November 4, 2017

2017 Books, part 2

In the last 6 months, I've visually read just 5 books:

 Cryptonomicon  Neal Stephenson I started this in early 2017 -- the parts that take place in Manila were interesting to read while we were there.  It took me quite a while to get through it all, but eventually I did.  It was poppy and fun and entertaining.  Typical Stephenson.  
 Sicily: An Island at the     Crossroads of History  John Julius Norwich Sicily is the island that looks like a triangle that is about to be kicked by the boot of Italy into Northeast Africa. It's been a naval stronghold and strategically interesting target throughout history.  This book was wonderful in helping to understand just how complex its history has been.  The author is a delightul gentleman who wrote the book in his 80s after a lifetime of classical and modern history study.  At points, he'd break in and say things like, "Now, I'm sure you all know your Roman history, but just for a quick refresh, here's a quick ten page summary of all of the things that happened in Roman History that are relevant to Sicily."  Only with better words and more adorably British.  And, as he probably knows, most of us don't know our Roman, Greek, Carthigian, Ottoman, European, etc. history remotely as well as he does, but it's all relevant to this fascinating island that has been conquered and ruled by almost every powerful regime within several thousand miles of it, so he gamefully summarizes the relevant stuff and tells the sad tales of plunder, neglect, and survival of the Sicilians.
 Quicksilver  Neal Stephenson I'd read this one a decade or so ago.  I started it again after Cryptonomicon in the hopes that this time I'd like it more and possibly want to finish the whole Baroque cycle trilogy.  It immediately reduced me to averaging less than a page a day.  Still working my way through it.  Like Cryptonomicon, it's entertaining, has fun historical references, and is generally a good time.  But it's not the type of book that pulls me in and makes me read instead of doing other things I should be doing.  This is not necessarily a bad thing.
 The Almost Sisters  Joshilyn Jackson I read this in South Carolina.  I enjoyed it and thought it was a well-done story set in the South about facing normal problems (unexpected pregnancies, divorce, unruly teenagers) in the daily soup of raciscm.  I liked it more than all of the other people in my book club, most of whom felt that the treatment of the race issues was too light (I thought this was absolutely to be expected for a story set in the south) and that several of the fundamental plot points were too unbelievable to hang together.
 Homegoing  Yaa Gyasi This collection of vignettes tells the tales of two bloodlines originating on the Gold Coast of Africa (Ghana, today).  It starts with tribal warfare, kidnapping and enslavement of the captured and moves through the institutionalization of the slavery trade by the British and the Dutch with the support of various tribes.  One man walks away from a lucrative family business in slavery to become a "man with no name" in a village far away.  His life is very hard, with starvation, poverty, mental illness and loss that is experienced by many of his descendants as well.  Another bloodline follows the slaves sold to Americans and their trials and tribulations through slavery, living as freemen, being imprisoned after the war and working in the mines, and more.  This is not an easy to read book, but I'm very glad I read it.  It was very educational, but also real and quite depressing.  As one of the members of my book club said, these characters are all very flawed humans in very shitty circumstances.  You don't want to be friends with any of them.  And of course you don't.  Because flawed humans in shitty circumstances do shitty things.

In the same time period, I've listened to 18 audiobooks.

