Reading 2017: Rounding Out the Year

See bottom for links to further entries in the “Reading 2017” series.

Well, 2017 has been an absurd year in too many ways, so it was nice to end it with the feeling that at least my reading wasn’t doing too badly. As I’ve mentioned earlier in the series, I wanted to focus more on content and not just books in terms of numbers. After my first year reading challenge (2016), in which I aimed for a certain amount of books to read, I found a way this time to shift away from that numeric goal with some fun and variety. The dirty details:

Three books from each of three new or newish genres:

Graphic novel: These turned out to be The Metamorphosis; The Iliad and the Odyssey and Frankenstein. In passing I also read a couple of Raina Telgemeier’s, who I knew from my son having read her in the lower grades. Two, Smile and Claudia and Mean Janine, I quite liked, though a third not so much as the whole story generally felt unfinished. All three of my central choices I’d read before (in “regular” form) and loved—save The Iliad, which I mildly enjoyed. (Perhaps I ought to give that another shot in ’18.)

Until reading Mary Shelley’s entry in a sort of nineteenth-century Fright Night writing contest, the only thing I really knew about Frankenstein was that everybody mistakenly referred to the monster by the title name. I was surprised at how much I liked the plot way back, though I admit Shelley’s style of writing more than likely had something to do with it. Nevertheless, the graphic novel version held up as well, even though it lost a bit from me knowing how it would end. Still, the tension was apparent and you felt for all parties involved; there just was no winning corner.

In contrast is The Odyssey, which in previous poetic reading I loved on a level so much higher than Frankenstein that I even told stories from it to my boy when he was littler (the island of the cyclops being a favorite). Here, however, we see that color isn’t everything, which is a pity because the shades are rather vibrant and alive. They don’t, however, really do anything for the narrative, though the fault of that may lay within the technique of text on bottom of panel, words within, floating in speech bubbles—too all over the place. The effect is meant to convey casual asides and humorous remarks, but I found it irritatingly distracting. Also, there is so much lost in the story, and while I get there was a lot for the author to choose from, this just isn’t a dynamic intro to Homer’s amazing tale.

For my review of Franz Kafka’a The Metamorphosis (adapted by Peter Kuper), click here.

True Crime: I happened upon it quite by accident, when reading an update on appeal of the amazingly entitled Michael Skakel, convicted of murdering fifteen-year-old Martha Moxley in her own front yard. Apart from the crime’s own shocking nature is the jaw-dropping reality that the Greenwich, Connecticut police were either too incompetent or inexperienced to find the young girl’s killer—or were they cowed by the sleazy Kennedy name and money that tries to lord over everything it touches (and frequently destroys)? Former police detective and author Mark Furhman investigated years later and literally wrote the book on how Skakel’s name became seriously linked to the murder. For my review, click here.

I was so impressed with Fuhrman’s style—as a detective as well as writer—that I sought out another, Murder in Brentwood. Here we are given a glimpse into the cross-aisle backstabbing, soulless ambition and strikingly stupid cult of personality behind the scenes of the infamous O.J. Simpson case that de-armed detective authority and investigation and later destroyed Fuhrman’s career. The author himself is no angel and he comes clean on everything the prosecution accused him of while also rightfully stating something to the effect of the R in racism being today’s scarlet letter—and utilized as recklessly. It’s an amazing story that fills in so many gaps I was shocked to read and even more surprised to learn when I talked to people about it, how widespread is awareness that Fuhrman was totally set up by an ego-enabled prosecution utilizing the wrong tack and a defense that would go to any lengths to win. Most of all, however, it made these two lost souls, people cut down so young, so heartlessly and so devoid of justice, individuals and not just more famous statistics, or distant humans you read of in the papers and then forget about.

Ann Rule is also a gifted writer, and her book, The Stranger Beside Me too was a recommended read. Utilizing her previous experience as a police officer, she at the time events in the book were occurring, had retired and engaged as a true crime writer for magazines and newspapers. She volunteered for the suicide hotline of a crisis center along with Ted Bundy, who I knew very little about except that he had been a serial killer. I don’t tend to think much about this sort of psychopath, but can guarantee that after reading this book they were on my mind for weeks. My usual rejoinder, “I don’t lose sleep over it, but—” lost a lot of airtime because I did stay awake more than I should have. Reading about the victims of Skakel and Simpson didn’t have the same effect—and I knew this straight away—because while they were targeted, in a set of rages, perhaps, they weren’t random. Bundy, on the other hand, could strike anywhere, and that set me on edge for awhile, especially having read Rule’s descriptive passages of sexual and mental abuse of such horrific nature I could barely comprehend how any human could even think this shit up. I won’t go into details here, just suffice to say that ISIS probably borrowed heavily from Bundy’s catalogue of twisted torture techniques. It’s not something I’m really keen on reading more of, to be quite frank.

