What Ben Read, What We Read: Monthly Recap

What Ben Read: Jul/Aug/Sept/Oct 2020

Oh dear. Due to an overloaded prefrontal cortex, I have had neither time nor presence to blog about books and I’ve really missed it!

Finally dropping in to recap an entire quarter of a year of reading for internet posterity (hah) and to hopefully reconnect with reading friends.

Due to sheer volume, I’m separating a usually combined recap into his and hers. This post is all about Ben’s reading, though I (Shannon) am posting on his behalf. All mini-reviews are his.

I promise to pepper with unrelated images for your entertainment.

Ben, too busy dancing with our nephew to blog about books. Can you blame him?

Do comment and say hello if you stop by and haven’t totally given up on us. We’d love to hear from you whether or not you’ve read any of the same books!

Past Recaps Here:
January
February
March
April/May
June

Allons-y!

What Ben read July – October:

Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of The Beatles:
The title is a reference to their use, for the first time, of a state-of-the-art 8 track solid state (as opposed to the older valve state technology) mixing desk. This “making of an album” story is partly an exploration of how the Beatles and their producers utilized (and in some cases drove) the advances in studio recording techniques. But it inevitably becomes even more a story of the unmaking of the Beatles, and how they managed to create a masterpiece amid the chaos of their impending breakup. Stylistically the writing doesn’t dazzle, but as a work of rock and roll history it shines.

The Architecture of Happiness:
This book was absolutely charming. The author begins with an argument against the idea of taking architecture seriously at all, then spends the rest of the book turning that initial premise upside down. De Botton’s idealism sometimes gets ahead of his rhetorical rigor, but he puts forward so many intriguing ideas that I’m not inclined to hold that against him. One concept that was particularly striking was that a society often finds most beautiful those qualities which it most sorely lacks. Thus a palace in the seething hive of corruption that was Medici-era Venice might be filled with references to virtue and nobility. A society beset with chaos and instability might value the tranquility of abstract and symmetrical design. And the more we lose contact with the natural world, the more we emphasize its beauty. De Botton also introduces a useful rubric for the vast majority of us not trained as architects to begin evaluating successful architecture. He emphasizes the successful combination of opposing elements, particularly order and complexity. We can look for other balances as well: history and modernity, natural and manufactured, luxury and modesty, masculine and feminine, or whatever elements might be in tension for a particular project. A student of philosophy as well as an architect, de Botton asserts the Aristotilean idea that beauty is most often found in a balance between extremes. He closes with the admonition to future builders: “We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.”

Nature’s Mutiny: How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present:
If you wanted to read just one book of 300 pages or less that explains the Western world today, this one would be hard to beat. Even with some apparent tangents to explore the biographies of less-central figures, Blom paints a concise and balanced portrait of how the Medieval-style social structures were transformed, partly by a renewed interest in Classical scholarship (see The Swerve, which I have read previously and was therefore tickled to see the author reference), but also by the environmental pressures of the Little Ice Age, which threw a wrench into the formerly stable model of subsistence agriculture. Blom insightfully traces a line from a society structured around an absolute faith in Divine Will of God to a modern society which places its faith in the Invisible Hand Of The Markets. In some ways it was a massive revolution, and yet in other ways the new system still relied on faith-based doctrines to keep everyone working to the ultimate benefits of the elites. And of course it is no great leap to imagine that just as the previous order was unable to survive that historic climate crisis, the current order may not survive this one. Along the way he touches on many of the biggest intellectual icons of the era : Montaigne, Spinoza, Voltaire, Locke, Descartes, Shakespeare etc. We also get useful overviews of Colonialism/Mercantilism, the struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, rivalries between the major European powers, Jewish life in Europe during that period, and how the rise of trading economies was linked to an increased openness to new ideas and influences. Do not skip the Epilogue, which is where Blom makes his strongest effort to apply the lessons of the Little Ice Age to our current time of global warming.

Another image for your entertainment! This time it’s Artemis, who fell asleep with her pet snake in her mouth.

The Velvet Rope Economy: How Inequality Became Big Business
Ranges across a variety of industries, from sports stadiums to health care to air travel to illustrate how the wealthiest people opt out of the often-deteriorating systems that the “rest” of the people have to use. In an economy where the richest few percent control an ever larger share of wealth, there is plenty of incentive for businesses to cater to the ones with the money. And when the richest and most influential people don’t have to use the shitty public version of something, they tend not to support it politically, which can lead to a vicious spiral. But it’s not all gloom and doom. Schwartz does examine some businesses that make a point of being more egalitarian, and are successful. And there are also some models of letting the rich pay more for a VIP experience without worsening the experience for everyone else. For example: a music festival that has a VIP tent, but instead of putting it front and center blocking everyone’s view, they put it off to the side where it doesn’t take anything away from the experience of general admission ticketholders.

