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Books 2014

I just realized I never did a books post for 2014! Ah well, better late than never.

Goodreads did this nice summary for me (click through the graphic for a full-size version which links to all the books), which shows that apparently I gave lots of books 4 stars and didn’t give any books only 1 star. I’d guess that this is probably more because I abandon what would be 1-star books pretty quickly rather than being an easy marker.

2014 books on Goodreads

The number is approximate; I’m sure there are a few books in there marked as abandoned and on the other side a few I didn’t bother to enter. Whatever. Reading is about pleasure, not accuracy.

Of particular note this year —

Fiction

  • Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things. I would never have guessed that Elizabeth Gilbert had this book in her and I dearly hope she continues along this line. A really lovely book; even her science was good (I can overlook some bad science in an otherwise good book, but in this case I didn’t have to).
  • Kate Atkinson, Life After Life. A nicely done conceit. Some readers feel the war parts were too long but I don’t share that criticism. Hard to put down.
  • Jonas Jonasson, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared. Starts off more or less straight but the humour and absurdity build and build. One of those ones to avoid reading on the subway if you don’t like giggling uncontrollably in public. There’s even an elephant. I give bonus points for elephants if they can be worked into the plot at all plausibly.
  • Jo Baker, Longbourn. Lovely and elegant.
  • Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened . Her wonky illustration style is so totally perfect.
  • The whole Peter Grant / Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovich. Supernatural police-procedural mysteries with dry humour, amusing pop culture references and a clear love for London. The last one had enormous invisible carnivorous unicorns. (Apparently I give bonus points for all manner of absurd large animals.)

Non-fiction

  • Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. All of Atul Gawande’s books are excellent, but this book about what does happen vs. what should happen in end-of-life situations is particularly good. Full of compassion and practicality.
  • Melanie Warner, Pandora’s Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal. Don’t be put off by the slightly hyperbolic title. There’s lots of interesting stuff in here about exactly how food is processed, and it’s an exploration, not a rant. Really interesting. It confirmed my hunch that most breakfast cereal is pretty weird stuff.
  • Katha Pollitt, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights . Just what it says on the tin. A good and very readable summary of some of the horrifying legal nonsense happening in the US and in what specific ways it’s problematic.
  • David Byrne, How Music Works . Insight into music theory as well as the workings of David Byrne’s singular creative process, and a well-thought-out summary of the pros and cons of the various ways to make money from music in the 2010s.
  • Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry, Last Chance to See: In the Footsteps of Douglas Adams. In 1990 Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine wrote the first Last Chance to See, which — in Douglas Adams’ inimitable style — explored various endangered species. For this follow-up book, Carwardine enlisted Stephen Fry, with predictably successful results. I’d offer some choice quotes but it would be hard to stop so I won’t start.

I’ll leave it at that. Feel free to plunder my Goodreads account for other ideas to read or avoid, depending on how your taste lines up with mine…

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Yep, that’s an accomplishment

I just got back home after being on the road for three weeks. I was in Jordan in the Syrian refugee camps, the United Nations, I was signing books in Norway and in Sweden and in Spain. And I got home, and waiting for me was the board copy of “Chu’s Day,” which they’d just gotten for really little kids. And I’m not sure I’ve ever been more proud holding this big cardboard thing where the pages are big and thick and you know the pages are going to get chewed on and sucked.

And your mind goes back 52 years, in my case, and you remember what the taste of chewing a board book is. I’ve made one of them. I’m a real author finally.

Neil Gaiman

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Books! 2013

Books! According to Goodreads, on which I track the majority of what I read, I read 114 books (give or take) in 2013. This year I diverted more time into reading magazines, since the TPL started carrying e-versions of such, and I also spent a chunk of time doing time-consuming things with my hands such as making quilts for various babies and re-learning to program and make things blink and flash and so on, which cut into my reading time. Such is life.

This year I also decided to do some reading in French since it would be Good For Me. My office is bilingual, so I hear a lot of French day to day and I work with French texts, but don’t spend a lot of time reading. I read roughly eight times faster in English, by my rough calculation, because I don’t have to spend so much time internalizing the tenses and sentence structures.

I thought the Harry Potter books in translation would be good since they’re not particularly babyish in vocabulary and I’m familiar enough with them in English that it might help me follow the plot adequately. I made it through the first three, which pleases me although it’s less than I’d hoped to read — but on the other hand I haven’t read a whole French novel since Les Liaisons Dangereuses about twenty years ago. My pace puts me in mind of the two-headed monster on Sesame Street, sounding out words:

Okay, well, not quite that bad, but I do look up two or three words per screen which does slow me down even beyond the slowness of reading in French to begin with. I assume I’ll get faster over time, just as I’ve gotten faster at doing our French newsletter at work. I used to have to put on French music while working on it; now I’m fine with whatever the iPod throws at me and I’m still much faster than I was before. (Yay for progress, I guess.) Bonus: excellent translations, such as Choixpeau for the Sorting Hat! And a magic wand is a baguette magique which gives me amusing if incorrect mental images of people wielding long sticks of bread. The TPL has the French ebooks should you want them and they’re usually not in great demand so you won’t have to wait long on hold (if at all).

Beyond that, my top recommendations from stuff I read this year:

Fiction

  • Kevin Wilson, The Family Fang. Some minor flaws in character and pacing, I thought, but overall I enjoyed the heck out of this book. It walked the fine line between pleasant absurdity and fardo with delicacy, and some of the art pieces were howlingly funny. Here’s a quote, which truly isn’t a spoiler for anything:

    The Fangs found Buster hiding under the van, conspicuously sparkling as he shifted his weight upon the uncomfortable asphalt. Mr. Fang knelt down and helped his son inch out into the open air. “What happened to the line from Milton?” Mrs. Fang asked. Buster flinched at his mother’s voice. “You were supposed to throw the crown away.”

