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Read any good books lately? We want to know about them.

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The Terra-cotta Dog (Inspector Montalbano Mysteries) by Andrea Camilleri
The Terra-Cotta Dog – Andrea Camilleri – 3.5***
Book two in the Inspector Montalbano series has him solving a 50-year-old crime. Montalbano is a wonderful lead character. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, nor sweat the small stuff. He’s intelligent, a loyal friend and is always ready to find the humor in a situation, no matter how dire. Camilleri populates the novel with an assortment of colorful characters that complicate Montalbano’s life. Interesting, engaging and entertaining. I’ll keep reading the series.
LINK to my review

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James F | 1603 comments Allardyce Nicoll, Studies in Shakespeare [1927] 164 pages

Chapters on each of the four major tragedies; has something interesting to say about the relationship between Hamlet and Horatio, but otherwise totally misreads the plays. He misunderstands Othello because he considers that women are "largely unimportant" in the major tragedies, and hence totally misreads Desdemona; he considers King Lear a "failure" on the road of decline from Macbeth to Cymbeline and A Winter's Tale.

G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire: interpretations of Shakespearean tragedy [orig. 1930; 5th rev. ed., 1957] 343 pages

Together with Bradley's Shakespearian Tragedy, this is probably one of the most cited books on Shakespeare's plays. Knight has a more modern seeming approach; as he himself describes it, "We have not understood Shakespeare. And our error has been this: a concentration on 'character' and realistic appearances generally, things which do not constitute Shakespeare's primary glory; and a corresponding and dangerous, indeed a devastating, neglect of Shakespeare's poetic symbolism." In other words, he recognizes that Shakespeare was not, as nineteenth century criticism presented him, the great natural genius of realistic description, but a playwright who dealt in symbols and conventions to present his ideas.

The book consisted originally (1930) of 13 essays; two more essays and an appendix were added later, as well as some additional footnotes. The first essay gives his critical "theory" of how to interpret Shakespeare and is the most important; the second essay presents his view of Hamlet as essentially the villain rather than the hero of Hamlet; there are other essays on Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, and Timon of Athens, and two essays on Shakespeare and Tolstoy, including an answer to Tolstoy's attack on King Lear. Not all I would agree with, but all very interesting and giving a coherent approach to the works as a whole.

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The Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano
The Girl She Used To Be – David Cristofano – 2**
A young woman in Federal Witness Protection Program is surprised when a man calls her by her real name. On the positive side, Cristofano writes a fast-paced suspense filled story full of twists and turns. On the other hand … the plot stretches credulity too far and at the end I’m left just shaking my head and muttering “Huh?”
LINK to my review

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James F | 1603 comments Liu Cixin, The Dark Forest [2008; tr. 2015] 513 pages

The second book in the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy. The Trisolarans are approaching Earth, the sophons have shut down basic research and monitor everything that happens on Earth, and the Earth government sets up the "Wallfacer" project, where four individuals are given vast powers and resources to think up and carry out strategies on their own without explanations to confuse the sophons. The idea was carried out a little contradictorily; the Wallfacers (except the major character of the book, Luo Ji) give reports on their strategies to the UN and they are discussed and argued about, in front of the sophons. Of course, the strategies they discuss are not their real strategies, but the sophons must know that, and it seems to be a contradiction to the nature of the project. On the other hand, it does give the necessary information to the reader. . .

The book struck me for most of the way as being a fast-paced science fiction adventure, with somewhat less serious content than the first book, although the bureaucractic infighting relates to the dilemma of the first book between the need for strong leadership and discipline to counteract the bureaucracy and the need for democracy and individualism to advance scientific and social progress. (Actually I think real democracy is the best antidote to bureaucracy, and perhaps ultimately that is what Liu is saying.) The mob mentality and the way it is manipulated by the bureaucrats, especially the Americans, is accurate and chilling. There is much ethical and political reflection in the novel, and some of the scientific/technological ideas were interesting.

