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Books that I read in December
Books that I read in December:

24. Cooper, J. Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans (Leatherstocking Tales) (330 p.)

25. Spoor, Ryk. Spheres of Influence (Grand Central Arena series) (567 p.)

December total: 897 pages
2015 YTD total: 7,713 pages

Well, I didn't get to either 50 books or 15,000 pages, my usual anunal goals, but I did reach half of both targets. That's much better than I was afraid I might do this year, so I'll take it.

I didn't know all that much about The Last of the Mohicans going in, expected to find it tolerably interesting, and instead found it to be a quite readable adventure story, especially surprising to me given when it was written. I also expected it to be a bit more one-dimensionally, negatively stereotyped in its portrayal of Native American culture than it turned out to be. Don't get me wrong, there is some of that, but it's definitely more nuanced than novels written fifty years later were, and the settings and basic action pieces seem to be relatively true to life, at least compared to what little I know about the time period between the French & Indian war and the Revolution. It did take me longer than it should have to figure out which character's first name went with which character, as several of them are usually referred to by their last name, except when they aren't, and all of the natives and Natty Bumppo have at least two if not three or four different names they are referred to by various other characters and the narrator, and it did seem a bit slow and flowery in spots, but some of both of those may have been due to reading most of it in smaller chunks at a time. Recommended; I liked this one a lot more than I expected to.

I decided to end the year by taking a break from the shelf of Classics and read something fun--Spheres of Influence--a book I'd been holding in reserve for a while now, actually, for when I needed just such a break. No regrets; it was refreshing to be able to read through a long book that constantly kept me wanting to find out what happened next, and still finish it in a fairly short time. I liked it even more than I liked the first book--which was quite a bit--but despite the presence of a "what went before" preface, I would still recommend reading the first book rather than starting cold with this one. The addition of the Monkey King, in particular, adds an element of more overt humor, swashbuckling, and "sensawunda" that wasn't quite there in the first book. The one drawback, if one can even call it that, is that the book's ending feels too open-ended for my tastes, as it's more of a "to be continued" than a "and they had many more adventures, which we might tell you about someday"; the book's own A-plots that get resolved feel more like B-plots due to the near-omnipresence of the overarching continuing story-arc that gets moved along a few notches but otherwise is still not even close to being resolved. (That said, it's obviously an intentional pacing decision and doesn't really detract that much, it just hits a personal hot-button, since I don't have all that much time to read these days and thus tend to stay away from ungodly long epics like Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones, and while I wish GCA the level of popularity of books like that, I'd also rather see existing plots come to a climax and new plots start, than spin wheels for 2,000 pages.) I also groaned out loud at the source of one character's name (Maria-Susanna), though it makes sense in context and is explained in-story in such a way as to make it clear it's the author being tongue-in-cheek and actually doing something with the concept rather than too cutesy by far with a throwaway Easter egg. But don't let either of those points dissuade you; it's an excellent book that is both a throwback/homage to the classic science fiction stories of the 1930s and a unique, solid, modern story in its own right. Highly recommended. (The usual disclaimer: I've known Ryk online for more than 20 years now, so might have a bit of bias. I don't think I do, but you be the judge.)

Feudalism: Serf & Turf
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Books that I read in November
Books that I read in November:

22. Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness (245 p.)

23. Sakai, Stan. Senso (Usago Yojimbo) (167 p.)

November total: 412 pages
2015 YTD total: 6,816 pages

Heart of Darkness would've been best paired with Things Fall Apart, as they tell opposite sides of the European colonization of Africa, with similar time frames & locations. Neither is all that sympathetic to the Europeans, but Things Fall Apart is clearly more accurate & nuanced in its portrayals of native culture, as Heart of Darkness is written through the lens of the "white man's burden" to civilize the uncivilized natives still being accepted dogma, even when satirizing some of the worst excesses of the colonists and colonial bureaucracy. The point of Heart of Darkness also isn't its portrayal of the culture, but rather delving into the human psyche and how far it can bend in tough conditions. I was surprised to learn that Heart of Darkness is not-so-loosely based on Conrad's personal travels in Africa and stories of other white travelers he heard about while there. It's shorter than I though it'd be, too; this particular copy (edited by D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke) is half appendices containing contemporary reviews of Conrad in general & Heart of Darkness in particular, as well as contemporary essays about colonial efforts in Africa. It's a little slow in spots, and condensed in others, but it is a solidly good read. Recommended

