Night Watch

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett


This fantasy takes place in Pratchett’s Discworld, specifically in its large, chaotic city of Ankh-Morpork. It’s a time travel story in which the leader of the City Watch is taken suddenly and unexpectedly back into his own past. He becomes commander of the Watch and mentor to his own younger self, while dealing with an insurrection that reminded me of Les Miserables, barricades in the streets and all. It feels somewhat grittier and more realistic than some of the other Discworld books that focus more on magic. If you like Pratchett’s silly, satirical humor, this book does not disappoint. His targets this time range all over the political map, from incompetent cops to idealistic but clueless revolutionaries, to conniving officials, to esoteric academics.


Shadowspell by Jenna Black


This is the second book in a YA fantasy series I began reading a long, long time ago, before this blog. I’m not sure I’ll pick up the next book in the series, although I must have liked the first one enough to put the second on my list. Maybe it’s a sign of my taste getting more refined, or the series not fulfilling its potential.

The story is about Dana, a Faeriewalker, a girl of mixed human and fairy heritage who has the power to bring fairies into our world and to bring technology into Fairie. In the first scene, she’s fighting her fairy boyfriend off her in a theater, in a way that’s presented as cute and hot rather than rapey and disrespectful. The bad guy is the Erkling, the sexy leader of the Wild Hunt, who abducts her boyfriend and gives Dana a nasty Scarpia Ultimatum, which, disappointingly, is also presented as hot and seductive rather than rapey and exploitative. Dana stupidly makes a bargain with the Erkling, when everybody knows there’s always a catch in deals with faeries.

The world that’s built here had the potential to be really cool, so it’s a shame what Black has done with it as far as those creepy rapey moments. Dana makes a kind of annoying narrator in a very materialistic, stereotypical, and exaggerated teen girl way. I’m curious about what comes next here, but I’m not sure whether I’m curious enough to get through another book like this.

City of Heavenly Fire

City of Heavenly Fire by Cassandra Clare

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This big book wraps up The Mortal Instruments series. It provides a strong, satisfying conclusion to the novels, full of the action and relationship angst that characterized the other books. The violence gets taken up a notch as the villain Sebastian/Jonathan makes an evil army by turning Shadowhunters into Endarkened by forcing them to drink from the Infernal Cup. The main characters spend much of the second half of the book pursuing him into a nightmarish demon realm. Clare shows she’s got the guts to kill off some second-tier characters. The ending also brings together contemporary characters from this series with the surviving characters from the prequel series The Infernal Devices, creating a sense of far-reaching history and genealogy.  (I read that series before I picked up any of The Mortal Instruments books, but now I think that reading them in the order they were written would be best, because then the reader wouldn’t experience a dip in quality between Clare’s later books and her first novel.) Again, the love story plotline is the stuff of a teen girl’s daydreams, as Jace spouts lines about how Clary has changed him for the better as they bask in their happy ending.

The ending is mostly closed for the main characters, but open enough to allow a spin-off series with new characters introduced in this book. The Mortal War ended with some discontentment–the vanquished fairies stripped of power and Shadowhunters displaying some racist attitudes. There are just enough loose ends to begin a new series and tantalize readers between books, while our heroes get to have their happily ever after.

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee


This much-publicized novel is either the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, or its sequel, depending on which origin narrative you believe. Some say that this novel is not complete, and/or was not meant to be published in its current form. The relationship that you have to that first novel will largely determine how much you like this one. If you put TKaM on a pedestal as perfect, you will probably be offended by Watchman. I remember reading TKaM fairly uncritically as a high school freshman and taking in its great white savior narrative as fact; since then I’d read and come to agree with criticism that it wasn’t as progressive as I was taught it was. So I think I was open to whatever Watchman would turn out to be.

I liked the experience of reading the book and being in Maycomb again. Between the two books, Lee has created a small town setting that feels real and full of life and humor. Young Scout’s vivid first person voice in TKaM was perhaps the single best thing about that book, and this one has an adult third person narrator with a bit less charm. Some of the best passages of this book are the flashbacks to childhood, which is telling because that’s also where TKaM came from. I don’t think this book would make much sense to a reader who hadn’t read TKaM first.

I honestly still don’t know what to think of Go Set a Watchman. The argument about race that the novel seemed to be making was that it was ok and right for white people in the South to fight to slow down the progress of integration so that their less enlightened neighbors could have the time they needed to get on board, because otherwise there would have been even more violence than there was. Everyone seems to agree that the federal courts and the NAACP are out of line to try to tell Alabamans how to run their state, despite the fact that they are running it in an unfair and unlawful way. African-Americans as a group are called “backward” by all characters and this idea is never contradicted in the text. (They seem mostly to mean uneducated, which may have been a historical fact, but it also seems to imply a lack of capacity for education and self-improvement, which I find offensive.) Then again, I could be completely wrong in this interpretation. Much of the plot was a series of arguments between Jean Louise (grown Scout) and various members of her family about the racial situation in Maycomb County and her father’s participation in a “citizen’s council.” The arguments get bogged down with historical trivia. They’re constitutionally meticulous, emotionally intense, and never really get concluded. The ending is very open, although my generous interpretation is that Jean Louise will stay in Alabama and struggle mightily to move public opinion in favor of integration.

