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Recently read:

Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges. Uneven. When a given story contains a solid alignment of idea and style (eg, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, The Library of Babel) it's spectacular. When they aren't quite aligned (Funes the Memorious, The South) the coy, oblique, allusive style feels like a tiresome smokescreen to cover for Borges's unwillingness to really develop an idea.

Tales of Pirx the Pilot, by Stanisław Lem. Okay. Blunt, low-stakes stories in a setting where interplanetary travel, and all it implies, is common, and even boring. They work fine as escapist thrillers, but mostly lack the more cerebral appeal of Lem's better/mature work.

Fiasco, also by Stanisław Lem. Lem's last and probably most pessimistic novel, and ostensibly the last Pirx story, this is almost exactly the opposite: almost all of the appeal is intellectual, especially since there is no happy or even emotionally-satisfying ending. Also Lem's last and most thorough treatment of the first contact scenario he returned to through his career. An extremely good book.

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  • 4 months later...

Recently read books:

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. Very good. There's so much that's been said about this novel that I don't think there's much I can add to the discourse. I enjoyed it, and especially the sly way Vonnegut works his themes into the text both plot-wise and stylistically.

The Isles: A History, by Norman Davies. I think Davies is very possibly a brilliant historian, but in that particularly British way (eg Taylor or Hobsbawm or Trevor-Roper or Carr- Taylor was his mentor) where his idiosyncrasies and biases and iconoclasm are so apparent that it's hard to recommend him broadly. Anyway this is a history of the "British" Isles (deliberately avoiding that term for good reasons). He's excellent at the big sweeping aspects, but sometimes fumbles the details.

Memoirs of a Space Traveler, by Stanisław Lem. This is basically just the stories that got cut from the English translation of The Star Diaries, translated by different translators, and then reassembled into this hodgepodge. It's uneven enough that, frankly, removing these stories from The Star Diaries makes it a stronger work, while this is basically a curio, although some of it is great.

The Show that Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock, by Dave Weigel. A weird misfire. Lots of information, synthesized poorly, with no real thesis or arguments, and little in the way of explanatory power. Disappointing.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino. Typically stylistically brilliant and elusive in the standard Calvino way, although I felt that ultimately this might be less than the sum of its parts- there are passages that are gold, and then passages that, while clever, are merely serviceable- in a way that perhaps illustrates why I have thus far preferred his short fiction to his novels. It also gives me a greater appreciation for what Lem means by his backhanded compliment, in A Perfect Vacuum, that Calvino is the artistic descendant of jewelers rather than of sculptors.

 

Currently: A Perfect Vacuum, by Lem. Next up, in some order: His Master's Voice and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot, both also by Lem; The Hole in the Moon and Other Tales by Margaret St. Clair; Cat's Cradle by Vonnegut; Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Hope they're good.

Edited by googoogjoob
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  • 3 weeks later...

Oh boy. More books:

 

A Perfect Vacuum, by Stanisław Lem. Reviews of nonexistent books, which format Lem uses to strike out in different directions, some more fruitful than others. Some of these reviews made me wish dearly that the books they describe existed; others were excellent constructs in themselves; and some were just boring. Overall worthwhile.

Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. I feel basically similarly about this book as I do about Slaughterhouse-Five, although it wasn't quite as good, maybe. Lots of jokes, very little incident. But they're good jokes.

Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town, by Thomas Jerome Seabrook. Flawed (too much focus on Lust for Life, not enough on Lodger, etc), but overall an excellent work of collation and organization into a coherent narrative, and probably the best book (for now) on the most creatively fruitful period of David Bowie's career.

More Tales of Pirx the Pilot, by Stanisław Lem. This is the second half of the Pirx short stories, which got unnecessarily split into two books in English translation. The currently-in-print versions of these books are somehow from different publishers, too. Anyway. Better than the first half of the stories- meatier themes and better storytelling. While taking a shower when I was near the end of reading this book, I realized why Fiasco is a Pirx story, even though Pirx dies off-screen in the first chapter, and the protagonist of the bulk of the novel may or may not be (and probably isn't) Pirx.

The Street Lawyer, by John Grisham. Loaned from my grandparents. A change of pace from all the weighty speculative fiction stuff. It was okay, I guess. I certainly managed to read over 300 pages of it in three days.

The Hole in the Moon and Other Stories, by Margaret St. Clair. A recent anthology of 17 (mostly very brief) stories by Margaret St. Clair, a post-Golden Age, pre-New Wave pulp author of weird fiction. The collection curiously omits what I understand to be her best-known story (The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles, which I haven't read), but it does a good job of making a case for St. Clair as an overlooked talent worthy of rediscovery- she had a knack for breezy storytelling and freaky happenings. (Trivia: two of her novels were cited by Gygax as thematic influences on the development of Dungeons & Dragons.)

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7 hours ago, googoogjoob said:

Stanisław Lem

Did you read the recent translation in English of Solaris dating back to 2011? For some reason I cannot find it.

