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Book Concierge (tessabookconcierge) | 2299 comments Mod

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

Enter your reading list and/or reviews here. Did you like it? Hate it? Feel lukewarm?

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James F | 1400 comments Leonard Susskind and Art Friedman, Special Relativity and Classical Field Theory: The Theoretical Minimum [2017] 425 pages

I like the idea of the theoretical minimum books; they are something more than popularizations, something less than textbooks, and promise to teach the math necessary for a real understanding of the science as it is needed. This is the third book; it follows directly on what was presented in the first book on classical physics, and I'm not sure why Susskind (the principal author) decided to separate the two by the book on quantum theory, which is based on different ideas and different math. Unfortunately, I read the first book more than a year ago, and the wait for this to come out and be purchased at the library meant that my memory was somewhat vague on what I had learned in that, especially since my physics courses in college were not only long ago but didn't even mention Lagrangians and least action which are the basis of Susskind's approach. I would suggest that the reader who, like me, has never learned this material in school or had courses in vector and tensor calculus should read volumes one and three right after one another and then go back to volume two (or perhaps wait for volume four on general relativity which probably also follows on one and three rather than on the second volume).

The present book is in two parts. The first part, on special relativity, seemed rather simple, perhaps because the ideas were familiar to me from many more popular accounts. The second part, on classical field theory (centering on Maxwell's equations) was much more difficult; this is where the Lagrangians and vector calculus kicked in. Some of the difficulty undoubtedly was due to the shortcomings of my mathematical background, although I did minor in math in college back in the dark ages, but some I would have to put on the authors, who made it more confusing than necessary. The most annoying feature of the book was that literally almost every chapter introduced a new system of notation -- not for new concepts, but for the same equations. The authors use at least six different ways of writing the same vectors, and at least four different notations for partial derivatives. It was very frustrating to have to learn the substance of the equations simultaneously with new formal ways of writing them, and especially to spend ten minutes puzzling over what an unfamiliar-looking equation was actually saying only to realize that it was the same equation that was explained in a previous chapter using a different notation. I think just from a paedagogical standpoint it would have made more sense if the authors had chosen one (fairly expansive) notation and stuck with it, explaining the more condensed notations at the end in an appendix after I had learned what the equations actually meant. I know pencils are expensive when you're saving up for a new supercollider, but still. . .

Despite this, I was surprised at how much of the book I understood; essentially almost everything except the last chapter, which (as in most math books based on courses or lectures) sped up to squeeze in everything the authors wanted to cover before the class ended. This was what happened with my college calculus course, which covered Gauss's theorem and Stokes theorem on the last day -- perhaps the best thing I got out of this book was finally understanding what those two theorems were about. I'm not sure that the book would really be totally understandable to someone with just a high school calculus background, as the authors suggest, but it certainly comes closer than say Penrose's Road to Reality which made the same claim and in fact assumed a knowledge of complex analysis. This series may not be the absolute beginner's choice, but it comes as close as any I've found so far.

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The Fiery Cross (Outlander, #5) by Diana Gabaldon
The Fiery Cross – Diana Gabaldon – 3***
Book number five in the popular Outlander series continues the saga of Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser. There’s plenty of drama and intrigue in these tales … personal and political. It’s a ripping good yarn that moves at a quick pace and held my interest throughout.
LINK to my review

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Terris | 536 comments The Sun Does Shine How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton, 5*****s
Wow! Wow! What a powerful story about this innocent man being on death row for almost 30 years -- yes, I said 30!!! And such a loving, forgiving man. He is an inspiration to us all.

This was written in language that was pretty quick to read and the subject matter made me want to keep reading! I recommend this one to all :)

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James F | 1400 comments Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go [2005] 288 pages

Never Let Me Go seems to be Ishiguro's best known novel, to judge by various lists on the Internet. It is a good but somewhat disturbing book. Perhaps I should start with a spoiler alert here; but the real spoiler may be that it doesn't really matter -- nothing happens. Not only are there no "plot twists", but the plot that could be expected to never develops, and that's in a way the whole point. If I were to give a synopsis of the novel to someone who has never heard of it or of the author, describing it as the story of three adolescent friends from a boarding school, two girls and a boy in a romantic triangle, set against a dystopian science fiction background -- or just quote the description from the jacket flap, about the "discord and misunderstanding that hint at a dark secret behind Hailsham's nurturing facade" -- anyone would say it sounds like a typical dystopian fantasy for Young Adult readers, but that's not at all what the novel is. That's the genre expectation which Ishiguro in postmodern fashion plays against. A novel following that formula would develop like this: the friends slowly discover the hidden truth about Hailsham and the dystopian society they live in; they secretly organize a resistance movement and so forth. That's not this book.

