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Another thoughtful and strange gem from North
Claire North truly has a gift for building plausible and fascinating stories around protagonists that are a breed apart. In The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August we had a narrator who was one of a small band of humans who relived their lives again and again; in The Sudden Appearance of Hope the eponymous character became impossible to remember as she moved through puberty, never imprinting on the long term memory of those she met. And in Touch, we are guided through the strange world of a consciousness who has no body but rather "jumps" from one person to another via touch, wearing these skins as his/her/its own for a time before moving on to another.
This is a story of love and revenge -- but the love is of a different sort, both more casual and more intimate than what most humans would consider. Our main character, known as Kepler because that name will do as well as any other, has lived for centuries, jumped between young and old, man and woman, every race, and in bodies mostly beautiful but sometimes just convenient. The plot is driven by Kepler's desire for revenge when one of his hosts is needlessly murdered, and in his efforts to track down the culprits he uncovers a covert group bent on tracking down Kepler's kind, known generally as ghosts, and wiping them out. At least so it seems.
North takes great advantage of Kepler's changing nature, examining the fluidity of identity and the various permutations of love. There is fast paced action, as a fleeing Kepler or those with similar capabilities as him jump from body to body in throngs of humans, needing only a hint of skin to make that jump. When a body is tried on, Kepler notices things light changes in eyesight, aching joints, nagging hunger, and the pangs of addiction. While he often leaves a body in a better place, he also can be nonchalant about taking advantage of whoever is, literally, at hand.
As the plot thickens we are sometimes provided peaks into Kepler's past lives/bodies, his earlier career as an "estate agent" for others of his breed, helping them find prospective hosts with all the traits they want (from gender and looks, to education and wealth). Sometimes he works with the consent of those to be worn, and other times not. And these glimpses into the past couple with the action in the present, as another of Kepler's kind proves to be equal parts sociopathic, narcissistic, and needy. There is a deep humanity in Kepler, but also something inhuman. His love is familiar and foreign, both superficial and deep. Clair North brings this shadow world alive, filled with immortal ghosts, moral questions, and a love of life. Recommended.
Important, Brutal, Critical WWII Reading
After years of learning about World War II (from elementary school through college through personal reading as an adult), I finally turned to this classic and important part of the World War II historical canon. Iris Chang's work chronicling the horrors of the Rape of Nanking is overwhelming. As the subtitle of the book makes clear, while the atrocities committed during the Holocaust by the Nazis have been thoroughly and voluminously studied the same attention to detail and extensive scholarship has not been expended on the months-long atrocities at Nanking. The brutality of the conquering Japanese military against the largely civilian population of Nanking epitomizes savagery and, unlike much of the Holocaust, took place in the open with little subterfuge or euphemisms, in full view of multiple international witnesses.
Chang is meticulous in her work, having gathered information from numerous primary sources, ranging from the letters and diaries of Western observers (including Americans, British, and Germans), as well as interviews with and the writings of the Chinese that survived the event. The scale of the murder, torture, and rape is hard to conceive of -- in fact, just calling it murder and rape makes the cruelty seem mundane when the forms it took were beyond the pale. The inhumanity of the Japanese to the residents of Nanking beggars belief.
This crime against humanity still has ramifications today. The tense Sino-Japanese relationship of the present plays out in a world where the Japanese have never fully admitted their actions or culpability, have never apologized, have never truly educated their population about the myriad shameful acts. Where Germany was forced to face the Holocaust, Japan to this day will not reckon with Nanking. And Western peoples likewise do not pay nearly enough attention to what WWII meant for Asians, only seeming to pay attention to the Japanese to the extent their actions directly impacted the United States. This book is as important now as it was when it was published, and shines a much-needed light on at least one part of the non-Western events of WWII and on the depravity that is possible during wartime.
With so many histories of World War II on offer, students of that world-changing event have a wealth of options for study. There are books tightly focused on key individuals or specific battles, others offering a wider view by examining a specific country or demographic group, and still others try to take in the broad sweep of the entire event (though to be thorough multiple volumes would be needed or else would fall short by giving short shrift to certain theaters or groups). Here Burleigh approaches this watershed of 20th century history by attempting to take in the immensity of the war through the frame of morality during the war. The aforementioned students of World War II history would be well-served by picking up this book, which manages to be both familiar and surprising.
Burleigh spends some time discussing morality, giving a framework to the people, policies, heroism, and tragedies that he will recount. In a wonderful preface, he discusses his aim in the book, including what it isn't meant to do (specifically, this book does not cover the Nazi atrocities in depth but rather just some prime examples, as he has covered it in other books, as have other authors). The preface highlights that this is a book of history, not of philosophy or law or prescriptions for future wars.
