Sunday, 7 October 2018

2018 Reads: July to September

I did make the grand statement that I wanted to read 52 books this year - but at the six month mark, I was only at 18 books. I don't think it's the end of the world if I don't meet my goal...but I want to meet my goal. Fortunately, after struggling with it for what seems like ages but is actually only 3.5 years, on and off, I feel like I'm finally getting somewhere with reading. It also probably helps that this is the quarter during which I finally got new glasses, so I can finally read just before I go to sleep again. I'm not sure I'm making much progress on my to-read piles, both physical and digital, because I keep adding to them, but hey! I'm regularly reading things that aren't work-related and that is a triumph.

The Fiery Cross, A Breath of Snow and Ashes, An Echo in the Bone, and Written in My Heart's Own Blood - Diana Gabaldon

Finished all the currently published main series Outlander books, so I've started the TV show. Book Claire of the later books is far less irritating, and I'm glad we finally started to get around to more of the mythos of time-travelling, because I've always felt that it wasn't a huge part of the series that really needed to be explored - you know, more than the kinds of plants that grew in North Carolina in the 18th century. Gabaldon can write beautiful descriptions, and I'm going to see this through, but less woods and hardships of life in the 18th century and how to run a still and more about time-travelling.

Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech - Sara Wachter-Boettcher

More AI fun! I probably didn't need to read all of these books on AI, but honestly, a lot of my work is governed by search algorithms and how they're biased absolutely matters to me. Peeling back how these systems work is so important, and the more that we're aware of them, the better. 

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism - Safiya Umoja-Noble

This tackles AI and algorithms from the lens of how they propagate racism, addressing the lack of diversity in tech companies, and how it directly affects and reaffirms how society treats minority groups. This is something we need to be more cognizant of, and again, examine our Internet trawls more critically. 

The Firebrand - Marion Zimmer Bradley

My thing this quarter has been retellings of Greek myths. And it started with this one. The Firebrand takes the Iliad, and flips it, telling the story from the viewpoint of Kassandra. This was riveting - it's framed as an elderly Kassandra telling the truth of what happened, after she listens to a minstrel sing about the fall of Troy. It follows Kassandra through her childhood, from an unloved child to finding a home with Amazons to becoming a priestess. It's chilling and sad, but also hopeful and beautifully written. Unfortunately, Bradley was a garbage person, which is always disappointing when it comes to art you've enjoyed. 

Winter Tide - Ruthanna Emerys

If you like H.P. Lovecraft for the mythos but want less horror and racism in your stories, you need to read this. It's the first of a series, taking place twenty years after the raid of Innsmouth in 1928. The narrator, Aphra Marsh, and her brother Caleb are Deep Ones who were placed in internment camps, (alongside the Japanese) and this meets them as adults, still far from home, and puts them in a position to help the FBI figure out what dangerous information from Miskatonic University may have fallen into the hands of Communist spies. It ties so much of that period in history with the Deep Ones and weaves it into a completely believable story - one that flips Lovecraft and makes the Deep Ones more fleshed out and sympathetic. You don't need to have read Lovecraft before, however, since Emerys explains enough of what you need to know. Anyway. It's great. It started off a little slow, but picked up in the second half of the book.

The Golden Passport: Harvard Business School, the Limits of Capitalism, and the Moral Failure of the MBA Elite - Duff MacDonald

So this was an exercise in validation. I'm sure there are lots of lovely people who get MBAs, who want to make the world a better place - but I've always been slightly suspicious of business school in general. Plus everything I've read in the Harvard Business Review has been maddening and/or poorly researched. This was not a flattering portrait of, arguably, one of the top business schools in the world. It goes through the founding, the early struggles of HBS, the development of the case study method of instruction, the influence of HBS, and examines whether or not the MBA-educated have been successful. It didn't exactly improve my opinion, though it is only a slice of the current picture. If you're interested in a critical look at the evolution of the MBA from where it began, I recommend it.

Esther - Sharon E. McKay

I actually have read this book before, probably shortly after it was published in 2004 and I bought it in a Coles either in Saint John or Sydney (there are no other options for that period in my life). However, I left it at my parents's house and forgot it was still in that bundle of books, which I allowed my parents to give away (presumably, my dad was running out of room on all the other bookshelves in the house and saw an opportunity). And then when I came across a mention of Esther Brandeau somewhere online, I remembered this book and promptly took myself to Amazon to order a new copy. Esther Brandeau was the first known Jew to arrive in New France in 1738. Her story on the official record is very brief, but what is there is fascinating: she disguised herself as a boy named Jacques La Fargue, a sailor. She stayed in New France for about a year, resisting attempts to convert her to Catholicism, and was ultimately sent back to France, as there were no Jews permitted in the Catholic colony of New France. This is one of the imaginings of what led Esther to New France, and I think my favourite one. It's tumultuous and takes the brief details that were given in the official record to create a compelling story about a woman who wanted freedom.