All Ishiguro's novels I have read -- which is all except The Unconsoled -- despite their varied plots, settings and styles, have a theme in common: memory and the suppression of memories, especially of guilt about political activities (World War II in three books, colonialism in one, and symbolic in The Buried Giant). The first four novels are in a realistic, psychological style, the final one is a fantasy with a more or less magical realist feel; this one is in between, in a realist style but with a science fiction element that is not totally plausible (or I think intended to be; if it were fleshed out in more detail, made more believable in itself, it would be harder to see it as a symbol or analogy for so many aspects of real life). Instead of denial about the past and their own guilt, what the characters in this book exhibit is denial about their own current reality, what has been and is being done to them. Unlike the formula novel I imagined above (and contrary to what the jacket flap claims), they do not "discover" a hidden secret; as one character puts it, they are "told and not told" from the beginning, but never face the consequences; they simply fantasize about exceptions, deferrals, and so forth, while living their everyday life as if it were all normal. The "revelation" at the end reveals nothing they did not already know; it simply stripped away the fantasies they relied upon to deny the consequences. (Actually, it indirectly reveals something to the characters about themselves and their relationships to one another, but that is part of the other plot, the relationship theme.) There is never any questioning (with the exception of one minor character, Miss Lucy) that everything is the way it has to be, never any thought of resistance or even real complaint. Ishiguro, I think, in this book steps up his critique of modern society, moving away from the question of denying past evils and guilt to the question of denying what is being done at the present, beyond the denial by the guilty parties to the denial by the victims themselves, the total triumph of false consciousness. This is what makes the novel so disturbing.

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Terris | 536 comments I really enjoyed this one! You’re right, it is quite disturbing & the concept of the book has really stayed with me! Nice review :)

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Terris | 536 comments The Two Mrs. Abbotts (Miss Buncle, #3) by D.E. Stevenson
The Two Mrs. Abbotts by D. E. Stevenson, 3***s
A very cute third book in the Miss Buncle series. Just fun and easy to read with quirky characters and intriguing situations, set during WWII in a small English village. Sit back in your easy chair and a cup of tea for this one, and enjoy!

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The Best of Friends Two Women, Two Continents, and One Enduring Friendship by Sara James
The Best of Friends – Sara James & Ginger Mauney – 2**
Sara James and Ginger Mauney met when they were in middle school, and this shared memoir covers their early divergent career paths, missteps and successes, both personally and professionally. Good for them. I was bored.
LINK to my review

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Heat Lightning (Virgil Flowers, #2) by John Sandford
Heat Lightning – John Sandford – 3***
This is the second book in the Virgil Flowers series, which is a spin-off of Sandford’s extremely popular Lucas Davenport series. In his trademark style, Sandford gives us plenty of twists and turns in the plot, a few red herrings, and some subtle clues that are easy to miss. Flowers is an extremely likeable character. The action is fast and furious, and the ending is satisfying for the thriller/mystery genre.
LINK to my review

message 10: by James (new)

James F | 1400 comments Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic [1983] 293 pages

Probably everyone who reads a lot of popular science books, with their inevitable, futile attempts at using reason and evidence to refute "Intelligent Design", has at one time or another wondered what the universe would look like if it did in fact have an intelligent designer. Terry Pratchett asked a different question: what would the universe look like if it had had an Imaginative Designer, with an unearthly sense of humor? One possibility is a flat disc carried through space on the back of a giant turtle. The Color of Magic is the first of about forty books in the Discworld series. Of course, it is fantasy, and I haven't read much fantasy in a long time -- I wouldn't be reading these if my library's book club hadn't chosen the twentieth book, Hogfather, as our read for December. While I don't believe that this is the kind of series that has to be read in order without missing a book, I felt that reading at least the first few books would give me an idea of the sort of world they are set in.

Pratchett has a very original sense of humor, and this novel seemed quite fresh in comparison with the usual crop of Middle Earth and Hogwarts clones; but it does have similarities with the last fantasy author I read extensively, at a much younger age: Piers Anthony. There were definitely resemblances to his Incarnations of Immortality series -- particularly in that both series have anthropomorphic characters of Death, Fate, and so forth. The two series both began in 1983. Discworld also resembles Anthony's magical world of Xanth (which I believe began before 1970), allowing for the different target ages of the two series, and the fact that Pratchett's humor is a bit more sophisticated. I did a Google search on the two names together, from which I conclude that Anthony's fans generally like Pratchett, while Pratchett's fans generally are offended by the comparison. One seemingly more objective critic claimed that Anthony started out better but quickly ran out of steam because his world was too detached from the real world and the plots became repetitious while Pratchett kept getting better because he was basing the books on subjects in the real world (or the world of literature); this is the only book I've read by Pratchett so I will reserve judgment on him, but it's true that Anthony got boring and I gave up on the series about halfway through (though I may have just outgrown them). If Pratchett really did get better, than I may read more of the series beyond the first few, because this one was well-written with lots of allusions to literature and the real world.