As a history, Burleigh is able to move across the years and the countries, the combatants and the civilians, the honorable, the questionable, and the abhorrent. He is scrupulously careful in setting the stage and giving background, never offering the actions of the participants in a vacuum or pretending that war does not operate outside of the normal parameters of peacetime. That said, he works very hard at not giving a pass to actions that push bounds of both war and peacetime morality, and pointing out that just because the Germans and the Japanese may have done things that are still the stuff of nightmares, that does not mean that immoral acts of the Allies (though perhaps fewer in number or amplitude) are not so bad in comparison. Chapters on collaboration (and how it differed in different countries) and air raids, atomic weapons and fire bombings, treatment of prisoners of war and women, manage to broaden the reader's view of the war and what people are capable of. Not to be missed.
Great mystery enhanced by narration
A nicely crafted and satisfying mystery. Barton uses four main narrative threads with four different point of view characters: Kate, a middle-aged reporter; Angela, a 60-something woman who has lasting grief rooted in the snatching of her newborn from a hospital decades earlier; Emma, a 40-something book editor with lasting emotional issues from a rocky childhood; and Jude, Emma's mother. The narrators are all excellent, with the one caveat that the woman portraying Kate's chapters talks very slowly (but this is easily remedied by putting her on 1.25 speed). The one chapter narrated from a male character's perspective feels a bit odd, though, as it is only a one-off.
These four women, their secrets and scars and needs, are brought to the surface and intensified when the remains of a baby are found on a building site. The titular child at first appears to be the missing Alice, Angela's stolen baby. But as the book progresses, other possibilities arise and the plot becomes more complex and the psychological tolls each of these women has suffered becomes evermore taut and harrowing.
The true protagonist of the book is Kate. In her role as reporter, she is the one that becomes interested in the baby that is found on Howard Street. It is clear immediately that the body is decades old, so it is Kate's own personal drive to make this into a story (and escape the mundane and crass celebrity stories she is inundated with) that propels the press coverage forward and, in turn, contributes to the investigation. More importantly, her doggedness not only helps to reveal the truth, but also gives each of the other women some form of release, empowerment, closure, or justice. In the end, there is a well-constructed twist and resolution (though I thought Kate was a bit slow on the uptake in grasping exactly what was going on), that manages to be gasp-worthy but not so improbable to destroy the grounded nature of the book. And it is the three-dimensional depiction of the four women, of their grief and anger and uncertainty, that makes this more than a run of the mill mystery. Barton gets full marks for well-realized characters and an exciting conclusion that avoided jumping any sharks. Recommended.
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Hilarious and coarse, thoroughly enjoyed
4.5 stars. This is my first foray into Augusten Burroughs's writing, and I wish I hadn't waited so long to pick up one of his memoirs. Burroughs has a gift for a perfectly placed exaggeration, a sly side-eye, a witty and utterly unexpected aside, and the blending of emotional insight with hysterical self-deprecation. This memoir is focused on Burroughs's various romantic entanglements, with varying degrees of success and disillusionment. His recounting of the ups and downs of his love life, his impressions of his partners, his own hang-ups and desires, are rapid-fire and are at once honest and humorous. Granted, humor is very personal and I can see this memoir being over the top for readers who avoid profanity, sex, or dark humor. But if you like edgy observations, dysfunctional relationships, bad language, and a unique blend of the coarse and flamboyant, this is the memoir for you.
Entertaining trilogy, the dog lives
While not perfect or profound, this is still an extremely satisfying end to the action- and spider-packed trilogy. As in the first two books, this final entry is briskly paced and benefits from the wide cast of characters to add scope, intimacy, and meaning, elevating the book from the shallower B-movie creature features that this is so reminiscent of. And George Newbern remains an excellent narrator.
When we last were in this spider infested future world, humanity was on a precipice. A second wave of spiders had struck, President Pilgrim ordered the tactical nuking of infested American cities and then the fracturing of America itself via the Spanish Protocol. The characters we had come to know were spread across the country, with problems big and small to contend with, ranging from mere survival to contriving a way to save humanity itself. And the various points of view offered by Boone were not all human, we also were privy to minds of the spiders, and knew something terrible was to come.
Boone plunges readers back into the thick of the action, and things go from bad to worse. Tensions rise in the government, and there are differing opinions on how best to combat the threat with a rift opening between the executive branch and the military. All the while the scientists are racing to figure out how the spiders operate in an effort to head off the existential threat.
Dialog remains snappy, deaths gruesome, small insights into character and humanity shine here and there, and the suspense grows. Boone chooses to write this final entry leaving much unsaid and undescribed, setting up set pieces and letting the reader fill in the blanks. It isn't that the reader has to guess what likely happened--he often leads the reader through a series of events and encounters, with a climactic decision or statement made, then the point of view abruptly shifts. This lends the narrative even greater speed, but also makes portions feel rushed. The book is not incredibly long, and I think more than a few readers would have enjoyed more elaboration from Boone and would have forgiven a few extra pages.
