Monday, January 18, 2016

2016's first books

I don't have too much to say about 2016 so far. Perdita and I are now three for three in terms of Years Begun With Bronchitis (the first one she was in utero), which always sucks, but everyone is doing better now, thank goodness. Her naps are totally unpredictable in length these days, though, so I'm just going to try to pound these reviews out fast. Forgive the scattered thoughts.

Read so far in the new year:

Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869, by Stephen Ambrose. Unfortunately, this was a bit boring. Nowhere near as good as Ambrose's book about Lewis and Clark, which I think I will re-read, because there are only about 150 books on my to-read list OH GEEZ.

Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson. Atkinson is super-incredible and I am always excited about her new books and I have to psych myself up for, literally, years to read them. A little ways into this one I really thought I wouldn't be able to go on - child endangerment, dog endangerment, elder endangerment: you name a creature or concept for which you have fondness, Atkinson will break your heart over it. I got through, but the feeling of virtue overrode, if only by a hair, the feeling of enjoyment. The balance has always tipped slightly the other way with her books I've read before.

Thin Air, by Ann Cleeves. I am usually super-into Cleeves' Shetland mysteries, but this one was disappointing. For some reason it pulled out all the old offensive tropes about sexually (and/or professionally) confident women deserving death, and quiet mousy women who date attractive men deserving to be cheated on (or, in many cases [though not this one], the attractive man turns out to be the murderer, because only a homicidal sociopath would date a woman less physically attractive or socially gregarious than himself). There was just too much punishment going on here for it to be a good read.

London Falling, by Paul Cornell. Fifty pages into a foul-mouthed and utterly confusing police procedural with corrupt heroes (reminded me horribly of David Peace's "Red Riding" series; reading half of one of those books measurably diminished my quality of life), I ventured onto the internet to see why this book was popular. And every review said, "The first hundred pages are a nightmare but get through them. Do it." So I carried on. And HOLY COW. It turns into a crazy, designed-for-the-screen (in a good way) supernatural story that I could not put down. Super-gory and scary and drily, Britishly funny and so good. I have the movie / TV show totally cast in my head, and my only regret is that Idris Elba cannot play every role, and I sort of get the feeling Cornell regrets that too. Apparently there's a sequel? Super-psyched!

Copperhead, by Bernard Cornwell. Novel about the Civil War, and clearly researched up one side and down the other, but I really do not care what happens to a protagonist who was raised by abolitionists in Boston but decided to go fight for the South just to piss off his dad. Really. That's our hero. Every now and then he's like, "Well, yes, I suppose if I thought about it I would believe slavery is wrong, but I just don't think about it," and that's the end of it. How nice for you, sir!

The Lost Girls: The True Story of the Cleveland Abductions and the Incredible Rescue of Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus, by John Glatt. At the risk of writing a review shorter than the book's title, I can only say that Glatt is not a very interesting writer and so this book is just a timeline of abuse, and accordingly unpleasant.

The Devil's Making, by Sean Haldane. Historical mystery set in nineteenth-century Canada. The mystery part is kind of minor - you can tell immediately who the murderer is - and it's mostly about our narrator falling in love with a Native woman. The book walks dangerously close to "noble savage" territory in its characterizations, but I rather liked it.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson. Meh; Diana Preston's book about the Lusitania is much better. Larson assumes that his readers are total wusses: he has a big ol' Graphic Content warning about an autopsy section that is more decorously vague than anything post-Agatha Christie, and while he technically mentions that lifeboats were being dropped from the ship directly onto other lifeboats full of people, it's literally: "so-and-so saw that the lifeboat fell onto the one below it, and so turned away and tried to find another way off the ship". What happens to the people in either lifeboat is never discussed at all. This incident, in Preston's account, is handled so that I occasionally found myself going "AAAAA," for weeks after reading it. Which is what non-fiction about a horrible human tragedy SHOULD DO.

Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, by Gayle Tzemach Lemon. Well written and sad.

Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit. Quite good, of course, but it did that thing where reading essays by really angry women makes me feel horribly guilty for not being that angry myself. In cases where I have a form of privilege that the author does not (white or heterosexual, for example), then the guilt is not a bad thing, because with the awareness it brings, I can work harder at being an ally and at listening. But when the author is comparable to me and yet so much angrier, then the guilt feels unproductive. I don't want the only thing I can do to be "get angrier", when I already have so much rage and fear in me every time I think about the state of our world and the possible future for my daughter as a female in it. And... I don't have a tidy way to wrap up this train of thought, unfortunately. I think it's important for me to, without ignoring the bad in the world or not working to change it, remember the circle of hell devoted to those who were unappreciative of the amazing beauty and good in the world while they lived.

Through the Evil Days, by Julia Spencer-Fleming. So Spencer-Fleming seems to be trying to balance out her jerk heroine getting away with jerk behavior by having her hero behave like a big jerk too, in this installment of the series. Charming. And even though the heroine spends some of the book getting called on her selfish and irresponsible behavior, it still wraps up with her whole parish rallying behind her and declaring her the Best Pastor in the History of the World, which given her behavior (pregnant out of wedlock and been consuming drugs and alcohol heavily, including at work and during the first few months of said pregnancy) is one of the least believable tell-not-show-the-heroine's-perfection jobs I have ever read, and that is saying something.

I also re-read Moby-Dick this month, which took me a bit longer (a week) than it takes those charging through it down in New Bedford, but which was fun. More so than a lot of the new stuff I read, I realize as I look over this entry. Well, here's to better reading in 2016.

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