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Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende
Island Beneath the Sea – Isabel Allende – 4****
In a bit of a departure from her usual emphasis on Hispano-American history, Allende gives us a story of an 18th-century slave in French-occupied Saint-Domingue (later to become Haiti). We follow Zarité from her childhood through age forty, Saint-Domingue to Cuba and on to New Orleans. Allende is more than up to the task of relating the historical events that frame this family drama. I loved Zarité. She’s intelligent, resourceful, courageous, and wily. Violette is also a richly drawn character – willful, intelligent, confident, loyal and loving. None of the men in her life are a match for her.
LINK to my review

message 12: by James (new)

James F | 1400 comments Liu Cixin, Wandering Earth [2013] 484 pages

Wandering Earth is a collection of eleven science fiction stories by Liu Cixin, the author of the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy. I would say that all the stories in this collection are well worth reading; they offer a representative sample of his science fiction ranging from "hard" technology-based stories to more humorous and allegorical writing.

Two of the stories, the first, title story "The Wandering Earth" and the seventh, "The Micro-Age", deal with humanity's attempts to survive a cosmic disaster, the explosion of the sun. The first is hard science fiction, though with a human angle, while the second is less realistic.

The second story, "Mountain", was perhaps my favorite; it starts from the simple idea of a "hollow earth", not as the cranks who think the Earth is hollow with people living on the inner surface conceive it but (as we all proved in first year physics) with no gravity in the interior, and proceeds to ask how physics would have developed in such a world. This is combined with a frame story set on Earth.

The third story, "Of Ants and Dinosaurs", is an obvious allegory of "Mutual Assured Destruction" and at first seemed somewhat too blatently didactic, until I realized that it was also an homage to Isaac Asimov who wrote a similar story about dinosaurs back in the "golden age". The eighth story, "Devourer" is a sort of sequel to this; the basic premise was reminiscent of a certain Doctor Who episode but that may be coincidence. It also fits in with the "dark forest" hypothesis of the trilogy but with a difference.

The fourth story, "Sun of China", has a technological device in common with one episode in the trilogy, and is also somewhat outdated, having an appearance by a hundred-year-old Stephen Hawking; one slight problem with Liu Cixin's science fiction in general is that many of his stories, and the first book of the trilogy, take place or at least begin in the present or recent past with events which have obviously not occurred and technology which doesn't yet exist. I liked the way he points out that space exploration will not be real until the working class goes into space. Number five, "The Wages of Humanity" (apparently in a different edition this is titled "For the Benefit of Mankind"), is a social satire, which reminded me of a story by Stanislaw Lem (of course) but this might also be coincidence. These two stories seemed the most specifically "Chinese".

Number six, "Curse 5.0" is obviously related to an incident in the second book of his trilogy, the virus which targets specific individuals (and perhaps the danger of viruses taking control of internet-linked appliances should be given more thought in the real world), but is also a sort of self-parody of his fascination with disasters, with Liu Cixin himself as one of the characters.

Number nine, "Taking Care of Gods" was included in the anthology edited by Ken Liu that I read a couple months back.

The last two stories, "With Her Eyes", and "The Longest Fall" are also related to one another, with the first story referred to in the second, although I'm not sure they are entirely compatible. They also go back to the ideas of first year physics.

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Terris | 536 comments Clock Dance by Anne Tyler
Clock Dance by Anne Tyler, 4****s
I was so mad when I finished this book -- because I did not want it to end!!
Anne Tyler is one of my very favorite authors. She makes me feel wonderful things with her writing. Her unique stories and quirky characters feel like something that could happen to you and people you could know - would like to know. And the main character is usually a fairly quiet person who kind of stands back and lets everything happen around them. I love it!

In this story, after reading about Willa's childhood and early adult years, at around the age of 60, Willa receives a call from someone in Baltimore (Willa lives in Tucson) asking her to come and take care of her son's ex-girlfriend's child while Denise (the ex-girlfriend) is in the hospital after an accidental shooting. And Willa just goes! She just goes! She knows none of these people: Denise, (who she never met when her son was dating her), the child, or the person who calls and asks her to come! And they all become a part of each other's lives. You can easily see how they need each other and care for each other. There is also the little mystery of who shot Denise.

This is a very compelling story, slow-paced, but somehow tugs at your heartstrings. I loved it!

message 14: by Melissa (last edited Aug 12, 2018 11:52PM) (new)

Melissa (melissasd) | 793 comments Dead in the Family (Sookie Stackhouse, #10) by Charlaine Harris
Dead in the Family (Sookie Stackhouse #10) by Charlaine Harris
3 ★

Definitely not my favorite book in the series. It started very slow with no real story line. Sookie is still recovering from her latest misadventures and everyone seems to be moving along in life quite well. Hunter, Hailey's son, makes an appearance and Sookie gets to teach him some things. Bill isn't recovering very well from his injuries and, as usual, Sookie gets in his business and on the sly does something to help him. It starts getting interesting when Eric's sire shows up with an interesting sibling for Eric. I love how the author uses real people from history in her books and this character was such an interesting pick. I love how she used his tragic past to shape the character. Also, toward the end of the book, Sookie is once again asked to help the Weres at a meeting. I feel like they use her so much.

