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Re: What Have You Read Lately? (2024 Edition)

Started by apl68, January 03, 2024, 06:35:02 AM

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apl68

Two 1930s novels that I encountered in my travels.  Pipe All Hands, by H.M. Tomlinson, is about a contemporary merchant vessel and its voyages and trials.  In Old Captivity, by Nevil Shute, involves a bush pilot who flies for a very small aerial survey expedition at an archaeological site in Greenland.  Oddly enough, each story features a British academic who takes his just-grown daughter on a hazardous journey into an unfamiliar setting.  Tomlinson and Shute were each also known for setting their stories in a world they had some first-hand knowledge of--sea travel and air travel, respectively.  Shute is probably best remembered as the author of the book on which the movie On the Beach was based.

Neither of them is really what you'd call an adventure story, although each has moments when the characters run into some danger.  Shute's tale takes a rather out-of-left-field excursion into past-life regression toward the end.  They're both readable, but not the most compelling stories I've ever read.  I found the Tomlinson book more interesting.


Grounded:  A Down to Earth Journey Around the World, by Seth Stevenson.  Continuing my winter of armchair travel with this non-fiction travel account of a couple who spent several months in the late 2000s circumnavigating the globe without flying.  They sail on ships, ride trains and buses, drive (across the Australian outback), even ride bicycles for a time (across much of Vietnam).  Some segments of the trip were evidently pretty enjoyable.  Others (Russia notably--because, Russia) weren't so much. 

An interesting travelog, with much clever writing and witty observations.  Yet also a sad book.  The author and his significant other come across as rather self-absorbed.  They don't show a lot of sympathy or understanding for many of the people they meet along the way, or just a whole lot of curiosity about the societies through which they pass.  They also meet a lot of aimless lost souls along the way.  Time spent on a seriously pricey cruise ship elicits commentary about privileged sorts who spend their wealth going around and around essentially just killing time.  It doesn't seem to occur to the author that others might just form the same sort of opinion about him.
If any will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.
Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it.
For how does a man profit if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?

apl68

The Nun's Story, by Kathryn Hulme.  A young Belgian woman from an educated family joins a religious order in the late 1920s.  She spends the next 17 years striving to conform herself to the order's severe monastic Rule.  Though she wins much respect from colleagues and others for her service as a medical missionary, she suffers from chronic imposter syndrome.  During the World War II Occupation this comes to a head, as she is unable to develop any Christian charity toward the German invaders.  Finally she leaves the order--not because she has found romance, or otherwise decided to lead a self-centered, worldly life, but because she has concluded that she can better serve God as a secular nurse.

And really, she's probably right.  For all that the nuns' total-life commitment to serving God deserves respect, in some ways there is something misguided about it.  New Testament codes of sexual morality and such may seem like wild-eyed fanaticism to most in today's society, but Jesus didn't call upon his followers to live under a rigid, all-encompassing monastic Rule or beat themselves as penance.  He didn't tell them to renounce all innocent enjoyments, or abandon all normal ties of family and friendship.  God may lead them to lose many of these things or endure suffering for the sake of building character, but when that's necessary this world can be depended upon to provide plenty of suffering and sacrifice without our having to make a point of creating more for ourselves.

Monastic orders also have a way of institutionalizing the common tendency to divide Christians into those who have a full commitment to the faith, and those who merely go to occasional services and try to keep their noses more or less clean.  Jesus called on all of his followers to have that full commitment.  Christian baptism's symbolic portrayal of death, burial, and resurrection is meant as a reminder that the old life before Jesus has been replaced by a radically new life.  It's a life meant to be as different from the everyday concerns of the world as the lives of any monks or nuns, and yet it can be lived out in families, in work settings--anywhere.  Jesus calls all kinds of people.

Hulme's "Sister Luke" is based very closely on the real life of one Marie Louise Habets.  They met after the War when they were both working with refugees.  The Nun's Story became a 1950s bestseller--books with religious themes could actually do that back then--and soon served as the basis for a movie starring Audrey Hepburn.  Pretty good movie--much better book.
If any will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.
Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it.
For how does a man profit if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?

hmaria1609

From the library: Rosalind Thorne/Useful Woman Mystery series
Set in Regency era England, Rosalind must make her way after her father suddenly leaves without fully explaining why and the family's reputation ruined.
I'm on the 5th book in the series now.

