Currently Reading, 8 July 2019

Something Old, Something New

I start this post-holiday week with three books on the go:

Rat Race by Dick Francis (originally published 1971 but I’m reading a brand-new ebook edition just published by Canelo) is a re-read for me. We’ve got a little group read going on over at LibraryThing where we will read one Francis book every other month. It’s been a fun chance to introduce one of my most reliable “comfort read” authors to new readers, and to reminisce with others who like me have been reading his horse-related mysteries for years. Someday I should write a post here about all the reasons why I love Dick Francis.

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope (originally published in 1860; I’m reading an public domain ebook from Project Gutenberg) is the fourth volume in Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles, a series of books set in the same fictional English county. I don’t think I’d have dared tackle these books without the help of another group read at LibraryThing back in 2012. Especially in the earlier books, there is a lot of arcana about church history and customs, and the political intrigues of the day, that this semi-modern American was completely unaware of. Thanks to the group leader Liz, I could actually make enough sense of the first book, The Warden, to realize how much I enjoyed Trollope’s sly social commentary.

Finally, I’m reading an ARC of Jamie Mason’s The Hidden Things (Gallery Books, August 2019), a thriller that is entirely of the current moment. What are the ramifications when a video goes viral on social media? What completely unintended consequences can arise in the lives of those caught up in the moment? Those are the questions faced by a family whose lives unravel in a cascading series of events sparked by secrets that won’t stay in the past.

Literary links

Bronze Link” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s a hot summer holiday weekend, and for me that usually means curling up in an air-conditioned safe space with a book. Maybe you prefer to turn the pages while lounging poolside or at a cabin by the lake. Wherever you’re going to be this weekend, here are some reading-related articles that caught my eye.


I’m not gonna lie: Microsoft’s Ebook Apocalypse Shows the Dark Side of DRM by Brian Barrett sent chills down my spine. I read a lot — I mean, A LOT — of ebooks because I’d much rather carry around a compact e-reader than a pile of books that get scuffed and battered and weigh down my tote bag. I never bought a book from Microsoft’s ebook store (truth be told, I never knew Microsoft had an ebook store, which might be partly why it failed) but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how easily this could happen elsewhere, including at Kobo Books, my preferred e-tailer. So I guess I have a new task for this holiday weekend: Making sure I’ve got all my ebooks downloaded onto my computer’s hard drive so even if they disappear from the Great Internet Cloud they will still exist.

The Guardian

Oliver Twiss? Nickelas Nickelbery? The Penny Pickwick? What in the name of Charles Dickens is going on here? Just a little 19th century plagiarism, according to Alison Flood’s recent article, Oliver Twiss and Martin Guzzlewit – the fan fiction that ripped off Dickens. It’s all down to a fellow named Edward Lloyd, a prominent press baron of the time who capitalized on the immense popularity of Dickens’ serialized novels by publishing his own ripoff versions.

In some ways the plagiarisms could be seen as the original fan fiction, as they took familiar characters and did different things with them.

Professor Rohan McWilliam

By all accounts, the author of A Tale of Two Cities was mad as the Dickens (oof, sorry) about the whole situation but a judge said he had no recourse to force Lloyd to stop publishing. You can read more about Lloyd’s appropriation and his other influences on Victorian Britain in a new book of essays edited by McWilliam and Sarah Louise Lill, Edward Lloyd and His World: Popular Fiction, Politics and the Press in Victorian Britain (Routledge, 2019).

The Atlantic

Next week is Major League Baseball’s All-Star Break, when the theoretically best (or at least most popular) players in MLB gather to compete in a Home Run Derby and an American-vs-National game that thankfully no longer counts for anything. Since you’re not going to have any actual games to watch for four long days, why not take some time to read The New Science of Building Baseball Superstars, an article by Jack Hamilton that reviews a new book, The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Noncomformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players (Basic Books, 2019) by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik.

Hamilton makes a thoughtful analogy to the rise of the steroid scandal in the 1990s with the more-or-less simultaneous popularization of “sabermetrics” an advanced form of player analysis encapsulated in Michael Lewis’ now-classic Moneyball.

The steroid and stat revolutions have unfolded very differently so far, but they arose from a common source: a desire to deploy scientific methods to improve the way baseball is played. Steroid use focused on player enhancement, whereas analytics focused on player value. To put it polemically, one was a revolution driven by labor, and the other by management, which is probably one of many reasons the latter has been more readily accepted.

