Gardening Joys and Work Woes

Last week we didn’t make it to Bavaria on Thursday afternoon. I’d planned to take the afternoon off, but some last-minute urgent work stuff came up and I couldn’t leave. So, we drove here last Friday morning instead and had a nice trip using a different route than usual, to avoid all the road construction and diversions on the normal route. In addition to my normal non-work Friday, I took Monday and Tuesday off, too. Mainly to get some gardening done. Our front yard looked like a meadow instead of a lawn, because of all the lovely rain we had this year.

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It was a great long weekend followed by two brutal workdays, where everything went wrong…

Friday afternoon, after the drive, I did nothing except read, and walk with Curious Dog. Saturday, I went grocery shopping. Sunday was lazing around and reading, on Monday Mum had a doctor’s appointment at the county town (everything is fine) and I went grocery shopping. Tuesday, more lazing and reading. In between hanging around enjoying life, I did an hour’s gardening in the morning and at night (once, in a fit of insanity, during the noon hours, when it was much too hot). It’s amazing how much you can get done in an hour when you keep at it. It was mostly cutting the long grass around our lawn, around the flowerbeds and bushes and in the middle. It was just too long to use the lawn mower. Now everything is looking nice and half-way civilized. I’ve got a lot of gardening refuse to drive to the municipal collection point on Friday (it’s only open for two hours on Fridays and Saturdays).

The plants are doing well. The two sweet potatoes we planted in May survived and seem to be thriving. Our dry-looking small Korean fir has grown a lot of lovely new green shoots; the Juneberry hasn’t bloomed, but I guess it’s too young – it is, however nicely green. The dwarf apple tree is currently carrying 5 tiny apples (not sure if they will survive to be harvested in Autumn, but it’s encouraging). The roses are starting to flower (everything is a bit later here than at my place in Baden-Württemberg). The peonies were still in flower, beautiful. I found that I quite enjoy gardening when it’s just an hour or two a day.

The weather is hot, up to and above 30°C. The first heat wave this year, I think. That makes it a good year in my book – I hate it when the heat starts in May. And next week it looks like it will be cooler again, dropping below 30°C with some rain. It’s hotter at my place than it is here in Bavaria, and I’m worried about the survival of our plants in the small raised beds on my patio. We did water them very well before we left and I constructed a makeshift sunshade (made of an old bedsheet) for them, but I’m not sure that will be enough. Still, it’s a north-west exposure and the sun only shines directly onto the patio from about 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. so maybe it will be fine. We can but hope. I don’t know my neighbours well enough to ask them to water my plants (especially since we’re gone so often).

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I did a lot of reading during my days off. More reading than gardening, which is kind of funny. I read three Nancy Mitford novels, The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate and The Blessing. I can’t remember why I suddenly decided to dive into Mitford, but I don’t regret it. They are nostalgic, sometimes funny or tragic novels about upper class or aristocratic life in the first half of the twentieth century. I also read The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa – really good and really weird. I read it in one day for my book club which is meeting this week (via Zoom). A good selection (as opposed to the sometimes less than stellar book club choices). And I’m now up to the half-way mark with The Iliad in the Caroline Alexander translation which I’m still loving. As usual, I plan to write a more detailed review for these books (but I’ve now got quite a backlog on book reviews).

Of course, I meant to write blog posts during my long weekend, but somehow I couldn’t motivate myself to turn on the computer and start writing. It’s weird that I have less motivation when I have more time. I need to work on this…

Tomorrow I’m voluntarily working in the morning (but I will be taking half a day of in recompense soon or at the latest the next time we drive to Bavaria). One of my regular work tasks usually falls on Friday mornings, and I don’t want to dump it on my colleagues. It’s a stupid task which doesn’t need much effort, so it isn’t a big deal. But it does have to be done. It’s nice to have an undemanding task after the stress of last Thursday (when I couldn’t take my half-day off) and the two days I worked this week. Last Thursday, I had to work on something with a colleague – basically prod the colleague to do a task which they had kept insisting was easy but nevertheless wanted to dump on me. Well, I resisted and made them do it and found out that they didn’t have a clue what they were doing. No wonder they wanted to get someone else to take over. I had to point out some stuff to them which I had noticed by chance just before our meeting. I didn’t have a clue either, but it wasn’t my responsibility. Since it was an important task which other colleagues depended on and I had been reminding the colleague to do it all along as well as asking for status updates for two weeks beforehand in our team meetings, I was super stressed and quite pissed off. And then I heard that in Monday’s team meeting (when I was on vacation), the colleague again said how easy the task was (before going off on vacation and dropping the rest of the task on another poor colleague). This was just the pits, so I complained to my manager. I don’t usually do this and don’t usually need to because my colleagues are generally professional. But this particular colleague likes showing off and turning their co-workers into their personal assistants (works best with new colleagues, who are too inexperienced to protest). It’s just not usually a problem for me, because I try to avoid working with them – note to self: keep it that way. My manager had already noticed that this current thing had been rather a shambles, which was good, but past experience has shown that they aren’t great at getting the colleague to change their behaviour. The colleague gets away with all sorts of things that other colleagues would get called out on. I used to think it was because they were extremely competent at what they do, but last Thursday has rather called that into doubt.

Keep safe world.

Zami

Recently I read Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. A Biomythography by Audre Lorde. I recommend it, it’s a great read.

Zami is a “Carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers” (Audre Lorde, Zami, p. 255). Carriacou is a Caribbean island from which Lorde’s parents emigrated to New York. It’s important for Lorde’s identity.

The “biomythography” is about how Audre Lorde grows into herself as a black lesbian woman. It celebrates the bonds between woman, between grandmothers, mothers and daughters. Between the women that came before her and shaped her, and her own shaping of herself. I think “mythography” refers to a recognition of the sacred in relationships between lovers. Lorde tells us about a number of women she loved during different times of her life and the way each love shaped her (and also her lover). The last relationship in the book is one with a woman who calls herself “Kitty” but also “Afrekete”, who seems like a goddess. This is the love that brings sacred, life-affirming love to its fulfilment (in contrast to the earlier relationships, which always failed due to some issue on either Lorde’s or the lover’s part). Although the relationship doesn’t last very long, as one day Kitty alias Afrekete disappears to return to her daughter, whom she had left to be brought up by her grandmother in the American South. Lorde never meets her again, but she remains in her memory.