Hegemony

Quote from: apl68 on February 08, 2024, 07:36:59 AMIn Old Captivity, by Nevil Shute, involves a bush pilot who flies for a very small aerial survey expedition at an archaeological site in Greenland.  Oddly enough, each story features a British academic who takes his just-grown daughter on a hazardous journey into an unfamiliar setting.  Tomlinson and Shute were each also known for setting their stories in a world they had some first-hand knowledge of--sea travel and air travel, respectively.  Shute is probably best remembered as the author of the book on which the movie On the Beach was based.

Just to say that I love Nevil Shute. Trustee from the Toolroom is my favorite. I recently reread No Highway — excellent (apart from a tad of sexism, but I forgive him) — which also made a good movie with Jimmy Stewart, Marlene Dietrich and the late lamented Glynnis Johns.

ciao_yall

Quote from: apl68 on February 16, 2024, 07:58:36 AMThe Nun's Story, by Kathryn Hulme.  A young Belgian woman from an educated family joins a religious order in the late 1920s.  She spends the next 17 years striving to conform herself to the order's severe monastic Rule.  Though she wins much respect from colleagues and others for her service as a medical missionary, she suffers from chronic imposter syndrome.  During the World War II Occupation this comes to a head, as she is unable to develop any Christian charity toward the German invaders.  Finally she leaves the order--not because she has found romance, or otherwise decided to lead a self-centered, worldly life, but because she has concluded that she can better serve God as a secular nurse.

And really, she's probably right.  For all that the nuns' total-life commitment to serving God deserves respect, in some ways there is something misguided about it.  New Testament codes of sexual morality and such may seem like wild-eyed fanaticism to most in today's society, but Jesus didn't call upon his followers to live under a rigid, all-encompassing monastic Rule or beat themselves as penance.  He didn't tell them to renounce all innocent enjoyments, or abandon all normal ties of family and friendship.  God may lead them to lose many of these things or endure suffering for the sake of building character, but when that's necessary this world can be depended upon to provide plenty of suffering and sacrifice without our having to make a point of creating more for ourselves.

Monastic orders also have a way of institutionalizing the common tendency to divide Christians into those who have a full commitment to the faith, and those who merely go to occasional services and try to keep their noses more or less clean.  Jesus called on all of his followers to have that full commitment.  Christian baptism's symbolic portrayal of death, burial, and resurrection is meant as a reminder that the old life before Jesus has been replaced by a radically new life.  It's a life meant to be as different from the everyday concerns of the world as the lives of any monks or nuns, and yet it can be lived out in families, in work settings--anywhere.  Jesus calls all kinds of people.

Hulme's "Sister Luke" is based very closely on the real life of one Marie Louise Habets.  They met after the War when they were both working with refugees.  The Nun's Story became a 1950s bestseller--books with religious themes could actually do that back then--and soon served as the basis for a movie starring Audrey Hepburn.  Pretty good movie--much better book.

Jesus was a Jew. Jews do not give up love, family, friendship - those are the point of life and living.

Jesus was even believed by some to have been married - the feast of the loaves and fishes has hints of having been his wedding ceremony.

Jesus the Son was not officially recognized by the Christian Church until 300-400 AD... so there's that.

Parasaurolophus

Okay, I've fallen way far behind in my reporting. Here's November and December, and I'll get to January and February soonish.

November and December (2023):


Darren Naish – Ancient Sea Reptiles: Plesiosaurs, Ichthyosaurs, Mosasaurs, and More: Does what it says on the tin, in a very accessible and gorgeously-illustrated way. I now know loads about Mesozoic marine reptiles, whereas before I knew almost nothing. I'm particularly happy with the comparative illustration of turtle/leatherback shell development, because I've never quite understood the shell-rib connection. Now I do!

Bill Richardson – Dear Sad Goat: A Roundup of Truly Canadian Tales & Letters: This was my favourite program on CBC Radio One, once upon a time. This is a compendium of letters written in to the show. I picked it up years ago (when I first moved here, way back in 2017) but only just got around to reading it. It was mildly amusing. Very BC-centric.

James Herriot – The Lord God Made Them All: We've been reading it as a family for most of the year. We finally made it to the end. A few stories are just uproariously funny (especially at the beginning), the rest are comforting and fun. It's nice to read them alongside watching the new adaptation of All Creatures, too.