I guess I agree that this book does kind of trounce the unblemished character of Atticus Finch into the mud, but that doesn’t bother me much. The part of the book I liked was the idea that Jean Louise had to detach her conscience from her father’s in order to grow up and learn to think for herself, and that necessitated a huge disagreement between them. In order for that to happen, Atticus had to disappoint her. Parents are human beings who do inevitably disappoint their kids, and so I think Atticus is a better character if he’s fallible, compared to the endlessly wise and flawless father of TKaM. So I don’t have a problem with that part of the book. The most compelling part of this book might be the idea that there is no inconsistency in the Atticus of the two books, that Atticus, our great hero, was always bigoted and paternalistic. And the fact that we can all recognize that means our standard for being racially inclusive is higher now, and it should be.

I won’t go as far as to say that it would have been better for this book to remain unpublished. It may be exactly the right time to have these discussions, and a shocking book full of racist views from half a century ago might be just the thing to get people talking.

Funny Once

Funny Once: Stories by Antonya Nelson


I saw Nelson read from this collection of short stories at the Southern Festival of Books last year. They’re all in the contemporary realist genre, set in the midwest and southwest. A few of the characters are either teachers of writing or students in a writing class. They find connection in unexpected places. Their relationships with the people they “should” be close to are in the process of falling apart, while they feel close to people who are only tangentially connected to their lives–exes, former stepchildren, eccentric neighbors. Her characters are ordinary people with sometimes slightly sleazy problems. The final, longest story in the collection is about three grown children putting their dad in a nursing home. If you like short stories in this genre, these ones are funny and insightful.

Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

cover_bad_feministBad Feminist is a manifesto about womanhood, race, pop culture, representation, and violence.  The title essay is a rebellion against the dominant image of feminists as anti-feminine and obsessed with ideological purity. One main point is that it’s better to be an imperfect feminist than not one at all. I think it’s really important that Gay gives us permission to have feminist ideals and still be flawed human beings who don’t always live up to their values. I like that she argues that feminism and girliness are not opposed. Yes, it is possible to wear heels, make-up, and skirts and be a feminist (duh). No, a feminist does not have to feel constrained by her convictions to only perform actions that are explicitly feminist. What a relief. Allowing ourselves and other women to be human might be the most important thing we can do to help feminism to grow and triumph.

In addition to redefining feminist practice for today’s world, Gay writes deeply personal stories that resonate and entertain. There’s a hilarious one about her experiences as a competitive Scrabble player and a heartbreaking one about being raped when she was very young, another about her struggles with food, related to that trauma. She frequently connects cultural criticism to her own life, so that her perspective on the things she’s reading and watching is a totally unique one.

Reading these essays was like talking to a smart, rant-y friend about your favorite books, movies, and TV. Gay revels in hate-reading and watching reality TV with irony; she gets actual joy out of how terrible the prose in 50 Shades of Gray is. Some of the essays are a bit dated, and many of them have been published online already. Her criticisms are biting, but for the most part seem to me to be fair.  She writes the rules for female friendship, weighs in on the “likeability” of fictional characters (her conclusion–that she likes characters for their unlikeability–wasn’t terribly different from mine), and patiently explains why emotional responses to “minor” tragedies doesn’t diminish “larger” tragedies. Not only is she incisive, pinpointing the exact crux of each issue she addresses, but she’s also empathetic and compassionate, inhabiting as many perspectives as she can to understand them and communicate to all.

Books on psychology

Psychology is one of my favorite topics for nonfiction reading. I love learning about how the mind works and why we are the way we are on that meta level. Here are three books I read recently that taught me some things about the mind and how its unique quirks influence our decisions, our personalities, and our societies.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking,_Fast_and_SlowDaniel Kahneman is a Nobel-winning economist, but his book is more concerned with our minds and choices than global markets. It’s really long and comprehensive, but it’s as interesting as any nonfiction book I’ve read all year. Throughout the book, Kahneman uses the terms “System 1” and “System 2” to describe the workings of the mind. He says that most of the time we use System 1, which is automatic, intuitive, and effortless. System 2 requires more mental effort and attention, and so we avoid using it as often as possible, but it is the only way we can do computations and think logically. This description of the mind made a lot of sense to me. It describes a lot of the reasons people make choices that are illogical, and yet these choices seem so natural and commonsensical. One reason for that is because our minds don’t understand statistics intuitively. Kahneman names a lot of these systematic errors so that they are easier to see and identify in our everyday lives. He describes some higher level economic concepts, like prospect theory, in terms that are fairly easy to understand.

