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A Book of Tongues, The Broken Kingdoms, Atlantic, Misery

Gemma Files, A Book of Tongues
I grabbed this book after just glancing through it at the public library’s new book shelf, and now I’m buying a copy and preordering the sequel. This is awesome, guys. Supernatural Old West, magic-wielding Confederate ex-Reverends, and a heavy dose of Mayan mythology to top it off. Also, gay characters who are a) main characters, b) not demonized (for being gay, anyway), and c) likely to survive to the end of the series and possibly even get a happy ending. Obviously it’s a trilogy and that last one is far from certain, but I’m thrilled at just the possibility right now.

N.K. Jemisin, The Broken Kingdoms
The sequel to the excellent Hundred Thousand Kingdoms of last year, and you know, I think I liked this one even better. It seems to hang together better; the book feels a little more solid. I’d have to reread the first one to explain exactly why. (Oh the horror! *dramatic hand to forehead*) It seems, interestingly enough, that the main recurring characters in this series are the gods, not the mortals, but the POV characters in both books so far are the mortal women they deal with. I like that a lot, actually.

Simon Winchester, Atlantic
Finally, I have finished this book! This was another ARC I picked up at ALA in June, and I have been trying to get through it for months. It purports to be a history of the Atlantic ocean, but for large portions of the book it seems much more to be an excuse for the author to show off his superior knowledge of history and his extraordinarily exciting life as an investigative journalist. I was somewhat offended to find that the latter sections, while unbelievably pretentious, were also the most interesting parts of the book. Maybe he should have just written a memoir instead.

Stephen King, Misery
When did Stephen King stop being this good? No, really. I picked this up again after reading Learn Writing With Uncle Jim, where Jim MacDonald recommends it as a novel about how to write a book. And not only does it work on that level – spectacularly well, particularly the scene where Annie makes Paul burn his Serious Manuscript – but it’s also frequently tense, disturbing, and downright scary. I haven’t felt that way about any of the newer Stephen King books at all.

On Monsters, The Walking Dead, The New Jim Crow, Monk’s Hood

Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters
I picked this up while I was browsing the mythology section for faerie books. I didn’t find any, but I did find this, a history of the Western conception of monsters and monstrosity. It was interesting, but alas, not as good as I would have liked. I found by the end of the book that I was having to fill in the details of examples he was using from my own knowledge — not that the stories were wrong, per se, just drastically incomplete. This makes me distrust the earlier bits of the book where he was discussing things I didn’t know much about already. At least I acquired a nice long reading list from it.

The Walking Dead volume 5, Robert A. Kirkman
I do not understand the appeal of this series. It’s full of situations that would be traumatizing on their own, but presented as they are, it’s just One Damn Thing After Another. Trauma, melodrama, melodrama, trauma, horror, trauma, melodrama. And I can’t stop reading it. (Book six on hold now!)

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
A book about the dysfunctionality of the American criminal justice system, and how it (mostly based on the War On (Some) Drugs) functions as a social control system that keeps black (and brown) Americans in the position of second-class citizens. Overall I found it was nothing I hadn’t heard before, but having it all in one book, with all the connections drawn, was illuminating. Alexander says she hopes that this will open a dialogue about the problem, rather than being the definitive work on the subject, and I hope that it does, because I don’t see any way of fixing the problem without replacing all our legislators with pod people who believe in rehabilitation over punishment.

Ellis Peters, Monk’s Hood
More Cadfael! (I find Cadfael strangely soothing.) I did not have the redundancy problem with this book that I had with the last one, largely because the ending of Monk’s Hood the TV adaptation is completely different than the ending of Monk’s Hood the novel. For one thing, the novel has much more Welshness. (I should get my sister to read these, she studied abroad in Wales and has become very fond of the place.) Cadfael is also causing me to dig up more histories about twelfth century Britain – did you know about the war between King Stephen and the Empress Maude?

