2016 – Reading

Forest of My Father – Galang Ayu, translated from the Penan by Ian Mackenzie  (pre-publication).  This is Volume II of Galang’s memoir.  As with Vol I, Ian let me be a First Reader, which as before i found wonderfully entertaining.  And of course very, very saddening since it documents the end of the nomadic culture in Sarawak.  Volume II focuses on Galang’s schooling, which was a pitiful travesty that i found just infuriating in its ineptitude.


Vulcan’s Hammer – Philip K. Dick (1960)  Finding a stack of remaindered PKD paperbacks was like finding a box of my favorite candy bars.  Have to ration them out between more nutritionally balanced fare, but they sure are tasty.  This one’s about Vulcan 3, the computer that took over the world from its former masters.  Entirely too plausible.


The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 3 – Benjamin Griffin, et al. eds. (2015).  The final volume in the Bancroft Library’s magnificent edition of the complete work, and it’s every bit as enjoyable as the first two volumes with delicious bits of sly wit every page or so.  And OK, some longeurs when he’s going on about the clever sayings of his daughter.


The Simulacra – Philip K. Dick (1964)  It just struck me that perhaps the reason i enjoy reading Dick so much is that, to the best of my knowledge, he wrote little but dystopian fiction.  This one’s set in the late 21st century and is a blast.  Dick was prescient in many ways, so it’s always interesting to run across the things he failed to anticipate, like the reunification of Germany.  However, it’s packed with delicious flights of imagination like the confessionator, a fully electronic advance on the lie detector that aids sky pilots in extracting full confessions.


On the Move – Oliver Sacks (2015)  Sacks has been on my To Read list for decades.  I continued to read reviews of his latest books and added them, not that i’ve ever got around to any of them.  But now i can say i’ve read Sacks … his fascinating autobiography.  Among the bonuses was his discussion of his friendship with Thom Gunn, and i can corroborate the absolute accuracy of his description of Thom’s living situation as well as that of Thom’s personality.


Lies, Inc. – Philip K. Dick (1964) What i love most about Dick is that his paranoia makes mine feel so plain vanilla normal.  Lies, Inc. is Learning Instructional Educational Systems, and it’s a combination of our NSA surveillance with the FBI’s propaganda arm, all the better to keep the citizenry docile.  Which is less and less easy since overpopulation has burgeoned and the earth is packed.  Fortunately, a couple of scientific breakthroughs happened almost simultaneously.  First, the discovery of an inhabitable, earth-like planet orbiting a distant sun and second, the invention of a teleportation system that would convey men and materiel there in a matter of minutes.  Only problem was that the teleportation was one-way, but as conditions on earth worsened and as word spread that Fomalhaut IV was an utter paradise with green fields, blue skies, and harmless, delicious herbivores, there was no shortage of would-be colonists.

And then a few troublemakers began to have questions about the precise nature of the paradise…and the relationship between the teleportation company and Lies, Inc.   Yep, another of Dick’s weird mind trips.


Selected Stories – William Trevor (2010). Trevor is one of our great short story writers, and i’d not read him until now.  The vast majority of the stories are set on Irish farms or in small towns there, but the life situations described are universal.  A good read.


Now Wait For Next Year – Philip K. Dick (1966).  Oh my goodness.  With the possible exception of Doctor Bloodmoney, i do not recall enjoying a Dick novel as much as this one although i’ve probably read only a quarter of them.  But if you were going to try reading Dick, this novel would be a good place to start.  A dystopian future with a little drug-induced time travel thrown in.


The Book of Aron – Jim Shepard (2015).  Shepard is one of my favorite young contemporary American authors, and his new novel is up to standard even though i’d previously thought of him as a specialist in the comic.  Little comedy here except the very blackest.  Set during the German occupation of Warsaw, it’s narrated by a Jewish boy who vividly describes the sheer horror, starting with the bombing of the city and the increasingly brutal treatment of its Jews.  And then he gets lucky and is taken into Dr. Janusz Korczak’s orphanage, and we get to watch as conditions in Warsaw and the orphanage get worse and worse until the kids are removed from the orphanage.  Whew.

