Books I read this week: February week 4-March week 3

I’ve been reading a lot and not writing a lot, so I’m a bit behind. This month’s worth of books are kind of all over the place, but they were all really good reads.

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton is the sequel to her excellent The Just City. It continues the story of Athena’s grand experiment to create Plato’s Republic with people pulled from throughout time, as the Just City has splintered into separate groups. Each group wants to create their own version of the Republic, and things go fairly well until people are killed in raids over art. Apollo incarnate and his children go out to investigate, and so many ideas about responsibility, fate, agency, art, grief, and so much more are explored in this book. The story is great, the ending is the best kind of out of nowhere (I’m thrilled that there will be a third book), and the ideas are thought provoking.

“Then why did you betray me?” she asked, her gray eyes hard as flint. “With Sokrates? Or by saying you were an angel?” he asked. “That there are multiple possible occasions does seem indicative of problems,” Zeus said.

The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths sent me down a glorious rabbit hole. Apparently there was really a special forces team during WW2 and their job was to create illusions using camouflage and stage design to trick the Nazis. This book is a murder mystery wherein two members of a similar team (one now a police officer, one a stage magician) investigate a murder with uncanny similarities to a trick in the magician’s show. It’s a clever mystery, a great set up, with excellent characters.

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie is one I really thought I’d read before, but once I got into it I didn’t remember most of it. (I think that just means that I read it so long ago that it faded from my mind.) It’s a great set up for a closed room mystery- a woman is murdered mid flight on a plane. It could have been a blow dart found in a seat back, it could have been a wasp, and Hercule Poirot will figure it out.

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak is really, really good. I got it from the library, but I might actually have to buy it. The stories are clever and inventive, and Novak has a distinct, wry voice that I appreciate. I don’t have a lot of detail to give, because the book is back at the library now, but I do recommend it.

If you love something, let it go. If you don’t love something, definitely let it go. Basically, just drop everything, who cares.

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente is a gorgeous ending to her Fairyland series. All of the rulers, past and present, of Fairyland have been brought back to life due to a mistaken spell, and September has to race them all to keep her claim as the Queen of Fairyland. But she doesn’t necessarily want to be the queen, and she doesn’t want to leave. Valente has created such a glorious world, with such beautiful, living characters. Her sentences are little gems, and this book goes exactly where it needs to go.

“You go paddle about in your supersecret lair of secretness and we’ll just lie out in the sun and discuss Agatha Christie and eat coconuts- ALL THE COCONUTS.”

For that is all a story is, my dears: a knife that cuts the world into pieces small enough to eat.

Growing Up Brave: Expert Strategies for Helping Your Child Overcome Fear, Stress, and Anxiety by Donna B. Pincus has some really excellent information about how kids experience anxiety and fear, and what strategies have been developed to teach them to deal with those emotions. Pulling from cognitive behavioral therapy, the tools in this book would be helpful for any parent of any child, whether they suffer from aggravated anxiety or not. The suggestions she gives are clear and easily implemented, and she imparts a very straight forward vision of what is “normal” and when to reach out to professionals for help. I really highly recommend this one.

Euphoria by Lily King was fascinating. Based loosely on the experiences of Margaret Mead (another rabbit hole I’ll be falling down soon), it’s the story of three anthropologists in the 1930s in New Guinea. Two are married and have just left their study of  a cannibalistic tribe, the other is suicidal and in over his head. When they come together it becomes clear that all three of them have different views on what it means to experience, study, and understand other cultures and even each other. The characters in this book live and breathe, the cultures that King creates are full of depth and complexity, and she raises really important questions about how we interact with the world. This would be a great book club book.

When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis? As usual, I found myself more interested in that intersection than anything else.

Unnatural Causes by P.D. James is another book that I know that I’ve read (because I know that I’ve read all of James’ mysteries), but I didn’t remember it at all. Not even a little bit. That’s glorious, because then it’s like a new P.D. James book! And it makes me wonder if I remember the others, or if I’ve got a new bunch of books to read. (And don’t go worrying that I’m losing my memory- I would have read them at least 15, if not 20 years ago. I think it’s acceptable to have lost the details.) The murder victim in this one is an aggravating little writer who sets everyone in the village’s teeth on edge, and who floats to shore in a little boat with his hands chopped off. The twists are fantastic, James is a brilliant plotter who sets up clues like glorious little dominoes. And her sentences- my goodness. The woman had beautiful, beautiful sentences.

The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy drifting just within sight of the Suffolk coast.

