Here’s some of the stuff I’ve been reading but haven’t gotten around to blogging on.
A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin.
It’s awkward learning that Dad is a Chinese spy. Well, the Chinese part you already knew, the spy part was a shock. Now that her father has died, the narrator comes to grips with his legacy, including part of the family still in China. Explores aspects of modern China that will be familiar if you read the Economist, and the ethical questions that spy novels always raise, at least the good ones. The American characters seem just a bit off, but then so do some real Americans.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark.
The title characters attempt to restore magic in early-1800s England to the glorious state it enjoyed during the long reign of the Raven King. Clark has a good feel for the weirdnesses and debilities of the truly nerdy, and her language is fairly convincing. The story takes about 200 pages to get rolling, but eventually comes to life and grows rather alarming.
The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O’Brian.
Also set in the Napoleonic era, this is an Aubrey/Maturin naval adventure from fairly late in the series. O’Brian’s period style is superb, really an achievement, but there’s not much else here, Padded out with lots of botanical and zoological research by Dr. Maturin, which must be more fascinating to O’Brian than it is to me.
The War That Came Early series by Harry Turtledove.
Alternative history of World War II; this is a fascinating topic if the author has done his homework at all, so I found myself keeping on with the books even though they are really pretty awful. I did start to fast-forward more and more, trying to get past the endlessly repetitive guy-to-guy conversations about cigarettes and whores and which army has nicer helmets and find out what is going to happen in this universe. There is so much copy-and-paste redundancy even within each volume that I think Turtledove must be writing for people with early-stage dementia. The characters are so unappealing that, when one or two main figures die at the end of each book, I find myself rather relieved that we won’t have to listen to them any more.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac.
JK’s musings can be endearingly ingenuous, though he do go on. The problem is that his buddy Dean Moriarty is one of the flamingest assholes in literature, and I was only able to get through the first chapters because he disappears for a while. JK’s infatuation with Dean is just embarrassing, or rather both embarrassing and annoying.
The Stairkarm Handshake by Nancy Price.
Time-travel story, slightly futuristic evil corporation wants to exploit early-modern folk on the Scottish-English border. Two pluses are a fairly serious attempt to deal with the language issue and our heroine’s experience as an overweight young woman transported from a culture where she is invisible to one where she is a beauty. It doesn’t hurt that the locals think she’s an elf. Sadly, she doesn’t seem to be very bright, and when she falls for a beautiful but rascally youth, she starts to act truly stupid. Lots of girls and boys have done the same, but it ain’t pretty.
Darkness Take My Hand and others by Dennis Lehane.
Gritty crime novels set in the Boston area. A pleasing atmosphere of pervasive corruption, though the tough ethnic lore is laid on a bit thick. The above-named and Gone, Baby, Gone are pretty good, then the series kinda jumps the shark, growing sentimental and excessively obsessed with the astonishing sexual magnetism of the narrator’s gf. One mesmerized buff young shop assistant per novel should really suffice.
Headlong, by Michael Frayn.
As usual with Frayn, we see the world through the distorting glass of the protagonist’s hobby-horses and delusions, in this case his obsession with a painting he is shown by ignorant acquaintances and which he thinks is a Breugel. Fun and stylish, but not as much fun as Spies or A Landing on the Sun.
John Wayne’s America and Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders by Garry Wills.
It is a real tribute to Wills that I enjoyed and got lots of good stories from his book about a figure for whom I care nothing at all. The book about leaders is also engaging, despite the cheesy title. Wills appears to know everything that should be known about an impressive variety of people and things, from John Ford to John XXIII, from Socrates to Madonna, from transubstantiation to McCarthyism.
The Magicians’ Land by Lev Grossman.
A series that seemed so promising goes out with a fizzle. In the final (I hope) volume, our hero and his snobby friends confirm that no, nothing in this world is worth caring about or trying to improve. The rest of us are just crap compared to their solipsistic fantasies. Grossman is pretty smart, I suppose, but I came away from this book not only fed up with his work but convinced that he is an extremely distasteful person.
Living the Dream by Hakeem Olajuwon.
Much more interesting than most athlete memoirs, since Olajuwon tells us about growing up in Nigeria and the adjustment to life in Houston, as well as his changing attitude toward Islam. Gets rather preachy in the last chapters, but that’s par for the course.
The Secret Place by Tana French.
Police procedural set in Dublin. It is refreshing to have a story about Ireland in which the characters are not all virtuoso trad musicians in their spare time, or constantly debating the IRA, or whatever. One can believe in these cops and in these rather scary teen girls.
Wooden A Coach’s Life by Seth Davis.
There are not that many old white Republicans who would have won the respect of Kareem and Bill Walton. Despite his sanctimoniousness, his sloganeering, and his bad taste in poetry, John Wooden was probably the most admirable as well as the most brilliant basketball coach around.
Stay, Illusion by Lucie Brock-Broido.
Helen Vendler says these poems are dazzling. Me, I found them like lobster: you saw and wrench and get butter all over the place and finally you are rewarded with a little scrap of something that tastes like chicken. Meh.
Clariel, the Lost Abhorson by Garth Nix.
Cute Shakespeare ref in the title, otherwise fairly standard YA fantasy, teen girl stifled by society, must learn to control her supernatural powers. A bit unusual in that she’s a berserker, so her powers involve kicking a lot of ass and then having berserker’s remorse.
E=mc^2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation by David Bodanis.
There is some interesting historical stuff about each of the terms in the equation—did you know that Voltaire’s longtime partner, Mme. du Chatelet, was a distinguished scientist and accomplished fencer? Not a berserker, though. Sadly, the parts that involve explaining physics are rather sketchy and disappointing. It’s a common pattern in popular science books.
Dangerous Goods by Sean Hill.
Poems about growing up black in rural Georgia, winter in northern Minnesota, and everything in between. Hill is something of a wit, and is not afraid to be intelligible. His emotional control allows the reader to let her guard down a bit.