In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Read: 24 June, 2018

This is a truly harrowing story of exploration and survival in the frozen north. I’m somewhat familiar with Franklin’s expedition, but I only knew a rough outline of the Jeanette’s voyage. Given that, I found that Sides did an excellent job letting the various personalities on board come through.

I was impressed by how positively superhuman some of these people were, and how long they managed to carry those who weren’t. I was also horrified by just how terrible the crew’s luck seemed to be – over and over again, it seemed like Murphy’s Law ruled the ship.

I found the book to take a little while to pick up. The beginning provides important background, but perhaps too much of it all at once. There were a few times where I found myself getting lost in the list of names of people I hadn’t started to form associations with. Once the ship was under way, however, the cast narrowed and the individual personalities started to stand out, and I found the second half much more enjoyable.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Read: 7 June, 2018

Overall, my seven-year-old and I found this to be an enjoyable read, though it lacked focus. The “main plot” doesn’t get started until about halfway through, and Matilda suddenly gets magical powers (the first hint of the supernatural) just a few chapters from the end.

At the same time, the chapters don’t quite work for this to be an episodic type of story. Several stories span more than one chapter, and chapter lengths vary quite a bit – which meant that some nights we read long enough for my throat to get sore, while other nights we barely seemed to read at all.

But for all that, the story is amusing, and I loved Matilda’s “get even” attitude. Both my kid and I thoroughly enjoyed the over-the-top baddies.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Read: 15 May, 2018

I picked this book up without knowing a thing about it, except that I was somehow under the impression that it was autobiographical. In fact, I put off reading it for a while for that exact reason – I almost always enjoy Gaiman’s writings, but I wasn’t particularly interested in the author himself.

Some weird stuff started happening, but it was all fairly plausible. And I figured it was just some writerly hyperbole.

Then some really weird stuff started happening, and only then did I figure out that I was reading fiction. So that was a pretty fun trip!

On the story itself, I loved the realism of it – how well the mythology was integrated into the “real world” of the story. I would have liked a more active protagonist, and I think that the Hempstocks did a bit too much infodumping (two problems that could have solved each other, if the protagonist could have used all his reading about mythology to figure out some of what was going on), but it’s a small complaint.

Overall, this is a lovely little story with some surprisingly dark turns.

Winternight Trilogy #2: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Read: 9 April, 2018

It’s really quite hard to imagine how a book could be more up my alley. I love the culture and the religion, I love the historical fiction aspects, I love the fairy tales… This book is absolute literary luxury for me!

Just to make it even better, I found that the pacing and plot were, if anything, improved from the first book.

I did manage to guess who Kasyan was almost immediately, but I still enjoyed seeing how that would play out. Especially as Kasyan kept going back and forth between threatening and ally.

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Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Read: 20 March, 2018

This is a fairly straight-forward and readable retelling of several stories of the gods. There’s a good range, and I recognised quite a bit more than I thought I would.

I read these to my seven year old, and I’d say he’s right at the line of appropriateness. He got a huge kick out of the butt-mead of poetry, of course, but some of the themes were well beyond him. He also had a bit of trouble keeping track of all the names, though we made good use of the glossary at the back.

Winternight Trilogy #1: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Read: 3 March, 2018

When I started dating a young Russian gent, I started dating his culture, too. I got into Russian music, I started reading Russian fiction, I started collecting bits and bobs of Russian folkart. And my poor, dear, Russian beau, who fled the USSR and would really rather put the whole Russian thing behind them, tolerantly humours me.

All this is just to say that The Bear and the Nightingale is right up my alley.

The writings style has something of a fairy tale flavour to it, which tends to keep a bit of distance between reader and character. This took some getting used to, after the intensely intimate books I’ve been reading recently. But it fit the tone of the story perfectly.

I loved how rich the world feels – at once historical and magical, fantastical and plausible. I also loved Vasya, is was such a charmingly wild thing, without it coming off like it the narrative was trying to hard.

Learn from my fail: There is a glossary at the back for the Russian terms used in the book. You don’t actually have to keep bugging your spouse with questions. Though you certainly can, if you want to.

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Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

Read: 26 February, 2018

Disclosure: I got an ARC copy through the GoodReads giveaways.

Though not my usual genre, I quite enjoyed this book. The mystery isn’t too much of a mystery – the baddie is revealed almost immediately, and then it’s just a matter of finding out just how much various other characters might be complicit, and the details of what happened.

But the writing is very compelling, and I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen to the main characters.

A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Read: 24 February, 2018

My mother loaned me this book because my spouse, though not Jewish, also fled from Russia at around Golinkin’s age. Though he was an emigrant, rather than a refugee, the experiences were surprisingly familiar – particularly in the ways both families responded to the trauma of having lived in the USSR.

I love that this book paints a complex picture. Recipients of charity aren’t always grateful, threat and trauma can lead even the most sober people to make careless decisions, and acts of kindness are sometimes done for entirely selfish reasons.