 

I'm currently reading I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, more interesting than I had imagined. I like the way Asimov describes the situations, quite blankly, and how he focuses on the danger robots represent, although he doesn't much emphasizes too heavily on it. :)

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54 minutes ago, ladyonthemoon said:

Did you read the recent translation in English of Solaris dating back to 2011? For some reason I cannot find it.

I have not. My understanding of the situation is that, while the 2011 translation is much, much superior to the original English translation, due to obscure publishing rights issues, it can only be released as an audiobook and an ebook (and there might be further rights issues from there, even though Lem's family prefers the 2011 translation). I don't listen to audiobooks, and I don't have an ebook reader.

 

I've actually never read Solaris at all. The more-easily-available standard English translation from 1970 is a hackjob that retranslates a French translation of the novel into English, and Lem hated it. And my Polish is nowhere near good enough to read the original. If I'm going to read the book, I want to do so in a way that doesn't mangle it somehow.

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Raven Tower by Ann Leckie. I would say it lacks a certain something that her more famous Ancillary series has. It still has a detached narrator who is extremely reliable about facts and unreliable when it comes to introspection. I was prepared to dislike it by getting it un-recommended to me, but I found it quite charming. It captures a mythic and even mythological atmosphere well, and the fact that it's a transparent rehashing of another work with a twist and an outside perspective doesn't detract anything.

 

—Alorael, who also finds that it's one of those books that makes him really want to play the tabletop game adaptation, but there isn't one, and it's not something where even the bare bones of how to make one seems obvious. That's praise.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Am about 20 pages away from finishing up Ian Toll's 2400ish page "Pacific War" trilogy.  He does a really good job of examining both strategic & tactical actions from both sides (Japanese & American (& to a lesser extent, when appropriate, British, Dutch, Chinese, Russian, etc)) of most everything that went on in the Pacific theater/area from the scene setting actions of the early 1900s through the Japanese surrender/occupation in 1945-46.  As a history geek I thought I had at least a good general understanding of the major events of the war in the Pacific... I was wrong.  I knew the dates/locations of lots of things, but didn't really understand the thinking that went behind what was going on (based on the knowledge of the times & not looking back in hindsight).

 

Probably way, way too much for someone who wants to know more about the Pacific portion of WW2.  But for someone who wants to learn more of the nuts & bolts behind the scenes & how 'x' was important to be able to do 'y' later on (plus has a lot of time available to read 2400 pages...), the trilogy really was a well written set that was, admittedly massive, but tended not to get bogged down in either a dry recitation of facts or getting really deep into dull minutia.

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  • 1 month later...

I really haven't been reading much lately, have I? I have a barely-read stack of non-fiction from Value Village, acquired because I thought it was a way to read about topics I wouldn't have thought to seek out normally. The last one I finished was Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse, which took me months because I only read it when I was puppy-sitting. It covers a wide range of topics, all centred on six different case studies. Detailed while still being accessible to a layperson like me. My biggest problem with the book is that the previous owner must have been a heavy smoker.

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Books I have read since the last post I made in this thread:

Highcastle: A Remembrance, by Stanisław Lem. Atypical for Lem, as it's a memoir of his childhood in interwar Lwów- it very pointedly ends before he reaches adulthood; he turned 18 in September 1939. Perceptive and unsentimental, as one would expect from Lem; surprisingly moving in places.

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, by William Dalrymple. A very good history of the East India Company and its interactions with the Mughals and other South Asian powers, up till about 1800, by which time the EIC was the dominant power in the subcontinent. Dalrymple is an excellent writer and historian in command of his material; and he does a good job at conveying how disgusting and criminal the EIC conquest of India was, although it's clear there are figures he likes and dislikes among both the Indian political scene and the Company.

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach. If you've read one Mary Roach book, you kinda know what you're in for with all the others. She's never anything less than an excellent writer, but sometimes she writes about material that ends up being not-so-engaging. This book is about military science, so it's only intermittently interesting, and on top of that, she only writes about the science-and-technology side of things, so what exactly all this science and technology is for is a constant, uncomfortable, unexamined presence- there's lots of talk about how soldiers will need to be able to stay cool or survive IEDs in "the Middle East," but no examination of why they might be in the "Middle East," or what exactly they're doing there. Not great. She has another book coming out later this year, in any case, about animals and the law. Hope it's fun.

The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett. Super-popular, and generally regarded as a classic, but: actually pretty bad. Flat characters (the women in particular; Follett struggles to find anything for his women characters to do beyond get raped), weak historical research (the feudalism presented in this novel bears about as much resemblance to the actual Anglo-Norman political system as do the systems in Dune or ASOIAF), curiously old-fashioned, episodic plotting (crises are usually solved tidily, and while the stakes rise over the course of the novel, it never feels very tied-together), and an odd, late-emerging sheen of Whig history (presenting the Becket crisis as a step towards modern liberal democracy). I must assume that it's mainly popular among people unfamiliar with the actual history of the time period in question, and who haven't read very many good historical novels- this isn't just far from being the best historical novel I've ever read, it's actually not even the best historical novel about the Anarchy I've read (that'd be When Christ and His Saints Slept, by Sharon Kay Penman).