    Buster looked up at his mother. “It’s my crown,” he said.

    “But you don’t want it,” Mrs. Fang said, exasperated.

    “Yes I do,” he replied. “I won it. I’m Little Miss Crimson Clover and this is my crown.”

    “Oh, Buster,” she said, pointing at the crown atop his head, “this is what we rebel against, this idea of worth based on nothing more than appearance. This is the superficial kind of symbol that we actively work against.”

    “It. Is. My. Crown,” Buster replied, almost vibrating with righteous anger, and Mrs. Fang allowed a slow smile to cross her face and unclenched her jaw. She gave in, nodded three times, and hopped into the van. “Okay,” she said, “you can redefine the crown if you want to.”

    It’s just not possible to read that on the subway and not giggle; it just isn’t.

  • Lois McMaster Bujold, the Vorkosigan Saga. I read the first eight books but stopped there only to enjoy still having more of them to read. I’ll be sad once I’ve run out.
  • Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men and its sequels (the Tiffany Aching series, embedded in the Discworld series). Really fun YA stuff with some pleasantly serious embedded themes. The audiobooks are excellent.
  • For fluff of a purer nature and a steampunkish bent, Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate books. I see numbers 2 (Changeless) and up on my list for 2013 — I must’ve read #1 in 2012. Very silly. Lots of supernatural beings and James-Bondish devices.
  • On a less fluffy note, Drew Hayden Taylor, Motorcycles & Sweetgrass. Sweet and very Anishnawbe. Don’t piss off the raccoons, yo.
  • G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen. Not a perfect book by any means but well worth the time.
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. The creepiness ebbs and flows (or more accurately, flows and then ebbs) with extreme precision.

Nonfiction

  • Howard Rheingold, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Very good advice, very low bullshit. I rarely disagree with Howard and this continues that trend.
  • Jessice Hiemstra, How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood, and Loss. Very good collection of stories from when things went south. I’ve had five miscarriages myself (very early ones, thank goodness) so I’m in the intended audience here, but even if you’re not it’s worth a read.
  • Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. Another hard read, and long, but thoughtful and covers territory I haven’t previously seen covered well for many of the exceptionalities he covers.
  • David Finkel, Thank You For Your Service, following recent US veterans through a variety of postwar re-integration experiences while fighting PTSD and other injuries. Just brutal, but well done.
  • Frank T. Vertosick Jr., When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales of Neurosurgery. Who can resist a gory brain surgery memoir?
  • David Stuckler, The Body Economic: Recessions, Budget Battles, and the Politics of Life and Death. Details the disastrous health (and economic) effects of cuts in social spending by governments. So often books of this type — books which have one major point to make — fall into the trap of making it too many times, using too many similar examples and losing readers’ interest. The Body Economic avoids this trap perfectly, giving enough diverse and well-supported examples to support its main thesis but ending before going overboard.

So that was 2013. Feel free to chuck me recommendations for 2014 here, on Goodreads or on FB.

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2012 books retrospective: Goodreads

Around April last year I thought it might be interesting to join one of the more interest-based forums out there since it’s a mode that’s really taking off. The cooking ones are scary and the craft ones are even more scary-intimidating so I picked Goodreads. Books, I can do.

If you’d asked me how many books I thought I read in a year I would’ve said I dunno, maybe thirty or forty. No. From late April through December 2012 alone I apparently read 104 books, and I know there are a few I didn’t enter for off-the-charts fluffiness or whatever other reason*. The number is neither here nor there but it’s interesting that my self-perception was so flawed. It’s inflated, I suppose, by the kids books and fluffy novels which take 2 hours max to read.

You can see from the list it’s a mix of kids/YA (so I can talk to my kid), fluffy fiction, non-fluffy fiction and nonfiction. More nonfiction than I would’ve guessed too, but then I had a lot of vacation in the summer in which to kick back and use brainpower for reading instead of actual functioning. Busy/stressful correlates directly with fluffiness of reading, IME.

I joined Goodreads because I was at a bit of a loss picking out new books and I thought Goodreads’ recommendation feature would help. Well, not so much. Even now that I’ve entered a few hundred books I find its recommendations banal at best even for the kids’ and YA books I read in hope of passing them on to the miss. Oh well.

On the other hand, the social aspect really is useful. Not so much being able to read strangers’ reviews, although that’s fun, but seeing friends’ list additions, ratings and reviews and being able to add mentioned books to one’s own to-read list with one click. That’s been very handy. I quickly got a sense of whose tastes approximated mine and whose differed wildly. Both are useful — the first to find things I’m nearly guaranteed to enjoy and the second for variety.

