2019 – Reading

Jesus’ Son – Denis Johnson (1992) Ummm, perhaps shouldn’t have started a new year with a collection of short stories this disquieting. Innermost feelings of the dregs of society and all that, but oh my goodness, what luscious prose.

Saint Melissa the Mottled – Edward Gorey (2012) Well, yes, that Edward Gorey, of whom i’ve been reading for many years, but whose work i’d never read. I have now, and it’s a little jewel, a melange of the macabre and the surreal. Quite enjoyable. And still, a morsel. I must look at more of his little books.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden – Denis Johnson (2018) Another story collection 25 years after Jesus’ Son. The characters are still mostly low lifes, but there is more humor in this later batch.

Into the Ruins – ed. Joel Caris. Fall 2018, Issue 11. Another collection dystopian short stories, but inferior to previous issues. Don’t bother.

The Mezzanine – Nicholson Baker (1986). I’d read with great pleasure Baker’s essays, but this was the first of his novels i’ve read, and oh my, did i ever love it. For some, it might be too much navel gazing since the entire 135 page work takes place on an escalator ride from the ground floor to the mezzanine, but oh what a journey it is, during which he examines in great detail a host of everyday objects in exquisite and inventive prose. I was enraptured, and tying my shoes will never be the same again. Read him.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Yuval Noah Harari (2018) I was so captivated by his previous two books that i snapped this one up. Oh wow. And oh dear. He holds out some promise, but it’s likely to be a very bleak future unless we change our course very soon. Still, he’s eminently readable and i recommend your working through all three of his books in order: Sapiens, Homo Deus, and this one.

Double Fold:  Libraries and the Assault on Paper – Nicholson Baker (2001) I grabbed this book in the expectation that it would include Baker’s breathtaking account of the skulduggery behind San Francisco’s new library. Alas, it didn’t, but no problem, as it was highly readable and very informative account of the replacement of printed material in our libraries with first microfilm and later digital versions using the excuse that the paper version were about to crumble to dust, which they weren’t. However, a lot of people made a lot of money pushing the transition even though the non-paper versions were often illegible.

A Terrible Country
– Keith Gessen (2018) This one literally fell into my lap. My friend Nina had some kind of brain hemorrhage, but it yielded to surgery and left her unimpaired except for one problem: she could no longer read. And of course she’d been a voracious reader. So i offered to read to her and she accepted the offer by handing me a book sitting on her table. Turns out, i’d read reviews and thought i’d enjoy it, so here was my chance to read it and do something nice simultaneously. The author is the younger brother of Masha Gessen, whose essays i’ve loved for years. Turns out he’s also a good writer, and both Nina and i thoroughly enjoyed it.

Transition – Iain Banks (2009) I’ve finally got around to reading one of Banks’ science fiction novels, having had him praised highly to me for many years. This one was so entertaining that i’ll have to go back and read his famous first one, The Wasp Factory.

USA – John Dos Passos (1938) Here, the three novels The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money are combined into one massive volume, 1240 pages. This is one of those books that i bought some years ago and that just sat on my bookcase. I took it down a couple of times and tried to read it, but couldn’t get started, but now the time was right, so i enjoyed this classic of American literature. Intertwined with the fictional characters whose lives he portrays in episodes are biographical passages on eminent American figures of the era.

Although much of the focus of the novel is on poverty-stricken working men and women struggling for survival, Dos Passos also presents some characters who manage to climb in salary and status, but they are mostly depicted unsympathetically. I’m a staunch progressive, but I have to admit that Dos Passos is to my left.

An additional pleasure is the fine paper, well sewn bindings, and cloth-covered strong boards in this Library of America edition. Better yet, it has a bookmark ribbon, a feature i’d love to see more frequently.

The Uninhabitable Earth – David Wallace-Wells (2019) The first half of this copiously documented horrifying book lays out a gruesome depiction of what life is going to be like as global warming progresses when the best case scenario is awful. In the second, and much shorter part he describes how we might avoid some of the worst aspects if we cooperate and work at it. Well yes, but I can’t imagine that we will. I need to read something fluffy next.

Upheaval – Jared Diamond (2019) Fluffiness postponed because I learned that Diamond had published a new book. The subtitle is Turning Points for Nations in Crisis and he examines how Japan, Finland, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, and Australia have recovered from crises, rating each according to the following criteria: consensus that the nation is in crisis, acceptance of responsibility to act, delineating the problem, getting help from other nations, using other nations as models, national identity, honest self-appraisal, experience in previous crises, dealing with failure, flexibility, core values, and freedom from geopolitical restraints. The subtext all along is how we compare to these nations as we face our own unfolding crisis.

And then he takes a look at us, first discussing all our great advantages and then the problems threatening a breakdown of American democracy. Foremost is the accelerating deterioration of political compromise, not just in our politicians but more importantly in the general public. Fewer and fewer of us even know someone who didn’t vote for our candidates in the last election. More and more of us get all our news from sources with strong biases toward our existing views.

