2017 – Reading

Tokyo Station – Martin Cruz Smith (2002).  Thought i’d start out 2017 with something pure fun, and Smith is.  I absolutely loved his Arkady Renko novels, especially the first three.  His other works that i’ve read have been only quite good, including this one.  It’s the story of Harry Niles, the son of American missionaries who grew up in Japan, becoming more Japanese than American.  He also became a skilled pickpocket and con artist and in his late teens was jerked back to the states by his parents.  He returned to Japan in the thirties and improved his skills as a con man, only to find himself privy to enough clues that he was able to intuit in the summer of 1941 that Japan was about to attack Pearl Harbor.  And at this point i’ll stop with the spoilers.  Quite entertaining.


Laughter in the Dark – Vladimir Nabokov (1938).  A good novel although not as good as Pnin and not even close to Pale Fire.  Read them instead.


King, Queen, Knave – Vladimir Nabokov (1928).  Roughly translated into English by his son and revised by Nabokov in 1968.  He writes of it in his preface, “Of all my novels, this bright brute is the gayest.”  Although he didn’t mean that in the modern sense, being quite homophobic.  This one got off to a slow start for me, but it got better and better.  The writing is beautiful, with metaphors sparkling like sapphires across the pages.  Ummm, yes, his are much better.  A very good novel.  Read it before you read Laughter.


The Samurai’s Garden – Gail Tsukiyama (1994).  Set in a small Japanese village in 1937-38 as the Japanese army sweeps across China, this novel is narrated by a young Chinese man whose father is a wealthy businessman who spends most of his time in Kobe even though the rest of the family is in Hong Kong.  The narrator is in the village to recover from a serious illness in a more salubrious climate than Hong Kong’s, and as he recovers he gradually learns more about his host and develops an understanding of the often inverse relationship between goodness and beauty.  Excellent writing and a plot that grows more compelling as it progresses.


Girl With Curious Hair – David Foster Wallace (1989).  I just discovered that as much as i love Wallace, this splendid collection of stories had been sitting unread on my bookshelf since i’d bought it when it was first published.  Rather like discovering a box of your favorite candies that you’d tucked back and forgotten.  I hate Wallace for killing himself and depriving me of more of his writing, and i vacillate between grief and rage that i’ve now read everything he wrote. But wait, there’s a flicker of hope.  If i time it just right as my senility progresses, i’ll hit the magic moment at which i’ll have forgot all his work but still retain enough of my faculties that i’ll be able to start over at the beginning and read his entire corpus with renewed pleasure.  I figure i’ll start this summer by taking up Infinite Jest again, this time savoring every sentence and employing a pair of bookmarks to save places so that i can flip to the back and read every end note as i hit it in the text.  Yes, all two hundred and something pages of ’em in tiny type.


Smoke – Ivan Turgenev (1867).  Finally got around to reading another of Turgenev’s novels.  Good enough, but read Fathers and Sons instead.


Scoop – Evelyn Waugh (1937).  I blush to admit that the only other novel of Waugh’s i’d read was The Loved One, which i of course loved.  This one is a very early work and terribly funny, a deliciously absurd account of the brief journalistic career of a young man who liked writing about the local English fauna but ended up through a series of boffo accidents being sent to a fictional country in eastern Africa to cover an insurrection.  A marvelous sendup of journalism with one laugh-out-loud line after another.


Leviathan Wakes – James S.A. Corey (2011)  The author’s name here is a mashup of the names of the two collaborators, and their wonderfully entertaining work is a mashup of classic space opera and noir detective mystery.  Miller is a burned out, washed up detective on Ceres and Holden is XO of the Canterbury, a former colony transport ship now reduced to cargo runs ferrying ice from Saturn’s rings to inhabited moons of the gas giants, asteroids, and Mars.  Both men are on the downsides of their careers, but they are pretty much polar opposites, ruthlessness vs. idealism.  And then, as tensions mount between Earth and Mars, and between them and the Belters, the inhabitants of the asteriod belt and the moons, they are thrown together by minor circumstances and have to work together against a growing threat.  But no spoilers.  It’s been a long time since i’ve been so caught up in a 600-page tale that i could barely put it down.