The book I think only reached the level of the first book toward the end, with the revelation of the "dark forest" hypothesis as an explanation of the Fermi Paradox. Very frightening idea, which may not be wrong. I thought from the beginning Luo Ji's strategy would involve the sort of reasoning about other civilizations beyond Earth and Trisolaris that it did, but the details and the "dark forest" idea were a surprise.

One small point I liked: when the author uses some idea from previous science fiction classics, he actually has a character mention them (e.g. Isaac Asimov) as a sort of in the text "footnote"; I've noticed similar things in some postmodernist literary novels. I didn't notice any references to Stanislaw Lem, however, and I did see similarities in the ideas to some of his books; I haven't seen him mentioned in connection with Chinese science fiction but I can't help but think he was an influence.

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Call the Midwife A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth
Call the Midwife – Jennifer Worth – 4****
Originally titled: The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times . This was renamed to coincide with the popular television series. I think Worth did a good job of honestly relaying her experiences during the 1950s, serving as a midwife in London’s East End. There are some graphic scenes, but I felt they were honestly portrayed.
LINK to my review

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Bitter Grounds by Sandra Benítez
Bitter Grounds - Sandra Benítez – 4****
This is a sweeping historical epic covering three generations of two families in El Salvador: the wealthy land-owners, and the servants employed by them. Through these families the reader learns something of the history of El Salvador from about 1932 to 1975. I really enjoyed the way Benítez showed these two classes interacting. As much as they tried to remain separated, they were inextricably linked and their lives held many parallels. Winner of the American Book Award, 1998.
LINK to my review

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James F | 1603 comments T.S. Eliot, Essays on Elizabethan Drama [1956] 178 pages

This is a collection of essays written between 1919 and 1932, originally published in 1932, republished in 1956 minus the essays on Shakespeare and with the addition of one essay written in 1934. I was not impressed by his essay on Shakespeare in the Ridler anthology, so when he said he had left out his Shakespeare essays because of the same reasons I didn't like that one, I decided to give this a try. It has essays on Seneca in Elizabethan translation, Marlowe, Jonson, Middleton, Heywood, Tourneur, Ford, Massinger, and Marston. In some ways it reminded me of Swinburne's 1908 book, The Age of Shakespeare, which is also a poet's account of the "minor" Elizabethans (five of the same authors are dealt with in both books), but Eliot is a bit less subjective and gives more evidence for his views. It's been fifteen or twenty years since I read any of these dramatists, and I think most of them except Marlowe and Jonson I've only read one or two plays by, so I may try to read a few more, to see whether I agree with Eliot's assessments. I'm sure I will never see any of them performed; one problem with the Shakespeare Festivals (Utah and elsewhere) is that they perform Shakespeare and "balance" him with modern plays, so the one thing you will never see is anything by his contemporaries -- which is really the context he needs to be put into.

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Honeymoon with My Brother A Memoir by Franz Wisner
Honeymoon With My Brother – Franz Wisner – 2**
When his fiancée dumped him five days before their wedding, Franz called on his brother Kurt to help him cancel the event. Nonrefundable airline tickets helped make the decision to take the honeymoon anyway. This should have been interesting, but I quickly grew bored. I found him self-absorbed and immature. His fiancée did the right thing when she bailed out.
LINK to my review

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Melissa (melissasd) | 856 comments The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
3 ★

The Valley of Amazement is an extremely detailed well written account of the life of Violet Minturn, starting in 1905 and ending in 1939. The reader meets her when she is 7. Her story is a very emotional one full of ups and downs. Unfortunately there are more downs. I feel that the author did an excellent job describing every aspect of the story and allowing the reader to feel for the characters. My heart broke when Violet's did and I smiled when things went right. Violet makes many mistakes throughout her life that makes her life harder, but she really has no way around most of it. She had no one to learn from. Toward the end of the book the point of view changes to her mother, Lucretia "Lulu" "Lucia" Minturn. The reader is taken back to 1897 when Lucretia is 16 and we learn how it all got started. This really brings the whole thing together. There is so much detail in this book, but most of it is needed and it's definitely not over done. With all that Violet and Lucretia went through, the ending is a delight and brought a tear to my eye.

