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 and I still love his prose.

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 the book is a lightly fictionalized account of his return to Moscow to take care of his grandmother. 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 got through this classic of American literature although it was a bit of a slog toward the end. 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 has 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 right down to skin feel; 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. I just loved both Peeling the Onion and Crabwalk and realized I needed to drop back and read some of those I’d missed. Thus, this one, which was good enough that I kept reading, but it 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.

The Fire:  The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945 – Jörg Friedrich (2002) Originally published as Der Brand and translated by Allison Brown. I’d read W. G. Sebald’s superb 1999 book, On the Natural History of Destruction, which went into gruesome detail about the firebombing of Germany, but this book is far more complete coverage. It goes to great lengths in describing the various types of bombs used, high explosives to break up buildings followed by incendiaries to set fires with the objective of creating a firestorm in which the rising air above the fire would pull in air from the surrounding area at hurricane force until an artificial furnace had been created. Most people know about the firebombing of Dresden, infamous because there was nothing in Dresden that could contribute to the war effort and thus the slaughter of 25,000 civilians was totally unnecessary. We read about this in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

What we learn from reading Friedrich is that Dresden was no aberration, that from the beginning the Allies planned to firebomb as many German cities as possible and to kill as many of their inhabitants as they could. Only lip service was paid to avoiding civilian targets.

This book is by no means an apologia for German war crimes, and Friedrich points out that Germany bombed London before the British started bombing German cities. He also mentions that German bombing of England was limited only because the Germans were not able to do more.

But still, he makes a strong case against firebombing of cities and the concurrent wholesale slaughter of the civilian occupants. He does so by meticulous description of the bombing of city after German city. Thanks to his access to declassified British and American military records, he is able to provide precise descriptions of the types of high explosive and incendiary bombs and the exact tonnage of each dropped on every bombing run. A damning litany.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong (2019) This is more or less an epistolary novel even though the letters are written to his Vietnamese mother who can’t read English. At the same time it’s a bildungsroman of sorts, a coming-out story, and just plain difficult to categorize. I enjoyed it.

Recursion – Blake Grouch (2019) An action-packed thriller science fiction novel. How could I resist? A complex plot involving the manipulation of memory, which turns out is a weapon of mass destruction that must not fall into the wrong hands. And that’s a plot spoiler, so I’ll stop with the comment that I enjoyed this book enough that I read it in a couple of days and recommend it lightly. One and a half thumbs up.

Hollow Kingdom – Kira Jane Buxton (2019) Oh please. Buxton is a good writer, but she’s used her talent to write about the adventures of anthropomorphized animals. The narrator is a crow that thinks of itself as half-human. The setting is Seattle not very long after a worldwide virus has turned the human race into zombies. I can’t even bear to describe the plot, and I kept asking myself as I read on and on why I kept doing so. I’m embarrassed to admit being entertained by this thing and do so only because I’m committed to listing everything I read here. Even though in the past I’ve recommended adventures of anthropomorphized animals, I assure you that in this case there are better uses of your time.


Tears of the Truffle Pig – Fernando A. Flores (2019) Set in south Texas and northern Mexico in an alternative universe in the more or less present, but there are three border walls, narcotics are legal, so the trafficking that goes on is with “filtered” animals brought back from extinction for the amusement and tables of the wealthy. It’s a rollicking tale full of hilarity, magical realism to the utmost. Oh, and Flores’ prose style is delightful, with some of the most vivid similes I’ve read of late. I read this with great pleasure and recommend it highly.

My Cat Yugoslavia – Pajtim Statovci (2017) In Kosovo a Muslim girl is married off to a virtual stranger who turns out to be abusive almost immediately. And then war breaks out and the family emigrates to Finland, where they are not a very good fit. Their gay son narrates most of the novel that describes the family’s attempts to get along as well as his own difficulties in being accepted by his Finnish schoolmates, his acquisition in quick succession of a rather large boa constrictor and a talking, abusive cat, and finally the beginnings of what might turn out to be a happy life. Maybe I’ve read too many gay bildungsromans, so the parts of this book I found by far the best were those about the difficulties faced by refugees who could not blend in with their new countrymen.

