Books I read in September

As October begins, I am more than halfway through my final book for the PopSugar 2019 Reading Challenge, having finished three more this month. Now I can work on my to-be-read list, which I add to as I learn of books I’d like to read (often from what my friends on Goodreads have commented favorably on, and occasionally a book I hear or read about elsewhere). For months my TBR list has been growing, as I add to it faster than I can read books from the list. But now that I won’t have books to read for the PopSugar Challenge for a few months (until January when the new challenge begins!), I may cut it down a bit.

I puzzled a while over what book fit “a book you meant to read in 2018,” since I don’t generally plan on reading books at any particular time except for the PopSugar Challenge and for the local library book club. But then I remembered having done a project in Toastmasters last year, presenting Ursula Le Guin’s speech “A Left-Handed Commencement Address” (for an advanced manual on interpretive reading, specifically to interpret and present a famous speech), and deciding I should read her book The Left Hand of Darkness. This novel is considered one of the first (and in the eyes of many one of the best) examples of feminist sci-fi literature. It didn’t strike me as particularly feminist, but then, it was published fifty years ago, when I was a young girl, and social attitudes have changed a great deal since then, in part due to its influence. The novel examines the role of sex and gender in society, through the depictions of a world where everyone is androgynous. I found it interesting, but was surprised that it didn’t seem to explore these themes as thoroughly as I had expected. At its time, of course, it was very radical, and a deeper exploration of those themes perhaps required more changes in societal attitudes first.

Earlier this year I read Tara Westover’s Educated, some part of which takes place on a university campus, and last month The September Society by Charles Finch, where a university student is murdered and the investigation begins on the campus. But neither of these books spent enough time on campus to satisfy me that it counted as “a book set on a college or university campus.” Besides, I like education (I work at a college), and I decided to look for another book. I picked out Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis based on a description of it as “a hilarious satire about college life and high class manners” and “a classic of postwar English literature.” Personally I found it more boring than hilarious. I suppose it is probably funny in the way sitcoms are considered funny, but I don’t find them particularly funny myself. I don’t think it’s funny when people embarrass themselves (whether they actually feel embarrassed themselves or not). Perhaps, again, it is the fact that my life is so far removed from postwar England, and I might have found it funnier if I had to put up with the kind of behavior it ridicules.

I had picked two books to read for “two books that share the same title” and read the first one months ago, Paw and Order by Spencer Quinn. I left Paw and Order by Diane Kelly for later in the year, figuring it would be an easy and enjoyable read at a point when I might be stuck on less easy and enjoyable books. It certainly was an easy read, but not as enjoyable as I had hoped. Like the Chet and Bernie series by Quinn, it features a canine partnered with a human in solving crimes and catching criminals, and one gets to hear the dog’s point of view sometimes. But while Quinn’s books are narrated entirely by Chet, with hilarious observations about life and about people, Brigit only gets every third chapter in Kelly’s book, and her chapters are by far the shortest, sometimes only a paragraph and never more than a couple of pages. And Brigit is just not nearly as funny as Chet. That’s only my opinion, obviously, and I can tell from the reviews that some people think Kelly’s Paw Enforcement series is hilarious. I tired quickly of the sexual innuendoes – both Brigit’s partner Megan and the bad guy (or rather, bad girl, in this novel) seem to spend a lot of time flirting and spending time with men they aren’t interested in making a commitment to.

I don’t have much interest in superheroes, having as a child preferred Archie, Richie Rich, and Casper the Friendly Ghost if I read comic books at all. (I did once try reading one comic book that was not so kid-oriented, and found it so creepy and upsetting that I stopped browsing the comic book shelves at the drugstore lest I accidentally come across it again.) But my husband and sons enjoy superheroes and I have gone with them to some superhero movies. I finally decided the sensory overload (noise and rapid movement) and violence were too much for me, and have in recent years gone only to those that reviews indicated I might be able to tolerate. But when I saw Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes; 10 Ways to Save the World; Which One Do We Need Most Now? by Travis Smith in the college library, I was intrigued. I like books that combine pop culture with a subject that is generally associated with a more scholarly approach (for instance, The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence Krauss and The Metaphysics of Star Trek by Richard Hanley). Superheroes and ethics sounded like a good combination. I was pleased to discover that I was at least somewhat familiar with at least half of the superheroes that were featured in this book, although not with many of the minor characters mentioned in passing. It was very interesting reading, providing food for thought about the qualities that we admire in one another and what attracts people to the idea of superheroes.

