Thoughts: The Snowden Files, by Luke Harding

Before you raise your eyebrows, I didn’t think I’d be writing this so soon! The ebook I was reading on my Kindle said I was 59% through, and then I turned the page and it was immediately 100% and I was at the acknowledgements! My Kindle is a few years old by now (and well-used) so maybe it’s just getting a bit elderly? Maybe there’s a weird issue with the ebook? Or maybe some government doesn’t want us to read something??? I have no idea!

Let me be honest, I’m a little wary of the non-fiction books that inspire Sneak films, as a lot of them seem to be hobby projects or a bit mediocrely written (or terribly written) and you know, the world seems pretty terrible right now so I wasn’t really in the mood for depressing non-fiction about how everything we do is pointless and nothing helps.

My goodness, was this a book about how everything is terrible in ways that we didn’t even know it was terrible. But I was totally hooked all the way through!

Cut for length, obviously we are not being spoilered for the largest news and cultural event of 2013.

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Thoughts: Die Analphabetin Die Rechnen Konnte, by Jonas Jonasson and translated by Wibke Kuhn

You might think I’ve been reading faster than the human eye can possibly read, but actually this one has been in the works for months – we’ve been reading it bit by bit during and between German classes, and we have finally prevailed!

One day I will read a German book that hasn’t been translated from another language. But not any time soon – next on the German class list is Jonas Jonasson’s first book, Der Hundertjährige, der aus dem Fenster stieg und verschwand. You might know it better as The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.

You might know this book as The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden. (The German title translates to “The Illiterate [Girl] Who Could Calculate”, or maybe a snappier way to say it would be “The Illiterate Who Was Numerate”? I digress.) Will try not to be too spoilery.

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Thoughts: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T. S. Eliot

This isn’t going to be long or deep, but hey, I read it, so why not?

After seeing the amazing Cats film over Christmas, we wandered into a secondhand bookshop in Manchester, where by serendipity was waiting for us a copy of the very poems that were responsible for what we had just seen! So we bought it. And then we watched the recording of the Cats stage show that was on Youtube for a weekend as a lockdown morale booster. So I finally read it!

They are pretty much just poems about cats! They’re quite silly superficially but make use of various clever rhyming schemes and rhythm patterns and clearly an affectionate familiarity with cats, and contain a lot of period detail – they were written to entertain Eliot’s nieces and are thus intended to be relatable, and yes, I do feel ridiculous talking like this about a book of cat poems.

The biggest surprise was I think just how much the Cats musical (and therefore film) is just literally a book of poems set to music and beautiful choreography. I especially wonder what it’s like to read the poems before having heard the songs, especially, because my inner voice kept on reverting to song as I read. And I think the music enhances the poems! Try to read The Rum Tum Tugger or The Old Gumbie Cat without the music. I mean… can you?

In a way it makes me admire Andrew Lloyd Webber more, imagining him reading these poems and thinking “Yes, I shall make the most successful musical in the world,” and… making that happen. I read an article about the film which posited that Eliot may have been happy with the batshittery of the film he’d inspired, and I hope that’s the case. (If you are interested in the history of Cats please watch this video, no I don’t care that it’s long, you have the time now.)

Coming fresh from the Tarzans the little mentions of “heathen Chinese” and foreign dogs/cats did raise those little red flags for me. I know it’s meant to be fun and a clever little riff on Pekingese dogs and Siamese cats but I’m not sure I can be like “oh, well, racism is OK as long as it’s fun racism for children based on the British Empire” so. Uh. Yeah.

Conclusion: The Naming of Cats is a top-tier poem and better than we all deserve.

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Thoughts: Tarzan the Terrible, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The last Tarzan (in the anthology on my Kindle)! Yes! I have survived!

And you know what? This was probably the one I got along the most with. Skimming Goodreads reviews, people have wildly differing opinions of all the Tarzans, which I find pretty interesting. Usually in a series you have books that everyone agrees are great, books that everyone agrees are the weakest, etc, but Tarzan is totally a mixed bag, it seems.

Spoilers and general ramble below the cut.

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Thoughts: This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

Truly, this is the briefest palate-cleanser between Tarzans.

Partly because this book is a novella, but also because it’s of that kind of particularly swallowable book. Lately I feel like I talk about swallowing books whole or inhaling them a lot, and I’m annoyed I’ve diluted the language so much because I really did with this one. Curse, you, past!Danni, you didn’t know what was in store.

Probably not hugely spoilery (and probably not long) but still, I recommend reading this one before looking at reviews of it.

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Thoughts: Tarzan the Untamed, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

There are so many Tarzans. Say what you want about Burroughs – and I do – but the man was prolific.

Tarzan the Untamed is back in the normal Tarzan chronology, so we meet him as an adult ape-man with one foot in civilisation, married to Jane, his son off married to surprise!royalty, getting on with his life. Sort of. Because now World War 1 is going on.

Cut for length and spoilers as always.

