Books, old and new

This is mostly about books I’ve read recently, but a few recent conversations with my dad reminded me of a few older ones that I felt like writing about. So:

  • The Magicians, by Lev Grossman


I had just started reading this when I wrote the last post about books, after seeing it on various lists of must-read fantasy books and noticing that a new one in the series had just come out. If I had to give a one-sentence description, it would been “Narnia meets the American college version of Hogwarts, but with more angst.” The reading experience reminded me quite a bit of Holly Black’s Tithe, in that I didn’t really like any of the characters (in the case of Tithe, I didn’t relate to any of them at all), but I couldn’t put the book down because it was such a well-realized fantasy setting. In both cases, I cared more about finding out new possibilities in the setting than about any of the characters. I don’t want to talk about the plot, because of spoilers, but I got kind of sick of the main character being gloomy all the time. You could make a very strong argument that Quentin’s near-perpetual unhappiness in the face of his own privilege, magic, and wondrous new lands is very thematically important to the book, but at some point it wears you down as a reader. I guess this is either damning with faint praise or its opposite, but in the end I’d recommend The Magicians.

  • Last Bus to Woodstock, by Colin Dexter


It probably isn’t apparently from this blog, but I’ve been kind of obsessed with the Masterpiece Mystery series Endeavour this summer (and last summer, when the first season aired), which is a prequel series to the Inspector Morse series that aired in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, which was based in turn on Colin Dexter’s books starring the eponymous moody, intellectual detective and his no-nonsense, uneducated-but-capable colleague, Sgt. Lewis (who also got his own spin-off sequel show as an inspector with a moody, intellectual sergeant named Hathaway). Naturally, I wanted to read the books that started it all, so I picked up the first one. Verdict: it’s OK. My biggest problem with it is that it feels kind of dated, particularly in attitudes toward women. The book was written nearly 40 years ago (1975), and acceptable views toward women have changed a lot (for the better, although we’ve a ways to go yet in my opinion). As forgiving as I was inclined to be, there’s only so much you can read about a murder victim’s supposed promiscuity and conflation of rape and casual sex (seriously. ugh.) before it starts to turn your stomach.

That said, if there’s one thing the book does really well, it’s the setup of the dynamic between Morse and Lewis, which comes across like a more realistic and balanced version of Holmes and Watson. Morse is described both in Endeavour and in one of the Inspector Morse episodes I’ve seen as “a good detective and a poor policeman,” and both are in evidence in Last Bus to Woodstock. Morse is aware of his failings in thoroughness in some aspects of the investigation, has a definite tendency to leap to conclusions, and seems to spend most of his time mostly wrong or right but totally lacking in evidence. On the other hand, his persistence and his ability to bring together many disparate elements in a case, from decoding a secret message in a poorly-spelled letter to the web of lies woven by a cheating husband and his suffering wife, allow him to eventually solve the case. Lewis is a perfect foil for Morse: Lewis is a family man where Morse is perpetually single; Lewis favors the simple explanation while Morse concocts elaborate theories; Lewis is thorough and concerned about law and procedure while Morse neglects several possible leads and uses subterfuge to obtain evidence. The sergeant also

Long story short (or long, as it happens), I can’t necessarily suggest reading Last Bus to Woodstock, but I whole-heartedly recommend EndeavourLewis, and, to a lesser extent, the Inspector Morse TV series, if you’re looking for some good British murder mysteries.

  • Kahawa, by Donald Westlake


Sort of continuing the theme, Donald Westlake was a prolific mystery writer with many pseudonyms (seriously, he wrote 111 books by my count, of which 51 were published under his own name). He is probably most famous for his semi-comic crime novels featuring John Dortmunder, a professional thief who plans and executes capers with a small teams of fellow criminals. They’re pretty entertaining reads, with a general “feel” somewhere between noir and Terry Pratchett.

While it is a crime novel and it does have funny moments, Kahawa is a different sort of book. Set in Uganda in 1977, it deals with the theft of a train full of coffee from under the nose of Idi Amin’s regime. There’s a lot of good international crime/espionage-type stuff in the book, and the heist is satisfyingly audacious and risky, but the sections that made Kahawa really memorable for me were those dealing with Amin and with several fairly normal people who become victims of his dictatorial insanity. Before I read this book, I was aware of Idi Amin mostly as a punchline; the crazy dictator who maybe ate people and thought he was the rightful king of Scotland. Kahawa (which was exhaustively researched) makes it clear that yes, Amin was totally crazy, and a lot of the things he did sound like amusing quirkiness from far away, but when you realize that this person had total control of an entire country and his regime was responsibly for the deaths of between 100,000 and 500,000 people, it becomes downright chilling.

  • Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, by Gretchen Rubin


When I was applying for the Rhodes Scholarship last year, a lawyer of my mother’s acquaintance who was helping me think through my personal statement encouraged me to read up about Cecil Rhodes (who created the scholarship). It was an interesting process, because I am supportive of his appreciation for education, and I went into this minor research project wanting to like him, but I couldn’t reconcile that with the fact that he earned his money as the head of the De Beers mining company (which currently controls 40% of the world’s diamond market and is somewhat…problematic) and was such an strong supporter of British colonialism that he founded the colony of Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe) in southern Africa. Like most people of his time, he was pretty racist and sexist. In my next conversation with the lawyer, I think I said that if I met him today, I’d like to shake his hand, then slap him in the face. It was a good exercise, all in all, to gain some insight into the person from whose money I was hoping to benefit.

Anyway, since I’ll be a graduate student at Churchill College in Cambridge University next fall, I thought I should read a biography of the man in whose honor it was founded in 1958: (Sir) Winston Churchill. Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill is, fittingly many books in one, attempting to give many views of the great and flawed man who embodied Britain standing fast against the menace of Hitler.  Both affirmative and negative arguments are presented for many questions about Churchill: was he a good father? was he an alcoholic? were he and FDR friends, or merely allies? was he a good statesman? was he a good husband? The overall impression is of a ambitious and self-confident person, determined to make his mark on history and utterly sure that he would do so, the perfect man for the stern years of the Second World War, who was immediately cast out by a voting public that sensed his belligerence and determination to cling to the Empire would not serve them well in peacetime. Sir Winston certainly had a long and interesting life, well worth reading about. I look forward to toasting him in the fall.

  • The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King (+ other Mary Russell books)


Something that is obvious if you have spent any significant length of time talking to me in a social setting is that I’m a huge Sherlock Holmes fan. I’ve read all the original stories multiple times and I’m wearing a Sherlock shirt as I type this. That Sherlock turned out to be so good was a huge shock, actually; I find most adaptations of beloved works rarely live up to their source material. I was equally skeptical when my mother (an avid reader of mystery novels) recommended a series of books featuring as their protagonists Sherlock Holmes, now retired to the Sussex Downs, and Mary Russell, a young woman, mostly raised in America, who turns out to be his intellectual equal. I nearly rolled my eyes just now at the potential for cliche and bad writing in that setup. However, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and its sequels have turned out to be not only thrilling mystery novels with an awesome female protagonist, but also very true to the spirit and characters of the original stories. Highly recommended for fans of the original stories.


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