The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857, by William Dalrymple. Sort of a followup to the prior book by Dalrymple (published earlier, but covering a later period of history), this is a close-focus account of the Great Mutiny in and around Delhi, and especially in and around the Mughal court. Excellent and evenhanded.

World Without End, by Ken Follett. Perhaps unwisely, I ended up getting the two sequels to Pillars of the Earth. This is the first sequel, set about 150 years after Pillars. Surprisingly, it's also much, much better; Follett clearly improved greatly as a writer in the 18 years between writing Pillars and this book. Much better historical research, much better characters (nobody's too perfect; everyone's believable; the women have much more depth and agency), more-integrated plotting (though it speeds up a bit too much near the end, and nearly glosses over some major developments). Not a masterpiece, but a really solid historical novel.

 

My computer's motherboard burnt out a month ago, so I've been reading a bunch in that time (though only the last two books listed above; they're pretty long). I'm currently something like two-thirds of the way through the second Pillars sequel, A Column of Fire. It's not great. He tries to pack too much real history in, so it's super-eventful, but the writing is sometimes almost telegraphic, and none of the characters have much room to breathe or develop. Ah well.

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  • 5 weeks later...

A month later: more books.

 

A Column of Fire, by Ken Follett. Pretty much as described in the last post; it doesn't improve markedly in the last stretch. Historical research on par with World Without End, but storytelling inferior to either Pillars or World, resulting in a book that is curiously both very eventful and very lifeless. Oh well.

His Master's Voice, by Stanisław Lem. Probably the densest and driest Lem novel I've read- which is saying something- but also, par for the course for Lem, absolutely packed with ideas. Intellectually very rewarding, but as a "first contact" novel overall, second to Fiasco in Lem's oeuvre.

The Laughing Monsters, by Denis Johnson. The first of four books I have acquired in the past month from Dollar Trees, which are a good place to find a) absolute garbage books, and also b) misunderstood literature which has fallen through the cracks and gotten remaindered; sometimes c) both. This fits firmly under c. Apparently the last novel of a late major author who I have no prior familiarity with, and a weird mess of a book; a tensionless espionage thriller which uncomfortably rides (and honestly really sometimes just crosses) the line of "Darkest Africa" tropes, with zero feeling of authenticity. Not even enough character development to make it interesting in that way. At least some of the prose is pretty good. And it was only a buck.

The Civil War: A History, by Harry Hansen. A 1961 single-volume history, it avoids being dated by the simple expedient of avoiding any in-depth interpretive work in its rush to get play-by-plays of every campaign and major battle into a single (albeit fat) volume. Very very dense with military history, with hardly any political/diplomatic analysis, or coverage of the home fronts or culture, or economic issues. (I'll give Hansen credit, though, for not remotely bothering to pretend that the war was over anything but slavery, which is more than can be said for certain Civil War histories.) Taken on its own ground, it's solid, but very dry. Overall: it was fine, and I certainly understand the military side of the war better now, but deep down I know I should just like see if I can get Battle Cry of Freedom out of the library at some point.

 

Currently: inching my way through Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters; I am not big on poetry, but it's pretty good. Also: First Person, by Richard Flanagan, another Dollar Tree acquisition by a major novelist which seems to have fallen through the cracks. Very good prose, but time will tell whether this is a b or a c.

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  • 2 weeks later...
  • 2 weeks later...

Pierre Berton's The Great Depression is actually the first Berton I've read (well, other than The Secret World of Og). I can see why he's "history for people who don't like history" -- he's got a light, narrative style. But I'm looking for something a bit more thorough and footnote-laden.

 

I also read Maria Dahvana Headley's translation of Beowulf (the infamous "bro" version). I don't have much to compare it to, as the only other translation I've read is Seamus Heany's. And Eaters of the Dead, if that counts? She, uh, really likes alliteration?

 

Astro City continues to be Very Good. Still looking for one more trade to finish the run.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Time for another one of these. In order of completion:

 

A Wizard a True Star: Todd Rundgren in the Studio, by Paul Myers. What it says on the tin. Remarkably thorough and detailed on what he chooses to cover- Rundgren's and Utopia's albums, plus major Rundgren production jobs- with lots of new interview material and anecdotes and the like. That said, Todd Rundgren remains sort of elusive and difficult as an artist; this book is mainly about his craft and influence on other artists more than about his own art.

Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters. It was, in fact, pretty good. Unfortunately I struggle to say much more about it. The poems were pretty good.

First Person, by Richard Flanagan. Turned out to be a b, basically. Slippery and tricky. Weird metatextual stuff going on with Flanagan's real life. I'm not sure it ultimately achieves any great artistic statements, but it was worth reading.