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James F | 1400 comments Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic: A Novel of Discworld [1986] 293 pages [Kindle]

The second novel in the series, this completes the story begun in the first novel.

message 16: by Terris (last edited Aug 14, 2018 03:59PM) (new)

Terris | 536 comments Adam Bede by George Eliot
Adam Bede by George Eliot, 4****s
I was pleasantly surprised with this book! It takes place in the late 1700's in rural England, so it is fairly slow-paced. That being said, there is a pretty interesting story of intrigue, with a little mystery too. It is sweet and sad, and disturbing too. But -- maybe because I was kind of dreading reading it -- I'll have to say that I really enjoyed it!

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Michael Tolliver Lives (Tales of the City, #7) by Armistead Maupin
Michael Tolliver Lives – Armistead Maupin – 3***
Eighteen years after “finishing” his Tales of the City Series in 1989, Maupin returned to the beloved characters and gave readers a 7th installment. Michael has a landscaping business and a new husband. He’s dealing with what many middle-aged people face – the decline of our elderly parents. I really like the way these characters support and love one another. However, readers who are offended by gay sex scenes should beware. I’m not usually shocked, but a couple of scenes made me uncomfortable.
LINK to my review

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Melissa (melissasd) | 793 comments Queen of Shadows (Throne of Glass, #4) by Sarah J. Maas
Queen of Shadows (Throne of Glass #4) by Sarah J. Maas
5 ★

Celaena Sardothien, now Aelin Galathynius, Queen of Terrasen, returns to Rifthold to fight the Valg and reclaim the castle for Dorian. She soon finds out that much as changed. Arobynn is back with Lysandra and the reader learns a secret (A few actually) about her. Dorian is at the mercy of his father, trapped in his own body, but tries every day to break free. Chaol is fighting the Valg in the sewers with the rebels. Aedion has been captured by the king's men and freeing him is Aelin's first priority. Chaol is very harsh to Aelin and many times I was upset by the way he spoke to her. He expects so much from her and never gives her a break.
Manon Blackbeak and her Thirteen continue to work for the king under Duke Perrington, but I think Manon may be starting to see things differently and wondering if she was indeed made this way. The reader is introduced to a new character who lives with her Uncle Vernon at Morath, Elide. Her history is quite interesting. The reader also gets to see a different side of Kaltain.
The real excitement starts when Aelin enters the castle and confronts the king. Rowan and Aedion are a bit slow, due to distractions, getting there part of the job done, so Aelin must keep Dorian busy while Chaol takes on the king. There are many heart wrenching moments when the reader isn't sure who is dead and who is alive. There are many deaths.
The ending is great with the reader following Aelin into her new chapter of life with her court.

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The Baileys Harbor Bird and Booyah Club by Dave Crehore
The Baileys Harbor Bird and Booyah Club – Dave Crehore – 4****
What a lovely, gentle story focusing on “familiar” characters. My husband and I have vacationed in Door County (and in Baileys Harbor) many times. We always go in the off-season – fall and spring, even in winter (once). I know these communities and these people, and Crehore gets them down perfectly. My only regret is that this is a library book and I have to return it. I’d love to own it and read it over and over again.
LINK to my review

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Digging to America by Anne Tyler
Digging to America – Anne Tyler – 4****
A story of the immigrant experience and two families united by the decision to adopt. Tyler writes so well about family dynamics, about all the little events in our lives that both form and show who we are. As I got to know these characters, I grew to love them. And I wanted to give them all a big hug at the end.
LINK to my review

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My Italian Bulldozer A Paul Stuart Novel (1) by Alexander McCall Smith
My Italian Bulldozer – Alexander McCall Smith – 3***
Smith is fast becoming my go-to author whenever I feel the need for a gentle humorous break from the realities of life. Like most of his novels, this one is full of the drama of everyday life. Not much happens, but somehow major life decisions get made. Along the way are scenes of heartache, humor, friendship, and romance.
LINK to my review

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The Time in Between by María Dueñas
The Time In Between – María Dueñas – 4****
A sweeping historical novel about a young woman, who begins by cleaning the floors of the atelier where her mother is a seamstress and ends up as a sought-after fashion designer in World War II, and a spy for the British. What a fascinating and engaging read. Dueñas is an accomplished storyteller. I loved the way that Sira grew as a character, coming into her own while carefully observing and learning from her friends, neighbors and clients. Her relationships are wonderfully complex, and there are some scenes that had me on the edge of my seat. I recommend this to anyone who loves a fast-paced novel, with fascinating characters, and a strong female lead. The final scene when she decides to take matters into her own hands and go forward on her own terms is marvelous. I wanted to stand up and cheer!
LINK to my review

