War in Heaven by Charles Williams, 3/5
I’m not going to pretend that I understood the more esoteric implications of this bizarre spiritual thriller, but I certainly did enjoy its zany plot, humor, and original take on the ever-popular search for the Holy Grail. It’s not a particularly well-crafted novel, but it’s hard to fault a story that opens thusly:
The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.
Why I read it: After my introduction to Charles Williams via All Hallows’ Eve, I wanted to read some of his other “novels of the supernatural,” of which War in Heaven is the first.
The Complete Morgan Horse by Jeanne Mellin, with illustrations by the author, 3/5
This 1986 compilation of two earlier books definitely shows its age but still retains some value as a collection of vintage Morgan photos, excellent artwork by the author, and a fairly detailed history of the breed. Mellin is a better artist than writer, and her prose tends to be a bit dry and repetitive, with a slightly patronizing tone. However, I was still fascinated to learn about the roots of this uniquely American horse breed and its influence on the American Saddlebred and the Standardbred.
Why I read it: I remember coveting this book when I checked it out of the library as a kid, and it finally dawned on me that I’m a grown-up now and can just buy a copy if I want.
What to Expect the First Year by Heidi Murkoff, 3/5
My husband and I were fortunate enough to have the world’s most chill baby, so I didn’t bother reading most of this book until we were halfway through year two of parenthood. Though raising our little guy has definitely become more challenging as he matures, the first twelve months were relatively straightforward; most issues that came up were easily addressed by a quick internet search, knowledgeable friends and family, or at medical check-ups. I didn’t feel the anxious anticipation, curiosity, and solitariness of first-time pregnancy that made What to Expect When You’re Expecting so comforting and helpful. For me, this book occupies a weirdly unhelpful middle ground, at times too hyper-focused to be practical or too general to be a reliable source for researching complex issues (especially controversial ones like vaccinations or discipline).
Why I read it: a friend and parent of two young children recommended it very highly.
The Boats of the “Glen Carrig and Other Nautical Adventures by William Hope Hodgson, 3/5
Taken singly, these stories are fun in a kitschy way, but overall, the effect is repetitive and hackneyed. Maybe the editor’s introduction about Hodgson’s writing career tainted my perspective, but I got the feeling throughout that the author was writing more for a financial inlet than a creative outlet. There were a few brief moments when I thought “Oh, he is capable of higher quality writing and insightful observations when he cares to be,” but they were lost in the endless “weeds” that the ships in his stories all-too-inevitably encountered.
Why I read it: one of the few remaining entries on the list of 10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately that I have left to read.
Doom by William Gerhardie, 3/5
Few escape the author’s satirical pen in this madcap, semi-autobiographical novel, even himself. From struggling artists to business magnates, grasping socialites to simple countryfolk, Gerhardie peoples his version of reality with mostly unlikeable but all too recognizable characters, living in a doomed world that is not as different from ours as one might hope. Is it an eerie prescience, or just a testament to mankind’s unchanging nature, that a novel written almost 100 years ago would depict the machinations of mass media moguls, the limitless privilege of the wealthy elite, and a world polarized by war over Russian territorial claims?
Why I read it: another entry on the list of “10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.”
Looking for the General by Warren Miller, 3/5
Set in a semi-dystopian version of the 1960s, this bizarre book is written from the perspective of a physicist who becomes radicalized by an alien cult (literally, a group of people who believe aliens possessing unimaginable knowledge and power, having left earth, continue to monitor mankind via possession of abducted individuals and will return to elevate the deserving). It is a testimony to Miller’s observational powers and skill as a writer that he could create a serious, insightful, and fascinating novel based on such an unhinged premise.
Why I read it: Many years ago, I encountered a list of “10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately,” and am slowly working my through it, having finally got around to using my library’s interlibrary loan service to order the more rare or out-of-print entries.