Shepard did a lot of research for this novel, and Korczak and his orphanage actually existed, which you learn at the end.  And, yes, it’s a matter of historical record that Korczak refused multiple offers for amnesty for himself but rather chose to lead onto the train to Treblinka a procession of some 200 children, his last rescue offer coming at the train itself, as depicted in this book.  A really hideous novel, and a fine one although i’d just as soon Shepard went back to comedy.


The Divine Invasion – Philip K. Dick (1981).  God is not dead, he’s just on a planet circling a distant sun and then returns to Earth.  Hint:  he’s anticipating a battle.  This is by far the most philosophical/theological of Dick’s novels i’ve read and is also a fine adventure novel.  Dick at his best.


Nemesis – Chalmers Johnson (2006).  Johnson makes a compelling case that our choice is to give up democracy in a futile attempt to preserve the empire like the Romans or to give up the empire to preserve democracy like the British.  And that it’s pretty clear to him that we are taking the Roman path.  When i look at what’s happened in the ten years since he published this book, i think he’s being proved right.


The Transmigration of Timothy Archer – Philip K. Dick (1982).  This was nearly Dick’s last novel, and it’s quite different from the others i’ve read.  Far more philosophical, theological, and much more literary.  Timothy Archer is the Episcopal Bishop of San Francisco, and his character is based solidly on the life of Bishop James Pike right down to the precise details of his death.  But of course this is fiction narrated by Archer’s daughter-in-law about her relationship with her husband, Archer’s mistress, and the mistress’ son from a previous relationship.  I quite liked this novel, but have to warn that it’s not the usual Dick fare.


The Thicket – Joe R. Lansdale (2013).  Nothing like a hideously violent adventure tale/Bildungsroman leavened with a little East Texas black humor.  Lansdale and i were born in East Texas only  a few years and a few miles apart, and he sets this novel in the Big Thicket during the second decade of the 20th century just after oil was discovered, a time when law and order, even by Texas standards, was only beginning to be established.  Lansdale bills this as a historical novel, and i thought i’d caught him in an anachronism when he had a kid drinking a Dr Pepper, but actually, it had been invented in Waco in 1845 and was distributed all over Texas by 1904.  The book was entertaining enough that i’m gonna try one of his Hap and Leonard novels set in the 1980’s and featuring an unlikely duo of crime solvers:  a nonviolent white guy who was jailed for dodging the draft and his friend, a gay black Vietnam veteran with serious anger issues.  A series of television movies is currently in a run, not that i’ll see it.


The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson (2012).  I just adored Johnson’s Emporium, a collection of superb short stories displaying his mastery of the surreal as in “Teen Sniper” about a fifteen-year-old police sniper in Palo Alto (click on that link to read the first few pages), but i was rather disappointed by his first novel, Parasites Like Us, so i put off reading this second novel.  Shouldn’t have.   Life in North Korea under Kim Jong Il, a fine mixture of the hideous and the boffo.  “No nation sleeps as North Korea sleeps.  After lights-out, there is a collective exhale as heads hit pillows….no lights glare on alone…there’s just eye-closing satisfaction and then deep, powerful dreams of work quotas fulfilled and the embrace of reunification.  The American citizen, however, is wide awake….Americans stay up late, engaging in television, homosexuality, and even religion, anything to fill their selfish appetites.”


The Code Book – Simon Singh (1999).  I bought this book when it was first published and somehow didn’t get around to it until now.  It got off to a rather slow start for me since the first couple of chapters are devoted to background for neophytes. And i was rather frightened by the table of Morse code on p. 62 that listed incorrect code for both the letter D and the number 4.  Fortunately for my confidence in him, that was the last error i spotted.

Plusses are that his analysis of the nature of Turing’s contribution to the decryption of the Enigma cipher was clearer than any i’d read before and that his discussions of post-Enigma ciphers were also lucid and detailed.  There’s an excellent chapter on the decryption of Egyptian hieroglyphics and Linear B that i found fascinating.  This was followed by a fine explanation of the development of public key cryptography and  a beautiful explanation of the war between government agencies who wish to keep cryptography out of the hands of the public and civil liberties advocates, and the public and businesses that both want cryptography.  He ends with a chapter on quantum cryptography that i have to admit was over my head.