The World's Greatest Short Stories, James Daley, ed. Maybe not quite, but it certainly did have some Great Short Stories in it (Bartleby the Scrivener, The Death of Ivan Ilych, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Lady with the Toy Dog, A Hunger Artist, A&P). Also had some less-great stories, but what can you do.

The Civil War: Great Speeches and Documents, Bob Blaisdell, ed. I read through a Dover Thrift volume of Civil War primary documents. That's all there is to say about that.

Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson. Pretty great. Has been described as "Spoon River Anthology translated into prose" which I can see, and which is why I read this soon after Spoon River, but I think Winesburg is more impressive both technically and artistically; it feels like an American Dubliners.

The Ditch, by Herman Koch. Underwhelming. Another dollar store find. Plain, conversational, easily-read prose, but not gripping at all. Essentially plotless. Repeatedly avoids climaxes in favor of... nothing, really. The resolution of the book is so understated as to be nonexistent. It just kinda stops.

 

Next: Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis, to round out the trilogy of early 20th century literature about the Midwest.

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  • 5 weeks later...

Update:

 

The Volunteer, by Salvatore Scibona. Intermittently beautifully written, but ultimately kinda aimless both in plot and themes. I found out after reading it that it was expanded from a short story, which comprises the first 20 or so pages of this 400-page novel, and that unfortunately makes sense.

Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures, by Nick Pyenson. A pretty good overview of current whale science, written by a working scientist (a paleontologist, to be exact). Kinda incoherently organized but a decent read.

Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis. Unsubtle but effective. Slow-paced until the last quarter or so. Very good.

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  • 4 weeks later...

More books.

 

Great Horror Stores: Tales by Stoker, Poe, Lovecraft and Others, John Grafton, ed. A Dover Thrift anthology; very very well-selected, actually. Has some genuinely great stories in it (Algernon Blackwood's The Willows; H P Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space; M R James's 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad,' Shirley Jackson's The Lottery), some merely pretty good stories, and only one real clunker (Arthur Machen's The White People, which has dated terribly; it's horror for the sort of Victorian/Edwardian reader who would've been scandalized by The Golden Bough). Very good.

Hotel Scarface: Where Cocaine Cowboys Partied and Plotted to Control Miami, by Roben Farzad. A colorful, anecdotal, journalistic account of the cocaine economy of 70s-90s Miami. Heavy on stories and characters, pretty light on historical analysis (the author is a journalist, after all); undergirded by a genuinely impressive array of interviews with people on both sides of the law. Enjoyable but also honestly kinda inconsequential.

Unbury Carol, by Josh Malerman. An initially promising Weird West thriller kind of a story ends up being a bloated airplane novel type of thing, light on characterization and themes. Oh well.

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  • 4 weeks later...

It's time... for even more books.

 

Star of the North, by D B John. A disappointingly unthrilling thriller about North Korea. This is another remaindered dollar store book. Broadly-researched, but also kind of propagandistic against NK; I have no difficulties believing that the government of North Korea is evil, or that it regularly violates the human rights of its citizens- the trouble comes in when someone (or some book) tries to convince me that North Korea is uniquely evil. Which this book doesn't really manage, falling back as it does on Cold War-era stereotypes of Soviet politics and politicians to get by. Kim Jong Il is depicted as basically a cackling supervillain in the climax. Doesn't really work as a turn-your-brain-off thriller, either: it's ambitious enough to have three protagonists, but none of them gets enough screen time, and there's not enough action to be exciting.

See You Again in Pyongyang, by Travis Jeppesen. A nonfiction novel/travelogue based on the author's several sojourns in North Korea, most especially a month spent studying Korean at a university in Pyongyang (the first American to study there ever). Read in deliberate contrast to the above. This is about as balanced and informative as any book on North Korea can be, probably. But it kind of falls short in that there's no reason for it to be framed as a narrative- what happens is the author will go somewhere or see something and then digress for several pages in dry nonfictional exposition; he also doesn't exploit the novel form to create any sense of insight or empathy for the North Koreans he meets. So it's pretty good as a book about North Korea, but pretty weak as a book in toto.

Classic Mystery Stories, Douglas G Greene, ed. "Classic" is maybe going a bit far for most of the stories in this anthology. It's kind of more interested in depicting the development of the detective story via samples from popular contemporary literature than it is in quality per se- so there are some stories that aren't really detective/mystery stories at all, and also a bunch of gimmicky Holmes knockoffs (eg ASTROGEN KIRBY, who is a detective but also a phony psychic/mind-reader; LADY MOLLY OF SCOTLAND YARD, who mostly solves domestic-related crimes; UNCLE ABNER, who solves crimes with his folksy wisdom and knowledge of the Bible; A V R E "AVERAGE" JONES, who solves advertising-related crimes and/or uses advertising to solve crimes). The gimmicky "character" detective stories are maybe not technically "good" stories (they're mostly loosely plotted, or revolve around a single contrived puzzle), but it was at least enjoyable to get to know them, at least for a little bit.

