Sunday, January 31, 2021

News and Updates

1. The semester is well underway here, at least for the most part – I have multiple semesters this semester and they all start at different times, but beginning February 1 they will all be in motion. I’ve got four classes with a total of 140 students on top of my regular job as an academic advisor and it’s just going to be a busy time.

2. I took the opportunity tonight to watch hockey, since I likely won’t get much of a chance to do that for a while. The Flyers won in overtime – apparently for the second night in a row, in this condensed schedule of a year – so that was a nice way to spend some time.

3. I also taught Lauren how to make gravy (spaghetti sauce to you non-Italians) today and we had a lovely dinner. It’s nice to pass down these family traditions, and it makes the house smell good.

4. It snowed again here in Our Little Town this weekend. It’s been a snowy though not particularly cold winter here in Baja Canada – we’ve had snowfall worth shoveling (the over/under on snow in Wisconsin is 2.75” or about 7cm; less than that and we just ignore it) pretty much twice a week all year now and the mounds at the end of my driveway are tall enough to make backing out into the street a treacherous proposition, but we haven’t gone below zero Fahrenheit (-17C) all year, which is unusual. I gather that this will change by the end of the week, though.

5. I’m actually good with all the snow and cold. I like winter. I like the cold. I like the grey skies.  I like the long nights.  I’d much rather have two winters than a hot summer, and if there is any silver lining at all to the lockdowns and quarantines it is that I don’t have to venture out if I don’t want to. I’ve got my tea and my books and my broadband internet and I’m good.

6. It turns out that my new email program can only send emails from one account rather than both of the ones I use, so there will be further adventures in technology soon. I have resolved the Webex issue, and the Mother Ship Campus IT folks figured out how to restore my access to the VPN, which is nice. I keep going back to the fact that, with the exception of Webex, all of this worked just fine before I upgraded. Oh well.

7. It has taken every ounce of restraint I have not to respond with unmitigated rage and vitriol to some of the plaintive cries of disillusioned right-wingers now that Constitutional order and responsible government has been restored in the United States. Sorry, folks. You spent four years shitting on everything worthwhile about this country and calling the rest of us names when we pointed this out, then staged a coup when the majority once again rejected you, because you just aren't mature enough to handle the idea that you lost a free and fair election by a landslide – you don’t get to complain about anything for any reason ever again.  Shut up, step aside, and let the grownups try to fix all the things you’ve fucked up if we can.

8. Sometimes I am grateful to past me for being a little more forward thinking than I suspect I might be at times. It hit me this afternoon that the real estate taxes were due today. This is not something I generally had to worry about for the last quarter century, except that we paid off the house last year and now the escrow company won’t handle that for us anymore. So there was this moment of panic as I tried to figure out how to get them paid without having the county sell the place out from under us, until I looked at my checkbook and realized that I’d paid them at the beginning of the month. Nice going, past me.

9. The soundtrack for the last few days has been Leon Redbone. This has been a public service announcement.

10. Lauren has been accepted into one college already, so we know she’s going somewhere next year. We’re still waiting to hear back from most of them, however, so we’ll see how it goes. It’s a strange time to be applying to colleges and I hope she can have something like a normal year next year. I hope we all can. I’m glad she’s in, though. Congratulations, Lauren! I’m proud of you.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Adventures in Technology

It’s been an interesting week in technology here in Our Little Town, in the liberal arts sense of the term, the way three-headed frogs are … interesting.

Last week I was on the phone with our Internet Company trying to get a different question answered when, for some reason, the person on the other end of the line suggested I do a speed test on our service. “Huh,” he said. “You are paying for a lot more than that. We need to get a tech there to take a look at this.”

Say what you will about their billing department, but the tech support has always been top notch.

They also said they’d send a new modem, which never quite happened and eventually Kim had to go to the Internet Company’s office here in Our Little Town and pick one up directly. It turned out they had no record of this but cheerfully admitted that this did not mean that Kim was wrong and they gave her a new modem anyway, which it turned out did not actually solve the problem.

So last Friday an amiable tech fellow showed up at my door, took a thorough look at everything coming into the house and out of the splitters, replaced the modem again, and said that as far as the Internet Company was concerned everything was fine. He even had me download a speed test app for my phone which showed me getting exactly what I should be getting.

“The problem is somewhere between the router and your computers,” he said. “I think your router’s probably fine, but if you want to check without spending the money for a new one you can rent one from us for a month for $5, and if it solves things you can either keep it and keep paying rent or return it and buy your own. And if it doesn’t solve things you can return it and it’s probably the fact that your computers are So Old.”

Sometimes you can hear the capital letters.

Not that he was wrong, mind you.

So Kim took the old modem back to the Internet Company and the next day she went back and got a new router and we plugged that in and it solved things for Kim but not for me. So the problem was kind of both problems, and if we get a new router for ourselves we can return the Internet Company router and why does this begin to sound like an electronic version of three-card monte? Guess where the connection speed is! This machine? That one? Oooh, sorry, mate – maybe next time?

I do get enough speed to do what I need to do, though, so that’s good, even if my computer is objectively old. So am I, after all.

Which brings us to our second tech crisis, which is that for some time now I have been unable to update my Office software. Microsoft forces you to do that periodically, because if you don’t then you can’t actually use the programs to do anything. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy getting messages saying that I don’t have permission to access files I actually created. But for the last month or so I’ve been getting other messages saying that I can’t update these programs because my OS is too old.

It was, admittedly, three generations back from the current Mac iteration.

I did a little research on macOS11, which is the one that Apple is flogging now. It’s new! It’s wow! It’s shiny! It has no back compatibility with things that are 32-bit! Your bits must be 64 in number! 64 is the number of the bits, and the number of the bits shall be 64! 65 is right out!

I have a lot of older programs, much to nobody’s surprise. I’ve known for years that I need to upgrade my email program, for example, because it hasn’t been supported since 2013 or so, but it took until last week for me to figure out how to transfer all of the thousands of messages over to a different program that would be updated from time to time now. Format changes and all that. But I got it done! It works!

Kind of.

I can read my old emails and receive emails in one program, but I can’t figure out how to send them from there. So I have a different, also updating program, that sends them.

With this I have kicked the can of this problem down the road and can worry about it some other time, probably in 2026.

Also, half the meetings I go to these days are on Webex, which does not function with my old OS anymore. The crashing every 8 minutes or so thing kind of tipped me off about that, and it turns out that this was a known issue.

Why if something is known is it not fixed? I don’t know. Ask the IT guys.

I didn’t really want to upgrade to macOS11, since it is new and therefore not terribly well tested. But it turns out that when you go to Apple’s web page and click on the links to take you to either of the two OS versions between mine and 11 you get taken to either iTunes (if you click on it in Firefox) or the App Store (if you click on it in Safari) and in neither of those places are you actually allowed to download those OS programs that Apple insists are there.

So OS11 it was.

I bit the bullet and downloaded it on Friday. I probably should have done this two weeks ago, prior to the semester starting, but so it goes.

It downloaded and tried to install and kept getting hung up and I went to bed convinced that I had bricked my computer at the start of the semester and trying to figure out how to work around that. This is not a good place to be. Fortunately the next morning the computer had figured things out and was happily booting up just fine.

I’ve been using OS11 since Saturday, and so far it’s been okay. Not many changes that I can tell, which is a recommendation coming from me. The alert sounds are different and I’m sure there are all sorts of features that I am pointedly ignoring, but otherwise it looks and acts mostly like my old computer, which is really what I wanted.

Except that every video chat software program I own (and I have to use three different ones for my various jobs) forgot how to access my mic and camera and screen and required a restart to fix that, including once in the middle of a class I was teaching.

And the program that the Mother Ship Campus uses to allow us to get access to work files from home is incompatible with OS11 – another “known issue” that somehow hasn’t been fixed. So that has been entertaining.

All I want is for it to do what I want. I don’t need it to do everything. Just certain things.

Every time I upgrade, it is a constant struggle to get back to where I was.

We’ll see.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Four Days

It’s been four days since Joe Biden was inaugurated.

Four days without a Constitutional crisis. Four days without the fear of whatever damned fool authoritarian cruelty the previous president would no doubt have spouted in that time period. Four days of knowing that there are adults in charge of the government, that they are giving actual serious attention to the problems this nation faces, and that they intend to pass this nation on to their successors in better shape than they found it.

All of which is a refreshing change.

Honestly, even the air feels cleaner.

Law enforcement is arresting the treasonous insurrectionists who staged the Trump Coup. Various radical right-wing groups, including the Republican Party itself, are either tearing themselves apart or attacking other various radical right-wing groups. The second impeachment trial – this one to be conducted by a Senate that might hold an actual trial rather than simply dismissing the charges without a hearing like the last time – is scheduled to begin shortly, and if our former president is called to defend himself under oath there won’t be enough popcorn in the world.

There are still problems, of course. The pandemic is getting worse and Biden’s administration has to start from scratch in its efforts to fix things because as it turns out there was no plan whatsoever under the previous administration for doing that – none at all. Der Sturmtrumper apparently felt we could all just go ahead and die and quit bothering him for all he cared. The economy is teetering and if things don’t improve soon may well collapse – something that I have no doubt the GOP is actively working toward so they can blame the current administration. Tom Brady is going to another Super Bowl, which in a just society would not be allowed. All sorts of problems.

But there are, as noted, adults in charge again and if they can’t solve everything all at once at least they’re making serious efforts to do so rather than creating more problems to distract us.

I’ll take that. It beats a sharp stick in the eye.

I have no idea where things will go from here.

But for the first time since November 2016 I am going to allow myself to think that maybe, just maybe, things will get better in my country. Maybe not soon. Maybe not everything I want to happen. But a start, at least.

And after four years of overt Fascism being rammed down my throat, yes indeed I will take that.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Truck Stop Memories

Sometime in August 1993 I found myself in a rented truck in Peru, Illinois, with my dad, my brother, and all of my worldly possessions.

This made sense at the time.