Looking at my ratings, the books I read in 2012 that I’d most recommend were:

  • The whole Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. I’ve read them before and have them all in paper but the audiobooks read by Simon Vance are wonderful. You just think you’re not interested in early-19th-century sea intrigues. Trust me, you are in fact interested.
  • In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs. Short and perfect.
  • The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear by Seth Mnookin. An excellent takedown of the whole absurd autism/vaccine hoax.
  • For those of us who harbour a hostile and/or xenophobic tendency, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim books. Great, hostile, violent, gory fun.
  • Anne Patchett’s Bel Canto. I was less a fan of her more recent book State of Wonder but Bel Canto was lovely.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. People who seemed to take this as a serious tale gave it bad reviews but it’s very, very funny.
  • Doppler by Erlend Loe. Another one for the xenophobes out there, and again very very funny. As in don’t read it on the subway unless you don’t mind giggling helplessly in public kind of funny.
  • Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe. A good summary of the issues and entertainingly written.
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. All extroverts must read this book immediately. Introverts are welcome to read it at their leisure.
  • Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines his Former Life on Drugs by Marc Lewis. Really well done and thorough descriptions of what various drugs feel like, and excellent science too to back it up.
  • Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. Yet more evidence that going walkabout can be surprisingly curative. Anyone who’s ever spent any significant time in the woods, who’s physically run away from a dead relationship or who has properly hated a pair of hiking boots will recognize something in this. It would be good to read alongside Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, I think.
  • And finally, Les Misérables. Victor Hugo, of course. Even in translation the language was so lovely it really made me wish my French was up to reading the original.

And now on to 2013! If you’re on Goodreads feel free to friend me; the more the merrier.


* No, I did not read that 50 Shades of Grey book. It sounded ghastly.

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Yup

A softer world

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Dear publishers: No.

At dinner the other night a number of people were surprised to hear of the absurd phenomenon of digital (and DRM’d to boot) books being more expensive than print versions — not just paperbacks, but hardcovers. So here’s one example.

This looks like an interesting book. A bunch of folks I know on Goodreads have read it and rated it highly. I feel like it’s the sort of book that might be worth throwing money at, so I add it to my queue and off I go to look up the Kindle edition, prepared to buy.

Here’s a screenshot from Amazon from sometime in June.

$19.16? Is the publisher crazy? When I could buy the hardcover, with its lack of DRM and other nonsense, for ~$17.00?

But am I going to buy a huge heavy hardcover book when I set out to buy a weightless ebook in the first place? No, I am not. I doubt anyone would. If I wanted a hardcover I would have bestirred my butt to buy it from the store down the street. But I do not want the hardcover, because it is heavy and annoying and then I have to find shelf space for it once I’m done with it.

You know what happens in this sort of case? Every single time?

That’s right. I shrug, then I add myself to the end of the hold list at the library. I’ll read it in 397 holds (plus mine = 398) / 39 copies x 3 weeks = ~30 weeks when it turns up. Fine. I can wait. There are plenty of other books to read in the meantime.

I will not, on principle, pay more for pixels — especially DRM’d pixels — than I will for a physical book. And I will also not go out and buy a physical book simply because the electronic copy has been artificially made more expensive. For me, pricing ebooks to exceed the cost of a physical book will, 100% of the time, equal a lost sale.

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In Which I Read Stuff on Fancy Modern Devices: Fiction

So, yes, I caved in and asked for a Kindle for my belated birthday. Before this I read the first Book of Thrones volume on D’s Kindle, to see if I liked it: hell yes. I can hold this little thing in one hand and flip pages with a slight touch of a finger, vs. holding a 1000-page paperback and wearing out my arms. No contest. It fits in my purse without pulling my shoulder out of its socket! Also, for those of us who eat while reading, you don’t have to wedge a Kindle under your plate to keep it open while you eat.

Bonus: It not only remembers my page; it syncs across devices. I can leave off reading something on the Kindle and then if, say, I get stuck in a grocery lineup and I don’t have the Kindle on me, I can take out my phone and pick up where I left off on the Kindle app. Brilliant. And the books take up no shelf space.

I am a total convert*.

A few things I’ve read electronically:

The whole George RR Martin Game of Thrones series (so far). They’re fluff and while they’re not especially good (he’s better at character than plot), they are certainly involving. Excellent beach reading, and I can see how they’d make good TV.

A few Georgette Heyer novels, which are apparently “Regency romance” but which, if you can get past the extreme classism of the time and the odd bit of anti-Semitism, are quite funny. For example, this bit from Grand Sophy:

“Mama, I hope I am not an unnatural daughter, but I had rather be dead than married to James!” declared Cecilia, raising her head. “He thinks of nothing but hunting, and when they do have company in the evening, he goes to sleep, and snores!”

Daunted by this disclosure, Lady Ombersley could find nothing to say for a minute or two. Cecilia blew her nose, and added: “And Lord Charlbury is even older than James!”

“Yes, but we do not know that he snores, my love,” Lady Ombersley pointed out. “Indeed, we may be almost certain that he does not, for his manners are so very gentleman-like!”

“A man who would contract the mumps,” declared Cecilia, “would do anything!”

Lady Ombersley saw nothing unreasonable in this pronouncement, nor was she surprised that his lordship’s unromantic behaviour had given Cecilia a distaste for him. She had herself been sadly disappointed, for she had thought him a man of sense, certainly not one to be succumbing to childish ailments at inopportune moments. She could think of nothing to say to palliate his offence, and as Cecilia had apparently no further observations to make, silence reigned uneasily for a time.

I’ve been plundering the free stuff on Amazon for the Kindle. There’s quite a bit, although a lot of the recent stuff looks pretty bad. There’s an excellent selection of public-domain classics, however, so I’ve been plowing my way through Les Miz which somehow I’d never read. It’s excellent, of course. The language is lovely even in translation; it’s making me wish my French was up to reading the original:

Having neither opium nor hashish on hand, and being desirous of filling his brain with twilight, he had had recourse to that fearful mixture of brandy, stout, and absinthe**, which produces the most terrible of lethargies. It is of these three vapours, beer, brandy and absinthe, that the lead of the soul is composed. They are three grooms; the celestial butterfly is drowned in them; and there are formed there in a membranous smoke, vaguely condensed into the wing of the bat, three mute furies, Nightmare, Night, and Death, which hover about the slumbering Psyche.

