Long-overdue and necessarily incomplete book review post! This is about 1/3rd of the books I have in my to-review queue.
I'd had "Cairngorm John: A Life in Mountain Rescue"
on my mountaineering-and-SAR wishlist for some time, but only recently did I actually get around to reading it. I finished it right after I'd read a history of Seattle's Mountaineers club, and I think that related historical vantage point informed my reading. It's kind of neat to see how a group of hikers ended up banding together to help out the lost and stranded, and the development of their attitudes, gear, and techniques toward rescue over time. I'm amused at the difference in terminology between Scottish hikers and Americans; do not be fooled by what they call "hill-walking". (Americans generally call that "mountaineering". In for a wee bit of hill-walking? Bring your survival gear.) Large portions of this story are told through understatement; readers who are used to a more demonstrative narrator run the risk of underestimating the strength of feeling presented, not to mention much of the drier humor. The author has wide experience not only in heading up rescues, but also in organizing a mountain rescue unit, coming up with fundraising options (I cracked up at the Scotch advertisements on the doors of their mountain rescue vehicle; you probably wouldn't get that here), and in general trying to encourage people to enjoy the outdoors in ways that wouldn't make them regret the attempt. Although the book wasn't full of splashy photos of the outdoors, still the descriptions of the hikes made me want to go explore the Highlands. I'm too busy this year, but maybe next summer. [grin] Three and a half sudden blusters out of five, and a possible future hiking trip.
I picked up "Gardens of the Moon"
in my local indie bookstore while looking for a fluff book to complement my serious books for a then-upcoming trip. I am sorry to say that despite the rave reviews, I hated it. None of the characters engaged me, their quests were boring, the heroes were either cardboard-flat or unlikable jerks, and the plot must be such a large epic that it seemed to just crawl about interminably to no fixed end from the perspective of just having read that one book. Powells loved it. Someone at Elliott Bay loved it. That someone was not me. One baffling meander out of five.
I do, however, love a good scam. Vaguely professionally relevant, I got the recommendation for "Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art"
from Mistress Matisse's blog, which should give you an idea of how long that book has been on my to-read list. It's well written nonfiction which will engage your security geek brain and horrify your inner librarian -- it's a well thought out attack on not very well guarded systems of trust and documentation in the world of modern art. "Follow the money" has rarely been so relevant, and this book does an excellent job of describing the intersections between the use of a charismatic con man personality backed up by key pieces of data that are presented as-expected. Ultimately, the fakes were detected through a mix of diligent attention to detail on the part of several gatekeepers and the use of the everybody-knows-everybody good ol' dealer networks in the art world. Well worth reading just for fun, but particularly useful if you're the kind of person who reads Bruce Schneier's blog. Three and a half forger-as-method-actors of five.
I found "Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War"
at Powells while looking for "Provenance", above, and I'm so glad that I did -- this was my favorite nonfiction of this batch. It's illuminating a chunk of French history that I wasn't terribly aware of... I've read a fair bit about World War II, and I generally love books about spies, but I had no idea until stumbling across this that Chanel had been involved in any such thing. Vaughan does a wonderful job of drawing a character portrait of his subject such that it's not a terrible surprise when she behaves as she does, but it's still a crushing disappointment to many French people who thought of her as an avatar of French fashion and culture. I'm not terribly up on the world of couture, but Chanel moved in circles political and aristocratic, rather an achievement for someone who came from a relatively obscure background in a culture not known for its social mobility. One can see why she would have been an intelligence asset for an occupying government -- she was well connected and sufficiently attached to the trappings of the good life that it trumped any feelings of patriotism she might have possessed. (She was anti-Semitic from childhood, as apparently many Catholics of the age were, so sadly that wasn't a change in philosophy for her.) Disturbing and thought-provoking; four and a half little black dresses out of five.
A gift from etcet
, "The Games"
is sci-fi by one of the contributors to the Portal games. I liked the cultural navel-gazing about genetic engineering, though none of it seemed to cover terribly new ground. The comparison to Jurassic Park is both inevitable and fairly accurate; it's a summary of common fears about unintended consequences in macrofauna. ("We have genetically engineered the best giant predator we can, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG!") So it's fun if you like thrillers, but nearly impossible to read without getting very metatextual. The book reveals more about the author and the place he's coming from culturally than it does about the story he means to tell. Three sharp teeth out of five.
