Books I read in August

Following the prompts of the PopSugar 2018 Reading Challenge has pushed me to read some very interesting books I would not have read otherwise – which is of course the point of the challenge. It has occasionally involved reading books that I did not enjoy as much, but so far none that I truly disliked.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington was my choice for “True crime.” This was a category I was not eager to read, as I don’t see entertainment value in reading about the awful things people have really done, and non-fiction provides less scope for some of the development of characters’ interests and concerns in areas not related to the crime (or at least not directly), which is part of what makes a really good mystery novel in my opinion. But then I came across this book, where the wrongdoing at the center of the account is not the murders for which two men are convicted and sent to prison, but the injustice of a system that resulted in their being convicted despite being innocent, while the real murderer was still out there somewhere. That the system could be misused the way it was did not surprise me, but that it had all taken place as recently as it did, with some unknown number of other people most likely still serving prison sentences for crimes they did not commit.

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie was my pick for “A book about or set on Halloween.” My impression was the most books set on Halloween would be in the horror genre or psychological thrillers or other macabre stories that I really don’t enjoy reading. But I have read some of Christie’s books before and enjoyed them, so I expected to enjoy this one also. I was disappointed, however, and when I read reviews of the book later I saw that I was far from alone in thinking it wasn’t as good as Christie’s other works. One interesting aspect of it the number of references to aspects of the 1960’s (it was published in 1969), within my lifetime. I am used to Christie’s books being set in an earlier time, and those references felt somewhat discordant.

It took me a while to find a book I wanted to read by an author with the same first or last name as myself, but I finally settled on American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier. The past two years, my family has participated in a public reading of the Declaration of Independence as part of the local July 4th celebrations, so I have read the document more carefully than I had previously. I found the beginning and ending eloquent and moving (and was glad that the reading of those portions was allotted to me). But the long list of grievances surprised me with their seeming specificity, yet I didn’t know anything about the circumstances behind most of them. This book by Pauline Maier goes into great detail – perhaps more than I really would have liked – on all aspects of the writing/editing of this document, particularly its antecedents in British tradition and other “declarations of independence” made during roughly the same time period (none of which I had ever heard of before). I learned that even in Jefferson’s time many people didn’t know exactly what he referred to in some of the grievances, and opponents of American independence criticized it on that basis. I was somewhat surprised at the lack of discussion of the views of Americans loyal to the British crown even after the signing of the Declaration, but perhaps that was outside the scope of this book (which was long enough as it was). I also would have liked it if Maier had gone into more detail on the changing views of the meaning of “all men are created equal” over the next two centuries, as she had in the writing of the Declaration. But of course that would have made the book all that much longer…

I read books from the college library during my lunch hour at work, and a few times the interim president was in the break room also and chatted with me about what I was reading. He strongly recommended The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, so I decided it would be a good choice for “a book with an animal in the title.” The book is not at all about actual swans, just using the black swan as a metaphor for something people do not know about and thus do not expect to encounter, and how it affects our lives to focus too much on what we do now and too little on what we don’t. It was a challenging book to read, both in terms of the ideas expressed and the writer’s way of expressing his ideas and opinions. I did not have as much trouble as some readers probably do with the sections on statistics, but I did get tired of his repeatedly expressed disdain for the bell curve. He does finally acknowledge that it has its place in some areas of knowledge, but he doesn’t seem to think those areas are very interesting or important. I would have liked more discussion of the application of his ideas to history, and less to finance – but that is after all his area of expertise.

It also took me a while to come up with “A book mentioned in another book,” since I decided this should be another book that I was reading this year (though not necessarily for the Reading Challenge), rather than just some book that happens to be mentioned in another book. Finally I got what I needed with references to The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in White Fire by Preston and Child. I had read some of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as a teenager, but unlike my older sister, I was not interested enough to read very many, and I had never read any of the book-length stories. Of course I had heard of this one, so it was an easy choice to read it (the other possibility would have been The Manchurian Candidate, mentioned in the Jane Hawk series by Dean Koontz). It was reasonably interesting reading, though I still would rather read Louise Penny’s novels about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.

Speaking of which, one of the books I read just because I like the series (and not for the Reading Challenge) was Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny. Gamache has been injured and is on leave, but of course he still ends up investigating a murder, and there is a good deal of Quebec history woven into the story. I recognized the description of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham from a John Grey novella by Diane Gabaldon (though of course John Grey was on the other side, fighting for the British). As always I enjoy not just how Gamache solves the crime, but his interest in people and what motivates them, and in history and culture.

I had not read anything previously by Charles Todd, and realized when I selected the audiobook that it was far from the first in the series featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge, but I was in a hurry at the library that day and grabbed almost the first one I looked at. No Shred of Evidence is reasonably interesting, though perhaps not as satisfying as some other mysteries in terms of the solution. As usual, it is the characters who interest me, particularly Inspector Rutledge, and it is his personal background, particularly how he still suffers from memories of his experiences in the trenches of WWI, that make me interested in reading more about him.

The title A Long Obedience in the Same Direction intrigued me, though I’m not sure how well it fits this book by Eugene Peterson. (He borrows the phrase from Friedrich Nietzsche, and I’m still curious in what sense Nietzsche used it, since it must have been far different from Peterson’s.) Peterson has a lot of good things to say about the Christian life, though I didn’t feel they came as naturally out of the Psalms of Ascent as Peterson suggests. There is little exegesis, and I don’t care for Peterson’s The Message, which is used exclusively for quoting Scripture in this book. (I eagerly purchased a copy of The Message a number of years ago, and found it helpful for a while, but after several times discovering that what seemed most insightful in a verse turned out to be purely Peterson’s phrasing, not found in the original, I stopped using it. My preferred version is the more literal but quite readable ESV, particularly after reading one of Leland Ryken’s books about Bible translations.)

I just finished Dean Koontz’s latest Jane Hawk book, The Crooked Staircase. As always it was an engrossing story, and as an audiobook it made my commute seem to go quickly. I’m not sure what it really adds to the overall storyline, other than showing even more graphically how twisted people can become in their pursuit of power. The stakes are raised when the people who have been taking care of Jane’s young son have to go into hiding, and some people you really hoped would survive do not (disproving statement made in one blog post I read about his books, that “Dean Koontz doesn’t kill off the characters you care about” and that “Nothing bad will happen to people who love dogs”). But of course I will read the next book in the series, The Forbidden Door, as soon as it becomes available at the library.

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