Zami

I don’t know if this sort celebration of lesbian love has been done before. It is absolutely affirming (and can, I believe, be true for any kind of love, but since lesbian love has historically been devalued, the affirmation is especially important).

The mythical parts of the biomythography are mostly addressed at the beginning and the end and only sometimes touched on in the main part of the book. The book covers Lorde’s life from her childhood to her young adulthood. She grew up in New York with her parents and two older sisters. The family, and Lorde herself, experienced racism, but her parents tried to hide it from them which only worked when Lorde was younger. Lorde had a contentious relationship with her parents, especially her mother, and moved out when she was 17. Soon afterwards, she had a painful and dangerous illegal abortion (she could not afford to keep a baby and her lover left her). She worked a lot of jobs, some of them under awful conditions, but she also found her first women lovers. She saved up and moved for a few years to Mexico, where she experienced being accepted and valued by society as a black woman for the first time. All her experiences are presented through Lorde’s relationships with her friends, her family and later her lovers. She also reflects on the effects her experiences had on herself and how her actions were interpreted by the people she interacted with. There are also a lot of details about how life was like from the 1930s to the 1960s, first focusing on her childhood, later on her experiences as a lesbian, always also centered on her being a black girl and woman and what that meant.

The mythical parts of the biomythography are mostly addressed at the beginning and the end and only sometimes touched on in the main part of the book. Lorde had an interesting life, and I enjoyed reading about it. It was very moving in places and powerful. Sometimes funny, also shocking – all that racism. I though she was very courageous. Very independent. I wasn’t half as independent and would have been too scared to move out at 17 (but I didn’t have much conflict with my parents as a teenager, so didn’t need to assert myself in that way). I also wouldn’t have dared to move to another country by myself without much money and not knowing anybody there. I did spend a semester at a university in the UK, but that was all nicely organized and paid for by a scholarship. I also had a lot of jobs to finance my university years (except for that one scholarship and some state loans which I later paid back), so I emphasized with Lorde about that. My jobs weren’t dangerous to my health, though, and I didn’t have to deal with racism. I liked how she cheated the system at one of the horrid jobs.

I was surprised by the ending, because Lorde didn’t include her later life after the early 1960s. I didn’t know that she spent many years in Berlin for instance (found it out via Wikipedia). I did know that she’s an important feminist as well as poet. I would have enjoyed reading about these aspects of her life too. I’m planning to check out her poetry and maybe some of her other work, but not sure when I’ll get around to it.

Keep safe, world.

Sally Wright’s Ben Reese and Jo Grant Series

In February I started a new crime series, the Ben Reese mystery series by Sally Wright. I think I found it via one of the BookTube channels I follow. I was intrigued because the main character, Ben Reese, works as an archivist at a small University in Ohio. I like reading crime novels in a university setting (my favourite series featuring a literature prof, is by Amanda Cross).

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The series is mostly set in the 1960s but some of the crimes reach back to WWII, where our archivist hero was an accomplished scout behind enemy lines (a somewhat reluctant killer in the line of duty). They also touch on questions of Christianity (but quite low-key, not in-your-face), ethics and conservative values. I don’t consider myself a Christian, although I grew up going to Christian schools (both Protestant and Catholic ones, though that was due to coincidence, as those schools were convenient). I still like reading about different religious experiences (also non-Christian ones) and how people strive to live an ethical life, so I quite like this flavour of the novels. Apparently, the author, Sally Wright, was influenced by C.S. Lewis, whose works I also like. I’ve read quite a few of his books, including his (as I remember) quite strange science fiction, an autobiography, and, of course, the Narnia books. He also appeals to me, because he was a member of the Inklings, the group of writers that included J.R.R. Tolkien. I am a great fan of The Lord of the Rings. I don’t consider myself as being conservative, either in life or in politics, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate some of the values of conservatives. Some values are just universal.

Anyway, I very much enjoyed the Ben Reese series, and would recommend them as good reads. They usually have a slow build, with Reese trying to solve a murder by investigating the victims’ background and their relationship with the people in their lives. Near the end, Reese usually has to rely on his skills gained as a scout during WWII to save his own and other’s lives. Things become quite action-packed which serves a fascinating contrast to his archivist personality (not a job one usually associates with soldier skills). There’s also often a bit of academic politics in the novels, struggles for power and influence at Reese’s university. Owing to his job, Reese also travels a lot to research the provenance of documents, paintings, jewelry and other historical objects given to his university by alumni or other patrons. He rides and owns a horse and saves a dog in one of the novels. He’s a widower who lost his wife and their baby son in childbirth. He still mourns them but in the course of the series starts a new relationship (especially in the later books). He’s a well-rounded fascinating character and the supporting cast of characters are also complex and believable. These are the novels, in order:

Publish and Perish

The first book is the only one were the murder is set completely within the academic milieu. The roots reach back to WWII and the murder hinges on a case of plagiarism and a failure of communication. There’s a bit of academic backstabbing, both figurative and literal.

Pride and Predator

Set in Scotland, where Reese is appraising the historical artifacts that his friend Lord Alexander Chisholm, the Earl of Balnagard, has inherited. Another friend of the Earl’s, a minister, dies suddenly of an allergic reaction to a bee sting. The earl and Reese suspect foul play and so the investigation starts.

Pursuit and Persuasion

A professor of literature at Aberdeen University, Georgina Fletcher, suspects that someone wants her dead. She asks her heir (to whom she writes a letter before her death), who happens to be Reese’s apprentice, to hire a detective to uncover her murderer. Again set in Scotland, with some of the characters introduced in the previous novel. Suspects proliferate and Reese is soon in deadly danger.

Out of the Ruins

Set on the Cumberland Island in Georgia, U.S., where Reese is helping a distant relative and looking into the suspicious death of family matriarch. It’s all about who will inherit the land and what should be done with it. Quite different from the settings in the other novels but just as compelling.