Religious Literacy; Miles, Microbes and Mayhem; Cryoburn; Strange and Secret Peoples

Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy
Prothero’s basic argument is that Americans, although they profess to be extremely religious, actually know very little about religions — their own or anyone else’s — and that this is an extraordinarily dangerous way to walk around in the world and pretend you know something about what’s going on. I certainly wouldn’t argue with him on any of those points, but the book annoyed me a little anyway. He opens with a history of how Americans stopped learning about religion, and in doing so he presents the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a kind of golden age of religious literacy, mentioning only once that the religious literacy in question was a specifically Protestant literacy involving no knowledge at all of even Judaism or Islam, and a pretty warped knowledge of Catholicism. (And when he does offer this caveat, he gives it only a clause — not even a full sentence, never mind a paragraph.) I was a little bit filled with rage when he mentioned that “even blacks and Native Americans” were learning their Bible, with nary a mention of the fact that both African slaves and Native Americans had their own damn religions before they were forced to learn the Bible instead.

I’m not sure about his proposed solutions, either — that all high school students should have a mandatory religious literacy course and an elective Bible studies course, and that all college students should fulfil a religious studies requirement before graduation. At the college level, that’s fine, but I don’t have any faith that high school religious studies classes would be worth the time spent in them, or that Bible studies classes would be at all nonsectarian. (I do not speak wholly in a vaccum; I grew up in a pretty religious area, and when I took a religious studies class in high school, we spent two class periods dealing with students who didn’t believe in the Council of Nicea.) I wholly applaud his basic principle — we need to stop pretending that all religions are somehow the same, and learn about what makes them different — but I’m not sure American culture is ready for that at the high school level. But there will be more on that subject when I finish his other book, God is Not One, which I have from the library right now.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles, Microbes and Mayhem
Including Falling Free and Diplomatic Immunity. Well, and Labyrinth, but that’s been in two anthologies already, I just ignored it. I’ve been reading these books in chronological order for the most part, but Falling Free is an exception, set a full hundred years or more before the beginning of the main series. It details the origin of the quaddies, genetically engineered humans with four arms instead of the usual two arms/two legs arrangement, designed to live and work in zero-gee environments, who have suddenly been made obsolete by the development of artificial gravity. The corporation that developed them — that owns them — wants to just get rid of them somehow, but Leo Graff, an engineer hired to teach the quaddies the trade, and a handful of the quaddies band together in a truly epic escape attempt which eventually (this is not a spoiler if you’ve read any Vorkosiverse books at all) results in the founding of Quaddiespace, a network of zero-gee space stations inhabited almost entirely by quaddies. Diplomatic Immunity takes place in Quaddiespace, hence the logic of putting the two books together, and features Miles’s old friend Bel Thorne, a former Dendarii Mercenary; the politically incorrect shenanigans of the Barryaran military; a quaddie ballet based on the romance of Leo Graf and Silver; and the kind of elaborate genetic treason that could only be committed by a Cetagandan. It’s surprisingly reminiscent of the early Naismith books, considering that it’s also the book where Miles’s first children are born. Maybe it’s a last hurrah for the little admiral? (Or Miles is just terminally immature. Also possible.)

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cryoburn
And now I am caught up! Huzzah. This was a fairly lightweight book, as the Vorkosigan series goes — more on the level of Cetaganda than Memory, but delightful for all that. (Except for the last three words. Oh god, the last three words.) In addition to Miles’s point of view, we get the POV of Jin, a street kid on Kibou-daini, where Miles has been sent to poke at the local economy and figure out what kind of game they’re trying to pull. You see, on Kibou-daini, when people are close to death, rather than just dying they’re cryo-frozen for a length of time, until someone comes up with a cure for whatever they have or their contract runs out, whichever comes first, and White Chrysalis, one of the major cryocorps on Kibou-daini, wants to expand into the Barryaran Empire. There’s a lot of poking around, and political protestors, and shady corporate dealings, but Miles doesn’t really have a lot at stake for most of the book. Until those last three words. Oh my god, those last three words. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried.

Rumor has it that the next one is an Ivan book. (More than rumor, really, since there are a couple of scenes that Bujold has been doing readings of floating around the interwebs.) I cannot wait.

