Books Read in July, 2021
The Answer Is...: Reflections on My Life by Alex Trebek
May, 2021 Reader's Digest
Blueheart by Alison Sinclair (r)
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
June, 2021 Locus
June, 2021 Reader's Digest
Adventures of a Dwergish Girl by Daniel Pinkwater
And that was my reading for July, 2021. This was a very poor month of reading for me, simply because of the fact that I spent much of July pretty ill and part of that was having a dizzy, woozy, head and a good deal of headaches that prevented me from reading, watching tv, using the computer, and a few other things. In any event, it significantly impacted the amount of reading I did in July, though the quality of the books I read was pretty good. That said, it was another month of reading for the joy of it, rather than reading because I was bored and had nothing better to do. Made for a good change, again. Regardless, my bookcases are stacked with a pretty large To Read Queue (TRQ) still. The books I enjoyed the most were:
The Answer Is...: Reflections on My Life by Alex Trebek
Longtime Jeopardy! host and television icon Alex Trebek reflects on his life and career. Since debuting as the host of Jeopardy! in 1984, Alex Trebek has been something like a family member to millions of television viewers, bringing entertainment and education into their homes five nights a week. Last year, he made the stunning announcement that he had been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. What followed was an incredible outpouring of love and kindness. Social media was flooded with messages of support, and the Jeopardy! studio received boxes of cards and letters offering guidance, encouragement, and prayers. For over three decades, Trebek had resisted countless appeals to write a book about his life. Yet he was moved so much by all the goodwill, he felt compelled to finally share his story. "I want people to know a little more about the person they have been cheering on for the past year," he writes in The Answer Is...: Reflections on My Life. The book combines illuminating personal anecdotes with Trebek's thoughts on a range of topics, including marriage, parenthood, education, success, spirituality, and philanthropy. Trebek also addresses the questions he gets asked most often by Jeopardy! fans, such as what prompted him to shave his signature moustache, his insights on legendary players like Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer, and his opinion of Will Ferrell's Saturday Night Live impersonation. This wise, charming, and inspiring book is further evidence why Trebek has long been considered one of the most beloved and respected figures in entertainment. In many ways, I was kind of surprised by this book. The Answer Is... is not an autobiography, per sé, so much as it is a memoir from long-time Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. If the reader is looking for a standard, paint-by-numbers memoir that is linear in style, you may be disappointed, but what you get here is a better experience in so many ways. The book uses a novel structure inspired by Jeopardy! itself, with each chapter title in the form of a question, and features dozens of never-before-seen photos that candidly capture Trebek over the years. Alex Trebek muses on the highlights of his life. From growing up the son of Ukrainian immigrants in Sudbury, Ontario to how his early days in radio led to the natural transition to television host. It's fascinating how easily Trebek would bounce from variety show host to afternoon chat show host to game show host, but not surprising, given the mindset and philosophy of the man. Sure, he had his nervous episodes and doubts about his abilities, but he was able to excel quite handily at most tasks he was given, and where he didn't succeed, he is quite candid about matters and the reasons for his lack of success. This has a great deal to do with his positive attitude and his refusal to quit when confronted with adversity (aside from his brief tenure in military school), notably the pancreatic cancer that led to his demise shortly around the time of the release of the book. There are lots of anecdotes in the book that had me laughing; from meeting the Queen, to his hilarious Q&As with the Jeopardy! studio audiences, Mr. Trebek has a great sense of humor and humility about himself. He even touches on Will Ferrell's infamous impersonation, which Alex Trebek said flattered him. That said, he notes that Eugene Levy did the best impression of him during his time on SCTV when they lampooned the CBC quiz show, Reach for the Top. As mentioned, Trebek breaks things down into small vignettes, titling them with some of the catchphrases used on Jeopardy, which makes The Answer Is... a highly digestible and easy to devour book. I finished reading this book in just over 2 days. Alex Trebek has much to say and does so with ease, even if he won't expand on all the details. As expected, much of the book focuses on his (life)time with Jeopardy!. He discusses the crafting of the show, how contestants are vetted, what sorts of categories have been presented over the years. One of the things I wasn't aware of was that the cap on consecutive show appearances only ended in 2003. Previously, contestants could only win 5 shows before they had to retire. This worked out really well, as Ken Jennings would appear shortly after the rule was abolished. Mr. Trebek is keen to also share some of his own personal anecdotes about some of the more notable contestants. He was once known as having quite the potty mouth in Hollywood (and he explains the reasons for his having been so), is down to earth and loves his family so very much, as becomes apparent with each passing story. The book takes a turn for the serious as Mr. Trebek gets deep into his cancer diagnosis – something he was still battling while writing this book. He is very candid and open about how the fight has changed his life and has left him tired and drained on a daily basis. It's a highly sobering look at the effort it takes to step into the ring with such an aggressive form of cancer. That said, Mr. Trebek isn't looking for sympathy here, but he said he's received a lot of positive comments from people saying he's made them feel less alone in their own battle with the disease. If the book had any real weakness for me, it was when Mr. Trebek talks political stuff. Or doesn't do so, as the case may be. While he stays neutral in his assessment of problems on both sides of the political spectrum in the United States, it just felt sort of out of place to me, and perhaps a bit shoe-horned in. It was almost non-opinion to me. That said, this book is a terrific, well-paced read, and sheds a lot of light on a variety of subjects and about Alex Trebek's life. When it comes down to it, the real thing is this. Answer: Alex Trebek. Question: Who is a man with a legacy that will surely outlive him and all his accomplishments? Alex Trebek made (Canada) and the world proud with his many accomplishments and charitable work, and this book is a fitting cap to his life and his career. Even if the reader isn't a fan of Jeopardy!, I highly recommend this book.
