaiman)

I read this because I needed something good to read that wouldn’t take more than a day or so, as the book I was actually reading got left behind on a trip and I wouldn’t get it back for about that much time.  And it filled in nicely.  It’s a sweet, clever story designed for younger kids but – as with the best of such stories – with plenty to keep the parents entertained while reading it.  The set-up is simple – Dad goes out for some milk but takes rather longer than his kids think he should, and when he arrives back home he spins them a tale of what kept him late – a tale involving aliens, pirates, a one-eyed volcano god, and perhaps most importantly, a time-traveling stegosaurus in a hot air balloon.  It’s clever and funny and if you read all the way through and look carefully at Chris Riddell’s illustrations you can see a few allusions that the main audience probably won’t get.  My kids would have loved this when they were younger, and perhaps they still might.

Coraline (Neil Gaiman)

I didn’t plan to go on a Neil Gaiman binge, but circumstances were what they were and if there’s an author worth binging it would be Neil Gaiman so I can’t really complain.  Coraline is a young girl in an old house.  She and her parents have one flat.  Miss Spink and Miss Forcible – two old actresses – have the flat below, and the crazy old man and his musical mice have the flat above.  Coraline often sees her parents as a bit of a nuisance, so when she discovers that the door in the “room for best” that usually only opens onto a brick wall will sometimes take her to another parallel world she heads off eagerly.  But there she finds an “other” family, with parents who look like hers except with black button eyes.  And from this point on it becomes a story of capture and escape, of bravery and family, and of cats and ghosts.  They made this into a movie about a decade or so ago and it remains the only scary movie ever to freak out Lauren (who was, in her defense, five years old at the time – it’s a pretty freaky story even in book form as an adult).

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-Fiction (Neil Gaiman)

This is the book that I left behind when visiting Oliver at Small Liberal Arts College – fortunately there was only a 3-day gap between going down to see the play he was running the lights for and going back down to pick him up for semester break, and it’s also a collection of short pieces, so there was no real issue with picking it back up again.  And it is worth picking up.  Neil Gaiman is one of the better writers out there today in terms of both having things to say worth listening to and being able to say them well.  This is, as advertised, a collection of small non-fiction pieces, mostly introductions to other things (and occasionally to other people) but also a few other types of writings.  He tells you a lot about his life in the process – it’s not a bad memoir in some ways, though it’s nowhere near comprehensive enough to count as a biography – and he tells you much about what he thinks about art, about writers, and about how life ought to work.  It’s a fairly long book – Gaiman is one of those writers who writes pretty much constantly – but it flies by quickly and has interesting things to say.

Sorry I Ruined Your Childhood (Ben Zaehringer)

I finished the previous book while visiting family – something I had not thought I’d be able to do – and did not bring a spare book with me.  Fortunately books are one of the things we give each other at Christmas, and someone (not me) received this one, so I read it in the car on the way home.  It’s a quick, breezy, rather bleakly funny cartoon book – one strip per page – and it has a few good laughs in it.

The Turk Who Loved Apples and Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World (Matt Gross)

The best travel writing is about neither the traveler nor the destination but rather the intersection between them – how the place affects the person traveling through it.  Because that is, after all, the point of traveling.  Familiar and normal are different things.  Travel should change you.  You shouldn’t be the same person you were when you started, if only because you’ve seen unfamiliar things and thought about them and they've become in some small way part of your new normal.  This book, however, is about the traveler.  Matt Gross loves to travel.  It’s his life.  It is, in many ways, his entire identity.  From picking up almost at random and moving to Vietnam as a recent college graduate to working as The Frugal Traveler for the New York Times for several years to just going here and there on his own, travel is who Matt Gross is and what he does.  Somewhere in there he gets married to a Taiwanese woman whose family he frets will never really accept him, has a daughter and (by the end of the book) another child to be determined later, and dwells upon his childhood (particularly his self-sabotaged relationship with his younger brother, which he is determined to fix), but mostly he talks about Matt Gross the Traveler.  And while this is interesting in the way that people who live interesting lives are, it doesn’t really tell you much about the intersection between the traveler and the places he’s been.  He goes in a known quantity and he interacts with much of the world in articulate ways that are often quite entertaining, but aside from slowing down in the last chapter (something he explicitly declares will change soon) he really doesn’t seem to be all that influenced by a lifetime of visiting the world.  He remains the known quantity he was at the beginning, and that seems a lost opportunity.

Total Books: 51
Total Pages: 15,730
Pages per day: 43.1

Happy reading!

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