Recent Reading: The Rest

June’s reading (and listening) has been a really satisfying mix of genres. I talked about the romance I’ve been enjoying in my last post; here’s the rest. (As a PS to that post, last night I started Part VII of Brook’s Kraken King and I think I like it a lot more while I’m reading it than my comments have let on. Maybe the discontinuous nature of serial reading is working against me somehow–I forget how good it is because I don’t feel compelled to rush back to it?)

Non-Fiction

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. I (read by Grover Gardner) I must have picked this up in a sale, and I’ve had it in my TBL for ages. It was a mixed success on audio: I didn’t realize that it’s a scholarly edition, so it started with a long introduction and there were introductory notes to the parts along the way. Some of this was hard to follow when listening. But parts were also fascinating. Twain left a lot of fragmentary sections of autobiographical material behind, and the scholars working on the Twain project had to figure out how they were intended to be organized for publication.

Both the editors in the introduction and Twain in the body of the work talk about his theory of autobiography: it should not be chronological, but presented in whatever order events come to mind; it should be frank and deal with all the shameful parts of a person’s life (and thus Twain didn’t intend for his autobiography to be published until 100 years after his death); it should be as much about what the person is thinking about and doing now as about the past. He felt that the news would always remain interesting because it showed what people cared about at the time (and people don’t change much), while history was just a dry sketch of the past. I don’t agree about the latter point, but the news story he recounts (at length) as an illustration, about a Mrs. Morris who tried to see the President and was forcibly removed from the White House, was indeed still interesting.

And so we get episodes jumping around in time, letters and newspaper clippings inserted into the text, lots of digressions and some repetition. Twain dictated a lot of this, and it’s very conversational: “as I was saying yesterday,” “But I’ll talk more about that later,” “I wrote about that already in one of my books,” etc. Parts are sad, parts are boring, parts are still very funny and parts show that 19th-century humor was sometimes quite different from the 21st-century version.

How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough (read by Dan John Miller) This was definitely based on earlier reporting, and some chapters (like a long one on a NY public school that’s created  great chess players) felt shoe-horned in. Some I’d read earlier versions of, like the stuff on KIPP charter schools and character education. I found some of the research Tough reports on really interesting. In the end, though, I was mad about the way that a focus on things like teaching grit and persistence and how they can help kids make up for deficits in their schooling put the focus on individual solutions; Tough only glancingly addresses the fact that we need to do something about the kinds of inequality that mean poor kids are often under-prepared for college–or for finishing high school. I’m not the only person who felt that way. On the plus side, this debate would make a good paper topic for my writing class.

Mystery

Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling), The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike #2, read by Robert Glenister) This is a great narrator-book match and I’m glad I’m listening to this series. Like the first in the series, this book shines when it draws not on Galbraith’s fake bio (former armed forces) but Rowling’s real one. There’s a lot of spot on satire of publishing, from agents and publishers who liquid lunch to an indie author of erotic fantasy. I felt the book went on a little too long, though–the satire started to wear thin because pretty much all the characters besides Strike and Robin, the detective and his assistant, were awful (and caricatures–Rowling writes types and that doesn’t bother me, but these were mostly very one-note). Robin is my favorite character and I felt she was less interesting and given less to do than in the first book. I also think the plot line with her drippy accountant fiancé who’s jealous of Strike and her absorption by her work is predictable and familiar–I hope it goes somewhere surprising. Still, this was highly entertaining.

Christopher Fowler, Full Dark House (Peculiar Crimes/Bryant and May #1) I read this because of a blog post of Fowler’s, but my library hold took so long to come in that I no longer have any idea what that post was about. A quirky, rather Gothic mystery, this book juxtaposes Bryant and May’s first case during WWII with the 80-ish May’s investigation into Bryant’s death in a bombing–perhaps because he’d been looking in to that old case. I found it slow, and the huge cast of secondary characters in the Palace theatre (the setting of the old case) was hard to keep track of. It wasn’t bad, just not really my thing. I did find the running juxtaposition of the mass deaths of the Blitz and the investigation into individual murders interesting, though:

Death was stalking the streets, death made terrifying by its utter lack of meaning.

It made me think about how one thing detective fiction offers us, at least in its classic form, is the promise that death has a meaning and an explanation. This book was not exactly my thing, but interesting enough that I never gave up on it.