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Terris | 536 comments Calypso by David Sedaris
Calypso by David Sedaris, 4****s

Well, David Sedaris has done it again, and maybe even better than before! I've read all of his books (and met him!), but this has to be one of my favorites. It feels more personal than previous books as he discusses his mother's death, his sister's suicide, and his difficult relationship with his 94-year-old father. All this while trying to spend more time with the whole family in his recently purchased seaside home that they named the "Sea Section" ;)
It is a little raw in places, but the underlying feeling is very vulnerable, IMO. I can't recommend it to everyone, but I personally wouldn't have missed it!
(I listened to the audio book because I love to listen to him read his own stuff!)

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Terris | 536 comments The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, 5*****s
Wow! So powerful! Everyone should read this just to absorb this man's positive attitude and outlook on life -- even as he was dying. Again, Wow!

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Melissa (melissasd) | 793 comments Little Slaughterhouse on the Prairie by Harold Schechter
Little Slaughterhouse on the Prairie by Harold Schechter
3 ★

A quick interesting read about a murderous family who lived not far from Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family.

message 26: by James (last edited Aug 21, 2018 08:07AM) (new)

James F | 1400 comments Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy, v. 9: Maine de Biran to Sartre [1975] 480 pages

Finally finished after three and a half years! (Or forty three, if you count the first time I started it in college.) This was the ninth and last volume. He mentions a projected tenth volume in the preface, but apparently never wrote it; the tenth volume included in one reprint edition is an unrelated collection of his essays. Like the eighth volume, this one is a real falling off from the level of the first seven; as he explains himself in the preface, faced with the large number of nineteenth and early twentieth century philosophers, and with administrative responsibilities taking up much of his time, he decided to concentrate on the thinkers he was already familiar with, which obviously meant a concentration on Catholic or religious philosophers and writers who are not the authors I would consider to be representative of the British (v. 8) or French (v. 9) philosophy of the time. I hadn't even heard of many of the authors he treats of in these two volumes, despite having been a philosophy major in college. Moreover, many of the writers he discusses are not generally considered as "philosophers" at all, but as literary, religious, scientific or political figures; and where the earlier volumes concentrate on a few major figures, with more general chapters in between, in this one, apart from Comte, Bergson and Sartre no one gets their own chapter and there are many figures who are treated in a few paragraphs.

The book begins well in the first part, "From the Revolution to Auguste Comte", with the aftermath of the French revolution, the "Traditionalists" and the "Ideologues", and then moves on to Maine de Biran; there is a chapter on the "Eclectics" (Royer-Collard, Cousins, and Jouffroy), one on "Social Philosopy" (i.e. the "utopian socialists", Fourier, Proudhon, and the most space given to St. Simon, who however, is still not covered adequately) and a chapter on Comte. The second part, "From Auguste Comte to Henri Bergson", and the beginning of the third part, "From Bergson to Sartre", or more than a third of the book, however, is given mainly to the "spiritualist" tradition, "Philosophy and Christian Apologetics" and "Thomism in France"; apart from Bergson and Maritain these chapters were all about writers I hadn't heard of and despite Copleston (in his element here) trying to differentiate their minute differences about God and theology and determine how close they are to Catholic orthodoxy, they all seemed pretty much to be saying the same things, trying to use Maine de Biran and/or German Idealism to reconcile God and Christian metaphysics with a positivist conception of science. There is then a fairly interesting chapter on "Philosophy of Science" including Poincaré, Duhem, Meyerson and Bachelard, followed by two more chapters on basically Catholic writers (including Teilhard de Chardin and Gabriel Marcel); he ends up with two chapters on Sartre and a last chapter on Camus and Merleau-Ponty, with a few concluding paragraphs on Levi-Strauss and structuralism.

In addition to the question of his choice of subjects, this book also was less objective than the others in its treatment. Although Copleston never pretended to be "objective" in the sense of hiding his Catholic perspective, and I preferred that, in that a known and admitted bias is easier to correct for than a hidden one, which is what is found with most "objective" accounts in a subject as controversial as philosophy, he did try to understand everyone he discussed and present them fairly, and then criticize them in a respectful way. In this book he lets his opinions overrule this, especially with Sartre whom he obviously has a great dislike for. To begin with, Sartre here seems out of place, to come from out of nowhere, because Copleston has excluded most secular philosophers after the classical positivists and the Marxist tradition entirely (he considers Marxism to be a nineteenth century philosophy which would be forgotten if it hadn't been articially adopted by the Communist parties as an official "line" -- rather ironic for a Thomist, who supports a thirteenth century philosophy artifically kept alive by having been adopted as the official "line" of the Catholic Church. I would guess there are far more Marxists outside the Communist parties than Thomists outside the Catholic Church). He refers to Sartre's dialectical arguments frequently with expressions such as "tiresome jargon" -- I might use the same expression for the jargon of "the Transcendental Absolute" and so forth in the writers he discusses earlier.

