March 2020 Books

So…March was an interesting month. But I got a good bit of reading done, so let’s talk about covid-19 elsewhere and in this post I’ll focus on the books!

Save Me the Plums, by Ruth Reichl. This was a library book and I forgot to take a picture, alas!

I’ve read several of Reichl’s food memoirs and enjoyed them all. This one was specifically about her time working at food magazine Gourmet. Her descriptions of food are mouth-watering, and her writing deceptively simple.

★ ★ ★ ★

Scythe, by Neal Shusterman.

This is the first book in a YA trilogy about a perfect world where humans don’t die and don’t have to really feel pain. A benevolent AI, the Thunderhead, controls most of life’s logistics, and humans get to live their lives any way they want. When they start getting old, they reset down to a younger age and keep living.

This means that overpopulation could be a real problem, so there are some people, called Scythes, specially selected to winnow the population (see what I did there?) by “gleaning” people aka killing them.

Our two protagonists, Citra and Rowan, are selected for Scythe training, and they find that not everything is as perfect as it seems….

A light dystopian book with fascinating world building and interesting characters.

★ ★ ★ ★

The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis.

Ben told me that I only had myself to blame, but reading this while finding out that the world is currently dealing with a global pandemic was truly bad timing. Please save this book for happier times, as it’s a bit of a downer.

In this book, Oxford historians study history by time traveling back and experiencing what it was really like. Kivrin, an aspiring young historian, is sent back to 1320 and she promptly becomes ill with influenza. Back in the future, the team that sent her also experiences a flu epidemic, and Oxford is quarantined so they have trouble bringing her back….

Of the two storylines, I enjoyed the medieval one more, as Kivrin explored the time period and got to know a family and their way of life. The 2055 timeline was mostly Kivrin’s mentor obsessing about getting her back while also dealing with the deteriorating situation.

This book was interesting, but there was a lot of death, right at the time a global pandemic was unfolding in real life, so….

★ ★ ★

Thunderhead, by Neal Shusterman.

This is the second book in the Scythe trilogy. As usual in a second book, the situation unravels, new characters are introduced, and the world becomes bleaker! Yay!

Still interesting, and I enjoyed some of the new characters introduced, but a second book is tough to review without spoilers and without the (hopefully–I haven’t finished yet) resolution of the third book.

★ ★ ★

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. This was for my 50 Classics project, so it gets its own fancy review.

The style is Charles Dickens but a light mystery! …and yes, I know there are elements of mystery in some of Dickens’ novels. Let’s not get hung up on that here.

★ ★ ★ ★

The Woman in White

I read this for my 50 Classics project and also for the Genre Classic in the “Back to the Classics” challenge.

It’s supposed to be one of the first “mystery” novels. It’s kind of like Charles Dickens writing a mystery–there’s a lot of ramp up as it slowly builds the picture of what’s going on.

Overall, I enjoyed it, but it was definitely slow moving, especially at first. The novel is written from several first-person perspectives, but the primary protagonist is Walter Hartright, an artist and drawing master who becomes connected with the Fairlie family when he’s employed to teach drawing to two half-sisters, Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe.

Marian is described as dark haired and eyed and “man-like” in her firm mind and stout heart (also, Collins tells us, she doesn’t wear corsets). Laura, meanwhile, has light hair and eyes and is much more emotionally and physically frail. One assumes she does wear corsets. Obviously, this being a 19th century work, Walter falls for Laura…cue eyeroll. But alas! Laura is engaged to Sir Percival Glyde (what a name!) and Walter quits his job and goes abroad to forget her.

Most of the book centers around Sir Percival’s nefarious plot to get Laura’s money, which he’s limited in drawing from because of a well-written Trust (competent estate planning for the win!). Laura soon discovers her husband and his Italian friend, Count Fosco, are after her money, and the reader begins to fear for her safety.

I don’t want to spoil everything, but there are two lookalike women, the fortune-hunting unscrupulous spouse, a shady foreigner, a mysterious death, and a cranky invalid uncle who is too ill to deal with your bullying ways…fetch my smelling salts!

Things did pick up at the end, and while a good editor might have improved the pacing, it wasn’t bad for an early mystery. Just don’t expect a Holmes-style sleuth–the genre had not yet advanced to that stage, and if you have time and want to settle in, this is an enjoyable read.

★ ★ ★ ★

February 2020 Books

I finished three books in February, one of which was The Picture of Dorian Gray for the Classics Club. I’ll give that its own post. Here are the other two:

I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening), by Sarah Stewart Holland & Beth Silvers

This is a book by two podcast hosts who want to encourage people to come at politics from less of an entrenched/ partisan perspective. On the one hand, I think this is an important message and if we all approached political conversations with more grace, we might do less screaming on the internet (though, maybe not). On the other hand, I’m not sure how well it holds up as a book apart from their podcast.

I think these two are better podcasters than writers, as I found some of the book a bit repetitive (my common non-fiction complaint).

The bottom line is they recommend thinking through what is important to you and why it is important and trying to discuss in a calmer way, not assuming someone who has reached a different conclusion is an uncaring monster. They also suggest looking at the history of a current policy might help shed light on a way forward.