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The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
The Forgotten Garden – Kate Morton – 4****
In 1913 a 4-year-old girl is found alone on the wharf in Australia. In 2005, her granddaughter inherits a cottage in Cornwall from her grandmother, and sets out to solve the mystery of her grandmother’s origins. What a magical story. The action moves back and forth in time, from the late 1800s to 1913 to 1975 to 2005, and changes perspective from chapter to chapter. I was engaged and interested from beginning to end.
LINK to my review

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James F | 1603 comments Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time [2018] 240 pages

Carlo Rovelli, like his friend, colleague and occasional opponent Lee Smolin, is one of the few well-known physicists who takes philosophy seriously. This analysis of the nature of time, written very simply (I would say even more simply than his book from last year, Reality is Not What it Seems), combines physics and philosophy to try to explain both what time is (or may be) in itself and what it is for us. The first part is a history of the concept of time, from the relational view of Aristotle to the absolute view of Newton and back with Einstein's special and general theories of relativity, as time loses first its unity (there are different times in different places and at different speeds), it's direction (the elementary equations of physics are reversible in time), the concept of the "present", and finally becomes discrete in quantum gravity theories. The second and third parts attempt to reconstruct our experience of time, assuming that the increase of entropy (which he considers as a question of perspective -- entropy relative to an observer, an interesting idea which is the main new thing for me in the book) and the non-commutative aspects of quantum interacttions impose the "arrow of time" and that our experience of it is due to the traces of the past in memory.

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Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
Lilac Girls – Martha Hall Kelly – 3.5***
Using three different narrators, the novel tells the WW2 story of the women prisoners held at the notorious Nazi prison camp Ravensbrück. Kelly used two real-life women: Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite and Broadway actress, and Dr. Herta Oberheuser, a German physician who became the only female surgeon operating at the prison camp. The third narrator is Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager who is sent to the camp along with her sister, whose story is loosely based on that of a pair of sisters who survived the operations they underwent at Ravensbrück. It’s good historical fiction and a decent debut. I look forward to reading Kelly’s next book.
LINK to my review

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Left Neglected by Lisa Genova
Left Neglected – Lisa Genova – 3***
As she has done for other neurological disorders, Genova crafts a compelling story that educates and entertains. I felt Sarah’s frustrations as she worked with occupational therapists to try to regain some of her lost functionality. I empathized with her inability to let go of the high expectations she set for herself. I thought the book was interesting and informative, but not as compelling as some of her other works.
LINK to my review

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James F | 1603 comments Liu Cixin, Death's End [2010, tr. 2016] 603 pages [Kindle]

The last book in the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy. The protagonist is a woman named Chen Xin, who succeeds Luo Ji as the "Swordholder", maintaining the balance of deterrence. Like the second book, this is for most of its length a great faced-paced science fiction adventure with much technological and social speculation, ethical questions, as well as suspense, excitement, and problems to be solved. I was very disappointed at the end, however. Through most of the book, we are given clues, especially the fairy tales, and try to imagine how the problems facing humanity will be solved; as one possible solution after another fails or is ruled out, the reader's curiosity increases to a peak. At the end, as we expect to find the author's solutions, the whole plot is just left as loose ends and the ending is one which does not actually solve any of the problems (or tell us they cannot be solved); rather it suddenly jumps ahead to an ending that could with appropriate changes be added on to any science fiction novel ever written, as if the author simply couldn't figure out the answers so he just abandoned the storyline altogether. I felt I had wasted my time trying to work things out; it's as if you're reading an Agatha Christie mystery and just before the detective is going to reveal the murderer the world is hit by an asteroid destroying all life. The last chapter might be a good ending for another book, but for this trilogy it just leaves everything unresolved.