I also enjoyed the humour of the book. A lot of it is a distinctively Russian humour, that fatalistic “everything is terrible, isn’t if funny?” brand of deadpan humour that I enjoy so much.

Mostly, though, I love the message of hope. In the course of its story, A Backpack presents thousands, millions, of small acts – a donation here, a smile there – that, together, build up to something so meaningful. As Canada discusses its obligations toward refugees, this was a powerful book to read.

Vorkosigan Saga #12: Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold

Read: 18 February, 2018

I was very clever and read the “Borders of Infinity” novella before coming back to this book. While the book Borders of Infinity comes next in the chronological order, the novella (which can be found in the book) comes just before Brothers in Arms. While it isn’t absolutely necessary to read them in that order, much of Brothers in Arms is dealing with the aftermath of the story in “Borders of Infinity”, so I do think it’s best to read them in order. What I did was read all the novellas in Borders of Infinity, then come back and read Brothers in Arms, then read the framing device in Borders of Infinity.

It’s probably no surprise that I really loved this one. So far, the Vorkosigan has been a whole lot more hit than miss. I love the dissection of identity and personhood, and I love the exploration of how wartime actions and choices can keep coming back to haunt whole lineages.

We haven’t heard much about Earth so far in the series, so it was interesting to see how Bujold sees the future right here at home.

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Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller

Read: 27 November, 2017

I had a Libertarian friend in high school. While I was firmly in camp Nader, she was a Bush supporter, and even went so far as to buy me a gloating ice cream sandwich when Bush won the presidency. In the course of that friendship, I was convinced to pick up a copy of The Fountainhead.

I tend to find passion infectious. While I found the book itself a tedious and poorly-written slog, the excitement it showed for architecture really spoke to me. I gave up on the book fairly early – I’m not even sure that I made it a quarter of the way through – but I started looking up information on architecture and even considered pursuing it as a career. As it happened, however, my talking about architecture infected my mom, who picked it as her second career (an excellent fit, as she’s always had a keen eye for shapes). Once she enrolled in an architecture program, I had to pick something else to avoid falling on the wrong side of her competitive streak, and that’s how I ended up with my BA in English Literature.

The point of all of this being that Ayn Rand has had a fairly profound and wide-reaching cultural influence – even on those of us who had almost no interest in her work and found her writing unbearable. Whatever one thinks of her, or her philosophy, there’s no denying that she’s one of the last century’s Notable People.

Rand popped into my Active Interest slot again when I came across an Atlas Shrugged read-along series on Daylight Atheism. It’s a great series that I definitely recommend. Adam Lee does a great job of thinking through the implications of the book and, as Rand would love to say, “checking the premises.”

One of the sources Lee cites frequently is Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Since, once again, passion is infectious, I took the book out of the library.

A month ago, I couldn’t have told you anything about Ayn Rand except that she’d written The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, she was a woman, she is somehow related to the Libertarian movement, and she’s dead. So I came to The World She Made a fairly blank slate. Because of this, I can’t say how groundbreaking the research of the book is, and I see from other reviews that maybe there isn’t so much that is new here. But as a starting point, it’s perfect.

Heller moves methodically through Rand’s life – from her childhood in revolutionary Russia, to her death in New York. At each stage, Rand is the centre focus, but Heller explores the broader context of who Rand was meeting, what her living situation was like, what ideas was she exposed to…

On Rand herself, the book didn’t much improve my perception of her. In her early life, it’s easy to feel some sympathy towards her, but so much of her suffering seems to have been entirely self-inflicted. Worse, her life is, itself, the most damning argument against her philosophy.

Worse, she strikes me as a shallow thinker. I’m sure that she was a fantastic arguer, and probably quite quick and witty. She must have bowled over people in person (even if only by virtue of her stamina for argument). But it doesn’t take much thinking through to realize that her philosophy is immature at best. Over and over again, The World She Made makes reference to Rand’s popularity among teenagers and young adults, as opposed to more mature readers. This isn’t surprising.

On her emphasis on individuality, I was reminded of the ubiquity of the self-esteem movement during my childhood, and how – as a thoroughly weird kid – offensive I found it. Everywhere I turned, every school program, every TV show, ever fast food ad campaign was telling kids to “just be yourself.” And yet, the message I heard over and over again was “no, not like that.” And that’s Rand in a nutshell – her whole philosophy is wrapped around the idea of individuality and personal freedom, and yet she required that her followers only listen to certain types of music, only thought certain types of thoughts.

I was both surprised and not surprised by the cult that sprang up around Rand. While I had never heard Objectivism described as a cult, its ideas – and the reverential way in which Rand is so often talked about – certainly smell of cult.

But enough about the subject, what about the book? It’s good! It’s very readable, and it’s a great introduction to Rand and to her ideas.