The bottom line is that this book is an eloquent argument for our use of some form of public key encryption for our email.  Now all i have to do is get off my lazy butt and download PGP or something like it before they are banned by Big Sister Feinstein.


Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell (1938)  Shoulda read this decades ago, as it’s Orwell at his finest.  A marvelous analysis of the Spanish civil war from the standpoint of a combatant, so it’s good war reporting, but also it’s a superb analysis of the political machinations going on behind the war, most particularly a depiction of how the Communist forces actively worked against the worker’s revolution centered in Barcelona.  The Roman Catholic Church, as usual, sided with the fascists.


The Tunnel of Love – Peter DeVries (1954).  I got about halfway through this and gave up.  I really enjoyed DeVries’ comic novels when i discovered him in the sixties, but either this one is a rare failure or i’ve lost my taste for him.  Hard to imagine, though, considering how much i liked Let Me Count the Ways and The Tents of Wickedness.


Eruption – Steve Olson (2016).  I’ve been fascinated by the Mt. St. Helens eruption since it happened and have written about the heroism of the photographer Robert Landsberg, so i was especially delighted by this book’s comprehensive analysis of the eruption and of the people involved, all those killed as well as the lucky survivors who nearly died.  This is a superb combination of descriptive narrative and exhaustive background reportage covering the geology, the logging industry, and the environmentalists.  My only disappointment was that the only mention of Landsberg was his inclusion in the list of those killed.


Federer and Me – William Skidelsky (2016).  An entertaining analysis of Federer’s career and the author’s obsession with Federer, an obsession i can sure understand since Roger’s been my favorite tennis player for a number of years.


The Egyptologist – Arthur Phillips (2004).  Comic dramatic irony told mostly by a madman con artist egyptologist.   Entertaining enough that i enjoyed it to the end.


The Great Bay – Dale Pendell (2010)  In 2022-2023 an epidemic swept the planet, killing nearly 99% of the population and setting off a gradual collapse of civilization over the following centuries.  The process is described by vivid tales of daily life set in the first few years, then decades apart, then centuries, then millennia, with a final vignette set ten millennia in the future.    Wow.  Icing on the cake is that it’s set largely in California, but one that’s profoundly transformed by the impacts of climate change, the “Great Bay” of the title being what is now the Central Valley.


Imperial Hubris: Why We Are Losing the War on Terror – Anonymous (2004).  Actually, almost immediately after publication, “Anonymous” was outed.  He’s Michael Scheurer, a 22-year CIA veteran whose previous book was a scholarly and acclaimed history of al Qaeda.  I bought this thing when it first came out after reading reviews and excerpts, but then somehow it got tucked back.  I opened it with some trepidation since exposes tend to be so topical that they don’t retain readability very well, but his central thesis remains so true, and so relevant, that the book is still worth reading because in the eight years since it was published, not a damn thing has changed. Not only are we still in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re now also in Yemen and in various countries on the Arabian peninsula and the African continent.

What he thoroughly demonstrates in 265 pages (substantiated by dozens more pages of footnotes) is that the Muslims do not attack us because of our secularism or our democratic system of government but rather because of our meddling in their society and our recent invasions of them.  Period.

His concluding chapter is stunning, a cold-blooded assessment of our current situation regarding Islam.   We must get out and leave them to their own tender mercies.


The Ancient Minstrel – Jim Harrison (2016) The master of the novella strikes again with three good ones.  Fine prose and the ability to find rich humor in bad situations.  That said, i’d be happiest if he’d keep writing more novellas about Brown Dog for the rest of my life.


Barkskins – Annie Proulx (2016).  Actually, i got to read a pre-publication copy, so now i have the rare pleasure of reading the reviews after reading the book.