Scottish Castles: An Introduction to the Castles of Scotland by W. Douglas Simpson, 3/5
Little more than a glorified pamphlet, this small book still manages to address the major eras of Scottish castle-building between the 12th and 17th centuries, briefly addressing the historical contexts that affected changes in architectural styles. Starting with the simple motte and bailey structures of the 1100s, the reader encounters the stone towers and walled courtyards of the 1200s and the evolution of tower-houses between the 1300s and 1600s from simple rectangles to L-shapes and Z-shapes. There are a good number of black-and-white photos and floor plans, but pairing them with the relevant text requires a lot of flipping back and forth. Also, as might be expected in such a small book, many references go sadly un-illustrated and there is no glossary. Needless to say, I am still on the hunt for the ideal book about castles!
Why I read it: a used-book-store find that caught my eye.
Princess Kaiulani: The Last Hope of Hawaii’s Monarchy by Kristin Zambucka, 3/5
This book’s best feature is its generous selection of stunning, historical photos, which are given pride of place, accompanied by numerous excerpts from Princess Kaiulani’s personal correspondence. The author’s written contributions are very sparse and basic, resulting in an overall effect that is more scrapbook-like than literary.
I have now read two accounts of Hawaii’s transition to statehood and they could not be more different from each other. This tale of the forcible removal of the native Hawaiian monarchy by a bevy of white business owners and politicians was certainly more believable than the whitewashed, weaselly portrayal of the islands’ “liberation” depicted in Hawaii: A History.
Why I read it: The Princess has languished in a box of music books for as long as I can remember, but during a recent reorganization, I decided it was about time she was read and put on the shelf with the others.
Roar: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life by Stacy T. Sims, PhD, 3/5
It is so refreshing to read a book written specifically for female athletes that pragmatically and constructively addresses the comparative strengths and weaknesses of our sex. I am often the only woman on our martial arts fight team and it is tempting to think of myself simply as a smaller, weaker man, cursed with monthly inconsistency in performance. Sims makes it clear that things are not that simple and offers helpful ideas for navigating the ups and downs of the menstrual cycle, menopause, and pregnancy, in addition to the basics of general strength and conditioning, nutrition, hydration and recovery for women. I found the section on different types of birth control and their effects on athletic performance to be particularly interesting. I was also fascinated to find out that I should be eating protein as a recovery snack instead of carbs.
While I definitely plan to refer to this book in future, I do wish it contained specific footnotes for many of its claims instead of general endnotes. Sims’ recommendations for PMS supplements were particularly unsupported by any obvious science or reasoning, which did not inspire confidence. I also wish the advice was more easily scalable; while Sims gives many examples of specific guidelines for specific clients, there is obviously considerable guesswork that would be involved in applying her principles to one’s own situation. This is a definite obstacle to the practical application of her ideas, especially for a perfectionist like myself. Of course, no book can be a substitute for one-on-one coaching, so perhaps I am asking too much. But while I’m at it, I would love to ask for a book like this to be written specifically for female MMA athletes!
Why I read it: a recommendation from my sister.
Expectant Motherhood by Nicholson J. Eastman, M.D., 3/5
In the last eight months, since I first found out that I was expecting a baby of my own, I have learned a lot about pregnancy and childbirth from a variety of sources. This vintage book from 1957 is the oldest of all, but I was delighted to discover that a surprisingly large amount of the information and advice it gives still survives, little changed, in our modern age. To me, this is encouraging proof that the process of growing and delivering a baby to the world is natural and something most women are innately empowered to accomplish.
Of course, much has changed in the field of medicine in the 60-plus years since the third edition of this book was published, leading to some fascinating insights into the past. For example, I had never thought to wonder how pregnancy tests worked before the modern “pee stick” was invented in the 1970s. I learned that the easiest and cheapest method was simply to wait until an expected menstrual cycle was at least ten days late, at which point chances were good that you were pregnant. The downside of this approach is obviously that you do not receive positive proof of pregnancy, just an ever-increasing likelihood of it. For those requiring more certainty, a much more expensive option was to wait two weeks past the missed menstrual cycle, inject a mouse or rabbit with the woman’s urine and, forty-eight to seventy-two hours later, dissect the unfortunate creature to check its ovaries for changes! The “frog test” also involved the injection of urine, but pregnancy was confirmed by the development of frog eggs in only eight to eighteen hours and the frog would happily survive. Needless to say, peeing on a stick seems much less gross and inconvenient after learning about these alternate methods of the past!
Why I read it: a gift from my sister.