Sunday, December 18, 2016

Recent Reads

Just a few stray thoughts on some recent reads. I'll have another of these posts before the end of the year.

Ben Winters' "The Last Policeman" trilogy was good, but he takes it to the next level with Underground Airlines. Set in an alternate America where the Civil War never happened and slave culture clings on in four southern states, Winters' tale is chock full of slightly-twisted historical threads - like any good counterfactual, it explores what might easily have been had things gone just a bit differently. It's uncomfortable, chilling, heartbreaking ... and it deserves a wide audience.

Rick Perlstein's third volume of narrative political history, The Invisible Bridge covers the tumultuous years between Nixon's reelection and the 1976 Republican convention. A straight-up chronicle of these years in politics would probably be an interesting enough read, but as in the previous volumes, Perlstein deftly brings in the cultural contexts surrounding the political news of the day. This, combined with Perlstein's lively writing style and his great skill at sussing out the stories behind the headlines, makes this another excellent read.

My first foray into the magical world of Dorothy Dunnett. I found The Game of Kings a tough go at first (even, for a few nights, a book sure to send me to sleep after just a couple pages), but once I got into the rhythm of the thing, I was off and running. Not the sort of book you can read without giving it your full attention, since it's full of intricate plot threads that are easily lost and hard to locate again, but full of great historical detail, rich wordplay, and moments of pure comic genius.

First published in 1771 as L'An 2440, the title of Louis-Sebastien Mercier's utopian fantasy was edited to Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred when William Hooper's English translation was published at Philadelphia in 1795. This change was made simply "for the sake of a round number," according to the "Advertisement" preceding the text, as "there appears no reason for fixing it to any particular year." Extremely popular in its day (it is one of the books profiled by Robert Darnton in his The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France), the book employs many of what we now think of as typical utopian tropes: man wakes up and finds himself hundreds of years in the future, and spends an incredulous day walking around learning how things are done, and wakes up at the end to find it'd all been a dream. But, as Darnton points out, Mercier's work was one of the first to use these techniques, which were entirely fresh and new to his original readers. There's not much plot at all: the narrator is simply guided from place to place, learning how people are clothed, fed, educated, governed, &c. in the very Rousseau-ian society of far-future France. I found it a somewhat intriguing window into the historical moment, but unless you've got a real soft spot for utopian fiction, probably safe to give this one a miss.

After reading Keith Houston's book on punctuation several years ago, Shady Characters, I have been looking forward to his new one, The Book, with much anticipation. It didn't disappoint: it is a nicely-produced and well-written history of the book. Basic, but lively and chock full of interesting tidbits. Well done to Norton for lavishing so much attention on the design.

Dave Eggers' The Circle is a dark satirical look at a society where (most) people happily give themselves over to an all-consuming online presence ("The Circle"), with dramatic consequences. It's not exactly subtle, but for all the heavy-handedness, many (if not all) elements of the plot seem all-too-creepily plausible.

I really enjoyed Nancy Marie Brown's The Ivory Vikings, which provides an in-depth look at the Lewis Chessmen and their cultural context. There's a bit of speculation and a small amount of padding here (see the subtitle, "The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them"), but overall I was completely drawn into Brown's wide-ranging narrative, and even the speculation is carefully done and well explained.

Mutiny on the Bounty (the original version, but Charles Nordhoff and James Normal Hall) is one of those books that somehow managed to seep into my consciousness without ever actually having read it. I'm sure I saw one of the movie versions at some point, which gave me the basic outline of the plot. But that bare-bones version of the story that I thought I knew doesn't hold a candle to the actual novel, which is rich, riveting, and extremely well told. When I picked it up I didn't think it would be one of those books I had a difficult time putting down, but I very nearly read it all in one sitting.

I reread Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell this summer in advance of watching the BBC adaptation of the novel, and was extremely glad I did. It had been at least ten years since I read the whole thing, and I definitely needed a refresher. The book was just as good as I remembered it, and I was also extremely happy with the adaptation.

Marc Hartzman's The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell: A Memoir is pretty much precisely what the title suggests: a memoir narrated by a decapitated head. Weird, yes, but Hartzman has done his research and manages to tell the story of the afterlives of Cromwell's head in a surprisingly vivid way. Would it have worked just as well as a series of narrative vignettes without the fictional component? For me, yes, since I enjoy books like that, but perhaps not for others. A worthwhile experiment!

Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea Quartet was one of those those series that, once I started reading, I couldn't believe I'd waited so long. "The Tombs of Atuan" was by far my favorite, but I liked the others too.

Colin Dickey always comes up with fascinating topics for his books, and Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places is no exception. As he writes at the outset, Dickey is concerned with the following question: "how do we deal with stories about the dead and their ghosts, and how do we inhabit and move through spaces that have been deemed haunted?" Drawing on several years' worth of observations from around the country, from famous haunted places to locations you've probably never heard of, Dickey deftly searches for the nuggets of truth at the heart of the ghost stories we tell ... and also for why we tell those stories.

Trollope's The Way We Live Now: darker than the Barsetshire books, but with the same way of getting at the humanity of his characters. Delightfully complex, wickedly funny - it may look like a long read, but the time just flies right by.