Friday, May 13, 2022

FIRST TIME FOR EVERYTHING, which is why you should read it


Ballantine Books
$27.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Danny Scudd is absolutely fine. He always dreamed of escaping the small-town life of his parents’ fish-and-chip shop, moving to London, and becoming a journalist. And, after five years in the city, his career isn’t exactly awful, and his relationship with pretentious Tobbs isn’t exactly unfulfilling. Certainly his limited-edition Dolly Parton vinyls and many (maybe too many) house plants are hitting the spot. But his world is flipped upside down when a visit to the local clinic reveals that Tobbs might not have been exactly faithful. In fact, Tobbs claims they were never operating under the “heteronormative paradigm” of monogamy to begin with. Oh, and Danny’s flatmates are unceremoniously evicting him because they want to start a family. It’s all going quite well.

Newly single and with nowhere to live, Danny is forced to move in with his best friend, Jacob, a flamboyant nonbinary artist whom he’s known since childhood, and their eccentric group of friends living in an East London “commune.” What follows is a colorful voyage of discovery through modern queer life, dating, work, and lots of therapy—all places Danny has always been too afraid to fully explore. Upon realizing just how little he knows about himself and his sexuality, he careens from one questionable decision (and man) to another, relying on his inscrutable new therapist and housemates to help him face the demons he’s spent his entire life trying to repress. Is he really fine, after all?


My Review
: It's far from my first time for...well, almost anything. Yet this British tale of being a twentysomething soul whose entire world turns upside down, whose every point of trust in his relationships is called into question because he wasn't having the same relationship with others they were having with him, just called to me.

Danny is our PoV character, a young man who's daring to think his life is going well and he's among the people who understand and love him. It's a heady place to be. So, this being a story, we know it's not the way things will stay. First, Tobbs (his long-term love) brings home an STD. So there goes that whole monogamy fantasy...and his love says some self-serving things about it being heteronormative and I cringed so hard I looked like I was trying out for the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I've used that line, though I hasten to say not to excuse my transmission of an STD! Just...well, Author Fry, you scored a point with me by holding the Ouch Oculus up to my face.

Thank goodness, given this, that Danny doesn't live with that knob Tobbs. Laura and her husband seem...nice. Do please note I said "husband" and extrapolate from there that there is procreative activity taking place. We who have paid attention in sex-ed classes (or just had families) will be unsurprised to learn that Danny's rent payments are less desirable than the space he's taking up when the inevitable pregnancy occurs...just as his relationship with that knob Tobbs is over.

Danny's in therapy...terrible anxiety issues...and that completely won me over. Nina, Danny's therapist, is brilliant (in the UK sense) and comedy gold. She's not a comedy therapist, the kind you read in older books who either bumbles or is sibylline. She's commonsensical, not here for self-pity, and deeply committed to Danny learning to manage his issues. Her solidity and warmth were equaled by the obligatory wild BFF: Jacob. They are enby (non-binary), ace (asexual), and so utterly FABULOUS that I think they should have a book of their own.

Hint, hint.

The things that happen in Danny's world, in hindrance that proves to be help, are all relatable. The voice the story's told in makes the project of reading it a pleasure, and the laughter it evokes is frequently tinged with sad recognition as well as joyful anticipation. Given that Author Fry, in an interview with, says he was inspired to write this story in part by television sitcoms, it's no surprise that he's already got an adaptation in the works from Aussie production company Moonriver as it expands its UK footprint.

This debut novel is a delight from giddy-up to whoa. I'd've kept this review back until my June Pride Month cavalcade of Queerness but I just couldn't...I want you to go get one and read it now.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

STARRY-EYED LOVE, my first Helena Hunting, second in Spark House series


St. Martin's Griffin Books
$16.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Charming, hilarious, and emotional, Starry-Eyed Love is Helena Hunting at her very best!

Having just broken up with her boyfriend, London Spark is not in the mood to be hit on. Especially not when she’s out celebrating her single status with her sisters. So when a very attractive man pays for their drinks and then slips her his number, she passes it right back to him with a ‘thanks, but no thanks’. As the business administrator for their family’s event hotel, the Spark House, London has more important things to worry about, like bringing in new clientele.

As luck would have it, a multi-million-dollar company calls a few months later asking for a meeting to discuss a potential partnership, and London is eager to prove to her sisters, and herself, that she can land this deal. Just when she thinks she has nailed her presentation, the company’s CEO, Jackson Holt, walks in and inserts himself into the meeting. Not only that, but he also happens to be the same guy she turned down at the bar a few months ago.

As they begin to spend more time together, their working relationship blossoms into something more. It isn’t until their professional entanglements are finally over, that London and Jackson are finally ready to take the next step in their relationship. But between Jackson’s secretive past and London’s struggle with her sisters, London must question where she really stands—not just with Jackson, but with the Spark House, too.


My Review
: It's a very, very different experience to read a straight-people romance than my usual M/M reads. In this case, I think I came in after some character work had already been done in the first Spark House book, When Sparks Fly, on this entry's PoV character. London Spark, to those who might not know her from before, is a rather serious-minded and goal-oriented participant in a family enterprise called Spark House. It is an event hotel-cum-venue, and London has somehow been foisted the job of numbers lady. She's not a natural number-cruncher but she knows about sacrificing for a greater goal and gets her considerable wits marshaled to the task of making the finances run.

I, like all other readers, am meeting Jackson the love interest with London. He lets her know he's interested without being more than ordinarily persistent. She declines; he leaves her possessed of his details and accepts his rejection without drama. So far, so good. When a time has passed and Spark House attracts business interest from a tech-bro investor, one who's made to sound like Elon only hot, absolutely not one soul is surprised it's Jackson the rejected suitor.

We know this drill: what's going to happen, the misunderstandings, the idiotic miscommunications, the resolution of HEA or HFN; so the point of reading this book is *how* not what.

The satisfaction of a superior craftworker's results is this very thing. Now, the M/M romance world will usually have something very sexy pretty early. Not so this book. London's been burned and isn't in a huge hurry to try the waters with a tech bro. She is, once he shows back up as a potential financing source, perfectly happy to work with him. They come to know each other, and the readers each of them, as their work brings out facets of their lives quite naturally and unforcedly. Again to no one's surprise Jackson is a good guy, and he's got a solid head on his shoulders; he comes to like and respect London, he fully engages with her as an equal in business (if one with different skills from his); the result is a slow-burn low-steam character study of two young people whose lives are pressurized by goals instead of ambitions.