Watches of the Night

This one I read last Friday. It’s partly set in Reese’s home, partly in Scotland, where Reese’s potential girlfriend (Kate Lindsay) lives with the father of her husband, killed in WWII (he was one of Reese’s best friends). The climax takes place in a ruined villa in Italy. The roots of this case go back to Reese’s experiences in the war, where he witnessed a murderous act (although hard to prove) by an officer who later faked his death. In this novel, the reader knows more than the protagonist, since we are told how the officer faked his death and who witnessed it. When Reese and Kate start looking into the death of her husband and why she was sent a grisly keepsake years after the war, ties to the officer appear and witnesses turn up dead. The finale is thrilling and there a new start for Reese and Kate (not only on the relationship front, also with Reese’s job which is endangered through enemies he’s made at his university).

Code of Silence

Read last Saturday. This one is a prequel to the series that returns to the time when Reese lost his wife. A recent widower, he is drawn to solve a murder that took place just after WWII during the beginnings of the Cold War. A young woman working with an intelligence agency on Russian codes learn something that causes her to be murdered. Years later an acquaintance of Reese’s also dies under suspicious circumstances. Reese is drawn into finding the murderer, a traitor who spied for the Russians for money. This was the novel I liked least, because all the stuff about Russians and spies in America and McCarthyism was just a bit tedious. But it was nevertheless a good read and I won’t leave it out when I reread the series in future, which I am sure to do, because it’s a good, relaxing, not too demanding series, perfect for rainy or gloomy day (or any old day, really).

When I finished the series on Saturday, I was slightly cast down, because I would have liked to have read more about Reese and Kate and their potential new lives as indicated at the end of book 5. I hoped to find that the author had written another novel or was planning to publish another in the near future. Sadly, I found that the author had died in 2018, so no more Ben Reese mysteries. I did find, however, that she’d written another series, made up of 3 books, the last of which was apparently published posthumously. These are the Jo Grant series:

  • Breeding Ground
  • Behind the Bonehouse
  • The Outsiding

I read the first one on Sunday (as you can see, I was on a binge).

Breeding Ground

The novel has an interesting structure. It starts with short statement by one of the main characters, Jo Grant Munro, giving her reasons for writing the book:

I’ve written the record of what happened – the account, of sorts, that follows. But I didn’t want to say “I” all the time, and explain how I talked to this one, and talked to another, and pieced it all together after the fact. I decided to write it down as though it were a novel, in the order it all happened, and write it from the outside, so I’m being sandwiched in just like any other character.

Sally Wright, Breeding Ground. 2013, Kindle, p. 7

The frame reminds me of the one used in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes novels. In this novel, the frame is set in 1995 while the main part is set in 1962.

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The main part starts off with Jo grieving for her brother Tom who died in a motorcycle accident. She is trying to extricate herself from the family horse breeding business. She had been nursing her mother for two years and wants to return to her own job, which is architecture. Jo wants to travel in Europe to get inspiration and training for her work. She must give up her plans because her uncle, who was to manage the family business, has an accident that leaves him unable to do much work for the next few month.

An old friend of her brother’s turns up, very ill, mumbling about not wanting to involve her in any danger. Another friend of the brothers turns up as a potential love interest. The reader gets to know neighbours and friends, all with their own troubles.

The novel gets quite a slow start, with many meandering plotlines. Somewhere at around the two third mark, even I, who like slow novels, started getting a bit antsy: where was the mystery? What did I care about all these people? But then there’s a murder and all the backstories started making sense. The novel had actually done what the pretend author had said at the beginning. Things happened in order and only with the murder did the strings begin to untangle themselves. As usual with Wright’s books, the last part of the novel has action and suspense.

At the end, we get another note from Jo in the first person. She clears up a few minor details and remarks that she has other books in mind to tell what happened to some of the characters of the novel – if she has time. She’s been diagnosed with cancer and given 6 months to live. This is quite strange, as I found out that this had also been the case with Sally Wright, the real author. She had lived with cancer for 7 years, despite having been given just a 6 months life expectancy at her diagnosis. She has fictionalized her own experience.

Despite the many and meandering plot lines, I enjoyed the novel and I am intrigued enough to read the other two. I like the setting, the horse business (I used to read a lot of horse stories as a teenager and always imagined I’d start riding and get a horse myself, which hasn’t happened yet). It’s like a horse story with crime elements for grownups. It also has a cozier vibe than the Ben Reese novels, which I like (though it did get quite violent at the end). The Christian elements, while still subtle, are slightly more prevalent. As they are still nuanced and not preachy, I don’t mind that either. So, I’m looking forward to the last two novels although I may put in a little rest from my binge first.

I found Amazon quite frustrating to search for all of Sally Wright’s novels. Somehow, I only found the Jo Grant novels via Google. During the search I found this interesting website: http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/. It contains lots of information about crime series and authors. A treasure trove! I will revisit it when I need another author to sate my appetite for that type of reading material.

Keep safe, world.

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes 2

This is my second post about my project to read the entire Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series by Laurie R. King, which I used to be keen on, but then lost track of. Here is the previous post:
Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes 1

In February I read the next two installments in the series, books 3 and 4:

A Letter of Mary

This novel (as all the previous ones) again has the framing story (just a couple of pages at the beginning) that the author, King, pretends to just be the editor of the book, the manuscript of which was sent to her from an undisclosed source.

The novel’s action is set in August and November 1923, two years later that the previous installment, A Monstrous Regiment of Women. It’s again told in the first person by Mary Russell. She and Holmes are now married; Russell is pursuing her theological research while also working with Holmes on cases. Occasionally Holmes is engaged on cases by himself. They seem comfortably settled in their marriage, when suddenly they receive a visit by Dorothy Ruskin, an older woman amateur archeologist whom they had met during the course of travels in Palestine (reported in the first book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice). Ruskin has found a potentially very important ancient letter which she wishes Russell to keep and deal with as she deems appropriate.

When Ruskin returns to London, after having visited Russell and Holmes in their Sussex home, she is killed in what seems a car accident. Russell and Holmes travel up to London to identify the body and find that the accident was staged. Dorothy Ruskin had been murdered and her hotel room searched. Had the murderer’s been looking for the ancient letter?