And because I have an ongoing love for the library, and the library still provides me things mostly on paper:

Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions

I wasn’t wild about this book, which is an account of her son’s first year. I think she’s one of those parents who are destined to bring up feral children for fear of ever imposing limits and dampening the kid’s Speshulness. And she was far too religious for my taste. Still, the rougher bits are good:

We watched Mr. Rogers this morning. He was in an ebullient mood. When he was changing from his street shoes into his sneakers, he tossed the first one into the air with a much wilder sort of jauntiness than usual, and then caught it, and then acted so pleased with himself that he actually looked crazy. Pammy says he must have gotten laid.

And Seth Mnookin, The Panic Virus. Very, very good. He takes apart the vaccine danger hype piece by piece, with lots of solid data but still retaining sympathy for parents of autistic kids looking for a cause and a cure. This should quite possibly be mandatory reading for anyone who thinks vaccines are for other people and not their precious Snotleigh.

* Except for the DRM issues, which annoy me greatly. If I buy a book, I should be able to do what I like with it. But that’s another post.

** Brandy, stout, and absinthe. Together in a glass. Ponder that for a minute. Ech, ptui.

In Which I Read Stuff: Fiction

While I love them, physical books have a few practical issues for me at the moment.

One, it’s trivially out of my way to pick them up at the library. It’s only a few blocks but it has to be either on my way to work (unlikely, since the library doesn’t open until 9, and I leave to take M to school rather before then) or on my way home (which means I can’t use a transfer and take the bus, or which means I add 2km to my bike commute) – both awkward.

Two, I have to physically carry them around. My purse is big but once it’s full of Purse Stuff, lunch, coffee thermos, keys, iPod, etc. there’s not a lot of room for a book. Plus if the subway is crammed — and it always seems to be crammed these days — there’s not a lot of room to wave around a large book.

Three, if I buy them, they don’t go away when they’re finished. I rarely re-read books so more and more I enjoy reading something and then giving it back to the library so it takes up their shelf space, not mine. I know it’s there if I ever need it so the whole library concept seems pretty ideal really.

Four, aside from subway time, I mostly have time to read late in the evening after the dinner/child-putting-to-bed fuss is over, which means I’m tired and have trouble keeping my eyes open.

I haven’t yet committed to an ebook reader / iPhone type of object, so unless I read on my computer (and I sometimes do) my commuting/bedtime salvation is found in audiobooks.

Hurray, audiobooks! An especial hurray for unabridged (abridged books are an abomination) audiobooks read by authors or readers who are good at reading. A huge, monster-size hurray for ones I can borrow from the library. (Granted, borrowing most audiobooks from the library usually means I have to have a Windows computer “read” them to my Mac in real time and re-record them before I can actually listen to them, but whatever.)

So lately, my audiobooks:

Katie MacAlister – lots of fluffy but entertaining quasi-romances about dragons and whatnot. In the first couple months of this year I was working insane hours and wanted pure fluff to distract me as I fell into bed, and this fit that niche to a T.

Neil Gaiman – I had some short stories on my iPod as well as Coraline (kids book) and The Graveyard Book (YA-ish). He reads his own books, and well. They’re very good. I’ve read all his other stuff on paper, as it came out.

“I can believe things that are true and things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not.

I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Beatles and Marilyn Monroe and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen – I believe that people are perfectable, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkled lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women.

I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline in good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state.

I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste.

I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like martians in War of the Worlds.

I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman.

I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumble bee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself.

I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck.

I believe that anyone who says sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too.

I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system.

I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.”
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Patrick O’Brian – a wonderful, wonderful friend loaned me the entire 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series in paper when I was pregnant with M and hopelessly sick and bed-bound. They’re fabulous books. “But I don’t care about 18th-century naval battles and spycraft,” you say. Yes you do. Trust me. Read them. Or get the audiobooks — the first one is read badly, much too slowly and ponderously and with no sense of fun, but the rest are excellent.

As actual physical books:

Ian (M.) Banks – I have a couple of these on my nighttable, waiting to be read. He never disappoints. But they are heavy, and I am tired, and once I read them they’ll be read and I won’t be able to look forward to them anymore. So they’ve sat for a while.

Jasper Fforde – recently I finished pretty much all of his oeuvre by finishing off the last two Thursday Next books (not quite as clever as the first couple in the series), the Nursery Crime books (fun but more ponderous, somehow) as well as Shades of Grey. They’re all well worth a read. I somehow came across Shades of Grey as an audiobook after I’d read it in paper, and I liked it rather more as an audiobook. Not sure why. It was very well read, anyway.

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. I wasn’t crazy about this one; I think his reach exceeded his grasp somewhat. Great universe, great concepts, but the plot and characters didn’t do much for me. The supposed cleverness overreached the actual content, IMO.

Anyway, there’s a brief overview of my recent fictional explorations.

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Honest, if not quiet

M: I have a new book for school — Anne of Green Gables.

Me: Oh, that’s a good one. I like that book.

M: That girl talks way too much. She’s like [friend’s name] when she’s tired, all talk talk talk talk talk talk blah blah blah.

Me: Well, hon, you have been known to talk rather a lot yourself, you know.

M: Well, when I’m complaining, yes.

In Which I Read Stuff: Nonfiction

I had the feeling I wasn’t actually reading much nonfiction lately, but looking at the piles on my floor and the history of my library borrowings that isn’t actually true. I didn’t read any nonfiction in the first few months of this year since I was working really insane hours to do 36 projects at once and in the fifteen minutes before collapsing into bed each night I needed exceedingly fluffy fiction that offered my poor brain no challenges whatsoever, but since then the nonfiction has picked up again.

