2018 – Reading

The Russia House – John Le Carré (1988)  What better way to start the year than one of Le Carré’s thrillers.  I need to go back and read more of those that i’ve missed.

Fire and Fury, Inside the Trump White House – Michael Wolff (2018)  I had never read, much less bought, a book about contemporary West Wing politics.  Now i have, and it was certainly an entertaining read.  I follow the news closely enough that i knew the overall story, but Wolff provided many fascinating details and left me with the impression that Trump is even worse than i’d imagined.

Future Home of the Living God – Louise Erdrich (2017)  Do i love dystopian thrillers or what?  This one is set in the immediate future after an unexplained alteration that renders pregnancy unusual.  And that almost immediately spurs turmoil after which the new government begins hunting down pregnant women and taking them into “protective custody”.  All this interwoven with a young woman’s struggle to get in touch with her roots.  A very good novel.

Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie (1980).  This thing had been sitting on my bookshelf for 25 years because when i first bought it in 1997 my brains were being scrambled by the Crixivan and i couldn’t focus well enough to read it.  Then, after i regained much of my previous clarity, i was so afraid that i still wouldn’t be able to read it that i didn’t take it up for years.  To my great delight, i’m well enough now to get through it, and it was a great pleasure. Oh my goodness, does he ever write well, and thank God for my fifty year friendship with Charmazel, which spurred an interest in India and Indian writers.  This resulted in my having absorbed enough Indian history to be able to better appreciate this novel, which begins with Partition and covers 32 years.  The events of The Emergency are covered in hardly more than ten pages, but the more i read about Indira Gandhi, the more i understand what a monster she was.

Rushdie is one of the Great Writers of the late 20th century, and i look forward to reading The Satanic Verses.

Semiosis – Sue Burke (2018)  The best science fiction i’ve read since The Martian.  It’s set on a distant planet to which we sent a colonization expedition.  Alas, some of the landing pods crashed, leaving the surviving settlers without much needed supplies, so the colonization got off to a rocky start and was turned into a desperate struggle for survival as numbers dwindled.  And then their existence on the planet came to the attention of a sentient bamboo which recognized that they could be of great benefit to it.  So it started to manipulate them, and then to learn from them and they from it.  That’s enough spoilers, so i’ll stop, but if you like science fiction at all, this is a must read.  And yes, i did have to google semiosis.

A Bright Shining Lie – Niel Sheehan (1988)  I’ve read a great deal about the Vietnam War, mostly novels based in fact, but also purely historical material.  And then last winter i watched Ken Burns’ series on Vietnam on PBS.  But this 850-page volume goes into excruciating detail about how our involvement with Vietnam began with helping the French try to retain control of their colony after WWII and masterminding in 1954 the Geneva Accords division of the country in the manner of Korea with a proviso that in 1956 the Vietnamese would choose their own leader in a national election.  Oh, but wait, as Eisenhower and other political leaders here observed, if we let those people vote on their own destiny, they would choose Ho Chi Minh in a landslide, and of course we can’t have that because Ho is a communist.  Thus, our war to prevent the Vietnamese from choosing their own leader.  The bitterest of ironies is that now communist Vietnam welcomes US visitors and is a major trading partner.

Sheehan provides the clearest explication of Vietnamese history after WWII that i’ve ever seen, which alone would make the book very much worth reading, but that accounts for about half of the book.  The rest is devoted to Lt. Col. John Paul Vann’s heroic efforts to counterbalance our wrong-headed approach to the war, starting in the early years when a few thousand American advisors were helping to lead and fighting alongside the South Vietnamese Army in its battle with the Viet Cong.  Vann was not only astonishingly brave, risking his life over and over to help wounded US soldiers and making reconnaissance forays into the mouth of the tiger where everyone else was afraid to go.  He also fought a continuing battle with the US military leaders, particularly Generals Harkins and Westmoreland who both were telling everyone that we were winning and would prevail shortly when the hard evidence on the ground indicated otherwise.  Both generals used their power to prevent Vann from disseminating through the chain of command his view that we were approaching the war all wrong because, rather than winning the “hearts and minds” of the peasants, we were in fact by our ruthless destruction of their homes and killing of their families, making bitter enemies of them.  So Vann cultivated American journalists such as David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan (as well as civilian military consultants like Daniel Ellsberg) and spewed out the truth, as he saw it, about the war.

So yes, Vann was a hero.  But at the same time he was a grievously flawed man who maintained a façade of propriety while building a life that was a tissue of lies.  Sheehan interleaves his account of the progress of the war with a thorough presentation of Vann’s vices.  I won’t detail the vices so they’ll have the proper impact on you when you turn the page from reading of his heroism and are smacked in the face with them.

