The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley
Hmmm, The Origins of Virtue is an interesting examination of the possible evolutionary causes of virtue, mostly defined here as altruism. It works quite well as a supplement that falls somewhere in between three of my current classes on Coursera: one with an anthropological bent, one largely genetic, and one about morality. It draws some of those themes together quite well, for me, and explains some of the studies — and some of the pitfalls of the studies, and wishful thinking.
It’s also pretty well written: it’s divided into both chapters and sections, which makes it easy to digest and keeps the argument focused.
On the other hand, it’s a little old now (1996), and Ridley’s ideology is very obvious to the attentive reader, although camouflaged by his scientific tone. At least the last chapter unveils his ethical principles: anti-government, anti-socialism (including such familiar institutions to Brits as the NHS), pro-small collectives and curated communal living. To be fair, he does analyse some of the ways this falls down, but he mostly focuses on why government-run things doesn’t work.
I mean, I love the NHS unashamedly. I went from the diagnosis of gallstones to medication to having my gallbladder removed in the process of a couple of months, without paying for anything at the point of use, at a time when I couldn’t support myself and was in agonising pain. Throughout my life I’ll pay back into that system with my taxes, and I don’t begrudge it at all, whatever Ridley’s conclusions told him.
Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
I had trouble with Invisible Cities. It’s beautiful, light, a dream of a soap bubble of a book, insubstantial and for me, really difficult. I can appreciate the writing, the dreamy nature of the book, but I can’t love it. It just didn’t quite work for me. Maybe written by Catherynne M. Valente it would have worked for me — her use of language has weight, somehow — but in this translation at least, no, Calvino didn’t work very well for me. It’s gorgeous, but I quickly got impatient with it.
It’s still a worthwhile read, I think, but don’t look for a story here: that’s not the kind of book this is. It’s more like a dreamscape.
Mmm, a pretty busy week reading-wise since I last checked in!
What did you recently finish reading?
Taking “recently” as “today”, a fair few things. I read Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, which… hmm, it’s pretty, but I don’t love it. Review coming up on the blog tomorrow. Also Anatomies by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, which was okay but more a cultural history than anything scientific. And then also Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. which is just nuts and I’m still not sure what I read, but it was pretty fun.
Monica Rambeau for the win, anyway, even if Carol Danvers is my Captain Marvel.
What are you currently reading?
A lot of things, as usual, but the one at the head of the queue is The Origins of Virtue (Matt Ridley). I’m trying to focus on the dead tree books I’ve brought with me from Cardiff or bought while I was here, or left here on previous occasions, so I don’t have to drag them back there with me when I get the train. Looks like I’ve also got a bookmark in Augustus (John Williams) and Dreadnought (Cherie Priest).
What do you think you’ll read next?
Let’s be realistic, I hardly ever answer this question accurately. I’m gonna guess that comics-wise I’ll dig into some of my Captain America comics, and maybe read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Otherwise, I’m focusing on books acquired in 2014, because for the first time in years I’m sort of keeping up with my purchasing rate. So eyeballing that list, I’m probably going to go for the one I’m least interested in right now and try and get myself interested, so that’d be Michael Stackpole’s A Secret Atlas.
Other than that, maybe Liliana Bodoc’s Days of the Deer, because Ursula Le Guin thinks she’s the best thing since sliced bread and I meant to read it in January.
Although on the other hand I should probably just work on some of the books I’ve got started already. Katharine Beutner’s Alcestis has been giving me accusing looks for months.
Batgirl: The Darkest Reflection, Gail Simone, Ardian Syaf, Vincente Cifuentes
I very much enjoyed my first foray into Batgirl — certainly much more than I did the volume of Batman I choked down a while back for a class. Barbara Gordon is fun, and I have a thing for redheads anyway, I liked the art and her interactions with Bruce Wayne, and it’s a good introduction for someone new to DC.