Science fiction: Sky fi, as my wee one likes to call it. That’s one thing, but the real question, I found, is: What is it? To be honest, Jurassic Park didn’t strike me as sci-fi and when himself suggested it, I was initially taken aback. It contains science and is a work of fiction, yet for some reason I tended to think of outer space, which I typically only like reading about as non-fiction. Then someone suggested 1984, which really threw me for a loop. So I dropped it all and instead of heading for booklists, the first thing I did was look up the definitions because in order to choose some sci-fi, I first had to be clear what it is.

From the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction: “Science fiction is the literature of the human species encountering change, whether it arrives via scientific discoveries, technological innovations, natural events, or societal shifts.”

(Inserting a small note here: I’ve never heard of Gunn before, so don’t endorse or not endorse them.) At the web page their definition is expanded, but even in keeping with this foundation, it also squares with this one:

Och, who am I kidding? The real reason I’m on so long about this is because I didn’t manage to finish my sci-fi reading challenge. Surprisingly, quite a few titles appealed to me, although in thinking about it, I’d be willing to bet at least a few of them I’d put down after awhile, which is something I haven’t done a lot in recent years. Hyperion caught my eye, but somehow it went back to the library unread, and later I settled on Jurassic Park, 1984 and The Time Machine, though only ever finished the first. (I did read 1984 in elementary school, if that can score me some points). And while they weren’t official choices for the challenge, I can’t say enough about Richard Abbott’s Far from the Spaceports series, the first of which shares the series title and the second, Timing, continues the adventures.

Both involve Mitnash Thakur and his AI partner, Slate, battling financial fraud in space colonies near Jupiter, though terminating the criminal activity doesn’t tend to involve standard, earth-like consequences. The colonial culture and detective angles also drew me in, and I’m certain these will both be re-reads.

The other ones, though … I just couldn’t get interested enough to read them. I did have “discipline” in mind as a factor toward the challenge, though when push came to shove, didn’t see much worth in disciplining one’s self to read something, for leisure, that one can’t get into. I did open my mind to the genre, though, which is the real goal, and may return to those titles at a later date.

It might have helped if I didn’t have others that appealed more, but contributing likely was also my own all-around reading slowdown. Once I finished the massive pile of reviews I’d needed to do, I told myself I would read, during Christmas break,  only what I wanted to read—which turned out to be not much. I picked out a few books but simply spent a lot of time doing other things. I’m rarely not in the mood to read, but it does happen, and when it does, it’s a sizeable block. Close to the end I picked up a bunch of children’s books, the easier reading of which has jump-started me in the past. I pretty rapidly went through an old favorite, Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives, which was as absolutely fabulous as it ever was. I may even write a tad about it in the new year. A couple of others I began and passed on, and as of this writing I’m still reading Company of Fools (Ellis), whose story has also pulled me in.

And, finally …

Five off my neglected TBR shelves:

I didn’t have particular titles in mind, though at the time I wrote up a blog about the ideas, I was eyeing a certain few. It wasn’t long before I had to remind myself that lots of my leisure reading is determined pretty much by mood and what I feel like reading, so even had I definitively chosen, they stood a chance of being displaced—or not. It just depends.

As it happens, this year, like last, most of my reading was for reviewing, so very few of my own books came off the TBR. I did, however, manage to meet and exceed my five: Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger; The Revolving Door of Life, Precious and Grace, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, The Bertie Project and The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, all by Alexander McCall Smith; and three Peter St. John Gang books I’ve been after since I reviewed one last year: Gang Loyalty, Gang Petition, Gang Territory and Gang Spies. As you can see, I’m a great fan of both McCall Smith and St. John, the latter of whom has at least two more on backorder that I mean to read—and I say that with great emphasis! Semi-autobiographical stories of an orphan evacuee from the Blitz, these tales are funny, poignant and delightful, with a re-readability factor that’s out of this world.