At one point recently I was simultaneously reading:

1. Bill Bryson, Home
2. Keith Richards, My Life
3. Nigel Slater, Tender (Vols I & II): A Cook and His Vegetable Patch and A Cook’s Guide to the Fruit Garden.

This caused a friend to comment:

There’s probably a mash-up to be written that involves shooting up locally grown heroin in a perfectly restored English country house.

…which I have to admit I’d probably read and enjoy, if it existed.

The Bryson is a sort of rambling history of the theory of various kinds of housing and building in Britain, in Bill Bryson’s usual style. It’s a decent overview if you haven’t much knowledge of the area already; if you do it’s a non-challenging, competent review with his usual particular attention to quirk, humour and oddity. His comment that after the Romans left, the inhabitants of Britain pretty much gave up on the whole concept of comfort and haven’t ever really regained it does, I think, ring true and certainly explains British plumbing.

The Keef is his autobiography. It isn’t exactly linear but it is great fun. Plus, pictures!

And Nigel, bless him, has provided me with more fruit and vegetable recipes than I’ll ever be likely to get through, although he does have that odd British instinct to boil things and although the recipes contain mysterious — to my North American eye — ingredients such as gammon and groundnut oil (which I’m sure are things already in my kitchen, but under different names, but do I ever remember to Google them?). His fruits and veggies have effusive personalities. His quinces simper, they’re both exotic and erotic, and don’t get him started on plums.

Other things in the “recent” pile:

Carl Safina, The View from Lazy Point. A nicely written rumination on various environmental issues. Lots of anecdote that helps bring abstract points somewhere we can touch.

Peter H. Gleick, Bottled & Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water. I can never understand why people spend money buying — and oil packaging and transporting — water, so I didn’t learn much from this book but had my biases reconfirmed and added a few good anecdotes to my repertoire. Worth a read.

Ben Goldacre, Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks and Big Pharma Flacks – Covers bad science of several different stripes. This book got good reviews, but I think it was short on necessary detail and explanation. It assumed the reader knew a lot of what it was purporting to explain, to my eye. Preaching to the converted, as it were. An entertaining rant if your science is already good; possibly a bit frustrating otherwise. As it was aimed at the general reader I don’t think it quite hit the mark. Perhaps I am wrong.

James Howard Kunstler, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition. If you were just starting out reading about cities/urban development/etc. — AFTER you read Jane Jacobs’ excellent and very readable The Death and Life of Great American Cities (do not groan, it really is a good book) — this wouldn’t be a bad book to start with, so long as you don’t mind a certain amount of profanity. I love Kunstler; he’s extremely low-bullshit and his hyperbole is very expressive. Here’s a bit from his chapter on Atlanta (which, it may be obvious, he does not like):

There was, however, at the same time, a gathering recognition among the prospering classes that the development explosion of the past thirty-odd years around Atlanta had begun to produce diminishing returns, as the geeks in econ might say, tending toward a decrease in the quality of life–to use the kind of euphemistic, understated, neutral language that was commonly employed to describe the fucking mess that even hardcore suburban growth cheerleaders, in their narcotic raptures of consumerism and gourmet coffee, had begun to dimly apprehend. … Routine midday trips to the supermarket now required the kind of strategic planning used in military resupply campaigns under wartime conditions. Mothers with children were spending so many hours on chauffeuring duty that they qualified for livery licenses. Motorists were going mad, literally, behind the wheel–one berserker tired of waiting at an intersection shot out the signal light with a handgun.

Look up his TED talks if you’d like to get a sense of his style before committing to a whole book.

Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. This one is an audiobook that’s been lurking on my iPod for longer than I’d like to admit. I keep making it about four chapters in, and it’s interesting, but it needs more concentration than I can manage in audiobook circumstances. Not that it’s not good – it is! (Well, up to Chapter 4 anyway.) It’s just that I tend to listen to audiobooks when I need half my attention to be elsewhere and this book asks for more than that. I have a few long plane trips coming up; perhaps that will finally get me to Chapter 5.

Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. Vintage Lewis; he uses a half-dozen stories to help illustrate and explain the causes behind the recession. A bit sensationalistic but very readable, full of well-done explanation and not at all dull.

On my library hold list:

Seth Mnookin, The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear. The anti-vaccination thing drives me mad; it’s such a result of first-world complacency and scientific illiteracy. This book has good reviews and I’m hoping to be able to recommend it to people.

Ken Greenberg, Walking Home: the Life and Lessons of a City Builder. Apparently city issues are big with me lately. Or maybe there are lots of good books coming out (FINALLY) on this. Either way.

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In Which I Read Stuff: Kids’ Books

A while ago I was chatting with someone about books and bookstores and all that sort of thing and the question was asked: so, what do I read? I answered rather stupidly — “um, not bestsellers” or somesuch — but it did remind me that I’ve fallen out of the habit of posting about books, so I’ll start to correct that now.

What do I read? The honest answer is, anything that holds still long enough for my eyes to focus on it. But I don’t have a lot of time (and even less money) for physical books, so — while I’m being honest here — I’ll admit that most of my “reading” lately has been either children’s books or audiobooks. (Although I was recently given some excellent books for my birthday, which I’m very much enjoying and which I will talk about later.)

I read a lot of kids’ books because my daughter brings them home and she has pretty fun taste in books. I like to get a sense of what she likes so I can buy her books she’ll enjoy. Given the amount of travelling she does each summer, I like to send her and/or whoever’s flying with her with lots of new books. Also, she’s a Talker so it helps to have read what she’s read if I would like to understand much of what she’s telling me.