Jack Hamilton, The Atlantic

There are other nuanced takes throughout the article, as Hamilton casts a skeptical eye on some of the claims made by Lindbergh and Sawchik about this new era of “Betterball.” Far from discouraging me from reading the book, I’m more eager than ever to check it out see for myself whether The MVP Machine is firing on all cylinders or running on fumes.

Big things come in small packages

a family tragedy of the american west

Montana 1948 (Milkweek, 2007) is a story of sibling rivalry, the malleability of the criminal justice system when it’s applied to people of color, the internal struggles that we all experience when it feels like the only way to do the right thing is by doing the wrong thing. The spare prose and the slender size of the book make the complex depth of the characters all the more astonishing.

Cover image of Montana 1948

David Hayden is 12 years old in 1948, when his family’s housekeeper, a Native American woman named Marie Little Feather, becomes ill and is later found dead in her room at the Hayden house. The truth about what happened to her, and the repercussions of both the original acts and the subsequent reactions, tear apart the Hayden family in painful and irrevocable ways.

Watson has a way with evocative description that made me feel as if I had once visited the small Montana town where the Haydens lived, in the High Plains eastern part of the state. And his rendering of Adult David’s thoughts about the events of that long-ago summer made me feel as if I was right there in his head, looking back on my own memories:

… the sound of breaking glass, the odor of rotting vegetables. … I offer these images in the order in which they occurred, yet the events that produced these sights and sounds are so rapid and tumbled together that any chronological sequence seems wrong. Imagine instead a movie screen divided into boxes and panels, each with its own scene, so that one moment can occur simultaneously with another, so that no action has to fly off in time, so nothing happens before or after, only during. That’s the way these images coexist in my memory, like the Sioux picture calendars in which the whole year’s event are painted on the same buffalo hide, or like a tapestry with every scene woven into the same cloth, every moment on the same flat plane, the summer of 1948 …

Larry Watson

Watson effectively uses the first-person perspective of an adult David looking back on this time in his life. While grown-up David occasionally adds some big-picture perspective and hindsight, he’s also careful to emphasize his younger self’s bafflement at some of the secrets and discussion that he overhears. He calls himself naïve for a boy of 12, and I think he would be in today’s culture, but I suspect many 1948-era 12-year-olds would seem rather immature to today’s tweens.

I suggested this book to my real-life book club as part of our criminal justice theme. (I first read it in 2015 but didn’t review it then and didn’t remember enough to feel comfortable leading a discussion without re-reading.) The other books we’ve read for this theme include The Green Mile by Stephen King, Minority Report by Philip K. Dick, A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. That last book is without doubt a book every American should read, but Watson’s minor masterpiece just might be my favorite. 

Will no one rid me of this troublesome brother-in-law?

Christopher Buckley serves up slapstick political intrigue in ‘The Judge Hunter’

Samuel Pepys has a problem. The incessant diarist of the 17th century has successfully negotiated himself into a position of minor power in the Restoration government of King Charles II after having inconveniently supported Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads in the overthrow of Charles I. Life would be reasonably tolerable if not for his wife’s brother, Balthasar, a ne’er-do-well content to sponge off Pepys as a more appealing alternative to getting and keeping a job. If only Sam could find some way of getting Balty out of his life and his purse!

The answer to Pepys’ prayers, at least in the pages of Christopher Buckley’s latest satirical novel (Simon & Schuster, 2018), seems to come when he stumbles upon a plan to send Balty to the American Colonies on a vague quest to search for two judges who were responsible for condemning Charles I to execution. Once landed in the Massachusetts colony, Balty is taken under the wing of one Hiram Huncks, who is ostensibly going to help Balty find the judges but may have his own agenda.

Buckley is a master at historical satire, weaving comedic hijinks throughout an otherwise historically faithful account. Between yuks in The Judge Hunter, he delivers plenty of solid history about the founders of the American colonies, whether English or Dutch. The severe Puritans who founded the Massachusetts colony are reliably skewered, as are the even stricter sect that split for Connecticut when they thought Massachusetts was getting a little too loosey-goosey (narrator: they were not), and the Quakers who refused to renounce their faith despite severe persecution. I learned more about the second Anglo-Dutch War (truthfully, I’m not sure I even remembered there had been a first one) than I ever learned in school. “Excerpts” from Pepys’ famous diary are scattered throughout the narrative, and it was nice to have confirmation in the afterword that all but one or two were entirely made up. Too bad, because Buckley almost had me convinced to tackle the many-volumed classic work.