This is her fifth novel, and it makes me want to read her first since i’ve read the previous three with great enjoyment.  This one traces over 300 years the lives of two French immigrants to New France and their descendants.   Very different trajectories since one married an Indian woman, and her descendants all remained in the Indian tradition.  The other became an entrepreneur who founded a timber dynasty that clearcut its way across the North American continent and took a swath out of New Zealand.

A horrifying juxtaposition of the two systems of values and of course a savage indictment of the environmental despoliation to which the civilized world has subjected the planet.

And it’s also a long (700+ pages) and complex novel with dozens of characters.  Hell, there are dozens of members of the two families alone not to mention a host of their associates.  Probably a good idea to wait to start this one until you have a block of free time ahead of you so you can keep it straight long enough to finish it.

But it’s well worth it.


Our Young Man – Edmund White (2016)  I’m a sucker for White’s gay novels and enjoyed this new one even though it’s not up to his previous standard.  Read the others.


The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015)   One of the finer novels i’ve read in a while, it traces the life of a captain in the Vietnamese army who is actually a communist sympathizer feeding information to the Viet Cong.

Through his connections with the Americans, he is evacuated to this country shortly before the fall of Saigon, and he continues to work as an undercover agent.  He ends up back in Vietnam in a re-education camp, where he is forced to write a confession, which is the first 307 pages of the novel.

And then it gets complicated.

This novel is a scrupulously fair examination of man’s inhumanity.  All the major characters are gravely flawed, as are all the countries involved.  As one character puts it, in reference to the Vietnamese revolutionaries supposedly fighting to bring peace and freedom to their people but then installing a regime that offered even less freedom than they had before, “We don’t need the French and the Americans to fuck us, we can do it just fine ourselves.”

This thing won a Pulitzer Prize.  It should have won two.


The Songlines – Bruce Chatwin (1987)  It was only a few years ago that Chatwin first appeared on my radar, and then in rapid succession i kept running into praise of his work from a variety of sources, most of which mentioned at least in passing some of the juicier tidbits from his colorful life as an extraordinarily handsome and voracious bisexual who died of AIDS in 1989 as deeply in the closet as Rock Hudson.  Umm yes, that.

His literary output showed no evidence of his sexuality, though, and merely radiated “the imprint of a dazzlingly original mind”.

Songlines examines the Aborigines in Australia’s Outback and through them, nomadic societies throughout history.  That sounds terribly dry, but Chatwin’s account of his stay in the Outback is anything but, full of vivid characters and entertaining adventures.

Loved it and will read more of his work.


Comanche Moon – Larry McMurtry (1997).  This is the second novel in McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove tetralogy and is set in the 1850’s and 60’s.  I bought it in ’97 and somehow didn’t get around to reading it until now even though i’d loved Lonesome Dove, the third novel in the series.  Reading this thing brought back to me the great enjoyment i’d got out of Lonesome Dove, and this one may be almost as good.  McMurtry is a fine prose stylist, and i’ve much enjoyed other works, including his novel The Last Picture Show and his essays on the history of the American west and its literature.  Actually, this novel has spurred me to track down and read the other two novels in this tetralogy, as i find Augustus McCrae a thoroughly delightful character, perhaps because i grew up in West Texas, where a final solution to the Comanche problem was not achieved until thirty years before my mother was born.


Clock Without Hands  – Carson McCullers (1961).  This was McCullers’ last novel, and as much as i enjoyed it i’ll have to admit that the others are better.  Read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Ballad of the Sad Cafe instead.


Any Old Iron – Anthony Burgess (1989).  Earthly Powers was perhaps an impossible act to follow, but i still enjoyed Burgess’ tracking of the history of Excalibur, supposedly brought by Atilla to Rome, where it fell into possession of the Romans, was taken to Wales by the Benedictines, returned to the continent, confiscated in turn by the Nazis and the Russians, and ultimately repatriated to Wales in spy-thriller fashion. Interwoven with the history of the sword is that of a Welsh family from the grandfather’s survival of the sinking of the Titanic as a young man through both world wars and into the immediate postwar period.   A fascinating tale.  I’ve read his magnificent Malay trilogy The Long Day Wanes, The Clockwork Orange, The Wanting Seed, and Earthly Powers.  Now i need to read more of the novels.