Gideon the Ninth:
I’ve often lamented how overblown the promotional blurbs are for new sci-fi and fantasy books. This one delivered on everything advertised, so let’s give some credit where it’s due. “Lesbian necromancers explore a haunted gothic palace in space! Decadent nobles vie to serve the deathless Emperor! Skeletons!” Yup, 100% as advertised. Thanks Charles Stross. Soooo many skeletons. Though for such a dark and pulpy book, the lesbian romance was more cute than salacious. “[something covered by the library sticker] …and gleaming. A profane Daria.” Not sure what the first part said, but yeah, that’s an excellent analogy, person-whose-name-is-also-covered-by-a-sticker. “Muir’s writing is as sharp as a broken tooth, and just as unsettling.” Well, maybe not thaaaat unsettling. But I’ll allow it V.E. Schwab (if that is your real name). “Punchy, crunchy, gooey, and gore-smeared, Gideon the Ninth is a pulpy science-fantasy romp that will delight and horrify you to the bitter end.” Kameron Hurley definitely read the book and got it. “Necromancers! Dueling! Mayhem! Gideon the Ninth is disturbing and delightful in equal measure — I loved it to pieces.” My old friend Yoon Ha Lee, delivering the straight dish.

The Sun Also Rises:
You know I always have to get my summer Hemingway in. But I don’t always know which book(s) to choose. This year though, the desire to read The Sun Also Rises sprang up seemingly of its own accord. I discovered that it’s a good book to re-read when you’re older and more cynical. I was much less sympathetic toward Jake and Lady Brett’s nonsense this time around. But even while scoffing at the reality TV-style drama and recriminations of the main characters, I enjoyed, as always, Hemingway’s keen enjoyment of simple things. The big drama of the book is in Paris and then at the bullfighting festival in Pamplona. But the little side trip Jake takes with his friend Bill to go fishing is one of the most charming sections of the book. Hemingway’s appreciation for a good meal, a drink with a friend, a joke with a stranger, the beauty of nature, and reading in bed are all amply demonstrated. It always unsettles me a bit that a man with such a keen enjoyment of life’s everyday pleasures would end up killing himself. Bonus note: This book has one of my favorite quotes: “How did you go bankrupt” “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

A Red Death:
This is jumping back to a book that I missed in the Easy Rawlins series. Reliant as I’ve been on what’s on the shelf at the library, I’ve kept most of the series in order. But this one had escaped me until now. I’m glad I doubled back for it, because it sheds light on the early stages of Easy’s relationships with some of the prominent characters in later books, most notably his business partner Mofass and his best friend’s wife Etta Mae. It occurred to me that this series would be fun to pair with Mad Men for some kind of analysis of mid-century America. They cover similar time frames, centering on the 50s and 60s (though the Rawlins books cover a slightly wider spread). Mad Men is East Coast, mostly white, and deals with the upper echelons of wealth and power. The Rawlins novels are primarily Black, West Coast, and deal primarily with poverty and the underworld. Though both are willing to cross over a bit. Mad Men detours into the seedier side of society and Easy Rawlins sometimes finds himself enmeshed in the machinations of the rich and powerful.

Mulled wine featured heavily in the Brooney quarantine line-up this fall.

Up In Arms: How The Bundy Family Hijacked Federal Lands, Outfoxed the Federal Government, and Ignited America’s Patriot Militia Movement:
Temple, an investigative journalist, paints a vivid portrait of the Bundy family’s defiance of the Federal government, particularly the Bureau of Land Management. The Bundys, with their wildly flawed Constitutional scholarship, religious zealotry, and disregard for environmental consequences don’t come off looking like heroes. But the federal authorities were hardly pure themselves. The agent in charge of the attempted confiscation of the Bundy herd was aggressive, abrasive, and (it later came to light) abusive and corrupt. The extent of federal land ownership in the West is more fraught than I once realized. East of the Rockies, the proportion of federally held land is quite small. But out west, particularly in Nevada it is wildly different. Eighty-five percent of NV is controlled by the federal government. So the state only controls 15% of its own territory, which sounds kind of insane. Utah, Idaho, and Oregon all control less than half their geographic territory.