Now that I have finished, to sum up the whole history -- the first volume was fairly weak, and I would recommend another history for Greek philosophy (e.g. Guthrie's); the second through seventh volumes, and especially those on the Middle Ages, are probably the best general history in English, if you correct for the Catholic bias (not extremely apparent, except in the choice of whom to focus on) and the fact that they are roughly a half-century old; the eighth and ninth volumes are as described in this review, and I would recommend other books for the twentieth century (actually I'm not sure a general history is the best way to approach contemporary thought anyway.)

Patrick Modiano, La Place de l'étoile [1968] 206 pages [in French; Kindle]

When Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature three years back I read a single-volume collection of ten of his novels (all his novels are short, barely meeting the definition of a novel as opposed to a novella). This month I got around to going back and starting his first books, which made his reputation in France. This was his first book and the first of his Occupation Trilogy. Actually, this first book is not exactly set during the Occupation, but (as with many of his later novels as well) has a protagonist with a major obsession with (and false memories of) the Occupation. It was published at a time when a younger and radicalizing generation of French students was beginning to see through the official World War II mythology about the Occupation and the Resistance and ask questions about Vichy and the collaboration of the French bourgeoisie with the Nazis.

La Place de l'étoile -- the title refers ironically both to the location in Paris of the Arc de Triomphe, that is to say the symbolic center of French patriotism, and to the place on the clothing where French Jews were required to wear the yellow Star of David during the Occupation -- is not only his first novel, but his most difficult in style, and his most "angry" as many reviews describe it. Like all his books, there is an element of autobiography -- the protagonist, Raphaël Schlemilovich (the Yiddish word "Schlemiel", meaning a "chump or bungler", with a Russian patronymic suffix, i.e. "Son of a chump") is, like Modiano himself, a Jewish intellectual adolescent born during or just after the end of the war. Modiano's father, with whom he had a rather distant emotional relationship, was a black-marketeer during the Occupation, with a dubious relationship to the Germans; the same is (or rather may be) true for Schlemilovich (and the protagonists of many of Modiano's later books). Schlemilovich senior, having abandoned his wife and son after the war, is supposedly living in New York manufacturing kaleidoscopes; in one episode of the novel the protagonist's girlfriend lives in an apartment full of kaleidoscopes, and the one she shows him is based on a human face. Of course this is symbolic; his novels, each one in itself and even more all of them taken as a whole, form a kaleidoscopic autobiography in which identity and memory are constantly shifting and we are never sure who anybody really is -- to be sure, the protagonists themselves (often named "Patrick Modiano") seldom know who they really are.

So, the protagonist here (who is also the first person narrator, although he sometimes shifts abruptly to third or even second person) is obviously both obsessed with the Occupation period and out of touch with reality; the narration is composed mainly of fantasies or hallucinations, and we are never certain what (if anything at all) is "real" and what is "fantasy". At the beginning, he has just graduated and moves with his aristocratic French friend Des Essarts (an actual aristocratic family and specifically the name of a conservative author in the nineteenth/early twentieth century) to Geneva, where they live on his friend's money and make the acquaintance of Maurice Sachs, a famous (and historical) "Juif-Collabo" (Jewish collaborator.) (Actually the historical Sachs did not live through the war, but Modiano is not concerned with facts here, and the meeting with him is possibly the first of the protagonist's fantasies.) Slightly later on, he inherits a large amount of money from a relative on his mother's side and uses it to bring his father back to Europe. He makes his father's fortune and the two live a life together for a while pretending to be conservative provincials from rural France coming to the city to make their fortunes (he compares himself to Rastignac, the character in Balzac). Of course, his father's history is similar to that of Sachs and of Modiano's father, as a black-marketeer under the Occupation. Presumably Schlemilovich doesn't actually know who or where his father is and this whole episode is just a fantasy; it ends with him sending his father back to New York, abandoning him as he was abandoned by him. Raphaël then goes back to graduate school, where he distinguishes himself by his anti-Semitism and support for the French far right (references to Maurras and Action Française, etc).

I am tempted to follow along with all the episodes of fantasy, but that would mean marking the whole review as spoilers. It is enough to say that they become progressively less realistic, and he often becomes his father as a collaborator during the Occupation (and at one point he even seems to remember being Dreyfus in the nineteenth century.) At the same time, figures from the Occupation period appear in his present day fantasies and figures from the present day appear in his "past". He also throws out references to his close friendships with various intellectuals of the interwar period, such as Sartre, Celine, Aragon, etc. who would of course have belonged to his father's generation. None of Modiano's later books are this bizarre, but the themes of all of them are derived from this beginning.