Dream Palaces – James Purdy (1980).  This is three novels from the fifties reprinted in one volume.  Malcolm, which – after being horrified and fascinated by Eustace Chisholm and the Works –  i tried in the sixties and found unreadable   Still is.  The Nephew, which i quite enjoyed, and a third one that was also unreadable, at least for me.


The Killer Angels – Michael Shaara (1974).  Here’s another one that should have won two Pulitzer Prizes, a novel about the battle of Gettysburg that is scrupulously researched to hew to the facts while also humanizing many of the leaders in that battle.  I’m not a history buff, but i loved this thing.  An aspect i found fascinating was that the Rebel forces, starting with Lee, perhaps the most charismatic military leader in history, somehow managed to convince themselves that they were not fighting for slavery when in fact, they were.  Hideous.


The Prestige – Christopher Priest (1995).  A fascinating novel about the intertwined lives of two late-nineteenth-century stage magicians who were rivals and nemeses.   Worth reading.


The Golden Age of Promiscuity – Brad Gooch (1996).  Another gay novel set in the seventies, that glorious decade that was, indeed, the golden age of promiscuity since it started with the great flowering of gay liberation sparked by Stonewall and ended with the advent of the AIDS epidemic.  This period was also the beginning of my twenty-year foray into that scene, so i had every expectation of loving this novel.  Alas, it was so boring that even though i tried skipping ahead a couple of time in hopes that it would get better, it didn’t, and i couldn’t finish it.


Shipstar – Gregory Benford and Larry Niven (2014) .  I was in Eureka Valley in the city with four hours to kill, so i popped into the branch library and found this book on the shelf.  Since i remembered fondly Niven’s The Mote in God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand, i grabbed it.  Well, he was better when he was writing with Pournelle, but Shipstar was still an entertaining read.  One and a half thumbs up if you like science fiction epics.


Underworld – Don DeLillo (1997).  A massive recapitulation of the last half of the twentieth century in American history, interleaving the lives of a number of fictional characters with those of real people from J. Edgar Hoover to Mick Jagger.  I found it interesting enough to plow through all 827 pages but have to admit that it sure did bog down in  a number of places.


Firebird – Mark Doty (1999) A good memoir of a grim childhood.  That said, not entertaining reading for most people.


The Stories of John Cheever – John Cheever (1978).  As much as i’d enjoyed the novels, The Wapshot Chronicle and The Wapshot Scandal as an undergraduate, i’d blundered onto only a handful of his short stories.  He’s good at these, too, but the earlier ones were all focused on domestic unhappiness and alcoholism, which nearly made me stop reading.  And then, three-quarters the way through, they became better and better.


Modern Baptists – James Wilcox (1983)  Ordinary inept folks one notch above poverty in Tula Springs, Louisiana thrashing around desperately to get on with their tawdry lives.  My enjoyment was heightened because these Louisiana rednecks were just across the Sabine from my roots.


The Pump House Gang – Tom Wolfe (1968).  Wolfe was a delight back in the sixties, but this one hasn’t worn well.  I missed this collection back then, picked it up the other day, and found it unreadable.  Didn’t get twenty pages into it.


The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon (1966).  I read this shortly after it was published and remember enjoying it.  Looking at it now, i see delights that i cannot imagine having been able to appreciate in 1966, and not just because it’s set in coastal California from San Francisco south. A fine novel, loosely revolving around a resurrection of the Thurn und Taxis postal system in contemporary America.


Writing on Drugs – Sadie Plant (1999).  Looking at that title, i wondered whether the book had to do with writing about drugs or writing under their influence.  Turned out to be a scholarly analysis of both, what with a detailed index and an eleven-page bibliography.  Not light reading, but it did include a thorough examination of the British development of a global opium trade so lucrative that it fought the Opium Wars to sustain it.


Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon (1973). 760 pages, over 400 characters, and multiple plot lines, but OMG, it’s worth plowing through.  Focused on the German V-2 rocket, it begins in England in 1944 as WWII waned but the V-2’s were still coming down, moves to the recently liberated French Riviera, to Switzerland, and from there as the war ends to northern Germany.  It’s basically the adventures of US Army Lt. Tyrone Slothrop, who’s working for a fictional technical intelligence unit called ACHTUNG.   He’s quite the sexual athlete and puts a pin on a wall map in his quarters to mark the location of his most recent conquest.  The map is secretly photographed  every day by Slothrop’s watchers because they’ve noticed that his sexual encounters precede by several days a V-2 rocket strike in the same place, but that’s just to get the novel going.  The rest is a tour de force.


Angel Catbird – Margaret Atwood, illustrations by Johnnie Christmas, coloring by Tamra Bonvillain, lettering by Nate Piekos of Blambot (2016).  Well yes, Atwood’s graphic novel, or at least part I of it.  Entertaining, of course, but graphic novels are just not my thing.


Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood (2016).  Who wouldn’t love the concept of Shakespeare’s The Tempest performed by the Fletcher Correctional Players in their eponymous prison and directed by Felix, who’s been out of work since being diabolically forced ten years ago from his post as director of a regional theater.  He snaps at the chance to direct the inmates and concocts a delicious revenge plot against those who’d ousted him.

It’s an entertaining tale.  The problem is that Atwood spoiled me with her MaddAdam Trilogy, and nothing she’s written since has come close.


Drown – Junot Díaz (1996).  I read one of Díaz’ short stories in The New Yorker and immediately bought this book.  Then, when the first story failed to rekindle my excitement, shelved the book for ten years.  Just now got around to reading it through, and while i found it enjoyable, that’s the highest praise i can muster.


Sort of Rich – James Wilcox (1989).  If you liked Modern Baptists at all, you’ll love this novel.  It’s also set in Tula Springs, Louisiana, but with a rich cast of character who are, at least by Tula Springs standards, sort of rich.  Umm, or at least financially comfortable.  The central character, Gretchen Peabody, a New Yorker who was swept off her feet by the visiting Frank Dambar and after a whirlwind courtship, moved to Tula Springs and married him, bringing all her neuroses with her.  What a fascinating sociopath she is!  I could hardly put this book down.  Highly recommended.


Red Orchestra – Anne Nelson (2009)  This is serious history, copiously footnoted.  Not my usual fare, but nevertheless a compelling read.  I knew about Sophie Scholl and The White Rose as well as Claus von Stauffenberg and the 20 July plot, but other than that i knew nothing of other German resistance to the Nazis.  The Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle) was longer lived and more extensive than either of the ones i knew, and this book details its growth, operations, and destruction.

Also, unlike the others, it was a spy network, mainly of communist anti-fascists, who divided their efforts between a propaganda operation that strove to inform the public of the truth about the war and to inflame sentiment against Hitler, and the funnelling of military secrets to Moscow.

For example, they disclosed to Moscow a full six months before Operation Barbarossa that Hitler planned to invade.  A fascinating tidbit is that Stalin so distrusted his own intelligence network that he refused to believe the reports, leaving his army woefully unprepared for the onslaught.

If you like history, read this.


The Iron Heel – Jack London (1908).  Trump’s recent victory got me to thinking about the rise of fascism and i blundered onto London’s book.  I have to say, i’ve never finished a more boring book.  It makes Atlas Shrugged look like fine literature while being every bit as propagandistic but just from the opposite side.  Good grief, gives my beloved socialism a bad name.  Wooden characters, ridiculous political monologues and all.  Nowhere near as plausible or well written as Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here.

And yet, yet, he was prescient on a number of points, and it was those that kept me slogging through the book.

As an aside, i’d checked with the local library and found a long waiting list for their single copy, so i just went online and ordered a copy.  The copy i got had no publication data on the back of the title page.  Nothing.  Nor was a publisher listed anywhere on the title page or even the cover.  The only publication information i could find was on the last page, a simple statement that the book had been printed on 21 November 2016 in San Bernadino, CA.  Hmmmm, somebody anticipated demand for this thing on the day of the election and, since it’s now in the public domain, somehow blasted out a run in two weeks.  Wow.

Read It Can’t Happen Here instead.

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