Why I enjoyed reading it enough to rate it more than a solid three or possibly three-and-a-half stars of five was London's affectionate but exasperated relationships with older sister Avery and younger sister Harley. They were...warm. They didn't ring swords of wit in battles for prominence, they half-ribbed and three-quarters snarked and generally behaved the way friends do. It worked to give me a sense of their bond that was less intense than the Three Musketeers and more positive than the Three Stooges but still very real.

You can't go wrong with a read that does this kind of work when one accidentally reads book two in a series. I am glad I spent time with the Spark family.

Monday, May 9, 2022

MERCURY RISING, alternate space-race history with waaay trippy nukes


Angry Robot (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$6.99 Kindle edition, preorder now

Rating: 4.75* of five (the w-bombs! the w-bombs!)

The Publisher Says: Alternative history with aliens, an immortal misanthrope and SF tropes aplenty

Even in a technologically-advanced, Kennedy-Didn’t-Die alternate-history, Brooklyn Lamontagne is going nowhere fast. The year is 1975, thirty years after Robert Oppenheimer invented the Oppenheimer Nuclear Engine, twenty-five years after the first human walked on the moon, and eighteen years after Jet Carson and the Eagle Seven sacrificed their lives to stop the alien invaders.

Brooklyn just wants to keep his mother’s rent paid, earn a little scratch of his own, steer clear of the cops, and maybe get laid sometime in the near future. Simple pleasures, right? But a killer with a baseball bat and a mysterious box of 8-track tapes is about to make his life real complicated…


My Review
: No, really. Mortally wounded that this wingèd not my way until I groveled. *sniff* (And seriously NO MORE W-BOMBS. Cut that crap out, dirty-old-man-in-training!) I was calmly enjoying the mental soundtrack, the 1970s jukebox that's permanently cued up in my head, when *wham* another revolting w-bomb.

But about that jukebox...would we, in fact, have the precise same pop-cultural artifacts in a world that didn't slow down its climb to the stars? The 1968 Cougar, well, okay, that was already on course from 1958. The planning window of a car in those days was five the 1958s wouldn't've been much altered from our world, as I understand the timeline, which diverges first in the middle 1940s and so those cars can be explained. Pop culture spins on a nailhead. Elvis electrifying the country is one example, the Beatles knocking off his cool-cat cap is another, but both of those came in response to specific cultural stimuli. Wouldn't the world be more law-and-order oriented when the Oppenheimer Nuclear Drives are dangling before the lust-drenched gaze of every young testosterone factory? Can't get in one of those unless your nose is clean.

Which, of course, our PoV character (Brooklyn Lemontagne) flouts. But the reason he's able to flout that social control mechanism is simple: Invaders from Outer Space! The ultimate Golden Age of SF trope. This time they're Mercurians, the patent absurdity of whose existence gives even the Hero of the piece (who apparently dies early on) some pause. Can't argue with the presence of stonking hostile warships and evaporated cities, can you.

This takes place among Americans! Of course you can! The whole planet pulls together to combat the Enemy from Beyond...and there are ignorant goofballs talking conspiracy theories, there are hemi-hippies rebelling against the controlling hand of the grown-ups. This is the world, and honestly I agree with Author Greene's take on it. I quibble with some details, but I believe he's exactly correct that even an existential threat with ample death and destruction to demonstrate its reality won't create more than a façade of unity among the irredeemable mass of humanity. (Look around, tell me, and him, we're wrong.)

So I buy the premise. So I consent to set aside my niggling nuh-uh generator. I'm in for the ride.

Part One: Mercury Rising is straight out of Astounding's *1956 volume. Brave Americans and honorable Soviets lay down their grievances and get on with the job of killin' them some Mercurians. (Mercurians!) The Ultimate Price? Paid. Now what? When and where are we going next? I'm almost sure my Kindle screen cracked under the thumping of my thumb.

Part Two: Bad Blood shifts gears, gives us the rest of the battle story very effectively, and sends Brooklyn, our new PoV man, into some nasty corners. And not one of 'em anything but his own idiot fault. Some gross and very personal violence perpetrated later in the starts to feel like we're going to be in Peckinpah territory through the book...and, on schedule, the fecal matter impacts the rotary air circulation device at warp speed.

The thing about living your life outside is that you learn to watch simple things like a hawk. It takes Brooklyn about three times as long as it should to come up with his get-out-of-jail-free card. But he decides there's nothing else for it: Go to space, full decade enlistment, and get the whole shootin' match handled...crimes forgiven, mother fed, and future still neatly fucked, same as if he'd gone to jail without solving the problems he most cares about solving. Yay...?

Part Three: Squeeze Box details the adjustments of life in military training. It's not like I wasn't expecting it. But I also wasn't enjoying it much until I suddenly twigged: Brooklyn's assigned buddy, Tommy, is gay. And nothing at all fazes Brooklyn, or anyone else it seems, about it.

It seems that the Mercurians (!) destroying Cleveland and causing climate change as well as serious ashfall issues gave people something more interesting than who's zoomin' who to fret over. As well as feed innumerable conspiracy theories that, oddly prove to be correct but misaimed.

Part Four: Take the Money and Run did very little for me, but brightened up the contrast between Brooklyn's America and my 1976 US.

There's a goodly amount of interpersonal violence in this story, fisticuffs to donnybrooking (to use old-fashioned terms); appropriate for a dead-end life such as Brooklyn was living and (I hope) merely his own process of molting that no-longer-needed carapace. The end of the part was oddly assorted with its beginning if that isn't to be the case; our man Brooklyn gets out of his mind instead of out of his head, and does so in the place I think something like Coachella or Burning Man *should* take place: The mass grave of an entire city's populace.

Part Five: The Rubberband Man pretty much just cemented the crazy-shit-men-do-together trope for all time. It's an adventure story, that was an adventure, but...not quite the thing I'd've chosen to prove "once a scofflaw, always a scofflaw" to ye olde readere.

Part Six: Flight '76 was apparently meant to earworm me in the most appalling possible way, including a w-bomb in the first five seconds of the awful, terrible, well-below-mediocre tune that refuses to get out of my head. I think SOMEone owes me some sort of reparations.

Part Seven: Boogie Nights starts with a much better earworm, thank the Nine Goddesses. But it's more transition time treats, ABBA on the Moon (!), and some interesting-to-me alt-hist entertainment...Vice-President JACKSON...then off into the Wild Black Yonder. It goes by really fast.

We do see a good, solid character whose trajectory is geting more interesting, though it's a glancing blow. I'm mostly intrigued by this *McCartney singing political rock opera....

Part Eight: Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood is an earworm I can live with, if without the good memories of Boogie Nights. It's also the best shorthand for the events of this part...there are so many mistakes and screwed-up connections to work out, the metaphor of upgrading the computer is especially apt.