Naturally, Holmes and Russell start investigating. During the investigation, Holmes goes undercover as a handyman to check on Ruskin’s relatives, her rather uncongenial sister and her son. Russell takes on a job as secretary for a womanizing Colonel, who is also a suspect. In the course of her investigation, she is briefly aided by Lord Peter Wimsey. A nice touch for Wimsey fans:

“Good Lord, it’s Mrs Sherlock!” The foolish, slightly lopsided face with the too-bland eyes registered amazement at seeing me in this setting.
“No, it’s not, “I corrected him severely. “It’s Miss Mary Small, whom you’ve never set eyes on in your life.”
His grey eyes flared with interest and amusement even as his face and posture lapsed instantaneously info the silly-ass act he did so well.

Laurie R. King, A Letter of Mary. Bantam, 1998, p. 214.

There are a lot of false leads in this case, but in the end Russel and Holmes manage to ensure, with the help of the victim, who had taken some precautions of her own before being murdered, a kind of poetic justice.

During the book we learn a lot about Russell and Holmes life together, we learn some more about Russell’s childhood trauma, we get to meet Mycroft Holmes again. Feminist themes are again addressed, which I am always interested in. A good read!

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The Moor

As I’ve mentioned in my February Reading post, this fourth part of the series is one of my favourites. It starts off with the usual editor’s comment about the unknown provenance of the manuscript of the novel, with the interesting addition that the editor (that is, King, the author) might have been sent them by the ‘real’ author (that is, Mary Russell). A nice playful touch. Russell would have to have been in her late nineties at the time the novel was published.

The novel is again reported from Russell’s first-person perspective. It is set in Dartmoor, where years ago Holmes solved the mystery of the Baskervilles’ Hound. Holmes has been called to the old home of his friend the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, because of some reports of strange, almost supernatural goings-on on the moor. And he’s also investigating a case on the side for his brother Mycroft. Holmes calls Russell away from the scholar’s life in Oxford to help him on the case.

Really intriguing about the novel is that Sabine Baring-Gould is a real person, who led a rather interesting life and wrote lots of books and novels himself, many of them about Dartmoor and the surrounding countryside. Whenever I read this book, I feel inspired to read some of his writings, but so far I haven’t managed to get around to it. Maybe later this year…

The plot itself involves a lot of tramping about on the moor to follow up reports of a ghostly carriage that’s been seen here and there. On the way, we learn quite a bit about the moor and the people who dwell there. As might be expected, it turns out that there’s a rational explanation for the supernatural sightings (as was also the case with the Hound of the Baskervilles). The house of Baskerville and its owners are involved in a complicated attempted fraud that is, of course, foiled by Holmes and Russell.

In addition to the “Editor’s Preface”, there a very interesting “Editor’s Postscript” about Sabine Baring-Gould and one of his descendants who wrote a fictional biography of Sherlock Holmes! Another of the fun intertextual elements the series abounds in!

I like this installment of the series because of the atmospheric setting, the inclusion of a real person, as well as the allusions to the classic Hound of the Baskervilles. One of the best books of the series.

Keep safe, world.

Piranesi

This was the first novel I read this year. It is the second novel by Susanna Clarke, the author of Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell and it was published in autumn last year. I wanted to read it already last year, but didn’t get around to it, which was strange, because I had been anticipating its release all year.

Now, I had a rough start with JS & Mr N. I got it as a hardcover in 2004, right when it was published (maybe even as a present, I can’t quite remember). I thought it would be right up my alley, a lovely thick fantasy novel. I saved it up for my annual autumn vacation on the Baltic and then… I got bogged down after maybe the first third. I didn’t pick it up again until 2019, and then I loved it. I guess my tastes had evolved.

I think I didn’t get into it on my first reading, because it isn’t written like a typical fantasy novel. It’s written like a 19th century novel and I wasn’t into reading such a huge book in such a style at the time. It’s also not pure fantasy but also a kind of alternative history of England during the Napoleonic Wars with fantastic elements. It’s all about how England used to be a magical place, full of fairies and magicians, but from which the magic had gradually disappeared. Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange are the only real magicians left and they revive the practice of magic in England. They have a tumultuous relationship as master and pupil, rivals, and friends. Fairies (pretty terrifying ones) and fairy realms also play an important role. The novel has hundreds of footnotes referencing made-up works of history and magic which gives the world-building verisimilitude. It’s intricate and detailed and sometimes a little slow going, but it grows on you. When I started it again in 2019 I loved it so much that I looked up the author and found her short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu. The eight stories in the collection are also set in the world of JS & Mr N and explore women magicians (who had not played a role in the earlier novel). I also loved these tales.

So, I was thrilled to find that a new novel was to be published in 2020. I got Piranesi for Christmas from my Partner and started reading it early in January.

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The novel is about a character called Piranesi, who lives in a strange, partly ruined House. The House seems to take up all the space in Piranesi’s world, at least he has never seen anything else. The lower floors of the House are drowned in seawater, the higher ones are partly fallen down and open to the sky. The sea contains fish and seaweed which is what Piranesi lives off. There are also birds and another person called “Other” by Piranesi. The Other is preoccupied with the search for a secret knowledge in the House, and Piranesi helps him with the project. Oddly, the Other occasionally brings Piranesi food and clothing that seems like it could have come from our world. Also, the Other isn’t always in the House. Piranesi spends a lot of his time exploring the House, which is like a maze, full of huge rooms that are full of statues that depict ordinary things and people from our world as well as from mythology. There are also the skeletal remains of (I think) 13 people, that Piranesi reverently looks after, kind of like someone might look after the grave of a loved one. At the beginning of the novel, Piranesi is a lovely, slightly strange and absent-minded person, who seems a little simple. But during the course of the novel, he gradually finds out more about the Other, about himself, and about the world beyond the House (and so does the reader). This gradual revelation or uncovering of secrets by Piranesi is very well done. Later in the book, the action speeds up and becomes thrilling. In the end, Piranesi has undergone a psychological transformation and is no longer Piranesi.

