2014 Books #48, 49, and 50: People of the Book, Unholy Night, The God Delusion

I’m tired of being behind, so I’m going to catch up in one fell swoop. It almost makes sense because these books are kind of related since they all involve religion, though of very, very different sorts. So here’s my Lazy Rundown of Three Almost-But-Not-Really Related Books So They Aren’t Hanging over My Head Anymore.

peopleofthebookPeople of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, happened because it was available on OverDrive when I needed another audiobook because puppy. I read and enjoyed Year of Wonders, about the bubonic plague, several years ago, and I was expecting another reasonably good historical novel, which I got. People of the Book is about an old book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, and how it survived. Hanna Heath, a rare book expert, is asked to go to Sarajevo to preserve it, and through backstories related to her investigations, we find out, in reverse order, when and how the book was made and how it survived when it should have been destroyed by the Inquisition and the Nazis, among others. It’s a really interesting look into Jewish history of which I only had (and still have) a vague knowledge. There was too much unnecessary romance for my taste, and this is generally Not My Kind of Book, but I enjoyed it well enough. If it hadn’t been an audiobook, though, I doubt I would have finished it because parts were slow and I’m generally not good at historical novels.

unholynightNext up is Unholy Night, by Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the like. I don’t think I realized that until I was well into Unholy Night. This is another case of OverDrive Audiobook Convenience, and I enjoyed this one. It’s a (mostly) comedy about how the Three Wise Men got together and saved baby Jesus and his parents. Balthazar, the protagonist, is a well-known thief, called the Antioch Ghost, who has sparked Herod’s particular hatred. Balthazar cheats, kills, lies, and occasionally gets caught, leading to ridiculous escapes and adventures across the desert. He experiences visions that lead him to that fateful night in Bethlehem, where he saves Jesus from Herod and eventually sees him safely into Egypt despite many attempted captures. I thought I might be getting into something that’s sacrilegious, but it’s not, so don’t expect to be offended if you lean that way. It’s a fun and funny adventure novel, and it’s totally worth a read.

goddelusionFinally, we have The God Delusion. I’ve been meaning to read some Richard Dawkins for a while. It’s good that this is part of a multi-entry because I don’t have much to say about it because my beliefs are not the internet’s business, and it’s really hard to talk about this book without saying whether I agree with him or not. But I’m not going to say! What I will say is that Dawkins makes some interesting arguments. He says at the beginning of the book that this book’s purpose is to turn believers into atheists. I’d be interested to know if that’s worked even once because, even as he says, religious belief is so ingrained in personality by the time anyone gets old enough to question it logically. From the outset, Dawkins has a huge hill to climb, and he doesn’t help with his tone: he is a very arrogant man, and he comes off as bitter to the point that his non-objectivity dampens the effectiveness of his arguments. So. Do with that very vague review what you will.

red-50And with that, I’ve hit my annual fifty books! …in September. Last year, I think I made 61, and I might or might not go farther than that. I’ve considered taking the rest of the year off from blogging, but that’s not likely to happen, especially now that I’m caught up. Most of the books I’ve finished lately have been audiobooks because puppy. Right now, I’m in the middle of The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell‘s new novel, and that’ll take a while to finish. There’s also my current audiobook, Authority, the second of the Southern Reach trilogy. And there’s the thesis, which needs to take more of my time than it currently is, which means some Don DeLillo is (sadly?) in my future.

In Puppy News, Zelda is getting spayed on Tuesday. :( She’s six months old, and it’s time. Poor puppy.

Zelda and I saw white spider lilies on our walk this morning!

And, finally, it’s Fall Baking Season! I’m seriously considering adding some recipes to this blog, though that will be difficult because of my non-aesthetically pleasing kitchen. Anyway, I made some super-tasty apple-pumpkin muffins the other day.

I'm pretty sure Fall is the best food season. This morning, I celebrated with apple-pumpkin muffins. Yum!

I only took a picture of the end product, not the various steps I took in getting there, so I’ll just add a link to the recipe I used.

2014 Book #47: Annihilation

annihilationAnnihilation reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone, complete with the explanatory monologue at the end. I could hear Rod Serling’s voice in my head. I think that’s why I liked Annihilation so much.