So on that front, I can recommend Patricia C. Wrede’s four Enchanted Forest books, which have dragons and princesses and things but which are far more clever than that brief summary implies. The protagonist in the first book is a princess who flees to the dragons in search of a less vapid life and then has to explain to dozens of would-be rescuers that no, she does NOT wish to be rescued and would prefer to remain Chief Cook and Librarian to the dragons, thankyouverymuch. They’re quite fun. Fast reads in book form, and well done as full-cast audiobooks as well.

I’ve also dipped into the Dear Canada books. D calls them Canadian History Propaganda books, which is fair. M has been bringing them home from the library of her own accord. It’s a whole serious of deeply wholesome books purporting to be diaries of girls at various points in Canadian history. These I find a bit tedious but M loves them and they’re not horrible. Faint praise, but there you go. Harmless stuff.

Collectively we’ve also been enjoying the How to Train Your Dragon series, which are full of goofiness and farting and so on. The sample sentences in Dragonese are worth the price of admission.

The child has also enjoyed Kenneth Oppel’s bat books. I’ve only read the first one, and I admit I bought it for M on the basis of 1 degree of separation from Ken Oppel plus good reviews, but they are indeed good books. M’s read all of them and they led to much swooping about and pretending to be a bat, which I enjoyed much more than the princess phase, so there you go.

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Drive: A road trip through our complicated affair with the automobile

Drive: A road trip through our complicated affair with the automobile
by Tim Falconer

DriveFalconer talks about the history of automobiles, Detroit then and now, car culture, the quirks of traffic, urban sprawl, and much more, all structured around a long road trip of his own. Somehow he manages to treat all the various viewpoints with great sympathy and doesn’t shy away from that word complicated in the title.

His topics range from the expected:

Most people equate automobiles with freedom, and the more they have, the greater the independence, but the executive director of DU’s Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute doesn’t see it that way. “Owning three cars is enslavement,” he told me, citing all the time and money needed to maintain vehicles. “If we walk or bike, we can be free. That, in fact, is more freedom than being forced to buy three cars.” (p.211)

to thought-provoking side-effects of urban sprawl:

it dawned on me that sprawl encourages impaired driving. People heading out for a night on the town, or even a dinner that includes a bottle of wine, don’t want to take a cab because they can’t flag one at the end of the night — and they have to travel so far they couldn’t afford the fare anyway. So they drink and drive. (p. 141)

In an appendix it contains an amusing playlist of car tunes, which is really an indispensable part of any road trip. Nicely done.

Collins English Dictionary assesses caducity of 24 words

These are great words! It would be a shame to lose them, even if they are obscure.

Abstergent: Cleansing
Agrestic: Rural
Apodeictic: Unquestionably true by virtue of demonstration
Caducity: Perishableness
Caliginosity: Dimness
Compossible: Possible in coexistence with something else
Embrangle: To confuse
Exuviate: To shed
Fatidical: Prophetic
Fubsy: Squat
Griseous: Somewhat grey
Malison: A curse
Mansuetude: Gentleness
Muliebrity: The condition of being a woman
Niddering: Cowardly
Nitid: Bright
Olid: Foul-smelling
Oppugnant: Combative
Periapt: An amulet
Recrement: Refuse
Roborant: Tending to fortify
Skirr: A whirring sound, as of the wings of birds in flight
Vaticinate: Prophesy
Vilipend: To treat with contempt

I particuarly like compossible, fubsy, niddering and the especially onomatopoeic skirr.

10 Books Not To Read Before You Die

7: À la Recherche du Temps Perdu – Marcel Proust

Yes, yes, he tasted a biscuit that made him think of childhood, we’ve all done that. If I want to remember my childhood I look at some photographs.

— from Richard Wilson’s 10 books not to read before you die, a list extracted from his book Can’t Be Arsed: 101 Things Not to Do Before You Die.

Very refreshing — I’m unspeakably happy to find someone else who was bored spitless by Hemingway. I disagree about Lord of the Rings, not that I ever made it past the interminable trudging through forest in the middle of the second book — but I would cheerfully go to Peter Gabriel concerts and did read Dune (which mostly sucked). And I did like Pride and Prejudice.

Books that changed things

Mighty Girl’s blog post Eight Books That Changed Things For Me got me thinking. Thinking, really, less about what books have changed things for me than whether it was far too embarrassing to publish such a list. So many of them are shallow and rather silly. But what the hey.

In rough chronological order:

1. James Clavell, Shogun

I bought this at a garage sale (for $0.50) when I was eight and devoured it. Goofy as it sounds it was the first epic I encountered, and wow! It totally opened my mind to the possibilities of stories based more in human relationships and grand circumstances than in the simpler plots of children’s lit. I followed it up (as I recall) with The Thorn Birds, that huge novel with a one-word title where small children are fed to Baal via a stone statue, the Old Testament, and the full North and South series. Whoo.

2. Sigmund Freud, a book the title of which I cannot remember

When I was nine or so it was a particularly hot summer. There were three rooms in our house that were air-condiditioned: my parents’ bedroom, my dad’s office, and the sun porch. There were no bookshelves on the sun porch and I could hardly hang around my parents’ bedroom, so I spent a bunch of time reading all the books on my dad’s office shelves (Dad’s a psychiatrist). I eventually read this book either by or about Freud, which had much detail about penis envy and whatnot. I think — and this is a wonderful credit to both my parents — that it was the first time I truly absorbed that some people thought rather little of women.

I confronted my dad: “you don’t believe all this penis envy stuff, do you?” He said something mollifying about it being a classic upon which more modern theories of psychiatry and the brain were based, and he added in a tone of true bewilderment that things might be otherwise, “I can’t imagine not wanting everything in the world for my daughters”. Go, Dad! xxxooo.