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Thoughts: Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers

It feels like I’m absolutely racing through books lately, so here I am again lest I overtake myself in reading and give myself a backlog again. There are some cracking books I ended up just skipping over to get back up to date (Hunters and Collectors by Matt Suddain [Amazon owned site for those who care] is HIGHLY recommended) and I’d rather not do that again.

I worry sometimes that one day I’ll just have nothing to say about a book, and then I don’t know what I’ll do – pretend nothing happened? Leave an apologetic placeholder? In the end, I still don’t know, because Chambers always gives me plenty to think about.

Spoilers below. I’m not joking, like, major ones.

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Thoughts: Jungle Tales of Tarzan, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I have no idea how there can be so many Tarzan books in this one anthology.

Could be worse. I once read 15 Oz books in a row because I found them for free when I was looking for The Wizard of Oz and I thought hey, why not? If I never go back to Oz again it will be too soon.

Jungle Tales of Tarzan is a series of 12 short stories set during Tarzan’s youth among the ape people, and they’re mostly a lot of what we’ve seen in previous Tarzans, though The Race Thing is turned back up to 11, as this is before Tarzan learns civilisation. So, you know, there’s that.

I don’t often do this, but I had a skim through the Goodreads reviews for this book once I was finished, just to see if I was the only person who this bothered. And for the most part, yeah. Most readers didn’t mention it at all, a few mentioned it in passing as something you have to put up with because of the era it was written in. Which fine, you do you, if you can shut it out and enjoy a good adventure yarn, who am I to stop you. But I can’t do it, and I can’t apologise for not being able to do it. There was one or two reviews near the top that shared my opinion, and it was a huge relief to see that it wasn’t just me.

Because my god.

Here’s the featured quote on Goodreads, with three likes, to show you how all the racism is just inextricably tangled up in every single other goddamn aspect of this book. I feel a little bit dirty even reproducing this quote.

“[The little black boy] had seen Tarzan bring down a buck, just as Numa, the lion, might have done… Tibo had shuddered at the sight, but he had thrilled, too, and for the first time there entered his dull, Negroid mind a vague desire to emulate his savage* foster parent. But Tibo, the little black boy, lacked the divine spark which had permitted Tarzan, the white boy, to benefit by his training in the ways of the fierce jungle. In imagination he was wanting, and imagination is but another name for super-intelligence.

Imagination it is which builds bridges, and cities, and empires. The beasts know it not, the blacks only a little, while to one in a hundred thousand of earth’s dominant race it is given as a gift from heaven that man may not perish from the earth.”

– Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs

I found it impossible to ignore, because every single time a black character (“character” is often a strong word) is shown, Burroughs cannot help himself, he just has to get in some “witty” little remark. Whether someone is handsome “for a black”, or a black woman’s cultural fashions/adornments/body modifications/whatever are set up for this “in short, she was beautiful – TO HER OWN PEOPLE TROLOLOL” punchline which is uncomfortable and weird (and the exact same punchline we got from the introduction of Teeka, Tarzan’s first apewoman love in the first story). It’s pretty much always superfluous, unnecessary remarks that jar you out of the story.

The only way I can explain the tone of this humour – and you might well roll your eyes at this – is that it’s the kind of jaunty, patronising amiability you can imagine in Boris Johnson’s voice. The jokes about the charlatanry of the witch doctors and medicine men and their strong/weak medicine were in exactly the sort of tone you’d expect BoJo to use when parroting it in a hideously inappropriate place.

The stories themselves kind of varied in quality – some of them followed sort of cod-folktale structure, in which Tarzan learns some moral lesson about how there’s no love interest for him in the jungle, or he discovers god, or the apes mythologise about lunar eclipses. Some of them followed on directly from each other, and you could sort of see Burroughs building up his mythos as he went, which was quite interesting. Most of the problems could be (and were) solved by killing something in the end, though.

But really there’s no getting over the racism, for me. If that makes me a PC bleeding heart killjoy then I accept my sentence happily. People can go on about how Burroughs is the greatest and most influential adventure novelist in the world all they want – I found the action, especially in this book, where the stories were so short and the plots so much less convoluted than the novels, pretty one-note.

Also I still have no idea how Tarzan is supposed to have taught himself to read. My infertile woman-brain cannot make sense of it, however hard it tries.

*Interesting to see “savage” applied to Tarzan, right? Shame about the rest of it!

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Thoughts: Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, by Gaston Leroux

I didn’t want to drop my habit of reading French, so I bumped this little gem about five years up my TBR, and it didn’t disappoint!

Confession: My knowledge of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is not as thorough as many people’s, so there won’t be much of that sweet, sweet comparison. Sorry!

There will be spoilers but honestly I don’t know how many people don’t know the broad details of this story, so you may not be that bothered. I’ll stick the rest under a cut for length anyway.

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Thoughts: A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Lucky me ended up going into work for a thing that could only be done in the office, and to make up for this outrage, with me went the colleague who had lent me The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet previously, with the second two books and a bonus novella for my delectation. I like to bump borrowed books to the top of the list, knowing how horribly long my list is at any given time, so I dove right into this one.

Spoilers I guess? Though there’s not much a “stuff happens” kind of plot, to be honest.

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