Reamde – Neal Stephenson (2011) He’s a favorite author with whom I fell in love when I read Snow Crash decades ago. It’s inaccurate to say “I couldn’t put it down” about a 1044-page novel, but it occupied center stage in my life until I’d finished it. Stephenson creates fascinating characters and spins compelling plots. What more can you ask other than that he have an entertaining prose style, which he does. Plot summary: the niece of an American megamillionaire who developed a very very popular computer game and got rich because he figured out how to benefit from the thousands of Chinese players who sold to Americans the game goods they were too lazy to work for.

But a virus appeared that threatened the company so the niece goes to China to track down the hacker and ends up being kidnapped by an Islamic terrorist gang. OK, enough spoilers, but that only scratches the surface of the beginning. My goodness, did I ever love this novel. Many thumbs up.

Too Far Afield – Günter Grass (1995) At some point between The Rat and this one, the translations were no longer done by the sterling Ralph Manheim. This one is translated by Krishna Winston, and she’s good, very good. The novel is set just after the wall has come down and Germany is reunified, and it consists mostly of a pair of old men talking and walking through Berlin (mainly the part formerly East Berlin). Theo Wuttke is a former East German cultural functionary, keen observer, and captivating speaker. Ludwig Hoftaller is a former mid-level spy who has worked for whomever will employ him – the Prussian police, the Gestapo, and the Stasi. He in fact at times has kept an eye on Wuttke owing to the latter’s inability to be politically correct.

There is great humor here mixed with great pain, and my great regret is that as much as I know of German history, I don’t know enough to fully appreciate this work. Too many references shot right past me. Still there was a lot to enjoy, and things like Wuttke’s love for the paternoster fed my great appetite for lore about it.

The Fatal Shore – Robert Hughes (1986) This is a history of Australia’s founding, from the 1787 arrival of the first ships full of colonists, all convicted felons “transported” to serve their sentences at hard labor and their military guards whose work was also damn hard, to the last shipments of transportees in the 1850’s. Oh my, what an epic of hardship and suffering, miserable food and, for the first few years, not enough of it. And that was the lot of the soldiers sent there as guards. For the prisoners, all that and also the punishments, often for the most trivial of offenses and many highly imaginative like putting the miscreant into a pit waist deep in water so that sleep was impossible. Mainly, though, it was the cat of nine tails, administered so vigorously and sometimes at such length that the blood flowed freely, the backbone was exposed, and the victim died either before the punishment was complete or shortly thereafter.

The appointed British leaders were mostly distinguished by their level of cruelty and ineptitude while the prisoners were largely an illiterate, sorry lot. And then there were the poor Aborigines, so utterly unprepared and helpless in the face of an invasion that would virtually exterminate them. What an awful place it was. Great sorrow and precious little joy.

But somehow Hughes’ prose style was so good and the horror so fascinating that the book kept my interest, and I read it with pleasure and recommend it.

Raised in Captivity – Chuck Klosterman (2019) Klosterman has previously published eight nonfiction books and describes this collection as “Fictional Nonfiction”. It’s about thirty little short stories that range from quite good to breathtaking. Read it.

Fall – Neal Stephenson (2019). This one picks up pretty much where Reamde left off but takes a step toward science fiction as it is set in the world Dodge left behind when he died and had his brain frozen. Here, his vast wealth supports scientists trying to scan his frozen brain in order to digitize it and put it out on the Internet. Like William Gibson, Stephenson is IMHO at his best when writing of very plausible tomorrows and day after tomorrows. No rocketships to Alpha Centauri but rather a near future when the great majority of cars are no longer driven by their occupants, when in parts of the midwest it’s not safe to stray off the Interstates because the locals are so busy defending their second-amendment rights and establishing fundamentalist religions. That kind of thing. Well, for the first 300 pages.

Then Dodge becomes conscious again, but this time in a digital world. At which point the book becomes pure science fiction laced with a science fantasy component because Dodge is now Egdod and is The Creator who builds an online world similar to the one he left behind. And then the frozen brain of his arch-nemesis in that life comes to consciousness in the digital world as its Satan, so of course there’s a clash involving an thrilling epic adventure that takes the remaining 580 pages to resolve.

I read this thing as close to non-stop as a man my age can, and it was only after I finished it that I realized it was far from my favorite of Stephenson’s novels. Good, but read the others first.