It’s about the twelfth expedition to Area X, a mysterious plot of land that has been under investigation for thirty years because of mysterious occurrences. This expedition includes four women: an anthropologist, a psychologist, a surveyor, and a biologist. They are never named, and the biologist narrates in journal-form. The situation seems weird from the beginning. They discover a tunnel into the ground, which the biologist insists on calling a tower, and descend to find a scrawl of mysterious and terrifying words. The biologist gets close enough to discover that they’re some sort of fungus, and inhales, infecting herself with…something. The biologist discovers that the psychologist, who leads the group, has been giving posthypnotic commands to them all along, but this fungus has made the biologist impervious. She goes on to discover some of the mysteries of Area X and what it does to her and her fellow expeditioners.

In a way, Annihilation reminded me of Bird Box, which might be another reason I liked it. The reader sees the world through the biologist’s tunnel-vision, affected somehow by that fungus, but she doesn’t know how, and she keeps it a secret from the other women. We’re kept in the dark, waiting for her to write something down that makes sense of things, like discovering this area as she does.

Annihilation is the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy, by Jeff VanderMeer. All three books were published this year, only a couple of months apart and only in paperback. That seems like a strange move, though they were first self-published, I think, so maybe it makes sense? Anyway, I’ll be reading the second and third, Authority and Acceptance in short order because I’m entirely hooked.

Shakespeare was not nearly as enthusiastic:

In other news, I finally finished uploading photos from my one-day whirlwind tour of Washington, DC. Here’s the full set.


(Dog) Food: How to make Alligators!

alligatorsAt the beginning of this year, I made the decision to stick with book-themed posts rather than make my random deviations into food and photography, and, well, I’m breaking that rule here because I want to Share the Wealth.

Alligators are Zelda’s very favorite treat. She pricks up her ears every time she hears the word, and she’ll willingly walk into her kennel and sit down to enjoy one of these tasty treats. I make them twice a month, or so. One batch makes around 85, but they disappear very quickly. I like that I know what’s in them and that they don’t contain soylent dog or some equally unappetizing substance. Sure, lots of people disapprove of feeding dogs wheat, but Zelda enjoys it, and I don’t think it’s much worse for her than it is for humans (have you read Wheat Belly?).

So here goes: How to Make Alligators!

You’ll need all of 4 ingredients. You probably have them in your kitchen right now.

2 cups wheat flour (don’t substitute all-purpose)
1 cup oats
1-1/4 cups hot water
1/3 cup peanut butter

Preheat your oven to 350. In a medium bowl, mix up the oats and wheat flour:

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Then, get your peanut butter and dump it in the bottom of another bowl (I use a stand mixer, but a spoon will probably work).

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Pour in your hot tap water and mix it until it’s reasonably blended. It’ll look kind of gross.

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Next, pour in the dry ingredients and mix it all up. You’ll get a nice, thick dough.

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Roll it out to 1/4- or 1/8-inch thick and cut it into the shapes of your choosing. I use an alligator cookie cutter my stepmother gave me several years ago. If you absolutely hate cookie cutters, roll it out and cut it into squares with a pizza cutter. Your dog won’t mind.

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Put your squares or alligators or mustaches or whatever on a cookie sheet and bake them for about 25 minutes.

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They come out of the oven looking almost exactly like they did going in.

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Once they’re cool, store them in an airtight container or freeze them. They’ll probably last forever in either case since no perishable ingredients are involved.

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Zelda loves them – except when I try to capture said love on video. Then, she’s totally nonchalant.

Easy, eh?

2014 Book #46: Doomed

doomedI see what you’re doing, Chuck Palahniuk. You’ve written a Purgatorio to go after Damned, your Inferno. We all know what’s coming next.

I only read Doomed because I own (won) it, so I’ve been meaning to read it only for that reason, and it was immediately available on OverDrive when I needed another audiobook to read. Which means that I didn’t even read the copy I won. Anyway, I’d been putting it off because I didn’t remember liking Damned, though I apparently did. It’s funny how quickly I forget books and what I thought about them. Which is why I keep this blog – but that’s neither here nor there.