Maisie Dobbs books 2 -13 Jacqueline Winspear With each additional book, I came to appreciate the characters in this series more and more.  Set during WWI, afterwards, during the Spanish Civil War and briefly during WWII, I appreciated all of the historical details behind and around the fiction.  The mysteries in each book are not formulaic -- they are each quite different, with Maisie playing differing roles ("pyschologist & investigator, British Intelligence officer, intrepid traveler searching for meaning") in each one.  The character of Maisie always remains somewhat humanly unfinished.  Each new event in her life sparks additional changes that make her even more relatable.  She's good, but never perfect, and I would love to be her friend.  My goal was to find another series I could immerse myself into, like the Gamache series, and I succeeded.  In many ways, this series is more expansive than the Gamache series given the breadth of time and various locations that it covers.  Obviously, I enjoyed them all, as I devoured them and now I must wait until the next one is released next year...
Glass Houses (Gamache book 13) Louise Penny One of my favorite books in this series so far.  The concept of the Spanish Cobrador (shame-based debt collector who just follows people around in a costume) is a perfect anchor for a mystery. Gamache takes actions that are questionably off character for him and everyone moves slightly off their historical character norms as a result.  The entirety of the Quebequois surete is at risk more than it's ever been, but, per the usual, it's all wrapped up and finished neatly in the end.  (Sigh, no predicted date for the next book...)  
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood Trevor Noah Definitely one of those books where an audiobook adds extra dimension because of the various foreign languages and accents that I could not hear in my head if I visually read.  Trevor Noah's life is extraordinary, and these stories are funny, but also terrifying when considering how humans have treated other humans in South Africa during our lifetime.  I also definitely learned quite a bit about South Africa and South African history from this, which was a wonderful benefit. And, obviously, this book is hilarious, which is impressive given the dark content of many of the stories.
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future Ashley Vance We've been fans of Ashley Vance's journalism for a long time.  And we have several friends who work for Elon's companies.  Elon is a bit of a character, and this book did not disappoint.  He's over-the-top.  Delusional at times.  Obviously on the autism spectrum.  But also, very driven.  And a big dreamer.  I found myself liking my idea of Elon more after this book, which was a big surprise -- I kind of assumed I'd learn more and like him less.  Also, oddly the second book on our US road trip about a person from South Africa, so some additional South African historical lessons were learned and others were reinforced or shared from a different perspective.
The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo Amy Schumer I felt like I knew Amy Schumer from her very open comedic performances.  But this tender, thoughtful, honest book of stories showed me that I definitely didn't understand her even remotely well.  The comedian's performances are a caricature, but the real human comes through in this book, and she is much, much more likeable, in my opinion.  If you already like Amy's humor, I'll bet you'll love this book.  But even if you don't, you may find that her perspectives on feminism, living a good life, family relations, sexuality, body image, gun control, and money and class issues in America are very intelligent and interesting.
The Cuban Affair Nelson Demille I'd read The Gold Coast, by Nelson Demille, years ago, on the recommendation of my father in law -- I'd laughed out loud on multiple occasions.  I'd also enjoyed the General's Daughter in the mid 1990s. So when I saw that there was a new Nelson Demille book on the NYT bestseller list, I figured I'd give it a try. If you like thrillers woven with research about history and international norms, this book is guaranteed to make you happy.  Mr. Demille went on a cultural trip to Cuba to research this book and wrote a curmudgeonly version of himself into the story -- gotta love the self-deprecating humor.  His explorations of the tensions between the Cuban-Americans and the Castro regime are informative and fascinating.  His very prescient assumption that *something* would likely happen to stop the thawing of relations between the US and Cuba because it was in the best interest of too many powerful organizations to maintain the status quo is eery.  And, of course, as you'd expect, it's a fun, light, fast-moving thriller with lots of action, a little sex, and just good old fashioned espionage and intrique.
The Bourne Identity Robert Ludlum I'd read all of the Bourne books in high school and I'd adored them.  E hadn't ever read them, so he did so during our Sabbatical year, and he laughed.  He laughed because I love literature, but I also love adventure and thrillers and I'll put up with less than eloquent language for a good plot.  The Bourne books confirmed this for him.  He recommended that I should go back and re-read them, and when I learned that the same voice actor who read The Cuban Affair had read The Bourne Identity audiobook, I decided to go for it (also Audible was offering the first two Bourne books as 2 for 1).  It's been an enjoyable walk down memory lane.  So much was changed for the screenplay that in many ways, the movie isn't even remotely the same story as the original book, which was published in 1980. At a minimum, think more smoking and less technology.  Interestingly, Marie is a much more fully-fleshed out character in the book, with unique skillsets that are crucial to Bourne's survival, vs. the damsel in distress they created for the movie character.  And, of course, I'd forgotten just how francophile the books are, which, no doubt, is part of the reason I fell in love with them in the first place.  Listening to the audiobooks and hearing the French dialogue (which is usually pronounced quite well by the narrator) is a bonus I enjoy every time it happens.


Angela Knotts said...

Quicksilver is a hard no for me. I tried. So. HARD. But yeah, one page a day or less, and dog torture, and I might have stuck it out except I found it just so boring (in stark contrast to everything else I've read by him!).

Jen said...

I also recently read Homegoing and Born a Crime. Loved both books, though your review of The audiobook version of Born a Crime has me interested in re-"reading" it. I watched Trevor Noah's most recent comedy special on Netflix and enjoyed that as well.

bt said...

@Angela -- Yeah. I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that Quicksilver is going to be my "read a page or 2 and fall asleep" book for quite a while. And then, I'm likely to not want to read the rest of the Baroque trilogy, yet again.

@Jen -- thanks for the comment on the comedy special, I'll add it to the list.