I had two nitpicks. One, I didn’t think terribly much of the villains. They seemed almost too easily dealt with, like Gail Simone was starting Batgirl out soft because of the point I’m about to get to. It kind of makes sense, since she is being reintroduced and she is portrayed as needing to get back into the game here, but. Eh. I didn’t really care about the villains, put it that way. It felt a little bit rushed, too, though when I flipped back through it didn’t seem too bad. Maybe because the villain I was more interested in, Gretel, had less space.
The other thing was, well… why did we have to have a miracle cure for a disabled character? I don’t know much about Barbara Gordon or how prominent she might have been as a disabled character, so maybe there have been other issues building this up, but just jumping right in and finding that she was completely paralysed and then got better “miraculously” (as several people point out), it just didn’t feel right. I thought I was okay with it at first, given the way she talks about the time in a wheelchair and insists she’s not delicate now she’s out of it, but it didn’t quite add up for me.
Still, enjoyable, and I’ll pick up some more Batgirl when I get chance.
Avengers: The Enemy Within, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Scott Hepburn, Matteo Buffagni, Filipe Andrade
Avengers: The Enemy Within is basically the conclusion of the storyline in Captain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight and Down, so I expect that if you haven’t read those, you won’t like this one. I’m not actually reading current Avengers, but that didn’t seem to spoil this crossover event. I have no idea how to keep track of all the timelines and so on, so I just throw myself in at the deep end every time and sink or swim. In this case, Carol’s background would help with the swimming, but Avengers background wasn’t necessary.
Love Carol and Jessica’s banter, love the appearance of characters like Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow and the Wasp, love great lines like Carol and Thor’s exchange here:
Carol: You like hitting stuff with that hammer of yours?
Thor: It is an act of which I am singularly fond.
I’m not a huge fan of the art — I preferred the issues that Dexter Soy illustrated — but that’s personal taste and most of the art here does what it needs to do perfectly. All in all, I’ve really enjoyed Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run of Captain Marvel even when I didn’t enjoy the art so much. The writing is very satisfying. I love how many female characters she highlights — I’d have liked Widow to have more to say, but that’s just because she’s the character I know best.
The ending here… without spoiling it, eh, I didn’t find it that original, but I think a lot can be done with it in the right hands.
The Gospel of Loki, Joanne Harris
I love Loki’s voice in this. I promised Joanne Harris I wouldn’t mention A Certain Actor, but actually, I think she makes her Loki pretty distinct anyway. It’s recognisably her writing, her way of getting into a character’s head — I think I could recognise the style somehow without ever knowing the author — and she makes it work very well. I’ve actually found over time that I prefer her other work, like Chocolat, to Runemarks, Runelight and The Gospel of Loki, which are ostensibly closer to my usual genre, but I still liked this a lot.
It sticks fairly close to the source texts of the Eddas, while also linking fairly closely with Runemarks and Runelight, from what I can recall of those books. But you don’t need to read any of those to enjoy Loki’s version of his own story — though it would probably help you appreciate the wry asides and the neat little twists to the tale.
If I was going to compare this to anything, I’d actually talk about Sassafrass’ ‘My Brother, My Enemy’, which gives Loki a voice to justify what he did in a similar way. The main difference is that the song gives both Loki and Odin justification for their actions, while Joanne Harris’ version shows that neither of them are really justified, and left me wanting to bang the heads of both sides together.
Anyway, definitely fun and compulsively readable, as all Joanne Harris’ work has been for me. I love some of her descriptions of Ragnarok — she nailed it, even if I couldn’t stop seeing Chris Hemsworth smashing Bifrost. (Sorry. I didn’t promise not to mention that actor.)
Longbourn, Jo Baker
At first I was ambivalent about this — I’m not a huge Austen fan, but the idea of flipping Pride and Prejudice over to look at the people that supported the Bennets’ lifestyle seemed interesting — and then I got more interested in it and then… I put it down for a day or so while I read The Gospel of Loki, and when I got back to it, I just didn’t care. I think it helped at first that I don’t think it really is that intimately entwined with Pride and Prejudice; most of Sarah’s story is separate from theirs, or at least not so closely linked that you can’t have the one without the other. Which then got kind of irritating — why not take this and make it stand alone, as historical fiction?
