A lot of specialized nonfiction this past year, but also a new fiction series, the Invisible Library, that is just really good.
Roughing It – Mark Twain
Twain’s account of his post-steamboat days, when he set off with his brother for Mormon Utah, then migrated to the silver mines of Nevada, then to San Francisco and onwards to Hawaii. Along the lines of Life on the Mississippi and Innocents Abroad, the book is a combination autobiography, travel report, and collection of yarns. Combined with Twain’s raw enthusiasm for the societies and natural wonders he tells about, it’s a great read. It is the first time I’ve seen actual evidence of Twain being racist against Indians. I read the imageless Gutenberg version, which I recommend because it looks like there might be a tarantula illustration in the “full” edition.
The Club of Queer Trades – G.K. Chesterton
A bit of overlap with the Chesterton collection I read last year. These short stories revolve around Chesterton’s detective figure, Basil Grant, a former judge who went a little nutty. The premise is that each story involves someone who has invented a genuinely new trade to make a living by. These stories are less atmospheric than the previous collection, but also more story-ish and less cold demonstration, and still written very sharply with the occasional philosophical observation thrown in for spice.
Shut Up and Eat Your Snowshoes – Jack Douglas, 1970
“Where do you find these?” – KJ
Douglas, a Hollywood humorist, relocates from Connecticut to a lake deep in the middle of Nowhere, Ontario to get away from civilization. He takes along his soon-to-be-pregnant Japanese wife, their son, two dogs, a cougar, and five wolves. As you can expect, there are a lot of close encounters with death in the form of blizzards, undrivable roads, adventurous biplane pilots, escapees from a prison farm, and wizened strippers. And the traditional caretaker who largely takes care of himself.
The struggle to adjust to their new life is entertaining, but one feels sympathy for the wife and son that the writer doesn’t seem to share. Douglas seems to have a little too much of the traditional “I am the head of the family and that settles it” mindset, to the point that it takes the edge off the humor at times. What can I say, it’s hard coming down from Mark Twain. Douglas also works a little bluer than I would like and throws in plenty of entertainment industry names to make sure the book is good and dated. Overall though, it is entertaining.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry – Gabrielle Zevin
This is a novel about a closed-minded, unpleasant widower who runs a bookstore on a small island off the eastern U.S. coast. Into his life come an optimistic, open-minded publisher’s rep and a precocious orphan left in his store (leading him to search the web for ‘how does a father clean his daughter’s private parts without looking like a pervert’). This could have been painted in bright Hallmark movie primaries and concluded with a wedding or two, but it does neither. It’s a fairly fast read with some substance and unpleasantness to keep it grounded, with the prose remaining neutral and well-paced (and present tense) to balance all the Hallmark story elements. There’s talking about books and living with books and even a dash of detective novel, all of which are very welcome.
It’s a story about our relationship to books and about finding what matters in life and making the best of it, without ever coming out and saying so until the very end. Each chapter is prefaced with a short commentary on a book, which on first glance mirrors the protagonist’s worldview at that point of the story, but has further meaning as the story progresses.
Thought-provoking, warm in spite of the tragedic elements, and very enjoyable. It’s going to stick with me. If only because I’m not sure how “The Celebrated Jumping Frog” qualifies as “proto-post-modern”.
The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary – John Simpson
Simpson takes us through his career at the Dictionary, starting back in the ’70s during a supplemental update. He starts his job by combing books for new quotations and words, moves on to writing entries, and is gradually given more power until he winds up as a chief editor during the computerization, internetization, and eventual total revamp of the dictionary during the ’80s – ’10s. I came away feeling that I understood the life of a lexicographer (past and present) well. Partly to that end, Simpson scatters etymologies of quite a few words of interest throughout the narrative, such as AIDS (written and re-written as usage changed during the ’80s), balderdash, or crowdsourcing. In the background of the book, but certainly not his life, is a daughter who has never mentally developed beyond a pre-verbal toddler.
Apparently there have been a lot of books written about the OED. This is a good one, very accessible without being shallow.
Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940 – 1950 – Kevin Starr
A moderately scholarly work that divides into chapters by year, with each chapter generally focusing on one or two topics prevalent in that year. It starts with America’s deliberate attempt to ignore the War during 1940 and ends with Californians (the University in particular) under investigation for Communist ties. In between one finds the fifty-year war California carried on against Japan (and, when the Japanese had been decamped, the war against immigrant Mexicans and blacks), the bustling wartime industry that swelled California’s population and economy, Hollywood using the war to become an American institution, the influence of Hearst newspapers, and many individuals such as Earl Warren and Richard Nixon. There’s also a lot of examination of the sociopolitical underpinnings of specific movies and books.
The author has an apparent liberal bias, but it mainly comes out as a bit of a preoccupation with “democratic socialistic” policies (such as those implemented by the wartime aircraft industry). I wouldn’t notice it otherwise. The book seems even-handed overall and well-researched, with the author investigating accused individuals’ Communist histories, whether innocent or up to their necks, even as it’s implicitly understood that much of the Red Scare was damaging for America. A very colorful decade for one of the nation’s most influential states. The book’s main shortcoming is the lack of semicolons.
The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 – James Shapiro
I expected an overview of the minutiae of early 17th century London society, but no. This book is largely about major events surrounding the year 1606, and their effects on the plays Shakespeare wrote that year: King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. The Gunpowder Plot and its fallout receive especial attention. Shapiro traces themes and ideas, as well as lines of dialogue, back to the events, earlier plays, and King James’s humors that Shakespeare drew upon for inspiration. There’s a lot more “current events” going on in Shakespeare’s plays than I had imagined to suspect. That random drunken porter in Macbeth, for example, is alluding to the contemporary discovery that Jesuits were teaching English Catholics how to “equivocate” in order to hide priests from the authorities. Antony and Cleopatra turns the then-unquestioned “Cleopatra was a hussy who made a fool out of Antony” narrative on its head to draw on the rising sense of nostalgia for Elizabeth’s reign. Some idea of the overall performance culture of the time is also given. It’s good.
The Lost Plot – Genevieve Cogman
Irene Winters is a Librarian in the Library, which is a giant library that exists outside the multiverse. The multiverse is ruled partly by Dragons, who like order, and partly by Fae, who like chaos (this is simplistic). They don’t particularly like each other. The Library needs to stay absolutely neutral while it goes about its mission of acquiring books from all those multiverses. Irene goes about this task aided by her Librarian powers and her handsome assistant librarian.
So that’s the (hopefully) spoiler-free background for this, the fourth book in a series. In this installment, Irene finds out that a fellow Librarian on another world may be interfering in Dragon politics, which could set all the Fae and many of the Dragons to war against the Library. Her desperate task is to get in there (she lands in a 1920s America where the mob is very powerful), find out what’s going on, and get any shenanigans snuffed out without a hint getting out to taint the Library’s perceived neutrality. And if captured, the Library will deny everything.
It’s a smart book about smart people in conflict with each other with desperate stakes for everyone involved, with quick thinking and plot twists to get in and out of danger. I really enjoyed it thoroughly and will be reading the first three books as I come across them. A few spoilers for previous books, so you should start the series at the beginning.
The Invisible Library — Genevieve Cogman
Just as entertaining as the first book I read, which is technically the fourth in the series. This one takes place in an alternate, semi-magical London with dirigibles, a Holmesian detective, and most of the backstory I mentioned above. No tedious backstory or “early installment weirdness” here, but plenty of action and intrigue and villainous villains. And plot twists, most of which I didn’t see coming because the story was moving too thick and fast for me to move beyond living in the moment. Which is how I like my plot twists. Really looking forward to #s 2 and 3. I would not be surprised if these books got picked up for, say, a movie or a streaming series.
One of Our Thursdays Is Missing — Jasper Fforde
Another book-about-books, this one from a series I had vaguely realized existed. Usually I can get away with not picking out the first in the series, but this one kept me confused for a while. It was worth the read though.