At the outset, I was concerned that Buckley was serving up too heavy a dose of slapstick, which would rapidly wear thin. Happily, as the plot progresses the characters acquire some more substantial traits than mere deliverers or receivers of punch lines, giving the overall work a pleasant depth.

The Judge Hunter is a worthy follow-up to Buckley’s first historical satire, The Relic Master, which set its skewed sights on the 16th century trade in saints’ remains. Buckley has stated his intention to continue the series with books set in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Based on past performance, those will be worth keeping an eye out for.

Exploring the science of grief

‘Lost and wanted’ is a modern ghost story

How are we supposed to feel when we learn of the death of a friend who had slowly drifted out of our day-to-day life? As Nell Freudenberger shows in her latest novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019), it’s complicated. Helen Clapp and Charlotte “Charlie” Boyce were as close as it is possible for two people to be when they were students at Harvard despite being as different as chalk and cheese. Helen is a studious science nerd from a white working-class family; Charlie’s academic interests lay in French literature, and she is supermodel-level gorgeous, the only child in an affluent African-American family. After college, they drifted apart: Helen stayed in academia, eventually landing at MIT as a professor of physics; Charlie moved to L.A. to work as a television producer, where she married a surfer dude and had a daughter. Helen remained single but had a son via sperm donor.

Busy with their respective careers on opposite coasts, Helen and Charlie haven’t spoken for some time when Helen unexpectedly gets a cryptic text message from Charlie. Before she has a chance to follow up on this unexpected communication, Charlie’s husband calls to tell her that Charlie has died — before the text message was sent. What’s going on here?

That question seems as though it will be the heart of a modern-day ghost story, but in the end the answer is less important than what Helen learns about herself, about friendship, and about grief. As she struggles to process her emotions and remembers the high and low points of her and Charlie’s friendship, Helen expresses herself using the language she is most comfortable with: physics. I really struggled with these bits, as I have the most rudimentary of science knowledge. I still felt able to enjoy the story but I’m sure someone who could relate to the scientific concepts would feel a much deeper connection.

Once I gave myself permission to stop trying to make the scientific connections, I came to realize that Helen’s frequent retreats into scientific analogy were a way to distance herself from the intensity of her feelings. With that insight, I found myself absorbed in Helen’s journey of re-discovery. The ways in which she interacts with the people around her who also knew Charlie felt completely organic, and her need to re-interpret her memories of Charlie through the lens of new information learned after her death was compelling. As Helen muses at Charlie’s memorial service, “… love was particular even though it was directed at the same person, that we hadn’t lost just one Charlie but as many as the number of people who were seated here today.”

Readers who expect a modern-day ghost story based on the initial setup may be disappointed, but Freudenberger’s meditation on connection and loss should resonate even with those of us without a firm grasp of quantum mechanics.

Battle of the book covers

U.S. versus U.K. — who ya got?

Illustration created by Electric Literature

Are your Mondays filled with too much thinking? Ease into your work week by gazing upon some beautiful and striking book covers. The fine folks over at Electric Literature pitted the U.S. and U.K. cover versions of some new books to see which their readers preferred. I agreed with some of their choices (the U.K. version of Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway), disagreed with others (I prefer the U.S. cover for Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future), but mostly I added a bunch of titles to my library holds list. Let me know in the comments which ones stand out to you.

Abby, sometimes I wonder if our parents were right when they forbade us to read novels! It is all the fault of the Circulating Libraries!” “Putting romantical notions into girls’ heads?” said Abby, smiling. “I don’t think so: I had a great many myself, and was never permitted to read any but the most improving works.”

Georgette Heyer, black sheep

Fairy tales

book covers of Uprooted and Spinning Silver both written by Naomi Novik

Naomi Novik makes old stories new again

I first got hooked on Naomi Novik’s fantastic (in all senses of the word) writing with His Majesty’s Dragon, an imaginative novel whose plot could most succinctly be described as “The Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons.” That book bloomed into an eventual nine-book series; though I read all of them out of affection for the primary dragon character Temeraire and his human comrade Will Laurence, the first tells a complete and utterly satisfying tale.