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Casino Royale (James Bond, #1) by Ian Fleming
Casino Royale – Ian Fleming – 3***
“The name is Bond, James Bond.” And this is the book that started it all. It’s a fast-paced, spy thriller, that entertains. Bond’s attitude towards women is rather appalling, but he’s a product of his time, and of the genre.
LINK to my review

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Book Concierge (tessabookconcierge) | 2299 comments Mod
James wrote: "Frederick Copleston, S.J.,
A History of Philosophy, v. 9: Maine de Biran to Sartre
[1975] 480 pages

Finally finished after three and a half years! (Or forty three, if you count the first time ..."

Wow, James. That's quite the accomplishment. And a very well-thought-out review as well.

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The Diva Serves High Tea (A Domestic Diva Mystery, #10) by Krista Davis
The Diva Serves High Tea – Krista Davis – 2**
This is # 10 in the Domestic Diva Mystery Series, featuring two rival “divas” in Alexandria VA. I’m tired of Natasha’s over-the-top, DIVA (with a capital D) antics. Sophie is a very likeable character and I like her relationships with ex-husband Mars and attorney (possible boyfriend) Alex. But I’ll only read another if it satisfies a challenge task.
LINK to my review

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James F | 1400 comments Patrick Modiano, La ronde de nuit [1969] 153 pages [in French]

The second book of the Occupation Trilogy; this is not a trilogy in the sense of a single narrative divided into three parts, like Mahfouz' Cairo Trilogy for example, but rather like Achebe's African Trilogy, three separate novels which simply have a common theme, in this case collaboration during the Occupation (and the name is somewhat misleading in that many, if not most, of Modiano's over forty novels are somehow concerned with the Occupation period). Unlike the first book, this one is actually set during the time of the Occupation, in Paris. The novel begins with a party, introducing more than a dozen characters in the first two pages, through snippets of dialogue; we don't initially know which of these will be important to the book (and they don't include some of the most important characters), and we don't even realize for several pages that the book is a first person, "stream of consciousness" narration by an unnamed character (later identified by his pseudonyms, "Swing Troubador" and "Princess de Lamballe".) The style, as in all of Modiano's novels, is very experimental and modernist, although at least in this book the narrator's consciousness seems to be largely relating real events, even if it does skip around in time and place, rather than fantasies as in the first book.

We realize early on that the narrator is reluctantly (although not under torture or threats) betraying a group of his associates to another group, but the situation and the reasons which lead up to it are only gradually revealed over the course of the novel. Various phrases are repeated throughout the book in a sort of leitmotif technique. This is really all I can say about it without spoilers.

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The Cruelest Month (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #3) by Louise Penny
The Cruelest Month – Louise Penny – 3.5***
Book three in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, set in the small town of Three Pines, Quebec, very near the US border. I like this series chiefly because of Gamache and his relationships with friends, and colleagues. I also am quite fond of the residents of Three Pines and their interactions. This is not a cozy series, despite the small-town setting and cast of eccentric residents. Rather it is more of a police procedural. Penny crafts the story from multiple points of view. The reader as well as Gamache must figure out the truth from bits of information gleaned from different witnesses / suspects.
LINK to my review

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James F | 1400 comments Patrick Modiano, Les boulevards de ceinture [1972] 184 pages [in French]

The third book of the Occupation Trilogy; written in the same style as the first two. The book begins with the narrator apparently looking at a photograph of his father and two other men in a bar; then we are suddenly in the photograph, and the narrator (in his late twenties) is in the bar, trying to make contact with his father, whom he hasn't seen in ten years. The time seems to be during the Occupation. After a while, there is a long flashback in which he remembers the last time he saw his father, ten years earlier; at that time as well he was trying unsuccessfully to find out something about him, since he hadn't seen him since early childhood. As in the first two books (and most of Modiano's novels) we aren't really sure whether the narrative is reality, memory, or fantasy. The characters are all from the underworld, and the tone is that of a noir detective story, but without the closure.

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Melissa (melissasd) | 793 comments Quests for Glory (The School for Good and Evil The Camelot Years, #1) by Soman Chainani
Quests for Glory (School for Good and Evil #4) by Soman Chainani
4 ★

Agatha, Sophie, Tedros and the whole gang are now in their 4th year and they have all been assigned their own quests. Sophie is the School for Evil dean and Tedros and Agatha are headed back to Camelot. These new quests make staying connected with each other hard, but when trouble starts to brew for Tedros everyone comes together to help, good and evil. The story line is great (The Lion and the Snake) and the characters haven't changed much. Especially Sophie, the character I have a love/hate relationship with. There are some surprising deaths and a somewhat surprise at the end. I say "somewhat" because I really didn't see it coming, but I knew something wasn't right. A new first year is introduced, Nicola, and she is assigned to the Quest to save Camelot. She's a great character. Smart and perceptive. The book ends on a cliff hanger which is going to make the wait for the next book very hard, but I'm sure it will be worth it.