Halldór Laxness – Independent People: My partner's favourite novel (apart from Jane Austen's works, I imagine). I started reading it years and years and years ago, but didn't get far before turning to other stuff. This time, I couldn't put the train wreck down. It's gorgeously written, as always, but something of a painful read. Not much happens, and you wouldn't imagine that would be interesting, but it is. What's really cool, though, is that it's basically the anti-Atlas Shrugged. Like Rand's novel, it's about someone who wants to be fully independent from the government and totally self-reliant, independent from the rest of society. But Laxness shows us how truly fucked up that is, the misery it leads to, and the impossibility of being consistent about it. It's really a triumph of a novel.

Patrick Rothfuss – The Narrow Road Between Desires: A reworking of his short story, The Lightning Tree, in illustrated novella form. I haven't read the original, because I was saving it. But this is a real master stroke. Rothfuss's process doesn't produce much, but he is really good at being a really good writer. The fabulist element of the story is beautifully realized.

Ann Leckie – Translation State: A Radch-adjacent standalone novel about a juvenile Presger translator and an orphan who uses entertainment media as an emotional crutch (several months later, I now see this is cribbed from Murderbot). It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it very much, even though my memories of the Radch novels is somewhat hazy at this point.

R.J. Barker – The Bone Ships: A new fantasy series basically about pirates, set in a waterworld where the main building material for boats is the bones of (aquatic) dragons—except they're all extinct. It's a pretty richly realized world, though with a few false steps that make no sense—e.g. those who've had a leg or foot amputated become cobblers, while hand/arm amputees become... tailors?! and at least one cartographer is blind. It was fun, if rather movie-inspired/angling for a film option.

R.J. Barker – Call of the Bone Ships: Much weaker than the first, though still fun. There are three main POV monologues which are very long and absolute trash.

R.J. Barker – The Bone Ship's Wake: A big improvement on the second, this definitively concludes the trilogy. It's a darker novel, less of a pirate romp. The darkness is realized so-so; I think it's actually darker than Barker realized, and it would have been nice if he had (some of his characters are very much transformed by events, and not for the better).
I know it's a genus.

apl68

Quote from: Hegemony on February 17, 2024, 12:40:03 AM
Quote from: apl68 on February 08, 2024, 07:36:59 AMIn Old Captivity, by Nevil Shute, involves a bush pilot who flies for a very small aerial survey expedition at an archaeological site in Greenland.  Oddly enough, each story features a British academic who takes his just-grown daughter on a hazardous journey into an unfamiliar setting.  Tomlinson and Shute were each also known for setting their stories in a world they had some first-hand knowledge of--sea travel and air travel, respectively.  Shute is probably best remembered as the author of the book on which the movie On the Beach was based.

Just to say that I love Nevil Shute. Trustee from the Toolroom is my favorite. I recently reread No Highway — excellent (apart from a tad of sexism, but I forgive him) — which also made a good movie with Jimmy Stewart, Marlene Dietrich and the late lamented Glynnis Johns.

My dad was something of a fan of No Highway in the Sky with Jimmy Stewart. 
If any will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.
Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it.
For how does a man profit if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?

Parasaurolophus

January:

Mark P. Witton - Pterosaurs: This represents the third installment in my plan to read a concise summary of current(ish) knowledge on Mesozoic reptiles. I now know all about pterosaurs, and they're much weirder than I ever knew. Witton's books are always a joy to read, because (1) he explains things so clearly, and (2) he illustrates his work copiously (and gorgeously), and does a fantastic job of providing helpful illustrations for the technical things he describes. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read a genus-by-genus overview of pterosaurs.

Bernard Cornwell - Sharpe's Command: A new Sharpe novel, retrofitted into the timeline. It fits the template, and is a fun read, though there are a fair few instances of repetition that the editor should have caught, and one bit that was clearly a mistake (but I can't remember what it was now!). Seems like it was a bit rushed, but I didn't mind. I like the series, after all, and have a high tolerance for Cornwell-style templates.

Martha Wells - All Systems Red: The first book in the Murderbot series, recommended to me by a friendly librarian acquaintance. Basically, the story of a highly paranoid security bot that uses entertainment media to regulate its emotions. It was great fun, and I see now that it clearly seems to have influenced Leckie's Translation State in one respect.

Martha Wells - Artificial Condition: More Murderbot, more fun. Murderbot befriends a ship and goes investigating. I'm a sucker for that sort of thing.
I know it's a genus.

ab_grp

Quote from: Parasaurolophus on February 20, 2024, 11:23:11 AMMartha Wells - All Systems Red: The first book in the Murderbot series, recommended to me by a friendly librarian acquaintance. Basically, the story of a highly paranoid security bot that uses entertainment media to regulate its emotions. It was great fun, and I see now that it clearly seems to have influenced Leckie's Translation State in one respect.

