Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Month in Books: November

After last month's "All Joyce Carol Oates All The Time" reading adventure, I didn't really have a theme going into November. I knew I was going to travel for Thanksgiving, so I figured I'd get through several books, but I unintentionally read almost entirely nonfiction this month. A lot of it was really good, though, so here's what I read and what I thought about it in November.

1) The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife walks you through the post-death options of forty world religions (or thirty-nine, if you don't count atheism as a religion) and the ninety-one places that those religions think death could leave you in. Want your own planet? Here are your religious options. Want to hedge your bets and get somewhere nice with minimal effort? You have a few choices. It also gives a one page summary of each religion and has a lot of really cute graphics.

My friend Jackie disagreed that atheism could be considered a religion, but the book made an argument that it's a religion whose belief structure is science. There are laws that must be obeyed, faith in things not yet proven, people who identify as atheists, etc. I guess that doesn't make it a religion, but it's a group that mimics some of the behavior of a religion and has a belief that something happens to your body after death (SPOILER: that "something" would be "decomposition"), so I'm ok with it being in this book.

There's not much depth here, but as an overview it was interesting.

2) I don't remember what book I was reading last year that kept referencing Patrick McGovern's Uncorking the Past, but whatever it was intrigued me enough to add this to my wish list, and I got it for either my birthday or for Christmas.

An interesting tour through the ancient world's fermented beverages and how they were brewed and consumed, the book explores humanity's long fascination with getting drunk, and discusses all of the reasons why we did and continue to do so. It manages to cover almost every continent (I wasn't expecting to see anything about Antarctica, but Australia was noticeably absent) and moved effortlessly from the ancient past to the present day without getting boring or overly academic.

3) Did you know that Stephenie Meyer had a new book out? It somehow escaped my notice, but when I saw The Chemist at the used bookstore I picked it up immediately.

It was so much worse than I thought it could be.

The main character constantly changes her name because she is a lady on the run. For most of the story, she's Alex, and Alex used to be a government interrogator for a secret black ops agency. They tried to burn her, and now she sleeps every night in booby-trapped hideaways, having survived three attempts on her life. When she receives an email saying the agency needs her help to stop a massive biological terrorist attack, she kidnaps Daniel, the suspect, to interrogate him before the agency does so that she can see if this is real or an attempt to draw her out of hiding, and that's where this starts going off the rails. She immediately starts to fall in love with Daniel for no reason, immediately abandons her three years of safety measures, and now that she's in love wants to find a way to come out of hiding.

And that's before the secret agent evil twin, superintelligent dog, and the sinister vice-president (not Biden) show up.

Seriously, this book was so bad, and so full of the same clich├ęs as her other books: mysterious love at first sight for no reason, a beautiful woman with adorable flaws, and buildups to big fights that kind of fizzle out. I'm so glad she didn't get any of my money out of this, and so ashamed to admit that I read it.

4) Just after seeing a production of "The Crucible" on campus, I noticed that Stacy Schiff's The Witches was available in paperback, so I picked it up with the idea that it was thick enough to be a good book for a travel day. It was! It lasted through an entire day of airplane travel and a four hour drive downstate.

Carefully researched and easy to read, Schiff's book walks us through the entire outbreak and aftermath of the Massachusetts witchcraft panic in 1692, from the political and historical groundwork through the lingering effects on the families and their attempts at restitution. She clears up misconceptions that were added to the story later (it didn't take place only in Salem, and nobody was burned, among others) and lets the facts (the few that remain) speak for themselves rather than dropping in a lot of her own commentary. The only thing I wish she would have gone into more detail on (but the book is already just over 500 pages, so I can totally understand not doing so) is giving more of a look at the present day, and how the community of Salem continues to profit off of what should be something more shameful.

5) Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened was the first (of two so far) book I received from the latest version of the Facebook book exchange pyramid scheme. My friends told me not to participate in it, but I only had to send one book and received two, which means the exchange worked for me and I came out ahead.

Back to this book, I'd read a few of her blog entries before, as they were getting linked around on Facebook for a while, and she's very funny a lot of the time. At the same time, though, she's very funny in small doses of a couple of blog entries at a time. Over the course of a whole book I kind of needed a break, so reading this took a little longer than it should have because I kept having to put it down, because sometimes reading about her many psychological problems was mentally exhausting, due to my own psychological problems.

6) My friend Kate, who knows I like weird Americana, sent me Robert Schneck's Mrs. Wakeman vs. The Antichrist a while ago, possibly more than a year, and I just now got around to reading this brief sampling of American cults, Bigfoot hunts, Ouija board panics, killer clown sightings (suddenly relevant again this past summer), and other weird bits of American lore. Some of this I had heard of, but I never knew that in the early 1900s it was common practice for people to visit slaughterhouses across the nation to drink fresh cow blood, for example. America is, and always has been, a weird place. (See book #4 up above for another example of that.)

This was entertaining and enlightening.

7) Elizabeth Kolbert's The Sixth Extinction was a fast, fascinating read. It was also kind of sad, because we're slowly murdering our planet and everyone on it, but she took a lot of heavy science and made it breezy and easy to devour. I liked the way that she doesn't belabor the point that global warming is killing everything, but manages to bring it up enough times that it's always in the back of your mind while thinking about meteors and breeding pairs and dead bats. The basic premise of the book, that man has impacted the planet so severely that it will register in the geologic record for whatever intelligent race (most likely giant rats) comes after us, seems inarguable after reading this.

8) Chrystia Freeland's Plutocrats did the opposite of the book before it: it took a lot of data and a premise that should have been interesting and made it a slow, dragging read that eventually turned into a chore to get through. I thought it might help me understand a little more where our new president is coming from, but oddly enough none of the stories of affluent excess included him.

I really should have finished the book I'm reading on the kindle this month, too, but it's so bad that I keep finding other places to walk besides the treadmill, just so I don't have to read it.

I guess there's always hope for December.

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