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James F | 1400 comments Stanislaw Lem, Peace on Earth [1987] 240 pages [Kindle]

As far as I can tell, Peace on Earth is Lem's last novel; in any case, it is the last which has been translated into English. The subject is the arms race: Earth, taking the first step toward the sort of world which is described in Fiasco, has moved the arms race to the Moon, where the arsenals of the various nations are undergoing a self-evolution of which the Earth is (intentionally) ignorant, but there is suspicion that the robot weapons may have combined and plan an invasion of the Earth; and of course Ijon Tichy is in the midst of things. The book alternates between his experiences on Earth after his return from a reconaissance mission to the Moon, and flashbacks to before and during his mission. An interesting book, although not quite as good as Fiasco.

Honoré de Balzac, L'illustre Gaudissart [1833] 50 pages [in French]

Generally, no matter how bad a book is, the introduction tells us that it is a masterpiece; so when I read in the introduction to this that it was Balzac's worst book, I wasn't expecting much. Actually, it wasn't that bad; not one of his greatest works, to be sure, but an interesting book which is one of his better satires. Like many of his minor works, the plot is fairly minimal and seems to be an excuse for the description (or in this case, satire) of the customs of some particular group or time. L'illustre Gaudissart begins with a half-serious, half-satirical description of the "commis-voyageur" or travelling salesman; then it introduces l'illustre Gaudissart as a particular specimen of the type; it then takes on the journalistic transformation of ideas into commodities, and has Gaudissart abandon his trade in hats and other aparrel for life insurance and magazine subscriptions. There is some political satire here, of the Republicans and St. Simoniens, but it is very light. The book then follows Gaudissart into Touraine, where the slight plot concerns a trick played on him by the Tourangiens.

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Crazy Rich Asians (Crazy Rich Asians, #1) by Kevin Kwan :
Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan – 2.5**
Okay I knew it was chick-lit going into it, and of course I’ve seen the incessant trailers for the movie. Sounded like a fun, quick, breezy beach-read kinda book. But I have to say that I really hated most of these characters. Rachel and Nick were okay but Kwan does little to really explore their relationship. I also got tired of all the “product placements” for designer this and designer that … much of which was lost on me. Not impressed. I’ll just put on my Walgreen’s sunglasses and Kohl’s sandals and enjoy a different book at the beach.
LINK to my review

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The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
The Wonder – Emma Donoghue – 3.5***
A nurse trained by Florence Nightingale is sent to watch a young Irish girl who claims to not have eaten for four months. Is the child a “living wonder” or a fraud? As she records her observations, Lib Wright gets to know Anna, the intelligent and devoutly religious young girl. Along the way the novel explores issues of faith, belief, guilt, abuse, family dysfunction, social mores and the role of the Roman Catholic Church and her priests in protecting (or not) children. I had to remind myself a few times that the time frame of the work is the mid-19th century. I think it would result in a great book-group discussion.
LINK to my review

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The Notebook (The Notebook, #1) by Nicholas Sparks
The Notebook – Nicholas Sparks – 1*
An elderly man recalls how he met his wife, writing the couple’s story in a notebook and reading sections to his wife, who is in a nursing home with dementia. I found it maudlin and simplistic, though I did like Noah’s devotion to Allie as she is lost in her dementia. On the whole, I was bored and rolled my eyes frequently. Not my cup of tea.
LINK to my review

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James F | 1400 comments Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites [1987] 277 pages [Kindle]

This was the third book in the Discworld fantasy series. A nine-year old girl decides to go to the "Unseen University" to become a wizard, but girls aren't allowed. A fun, humorous book with a good if somewhat obvious message, this would be a good book for children if it weren't so definitely written for adults -- but after three books I'm still not sure why this series generates such enthusiasm. I understand that the series is supposed to get progressively better, so I will read at least a few more. (Book 20 is the reading for the library book club in December, but I'm not sure I will read all the intervening books. Especially the ones I would have to buy myself.)

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James F | 1400 comments Terry Pratchett, Mort [1987] 309 pages [Kindle]

The fourth book in the Discworld fantasy series, and the first in the subseries about the "anthropomorphic personification" of Death, which I particularly want to read as background to Hogfather, the December read for my library's book club. Mort (short for Mortimer) is the human apprentice to Death, who causes problems because of his human emotions and human demand that the cosmos correspond to human conceptions of fairness and justice. In addition to this "metaphysical" theme, the book is a comic parody of the fairy-tale motif of the hero rescuing a princess (alluded to also in the earlier books) and perhaps of the "male rescue fantasy" in general. This was the best of the books so far in my opinion.

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