Great Short Short Stories: Quick Reads by Great Writers, Paul Negri, ed. 30 brief short stories. Some are excellent (The Egg by Sherwood Anderson, The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe, Squire Petrick's Lady by Thomas Hardy, Sanctuary by Nella Larsen), some are mediocre, obscure space-filling works by big names, and some are only of historical interest. But that's kinda what I expected going into this, so it was okay.

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  • 1 month later...

Oh boy. It's more books.

 

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. I was surprised by how much I did not like this book. The style is thrumming, fervid with life- but also frequently disjointed and disorienting; I found it captivating when it kept to a clear narrative, but frustrating and alienating when it'd elide bits of time or chronology, too-literarily, I felt. Then as a story, I felt it was too consciously literary and allegorical- the alternate-history stuff was too overtly allegorical, rather than believable as history or as a living world, and the characters felt flattened out into symbolic figures in the plot. Disappointing.

Orson Welles's Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, by Josh Karp. Basically what it sounds like; pretty comprehensive; inevitably lots about wrangling over the unfinished movie; published before it was actually finished and released. Not the sort of subject matter I'd usually read about, but it was another dollar store find, so why not.

The Feral Detective, by Jonathan Lethem. Another disappointment. A deeply unlikeable protagonist/viewpoint character (who's clearly meant to be unlikeable at least in some ways, but I couldn't quite judge exactly how much so- in any case, she's unlikeable enough that it was sometimes painful to read); muddy political themes (the book starts out with a bunch of stuff pretty explicitly framing the story as having to do with the 2016 US presidential election, but then that mostly falls away, and the book doesn't really clearly say much about it at all); a meandering plot-tumor sort of story with disappointingly little detection, feral or otherwise. Oh well.

Car Trouble, by Robert Rorke. A perfectly serviceable coming-of-age novel about a guy growing up in late 60s-early 70s Brooklyn with an alcoholic father. Never really takes flight, but bumbles along amiably enough. I read several chapters while waiting in bus stops during the holidays.

Detective Stories, Peter Washington, ed. An upscale Everyman's Pocket Classics edition; weirdly sparse for an anthology, with no introduction, author bios, publication dates, critical context, etc. Pretty uniformly excellent stories, at least.

 

Now I'm going to read an omnibus of the first two Father Brown collections that I found at the used bookstore today; and John Keay's history of India.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I'm reading several books. A chapter here from one book, another chapter from another book. 

The Story of Christianity Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day by Justo Gonzalez.

Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism by Ben C. Blackwell, John K. Goodrich, and Jason Maston.

Rebooting the Bible Part Two: Discovering the Authentic Chronology of the Bible by S Douglas Woodward.

 

Very good reads for the thirsty Christian mind.

 

Post #738 :cool:

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3 hours ago, Arch-Mage Solberg said:

I'm reading several books. A chapter here from one book, another chapter from another book. 

I tend to read like that too but it's been days I haven't opened a book... :(

 

Right now, I have:

  • Neal Spephenson's Seveneves,
  • Tolkien's Lord of the Rings,
  • Stratis Tsirkas' Cités à la Dérive,
  • Mohamed MBougar Sarr's Terre Ceinte,

to read.

 

Gee, I really need to do something about that! :lol:

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  • 2 weeks later...

Another month. More books.

 

Father Brown Crime Stories: Twenty Four Short Mysteries, by G. K. Chesterton. Contains the first two (of five) collections of Father Brown mysteries Chesterton wrote. Very, very uneven as mysteries- only in maybe one-third of the stories is the solution genuinely clever or fun. Very, very uneven as pieces of writing- beautiful passages abut clumsy, hastily-written stuff. Chesterton himself copped to these issues, as he was consciously writing many of these stories quickly and sloppily to make a living. In addition to being imbued with Chesterton's religious and philosophical views, the stories are also, regrettably, imbued with his racial views- bluntly, they're often passively racist, but some of them are just extremely, painfully, actively racist. The better stories were, I guess, diverting enough as escapist light fiction; the worse range from mediocre to genuinely reprehensible. In any case, I don't really feel much motivation to read the further Father Brown stories, especially as the later stories have a reputation for being worse (Chesterton stopped writing the stories for almost a decade after the stories in these collections, then returned to them because they consistently made him money).

India: A History, by John Keay. A very solid history of India from prehistory to the early 21st century; respectable and readable throughout, though Keay sometimes struggles to make the first half or so of the book interesting. Starting with the Mughals, though, it gradually becomes much more lively and engrossing as it gets nearer the present. I intend to read Keay's sister history of China at some point, as well.

Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett. Maybe the ur-hardboiled novel. Terse, blunt, sometimes crude, often brutal, but also very honest-feeling and readable. I got a nice book club edition of all five of Hammett's novels at the used book store a few weeks ago, and I intend to work through the rest too.