Faithful Place is the first novel I have read by Tana French, but the idea of a series that doesn’t feature the same main character in every book intrigues me. I enjoy the series I have read by writers such as David Baldacci, Steve Berry, and Craig Johnson, but after a while, although the author keeps throwing bigger and bigger challenges at the hero to keep the interest up, the sense of danger to the hero is lessened by the knowledge that he has to survive in order for the series to continue. Tana French’s novels in this series are tied together (from what I have read about the series) by secondary characters who become main characters in later books. Also appealing is the fact that the crime to be solved is not the most important mystery in the book. As a review by The New Yorker puts it, “In most crime fiction, the central mystery is: Who is the murderer? In French’s novels, it’s: Who is the detective?” Faithful Place explores themes related to family, what forces push us away from our homes/families of origins, and what pulls us back. If this book is typical of the series, there are no easy answers to any of the questions, about the crime or the detective.

I had enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s book Norse Mythology very much, but not particularly cared for Coraline. I decided to give The Graveyard Book a try (I didn’t need another book to fit the category of a ghost story for the reading challenge, but it would have fit perfectly, better in some ways than Jim Butcher’s Ghost Story, despite the title), and enjoyed it very much. I hadn’t realized until after finishing it and reading reviews how much it owes to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Apparently Gaiman’s books make frequent use of literary allusions, which I like, even if I hadn’t read any of the books alluded to in this novel (I know The Jungle Book only from the Disney adaptation).

I hadn’t even finished The Graveyard Book when I decided to also read Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Or, more accurately, listen to it, as I was able to download the MP3 audiobook from the library. It is very different, but also tells a story primarily from a child’s point of view, includes supernatural elements, and addresses issues of family, loss, and whom to trust in a world where everything is not as safe as it once seemed.

I decided to read The Rock, the Road, and the Rabbi: My Journey into the Heart of Scriptural Faith and the Land Where It All Began by Kathie Lee Gifford in part because of my interest in learning more about the Holy Land and how it helps us understand Scripture, and in part because I had heard of Kathie Lee Gifford (I knew she was a television personality but had never seen her show) but had never associated her with books on the Christian faith. I read reviews by readers who said they had expected fluff and had been pleasantly surprised by the spiritual and Scriptural insights she provides. My own impression was mixed; there is less depth than I had hoped for, but I realize that is in part because I have done a lot of reading on the Bible and theology over the years, and have come across most of the ideas she presents at some point. If I had read it when I was younger (not that I could have, since it hadn’t been written), I would no doubt have learned a lot more.

WWII stories usually deal with dangers caused by encounters with the enemy, or by trying to avoid such encounters. Lost in Shangri-la: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff tells the story of survivors of a plane crash, likely due at least in part to pilot error, on a sightseeing trip over the jungle of New Guinea. The suffering and dangers they survivors faced were no less real, of course, nor the bravery of the paratroopers who volunteered to go in and bring them medical help and organize a rescue. One aspect of the setting that was of particular interest to me was that I had a friend when I was younger who went with her husband and sons to Papua New Guinea (the other side of the same island) as missionaries. I had read a number of books about missionaries going to tribes previously untouched by modern civilization, but I had a hard time visualizing the terrain that isolated people so much that my friend’s husband died of a condition that most likely would have been treatable if it had not taken so long to get him to the nearest hospital. This book attempts to give some idea of the natives’ perspective on their unexpected visitors and their actions, but only a few of them were left alive by the time this book was written. Much of the story is told by quoting diaries and letters, so it has a feel of trying for a sense of immediacy that it does not quite achieve. All in all, not the sort of gripping story I’d find it hard to put down if reading it in printed form, but that works quite well to keep my mind occupied when listening to the audiobook while driving.

 

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