My 52 book reading challenge: May

So, a quieter month on the reading challenge. Between new parenthood and a couple of writing contracts, there’s not a lot of time for recreational reading. A lot of DVDs, though: I’ve watched virtually every episode of Grand Designs in the last month.

Still, here’s the handful of books I worked my way through this month:

Great Australian women cover60: Great Australian Women by Susanna de Vries

Reviewed at length in a previous post.

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Who killed Angelique? cover61: Who Killed Angelique?  by Emma Darcy

A good novel, but there was something about it, particularly in audiobook, which felt a little artificial. The characters use a highly structured form of English which real people simply don’t use. I thought perhaps it was a relic of technologies new at the time of publication, but now familiar — Ecstasy tablet, Viagra pill, email message — but then there was the final scene, where the characters declaim at each other like stage actors.

In the culmination, you see a sort of comic book showdown, with a murderer in a costume threatening the heroes, while revealing all in a monologue of self-justification. No-one interrupts anyone. No-one talks in short sentences because things are tense. No-one moves while anyone is talking, not even to run away. The feeling of implausability crystalized here, for me. When someone is threatening to castrate you (etiquette tip!) you don’t need to wait for them to get to the end of their monologue before you do things. You aren’t on Doctor Who: you are allowed to just shoot people who are talking, or run away before they finish.

Woman in Science cover62: Woman in Science by John Augustine Zahm

Interesting material, recorded by Librivox, but structurally flawed. In the later stages of the book it breaks into fields of endeavor, which sounds fine until you notice that you are meeting the same polymaths in each field (Hypatia, Hildegard) that you met in the general run through, and the material about them is pretty much identical. It then devoles into a sort of essentialist argument that women will be better scholars than men because they aren’t suited to physical labor, which is a strange swerve from where I thought the author was heading.

Dawn masthead63: The Dawn by Louisa Lawson

Reviewed at length in a previous post

64: An Narrative of the Expedition to Dongola and Sennaar, by George Bethune English

An interesting book, recorded by Librivox, which ties into our theme for the month (travel narratives). It is a journal kept by an American marine who was sent by his government to Egypt. He resigned his commission, converted to Islam, and joined the Egyptian military force invading what’s now the Sudan, acting as master of artilery. The book contains suprisingly little discussion of the war, and rather more description of scenery, ruins and folk customs than I expected.

65: Cleopatra by Jacob Abbott

Yet another Librivox book…it’s amazing how many of these I go through, frankly. It’s a good thing they are free. It’s a biography of Cleopatra, a bit more restrained than some later ones, but heavily dependent on Roman sources. This means that Cleopatra is a genius, a wicked woman who studies the effects of poison on her prisoners, and a mistress of the arts of seduction. I recently read a bio based on Arabic sources, which basically takes the local view that she was a philosopher queen and that all the purient sex stuff is Romans doing what Romans do when they hate foreigners.  So, interesting, yes. Factual? Well…that’s arguable.

66: The Spell of Egypt by Robert Smythe HichensThe Spell of Egypt cover

A turn of the century tourist guide to Egypt, recorded by Librivox. Good, in the sense that it lacks much of the detail time erodes. More interested in how things look than what they mean.

67: Angry Little Girls in Love by Lela Leeangry little girls in love

Sometimes I start a review by saying “Clearly I didn’t understand this.” I generally do it when something is popular and I didn’t enjoy it at all.

Clearly I didn’t understand this.

The lead character, Kim, is meant to be a six year old girl. She clearly isn’t because in some panels she wakes up in her double bed next to her boyfriend, so let’s just accept that her apparent age is an artistic conceit and that she’s a young woman of indeterminate age. Her defining characteristic is her rage. Now, I presunme the humor is meant to be something like “Small girls are sugar and spice, so by having a small girl who is emotionally cruel and physically violent we are subverting the trope, and subverting tropes is funny.” possibly it’s “Men usually hurt women. Kim is hurting men. She is therefore funny.”

It could be that I just don’t get schaudenfreude. I know it exists, and I can read definitions of it, but I just don’t personally find it funny. I know other people do: they find those home video shows where people hit each other and their pets, supposedly by accident, hilarious. Perhaps that why I just don’t get Little Girls in Love.

To me, it reads as a book which is deliberately, even evangelically, joyless. Kim, the lead character, is a domestic abuser, so much so that I wonder if the Duluth Power Wheel was involved in her character design. Sure, the Duluth Wheel is explicitly designed for male abusers, but she gets six out of the eight wedges. She even gets the Using Male Privelege wedge, because she engages in the behaviors of an abusive male.

Clearly I didn’t understand this.

68: Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys by Amelia Edwards

Yet another Librivox audibook. This time its a non-fictional account, by a Victorian adventuress, of her crossing the Dolomite region of Italy. Interesting, but not so good at spinning local folklore as I’d hoped. Still, excellent as an account of travel.

Edwards continues to be utterly certain of her innate superiority. She keeps carrying on about the weird customs of the locals, from her perspective. She also keeps getting really upset when people don’t treat her own cultural peculiarities as paramount. When they won’t serve her tea in a country that drinks coffee, when they suggest that polenta is perfectly edible instead of bread, when she insists that her inns are better because the owners are descended from noblemen, she doesn’t ever notice that she’s ever so slightly insane. That she casually dismisses the locals with a string of epiphets, ending in “no better than Australian aboriginies” shows her turn of mind regarding everyone who is not her type of English. It makes her memoirs a fascinating window on the mix of values in the Victorian mind.

Currently reading First Man of Rome, by Colleen McCullough.

Currently listening to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare

Currently recording Autobiography of a Seaman, by Thomas Cochrane