The ship names are giving me little frissons. The (Marie-Madeleine) Fourcade is a woman-captained solo spy ship, the Baron von Steuben old-fashioned, obsolescent, and largely overlooked haven for the queer boys too useful to get rid of but not important enough to keep secure (much to the PTB's cost), each carrying its subtext like a homing beacon and not just one of the darn things. I mean, what did von Steuben do? And where (in Ohio) is Steubenville? And why is Carruthers so shifty?

Part Nine: Runnin' on Empty truly sets new stakes for literally everyone in this, our one wild and precious life. Titanically, existentially reorders whatever priorities you thought you'd formed by utterly altering the ground you plonk your trotters onto every time you think to move.

I do not know of an Odysseus I'd rather see handle this situation than the one who is.

Part Ten: Flash Light wafts its foully malodorously vapid earworm through the four-foot speaker towers in my mental disco.

But that is as nothing to the sudden but inevitable betrayal that This Land endures at the foul, gangrenous typing digits of Author Greene. I am too traumatized to say more.

Part Eleven: Boy from New York City introduces us to the real Jet...short for Jethro...Carson. And now the first part has closure. What we're doing I won't tell you, but I will say that there's a reason you'll want to read this and it's in this part.

Part Twelve: Take a Chance on Me is the first time I haven't wanted to claw my brain out to wash the earworm ichor off it.

There's a lot to cheer for, and a lot left to learn. This is a good solid familiar story arc and it's got lots of good gauds and gew-gaws bejazzling its basic curves. We're going to be offered another trip, right?

Rapture Right!

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Anyone else?

“Old age arrives like the first days of fall. One afternoon you look up, or smell something in the air, and know instinctively things have changed.”
Jonathan Carroll, The Marriage of Sticks
The Publisher Says, of this book I have never read but feel the need to now: Miranda marches into her high school reunion with the confidence of a professional at the top of her field. But inside she is lost, disenchanted with her career, and as alone as a person can possibly be. As a teenager in Crane’s View, she fell in love with unrepentant bad boy James Stillman, and though they never slept together, he thrilled her as no man has since. She returns to her hometown hoping to reconnect with him, but learns at the reunion that he was killed in a car crash years ago. In the weeks that follow, Miranda is haunted by visions of the past. First she sees James, alive and healthy, and more chilling hallucinations follow. Seeking distraction, she dives into an ill-advised love affair that turns darker than she could ever imagine. To find peace, Miranda must learn to walk the razor-thin line that separates this world from the one that follows.

I am glad someone else felt it and described it for me. Something changed when the pandemic hit and here I am: Old. Just...inarguably old. Funny thing is it's not as bad as I thought it would be. I'm tired in a different way, one that sleep really doesn't fix. I'm also really weary of drama and bullshit. I don't imagine I'll say this too many more times because either this realization rings you like a bell or you are thinking, " what now...?"

Honestly, it's okay to be old, to see "The End" without a lovely, comforting horizon-line between you and it. Things get old and wear out; one's body is a thing. One's soul isn't. (And no, religious nuts, I didn't find Jesus in my Special K with Red Berries.) I don't really expect anyone to get my post, but I felt my pandemic-battered heart lift at this quote swimming past me. The author's ~73. He wrote this book twenty-five years ago, give or take. I wonder if he looked at this quote some time in the past decade and thought, as I did, "yes yes yes!" with a little lift in his emotional altitude. It is *good* to be old. It feels a bit bodily crummy from time to time(as what does not?), but I never smoked and stopped doing drugs and drinking when the wear and tear did painful things to my body. I'm way better off than most in this part of their sixties.

So why write a post about it? the less tolerant or more judgmental are snorting about now.

Starting with "because it's my blog," and moving quickly to "there are a few hundred readers who, statistically, are likely to be older than the current US median age of 38.1 years who could use a word of happy futures ahead." It *is* happy to get old. It's a privilege denied to most ever born. Pandemics kill in their millions...ten million-plus in this one...and, if you're reading this, you ain't one of 'em. Neither am I. That is a great way to get old: not dying of a nasty plague.

Happy spring, happy May Day, joyful hugs for my living friends. Things have changed...that quote is very acutely true...but we're here to figure out what comes next. For me it's making an ever-bigger dent in my TBR and writing more thoughts and feelings about those reads. I hope I'll see all y'all there.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

HARRY HAFT: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano for Holocaust Remembrance Day

HARRY HAFT: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano

Syracuse University Press
$14.95 trade paper, available now

HBO/HBO MAX film streaming now!
"Generally favorable" score of 72 on Metacritic, worthy of the book.

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Alan Scott Haft provides the first-hand testimony of his father, Harry Haft, a holocaust victim with a singular story of endurance, desperation, and unrequited love. Harry Haft was a sixteen-year-old Polish Jew when he entered a concentration camp in 1944. Forced to fight other Jews in bare-knuckle bouts for the perverse entertainment of SS officers, Harry quickly learned that his own survival depended on his ability to fight and win. Haft details the inhumanity of the "sport" in which he must perform in brutal contests for the officers. Ultimately escaping the camp, Haft's experience left him an embittered and pugnacious young man.

Determined to find freedom, Haft traveled to America and began a career as a professional boxer, quickly finding success using his sharp instincts and fierce confidence. In a historic battle, Haft fights in a match with Rocky Marciano, the future undefeated heavyweight champion of the world. Haft's boxing career takes him into the world of such boxing legends as Rocky Graziano, Roland La Starza, and Artie Levine, and he reveals new details about the rampant corruption at all levels of the sport.

In sharp contrast to Elie Wiesel's scholarly, pious protagonist in Night, Harry Haft is an embattled survivor, challenging the reader's capacity to understand suffering and find compassion for an antihero whose will to survive threatens his own humanity. Haft's account, at once dispassionate and deeply absorbing, is an extraordinary story and an invaluable contribution to Holocaust literature.


My Review
: I'm not the first person to pick up a boxing story. The violence and brutality inherent in the "sport" (which was used by ancient Greeks as military training) are, honestly, repulsive to me. I'm not famous for my delight in Holocaust stories, either.

What's going on here?

Stories like Pollak's Arm and The Vanished Collection feature the Jewish élite's fates, the kind of people who knew people whose names get into history books. Statistically not all the Jews in the Holocaust, dead or alive, could be those people; Hertzka Haft was a street kid, a hard-luck story from before there was a Holocaust, and whose survival was down to the fact that he could—and would—knock the ever-livin' snot out of other people to amuse and entertain his jailers.