Secondary problems are our elections in that the percentage of us who vote is much smaller than other countries, and it is smaller not just because of voter apathy but more so because of purging of voter rolls and increasing barriers to voting. Elections are also a problem because the increased cost to win one have deleterious side effects. The next secondary problem is growing inequality and decreasing economic mobility. The last secondary problem is declining investment in human capital and and other public purposes.

Next, he examines world problems: nuclear weapons, climate change, resource depletion, and inequalities of living standards.

And finally, he offers some suggestions as to how it is possible, if not likely, that we might learn from the past and better address the crises that face us.

A fine book, but now I’m definitely ready to read something light.

Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan (2019) I should have written at the end of the previous note that next, I’d read some fiction rather than “something light” because this book, as entertaining as it is, is not all that light. It’s set in an alternative 1980’s London in which a number of things are different from our reality. For example, England lost the Falklands War when Argentina sank all the British ships with missiles.

More importantly Alan Turing is still alive and is now Sir Alan Turing and lauded as a war hero after doing a couple of years in prison after the war for being gay. After he got out, he continued making advances in computer technology and then focused on artificial intelligence. Well, what else for the man who invented the Turing Test?

Advances in AI in this alternate reality are coupled with advances in the biological sciences that make possible the development of robots that nearly perfectly mimic humans, but this is not just a science fiction novel, but also an examination of the nature of love and truth.

I highly recommend this book.

Save Me the Plums – Ruth Reichl (2019) I loved Ruth Reichl from the moment I first saw her restaurant reviews in New West magazine in the late seventies. They were breathtaking, but she was not enough to keep the magazine going by herself and went on to a stellar career culminating with being editor in chief of Gourmet magazine. This book is about her experience with Gourmet. An exciting tale that I just loved. Better yet, finding the book brought to my attention that I’d somehow missed her three books after Garlic and Sapphires, so I have three treats waiting for me.

The Future Is History:  How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia – Masha Gessen (2017) O.M.G. Gessen was born in Russia, brought to this country when she was 10, and has as an adult spent a good deal of time in Russia examining the society. Here she carefully and completely describes the developments in Russian society since Stalin and especially since Gorbachev that made possible the rise of Putin. I’m not a historian, so this book greatly expanded my knowledge of 20th and 21st century Russia and, since she writes so well, also provided a good deal of pleasure. Highly Recommended.

Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015) OK, pretty much a space opera, but I could barely put it down, all 600 pages of it. Set in the far distant future when the earth is largely uninhabitable, it is set alternately on a giant space ship carrying a cargo of thousands of men and women in cryogenic suspension nearing its destination, and the lovely green terraformed planet on which the colonists will arrive to take leadership of the monkeys with which the planet was seeded along with a full complement of other earthly flora and fauna. The monkeys will have been “uplifted” by a nanovirus that spurs their intellectual development, so that by the time the men arrive, the monkeys will serve as a work force. What could go wrong?

Well, all the other biota arrived on schedule, but the monkeys didn’t, and the nanovirus (don’t think too closely about this) somehow improved the intelligence (and size) of spiders.

The tale is told in alternating chapters from the standpoint of one of the brightest spiders and one of the crew of the space ship. The spiders, through the generations, become more and more sentient, finally creating a civilization, but obviously one radically different from the human variety. Eventually, the two civilizations meet, and the outcome caught me utterly by surprise. I’ve grossly oversimplified the plot here, so don’t worry about spoilers. Just know it’s quite entertaining sci-fi.

The World Without Us – Alan Weisman (2007) Considering my interest in ecology, I’m surprised I hadn’t discovered this book before my friend Bob lent it to me. Weisman starts with the question of what would happen if suddenly all human life ended. He looks first at individual houses and then New York City, tracking their surprisingly fast (to me) disintegration. But this sets him off on an examination of humanity’s impact on the planet, a very sad tale that we all know to varying degrees. So yes, we’ve wrought havoc, but the good news is that the planet will recover after we’re gone. And we will go because after all, so far in the history of the earth, the rule is that all species eventually go extinct. No reason for us to be an exception.

The Rat – Günter Grass (1986) Well, Grass weaves a complicated tale here, with stories within stories: A sentient pet rat he’d been given at Christmas who keeps intruding with narratives of her own. a group of feminist women on a tiny converted barge studying jellyfish in the Baltic. the tin drummer, Oskar Matzerath, now sixty, bald, and CEO of a major video corporation. The Grimm brothers, now environmental ministers in the Bonn government, as well as their Pied Piper and other characters.

And then it gets apocalyptic.

My history with Grass is fraught. I discovered The Tin Drum immediately after I returned to this country from Germany and loved it so much that I immediately devoured Cat and Mouse and Dog Years. Then the next three novels for me lost the spark of the first three, and I stopped reading him. Finally, when My Century came out, I gave him another chance and was enraptured again. Just loved both Peeling the Onion and Crabwalk and realized I needed to drop and read some of those I’d missed. Thus, this one, which was good enough that I kept reading, but never really captured me.

The Ingredient: Unveiling the Essential Elements of Food – Ali Bouzari (2016) I read an essay of Bouzari’s somewhere that was so exciting that I hunted down this book. Can’t say I didn’t learn a thing or two, but buy Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking instead.

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