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James F | 1603 comments Carlo Rovelli, Anaximander [2007, tr 2011] 209 pages

Rovelli, a contemporary physicist, uses the accomplishments of Anaximander of Miletus, the pre-Socratic thinker who is credited with writing the first prose work and whom Rovelli describes as the first scientist, as a springboard for meditations on the nature of science and its history. The book is well-written, and although Rovelli is not a historian or philosopher of science I didn't find anything which was obviously wrong, as I often do with books about ancient philosophy. The final chapter where he takes on religion is the only really weak part of the book, as anti-religious polemic usually is -- I think it's necessary, but so little is understood about the origins of religion that there is much speculation, as Rovelli admits. His choice of writers to discuss on the subject is obviously subjective and not the writers I would probably choose myself. As a whole, however, if the book doesn't break any new ground it is certainly an inspirational account of someone who played a fundamental and too little acknowledged role in the history of humanity.

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Melissa (melissasd) | 856 comments Heir of Fire (Throne of Glass, #3) by Sarah J. Maas
Heir of Fire (Throne of Glass #3) by Sarah J. Maas
5 ★

As the King of Adarlan continues to increase his strength and army, Celaena is learning who she is and what she can do. She is learning to use her magically abilities without burning everything to the ground. She is unaware of what is going on in Rifthold, but Chaol is working to learn more as well to fight the king while Dorian has a new girl in his life. There are so many new characters in this book that I actually took notes. But don't worry, there is no confusion. The new characters all have secrets like the original cast as well. The witches now have their on story line, but I felt that it was a distraction from the main story. Most likely it will all come together soon. This is a very busy book told from many points of view. It really breaks up the story well. You never get bored. The new characters are interesting and I look forward to learning more about them in the next book...well...those that lived.

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Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen
Mrs Poe – Lynn Cullen – 2**
Historical fiction that focuses on the relationship between Frances Osgood, a poetess, and Edgar Allan Poe, and complicated by the attempts at friendship between Poe’s wife and Frances. Well, I wanted to like this. I just never really felt any love between them. I got tired of the longing and yearning and attempts to stay apart, only to be inextricably drawn together. I found the author’s notes at the end of the novel more interesting than from the novel itself.
LINK to my review

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Melissa (melissasd) | 856 comments Seeker (Riders, #2) by Veronica Rossi
Seeker (Riders #2) by Veronica Rossi
4 ★

Gideon and the gang must enter The Rift and find Bas who was pulled into it at the end of the last book. Daryn tries it alone since she feels like it's her fault, but fails. There are deadly creatures in The Rift called Harrows that kill. Plus, they have to deal with Samrael. He claims that he has changed and wants to go back to the real world, but has he really? The gang must decide that. This is a fun young adult series that follows the 4 horsemen and their seeker. The book is a quick read and the story flows well, but I had to wait awhile for book 2 in the series and it doesn't do a very good job of reminding the reader what happened previously. I'm not sure when book 3 will come out, but it won't stop me from reading it. The characters are good and their back stories are interesting. The story line has a lot of potential.

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The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Road – Cormac McCarthy – 3***
A man and his son wander a desolate and destroyed American landscape after some unnamed world-wide disaster has pretty much killed off most of the earth’s population and destroyed the environment. I don’t need a happy ending in order to appreciate and like a book. But I do need to feel some sense of purpose to the story, and I couldn’t figure out what McCarthy was trying to impart. Still, there is something about McCarthy’s writing that captivates me. I like his spare style. I like the way he paints the landscape so that I feel I am living in the novel (even if it’s a horrible place to be). I think he’s one of those author’s whose works I appreciate, even when I don’t particularly like them.
LINK to my review

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James F | 1603 comments Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith, edd., Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power [1994] 409 pages

A few years back now I read translations of the pagan magical texts written in Demotic and in Greek -- I don't even remember now for what project; this book contains the later Coptic texts from the Christian period. They're not all strictly Christian; there's a lot of syncretism in any magical texts, the selections begin largely pagan and Jewish and gradually the pagan elements drop out and the Christian and Christian-Gnostic elements become more dominant.

