Book 43: The Hangman's Daughter

 

"Drums rumbled, cymbals clanged, and somewhere a fiddle was playing. The aroma of deep-fried doughnuts and roasted meat drifted down to the foul-smelling tanners' quarter. Yes, it was going to be a lovely execution."

Dates read: April 16-18, 2016

Rating: 3/10

Whether one agrees with it or not, there's no denying that the death penalty has a long history. Modern day executioners push a vial of potassium chloride into an IV line and, if everything goes right, wait for the heart to stop. But once upon a time, a death sentence meant beheading or hanging (or worse, like drawing and quartering). The Hangman's Daughter begins with a messy execution in 1600s Bavaria (in modern day Germany): young Jakob Kuisl is supposed to be helping his father, the hangman, with a beheading that ends up terribly botched. It's a grim, moody scene that sets the stage for a dark story.

But after the opening prologue described above and the first scene of the story, in which a young boy is rescued from a raging river at great danger, only to be discovered to be already dying from a blow to the head, the plot stalls out considerably. The boy has a crude tattoo that the townspeople decide indicates witchcraft, so the local midwife is promptly accused and imprisoned awaiting torture and execution. Jakob, now himself the hangman (and torturer, and proto-pharmacist...he wears a lot of hats) is convinced of her innocence and joins forces with Simon, the town doctor's son, to figure out who actually committed these crimes (the murder of the first child is followed by the murder of two other children and some property destruction to boot). They're racing against time as hysteria and pressure to convict and burn the witch grow daily.

Where is the titular hangman's daughter in all this, you might ask? Excellent question! Magdalena is very much a secondary part of the story, and the book could easily be rewritten without her character being missed for a second. She's having a love affair with Simon, which we're continually reminded cannot end in marriage because her father's profession renders her unclean. In the scheme of things that don't quite work about this book, though, the title is small change.

While Jakob Kuisl, as a hangman who studies science and works as a healer when he's not torturing and executing, is an interesting character, no one else in the book has much depth. Simon and Magdalena are flat "young lovers", and the various townspeople are even more one-note: officious, or anachronistically fair-minded, or superstitious, no one is a whole person. And speaking of anachronisms, holy smokes is the language in this historical novel completely out of whack. Obviously as a non-German-speaker I read it in translation and I hope the issue was poor translation, otherwise there's just not even an attempt to make language the slightest bit accurate to the time. There's also a ton of repetitious phrasing, of phrases that are unusual enough that it's really noticeable. These writing/translation problems are so jarring that they take you straight out of the world of the novel. Other than that, there are about 100 more pages of the book than there is plot to fill it, so it drags on pretty badly. At the end of the day, it's just not a very good book.

Tell me, blog friends...do you think a book's title character should be a major part of the story?

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Songs



Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week's topic is an All About Audio chose-your-own. I don't listen to audiobooks (I know that for a lot of people they're enjoyable, and I know this will spark dissent but I just don't feel like they're real reading...it's not "cheating", that's silly, it's just not the same thing as reading words on a page), so I chose to go in a different audio direction: music! I love music and actually buy quite a bit because I'm not into streaming (I like to own things). So here are ten of my favorite songs.

Just The Two Of Us: This was our first dance at our wedding. We did not practice at ALL beforehand so it was delightfully awkward.

High For This: Ah, the song that started my Weeknd obsession back in 2012, when I actually saw him on tour about two weeks before I moved to Reno. And that was the last actual live music I've seen (outside of the orchestra), unfortunately enough. Reno does get shows, but not usually what I want to see.

Billie Jean: Michael Jackson is an amazing musician. Whatever you believe about his personal situation and failures, he made incredible music that stands the test of time. This song is just...perfect. The entire Thriller album is one of the greatest ever made, so for this to be a highlight says something.

If You Seek Amy: I remember buying Britney Spears' first single ("...Baby One More Time" with the "Autumn Goodbye" b-side) when I was just a little high schooler. I've been a fan ever since, and I NEED to see her Vegas show before she closes up shop. This is one of my favorites of hers, with that sing-song "la la la" and the not-even-hidden double entendre of the title.

Back To Black: The loss of Amy Winehouse and her incredible talent is something I still mourn, honestly. She had her demons, obviously, but she was so gifted and this entire album is a masterpiece (her first album, Frank, is also very good).