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. The other big name in hardboiled detective fiction. A much smoother and more mannered writer than Hammett, a lot more emphasis on (and skill with) atmosphere and characterization. Also a hellishly convoluted plot. A very good book. I found a nice book club edition of his first four novels at the same time as the Hammett (both from the same previous owner, seemingly), and I'm gonna work through them too.

 

Still slowly working my way through Arab Historians of the Crusades (edited and translated into Italian by Francesco Gabrieli, then translated into English by E. J. Costello). Inevitably mostly dry; little I don't already know from secondary works, but it's always nice to go to the sources, and there's historiographical interest, too, in seeing what they choose to emphasize or deemphasize, etc.

Edited by googoogjoob
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  • 1 month later...

Another month. More books.

 

The Dain Curse, by Dashiell Hammett. The other, less popular Continental Op novel, following Red Harvest. A respectable novel, more polished than Red Harvest stylistically, although it's also sometimes somewhat goofier, and its episodic nature (like its sibling, it was originally serialized in four parts) is much more obvious, with drastic changes of setting and tone between the sections. It slows down drastically near the end, and the last quarter is mostly, essentially, a drama, with the Op helping the young woman at the center of the murders beat her morphine addiction.

Arab Historians of the Crusades, edited and translated into Italian by Francesco Gabrieli, translated into English by E. J. Costello. Dry, as stated above, Usama bin Munqidh aside. Not super enlightening, as I was already familiar with most of the history. Arabic historiography was clearly in a pretty good way in the 12th and 13th centuries, with the historians (despite their pious protestations otherwise) generally favoring rational explanations for events, and sometimes offering multiple plausible interpretations of events. They're obviously and inevitably pretty partisan, but they're also generally not blind to the competence or achievements of those they considered opponents or enemies (who were just as often rival Muslim dynasts as Franks), even if they'll gloss intelligence, bravery, and skill as cunning or ruthlessness.

Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler. Even better than The Big Sleep; but I don't have a lot to say about it otherwise. Another convoluted plot pulled off slickly, with tons of atmosphere and character.

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. Hammett's big novel, and it mostly deserves it. Lots of double-crossing and maneuvering in the dark. Pacey, though there's very little overt action. A solid book.

This Is Not America: Stories, by Jordi Punti. Nine short stories, in translation from the Catalan. Unfortunately pretty mediocre. The sort of stories you'd read in a waiting room magazine and forget by the time you were home, mostly. Samey protagonists who all bear more than a passing resemblance to the author (diffident, ruminative middle-aged Catalan men). Oh well.

 

Currently reading The Ancient Historians, by Michael Grant. Which is, as the title implies, a prosopography and historiographical review of historians from Herodotus to Ammianus. It's respectable but dry. I don't know what novel I'll read next. Probably The High Window.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Always more books. I read a bunch of them in the past month.

 

The High Window, by Raymond Chandler. The third Marlowe novel. Probably my favorite of them, though I guess it'd be tricky to explain why. Very very good.

The Glass Key, by Dashiell Hammett. Not entirely successful, but remarkably stylistically bold- Hammett totally avoids describing the thoughts or emotions of the characters in the narration; and since the protagonist is a poker-faced gambler, it's pretty hard to deduce what exactly is going on in his head from his actions.  A good book.

The Ancient Historians, by Michael Grant. A thorough, respectable, often dusty overview of ancient historians- their style, their thematic preoccupations, their historiography and reliability, their survival. It was fine.

The Lady in the Lake, by Raymond Chandler. The fourth Marlowe novel, and the last in the omnibus I have. As solid as its predecessors. I guess I'll have to track down the omnibus collecting the remaining three Marlowe novels, though my understanding is that they start unravelling in the fifth, as Chandler became more unhappy as a person and uneven as a writer.

The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett. His last novel. Light, pacey, competent. Not nearly as lighthearted or goofy as the movie version. Unfortunately kind of forgettable and slight.

Great Short Stories by Contemporary Native American Writers, Bob Blaisdell, ed. Exactly what the title implies. Inevitably uneven, being an anthology. The best stories (Pauline Johnson's A Red Girl's Reasoning; D'Arcy McNickle's Train Time; Sherman Alexie's War Dances) were very good; the rest ranged from pretty good to forgettable. Worth reading, anyway.

Great Short Stories by African-American Writers, Christine Rudisel and Bob Blaisdell, eds. Another anthology; also inevitably uneven, but the pieces in this one were on average better than those in the prior anthology. There are great stories by big names in here (eg Rudolph Fisher's The City of Refuge; Claude McKay's He Also Loved; Ralph Ellison's Afternoon; Dorothy West's Mammy), but also gems by totally obscure writers who published short fiction in magazines before disappearing from the literary record, such that the book can't even give birth/death dates for them (Emma E. Butler's Polly's Hack Ride; Adeline F. Ries's Mammy: A Story; Lucille Boehm's Condemned House; Ramona Lowe's The Woman in the Window). Unfortunately in a regrettable editorial oversight, 21 paragraphs are inexplicably omitted from the middle of Dorothy West's Mammy, rendering it nearly incoherent. I only discovered this after looking the story up online to try to work out what was going on in it. Oh well.