I read the Odyssey that summer too (in translation, obviously) but it didn’t make half so strong an impression.

3. Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

This was on a summer reading list for my new school the year I moved to Vancouver and I chose it purely based on the title. I was fifteen, which was about perfect in retrospect. My first foray into the land of abstraction, into books with ideas beyond plot, and where they could take you.

It’s good for bit-by-bit reading on canoe trips — I dragged my copy around a fair amount when I worked as a canoe tripper. I still like to read it in the woods from time to time although I now realize it’s badly dated. Cities aren’t good for it.

4. John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean?

In the middle of university I sort of kind of accidentally ended up on the literary review, although I was very much a science student (long story, but the previous year the review failed to cut the pages of the thing and urged us to “do violence to the text”. We did.). Frustrated by my inability to express why exactly I liked some poems that were submitted to the review and not others, I expressed this to boyfriend-of-the-time, who happened to be an Classics and English major, and he loaned me his copy of this book.

This is the only English textbook I’ve encountered that actually added to my appreciation of any form of writing instead of diminishing it. Totally changed my approach to not only poetry but prose as well. If we dispensed with the vast majority of high school English classes and replaced them with this book, the world would be a better place. And students would be much happier. To borrow Melle‘s current tagline:

“Storytelling reveals meaning without the error of defining it.”

— Hannah Arendt

It’s out of print, of course.

5. Lynn Crosbie (ed.), The Girl Wants To: Women’s Representations of Sex and the Body

Well hey. A collection of erotica that is actually varied and interesting. Who knew that existed? Not me when I found this book late in undergrad, that’s for sure.

6. Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War

Here, Griffin provides a psychology of war and violence, examining in particular how the denial and secrecy surrounding these events affects personal lives. As examples, she explores the lives of the families of workers on the Los Alamos project and at Oak Ridge, the background and psyche of Heinrich Himmler, the life of a British soldier in the Boer War and World War I, and Gandhi’s resistance to violence and oppression. These are interwoven with autobiographical narrative that illustrate the effects of family denial and secrecy.

This was a required text for one of my grad school classes. We all read it and absolutely failed to discuss it afterward in any coherent way.

“It was –”
“I know! and then it was like….”
“Me too.”
“Yeah, totally.”
(long pause)
“Yeah.”

A book that is felt more than it is read, I think. Every time I’ve loaned this book to someone they’ve stolen it.

7. Starhawk, The Spiral Dance

This book made it obvious to me that I was essentially pagan at heart, although without the benefit of Californian beaches and redwood groves in which to conduct complex rituals and with rather more Buddhist tendencies and a seriously non-foofy approach.

I was doing research for my Master’s at the time. Taking things back to first principles, I ended up researching religions (because you need to base how you handle the Earth’s resources in a system that people will understand and accept). In one class I bemoaned the fact that libraries didn’t seem to carry pagan books at all, and a very generous colleague lent me a number of books including (IIRC) this one. Thanks again, Lynna!

For the record, many pagans and most Native American cultures have it right, Earth-wise.

8. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

I’ve posted about this book before, I know, but it really is a good one. I can’t remember whether I read it before or after Jacobs’ (and my) involvement with Citizens for Local Democracy, but it doesn’t much matter. Read it and you’ll not look at cities, or your neighbourhood, in the same way ever again. And it is such a wonderful read.

So there’s eight, but I’m sure there are a bunch of runners-up — off the top of my head, Margaret Atwood’s Edible Woman, Catcher in the Rye, Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade

Book: The Ghost Map

The Ghost MapI just listened to the unabridged audiobook of Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: The story of London’s most terrifying epidemic, and how it changed cities, science and the modern world.

It is the summer of 1854. Cholera has seized London with unprecedented intensity. A metropolis of more than 2 million people, London is just emerging as a one of the first modern cities in the world. But lacking the infrastructure necessary to support its dense population – garbage removal, clean water, sewers – the city has become the perfect breeding ground for a terrifying disease no one knows how to cure.

As their neighbors begin dying, two men are spurred to action: the Reverend Henry Whitehead, whose faith in a benevolent God is shaken by the seemingly random nature of the victims, and Dr. John Snow, whose ideas about contagion have been dismissed by the scientific community, but who is convinced that he knows how the disease is being transmitted. In a riveting day-by-day account, The Ghost Map chronicles the outbreak’s spread and the desperate efforts to put an end to the epidemic – and solve the most pressing medical riddle of the age.

It’s the kind of history I particularly enjoy, with lots of discussion of customs, beliefs, and real people’s lives and activities. Johnson combines that with a good mystery and well-articulated explanations of science both current and historical — it’s a very well-put-together and gripping book.

Plus, read this book and you get to have fun dinner-table exchanges like this:

Me: Did you know that in 1850s London it was so expensive to get someone to empty your cesspool that one in twenty houses didn’t bother and just let their basements fill up with poop? One in twenty!
D: Don’t ever tell me anything else from that book.
Me: What? I waited until you were done eating!

Yes, with its extensive discussions of sewers, cesspools, smells, miasmas, anaesthetic-free surgeries, and the hideous sufferings of cholera victims, this is definitely not a book to listen to while doing anything involving food or while experiencing a bout of hypochondria. Might be good for inducing urges to clean things, though.