The novel is set in our time (it ends in 2018). Like JS & Mr N it contains many details and a few fake books that are mentioned in the text (I always like that). It’s also about the relationship of magic and reality, and the question where the magic that used to be in our world has disappeared to. It has a few allusions to The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis (one of the Narnia books) – there’s a quote from the book at the beginning of the novel (together with a quote from a made-up book). The House in Piranesi reminds me of the city of Charn, the place where the White Witch in the Narnia novels hails from. It is also partly ruined and partly filled with statues. But the House seems benevolent, while Charn was chilling. Another parallel from The Magician’s Nephew is the “Wood between the Worlds”, which the House is also reminiscent of and then there is a theme about ethics in science, which also has echoes in The Magician’s Nephew. But really, these are just vague allusion that help to give a depth to the tale, but the novel can easily be enjoyed without noticing these parallels. But it’s nice if you are a fan of the Chronicles of Narnia.

Piranesi is a great read and I was only sorry that it is a slim novel compared to JS & Mr N. I finished it in two days (and that was savouring it – I could have read it in one sitting). If you like reading about magic elements intertwined with our mundane world or about explorations both geographical (the House) and psychological (Piranesi’s journey to self-knowledge) or about murder and deceit, all in one book, then it’s a great read.

Piranesi inspired me to read The Genesis and Geometry of the Labyrinth, mentioned here, because the House was like a maze and mazes remind me of labyrinths…

Keep safe, world.

Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes 1

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I first started reading this series by Laurie R. King while I was still at university. The first book came out in 1994, the latest in 2020. One of my best friends, who is a great fan of Sherlock Holmes, first introduced me to the series, probably in the late 1990s. I’ve got the first six books as paperbacks and the next five as hardcovers as soon as they were published, because I couldn’t wait. But I hit a snag in one of the hardcovers and somehow haven’t managed to read all of them. That was ten years ago. The last of my hardbacks came out in 2011 and in the meantime seven additional books have been published which I haven’t got in any version.

As the early books were some of my favourite crime novels, I want to pick the series up again and read all the books from first to last. The series is about the adventures of Mary Russel and Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is of course the character we know and love who was invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. King’s series plays after the end of Conan Doyle’s stories, after Holmes has retired to the countryside to breed and study bees. In January I read the first two books in King’s series.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice or On the Segregation of the Queen

The novel has a small, non-intrusive framing action, which is only mentioned at the beginning in the editor’s preface, written by Laurie R. King, where she tell the reader that one day she received a strange box containing a few manuscripts and some odd knick-knacks. She edited one of the manuscripts and published it but says that she cannot decide if it is fact or fiction.

The next part of the novel is the short author’s prelude, in which Mary Russell appears as the author of the book. She is in her nineties, looking back at her life with Sherlock Holmes, astonished and amused by the fact that all the world takes Sherlock Holmes for a fiction, when she has known him as a real person:

[…] I must assert that the following pages recount the early days and years of my true-life association with Sherlock Holmes.

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Bantam, 1996, p. xx.

She talks of the following tale as part of her memoirs and she sets herself up as Holmes equal (not like Dr. Watson, who was always his inferior in intelligence):

Holmes and I were a match from the beginning. He towered over me in experience, but never did his abilities at observation and analysis awe me as they did Watson. My own eyes and mind functioned in precisely the same way.

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. Bantam, 1996, p. xxi.

So, basically, the reader gets a younger female version of the famous detective, working alongside him and is also expected to consider both as real persons. This conceit very effectively caught my imagination when I first read it, years ago, and I still think it is a brilliant idea.

The novel is narrated by Mary Russell in the first person. At the beginning of the novel she is a young girl, 15 years old, a Jewish-English-American orphan growing up with an aunt who hates and is jealous of her. She has just moved to the village to which Sherlock Holmes has retired and she meets him by almost stumbling over him out on the Sussex downs while he is studying the behaviour of some bees. After a bit of a quarrel they become firm friends and Holmes takes her under his wing and teaches her his way of detection and all sorts of other things. Hence the title Beekeeper’s Apprentice. The novel covers a few years during which Russell supports Holmes with some of his cases, some of which are quite thrilling. She also keeps up her own studies and goes to Oxford where she takes up Theology (much to Holmes’ horror) and Chemistry. Near the end of the novel, they have a run-in with one of Holmes enemies and have to leave the country for a while to regroup before managing to foil the enemy.

During the novel, the reader learns a lot of Russell’s background, how she lost her family and how it affected her; about her intellectual and academic interests. The crime elements are well done and quite suspenseful, but a lot of the focus of the novel is on the development of the characters and the relationship between them. A few of the characters known from Conan Doyle’s stories also turn up, Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson, as well as Holmes brother Mycroft and the Scotland Yard detective Lestrade. There are also new characters: Mary’s friends at Oxford, her aunt (who is barely mentioned because Mary can’t stand her) and her farm manager as well as the characters they interact with in their criminal investigations. There’s also the first world war, as Russell and Holmes first meet in 1915 and the trip out of the country to Palestine – many and various are the themes of the novel.

The book is a delightful start to the series. It hooked and pulled me in. If you like mystery novels that feature two intellectuals, their interests, and their relationship in addition to crime elements, you should like the book and the series. If you are a Sherlock Holmes purist, you may not like the series, because it focusses more on Russell than on Holmes and it does take liberties with the famous detective.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women

The second in the series. In it, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes deal with one case (not a few smaller ones as in the first novel). We again have the conceit that Laurie R. King just published a manuscript sent to her (for unknown reasons) by Russell.

At the beginning of the novel, Mary Russell, still the first-person narrator, has graduated from Oxford, written her first theological essay, is just turning 21 and coming into her inheritance, so that she can throw out her aunt and live independently. When in London to deal with her solicitors, she meets an old friend from Oxford, Veronica Beaconsfield, and is drawn into the congregation of a strange woman, Margery Childe, who seems to be creating a religious Christian movement for women. Russell finds Childe quite fascinating and is drawn into tutoring her in feminist theology. Soon, however, there’s an attempt made on Veronica’s life and it appears that in the past a number of Childe’s followers, who had left their fortunes to her community, had met sudden and suspicious deaths. Russell and Holmes start an investigation during which Russell is abducted by the villain in an attempt to also get her fortune by foul means. Of course, Holmes comes to the rescue and together they solve the mystery.