A lot of books I’ve read this year have really great covers (e.g. Cometh the Hour, The Popish Midwife, Company of Liars), which had been a focus of many discussions I’ve seen across 2017, two of which I was privileged to be a part of. Another, Hand of Glory by Susan Boulton, came at a great moment, set during and after the Great War as it is, given my sort of “re-awakening” to the era. For the past couple of years I’ve been remembering all the Siegfried Sassoon we’d studied in high school and telling myself to dip into the era some more. Boulton’s story contains a mythical twist and the war portions are written with such dexterity: sensitivity but also a knowing of harsh realities, and some resulting passages simply wind into your reading being. And, at the risk of overloading anyone else’s TBR or shopping lists, speaking of getting into you: Jennie Orbell’s Two Chucks and a Tabby Cat had me laughing nearly all the way through, even at passages that weren’t always topics of humor. Orbell has such a feel for the foibles of humanity and a witty way of pointing them out to us, all while knowing when to retreat.

Retreat is what I did once in awhile, as you can see scattered through my 2017 reads here, by backing away from reviews and picking up one of my own, most of which are listed above. I love to write reviews, mind you, and I admit it felt a little odd to be reading a book with no intention (at least at the outset, and some I had to reprimand myself and say no) of writing it up. That happened at the end of the year as well, and taking a couple of weeks off to be reading whatever I pick up off the shelf has been simply grand.

Reads from the last part of 2017, some of which you may see again in these pages. As mentioned elsewhere, numbers weren’t the goal, though you have to plug something in. (Click image for full Goodreads spread.)
2017 saw the conclusion of my 1066 series (see tab in sidebar for links to posts), and the beginning to my Knights Templar (Michael Jecks) following. I’ve got the next two queued up to read as I type.
My reading of Susan Boulton’s Hand of Glory really revved my engines for more about the Great War. A mystery with supernatural and mythological twists, the novel has great staying power.
I’m hoping to dip into more reading about the Barbary Wars, having finally found a great start with Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates.

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Previous entries in the Reading 2017 series:

The Importance of Covers (Book Bloggers Group Chat)

Readers’ Chat with Stephanie Hopkins

Origins of the Challenge

Reading Challenge 2017

New Genre Library (True Crime): Murder in Greenwich

New Genre Library (Graphic Novel): The Metamorphosis

New Genre Library (Science Fiction): Jurassic Park

New Genre Library is a three-part spinoff series of Reading 2017

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Thanks for reading and may 2018

be your best year yet!

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Browsing Books: In the Big City Edition

Some time ago I spent a year that I wasn’t planning to alongside a large L48 metropolis, in one of the suburbs’ own cities. Because I was dirt poor and many, many were having a hard time finding a job, let alone an outsider, book purchases were a pipe dream and I developed a serious library addiction.

I was super excited about it, thinking this would be my chance to see a larger library’s awesome collection, what books and DVDs they had that my own didn’t. I expected a rich supply of literary fiction and non-fiction, foreign films and maybe even luscious cookbooks. What I found was a rundown library, many of whose books were in poor condition and a not-very-wide selection of materials, including DVDs that you had to pay $2.00 each to borrow–I think you got to keep it for two days at least.

This was really shocking to me because people in this area acted like Alaska was a backwoods hole populated by illiterates. In fact, because we do have a lot of far-flung bush communities, we’d been a bit ahead of many other regions in utilizing technology, and our library’s programs and acquisitions operated in similar manner. We’re a little out of the way, so we tend to keep ahead when we can to ensure we aren’t left behind what others are doing. Sure, the library had a ridiculous outdoor staircase completely unsuited to our climate, but the building housed our assembly chambers and a magnificent collection of books, audio and video, even a sizable section devoted to Alaskana. Patrons’ cards linked to the university library, the acquisitions department of which employed talented buyers with keen eyes for fantastic materials.

So what was the deal with this place? You have to pay to borrow video materials? Seriously? The staff were not all that friendly though, to be fair, times were rough and the entire region was dealing with the major emotional fallout of 9-11. Still, this treatment was the rule, not the exception, and I learned quickly to just figure things out for myself, which was OK because once more I came upon an opportunity: having to figure it all out for myself I would surely come across treasures I might not otherwise.

This is my favorite of all this book's various editions' covers.
This is my favorite of all the editions’ covers.

It was in these days I discovered Alexander McCall Smith, specifically The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, not realizing at the time there was a whole series to go with it. To this day I still gobble up his books, including other lineups, wonderful reads that are unsatisfying in the sense that you always want more–and he typically delivers, as he is an amazingly prolific writer. So I wasn’t terribly impressed with this library, but I’ll always remember it as the place that birthed my love for Mma Ramotswe. Even nowadays my son and I still say “Koko!” when looking to see if someone is home and talk about how much pula we might need to buy something. He says he’s not terribly interested in the DVD series, but when I watch it he comments about scenes, predicting events and displaying his keen detective eye!