And immediately upon finishing it put in a library request for the sequel.


The Orchard Keeper – Cormac McCarthy (1965).  I discovered McCarthy with Blood Meridian, his fifth novel, which began in Texas and traced its characters across a swath of northern Mexico to the Pacific and back, and i’ve read everything he’s written since, all of which (except for The Road) has been set in the southwest. But i’ve only now got around to reading his first four novels, all set in Appalachia.  This one is his first, and God, is he ever superb at description!  And vivid characterization.  That said, this is just a taste of where he would go in later works.  But still, a good read if you need some more McCarthy.


Caliban’s War – James S.A. Corey (2012).  Yep, the sequel to Leviathan Wakes and almost as enjoyable.  It would be a great exaggeration to call this stuff literature, but my God is it ever entertaining space opera.  So yes, i’ll read the third volume.


Outer Dark – Cormac McCarthy (1968).  McCarthy’s second novel, and the description is even more vivid than in his first and the plot, darker.  Desperately poor, utterly ignorant, and sadly broken people struggling to survive. And yet the prose is so fine that i keep reading just to wallow in it.


Abaddon’s Gate – James S.A. Corey (2013).  Yes, the third in this space opera series and i think, enough for me, especially since it didn’t keep me as spellbound as the first two and because the next one in the series drops all the delightful characters i’d been tracking through the first three.  Besides, even i can get my fill of space opera.


Child of God – Cormac McCarthy (1973)  McCarthy’s third novel is another Southern Gothic masterpiece with luscious description and fine dialogue.  This one traces a serial killer and is utterly hideous, but the writing is so fine that you keep reading anyhow.


Stalin’s Ghost – Martin Cruz Smith (2007).  The sixth Arkady Renko detective novel and up to the standard.  I’ve been following Renko for years and still love him.


Three Stations – Martin Cruz Smith (2010).  The seventh Arkady Renko novel, and a bit of a falling off.  Still, worth reading for the Renko fan.


Tatiana – Martin Cruz Smith (2013).  The eighth Renko novel and also not quite up to the standard set by the first six.  Nothing lasts forever, but for sure read the first five.


Suttree – Cormac McCarthy (1979)  McCarthy’s fourth novel and by far the finest yet.  So fine, in fact that the lush description and extensive character development presage Blood Meridian.  A panoply of grotesques set in the early fifties, it is nevertheless relieved by black humor, beginning with seventeen-year-old Gene Harrogate violating watermelons in a farmer’s patch.  Harrogate reappears throughout the novel with one ludicrous failed scheme to make money after another, all illegal, but he’s a ray of humor in the gloom.  Still, a marvelous novel.


A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry (1995).  It had been some time since i’d read an Indian novel, and i’d forgot how much i liked them.  That said, this one is hideous.  No no, not the writing, it’s superb, but rather the subject matter. It’s set in the seventies and eighties with flashbacks to Partition and follows the lives of, mostly, the lower classes in their horrible struggles to survive in an India that seems determined to eradicate them in its quest for modernization.  Look, i knew Indira Gandhi was no saint, but dear lord, this book paints her as a monster.  Savage satire of Indian politics mixed with vivid descriptions of the lives of the downtrodden.  If you have, as i do, a soft spot in your heart for India, you’ll find this novel profoundly depressing.  But it’s so fine that you should read it anyhow.


Notable American Women – Ben Marcus (2002).  I went ballistic over Marcus’ The Age of Wire and String, which is so cutting-edge experimental that i marveled from page to page at driving the language to new patterns.  Alas, this one so lacks the spark that i could slog only halfway through it.


American War – Omar El Akkad (2017).  I grabbed this one as soon as it hit the bookstores and loved it, but we know how i wallow in dystopian novels.  This one is set primarily in Georgia during the Second American Civil War, from 2074 to 2095.  Grim, as if things weren’t already bad enough from the effects of global warming.  It’s the life story of Sarat Chestnut, who was six years old when, at the start of the war she was taken to a refugee camp and very rapidly grew up to become a legendary guerrilla warrior as a teenager, was betrayed, captured, tortured until she became a shell, and then…but that would be a spoiler.

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