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
In 1810, a sister and brother uncover the fossilized skull of an unknown animal in the cliffs on the south coast of England. With its long snout and prominent teeth, it might be a crocodile – except that it has a huge, bulbous eye. This is the story of Mary Anning, who has a talent for finding fossils, and whose discovery of ancient marine reptiles such as that ichthyosaur shakes the scientific community and leads to new ways of thinking about the creation of the world. Working in an arena dominated by middle-class men, however, Mary finds herself out of step with her working-class background. In danger of being an outcast in her community, she takes solace in an unlikely friendship with Elizabeth Philpot, a prickly London spinster with her own passion for fossils. The strong bond between Mary and Elizabeth sees them through struggles with poverty, rivalry and ostracism, as well as the physical dangers of their chosen obsession. It reminds us that friendship can outlast storms and landslides, anger and jealousy. In this book, author Tracy Chevalier re-imagines the lives of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, two of the truly significant women in the world of science in the first half of the 19th Century. Specifically, what would become palaeontology... sort of. Both were fascinated by fossils of sea and land and sea/land creatures they collected up and down the cliffs and beaches around Lyme Regis, a small town on England's southern shore, and a centre for amateurs to find and for scientists to buy fossils from the locals. In a tale with an easygoing and fluid sense of the language, author Chevalier created two believable voices as they describe their lives, their friendship, and the struggle to be recognized for their knowledge. The twenty years younger Mary had "the eye" for discovering fossils, often hidden in nodules, under rocks, or emerging from landslips common in the region. Born into a very poor family, selling fossils as "curies" (curiosities) was a financial necessity for survival; her amateur fossil-hunting father taught his young daughter the skill of finding, identifying, cleaning the "curies," and presenting them for sale. At the age of eleven or twelve, Mary came to the attention of the "gentlemen scientists" when (most likely with her brother, Joe) she literally "unearthed" an almost complete dinosaur skeletons: an ichthyosaurus. It was the first of an impressive number of such extraordinary discoveries that Mary made over the years, leading, eventually, to her becoming quite famous, and with more and more scientists seeking her out for assistance and advice. Nonetheless, poverty remained a constant threat for most of her life. However, inter-leafed with Mary's first person account of her younger life, are chapters that give Elizabeth Philpot a direct voice. An educated middle-class woman, she experienced her own kind of limitations in taking charge of her life: she didn't have the money, societal standing, or the looks to attract a husband, the first and foremost goal for a woman in Victorian England. Seeing the society through two different perspectives enables author Chevalier to take a broader and deeper look into the society at the time, and the limitations that women were facing. While depicting the two women as close friends in some ways, driven by their fascination with fossils, but also prone to jealousy and suspicion, the author is able to stress their differences in class and education and, related to those, opportunities nonetheless. For example, it is Elizabeth who travels to London (a several-day expedition by ship) to defend Mary's reputation after her find of a plesiosaurus is deemed a fake by the famous French geologist, Baron Cuvier. She does it without sharing her intentions or the results of her visit with Mary. Here, and in other instances, Elizabeth shows herself not only protective of her younger friend but also patronizing, judging Mary too uneducated and naive to be able to follow the emerging arguments on the new scientific evidence that could challenges the long-held general view of life on earth. How could the fossil finds of creatures never seen before be brought in line with God creating the earth in six days? Or, what were His intentions when allowing creatures to become extinct long ago? While Chevalier does not delve deeply into these evolving controversies among different groups of scientists and religious figures, the implied philosophical and moral questions are often present, directly or indirectly. The novel ends at a crucial moment in the friendship between Mary and Elizabeth and the later developments in their lives are briefly outlined in a Postscript. Like any historical fiction story that relies on the re-imagination of a little known individual, the author's novel works with a creative balance between facts and artistic license to fill gaps in the historical records and/or to add colour, depth and dramatic drive to the story. On the other hand, Chevalier, intent on highlighting certain traits or developments in her primary characters, leaves out information that would reflect the real-life person more closely, yet skew the fictional character she has created. When it comes down to it, Remarkable Creatures is not my first acquaintance with Mary Anning and her life and times in literature. Since Anning's 200th birthday in 1999, there has been a renewed interest in her work and the role her discoveries played in the emergence of the new discipline of palaeontology and the growing debate on evolution of life. Among other material, another novel that was published around the same time as Chevalier's novel, Canadian author Joan Thomas's Curiosity, also re-imagines Mary Anning's life, but paints a somewhat different portrait (closer to the historical personality). Thomas's characterization of Mary suggests a stronger personality as she matured, and one who was a shrewd business woman. I leave it to potential readers to decide which portrayal of Mary Anning they prefer, but one can also read a recent biography by Shelley Emling, The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World, that will shed more light on the "real" Mary Anning. Either way, I highly recommend this book by Tracy Chevalier, despite any quibbles one might have with her depiction of Mary Anning.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrrow
In a sprawling mansion filled with peculiar treasures, January Scaller is a curiosity herself. As the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, she feels little different from the artefacts that decorate the halls: carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place. But her quiet existence is shattered when she stumbles across a strange book. A book that carries the scent of other worlds and tells a tale of secret doors, of love, adventure and danger. Each page turn reveals impossible truths about the world, and January discovers a story increasingly entwined with her own. This book is perfect for those readers who have always felt there was/is magic in the world ever since childhood, despite the voices to the contrary, and have a penchant for the whimsical. And even if that doesn't describe the reader, this book is a brilliant novel that will appeal to the storytellers and to those who wish they could tell stories as well. This is a story of doors, portals if you will, that exist in places of particular resonance, that allows one to step into the void and through it, into fables, folklore, adventure, love, sanctuary, and the infinite power of words and stories. It's also an absorbing tale of lost love, stately prisons, ghastly villains, and terrible secrets. I'm not going to spoil this novel for anyone, as it really is such a brilliant and beautiful novel, but I will say that author Alix E. Harrow has created a mythology that is both tangible and tantalizing, and has injected that vision into turn of the 20th Century America in this, her first novel. The historical details greatly enrich and never distract from a narrative that spans generations, continents, and worlds. It is an ambitious, very expansive story that never loses its focus and its sense of intimacy. The characterisation in the book is stellar, with January facing life-altering challenges, and her poignant battles to fight the ingrained responses instilled in her from childhood. I also really liked Jane, the Amazonian woman who comes into her life, Samuel, the most mundane and down-to-earth of characters who serves a very nice purpose in the story, and January's cat, (Sin)Bad, who is both loyal to her and comes across as a character in his own right. I think what impressed me the most about The Ten Thousand Doors of January is the book's inventive narrative structure, which incorporates texts within the text, and weaves them together in both compelling and surprising ways. It is a wonderful, lyrical, insightful and imaginative book that will appeal to fans of deft prose, historical settings, portal fantasies, and coming-of-age stories. I highly recommend this book.
Adventures of a Dwergish Girl by Daniel Pinkwater
Molly O'Malley is a clever, adventurous girl. She is also a Dwerg. Dwergs are strange folks who live very quietly in the Catskill Mountains, have lots of gold, and are kind of like dwarves (but also not!). Molly isn't interested in cooking and weaving, as Dwergish girls are expected to be. So she sets off to see the world for herself. Which means a new job, a trip to New York City, prowling gangsters, an adorable king, a city witch, and many historical ghosts. More importantly, it means excellent pizza, new friends, and very quick thinking. Someone is looking for the Dwergs and their gold. Can Molly O'Malley save the day? I've never read any of Daniel Pinkwater's books before, but this is a lovely, charming young adult book that may or may not be connected to some of his other works. For the most part, this is the story of a girl who doesn't feel at home in her secret community. They have been lost to the fables of the city near and around them. The isolation means that when our protagonist leaves her family to join the outside world, she finds everything strange. This strangeness is presented to the reader in a matter-of-fact manner that works really well, and works to provide much of the humour to be found in the book. The elements of the story - pizza, papaya juice, aliens, ghosts, a witch, and other unusual people - are an interesting mix, and while one might not expect them to work well together combine to form a plot that is highly entertaining and rather lovely to read. Yes, the book targets a younger audience, and while I found the prose awkward for my adult mind at times, I found it to be a quick, fun read, that had our protagonist face her share of perils, but offered an ingenious solution to the central conflict of the story. The ending of the story seems to indicate that it could be the start of a series, but there's no guarantee of this in my mind. If I have any complaint about this book it's that the interior illustrations by Aaron Renier just aren't a match for and can't keep up with the same artist's book cover. But that's a minor quibble. That said, the interior illustrations are quite charming in their own way. This a lovely book, an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it for a younger audience, but adults will stay enjoy this book quite a bit. Recommended.
Overall, I managed to read 5 novels, 0 RPG and RPG products, 3 magazines, 0 comics, and 0 graphic novels in July. This brings the year total in 2021 to a set of numbers that look like this: 42 books, 13 RPGs and RPG products, 11 magazines, 37 comics, and 0 graphic novels.
Anyway, thoughts and comments are always welcome. :)