In this novel, there’s a bit of theology (probably quite mundane for experts, but new and interesting to me when I first read it) and there’s a lot of focus on the changing relationship between Mary and Holmes. As I always prefer crime novel that have strong character development and show the lives of the protagonists apart from their detecting jobs, I liked it a lot.

The novel is set in December 1920 to February 1921, so 100 years before the time I read it this year, a fun fact.
I’m going to continue with the series and am looking forward to reading installments new to me (but first there’ll be four or five installments that I’ve already read).

By the way, I’ve also read the Kate Martinelli series by this author, which I also liked and can recommend. There are five books in that series, about a lesbian detective, and the last one is a kind of cross-over with the Russel and Sherlock series.

Keep safe, world.

The Life of Samuel Johnson

During my Christmas vacation, I had lots of free time for reading. I also meant to do other less pleasant stuff such as cleaning up my desk and paperwork on which I procrastinated so much that in the end I didn’t get round to it – but, I have to admit, I didn’t much care. Anyway, reading. I spent three weeks reading The Life of Johnson by James Boswell. A huge tome in my Penguin Classics edition (edited by David Womersley); 1000 pages of small print (and a couple of hundred pages of appendices and notes).

The Life of Johnson (first published in 1792) has sometimes been called the greatest biography written in English (although I’m sure that modern critical opinion on that is very diverse). I first came across it during my studies of English Lit at university, and always felt intrigued but never actually got around to reading it. I’m not sure if I would have appreciated it at the time. Nothing particularly exciting happens in the biography. It’s a year-by-year account of Samuel Johnson’s life, as reported by his much younger friend Boswell.
Johnson was a famous man of letters, a poet, essayist, literary critic, and famously, a lexicographer, who by himself wrote A Dictionary of the English Language which was the most common dictionary in use for 150 years until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary early in the twentieth century (and lots of scholars worked on that, including J.R.R. Tolkien if I remember correctly). An amazing achievement.

The Life is full of leisurely gossip about Johnson and his circle of friends, which included famous writers, actors, and painters. Boswell covers his later years much more than his earlier ones, as he only made his acquaintance when Johnson was already 54. He recounts many conversations he and others had with Johnson about all sorts of topics. He also cites a lot of the letters they exchanged and asks other friends of Johnson about their recollections and uses them in his work. The reader learns almost as much about Boswell as they do about Johnson, because Boswell doesn’t keep his opinions to himself.

Johnson comes across as a loving husband to his older wife, someone who cared and kept up with his stepdaughter all his life. He helped and cared for a few companions who lived in his house. He had a young black servant for whose schooling he paid and whom he left a generous inheritance. He had money troubles before he was granted a pension for life in recognition of his literary works. He was against slavery:

It is impossible not to conceive that men in their original state were equal; and very difficult to imagine how one would be subjected to another but by violent compulsion.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. by D. Womersley, Penguin Classics, p. 632.

Boswell, by the way, was in favour of the slave trade and though that slaves had it better on plantation in Jamaica than in Africa!?!

Johnson was a conservative (a Tory) and was a great conversationalist on all sorts of topics. He liked being right and liked to play devil’s advocate. He cared a lot for his cats and occasionally got annoyed with Boswell’s needy whining (always asking for reassurance that they were still friends). Once he took a trip to the continent, to France and once he travelled with Boswell to Scotland (both Boswell and Johnson wrote travel accounts of this trip – I’d eventually like to read both of them). After this trip, he had a running joke for Boswell’s wife in his letters to Boswell. He also probably had periodic depressions and Tourette’s syndrome.

I thought that Johnson came across as an interesting and congenial personality in the Life and I would like to read some of his writings (I didn’t read much from the 18th century during my studies at university, but I enjoyed the reading I did later. For instance, a couple of years ago I read Richardson’s Clarissa with a friend and we both enjoyed it. Richardson was a friend of Johnson’s and once helped him out by paying some debts for him). It really struck me (it always strikes me when I read works from those times) how modern these people from the 18th century seem. They had so many concerns that we still have today. Johnson, for instance, considered his life each year and made goals, spiritual ones and ones about his writing. He often found that he could have done better and hoped to improve in the next year. Very relatable!

So, The Life of Johnson is a good read, if you like long meandering reports of daily life, literature, and ideas, with no plot to speak of.

I think one day I’m going to read a modern biography of Johnson, to see how it differs from Boswell’s.

Keep safe, world.

Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations

Yesterday I wrote a short review of the last two Toni Morrison novels I read last year, today I’m writing one for the last three novels by Dickens (before I start forgetting even more of the details than I already have – I really should write up my thought on the books I read a lot sooner).

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So, Oliver Twist. I’m pretty I’ve read it before, but I couldn’t really remember anything except that scene where Oliver Twist asks for more. That whiny Oliver, I’m sure it’ll be a bore – that’s what I thought. Oh so wrong! Oliver, an orphan (as we all know), badly cared for by the parish he was born in, had a hard lot and was rather plucky. It was a miracle he survived his infancy at a nasty “baby farm” (we get a lot of Dicken’s social criticism about the treatment of orphans during the Victorian Age – it was horrific and serves as a reminder that while the age may have spawned a lot of great classics, it wasn’t the greatest time for working class or destitute people).

Oliver had to start working as a child of eight and the parish basically sold him as an apprentice to an undertaker (he just avoided being apprenticed to a chimney sweep and having to climb up inside chimneys to clean them, a very dangerous trade). When he ran away from the undertaker because of ill-treatment, he ended up in London in the clutches of the infamous Fagin, who wanted to turn Oliver into a criminal street child at the instigation of a mysterious character… Oliver escapes, is caught again by Fagin’s crew, and escapes again, managing to keep from turning criminal, a point that is very important for the eventual happy end of the novel, where Oliver finds a new family and is set up for life while the villains get their just deserts.

The evil Jew Fagin is one of the worst depictions of antisemitism in English literature (together with Shakespeare’s Shylock). In another, later novel, Our Mutual Friend, Dickens created the character of Mr. Riah, a kindly Jew who helps one of the young women in the novel and who gives a moving speech about how Jews are routinely despised. I actually read this novel in December 2019, as the first of the novels of my Dicken’s project, and was struck by the positive characterization which appears to have been a reaction by Dickens to the criticism he received for his antisemitism as embodied by Fagin. There’s an interesting article about Fagin on Wikipedia.