Senso is built from the premise "What if the events of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds were preceded a couple centuries by a scouting mission that landed in the medieval Japan of Usagi Yojimbo?" The main difference is that Wells is making a point about the futility of war, with the end result being completely out of the protagonist's control, while Sakai is more telling an adventure story that involves the heroes personally winning the day in the end, even if they suffer some setbacks & deaths along the way. It's billed as the last (chronologically) Usagi Yojimbo story, but even if it's officially in-canon it isn't really the last story, because it also directly bridges the gap between Usagi proper and the Space Usagi story. I'd prefer for it to be non-canon--not because of who lives & who dies, primarily but because I don't think a science fiction alien invasion story (complete with a giant Gundam-like robot in an otherwise mostly period-accurate medieval Japan--which is fun, but also more than a bit tongue-in-cheek silly) really works in the overall story of Usagi Yojimbo, though it's fun & enjoyable as a "What if?"-style side story. (I also don't like having any further adventures of Usagi in the main series have to be limited to building towards all of the characters turning out as they did here.) Recommended, as Sakai always writes good stuff, and I liked this story quite a bit, but if you aren't already a fan of War of the Worlds or invasion-style or monster-fighting robots anime/manga like Attack on Titan or the actual Gundam series, you may want to give this one a pass.

Feudalism: Serf & Turf
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Books that I read in September
Books that I read in September:

19. Chopin, Kate. The Awakening, and Selected Stories (286 p.)
(Contents: The Awakening; Emancipation: a Life Fable; At the 'Cadian Ball; Désirée’s Baby; La Belle Zoraïde; At Chênière Caminada; The Story of an Hour; Lilacs; Athénaïse; A Pair of Silk Stockings; Nég Créol; Elizabeth Stock’s One Story; The Storm: A Sequel to "The 'Cadian Ball")

20. Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street (110 p.)

September total: 396 pages
2015 YTD: 6,190 pages

Running late this month, so just brief comments.

The main character in The Awakening annoyed me so much I wanted to slap some sense into her, which I don't think was quite the author's intent. The short stories that make up the rest of this collection, however, were quite good overall, and those are highly recommended.

The House on Mango Street is a memoir made up of a series of very brief (often 2-3 pages) vignettes about life as a kid in a poor, Hispanic area of Chicago. It's good, and contains plenty to make you think about.

Feudalism: Serf & Turf
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Books that I read in August
Books that I read in August:

16. Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland, and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist (365 p.)

17. Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange (192 p.)

18. Camus, Albert. The Stranger (123 p.)

August total: 680 pages
2015 YTD: 5,794 pages

Ah, that's better. And three surprisingly readable books this time, too. One might even argue that all are (very loosely) linked by a theme of "mental illness".

Wieland, and its unfinished prequel/companion, Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist are among the first "American" novels--written by an American, set in America, and featuring American sensibilities; Wieland (published in 1798) is also one of the origins of the American "gothic" genre later perfected by Edgar Allan Poe. In brief, in a time & place where ventriloquism is almost unknown, someone who has mastered the arts of both ventriloquism and vocal mimickry manages to throw other people's voices into places where they aren't, and thus cause a whole mess of trouble, including helping to convince the title character that he hears angels commanding him to do various tasks--and starts hearing them when the ventriloquist isn't around, too. Things go from bad to worse and several characters end up unjustly shamed, miserable, insane, dead, or any three of those four. Putting aside that ventriloquism generally doesn't work the way it's described here, I rather enjoyed this one and think it would make a dandy TV movie with just a few tweaks to cover over the worst narrative foibles. The Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist, on the other hand, tell the tale of how our resident ventriloquist wasn't really such a bad guy at heart, at least at first, but fell in with bad influences. Because it was never finished, it doesn't have as much impact, but it does provide some key insights into the character and how he came to be able (and willing) to do what he does in Wieland. It has its warts, but Wieland is worth the read, especially if you also like Poe and Mary Shelley. (Carwin is less so, especially since it ends mid-action, but I still recommend it after one has read Wieland.)