The day before my dad and I, along with a couple of my best friends, had cleaned out my Pittsburgh apartment and loaded up the truck in preparation for me moving out to Iowa where I would begin my doctoral program. I had an apartment lined up and ready to go in Iowa City, but there remained the difficulty of getting all my stuff from where it was to where it needed to be.

I had a lot of stuff, much of it books – and if you think books are just paper and therefore ought to be light, you really ought to reconsider and start thinking of them as finely sliced lumber and therefore not light at all. But we got it all into the truck and then hung out in the echoing space of my tiny apartment for a while.

The next morning my dad and I got up early, drove out to the airport to pick up my brother, and then headed west.

The plan was to stop somewhere about two or three hours from Iowa City and spend the night there before traveling on. The midwest was flooded that summer and there was only one bridge open over the Mississippi between Minneapolis and St. Louis – the one we needed on I-80. We figured if we stopped before the floodwaters we would have a better chance of finding a hotel. Plus we’d have the whole day once we got to Iowa City rather than trying to unload in the evening.

Peru was – and for all I know still is – a truck stop town, the kind of place that exists for weary travelers to spend a night before moving on. It has hotels, gas stations, and the sorts of restaurants you’d expect in a truck stop town. There may well be a prettier and more residential Peru somewhere beyond the immediate neighborhood of the interstate exits, but we never found it. Can’t say we looked for it either. We were, after all, weary travelers, and all we needed was a hotel, a gas station, and the sort of restaurant you’d expect in a truck stop town.

The hotel was sufficiently full that they had to open up a wing that had been tightly sealed in order to put us somewhere. They never did turn on the ventilation system that night. It was a hot night. But we gassed up the truck, unloaded our overnight bags, and wandered across the parking lot to a steakhouse called The Pine Cone for dinner.

The Pine Cone had $4 steaks, greasy hash browns, and a teenaged waitress who spent a good portion of the evening at her station a couple of booths over loudly discussing with her colleagues the guy she had fallen asleep under the night before. It was entertainment, I suppose.

We sat there, the three of us, enjoying our meal and our time together.

At some point my dad looked around at the place, paused, and then said to us, “You know, sometimes you just have to stop and ask yourself – how the fuck did I end up here?”

It was a fair question.

We end up in all sorts of places, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. We go where we need to be to do what needs to be done, or sometimes we just end up there. Sometimes it’s a combination of all that.

But in the end there is the story because that’s all there ever will be, and those who remember the story are part of it for as long as the story is told.

My dad would have been 82 today.

Happy birthday, Dad.

Monday, January 18, 2021

News and Updates

1. Less than two full days before der Sturmtrumper is tossed out on his seditious ass and onto the trash heap of history. He leaves behind a diminished nation, a fragmented system of alliances, a faltering economy, a raging and deadly plague that he actively made worse, a treasonous and growing right-wing extremist movement that has already staged one failed coup and is eagerly working toward the next, the lowest job approval of any president since recordkeeping began, a desperate desire to destroy everything that is worthwhile about the United States that will have him actively sabotaging this nation’s future right up until the nuclear codes are ripped out of his palsied hands and replaced with subpoenas from half a dozen active criminal investigations, and a culture of slime and corruption that will take decades to remove. Naturally his base continues to worship him. It’s going to be a long few years coming up, yes indeed.

2. Now you know why companies escort fired workers from the premises immediately and don’t give them time to wreak havoc. We may need to amend the Constitution (again) to make the inauguration of the next president happen much, much faster.

3. In the meantime, life goes on, as it must.

4. The semester is about to start for at least one of the campuses where I teach. Another never stopped. The third one doesn’t start for two weeks. It has been very difficult to maintain a focus on class prep when there is treason in the air, I have to admit, but I have my nearest classes ready to go and my other class is just waiting for a bit of information that someone else needs to provide, so all in all it’s not a bad position to be in.

5. I’ve managed to get through about half of the bookshelves in my office for my weeding project. I have now conceded that I will never get a tenure-track position – that the adjunct life is for me, whether that was my goal or not – so a lot of books that “might be useful someday” have now lost their “someday” and can go to someone else. I’ve got eight boxes of books in the mudroom waiting to be donated to somewhere and honestly you can’t really tell. I consider that a sign of a life well lived, to be honest. I still need to go through the other half of the bookshelves, but as noted the semester is about to start and there will be precious little time for such projects.

6. Which is a shame because my computer has now reached the point where I must update the OS if I want any of the other programs to update. I had planned to make that change over break, but of course never did. So now I’m sitting here thinking about whether I want to go from macOS 10.13.6 to macOS 11 at the beginning of a term and what the odds are that this will convert my computer into a shiny paperweight. I threw this problem out to my Facebook friends and got some good advice, so perhaps I will follow it. We’ll see.

7. I did manage to get my email transferred over from Entourage (which hasn’t been supported since 2013 or so) over to something that will actually get updates for a while. I consider this a victory. Someday I will figure out how to archive these things, which will make me happy even if most people have no idea why anyone would want to do that.

8. While there were some very nice gifts exchanged among us this holiday season, perhaps the one that has gotten the most use so far is the pet heating pad that we got for our 16-year-old cat. It’s always on at a nice low temperature so it’s not a fire hazard, and the cat has barely moved from it in weeks – “sitting there like a gas station hot dog,” according to Oliver. I’m thinking of changing her name to Ballpark.

9. For several nights last week we had pretty thick fog and below freezing temperatures, which meant that you’d wake up and everything was rimed with ice. It was really beautiful. You need that these days.

10. I took Oliver back to Small Liberal Arts College yesterday. On the one hand, it was nice to spend the time with him in the car, and he’s happy to be back with his group now. On the other hand, it means that we’re down a person here. Also, I had to stop in some tiny little town on the way back to get gas and use the restroom and there wasn’t a single person in that place wearing a mask and seriously what the hell, people? Oh well. I did get to see a bald eagle fly overhead – the second one in less than a week, in two different states – so that was cheering.

11. Now that Lauren is 18 she has officially reached the point where she can make some decisions without us, and the one that she had most been looking forward to making was getting her nose pierced. I realize that I am Old and Uncool but I think it looks nice, really.

12. It’s amazing how many people still have their Christmas lights up. I think people need them more than usual these days.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Thoughts on the Trump Insurrection

On January 6, 2021, the United States of America was attacked by internal enemies.

A violent mob of insurrectionists, called together and urged forward by a seditious president, stormed the Capitol and attempted to overturn the legitimate results of a free and fair election in order to install the defeated president in power against the will of the American people. It is the first time in this nation’s history that the peaceful transfer of power was assaulted.

This attempted coup is treason. It is precisely why we have laws, courts, prisons, and armies.

Right-wing mobs roamed the halls of Congress on that day, intent on assassinating elected Representatives, Senators, and the Vice President because they would rather live in a Fascist dictatorship than see the Constitutional process of installing the next president play out. They shit on the floor, stole equipment and artifacts, and demonstrated a level of barbarity that should embarrass any rational adult.

It is telling that at no point in this insurrection did the defeated president consider leaving the White House, a mile and a half away. He knew very well that this was not a threat to him, after all. He refused to do anything to fix the problem for a long time as well, for the same reason.

Every single insurrectionist who set foot inside the Capitol is guilty of treason and subject to arrest, trial and punishment.

The Capitol Police were overwhelmed – at least some of them seemed to welcome the assault – and one of them was killed by an insurrectionist while resisting it. That makes every single insurrectionist who set foot in the Capitol guilty of felony murder and subject to arrest, trial, and punishment.

Every single individual who encouraged the insurrectionists, starting with the outgoing president of the United States, is guilty of sedition at the bare minimum and treason if their participation can be shown to extend to more than just verbal encouragement, and is subject to arrest, trial and punishment.

The more we find out about this assault on the United States, the worse it gets. The tentacles of treason reach far higher than the brute mob that broke into Congress, and as information trickles out it is clear that the mob was simply the most visible sign of a deeper attack on democracy and the American republic itself.

There must be consequences.

These consequences must be swift, thorough, and harsh. Every single insurrectionist, seditionist, and traitor must be made to feel the full weight of justice. They must be face the cold determination of American patriots. They must be reduced to where they will never again trouble the peace of Americans.

During the previous treasonous uprising against the United States, General William Tecumseh Sherman declared that “those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.” This is a lesson we must heed today.

There must be no pause in the pursuit of justice against this right-wing insurrection against the United States. Insurrection must be crushed and those responsible for it brought to heel.

There are more American troops defending Washington DC today than there are in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. This is what you get when you tolerate Fascism for too long.

The tide turns here, however.

We say to the Fascists, you will not win.

We say to the Fascists, you will not intimidate us.

We say to the Fascists, your time is over.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

We Were Warned

Eleven months ago, the man who had been Donald Trump’s personal lawyer testified before Congress that Trump would not turn over power peacefully to his successor.

He was roundly dismissed for this as being alarmist.

Today the United States is in the middle of a right-wing coup led by its outgoing president and supported by a disturbingly large portion of the Republican Party and much of his base. The Constitution, the law, and the survival of the United States as a republic hang in the balance.

Trump has repeatedly sought to overthrow the election in the courts, but when the courts demanded evidence of his delusional accusations and received only further delusions they threw out his challenges in some of the most scornful decisions I have ever read, many of which were written by judges Trump appointed. Trump then turned to hysterically tweeting conspiracy theories, fleecing his supporters for donations, shaking down state officials like some third-rate mafioso, openly calling for violence from his right-wing extremist base, and demanding that his vice president simply appoint him to a new term in office.

His minions in Congress have sued to allow the vice president to do this, only to have the courts throw that out as the stupid and seditious nonsense that it is.

And now 12 Republican Senators and over a hundred Republican representatives are going to try to have Congress overturn the freely expressed will of the American people at an event where they have don’t even have the authority to ask questions, let alone take action.

Today Congress and the vice president have exactly three tasks laid out for them by the Constitution.

The Vice President opens the envelopes containing the certified electoral votes sent in by the states and attests that these are the votes sent by the states. It is the states, after all, who control this process under the Constitution.