There was nothing easy about Hertzka...Harry, in later life...Haft's life. He was the eighth and final child his mother bore...but she was so used to it she thought she was having gas pains, and *pow* Harry hit the floor under the tub of washing she was doing. His father died when he was three; his oldest siblings blamed him for infecting their mother with typhoid fever. His rock-tough self, and her with such rugged health, barely knew they had it; poor ol' papa passed beyond the veil from it in about a week.

Things really didn't get a lot easier from there on.

What I expect will shock readers is how...clear...Author Alan Haft, son of Harry, is. He doesn't linger over Dad's hurts. He doesn't shy away from the abuse Harry endured at the hands of his oldest brother, at the hands of the "christian" establishment, at the hands of the German invaders, the New York boxing establishment. He survived it all and didn't do it by being sweet, or intellectually pondering and systematizing the awful, painful stuff he's forced to endure simply for the privilege of continuing to breathe.

He was angry and he was strong and Harry Haft used those things as rocket fuel to extract his price for the sufferings he endured. Nothing, and I mean not one thing, stood between Harry and what he knew was his due. He hit people, and I don't mean polite punching like you see in sanitized boxing movies. I mean Alan Haft, clearly a good listener, understood that Harry never hit anyone without being extremely clear that 1) he had no choice but they'd see it coming and b) he was going to make sure that he got what was coming to him.

Given my uninterest in this sort of violence...ego-driven, honor-bound, these aren't ways to earn my sympathy...why am I rating this book so close to four stars? Because I think Harry Haft was the kind of man you'd want to know, to get in good with. Harry Haft suffered fools not at all, and those men are special friends who never once let your b.s. stand in the way, who never once fail you in a pinch. The Harry Hafts of the world love entire boxing career so he could be famous...not for fun, or even money, but so his lost Leah would hear about Harry Haft, see his photo, know to come find him.

That man, that force of nature, is getting a biopic tonight, this Holocaust Remembrance Day, on HBO Max. If it's among your channels, go look for The Survivor. I question that title. Given the horrors of his life inside the camps, did he survive? His body lived on. much damage can a being endure, death, cannibalism, the unfathomably cruel suffering of existing in the Land of Plenty when so many didn't make it out? Is that "survival" in any meaningful way?

Alan Haft asks that question, not out loud, by exploring his psychotically angry, guilt-stewed, violent father's world. Interviews conducted before Harry Haft's death fifteen years ago probably saved both of their lives. How Alan Haft put together an identity is little short of a miracle, and how he dug around his own PTSD and located enough grace to offer his father this generous, honest, and deeply loving send-off is the reason you should read it, watch it, listen to the audiobook. The world's never been short of Harry Haft-like souls. We've got more incoming from the new wars.

Learning what happened will help you be that much better at reaching for their broken, abused hands instead of staring coldly, vacantly past them. Truth to tell, your world will get bigger and be better for it, like theirs.

Monday, April 25, 2022

HAFEZ IN LOVE, so smoothly translated I forgot it wasn't English from the get-go

(tr. Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi & Patricia J. Higgins)
Syracuse University Press
$24.95 all editions, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Shams al-Din Mohammad Hafez is in love. He is in love with a girl, with a city, and with Persian poetry. Despite his enmity with the new and dangerous city leader, the jealousy of his fellow court poets, and the competition for his beloved, Iran's favorite poet remains unbothered. When his wit and charm are not enough to keep him safe in Shiraz, his friends conspire to keep him out of trouble. But their schemes are unsuccessful. Nothing will chase Hafez from this city of wine and roses.

In Pezeshkzad's fictional account, Hafez's life in fourteenth-century Shiraz is a mix of peril and humor. Set in a city that is at once beautiful and cutthroat, the novel includes a cast of historical figures to illuminate this elusive poet of the Persian literary tradition. Shabani-Jadidi and Higgins's translation brings the beloved poetry of Hafez alive for an English audience and reacquaints readers with the comic wit and original storytelling of Pezeshkzad.

Iraj Pezeshkzad was born in Tehran in 1928 and educated in Iran and then France, where he received his law degree. He was a retired diplomat, journalist, and writer. He was the author of several plays, short stories, and novels, including My Uncle Napoleon. He died on 12 January 2022 in Los Angeles.

Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi is senior lecturer of Persian language and linguistics at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University.

Patricia J. Higgins is a University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Emerita at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh.


My Review
: First, read this:
He agrees with everyone's opinion, from black to white. With his constant refrain, "We are all children of this land," he recognizes both sides: he who believes it is night, and he who believes it is day.
"O light of my eyes, don't forget that until a few months ago you and I were among the court favorites of the then-shah. If some of these 'many' {whom Hafez claims will hide him from pursuit} enjoyed our poetry, it was because the poetry pleased the shah. The power and honor of the shah was behind our poetry. Now our poetry is just poetry. And perhaps in the eyes of these 'many,' it is not even poetry. Perhaps some of the men who praised the poems of Shams al-Din Hafez without hearing them will come to agree with His Honor, the police chief, and consider them dirty."

This seems to me to represent the tone and tenor of the book's translation...I think it also gives a flavor of the world in which we're spending a few hours. The court of an insecure, unworthy ruler, whose jobs are done for him not by workers or even lackeys, but by henchmen, is a fertile place to set a love story. Especially when the lovers are unable to come together because the obstacle to them getting their love consummated is one of the aforementioned henchmen.

Our narrator, Mohammad Golandam, is Hafez's brother-in-law and long-time best friend. He's a sensible sort; we can not say the same for Shams al-Din...he who will become, in the fullness of time, Hafez; the two men are only twenty-three at the time of this story. It's easy to see why Golandam, as Hafez (let's use his famous, and short, handle from here on) addresses him, is anxious and on needles and pins. Hafez has made many a sarcastic, cutting remark in his poetry about the new power-wielder Mobarez al-Din Mohammad Mozaffar. This self-installed prince is a "...blood-shedding creature of God {who} understands neither literature nor poetry. He is one of those dull-hearted people who, in the words of Shams Qeis Razi, don't 'distinguish between the sound of music and the braying of an ass.' His source of pleasure and happiness is cutting off heads," entirely enough to strike poor Golandam with near-lethal agita given Hafez's indiscreet, but truthful and honest, characterizations of him:
To get his aversion to him off his chest, {Hafez} had used this phrase extremely carelessly in a lyric poem about repentance after a life of drinking and wenching:
The morality officer became a pious sheikh and forgot his debauchery.
It is my story that remained throughout the bazaar.