Martha Wells - Artificial Condition: More Murderbot, more fun. Murderbot befriends a ship and goes investigating. I'm a sucker for that sort of thing.

I listened to those two books and really enjoyed them.  Some listeners apparently didn't like the narrator (Kevin R. Free), but I thought he was great and added to the dry humor. 

I think it's been a while since I updated on my books, so I will try to do that at some point.  Right now, I'm listening to Lessons in Chemistry (Bonnie Garmus), which I now see is narrated by three people (Miranda Raison, Bonnie Garmus, Pandora Sykes).  I hadn't realized that.  It's a pretty popular book about a woman scientist in the early 1960s dealing with a lot professionally and personally (e.g., sexism, family dynamics).  I'm enjoying the story and her victories, but some of her traumas (e.g., sexual assault, loss of a loved one) have been really difficult to listen to.  I have heard many stories with these elements that didn't bother me as much, so I guess it's something about the way they're told.  It's some pretty heartbreaking and angering stuff.  In any case, I can see why it's a bestseller and am looking forward to seeing what else occurs.  I will update when I'm done.

Immediately before that, I listened to David Sedaris's self-narrated collection of essays and stories, The Best of Me.  There is such a range of stories that it's hard to describe this book.  Much of it is hilarious, and some is absolutely wrong (there is overlap between these groups).  He's a pretty clever guy and prolific writer.  Of course, some content was better than other content, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much of it fit into the first category.

Langue_doc

Quote from: Hegemony on February 17, 2024, 12:40:03 AM
Quote from: apl68 on February 08, 2024, 07:36:59 AMIn Old Captivity, by Nevil Shute, involves a bush pilot who flies for a very small aerial survey expedition at an archaeological site in Greenland.  Oddly enough, each story features a British academic who takes his just-grown daughter on a hazardous journey into an unfamiliar setting.  Tomlinson and Shute were each also known for setting their stories in a world they had some first-hand knowledge of--sea travel and air travel, respectively.  Shute is probably best remembered as the author of the book on which the movie On the Beach was based.


Just to say that I love Nevil Shute. Trustee from the Toolroom is my favorite. I recently reread No Highway — excellent (apart from a tad of sexism, but I forgive him) — which also made a good movie with Jimmy Stewart, Marlene Dietrich and the late lamented Glynnis Johns.

If you like Shute's novels, do read A Town Like Alice, which is quite different from the two books mentioned above. The section about the women prisoners of war who were marched from village to village for almost two years was based on actual events. I recall watching the mini-series on PBS several years ago.

apl68

#25
Seven League Boots, by Richard Halliburton.  Halliburton has been called the first of the modern celebrity travel writers.  He spent the 1920s and 1930s going around the world to exotic places and writing books about his experiences.  One of his early feats involved swimming the length of the Panama Canal (and being charged a toll of 36 cents).  In Seven League Boots he visits Haiti and other places in the Caribbean, travels to the Stalinist Soviet Union, visits Mount Athos in Greece, meets Saudi dynasty founder Saud and Ethiopian emperor Haile Selasse, and follows in Hannibal's footsteps by riding an elephant across the Alps.

And he tells lots and lots of stories about the lands and peoples he encounters.  Evidently he was not a very critical researcher, since he helped to publicize myths about super-centenarians in certain parts of the world, and the idea that the people of the Khevsur region in Soviet Georgia were descended from stray French Crusaders.  A reported "deathbed confession" by one of the murderers of the Romanov family (who lived another 17 years) was later found to have been fed to Halliburton by the NKVD to conceal the fact that the crime was, horrifyingly, even worse than what was described to Halliburton.  And Halliburton held many of the common prejudices of his time.  You pretty much have to take most of what he claims with a lot of salt.

It's at least entertaining.  The book also has some interesting photos.  I first learned about this 1935 book many years ago when I saw an advertisement for it in one of the bound volumes of old popular magazines that I used to browse through at my old job at a research library.  It looked interesting.  Over the years I saw some of Halliburton's books here and there.  Last year I found a fine copy of Seven League Boots, complete with intact original dust jacket, in the Midwest while on vacation.  This was a 1942 wartime edition with the usual plug to buy war bonds.  As for Richard Halliburton himself, he was lost at sea in 1939 while trying to sail a Chinese junk to San Francisco.  One wonders what he might have accomplished as a war correspondent.