Wonderwall: The Ryan Adams cover, not the Oasis original (which is a classic in its own right). But this was my introduction (via The O.C., back when that was a thing) and remains my favorite from my all-time favorite artist. I've seen Ryan live four times and can't wait until I get to again!

Pour It Up: Every girl needs a song that makes her feel like a bad bitch (or maybe not, maybe that's just me?). And no one does it better than the Queen Bad Bitch herself: Rihanna. There are a ton of songs I could have gone for here, honestly, but this is the one that really gets me in peak sassy mindspace.

Bittersweet Symphony: I'm a child of the 90s, okay? If you can hear this song without thinking of a young Reese Witherspoon driving a convertible with the top down and her hair swirling around in the breeze, you probably aren't. But I highly recommend turning this on when you're going anywhere, it makes a walk to Starbucks feel EPIC.

Got To Give It Up: Remember how "Blurred Lines" was catchy as hell but also totally rapey and gross? This the original version of the song (a court even held that "Blurred Lines" was a total ripoff) and has all of the booty-shaking funk with none of the awful overtones!

Purple Rain: Prince was a formative influence in my house. I grew up singing along to "Cream" before I had the slightest idea what it was about. Purple Rain is the product of a brilliant musician at the height of his creative powers; a timeless, soaring anthem.

Book 42: Dead Wake

 

"A Cunard captain was supposed to be much more than a mere navigator. Resplendent in his uniform and cap, he was expected to exude assurance competence, and gravitas. But a captain also served a role less easy to define. He was three parts mariner, one part club director. He was to be a willing guide for first-class passengers wishing to learn more about the mysteries of the ship; he was to preside over dinner with prominent passengers; he was to walk the ship and engage passengers in conversation about the weather, their reasons for crossing the Atlantic, the books they were reading."

Dates read: April 11-16, 2016

Rating: 9/10

Sometimes I find myself wondering about historical what-ifs. Like, what if Adolf Hitler's art career had taken off and he'd never gotten involved in politics? What if Joseph Stalin had gotten in a bar brawl as a young man and been killed? What if Lee Harvey Oswald had gotten a bad stomach flu the day that JFK visited Dallas and spent the whole day in the bathroom? Our history, our whole world would have been a very different place. But different is not necessarily the same as better, and you never know if that alternate history would have ended up even worse somehow (although it's hard to imagine so in some cases).

Since it came so close to not happening at all, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is one of the most tempting what-ifs of all. Do we look back on World War I now and see Europe as a powder keg ready to blow, with the assassination as just the spark that happened to ignite it? Sure. But maybe there never would have been a spark at all. Maybe there would have been a diplomatic solution to the problem. Maybe not, and maybe it very well could have been something else that pushed it all over the edge. But we live in this world, where World War I did happen, and in the course of that war, the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk.

I didn't know anything about the ship (or honestly, much about the war or the players) before I started reading this book. My history major husband was able to fill in some of the blanks for me, but most of what I now know about the time period and the Lusitania and the circumstances that led to it being torpedoed and sank came from Erik Larson's Dead Wake. The information is well-researched and well-presented. Larson takes multiple threads: the ship, its captain and crew, some of the passengers, the u-boat that sunk it and its captain, President Woodrow Wilson trying to keep America out of the war, British naval intelligence, and draws them together, weaving the story slowly and surely towards the sinking. You know it's coming, but Larson masterfully creates tension with his narrative and the torpedoing feels like a shock.

Oftentimes historical non-fiction (especially when it's about military events) feels academic, but Dead Wake reads like a story that just happens to be real. I was glad to get the opportunity to read more about World War I in a way that was engaging and compelling...it's piqued my interest in the time period, and isn't that what good writing should do? Make you want to learn and read even more? I know I'll be looking to acquire copies of the rest of Larson's work (I already have a few, but I want them all!) so I can enjoy his wonderful storytelling. This is a true non-fiction novel and honestly a joy to read.

Tell me, blog friends...what historical what-if really gets your brain going?

 **I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Broadway Books, through Blogging for Books in exchange for a fair and honest review**

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten ALL TIME Favorite Coming of Age Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week's theme was a fill in the blank: top ten books in a particular genre. I don't do much "genre" reading (literary fiction is probably the biggest through-line), but I have read a lot of coming-of-age novels. Even as an adult, there's something so universal and compelling about these kind of stories. I think we're all still carrying around the psychic scars of our own growing-up process, so they're easy to identify with. Or maybe that's just me. Anyways, here are my ten absolute favorites.



