What I’ve been reading lately, part 7

[See also previous and subsequent posts in this series.]

I’m trying to move quickly to catch up with myself — I’m still a few months behind — so apologies if these books are not given as much coverage as they deserve.

Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words — Malka Marom

A truly fascinating set of three (very long) interviews, conducted many years apart, with the most endlessly fascinating singer-songwriter of them all. (If you don’t accept my assessment, ask David Crosby.) Malka Marom was a folk singer herself, so has a good angle on the issues that Joni is dealing with — personal, musical and poetic. They’re some of the most revealing interviews I’ve ever read, not in terms of salacious details but of slowly and effectively opening up essence of a person, revealing what makes her tick.

And I’d have to say that Joni doesn’t come out of it all that well, in the end. It’s apparent in all three interviews that she’s quite a self-focussed person, and that tendency becomes stronger and darker across the three interviews. Towards the end we read

I’m reliving old injuries. I’m reliving them and I’m telling the person off that I didn’t tell off. I’m trying to expel anger. And it hangs in the air and I go, ‘What that very satisfactory, when you said that to them? No.’ And then I kind of do it again.

For such a free spirit, she seems to find it hard to let go of old hurts and resentments. It’s a shame; but, no doubt, a part of what made her such an absolutely superb artist. And she really does stand alone.

Marom’s book is well worth reading for anyone who loves Joni’s work.

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer — C. S. Lewis

Lewis’s last book, not counting posthumously published collections and fragments. As always with Lewis there are moments of luminous wisdom and startling insight. But to be honest, it’s not his best work, and certainly not the best place to start for someone new to him.

Equal Rites — Terry Pratchett

When Pratchett died in March (on my birthday, as it happened) I found myself wanting to re-read some of his better books. To my mind, Equal Rites — the third of the 40-odd Discworld novels — is the first great one, and it was a pleasure to re-read. This book is where Granny Weatherwax, arguably Pratchett’s greatest single character, makes her first appearance. Her core qualities — steely independence, iron will, and an odd combination of knowledge and ignorance — are all there right from the start.

There’s a lot to like here, including an interesting world, a compelling story, a couple of well-drawn characters (and a bunch of cardboard cut-outs) and crucially both some very funny moments and some genuinely moving ones. I’d recommend Equal Rites as a fine introduction to Discworld for anyone who’s not read these books.

Lords and Ladies — Terry Pratchett

Having read one of the Granny Weatherwax books, I found myself wanting to re-read the others as well, so I skipped ahead to Lords and Ladies, one of my favourites. Not much new to say about this, beyond the observation that it’s very easy reading, and I mean that as a compliment.

P.I. on a Hot Tin Roof — Julie Smith

I got this because the ebook was on a free offer from BookBub, and I stuck with it even though it didn’t really grip me — though I did break off part-way through to re-read the two Pratchetts. It turned out to be the fourth in a series starring the protagonist, New Orleans P.I. Talba Wallis, who is also a locally famous poet, good with children, kind to kittens and an all around Mary-Sue. I’d classify this book as … OK. I don’t regret having read it, but I have no plans to find more in the series, or anything else by Smith, who in fact is a well-established author but reads like an enthusiastic novice.

Three Act Tragedy — Agatha Christie

One of the better Agatha Christie mysteries, I think, with a compelling setup (very similar murders occurring at two dinner parties, and the threat of a third) and a resolution that makes perfect sense. The false trails are well laid, too, and seem credible.

Wyrd Sisters — Terry Pratchett

At this point, I decided to go back and read all the other Granny Weatherwax novels in the Discworld series. Wyrd Sisters is the second — a sort of sequel to Equal Rites — and introduces us to the two other Lancre witches, Nanny Ogg and Magrat. Somehow this one has never really done it for me, though I know a lot of people like it. Perhaps it’s that the dynamics between the three witches feel a bit contrived at this early stage? A good read, but not a great one.

Witches Abroad — Terry Pratchett

The sequel to Wyrd Sisters, in which the three witches journey to “forn parts” to prevent a young woman from marrying a prince. I have mixed feelings about this one. The bickering between the three witches works much better this time around, and it’s easier to believe in all three of them. But the actual plot feels very episodic and uneven, with an awful lot made of some rather thin jokes. But I will always fondly remember the scene of Granny playing Cripple Mister Onion against the card-sharks on the river-boat.