The Art of War New Norton Translation:
This is a new translation of the oft-cited classic. I haven’t settled on a favorite, but this one was enjoyable to read. Nylan, who has a strong publication history of Chinese scholarship and translation, employed a team that included a former military officer and a poet, along with, as she puts it “the usual sampling of academics.” I did miss the concise, evocative, and popular line from the Griffith translation: “In death ground, fight.” Nylan’s translation renders it less elegantly, if no less emphatically, “And always, always in the deadlands, fight like hell.” On the plus side, chapter 12 yields this delightfully Yoda-esque injunction: “When nought’s to gain, move not. Over things of little worth, fight not. Save in direst need, war not.” And if you’ve ever been tempted to wade into the comment section of a social media post to tell strangers how wrong they are, that passage is for you.

Sword of Kings:
The Saxon Tales (I swear they used to be called The Saxon Chronicles but it’s definitely Tales now) are still going strong. This book had a little bit of an odd feel to it, with protagonist Uthred’s motivations seeming a bit contrived, and his strategic thinking taking a big step backward from the last couple books. That kind of annoyed me, because I had enjoyed seeing him develop from a young and easily manipulated hothead into a canny leader who is still physically formidable but relies a bit more on his brains than he used to. But human development isn’t strictly linear, so we’ll chalk it up as either a temporary lapse or the workings of Fate, in which he so staunchly believes.

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion:
I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I did The Architecture of Happiness. The author’s tendency to make sweeping generalizations with little or no support is on full display. But he makes some salient points about the psychological functions that religions have traditionally served, and how the modern secular/atheist culture does not necessarily adequately replace everything that religion provided (and continues to provide) for many believers. Overall it was still enjoyable, despite my occasional bouts of scoffing at what struck me as inaccurate assumptions. And it’s always good to read things that we don’t necessarily agree with to broaden our perspectives or sharpen our own arguments. In this case perhaps a bit of both.

Generally quarantining with our favorite people, which made Halloween fun!

Peace Talks:
This book is one of those in-between books in a series. It definitely moves the plot forward, but spends a fair amount of time on setup. And the ending is really just the beginning of a larger struggle. So as a stand-alone work it does not completely satisfy. But the Dresden Files world is just such a fun place to hang out that I don’t really care.

Folding the Red into the Black:
Mosley tries his hand at political theory with his vision of an UnTopia. He worked on, but ultimately abandoned a PhD in political science, so he’s fairly qualified to write on the topic. His insights into human nature, which serve him so well as a novelist, seem more pointed than his loosely-stitched political theory. But while he’s short on the specifics of implementation, he basically advocates for something along the line of a European social democracy: a robust safety net to guarantee that everyone’s essential needs are met at a basic level, along with a free market for those who wish to pursue a standard of living above that most basic tier. He advocates for a tax on robot labor, a shorter work week, and strong checks on the tendency of corporations to bend government to their own advantage. His vision is for people to be “free to be who we are, but bound to help all others along our way.”

Crusaders: The Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands
An engaging, character-focused look at the Crusades. Jones is the right kind of historian for me to read for fun: authoritative enough to take seriously (he quotes only primary sources in this book), but engaging enough in style to be an enjoyable read rather than a slog in search of knowledge.

Network Effect:
I LOVE Wells’s Murderbot series. Network Effect is a full length novel, where the previous entries in the series were more novellas. The longer format does not pose any problem, it’s just more of a good thing. Network Effect functions as a swashbuckling space opera, a dystopian critique of corporate profiteering run amok on a galactic scale, part of a series-spanning meditation on the nature of personhood, and a storyteller making an argument for the importance of her craft in how we define ourselves.

Hell in the Heartland: Murder, Meth, and the Case of Two Missing Girls:
The title does not undersell the harshness of this true crime odyssey set on the desolate plains of Oklahoma’s forgotten lead-mining country. And the subtitle “Murder, Meth, and The Case of Two Missing Girls,” is equally apt. Miller makes herself and her own precarious mental state a leading character in the book. I never completely warmed up to that approach, but her material was compelling enough for me to work through it. Miller does an outstanding job creating atmosphere as she describes the Oklahoma prairie and the towns that figure in her story. The dark, grim, small-town claustrophobia is one of the most haunting impressions from the book, along with the horrifying quote: “Out of respect for the families, and to avoid sensationalism, the DA’s office does not detail all that is included in the photographs. From what I learn through some of the confidential witnesses and law enforcement, the photos include the very things that the mind tries to protect you from.”