A Life Apart – Neel Mukherjee (2008) I had 45 minutes to wait before Lisa could cut my hair, so I bought this book off a sale table on the street so I’d have something to read while waiting. What a lucky find, as I never expected to finish it, much less enjoy it. The book is set in contemporary London and told from the viewpoint of a young Indian man who, upon the death of his mother, is able to go to university in England. He’s certainly quite fluent in English, but he faces a great deal of culture shock and difficulty in making friends. He’s gay, though, so he’s able to fit right in with the gay subculture or at least that sordid part of it devoted to sex with tricks in public toilets, what the Brits call “cottaging”.

His adventures are alternated with chapters about Miss Gilby, an English lady who’d gone to India in 1891 to help her brother and had remained after her brother’s departure. She’d not bought into the colonialist attitudes and had started to make friends among the Indians and to learn Bengali. Her chapters describe her going to live with a wealthy Indian family in order to teach the wife English. And while she’s at it, she does her best to burrow into Indian life and help Indian women live more realized lives.

Both narratives are far more interesting than I’ve made them sound and by the end parallel each other so well that both characters suffer the same fate. I enjoyed this book.

Quichotte – Salman Rushdie (2019) I think Rushdie is the best living English-language novelist, and I’m hardly alone in that. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, “Rushdie is our Scheherazade“. The protagonist of this novel is a traveling salesman of dubious sanity who who peddles a pharmaceutical product patented by his now fabulously wealthy cousin, a sublingual fentanyl spray. He doesn’t have to be a good salesman since he’s selling a product that sells itself. He falls in love with a television personality and embarks with his son, a figment of his imagination named Sancho, on a quest across this country to prove himself worthy of the lady’s love.

Paralleling and intertwined with Quichotte and his quest is the life of Brother, the writer and creator of Quichotte. I struggled to keep it all straight but loved it even more for the complexity.

In detailing Quichotte’s quest, Rushdie examines with a gimlet eye a country enmired in spiritual, social, and political collapse. In richly allusive prose he demonstrates that he seems to know everything about literature, history, and this, his current country of residence. What fine sentences! What a fascinating plot! What are you waiting for! Read it.

The Water Dancer – Ta-Nehisi Coates (2019) An absolutely stunning book set shortly before the Civil War. The narrator is Hiram Walker, the son of the plantation owner by one of the slave women, who is born with synesthesia and near total recall, and whose gifts bring him to the attention of his father. The tutor the father has hired for his legitimate son about Hiram’s age becomes the tutor for both boys, and Hiram is by far the better student. And then he begins yearning to escape and then becomes an agent of the Underground Railway. No more spoilers because it’s a fascinating tale that of course is also a disquisition on the meaning/reality of freedom.

Permanent Record – Edward Snowden (2019) I’m a great fan of Snowden’s so I alerted Folio Books to put aside a copy for me the moment they got their first shipment. It did not disappoint and I ended up writing a post about the subject. Check it out: Ed ‘n’ Me.

The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie (1995) Ahhh, back to Rushdie. He’s got to be the finest living writer of English. The prose just scintillates as he tells the increasingly convoluted story of the rise and fall of the Da Gamba-Zogoiby dynasty of spice traders. The narrator is the eponymous Moor, and he’s a colorful character. I don’t know what it is about Rushdie novels that leaves me so tongue-tied that I can’t write a review that does more than offer wild applause. But yes, worthy of the Rushdie canon, but so far my favorite is still Midnight’s Children.

How We Keep Spinning – Kevin Fisher-Paulson (2019) This is a collection of Kevin’s columns from the San Francisco Chronicle that outlines his and his husband’s raising a pair of challenged boys, one a crack baby and the other with ordinary mental problems. He’s very good at finding humor in the boys’ escapades, and I read him faithfully. I bought the book because I buy the books that people I know write.

The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie (1988) This book has been sitting on my shelf since just before the turn of the century when I was so addled by the first-generation AIDS meds (in particular Crixivan) that I couldn’t think straight enough to get more than fifty pages into it. Since I’m now losing my mind to senility, I figured I better read it quick. And thank goodness I did because it’s now readable. Almost every page glitters with jewel of phrasing, and it inspires me to go back and read the novels he wrote after it but before The Moor’s Last Sigh.

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