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 his forcing the language in such a delicious new way.  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.

Everything and More, A Compact History of Infinity – David Foster Wallace (2003)  I bought this when it came out and found it so difficult that i put it down.  Gave it another try, and this time i was able to get a full fifty pages into it before it got to be over my head.  Since math was always my worst subject, i suppose i’m proud of myself that i could get through fifty pages, but no, this is really due to the excellence of Wallace’s writing.

Signifying Rappers – Mark Costallo and David Foster Wallace (1990).  Went digging around hunting for something else of Wallace’s that i hadn’t read and found this.  Thought it might help me like rap music.  Ummm, not sure anything could do that, but at least it greatly increased my understanding of rap… and American society.

Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will – David Foster Wallace (2011).  Since i’m on a Wallace roll, i’ve been hunting down things his executors have dug up after his death and published.  Like this one, which i found such heavy sledding that i put it down until my life levels out a bit.

What i’m really holding my breath for is a new edition of Infinite Jest, an expanded edition that includes the hundreds of pages that were cut out of the first edition.

Jesus’ Son – Denis Johnson (1992).  I read a review of Johnson’s latest story collection and thought i’d drop back and read this earlier one first.  Wow. Johnson is a fine writer, but oh, dear, what bleak characters.  Drunks, junkies, and thieves with few hearts of gold.  Only thing that saves this collection is the passages of black humor.

String Theory – David Foster Wallace (2016).  Desperately digging for something of Wallace’s i hadn’t read, i picked this one up.  It’s a collection of five essays on tennis that he wrote over a period from 1991 to 2006, and it was a marvelous read even though i’d already read three of the five.  Then i looked at the copyright page and discovered that all five essays had been published in books of Wallace’s that i’d read even though two of the essays seemed completely new.  Which reminded me of my realization several years ago that as my memory deteriorated, i could save up a year’s worth of all the magazines i subscribe to, cancel my subscriptions, and simply reread the saved issues without knowing i’d already read them.  But do read String Theory if you have any interest in tennis.  Wallace’s prose is exquisite and his explanations complete.

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead (2016).  A best-seller acclaimed by almost all the critics, i found it superb and horrifying.  It is the life story of Cora, born a slave on a Georgia plantation, and her long struggle for freedom.  While the actual underground railroad was a secret network of routes and safe houses by which escaped slaves were helped flee to safety in the north, Whitehead depicts it as a literal railroad in underground tunnels, a surreal touch that i’m not sure improved the novel even though it made entertaining reading.

Rulers, Religion, and Riches:  Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not – Jared Rubin (2017)  Taking a break from my novels, i took on something serious, and yes, this one made me think.  And ultimately, i could find no real flaw in it.  To oversimplify his thesis, owing to the accidents of world history at their founding, it was Islam rather than Christianity that served ultimately to stifle economic and scientific development in the areas where it was prevalent.  Rubin bends over backwards to demonstrate that had the world situation been just slightly different, Christianity would have been more, rather than less, inhospitable to progress.  What saved Western Europe was the printing press and the Reformation.  A fascinating book.

The Salt Line – Holly Goddard Jones (2017).  Since i just love dystopian novels, this thriller was a great treat.  It’s set in and near the Atlantic Zone, located in the eastern US in the fairly near future after the world has been swept by deadly ticks against which there is no practical defense but a Salt Line, a zone of scorched earth and impenetrable walls around your zone to keep it secure from the ticks.  Oh, did i mention that the death caused by the ticks is especially hideous?

So of course some people with a lot of money and an excessive sense of adventure go on expeditions out of their zones, trusting to luck and the Stamp which, if applied to a tick bite within sixty seconds, burns the tick out of you before it can lay its eggs, an agonizingly painful process, but it definitely beats death by tick bite.

We go along on one of these expeditions, but of course we wouldn’t have a novel if something didn’t go terribly wrong, would we?

Great literature?  Of course not, but it sure was a page turner.

The Physics of Life: the Evolution of Everything – Adrian Bejan (2016)  This was a very interesting book, but i kept finding myself saying “yes, but” over and over as i hit unsupported assertions like, on p.38, “He [Laffer] was right.” despite the fact that Laffer’s trickle-down economics has been thoroughly discredited while Bejan’s back was turned.

Hmmm.  Bejan is an internationally acclaimed expert in thermodynamics, but he also seems to be a laissez-faire capitalist who sees nothing wrong with widespread economic inequality.

He also seems to believe that we will never run short of any of our natural resources, that “every country evolves toward greater freedom.” p.62 and that “over time, the river basin positions its channels better and better, and the channels stay in place.” p.51.  Yeah, tell that last one to the Corps of Engineers and the previous one to any American who reads the newspapers.

He’s at his best when writing about sports, detailing how athletes in most sports are getting larger even faster than the rest of the population is.

