CBR14Bingo – Shadow – In the novel, even though it’s ostensibly about the “Buffalo Bill” killings, Hannibal Lecter is always there and always present in mind. – Silence of the Lambs – 3/5 Stars
This is a book that for some godforsaken reason my seventh grade English teacher not only let me read for a class assignment but also let me make a stick-figure puppet theater for key scenes. The early 1990s were the Wild Wild West truly. It’s an interesting book that is mostly a historical artifact in crime novels and criminal detection in general. It sits in that weird period of the earl to mid 1980s where DNA was still not 100% a thing in either wider criminal investigation and novels, but also when criminal profiling, especially of serial killers was really getting people’s imaginations going. Because of the recent interest in the show Hannibal and the newer show Clarice, which I haven’t seen at all, there’s been a discussion about the anti-trans elements of the book, and let me tell you that people are heatedly defensive of this book. I think it’s pretty plain and simple that the book and the movie traffic in anti-trans stereotypes in order to the create the narrative tension and “horror” of the crimes. The crimes are horrible obviously, so what I mean is in creating their exotic and titillating elements. The book repeatedly tells us that Jame Gumb is NOT trans, and therefore there’s no problem! But there’s no real care taken and Thomas Harris is not trans, so it’s a super gratifying explanation here. Everything is coded as trans and the shock factor is based in anti-trans panic, and the presentation is way too muddy for nuance, and ultimately Thomas Harris just isn’t remotely a good enough or sympathetic enough writer to pull it off.
It’s still a compelling novel and a compelling thriller, even knowing what’s going to happen. The additional frustrating elements is that there’s a lot of threads here, and so man of them are misdirects that it’s pretty hard not to stare directly at them as they’re happening. The most surprising thing about the book, and this goes back to the way the show was able to rectify elements of the film is that Jack Crawford plays a much much larger part in the book than in the movie. Can you directly recall who plays Crawford in the movie? The other very weird part about the book is that there is a LOT of weird “Scotch Irish” ethnicity talking happening here. It’s like reading Hillbilly Elegy at times.
CBR14Bingo – Elephant – It’s a picture, of course, of a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant – The Little Prince -5/5 Stars
This is still a joyful little book. I never read this as a kid and read it as an adult in order to see about things, so I understand that it’s an absolutely beloved book for so many. What stands out as most interesting to me is the role that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry plays as author and character within the book itself. The set up is that this is a true accounting of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry as a pilot who finds the planet with the Little Prince and follows him to all those other places. The book is also a quest book, or at least a journeys book, as the Little Prince consistently compares his world to all the other little worlds. It’s also a book of absurdity, in the sense of how the different planets offer him up little opportunities to share his worldview. One place this obviously stands out is in the opening section where we are confronted by the drawing of an angle of a boa constrictor having swallowed an elephant.
Rizzio – 3/5 Stars
I haven’t read any other Denise Mina books, and so if it’s common knowledge that she is Scottish, I didn’t know that. This book is very Scottish, and the Audiobook very much so too, as it’s read by Katie Leung who has a tremendous voice and accent. Anyway, the novel tells a version of the conspiracy to murder (and the murder!) of David Rizzio, the Italian courtier of Mary Queen of Scots, and the ways in which the plot and fallout led to cracks in her legitimacy. The novella takes on several small scenes of plotting and scheming, but also into the shakiness of the conspiracy, the way it would be spun to paint guilt in a particular way, and other elements. This is not quite a Daughter of Time kind of book, but does take some modern angles to the crime.
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen – 4/5 Stars
This collection is posthumously collected series of stories by the Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski, a Holocaust survivor who wrote for several years after his rescue, and then died by suicide in the early 1950s before he was 30. This collection is all previously published, and his work has been collected numerous times, but this is specifically the Auschwitz stories. As a collection, there are a few very good pieces. It’s the kind of collection that’s hard to deal with only because the subject matter is undeniably powerful but that doesn’t mean that every story is great. The title story and the story “Silence” are truly great and very disturbing in brilliant ways, but a lot of the rest of the writing often feels like an important accounting of events, but not as much beyond that. The other thing that comes up is the very dry and almost “neutral” tone of the stories. This is alarming at times, and numbing at other times. In the story “Silence” this is a brilliant way to tell the story as the moralizing of an American (which is optimistic, but not necessarily judgmental) is completely ignored for the righteousness of the violence the story contains.