There is also a continuum in the selections going from texts which are essentially just prayers to those which are full of "magic names of power" and involve potions and rituals -- the editors quote Malinowski's phrase, "the coefficient of weirdness". Perhaps the prayers only seem less weird because we're more familiar with "we ask these things in the name of Jesus Christ" than with "in the name of Abba Abba Abba Ablanatha Nafla Akrama Chamari Ely Temach Achoocha" and so forth, but the underlying mindset is the same, things happen not by natural processes but by supernatural interventions which can be influenced by words and holy names. The general introduction argues that the distinction of "religion" and "magic" is basically just a Eurocentric distinction between "our" Christian culture and "primitive" cultures, and that the existence of these Christian texts undermines the distinction -- hence the editors' preference for the term "ritual power" rather than "magic".

Reading this book after Rovelli's Anaximander I could really see what he means when he says that there is an eternal conflict between two worldviews, the scientific and the magical/religious, and that the latter is always the majority while the former only becomes an important minority for short periods in particular places, as in fifth century Ionia or eighteenth century Europe.

The selections begin with some older texts in Old Coptic, then are divided into groups such as Healing spells, Protective spells, Sexual spells, and Curses ("make his male member like an ant that is frozen in winter, tiny and frozen"); they end up with a few collections that were the property of individual magicians or groups. The introductions to the various selections point out what is distinctive in each, so the book seemed less repetitious than the collections I read previously.

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My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier – 4****
Oh, what a tangled web we weave …. Wonderfully atmospheric, gothic psychological suspense. Rachel is flirtatious one moment, and standoffishly proper then next. She seems callously indifferent in one scene and then solicitous and concerned about Philip on the next page. She’s both captivating and infuriating!
LINK to my review

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James F | 1603 comments Bronislaw Malinowski, Sex and Repression in Savage Society [1927] 251 pages

This is a classic text in anthropological theory. At the time it was written, modern anthropology was just beginning and Freudian psychoanalysis was at the height of its popularity. Malinowski in the first two sections uses his research in the Trobriand Islands as the basis for suggesting that the hypothesis of the Oedipus complex is based on the conditions of patriarchal society and needs to be modified to account for matrilineal societies where biological paternity is not known and the role of the father is very different, with the disciplining functions of the patriarchal father excercised by the maternal uncle; he further notes that early sexuality is not supressed in Trobriand society and that the hypothesis of the latency period also needs to be limited to societies with certain moral codes. In these two chapters he compares the European and Melanesian families in detail and describes Melanesian myths concerning the family and sexuality. The description of the Trobriand family is the most interesting part of the book. His description of the authoritarian, patriarchal European family on the other hand seems almost like a caricature; he admits that in England and America the patriarchal organization is breaking down somewhat, but he considers the ultimate result of that will be weak, hen-pecked fathers to be pitied. He aparently cannot imagine a family where the husband and wife are equal partners. However, he mentions these "modern" tendencies only to exclude them from his description.

Malinowski not only suggests that Freud's theories need to be considered in the light of anthropological study of "savage" cultures, but also that there are differences of class even within Europe, and that psychoanalysis has concentrated overly much on the upper classes (Freud's wealthy neurotic patients, as he sarcastically remarks) ignoring the peasantry and proletariat -- a good point, but his view of the peasant and proletarian family is entirely stereotypes about the brutal, drunken lower-class father who (unlike the cultured bourgeois father) beats his wife and children. It seems that even an anthropologist as perceptive as Malinowski finds it easier to escape Eurocentrism with regard to foreign cultures than to escape the class prejudices of his own. He considered himself in all this to be making a contribution both to anthropology and to psychoanalytic theory. He shows a misunderstanding of Freud when he says at the beginning that psychoanalysis is a study of the influence of the family organization on the mind; in fact for the Freudians the theory of the Oedipus complex is a dogma about the mind which purports to explain the family organization. The Freudians of course responded to his ideas as an attack on their dogma; Ernest Jones wrote a reply in which he asserts that the ignorance of paternity in Trobriand society and the entire matrilineal system are just results of repressing the knowledge of paternity and displacing the hatred of the father onto the uncle to avoid the consequences of the Oedipus complex which exists everywhere and is the basis of human civilization, taking seriously Freud's hypothetical "primal crime".