Perhaps i’m just not smart enough to understand him, but frankly i think he ought to stick to thermodynamics.

The Closing of the American Mind:  How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students – Allan Bloom (1987)  Well yes, I can’t help agreeing with his central thesis, that the transition in higher education from providing a general education to focusing entirely on specialization has worked to the great detriment of the country, but i certainly can quibble with some of his assumptions.  His sneering at the very idea that the North Vietnamese leaders could be called nationalists, for example.  Or his failure to even mention that opposition to the Vietnam War might have been a cause of the student unrest that swept Cornell and other universities in the mid-sixties.  That said, he could not have known that years after he published his book, declassification of military records would reveal that the North Vietnamese attacks on the USS Maddox in the Tonkin Gulf on 4 August 1964 occurred only in the imaginations of US military personnel on the scene and the promulgations of our government leaders.

Sourdough – Robin Sloan (2017)   I gobbled this delightful novel up, and not just because it’s set in San Francisco and Alameda and is a mashup of the high tech industry and the foodie phenomenon but also because Sloan writes so well that i found myself laughing out loud at some of his turns.  The kiss of magical realism helped, too.  Makes me want to go back and read his first novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

Archangel – William Gibson (2017)  I can’t resist anything by Gibson, even a graphic novel, and i have to say that i enjoyed this more than any previous effort in this genre.  It’s also a beautiful book in an exquisite binding, but i’d still rather read a “real” novel of his.

What She Ate – Laura Shapiro (2017)  What a fascinating book.  Six remarkable women and the food that tells their stories.  Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Elanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym, and Helen Gurley Brown.  Some remarkable research went into the lives of the women in this book, and i have to admit that i knew very little about any of them beforehand.  Take heart.  The lives are not all as sad as Dorothy Wordsworth’s or as short as Eva Braun’s.

Artemis – Andy Weir (2017)  I just loved The Martian, who didn’t?  And since it was a bestseller made into a movie, he earned enough money to quit his day job as a software engineer and devote himself full time to writing.  Thus, his second novel, Artemis.  Oh wow.  The protagonist is a bold, iconoclastic, and gifted young woman who very much reminds me of the skateboarder, YT,  in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.  Yeah, she’s that good and so is the novel.  Weir’s forte is writing about characters manipulating technology to use it in unplanned ways and then having it blow up in their faces so that they have to come up with another kluge.  Not sure i enjoyed this one quite as much as The Martian, but that’s little criticism, and in any case he’s now demonstrated that he can write a novel with a large cast of well developed characters.  Read it, especially if you like thrillers set on the moon in the not-that-distant future.

The Man In the High Castle  – Philip K. Dick (1962)   I read a review of the television series based on this novel and then discovered a pdf file of the novel, which i immediately gobbled up like i do all Dick novels.  This one is set in 1962 in a world in which Germany and Japan won WWII and divided the US in half with the Germans occupying the east and the Japanese the west.  But leave it to Dick, that’s just the setting for a complex espionage thriller.

Ubik – Philip K. Dick (1969)  The novel is set in 1992 but Dick got a little ahead of himself and depicts a world in which we have a colony on the moon and a good number of people have psychic powers.  Alas, not all of them use their powers for good, and the plot follows a struggle between the forces of good and evil with one twist after another right up to the last page.  Wow.  Couldn’t put this one down.

The Golden House – Salman Rushdie (2017)  OK, good to read some fine literature for a change, and Rushdie is superb.  I was entranced by this thing and early on started marveling at Rushdie’s astonishing depth of knowledge of American culture that enriches the novel.  And not just American culture, the novel contains such a dizzying array of allusion that i alternated between feeling pleased that i’d caught one and fearing that the previous sentence contained one i’d missed.  The best aspect of reading this, though, was learning that i still have enough cognition to appreciate a complex novel, and armed with that knowledge i’ll take up Midnight’s Children next.

Crime and Punishment – Feodor Dostoevsky (1866)  I mentioned to three people that i was reading this novel and all three assumed i was reading it again.  No, the awful truth is that for the past fifty years i’ve lived in dread that someone would ask me a question about it and i’d be forced to admit that i’d not read it.  Now i have although i have to admit that i found 465 pages of squirming with morality a bit tedious even as i have to admit that it’s reputation as a classic is well deserved.  Oh, there i went wrestling with morality.

Future Home of the Living God – Louise Erdrich (2017) I ended my reading year with a dystopian thriller set in the immediate future in which something goes wrong with evolution and quite rapidly pregnant women become a national resource so precious that they must be institutionalized until they come to term in case the child is viable and normal.  And quite naturally life for a pregnant woman becomes one of evasion and escape, so the book is quite a thriller.  Alas, for me, Erdrich stirs in way too much religion and philosophy, from which i’d thought i was going to be taking a break after Crime and Punishment.

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