It's not too hard to imagine a thin-skinned leader whose response to verbal disrespect shown by those less powerful than he is being, um, disproportionate, is it. The problems are, of course, many in a world run by incompetent and malicious people. The story's not complete without wild schemes and convoluted plots and hilarious misinformation campaigns...there are no better stories, in my never-humble opinion, than the ones about True Love Thwarted!

And True Love it very much is. This poem is what Hafez writes for his morning glory Jahan while he was imprisoned by his oft-insulted rival for her affections, and while she was scheming to get him out by pretending to agree to marry his captor, and while Golandam and Hafez's honorary father schemed to get her out of the unwanted marriage and back into Hafez's arms:
I swear on the life of the belovèd that if I could reach my soul,
That would be the least of the gifts to her by her slave.
If my heart was not bound to a strand of her hair,
How would I have been at peace in this dark vessel made of dust?
Your face is like the sun in the sky, unique in the heavens;
If only your heart were a bit more kind.
You said to me, "What is the worth of the dust under her feet,
If the precious life were eternal?"
I wish you would emerge through my door like a beam of light,
That divine fate would shine on my eyes.
The cypress would acknowledge its lowliness compared to her stature
If it had ten tongues like the wild lily.
You wouldn't fall out of tune with Hafez's melody,
If you weren't the companion of the morning songbirds.

Okay, I don't understand one damn word of that, but I know yearning and longing and sheer miserable wretched being-in-loveness when it smacks me across six or seven centuries. There's plenty of this poetical stuff peppered around the story. There are many readers who will see that as a plus; I want, therefore, to be clear that you will be reading a lot of poetry when you read this novel. (And the clever-clogs blog readers will now be recalling my stance on poetry, and looking at this review's star rating, and drawing some brow-knitting conclusions.)

So why am I praising this book, this poetry-laden book about a poet in love with a woman? Because it's such a delight to read. Because Hafez, every time someone talks sense to him, says "mm hmm" and carries right on being In Love with Jahan and acting as if by sheer force of his will, backed by the spiritual power generated by the huge dynamo of his adoration for Jahan, Things Will Come Out Right.

But I won't tell you if they do or they don't because some things you need to find out for yourownself.

The book concludes with a Dramatis Personae, and a Glossary; both are very handy. The Dramatis Personae include markers for characters based on historical personages, meaning those not marked are invented; though the names and actions of historical people are used, they're probably all best seen as fictional. It's worth noting that, even though Hafez's love object in this story is Jahan, a woman, there's no way in Farsi or in Persian poetry's conventions for that to be certain. It's a feature of the language that pronouns aren't gendered. While Hafez is in love with a woman in twenty-first century Iran, there's absolutely no reason for that to be the case in fourteenth-century Shiraz. I merely note this fact, quite firmly stated by the translators, as a datum of some interest to some readers.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

April 2022's Burgoine Reviews & Pearl Rule Reviews

Author 'Nathan Burgoine posted this simple, direct method of not getting paralyzed by the prospect of having to write reviews. The Three-Sentence Review is, as he notes, very helpful and also simple to achieve. I get completely unmanned at the idea of saying something trenchant about each book I read, when there often just isn't that much to I can use this structure to say what I think is the most important idea I took away from the read and not try to dig for more.

Think about using it yourselves!


Ride Around Shining by Chris Leslie-Hynan

Rating: 3* of five

Soon to be a Netflix feature film.

The Publisher Says: A provocative debut novel about a young white chauffeur and his wealthy black employer, an NBA player—a twenty-first century inversion of what we’ve come to expect stories of race and class to look like, and a discomfiting portrait of envy and obsession.

Ride Around Shining concerns the idle preoccupations, and later machinations, of a transplanted Portlander named Jess—a nobody from nowhere with a Master’s degree and a gig delivering takeout. He parlays the latter, along with a few lies, into a job as a chauffeur for an up-and-coming Trail Blazer named Calyph West and his young wife, Antonia.

Calyph is black and Antonia is white and Jess becomes fascinated, innocuously at first, by all they are that he is not. In striving to make himself indispensable to them, he causes Calyph to have a season-ending knee injury, then brings about the couple’s estrangement, before positioning himself at last as their perverse savior.

In the tradition of The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Great Gatsby, and Harold Pinter’s The Servant—not to mention a certain Shakespeare play about a creepy white dude obsessed with a black dude—Ride Around Shining tries to say the unsayable about white fixation on black culture, particularly black athletic culture, something so common in everyday life it has gone all but unaddressed.

My Review: The problem with writing a novel from the PoV of a slacker is that it begins to resemble a conversation with a slacker: Not going anywhere fast, and wherever it is you thought you were going, you're going to end up there several times because focus isn't a slacker's strong point. The clearest image I retain of the read is of Portland, Oregon. The author is at his most lyrical, and most evocative, when Portland is the object he's observing.

The publisher's comparisons are vastly overstated as comparables. This isn't in the same league as those titles. There's no subtle (or unsubtle) kink in this story...Jess is tediously heterosexual and ineffectually infatuated with Antonia (the question I had was, "why ever are these men interested in her?!" *yawn*). I've always thought that Iago was into Othello; Tom Ripley's sexuality is "whatever gets me what I want;" and Pinter's adaptation of Robin Maugham's novella is about using sex, not hopelessly bungling around with it. It's not bad, and it's a perfect story to film, but honestly finishing it felt good...because it was over.

Kindle copies are $6.99 (non-affiliate Amazon link).


The Human Front (PM's Outspoken Authors #10) by Ken MacLeod

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Winner of a Prometheus and Sidewise Award, this science fiction novella is a comedic and biting commentary on capitalism and an exploration of technological singularity in a posthuman civilization. As a world war rages on without an emerging victor, the story follows John Matheson, an idealistic teenage Scottish guerilla warrior who must change his tactics and alliances with the arrival of an alien species. This alternate history and poignant political satire flips hero types and expectations, delivering a lively tale of adventure—as dramatic and thought provoking as it is funny. Also included is an interview with the author and two essays that relate his poignant views on social philosophies.


My Review
: What a hoot...what a ride! I can't imagine how the author works in the past and still makes a future worth dreaming about. He's just better at it than the other guys from the 1970s & 1980s.

This alternate history novella, with a few explanatory notes following, gives the reader a real workout. There are a few points where I was sure I understood what he was doing...and was I ever wrong. When he decided to show me the real deal, I thought I was a bit dim for not getting it. Still love being off the beam, when we get to go this way. If you're in the mood for a read that doesn't mean what you think it means, you could do worse but not a lot better.

Kindle edition $9.99 at this non-affiliate Amazon link.