All in all, though, the book is incredibly fun and Boone treats the readers to an epilogue that happily ties up a number of loose ends. This apes movies where in the closing credits we find out what happened next to the main characters. Boone does not deny his readers the comfort of knowing how our favorite characters fared in this new world, and happily they have fared well. A truly entertaining trilogy, not for those who dislike gore with their action, but worth the time for those who like a ton of action, characters to root for, and loose ends firmly tied. Oh, and one spoiler worth giving: Claymore (the dog) lives.
Stunning setting, good memoir
3.5 stars. A thoughtful memoir recounting the author's alcoholism and journey to sobriety, made even better by a stellar narration.
Much here is not new, though it is rendered in lovely prose. In many ways, addiction stories are similar, with lives spiraling out of control, friendships tested, health endangered, and usually an undercurrent of trying to escape the traumas and disappointments (whether big or small) of life. Then again, each person is individual and the vagaries of life that led them to the substance they come to abuse are different. For Liptrot, she hailed from a family where her father struggled mightily with mental illness and was often at odds with her evangelical mother. Likewise, Liptrot suspected that she might have some of her father's manic and depressive tendencies. For her, her drinking started out in the normal range for her age and social circle but became more intense, less controlled, and eventually wrecked her relationship with a boyfriend, made her job untenable, led to a series of incredibly reckless encounters, and finally forced her to face the fact that she needed to get help.
Where this memoir does stand out from others is that her recovery is played out in the landscape of her childhood - the Orkney Islands off of Scotland. Liptrot describes this windswept and severe setting with great skill, making the cliffs and sea come alive, painting the summer's night-less sky
with magic, and introducing us to the solitude and camaraderie of these lightly populated places (where wildlife often outnumbers people). As she comes to terms with sobriety, she finds herself attempting to accept life without alcohol, working to sever the neurological connections that have been built up over years of drinking. Liptrot obviously struggles to find meaning and purpose for herself, and to really live each day, rather than just trying not to drink. In doing so, she takes long walks and explores her home island and others in the grouping. She takes a job that involves canvassing the island in search of a rare bird, she joins a group that swims in the always frigid seas, she writes and reads and takes time to gain strength and perspective and confidence.
While Liptrot's journey from addiction to sobriety to some measure of contentment is not unique, having it take place in this remote part of the world makes the book well worth the time.
Solid and fun, not much plot
Fun novella in the Rivers of London series, this time with the world of ghosts partially explored and some expansion of Abigail's studies as she seeks to be taken on as an apprentice. Abigail has appeared before (a relative of Peter Grant), and Grant unwisely told her that if she passed a certain test in Latin he would teach her magic. Well, as Grant and Nightingale look into a suspected kidnapping (based on information from two dissolving ghosts), we also see Abigail's dedication to her studies. I can just see the Folly's denizens growing by one in some book soon and was happy for a mostly happy ending to the kidnapping case.
Some fascinating parts, author's voice annoying
3.5 stars. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor suffered a stroke at age 37 and in this book she combines a scientific discussion of strokes, a play-by-play recounting of what it felt like as her mind malfunctioned, a description of her road to recovery (a road that lasted 8 years), and an exploration of what her "stroke of insight" has meant for her, her personality, and her approach to life. I'll get this out of the way first -- I personally found Dr. Taylor's voice annoying. Her delivery sometimes feels immature, but I understand that she has every right to tell her own story in her own voice. But it made it hard to get through and I found myself resorting to putting the book on 1.25 speed to get through it.
That said, this book works very well when she is in the mode of describing the rapid disintegration of her mind, with details you rarely here about strokes, from how language became unhinged and sight started operating differently, to the fast deterioration of her ability to operate her body or hold on to thoughts. The memoir aspect of the book, especially when she discusses her stay in the hospital and how caregivers who treated her with kindness and patience accelerated her recovery, is important. Having a patient who was severely impacted by stroke relay what it feels like to navigate the medical system without full cognitive or physical function is telling, and underscores that medical professionals must not only be excellent scientists but also let humanity enter their care. Even more, you realize how important it is to be an advocate for your care and, hopefully, to have family or friends who can advocate on your behalf. As Dr. Taylor recovers, the chapters dealing with the incremental steps she had to take to recover function are both inspiring and informative.
The book is also solid, if not relevatory, where Dr. Taylor explains the mechanics of stroke and some of the basic science of how the brain works. Other books have done it more extensively and more engagingly, but her primer is to the point and useful when approaching the rest of the book.