A whole side of the house got painted this summer!

Mr. Campion’s Seance:
A take on the classic British Whodunnit, anchored in the WWII years and spanning subsequent decades, it typecasts itself very knowingly and self-consciously. A fun read and features enjoyable characters. Maybe a little more style than substance, but sometimes that’s fine

Otaku:
Have you ever wanted to read a feminist, post-global-warming-apocalypse, cyberpunk action adventure written by a former NFL punter? You should.

A Pale Light in the Black:
I’ve been a fan of Wagers for a little while now. They (not going by “she” anymore) always deliver a lot of fast-paced space opera fun along with well-executed social commentary. Trying to cram too much obvious social messaging into a fun-loving work of fiction can often come off as awkwardly heavy-handed, but while Wagers lays it on fairly thick, they do it with such endearingly human characters that I never find myself complaining.

Blacktop Wasteland:
High-octane (pun intended) fun featuring a trying-to-go-clean getaway driver. There’s a last bit of of polish that’s lacking, a little too much telling vs showing, but it looks like this may be the author’s first publication so he is certainly one to watch. Will he become the Walter Mosley of the Mid-Atlantic region? I’m inclined to guess he’ll stay a step behind, but I’ll happily read his next book if and when it arrives.


That’s all she (he) wrote!

Stay tuned for the Shannon list. It’s a doozy. Thanks for stopping by!

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What Ben Read

2019 Reading Review: Better late than never edition

So I started one of these last year and never got through it. Got hung up on some of the stats not adding up, went back trying to find where things were off, got too deep in the weeds until it seemed too late. Now here we are in February 2020 and I’m in danger of the same fate, so this will be a quick and dirty recap.

The big news: I am the 2019 winner! Aw yeah! Shannon is a formidable opponent though. I had a big lead for a while, but she closed out the year with power and would have caught me if I hadn’t kept my game strong all the way to the end.

You wouldn’t think that the guy reading 57 books a year would be the tortoise in a reading race, but I definitely am. I don’t tend to have as big of slumps, but when she gets going…look out. Meanwhile I just try to knock out a book every week. Sometimes two if I’m lucky.

One thing that really helped me was that I got in the habit of going to a coffee shop on Sunday morning and putting in some solid reading time with minimal distractions.

Speaking of which, I’m already way behind. 2020 is not looking like my year. But I will persevere. Even if it means just trying to match or exceed last year’s tally.

A few assorted notes:

Male/female author split: 45 male, 12 female.
Fiction vs non-fiction: 30 fiction, 27 non-fiction
Number of genres covered: 15 (as classified by Shannon)
Number of books classified as Politics: zero, despite being a political science major. (I did read 6 that counted as Social Issues, which can overlap.)
Re-reads: 0
Most books in one genre: 8. This was a tie between “Mystery/Thriller” and “Science Fiction/Speculative fiction/dystopian future.” Perennial favorites that got a solid boosts this year thanks to Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins mysteries and Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries.

My musical reading gives away my fondness for a bit of volume:

BensMusicReading

 

Eye openers (Books that changed my perspective or made me consider new ideas):

BensReading2

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Top Ten Tuesday, What Ben Read, What Shannon Read

Top Ten Favorite Childhood Picture Books

Yeah, I know, late again for Top Ten Tuesday, but I loved this week’s theme and couldn’t not participate! So here we are.

This week, it’s Top Ten Favorite Picture Books from your childhood. I thought that because Ben also has a great reading history in this department, we should do a shared list (much like the characters list we did last month).

So, my five are first and Ben’s five follow.

Shannon’s Top Five Favorites

Ack, this list has me all sappy remembering these books and being read to as a kid. Get ready for some non-high-brow literature, baby. Here we go.

ADayattheBeachBook1. A Day at the Beach by Mircea Vasiliu

I was truly tickled to see that this one had reviews and comments on Goodreads. I loved going through this as a kid because everything is labeled and I could pick out all the things I recognized and all the things our (Great Lakes) beaches didn’t offer: crabs, giant seashells, etc. I still have my copy of this and every time my eye passes over it on the shelf, I remember being little and running through the waves with a butt covered in sand and sticky lemonade spills. So pure.

p.s. I did a bunch of Googling but couldn’t find a spread to share and I think my copy might be at my dad’s house or with one of my siblings.

