Simon Barnes, Ten Million Aliens: A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom. Very, very short essays about animals. All sorts of animals. I thought my adult life would contain more of these, since one’s childhood does. Not a lot of depth, but gosh, animals; it was cheerful and nice.
Cole Cohen, Head Case: My Brain and Other Wonders. Too much memoir, not enough neurology. It was very interesting, although if you are in any way prone to reading memoirs of illness and thinking, “OH NO MAYBE I HAVE THAT,” be careful with this one; I am not so prone, and therefore I could cheerfully read this about what it is like to have a lemon-sized hole in one’s brain. (Also they have looked at my brain and given it a structural thumbs up. So.) It was interesting, but I was glad it wasn’t longer. If you, too, are interested in the wide variety of Ways The Brain Can Cope Through Quite A Lot, this is that genre.
Carter J. Eckert, Ki-baik Lee, Young Ick Lew, Michael Robinson, and Edward W. Wagner, Korea Old and New: A History. I keep filling in my gaps in knowledge of Korean history as best I can despite the difficulties in finding things in English. This one was much more focused on the Japanese occupation than a lot of general Korean histories, which was interesting in itself–it read as though some specialists in that period had written some chapters, then decided that they didn’t want to expand them into a book on just that but rather wanted to stick on a few earlier and later chapters and sell it as a general history. Fine by me, no worse than other approaches, and hey, at least with a couple of people of Korean background doing some of the writing, it was not all “history begins when the US begins shooting, or possibly when the UK does; France at the absolute outside.” (I really hate that mode of history.)
Reginald Hill, On Beulah Height and Arms and the Women. Rereads. These may be my two favorites in the series. We’ll see what I think of the last few when I reread them, but right now I am feeling that On Beulah Height is one of the best mystery novels written since the death of Dorothy Sayers. I recommend reading one or two of the others in the series before it (Arms and the Women will do, although when I finish the series reread I will do a comprehensive “where do I start? what order?” post of some sort). It is a dark and lovely thing, and some of the emotional weight of it depends on having a strong feeling for who these people are to each other. It also depends on having had enough feel for Yorkshire dialect that when Andy Dalziel declares that he’ll not thole it, you don’t have to stop a minute to figure out what it is to thole something. If you have to stop for that minute, you won’t choke up at that point in the book. (Aaaaagh that SPOT and later with the DASHBOARD OH ANDY.) Arms, meanwhile, is the one I started with, and is lovely but not nearly so fraught. It’s an interesting one to have started with, because it has callbacks to books much earlier and only moderately earlier in the series, but the way they fit in the text are entirely fine if you read them as if they were just introduced at that moment.
Li Kunwu and P. Otie, A Chinese Life. This is a graphic novel memoir of the Cultural Revolution and Chinese history since. Other than its format, the main way it stands out from other memoirs of the time is that Li is clear and honest not only about what was done to him during the Cultural Revolution but also about what he did to others. He was a child at the time. If you know the Cultural Revolution, you know that that did not actually stop people from committing atrocities. It’s a harrowing read in spots, and if you have family/personal connections to the Cultural Revolution or are otherwise feeling sensitive, I recommend that you time your reading carefully.
Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness. Note: not actually surprising. I was hoping for quite a lot of octopus neurology and biology, and instead I got some very chatty accounts of hanging out with octopus at an aquarium. Which was nice, and it’s a short book, but…too many monkeys, not enough octopus.
Terry Pratchett, A Blink of the Screen and The Wee Free Men. (The latter a reread.) What different books. The former is a short fiction collection, which I feel is not at all his strength and frankly only worth the time for a Pratchett completist. The latter is one of his best works: the first of the Tiffany Aching books, a beautiful rallying cry for the stubborn, the precise, the caretakers, the people-herders, the over-prepared, the curious, the lookers-up…me, okay? It’s a rallying cry for me. One of my friends told me she pictured Tiffany as a young me, and when I reread this book, I got tears in my eyes over that comment, because I realized that it is the most overtly sentimental she is likely to get over our friendship, because she is also a one like that, and we mostly don’t go around saying things like that with our out loud words, mostly we say things like, “How’s your mom doing now?” and also we make soup. And Terry Pratchett: he understood that, and he wrote a book for us, and not only that, it starts for those of us who know it even when we’re little, it’s for my Lillian, my goddaughter who is already a people-herding little one of us, because this stubborn dark hilarious little book is for kids too. Oh, and also: I had not reread this since my grandpa died. And the important grandparent in it is a Granny, but: yeah. So. I will have to wait awhile before I read another of these, because there’s only so much of it in me at once. I knew when Pratchett died that I’d have to make a run up to Wintersmith, and I was right. But this is the beginning of that run. And now there’s the last one out. Crivens. Also quite funny, for those who for some reason don’t know.
S.E. Smith, The United States Marine Corps in World War II: Volume III: Death of an Empire. Grandpa’s. These stories were compiled from actual Marines and the journalists who were embedded with them, very shortly after the war. There is not the level of polish or perspective one might hope from a later account, but the value of the immediate version is very clear. The photo illustrations are smudgy and not really worthwhile, and the language is full of ethnic slurs on the one hand and elisions of the kind of crudity that they actually used on the other. And yet there is something very true and very useful about it, and I am glad to have it. This is the last in its set.
Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. Wedgwood and Watt, Priestley and Erasmus Darwin and Matthew Boulton, plus assorted connections and hangers-on. They didn’t have the same lines that we do, they were just doing their cool things, and wandering about having their 18th century lives and affairs and stubbornness. I like Jenny Uglow a great deal, with one caveat that I would apply to more than one historian, and that is this: diagnostic medicine has improved so much even in the last fifty years, much less the last three centuries, that I am not at all comfortable with blithely labeling eighteenth century figures “hypochondriac.” That was a very small point in a very interesting whole, though.
Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. Winchester…really needs to get control of his footnotes. And this coming from a Terry Pratchett fan! It’s not that there are too many. It’s that he seems to be unable to know a thing without sticking it in a footnote without regard for whether it is relevant or even interesting in context. He has the sort of footnoting style that left me expecting to come upon “*I like cheese” as a footnote at any time. I am interested in very early geology, but Winchester’s style made this short book more of an eye-rolling slog than the length should have allowed. Seriously, you do not have to explain who Joseph Priestley is three times in one book–particularly not always with the same Priestley-you-know-the-oxygen-guy tagline. People who want to read about the beginning of modern geology either 1) already know Priestley, 2) got it the first time, or 3) don’t actually care (although they should because Priestley is a kick). Also if no one has ever required a dude to be married to be the Father of [His Field], no one should ever require a lady to be married to be the Mother of [Her Field], so PUT A SOCK IN IT, SIMON WINCHESTER: THAT IS MY MATURE AND CONSIDERED OPINION. Ahem. Yes. Well then. On that note.