The Last Picture Show: Small-town Texas high school senior Sonny doesn't have a lot of direction. Over the course of that year and the couple months following, though, he plays his last season of football, covets his best friend's girl, loses his virginity to his coach's wife, experiences the death of his father figure, has a brief fling with the aforementioned best-friend's-girl, and another person close to him dies. At the end, he finds himself at a high school football game and feeling desperately alone on the sidelines. His innocence in just about every sense of the word is lost and McMurtry writes it with beautiful poignancy.

The Lords of Discipline: Will McLean is on the cusp of graduation from The Institute, a prestigious military college when he gets assigned the task of protecting the school's first black student. It takes him back to his truly hellish freshman year hazing experience, which did a number on him, and the situations he finds himself in during his final year (first love and loss, the death of a roommate, a fight against a shadowy group) rob him of any last vestiges of childhood. He's a man, for better or worse, by the end. This book is seriously amazing.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: This book follows Francie Nolan from her childhood through to her early adulthood. Any bookish soul will see themselves in library-haunting, education-loving Francie, and while there are few "big events" in the book, we read along as she goes from a little girl to a young woman, ready to go out into the world and conquer.

To Kill A Mockingbird: We've all read this one, right? I don't know that I've ever met someone who's read TKAM who doesn't love it. Scout is a little younger than your usual 16-20 year old coming-of-age protagonists, but what she goes through as her father defends a black man accused of rape and she digs into the mystery of her neighbor, Boo Radley. Things get pretty real for Scout, and if she's not quite a woman by the end of it all, she's not a little girl anymore either.

The Cider House Rules: Homer Wells is raised in an orphanage run by Wilbur Larch, a kindly abortionist (long before the procedure was legal). Homer is trained in the performance of but vociferously opposed to the termination of pregnancy, and moves away to begin a new life in on an apple farm. It's there that he learns that the world isn't always as neatly black and white as he would like it to be and he's forced to come to terms with the reality that his father figure is a better man than Homer gives him credit for.

The Giver: It's an oldie (I read it in middle school), but a goodie. At the age of 12, the members of Jonas' dystopian sameness-oriented society have their professional futures chosen by their elders. Jonas is picked as the receiver of memory, the one who holds all the accumulated memories of the past, good and bad, that have been denied to the populace as a whole so they can be more numbly content. Joy, and hunger, and despair, and delight turn Jonas from a normal boy to an adult who makes difficult and hard choices.

Sabriel: On the more fantasy side of things, Sabriel is a young woman about to graduate from school, who is thrust into adult responsibility when her beloved father dies, leaving her an orphan. She's called upon to fill his role as a sort of anti-necromancer and keep the world safe from the dead and those who would manipulate them to their own ends. A young schoolgirl becomes a powerful woman, and that's always catnip for me.

The Golden Compass: Oh man Lyra Belacqua is the best. A tough-as-nails little wildcat of a girl raised by scholars in a parallel world, she longs for nothing more than a real family. When she finds out who her parents actually are and what they do, she becomes a leader of a rebellion against them and all they stand for. This book is crazy amazing (as are its sequels) and Lyra is awesome.

White Oleander: Figuring out one's relationship with one's parents, is, to me, a hallmark of actual adulthood. Astrid only has the one parent she knows, but Ingrid is enough to deal with for any one person. Astrid's experiences in foster care and the various mother-types she encounters help her come to terms with who she is, who her mother is, and their overlaps. I haven't re-read it in years but it still sticks with me.

Harry Potter (the whole series): I know, this is cheating. These are seven books. But taken together, they tell one entire and incredible coming-of-age story, so I'm giving myself a pass here.

Book 41: And After Many Days

 

"When misfortune befalls you, people secretly blame you. Ajie noticed this. People can't help it. They do it so they can believe it won't happen to them. They haven't done whatever it is you have done to deserve such suffering. They see you on the street and look away, and if they can't avoid meeting you, they talk about other things. It's as if you are a tainted thing, someone who could possibly bring bad luck." 

Dates read: April 9-11, 2016

Rating: 7/10

Children go missing every day, from communities all over the country. All over the world. Most of them we never hear about...they're maybe on an inside page of newspaper, are read quickly on the local news for a few days before moving on to high school sports. I don't think it's a coincidence that the ones we don't hear about are children from poor families, or children of color. It only becomes a story of national interest if it happens to a family that it's not "supposed" to happen to, like Jon Benet Ramsey or Elizabeth Smart. A child disappearing from a less-than perfect situation isn't deemed a surprise, but a but a child disappearing from a beautiful, successful, and (until now) happy family...now that's news.