I've seen Kubrick's movie of A Clockwork Orange, but hadn't read the book until now. Also of note is that this was an unabridged edtion, which includes the last chapter that was originally left out for American publication (and as a result was also left out of the movie). The Russian-Cockney slang is pretty much an impenetrable wall for basic comprehension in large parts, but with the help of a second copy that has a partial glossary, I could follow it just well enough most of the time to figure out what was going on. Kubrick stuck extremely close to the novel, so if you've seen the movie, you've pretty much read the book, except for the last chapter... which just happens to radically change the protagonist, by having him start to grow out of his chaotic, antisocial ways and grow up into a rational adult who might actually care for someone other than himself. (From the point of view of Piaget's theories of cognitive development, one could argue that at the end, our dear Alex started to achieve formal operations.) Marks off for invented slang that is worse than that of a bad fantasy novel, but otherwise highly, thoroughly recommended.

I never had to read The Stranger in school, but I knew people who did and weren't exactly fans of it. I wasn't either at first (as it's almost Joycean or Seinfeldian in being a book about nothing, and that sort of book usually bores me to tears), but then I concluded that the protagonist and the way he describes his actions and reactions makes significantly more sense if he's read as having undiagnosed autism, but on the highly functioning, highly verbal part of the spectrum--in any case he certainly doesn't process emotions the same way as "normal" people do--at which point the book became much more interesting to me and the protagonist much less of an unambitious slacker and much more sympathetic. It's not a long or particularly difficult read, so I recommend it, but also recommend that while reading it, you consider the possibility that the main character may have Asperger's Syndrome or a related condition--it throws the whole book into a new light, especially the protagonist's treatment at the hands of the French legal system.

Feudalism: Serf & Turf
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Books that I read in July
Books that I read in July:


July total: A big, fat 0 pages
2015 YTD: 5,114 pages

It's finally happened. -sigh-

Don't get me wrong, I did actually read some this month, but I haven't finished any of those books yet.

Feudalism: Serf & Turf

Books that I read in June
Books that I read in June:

13. Sakai, Stan. Two Hundred Jizo (Usagi Yojimbo, bk. 29) (207 p.)

14. Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre (496 p.)

15. Fforde, Jasper. The Eyre Affair (Tuesday Next novels, #1) (374 p.)

June total: 1,077 pages
2015 YTD: 5,114 pages

Usagi Yojimbo is always an excellent read, and this volume was no exception. One of the stories involves a murder mystery, another is built around an explanation of how soy sauce is made, and the title story involves a classic (and yet not clichéd) use of foreshadowing & karma. Strongly recommended, as usual.

I somehow managed to avoid being required to read Jane Eyre in school, and I think I can better appreciate it now as a result--I certainly wouldn't've liked it at that time. I can see why it's considered a classic, and, while some of the coincidences are a bit contrived, among other things the book does well, the ending shows that it's possible to have a happy ending for the main characters without everything being perfect, happy, fluffy rainbows.

After finally reading Jane Eyre, it seemed only appropriate to follow that up with a re-read of The Eyre Affair, so that I could properly get the jokes about the novel. It's still brilliant, silly, and funny, and now I want to read the other Thursday Next novels that much more. Thoroughly recommended, even if you haven't read Jane Eyre.