This is one of the best nonfiction books i’ve ever read.

The Drowned Cities – Paolo Bacigalupi (2012)  Having read with great pleasure The Windup Girl and The Water Knife, i was eager to read another of his novels and grabbed this one at the library with some trepidation since, like The Ship Breakers which i’d enjoyed, it was in the Young Adult section.  It was entertaining, and for minutes at a time i was able to forget that i was reading YA fiction.  But not entirely.  I just went online and discovered that Bacigalupi has written two more novels i’ve not read, but unfortunately, both are YA.  Sure do wish he’d buckle down and write another for adults.  You know, with at least a little bit of graphic sex and violence.

The Monk of Mokha – Dave Eggers (2018)  I’ll confess it now.  This is only the second of Eggers’ works that i’ve read, the first being The Circle, which i just loved.  Just loved this one, too, so i really should drop back and read the novels i’ve missed.  This one isn’t a novel but rather a non-fiction account of a young American of Yemeni extraction who became obsessed with rekindling the growing of fine coffee in Yemen and then importing it into this country.  All at a time when Yemen was being bombed to pieces by the Saudis and rent asunder within by Houthi rebels, so there were grimly hair-raising episodes so wild that i was gritting my teeth.  Near the end, in the port of Mokha, as the entrepreneur is trying to get a very large suitcase of coffee samples out of the country after the airport and highways have been closed, he hires a fourteen-foot skiff powered by a Yamaha outboard motor.  The captain of the little open boat assures him that he’s made the trip across the Red Sea to Djibouti many times, but alas, everything does not go quite as it was planned.  And that’s the recurring theme of this delightful book.

An extra attraction for me is that i know one of the significant men in this book, James Freeman, proprietor of the Blue Bottle chain.  I met him thanks to Sybil’s introduction a dozen or so years ago when he ventured from his first cafe in Oakland to open a stall at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market, which instantly grew a long line. Now you can sometimes get Yemeni coffee at his six at last count San Francisco locations as well as LA, Miami, DC, New York, Cambridge, Tokyo, or Kyoto.

All thumbs up.

La Place de la Concorde Suisse – John McPhee (1983)  I just love McPhee and have read most of his books, periodically picking off one of those, like this one, that i’d missed.  Here, he embeds (a couple of decades before this sense of the word became routine) with a company of the Swiss army during field exercises.  And while he describes the exercises, he provides a detailed explication of the operation and consistency of the Swiss army and a brief account of its history.  All in his marvelous prose.

The Sparsholt Affair – Alan Hollinghurst (2017) Hollinghurst is the gay David Mitchell.  Ummm, not sure either of ’em would like my assessment.  This, Hollinghurst’s latest novel, is the story of David Sparsholt, whom we first see through the window of his room at Oxford as he works out with weights.  He’s at Oxford only for a short time before he’s called up for service in WWII, where he earns a DSC as a fighter pilot, but before that he makes a vivid impression at Oxford owing to his gorgeous body.  But even though several of the gay characters are just dying to get into his pants, he fends them off and causes a bit of a scandal by getting caught with his girlfriend in his room.  Then there’s a jump of a number of years to the next section, where we see that he has married the girlfriend and has had a son, Johnny, who, at 14, falls in love with the 15-year-old son of the French family he’s sent to live with to improve his French.  The novel proceeds by jumps as we learn more about Johnny and his father.  At some point we learn that the affair in the title is about some great disgrace of the father other than having been caught with a girl in his room, but Hollinghurst dangles this in front of us for the remainder of the novel.  It’s a marvelous portrait of changing mores in England and how gay people coped with them.

After i finished this novel, i discovered that i’d somehow missed his two previous novels, a damn shame, since Hollinghurst is a superb stylist who writes better than any other gay writer i know of, and not just about gays.

No Makou Ka Mana/ Liberating the Nation – Kamanamaikalani Beamer (2014).  I’m just fascinated by Queen Lili’oukalani and wanted to learn more about Hawai’ian history.  This book is no frothy popularization, but rather a footnoted and indexed scholarly study of how the Hawai’ian leaders early in the nineteenth century worked to understand modernity and incorporate it into their society in order to make a viable modern society.  And how they were ultimately outmaneuvered, and the Kingdom was taken over by the Marines-reinforced American settlers, who then promptly grabbed most of the best land for themselves and made English, rather than Hawai’ian, the national language to be used in schools.  Etc. etc.  A hideous tale, but Hawai’i was too much of a prize to be left in the hands of the Hawai’ians.

