Reviews & Rants - Blogging about books, authors, and generally 


Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage - Kathleen Winter

Boundless is one of those books that I picked up because I really liked the cover and the subtitle of my edition read "Adventures in the Northwest Passage", not "Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage". If it had been the latter, I may have hesitated. It was the adventure aspect that drew me to the book just as much as the cover.


Well, adventure in the sense that I expected was not the focus of this book, but it did stir my wanderlust and I did enjoy following Kathleen Winter's travels along the Northwest Passage just as much as any other travelogue based on that area of the world. 


Unlike some other travelogues, Winter used her trip as a time of introspection and to get to grips with some events in her life that needed closure. From this angle, there were quite a lot of parts that I was admittedly less interested in and that I did not really pay attention to because the constant introduction of new people, fellow travellers and people she meets on the way, did not provide much time and space to get invested in them.


However, as a general book to get a feel for this remote area of the world (Greenland and northern Canada) and, especially (I felt) the tourism industry in this part, it was interesting and even entertaining.

Reading progress update: I've read 79%.

Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage - Kathleen Winter

Some parts of this book are beautifully written, but there is so much meandering...

Booklikes-Opoly - Task: Read in the Wild

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation - Judith Mackrell

For this task, I was allowed to pick a book of my choice, so I picked one that had been lingering on my virtual tbr shelf for ages: 


Flappers by Judith Mackrell. 


I have this as an audiobook, but according to Ammy, the print version has 512 pages, yielding a potential reward of $5.


As for reading in the "wild" for an hour (wild being defined as a location other than my living room), I had hoped to take the audiobook with me on a jog down the beach. However, the temperatures dropped by 10C yesterday and we had another relapse into snow, sleet, and icy rain, so I put the jog on hold. Instead, I started listening to the book on the way to and from work this week. 


Death Comes as the End

Death Comes As the End - Agatha Christie

“All life is a jest, Imhotep - and it is death who laughs last. Do you not hear it at every feast? Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”

Death Comes as the End is Dame Agatha's only historical mystery and she makes full use of her in-depth knowledge of Ancient Egypt. The detail of Egyptian artefacts and religious beliefs Dame Agatha weaved into this was delightful and made up for the odd dalliances with annoying love triangles. What it didn't quite achieve was to give some authenticity to the characters which still seemed as if they had been copied out of an English country house setting. 


I guess, in a way one could argue that the relationships between Christie's characters and their issues are universal, but I could not help imagine some of the characters having a strong London accent. 


Never mind, it was a fun read.

Reading progress update: I've read 16%.

Death Comes As the End - Agatha Christie

LoL. Imhotep sounds a lot like Colonel Protheroe from Murder at the Vicarage.

I wonder if this story will take a similar turn...



The Victorian Chaise-longue

The Victorian Chaise-Longue - Marghanita Laski, P.D. James

"Will you give me your word of honour," said Melanie, "that I am not going to die?"

I love it when a book starts with a first sentence that packs a punch. With this one, we immediately know that what follows will be a story of life and death.


The Victorian Chaise-longue is a very short (99 pages) novel about a woman in the late 1940s or early 1950s that is recovering from illness and suddenly finds herself in a most precarious situation - it appears she has woken up in 1864.


I will not reveal anything else about the plot (and the above is pretty much revealed on all general descriptions of the book), other than that the plot takes on a different shape depending on how you approach it.


Sounds mysterious? Well, it isn't. It's just that the plot is one thing if you read it with the expectation that everything in the book happens just as it is described. If, however, you begin to doubt the narrator, you may start to wonder what is really going on. 


Do I know the answer to this question. Nope. 


However, I really enjoyed the conjectures that this question of whether "here" is "here" or whether "here" is really "there" allows. In fact, by the end of the book I could not help but draw parallels to one of my all-time favourite novels A Tale for the Time Being, only of course that Marghanita Laski published The Victorian Chaise-longue in 1953, 60 years before Ozeki's book. Do I think that Ozeki borrowed from Laski? Absolutely not. 

The comparison merely came up because both authors seem to base their ideas on a similar question about what time really is, and how we live in time.


And both books look at people in their time, and really caught up in time and other circumstances. In Laski's novel, this leads to illustrate the state of women in society - Victorian society and that of the 1940s/50s. Is there much change? 


The Victorian Chaise-longue seems to be listed as gothic or horror in the same vein as Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper is but I have issues with this classification. In my mind, tagging works as "gothic" or "horror", seems to pass them off as works of the imagination when, in fact, they are quite real. Scary and horrible they may be, but the connotations of the "horror" genre seem to deny such works the sense of veiled realism that truly punches the gut.