The other main villain in Oliver Twist (apart from the mysterious stranger) is one Bill Sikes, a robber and a murderer, whom Oliver is forced to accompany on one of his criminal endeavours. Sikes has a dog, and as a dog-lover, I’m sorry for the poor animal who comes to a bad end along with his master. Nasty masters make nasty dogs, but it’s not the dog’s fault.

All in all, while not my favourite of Dickens novels, I enjoyed Oliver Twist.

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A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel about the French revolution, was a reread for me and I definitively remembered liking this one when I first read it. I still love it. It consists of three parts set in 1775, 1780, and 1792. The first part is centered on Alexandre Manette, a French medical doctor who had been imprisoned in the Bastille without a trial for almost twenty years. He is very infirm and has become an obsessive shoemaker, as that was his only occupation all those years in his dark cell. He is set free and reunited with his daughter, Lucie, who had thought him dead, and builds up a new life with her in London.

At the beginning of the second book, a French immigrant, Charles Darnay, is acquitted of treason against Britain with the help of one Sydney Carton, his doppelgänger. Charles is apparently the nephew and heir of the Marquis St. Evrémonde, a stereotypically evil French aristocrat, who is murdered by the father of a child he had killed by recklessly driving his carriage through the narrow Paris streets. Charles renounces his uncle and stays in London where he marries Lucy. In 1792 he travels to Paris to help one of his uncle’s servants who had been looking after the estate and was imprisoned by the French revolutionaries.

In the third book, Charles is also imprisoned for being an emigrated aristocrat. His family travel to Paris to somehow save him from prison and death, but instead he is put on trial for crimes his uncle committed and sentenced to the guillotine. He is saved by Sydney Carton, who had been in love with Lucie and who saved her husband for her sake.

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The novel is very thrilling, full of gothic elements, murder, imprisonment, madness, revenge, daring and last-minute escapes. What’s not to like! We see how the cruel subjugation of the French citizens by the aristocracy was one of the causes of the French Revolution. How the desire for justice became corrupted into a desire for revenge, leading to the Terror of the French Revolution (as shown by Dickens; I’m sure that the historical causes where more complicated, varied, and nuanced).

I also read Great Expectations back in October 2020 and didn’t get around to writing up anything about it, but I loved it best of these three. It also has very gothic elements, an orphan (Pip, the main character) who gets an inheritance from a secret benefactor. This turns him into an egoistic little shit, but he is humbled when he finds out whom he has to thank for his windfall. It’s a tale of escaped convicts, lost or misguided loves, petrified lives, and a dawning understanding of what’s important in life. I’m afraid I’m too lazy to write a more detailed review after all these months.

Here’s my final ranking, after having read all of Dicken’s novels:

  1. David Copperfield
  2. Bleak House
  3. Great Expectations
  4. A Tale of Two Cities
  5. Barnaby Rudge
  6. Our Mutual Friend
  7. Little Dorrit
  8. Nicholas Nickleby
  9. The Old Curiosity Shop
  10. Oliver Twist
  11. Hard Times
  12. Martin Chuzzlewit
  13. Pickwick Papers
  14. Dombey and Son

Home and God Save the Child

Those are last two novels by Toni Morrison that I read last year and haven’t written a review on yet. It’s been a couple of months since I finished them and I’m sure I’ve already forgotten some of the details, but I want to write about them before they fade from my memory even more. As all the other books by Morrison, I liked them both, though Home more than God Save the Child.

Photo of the Paperbacks

Home tells the life stories of a brother and a sister, Frank and Ycidra Money. It’s told in alternative chapters in third person point-of-view and in first person. The first person is the voice of Frank, who provides key details to illuminate the chapters in between. As usual in Morrison’s novel, the timeline in not linear but loops back and forth between the past and the present of the novel. Frank is a veteran who served in the Korean war. He is locked up in a hospital for the insane, because he has flashbacks and fits, PTSD, I guess. We learn about his life since the war and during the war and about things that happened during his childhood. He receives a letter telling him that his sister, Ycidra (known as “Cee”) is very ill and maybe dying at her employer’s house, a gynecologist who did experiments on her. Frank, who has always felt responsible for and protective of his sister, makes her rescue his new purpose in life. He escapes from the hospital and travels to his sister. He manages to liberate her from the house of the horrific doctor and takes her to their hometown in Georgia, where the women of the community nurse her until she recovers.

Throughout the novel, we learn a lot about the two main characters, including a shocking incident in Frank’s life, wherein he committed a war crime. He leads up to the confession of it through misdirection but later tells the truth that he had been hiding from himself. And why did he commit the crime? Because he was made to feel disgusted about himself (very vague to avoid spoilers).

I have to say that the crux of the novel, Frank’s act, really shook me. Here I was liking Frank; he’s trying to be a decent guy, looking after his sister, dealing with his PTSD from the war, finding peace by returning to his home with his sister (a home they couldn’t leave soon enough when they were younger) and then this revelation. I found this harder to deal with than what Sethe did in Beloved, because Sethe acted out of misguided love and mercy, but Frank acted out of concern for himself (and it wasn’t a life or death situation for him). Very hard to emphasize with or even understand. So, it’s a memorable tale to mull over. I’m sure I will reread it eventually and maybe I will be less puzzled about it.

The novel, although short, also has at least one other main theme concerning a crime that Frank and Cee witness as children but didn’t quite understand. And it also tells the stories of some of their relatives; their father and mother, their grandparents.