Carole G. Silver, Strange and Secret Peoples
This was one of those delightful coincidences — just as I was thinking about starting to work again on that faerie novel I had begun a couple of years ago, someone recommended this book in a blog I read. It’s a history of Victorian attitudes toward and uses of fairies in literature, folklore, and analysis, and it was enthralling. Fairies were a big part of what was basically Victorian pop culture, and Silver cites examples in everything from folklorists’ writings (which were also pretty big at the time) to Dickens to Blake. Plus there were a lot of references to the works of the Romantics which the Victorians were riffing off of, which will be wonderful for my novel.

Borders of Infinity, Miles Errant, Memory, No Plot? No Problem!, The Leper of Saint Giles, Miles in Love

At last, the final list of books from 2010. And a happy new year to you all! May 2011 be an improvement in all ways.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Borders of Infinity
Three novellas in the Vorkosiverse, “Labyrinth,” “The Mountains of Mourning,” (both of which I read in their earlier omnibus volumes) and the titular “Borders of Infinity,” in which Miles really does start out with not so much as the clothes on his back and end up performing the most dramatic prison break in history. All with the frame story I always love, the “you’re running drastically over budget, what the hell” complaint. What, someone has to foot the bill for all these shenanigans.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles Errant
MARK! Er, I may be very fond of the new character introduced in this set, Brothers in Arms and Mirror Dance (with “Borders of Infinity” again). Basically, a crazy Komarran terrorist made a clone of Miles to use to assassinate his father. But remember, Miles is somewhat physically deformed due to a prenatal assassination attempt, so in order to make them interchangeable, Mark had to undergo a whole lot of fairly unnecessary surgery. While being lectured on all of Miles’s amazing achievements. Talk about sibling rivalry. Mirror Dance is basically the book in which Mark becomes a human being, and I love it deeply, as strange and traumatizing as it is. I may have read most of it at work simply because I couldn’t bear to leave it alone for eight hours at a time. *shifty eyes*

Lois McMaster Bujold, Memory
Now this is a work of staggering genius. I didn’t find the mystery all that mysterious — or maybe I’m just more paranoid than Miles — but I adored the character development in this book. It’s Simon Illyan’s book, really; he’s been lurking in the background since the beginning of the series, but here he becomes a person. A fragile, failing person in a lot of pain. The general consensus online is that the most tragic line in the book is, “Ivan, you idiot, what are you doing here?” And I might have to agree.

Chris Baty, No Plot? No Problem!
And then in the middle of all this I read the NaNoWriMo book. Yes, in December. It was checked out of the library all through November. I actually came out of this liking the whole concept of NaNoWriMo much more than I did by the end of November, when I’d barely scratched 35,000 words and had completely lost the thread of my novel. The book is very big on finishing something by the end of the month, where I had just set my goal as having the word count. I think next time I’ll shoot for actually finishing the story in a month, even if that means having to write whole chapters in two-sentence paragraphs. (After all, the original point of NaNo is to become a Novelist, so you can go to swanky parties and impress people by talking about your manuscript.)

Ellis Peters, The Leper of Saint Giles
It took me forever to get through this Cadfael, what with all the Miles books I also had to get through. This is one of the ones, too, where I’d seen the adaptation, which was very true to the book, so there were no real surprises. I enjoyed it, even though it was a little boring what with knowing everything that was going to happen. More Cadfael on request from the library as we speak.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles in Love
Komarr and A Civil Campaign. I actually liked Komarr much better, possibly because I really like Ekaterin and enjoyed spending all that time in her PoV. One of the things that actually got me to read this series was the commenters at Making Light talking about how awful and awkward the dinner party scene in A Civil Campaign is to read, so I was expecting it to be horrible, but I found I actually enjoyed it. I usually don’t like embarrassment comedy, but I apparently have an exception for when the person being embarrassed really, really deserves it. And hey, at least Miles learns from his mistakes. Eventually.