 

Currently reading: James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, which is excellent; and The Wind's Twelve Quarters by Ursula K. Le Guin, which is also very good.

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6 hours ago, googoogjoob said:

 

The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett. His last novel. Light, pacey, competent. Not nearly as lighthearted or goofy as the movie version. Unfortunately kind of forgettable and slight

Hammett was one of the three writers for the movie screenplay and the first two of the five sequels. He was called in to fix the first sequel after he left the hospital. He was in to sober up after seeing how long he could stay drunk to avoid working on it.

 

Everyone involved in movies only did so as long as they were required by their contracts. Only the movie studio wanted to continue producing them because they were enormously profitable during the Great Depression.

 

The story and treatments written by Hammett are in The Return of the Thin Man. 

 

https://www.amazon.com/Return-Thin-Man-Richard-Layman/dp/080212156X

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thin_Man

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  • 1 month later...

Books I have finished reading in the past month:

 

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, by James M. McPherson. Justifiably feted as the best single-volume history of the Civil War, though as the title implies, it actually covers 1845-1865, and thus goes into great detail about the causes and background of the war. McPherson is in command of his material, very good at explaining complex issues, and very even-handed- though inevitably the South comes off much, much worse in any fair retelling. He does very well at demonstrating, with much reference to contemporary speeches and documents, how the war resulted from the slaveowning aristocracy overplaying its hand (moving the goalposts from "slavery is a necessary evil, to be let alone where it exists" to "territories must be able to decide whether or not they will have legal slavery" to "slavery is a positive good that must be protected and extended everywhere, and no state or territory has the right to take a man's slaves from him"- basically demanding that slavery must be legal everywhere, and regarding any climbdown from this insane position as an affront to their backwards, feudal idea of Honor); and then how, for the North, the war started as one to preserve the Union at all costs, and how this struggle became irrevocably linked and identified with the struggle to end slavery (there was no point in restoring a Union as unsustainable as the antebellum Union; slavery had to be attacked and destroyed, as it was the South's greatest strength and greatest weakness at once). An excellent book. The only shame is that it doesn't go on to cover Reconstruction, though that's necessarily out of its scope.

The Wind's Twelve Quarters, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Short stories collected from the first 12 years or so of Le Guin's career. They're almost all very well-written and diverting from day one, but there's also a clear gradient in that she got noticeably better at treating her ideas in short-form writing over time, such that the earlier stories tend to be lighter-weight and pulpier, while the later ones are of greater depth and lasting interest.

The Compass Rose, by Ursula K. Le Guin. This anthology collects stories from the subsequent 8 years or so of Le Guin's career. It's much more slanted towards experimental fiction- experimenting with perspective, format, pacing, style, etc- than towards speculative fiction per se. It's also, unfortunately, much weaker overall, with many of the stories being pretty dull, despite some standouts.

The Golden Key, by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott. A very ambitious project: a 900-page high fantasy novel which is, functionally, three 300-page novels, each written simultaneously by a separate author, covering about 400 years of directly-depicted fictional history. It succeeds pretty well, though the first third is a bit weaker and more disjointed than the rest. Set in a fictionalized fantasy Europe, and particularly in a fantasy analogue of Spain, where painting is an omnipresent legal and social institution, and certain "Gifted" painters of a certain family (the Grijalvas) can work magic with their paintings. Stylistically it's more historical romance and political thriller than it is epic fantasy; it's not devoid of themes, but it's more successful as a work of escapist literature than a deep exploration of its ideas. Despite the book's length, the number of characters and the two big time-jumps between segments mean that few characters receive especially deep or complex development. It was a pretty solid book, anyway. I guess each author was meant to write her own standalone followup novel, but two of them tapped out, and the only followup to come out was a belated (published 15 years later) prequel.

 

Presently reading: The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant; and Ruin's Wake, by Patrick Edwards.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Not a terrifically exciting month of book-reading.

 

The Story of Philosophy, by Will Durant. Biographies, summaries, and critiques of major philosophers. Very good for the most part; acknowledged limitations are that Durant's focus on select major philosophers (the original subtitle being "The Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers") limits its view of the history of philosophy as a whole; and its limitation to Euro-American philosophers rather shortchanges eg East and South Asian philosophy. Unacknowledged limitations include Durant's undue sympathy for (and apparent subscription to) a vitalism that would be more or less totally discredited within a decade of his writing, and the fact that Spencer gets a whole chapter- Spencer's repute was already in eclipse when Durant was writing (in the 1920s), and despite Durant's optimism, it's only declined further since then. Worthwhile overall, and kept readable by Durant's palpable enthusiasm, and his distaste for epistemology.

