Books I read in August

Near the end of the PopSugar 2019 Reading Challenge, I’m mostly reading books just for the enjoyment (or to occupy my mind while driving). But I did fit in a few to meet the challenge, in those categories I have been finding more challenging.

We read Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata for the local book club, but it conveniently turned out to be a good fit for a book with no chapters / unusual chapter headings / unconventionally numbered chapters (in this case, a book with no chapters). It’s kind of a strange book, hard to tell what message it’s trying to get across. That everyone should be allowed to be different, I guess, even if other people think they’re missing out on important things in life (relationships, family, children). A couple of us in the book club speculated that the main character is on the Autism spectrum, but it never says so in the book, so I have no idea whether that’s what the author had in mind. A person who can “hear” what the store wants is odd, though…

I was looking for a book published posthumously, and found After the Fire by Henning Mankell in a list of posthumously-published books. This novel was published in the original Swedish in 2015, the same year Mankell died, but I don’t know which came first. The English translation was definitely published posthumously, and while I’m not sure that counts for a purist, I decided it was good enough. It’s a slow-moving book, unlike most of Mankell’s books I have read (I have not read Italian Shoes, to which this is in some sense a sequel), more about relationships and coming to grips with the losses of aging and approaching death than about solving crimes. Not entirely satisfying, but then perhaps it is supposed to be melancholy. It was, after all, Mankell’s last book, and as he had cancer he no doubt was reflecting a lot on these issues of living and dying.

I’m really not into ghost stories (I did consider re-reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which is a definitely a ghost story, but I had read it most recently within the past few years), but Ghost Story by Jim Butcher seemed like a good choice for a ghost story, if I had to read one. I had not read any of Butcher’s previous twelve books about Harry Dresden, but the idea of a wizard detective intrigued me, and since he doesn’t let being dead stop him, I figured I could read this book and then see if I was interested in reading any of the previous books in the series. There was a lot more wizardry and a lot less detective-work than I would have expected – no idea whether that was true for the whole series or not. I may decide to read one of the earlier books at some point, but while interesting, this one did not fascinate me so much I wanted more, at least not right away.

I really puzzled over what to choose for a book about a hobby. My primary leisure activity is reading, followed by crossword puzzles, along with doing stuff on the computer, mostly FreeCell and Mahjong and reading whatever articles/blogs happen to catch my interest. I could have read another book in a series of cozy mysteries in which the main character is a librarian, but while books are important in her life, they are not all that central to the novels. I did once read a cozy mystery about crossword puzzles, but it wasn’t as good as I had hoped. It finally occurred to me that one of my daily activities is doing exercises on Duolingo to learn German and Welsh, as well as keep practicing French and Spanish, so learning foreign languages counts as a hobby for me. And Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language, by Richard M. Roberts and Roger J. Kreuz, fit this category perfectly. Since I’ve always learned languages fairly easily (compared to most adults), it didn’t give me ideas for learning better, but I was pleased to see that I already do a number of the things they recommend, such as relating words in the target language to those I know in other languages, and practicing a little each day. Another, which I have done at least since studying Spanish in college, is finding ways to practice in daily life, not just in lessons. I don’t have anyone to speak German or Welsh to, but I practice by saying numbers that I see on signs or license plates, or telling myself the weather or what objects I see and their colors.

A book I came across in the process of looking for a book about learning languages was Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals by Con Slobodchikoff. It’s not by any means a how-to book on learning animal languages, but rather a description of what we know about animal communication throughout the animal kingdom, and how this communication may well constitute a language (i.e. communication that encodes meaning and uses syntax, not just signals that correspond directly to things in the animal’s environment). This communication uses not just sounds, as we normally think of language, but all the five senses. The authors admit that we cannot, with current knowledge, confirm that animals do have language, but they stress that neither should we rule out the idea, just because we cannot understand it.

Blizzard!: The Storm That Changed America by Jim Murphy was an interesting bit of history on a subject that does not usually show up in history books – the influence of the weather. Obviously we are directly affected by it, but I had not realized, for instance, that cities did not used to take responsibility for clearing snow from the streets. It seems so obvious to us today that they should do so, but it was the Blizzard of 1888 that changed people’s thinking on this one.

Having recently read The Giver, I decided to also read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. This is another piece of history I had never heard, how the people of Denmark managed to smuggle nearly their entire Jewish population to safety in Sweden. It is told from the point of view of a single girl, Annemarie Johansen, whose family helps the family of Annemarie’s friend Ellen, along with other Jews, to escape under the noses of the Nazis and their dogs (the dogs’ sense of smell was disrupted by use of a handkerchief treated with a mixture of rabbit’s blood and cocaine).

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert is a book I saw recommended by Marvin Olasky, and was pleased to find available through the library. I think it provides excellent advice for those trying to set up a ministry to help the poor, but it is less clear how an individual can use the principles they discuss to know how best to choose where and how to give. I went online to the websites of different organizations I have donated to, trying to see whether they follow those principles, but I really couldn’t tell. It would be a shame if people stop giving out of fear that organizations may not be helping the poor in the right way, but it would also be a shame if organizations that ultimately do not help the poor all that well just keep doing what they’ve been doing.

I picked Washington Black by Esi Edugyan from the New Fiction section of the college library, because it looked like an interesting mix of history and science in a time and in places I was not all that familiar with. The first part of the book, showing a boy growing up as a slave on a sugar plantation, then selected to help his master’s brother in his scientific pursuits, was very good. After that, when the two of them are forced to flee, chased by a bounty hunter, it gets less interesting. There was less science than I had hoped – it is mentioned but little in the way of actual scientific detail is given, and as Wash travels from place to place on three continents, there is less sense of being able to see the world through his eyes than there had been in the early part of the book.

Just for fun, I continue to read books by Jodi Taylor. And the Rest is History is a darker novel than the earlier ones, though there is always some humor, hope, and interesting glimpses of history (seen in “contemporary time” as the St. Mary’s historians refer to their time traveling adventures). Having finished that novel, I was finally able to read the last story in The Long and Short of It, a series of short stories which fit chronologically between the novels, so I have been trying to read them more or less in order.

I had read mixed reviews of The September Society by Charles Finch, but decided to give it a try. For an audiobook to listen to during my commute, it worked just fine. Enough mystery to keep me wanting to know what happened, moderately interesting characters (though I found the romance side story a bit boring), and a bit of mid-18th century British history. I’m not likely to read another book in the series, but if there happens to be one available on audiobook I might anyway. There have been some audiobooks I really did consider boring (though not many), and picking an author I’ve liked before is a safe choice.

I decided to read The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell for that reason, that I have liked other books by Mankell. Unlike the others, even After the Fire to a certain extent, this is not concerned with crime. It is about women who are refugees in Sweden, having fled a life that was unbearable back where they came from but having no place that seems to want them. Their stories are interesting, although difficult to read due to the horrors they have endured, but the main character is quite unlikable and it is tiring to have to experience the story through his eyes. It is, on the whole, a sad book, trying to hold out hope but not providing much basis for it beyond people’s stubborn will to keep going and hoping.

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