In the remainder of the book Malinowski replies, criticizing Totem and Taboo and moving further away from the Freudian ideas of the first two parts, and trying to give an alternative account of the beginnings of civilization. Clearly, Malinowski throughout the book takes Freudianism more seriously than I can, but he does explain that if psychoanalysis is to be a scientific theory it must be based on empirical study of actual societies and not a priori universal metaphysical theories of human nature. While his criticisms of Freud are well-taken, his own positive theory has major problems. Between his and Freud's accounts of pre-cultural humanity, there is not much to choose: both are pontificating about primate societies in complete ignorance, since the first studies of apes and monkeys in the field were far in the future at that time. His absolute distinction of animal "instinct" and human "culture", his claim that there are no differences between groups or individuals of the same species among the primates, and so forth are obviously contradicted by the books I have read on chimpanzees and baboons. On the other side of the divide, there was also little known at the time about human evolution. His claim that human marriage is created by ceremonies and that all societies punish couples who cohabit without them seems also to be based on upper-class Europeans; judging from literature "common law marriages" are the rule, and formal marriages the exception, among peasants and workers in much of the world outside Europe. (This doesn't affect his claim that human marriages are dependent on social sanctions, which I think is a valid point.) There are many other claims about human culture that I found very strange; but perhaps this is because there has been much change in the norms of marriage and the family in the past hundred years.

I don't want to give a completely negative account; Malinowski is an intelligent thinker and for a first attempt at integrating depth psychology and anthropology the book is quite interesting. Its interest, however, today is primarily in the history of ideas.

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The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
The Yearling – Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings – 4****
Rawlings’s 1938 Pulitzer-winning novel focuses on the boy Jody, his parents Ora and Penny Baxter, their neighbors the Forresters, and their hard-scrabble lives in central Florida in about 1870. As the fawn AND the boy grow to “yearling” status, they face difficult decisions that affect the family’s very survival. I loved the poetic way Rawlings wrote about the natural world; it reminded me of the many times I went camping with my father and brothers, and the lessons he imparted about plants, animals, nature, survival, hunting and fishing. I highly recommend this classic of children’s literature.
LINK to my review

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James F | 1603 comments Stanislaw Lem, Fiasco [1986, tr. 1988] 336 pages [Kindle]

Fiasco is one of Lem's most important novels. It deals with the theme of first contact with an alien civilization, and as with nearly all Lem's novels on that subject the emphasis is on the impossibility of ever understanding the truly alien. An expedition from Earth attempts, with the best of motives (at least apparently), to make contact with a nearby civilization and the result is -- fiasco. In the process, Lem sheds light on the dynamic of the cold war, and the results it might well have had in the sixties and seventies if things had turned out just a little differently. Reading this right after Cixin Liu's trilogy, I couldn't help but relate this to his "dark forest" hypothesis, but where in Cixin all advanced civilizations know a priori that hostility is inevitable and avoid contact or strike first, in Lem the Earth expedition intends to make peaceful contact and behaves rationally in theory -- but each step necessarily leads in the wrong direction. Events have their own dynamic, and the result is not what any of the parties involved would expect or desire. A very disturbing and sobering book, and unlike Cixin Lem knew how to end it effectively.

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The Professor and the Madman A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
The Professor and the Madman – Simon Winchester – 4****
The subtitle is all the synopsis you need: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. James Murray is the professor, a learned man who became the editor of the OED. Dr William C Minor is the madman, an American Civil-War surgeon whose paranoid delusions result in his commitment to an asylum for the criminally insane. And yet … Simon Winchester crafts a compelling non-fiction narrative. He captured my attention on page one and held it throughout.
LINK to my review

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Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
Someone Knows My Name – Lawrence Hill – 5*****
Originally published in Canada as The Book of Negroes , Hill’s novel tells the story of Aminata Diallo from 1745 to 1802. What marvelous story telling! I was engaged and interested from beginning to end. It’s a thought-provoking, informative and inspiring tale.
LINK to my review

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