Books I have read lately (June 2019)

Things I read since the last installment. This month’s headlines: I’m increasingly uninterested in much of what the literary press is recommending, and observing I seem to be taking refuge in mystery novels lately. And I’m teaching a new course this fall (“public history”), so I really need to get into that reading asap.

Highly recommended

Isabella Hammad, The Parisian, or, Al-Barisi. A young Palestinian from Nablus undertakes medical studies in France just before WWI, and quickly learns just how wide and how narrow his world is as the narrative moves from Paris back to Nablus and all over the Middle East. It covers the period from the decline of the Ottoman Empire to the Balfour Declaration and the Arab uprisings in its wake. The book is serious in tone, but it’s not a history. It’s a bit hard to say what the book is about, really — it’s the narrative of a particularly distinctive character but also of a phase of turmoil and a picture of the world from a perspective that I’m not used to seeing it from. The people who say it reminds them of Flaubert aren’t wrong. I was alternately moved, provoked, and educated. It’s reminiscent in some ways of L’éducation sentimentale but moves on from there. In any case, it’s an old-fashioned grand narrative that provides a lot of readerly enjoyment. Recommended multiply in the literary press.


Sarah Gailey, Magic for Liars. A(n ordinary) private investigator is drawn into clearing up a murder at a school for teenagers with magical gifts, where her twin sister, from whom she is estranged, is a respected teacher. A quick read with mystery, fun, and serious elements. Harry Potter for grownups — what happens after the magic stops being so amusing and the villains are not so clearly visible? Recommended in an article on which new books were appropriate to astrological signs in June.

Recommended – genre fiction

David Young, Stasi Child and Stasi Wolf. Police procedurals that take place in the GDR; the protagonist is a woman, Karin Müller, who heads a murder inquiry commission and is trying to stay out of the path of the Stasi (the East German secret police). In both of these, the crimes she solves relate directly to events in her own personal life. They are very readable (although the plot of Stasi Wolf has way too much going on and is not especially plausible for that reason) and for readers totally unfamiliar with daily life in East Germany they might be informative. It’s hard to write about East Germany if you’re not incredibly familiar with the society — it was a world sui generis and law enforcement and the Party in particular created a lot of institutions and jargon without direct parallels. There are better novels about East Germany in German, so I wouldn’t recommend these to anyone who can access novels in the original language. Also, the scenes that play out in Stasi prisons are pretty mild compared to what actually happened in those places — this is definitely a plot-driven series and not especially concerned with more than a superficial verisimilitude. Found the first one on the new book shelf in the library.

Phil Rickman, All of a Winter’s Night and The House of Susan Lulham. Two latest installments of a series that NBK put me onto a long time ago and that I have really grown to love. Merrily Watkins is a Church of England vicar and representative of her diocese’s deliverance ministry — its area for dealing with the supernatural (including exorcisms). The puzzles she solves (some relate to crimes) always involve supernatural elements, and normally this would be a turnoff for me, but the stories are combined with a thorough knowledge of historic local folklore in the Borders area of Wales. (This is about as much paranormal as I can take, though.) All of a Winter’s Night starts with the funeral of a parishioner who may or may not have been involved in the drug trade but definitely participated in border morris, an art with connections to pre-Christian traditions. If you want to read these I’d read them in order. The characters make up a lot of the books, and this book is heavy on the lives of the characters and crams a lot of the (quite exciting) plot into the last third of the book.

Lilja Sigurðadottir, Trap (originally published in 2016 as Netið). In the wake of the Iceland economic crisis, a woman tries to escape her drug lord ex-husband, with mixed results. This book is brief, economical, exciting and at times surprising: Stieg Larsson with all of the chills but much, much less backstory. I was really frustrated to learn a third of the way in that this was actually the second novel in the series, so if you’re interested in this title, start with the first one (published as Snare in English). Found on the new book shelf.

Stephen Mack Jones, August Snow. A Black / Mexican veteran of the Detroit police department investigates the murder of a banking doyenne and member of the Detroit elite. The protagonist is a really likable individual (son of a police officer, military veteran, himself a police officer, landowner) and the book is an interesting milieu study. I learned a lot about Boston while reading Robert Parker novels and this could be a similar series for Detroit. There’s already a second title, which I will definitely be reading. Picked up after reading this article.