Sun Dancing, A Morbid Taste for Bones, The Dead-Tossed Waves, I Shall Wear Midnight

Geoffrey Moorhouse, Sun Dancing
I was a little disappointed in this book — it was advertised as an imaginative retelling of the history of one of the white martyr monasteries in early medieval Ireland, with documentation to back up the retelling. Most of the documentation was pretty vague stuff about the history of the Celtic Church, though, rather than anything in support of the actual events he was talking about in the retelling section. Which was interesting, but not awesome. I’m not sorry I read it, but I don’t think I’ll run out and read it again.

Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones
After watching Derek Jacobi be awesome all over the TV series, I figured I ought to actually read the Cadfael series. I’d brought one of them home from the epic weeding project I did last spring, but it turned out to be not only very late in the series but actually a direct sequel to the first book, so I didn’t actually read it. severa lent me her copy of the first book, and I enjoyed it immensely. Pretty good medieval setting, excellent main characters, and a murder mystery that is supported almost entirely by characterization rather than by some kind of elaborate double-bluff. I am now plowing through as many of the rest as I can get my hands on.

Carrie Ryan, The Dead-Tossed Waves
The sequel to the amazing Forest of Hands and Teeth, almost immediately after I bought this I read a review that said it was terrible, so I took forever to get around to reading it. It wasn’t terrible, but it certainly wasn’t as good as the first one. It covers roughly the same kind of territory — growing up, and becoming an actual person, in a post-zombie-apocalypse society — but with a very different main character and a very different part of that society. It was a little slow to get going, but it really picked up in the second third and I enjoyed it very much by the end.

Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight
The latest Tiffany Aching book. I love Tiffany. Best witch ever. Yes, even better than Granny Weatherwax — especially for narration, because when she makes mistakes, she doesn’t always know they’re mistakes right off, the way Granny does. This was also great fun because pretty much everyone had a cameo: Vimes, Granny Weatherwax, Nobby Nobbs, Magrat, Carrot, even Esk… I was just sad that Tiffany didn’t get to meet the Patrician. Now that would have been entertaining.

On Writing, Unhinged, The Fellowship of the Ring, Crazy Like Us

I haven’t been reading as much this month due to NaNoWriMo, but I have finally finished another stack. Woo!

Stephen King, On Writing
I reread this in the leadup to NaNoWriMo, hoping to be inspired, since I couldn’t get ahold of the NaNo book in time. Alas, I seemed to like this book much more the last time I read it. Possibly because I’ve discovered the problems with seat-of-the-pants writing, namely that it leads to long, convoluted drafts with lots of confusion. (Like, say, recent Stephen King novels.) Oh, well.

Daniel J. Carlat, Unhinged
Carlat is a psychiatrist, writing about the problems with psychiatry as a field — namely that it’s extremely vulnerable to manipulation by pharmaceutical companies, largely because it’s the field of medicine with the least tangible research to back it up with, so anybody who suggests that they have a Real Medical Solution to a problem, as opposed to just talking about feelings and stuff.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
In fact I read this out loud to my roommate, who had never read Lord of the Rings before, in order to expand her cultural education. And then, two chapters into The Two Towers, it turns out she’s never read The Hobbit either. So now we’re back in Thranduil’s palace, and soon we shall get caught up again.

Ethan Watters, Crazy Like Us
I wanted this book to be so much longer, but alas it was only three substantial case studies. Excellent case studies, though. Watters is examining the principles of cross-cultural psychology: the fact that, no matter what Western psychiatry may think, all human psychologies are not the same. He discusses the spread of Western-style anorexia in Hong Kong, the dangers of PTSD counseling in Indonesia, and the marketing of depression in Japan in the 1990s. Note 11/24/10 – the author dropped by to remind me that I’m forgetting the fourth case study, on schizophrenia in Zanzibar. end edit If this book had any flaws, it was in a certain amount of essentializing the cultures he discussed. He tends to talk about Western culture as though there’s a consensus about what mental illness is and how it should be treated, which isn’t true (as anyone living with a mental illness in Western culture can tell you), so I’d probably take any other broad statements about cultural attitudes with a grain of salt, too. But the discussion of how mental illnesses come into and out of existence was fascinating, and extremely thought-provoking.

