The train that is being run on us named 2020 comes to another stop with this month’s WAWR. Read a book, or don’t. I’m a blog post not a cop.
Donald Hall – Romanian Furrow Donald Hall was feeling disaffected during the interwar period and sought out the pastoralism he saw as in decline in Western Europe and ended up hanging out in Romania. Hall was a poet and some of his descriptions can be overly poetical, but overall it’s a fascinating travelogue with some quality shitting on Bolsheviks near the end when he heads north. I had to pull down my cope of Anisoara Stan’s The Romanian Cook Book to figure out what mamaliga was (it sounds like polenta to me). I could call it a wordy British elegiac travelogue of a rapidly disappearing way of life, but that doesn’t really do it justice it *was* enjoyable, but I can’t quite put my finger on why.
Kevin Espiritu – Field Guide to Urban Gardening:How to Grow Plants, No Matter Where You Live Espiritu has a YouTube channel (Epic Gardening) which I find handy because he’s based in San Diego and is more concerned about shit bolting in the heat than about frost dates. He trained with Mel Bartholomew (Square Foot Gardening) at one point. Espiritu is enthusiastic and encouraging, but his book is much more a “Ok, I can do this!” guide to getting started than a deep dive on the topics he covers.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow Some part of me really wants to describe this as “American Gods, but in 1920s revolutionary Yucatán with a female protagonist” but while that’s really accurate, it does not capture this well-rendered bildungsroman. Also there’s a glossary in the back with all the Mayan and Nahuatl words used in the story. Recommended.
I can’t believe March is finally almost over! I’ve been working on The Adventures of a School-boy; Or the Freaks of Youthful Passion by James Campbell for what feels like months. I fear that it has awakened something inside of me.
I was made aware of the show on HBO, which prompted me to re-read The Plot Against America. It looked like an entertaining revisionist history when I bought it in 2004, and it was just sitting on my bookshelf next to other books I chose not to finish. It is a took me a while before I figured out what it was I didn’t like about it, but I did figure it out and maybe I’ll write a full review in June.
The short version is Charles Lindberg is an Un-American anti-semite president in the pocket of the Nazis. Hilarity ensues.
I grabbed one of SP’s books, Modus Operandi, and got hooked. It’s a guide for mystery writers to the ways crimes are committed and how they’re investigated. Example: Want to have an experienced arsonist cause a structure fire? Don’t have him “accidentally” leave a container of combustibles near an electrical outlet- oldest trick in the book (literally). You’ll find out how that is done, why only an amateur would do it, and why/how he’d be caught. I suppose I should be a bit worried that she’s been reading this and that the section on murder and mutilation appears well-thumbed…
Also in this month’s batch was the semi-delightful Prisoner’s Dilemma by the prolific William Poundstone. It’s ambitious- he tried to pack in a biography of John von Neumann, an introduction to game theory, and an overview of the Cold War into a single medium-sized book. It’s partially successful, but inevitably superficial. Nice job on the mechanics of running three themes at once, but ultimately, each comes off as very superficial.
Talk about truth in advertising. The Neverending Story NEVER. ENDS.
Finally I have read the tomeish Moby Dick, committing that worthy to memory and soul. Never having been assigned it in all my many, flailing years of schooling, it was up to me, striving to be a man of letters–letters! If you can imagine it!–to read it on my own, but lo, did I let it linger in my orbit of reference and quotation for nine and forty of my mortal years before embarking. A novel of words strung like pearls wrenched from lips and tongue of the noble oyster, it does contain you as you struggle to contain it. Dense as ship’s biscuit and more nourishing–God! God! My God! it does possess a man, but riddled it is, as the failing planking of the elderly chase boat to the deprecations of the South Sea worm, with plotholes both iota and immense, they swell like the sea before the Japan Typhoon, spinning off dissertations eternal for the bespectacled junior scholar still privileged to comb his fleeing hairline.
And then I spent the rest of the month reading Remo Williams – The Destroyer books.