Congress then verifies that those are indeed the votes certified by the states.
The votes are then counted and the winner reported.
So long as one candidate has a majority (clearly true in this case), that is ALL they are empowered to do.

In the absence of any controversy within the states (and there is no such controversy in existence since every state has certified one slate of electoral votes in accordance with their state laws at the time of the election) Congress has no right whatsoever to question those votes or to disenfranchise the majority of American citizens who voted. The vice-president, contrary to Trump’s delusional assertions, does not have the authority to decide whether to count the votes or not. The people have voted. The states have certified. The electors have voted. There are no legitimate controversies. There is nothing actionable for Congress to base any demand or motion on. For Congress to do anything other than accept these results and report them out is a clear violation of the law and the Constitution and a treasonous assault on the legitimately elected government of the United States of America.

18 US Code Sections 2384 and 2385 prescribe penalties of fines and up to twenty years imprisonment for such crimes. Just pointing that out for future reference.
This didn’t start with Trump. It goes back a long way and is just the culmination of a trend decades in the making.

The right-wing fringe of the Republican Party has been very clear for nearly half a century that it has little use for democracy that the only legitimate votes are Republican votes, the only legitimate candidates are Republican candidates, and the only legitimate victories are Republican victories and in recent years that fringe has become the mainstream of the party. We saw that with decades of systematic voter suppression by Republican legislatures and officials. We saw that when the GOP legislatures of Wisconsin and North Carolina threw toddler-level tantrums at incoming Democratic governors in the last few years. We’re now watching the GOP legislature of Pennsylvania refuse to seat a Democratic state senator despite the fact that his victory has been certified by both Republican state officials and the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court, the only bodies who have any say in that matter.

There are Republican officials who have realized that this has gone too far. Who are belatedly fighting back against the Trump Coup. There are Republican voters who understand that their candidate lost and that's just what happens in a democracy. But they are fighting against their own party and their own leaders, and how that will end is an open question. It is late in the game and the outcome for the United States is not certain.

This is an attempted coup against the United States of America by Trump and his supporters.

It must be opposed by all patriotic Americans, across the board. It must be put down, firmly and utterly. And there must be consequences for those who brought rebellion to this nation.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Books Read in 2020 - Part IV

Books, Part 4 and Last.

Happy reading to all!


Italian Neighbors (Tim Parks)

This is, as Parks explains in a brief afterward, not so much of a travel book as an arrival book, a book about someone who has reached a comfortable end to his travels and has made a new home in a place far from the one where he was raised. An Englishman married to an Italian woman, Parks and his wife are moving into their new flat at 10 Via Colombare in Montecchio – a small village within the general orbit of Verona – when the story opens, and the book follows them over the course of a year as they slowly learn the ways of their neighbors and the village around them. It’s all a bit of a culture shock for him (presumably not so much for his wife). The picture that emerges is of a complex, rather formalized culture of simple and often ad hoc practices, a messy contrariness that endears itself to Parks and makes him want to be more a part of it. He discusses the laws and how they are both revered and ignored. He bottles prosecco with one of the neighbors in his four-flat building and slowly gets friendly with the woman who owns the building – and claims to own his own flat. He and his wife eventually have a baby, which is the ultimate door opener in this insular village where strangers are not particularly unwelcome but not quite accepted either. He grows to love his patch of Italy, and he does a pretty good job of showing you why.

[A Book About My Old Museum] (The Former Assistant Director of that Museum)

This is the second edition of the little history of the museum that I used to run, and like the first it is chock full of photos of the place and provides a nice narrative of the events and people behind it. It’s been long enough since I’ve given a tour that I’m forgetting some of the details so it’s good to have a refresher. And since the last edition they’ve found out a lot more about one of the key historical figures who made the place museum-worthy and it was nice to see that all here. It’s still strange to read a book that has your photo in it and quotes you, though.

After Silence (Voces8)

This is a throwback to an older genre – the album booklet, a genre that is now almost extinct here in the age of the mp3. After Silence is a two-CD collection of both previously released and here premiered works celebrating the 15th anniversary of Voces8 as a vocal group, and it is divided into four sections: Remembrance, Devotion, Redemption, and Elemental. The music itself is gorgeous – I discovered Voces8 shortly before the coronavirus shut everything down in the US and was fortunate enough to see them live just before that happened, and their #livefromhome series was one of the things that made quarantine more bearable as the spring wore on. I even signed up for their At Home Choir project in order to sing their arrangement of Caledonia, though the weight of the semester made that impossible in the end, much to my regret. They are, as I discovered talking with them after February’s concert, kind and gracious people, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know them on Instagram in the one-sided way that this implies. This hard-bound booklet begins with the full Aldous Huxley essay from which the title quote was taken (“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music”) and then spends time discussing each piece of music in a broader musical and thematic context, as well as providing lyrics and photographs. It’s one of the most impressive examples I’ve seen in this particular format (and it’s not the shortest work on this year’s list of things read), so I thought it was worth putting down here.

Touch (Claire North)

In a train station in Turkey, an assassin kills the young woman that is his target in cold blood yet fails in his mission because the woman was simply a host – a person taken over by another who inhabited her body and who jumped to another body before she died. The jumper needs only the barest touch of skin to make that leap, and they are old – unfathomably old. Thus begins a cat and mouse game as the jumper – referred to as Kepler – and the assassin, who goes by Coyle, first confront each other and then use each other to confront a larger threat: another of the ones who jump, though in this case one who has become a murderer worse than Coyle. Throughout the story there are further stores that Kepler tells – of lives and bodies inhabited, stolen, returned. Hosts can be voluntary or not, but they remember nothing of the time they are inhabited. They simply regain consciousness in a new place, with no idea how they got there. Kepler, at least, prefers to reward hosts if possible – money, clothing, degrees, careers – but isn’t above just using them and fleeing if necessary. There are a lot of Keplers out there, and they will bounce off each other and those who wish them dead throughout this action-packed novel of identity and loss. Who are we really, and what does it mean to be someone else? North’s thoughtful, melancholy prose and deft character building carry you along, and by the end you are immersed in her world even if the questions asked remain unanswered.

The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien)

The Fellowship of the Ring; The Two Towers; The Return of the King

2020 was a year of comfort reading, of returning to old favorites and well-worn pages, and for me there is no book better suited for that category than The Lord of the Rings. I stumbled into The Lord of the Rings in junior high school and got completely absorbed into the lore and history of Middle Earth – nobody does backstory like Tolkien, and it is probably in no small part due to this fact that I became a historian since once you realize that events often have deep roots in time it isn’t that much of a leap to seek them out in the real world as well as in fiction. There was a time when I read this annually, though it has been over a decade since the last time now – the last time, in fact, was when I read it to Oliver, and tucked inside the back cover of my one-volume edition is the map he made to keep track of where everyone was. With all that is on fire in the world at the moment, it seemed a good time to pull it out again. On the surface the story is simple – the One Ring, a talisman of immense power lost millennia ago by its malevolent creator Sauron, has made its way to the Shire and into the hands of Frodo Baggins, a quiet hobbit. He learns that this needs to be destroyed and the only place where that can happen is in Mordor, the heart of Sauron’s domain. He and his companions – Sam Gamgee, Merry Brandybuck, and Pippin Took – set out for Rivendell and there become the heart of the Fellowship of the Ring. The Fellowship heads off toward Mordor, and adventure ensues. But the surface story is just that and there are deeper currents here. This is the last great story of a world thousands of years old, with a multitude of species – Elves, Dwarves, Ents, Hobbits, Orcs, and so on – who are doomed to fade regardless of the outcome of events as the Age of Men dawns (and it is men – women barely seem to exist in Middle Earth). It is therefore a strikingly bittersweet tale of inevitable loss, and in these plague times that is in some ways a comfort.

Ciao, America! An Italian Discovers the US (Beppe Severgnini)

It’s always interesting to see what people from other places think of your own country, and the US has inspired travelers to do this since Francis Trollope and Alexis de Toqueville published their own very different impressions of the country in the 1830s. Beppe Severgnini is an Italian journalist who moved to Georgetown – a quiet western neighborhood of Washington DC in 1994 – and spent a year there learning American ways and filtering that experience through his “Italian head.” He finds Americans to be polite, rational, and in many ways inscrutable, and he seems to enjoy his time in the US. It’s strange reading these impressions of a quarter century ago – the technology has changed significantly, for example, and I doubt he would describe Americans as being quite as enamored of science and practical, functional politics in our current age of Dominionist frenzy and ideological fanaticism – and even his postscript only extends to 2000. He’s an astute observer, though, and if you can put your mind back into that time period it’s a refreshingly lightweight journey through an America that in some ways we no longer inhabit but which remains, in others, there underneath. I read this during the slow-motion right-wing coup attempt that followed the November presidential election and it was a pleasant break from current events.

Life in a Medieval City (Joseph and Frances Gies)

This is an older book, first published in 1969, but it remains a fairly good social history of what daily life was like in the medieval city of Troyes in 1250, in what would eventually become France. It walks you through the basics of city life – church services and the building of the cathedral, family life, education, town governance, business small and large – and then goes through some of the more extraordinary things, some of which are specific to Troyes such as the giant fairs that gave the city its prosperity and some of which are more general such as warfare and other broad disasters. It’s a popular history meant for a general audience so it reads through pretty quickly, and it was a nice way to spend some time in a world so removed from our own as to be almost wholly alien and yet disconcertingly familiar.

What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained (Robert L. Wolke)

This book is exactly what it says it is – a collection of questions regarding food preparation and kitchen appliances that the author answers in an engaging and scientifically sound manner. It started out life as a newspaper column, apparently, which is why the answers tend to be short and punchy, and Wolke is a former chemistry professor at the University of Pittsburgh so you know his answers are more than just the usual food blogger nonsense one has to wade through to get to an online recipe these days. The answers are grouped into chapters on sugar, salt, fat, “chemicals in the kitchen” (a huge pet peeve of a phrase to any chemist), meats, beverages, and kitchen equipment, and even after cooking for myself for the last thirty five years I managed to learn a few things and be entertained in the process so it’s definitely a book worth reading.