The Spell – Alan Hollinghurst (1988) I just finished this book a few days ago and now can remember almost nothing about it other than that, unlike all of Hollinghurst’s other works, it failed to engage me.  The only pleasure i got of it was in savoring his exquisite sentences.  Not enough.

The Stranger’s Child – Alan Hollinghurst (2011).  Ahhhh, more like it.  Those finely crafted sentences are now in the service of piecing together a biography of an upperclass Englishman who dies at 25 in WWI.  He’s big, strong, handsome, and a consummate athlete, and he’s also moth-to-the-flame charismatic, which of course means that all the girls and boys are easy for him to seduce.  So he has them all.  But nobody tells.  The novel traces over fifty years of various characters digging, digging in an attempt to understand the full story.  A fascinating tale.  Several thumbs up.

We the Animals – Justin Torres (2012)  This slim novel had me hooked from the beginning pages, and i read it in one sustained sitting.  It starts out as a gritty memoir narrated by the youngest of three brothers, all little kids at the start.  They live a rough life and have to at least partly raise themselves owing to their parents’ incapacities, but since they don’t really understand how deprived their lives are, they’re happy most of the time.  Then, near the end, when the youngest is nearly grown, the novel takes an abrupt turn and becomes horrifying.  Can’t say more because it would be a plot spoiler, but i highly recommend this book.

A Soldier of the Great War – Mark Helprin (1991)  I read this back when it was first published, loved it, and gave it away.  Recently i realized that i needed to reread it, and i’m glad i did.  It’s a fascinating novel telling the life story of Alessandresso Guiliani, the son of a prosperous Roman lawyer and who came of age just in time for WWI.  Most of the novel is devoted to his increasingly surreal adventures during the war as he manages to evade death over and over.  It’s a tale of loyalty and love that tiptoes along the edge of magical realism, and i cannot too highly recommend it.

Post Office – Charles Bukowski (1971)  Well, yes, Bukowski’s dark, but the darkness is relieved by his also being very funny.  I’d never imagined that a novel about an alcoholic Post Office worker could be so enjoyable.

Inherent Vice – Thomas Pyncheon (2009)   Well, i’ve read VThe Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity’s Rainbow, but i have to say, this is by far the most accessible, and the most entertaining of his novels i’ve read.  It’s a classic crime mystery set in Los Angeles in the mid-sixties and follows the adventures of Doc Sportello, an ex-con, marijuana-smoking Private Investigator who keeps getting into situations way over his head and somehow slithering out of them intact.  He’s surrounded by a vibrant supporting cast including an LA cop named Bigfoot Bjornson who alternates as his nemesis and his rescuer.  Enormous fun.  So now i gotta go back and read the the novels i’ve missed.

With Vows Unspoken – Lorraine Grassano (2018)  I’d never read a memoir about lesbian obsession, but Lorraine is in my Italian class and had just published this, so i bought it, as i do for any book written by a friend.  I’m perhaps not the best judge of steamy lesbian sex scenes, but i sure do know about falling in love with people who don’t love me back and then becoming obsessive in pursuit of them, oh yes.

The Perfectionists:  How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World – Simon Winchester (2018).  Winchester’s done it again, this time tracing in exquisite detail the development of precision measuring.  This is not a subject that in anyone else’s hands would be entertaining, but that’s why we keep reading Winchester…and vowing to go back and read the ones we’ve missed.

The Power – Naomi Alderman (2016)  This fascinating novel is set in the immediate future when suddenly all women are born with a “skein” beneath the skin along the collarbone which when they reach adolescence gives them the power to direct at will painful and even deadly electrical shocks.  Men don’t have this power, so from this moment forward, women are no longer the weaker sex.  Alderman spins a spellbinding tale about how women use this power.  Surely you didn’t think it would always be wisely.  Read this book. It’s a rather dark novel, but it’s rescued from the darkness by a fascinating plot and a last line that left me sitting in my chair laughing over its perfection.

Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari (first published in Hebrew in Israel in 2011, translated by the author and published in the US in 2015).  What can i say about this stunning book other than that in 440 brisk pages about human history, it somehow manages to explain everything.  I’m nearly serious.  Certainly he provided insight after insight for me, linking bits of knowledge i already had without understanding their relationships.

City of Stairs – Robert Jackson Bennett (2014) This one reads like a typical spy thriller, well, except that it’s set on a planet that is earthlike but not necessarily the planet on which you and i are living.  There’s hardly any description of terrain or anything else that would make possible a definitive statement regarding location.  Or point in time.  So you’re quite unmoored as you read but don’t stop reading because the characters are so interesting and the plot gets the most out of ’em.  I read it with a good deal of enjoyment but was not sorry when i reached the end.  Perhaps a little too much fantasy for my taste.  Ambiguous feelings about an ambiguous novel but definitely worth a try.