I went ahead and ordered the hardcover of Fall, or Dodge in Hell. I have been a very big fan of Neal Stephenson since I found a paperback copy of The Big U back when I was an undergrad. This is not his best work.
All the Stephenson complaints are dragged out and left in the reader’s way – long diversions, more tech than….you want, most likely. While starting strong – Stephenson even manages to weave in the end of Cryptonomicon into it. But the fascinating first 1/3rd to half of the book gives way to … too many changes and pretty much a lack of an ending. Now, that isn’t always fair – the end of Cryptonomicon was justly vague. The end of the Baroque Cycle was a comfortable sigh of good bye. But this…felt rushed, forced and somewhat…”so what?”
Another warning flag went up. In Seveneves, Stephenson looked like he was starting to go a bit “John Scalzi” Start relatively politics free, or even libertarian-ish. End up with a craving for… Top. Men. Who, with wonderful tech that marches on..will take care of all. He also throws many and giant pile-drivers at stupid flyover hick land, with a couple of gentle love taps at TEAM BLUEIA. That just helps sour what started out intriguing and ended up “meh”.
Wait until the library reopens to get this one.
I got an e-reader which has greatly improved the reading experience for my old eyes. Highly recommend. I’ve read more in the past two weeks than I did in the preceding year.
Who Goes There? by legendary scifi author and editor John W Campbell, Jr. This novella is the basis for the various “thing” movies, most notably John Carpenter’s excellent 1982 movie “The Thing.” Campbell’s story is well-crafted and engaging. His descriptions of daily life at an 1938 Antarctic research station, as well as those of McReady, are vivid in the turgid fashion of the pulp magazines of the time. I was particularly fascinated by Campbell’s descriptions of the cutting-edge technology of the period, and what was expected to be just around the corner. Highly recommended for fans of classic horror and scifi.
The Coming of The Old Ones by the prolific Jeffrey Thomas. This is a collection of three Lovecraft mythos stories, two with contemporary settings, the third with an historical setting and a steampunk flavor. Thomas has a unique take on the mythos while including elements of traditional canon. This work is of interest to fans of the mythos, but lacks general appeal.
This month I have three books to recommend. All three books are set in Saudi Arabia. The Ruins of Us, by Keija Parssinen, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel and Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris.
The Ruins of Us deals with a woman who grew up in Saudi Arabia as an oil company brat, then returned when she marries a Saudi man. It explores what happens when the marriage collapses, and what happens to children trying to navigate two worlds.
Eight Months on Ghazzah Street explores the expat experience.
Lastly, Finding Nouf is a murder mystery set in Saudi Arabia and the main character is a Saudi woman who must navigate the restrictions on women to solve the crime.
All three are written by women. The Ruins of Us and Finding Nouf are both written by oil company brats. All three are very different books, but I think they are all linked by the pervasive sense of paranoia that permeates all three. I enjoyed them all, for different reasons, because I think they offer a window into a very different culture.
I re-read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, really remembering it to be better than it is. Things that were radical and mind-blowing 25 years ago have become part of a broader genre in such a way that even though you know you’re seeing a radical twist on cyberpunk, its just not worth the asides. Pre-coronavirus it seemed like great book, and it just feels naive now.
I also worked my way through this Thrice-Named Man series. Set in the north-eastern corner of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the Empire’s slide, it follows a young man whose father is a Roman and (deceased) mother was a Scythian. All sorts of intrigues and wars play out, our hero wins the respect of the Goths, Romans, Scythians, and Huns. Its a fun romp that I can recommend. Once you get past some of the sheer improbability of one person doing all of the things the hero is involved with, its worth the read if you waste $10/month on Kindle Unlimited like I do. Another series in this genre I read since last I wrote here is Knight of Rome. In this case a young German is taken on as an auxillary by a tribune, and proceeds (again very improbably!) to be knighted by Augustus and used shamelessly by the great emperor in all sorts of adventures, mostly to the north and west.