Wingwalkers: A Novel by Taylor Brown

Read the author's article about the role of "aeroplanes" in William Faulkner's life!

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A former WWI ace pilot and his wingwalker wife barnstorm across Depression-era America, performing acts of aerial daring.

“They were over Georgia somewhere, another nameless hamlet whose dusty streets lay flocked and trembling with the pink handbills they’d rained from the sky that morning, the ones that announced the coming of DELLA THE DARING DEVILETTE, who would DEFY THE HEAVENS, shining like a DAYTIME STAR, a WING-WALKING WONDER borne upon the wings of CAPTAIN ZENO MARIGOLD, a DOUBLE ACE of the GREAT WAR, who had ELEVEN AERIAL VICTORIES over the TRENCHES OF FRANCE.”

Wingwalkers is one-part epic adventure, one-part love story, and, as is the signature for critically-acclaimed author Taylor Brown, one large part American history. The novel braids the adventures of Della and Zeno Marigold, a vagabond couple that funds their journey to the west coast in the middle of the Great Depression by performing death-defying aerial stunts from town to town, together with the life of the author (and thwarted fighter pilot) William Faulkner, whom the couple ultimately inspires during a dramatic air show—with unexpected consequences for all.

Brown has taken a tantalizing tidbit from Faulkner’s real life—an evening's chance encounter with two daredevils in New Orleans—and set it aloft in this fabulous novel. With scintillating prose and an action-packed plot, he has captured the true essence of a bygone era and shed a new light on the heart and motivations of one of America's greatest authors.


My Review
: As fictional Della and Zeno Marigold make their way through this story, on the way to meeting up with Billy Falkner, I came to appreciate the readerly stance one of my sisters expressed to me: "Leave famous people out of it. Just makes things harder to buy into."

The story Author Brown (In the Season of Blood and Gold, Gods of Howl Mountain) tells here uses the Marigolds and their barnstorming to illuminate a facet of William Faulkner (fancied-up Billy) that isn't much discussed: His fascination with aviation. It's beautifully written, glacially slow of pace, and not quite up to the task of convincing me that these two stories belonged together. If your reading led you to love Last Dance on the Starlight Pier for Depression stories, or Cloud Cuckoo Land's multi-stranded take on intertwined fates told over time, then this book will get more stars from you than me. If you've grooved to Sea of Tranquility or Unlikely Animals for their gorgeously wrought images and smoothly set sentences, this book will give you happy hours.

Follow this non-affiliate Amazon link to get your own copy.


Picabia by Alain Jouffroy

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: An iconoclastic poet and painter, open to everything that was "other" and different, responsive to any form of newness—not only in art but to such external realities as machines—Francis Picabia never needed to define himself as a "modern."

"Sur-modern" rather than modern, he, like his early comrade Marcel Duchamp, was several years in advance of Dada and Surrealism, abd other avant-garde movements. A follower of nothing and no one, he, with Duchamp, was the true pioneer of modern art.

A born innovator, he paid only a passing visit—and no artistic dues—to the avant-gardes of the day and anticipated all future forms of visual expression.


My Review
: Reading the copy above, it sounds...hyperbolic. And if one's never heard of him, looking at the artwork in the modestly sized and carefully scope-limited visually enhanced biographical sketch will feel familiar. "That's a lot like Matisse!" or "Huh...Abstract Expressionism through a French lens!" or "My god, that's a Man Ray image!"

They're all Picabia. And he made them first. The claim that he's a pioneer is valid.

It's also clear that Picabia was completely at home in his own skin. He never shrank back from experience, he allowed no consideration for convention (or, sometimes, even the bonds of friendship) to stand in the way of his lusty, loud progress through life. Women he wanted, he had; friends he grew away from, he abandoned; art, that is to say ART, was the product of his unceasing forward-aimed projection of himself through the world he wished to inhabit.

I first heard of this book in 2015. The friend who mentioned it to me was mildly disparaging about it, and about Picabia; she was not very well-informed about art and artists. I was intrigued immediately but, as happens so often, Life did things and I reacted. The book didn't end up on my shelves until Yule 2021.

Now that it's here it's staying. The printing is very high-quality; the design is sleek and simple, if uninspired. Or, to be less judgmental about it, I could remind myself that the design of a work about an artist is usually best if it's unobtrusive. The point isn't the design but the subject, after all. Picabia is well-served by this accessible, elegant introduction to his fascinating life and extraordinary breadth of creative output.

Hardcover copies available at this non-affiliate Amazon link.


Moderan by David R. Bunch

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: A collection of chilling and prescient stories about ecological apocalypse and the merging of human and machine.

Welcome to Moderan, world of the future. Here perpetual war is waged by furious masters fighting from Strongholds well stocked with “arsenals of fear” and everyone is enamored with hate. The devastated earth is coated by vast sheets of gray plastic, while humans vie to replace more and more of their own “soft parts” with steel. What need is there for nature when trees and flowers can be pushed up through holes in the plastic? Who requires human companionship when new-metal mistresses are waiting? But even a Stronghold master can doubt the catechism of Moderan. Wanderers, poets, and his own children pay visits, proving that another world is possible.

“As if Whitman and Nietzsche had collaborated,” wrote Brian Aldiss of David R. Bunch’s work. Originally published in science-fiction magazines in the 1960s and ’70s, these mordant stories, though passionately sought by collectors, have been unavailable in a single volume for close to half a century. Like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, Bunch coined a mind-bending new vocabulary. He sought not to divert readers from the horror of modernity but to make us face it squarely.


My Review
: First, read this:
“WE’LL FIGHT! We’ll fight each other. We’ll make harsh monsters, set them loose and fight such monsters across all our space. We’ll move with engines and hard, programmed thoughts. We’ll make all manner of dragons for our involvement, and we’ll overcome them. For we’ll program the conquests a little more carefully than we’ll feed in the threats. But mostly we’ll just fight each other—each other and ourselves, the truly tireless enemies.”

Fifty years ago, these stories...I really bridle at calling them stories, it feels to me more like loosely interconnected chapters of a single, too-big-to-fail novel...appeared. I wasn't aware of them. I was too young to "get" them. I am still too young to get them...they are brilliant tours-de-force of a man's vision of a future no one could possibly want, but they're likely to get anyway.

In a lot of ways, Author Bunch's world reminds me of the world that Sandy Hook took place in, and no one stopped it from happening again.
And then the flesh-man - oh, consider. CONSIDER him - the sick few that are left. Please do. Then perhaps you will see why we in our new-shining glory, flesh-strips few and played-down, pay homage to a massive stick of new-metal placed as our guide star when New Processes Land, our great Moderan, was new!