God Save the Child is Morrison’s last novel. It tells the story of Bride and Booker, and the people their lives touch. Bride is a successful model, very dark-skinned who was an embarrassment to her mother because of her blackness. She was born very dark-skinned to a light-skinned couple whose marriage broke apart because of this “embarrassment”. So Bride spends all her childhood trying to gain her mother’s approval and love. Only once does she get it and that was for a lie, a lie that had terrible consequences for another person. Once Bride is grown up and has her modelling life, she no longer has much contact with her mother. She leads a very superficial unattached life until she meets Booker. Booker is from a loving, supportive family, but he is estranged from them because of a tragedy to which he thinks his family reacted inappropriately (I don’t think they did). Booker also rejects Bride, saying to her “You not the woman I want”. Bride becomes obsessed with him and searches for him after he left. When she finds him, they tell each other the pivotal events from their childhood that made them act the way they did. Their breakup was due to misunderstanding each other. They reconnect and the novel ends with Bride becoming pregnant. Her mother, Sweetness (what a name – she was anything but sweet to her daughter) exclaims:

“Listen to me. You are about to find out what it takes, how the world is, how it works and how it changes when you are a parent. Good luck and God help the child.”

Morrison, God Help the Child, last page.

Bride was messed up because of her upbringing and Booker was messed up because of what happened to his family (even though his parent were very supportive, quite different from Sweetness). I suppose that now Bride and Booker have a chance to do better for their child. Or not. No-one can foresee the future.

The novels are hard to rank because they are all so good, but this is my final ranking after reading all of them last year (I’ve changed the ranking since my last review):

  1. Beloved
  2. Song of Solomon
  3. Paradise
  4. The Bluest Eye
  5. Jazz
  6. Sula
  7. A Mercy
  8. Home
  9. Love
  10. God Help the Child
  11. Tar Baby

Monday Miscellanea

I’ve been wanting to write a new blog post for a couple of weeks but could somehow not bring myself to actually do it. But it’s a new month and that has energized my – or maybe it’s because I finally tidied and cleaned my desk yesterday. I’d been to lazy to do it during my vacation when I had meant to have done it. That was dumb, because it only took an hour (including sorting a heap of paperwork) and I always work better with a clean desk. It wasn’t that terribly untidy, but it was enough to demotivate me. Note to self: tidy up your desk once a week or whenever it starts getting on your nerves again!

Since my last post, Mum, Curious Dog, and I have been to our place in Bavaria and now are back again. It was nice in Bavaria. When we arrived, a bit of old snow was left in shady patches (like in front of our garage), but the next days it started and kept snowing. Curious Dog and I had a lot of lovely walks in the snow. In some cases, we walked while the snow was falling. The downside was that I had to do a lot of snow shoveling, but I kind of like that too. At the end of our week, the weather turned, the temperature went up, and the snow turned to rain. All the snow melted on just one day, so that even our village brook, that only runs during very strong rainfall or snowmelt conditions was full of water for about 24 hours (then it ran dry again). I’m pretty sure that it hasn’t born water for two years, since we didn’t have enough rain in 2018 or 2019 and no snow (or only a dusting) in those winters. I hope all that water is soaking the ground and filling up the ground water reservoirs. Who knows how much rain we will get for the rest of the year? I’m not even feeling the need to complain about all the mud and CD going through one of his towels every day.

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We returned a day early from Bavaria, because the weather was uncertain, and Saturday seemed safer than Sunday (we wanted to avoid icy roads). We had a good trip. No lorries on the country roads and no traffic jams on the Autobahn. Quite windy (as it has been a few times in the last weeks), but not enough to be dangerous. It was lovely to have all Sunday to laze about but of course it meant having to finish up our house cleaning activities in Bavaria on Friday instead of Saturday. Partner and I watched the two new episodes on Amazon Prime of The Expanse. Very good – pity there’s only one more episode of the current series. We also watched two episodes of Star Trek: Lower Decks, also amusing.

My aunt who had a hip replacement before Christmas has now been moved to a rehab centre for seniors. Her husband was allowed to visit her once in all these weeks since the initial operation, and the follow-on operations she had to have because of the complication of a torn ligament. She’s been in rehab for a week, but they don’t seem to be doing anything yet. My uncle is trying to find out what’s going on, but it is so hard getting updates from the doctors by phone. It’s such a pain that nobody is allowed to visit because of Corona. I don’t know for how long my aunt will have to stay in rehab, but I’m sure it will be at least until the end of February.

Corona numbers are improving in Germany. The current lockdown is showing some positive results, but it seems that it will be necessary to keep it up for some time yet to combat the spread of the more infectious variants. Vaccination is going slowly. There are not enough vaccine doses. Mum had a letter from the Bavarian authorities about booking an appointment, but I haven’t had a chance to look into it yet. But it’s on my to-do list. She has to be vaccinated in Bavaria, I guess, because she still has her main residence there. I hope I can get an appointment for her soon, but our neighbours in Bavaria haven’t had much luck with getting appointments yet.

Work is picking up. There are going to be quite a few changes in how often we will be publishing updated and new documents and it will be a challenge to get that organized. We’ve got a team workshop planned in a couple of weeks to discuss the changes and come up with a reasonable plan of operations. I hope I won’t get saddled with projects that I’m not interested in. The best thing would be to get rid of some tasks that already bore me, but as all my team members have enough on their plates, I don’t suppose that will happen. Still, it’s quite exciting to have some changes in our jobs.

I’m currently making an Excel list of my Kindle e-books. I want to get an overview of all the ones I own, with better sorting capabilities than on the Amazon website. I started buying Kindle e-books in October 2009 (as soon as the first Kindle was available in Germany – now I use the Kindle app on my tablet). I started this project sometime last year, but then forgot all about it. As I’ve made a goal to read more of the books I already own but haven’t read yet, I want to include e-books as well. I’ve added all the Kindle e-books from 2009 until the end of 2012 to my list so far (that’s almost 100 already) and I’ve already seen some that I haven’t read. Quite a lot of non-fiction among the unread ones…

As I know that I’ve got tons of unread books, physical and electronic ones, I was wondering if I should stop buying books. However, a few days ago I watched a BookTube video on the channel SavidgeReads. They’ve got about 15 years’ worth of unread physical books (counting 120 books per year) and consider it an investment in their reading future. I think I’ll consider my unread books in that light as well. I’ll try to make inroads on them, but I won’t stop myself from buying new ones if I really feel like it. Maybe I’ll apply the rule that I’m allowed to get a new book for every two books I’ve read from my existing unread pile. Then slowly but surely the unread pile would shrink. Let’s see how that goes.

Keep safe, world.