Deadly Companions, Dorothy H. Crawford
If you’re looking for a book about how human history has been shaped by microbes, and to some extent the evidence from microbes about our own development, this book is definitely going to be of interest. It’s not just diseases, though it does mention a lot of them; it does also touch on some of the more harmless microbes we’ve been carrying around. And of course, it talks about how we’ve shaped the evolution of microbes, as well.
If you’re a nut about this kind of topic, this isn’t very in depth and I don’t think you’re going to learn much from it. Something like David Quammen’s Spillover hits some of the same points while going a bit more into depth. But it’s a well-written survey of the subject, perfect for a layperson.
Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman
Great excitement always sweeps the book community when a Gaiman book is due out, and this was no exception. I was less interested, as I prefer rewrites and reinterpretations — like Gaiman’s American Gods — of mythology I know well rather than simple retellings in modern language, which is what this seemed to be. That’s more or less true: the stories stick very close to the Eddas, and are entirely familiar to me. The fun part is really Gaiman’s own touches; his sense of humour, and his fine sense of timing. “Shut up, Thor,” is a refrain that becomes surprisingly comical in one or two of the stories, for example.
It’s not, however, a groundbreaking reinterpretation. It’s just like sitting with Gaiman and being told the stories, more or less true to their sources, with a sense of humour that sometimes illuminates their inconsistencies and the things which startle or amuse a modern audience. It’s not a bad book, by any means, but as I expected it’s not the kind of retelling I really enjoy. For something more complex which really uses the Norse mythology and creates a new story, American Gods is a great choice — it’s not that Gaiman doesn’t handle the material well.
I am glad I’ve got a physical copy, though; it’s a gorgeous looking book, both with and without the dust cover. I don’t think it’s going to fit on my shelf next to my other Gaiman books, but that’s beside the point. It’s pretty.
In any case, my rating isn’t a criticism as such — I read this because it’s Gaiman and my (former, I guess) field and it was bound to be amusing, and it was, but no more than that for me.
Good morning! I haven’t been doing much reading this week, but I totally blame the new addition to my family for that — welcome Breakfast!
You might remember that we already have one bunny, Hulk, and have been trying to find her a companion for a while now. So far, things are going well with Breakfast, so fingers crossed!
But, right, this is about books…
Books to review:
The Pinks looks fascinating — I didn’t even know Pinkertons had female detectives. And Waking Gods is a sequel to a book I bought a couple of weeks ago, and continually hear good things about. I really should’ve read the first book first, but the sequel was on ‘read now’…
Another batch of non-fiction — I’m getting predictable…
Books finished this week:
I know, it’s pathetic by my usual standards!
–This Rough Magic, by Mary Stewart. A comfort reread, with a delightful heroine who doesn’t go on mere appearances but actually weighs up the characters of her putative lovers, and figures out much of the mystery to boot. 3/5 stars
–Reading Like A Writer, by Francine Prose. I love the idea of close-reading, and advocate it, but this book is much more about reading like Francine Prose, and appreciating the same things she does. 2/5 stars
–Late Eclipses, by Seanan McGuire. In this installment, we get more of a peek into Toby’s parents and her true heritage, as well as a story in which all does not turn out okay at the end. 4/5 stars
–Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear. I was hoping for my new Phryne Fisher, but Daisy feels a lot colder, and the writing is not all that. The structure takes away from any mystery and suspense. 2/5 stars
–Gaia, by James Lovelock. A now-classic theory of the world’s interlocking systems of biological and non-biological cycles, which I really don’t find myself disagreeing with much. 4/5 stars
–The Death of Caesar, by Barry Strauss. Interesting, and went into aspects of Caesar’s assassination I knew nothing about, but not the most riveting of Strauss’ books. 3/5 stars
–Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Should Get Round To Soon. You guessed it. It’s a list of books I want to get round to sometime soon.
–What are you reading Wednesday. What was I reading on Wednesday…?
The Death of Caesar, Barry Strauss
I was interested to read The Death of Caesar, since I’d read Barry Strauss’ work before — his book on Spartacus, for one, and the one on the Trojan War. I was less impressed with this one — it’s still informative and interesting, and it even pulled out things I didn’t know about the Ides of March and Caesar’s life in general. For example, if I’m thinking about the Ides of March, I’m thinking about Brutus and Cassius, and not about a guy called Decimus who didn’t even make it into Shakespeare’s version properly. And yet Strauss brings Decimus back into the foreground, pointing out how close he was to Caesar. If Caesar’s last words were “et tu, Brute?”, then he was referring to this Brutus: Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus.