Only in America (Harry Golden)

Harry Golden once described himself as a simultaneous member of three different minorities – a Yankee, a liberal, and a Jew – all of which he wore on his sleeve in post-WWII North Carolina. He was the editor and sole contributor of the Carolina Israelite, a more or less monthly paper that he filled with stories of his upbringing in the Jewish neighborhoods of early 20th century New York City where he and his family had emigrated to from Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century and with his thoughts on the current issues of the day, as well as his views on literature (Golden was a friend of Carl Sandburg, who wrote the preface for this book, and had some interesting things to say about Shakespeare), education, politics, and humanity in general. This collection of pieces from the Israelite reflects those concerns. There is a lot on the Situation of the Jew in a world not all that far removed from the Holocaust. There is even more on the Negro Question, as it was often delicately phrased in the Jim Crow South of 1958, when this book was published – it is, in fact, the largest section of the book. Golden was a tireless needler of bigots of all kinds, as his “Vertical Negro Plan” demonstrates (he noted that Southern whites didn’t seem to have any problems with black people who were standing up in public places, so perhaps if the chairs were removed from schools and other such institutions then desegregation would be less controversial). There are a surprising number of positions he takes that might as well have been written today. His complaints about modern students – that they don’t read books, that they don’t know what his generation considered to be important things to know, that their parents no longer fear teachers but instead make the teachers fear them – could have been pulled off any news site today, for example, and his description of the eager willingness of conservatives to support authoritarianism so long as the people they hate were being hurt (“The conservatives nearly always tolerate the demagogue while he is destroying liberals”) even if they were themselves also being hurt is as apt a description of the Trump years as any I’ve read. This particular copy of the book was purchased as a gift and inscribed from the giver, which I always find fascinating to read.

Saturn’s Children: A Space Opera (Charles Stross)

Freya Nakamichi is an android – don’t say “robot,” it’s considered a slur – who was designed as a sentient sex doll for human masters except that humans went extinct centuries ago, so she and all of the other androids have just had to create their own society to compensate. Before humans died out they had created colonies throughout the solar system, and none of the action of this noirish novel happens on Earth. The story opens with Freya sitting on the edge of a floating colony high above Venus contemplating suicide before being goaded back into living, if only for spite or revenge, by an arrogant aristo – one of the android elite who hold most of their kind in slavery. From there Freya’s story takes her from Mercury to Mars and beyond, sometimes one jump ahead of her pursuers and sometimes not. As with any noir there are deceptions, double-crosses, and occasional interludes of violence. One of the interesting things about this novel is that Stross doesn’t bother creating new ways to travel – interplanetary travel takes weeks or even years, which creates strains on the characters as they are often out of touch for long periods of time. Stross namechecks a number of people and concepts in here so there are always a few easter eggs for the interested – both John Scalzi and Robert Heinlein get places named after them, for example. It’s a fast-moving plot with some interesting things to say about free will, sex, and social stratification, and while it’s not one of his best novels even middling Stross is worth reading.

Neptune’s Brood: A Space Opera (Charles Stross)

This is a follow-up more than a sequel to Saturn’s Children, and a much better story than the first one. It’s set in the same universe – a post-human cosmos populated by androids, though in the millennia since Saturn’s Children humans (“the Fragile”) have been recreated (not that they play any particular role here) – and it has the same overall noirish tone, but the storytelling is sharper and the events more interesting. Krina Alizon-114 is a mendicant scholar researching arcane forms of lost debts when we meet her. She’s just arrived at one planet and is eager to move on to the next one. And from there the story spirals out into deceit, betrayal, history, piracy, and a surprisingly large amount of Stross explaining what money is and how it works, particularly how it could work across the immense interstellar space of the cosmos where distance implacably eats up time. It is a testament to Stross that he keeps that interesting. There is a vast unclaimed debt out there, possibly the result of the universe’s greatest fraud. Krina and her sibs are trying to track it down. Her lineage mater – a powerful and vindictive sort – does not want this to happen. And therein hangs a tale. As with Saturn’s Children there are a lot of allusions for those able to catch them, my favorites being 1) the Bezos worms, which are parasites living off the bodies of others, and 2) the Permanent Crimson Branch Office Five Zero, a piratical firm of spacefaring robot accountants that any Monty Python fan will find amusing. Nobody is who they appear at first, and Krina will bounce from planet to cathedral to pirate ship to the watery depths of an alien world and off again in pursuit of, well, probably the debt, though more the story around it. Stross manages to put a lot of goofy action into a story with a lot of serious economics and it is a strangely charming tale, mostly due to Krina, whose first-person narration is always engaging, and Rudi, the leader of the Permanent Crimson, a rogue and a gentleman.

Running With Scissors: A Memoir (Augusten Burroughs)

Augusten Burroughs was systematically let down by every adult in his life as a child. His father was an emotionally abusive alcoholic who mostly ignored him while his mother was a selfish psychotic prone to mental breakdowns, and they loathed each other until – and probably after – they divorced. Eventually at 13 he was sent to live with his mother’s psychiatrist, a man who should probably have not been allowed anywhere near children but who collected them along with other former and current patients in his big ramshackle house where rules were non-existent. Burroughs details the chaos of living there in fine detail – the friends he made (particularly Hope, the most stable of the residents, and Natalie, with whom he seems to have been closest) and his coming out as gay and falling into a sexual relationship at 14 with a much older man. As a parent this was a difficult book to slog through because I spent much of my time wanting to club every so-called adult in this book with a baseball bat, and even Burroughs eventually comes to the realization that none of this is doing him any good. There’s no particular redemption arc for anyone in this book with the possible exception of Natalie, though you suspect that Burroughs himself ended up at least somewhat okay. Enough to write a memoir, anyway. It’s well written from a literature point of view, but I can’t say I found it as hilarious as the reviewers on the back cover did.

Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other (Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish, with Charlotte Reather)

Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish are actors, and if you’ve ever seen the show Outlander you’ll recognize them. I haven’t actually seen that show (or read the books), so I was at somewhat of a disadvantage with this book, but honestly not much of one – while they reference the show a great deal (and Diana Gabaldon, author of the original Outlander books, wrote the forward for this one) it’s not really about Outlander so much as it is about what Outlander was based upon and the adventures of two Scotsmen trying to reconnect to that here in the modern world. The basic setup – which eventually became a television show called Men In Kilts – is that Sam and Graham would spend several weeks touring the Scottish Highlands in their small RV (a vehicle whose purported model name becomes progressively more varied and entertaining as the book wears on), visiting sites that appear in the Outlander series while providing both actual Scottish history and context as well as some serious buddy comedy. The book is told in multiple first-person sections (Charlotte Reather did an astonishingly good job of weaving together each Scotsman’s narrative into a coherent whole). Sam is younger, more impetuous, ever eager to mess with Graham’s head in a very British “taking the piss” sort of way. Graham is grouchy, more cautious, and gives as good as he gets. You can tell that they genuinely like each other, and that they probably spent much of the time breaking each other’s balls and then laughing about it. They visit quite a few amazing places – the chapter on Culloden Field is worth the price of the book itself – and meet all sorts of interesting people along the way, but the real joy of the book was listening in on, as Gabaldon put it, “two good friends banter (and bicker) their way across the Scottish Highlands, risking life and limb in that casual way that makes men attractive.” This book was a Christmas present from Kim, and a lovely way to spend a quiet holiday. Now I want even more to go to Scotland and stay there for a good long time.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened (Allie Brosh)

I found Allie Brosh’s cartoons when everyone else did, back in 2012 or so, and I missed them when she decided to leave the internet for most of the following decade. She’s back now with a new book of her delightfully off-kilter and deeply introspective illustrated stories so it seemed a good time to reread her first one, and what a long strange dive into another human being’s mind it is. Brosh was apparently a strange child and she struggles with depression, but she has a talent for viewing the world from a different angle and translating that experience into stories that make you laugh and wince at the same time. I’m glad she is back on enough of an even keel to write more of these and I will no doubt find her second book soon. But reading this one was more than enough to remind me why I enjoyed her stories so much and why I wish her well.

Morris (Mary Daniels)

If you are anywhere near my age, you remember Morris the Cat – the big orange tom who starred in any number of commercials for 9 Lives cat food back in the 1970s. Given the era, it was perhaps inevitable that somebody at 9 Lives would commission a celebrity tell-all biography as a PR stunt, and this is what resulted. It’s quick (less than a hundred pages), breathless in the style of the genre, and it straddles the line between cringy sincerity and spot-on parody so effortlessly that it’s hard to know which side it falls on or whether that distinction is meaningful at all. It has back-cover review quotes from Rona Barrett, Doris Day, and Rex Reed, interior photographs with Betty White (who was old even then), Burt Reynolds, and Dyan Cannon, and – tucked away beneath the over-the-top celebrity glitz – a short little biography of a memorable cat. Rescued from a shelter in Hinsdale, Illinois for a one-time job in a mattress commercial, he found his big break selling cat food. As a kid I was just fascinated with Morris and, for the princely sum of a few labels from 9 Lives cat food cans and a self-addressed, stamped envelope, I ended up with this book. I think it came with a t-shirt, too, which I have long since lost. I found the book in my office the other day, and it was a pleasant reminder of a simpler and sillier time.

The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K. LeGuin)

What if you really could change the world by dreaming? Would that be a good thing, or a bad thing? For George Orr, it is something that has driven him to drug abuse and, from there, to court-ordered therapy. It’s 2002 – roughly thirty years after this book was published, so the near future as far as George is concerned – and the world is not in a good way. Overpopulation, climate change, and general resource depletion have made the world in general, and Portland OR in particular, a much poorer and more crowded place. George simply wants his new psychologist, Dr. Haber, to help him stop the “effective dreams” – the dreams that change reality – but Dr. Haber wants to use them to make the world a better place. But what is better? And for whom? Every time George has one of these dreams, reality changes – and not just in the present. It’s always been different, and only George can remember anything otherwise. It’s definitely not an accident that George’s last name is Orr – LeGuin does make the obvious “Either/Orr” comment at one point – and it’s probably not an accident that his first name is George, as there is a strong undercurrent of Orwellian Newspeak in the book. Eventually it becomes hard for George to keep up with the multiple realities and overlapping memories, as every attempt by Dr. Haber to improve the world runs into George’s innate resistance and the law of unintended consequences. In some realities there’s a love interest as well – a lawyer named Heather – and in others (some overlapping) there are aliens, and for a short book there’s a lot here.