There is a “BookWorld”, which exists of metaphysical books and characters who act out the books for readers. These characters have their own lives too? So if you were to visit there, you wouldn’t actually meet David Copperfield, you’d meet the character currently playing David Copperfield. Anyway, at the start of the book you get hit with a lot of cleverness that is confusing if you’ve been silly enough to pick this book up without reading previous books, then there’s a really funny bit about Crime and Punishment, and then the BookWorld is reformed by its governing body into an actual world, with actual geography, with books sorted into various genre-nations. After that, the actual plot starts.
The main character is called Thursday Next. She’s not the original, and this is where I was confused for half the book. I guess the original Thursday Next was a character who went out into the real world and then wrote about her BookWorld adventures there? Anyway, she had the main character take over acting out her books because she (the original) wanted her books less racy and violent. And that’s one of the main character’s problems: she wants to follow the original’s wishes, but that means the books are less read, and that means less money and prestige for the characters playing the books, which means her co-actors are perpetually mad at her. And the other major problem is that the original Thursday is missing just before a major peace talk between the Racy Novel, Women’s Lit, and Dogma genres, and the main character needs to find her. This leads to humor, cleverness-that’s-not-necessarily-funny, zaniness, poignancy, and a robot butler as the main character explores her world and the real world, with the secret police always on her trail.
Did I mention there’s a bad-tempered dodo and a real-world Cheese Mafia that’s played completely straight?
It’s hard to describe, and as you can imagine the moods don’t always cohere elegantly, but it’s quite entertaining, and this is certainly another series to which I will return.
Visions of Infinity: The Great Mathematical Problems – Ian Stewart
Whilst looking for a book someone else had read, I saw this title instead and took an interest. I have a book with a similar theme, Journey Through Genius, about distilling great theorems down to proofs that anyone with a bare minimum of high school math can appreciate (with some biography and historical context thrown in for funsies). I really like that book so I picked this one up. This one is much more focused on the math than my book but very readable and, for me, only slightly less accessible. It’s a much more flowing book, interested in following the trail from one mathematical discipline through another up to whatever major discovery or unsolved problem the chapter is about, and then often running ahead a bit for good measure. It’s from 2013 so pretty current. I recommend both books unless you’re past their levels.
Looking at the author’s other titles, I see he was a co-writer on the Science of Discworld books. He’s also written things called Another Fine Math You’ve Gotten Me Into and The Mayor of Uglyville’s Dilemma. I’m not sure which set of accomplishments is more impressive.
The Americans: The Colonial Experience – Daniel J. Boorstin
Picked this up at a library sale. It’s a great example of why we need to keep older books around, even if there may be newer books ostensibly covering the same material. You never know what detail an older work might mention that newer sources don’t see fit to include, or what the older work may reveal about its time. From this book, I learned that in 1950s America, self-irony simply did not exist.
The back cover promises stimulating ideas, fresh readings, and controversial points of view . . . so I was a little wary. But the first section of the book is innocuous enough. Boorstin looks at several settlements — Puritans, Quakers, Virginia, and Georgia — and describes the founders’ intentions, the unique aspects of each in practice, and usually what led to eventual “failure”. Even when describing what doomed a settlement, Boorstin typically has a gently positive attitude toward the colonists as he reports objective facts and draws reasonable-looking conclusions. I’m liking this so far.
The second and third sections are where it gets a little hairy. The main problem with Georgia, doncha know, was that the people running it from far-off Britain had unrealistic expectations for it (a massive silk industry because why not) and never learned different. Fair enough. Well, that pattern is magnified in the middle of the book, where America is just so wonderful and different and Europe is so stodgy. And . . . that’s pretty much the repeating theme here. While Europe suffered from guilds, in America everyone had to be the “undifferentiated man”: a little bit lawyer, a little bit doctor, a little bit everything. In America those nasty, imposed strata among lawyers and doctors never developed. Colonial America never had great or learned scientists, philosophers, or writers, but that’s okay because everyone in America was too busy discovering new species and observing practical human nature to bother with categorization or abstract philosophies. And so on.