J.G. Ballard at his bleakest, John Brunner at his most sarcastic, Joanna Russ at her most misandric. SF futures don't usually age well...this one, more's the pity, has.

The cheapest $18.95 paperback you will ever buy. There's $500,000-worth of ideas and entertainment in here.


The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: The Irish Midlands, 1859. An English nurse, Lib Wright, is summoned to a tiny village to observe what some are claiming as a medical anomaly or a miracle - a girl said to have survived without food for months. Tourists have flocked to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O'Donnell, and a journalist has come down to cover the sensation. The Wonder is a tale of two strangers who transform each other's lives, a psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.


My Review
: First, read this:
A fast didn't go fast; it was the slowest thing there was. Fast meant a door shut fast, firmly. A fastness, a fortress. To fast was to hold fast to emptiness, to say no and no and no again.
How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized—as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock. For Anna, during this watch, each day had to pass like one endless moment.

I dislike Author Donoghue's prior success, Room, a lot. I found it cynical and manipulative. I got this book thinking I'd give it a good drubbing and forget this author existed afterward.

The more fool I. This is beautifully was Room...but also acutely observed and compassionately told. It was too long, it was very slow for two-thirds of its length, and it had a very strong anti-religion bias (which I share). More than anything else, I read and read and read to get more of this:
An obsession, a mania, Lib supposed it could be called. A sickness of the mind. Hysteria, as that awful doctor had named it? Anna reminded Lib of a princess under a spell in a fairy tale. What could restore the girl to ordinary life? Not a prince. A magical herb from the world's end? Some shock to jolt a poisoned bite of apple out of her throat? No, something simple as a breath of air: reason. What if Lib shook the girl awake this very minute and said, Come to your senses!

But that was part of the definition of madness, Lib supposed, the refusal to accept that one was mad. Standish's wards were full of such people.

Besides, could children ever be considered quite of sound mind? Seven was counted the age of reason, but Lib's sense of seven-year-olds was that they still brimmed over with imagination. Children lived to play. Of course they could be put to work, but in spare moments they took their games as seriously as lunatics did their delusions. Like small gods, children formed their miniature worlds out of clay, or even just words. To them, the truth was never simple.

That insight alone was worth five stars! But it came swaddled, hidden, in much too much waffle for me to give even close to all five stars.

A Kindle copy is $9.99 (non-affiliate Amazon link) and, in my honest estimation, a worthwhile purchase.


Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Run a Google search for "black girls" - what will you find? "Big Booty" and other sexually explicit terms are likely to come up as top search terms. But, if you type in "white girls," the results are radically different. The suggested porn sites and un-moderated discussions about "why black women are so sassy" or "why black women are so angry" presents a disturbing portrait of black womanhood in modern society.

In Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble challenges the idea that search engines like Google offer an equal playing field for all forms of ideas, identities, and activities. Data discrimination is a real social problem; Noble argues that the combination of private interests in promoting certain sites, along with the monopoly status of a relatively small number of Internet search engines, leads to a biased set of search algorithms that privilege whiteness and discriminate against people of color, specifically women of color.

Through an analysis of textual and media searches as well as extensive research on paid online advertising, Noble exposes a culture of racism and sexism in the way discoverability is created online. As search engines and their related companies grow in importance - operating as a source for email, a major vehicle for primary and secondary school learning, and beyond - understanding and reversing these disquieting trends and discriminatory practices is of utmost importance.

An original, surprising and, at times, disturbing account of bias on the internet, Algorithms of Oppression contributes to our understanding of how racism is created, maintained, and disseminated in the 21st century.


My Review
: The world, as the Internet has shaped it, took a promise of information access and educational opportunity unparalleled in human history and screwed it up to the point it reinforces the evils and stupidities it could so easily have alleviated.

The problem, it transpires, is both blindness..."*I* am no racist, or a sexist! Why, some of my best friends..." is not new, nor is it uncommon in any society...and neither is hubristic malevolence (Cambridge Analytica, for example). We're two decades in to a giant, uncontrolled social experiment. Voices like Author Noble's are still notable for their infrequence of prominence in the rarefied world of Congressional hearings and the European Union's creation of the GDPR.

The issues that Author Noble raises in this book need your attention. You, the searcher, are the product that Google and the other search engines are selling to earn their absurd, unconscionable, inadequately taxed profits. Every time you log on to the internet, Google knows...use other search engines, never click on any links, and Google still knows you're there. That's the Orwellian nightmare of East Germany's Stasi, they're everywhere, in every website you visit. Unlike the Stasi, they are possessed of the capacity to quantify and analyze all the information you generate, and sell it to anyone who can use it. For you or against you, as long as the check clears, Google and its brethren couldn't care less.

Learn more. Get angry. Do something! Start by getting this book. (non-affiliate Amazon link)


The Commandant's Daughter (Hanni Winter #1) by Catherine Hokin

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: 1933, Berlin. Ten-year-old Hanni Foss stands by her father’s side watching the torchlit procession to celebrate Adolf Hitler as Germany’s new leader. As the lights fade, she knows her safe and happy childhood is about to change forever. Practically overnight, the father she adores becomes unrecognisable, lost to his ruthless ambition to oversee an infamous concentration camp...

Twelve years later. As the Nazi regime crumbles, Hanni hides on the fringes of Berlin society in the small lodging house she’s been living in since running away from her father’s home. In stolen moments, she develops the photographs she took to record the atrocities in the camp – the empty food bowls and hungry eyes – and vows to get some measure of justice for the innocent people she couldn’t help as a child.

But on the day she plans to deliver these damning photographs to the Allies, Hanni comes face to face with her father again. Reiner Foss is now working with the British forces, his past safely hidden behind a new identity, and he makes it clear that he will go to deadly lengths to protect his secret. In that moment Hanni hatches a dangerous plan to bring her father down, but how far she is willing to go for revenge? And at what cost?


My Review
: First in a series, flawed, and still...something in here honestly made me think twice about the eternal eyeroll I've developed specifically for use on plucky spying heroines. I concur with the sales bunf, if you liked The Alice Network you'll do well to give this one a shot.

Not that it's quite up to the same literary standard...the plot wanders a bit midway through...but it has that compelling quality that is so frequently missing in other WWII fiction I've read.

Follow this non-affiliate Amazon link to get yours for 99¢ at twice the price!


The Book of General Ignorance: Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong by John Mitchinson & John Lloyd

Rating 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Challenging what most of us assume to be verifiable truths in areas like history, literature, science, nature, and more,The Book of General Ignorance is a witty “gotcha” compendium of how little we actually know about anything. It’ll have you scratching your head wondering why we even bother to go to school.