In the last few chapters Johnson expounds at great length about modern disasters, the uses of modern technology, and how we might proceed to avoid these. It’s competently done but since the mystery mentioned in the book’s title has by this point in the book been solved, there’s no plot to hold one’s interest. This extra material — although tangentially related — feels out of place. The book would be stronger if this material were omitted, although it might make for an interesting series of shorter essays. This weaker last section certainly doesn’t ruin the very strong majority of the book, however.

Don’t you want to know all kinds of sordid details about what it’s like to live in a city of 2 million before the advent of proper sewers, public health, or anaesthesia? Of course you do. It’ll make you feel eversomuch better about your own circumstances and give you a whole new appreciation for your toilet.

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Can’t get much shorter than that without LOLspeak

LIT 101 CLASS IN THREE LINES OR LESS.

1984

WINSTON: Don’t tell the Party, but sex is way better than totalitarianism.

EVERYONE: Surprise! We’re the Party.

WINSTON: Oh, rats.

They’re all pretty good — I’ll only quote the one, but The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Paradise Lost are also excellent.

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Book a Month Challenge #5: Mother

(http://bamchallenge.wordpress.com/2008/05/01/challenge-5-mother)

I cheerfully tossed Andrea Buchanan’s Mother shock : loving every (other) minute of it and (perhaps less cheerfully) Susan Wicklund’s This common secret : my journey as an abortion doctor on my library hold list, intending to review one or the other. Neither of them has yet turned up, but coincidentally the library coughed up Identical Strangers: A memoir of twins separated and reunited instead and it is certainly a book that approaches the concept of “mother” from many angles.

Identical StrangersElyse Schein and Paula Bernstein were given up at birth and were adopted into separate families, possibly because the adoption clinic’s consulting psychiatrist believed it was better for twins to be separated and possibly for the much less altruistic reason that she wanted to study certain aspects of heritability. The families were never told the children were twins, and it isn’t discovered until Elyse — in her 30s — embarks on a search for her birth mother.

You can imagine the issues of identity of self, of the family in which you were raised, of the family you’re now raising, of how to negotiate the new relationship with your twin, that would arise if out of the blue in your 30s it arose that not only did you have an identical twin, but the two of you may have been part of a bizarrely unethical scientific experiment.

Both twins write with amazing honesty (they alternate passages, so their individual voices remain distinct) about their experiences — I’m impressed that they were willing to put so much openness into their writing. It makes the book one part ruminations about self, family, and motherhood and one part mystery — why were they separated? Who was their mother anyway? It would be hard to say more without tossing in spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that. Recommended.

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Book a Month Challenge #4: Beauty

(http://bamchallenge.wordpress.com/2008/04/01/challenge-4-beauty/)

Beauty Junkies: Inside Our $15 Billion Obsession with Cosmetic Surgery
by Alex Kuczynski

Beauty JunkiesThe initial tone of this book is wildly uncritical — she skims quickly past the notions that half the American population isn’t comfortable with their looks and are subjected to a constant barrage of images of surgically-sculpted perfection and gets right into the how-to without a backward glance at the deeper issues. Kuczynski is a journalist, not a scientist or an investigator, and she clearly goes for sensationalism over depth or meaning. For example, she leaves uncommented this interview with Dr. Suzanne Lepine, a Manhattan specialist in cosmetic surgery for, of all things, feet:

We live in a fifteen-second culture,” she said. “That’s how long it takes, I believe, for a man to look at you and decide if he will be in love with you. That is it. And if you’re wearing stiletto sandals and your feet look like hell, he’s not even going to give you the time of day.”

A man won’t love you, Levine reasons, or even give himself the chance of falling in love with you, if you have a bunion peeping out of your $500 evening sandal. Tough town, I said.

“Tough town, that’s for sure,” she said. “It sets its own standards. People overreact. I had one woman come in who wanted me to do liposuction of the toe. I mean, that’s even over the top for me.”

What happened to the patient?

“I told her to go see a shrink instead,” Levine said.

When I left, Levine asked me if I knew any good single men.

Yikes. Talk about the need for a psychiatrist and a smack upside the head with a book on feminist theory. To be clear: if a man rejects you on the basis of fifteen seconds’ worth of gazing at your unpedicured, unsculpted toes, your foot should be applied swiftly to his ass as you boot him out the door, not taken to a surgeon. (But I digress.)

In later chapters Kuczynski does a reasonable job at covering the risks of surgery and gives a fairly impassioned schpeel on the need for potential clients to check the qualifications of their putative surgeons; she doesn’t skip discussion of the risks at all. Still, she doesn’t ever really address anything beyond the who, what, how, and how much money of plastic surgery — the background societal issues remain unexamined. Which, to be fair, is probably beyond what might reasonably be expected from this book: Kuczynski set out to explore the world of plastic surgery, and given that parameter she’s done a fine job. It’s a very decent factual piece which would make a respectable accompaniment to some deeper analysis.

Neil Gaiman on Douglas Adams

From an introduction to a biography:

After he died, I was interviewed a lot, asked about Douglas. I said that I didn’t think that he had ever been a novelist, not really, despite having been an internationally best-selling novelist who had written several books which are, a quarter of a century later, becoming seen as classics. Writing novels was a profession he had backed into, or stumbled over, or sat down on very suddenly and broken.

I think that perhaps what Douglas was was probably something we don’t even have a word for yet. A Futurologist, or an Explainer, or something. That one day they’ll realise that the most important job out there is for someone who can explain the world to itself in ways that the world won’t forget. Who can dramatise the plight of endangered species as easily (or at least, as astonishingly well, for nothing Douglas did was ever exactly easy) as he can explain to an analog race what it means to find yourself going digital. Someone whose dreams and ideas, practical or impractical, are always the size of a planet, and who is going to keep going forward, and taking the rest of us with him.