And that's what happens in Jowhor Ile's And After Many Days. The Utu family lives happily and comfortably in Nigeria in the 90s, until 17 year-old oldest child Paul says he's going out to visit a friend and never returns. He's a good kid, a responsible kid, not the type to have a secret girlfriend or drug habit that would explain his sudden disappearance. In his absence, his lawyer father, school administrator mother, younger brother and younger sister find their more-or-less peaceful existence ripped apart. Things like this aren't supposed to happen to people like them. The story of the family's struggle to deal with the mystery of what happened to Paul is set against the civil unrest of the country as a whole, with student riots and police brutality mentioned in conversation often enough to let a sense of unease percolate in the background. The power doesn't even run regularly, everyone just has to live their lives prepared for there to be no electricity, since that's as likely as not.

The story doesn't progress like a typical missing youngster whodunit. Instead of focusing on the family in a timeline moving forward, Ile touches on the family's painful present while going backwards to show how they used to be, in happier times. I appreciated the accuracy of the way Ile portrayed childhood relationships, including those between the three siblings. The kids get along one second and the next are at each other's throats. They deliberately annoy each other and relish in the squabbles they set off. There's never any doubt that the Utu kids are close and love each other, but Ile doesn't cherry-coat that aspect of siblinghood.

Ultimately, I feel like the book was slightly too short. At only about 250 pages, it doesn't have quite the time to develop the parallel between the Utu family's personal tragedy and the community-wide tragedy of Western corporate interests interfering the dynamics of the Utu's native village that it seems to be going for. It reminds me of the way Chinua Achebe used the Christian missionaries in Things Fall Apart, but without giving himself the extra 50 or 100 pages to flesh it out more fully and achieve Achebe's richness of metaphor. But Ile's prose is lyrical, strong and sure, and this is a debut that promises good things ahead, so I look forward to reading his next.

Tell me, blog friends...if you had siblings, did you fight with them like crazy growing up?

**I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Tim Duggan books, through Edelweiss in exchange for a fair and honest review**

Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Favorite TV Shows Of All Time

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week's topic: our favorite TV shows! I like having the occasional non-bookish topic in here...as much as I love books (obviously, with a book blog and everything), no one is one dimensional and we all have lives outside reading. I actually was one of those people who grew up mostly without TV (my mom didn't like the idea of the TV set raising her kids), so most of my favorite shows are ones that aired during my adulthood. I don't actually watch a ton of TV lately, so only one of these is on now.



Game Of Thrones: The token currently-airing show! Which is based off an incredible series of books, which I am re-reading very slowly. One of the things I most appreciate about the books (and mostly the show, even if less so) is how human everyone is. There are a few nakedly evil people like Joffrey and Ramsey, but even Cersei and Melisandre have complicated, real motivations. The show couldn't be more perfectly cast, either.

Friday Night Lights: My high school's football team was not good. Nor was it much of a big deal. I could never understand the quasi-religious fervor with which states like Texas treat high school football...and then, I watched Friday Night Lights and saw how it knits together communities. It (almost) never creates artificial drama to have something to tell a story about...the natural drama of sports and life are realized beautifully and realistically and Tami Taylor is my own personal hero.

Parks and Recreation: I still need to see the final season, actually. But before that last set of episodes aired, Drew and I caught up with it all on Netflix. I remember seeing the ads during The Office when it first aired and thinking it sounded gross, but lots of people telling me to push through a rough first season finally got me there. And I love it! Leslie Knope is love.

30 Rock: I remember this and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip coming out about at the same time, and 30 Rock was not the one that people were putting bets on to survive. But it was so funny and Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy are such amazing characters. The wit and wackiness and heart hold up, even if some of the more topical jokes don't so much.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer: I love this show so much. There were some rough seasons (4 and 6 come to mind), but the entire scope of it, about a young woman coming of age and learning how to use and own her power, is just awesome. And then there's of course the Whedon-ness of it all, with the pop culture references and the crisp dialogue and slang that honestly still probably influences the way I speak.

