2016 reading list

Not as many as I expected to read, since I went on one of my periodic Agatha Christie kicks, but the new books I read in 2016 were:

The Only Pirate At The Party — Lindsey Stirling and her sister

This autobiography is a quick read, taking just a few hundred pages of large type to cover her childhood antics and growth pains, career path, missionary work, battle with an eating disorder, and the joys and trials of her mini-celebrity life. There are pictures too. One of the purposes in writing the book is clearly to encourage others who suffer from disorders of their own. There are also passages aimed at those who want to achieve some daunting career path of their own, as Stirling takes several opportunities to talk about moments when she had to endure the scorn of others and come out stronger for it. If none of this sounds interesting to you, it’s probably not a book for you, but I enjoyed it.
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“Live From Cape Canaveral”: Covering the Space Race, From Sputnik to Today — Jay Barbree

What it says in the title — Barbree was an NBC correspondent from the very first NASA missions up through at least 2007 or so, when this book was published. The highlights include the personalities of the early astronauts and the mischief they got into, a short jaunt with Jimmy Carter, and a look behind the scenes of the Challenger disaster coverage. Unfortunately, with only about 300 pages, unmanned missions scarcely get mentioned at all. Maybe the worst part is when the author confidently predicts that we’d be well on our way back to the Moon by now. Worth a read.
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A Separate Peace — John Knowles

Short novel about boys at a boarding school on the cusp of becoming eligible for the WWII draft. One of them gives in to a moment’s spite and consequences follow. Introspective without being plodding or navel-gazing, the novel delves into the adolescent male psyche very realistically. I enjoyed it.
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The Small Bachelor — P.G. Wodehouse

Not one of his Jeeves books, this is about a lovestricken introvert and his antics with his beloved’s family, a policeman, and a man with very strict ideas about living. The absurdity of the frequency with which all these people run into each other is part of the fun. Quite funny in narration, plot, and characters, and I hope to read more of his novels in the future.
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Ring for Jeeves — P.G. Wodehouse

Shockingly, this one has Jeeves in it (but not Wooster). It also has horse racing and ghosts and is just about as enjoyable as the other one I read. There’s the same pattern of new plot threads appearing and immediately entangling with others to comedic effect, which helps to keep things moving quickly.
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Thirteen Detectives — G.K. Chesterton

A collection of detective stories by Chesterton. The preface makes it clear that Chesterton had Ideas about what makes a proper detective story, and in that context, some of these stories felt more like demonstrations or exercises than yarns. Quite a different feel from, say, Agatha Christie or Doyle. But they are inventive, amusing, and very readable. I think my favorite was “The Hole in the Wall” for its atmosphere, but special mention to “The Donnington Affair”, where Chesterton provides the solution to another author’s setup so thoroughly that the reader is left without any doubt that this must have been what the original author meant all along. It was also interesting to come across a story that possibly was the source material for one of Christie’s books.

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Some book reviews

I am also copying these over from days long past.

Johnny U by Tom Callahan — Very interesting read, a lot of anecdotes and information about the great Unitas. It gives a very strong sense of the sort of man he was, and a sense of many of his teammates, family, and other associates. Unfortunately, the prose suffers from weak transitions and jumbled ideas, so that it feels a bit incoherent at times. There were also many times I wanted to read deeper into a topic and was disappointed when the author moved on to something else. Still worth a check-out from the library. Recommended for those with an interest in the history of American football.

Litany of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe — On another world, a not-priest receives a vision while playing not-basketball that urges him to save his worn-down not-monastery from being foreclosed. While on this quest, he uncovers unsettling truths about his world and the source of his faith, breaks into places, gets embroiled in political intrigue, and runs into a surprising number of naked women.

I enjoyed reading this book, or rather volume of two books put together. The prose is solid, the world-building is delivered in manageable amounts without stopping the flow (and the second half begins with a glossary of names in case you can’t keep the gods straight), and the characters are all likable to some extent. The plot moves at a good pace too. Wolfe refers to many things by their English Earth equivalents, while mixing in old words that look meaningful or alien enough (patera, azoth) and Spanish terms as well, all of which are explained sufficiently by context. The story itself is interesting and unpredictable, although never so fast-paced or melodramatic as to get you on the edge of your seat. Highly recommended.

Epiphany of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe — Much the same strengths and weaknesses of the first volume, and quite a satisfactory end to what seems to be, in the grand scheme, currently the middle story of three. I don’t feel that reading this duology suffered from not having read the first story; in fact, I figure it was probably best for me to plunge in and be as in the dark as the protagonist.

Again, the prose is very even-keeled, even as it describes exciting or pivotal events. It works well. As in Litany, there is also a lot of time spent on people talking and figuring things out aloud. Again, it works well here, because the stuff being discussed is interesting enough and characterization is developed at the same time as plot and back story.

The one major criticism I have of this duology/two-part quadrilogy is that there are about five times where I was dropped back into a plotline that had advanced while the narrator was elsewhere, with distractingly unclear results. I like in media res well enough, but if the type is this small and I’m still floundering around for traction after two or three pages while the characters all understand it pretty well, that is not an ideal situation.

I will say that a certain person’s speech pattern could be decidedly annoying at times, but in the spirit of the narrative, he is only as Pas made him.

Anyway, this is also highly recommended.

Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks – Autobiography about growing up in a Jewish family, full of doctors and scientists and engineers, in England about the time of WWII. Which is misleading for me to say, because the main focus is on the author’s childhood obsession with all things chemistry (and a little physics and biology), but that’s the backdrop. Tales of childhood experiments, book readings, and visits to factories and museums are interlaced with the history of chemistry and atomic physics. It’s a straightforward read, with the science simply and vividly stated, and I liked it well enough. Recommended.