Where the book lost me and tested my patience was toward the end. Dr. Taylor writes about how the stroke disabled the left hemisphere of her brain (the hemisphere more responsible for logic) and in its relative absence the right hemisphere (the creative side) took over. This meant, for Taylor, that some of her personality traits (competitiveness, sarcasm, etc.) were likewise disabled and that this allowed her to disengage from many negative feelings, feel the wonder of life, and embrace joy. This is all well and good, and I did find it interesting that as she healed and her left hemisphere began rewiring itself, she consciously worked on not falling into old habits by redirecting her responses to stimulus and eschewing the most negative feelings (a concept central to some forms of meditation). But she got incredibly repetitive and slipped into some decidedly new age concepts. Obviously, if this is what she experienced and what she believes, she should write about it. But discussions of being part of the universe, of sending your energy to people, of being beings of energy -- this kept vacillating between concepts grounded in fact, study, and science, and concepts that are at best intuited but certainly not tested or confirmed. And for me it distracted from the rest of the book and went on quite a bit too long.
Overall, the book was mostly good. It is astounding that Dr. Taylor was able to call for help and, over the course of years, have the determination and perseverance to fully recover. Her writing style sometimes veers into repetitiveness and some of the language feels immature. But her exuberance for life and amazing story made the book a perfectly fine use of time.
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Larson excellent, blends big themes with humanity
Larson is in fine form, weaving together the small details of the passengers and crew of the Lusitania, a history of the ship, an overview of international relations, a truncated bit of biography of President Wilson during WWI before the US entered the Great War, a peak into Great Britain's Room 40 as it secretly read Germany's encrypted messages, and an exploration of the captain of submarine U-20 on the patrol that would bring it into a fateful meeting with the Lusitania. Where the fate of the ship is so widely known, Larson must work hard to build the suspense. He does this ably by making sure the reader is introduced to enough individuals to make their journey across the Atlantic fraught, as you begin to wonder who will and won't survive, and start picturing the agony that passengers and crew would feel if separated from siblings, lovers, spouses, friends, or children.
As Larson puts together the larger picture and sets the scene, we range from German U-boat captains, to a widowed Woodrow Wilson, to a pugnacious Winston Churchill, to a ship's crew lacking extensive experience. He lets us in on the reasons for various passengers' trips, describes the treasures they brought with them, and what they hoped for out of the Atlantic crossing. Interspersed with the intensely human details are lovingly rendered descriptions of the ship, and worrying revelations about the German's intentions toward Atlantic shipping and the uneven protection offered by the British Admiralty in response. The reader gets a very focused examination of a small part of World War I, seeing how warfare was beginning to change, how targets that were not wholly military were being stalked and that civilians were quickly becoming casualties.
With disaster looming, the reader knows that the Lusitania is speeding toward Britain but that its final destination will not be a dock but a sinking. At least 80% of the book covers the lead up to that disaster. And when the torpedoes strike, the reader is likewise struck with how luck (good for the U-boat, bad for the Lusitania) plays such a role in the event. Larson's description of the 18 minutes between torpedo strike and ultimate sinking are gripping, harrowing, and somber. He recounts impossible decisions: do you first rescue your sleeping child one deck below or your playing toddler one deck above; do you take the step off of the rail even though you can't swim; is there time to retrieve a life vest; should you search the ship for loved ones or get onto a lifeboat; do you lift one more floating person into a raft and risk capsizing it? Through use of interviews and written accounts by survivors, as well as diaries from passengers, Larson has masterfully recounted events (and personalities) leading up to the event, the reality of the sinking ship and struggle for life itself, and the aftermath.
And that aftermath manages to be troubling, confusing, mournful, and hopeful at once. Most troubling was the British Admiralty's immediate decision to try to blame the entire event on Captain Turner (the man in charge of the Lusitania), despite the fact that the Admiralty itself ignored some clear warnings and did not provide basic escorts for the Lusitania's protection. Suggested reasons abound, ranging from conspiracies to try to force America's hand and make them join the war to too jealously protecting intelligence to mere ineptitude. For the passengers themselves, after the sinking it meant waiting for rescue in cold water (some dying of hypothermia), finding out that companions had died, having to identify bodies. And for relatives of the passengers, there was a long wait to get word, and rife confusion where some where told their loved ones had died when they were in fact alive, or worse, that they were alive when they were actually dead. But for all the despair, there were fortunate reunions, husbands and wives, and two brothers in the crew. And of course bittersweet moments where some, but not all, of a family survived, or one person surviving where a companion perished. Despite the tragedy and some British strategists' beliefs that the 100+ deaths of American citizens would drive the country out of its isolationism, it would be years yet before America entered the war. Regardless, the sinking of the Lusitania was bellwether of changing norms and, when America finally did get off the fence, still something that struck the heart of the nation.
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