But. The book didn’t have quite the energy I remembered from the book on Spartacus, and things seemed to drag on. Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t only cover the death of Julius Caesar, but also somewhat of the rise of Mark Anthony and Octavian (Augustus). It seems to wander a little from the point — but then, how would you write a whole book about the Ides of March? And doesn’t it make sense to cover the political fallout and the fate of the assassins?
So possibly I’m just being picky, but this didn’t feel as riveting as Strauss’ other books. Interesting, though, definitely.
What have you recently finished reading?
I read Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith on the Eurostar yesterday, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It makes me really tempted to get some diving experience so I can meet octopi and cuttlefish, though I’m very surprised to learn that they actually tend to live only two years. When he was talking about meeting friendly individuals, I was imagining being able to revisit the same cuttlefish throughout something closer to the same lifespan…
What are you currently reading?
A lot of things. The next book I’m going to focus on finishing is After Atlas, by Emma Newman; I also recently picked up Samuel Delany’s Nova, Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff and Ben Peek’s The Godless — all of which are fascinating, but I should really try and focus on one at a time.
What will you read next?
Probably I’ll get on with finishing The Godless and then turn to Britain After Rome to finish that, but maybe dual-wield it with Lamb for a lighter touch!
Gaia, James Lovelock
When I’ve heard of the Gaia theory before, I’ve usually heard of it in a sceptical sort of context that criticises the tree-hugging idea that Earth has a soul. That is not actually the main thrust of Lovelock’s argument at all: instead, what he argues is that Gaia, or Earth, is a self-sustaining system with in-built feedback loops which hold it more or less steady and capable of supporting life.
If you’ve studied climate or geology or even the water cycle, you know that he’s not wrong about the self-sustaining system. There’s so many negative feedback loops which keep things in check — some of which are, of course, threatening to be sabotaged by the action of one particular upstart mammal species with delusions of grandeur. We’re a part of the system, of course, but one which may have got out of hand. Or maybe not; maybe our intelligence will help rein us back in. We can only hope.
The point is, Lovelock’s not saying anything about a cosy loving Earth Mother spirit watching over us. Though his language in this book is sometimes poetical, and his sense of wonder at nature is clear, he’s talking about self-regulating, self-sustaining systems. He’s talking about the fact that the world has checks and balances in place which bring Earth into equilibrium, even though other factors — like the sun’s energy output — have changed over time. And okay, at some points he goes off on a tangent about whale intelligence and a hypothetical future in which whale brains give us technological advances, but the science here isn’t wrong.
There’s nothing actually revolutionary or tree-hugging here. It’s just true. Call it Gaia or call it a complex set of feedback loops; whatever you’re comfortable with, I guess. I do wish I’d read Revenge of Gaia instead, since this is horribly optimistic that humans will pull our collective fingers out and stop damaging the planet. I suspect Lovelock’s less sanguine about that prospect now.
Maisie Dobbs, Jacqueline Winspear
I had high hopes for Maisie Dobbs as the series that would take over from Phryne as my current new comfort reading. I don’t think Maisie is the detective for me, though; for a lot of this, it felt more like the focus was historical fiction that detective fiction. There’s a big digression in the middle which eventually leads up to Maisie’s interest in being a detective, but it’s mostly about her character and the issues of class she’s faced. There’s something very cold about it — for example, the fact that she never went to see the man she’d intended to marry after his operation. She feels more like Sherlock Holmes than Peter Wimsey. Which is fine, but not what I’m interested in.
In terms of the mystery, well, any sense of urgency gets taken away first by the fact that there’s a massive flashback section, and secondly by the fact that Maisie doesn’t face any of the dangers personally. She doesn’t even meet many of the characters involved in the mystery more than once or twice. And she relies heavily on a “shiver down her spine” to tell her what’s going on. Sure, instinct, okay, but… it’s just too perfect, too precise, even alongside the many notes she takes. It’s more like precognition than detection, and I don’t think it’s intended to be supernatural.
I might give the second book a try, because there are aspects of the character and the context that I quite enjoy. I was curious/interested enough to finish this book, after all. But I’m not really feeling it at this point.
I’m in a tearing hurry and the theme for this week didn’t excite me madly, so instead, have a Top Ten of books I’ve pulled from the depths of my TBR to take back to Belgium with me to read. Some of them are more recent than others…
- Nova, by Samuel R. Delany. I haven’t read any Delany. I know, I know. I’ve just started reading this one, and I’m all at sea, but with how important a work it has been to the SF/F community, I have no doubt it’s going to be interesting.
- Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, by Christopher Moore. I was assured I would enjoy this, but heavily doubted it — while I’m not very religious and definitely not Christian, I still have a certain respect for stories as foundational to culture as the story of Christ. But, I’m 100 pages in and… yeah. I am actually really enjoying it.
- Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, by James Tiptree Jr. I keep meaning to read it, and I think I mentioned it in a recent TBR, so I loaded it in.
- Darkwalker, by E.L. Tettensor. I forget who I follow that read this and sold me on it, but I do recall that it went straight on my TBR after reading their review, so I grabbed it.
- The Godless, by Ben Peek. You’re going to groan at me, but this is another one I’ve picked up recently without finishing the others I’ve already started. I’m not in love with the characters, but I’m fascinated by the world-building.
- The Beacon at Alexandria, by Gillian Bradshaw. I still need to finish reading Cleopatra’s Heir, but I do love Bradshaw’s work. If you like Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels, it has a similar flavour, though it’s more adult and dense in style. The Beacon at Alexandria features a woman pretending to be a eunuch so she can learn medicine and become a doctor! How can that not appeal?
- Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond. I have realised that I never finished reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, recommended to me by a wise English teacher who just happened to be ten years too early to catch my interest in non-fiction reading. So I want to read this and then maybe I’ll revisit the other book!
- Reality 36, by Guy Haley. From the depths of my TBR, truly — I was given this copy when I visited Angry Robot way back just before I started this blog. I’m a little lost so far, but starting to catch on. (And yes. It is another one I’ve picked up and started recently, but not quite finished. That makes four in this post alone.)
- The Family Trade, by Charles Stross. I’ve never yet got on with a book by Charles Stross, but I keep on trying. Technically I have the omnibus containing the first two books of the series, which I think has some changes from the original separate novels.
- The Days of the Deer, by Liliana Bodoc. I don’t remember anything about this or why I picked it up, but it happened to be the right size to fill a corner of my suitcase. So in it goes!
Knowing me, I won’t manage to read any of these before I travel back again. It’s the thought that counts…?
Late Eclipses, Seanan McGuire
My year o’ Seanan McGuire continues! I don’t know why I never started the October Daye series before, because I do really enjoy them. Sometimes October herself can be annoying — stubborn, reckless, slow to grasp things which quickly become obvious to the reader, fickle about whether it’s Tybalt or Connor she wants to sleep with… But I enjoy her nonetheless, and especially the Faerie politics and lore that underlies her world.
In this one, we get a few more glimpses of the problems in the Torquil family, and a bit of an explanation for Amandine, and some things that didn’t seem quite right about Toby herself. Also, some of Tybalt’s quiet hints start to make sense, as does the Luidaeg’s dark mutterings. May Daye continues to be fun, while developments from An Artificial Night are also used to advantage. Characters from the earlier books appear, and some misunderstandings and old grudges are straightened out — somewhat.
In other words, it’s another fun outing with Toby which builds well on what’s come before. There’s some tragedy, too, which Toby is powerless to avert — a good lesson for the hero, and a warning to the reader that nothing is entirely safe, I think.
Reading Like A Writer, Francine Prose
How lucky do you gotta be to have a name like that when you’re an author? Honestly, I hope it’s not a penname — it’s just too perfect.
The book, however… Well, I was hopeful when I read the first chapter. It talks about the value of close-reading, which I’m very much agreed with. I was taught close-reading by Professor Martin Coyle, and especially when it came to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it was revelatory. There’s so much there if you just focus deeply on the words of a text — references, clues, imagery, that you just might not register if you read fast. And I agree with Prose’s fears that literature is being taught as a mass of conflicting theories, to the exclusion of really understanding the nuts and bolts. While I am a new historicist, new/practical criticism has always been a huge help to me — and it continues to be so, even in understanding scientific writing.
If you’re interested in that kind of reading, though, I’d recommend Martin Coyle and John Peck’s Practical Criticism and Peck’s How to Study a Poet. You can also pretty much teach yourself by just looking hard at a poem — circle things that seem significant, underline, draw maps of how it works… You’ll likely see the value of it pretty quickly if it’s a way of thinking that will work for you. (And, bonus, both books are especially good if you want to learn how to communicate what you find via close-reading.)
However. The rest of the book mostly consists of extracts of what Prose has decided is “good writing”, almost all of it from very literary examples, and then her discussion of it. To me, this isn’t the way to learn how to read like a writer — if that is what this technique achieves — but just the way to learn how one writer reads. Not quite the same thing. It’s also notable that there’s no sign of genre fiction in here at all. Ms Prose, I do suggest you pick up some fine genre stylists; perhaps Ursula Le Guin? You might get a whole new education.