 

2. Fairy Tales: A Puppet Treasury Book, Illustrations by Tadasu Izawa and Shigemi Hijikata

img_20190704_102456327I memorized every single story and image in this creepy-ass 3D puppet illustration fairy tale book. The witch in Hansel and Gretel is truly alarming. Some internet sleuthing tells me that this was a popular form of “illustration” and that my compendium of stories were originally released as individual books with various editions in the 60s and 70s. There’s no copyright date inside the volume I have, just individual copyrights for the illustrations. It was bought for me in the 80s. Creepy? Yes. But now I also see now that I hold a bit of picture book history in my personal library.

CreepyPuppetBooks

 

14927513. The Christmas Day Kitten by James Herriot, Illustrations by Ruth Brown 

This one was given to me by my mom’s cousin and his wife. It’s written by Jim Herriot of rural-veterinarian-writer fame. It’s a sweet story about a mother cat who brought her kitten to the home of an elderly woman before she (the mother cat) died. Very real talk for a little kid, but I loved sweet stories about animals. I also read this to Jacob when he was little.

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4. This random children’s Bible

We were pretty Catholic when I was growing up. I received this as a baptism gift and my dad read it to me at bedtime.  I’m no longer religious, but I still have the Bible, which went through both my siblings after me, then passed on to Jacob. I’ll probably have it forever and/or pass it on to grandchildren or, if Jacob doesn’t have children, possibly nieces or nephews.

 

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5. The Bedtime Book 

This was a board book and I am now kicking myself because I can’t find. I’ve had it since I was little. It’s a board book. There is a little girl on the cover praying and the book is shaped around her silhouette. Gonna’ check with my siblings to see if either of them have it. I couldn’t find it online and really, it offers no literary significance. It was just special to us because it was read to us about a million times. Sort of our version of Goodnight Moon, which I don’t remember having as a kid.

 

Ben’s Top Five Favorites

Top 5 Records presents: the top 5 picture books of my childhood. Dr. Seuss boutsa be all up in the mothafuckin house. 😉 With longer to work on it I might make slightly different selections, but I think this is a pretty decent list.

2272201. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, illustrated by Michael Hague

The story itself is delightful, Tolkien’s Middle Earth is enchanting, and what little kid wouldn’t love an epic adventure where a half-size character gets to play the hero? Hague’s illustrations are a delightful mix of evocative scene-setting and dramatic action. On top of all that, it was a birthday present from one of my favorite Aunts. One of my all-time favorite books, picture or otherwise.

TheHobbit

77752. Happy Birthday to You by Dr. Seuss

I could fill this whole list with just Dr. Seuss books. But this one has a family tradition behind it. Also, if Wikipedia is correct, it is the first all-color picture book. So it’ll stand in for other favorites like Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are, On Beyond Zebra, and I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew. We would always get Happy Birthday To You from the library when any of the Rooney children had a birthday coming up, and my Dad would read it in honor of the birthday child. I find myself noting the sage injunction, “You have to be born, or you don’t get a present” to this very day.

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Did this book contribute to the fact that I keep wanting to treat myself and those around me to slightly-extravagant birthday celebrations? Maaaaayyyyybe…..

 

2979113. The Grey Lady and The Strawberry Snatcher by Molly Bang

The whole book is just beautiful, slightly surreal pictures. The style is sort of Toulouse-Lautrec meets Dixit. Despite the absence of words the story is quite clearly told, and there is plenty of action and suspense.

 

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17631114. Upside-Downers by Mitsumasa Anno

This book is really fun and creative. It’s written half upside down, and half right-side up. But which is which? The playing card-themed characters bicker about who is doing it wrong. Finally the matter comes before the Kings. “Oh king, great king your Heartiness, aren’t we the ones who are up? Oh King, kind king your Clubbiness aren’t they the ones who are down?”

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101185. Saint George and The Dragon by Margaret Hodges, Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

If you didn’t get this book from the Scholastic book fair back in the day, you were missing out. It has vivid illustrations, with some cool little details in the sidebars that reward a closer examination. The prose hints at alliterative verse, giving it a somewhat poetic effect. There are a few awkwardly turned phrases here and there, but as a kid I wasn’t about to scrutinize minor authorial foibles. LOOK AT THAT FREAKIN’ DRAGON!

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Thus ends another belated Top Ten Tuesday. Did you participate? If so, leave your link below!