Anyway, the problems with it… were mostly that I figured it all out way ahead of time, and then I didn’t care enough to properly read on. I skimmed to confirm what I expected to happen did happen, and then I didn’t care enough to fill in the details. The love triangle, particularly, just sort of exasperated me.
On the one hand, the idea of it is a worthy one — while reading a biography of Austen recently, it seemed that she was more aware of the world that conventional assessments of her reflect, but on the other hand, it also noted that she was weakest with the lower class characters. But Longbourn just didn’t work well enough for me as a story in its own right to reflect back on Pride and Prejudice, which though it isn’t exactly my favourite novel ever, is a clever and witty book.
Cosmos, Carl Sagan
I don’t get people who find this too dry, or lacking in a sense of wonder about the world. It’s full of a sense of wonder, no less potent because Sagan was agnostic (not atheist, as some people say), and he expresses this almost poetically. While some of the science is falling out of date now, it’s still worth reading Cosmos — as a primer, and for Sagan’s clear explanations of how the world works, and how our understanding got to this point.
I actually have the DVDs of the series as well, and while I know from seeing clips the book and the series are very similar, I’m gonna have to get round to seeing it soon. And if you’ve never heard of Symphony of Science, I definitely recommend it — my favourite is ‘A Glorious Dawn’.
One of the things reading this really made me wonder is what Sagan would think of what we’ve made of the world in the last two decades. We haven’t destroyed ourselves yet, but we haven’t yet disarmed, we haven’t even convinced everybody that climate change exists, and we still haven’t gone any further from our own small planet. I wish we still had Sagan, speaking clearly and rationally about all the problems we face — particularly because he had hope for us, as well as a warning.
Aaand it’s Saturday, and time for Stacking the Shelves, as usual hosted by Tynga’s Reviews!
And wow, I have a lot to show off this week — a couple of ARCs, more books than I expected to buy (I deserve it, I gave blood!), and a whole stack of books from Bookmooch. (If you have a Bookmooch account and you ship to the UK, link me! I have a ridiculous backlog of points and an eclectic taste in books.)
I’ve been most excited about The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne Harris, because I’ve had it preordered for a while. I’m halfway through it already, though goodness knows I’m halfway through a lot of books. I’m excited about the ARCs from Angry Robot: I’ve meant to try Marianne de Pierres before, and I read Jay Posey’s first book, Three, a while ago. And the third review copy, well, hopefully I’ll be interviewing Eva Stachniak here on my blog around March ish.
Needless to say, I am also very excited about Avengers: The Enemy Within, as it continues Captain Marvel’s current storyline. I’ve flicked through it already and it contains such gems as this:
Carol: You like hitting stuff with that hammer of yours?
Thor: It is an act of which I am singularly fond.
So what’re you all reading, guys?
The Assassin’s Curse, Cassandra Rose Clarke
Damn, I love the books Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry pick. And I just saw a review complaining that these books are a-okay with homosexuality, pre-marital sex and masturbation. Okay, I’m in.
So, okay, I don’t love this in the way I loved The Mad Scientist’s Daughter. It’s different, lighter. I really did enjoy it, though. I enjoyed how capable the main female character is, and how it’s really her that keeps pulling the powerful assassin’s bacon out of the fire. I liked how they interact, how prickly they both are, and how the romantic subplot doesn’t seem inevitable from the start even when we have a story that apparently involves love’s first kiss.
I enjoyed the world building, too, the types of magic, the not-typically-Western setting (it kicks off with Annana stealing a camel!). At times things seem a little too easy, the pace a little uneven, but it really wasn’t enough to get in the way of the fact that it’s a fun adventure, and I want the next book now.