Ruin's Wake, by Patrick Edwards. A pulpy dystopian sci-fi thriller. Not terrible, but sort of noticeably a debut novel- Edwards tries to get clever with the storytelling, bouncing between three concurrent plot threads, and this unfortunately creates pacing issues. It's alright once the threads link up in the last quarter of the novel, but it's a problem with the first action scene in your thriller novel happens on page 120 of 406. Otherwise- competent but unexciting. No big ideas that haven't been seen before. Another standard "revolutionary secretly just as bad as regime" story. Oh well.

The Battles that Changed History, by Fletcher Pratt. The title and publication date (1956) sort of let you know what you're in for, but the book is at least somewhat redeemed by Pratt's skill as a storyteller (he's a better storyteller than a historian, really), and by his idiosyncratic selection of battles and campaigns to cover. He insists on choosing only "positively decisive" battles, via vague and inconsistent criteria (read: he seems to have just wanted to write about things that interested him), such that, while he covers obvious material like Gaugamela/Arbela, the Siege of Vienna, Rossbach, Trafalgar, Austerlitz..., he also decides to cover the Pyrrhic War but not the Punic Wars (on the grounds that, while battles might have come to different conclusions, the outcome of the wars as a whole was a foregone conclusion), the Nika Riots, the Siege of Leiden; in his chapter on the American Revolutionary War he gives as much space to Anglo-French naval maneuvers in the Indian Ocean as to mainland North American operations; he opts for Vicksburg over the more-feted Gettysburg; and Midway over Stalingrad or Normandy. Overall: pretty good, all things considered.

 

For the past two weeks I have been slogging through two underwhelming books: The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason, and Avoid the Day by Jay Kirk. Hopefully I will escape soon.

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Four and a half months since my last post. I finished those books and have started others.

An Eye for an Eye by Carol Wyer (part one of a three-part series)

The Complete Sherlock Holmes Collection by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (I read one story or chapter a day)

Foxe's Book of Martyrs by John Foxe

I forgot to include last time, but I have also been reading a few Bible chapters a day as per my daily Bible reading for the year.

 

Post #742 :cool:

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Haven't been in here in some time...

 

I guess some time last year I finished the Dresden Files series (March 2018 - Fall 2021).

 

On the heels of that, I started on the Dark Tower series by Stephen King, and finished listening to that around April this year.

 

Finally, lately I've started on Brandon Sanderson; I've listened to the Mistborn books and most of the Wax & Wayne books at this point.

 

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Back again after an interregnum of a month (my girlfriend was visiting, and I did not get very much reading done).

 

The Darwin Affair, by Tim Mason. Miserable. Poor handling of tone, gratuitous gore and cruelty, and a historical setting that's wasted. Instead of giving the reader a palpable sense of the time and place, historical figures (Darwin! Wilberforce! Marx! Prince Albert!) pop up into the narrative, Mason clunkily and anachronistically infodumps about them, and then he treats them in the shallowest, most sensationalist ways possible, instead of bringing them to life. Then he gets back to the dull by-the-numbers "howcatchem" story. I tapped out of this book something like a hundred pages in. Very bad.

Avoid the Day: A New Nonfiction in Two Movements, by Jay Kirk. Another miserable one. This book is framed as an experimental memoir. In reality, it's plainly two subpar long-form pieces the author couldn't get to work on their own. Neither ever gets its wings and takes flight, and neither is quite book-length. He tried to rectify these problems by just kinda smushing them together. The transition between the halves is abrupt and jarring, and there's only been very perfunctory work done to stitch the two halves together. The first half is about the supposed potential mystery surrounding a Bartok autograph, bouncing between Kirk's investigations in Pennsylvania and his journey across Transylvania to look for... some vague sense of the folk music Bartok drew from, I guess. This story fizzles out, and it turns out there wasn't much mystery at all. The second half features Kirk and a friend futilely trying to shoot a half-baked horror movie on an Arctic cruise ship. It's stultifying. Kirk paints himself as a loathsome, unsympathetic protagonist, abusing drugs and ogling women, constantly, laboredly, shallowly ruminating on life and death and his relationship with his dying father and whatever in an increasingly mind-numbing attempt to pad this sucker out to book length. I soldiered on to page 250 of 370 before giving up. This is terrible, and should not have been published. Astonishingly, the author teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Other Europe: Eastern Europe to 1945, by E. Garrison Walters. Another bad book! But I managed to finish this one. Extremely, frustratingly presentist- written in the 80s, Walters defines "Eastern Europe" to mean "Soviet satellite states," excluding the Baltic states and Greece. Pre-1848 history is barely covered at all, and pre-1914 history scarcely more so; much space is given to analyzing the economics of and history of communism in the region, at the expense of coverage of cultural, religious, linguistic, etc affairs, which are scarcely mentioned. It's bleak, featuring many little factual errors and typos; even the maps are incompetently done (eg showing Ostrava occupying a nonexistent salient into Poland that places it directly northwest of Katowice- when in reality it's more or less directly southwest).

 

Currently reading: Collected Stories, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Edited by googoogjoob
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