Another one I hated! "Thank You And Ok! An American Zen Failure in Japan"
is the worst book about Buddhism that I've read this year. (It's only March, but still.) Written as a travelogue, it jumps back and forth between the unlikable author's two major stays in Japan. The author is rude, petty, and self-centered, and he doesn't really seem to get over that much in the course of his studies of Zen. In some of the blurbs and introductions, he has some negative quotes about himself from modern Zen luminaries. At first I thought that this was humble and very funny. Further on, I started to realize with creeping horror that *they meant it*. The author cheerfully brushes under the carpet his rudeness to his fellow monks, his running out on his child support payments to go gad about Japan, and his general lack of consideration for anyone else in his quest for feeling spiritually enlightened himself. By halfway through the book, *I* wanted to smack that guy with a Rinzai stick of enlightenment, and I'm not even a monk. I finished the book with a grim dislike -- I hate giving up on books -- and vowed never to read anything that guy writes again unless he somehow does get over himself and realizes that he's acted very poorly. Zero no-minds out of five; ptah.
Much better (though about martial arts and not about religion) is Dave Lowry's "Persimmon Wind: A Martial Artist's Journey in Japan"
. I have liked everything of Lowry's that I've read (I think this was the third or fourth book of his, plus some short essays? I know I've read "In the Dojo" and "Autumn Lightning".), so it's no surprise that I liked this one as well. His way of thinking about the martial arts is one that I can relate to, and his relationship with his sensei is represented thoughtfully with respect and tenderness. I cracked up at some of the, er, cultural experiences that he found himself having... I've been there! But this book is the quiet flowering of many years of practice, and I appreciated its way of simply showing that by being rather than feeling the need to club you over the head with that. Also, I'm still cracking up at the noodle slurping story. He tries! [grin] Three and a half misty reflections out of five.
After seeing the movie and then discussing it with missroserose
, I picked up a copy of "Cloud Atlas"
for comparison. I usually like books better than movies, so I felt that this was the correct order to go in. To my surprise, although I did like the book better than the movie as expected, reading the source material gave me a better appreciation for how the movie makers had to adapt it, and how many things they did get right. Mitchell does a superlative job of keeping each narrative voice, slang, and world separate, but creating meaningful links between them. I'm a sucker for a good narrative trick and that is one, and Mitchell avoids some of the more cloying cinches he could have gone with. (I'm imagining, say, slashy Cloud Atlas where every story is a love story because SAME TWO PEOPLE ALWAYS LOVE IS LOVE. That would have been a far worse book, if funny in parodyland.) Watching the movie, I had a much stronger sense of seeing the same story six times... two unlikely allies team up to fight a larger power and right a wrong. Reading the book, that was far less apparent. I think I lacked the directorial eye giving me that remove, and so I have to actively engage critic-brain rather than it just happening. Also, I didn't find Adam Ewing irritating in the movie, but I sure did in the book. I loved Sonmi-451 even better in print, though. I particularly enjoyed seeing the changes in direction between the two -- the different ways they took the Frobisher love story, for example, or the ending that Sonmi gives to the orison. So it wasn't the first book of its kind that I've read and I wasn't *as* blown away by it as many of the critics, but I'm still impressed by the author's diverse use of voices. Three and a half unlikely coincidences that aren't out of five.
My fiction favorite of this batch was the delightful Elizabeth Hand collection "Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories"
. She managed to be so creepy without jumping straight into the horror-genre that I don't like; I ran straight out afterwards and tried to find more of her work to read. Her protagonists are often people with a difficult past and a difficult present, but she somehow manages to avoid most all of the clumsy fantasy tropes about how that makes them ever so magical while, er, making them ever so magical. The opening story is the best of the collection in my opinion, but thankfully it wasn't the only standout. Pleasantly disturbing, read late at night at your own peril, you may have very odd dreams afterwards. Four and a half rare butterflies out of five.
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Tags: art, book reviews, fantasy, genetics, hiking, japan, literature, martial arts, military history, movies, sci-fi, security, spies, zen
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