Most of these contrasts between New World and Old are fine on their own, and stand reasonably well, especially the point that American “medicine” was largely free from the often destructive leechcraft of European doctors. But the theme just gets so repetitive, and Boorstin reiterates individual assertions, to the point that it all comes off as needlessly anti-intellectual. American shortcomings are noted neutrally or in a “admittedly, but” manner, while European ways are always a thing to be free of. If there had been just a little sense of wry irony it would have all been tolerable. I actually decided during this section that I would look Boorstin up on the Web to see if he was well-regarded or considered a crackpot.
Possibly the most heated controversy in this book is to be found in Boorstin’s urging that European influences traditionally credited for certain American innovations be largely disregarded, because the thing was already happening in America. Boorstin does not look to contemporary Europe or ancient Athens for the inspiration for American democracy, but rather to colonial Virginia, where voting was limited to aristocratic landowners who had to be capable and intelligent to make their fortunes. And because of their experience in this, Virginian Founding Fathers trusted republicanism.
The third section, mostly less cheerleadery, deals with American literary culture: varying stresses on religion and practical matters across the board, with pamphlets and newspapers far outnumbering works of fiction. Boorstin also discusses why the colonies never had a single “ultimate” cultural center like London or Paris. It further comes out that printing presses were very rare, so that authorities could squelch uncomfortable opinions quite readily, and in fact several Founding Fathers were strongly in favor of maintaining such a controlled press. (Paper was also very rare, and a British increase of its taxation stirred up the printers against the mother country.)
The last, short section is back to a reasonable objectivity, largely looking at the differences in professionialism between American militia and European professional soldiers. One recognizes much the same attitude that would appear in the Civil War decades later, much stronger here, with soldiers electing their own officers and militiamen tending to show up to fight when they felt like it, and heading home when the fighting seemed over. A strong provincialism kept colonies from helping each other with fighting, whether against Indians or redcoats, which frustrated the British and later Washington.
Overall a good read, aside from the sense of overbearing rah-rah Americanism and anti-elitism in the middle. Wikipedia says Boorstin was respected enough to win a Pulitzer and head the Library of Congress, and interesting enough to spend several paragraphs talking about his politics and philosophy.
This is also the only new book I read this year in which I didn’t catch a typo or wrong grammar (titled != entitled, folks).
The Map That Changed The World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology – Simon Winchester
KJ picked this up for me at a library sale. It is what it says: a popular* biography of William Smith, a surveyor with a passion for rocks who, from his years of experience in the field, developed a map of the crust beneath Britain and published it, inventing a new science in the process and starting a tide that would overturn Bishop Whomever’s notion that the Earth was only a few thousand years old (I had no idea that was as widely accepted as it evidently was). Thanks to his lowly ancestry, a few bad financial choices, and bad luck, it didn’t secure him much acclaim until late in life. He even spent a short time in debtor’s prison. The book feels like it could have been a bit meatier somehow(?), and the author suffers an attack of colons about midway through, but it’s a good and informative read.
* The author says a more serious bio was coming out soon
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
If I’ve read this before, I don’t remember a single detail, so it counts as a new read. The first few pages took me off guard as to how talk-downy they were, but otherwise it’s all the sort of wacky inventiveness I expect from Dahl. I was surprised that the Oompa-Loompas sing in the book, too (though not the movie songs). Very fast-paced due to telling much of the story through dialogue, and of course being a children’s book. A few good bits that didn’t turn up in the movie, but the movie got pretty much all the best bits in some way or another, and then Gene Wilder turned the character of Willy Wonka up a couple of notches. My third grade teacher didn’t approve of how the original movie changed the book, but I think it was a very faithful adaptation by Hollywood standards.
Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World – Mark Miodownik
A Christmas gift from my parents. Mr. Mark Miodownik is a professor of materials science and society, and it turns out that’s an excellent background for writing a popular science book about the materials we take for granted (or may soon embrace) in modern civilization: steel, various carbons, chocolate, and six other materials plus a chapter on the expanding world of biomaterials. Miodownik clearly and simply describes how these materials are found or made, what gives them their properties that make them so essential, and their role in society now and through the ages. There’s a lot of talk of crystals, for example, without digressions into vectors or the subvarieties of lattice structures. A very good read if you want to appreciate materials science more.