While I loved the book for its content and delivery, there were a few quibbles I had with the writing, which seemed to jump about a bit (But then, this may have been a way to show the MC's state of mind.) and with one element that left me puzzled - had the treatment of TB in the late 1940s/early 1950s really not moved on from the 1920s?


I mean, Laski makes mention of penicillin, yet, no antibiotics seem to be part of the treatment and the MC herself still believes that fresh air, sunlight, and milk will provide a cure - much like prescribed in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (1924). Again, this is not a real criticism of the book, just an additional question I derived from it.


I am very much looking forward to reading more by this author.

My Own Words

My Own Words - Wendy W. Williams, Mary Elizabeth Hartnett, Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Before you start throwing things at me for giving this book such a low rating, let me make one thing very clear: The two stars are no reflection on Ruth Bader Ginsburg's writings or thoughts. If there was any reason I devoured this book, it is because I quickly became a fan of RBG when reading about her broad-mindedness and her passion for equality and her efforts to bring both into the shaping US jurisprudence. I would love to read more about her and her legal opinions, but not in this book.


This book, My Own Words, not exactly what the title promised. My Own Words was not as I expected a book written by RBG, but was merely a collection of articles about her, speeches by her, and some legal options that were superficially annotated by two other authors. This resulted in a hodge-podge of pieces that at times had no train of thought -especially the beginning of the book.


It took about 80 pages to get to a part of the book that presented RBG's involvement in matters of law, which is the part I was most interested in reading about. Yet, even once the book got going (so to speak), the structure of the book would not allow to develop a point or to give enough information to fully understand what was being commented on in the excerpts of RBG's speeches or opinions. 


Especially in the instances where the book presented RBG's opinions on judgments, the book was disappointing in that the annotation tried to summarise cases but often failed to present the legal arguments that were being debated. So, when the book presented RBG's words on the matter, it often read like an opinion that had no relevance because it seemed to be an answer to which there was no question. 


I had to research some of the cases to fill in the missing background, and this is something that I would have expected that the book would provide. I am no stranger to reading case law, some of which can be convoluted, but I would rather read the actual judgments and corresponding law reports than this book.  

Reading progress update: I've read 16%.

My Own Words - Wendy W. Williams, Mary Elizabeth Hartnett, Ruth Bader Ginsburg

If the book continues as it has started, this will not be a satisfying read.

Quite disappointed so far.


For Murder by Death...

The mystery boxes at the NHM...



Why should I be the only one wondering what was in them?



Dry Storeroom No. 1

Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum - Richard Fortey

Dry Store Room No. 1 was a kind of miscellaneous repository, a place of institutional amnesia. It was rumoured that it was also the site of trysts, although love in the shadow of the sunfish must have been needy rather than romantic. Certainly, it was a place unlikely to be disturbed until it was dismantled. I could not suppress the thought that the store room was like the inside of my head, presenting a physical analogy for the jumbled lumber-room of memory. Not everything there was entirely respectable; but, even if tucked out of sight like suppressed memories, these collections could never be thrown away. This book opens a few cupboards, sifts through a few drawers. A life accumulates a collection: of people, work and perplexities. We are all our own curators.

Before you get any ideas, this book is not just about the one storeroom. And while the book is focused on London's Natural History Museum - its history, people, and exhibits - Dr. Fortey tells of much more than just the museum, he just happens to use the museum as an anchor for his discourse into the history (naturally!) of the world and the people and finds that have shaped our understanding of it.


And what an anchor it is! The Natural History Museum started out as a part of the British Museum (another favourite haunt of mine), but the collection of natural artefacts soon outgrew the capacity of the British Museum and efforts led by Richard Owen succeeded in the split of the collections and the establishment of the Natural History Museum as a separate enterprise and an important new centre of research - which it is to this day. 


Dr. Fortey goes into a lot of detail about the history of the museum and its collections, and in turn this reveals a wider story of the development of the natural sciences in society. 


Fortey's forte, however, is when he gets to speak about the different collections and the people who have shaped not only the departments of the museum but also the scientific research - from lichen, to minerals, to worms. I had no idea, I could be so interested in worms!


My first concrete interest in the NHM's collections was when I read about Mary Anning's groundbreaking finds of ichthyosaurus and plesiosaurus specimen which are held by the NHM.