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Nonfiction, What Ben Read

Tristan Gooley is a Goddamn Treasure

GooleyOne of the classic human trade-offs is gaining technology and forgetting a corresponding skill. We get a cell phone with a built in address book and quickly stop remembering phone numbers. A society develops written language and gives up its oral traditions. GPS gives turn by turn directions and people stop reading maps. Maps themselves are technology, supplanting a more elemental knowledge of how to find our way in the world.

When technology begins to replace skill, the gains are often obvious while the losses, slower and less evident, are only mourned after the fact when it is “too late” to do anything about them. And that’s where our man Gooley comes in. He knows how to navigate in the oldest of old-fashioned ways, using nothing but keen observation with all of his senses. He also has the insight and education to start communicating to us what we have been missing.

Gooley deftly bridges the gap between us and an old skill. He knows exactly what we’ve lost, and he makes a strong case as to why it matters. He speaks the language of the 21st century and seems almost completely at home within it. No wild-eyed prophet crying out in the wilderness here. Just a friendly, erudite voice saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to get out and learn some nifty tricks and secrets about nature and the world around you?”

I just finished “How to Read Nature,” having previously read “The Natural Navigator” and “The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs.**” As you can see by the titles, there is some overlap of themes and material. But at least so far he’s managed to both stick to his broader themes and keep each book fresh and engaging.

If you are considering checking one of them out, “How to Read Nature” is actually a great place to start. It’s brief and compact, with a nice balance of the philosophical and the practical. There were a couple parts where one of his wisecracks didn’t quite land as intended (he’s generally pretty funny) or the flow of the book wasn’t perfectly polished, but these minor quibbles were easy to gloss over.

Gooley really shines when it comes to making his topic approachable. He recommends picking any aspect of nature that one finds interesting and using that as a means to greater understanding of the larger world. Flowers, birds, trees, stars, insects, rocks…it really doesn’t matter. It’s all connected at some level. So start with something that piques your interest and see where it takes you. Gooley peppers the book with brief exercises designed to get the reader started on the path to keener observation.

Meanwhile his obvious enthusiasm shines through on every page as he makes a strong case that we could all enhance our lives by becoming more aware of the natural world around us. I live in the city and grew up in cities. My life is unlikely to ever depend on my ability to locate true north by observing the stars. But having that knowledge gives an extra sense of being grounded in the world and a surprising amount of satisfaction.

4.5/5 trees. Definitely recommend.

** Some of the titles are different for the U.K. editions. If you’re in the U.S., read the U.S. versions. He notes that he has changed some of the specific examples in order to provide more relevant information for North American readers.

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Fiction, What Ben Read

Revenger

revengerRevenger: The hype quotes on books have gotten way out of hand.

“A swashbuckling thriller,” “Packed full of adventure…The most enjoyable book Reynolds has ever written,” (ellipsis as quoted) and from the publisher “Revenger is a rocket-fueled tale of space pirates, buried treasure, and phantom weapons, of unspeakable hazards and single-minded heroism…and of vengeance.”

I read Reynold’s acclaimed debut novel, Revelation Space and thought it was really cool albeit a tad ponderous. So this seemed perfect: same great real-scientist science fiction, spicy new space pirate content. And a not-so-daunting 400ish comfortably spaced pages. I’m in.

The reality was…not quite what I’d hoped.

It was slow getting started. Just when I was starting to lose patience it picked up. Things started humming along nicely, and then inexplicably started to drift again. But the action rallies in the end, building to a satisfying climax.

The plot and characters didn’t quite feel completely real. I could sometimes see the puppet strings as characters were dragged through scenes and plot points to get them where they needed to be. Somehow the book seems to both move slowly and rush through character development.

And for all the piratical hype, very few buckles were swashed. Spoiler alert:
*****Pirates appear a total of twice in the book. And it’s the same pirates both times. No other pirates even really merit discussion, let alone an appearance. There might only be one pirate ship in all of space.******
I’m picking on Reynolds here, but there have been plenty of worse books plastered with the same breathless acclaim. This was just the last straw in a long line of shameless blurb mongering.

I didn’t hate the book. I read it all the way through. The universe is intriguing, with hints of grander and darker forces than are revealed in this volume. I think I probably would have liked it more if I’d been able to take it for what it is rather than going in with the wrong expectations.

So please enjoy this new, more accurate version of the publisher’s description:

“Revenger is a tale of glorified junkyard pickers, stashes of old technology, and phantom weapons, of fairly serious danger and eventual heroism…and of vengeance.”