Not Flesh Nor Feathers, Traffic, ttyl, Mushishi

(I’ve been so busy with my 30 Days of Books posts, I’ve been neglecting to post about my latest reads. Ooops.)

Cherie Priest, Not Flesh nor Feathers
Last in the Eden Moore series, and still awesome. Now with zombies! This book is pretty apocalyptic, what with the flood of Chattanooga and the undead coming out of the darkness — not to eat people, in this case, but at the behest of an angry twelve-year-old ghost who can’t be stopped or comforted. I love the…well, the realism, for lack of a better word, of Priest’s ghosts. They act just like people do, only more frustrated, because they’re dead.

Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic
I blogged about this a little earlier in my 30 Days of Books series, too. Like I said there, it’s a pretty fascinating overview of what we know, scientifically, about how traffic works — not only how people drive, but how patterns and trends emerge, and what to do about them. There’s a whole chapter on my favorite insight about traffic, which is that roads are safer the less safe drivers feel, largely because when drivers feel safe they speed and when drivers feel unsafe they slow the hell down.

Lauren Myracle, ttyl
You know, I don’t have to look at this book and think, Was I ever like that in high school? I know I wasn’t. I just wasn’t that type of teenager; I couldn’t wait to grow up and get out into something that more closely resembled civilization than high school does. I enjoyed this book nonetheless. The girls are bright, their fights are indeed about real things high school girls fight about, and their solutions are occasionally brilliant. I don’t think I’ll read the rest of Myracle’s books, it’s just not really my thing, but I would have no hesitation about recommending them to people for whom this is their thing, particularly high school girls.

Mushishi 8-10, Yuki Urushibara
I don’t know why they decided to publish the last three volumes of this series all in one gigantic brick, and I have to say, I’m kind of annoyed about it. The stories themselves, though, are as wonderful as ever; Ginko is brilliant and slightly sneaky, the mushi are tremendously alien, and all of the stories have an excellent meditative kind of feel. They’re like haiku in manga form. Supernatural haiku. I love it, and while I’m sad there won’t be any more, I don’t think the series is lacking in any way.

30 Days of Books: Day Eight

Have you ever gotten sick and not noticed it until one day you just had to leave work early and come home and sleep for something like fifteen hours? Yeah. That has been my life this week.

Day 08 – A book everyone should read at least once

I can’t recommend fiction for this, because people’s tastes are so different, and books I love are going to be death to other people. (See Jonathan Strange, above.) But hey, I love a good nonfiction book too.

I think I’m going to go with the book I just finished — Traffic: How We Drive (And What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt. It’s an overview of the state of scientific knowledge about driving, which is, quite frankly, a little scary. We spend huge amounts of time in cars and on the road, and we don’t know a lot about how or why traffic systems work (or, all too frequently, don’t work).

Vanderbilt spends, for instance, a whole chapter on attention. One thing that we do know is that people are very bad at paying attention. Part of this is actually adaptive, because if we paid attention to everything all the time we’d go into overload pretty quickly. Unfortunately, this also makes it easy to zone out when driving — and while most people are pretty sure they would see something unexpected in that state, research indicates that’s not really true.

I think books like this, about the ways we aren’t even necessarily aware of our inherent psychological inadequacies, are really important. Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational is another one, which I read last year, about how people do not often act in the perfectly rational ways that economists and other optimists expect us to. I find these kind of books help me to understand myself and other people, which in turn makes me more sympathetic to my own and others’ flaws, which generally reduces my daily stress level by quite a bit. If that’s not a good reason for a book recommendation, I don’t know what is.

30 Days of Books: Day Five

Day 05 – A book or series you hate

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. I was an anthropology major as an undergrad; it’s practically required that I hate this book.

