24 July 2011

Book Reviews: What I read in the first half of 2011 (Part 2)

I would have gotten this second part of my now traditional biannual book-review blog out of the way Friday but I had a what-turned-out-to-be-minor medical emergency: One of my older cats, Emma, who suffers from Irritable Bowel Disease, began spitting up blood so I rushed her to the vet. As she was otherwise fine, Dr. Dais thinks she may have ruptured a capillary in her gut when she threw up that day's breakfast (usually Emma can keep her food down but I have now decisively proven that "beef" should not be part of her diet).

But now back to my reading in 2011 (the nonfiction shelf):

The Rise of the Greeks, Michael Grant: This was the usual Grant - a well researched, readable synopsis. In this case, Greece prior to the Persian Wars and the dominance of Athens and Sparta, when the other city-states tended to fade into the background. I enjoyed the work as it filled in a gap in my understanding of ancient Greek history.

Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, Bart Ehrmann: I've been less and less satisfied with Ehrmann's recent books. They read like slightly altered versions of his earlier stuff, which is well written and interesting. Truth and Fiction's problem is that I've read this stuff before and better written in his earlier books like Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture & the Faiths We Never Knew or Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible & Why.

War Is Not Over When It's Over, Ann Jones: This book recounts stories of the effects of war and its aftermath on (primarily) women. It's very graphic and very depressing - human beings can be extraordinarily inhuman, and the situation grows worse as the only response we seem capable of giving to the myriad crises besetting us is violence.

The Atoms of Language, Mark Baker: Baker wants to begin looking at language in terms of the elements (atoms) that it's composed of rather than historically. To that end he proposes a Table of Language Elements, and makes some interesting points along the way.

The Poison King, Adrienne Mayor: This is a biography of Mithradates VI of Pontus, who was the last significant opponent to Roman expansion in the East. It's OK but Mayor has an annoying tendency (which is becoming too common in many biographies) of overspeculation, imagining the thoughts of her subject without any support. Which is a shame, because when she's capable of informed, reasonable and supportable speculation when she bothers.

I'd still recommend it for all its flaws because they are relatively minor and when Mayor sticks close to her sources, the book has valuable information.

The Languages of China, Robert Ramsey: Moderately dated (1987) but an interesting overview of (naturally) the languages of China.

Ill Fares the Land, Tony Judt: A collection of essays by the late Judt about the deterioration of the Left and the socialist and welfare-state policies of Europe and the US in the last 30 years. It's an indictment of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Left and a call to reorganzie and reaffirm the humanistic and Enlightenment theories that undergird socialism.

Endgame, vol. 1-2, Derrick Jensen: This book deserves a blog all its own (and it may get one eventually) but for now the interested can read my review on GoodReads. In a nutshell, Jensen argues that it was a major mistake for Paleolithic man to turn to agriculture. The only sustainable lifestyle is a hunting-gathering one, and the advent of civilization institutionalized and regularized exploitation and violence as the normal way of life; a way of life that is destroying life on this planet.

I followed this book up with Spencer Wells' Pandora's Seed, which essentially argues the same point, but from a decidedly more optimistic POV. It isn't on the "official list" only because I started it in July so I'll throw it up on the year-end book-review round up.

20 July 2011

Book Reviews: What I read in the first half of 2011 (Part 1)

Time management.

Competent time-management skills are something I have not cultivated to any great extent. If I had, if there had ever been some reason for me to do so, this post would be dated closer to July 1 than July 21.

But "better late than never," to use an over-ripe cliche:

The first six months of 2011 were, as one might expect, a mixture of really good reading, good but not memorable stuff, and prose that should never have escaped from the writer's word-processing program.

In fiction:

The Next Queen of Heaven, Gregory Maguire: The only other Maguire novel I've ever read is his debut, Wicked. In that book, I enjoyed the subversive take on the classic Wizard of Oz but wasn't blown away by the writing and haven't followed the subsequent book in the series. Queen was in impulse buy based on the book's blurb but what it promised wasn't delivered.

The Tablet of the Law, Thomas Mann: This was the first Mann work I've ever read and I was enthralled. It's a novella really - a very short read - but packed. It's Mann's retelling of the Exodus myth, and I highly recommend it.

The Duel (Pavear translation), Anton Chekhov: I picked up this English translation of the Chekhov novella at the same time I picked up Queen. I have been a Chekhov fan for years and I had read other translations but I've been hearing good things about the Pavear/Volokhonsky outpouring of translations for this author and others (I have to get my hands on their translation of Crime and Punishment) and the picture of the woman playing Nadya in the recent film version seduced me:
Beyond that, this story turns out to illustrate two of the things that I find most appealing about Chekhov. To quote from my GoodReads review: "Two of the several many reasons I read Chekhov are the realistic (if oft times depressing) depiction of human relationships - "the idea enters into no relationship with the ideas of others; each consciousness is isolated and impenetrable; there is a polyphony of voices, but no dialogue; there is compassion, but no communion" (p. xvi) - and Chekhov's "irrational intuition that there is meaning and beauty in the cosmos" (p. xiii).