Solutions and Other Problems (Allie Brosh)

One of the great joys of marriage is that your partner gets to know you pretty well, and thus as if on cue this book came to me as a Christmas present from Kim. In some ways this is a continuation of Brosh’s earlier book – the same off-kilter artwork, the same perspective that comes at the world from a rather different angle than the one most people take – but in others it’s very different. It’s more thoughtful, and while there are some laugh-out-loud moments, there are also some heartbreaking ones. Brosh’s life has not been gentle in the interval since her last book, and she writes about it with the deadpan honesty of someone who has been through the wringer and is still working her way back toward acceptance. If there is a theme to the book it is that life is unfair and pointless and we should learn to accept it that way, which is pretty heavy for a book centered on cartoons and commentary but which works because Brosh seems to have taken that to heart herself.


Total Books: 73
Total Pages: 22,460
Pages per day: 61.4

Happy reading!

Monday, January 4, 2021

Books Read in 2020 - Part III

Books, Part 3. We return to our regularly scheduled reading.


Microcosmographica Academica: Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician (F.M. Cornford)

This is not so much a book as a slim essay, but it’s my list and I get to include what I want. First published in 1908 in Cambridge, England, it is a field guide to politics in the halls of higher education as it was practiced then and, frankly, not all that far from how it is practiced now. For a very select audience it will probably be very funny, and for everyone else it will be at best mystifying and at worst completely dull, but fortunately I am in the former category and I enjoyed this immensely.

Winter World (A.G. Riddle)

The world is getting colder and nobody knows why, but they’d better figure it out soon because the ice has already claimed a good portion of the planet and the freeze is accelerating. Meanwhile a space probe examining the sun makes a disturbing discovery shortly before it is destroyed, and when it transmits data back to the International Space Station that too is destroyed leaving one survivor – Commander Emma Matthews – adrift in space. Dr. James Sinclair – roboticist and general Flawed Hero – is sent out on a mission to investigate what the probe found and rescue Cmdr. Matthews along the way, and the rest of the book alternates chapters from their points of view. It’s a space thriller centered on humanity’s struggle to stay alive in a universe that is literally cold and unfeeling. There will be missions, adventures, and family drama both on Earth and in space, and much will happen before we reach a convenient stopping point for Volume 1 of the trilogy. It’s an entertaining story – not the deepest thing I’ve ever read, but it moves right along. This was a Father’s Day gift, because really books are pretty much my jam. I may get back to the other two volumes at some point.

The Last Monument (Michael C. Grumley)

This was the other book I got for Father’s Day. Despite being written and set in the present it is, at heart, a thriller straight from the 1970s, with escaped Nazis running around South America looking for gold and generally intruding into the lives of civilized people in nefarious ways, and there is something refreshing about that kind of throwback to a time when everyone agreed that Nazis were evil rat bastards, even if WWII happened so long ago now that Grumley has to explain who major figures like Hermann Goering actually were. Joe Rickards is an NTSB investigator called to the scene of a light aircraft crash outside of Denver that killed two very old men, neither of whom should have been flying in that kind of weather. When Rickards and his partner break the news to the passenger’s daughter – a university anthropologist named Angela Reed – it quickly becomes clear that nothing about this adds up. Throw in an assassin, a trip to Peru for Rickards and Reed, tales of Amazon explorers, Nazi gold, and US Army Monuments Men, and no small amount of third world corruption and elderly German cruelty, and it all turns into mayhem. Grumley is a self-published author and he writes pretty well – it moves along crisply despite the occasional undigested bit of research or passage that cries out for an editor – and he keeps things hopping right up to the ending, which leaves room for a sequel should he decide to go that route. It’s not the sort of book I usually read, but it was a fun and undemanding change.

Father Christmas’s Fake Beard (Terry Pratchett)

This is another in a slowly growing series of whimsical little essays aimed at young readers that Terry Pratchett wrote at some early point in his life and which are now being collected and published for a wider audience. This collection follows Dragons at Crumbling Castle and The Witch’s Vacuum Cleaner and, aside from being Christmas-themed, is much like the earlier volumes in presenting a number of well-illustrated, lightweight, and playful stories that make you wish Pratchett were still around to write more of, well, anything.

The Pursuit of William Abbey (Claire North)

William Abbey is a cursed man. An English doctor in a backcountry town in South Africa in 1884, he stood idly by as a black boy named Langa was brutally lynched by a white mob, for which the boy’s mother cursed him. The shade of the murdered boy would follow him at a walking pace, everywhere, without rest, and if Langa caught him then the person Abbey loved most would die. And then the process would start again. But every curse comes with a gift, and his has turned Abbey into a truth-teller. Whenever Langa is near enough Abbey has the ability to see the truth in the hearts of those nearby and is compelled to speak it – a compulsion that grows stronger to the point of madness as Langa gets nearer. From this comes a powerful meditation on truth, love, power, and the things humans do to one another in the name of all three. The story is told in a series of flashbacks from a front-line hospital in the World War I France of 1914 as Abbey tells his story to a young nurse who has her own mostly harmless secrets, as do we all. It takes Abbey through his life as first he seeks to find a cure for his curse, then becomes a pawn of those who find his curse useful to them – people who are able to protect him from Langa by constantly keeping him on the move – then second as he rebels in his own way against them. Along the way he finds a sort of love, perhaps, and a mad sort of vengeance against the world or maybe not. The lines between those things are never as clear as people want them to be. Claire North is rapidly turning into one of my new favorite authors, as she has a gift for thoughtful melancholy and compelling writing.

Night Watch (Sergei Lukyanenko)

In present-day Moscow there are the Others – not really human, not anymore, but watching over the humans in their own ways. They are divided into Light and Dark, Night Watch and Day Watch respectively, and the two sides have been at war for thousands of years. Their conduct is strictly regulated by the Treaty, and what follows is a sort of arcane and bloody cat and mouse game of espionage, thrust and counterthrust, layers within layers and plots within plots. Anton Gorodetsky is a Light Magician, a member of the Night Watch, and as world-weary a spy as ever fought any cold war. In the three loosely connected stories within this novel he finds himself fighting the Dark Magicians of the Day Watch while trapped in the web of plans laid out by his own boss in the Night Watch – a magician not averse to treating his staff as pawns in a much larger and more lethal chess game than Anton or his peers can see. The first two stories are centered around Anton’s efforts to bring new members into the Night Watch, with varying and not altogether clear degrees of success, while the last one is more about his chafing at it all. Lukyanenko is particularly fascinated by the boundaries between good and evil, how compromises can turn bad without warning, and how consequences reverberate through complex systems of relationships – neither his Dark nor his Light are particularly pure. This is, apparently, the first of a series and perhaps I will seek out some of the following volumes.

After Alice (Gregory Maguire)

Gregory Maguire has made his living retelling the stories of others, giving a new spin to classic fairy tales and old novels alike, and here he offers his contribution to the literature on Alice in Wonderland even if the original Alice remains offstage for most of the book. Ada Boyce is Alice’s friend – a clumsy, misshapen girl in an iron brace – who at the beginning of the novel is sent out to the Clowd household with a jar of marmalade, as much to give comfort to a family grieving the death of Alice’s mother as to get Ada out from underfoot at home. She is pursued by Miss Armstrong, her prim governess, whom she does not like. She runs into Lydia, Alice’s sister, on the banks of the river. She falls into Wonderland, in pursuit of Alice. From there the story divides – sometimes we follow Ada as she wanders through the nonsensical world of Wonderland below, always just behind Alice, meeting many of the familiar characters from Lewis Carroll’s original. Maguire is an epigrammatical writer whose style suits the studied weirdness of such a place. And sometimes we move through the surface story, as Lydia and Miss Armstrong search for the two girls in an uneasy alliance of women who really don’t like each other. They end up at the Clowds’ house, where Charles Darwin is visiting along with his American friend Mr. Winters and an escaped American slave named Siam (the year seems to be the early 1860s), and while the stories never quite touch they do reflect on each other in the same kind of skewed way that a funhouse mirror has. It’s not a novel where much happens, but it is a story well told.

Living In Italy: The Real Deal (Stef Smulder)

For reasons that he explains but never quite makes clear, Stef Smulders and his husband Nico decided to move from their native Netherlands to the wine region of Oltrepó Pavese in northern Italy. Smulders was a graduate student in Pavia, unhappy with his lot, and the two of them fell in love with the area and decided they wanted to own a B&B there. Thus begins a long and generally entertaining story of their introduction to Italian culture – mostly the bureaucracy of government, the travails of contractors, and the ins and outs of getting to know their neighbors. Nothing comes easy or quickly in Italy – a country famous for wine, paperwork, inefficiency, and opinions – but they persist. They find a house that they can afford and plan to convert into their B&B. They find contractors. And they spend the next year working to get the contractors to do their jobs as they slowly acclimate to their new homes. They meet some lovely people along the way, and each short chapter is solidly written – you can tell this probably started out as a blog before being lightly edited into a self-published book, and somewhere along the line the original title (Surviving the Good Life, which remains for some reason emblazoned above the text on every right-hand page) gave way to the final one. As both an invitation and a warning for those thinking of moving to Italy, this is a fascinating and serviceable book. The B&B (“Villa i Due Padroni”) is apparently thriving, if the website given in the last chapter is to be credited, and good for them.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope (Claire North)

This is a story about memory, about a woman who cannot be remembered in a digital age that cannot forget. It’s a story about privacy, because if nobody can remember you then you are on your own but the app knows everything about you. And it’s a story about what happens when these things collide. People started forgetting about Hope Arden when she was a teenager – first her friends, then her teachers, then her family, until nobody knew she existed. If you met her you’d find her charming, and when she walks away and comes back a minute later you’d find her charming again with no memory of having ever seen her before. It’s hard to have a normal life when nobody remembers you exist, so Hope makes her way as a thief. The app Perfection is all the rage. It monitors everything about you, from your health to your spending habits to your internet browsing and your workout routine and it makes suggestions for you to follow until you are Perfect. You get points for following the suggestions and rewards for accumulating points. When the story opens Hope is at a major promotional event for Perfection, about to steal jewels off a princess’ neck, mostly it has to be said out of anger for what the app did to someone she liked. From this spins out an international tale of covert action, mind control, and late stage capitalism. She meets Byron and Gaugin, two operatives who may or may not be on opposite sides now but with a long history between them. She plays cat and mouse with Luca Evard, an Interpol agent who is trying to catch a thief. She gets to know the developer of Perfection – a woman being used by her brother, the marketing genius who made it what it is. And in the end Hope is the unknown force, there but leaving no trace in memory. The plot is intricate but fairly single-layer – as with all of the Claire North books I’ve read so far the cross-currents that make it complex and give it depth come from the tone and the characters themselves. North has a gift for creating people and situations that draw you in and are suffused with a thoughtful sort of melancholy, even as she provides action and dialogue to move the plot forward. Unlike Byron, Gaugin, or Luca, you will remember Hope Arden.