Anning's finds are, of course, some of the famous exhibits, along with the archaeopteryx, or the dodo skeleton. While Fortey mentions them, he also introduces the collections that are not on display and that are mostly of interest to the scientific community. He does it in a way, tho, that is strangely fascinating. And while not all parts of the book are equally interesting, and while Fortey's tangents sometimes strayed off into the finer points of plant classification, I loved his message, or rather messages, which drive home the importance of the Natural History Museum and the scientific research conducted there:   

Science, treasure, rarity, beauty, scholarship: this hidden gallery made me understand again the heterogeneous attraction of Museum life. Nowhere else could a link with the Mughal emperors be relevant to what happens deep beneath the surface of the Earth; nowhere else would the fanatical collecting of a toffish Russell become a long-term resource for mineral genesis; nowhere else could rummaging in an attic reveal an archive of the Prince Regent. From the Russell Room I looked out on to the Victoria and Albert Museum across the other side of Exhibition Road. The prospect might suggest imperial nonsense and ‘pomp and circumstance’, a slightly ridiculous inheritance from the nineteenth century when the Sun never set on the British Empire. But South Kensington has become transformed by time and usage into something that is more than just the ‘BM’ and the ‘V& A’, a monument to a Britain that no longer exists. The collections are there to inform and inspire the whole world, and not just a small corner of it. I am not much of a post-colonialist, and I don’t necessarily admire the principles on which the collections were made. But I do understand the primacy of collections as a record of the world, both human and natural. There is more to collections than the golden rule about never throwing things away. There is inherent value in having people who ‘know their stuff’. The apparently esoteric can suddenly illuminate unsuspected areas of knowledge. Those who have devoted their lives to collections – obdurate people, odd people, admirable people – actually make a museum what it is and should be.

Reading progress update: I've read 67%.

Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum - Richard Fortey

Alan showed me one mineral that could not be displayed at all to common view. Proustite has a blood-red colour that fades when exposed to light – a shy creature, indeed. It was not named after the novelist Marcel Proust, though one feels it should have been. These famous, well-formed crystals mined from Copiapo, Chile, some of which would almost cover your hand, have an unreal quality, as if they did not quite belong on this Earth at all. I suppose that since they are a compound of silver, arsenic and sulphur they must also be very poisonous. They thus combine a lethal but hidden beauty; they are of the earth, but somehow also unearthly. Wordsworth was no friend of geologists, whom he regarded as dull enumerators of facts, but he did write a line that seems quite appropriate to gemstones: ‘True beauty lies in deep retreats.’ 

I thought I'd share this part because the mineral is just beautiful:


The Axeman's Jazz

The Axeman's Jazz - Ray Celestin

So, this is my RL book group's latest choice, which we will discuss at the end of this month. I am delighted to say that this was much better than the last book.


The Axeman's Jazz is a combination of historical fiction and police procedural set in the New Orleans on 1919 and based on the real crimes committed by "the Axeman". 


I will not give a lot of details about the factual background to the story - and I would advise any prospective readers to not look up the facts before reading the book - because knowing some of the details will spoil the reading experience some. 


The story of the book sets in when several attacks have been committed in New Orleans and the police cannot quite see any connections. There is a lot of conjecture which the author intelligently bases on the socio-economic situation of the city at the time and especially on the tensions between different groups of people  - particularly Irish and Italian immigrants. 


The other foundation of the story is New Orleans connection to music. In particular to jazz, which is a vital element of the Axeman's terror: with a seemingly random murderer on the loose, a letter by the self-proclaimed "Axeman" is published which announces the date that the next murder will occur, but also warns that anyone who is playing or listening to jazz music on that night will be safe.


I thought the book has a great premise and the choice and setting of the story was really interesting. However, the book struggled a bit. 


I enjoyed reading about the historical tidbits but the actual mystery, or rather the police investigation (which had another couple of subplots) left me bored. So, I had to look to the second team of unofficial investigators to carry the plot. This, however, only succeeded in part because as much as I liked Ida, the Holmes-obsessed lady detective, I just could not get my head around Louis Armstrong being involved in the murder puzzle. 


All in all, it was a fun read, but the historical part was more entertaining than the murder mystery.

NUART Festival

It's Sunday. 


I could have read all day. I could have made soup. However, on the spur of the moment, I met up with a friend for tea, gelato (somebody had to taste my favourite gelateria's new mojito flavour), and a wander around an art exhibition. The twist was the artworks were mostly murals and graffiti that has been commissioned all around town.


It was a lovely way to spend a Sunday, scavenging for art. There were lots of other people who had the same idea, and after a while we delighted in seeing the same groups all over town. It meant we were close to another exhibit.


We also discovered a few works that were not part of the current NUART project, but that was equally astonishing.


I'll add some of the pictures I took below without further comment.


Happy Sunday!












(This last one, Emile Sande, is probably not part of the current project, but I thought it was beautiful. Right in the city centre, in a park that was recently saved by public vote against refurb into a glorified car park. Love it.)


Warum sind wir so kalt? - Erika Manns Exilkabarett

Warum sind wir so kalt? Erika Manns Exilkabarett - Monika Sutil, AirPlay Entertainment GmbH, Anatol Regnier, Erika Mann, Rosel Zech

Warum sind wir so kalt? - Why are we so cold?


I have long been been looking for more information on Erika Mann's cabaret work. It is referenced in articles and biographies I have read about her but none went on to describe the actual pieces that were performed.


Die Pfeffermuehle was a political cabaret originally formed in January 1933 in Munich by Erika and her brother, which performed in protest of the politics pursued by the growing nationalist movement in Germany. After Hitler's rise to power later on in 1933, the members of the cabaret group were pursued by the authorities as enemies of the state and fled the country for fear of their personal safety. While in exile in Switzerland, the cabaret initially continued their performances, but Swiss authorities quickly discouraged these performances because of their political content and for fear that the relationship with German authorities, and especially the tourism trade may suffer.  


This audio production not only gives an insight into the biographical and historical context of the cabaret pieces, it also contains a performance of some of the actual songs and performances.


I thoroughly enjoyed this glimpse into the part of her and her fellow actors of the Pfeffermuehle cabaret. As for the pieces themselves, it is astounding to compare satire written in the 1930s with the subsequent events in history and see how close the nightmarish distortion of the cabaret turned into reality. 


Reading progress update: I've read 7%.

Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum - Richard Fortey

I want to drag all the visitors to the Museum up to the tree and explain about time, and how we exist atop a vast history that has made us what we are, and that we ignore that history at our peril. But if I did, I fear that I should be branded with the same label as that funny old man who comes up in the street to tell you about his messages from angels.

I have a feeling that this, sadly, rings true for all history, not just the natural history that Fortey refers to. 


I'm really enjoying this book so far, which in part is due to Dr. Fortey's description of the impressive building and its very own history. The only regret I have is that I had not read this book two years ago when I visited the museum. 


The tree that Dr. Fortey refers to is a cross-section of a giant sequoia tree that has been part of the museum's exhibition since 1893. The tree was 1,300 years old and 101 metres tall when it was felled.


More Fool Me

More Fool Me - Stephen Fry

Memoir, the act of literary remembering, for me seems to take the form of a kind of dialogue with my former self. What are you doing? Why are you behaving like that? Who do you think you are fooling? Stop it! Don’t do that! Look out! Books, too, can take the form of a dialogue. I flatter myself, vainly perhaps, that I have been having a dialogue with you. You might think this madness. I am delivering a monologue and you are either paying attention or wearily zipping through the paragraphs until you reach the end.

Never a truer word. 


As much as I like, even adore, Stephen Fry, I cannot say that I enjoyed this third instalment of his autobiography.


The first part of the book basically retold the parts of Fry's life that were detailed in Moab is My Washpot and The Fry Chronicles. Catching up with these parts would have been ok if the rest of this book had made for it with an account of the next part of his memoir that was written in the same engaging style as Moab or the Chronicles

Unfortunately, this doesn't happen. What follows the re-cap of his earlier life is an excerpt of Fry's diary recorded in 1993. 


But that is just it. There is little commentary from Fry on the diary entries which as a result read like a mere listing of dates, events, (famous) names, and an account of just how much coke he scored. 


In fact apart from the way that these uncommented entries make Fry look and sound like a bit of a tosser, there was a major part of his life that is hinted at but that actually is never brought up: What made him re-consider his coke habit?


All the way through the book, he goes on about how "naughty" or "debauched" his behaviour and especially his cocaine habit were, but there seemed to be something missing - most of the book goes on to show how his habit fuelled his enormous output of work during this period, without any apparent consequences. 

How do you get from this to a short couple of paragraphs warning people not to copy his indulgences because they will surely die???


I'm under no impression that the Stephen Fry of 1993, whose diary I found grating and who seemed quite arrogant, patronising, and sometimes even rude in his address or description of people he thought less skilled or less intellectual than himself, may have (and probably has!) developed into the person who wrote the compassionate,  introspective, and discursive volumes that are Moab and The Fry Chronicles. That aspect of Fry, his discussion of issues, is what is missing from More Fool Me.



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