Feudalism: Serf & Turf
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Books that I read in May
Books that I read in May:

11. Baum, L. Frank. The Emerald City of Oz (Oz, #6) (295 p.)

12. Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647 (385 p.)

May total: 680 pages
2015 total: 4,037 pages

The Emerald City of Oz is a tale of two stories. In one, Uncle Henry & Aunt Em come to live in Oz and take a road trip with Dorothy & the Wizard to visit some of the odder parts of Oz. In the other, the Nome King plans & executes a full-scale invasion of Oz, along with the most powerful & untrustworthy allies around. The former has almost all of the sensawunda, while the latter is by far the better story, with actual antagonists, and it ties them together and ends with a deus ex machina followed by an (unsuccessful) attempt by Baum to make this the last-ever Oz book. It's a fun, light read that does what it can to threaten the status quo and build tension despite the most famous characters being mired in the concrete of unchanging continuity, and the Nomes (and General Guph in particular) are delightfully evil.

Of Plymouth Plantation is the history of the founding of the Plymouth Colony by the Puritans by the man who served as their governor for thirty-some years, and thus the actual story of what become the whole Plymouth Rock, First Thanksgiving, etc. American mythology. Even adapted to modern spelling & grammar, this is something of a dry read with some archaic turns of a phrase, but it gave me a deeper insight into the Puritans' background in England and then Holland, as well as their dealings & relations with the Indians, English ship captains, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Virginia Colony, and their financial backers in England, and the settlers' eventual spreading out to what is now Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. This was especially intriguing because we've been working on my wife's genealogy and have traced lines for both of her parents back to Massachusetts & Connecticut in this time period--though not to the Plymouth Colony itself, as I recall--and this book provided a lot of context for what those people went through, some of the early conflicts with the Indians (and each other). Even accounting for bias, Bradford generally seems to be remarkably clear-eyed and truthful in his history for the time period, even when discussing the colony's rivals and enemies. Very much recommended for the insight into the founding of the first permanent English settlement in New England, and thus some of the foundations of the United States, though I acknowledge that it's not necessarily a text that anyone can just pick up and plow through.

Feudalism: Serf & Turf
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Books that I read in April
Books that I read in April:

8. Spoor, Ryk. Paradigms Lost (526 p.)

9. Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451 (184 p.)

10. Munroe, Randall. What If? (303 p.)

April total: 1,013 pages
2015 total: 3,357 pages

Three good books this month.

Paradigms Lost is an expanded form of Digital Knight, a collection of sequential short stories telling a larger story about an expert in information gathering and digital video/sound processing who's world gets turned on its head overnight when he discovers that vampires & werewolves are very real, but also not necessarily all they appear to be. It also crosses over somewhat with Spoor's Balanced Sword fantasy series (though it's not necessary to read that to enjoy this--but you may find yourself wanting to, if just to be able to find out what happens to those characters), and I'm guessing it also links to (or at least tips a hat to) his Grand Central Arena science fiction series (though if that latter is true, I haven't read enough of it yet to reach any explicit spelling out of what I suspect the link is). It's good, in a similar vein to Butcher's Dresden Files, except with high tech instead of Dresden's low-tech. (One story somewhat broke my suspension of disbelief--one in which the character suddenly becomes a super-competent courtroom litigator--but the story's payoff was a sweet way out of what looked like it was going to be a narrative corner, so I was willing to overlook the piece of the story that bothered me.) When I finished the book, I wanted to read more about these characters, which is always a good sign. Definitely recommended.

I remember reading Fahrenheit 451 in high school or college, but I didn't remember much of the specifics, and Bradbury was next after Austen, so I gave it a go. It's quite good, but felt a little thin in parts, or perhaps in need of a little more unpacking. The messages (both the surface one of anti-censorship and the deeper one of how easily mass media turns the general populace into cultural illiterates that are little more than sheep at best) still hold up. The second half (as well as the anti-TV message) reminds me of Stephen King's The Running Man, though I liked the latter better.