A few years ago, when I found that Novik had published a new book outside of the Temeraire universe, I was intrigued. That book was Uprooted (Del Rey, 2015), and it’s a magical (again, in all senses of the word) story about the age-old battle between good and evil.

Ever since she was a small child, Agnieszka has known that one girl child from her birth year will be chosen by the Dragon, the valley’s resident (human) wizard, to be his companion for 10 years. Every girl who has been so chosen has ended up leaving the valley forever when her service is over, and the younger girls live in dread of leaving their famlies never to return. At least Agnieszka can take comfort in the fact that everyone expects the Dragon to choose her best friend Kasia, the most beautiful girl in the valley, when the day comes.

You see where this is going, right? The Dragon chooses Agnieszka to come live in his tower, to everyone’s surprise and seemingly against his own will. Once there, she makes a mess of everything the Dragon tries to teach her, until she discovers (to her shock) that she herself is capable of performing magic, though she doesn’t understand how it works or how to control it. She’s soon called upon to use her newfound power in a series of adventures to save Kasia, the valley, and the kingdom’s Queen, who has been trapped in the evil Wood for decades. But the powerful forces at work threaten to destroy not only Agnieszka and her beloved home valley but the kingdom itself if she and the Dragon aren’t able to root out and destroy the source of the evil once and for all.

I loved this book, which has strong elements of classic Eastern European fairy tales (the author thanks her Polish grandmother for telling her the stories of Baba Jaga throughout her childhood). One of the most enjoyable elements was that despite the familiarity of many elements of the story, the ways in which Novik employs them felt fresh and unpredictable. The action is episodic and yet builds elegantly on itself in a way that feels completely organic. The characters were suitably appealing or hateful as required, and the evil appropriately menacing and merciless. I was a bit concerned when the epic Battle to End All Battles ended with a chunk of book left to read, but Novik provided a suitable coda that didn’t feel tacked on or anticlimactic as so many do.

As perfect as I found Uprooted, I was a little bit leery when I saw Spinning Silver (Del Rey, 2018) on the shelf last year. It’s not a sequel, but it follows in the same vein of offering a new take on an old fairy tale — in this case, the story of Rumpelstiltskin, who helped a miller’s daughter spin straw into gold in exchange for her firstborn child. At the center of Novik’s version is Miryem, a young Jewish girl who is forced to take over the family’s money-lending business from her father, a man too kindhearted to earn enough money to support his family. Miryem learns how to be tough but fair to the villagers who seek her help, and manages to succeed beyond mere subsistence.

It seems to be a more-or-less idyllic life until word of her success spreads beyond the village, and Miryem is commanded by the king of the fairy people to turn silver into gold, upon threat of death. What the silver signifies, why the Staryk need so much gold, and how Miryem will walk the tightrope between two worlds is magic all its own in Novik’s hands. I loved the way Novik ties together the storylines of three unusual women: Besides Miryem, we also meet Wanda, a village girl who comes to work for Miryem’s family to pay off her abusive father’s debts, and Irina, daughter of the local duke who finds herself in a dangerous marriage. Each of the women faces her own demons, but they all must come together if any of them are to survive.

I don’t want to say much more, because every reader deserves to discover the delights hidden between these two covers for themselves, but suffice to say that my fears were unfounded. Spinning Silver is more than a worthy follow-up to Uprooted, and both deserve a place on the shelf of any reader who still believes in fairy tales.

Literary links

Bronze Link” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

What time of year is it, boys and girls? It’s “Summer/Beach Reading List” Time! Any number of media markets have jumped into the deep end of the pool with roundups of books that are worth tucking into your suitcase or beach tote. Let’s take a look:

The Washington Post

The 20 Books to Read This Summer does not confuse “summer read” with “mindless read,” though you’ll find plenty of options to fit the category a friend of mine calls Thumping Good Reads. There is both fiction and nonfiction on offer here, some available now and some that will be published later in the season. Among the titles that caught my eye:

  • The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (Berkley). I’m not a dedicated reader of contemporary romances but I thoroughly enjoyed Hoang’s first novel, The Kiss Quotient. What makes Hoang’s work stand out is the way she navigates storylines featuring people on the autism spectrum with wit and sensitivity. There’s also a generous helping of steam, perfect for readers already hot and bothered at the beach.
  • First: Sandra Day O’Connor by Evan Thomas (Random House). The first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court overcame plenty of sexism in her rise through the judicial branch, but it was her brain, not any more noticeable body part that earned her a seat on the nation’s highest court.
  • Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman (William Morrow). I’m a big fan of Lippman’s series of Baltimore-based detective stories featuring recovering journalist Tess Monaghan but this book is a stand-alone, set in the 1960s and featuring a housewife-turned-reporter who sets out to solve a mystery.