Fantasy

Ursula Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan (read by Robert Inglis) I picked up the whole Earthsea trilogy in a 3 for 2 Audible sale. The first book remains my favorite, but I always liked the culture Le Guin creates in this one, and Tenar, who is brave enough to escape its safe confines for something new and unknown. It was a pleasure to revisit it.

Anne Bishop, Murder of Crows A DNF, at least for now. It’s partly that my library hold came in when I wasn’t in the mood for the book. But also, I got about 60 pages in and realized that the conflict/political world-building developing is the Humans First, anti-Others movement and I just don’t know if I want to go there. It’s not that interesting to me, and given my mixed feelings about the first book, I may never read on.

Ginn Hale, The Rifter (Part I, The Shattered Gates) I started this serial because Shannon from Flight Into Fantasy was interested in doing a book club. I liked the first part but I’m behind in the read-along already!

Up Next: I don’t even know! More Rifter, finish The Kraken King, a third Mary Burchell to finish, I feel like reading more romance, I really want to get into Dorothy Dunnett at last this summer. Where to start? Ros is doing another Big Fat Book Readalong in July, and I decided to read Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life because I need more of a push to get through hefty non-fiction than fiction. I also requested David Van Reybrouck’s Congo after reading this review, and it should be in at the library by mid-July. Could I conquer two big fat tomes? (Unlikely).

Happy Summer Reading! What’s in your plans?

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9 Responses to Recent Reading: The Rest

  1. Ros says:

    A few years ago I visited Mark Twain’s house and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house next door. I’m not normally a huge fan of visiting writer’s houses, but this was a really fascinating one, not least for the comparison between the two. I loved imagining them as neighbours, wondering about the conversations they had.

    Well done for making a decision!

  2. Juhi says:

    The month that I read the Lymond Chronicles, I read, breathed and slept the series. And that intense emotional reaction I had still has me wary, almost two years later, about kicking off either the Niccolo series or re-reading the Lymond one.

    I didn’t even understand any of the French, Scottish, and other bits of poetry and words that Dunnett weaves in (heck, I’m sure I didn’t understand A LOT of what Dunnett does from a writerly point of view so absorbed was I knowing in precisely what would unfold next) but that didn’t stop me from being swept away in her works. And THAT is what pushes me to read her again–I’m keenly interested in knowing WHY her books elicit the response they do.

  3. victoriajanssen says:

    I need to get that Ginn Hale series – I really enjoyed her previous work.

  4. Janine Ballard says:

    I’m so glad you are blogging again. I’m also happy that you like A Wizard of Earthsea best of that series (at least the original trilogy– I’ve yet to read the later sequels) because I thought I was alone in preferring it to The Tombs of Atuan.

    I liked the first segment of The Rifter very much, but ultimately it lost me (around Part IV) because it felt like it was in a holding pattern for too long. But my the people who love it really love it. For a shorter and somewhat faster paced Ginn Hale work, I recommend Wicked Gentlemen.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have more Hale in my TBR. I’m glad Shannon motivated me to get to some of it.

      I think Wizard is my favorite because I do really love the classic pursuit of the shadow/self-knowledge story (so Jungian of me). But Tenar is a fascinating character, and I like the say she de-centers her hero–or I guess challenges the notion that Ged IS the hero of the whole trilogy–in Tombs and shows him from another angle.

  5. The Tombs of Atuan is my favorite too, Janine. I found the opening scene just a killer. Someday I should reread the trilogy.

    I’m one who adored Rifter. I read it all at once, but I did enjoy its serial aspect. It meant I could settle down with a section every night or two, and there was a natural place to stop when I got tired. But I don’t know if I would have liked to read other books between each part. I may try reading The Kraken King like that. I think I liked John a lot more than Shannon but I’m enjoying her read-along!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I did read The Kraken King like that, but I found it harder to engage. It really hooked me in the last two parts, which I read back to back. I found I drifted away between parts and forgot how much I’d been enjoying it, and something similar is happening to me with The Rifter, so I need to get back into it.

      It is making me wonder about how people read 19th-century serial novels. Often aloud as a family, I know. I wonder if they also re-read segments before the next one came out. People were less likely to be over-supplied with reading material than we are and likely experienced serials differently. Maybe less distracted by other things between readings.

  6. willaful says:

    I’ve been so much happier reading as my whimsy takes me, I’m going to try to continue that as much as possible. I may pick one challenging book to focus on, if I can decide which one.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yay! As it should be. Sometimes a challenge is very satisfying for me, and sometimes it’s a different kind of happiness I’m after.

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