The Eden Plague (Plague Wars book 0) — David VanDyke

Another BookBub freebie. Short and enjoyable, but not compelling enough for me to want to pay money for book 1 in the series, let alone all the other six. I would characterise it as interesting and workmanlike, but lacking a spark.

At this point I notice a tendency: pretty much all the free ebooks I’m getting from BookBub are parts of a series. The Game was book 1 of a series currently standing at five volumes, P.I. on a Hot Tin Roof is book 4 of a series which is itself a spin-off from a nine-book series about a character who appears in a minor role in P.I. We will see another example of this in the next installment of What I’ve Been Reading Lately.

I understand the commercial imperative that drives this tendency, but I can’t be happy about it. I think novels should stand alone, in most cases. While there are obvious exceptions (e.g. you wouldn’t want to leap into the Harry Potter series at book 5), I think proper literary artistry generally means writing a book that doesn’t need other books before it to make sense of the world, nor other books after it to resolve the plot. So in picking my BookBub freebies in future, I’m going to skew away from those that are part of a series.

6 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 7

  1. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 6 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  2. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 9 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  3. I’m curious, how is it you get to read so much? Work? Kids? Life? I wish I could read 1/10 of what you do, and when I can, it’s usually technical and programming books. Oh how I miss university and an easy going job. I could read so much, and all manner of interesting books.

  4. Well, I have a reasonably demanding job in programming, plus I am an associate researcher in palaeontology at the University of Bristol. I am married, with three teenage sons. I have quite a few responsibilities in my local church. And of course I write two reasonably frequent blogs (this one and Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week. I can’t explain it. This just feels natural to me. I can’t understand how it is that so many people do so little. The only thing I can think of is that I don’t usually watch junk TV — only things that I have a specific desire to see, like Doctor Who. (That said, my wife and I are currently binge-watching The Great British Bake-Off, so I picked the wrong moment to make this point.)

    This probably sounds boastful (except the last bit), but it’s not meant to be. I’m sure that 90% of getting things done is deciding to do things. How much time do people fritter away keeping up with soap operas, or playing Call of Duty? Of course I have no idea how you spend your own time, but maybe there are big hunks of it that you’ve fallen into the habit of spending on things that just don’t matter?

    (Sorry, that got preachy really quick.)

  5. Thanks for the reply. You seem to do exceptionally well at managing your time. I admire that. I also love the fact that you get to do palaeontology and programming, two things I’m very passionate about. In my defence, I don’t watch TV or play video games. I don’t even watch Netflix these days (although I did not so long ago). I am a bit of a news junky, and my worst habit is drifting to the BBC every odd hour or so, particularly when I’m about to start something really tedious (I love BBC Earth). Other than that, I spend most of my time working on my startup. That takes anywhere between 10 to 15 hours of my day. The rest of my time, well, I have a two-year old son, and a four-week old son. So I’m going through a demanding phase. I only find time to read before going to bed–and that means I’ll fall asleep about six or seven pages into the session–or after dropping my son at school, but before the office gets noisy (between 8 and 9 am). I’m almost always prioritising technical reading; that makes me sad, but I think it’s necessary, and more important at this stage of my career. Plus, I enjoy it. Regardless, though, there’s always room for improvement. I’m sure there are efficiencies to be gained. I find that no matter how hard I work, it matters little if I don’t prioritise properly. It’s just that there is so much to do. Managing time is so fundamental to everything. I suspect, while my kids are still young, and my job demanding, little will change during the next few years.

  6. Other than that, I spend most of my time working on my startup. That takes anywhere between 10 to 15 hours of my day.

    Oh, well, there you go! That’s why you don’t have time to spend on palaeontology! You’re doing something demanding, significant and worthwhile. The fact that you’re able to do that in the presence of songs aged four weeks and two years suggests you’re managing your time much better than I am!

    (I do think that the news addiction is worth breaking, though: C. S. Lewis had some cogent things to say on the subject.)

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