Think Magellan was the first man to circumnavigate the globe, baseball was invented in America, Henry VIII had six wives, Mount Everest is the tallest mountain? Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong again. You’ll be surprised at how much you don’t know! Check out The Book of General Ignorance for more fun entries and complete answers to the following:

How long can a chicken live without its head?
About two years.

What do chameleons do?
They don’t change color to match the background. Never have; never will. Complete myth. Utter fabrication. Total Lie. They change color as a result of different emotional states.

How many legs does a centipede have?
Not a hundred.

How many toes has a two-toed sloth?
It’s either six or eight.

Who was the first American president?
Peyton Randolph.

What were George Washington’s false teeth made from?
Mostly hippopotamus.

What was James Bond’s favorite drink?
Not the vodka martini.

My Review: Once upon a time, I was smart...then I got this book. Now I am reduced to a mere mouth-breathing lump of proteins and acids and the majority of them aren't even human.

Abandon all sense of smug superiority, foolish mortal, if you succumb to the desire to get your triviality tested against The Elves. Ask not how I know.

You know you want one...follow this non-affiliate link and succumb....


This space is dedicated to Nancy Pearl's Rule of 50, or "the Pearl Rule" as I've always called it. After realizing five times in December 2021 alone that I'd already Pearl-Ruled a book I picked up on a whim, I realized how close my Half-heimer's is getting to the full-on article. Hence my decision to track my Pearls!

As she says:
People frequently ask me how many pages they should give a book before they give up on it. In response to that question, I came up with my “rule of fifty,” which is based on the shortness of time and the immensity of the world of books. If you’re fifty years of age or younger, give a book fifty pages before you decide to commit to reading it or give it up. If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100—the result is the number of pages you should read before making your decision to stay with it or quit.

So this space will be each month's listing of Pearl-Ruled books. Earlier Pearl-Rule posts will be linked below the current month's crop.


Conventionally Yours (True Colors, #1) by Annabeth Albert


The Publisher Says: When two "big name fans" go head-to-head at a convention, love isn't the only thing at stake.

Charming, charismatic, and effortlessly popular, Conrad Stewart seems to have it all…but in reality, he's scrambling to keep his life from tumbling out of control.

Brilliant, guarded, and endlessly driven, Alden Roth may as well be the poster boy for perfection…but even he can't help but feel a little broken inside.

When these mortal enemies are stuck together on a cross-country road trip to the biggest fan convention of their lives, their infamous rivalry takes a backseat as an unexpected connection is forged. Yet each has a reason why they have to win the upcoming Odyssey gaming tournament and neither is willing to let emotion get in the way—even if it means giving up their one chance at something truly magical.


My Review
: I'm almost 20% in and I actively dread opening this book. I hate admitting to it but there's just too much of a gap between 22 and 62 for me to care about bridging it.

Your mileage may vary. The angst that is sending convulsive shudders down my abdomen may strike just the right chord for you. If you read a lot of YA, it's that but college boys. Driving their my-age professor's 1999 Town Car. By themselves. From New Jersey to Las Vegas. I will actually die of annoyed boredom before they make it into the sack together.

Stop smirking. I am *not* being an old drama queen.


Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney

Pearl Ruled at 7%

The Publisher Says: With a death toll of between 50 and 100 million people and a global reach, the Spanish flu of 1918–1920 was the greatest human disaster, not only of the twentieth century, but possibly in all of recorded history. And yet, in our popular conception it exists largely as a footnote to World War I.

In Pale Rider, Laura Spinney recounts the story of an overlooked pandemic, tracing it from Alaska to Brazil, from Persia to Spain, and from South Africa to Odessa. She shows how the pandemic was shaped by the interaction of a virus and the humans it encountered; and how this devastating natural experiment put both the ingenuity and the vulnerability of humans to the test.

Laura Spinney writes that the Spanish flu was as significant—if not more so—as two world wars in shaping the modern world; in disrupting, and often permanently altering, global politics, race relations, family structures, and thinking across medicine, religion and the arts.

I spent $1.99 on Kindlesale. It makes me mad that I can't get it back.

My Review
: I bought into the author's justification for not making the book one linear, beginning-middle-end story. The social parts and the science parts are very different and they interacted but were never remotely in sync, so trying to stay purely chronological sounded like a bad plan.

What I got instead was borderline incoherent, with paragraph-by-paragraph switches among authorial opinions, statements of fact unsupported by citations, and stodgy-wodgy bits of statistical stuff. This tiger of a topic was less ridden by the author than it rode the author. I felt frazzled by the time I realized I was not going to have a better experience later on...I flipped through some random spots and found that I was getting the same structure.

Not what I want, or what I will accept, from narrative non-fiction.


City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts by Catie Marron

Pearl Ruled at 21%

The Publisher Says: In City Parks, eighteen writers reflect on various parks that hold a special significance for them, sharing personal moments they associate with them. Andrew Sean Greer eloquently paints a portrait of first love in the Presidio; André Aciman muses on the passage of time and the changing face of New York as viewed from the High Line; Nicole Krauss describes the real citizens of Prospect Park-dogs!; Simon Winchester takes readers along on his adventures in the Maidan; and Bill Clinton describes his affection for Dumbarton Oaks.

Intensely personal, yet joined by overlapping themes of memory and the unstoppable passage of time, these essays create a warm portrait of parks around the world-from London to Brooklyn, Calcutta to Chicago, Paris to San Francisco-and offer a unique, thoughtful vision of their significance both to the individual and society itself. Beautifully illustrated with color and black-and-white images, City Parks is a literary anthology and collector's item that illuminates our personal histories and public experiences.

My Review: Snapshots illustrating different peoples' varyingly pedestrian to humdrum musings on their favorite public parks.

Bill Clinton's vapid maunderings about Dumbarton Oaks illustrated with very ordinary Kodachromes of trees was when I foundered. I slugged my way through to get to the ever-delightful Jan Morris's disappointingly somewhat superficial ruminations on Trieste's Giardino Pubblico, though. I was hoping for a resurrection of fun...and at the end of it, there were five little candid snaps, one of a stroller being shoved by a whey-faced person, and another of two shirtless ping-pong players playing ping-pong with their long, skinny limbs gracelessly stiffened by a poorly framed black-and-white shot...the other three made even less of an impression. Not even Jan Morris's charming, if slight, essay could prevent my final submergence under the Sea of Mediocrity.

I can't imagine why this very, very good idea elicited such a bland, uninteresting execution.