Enlightenment Now – Stephen Pinker (2018)  I’ve read a number of Pinker’s works and had the pleasure of listening to him give a presentation to a roomful of readers at the Mechanics’ Institute Library.  He was relaxed and charming even though the event had to have been the smallest audience of any talk he gave that year.    This 550 page book is not, despite the title, an explication of how, in 12 easy steps, you can get Enlightenment Now! but rather an examination of the Enlightenment that swept Europe in the 18th century and how we might very well be on the brink of a second Enlightenment.  Pinker makes a compelling argument (and documents it with a hundred pages of footnotes).

Less – Andrew Sean Greer (2017)  I read with enjoyment Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli but missed the next two novels.  Less is at once a brilliant satire on the American abroad and the story of the life of Arthur Less, an American novelist of middling fame whose last book has been rejected by his publisher shortly before his fiftieth birthday.  As a coping mechanism Less accepts a series of invitations to half-baked literary affairs all over the world during which he hopes to find himself.  And then, when he returns home, a wonderful surprise awaits.

A Season of Fire and Ice – Lloyd Zimpel (2006) – Oh i do love tales of settlers facing hardship like those lured out to the American west to become homesteaders in the Dakotas and later further west by the slogan “Rain follows the plow” as if the semi-arid prairie would become lush if they just moved there and started farming.  The great majority failed, but a hardy few hung on.  The novel is in the form of the journal kept by Gearhardt Praeger, one of the more successful.  The time frame is the arrival of a new settler, Biederman, who stakes out his claim just south of Praeger’s and who perplexes and annoys Praeger with the seeming ease with which he arrives in frozen January and establishes himself with no outside aid.  The novel follows developments over a span of a couple of years, almost all seen through Praeger’s eyes but with several breaks to get the story from Biederman’s viewpoint.  No spoilers here, but let’s just say that a great deal happens in those two years, and you didn’t want it sugar coated, did you?  An excellent novel.

Into the Ruins (issues 5-8) – ed. Joel Caris.  Into the Ruins is a quarterly periodical of deindustrial science fiction short stories founded by John Michael Greer.  These four issues constitute its second year.  The stories range from merely good to excellent and the authors from novices to published professionals like Catherine McGuire.  I was a big fan of Greer’s when he was writing The Archdruid Report, a splendid ten-year blog focused on resource exploitation and the decline of empires, but a couple of years ago he closed that blog and started a new one Ecosophia – Toward an Ecological Spirituality in which gives free rein to his spiritual side that he’d formerly kept at bay and which i find utterly unreadable.  Damn shame, but while he still had his wits about him he published several excellent books on sustainablity.

The Masters of Solitude – Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin (1977)  This is a seminal work of science fiction in that it anticipates as well as influences much of the dsytopian science fiction that follows it.  It’s a rich and complex novel set mostly in the area that is now Pennsylvania at a millennium in the future when most science has been lost and the people are pretty much back down to the early 19th century level, but without guns.  There is one great advance.  One of the tribes, the Shando, has developed an ability to communicate with each other with the mind and use this alongside speech in a loving and open society. Another tribe, the Kriss, are just the opposite, closed and unloving, they are coal miners and have a society with the rigidity, misogyny, and hatred of the worst Christian sects today.  Stoning for adultery and all that.

And then there’s The City, shining mysteriously on the coast, it is surrounded by the “self-gate”, an invisible barrier that destroys the mind of anyone who tries to walk through it.   So there wouldn’t be a novel unless certain people wanted to get in, now would there?

I finished this novel with a great deal of satisfaction.  An interesting tale that kept me reading while in the back of my mind i was noticing the enormous influence it has had on the dystopias that have followed it.

The World Until Yesterday – Jared Diamond (2012)  Diamond followed his stunning Guns, Germs, and Steel with his spectacular Collapse, but somehow i missed his latest until a couple of weeks ago.  I’m not sure anyone could improve on two previous books so fine, and Diamond doesn’t.  And that said, i read with enjoyment as he compares hunter-gatherer societies with modern society and points out a number of ways in which we might profitably emulate our ancestors on the savanna.

Wintermind – Marvin Kaye and Parke Godwin (1982).  This is the sequel to The Masters of Solitude, and i read it with equal pleaure until in the last twenty pages it disintegrated.  What could have been an entertaining plot twist was somehow mishandled and required your forgetting previous plot points.  And still didn’t really make sense.  I’d discovered that Kaye and Godwin had planned a trilogy, but it’s clear that they simply ran out of gas.  Damn shame.

