November 2015 Reading

And here’s the books I’ve read since my last reading update.

Sundown Towns

Sundown Towns by James Loewen

James Loewen is the well-known author of Lies My Teacher Told Me which is an excellent primer on the portions of history that aren’t really covered in school. Sundown Towns is his treatment of the practice of counties, towns, and suburbs that intentionally excluded blacks and other non-whites from living within their boundaries. Such towns popularly had signs at the city limits that stated things like “No niggers after sundown!”, hence the term.

I listened to the audio version of the book. I’ve found that in audio form, repetition in a book is really drilled into my brain. In a work of fiction, repeated story tics become extremely apparent and are distracting. In a book like Sundown Towns the sheer number of examples of sundown practices is a flood in my brain. I didn’t think about much else for the duration.

And Loewen’s examples in the book alone become a litany. The conception I, a suburban-educated middle-aged white guy, had was that they were ugly but not particularly common. The best examples Loewen has litter Illinois and Indiana to the point that non-exclusionary towns were in the minority in those states. In addition, descriptions of the practices themselves make me think that the North’s sundown towns were far more racist than the South’s Jim Crow laws. That’s an outside assessment by a white dude after reading this book, so I don’t think it holds a lot of weight. But I think it’s clear that us northerners can’t be smug about the South being the racist part of the country, which I often have been.

My criticism of the book is mostly that a lot of the book is based off hearsay and oral tradition. As far as a broad survey that this book is means that it doesn’t affect the conclusions on a broad basis. That there’s an oral tradition of a place being sundown is part of sundown practice itself. But when I am concerned about a specific place and the practices there, hearsay leaves a lot to be desired. I am very interested in specific places where my family is from. More than one is mentioned in the book, and I wanted to know way more than what oral tradition could pass on.

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

My ebook reader told me I was 56% of the way into this book at the point I gave up. In theory, mixing epic fantasy with Westerns should delight me, but in practice I was bored despite giving it a go. Roland Deschain is the gunslinger in a desert landscape, possessing some wizard like powers, chasing after a mysterious man in black. Why? We don’t know. Sometimes mysterious means my interest is piqued to find out more, but in this case it meant I couldn’t bring myself to care about one-dimensional mystery characters.

Skipping a Beat by Sarah Pekkanen

A rich woman’s rich husband has a heart attack and spends some time clinically dead. On revival, he has realized that his distant workaholic ways can’t go on, so he resigns from the company he founded and starts giving away all his wealth, vowing to pay his wife the attention he should have over the years. Rich woman doesn’t take too kindly to this, as she views the wealth as her payment for putting up with rich dude’s years of neglect. Will they reconcile? Will things get really ugly? Engaging enough that I wanted to find out what happened, but I didn’t like either main character and mostly wished ugly things would happen to them. Minor spoiler that this is a redemption story, though not in the way I thought it might be. Still, I would have preferred ugly things happen to the characters.

Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

Another fantasy book. It came highly recommended by a friend of mine. I also have followed Hines’ blog for many years and I really like that. However, it’s the first time I’ve tried to read a story of his. Libriomancers are basically wizards who have the power to turns what happens on the pages of a book into something in real life. Need a ray gun? Find old science fiction and go through the proper magical steps and it’s yours for a time. Of course there are opposing factions fighting a magical war. We need some sort of conflict in order to have a book, but this was so cookie cutter. Too much as-you-know-Bob. Too breezy. I gave up very quickly. I might try Hines’ work again some time, because I want to like his books because I love his blog. But I’m not hopeful.

September 2015 reading

I was away on holiday most of September, and that meant that I had a lot of travel time to listen to audiobooks. Brief notes follow, so I can remember what I read in my older age.

Cover of In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

I remember getting crap from girls in junior high when I read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. “But that’s a girl’s book!” The thing is, Judy Blume writes compelling characters, and so I liked the book despite it not being for boys. In The Unlikely Event follows a lot of characters living in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1952, when three planes crashed in the suburb while trying to take off or land at the nearby Newark airport. This isn’t a set of tales of surviving as told by the victims of the crashes or their family members (mostly). It captures the daily lives of witnesses, bystanders, and responders. A lot of it is just normal stuff, but Blume uses the crashes as a device to expose their psyches. Very enjoyable, though a bit hard to keep who is who and how they are connected straight sometimes.

The Devil’s Star by Jo Nesbø

The concluding volume in the three book storyline of Harry Hole vs. the evil cop Tom Waaler. At the beginning of the novel, Hole is on his last legs as a detective. He’s convinced that Tom Waaler is behind the murder of his colleague Ellen Gjelten (in The Redbreast). Unable to prove it, he’s gone on an alcoholic bender that has his superiors draw up his termination papers. Even though he has only three weeks left before they are final, the brass has him work a case with the aforementioned Tom Waaler investigating a serial killer who leaves pentagrams at murder scenes. The reader, Harry, and Tom all know Harry’s got Tom pegged but has nothing to back it up. So how will they work together? Given that Tom Waaler has a history of murdering people who might finger him in the two previous books, I’m surprised he didn’t do the same to Harry Hole at the beginning of the book. But then, there wouldn’t be a story anymore, so we have to suspend some disbelief. Lots of tension here, and worth a listen.