★ ★ ★

Parker Pyne Investigates, by Agatha Christie

Ah, Agatha Christie, how I love you. Usually Poirot or Miss Marple come to mind when thinking of Christie, but this short story collection follows Parker Pyne, who has an advertisement that reads: “Are you happy? If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne.”

In these twelve stories Pyne helps people who are unhappy for various reasons: the spark has gone out of their marriage; they’re young and single but wish to be married; they are mixed up in a jewel caper; they get into trouble while on holiday, etc. Mr. Pyne seeks to help his clients using “statistical knowledge” of the human heart (which works most of the time…).

While I prefer her mysteries featuring her more famous detectives, these were entertaining short stories read by Hugh Fraser, maybe my favorite Christie narrator.

Favorite story from this collection: The Case of the Distressed Lady.

★ ★ ★

The Picture of Dorian Gray

I’m counting this both for my 50 Classics project and for the Back to the Classics challenge it’s an “Abandoned Classic” because I started it about 10 years ago, put it down, and never returned (until now).

Dorian Gray is a very attractive young man who is rather vain and selfish, but his money and good looks gain him entry into London society. He’s easily influenced by a friend, Sir Henry Wotton, who espouses complete hedonism (and only partially follows through as he prefers listening to himself speak than taking action).

Basil Hallward, an artist, paints a stunning portrait of his muse, Dorian, and Dorian is sad that he will age while his portrait remains ageless…. He wishes he could exchange places and the portrait age while he remains youthful and *boom* wish granted.

This book is billed as a classic, and I have never seen it on the sci fi/ fantasy shelf, but it could be shelved there. While it’s rooted in the daily life of a handsome rich man, it’s about a man who doesn’t age because his portrait does instead! While his friends do comment on his “maintaining his looks” you’d think they would notice that he still looks 20 when he’s really 38? But perhaps in an age before selfies it wasn’t as obvious. And maybe they just assumed he spent a lot of his money on beauty treatments.

Dorian uses his agelessness as license to do whatever he wants. He can be dramatic and occasionally he thinks about making good choices, but ultimately he doesn’t have the grit to follow through on anything that doesn’t yield immediate gratification. “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” says Sir Henry, and Dorian takes that to heart.

The book explores how people judge based on money and beauty, and the fruits of selfishness. This was particularly interesting to read right after A Gentleman in Moscow, which is about connection and the way we can influence each other for good. Dorian Gray shows how the opposite approach leads to isolation and destruction.

★ ★ ★ ★

January 2020 Reading

While I’m a pretty fast reader and I do love to read, I also don’t always prioritize reading as I’d like to. It’s so easy to become distracted by other things (especially screens), so I haven’t started off the year with a lot of reading.

Ok, confession time over. I thought that posting the books I’ve read on here, a public (though quiet) corner of the internet might help remind me to keep reading and to think about what I’m reading. Novel thought (pun definitely intended).

Here’s what I read in January

This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

I already gave this a mini review on Instagram: I think this novella is best described as sci fi prose poems between two characters on opposing sides of a time war…. Weird, lovely, and best if you let it wash over you.

This is not for you if you’re looking for well-explained world building or you like detail of how a society works. This book gives fascinating details and glimpses of the two sides of this time traveling war, but not a lot of plot–it’s about the relationship unfolding between Red and Blue.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles (via Audible)

Another book with lovely prose, threading the needle of understated and romantically overblown. Count Alexander Rostov is tried by a Bolshevik tribunal and sentenced to life at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. The only reason he wasn’t executed immediately or sent to Siberia was a revolutionary poem written years earlier. The Count is moved from his luxurious suite to an attic room and warned that if he leaves the hotel he will be shot.

Thus, at age 33, Alexander Rostov begins his life of house–er, hotel arrest. The book follows the Count’s adventures as he gets to know the hotel staff and regular guests. The story dips in and out of his life every few years to describe an interesting anecdote or introduce a new character.

Characters are (mostly) rendered in loving sketches as the Count gets to know them, disarming with his charm and eager to make friends in his new life. The style of writing gives time to unfolding friendships and treats difficult events not lightly, but with a light touch. It doesn’t dwell on misery, though there is plenty between the lines in 20th century Moscow, but it is more a meditation on the hopeful spirit of humanity and the impact and consolation we give one another.

While sentenced to a restricted life, the Count did not allow his life to shrivel, and his relationships enriched both himself and others.

Here’s what I didn’t finish reading in January

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

I wanted to like this book about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, but I couldn’t get into the writing style. I abandoned this book after reading 255 pages…I might pick it up again some day, but it didn’t want to make me keep reading.

What didn’t I care for? I didn’t like that some of the dialogue was in normal style (starting a new paragraph and in quotation marks) and some dialogue was just in a paragraph without quotation marks. Is this trying to be more true to history? I have no idea, but it confused me occasionally about who was talking when several characters were referenced in a paragraph and then there was dialogue embedded in the text.

I also thought it moved quickly through parts that were more interesting and slowly through parts that were less interesting to me. Since it’s from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view, the first couple hundred pages he’s not at court often and thus is removed from most of the action. That’s fine, but must we spend so much time on background?

If any of you loved this book I’d be interested to hear why — did I give up too soon? Did I not notice interesting details I should pick up on?