There’s a line within the first paragraph of Moby Dick in which Ishmael tells us that he heads to the sea “…whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever … it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off.” That line marked the first time I laughed out loud at the novel and convinced me that I was going to love it.
Although heading to sea occasionally is within my grasp (see my August 2017 adventure with Jubilee Sailing Trust, incredible although expensive), the more reasonable alternative may be to pick up the next book in the Aubrey-Maturin series. To send my mind to sea instead of my whole body.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed Master and Commander, the first book in the series, I hesitate to recommend it without hedging. It’s always great when books teach you something about yourself, and I learned that I love hearing ships described. I love the talk of sails and lines and decks and masts. I love the incredible danger these sailors faced so regularly and how it brings them together as a family unit.
But as a single novel? It’s middling. The events that happen are more like vignettes rather than a cohesive arc. Because it’s the first in a series, the reader knows that Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin will survive, no matter the odds. And this series nature also prevents the plot and the characters’ relationships from evolving dramatically.
And still, I enjoyed it. I listened to it on audiobook in the car—steering my own ship through the highways of central Ohio—and I can’t tell you how many turns I missed that month because I was wrapped up in an epic sea battle. So, if you also like tales of watery adventure, piracy, and ropes (a lot of ropes), give this one a try. I’ll likely revisit these characters when I next feel like knocking random people’s hats off.
Best. State. Ever. is a very funny book that taught me a couple important things.
Well, now I'm one of them (grown-ups, that is). My eyes have stopped rolling quite so dramatically when Margaritaville comes on, and I can crack up while reading Dave Barry. Life goes on.
The funniest part of the book by far is the Introduction. Hearing him explain exactly what makes Florida great had me laughing so frequently that my husband put in headphones so he could focus on a much more serious book across the room.
After covering a brief history of Florida from the state's emergence from the ocean through the 1980s, when the Wikipedia article trails off, Barry offers brief travel essays from some of the more Florida-specific activities still available today. The best essays are the ones in which Barry is along for the ride: Key West, LIV (Miami nightclub), and Lock & Load Miami, but also Weeki Wachee, Spongeorama, and even The Villages. The essay on Cassadaga seemed like a missed opportunity, because Barry wasn't able to suspend his disbelief enough to enjoy himself. This is also a problem when he's hunting for the Skunk Ape, except that he obviously develops a deep respect for the person leading the hunt, and the essay becomes a reflection on a nearly extinct way of life unique to Florida.
I think, but I'm not sure, the humor of this book would translate to people who aren't from Florida. After all, I've only actually been to two of the places he visits. But I can tell you that everything in here rings true and gives a good picture of "Real Florida." And that's coming from someone who voluntarily moved away from the state and has no plans to move back! Every state should support a resident Dave Barry.
I expected The Soul of an Octopus to be a philosophical look at what we know about octopuses’ inner lives compared to what we know about humans’ inner lives. I expected to be faced with some tough questions about what defines and differentiates humanity from other creatures and to be surprised by the depth and oneness of all life.
This book, while good, isn’t that. The author touches very briefly on the philosophy of the mind in a few different places, but skirts the really hard questions. Mostly, the book is a detailed memoir of the author’s research for this book, centering on her experiences with the New England Aquarium in Boston. And, although I was disappointed not to get the book I was expecting, her experiences over this year or two were still quite interesting.
The author gets a pretty incredible opportunity to visit with a series of octopuses at the aquarium before they are put on display for the public. She gets to know their personalities, and she gets to watch their incredible bodies work. I definitely learned a lot about octopuses through this book, and now I really want to go somewhere where I can watch them interact with their environments. (One thing I learned is that they’re hard to keep in captivity, and my local aquarium doesn’t have one.)
Overall, this is a good, entertaining way to learn about this incredible animal and a couple of the people the author meets at the aquarium. It’s just not a deep dive into what it means to have consciousness and the ability to empathize with other creatures.
The author does a great job of allowing her letter-writing protagonist to damn himself through his own words. Somehow, although we never see their responses, we imagine the eye rolling and sighing that every one of his recipients must do when one of his letters arrives. He's not the only villain in this story, but it's really interesting to see through his words into the motivations that drive him.
The novel's format somewhat limits the action that can take place, but it allows a deeper than usual dive into one character's world view. I recommend this especially for readers in academia who're looking for a funny, character-driven drama (I wouldn't say this is a comedy).
Not long after I finished Beyond Belief, I happened across a new Scientology building that was hosting an open house. A friend and I went in. This experience was sort of like watching a movie and then walking into the theme park attraction built around that movie. Suddenly, the characters and settings and the whole fantasy world has jumped off the screen and into real life where you can interact with it. You may feel a little shy, never realizing you’d need to think of something to say when meeting the characters face to face, but there’s everything exactly where you imagined it would be.