Being There – 2/5 Stars
A schmaltzy and sentimental send-up of American politics by Jerzy Kosinski. This short novel begins with Chance the Gardener, a long-time worker being turned out of his house, and being hit by a car by a very rich and influential family. When he says who he is, they hear Chauncy Gardner, and his simplistic and simple-mindedness is taken for rational and laconic wisdom. He stays with the rich family and they think that he is also a rich man of business like them. In staying with him, he is accidently part of a meeting with the president of the United States, who is losing popularity in a time of deep inflation, and Chance’s small comment about a “time for every season” is confused for brilliant economic advice. He’s quoted by the president in a speech and becomes a sought-out pundit, and eventually leading to being vetted as a possible vice presidential candidate on the re-election campaign.
This book is also rife with controversy as Jerzy Kosinski wrote it as a first novel, but Polish readers apparently recognized a well-known Polish novel, and given that this was his second plagiarism scandal in a row, well…so it goes. We tend to be harsher or maybe things move faster now.
Hits and Misses – 3/5 Stars – I tend to find Simon Rich’s books to be tremendously funny, even though I can’t pretend they’re great or anything like that. The opening story involves a new baby on the horizon, and the father to be needs to give up his office space. But then it turns out that sonograms show that the baby is working on a novel in utero, and the new father begins to panic because his own writing has stalled. It also turns out that the baby’s novel, about Custer, is the same as the father’s novel, about Custer. This absurd little playlet is the kind of thing you’re getting here. Absurd little concepts, usually well-written, and gone before they overstay their welcome. Another funny story involves the author Simon Rich as a child, playing a foosball tournament against his brother, also well-known writer Nathaniel Rich, when they are kids, but presented by of blow-by-blow sportswriting in competent mock heroic style.
There’s a funny #metoo send up (not mocking metoo) about a literal dinosaur in a writer’s room being pushed out because of his antiquainted ideas and prejudices, and for eating people with his mouth. There’s a GQ profile of Hitler written like, well every GQ profile you’ve ever read. It’s good, solid comedic writing that always feels like a treatment for sketch comedy, but unlike most funny books I read, actually had me laughing at various times.
Proto Zoa – 4/5 Stars
A collection of early stories by Lois McMaster Bujold that includes three Twilight Zone like stories that take place in a fictional small town of Putnam, Ohio, a longer story that mentions elements of the Vorkosigan books indirectly, and then a familiar story that is always attached to the end of her first novel Shards of Honor.
The three Putnam stories begin with “Bargain,” in which a housewife with a chaotic life and unemployed and lazy husband meets an alien deeply in need of ammonia. She trades him for some technology that might just fix things. This was turned into a Tales from the Darkside episode, and in looking it up, seems to be the most hated one of the whole series. This probably because they change key elements of the story, but also because the story is very similar (and I think Lois McMaster Bujold’s version is earlier) to a New Twilight Zone story that was probably better handled. Te second story involves the husband from story one, still unemployed, becoming the target of the ire of the older nextdoor neighbor who believes that she’s allowed to dictate where his cat shits, but also the pigeons and other animals. He exacts some revenge against her for some wantonly violent cruelty on her part. The last story involves a pothole appearing on a city street and when people put stuff down it, it grows, and keeps growing, until it doesn’t.
The long story is the best of the collection, “Dreamweaver’s Dilemma” takes place in the future where one new technology is a kind of “feelie” in which dream composers can create neurological fantasies for sale. This is similar enough to plenty of other stories like this. A composer is approached to make a curious and disturbing dream and upon delivery the client tries and fails to kill her. She realizes that the dream’s disturbing content is custom made in order to give a specific person nightmares, prompting suicide. She investigates the difficult task of tracking these people down.
The last story is a follow up to Shards of Honor and works very well in this respect. Without that novel’s context or the context of the wider Vorkosigan novels, I am less clear how much sense it makes. The story involves a Betan ship patrolling the space after the Escobar war that takes place in Shards of Honor. They are tasked with collecting the frozen bodies of ships torn apart in combat. A young pilot and a middle-aged death specialist are paired off and the young pilot notices some strange behavior of his companion, that eventually gets explained.