I've been reading What If online since it started, and having several of these in hard-copy form--as well as the all-new columns that haven't appeared on the site--was definitely an attraction, and I'm glad I got it. The quirky, chaotic sense of humor, and the straight (yet generally explosively funny) answers to varyingly absurd (yet very earnest) questions makes me laugh just about every time, yet it also makes what is often otherwise highly complex, theoretical science understandable and interesting to the layman. The story about what if a baseball were suddenly accelerated almost to the speed of light, as well as the one about what would happen if you created a periodic table of elements with cubes of each element in its purest state are both absolutely grand. Highly, thoroughly recommended.

Feudalism: Serf & Turf
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Books that I read in March
Books that I read in March:

5. Hatke, Ben. The Return of Zita the Spacegirl (Zita the Spacegirl) (222 p.)

6. Wangerin, Walt, Jr. The Book of God (850 p.)

7. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice (399 p.)

March total: 1,471 pages
2015 total: 2,344 pages

Argh, where has the month gone? Better keep this short.

The third book in the Zita trilogy wraps up the cliffhanger from the second volume, but while this was a good read, I think books #1 & 2 were even better and this one seemed to lack a certain depth and some of the character interaction. It's apparently gotten a little flack from parents who give this to younger kids, as it involves slavery/prison labor as well as (arguably) attempted genocide, rather than just the high adventure & shady dealings by people who are somewhat morally grey of the previous volumes, thus possibly starting some difficult conversations, but I suspect most kids won't latch onto those elements. As a whole the series is eminently readable, and this volume caps it off well, so I'd recommend ignoring the naysayers and reading it anyway.

The Book of God is a novel-like retelling of the "historical" sections of the Bible, from God's promise to Abraham to Jesus Christ's death & resurrection, as a series of shorter stories with a unified über-plot. It leaves out a lot, and add in details often culled from archaeo-sociological research into what people were probably like in general in the relevant time periods to flesh out characters to provide backstory or side-stories that help make the people involved come to life. The result is more readable en masse than the original source material, and I'd recommend it as a good read, though it's probably best read while keeping a sense of distance between it and one's own core religious beliefs.

Pride and Prejudice is one of those classics I've read a lot about over the years, but managed to avoid while I was in school. Having now read all about the comic misunderstandings and character growth of Elizabeth Bennet & Mr. Darcy (& friends), I'm simultaneously glad I read it and glad I didn't have to read it in school. I can sort of see why it's timelessly popular, and can appreciate it, but it's not really my thing.

Feudalism: Serf & Turf
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Books that I read in February
Books that I read in February:

3. Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women (283 p.)

4. Alcott, Louisa May. Little Men (315 p.)

February total: 598 pages
2015 total: 873 pages

Two months in, and I still haven't cracked 1,000 pages. Sheesh. (March's reading will definitely change that, though.)

All Alcott this month. I'd never read either one of these before. Both are very good reads, though they suffer a little from a dollop of naivete & rose-colored glasses--not fatally so, but it's noticeable nonetheless.

Little Women is the story of a year or so in the life of the four March sisters, especially Jo (a semi-autobiographical verison of Louisa herself). Little Men is set a few years later, and is the story of a year or so in the life of the children in Jo's boarding house school. I vastly preferred the story of the latter, but thought the former was better-written. (Though I read an abridged edition, which might have made a difference.) While Little Men can be read without having first read Little Women, there are undercurrents in it that reference the earlier story whose importance & relevance would otherwise be missed by a reader.

All in all, I would very definitely recommend both of them, but I suspect non-teenagers will probably get the most enjoyment out of them. (Younger, because they haven't lost their own rose-colored glasses yet, and older, because they have a better chance of being able to place them in their proper historical context while enjoying the character studies, rather than eye-rolling at the "old-fashionedness" and giving up rather than trying to get into the story.

Feudalism: Serf & Turf
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