The Tale Teller - Susan Glickman

This is the other novel about Esther Brandeau, and I think McKay's novel is far superior. This one focuses more on her time in New France, rather than the lead-up and her story. Glickman imagines Esther as a storyteller, weaving elaborate tales to disguise who she really is. She also takes a few more liberties with the few details we do know about Esther. Ultimately, I didn't find this one to be as compelling and none of the characters were as interesting as they were portrayed by McKay.

The Home for Unwanted Girls - Joanna Goodman

A lot of CanLit really just reminds you that you're fortunate to not have grown up in the deeply religious parts of Canada before society shifted. Goodman tells the story of Maggie, the daughter of an anglophone father and a francophone mother, coming of age in the very Catholic 1950s Quebec. She falls in love, gets pregnant, and her parents force her to give up her daughter, who she names Elodie. Elodie is sent to an orphanage run by nuns, where she grows up relatively happily, until, as the result of a new law, orphanages are converted to mental hospitals in order to get more funding, and Elodie's life spirals into a darker place. Meanwhile, Maggie pulls her life back together, though not without consequences, and a desire to find out what happened to her daughter. It's dark, brutal, critical, and somehow still hopeful, even though it is a tragic story. I thought the ending was a little too neat, but overall, it was good.

Circe - Madeline Miller

The second of my Greek myth retellings this quarter - I had actually already decided to get my hands on a copy of this when Renee posted her glowing recommendation of it, but that made me even more excited to start reading it. I was not disappointed. This is a truly wonderful story. It paints CIrce as far more real, far more complicated, and examines her motivations for her actions. It is masterful, honestly. It follows CIrce as a child through her life, and balances the magic and brilliance of the immortal, legends, and gods, with very real things like single motherhood, betrayal, disappointment, protection, and the ties of family. This is among the best books I've read this year.

The Weight of Ink - Rachel Kadish

I wanted to like this story more than I did, because it sounded really cool, but parts of it dragged and no one was likeable or really compelling. It was still good, I just think it could have been...more. This is split between London in the early 2000s and London of the 17th century: Helen, a historian specializing in Jewish history at the end of her career, is asked to go to a house in the city after the owners find a stash of papers hidden in the walls. The stash, or genizah, turns out to be the writings of a rabbi in the 17th century who knew wrote to many influential people in the European Jewish community. Aaron, a pretty obnoxious grad student, is enlisted to help Helen unravel the mystery of the genizah. They determine that the rabbi, who was blind, employed the help of a female scribe - a shocking thing for the time. Said scribe is Esther Velasquez, a young Jewish woman and radical philosopher, who defies a lot of norms of the 17th century. Esther's story is told alongside the story of Helen and Aaron going through the documents. There's also some really annoying stereotypical portrayals of librarians and archivists in this novel, which of course pissed me off and probably contributed to me not enjoying it as much as I could have.

House of Names - Colm Tóibín

And the third of my unintentional Greek myth retelling theme. This follows Clytemnestra, Electra, and Orestes at the end of the Trojan War, and the fallout of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Agamemnon's return home, and subsequent murder by Clytemnestra. The bulk of the story is focused on Orestes, and creating a story for what he was doing in between the murder of Agamemnon and his return many years later, to kill his mother, though it also addresses Electra's years of lying in wait for revenge, and the original catalyst of this, Clytemnestra's grief over the death of her daughter Iphigenia and revenge on Agamemnon. Tóibín doesn't waste words, but he also leaves out things that probably would have enriched the story, like more details about how the society worked. It falls a little short without some of that context. Interestingly, the gods are left out of this one, other than various characters to dismiss them and their involvement or care for humans. This is kind of a dark, murky story, without the details I think it needed to really shine.

Total this quarter: 15
Total this year: 33


  1. I loved CIRCE!!!!!!!!! One of the best books of the year. I used to really like reading books of a running theme and it was fun to see your thoughts on three Greek mythology retellings. It sounds like I could live without the Toibin, given everything else out there clamouring for attention. :)

    1. Circe was SO GOOD! I'm now convincing everyone I know to read it - currently working on some coworkers.

      The Toibin sounded really promising from the blurb, so I was disappointed that it wasn't as gripping. You're definitely not going to be without by skipping it.


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