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!

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