I thought this book was fascinating. It was like taking an introductory college course on logic, with some side lessons on psychology, statistics, and economics. It’s a book about how thinking works, and it left me with a greater understanding of my own mind, and those of others.

The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live–and How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, PhD. with Sharon Begley


This book describes a theory of personality that I found interesting and persuasive. The six aspects of emotional style that Davidson discusses are Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self-Awareness, Sensitivity to Context, and Attention. Each of these dimensions has a spectrum, and we each have a unique emotional style that reflects our indlvidual places on these six spectrums. There are lots of little quizzes to give readers an idea of their own emotional style, but I thought they were too short to be really accurate. Davidson tried as much as possible to be unbiased about which emotional styles are ‘better,’ which in some cases led to too much relativism. The book also discusses the neuroscience research that shows that these patterns are physically present in the brain structure, as well as research on neuroplasticity, which proves that these brain structures can be altered through practice. I was convinced that the theory does a decent job of explaining the brain basis of personality, and somewhat encouraged to think that our flaws are somewhat malleable. But most of the suggestions for changing your emotional style were just meditating. I’d be interested to read more about developing research on this topic.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt


This book was about the psychology behind our contentious politics and how liberals and conservatives think and value things differently. Haidt writes as a liberal trying to understand conservatives. He describes six “moral foundations”: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression. He found that the main difference between liberals and conservatives is that conservatives value all of these foundations roughly equally, while liberals focus on Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating and have trouble understanding the value of the other foundations. Another main insight was the idea that for all of us, intuitions come first and strategic reasoning comes second. We like to think that we slowly and rationally process evidence to come to reasonable conclusions, without passionate feelings playing any part, but really we come to emotional judgments quickly, then come up with logical reasons to support them. And that’s true for everyone, not just the people we disagree with. The book even delved into evolutionary psychology to push the idea of group selection, which seemed intellectually risky, but ultimately I was persuaded. Haidt calls for more mutual understanding and civility in politics, an idea I heartily agree with.

The Word Exchange

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon


This technological dystopia is about a near-future world in which viruses pass from computers to humans, and in which dependence on devices causes language to degenerate. The protagonist is a woman searching for her missing father amid the chaos of this new epidemic. Her father edits a dictionary that is bought out by the Word Exchange, an online service that supplies words to users who can’t remember them. She follows clues and uncovers a conspiracy. Each chapter is introduced with a word and definition, and alternate chapters are narrated by the missing editor’s protegee, who has a crush on his daughter. One cool stylistic effect was the way Graedon portrayed one of the “word flu’s” main symptoms as aphasia. Watching characters’ language fall apart as they sickened was fascinating and full of pathos.

This story was fun, but while the “word flu” worked fine on the level of plot, I didn’t think it worked on a second level of metaphor as well. The danger of contagion and the suggested treatment of isolation seemed wrong on that level: increased engagement seems the way to solve a problem of language and learning. If the point of a dystopia novel is to caution us about problems in our own society, the warning here seems simply to be about the need to unplug periodically. So the book wasn’t very deep, but it was enjoyable.

The Impossible Knife of Memory

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
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This YA contemporary novel is about a teen girl and her veteran father. He’s struggling with war PTSD, and she’s dealing with his condition as well as her own version of PTSD from the tumultuous and abusive home she grew up in, and her stepmother’s abandonment. She meets a boy who’s pretty much perfect and he treats her really well even though she’s really rude and abrasive at first, and doesn’t treat him well because she doesn’t know how. She’s a kind of annoying character, especially in the beginning, taking prickliness to an extreme, although you know it’s only because she’s so traumatized. It makes the relationship seem unrealistic. The boyfriend is a super hot swimmer with lots of girl groupies at school, and he picks this easily offended, socially inept wreck of a girl who says she’s not pretty? Maybe in a novel, but not in a real high school.

Besides the unrealistic nature of this boyfriend/savior, the book does a good job depicting PTSD and the family dynamics surrounding it. It’s an important topic and I’m glad books like this are out there because they might help kids in families who are struggling. A major theme in the book seemed to be how parents whose own lives are a mess make lots of problems for their kids. Besides the protagonist’s dad, her best friend’s parents are going through a nasty divorce, and the boyfriend’s parents are enabling his addict sister, at the cost of savings earmarked for his college education. That part of the book definitely did seem realistic. Anderson is a good writer, and her characters, with the possible exception of the swimmer boyfriend, are living and believable. It’s a good, but not great example of the YA contemporary genre.