Day Watch (Sergei Lukyanenko)

The sequel to Night Watch is also presented as three separate stories, though the links between them are perhaps tighter than in the original. Here the stories are presented from the perspective of the Day Watch – the Dark Others who are the counterbalance to the Light Others of the Night Watch whom we met in the first book – and once again Lukyanenko’s overarching theme that Light and Dark are harder to separate than most people think comes to the fore. The Dark Others are similar in many ways to their opponents, though with a strong and cheerfully amoral libertarian streak that prizes individual freedom over community responsibilities in much the same casually cruel way that actual libertarians do, and where the boundaries between Light and Dark exist is an open question. The first story follows Alisa Donnikova, a Dark witch whom we met through Anton Gorodetsky’s eyes in Night Watch. Drained of her power, she is sent to a children’s camp for rest and recuperation, where she meets Igor Teplov, a colleague of Anton’s whom we’ve already met as well. They have forgotten each other and they fall in love, with results that will echo through the next two stories. The second story centers on Vitaly Rogoza, a Dark magician who cannot remember who he is or why he finds himself in Moscow. Linked to this is a talisman of immense power – Fafnir’s Talon – brought into Moscow by four Finnish stooges. Behind the scenes the leaders of the Day Watch and Night Watch – Zebulon and Gesar – play out their multilevel strategies, and in the third story the analogy to a chess game where the pieces are moved about, sacrificed, and taken off the board by masters unconcerned with the fates of individual pieces is made explicit. Igor is being brought to trial in front of the Inquisition in Prague. Anton will be the Light counsel. Edgar, a Dark magician, will be his opposition. But the intrigues and countermoves by Gesar and Zebulon run deep and in the end who can say who won?

Twilight Watch (Sergei Lukyanenko)

This final installment of the original Night Watch trilogy (there have been three more books since) is built like the others – three connected stories around a theme, in this case the question of whether an ordinary human can be converted into an Other. While the stories are told from Anton Gorodetsky’s perspective – the series is essentially the story of his maturing within the Night Watch – the lines between him and his opponents in the Day Watch and the Inquisition which keeps the peace between them are getting ever more blurred. The first story introduces the idea of turning humans into Others with a long undercover operation that sees Anton posing as a businessman in a largely empty (and mostly unfinished) luxury apartment complex after a series of worryingly specific warning letters arrives at the door of all three agencies. In the second, Anton and his family – his far more powerful wife Svetlana and their even more powerful toddler Nadiya – are vacationing in a small town outside of Moscow when he is called to investigate an unregistered witch in the nearby forest, an investigation which will trigger the final story involving the long-lost book with the specific instructions for how to turn humans into Others. This last story will see all three agencies put aside their differences briefly and send Anton hurtling across central Russia by train in search of a killer. Lukyanenko is a good writer who has been gifted with an excellent translator, and these are a lot of fun to read.

Santa Olivia (Jacqueline Carey)

There is a small town on the US/Mexican border that used to be called Santa Olivia, after its patron saint – a young girl in a blue dress. That was before the plague, before the US Army took over and isolated the town behind walls and patrols, before the shadowy El Segundo began launching raids on the town, before everyone living there was stripped of their American citizenship and treated as property, before the town was renamed Outpost. Into this comes a man who is not a man – a genetically modified warrior who can’t fear. He stays for a bit and then he goes, and this is not his story. This is a story about his daughter, Loup Garron, who grows up in Outpost with her mother and brother and eventually is orphaned and sent to live at the local church with the other orphans of the town. It’s about growing up with injustice and harassment and trying to fight back. It’s about being different from everyone around you and having to hide yourself to fit in. It’s about love and loss. And it’s about boxing. The base commander is a big fan of the sport and he promises a ticket out of Outpost to any local who can defeat the Army champion. It’s rigged, of course, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. Eventually, as you know pretty much from the moment she’s introduced, Loup will get in the ring herself. In many ways this is a simple coming of age story, with a grizzled old coach, a circle of friends, a sparring partner who starts as something of a jerk and remains that way though with depths revealed and a sort of friendship born, and a love interest. You can’t help but cast Clint Eastwood as the coach in your mind. But Carey’s writing is lush and it pulls you through the story, and the extra edge of Loup’s genetic inheritance moves it ever so slightly away from the reality we know today. This is the first half of a duology and it ends pretty much exactly in the middle of the story – a natural stopping point but one that you know isn’t the conclusion. Loup will be back, and Outpost will not be the same for it.

Saints Astray (Jacqueline Carey)

This picks up immediately after the events of Santa Olivia – it’s really the second half of one very long book – with Loup and Pilar having made it out of Outpost and careening across Mexico to meet some of the others like Loup and find out what the real story behind her kind actually is. From there it spins out into a globe-trotting tale of training, action, and justice, though really this is an R-rated YA novel focused on the coming of age of the protagonist, Loup Garron. She and Pilar become security guards for a high-profile international firm and we follow them through their training and their first few jobs. They end up working for a British pop band on an international tour. And in the end they return to the United States – a nation hollowed out by pandemic and rendered an international pariah by corruption and authoritarianism, which is pretty spot on for a book series published in 2009 and 2011 – in order to see justice done and correct the wrongs done to them. It is, in a sense, a fairly straightforward story – most of the characters are decent people underneath, even “Miguel fucking Garza” as he is invariably referred to, and it’s a single-layer plot of situation-crisis-resolution-repeat until you get to the end and Loup and Pilar return to Santa Olivia as you always knew they would. Carey’s writing pulls you along and for all the grim warnings it really is a rather upbeat and uplifting tale of justice served and humanity recognized.

The Office of Mercy (Ariel Djanikian)

Utilitarianism is a moral theory that, boiled down to its most basic principle, states that whatever increases happiness and reduces suffering is the right thing to do. This sounds good on first hearing, but if you follow the logic far enough it can produce some absolute horrors, particularly when it focuses on the idea of reducing suffering as the ultimate good and the judgments that follow from that decision. It can also produce some fairly didactic stories such as this debut novel. It’s set in a future North America where a crisis (not really explained until the end, and even then only briefly) has led to the creation of underground cities known as America-[Number]. America-Five, where this story is set, is the easternmost of them, the lower numbered Americas having met their sad and largely unexplained fate earlier. The people in these cities are effectively immortal, dedicated to a life of peace without suffering, and entirely confined to their cities. The Tribes outside they regard with a mixture of fear and pity because their lives seem to be nasty, brutish and short, and in an effort to reduce their suffering the cities feel it is entirely ethical to “sweep” the Tribes out of existence – to kill them as a way to end their suffering. Into this comes Natasha, who works in the Office of Mercy tasked with that mission. She has her doubts, and when she goes Outside on one of the sweeps and actually meets some of the Tribespeople she will begin to act on them. There’s a lot of explanation in this novel – telling rather than showing – and at times it verges on breathless romance novel territory, though the story plays out as a tragedy rather than the heroic adventure that so many post-apocalyptic stories do. This is an interesting idea that really needed another draft.

Lovely War (Julie Berry)

It’s 1942 and the Greek gods are at odds with each other in New York City. Hephaestus has caught his wife Aphrodite, the goddess of love, in a tryst with Ares, the god of war, and demands a trial. Instead, Aphrodite persuades him to let him tell a story – a story of James and Hazel from London, and Collette from Belgium, and Aubrey from New York, and how they meet and intertwine on the front lines of World War I. James is a soldier who sees Hazel – a pianist – at a dance shortly before he ships out to France in 1917. They spend a day together and fall helplessly in love and then are separated. Collette is a teenager when the war starts in 1914, caught in the brutality of the German assault on Belgium, one of the few survivors of her town. Aubrey, a black man from Harlem, is a jazz musician with big dreams and a confident smile that the virulent racism of the US cannot wipe from his face even as that racism is transferred unalloyed into the training camps and battlefields of France. It’s a story of love and race and war and death, and what it means to be human and how that is different from what it means to be a god. Berry writes with a loving melancholy and if, as is said, we are but playthings of the gods, perhaps that is not such a bad thing after all.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It (KJ Parker)

I didn’t realize when I bought this that it was effectively the sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, though both books are perfectly fine as stand-alone novels as there is very little overlap in characters or story. This one is set not too long after the end of Sixteen Ways. The siege of the City is still going on, and Notker is just trying to make a living as an actor and an impressionist – he does a pretty good job of imitating most of the movers and shakers in power, actually, particularly Lysimachus, the man who has actually been running things for the last time being. This, it turns out, is deemed a useful skill by a number of powerful men when Lysimachus is killed by a trebuchet stone and a replacement ruler is needed to keep the city going. But once in power – and eventually he will, in actual legal fact, become the new Emperor – Notker starts to get ideas of his own about how to run things. Throw in Hodda as his canny and unprincipled girlfriend (much to her dismay) and a rotating cast of fools, villains, heroes (generally short-lived) and useful tools, and you’ve got yourself a story of power and how it is used and shaped by those who wield it. As with Sixteen Ways, this is essentially the story of a charming rogue thrust into a position of power way above his station who uses his native intelligence and schemer’s cunning to make the best of things. Parker – the name Tom Holt uses for his less comic material – is a phenomenal writer and this is a lot of fun to read, even as you know it’s not going to end well. You just don’t know how it won’t end well, and that is enough suspense to keep anyone interested in a book this well written.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Books Read in 2020 - Part II

In Part 2 of the 2020 list, we arrive at the Christopher Moore Project. Moore has been one of my favorite authors for a long time now – there isn’t a better writer of comic dialogue working today, as far as I can tell, and his stories often have an oddly melancholy undertone that I appreciate. At the height of the first wave of the pandemic last year I decided that what I needed to get me through the plague was to read (or reread) all of Moore’s novels, in order. And you know? It helped.