Sex and the City: I'll admit the conspicuous consumption of this one doesn't hold up super great in the post-recession era. But it did a lot to move the pop culture discourse towards the idea that there are more than just two kinds of women (virgin and whore). Sure, Samantha's rapacious sexual appetite is often played comedically, but what's more important is that she's not reduced to just a libido: she's a powerful, successful woman with healthy friendships and an entire life who happens to really like getting laid. It's not without problems, but the idea that our sex lives should be treated with both seriousness and as just one facet of our existence with no more power to define us than anything else was a message that needed to be heard. And the pot episode is still a favorite.

The Wire: It's not always the easiest show to watch, but it might be both one of the best and one of the most important ones I've watched. Against the backdrop of poverty, crime, and the drug trade in  Baltimore, the show explores the various institutions that are a part of perpetuating the status quo even as they try to change it: the police, organized labor, politics, school, and the press. And Omar Little might be the greatest single character I've ever seen.

Battlestar Galactica: I watched this during my stint of unemployment between taking the bar exam and finally finding my first legal job. I'd heard everyone go on and on about how good it was, but honestly didn't expect that I would especially like it. I was wrong. It's magnificent and not only is it an incredible show about politics, it wrestles with philosophical questions about things like what it means to be human in a way that's accessible rather than esoteric.

Six Feet Under: To start at the end, the finale of this show might be the most perfect one I've ever seen. But without the brilliance that came before it, it wouldn't have resonated. A portrait of a family that wrestles with everyday life and relationships while they run a funeral parlor that is beautifully written and acted.

My So-Called Life: I didn't watch this when it originally aired (I would have been a little young for it), but I did watch the one amazing season of it during law school. It's such a naturalistic portrait of teenager-ness and trying to figure out who you are, and who you want to be, and how to get from here to there. It's incredible.

Book 40: Suspicious Minds

 

"From inside our head, our thoughts and beliefs seem to be the product of an impartial, accurate understanding of reality. Once again, however, we have been tricked. Just as our ability to see the world depends on extensive behind-the-scenes processing and sophisticated guesswork, so too does our ability to understand the world."

Dates read: April 3-9, 2016

Rating: 6/10

As I've mentioned before, I grew up in a quasi-rural area. When I was a kid, we had a septic system in our yard (we finally got hooked up to sewer service around when I started high school, if I'm remembering correctly). And to this day, the water that comes out of the faucet in the house I grew up in comes from a well. Which means that it's not fluoridated. And combined with my soft teeth, I have six crowns at the age of 30. But I live in a decent-sized American city now, so when I have kids, they'll at least have fluoridated water and be protected from cavities, right? Wrong! The people of Washoe County, Nevada have decided that fluoride in the water isn't for them. That putting a chemical that has no adverse effects and helps prevent tooth decay in the water is a sinister plot of some kind is, of course, a classic conspiracy theory.

Suspicious Minds is a book by Dr. Rob Brotherton on this very topic: conspiracy theories. Unlike what you might be thinking, it's not a reference catalog for all the theories out there, or a deep dive into any particular theories. Rather, Brotherton examines the psychology behind them. If so many of them sound completely ludicrous (the New World Order...really?), why do we believe them? How do they perpetuate?

Brotherton examines the history of conspiracy theories (despite feeling like conspiracy theories are especially prevalent in our era, they've been around and popular for hundreds of years) and some of the logical fallacies that underlie them (for example, the assumption that the "bad guys" are incredibly competent). He dismisses the notion than all conspiracists are paranoid crazies, but does cite research that shows that they are more likely to be hostile and close-minded than non-believers. One of the tidbits I found most interesting was that he showed how not only are people who believe in conspiracy theories more likely to believe in other conspiracy theories, they are more likely to believe in ones that directly contradict each other (say, simultaneously believing that Princess Diana faked her own death and that she was killed by the British royal family). He then goes into the processes that underlie our acceptance and belief in conspiracy theories (like our inability to accurately assess our own lack of knowledge and understanding) and why the brain holds on to them even in the face of evidence in opposition.

My quibbles with the book are probably fairly unusual, in that I wanted more academic detail. I thought I was going to get a fairly research-heavy book that went into at least some depth about the brain science underlying cognition. In fact, Brotherton spends a solid half of the book talking about history, defining "conspiracy theory", and gently pointing out that these theories require strained or even broken logic. Only in the second half does he even begin to get into the thought processes underlying conspiracy, and he never gets especially deep into it. It's clearly a book written for a generalist audience, which is fine, but with a background in the subject I wanted more.

Tell me, blog friends...do you believe in any conspiracy theories?

PS: If you're interested in conspiracy theories, check out this list for books about them!

**I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review**