I did occasionally make my way to the book shops, though until I had been in this city almost a full year I was never able to afford to purchase books. At that time I’d finally gotten some temporary work and though money was still tight, very tight, I decided I could make one celebratory purchase–and it had better be good. Before then I’d always purchased books like they were going out of style but now … I had to seriously justify this one.

The most widely read Persian novel, originally titled Savushun, by the first major Iranian women novelist

In the end I chose a book about Iran that I won’t specifically name, because I don’t have a lot good to say about it. Well, to be honest, I no longer remember much about it except my criticism, one major portion of which was that the author came off as incredibly condescending and pompous. He also wrote about an Iranian author, so graciously telling us plebes that he would go into more detail than he usually might (completely paraphrased; I forget his exact phrases), since the book he was discussing had not been translated into English.

As I read his words, the story seemed so very familiar, yet I couldn’t place it. It bothered me for weeks because though I tried to tell myself I’d probably read of it in another book, it still nagged at me. I no longer recall how I figured it out, but figure it I did and was even more appalled at the author’s patronizing attitude. The book he’d written about was A Persian Requiem by Simin Daneshvar; I recall grabbing it off the shelf at our local bookstore once I’d spotted the design. While I’m certainly no authority–not even close–I’d been reading books about Iran and Iranians since some time and frequently sought out new (and old) titles. So if a novice like me could figure this out, how did this author not know the book was published in English since about 1992? I was irritated by his snootiness, and disappointed because I felt I’d wasted my money, but even more so a sort of event. It was the first book I’d purchased in nearly a year. Bah.

Dakhmeh, by Naveed Noori. An outstanding book that I nevertheless am unsure I could read again. It is haunting in its brilliance--too haunting.
Dakhmeh, by Naveed Noori. An outstanding book that I nevertheless am unsure I could read again. It is haunting in its brilliance–too haunting.

Another novel I came across, though didn’t purchase until later was the haunting tale of an Iranian-born American who returns to his country only to find himself up against a system corrupted, and a society to which he cannot contribute in a positive manner. In desperation he commits an act of defiance that in the U.S. would attract no notice but in Iran sets the forces of the secret police upon him. I was so amazed that such expenditure of resources could be allowed to investigate the character, marveling in horror as the anxiety-provoking pursuit leapt up from the pages and into my own aura. When author Naveed Noori describes an illness Arash suffers, I felt oppressed by the heat of fever, as if I myself were sweating, my clothes layered with the weight of the humidity bearing down on me, the closeness of the air wrapping itself around, suffocating in its terrible embrace. It was an amazing read, but that power of words was quite overwhelming. The Zoroastrian tower of silence implicit in the title and manipulated by the current regime to deliver a slow living death to society and individual alike, with only silence as response, is devastating.

In the end I came back to Alaska, bringing with me some habits I’d picked up or utilized when in the big city, such as book browsing. It took me a long time to begin buying books again because even after I had money again, I’d been too deeply ingrained into that need to justify buying any. Our library system links with libraries all over Alaska and the interlibrary loan (ILL) program is fairly massive. So if a book isn’t owned by the Juneau library, for example, but is by Nome’s, you can still borrow it–and that’s just the ordinary checkout. ILL has gotten books for me from far-flung corners of the U.S., though I rarely have to use it.

Nowadays I do purchase, but also browse books a lot. For a bibliophile, no salary ever pays enough to be able to afford books (!), but my son and I have embraced the habit also for the slowness, the deliberate nature of it. Sometimes we make an afternoon jaunt of it, packing lunches and strolling through the new fiction and non-fiction, Teen Underground (him), DVDs (he’s a film aficionado) and other sections just to see what’s out there. So what developed out of necessity now is a way to share the love of books with my child, spending some cool time together.

Some “browsies” are longer or shorter than others, and somehow they always seem to have some theme, perhaps linked to what’s on my mind at the time. Because it’s also a fun way to share books, and memories of them, with people apart from doing book reviews, I’ve decided to keep this “Browsing Books” going, for the time being at least, as a series. As with all other entries, I would so love you to share–as I say to my little boy, it’s more fun that way.

Friday Night Flashback: A Novel Exploration: No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Today’s flashback opens up a new series I’ve decided to call “A Novel Exploration.” It will briefly and in a manner lighter than typical, casually chat about a work and reach out to literary connections (text to self, books or world). This is a technique used in teaching literacy, but can also be a fun way to more deliberately explore novels, their characters and the ideas we find within them, especially when talking about books with friends.