There are a couple of problems with this (alas) apparent modern classic of popular anthropology, but the big one is that it takes history for granted. It assumes that everything that happened — specifically, that European domination of the world — was inevitable, and attempts to justify it with science. The problem is, science doesn’t work that way. We don’t know that recorded human history was inevitable (and it’s not exactly a repeatable experiment). Probably it wasn’t. Probably there were a million tiny accidents that could have happened differently that might have led, say, to Mayan colonies in the Pacific Northwest by 1502 under different circumstances. We don’t even currently understand how the Americas were first inhabited — how can we say it was inevitable that they would eventually be colonized by Europeans?

The second problem I have with this book is that it’s a very environmentally determinist argument: it treats the physical environment as the most important (practically the only) factor in determining events, leaving no room for human culture or accidents of history to influence things. Now, this is to a certain extent a legitimate perspective to look at things from. But I’ve never liked it, and most anthropologists seem to think that Diamond takes it too far in any case. History may seem like a steamrolling force of nature, but in its finest grain it consists of people, and people are inherently unpredictable.

I wish there were a good rebuttal of Guns, Germs and Steel, written for the same kind of popular audience, but there just isn’t. Instead I have to recommend other kinds of popular history and anthropology all together and hope that people will notice that Diamond is not necessarily all he’s cracked up to be. (This is, in fact, why I created the reading list that I did for the Middleton Public Library. I wanted to be able to have a list of popular anthropology books to recommend people instead of just saying, “Well, Guns, Germs and Steel kind of sucks.”)

30 Days of Books: Day Four

Day 04 – Your favorite book or series ever

Whoops, missed a day, largely because we’re coming up to a series of prompts I don’t really know how to deal with. Remember how, on Day One, I said that I’m really bad with “favorite”s and not to believe anything I put down as one? This would be one of the prompts I stared at for hours thinking “I DON’T EVEN,” and eventually I decided the heck with it, I’ll just write about something I’ve been reading lately. So just throw out the “favorite ever” part of this prompt and bear with me while I ramble on about books I like.

I’ve become enamored lately of John Douglas’s books about being an FBI profiler. Co-written with Mark Olshaker, these go into the basics of criminal profiling and break down categories of profiles. I’ve always been kind of interested in true crime, largely because I’m interested in people, and I think you can’t really understand something until you understand how it fails. Serial killers pretty much qualify as the failure state of humanity. Most true crime, though, particularly books about serial killers, tends to be really exploitative; they’re not about people, they’re about blood and guts and shocking! truths!

Though he gets a little melodramatic at times, Douglas is really good at treating people like people. It’s part of the reason I like profiling so much, even though I’ve read the studies that say it’s never actually been all that useful in criminal investigations or prosecutions. Most of the criminal justice system functions in one of two modes: either you’re Putting Bad People Away, or it’s a kind of game, a system where you get points for winning at something. Profiling is about treating everyone, criminals and victims alike, as people who had reasons for whatever they were doing, even if their reasons, quite frankly, sucked. It makes the monsters human again, and I think it’s important to remember that people we can call monsters are not necessarily that different from us. (It also makes the victims human again. My favorite Douglas book for this is Obsession, which my roommate and I call The Rape Book. Douglas’s rage about victim-blaming, particularly the type that happens in the courts, is righteous and amazing.)

And, okay, I would not be honest if I did not admit that I started reading these books because I freaking love Criminal Minds, and David Rossi is clearly based on John Douglas. (I swear I can hear Joe Mantegna in my head when I read them.) If I do a 30 Days of Television when I’m done with 30 Days of Books, like I’ve been thinking about doing, there’s a real chance it’ll be All Criminal Minds, All The Time. But I’ve never seen another crime show that so consistently treats every single character as a human being, with writing so consistantly challenging and demanding and downright awesome. So, if you are like me and find serial killers morbidly fascinating (and not just for the blood), a dual recommendation. Start with Mindhunter by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker (Seriously, John, Mindhunter? What a terrible title), and continue with Criminal Minds. Start with season one and give it at least a full disc of episodes. You’ll thank me for it eventually.

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