These are those novels.


Practical Demonkeeping (Christopher Moore)

Not much happens in Pine Cove, California, which is why it’s a perfect place for a lot of things to happen. Catch is a demon from Hell, sly, murderous, and only vaguely controlled by Travis, a former seminarian still paying for a seventy-year-old crisis of faith. Travis and Catch will come to Pine Cove and there they will get enmeshed in a whole lot of other lives: Jenny, about to divorce her loser of a husband Robert. Augustus Brine, a zen-like old man who owns a bait and tackle shop. Detective Rivera, still looking for the low-level criminal who ran into Catch first (a quest doomed to failure, given the outcome of that meeting). Effrom and Amanda. The King of the Djinn. It’s a novel that displays all of what will become Christopher Moore’s trademarks – screwball action, laugh out loud funny dialogue, and an oddly melancholy streak underneath it all – and it makes a great starting place for a run through all of his books. It’s a dark time in the world and it’s good to find somewhere fun to escape into. After carefully setting up his dominos Moore lets them fall in one final burst, and the end is quietly satisfying.

Coyote Blue (Christopher Moore)

This is a story about identity and how it can be lost and how it can be found. It’s a story about the Trickster god and how he can be an agent of both chaos and redemption. And it’s a story about Samson Hunts Alone, full-blooded Crow Indian who is, at the opening of the novel, an insurance agent in Santa Barbara CA on the run from his past and living under the name Sam Hunter. Sam’s path will draw in Calliope, a rootless free spirit and the most beautiful woman Sam has ever seen; Pokey Wind Medicine, an old Crow shaman; and Minty Fresh, a seven-foot-tall black man working as a casino troubleshooter in Las Vegas. Sam will lose everything and gain everything, and in the end he becomes precisely who he was all along. The screwball action, funny dialogue, and melancholy streak are all here and it’s a thoughtful look at what makes someone who they are.

Bloodsucking Fiends (Christopher Moore)

There are strange things afoot in San Francisco in the mid-1990s. On her way home from work one night Jody becomes a vampire – a traumatic process that leaves her with more questions than answers. Tommy came to San Francisco to be a writer but works the night shift at the local Safeway, turkey bowling with his crew (affectionately known as the Animals). The Emperor and his men – a large dog named Lazarus and a smaller one named Bummer – live on the streets of the city, keeping watch over his subjects. Inspector Rivera (late of Pine Cove) is now working the homicide beat in the big city with his partner, Cavuto. And an older, more evil vampire – the one who turned Jody – is out there, wreaking havoc and toying with them all. All of these characters will bounce off of one another in odd and entertaining ways and it all comes together with a fair amount of action and violence, snappy dialogue, and confusion on all parts. It’s a fun, if sometimes rather darkly comic, look at a time and place.

The Island of the Sequined Love Nun (Christopher Moore)

Tucker Case is a world-class screwup whose only talent is being able to fly pretty much any plane he wants, unless of course he’s consorting with a hooker in the cockpit which never ends well as far as successful flying is concerned. This gets him into a pile of trouble with his boss (Mary Jean Dobbins – a clear analogue to the Mary Kay cosmetics boss and not somebody to cross) and eventually sent to the tropical Pacific island of Alualu for a job flying for a shady doctor. There’s a cross-dressing navigator named Kimi; a talking fruitbat named Roberto; an island full of natives worshipping their cargo cult founder (the ghost of a WWII bomber pilot named Vincent, who appears every so often for a chat) – natives who include the chief, a disgraced old cannibal, and the ritual prostitute (a running theme, it seems); an expat journalist; and an ice queen masquerading as the Sky Princess. From there it gets weird. Moore is not afraid to have awful things happen to his characters or to go places where those with more delicate sensibilities might fear to tread, and he keeps the action moving along fairly briskly. This is mostly screwball comedy and darkly funny action, with a surprisingly serious moral center but without much of the melancholy streak that gives most of his novels their depth, and it carries you right along with Tuck’s redemption arc.

The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove (Christopher Moore)

It’s been ten years since the demon Catch wrought havoc on Pine Cove, CA, and the town has settled back into the rhythms of life in a tourist destination. But this year things will heat up again. A woman will be found dead. A bluesman will find a job down at The Head of the Slug bar. The town psychiatrist will take everyone off of their medications at once. And an ancient Sea Beast will come ashore in search of prey and as a side effect ramp up the libidos of the humans living there. Many of the residents of Pine Cove – those who survived Practical Demonkeeping, anyway – are back and a few new ones are added, and Moore spins his story out well. There’s corruption and redemption and no small amount of tragedy played as comedy, and who can say who is crazy and who isn’t?

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (Christopher Moore)

This is without question the funniest book I have ever read. It’s where Moore’s gift for comic dialogue emerges as a national treasure (the rough draft of the Sermon on the Mount alone is worth the price of the book) and where his ability to tell a story that will keep you laughing and make you think at the same time is perhaps clearest of all of his books. It rests on the premise that Joshua ben Joseph of Nazareth – Jesus – was precisely who he said he was: Son of God, Savior, Messiah, all that, but his friends were, well, not so exalted. Particularly Levi ben Alphaus, generally known as Biff. Biff has been reincarnated and stashed in a hotel room in the US somewhere, along with a fairly dimwitted angel named Raziel and a pile of paper and given the task of telling the Gospel from his perspective to fill out the missing years. He starts with how he and Joshua (and Mary Magdalene) met as children, and he fills in the long gap in the Gospels with a story of traveling to the East to revisit the three wise men who came to the stable to mark Jesus’ birth. There are a great many laugh out loud moments, and a surprising number of poignant ones as well, and in the end there is the story because ultimately that’s all there ever is. I’ve given this book to evangelicals and atheists alike and they have all loved it. It’s one of my favorites.

Fluke: or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings (Christopher Moore)

This was the first Christopher Moore novel I read, and it is in some ways the weakest, perhaps because the plight of the whales is something that Moore seems genuinely to care about a great deal and it’s hard to write comedy about things like that. The plot revolves around a team of whale researchers in Hawaii – earnest Nate, mysterious Amy, loyal Clay, their benefactor The Old Broad, and a blonde Rasta surfer dude named Kona who started out as Preston Applebaum from New Jersey – and their work on humpback whales. Eventually they find themselves targeted because of their research, with their work destroyed and their boat scuttled, and from there it gets strange, as you would expect in something written by Christopher Moore. There are flashes of humor and melancholy, some fascinating world-building that takes you to some unexpected places, and a whole lot of weird by the time you get to the end, but this is a surprisingly straightforward novel once you accept its plot and subject matter. It’s well written and it moves you right along, but it’s not the comic experience that his previous or later books are.

The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror, Version 2.0 (Christopher Moore)

One of the things that becomes obvious when you read these books in publication order is that Moore likes to have characters from earlier books make appearances in later ones. This is more than just continuity of place, though in this last (for the moment) installment of the Pine Cove books you do see many of the usual denizens of that demon-haunted town – Theo Crow and Molly Michon, Mavis down at The Head of the Slug, Val Riordan, and so on. But Tucker Case and Roberto the Fruit Bat show up from The Island of the Sequined Love Nun, as does Raziel (the angel of the title) who was last seen in a hotel room in Lamb. The demon Catch does not return to where we first met him, perhaps because he’d had his second appearance already in Lamb. It’s coming on Christmas in Pine Cove and Dale Pearson – explicitly described as the town’s “evil developer” – is, as usual, being an ass toward his ex-wife, Lena Marquez. When he takes that a step too far she accidentally kills him with a shovel and thus one leg of the plot is established. The annual Lonesome Christmas Party at the old church by the graveyard full of the recently dead who still talk to each other is the second leg. And when Raziel decides to grant a Christmas wish in the most boneheaded way possible, the triad is complete and the plot can now stand on its own. Moore is back to his usual standard of comic dialogue and creeping vulgarity and it all ends with a flurry of action – as well as an epilogue written for Version 2.0 that takes the story just that much further – and in the end the scarred town of Pine Cove and its citizens move forward to another day.

A Dirty Job (Christopher Moore)

This is my second-favorite of Christopher Moore’s books, after Lamb, and it brings Moore’s storytelling back to San Francisco. Charlie Asher is about to become a father. He’s a decent sort – a Beta Male, which is an idea Moore has a great deal of fun with – and the owner of a second-hand shop with his two employees, goth girl Lily and ex-cop Ray. But when his wife dies giving birth to their daughter Sophie and he can actually see Minty Fresh (late of Coyote Blue) come for her soul, Charlie will find a new vocation as a Death Merchant, a phrase used by Minty to describe someone tasked with collecting the souls of the recently departed and ensuring that they find their way to people who need them for their next incarnation. There’s a lot of Buddhism in this book, both explicit and implied, and a fair number of familiar faces – along with Minty Fresh, there’s Detective Rivera and his partner Cavuto, the Emperor and his troops, and a cameo in Asher’s store from the modern vampire Jody. It takes Charlie a while to come to grips with his new job and until he does the Forces of Darkness advance on the bright world Above. For a while he settles into it and they retreat, and then it all goes awry again and it will be up to Charlie Asher, Beta Male, to make things right in the end. The comic dialogue is ramped up a level here as is the underlying melancholy of the story, and that combination is hard to beat.