The New York Times

The Times does everything bigger and better, so naturally their Summer Reading roundup spotlights 75 books. That sounds overwhelming, but the NYT at least had the sense to present their picks in an interactive layout with browsable categories: Thrillers, Travel, Sports, True Crime, Music, Horror, Historical Fiction, Cooking, and The Great Outdoors. Whew! Let’s take a gallop around the pool and see what’s up:

cover image from The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
  • See You in the Piazza by Frances Mayes (Crown). I enjoyed Mayes’ first memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun, quite a bit, and the follow-up Bella Tuscany was also good. I was startled to realize while researching this post that she had written yet another volume, Every Day in Tuscany, and a host of companion books that plumb the depths of Italian cooking and home decor and scenery. Not having exhausted her subject matter or her readers’ patience yet, this year she aims to take her devoted readers along with her and her husband as they visit out-of-the-way spots in — where else? — Italy. If you can’t spend your actual summer vacation in Italy yourself, you might as well read about while you’re fighting off mosquitoes at that KOA campground in Nebraska.
  • The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (Penguin). Winn tells the true story of walking journey she and her husband took along England’s South West Coast Path, which spans 630 miles between Somerset and Dorset. The Winns did not undertake this journey on a whim; as the reviewer Liesl Schillinger explains, ” In middle age, they had become homeless as if by thunderclap: In the space of two days, they lost the farmhouse that had provided both their home and their livelihood and learned that Winn’s husband had a terminal illness.” It sounds utterly fascinating, if a bit grim.

If those lists aren’t enough for you, here are some other folks who have compiled summer reading lists:

Lists, and more lists

Do you have a favorite go-to source for book suggestions? Please share in the comments section!

A window into a isolated world

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey (Algonquin Books, 2010)

book cover of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

I’ve lost my notes on which friend first recommended this to me many years ago, but I owe them my thanks. The first time you pick it up, you might think you will speed through this lovely little (just 120 pages) book, but if you are like me you will find yourself deliberately slowing down to savor Bailey’s luminous prose and gentle but keen insights into the natural world — as exemplified by the common woodland snail who takes up residence alongside the author during a year of her life when illness keeps her completely bedridden. Here’s a sample:

Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.

The little snail who so preoccupies Bailey’s attention is first brought to her inside a pot of wild violets from a friend. At first, she frets about being responsible for the snail when she cannot care for herself without help. It doesn’t take her long to realize that when you are so ill that even sitting up in bed is an impossible task without help, being able to focus attention on something that lives at a similar pace can distract you from your own loneliness and isolation.

Along the way, Bailey turns her attention to exploring the changes — physical, mental, emotional — her illness has wrought in her.

When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats and whens and their impossibly distant kin, how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive.

I’ll be the first to admit that I never gave much thought at all to snails beyond the restaurant scene in the movie Pretty Woman, when Julia Roberts sends an escargot flying across a posh dining room. Bailey provides a surprising amount of factual data about snails in her little book; you might think it would be too much except that in Bailey’s hands it becomes compelling. (One of the first things I did when finishing the book was to fire up the internets and check out some images of snails, since I don’t think I had ever really looked at one before. They really are quite interesting little critters.)

The final jewels in the book’s crown are the epigrams that open each chapter. It turns out that the most astonishing variety of writers have contemplated the lowly snail far more than I ever had. Charles Darwin was not a surprise, of course, but Patricia Highsmith?! It turns out the masterful author of psychological thrillers like The Talented Mr. Ripley and its sequels wrote not one but two short stories about snails! (Of course, being Patricia Highsmith, one of the stories is about giant carnivorous snails.) I’m tempted to raid the library in hopes of discovering more literary gold carried on the backs of this unassuming creature.