The Last Days of August – No Rating (TW: Suicide)
This is a podcast by Jon Ronson, who already worked through some questions about the the availability of online porn. You might remember the news around the suicide of August Ames, a porn actress who died by suicide, after tweeting out the following: ““Fuck y’all.” This final tweet came after two days worth of backlash for her tweeting out her frustration about losing a job for not wanting to work with male actors who previously had gone male/male porn. Her tweet was called out as homophobic by various sex worked in the industry and the backlash, as these things do, involved both legitimate criticism and discussion and vitriol and death threats (and telling her to kill herself). After she died, her husband posted a long post on her social media blaming the backlash for her death and named a few specific performers specifically. Jon Ronson begins investigating, and as happens, learns that the story is much muddier and more complicated.
The podcast goes into a couple of different directions. There’s a theory that August Ames was murdered because of some inconsistencies with her husband’s account of the night she went missing, and because of whispers by other people involved. There’s an investigation into some pretty intense childhood trauma that August Ames had recently discussed in interviews. And there’s investigation into a recent shoot that went awry in some traumatic ways. And like almost all investigations into suicide, no one cause can be entirely ruled in and no cause can be entirely ruled out (except where it is impossible).
And because her suicide was public (both in terms of it involving Twitter) and in a public space, the discussion initially involved online bullying and “cancel culture”. Someone mentions at some point, you can’t separate the fact that she had a 24 hour backlash the day before she died, from her death. And I agree with this. I also agree with the general conclusion that you cannot directly link the two either. The same goes with the other pieces of evidence. It becomes increasingly clear by the way that she was almost certainly not murdered, but the nature of her marriage was clearly stressful and taxing in it own ways. In as much as it’s uncomfortable to say “this directly led to this”, it should be uncomfortable to say “this did not lead to this”, and both the podcast and one of the people involved really let off some of the people sending hateful tweets from a sense of responsibility for reasons that are suspect to me, especially given how much time is spent investigating how much people are not taking responsibility for other things.
Small Things like These – 3/5 Stars
This is a very small novel that has recently been nominated (longlisted) for the Booker Prize. It’s about 100 pages of pretty spaced out typing, to get a sense of just how small. The story takes place near an abbey in Ireland. Our main character is a dad and husband around 40 whose girls go to the local Catholic school and who works with the church in important ways in his life. Connected to the school is also a home for wayward girls. He’s connected that home as well, as he is the son of a former wayward girl, who died after he was born. It’s around Christmas and money is tight and he and his wife are looking through the kids’ Christmas lists and doing the math and realizing they should be ok so long as some bonus money comes through. One night he’s walking home and sees a teen girl in the street disoriented. He talks to her and realizes that she is distraught and maybe suicidal and he needs to get her back to the home, which she’s clearly left. When he returns her, he’s confronted by the abbess, who is not kind to the girl and seems to resent his witnessing it. The story goes from there.
The writing is good and the story is touching, and if I had encountered it as a novella or part of a collection, I would think it fairly strong. As a standalone, it’s less clear it stands on it’s own fully.
Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: Or, How Capitalism Works – and How It Fails – 5/5
It’s hard to fault this book in particular because of how purposely scant it is. Yanis Varoufakis is one of the Greek economists who worked with the EU to broker a deal after the 2015 collapse, and he did write a book about that experience. This book came before and the occasion of the writing was a conversation with his teen daughter about inequality, where his official response did not pass the bullshit meter of a child. This led to the writing of this book, which is partially based in works like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and other similar sources, that look for non-enlightment and non-European ways to explain the complex relationships at the heart of economy and to make sense of them. The goal is to take the inevitability of the economy and the thingness of the economy off the table, so that the explanations do not fall into the category, because it is so, it must have been so, and look at how factors like geography, climate, and other natural elements led to the emerging of ideas and forces. It’s not to excuse depravity and evil, but to understand why those choices are not simply the collective individual actions of people and that stronger forces were at play, and worse, it all began 80,000 years ago. The idea here is to create a real understanding of things, so that reaction and reformation is possible. And because I do not understand the economy much, the fact that it’s written to a child helps a lot.