You Suck: A Love Story (Christopher Moore)

This story picks up pretty much where Bloodsucking Fiends left off, with Jody as the newly minted vampire in San Francisco and Tommy as her loyal minion. Jody has managed to get out of the bronze statue in which she was imprisoned at the end of Bloodsucking Fiends, though the much older vampire Elijah Ben Sapir has not. She will eventually turn Tommy into her own new vampire, and from there it all spirals out of control. The Animals took all of the money they got and spent it all on a blue hooker in Las Vegas, and now she and they are back in San Francisco ready for more mayhem. Detectives Rivera and Cavuto are looking into things, as is the Emperor. And now Jody has a new minion – Abby Normal, a melodramatic goth teen who is, if reviews are to be trusted, one of the most popular characters in Moore’s books but who I find rather grating. From there the characters bounce off each other in increasingly strange ways, and at one point the scene from A Dirty Job where Jody comes into Asher’s store gets retold from her perspective, which was fun to read. It ends more or less back where we started in some ways, though not in others. It’s an enjoyable ride.

Fool (Christopher Moore)

I’ve always loved books that retold stories from different points of view and this is essentially Christopher Moore’s version of King Lear as told by the jester, an orphan named Pocket. It is, as Moore warns the reader before the story even gets started, “a bawdy tale” full of “gratuitous shagging, murder, spanking, maiming, treason, and heretofore unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity,” a warning the reader is advised to take seriously. The story follows the basic outline of Lear with some other Shakespearean references thrown in (the Weird Sisters from Macbeth play a large role, for example) and with Pocket’s story evolving alongside events. Pocket is a horndog, a bon vivant, a schemer and a man not to be trifled with, and when both Lear and Edmund of Gloucester trifle with him and his apprentice – a lumbering halfwit named Drool – there will be chaos. Like Moore’s best novels it’s full of comic dialogue and action with the underlying melancholy that sets those off into high relief. Pocket is an engaging character, as are Kent, Cordelia and, surprisingly Goneril and Regan as well. There are ghosts and sexual adventures and sexual adventures with ghosts and it all wraps up neatly if not precisely as Shakespeare intended, and that’s part of the fun really.

Bite Me: A Love Story (Christopher Moore)

The final installment of the Vampires in San Francisco trilogy (so far) is told in large part by Abby Normal (nee Allison Green, self-labeled as Countess Abigail Von Normal), which for most of Moore’s readers would apparently be a selling point but for me was a bit of a chore. But the story moves along nicely and you do also hear it from other characters (Rivera and Cavuto emerging as my favorite voices) and in the end it wraps up the story nicely in a way that makes sense and does justice to the characters. Chet – the large and unfortunately shaved cat who was turned into a vampire at the end of You Suck has created an army of vampire cats that is wreaking havoc on San Francisco and needs to be dealt with. Into this maelstrom stride Abby, Foo Dog (aka Steve Wong, Abby’s boyfriend), the Emperor, the Animals, Rivera, Cavuto, and eventually Jody, Tommy, and some of the Old Ones – vampires turned by Elijah long before San Francisco even existed who wish to clean up this situation by eliminating the cats and everyone who knows anything about them, including all of our heroes – and the result is a gloriously chaotic mess full of danger and all of the comic dialogue one hopes for in Moore’s novels. Lily from A Dirty Job also makes a cameo appearance, as does Kona from Fluke (now older and rather more tragic in a way) – it’s fun to see the characters evolve as the stories intertwine. My favorite new character was Okata, an elderly Japanese swordsman who appears at key moments of the plot and whose backstory provides much of the melancholy of the novel.

Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art (Christopher Moore)

Out of all of Christopher Moore’s novels this is the only one that really isn’t a comedy in the modern sense of the term, even if the subtitle would give that impression to the unwary reader. Oh, it’s got funny bits – the man can’t not be funny when he writes and there are some joyous passages of dialogue in here – but in essence this is a meditation more than anything else. It’s a story about the color blue, about love and time, and about the price one pays for art. Lucien starts this story as a young boy in Montmartre, the artist neighborhood that overlooks Paris. His family owns a bakery and he is learning the craft at the same time that he is discovering a talent for painting – something that is recognized and nurtured not only by his father but also by the Impressionists who live in Montmartre. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the major characters here, as are Pisarro, Renoir, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh (both Vincent and his brother Theo), and Seurat. Whistler, Degas, and others make appearances. All of the artists are plagued by The Colorman and his assistant – a beautiful woman who can inhabit other bodies and who is instrumental in the creation of sacré blue, the most expensive pigment in the world. It’s a story that is mostly set in the late 1800s, with flashbacks to the Franco-Prussian War, medieval France, and the dawn of human culture as well. Art has a cost, and these painters and their models will pay it until something changes, and in the end something does though how much is an open question. It’s a much quieter book than his usual style, in some ways, and a more thoughtful one. I’ve read this before, but between then and now I have since been to Montmartre and it was interesting to follow along and remember where I’d walked.

The Serpent of Venice (Christopher Moore)

Pocket is back and this time he is romping through high medieval Italy in a story that combines Othello, The Merchant of Venice, The Cask of Amontillado, and Marco Polo, among other things. Brought low by his enemies after his happy ending in Fool, left for dead in a bricked over room, he escapes and plots an elaborate revenge on Iago and Antonio (the villains of the two Shakespeare plays, here working together) with the help of Jessica (Shylock’s daughter), Nerissa (Portia’s maid), Emilia (Iago’s wife), his lumbering assistant Drool, and Jeff the monkey. This vengeance will take him from Venice to Corsica and Genoa and back, and in the end it all works out, more or less, though maybe not how you would have thought it would. The book is a return to comic form for Moore, after the more thoughtful meditations of Sacré Bleu, with slapstick, violence, murder, no small amount of vulgarity and sharp-witted dialogue, and a running joke about the Chorus – set off in red type – whose commentary is always somehow audible to the characters themselves, none of whom appreciate it. And lurking in the background is the serpent of the title – a creature who is more than might appear at first glance, which is, after all, saying something.

Secondhand Souls (Christopher Moore)

It’s odd in a way that this sequel to A Dirty Job is probably Moore’s most mature work, combining the meditative thoughtfulness of Sacré Bleu, the melancholy of Coyote Blue (a book explicitly namechecked in the text – you forget how long Minty Fresh has been part of Moore’s story universe, though in many ways he and Rivera are the longitudinal threads holding it together, which is pretty good for two relatively minor characters) and the vulgar slapstick comedy of, well, most of his books. When the book opens Charlie is still one of the Squirrel People, most of the happily-ever-afters of A Dirty Job have run aground on the reefs of ordinary life, and Sophie may or may not still be the Luminatus. The entire model of how souls are transferred is shifting, and all of the San Francisco crew are going to get caught up in the chaos that inevitably results from such changes. The usual suspects are here – Charlie and Audrey, Lily, Rivera and Cavuto, Minty Fresh, Cassie and Jane, Sophie, the Emperor and his men, Mrs. Korjev and Mrs. Ling – as well as a few new characters – Mike Sullivan and Concepción, Lemon Fresh, and an Irish banshee with a soft heart and a taser. There are some really funny bits in here (a long baseball story made me laugh out loud) and some incredibly poignant ideas of life, death, love, and family. I originally got my copy as an Advanced Reader Edition so there may have been a couple of changes to the final novel, but it was good as it was.

Noir (Christopher Moore)

One of the things that you can trust with Moore’s novels is that when he tells you something in the frontispiece it’s going to be accurate. Fool was, in fact, vulgar – joyously so – and this novel, set in San Francisco in 1947, features characters speaking and acting in ways that modern Americans would probably find at least cringeworthy and at most offensive, but that’s accurate to the period and so be it. It’s an enjoyable caper of a novel – “perky noir,” as Moore says in the afterward – involving a regular guy (Sammy), a dame in trouble (Stilton, often simply referred to as “the Cheese”), a wide array of supporting characters (Eddie Moo Shoes, Sammy’s Chinese-American friend; Sal Gabelli, the corrupt schemer who employs Sammy at his bar; Lone Jones, a friendly giant of an African American man; Myrtle, Stilton’s friend; Jimmy Vasco, who runs the lesbian drag club on the other side of town; Pookie O’Hara, the corrupt cop; a pile of mysterious government agents; a horrible kid; and the subject, who becomes more important as the novel progresses), all of whom add up to a long sad story of crime, misunderstandings, love, and snakes. The characters mostly speak in a flat mid-century staccato that, despite the California setting and the fact that Sammy is from Idaho, you can only hear in your mind as the sort of Brooklynese in which the word “mook” would feature prominently – something that Moore achieves in part by assiduously avoiding contractions. There is violence and slang, corruption and hidden machinations of power, all in the unsettling aftermath of WWII, and in the end Sammy and the Cheese are what they are. Moore did a video interview during the quarantine phase of 2020 where someone asked if he would revisit any of his other books for sequels now that Pocket’s story has hit three installments (see below), and he said that if any of them it would be this one. That would be swell, as Sammy would say.

Shakespeare for Squirrels (Christopher Moore)

And so the Christopher Moore Project comes to an end with his newest book, volume three of Pocket’s saga. This one finds our intrepid fool adrift in the middle of what is vaguely recognizable as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though with considerably more shagging, vulgar humor and, as noted, squirrels. Rescued by the fairy Cobweb after washing up on the shore near something vaguely like medieval Athens, Pocket soon finds himself caught in a web of intrigue involving Greeks, Amazons, fairies, goblins, clueless lovers, halfwitted players, a half-assed man, and an irritating spectre named Rumour, and only through wit, guile, bloody-minded nerve, and no small amount of innuendo and shagging can our hero emerge (mostly) intact. Moore sets himself up for another volume in Pocket’s story at the end of the book, should he wish to return to it, but for the moment we bid our character and our author adieu.