If any will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.
Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it.
For how does a man profit if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?

Hegemony

Seven League Boots sounds very entertaining. Along those lines, I recommend Petticoat Vagabond Among the Nomads (1939), by Neill James (a woman), who had a truly amazing time traveling around in Lapland before the war.

Meanwhile, I am reading John Aubrey, My Own Life, compiled by Ruth Scurr. Aubrey was born in 1626 and led quite a life, and Scurr has compiled what is effectively an autobiography from his own writings. He can write like nobody's business — beautiful, insightful, and fascinating. On nearly every page I say "I must remember that! I must note that down!"

ab_grp

Quote from: ab_grp on February 21, 2024, 01:42:13 PMI think it's been a while since I updated on my books, so I will try to do that at some point.  Right now, I'm listening to Lessons in Chemistry (Bonnie Garmus), which I now see is narrated by three people (Miranda Raison, Bonnie Garmus, Pandora Sykes).  I hadn't realized that.  It's a pretty popular book about a woman scientist in the early 1960s dealing with a lot professionally and personally (e.g., sexism, family dynamics).  I'm enjoying the story and her victories, but some of her traumas (e.g., sexual assault, loss of a loved one) have been really difficult to listen to.  I have heard many stories with these elements that didn't bother me as much, so I guess it's something about the way they're told.  It's some pretty heartbreaking and angering stuff.  In any case, I can see why it's a bestseller and am looking forward to seeing what else occurs.  I will update when I'm done.

Update on this one: First, I was mistaken about the narrators.  Actually, Miranda Raison was the only narrator, and Bonnie Garmus and Pandora Sykes were just listed because of the interview-with-the-author section at the end.  I thought I only heard one voice, so this makes more sense.  I thought the rest of the book was very good and would recommend it pretty highly with the caveats listed above (those parts were few but tough to listen to).   

apl68

Phoenix:  the Men Who Made Modern London, by Leo Hollis.  London in 1666 was in sad shape.  First the city experienced a visitation of plague far deadlier than the recent COVID pandemic.  Then most of it burned down.  Yet in the decades to come, it would grow into one of the world's largest and most powerful cities.  Hollis tells the story of how London came to be rebuilt mainly through the lives of architect Christopher Wren, author and diarist John Evelyn, political philosopher John Locke, scientist Robert Hooke, and land developer/speculator/borderline crook Nicholas Barbon.

They were all versatile Renaissance-style figures who made contributions in more than one area--Wren was a scientist as well as an architect, for example, while Hooke was also a significant architect and was responsible for the vital post-Fire survey needed to prepare for the reconstruction.  Hollis seems most engaged with Wren's decades-long struggle to rebuild St. Paul's cathedral into what it remains today.  I can understand his fascination.  Working with my bricklayer father helps me to envision what all was involved with the building's sophisticated masonry, and to better appreciate just how much must have gone into each aspect of the massive project.  And it was all done with absolutely nothing in the way of computer modeling, high-tech surveying, or powerful modern construction machinery.

Quite a fascinating look at London in the latter part of the 17th century.  Britain in the 16th-17th centuries was my area of concentration as a PhD student in history back in the 1990s.  It's good to read something now and then that reminds me of why I find the era so fascinating.  So much of our world grew out of that time.  It's still very relevant to study today.


The English Channel, by Nigel Calder.  Calder was one of those science writers who also had an interest in pretty much everything.  Here he takes readers on an armchair tour of the entire circuit of the English Channel, one little region of France and Britain at a time.  He dives deep into the geology, natural history, prehistory, history, and present of each place he visits.  This is the kind of book where you can learn offbeat things like where Portland stone (Which figured extensively in Hollis' account of the rebuilding of St. Paul's) comes from; what a Brixham trawler looked like; and how most of the Cinque Ports of the Middle Ages ceased to be significant ports as rivers shifted and harbors silted up.

Lots of great stuff there.  The Channel and the coasts around it are such a small part of the world, and yet there's so much there when you get to really looking at it.  We find, if we just show a little curiosity and pay some attention, that we live in such an amazing world.  And, thanks to not paying attention, we find ourselves losing so much of what had been here for so long.  It's mind-boggling to consider how much that had been around for centuries and longer is passing away within just our lifetimes.

I was introduced to Calder as a teenager when I read Spaceships of the Mind.  A great science writer.  It's sad that later in life he somehow turned into a crank global climate change denier.
If any will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.
Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it.
For how does a man profit if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?