In a way, referring to this practice as “novel,” or out of the ordinary, is a misnomer because, really, we engage in it all the time without consciously acknowledging that we are. Once we begin to realize how much we actually do it, though, it is sort of novel because we’re now approaching it in a different way, with a new perception on the process–maybe because the discoveries we make can bring so much more pleasure to the reading, and indeed, living experience. One of my favorites is trying to make food items or copy recipes that have appeared in a story. 

This particular piece was written several years ago for a university class, though it never really saw the light of day. Since that time many more Alexander McCall Smith books have been released–so many, in fact, I’ve lost track of what has come out and which ones I’ve read. But they are fun and flow smoothly, and those who populate McCall Smith’s works are easy to care about.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Original Blog Title: What You Need to Open a Detective Agency

Money, of course. But also: compassion; intuition; friends to help you get things like typewriters; a good supply of red bush tea; a place to set up shop; and a vehicle.

[Cover image to be replaced]

Precious Ramotswe has inherited money from her late Daddy and with it purchased the building to set her agency, a corner plot on Zebra Drive and a tiny white van to get her around. Proudly being a lady of traditional build, Mma Ramotswe sometimes worries about the stress on it; nevertheless the loyal automobile carries her across the pages and through readers’ minds as she makes her way round Gaborone, up and down the Molepolole Road, to Francistown and to and fro each day at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency on Kgale Hill on the edge of the largest city in Botswana.

Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is somewhat misleading in that it reads with ease, but is filled with the details of a complex society rich with the nuances and understanding of a bustling economy grown from towns named after tribal chiefs, a cast of characters as varied as in any large and historical city, and mysteries that bubble under the surface. Mma Ramotswe is hired to “track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is that of a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witch doctors” (from back cover).

[Gaborone city scape image to be replaced]

Mma Ramotswe captured my heart because she is honest and caring, though not easily duped; she sees through so many situations, but remains patient enough to reserve assessment; and she values the traditions and ways of her culture while placing value in the future. Throughout The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency readers develop a greater understanding and awareness of Botswana culture, societal habits (even including such elements as particular gesticulations), history and its major players, and even its Achilles heel, the AIDS epidemic, discussed in tactfully delicate tones so as to offset the idea of a one-paradigm Africa while simultaneously maintaining respect for the realities in the lives of the many people affected by the disease. What brings all this together for me is the sheer ordinariness of it all: I have always been someone intrigued and interested in different cultures, but above all I want to know what the “regular” people do. What kind of toothpaste do they use? What are their shopping habits? What insights could I get from glimpses into decorating styles of their homes, inside and out? Smith satisfies these curiosities of mine, not merely for the sake of traveler voyeurism, but to help one gain a greater understanding and appreciation of people who are different–and yet the same–to many or most of us.

[Book cover image to be replaced]

 

I was delighted to discover, after I first read the book in 2001, that there was a sequel and still later I found a whole series waiting for me. Even now the author seems to have plans for more adventures of Mma Ramotswe, and I’ve read most books in his other series, as well as his stand-alone works. McCall Smith, a Scot who grew up in Africa, is a rather prolific writer, with titles ranging from the ones I’ve mentioned here, to others such as Forensic Aspects of Sleep and The Criminal Law of Botswana.

I’ve been intrigued enough to do a little research on my own regarding the country known as “the success story of Africa,” and have come across a wealth of information that exemplifies the way children expand their world when they read: from one paragraph they may learn two new words, from a chapter of a new world, and from the entire book a whole new set of questions. I’m so happy to write here that it remains an exciting prospect for me as well, when I read books and they open up doors to knowledge I never knew existed. What is it they say? What you never knew you never knew.

A few links that may be of interest to you regard:

Unity Dow, a Botswana attorney who succeeded in her litigation to render the citizenship laws of her country more equitable–previously a married woman could not pass her citizenship to her children. (The briefs linked here are rather long, but the language is straightforward and accessable.)

and

Botswana Gazette, a national newspaper. There also are foreign newspapers published in Botswana–magazine, press and Internet.

Alexander McCall Smith also maintains a web site, dedicated to his works and projects, here, with a lot of factual as well as fun information. I’ve wandered through it a few times and thought or wondered several things such as, I love to say the word Molepolole or Is Tlokweng, as in Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, pronounced Klokweng, with the same start sound as our Tlingit? I’ve also tried a variety of African bush tea (it’s delicious; I take it sans honey) and briefly written with a person from Gaborone, the capital.

Now I am about to read this first in the series again, and it will probably be an entirely new exploration.

[Opening sequence images to be replaced]

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Note: This post was updated to correct the author’s surname, which is McCall Smith, and not Smith. My apologies to Mr. McCall Smith.