I’ve long been curious about and rather fascinated by this “church,” and I learned a lot from Beyond Belief about how it all works. Every time this organization makes the news for some reason, it seems to validate the author’s description of how things work. There should be no question that she and many people around her suffered abuse—mentally, emotionally, and even physically. The most bizarre thing about the story is why it’s allowed to happen in America at all. But then, there are a lot of things about power in America that seem insane.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about Scientology.
I found this one though an online algorithm and was not disappointed. Sebastian is a relatable-enough character (even without reading the first installment of this series), and I liked that the mystery was neither obvious nor difficult due to omission.
The story is pretty intriguing. There’s an eccentric nobleman who may have been driven mad in the Amazon, a spate of abused and murdered girls, English suffragettes, a freak show, a local terrorism event, metal health disorders, early electric technical glitches, and lots of other stuff. Without having lived through the era myself, it felt well researched and coherent, even though it gathered a lot of different aspects of the times.
And even with all that, I think it was the characters who really drove this story. Sebastian works too much, but is empathetic, and the decisions he make all make sense in the context of the story. He’s surrounded by an autistic son, a working wife (as a hospital administrator), and an old maid sister-in-law, who all have distinct personalities. One event near the end of the novel--too spoiler-y to mention in detail--actually brought me to tears.
Overall, a good, easy read that kept me engaged throughout.
I’m not a big Science Fiction reader, but the three stories that make up A Canticle for Leibowitz have a lot to offer even a mainstream reader.
The three stories revolve around the monks of the Leibowitz Order in the desert of Texarkana. The first story opens in the 26th century, 600 years after a nuclear war and the resulting Flame Deluge, and the last one closes in 3781, at the start of another nuclear war. We learn that after the Flame Deluge, the survivors rose up against the very technology and knowledge that led to the war, destroying books and killing scientists during the Simplification. Some scraps of knowledge, gathered by a government scientist named I.E. Leibowitz and preserved by the Catholic church, are nearly indecipherable to the monks as the first book opens. In each story, the character of an old wanderer/hermit/homeless man appears and seems to know much more than the monks about what’s really happening.
I found the first story, with Brother Francis’s discovery of new Memorabilia and his order’s reaction, to be the most interesting. The characters felt the most developed and relatable, especially Francis, from whose eyes most over the story is told. Their weak understanding of society before the nuclear war and the science that led up to it results in them wrapping this history into their Biblical history, resulting in a narrative that is at once familiar and foreign.
The second narrative introduces the beginning of the reawakening of knowledge in the world through the scholar Thon Taddeo, who comes to the monastery to study the preserved Memorabilia. Honestly, I got lost in the political machinations during this story; there were a lot of characters who never appear but whose actions and motivations drive the plot. By now, the monks have become more familiar with and generally more comfortable with the knowledge they’re preserving, and one has even developed a man-powered electric light bulb.
By the third story, the world’s political superpowers have again started a nuclear war, complete with negotiations and cease fires and denials of responsibility. The monks scramble to send their Memorabilia and a small group of monks and nuns to space to continue the order. Meanwhile, the head of the order clashes with an NGO that is offering relief services, including euthanasia, to victims of the bombing and radiation fallout. To me, this conflict was the most interesting, as the abbot struggles to understand how cycles of destruction and prolonged suffering fits into his faith.
The wandering hermit, called Benjamin in the second story, initiates the action in the first story and has a long, cryptic conversation with the abbot in the second. In the third, though, he appears only briefly and doesn’t participate in the narrative. As the world goes up in flames, again, we’re left wondering who this character was and what his role in the history was. He’s old when he appears in 26th century, and his appearance remains mostly unchanged for the rest of the 1,200 years we see him. In the second story, he states that he’s not Leibowitz, although the wooden statue of Leibowitz (carved in the first book, but reappearing throughout) clearly resembles Benjamin. So who is he? (Update: since writing this, I followed some Internet clues and found the Myth of the Wandering Jew. Now I realize that my confusion here may be due to ignorance!)
Although the stories are by no means perfect, this is a good gateway book for mainstreams readers to get exposure to Science Fiction.
(Full disclaimer: I met Ken Foster when he taught a fiction workshop I took as an undergrad at Florida State. I've since kept up with him through social media.)
The Kind I'm Likely to Get is a series of short stories, some of which follow recurring characters and all of which include characters in the same universe with similar emotional voices. Although the settings change, the urban centers through which the characters orbit is nearly interchangeable.
Foster paints some really intriguing scenes, although I found myself struggling to hang it all together. It wasn't until I finished the stories and discovered the notes section in the back that it started to click for me. I have trouble investing in stories when I don't like the characters or when I can't understand the motivations of their actions. In the notes, Foster explains that he doesn't expect--or even want--the reader to like some of the characters. Some of them really are toxic and horrible. He's simply painting a scene in which these characters exist.
And he paints those scenes brilliantly. So much so, in fact, that I forgot for a while where I'd heard some of the stories. Some images from “Keep it From the Flame” lingered with me, and later I tried to remember if it was a news story or something someone told me or where I'd heard the story. Also, one character's trademark doodle, a cockroach turning into a locomotive, is described in one of the first stories and then mentioned again in a much later story. In the interim, I forgot that the doodle wasn't a real-life graffito or logo and thought Foster must be referencing the non-fictional world.
That may indicate that I'm an inattentive reader. Or it may show just how vivid Foster's scenes and characters are, how they come to life and worm their way into your memories.
Despite some plotting and characterization challenges, The Fate of Mercy Alban is an engaging and entertaining read. The ideas that push the plot forward are unique and keep the reader guessing, mostly.
Throughout reading this, though, I thought that the author struggled with how much credit to give her audience. At times, the characters come up with explanations for what's happening that are so unreasonable, it feels contrived. And yet, even when I thought "Obviously, it's not A, it's B," it usually ended up being C. So why do the characters stick stubbornly to A?
They also at times seem to completely forget where they are and what's happening,which causes them to make other questionable decisions. For example, <spoiler> they finally find the manuscript that is expected to reveal the truth to everything that's happening. But then, they read it slowly, out loud, and have long re-cap conversations in between the chapters. And they leave it unread for most of the book. I understand that it would have totally disrupted the plot to have the characters so easily figure it all out, but what you would do? "Hey, this book should give all the answers we've been seeking! How about we skim through it, especially skipping to the end, to figure this out without endangering ourselves more?" "Nah, let's savor it, read it really slowly, and let things play out as they will." Really?
Also, why does the Protestant preacher go to bed with the woman he just met, who's not sure she's emotionally ready for a relationship, who has returned home after a 20+ year absence, whose mother has just died, and who is going through one of the most difficult, stressful, and frightening times of her life? Did the author think that we wouldn't believe a romantic relationship between two adults if they didn't have sex within the first two weeks of meeting each other? Why make him a preacher, then?</spoiler>
Even despite these complaints, though, there are some genuinely creepy moments throughout The Fate of Mercy Alban. And the plot is twisty enough that I was surprised even when I thought the characters were going out of their way to avoid the obvious conclusion. I see that this was the author's debut novel, and it reads like one. But if you like mysteries and creepy old houses, you'll find a lot to like here.
When I read Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger, I was blown away by the subtlety of the characterization and the quiet but steady pace of the plot. It’s one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read, and it’s hard not to compare The Paying Guests to the things I loved about it.
The Paying Guests falls little short of that bar. It starts strong in the same way--the subtle way the reader gets to know Frances through the omniscient narration, especially--but by the second act, it falls into something more straightforward that relies just on the tension of the plot and the stated actions of the characters.
Similarly to The Little Stranger, The Paying Guests begins by revolving around the collapse of a grand house after the family has lost its money. In the former work, the slow collapse of the house cleanly reflected the collapse of the family and possibly their sanity. In the latter, it’s more of a plot point, something to keep Frances constantly busy and to bring Mr. and Mrs. Barber into the lives of Frances and her mother.
When the novel opens, it seems like Frances doesn’t do much other than repair and maintain the house, cook meals, tend fires, and sit in the sitting room with her mother. She occasionally accompanies her mother to bridge or church or a movie. Then she takes a wistful walk through London, and we see her try to shake off the spinster persona. As we start to learn more about her, we see how wrong this persona is, and it immediately becomes irrelevant. Whereas the narrator’s voice in the first act seemed to encourage it somewhat, it's dropped so entirely and so soon that it seems odd that it was ever an issue.
This is certainly not the only change in tone between the first act the rest of the novel, but it’s one I can mention because it doesn’t reveal any major plot points. Later, there are some sex scenes that make it hard to believe the word “subtle” could ever be applied to anything in the book. They’re not gratuitous, but Sarah Waters so excels at that quiet cloaking tone that the scenes feel like someone has flicked on the light just after your eyes have adjusted to the dark.
All this said, The Paying Guests is still a good book that I would recommend. The plot is engaging, and the characters are worth getting to know. But it didn’t meet my expectations.
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