In this installment of Palahniuk’s Divine Comedy, thirteen-year-old Madison ends up stranded on Earth. She’d made a reasonably comfortable place for herself in Hell, but the Universe had other plans for her. She’s somehow supposed to reconcile God and Satan. But that doesn’t exactly happen yet. I imagine it will in the third book of the trilogy. Here, she’s a ghost, getting into trouble on Earth and finding out exactly what’s going on with her parents. She meets her dead grandparents and tells stories about their involvement in her life and death. Things Happen – this time involving a new religion and an entirely plastic continent floating on the ocean, composed of styrofoam and similar societal discards.

Like DamnedDoomed is funny, but that’s its only saving grace. It’s certainly not as good. I’ll read the third one just because I’ve read these two, and I’m vaguely interested in what happens to Madison and her family.

A bit of a warning: if you have a weak stomach, this is not the book for you. There’s a long scene (45 minutes of audio, or so) involving a glory hole in a truck stop and what Madison (at thirteen years old?) thinks is a big piece of dog poo. It’s not pretty. If you’ve read Palahniuk before, though, this is just par for the course.

In non-book news, I got mad enough at Apple because my iPhone 5 kept breaking that I went over to Verizon and bought a Samsung Galaxy S5. I was worried that I might regret it, but it appears to have been a fantastic decision. I’m considering writing an entire post about the glories of Android.

There’s also, of course, the puppy. She got first photo honors with my new phone:

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She’s starting to look more like a dog than a puppy, which is a bit disconcerting. She’s so big!

2014 Book #45: Joe

joeAfter I finished Facing the Music last year, I didn’t see myself becoming a huge Larry Brown fan. That short story collection is good enough, but it’s not spectacular and no way near as intriguing as the man himself. Joe, though! Joe is a great novel, and now I’m entirely won over. (Could you tell from the TWO Larry Brown books I found and purchased at the Centenary Book Bazaar?)

I think I picked it up because I saw a trailer for the recent movie and then realized who wrote it. I haven’t seen the movie and might not bother because it can’t be as good (though I doubt it’s an abomination like the new The Giver film, but I digress). Here is said trailer:

Joe is about, well, Joe, who lives in backwoods Mississippi and works in the logging business. He’s sort of a hick, likes to drink, has lady trouble,  and is disliked by the local sheriff’s deputies. He does well enough and lives comfortably. Then, a (probably) 14-year-old kid named Gary shows up with his father, asking for a job. Joe hires them for the day to poison trees so they can be replaced by pines. Gary works hard, but his father doesn’t do much of anything, and after they’re paid (and fired) at the end of the day, Gary’s father hits him and takes his money and goes to the store to buy (and steal) alcohol. This father is generally a bad sort, bordering on Cormac McCarthy-grade evil. He kills a homeless man for his alcohol and cash, and things just get worse by the end of the book. One rainy night, Gary shows up at Joe’s house, asking to work, and Joe hires him. Life continues, and Things Happen.

I’m so bad at summarizing good books. Just read it. It’s worth your time.

Maybe I like this book so much because I grew up in the general vicinity, and I know people like Joe. What’s funny is that most of the people I know like him live way up in South Dakota. They’re good people, and they work hard. Joe is a good guy.

I almost want to see the movie because Nicholas Cage seems like a strange choice for Joe. If Jeff Bridges was a few years younger, he’d be perfect, but the character is 43 or 44, and Jeff Bridges is, well, significantly older. But Nicholas Cage? I think it got good reviews.

Joe falls in the top five books I’ve read this year, and Larry Brown was one of the best contemporary southern writers. It’s a pity he died so young.

2014 Book #44: Lotería

loteriaHere’s another book I decided to read because I like the cover. Sometimes that works out well. Lotería wasn’t one of those times. I probably would have continued to pass it over, as I’ve done for months, except that the audiobook was immediately available on Overdrive and only 3 hours long. It was mostly a waste of those three hours, though it kept me mildly curious about what was really going on.

Luz, a young girl, writes her story in a journal, each entry based on a lotería card. She mostly tells it backward, and we find out early that she’s in some sort of group home because something terrible happened to her family. Then we skip backward, hearing events leading up to this tragedy, stories about her alcoholic and abusive father, her sister, and the rest of her family.

It’s a short book and not all that interesting. I think reading it would have worked out better because of the (hopefully colorful) lotería cards spaced throughout.

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The ending was corny as happens with a lot of family dramas – which I why I rarely read them. Lotería is okay, at best. You might like it if you enjoy relatively mundane family dramas. Meh.

More interesting was the annual Centenary Book Bazaar, my favorite local event. Once a year, Centenary fills their Gold Dome with donated books and very low prices, and I brave the crowd to get some amazing deals on lightly used books.

Here’s what I found this year:

The Winner this year is that copy of The Gunslinger, which includes the original color illustrations. And I will read Infinite Jest.

In what is probably much less interesting news to you, Palmer and I continue to play Minecraft. Look what we found yesterday!

We found a DOUBLE LIBRARY! It's a combination double-stronghold/mine. SURRIOUSLY.

That is a double library, which means that two strongholds spawned together. We found it just before bedtime last night, so we’ll have to explore it tonight or tomorrow. So exciting!

2014 Book #43: The Glass Sentence

glasssentenceI am so far behind.

This’ll be another quick one even though The Glass Sentence is really, really good and deserves more of a review.

I think this novel ended up in my to-read list after it popped up on one of the ubiquitous beginning-of-season blog lists put out by The Millions or the like. I read the short post, then the blurb on Goodreads. It sounded like My Kind of Book. And this time, it was!

The Glass Sentence is a YA fantasy adventure book about a girl named Sophia and her uncle Shadrack, a cartologer (okay, mapmaker). Several years before timelines had been split along geographical lines around the world in an event they call The Great Disruption. One area might be 19th-century society while not too far away, there’d be dinosaurs. An interesting idea. This new version of the world is still being mapped by people like Shadrack: adventuring mapmakers, including Sophia’s parents, who disappeared somewhere halfway around the world. Sophia doesn’t even know what time they’re in. The government of New Occident, where Sophia lives, has decided to close the borders, and her parents don’t have their papers to get back in, so Sophia and Shadrack decide to go looking for them before that happens. When Shadrack is suddenly kidnapped and taken somewhere north. Sophia, now on her own and with only a few clues and a map left by Shadrack, ends up on a train headed south to figure out what happened to Shadrack and her parents. Things Continue to Happen.

My biggest (and, really, only) complaint about this book is that there seem to be too many Things Happening – and in ways that seem ill-timed and a bit awkwardly done. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed this adventure. The closest books I can compare it to are Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, which I also loved (though with the religious agenda replaced with a political one, but meh). It’s a dark adventure fantasy that only gets darker and more adventurous the farther you get into it. I read it really quickly because I didn’t want to put it down. It really is a fun novel.

I’m generally not a huge fan of YA series, but I’m instantly hooked on this one. The Glass Sentence is the first of a trilogy that Goodreads is calling The Mapmakers Trilogy. The next one is called The Golden Specific, according to Goodreads, and it will be released next year. I can’t wait!

In Puppy News, things are progressing. Zelda has serious stick-wielding skillz.

2014 Book #42: California

californiaBah! Thanks to all of those audiobooks, I’m way behind!

So. California. You’ve probably heard about it. Stephen Colbert loves it, so most of the liberal world does, too. It’s been all over TV and social media. And I love the cover.

It’s a post-apocalyptic-dystopian type, about Cal and Freida, a couple who have just left a dying Los Angeles to live in the wilderness of California. They find a shack and live there for a while, then meet some people who live nearby, eventually moving into their house. Not with them. We’ll get to that. As society slowly dissolved (earthquakes, storms, viruses, etc), various groups of people formed their own microsocieties. Rich people formed Communities, which are as close to what we have now as you can get in their world. Less fortunate people remained in the cities or moved on their own out into the wilderness. Some people formed terrorist organizations, like The Group, eventually led by Frida’s brother, who she is told was a suicide bomber. After Cal and Freida move to the wilderness and meet this other family, they learn of a settlement a couple of days’ walk away, and Freida is curious. The other couple warns Cal to stay away from it, but after they mysteriously die and Cal tells Freida the truth, she insists on heading there. What they find is a primitivish society run by hippies and former city-dwellers. Things Happen, and The Mystery Unfolds.

California is an okay novel. I enjoyed it well enough. I guess I gave it two stars because it’s generally mediocre, and I didn’t like the ending. I don’t understand what all the hype is about because there’s absolutely nothing special in CaliforniaBird Box is so much better. So. Much. Better. That said, California isn’t bad, though it might not be worth your time because I’m sure its star will fade quickly.

2014 Book #41: The Night Circus

nightcircusI tried reading The Night Circus shortly after it was published, and though I liked it, I couldn’t get through it. I think I stopped around the two-thirds mark. I’m not sure why. This time, I had the benefit of more passive reading: an audiobook. I guess it was worth the time I spent listening to it, though I can’t say I’m a fan. I think The Night Circus was what I expected, a whimsical sort of fantasy, but it was also more of a romance than I like. I was hoping for another Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but sadly, that’s not what The Night Circus is.

It’s about a challenge between two magicians. They each choose a child – one, a magician’s daughter, Celia; the other, an adopted boy, Marco – and teach said child magic. Once Celia and Marco are grown and trained, the magicians set up a circus as a stage for the competition. Celia and Marco think it is a contest of skill, but that turns out not to be the case. They end up falling in love, which complicates things. Meanwhile, Bailey, a teenager, is dared by his sister to visit the circus, which is only open at night, during the day. He accepts the dare and climbs over the fence, and he meets a girl about his age named Poppet, who gives him a glove to take back as proof that he went inside. Years later, the circus returns, and Bailey goes in search of Poppet, ending up much more entwined in the circus than he ever thought he would be. Things, of course, Happen.

I think I liked reading the book more than I did listening to it. Some sections are told in second-person, describing the insides of tents and other possible experiences at the circus. Having someone reading the book to me colors those experiences differently than I might on my own. Which might be my problem with most audiobooks – I might as well be watching a movie.

The book is well-written, and the descriptions of the circus are beautiful. I enjoyed most of the characters, and I liked the complexity of the story. That said, I wasn’t entranced like the first time I tried to read it. Maybe it was the puppy on the end of her leash, pulling me around, that distracted me.

The Night Circus is worth a read, though I think I would have liked it more without the romance. Celia and Marco’s falling in love seemed less realistic than the rest of the novel. It’s a sort of Romeo and Juliet type of instant love that just didn’t register with me. The rest of the novel, though, I enjoyed.

I’ve begun the massive DC-photo-upload on Flickr. Here are a couple of the highlights so far:

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I really need to finish that project before I forget about it entirely.

2014 Book #40: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

hitchhikerThis isn’t my first round with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When I was fourteen, or so, I checked it out from my high school library and read it voraciously. I loved  every minute of it. I thought 42 was the best number in the way only a teenager can grasp false significance.

This book is cultural currency. I read it again for two reasons: I’d forgotten a lot in the intervening almost-20 years, and it was one of the few audiobooks on my local library’s OverDrive that was both interesting and immediately available. I listened to it over a week, or so, of walks with Zelda.

I didn’t like it half as much this time around. Sure, it’s funny enough. I laughed ten times more and harder at A Confederacy of Dunces and so many more books, even recently. On the productive(?) end, now I remember the story behind the number 42 and where “So long and thanks for all the fish” came from. Those things seem to be important to lots of people.

I’m not going to do much of a summary of this one because if you haven’t read it, you’ve watched the movie, and if you haven’t done that, you’ve heard enough references to grasp the situation. It’s about Arthur Dent, who lives on Earth until it’s unceremoniously blown up. Luckily, he happens to know an alien and ends up hitchhiking around the galaxy, getting into all kinds of interesting situations. The universe is explained, and so on.

I gave The Hitchhiker’s Guide three stars on Goodreads. It’s right in the middle. I liked it well enough, but it’s not a good book by any stretch of the imagination. I guess it was good for me to read because here’s one set of book/movie references I’ll get for a while. That’s something, I guess.

I finished this book with an overwhelming feeling of MEH. I know there are sequels, and I might read them at some point, but I probably won’t for lack of interest. Douglas Adams captured the imaginations of millions, but not mine; not since I was a teenager, anyway. Maybe it’s like how you kind of need to be a teenager to enjoy Jack Kerouac.