How To Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

Part memoir, part humorous “self-help” on race relations. The self-help is ostensibly directed at black people, but it didn’t really feel like that was his true audience. It really comes across more as a way to explain to white people what tics black people have developed as a result of micro-aggressive racism from white people, and what methods they’ve devised in order to deal. I don’t think the latter part meshed all that well with the memoir part. You constantly jump between intensely personal memoir chapters to more distant “hypothetical” how-tos on race. Hypothetical in quotes because, while I am sure the situations are all real, Mr. Thurston doesn’t talk about them in first person voice or even third person description of what’s happened to people he knows. Those parts are in second person. Still, had those points been made how we normally make them, the book might not have garnered the attention it did. I liked the personal bits more though, particularly the writing about Sidwell Friends and race relations at that school.

August 2015 reading

And here’s what I’ve finished reading since my last update in May.

Jo Nesbø - Nemesis

Nemesis by Jo Nesbø

I consumed this one also in audio format. Replacing Robin Sachs as narrator was Thor Knai, and I quite enjoyed his reading. Audible reviewers didn’t like him, and he was very rough. But I was happy to hear Norwegian words and names pronounced like Norwegians do. Harry Hole works to solve both the murder of a bank teller in the course of a robbery, as well as the putative suicide of an ex-girlfriend with whom he’d recently been in contact. This is all about the Scandi-crime vibe, as both murder mysteries are of the extremely intricate variety that makes me repeatedly exclaim “Oh come on!”. Those only work as crimes if everything goes exactly as planned. They should fall apart well before Harry Hole gets involved.

Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger

As I noted over on the book blog, one of the things I think should be included in any review of non-fiction is whether or not the stuff in the book is true. Ms. Dreger’s story is engaging and probably informative at some level. However, even a cursory listen to the audiobook raised some huge red flags for me. A large portion of the book is about conflicts between activists (mostly left-leaning) and scientists (supposedly fact-based) where the scientists lives have been ruined because the activists had no regard for the truth and also made personal attacks removed from the issues about the science. But… aside from some nastiness on the internet, not one of the scientists described had their life ruined. Not one lost a job. Not one had to live in hiding. Which isn’t to say scurrilous charges of unethical science should be encouraged, but I think her premise on the “ruined lives” front wasn’t backed up.

Central to Ms. Dreger’s book is the account of J. Michael Bailey and his book The Man Who Would Be Queen. In it, Mr. Bailey presented another researcher’s theory of transgender as transsexualism, that transgender people are of two main types: effeminate homosexuals and autogynephiliacs, or men who are turned on by the idea of being being women. Here’s the thing about Galileo’s Middle Finger: it presents the theory as being backed by science and so Mr. Bailey’s book was scientific and the attacks on him were activism. But I couldn’t help notice while listening that there’s little discussion in it of research that backs up the theory. It comes off as both Bailey and Dreger making up some sloppy categories to fit their notions and then working hard to slot transgender people into those categories. And that’s just from a cursory listen to the book. So the narrative of science versus activism didn’t hold up in my view, because there wasn’t much science described.

A few other chapters cover Ms. Dreger’s work on intersex people and intersex rights. As a narrative of her involvement nothing stood out as poorly as the activist vs. science part did.

I wouldn’t warn people away from the book, but I’d read it all with a huge grain of salt.

Mending the Moon by Susan Palwick

I’ve been Facebook connected with Susan Palwick since I purchased a hand-made scarf from her in 2014’s Con Or Bust fundraising auction. I subsequently read her book Shelter and quite liked it. She was in Seattle in July for Clarion West, and so I went to her reading and picked up Mending the Moon. Though published by Tor, it’s not heavily science fiction. Melinda Soto goes on vacation to Mexico where she is brutally murdered by a young fan of the comic book Comrade Cosmos. Melinda’s son is also a big fan. The book is the story of the characters’ grief processes. I had a mixed reaction to the book. On one hand, very little happens and I kept wanting some plot progression. But on the other hand, the characters are fascinating and the best portrayal of the many faces of grief that I’ve ever read. As someone who went through the deaths of my three closest family members in the course of 18 months, I learned a lot about my own grief. I very quickly became acquainted with other people’s stereotypes of grief and how I wasn’t doing it right. Each character in Mending The Moon has their own reaction, and all of them felt very real. Not one is the right way to do it. Highly recommended for these portrayals.