2020 – Reading

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. – Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland (2017) One thing for sure about Stephenson, you never know which way he’s going to hop. In this one he combines hard core science with witches and magic. Throw in a plot that covers a time span from 1045 CE to the present and hops back and forth. Plenty of derring-do to keep our attention for all 750 pages. Yep, that’s Stephenson for you. Aided by Galland for the witches and magic. I loved it.

Agency – William Gibson (2020) When Folio Books called to let me know that my pre-publication order had arrived, I rode straight there and grabbed it. Got home and read it right through with a break only for sleep. Do I love Gibson or what! This one is the second in a new series that began with The Peripheral, and it’s at least as good. It alternates being set now in San Francisco and in London a century from now after some sort of cataclysmic catastrophe called “The Jackpot”.

Starting here, a talented apps tech named Verity takes a rather strange job beta testing a digital assistant that calls itself Eunice and almost immediately seems disarmingly human. Verity quickly picks up that her strange new employers have no idea how powerful, and valuable, Eunice is, and the two decide that there’s no rush to inform the employers.

Meanwhile some operatives in London a century from now in an authoritarian society made up of plutocrats and plunderers over miserably poor masses look back at Verity and Eunice and determine that they might be able to tweak some events that will cause the Jackpot to hit us with less force.

“Rule of thieves brings collapse, eventually, because they can’t stop stealing.”

And so forth for 400 exciting pages. Two thumbs and several fingers up.

Salvador – Joan Didion (1983) Somehow I’d been banking this book for nearly forty years, but finally it was time. It’s a slim volume, barely over a hundred pages, and in it she describes a two-week visit she and her husband made to San Salvador in the summer of 1982. