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text 2018-09-12 16:33
Erster Satz | Wulf Dorn: Die Kinder
Die Kinder: Thriller - Wulf Dorn

Noch bevor der zweite Signalton für die Kurzmitteilung verstummt war, hatte sich Patrick Landers bereits das Handy gegriffen.

 

Endlich! Doch statt Sus Foto erschien auf dem Display nur das Logo seines Mobilfunkanbieters. Die Nachricht darunter warb für extra günstige Herbsttarife. 

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text 2018-01-08 18:58
2017 in Review
How To Be A Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Everyday Life - Ruth Goodman
New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf
Murder Must Advertise - Dorothy L. Sayers
The Summer Before the War: A Novel - Helen Simonson
Racing the Devil - Charles Todd
Calamity in Kent - John Rowland
Ashes of London - Andrew Taylor
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd - Agatha Christie
Agnes and the Hitman - Bob Mayer,Jennifer Crusie

2017 was an excellent reading year around here.  I had four five-star reads, not counting re-reads, which is a very high total for me, out of some 90+ books read.  One was a novel - 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, and three non-fiction: The Invention of Nature, by Andrea Wulf, and two by Ruth Goodman, How to be a Tudor, and How to be a Victorian.  Wonderful re-reads included Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, several Mary Russell novels by Laurie R. King, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (which I think I read in about 1978, but remembered nothing).

 

The best historical novel I read in 2017 was The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson, and the best new mystery Racing the Devil, by Charles Todd.  I read a decent amount of non-fiction, all of it good, from The Glass Universe (about the ladies of the Harvard Observatory) to Michelangelo's Ceiling (Damn it, your holiness, I'm a sculptor, not a painter), The Sun and the Moon (the Man-bats, or America's first great "fake news" story), and A is for Arsenic (Agatha Christie knew her poisons).

 

I had some reads that were just pure fun, like Jennifer Crusie's Agnes and the Hitman, Deborah Harkness' trilogy on witches, or Anne Bishop's novels about The Others.

 

It did have down moments.  Calamity in Kent's plot boiled down to "Scotland Yard inspector decides his tabloid journalist friend, Jimmy, is the best choice to solve a locked room mystery, and tells Jimmy to go for it."  Um.  OK?

 

The one which angered me, however, was my sole 1-star read of the year, The Ashes of London, which was billed as a thriller set during the Great Fire of London.  It is set *after* the fire, did not have very good historical detailing (it could have been pretty much anywhere and anywhen in the past that had suffered a large fire), and had two narrators, neither interesting.  And then it offended me with a touch of "let's start the characterization of the woman by having her evil cousin rape her" and I was out.

 

But most of my reading year was wonderful.  I hope yours was, too.

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text 2017-11-26 12:48
16 Tasks of the Festive Season - Square 10: Pancha Ganapati
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf
A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup
William Pitt the Younger: A Biography - William Hague
Metamorphoses - Denis Feeney,Ovid,David Raeburn
The Daughter of Time - Josephine Tey
Treffpunkt im Unendlichen. - Klaus Mann
Making History - Stephen Fry
Gilded Needles (Valancourt 20th Century Classics) - Christopher Fowler,Michael McDowell,Mike Mignola
Risiko: Roman - Steffen Kopetzky

Tasks for Pancha Ganapati: Post about your 5 favourite books this year and why you appreciated them so much. –OR– Take a shelfie / stack picture of the above-mentioned 5 favorite books.  (Feel free to combine these tasks into 1!

 

Inspired by Murder by Death's post this morning, I've pondered over my morning coffe which reads qualify as myfavourite books this year. Although there is still time for a truly great read to come up in the next month (I am looking at you, Winter by Ali Smith), below is my list of 5 (or, erm, 6) favourite books of 2017 (I have not considered re-reads for this, btw.):

 

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf.

Although, I knew of Humboldt (and his brother), I had no idea of the extent of his influence on the sciences and of the adventures he went on to gain the deep understanding of the world that he did. I am still amazed at both. I am still amazed at the difficulties he faced. I am still amazed at everything I learned about his and his times from Wulf's extraordinary book. 

 

A is for Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup.

I love the works of Agatha Christie and I also love a good bit of science mixed with history - and this book had all of it. What is more, I particularly enjoyed how this book started a discussion with my mom (a retired chemical engineer) about all things chemistry and how scientific discovery changed crime fiction. For that alone, this book deserves 5 stars.

 

William Pitt the Younger by William Hague. 

One of the biggest surprises this year, not because of the subject (Pitt had been on my radar for quite some time) but because of the author. What I learned from Mr Hague's excellent account of Mr Pitt and the political landscape of Georgian Britain is that I may not agree with the author on everything (especially political outlook) but that this doesn't lessen my appreciation for the excellent work he has produced with this book. The sheer amount of research that must have gone into this is staggering. 

 

Metamorphoses by Ovid (tr. by David Raeburn)

This is the book that has taken me longest to read this year, but it is a book that demands a slow and deliberate read. Becoming reacquainted with the myths and legends of Ancient Greece and Rome has brought home how far we've come as a society, how much we still face the same issues, and how much I miss reading the "classics". 

 

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.

As it turns out, my 2017 seemed to be geared towards a history side - and I loved it - with a mix of murder mystery thrown in for balance. Tey's book takes both and showed how a good "vintage" mystery can actually take a serious turn. Tey loved history and it shows when she used her laid-up Inspector to investigate not just the murder of the Princes in the Tower, but also how history itself is subjective and prone to be re-written for the benefit of propaganda ... and how easy it is to fall in line believing anything by virtue of it being repeated as truth over and over. 

A timely read for 2017.

 

Treffpunkt im Unendlichen by Klaus Mann.

I've been a fan of Klaus Mann's for a while, and in this book he shows how spot on his powers of observations were when he wrote about the times he lived in. Treffpunkt is one of the best books I have read to bring to life the Lost Generation in the late 1920s / early 1930s. Loved it.

 

 

 

Of course, there are some honourable mentions too:

 

Making History by Stephen Fry. 

 

Gilded Needles by Micheal McDowell (I'm still in love with basically every single book of McDowell's that has crossed my path.)

 

Risiko by Steffen Kopetzky 

 

 

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review 2017-11-26 11:29
The Invention of Nature - Alexander von Humboldt's New World
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea Wulf

Wulff's Invention of Nature was probably the best book I have read in all of 2017. 

 

Although, I knew of Humboldt (and his brother), I had no idea of the extent of his influence on the sciences and of the adventures he went on to gain the deep understanding of the world that he did.

I am still amazed at both.

I am still amazed at the difficulties he faced.

I am still amazed at everything I learned about his and his times from Wulff's extraordinary book. 

 

And, yet, I haven't managed to write a proper "review" for this book. Maybe it is because the books that have the most impact on me are usually the ones that are hardest to write about. 

 

So, instead of a review, I'll replicate my reading notes below:

 

Reading update - Part 1:

We snatch in vain at Nature's veil,

She is mysterious in broad daylight,

No screws or levers can compel to reveal

The secrets she has hidden from our sight.

I'm really enjoying this so far. I have a soft spot for Faust but had no idea that it was part inspired by Humboldt - or that he was so closely connected with the Weimar set.

 

What I am really enjoying in the book so far is how Wulf doesn't just throw in place names in the expectation that readers will be able to picture the scenes but manages to add snippets of description to highlight that the places in Humboldt's day were less developed and, more importantly, less accessible that any Google image or map search would have you believe.

 

I liked that she added that Weimar may have been an intellectual hot spot but it still had cattle being driven through its streets and that there was no reliable postal service - hence Goethe exchanging letters with Schiller in Jena by way of his greengrocer! I had to laugh at this one. I mean, imagine it...the letters of arguably the two most famous German literary figures delivered with the weekly shopping?

 

The other mentions I was curious about were that of Freiberg and that of the breathing mask and mining lamp Humboldt developed. I grew up not far from Freiberg, my dad went to uni there, and mining has shaped much of the region's history and landscape. 

Unfortunately, the book does not mention much about the two inventions, but I understand from other sources that the lamp was a forerunner of the Davy Lamp, which would have made a huge impact on working conditions in the mines. I am now curious about how exactly that lamp worked and the safety stats before and after the development of the lamp, but I'm not sure this is information that will be easy to dig up.

 

Looking forward to Part II already.

 

 

Reading update - Part 2:

 

In Part II of the book, we accompany Humboldt and Bonplant on their trip to first Tenerife and then South America. 

 

There is only one question that I keep coming back to after having read this part, and that is:

 

How on earth did they survive that trip?

 

Mauled by mosquitoes, surrounded by dozens of other things that could kill them (jaguars, house cats, boa constrictors, crocs, ..., parasites, ...) the list is nigh endless, and yet, they seem to have come away relatively unscathed. 

 

Even fever and dysentery could not stop them from crossing part of the Andes. The Andes!!

 

They had no gear to speak of, their shoes were useless, they suffered from severe altitude sickness, freezing conditions, and yet, they survived.

 

This is also the part where Humboldt comes face to face with slavery and becomes an abolitionist. I look forward to looking this section up in his travelogue. There were issues in rural Prussia at around the same time, where a system of serfdom still existed. This was eventually made illegal in 1807 (effective 1810). While there are obvious differences between the treatment of slaves as witnessed by Humboldt and the treatment of peasant serfs back in Prussia, I am curious to see if he mentions any correlation in his own writings. 

 

I was also hooked on the descriptions of the use of agriculture and the emerging idea how the reliance on cash cultures is a really shortsighted expression of greed at the expense of the community.

 

Part II ends with Humboldt's meeting with Thomas Jefferson, which to me was the least interesting part of this section.

 

 

Reading update - Part 3:

 

Part III - Sorting Ideas - tells about Humboldt's return to Europe, where he is received as a hero. At the same time, tho, Europe is in the middle of drastic changes brought on by the Napoleonic Wars.

 

Also on a personal level, Humboldt has to make adjustments as he is basically broke and needs to take on "a real job". 

 

I must say I really like how Wulf contrasts this part of the book with the previous part that was all about the big adventure. In this part, we can literally feel how Humboldt is slowly suffocated by the demands of living in a society that has so many demands on him. 

 

He's trying to spread knowledge of his discoveries and further his cause (to learn more about the world and then share it with the scientific community) but politics are now a major stumbling block.

 

He was just too far ahead, too egalitarian, and too liberal for his time!

 

Who'd have guessed Humboldt fell out with Napoleon???

Who'd have guessed Humboldt's reputation as a rebel would deny him access to India?

Who'd have guessed Humboldt was considered a rebel?

 

That part can't have been that easy for his brother to deal with, either, seeing that he was a Prussian diplomat.

 

What is most impressive and even whiplash inducing to just read about, tho, is how crazy busy Humboldt kept himself. He was like a squirrel on speed running from one appointment to the next, always on the go, attending up to five different salons per night on several days of the week. 

 

By the end of this part of the book, I can understand why he was longing to travel again. It seems that his mind is more focused and he is more at ease when he is off exploring.

 

 

Reading update - Part 4:

 

At the end of July, more than three months after leaving Berlin, Humboldt reached Tobolsk – 1,800 miles from St Petersburg and the most easterly point on the prescribed route – but it was still not wild enough for his taste. Humboldt had not come this far only to have to turn around. He had other plans. Instead of travelling back to St Petersburg as previously agreed, Humboldt now ignored Cancrin’s instructions and added a detour of 2,000 miles. He wanted see the Altai Mountains in the east where Russia, China and Mongolia met, as the counterpart to his observations in the Andes. As he had failed to see the Himalaya, the Altai was as close as he could get to collecting data from a mountain range in Central Asia.

I'm finding it hard to put this book down. He is such an unlikely rebel, and yet...he gets away with it.

 

Having been denied access to the Himalayas by the East India Company, and having returned to Berlin, Humboldt is dying to get out again.

 

I was so relieved when I read about his travels through Russia. Not only because the parts where he travels have been my favourites of the book, but also because I really hate seeing him cooped up.

 

And of course there several passages where I caught my breath, most notably where he basically upsets Cancrin, the czar's official delegate, by wanting to see the true living conditions of the eastern peasants and, the second, where he is so set on reaching his destination (also against the will of Cancrin) that he rode straight through a region plagued with an anthrax epidemic. Anthrax!!! WTF, Alex?

"As they sat in silence, hot and cramped behind tightly shut windows in their small carriages, they passed through a landscape of death. The ‘traces of the pest’ were everywhere, Humboldt’s companion Gustav Rose noted in his diary. Fires burned at the entrances and exits of the villages as a ritual to ‘clean the air’. They saw small makeshift hospitals and dead animals lying in the fields. In one small village alone, 500 horses had died."

I guess the views would have have been worth it:

 

 

As for the other parts, I enjoyed learning about how much Humboldt had influenced Darwin. I had never expected this.

 

I am, however, puzzled by the chapter about Thoreau. Not only was this the least interesting to me, but I found the description of Thoreau quite annoying.

 

While Humboldt and Darwin were scientists who were able to write well, Thoreau merely strikes me as a - somewhat lofty and self-indulgent - writer, but not really a scientist.

What was the point of including this chapter other than to illustrate Humboldt's influence across several continents?

 

 

Reading update - Part 5:

 

I am a little sad.

 

This was a fascinating book, and I loved the chapter that described the last years in Humboldt's life and the political changes that he was surrounded by, even tho for Humboldt the novelty of revolution had worn off because he had seen and been in the midst of so many of them.

 

As for the remaining chapters on Perkins, Haeckel, and John Muir, I am in two minds: We did not really need them to understand Humboldt and his times. But, they do illustrate - again - the far-reaching impact Humboldt and his work have had on a future generation that would lead to the birth of environmentalism. 

 

I appreciate the link that Wulf creates between the extraordinary Humboldt and the subsequent discussions that are still current affairs more than I criticise Wulf for meandering a little in the last three chapters

 

What a book! What a guy!

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text 2017-11-26 03:05
16 Tasks of the Festive Season - Square 10: Pancha Ganapati Task
Please Mr. Einstein - Jean-Claude Carrière
Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume - Julie Kenner,Jennifer Coburn,Megan McCafferty,Lynda Curnyn,Jennifer O'Connell,Melissa Senate,Diana Peterfreund,Stephanie Lessing,Laura Ruby,Erica Orloff,Stacey Ballis,Kristin Harmel,Shanna Wendson,Elise Juska,Kyra Davis,Beth Kendrick,Berta Platas,Kayla Pe
The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science - Andrea Wulf
The Chosen - Chaim Potok
Norse Mythology - Neil Gaiman

Tasks for Pancha Ganapati: Post about your 5 favourite books this year and why you appreciated them so much. –OR– Take a shelfie / stack picture of the above-mentioned 5 favorite books.  (Feel free to combine these tasks into 1!

 

Tough cull...  the best of the best for 2017.  It wasn't a straight "5 star" rating thing, but rather the books that stuck with me long after I finished them.  Here then, is my list:

 

Please Mr. Einstein - Jean-Claude Carrière Hands down my favourite book of the year - possibly my life. It's fiction, but it isn't.  Imagine an easy, but in-depth, look at Einstein's theory of relativity, discussed within the frame work of a fantastical time-out-of-time construct.  Throw in a small amount of speculation on what it might have been like to be Einstein, and then throw in a little humour in the form of Sir Isaac Newton constantly trying to crash the interview and get Einstein to admit he was wrong, and you have a small idea of what this book is like.

 

It is not possible to adequately explain how much this book delighted me and moved me.  If you have any interest at all in Relativity and/or Einstein, this book is definitely worth investigating.

 

Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume - Julie Kenner,Jennifer Coburn,Megan McCafferty,Lynda Curnyn,Jennifer O'Connell,Melissa Senate,Diana Peterfreund,Stephanie Lessing,Laura Ruby,Erica Orloff,Stacey Ballis,Kristin Harmel,Shanna Wendson,Elise Juska,Kyra Davis,Beth Kendrick,Berta Platas,Kayla Pe On the other side of the spectrum is Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume.  I loved Judy Blume's books when I was a kid, and at some level I knew she was a best selling author.  But until I read this book I had no idea she'd had as profound an effect on so many others as she had on me.  

 

These essays were funny, moving and amazing.  I don't remember a bad essay in the bunch, but the ones that stuck with me were the essays about Deenie terrifying one author, though ultimately helping her when she herself was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder, and the author essay about having to hide Forever while secretly passing it from friend to friend.  That one might have been my life.

 

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World - Andrea WulfA lot of you read this right along with me, so you know how good this book was, even when it stumbled a bit towards the end.  

 

Humbolt ... I still can't wrap my mind around how someone who contributed so much can be so neglected today.  There are ancient Greeks whom we now know to be full of shit that get more recognition than this man who was the first to do so many things, and to discover so many things that are absolutely vital to every person's life today.  Accurate things.  Like better weather maps.   And keystone species.  And, and, and.

 

We need to bring Humbolt and his work back, before the world goes to hell in a hand basket.

 

The Chosen - Chaim PotokThis was a very recent read for me, but such an incredible find.  I feel like my life would have been lacking had I never discovered this book.

 

The friendship at the heart of this book is the Jewish equivalent of a Fundamentalist born-again Christian and a Roman Catholic being best friends; both practicing and headed for a life in their faith.  Only, of the two, one is doing it because he wants to, and the other because he has to.

 

There's also a little softball, a fair amount about father-son dynamics and ultimately an entire book's worth about listening to your soul when it speaks.

 

Norse Mythology - Neil GaimanI have always been fascinated by the Norse myths - far more so than the Greek ones.  But I've never known much about the real myths - only what shows up in popular culture and we all know how accurate that is.  But studying Greek myths in college left me intimidated and wary of tackling the Norse myths.  I don't know how you can make stories involving minotaurs and swans dry and academic, but my university, at least, managed to do just that. 

 

But Gaiman... Gaiman can't make anything dry and academic. And after hearing he honoured the originals rather faithfully, I bought a copy on audio.  Then went out and bought a print copy.  I loved them.  They were horrific but entertaining and Thor is hilarious in his oafishness.  I feel like I can now say I have some familiarity with Norse mythology, and it didn't come from Marvel Comics.

 

 

 

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