The Great Bay – Dale Pendell (2010)  This is not your typical science fiction since it’s a lot more science than fiction.  The eponymous bay is San Francisco Bay, and the book is set in California, mostly in the Bay Area after a catastrophic international epidemic has rapidly killed 90% of the human race.  The survivors are so focused on immediate survival that power generation fails, and gradually over the decades civilization retreats as the oceans rise.  Over the next few centuries, the bay expands until it covers most of the Central Valley even as literacy retreats to a handful.  The scenario Pendell paints is eminently plausible and quite entertaining.  Recommended.

The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson – Kim Stanley Robinson (2010).  I’ve read Robinson’s  Mars trilogy with great enjoyment and had been thinking i’d read another of his novels.  Alas, the library had none on the shelf, but it did have this collection of short stories.  Wow, what a range. Very few of them feel like traditional science fiction, and many are simply good short stories with an imaginative flair.  For example, a story about Furtwängler conducting the Berliner Philharmoniker for an audience including Der Fuhrer at a point quite late in the war when faith in his leadership had begun to weaken.  The narrator of the story is the tympanist, not the usual perspective.  An excellent collection of stories.

Homo Deus – Yuval Noah Harari (2017.  I loved his first book, Sapiens, so much that it was a question of when rather than whether i’d read his second.  The first was a history of Homo sapiens, the second speculates about the future awaiting Homo sapiens, and it fairly glitters with insightful passages, of which i’ll paraphrase one below and quote a second:

If you really understand the theory of evolution, you understand that there is no soul….at least if by “soul” we mean something indivisible, immutable, and potentially eternal.  Eons ago unicellular organisms had tiny organelles that distinguished light from darkness.  After millions of years of evolution they became the human eye with its many parts, unlike the human soul, which cannot be divided into parts.  Theologians agree that only humans have souls, but at what point in our evolution did we suddenly get souls?  Did Homo erectus have a soul?  How about earlier versions of humans?  Did the earliest hominids have a primitive version of the soul that evolved into the one possessed by Homo sapiens?  pp. 102 ff.

[The government] is overwhelmed by data.  The NSA may be spying on our every word, but to judge by the repeated failures of American foreign policy, nobody in Washington knows what to do with all the data.  Never in history did a government know so much about what’s going on in the world – yet few empires have botched things up as clumsily as the contemporary United States.  It’s like a poker player who knows what cards his opponents hold, yet somehow still manages to lose round after round.  p. 379

The Overstory – Richard Powers (2018) This spectacular novel introduces us to nine very disparate characters and jumps around among them developing them over a period of about fifty years as one by one they meet each other and their lives become entangled.  Oh, and a unifying theme through all the episodes is trees.  “From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds.”  Thoroughly enjoyable.

Into the Ruins (issues 9,10) – ed. Joel Caris.  More deindustrial short stories.  Good but not great.

There There – Tommy Orange (2018) Orange is an American Indian and grew up in Oakland, which provided the grist for this novel that ends before it can become a bildungsroman.  It tracks fifteen young Oakland Indians over the events of just a few days with flashbacks to give some background, and it paints a vivid picture of the life of a young Indian trying to come to grips with his history and his role in society.  Then, at the end, it all flies apart in a conclusion that i wasn’t prepared for.

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth (2004).  This book had escaped my attention even though i’m a Roth fan, and when i recently learned of its existence, i read it immediately.  I suppose i expected another It Can’t Happen Here, which i’d read with great enjoyment as an undergraduate.  Nowadays, we’re really primed for novels about fascist takeovers of democracies, but this one was a great disappointment.  It simply fails to pass the believability test, not in the first half but rather as it becomes increasingly implausible toward the end.

The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo – Oscar Zeta Acosta (1972)  Acosta is the “Samoan attorney” immortalized by Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, which had been serialized in Rolling Stone the previous year, and this book has much of the same flavor of outrageous overindulgence of alcohol and other drugs as Thompson’s although it’s not as boffo.

That said, it’s still a highly entertaining roman à clef, enough so that i’ve put his only other novel, The Revolt of the Cockroach People, on my reading list.

The Shipwrecked Men – Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, tr. Harald Augenbaum (2007), an excerpt from Cabeza de Vaca’s account of his eight-year struggle for survival after being shipwrecked on the Florida coast.  He wrote it from memory after he returned to Spain in 1537, and it details his travel from 1527 to 1536 across the continent to the Gulf of California and thence down to Mexico City, all but the first and last bits naked.

I’ve long been fascinated by this astonishing account, and finally have read this excerpt, about half the length of the original.  Here’s the Wikipedia article.

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