I wanted another mystery to follow up Unnatural Causes, so I chose Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling), which I got for my birthday. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, and I have mixed feelings about it. The first two books in this series were such lovely little mysteries, little puzzles you could hold in your hand and sort through. And the characters and story of Cormoran and Robin were moving forward in a nice little way. They fit nicely into the formula (as it were) of the kind of mystery series that I love. But Rowling is all about character, and I can see that it would be impossible for her to have characters involved in a series of murders that had no effect on them, because Rowling’s characters exist in the real world, not in the murder mystery bubble. They’re not Jessica Fletcher, solving murder after murder and moving on, blissfully unaffected. So this book is all about the real life repercussions of murder and abuse, and it’s a pretty nasty piece of work. No one in it (save Cormoran and Robin) is a good person, and there’s so much darkness. Someone from Cormoran’s past sends Robin a woman’s leg in the mail, and as they investigate the murder and obvious threat, Rowling lays out Cormoran’s past as well as the past and present of the three suspects. Interspersed throughout are the thoughts of the killer, which gives the book more of a suspense/thriller feel than a mystery, because there’s really no way to solve the murder before the book leads you to the end.

It’s very well written, but you have to go into it knowing what you’re getting into. There’s lots of abuse and cruelty, and lots of language. It reminded me in a way of the 5th Harry Potter book- unpleasant, but necessary to set things up for what was to come, and I’m really hoping that now that this one is out of the way, we can get back to murder mysteries.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson was another birthday present. I’ve been wanting to read it since Furiously Happy was one of my top books of last year. It’s not quite as brilliantly hilarious as Furiously Happy- this is her first book, and you can see how Lawson has developed as a writer- but it is full of absurd real life stories. Lawson had a very unusual childhood, and while some of it is legitimately laugh out loud funny, some of it is sad and uncomfortable. But she’s not afraid to tell her stories, as crazy as they are, and I appreciate that.

I can ignore that piles of clothes on the guest room bed because I know they’re all straight from the dryer and just waiting to be folded. Victor, on the other hand, will glare at he growing pile and huff loudly over and over until I finally break down ans ask him why he sounds like he’s deflating. We look into the same guest bedroom and see two entirely different things. Victor sees a dangerous volcano erupting with clothes that I must be intentionally refusing to hang up because I’m lazy and am purposefully trying to make him have a nervous breakdown. I see it as a personal achievement… a physical manifestation of all the laundry I’ve done over the last few months. It’s like a strange trophy made of clothes that I’ve forgotten I even owned. Victor says it’s like a crazy person lives in our house and is sculpting Mount Vesuvius out of the sweaters that need to be in storage. This is when I remind him exactly why doors were invented, and I close the guest bedroom door. “See?” I say. “Problem solved.”  “You can’t fix a problem by just not using rooms in the house,” he argues, and I point out how ridiculous he’s being, as I use that room all the damn time. I use it as a giant drawer for clothes that need to be hung up.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller was an interesting book to read directly after Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. The settings are completely different- rural Texas versus revolution torn Rhodesia- but both are the stories are young girls trying to find their way amidst a bit of chaos and uncertainty, and possible mental illness of parents. Fuller grew up on farms and plantations in Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe, and her story is fascinating because they personify colonialism and third culture children and institutionalized racism and so many other concepts. Her parents were British, and moved to the British colony of Rhodesia in the 70s, and they fully believe that whites are superior to blacks, and that whites should be in charge, and that they have every right to be there. They refer to the native people who are fighting for independence from Britain as terrorists, and talk casually about the idea of drinking from the same cup as a black person as appalling, and they’re so very sure that they are right. As the revolution is successful and their farm is taken by the government, you feel badly for them, and badly for Fuller, who in her mind IS African- it’s the only life she can remember- but they’re still on the wrong side. It’s just really really interesting. Fuller’s childhood is so very different from what I’m used to, and this book is a fascinating look into a time period and a place that I’m not very familiar with. I highly recommend this one.

No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel is a sneaky kind of Holocaust novel. There are no Nazis, no concentration camps (explicitly in the story- they do exist in the world of the book), just a little tiny Jewish village up in the mountains that decides to pretend that nothing outside of their borders exists when the war begins. There’s an element of magical realism to the book, but it only serves to highlight the very real tragedies that the people of the village inflict upon each other. I don’t know that I have words to describe or explain this book, I just finished it this morning and I’m still trying to process it. But it’s got some wonderful ideas about how we claim and use people, how we interact with God, what we do in the name of parenthood and love. I have the feeling this one is going to stick with me for a long time.

My mother beckoned all three of us. She held us against her chest, my father crying and my brother and I stunned cold. She whispered into out hair, “You are reasons to live. You are enough to survive for.” I grew older and heavier then, my mother’s love bigger than my own small body could hold. Her love would hang on to my ankles and wrists on every journey I would ever have to take, even if she was the one who sent me on it.

“You are thinking of it wrong,” she comforted. “Everything stays true. You are yourself, no matter how much you have to change.” Until a long time later, until I was a mother myself, until I lost everything, until it found me back, I didn’t believe the stranger’s words. Everything stays true. Now I know that. Now, it’s all I know. And knowing it saves my life again every time I wake up.

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