Final verdict:
Kinda cool if you take it for what it is. 3/5 ion drives
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Nonfiction, Uncategorized, What Ben Read

Brunch is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party

1So the guys behind a podcast called “Dinner Party Download” wrote a book titled Brunch is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party. One might assume that they are not completely impartial, and one would be absolutely correct. The anti-brunch case is argued very loosely, with the general thrust being that it is too commercial and also prone to making you lazy and day-drunk.

The perspective is hipster-ish, and slanted toward single people who enjoy having drinks (though they do make allowances for teetotalers and those blessed with progeny). If you’re not the target market, either read the book as anthropology or don’t bother. The authors know their target market and pander unashamedly.

All that aside, it was a fun read. There is something to be said for a dinner party: friends coming together for the purpose of enjoying good food, good company, and perhaps some mild hijinks. Adding a little more DIY to our socializing could be both good for camaraderie and easier on our budgets. And the book is sprinkled with enough banter, anecdotes, humor, and practical tips to keep it light and enjoyable. Underneath all their tomfoolery, the authors are earnest in their evangelization.

Also, I don’t want to spoil anything, but there is a twist ending that definitely made me chuckle.

Fun and funny
4/5 Mimosas

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Nonfiction, What Ben Read

12 Strong: The Declassified True Story of the Horse Soldiers

51ymGTSNSyL12 Strong by Doug Stanton (previously titled “Horse Soldiers) started out really strong, jumping straight into the action. The description of the fortress Quala-I-Janghi, the House of War, really sets the stage for an epic showdown. Events start unfolding, we reach a crisis…and then Stanton throws out an anchor and slowwwws everything way down.

We get a bunch of good backstory on a bunch of guys whose names become hard to keep straight. I found myself constantly flipping back trying to remember who was who. Stanton does not do a great job of sprinkling in little cues or reminders to help us recall whether this guy is the medic with the kids or the divorced weapon specialist or the communications officer with the pregnant wife etc., etc.

I am getting these descriptions wrong. I know I’m getting them wrong. And it’s a disservice to some really badass dudes. But the book just jumps around too much, and doesn’t really make more than a couple of the characters stick.

What it does do is provide a really impressive behind-the-scenes look at Special Forces soldiers doing what they do best. This is a war story, a story about heroism, but it’s also reasonably nuanced. These guys are think first, shoot last types of operators. They are diplomats, advisors, strategists, always looking to fight smarter, not bloodier. They pay attention to cultural sensitivities. They repeatedly tell their Afghan allies, “This is your war, we’re just here to help.” And with the staggering force of U.S. airpower behind them, they achieve an astonishing amount of success.

Of course things didn’t quite work out so well in the end. And while the focus is on these particular events, the book acknowledges the larger context. The epilogue reads a bit like a look at what might have been. The Iraq war, where some of the protagonists would end up suffering death or maiming, is generally painted as a Bad Idea.

It’s interesting to read the reactions to this book. They’re mostly positive, but there’s some criticism from the left, “too much enthusiasm for war,” as well as from the right “why are they acting like John Walker Lindh (the American Taliban) is worthy of any sympathy?” To me it generally trends in the patriotic, heroic direction that one would probably expect.

These really are incredible and impressive events regardless of how one might feel about war in general or the U.S. operations in Afghanistan in particular. And the way Stanton takes a step back at the end to look at the broader picture prevents it from coming off as blindly jingoistic.

Impressive but flawed
3/5 stars

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Fiction, What Ben Read

Grown-ass man reads illustrated book of fairy tales and loves it

NorseGodsJust finished Susan Beard’s English translation of Norse Gods by Johan Egerkrans. Egerkrans is a Swedish illustrator and the original text was in Swedish. His retelling of the myths is fairly standard but enjoyable. He acknowledges a wide variety of sources, but as always with this subject Snorri Sturluson’s Eddas provide the essential foundation.

He takes the legends seriously, but enjoys emphasizing some of the humorous aspects as well. For example, Heimdall is supposed to have had nine mothers, all virgins. Egerkrans supposes that his birth must have been a “somewhat confusing” affair.

ProseEddasSimilarly, the artwork is a mix of quirky and intense pieces. My personal favorite is Thor fishing for Jormungand. The horrifying World Serpent boils up from unseen depths, occupying about 3/4 of the panel and utterly dwarfing the thunder god and giant in their boat above. As the serpent prepares to take the bait (a bull’s head) I got a real feeling of the bravado it would take for Thor to view such a monstrosity as his rightful prey.

