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 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 in a national election their own leader.  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 fighting with and helping to lead the South Vietnamese Army’s battle with the Viet Cong.  Vann was not only astonishingly brave physically, 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 progression 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 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 get Yemeni coffee at his six at last count San Francisco locations, LA, Miami, DC, New York, Cambridge, Tokyo, or Kyoto.

All four 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 agree.  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 apparently 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 cope 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 it viable.  And how they were ultimately outmaneuvered, and the Kingdom was taken over by the Marines-reinforced American settlers, who then promptly grabbed much 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 totally failed to engage me.  The only pleasure i got of it was in savoring his exquisite sentences.  Such a bummer.

 

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 a handsome upperclass Englishman who dies at 25 in WWI.  He’s big and strong and a consummate athlete, and he’s 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.

 

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