The man was brilliant. It's a shame that I can't read Russian.

Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain: After years of loathing Twain based upon my experience with Tom Sawyer in high school English, I finally broke down and listened to this book on Audio CD. My resistance crumbled in the face of the controversy stirred up earlier this year by the publication of a bowdlerized version that replace "nigger" with "slave" in order to save the delicate sensibilities of the readers. And, after all, the words are practically interchangeable. Right?

Outside of that, I found the novel to be pretty good right up to the point when Tom Sawyer shows up, then it went downhill and any of its power was dissipated by the ending.

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi: I'd heard a great deal about the "amazing" Bacigalupi and was interested enough to check out this book when it became available at the library. He's good but not great. I may be persuaded to read other stuff by this author but I'm not anticipating it.

The Inquestor Tetralogy, S.P. Somtow: This is a SF series comprising The Light on the Sound, The Throne of Madness, Utopia Hunters and The Darkling Wind. I had read at least the first two books when I was a teen-ager, and I was curious about how I would respond to them today. They were OK but not great. I had a "Somtow Phase" and read many of his novels when I was younger but I've found that he no longer appeals to me.

'Tis Pity She's a Whore, John Ford: Ford was a playwright of Tudor England. His were the plays you went to see when a Shakespeare or Marlow or Jonson production wasn't in town. Whore is an over-the-top story about incest and full of bloody violence and it probably thrilled the groundlings that came to see it.

Collected Poems, Sylvia Townsend Warner: This is a collection of Warner's poetry (duh). As a devoted Warner groupie I can't review this dispassionately. I loved it.

Against All Things Ending, Stephen Donaldson: This is the latest installment in the Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Admittedly, Donaldson is scraping the bottom of the soup bowl to find anything new to say about the Land but it's still a pretty decent story and I'll be finishing the series when the fourth book comes out.

Best Served Cold, Joe Abercrombie: This novel is set in the same world as Abercrombie's The First Law series but it's a standalone. Abercrombie's vision is so bleak, cynical and hopeless that I - myself usually quite pessimistic - find it difficult to read. There's nothing to redeem anyone in this book. I'm probably not going to be reading more of Abercrombie's stuff.

The Last Ringbearer, Kirill Eskov: This is a retelling of Tolkien's War of the Ring and its aftermath. Short version: It stinks. The longer and more thoughtful review can be found here on GoodReads. The man took on Tolkien and he lost.

The Crippled God, Steven Erikson: The final book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen. Anyone who follows these reviews will know that Erikson is one of my favorite SF authors and that I was looking forward to the conclusion of this 10-book epic. And I was not disappointed - much. I think the author chickened out at the end with the final fate of Tavore Paran and the Bonehunters but it was still a good ending and there were a lot of great episodes getting there.

The Last Page, Anthony Huso; The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie; The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter; The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay: I lump these four together because they were "meh." Nothing much to recommend them, though only the last (Lions) felt like an utter waste of time.

The Dress Lodger, The Mammoth Cheese, Witches on the Road Tonight, and A Stolen Tongue, Sheri Holman: Holman joins my list of favorite authors. It's impossible to describe in this space the novels here since they take place in many diverse places (Lodger is set in 19th Century Britain while Tongue takes place in 15th Century Palestine, and the middle two take place in 20th Century America) but they're gripping stories that enthralled me. I eagerly look forward to Holman's next novel.

The White-Luck Warrior, R. Scott Bakker: Book #2 in Bakker's Aspect-Emperor series. I reread the first book, The Judging Eye, in anticipation of this one and found it to be better than I remembered. Like Erikson, Bakker has created a unique and original world, one where I don't know what's going to happen next. I look forward to the final volume, The Unholy Consult.

A is for Alien, Caitlin Kiernan: A collection of SF stories by one of my favorite authors.

Stonewielder, Ian Esslemont: Esslemont is Steven Erikson's collaborator on the Malazan books and has been carrying on the story thread of the Malazan Empire. He's just not Erikson's equal so his books are not as interesting. This is the weakest of the three so far but I'll continue to soldier on because he does show glimmers of talent and, being a Malazan groupie, I can't not read them!

Embassytown, China Mieville: This is Mieville's first foray into SF and it's one of his best novels in my opinion. READ IT. (Sorry for the shouting.)

I began Ruth Downie's mystery series about Gaius Petreius Ruso, a Roman doctor during Hadrian's reign (117-138), with Medicus, which I finished on June 30, so I'll lead off my year-end review with those books. And, yes, there will be "books." This is a sprightly written series much like Colin Cotterill's Siri Paiboun mysteries that is a delight to read and a good source of brain candy when the serious stuff becomes too much to endure.

As always, you can get more thorough reviews on my GoodReads page.

I'm going to have to come back in Part 2 to cover the nonfiction reading I managed through June, so stay tuned.