Recommended if something about it interests you

David Buckley, Elton John. A biography of the musician’s life through his 60th birthday in 2007 by a professional music writer. Includes a lot of interview commentary on John’s music and persona from colleagues in the music industry. Frequently quotes the Norman biography (listed below). Narrative coherence falls apart a bit in the later chapters, but in general a good read.

Elizabeth J. Rosenthal, His Song: The Musical Journey of Elton John. A biography of the musician with heavy emphasis on his music production (and including a discography). Largely uninterested in personal matters beyond the superficial level. Rosenthal is an Elton John-superfan (she’s seen him play at least 40 times), but her fan perspective doesn’t really improve the book, which evaluates every single track the musician ever recorded and published. Also, it badly needed a line edit (there are many usage errors) and there’s an embarrassing mistake in the first chapter (Taupin is from Market Rasen).

Philip Norman, Sir Elton. A biography of the musician (by the author of the Beatles biography long considered definitive), with more interest than either of the previous books focused on John’s personal life. This was first published in the early 90s, with new editions of the book being updated repeatedly by slapped on final chapters. So the end of the story falls apart into episodic chunks. Elton John is supposed to have said that this book is “spot on,” but he hasn’t authorized any biographer so far and this one is potentially the most personal of the ones I’ve seen. Of those, I liked this one best just because it did dig into the personal level of EJ’s life. A good factual corrective to the more fantastic psychological elements of Rocketman.

Elton John, Love is the Cure: On Life, Loss and the End of AIDS. John’s narration of his attempts to combat the world AIDS crisis, interspersed with brief discussions of his drug rehab and life and relationships since then. The data about HIV / AIDS is presumably out of date but the personal narrative is interesting. I’m guessing this was ghost-written, but it’s very well done.

Meh / not recommended

Binnie Kirshenbaum, Rabbits for Food. Very sarcastic novel about the protagonist’s journey toward hospitalization for depression. Picked on the basis of this recommendation.

Chip Cheek, Cape May. An implausibly naive honeymooning couple meet a group of wealthy sybarites in a resort town in the off-season in 1957. But I’ve already read The Great Gatsby.

Lauren Mechling, How Could She. Very superficial novel about anxious thirty-somethings trying to make it in new media-era Manhattan. Too frivolous to be serious but takes itself too seriously to be funny.

~ by Servetus on July 6, 2019.

10 Responses to “Books I have read lately (June 2019)”

  1. What exactly is “public history”? I don’t think I’ve heard that term before.


    • it’s historical activities undertaken in the interest of / in the presence of the public, so it includes things like historic preservation, museum construction, archival science, historical reenactment / interpretation. As opposed to the way most historians are still trained (i.e., to do research), which is about the method of finding out the truth about history, public history focuses on making historical knowledge available to wider groups of people, so it tends to be more focused on the presentation and pedagogical side of the job. We will visit museum curators, archivists, preservationists and archaeologists among other things. I also think we’re going to discuss some of the current public debates in which museums are involved — e.g., last week the US Holocaust Memorial Museum more or less said that you can’t drawn historical parallels to the Holocaust (in the context of some political representatives in the US saying that the detention centers along the southern border of the US are concentration camps).

      Liked by 2 people

      • Oooh, now this sounds like my kind of history course. 🙂


        • I think some people appreciate the more “practical” approach. (At the same time, public history is poorly paid, so traditionally most students have preferred to go the university route, and a lot of actually working “public historians” have little or no history training — they were just interested in something and became specialized in it.) Also to some extent it’s a thing students can say to their parents, i.e., there is something you can do other than being a professor (even if jobs are thin on the ground and trained public historians typically need a PhD to get hired, just like professors.) I don’t think it’s something I could ever have done personally — it requires a heavy level of concession to popular opinion / prejudice. People don’t really want a museum that challenges their fundamental assumptions and that is particularly true in the U.S.

          Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for explaining!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I really need to continue with the Merrily Watkins series, thanks for reminding me 😉


  3. […] from here. July was dominated by the changes we were trying to make here (cleaning, sorting, introduction of […]


  4. […] found myself fascinated by this film over the summer, and it got me into reading lots of biographies of Elton John. One thing one quickly learns is that much of what Elton John has said […]


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