The picture of Tyr with his hand in Fenris’ mouth was also impressive. Tyr stands resolute, an aging war god stoically prepared to lose his hand so that the monstrous wolf can be bound. The Tyr section was excellent overall. There is some historical and linguistic evidence that Tyr was the chief god in the pantheon until the wily, ambitious Odin usurped him. This book gives him his due in a way that many works on the subject do not.

The book itself was really nicely put together. It’s a fairly quick read at about 150 not-very-dense pages. There is a ton of art: just about every god and myth gets a large full-color illustration. In addition, there are a bunch of smaller sketches sprinkled throughout. Along with his own work, Egerkrans included a number of quotations from primary sources, plus illustrations from other time periods. The overall effect is a smorgasbord of mythic goodness.

I had to have this book shipped over from Sweden because it wasn’t available at the library and I didn’t want to pay the $120 they were asking on Amazon. But no regrets, it’s a beautiful creation and I’m thrilled to have it.

Worthy of Valhalla
4.5/5 Thor’s Hammers

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Fiction, What Ben Read

All I Did Was Shoot My Man

Today’s post by Ben: Some thoughts on reading All I Did Was Shoot My Man by Walter Mosley. 

Book cover: All I Did Was Shoot My ManOne of my favorite things about the noir genre is the savagely understated humor from the narrators. Hammett was good at it. Raymond Chandler was a master. Walter Mosley is right in there with them. One of my favorite passages of the book comes early on, when a woman addresses protagonist/narrator Leonid McGill as a “n***** in a cheap suit.”

“I resented her calling my suit cheap. It was sturdy, well crafted, a suit that had three identical blue brothers between my office and bedroom closet. It’s true that it cost less than two hundred dollars, but it was sewn by a professional tailor in Chinatown. The price tag doesn’t necessarily speak to quality — not always.

As far as the other things she said I made allowances for her being from rural Georgia and having just gotten out of prison after eight years. Socially and politically, American prisons are broken down according to race: black, white, Hispanic, and the subdivisions therein — Each one demanding complete identification with one group attended by antipathy toward all others.”

I  had to laugh. First because I saw that I’d been baited. I read straight into Mosley’s hands, expecting the narrator’s reaction to mirror mine. He shocks you with the slur, but then tickles you with the misdirection.

And the other half of the laugh was at the absurdity. Leonid McGill is a man who has seen just about everything, and has done many a dirty deed himself. He’s cynical and tired. He has learned some patience, he has gained some empathy, but he can still be riled. And what’s getting him hot under the collar? Not the brutal epithet, but the disrespect to his eminently practical suit.

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Nonfiction, Reviews, What Ben Read

What Does this Button Do?

Hello from the snowy North! Today we have a book review from Ben, who just finished What Does this Button Do? by Bruce Dickinson. So, without further ado…

What Does This Button Do?: An AutobiographyDickinson is one of the most fascinating figures in heavy metal or music in general. Not content to be “just” the front man for one of the most successful and beloved metal bands in history (Iron Maiden), he is a fully certified commercial airline pilot, nationally successful fencer, idiosyncratic writer, and modern renaissance man.

Despite his formidable talent, this book really brought me up against the inherent limitations of an autobiography. With everything coming from his own point of view, he manages to make his extraordinary life seem oddly normal. I constantly felt, while enjoying the undeniably entertaining succession of anecdotes he delivers, as though I was straining to read between the lines and see the man himself.

A note at the end, which states that he consciously chose to leave out any discussion of wives or children, helps explain the  somewhat impersonal feel of the book. Any mention of romantic entanglement ends around his college years. In some ways I have to credit the way he resists any urge to be gossipy or to air  dirty laundry. There are a few mentions of band politics or music business maneuvering, but there is almost nothing mean-spirited to be found.

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Dickinson in his pilot garb via Famous People

Frustrations with the somewhat incomplete portrait aside, the book did amplify the respect I already felt for the man. As the title implies, he clearly demonstrates a powerful curiosity about how things work, and a willingness to dive deeply into any subject that catches his formidable attention. His descriptions of the nuances and physicality of vocal performance highlight his dedication to his craft and overall professionalism. And while there are a few moments of obvious but well-earned self-importance, his overall tone is down-to-earth and relatively humble, with a characteristically dry British humour.

If there were to be only one book written about Bruce Dickinson, this one would be insufficient. But it was definitely enjoyable, and should complement any other, more conventional portrait quite nicely.

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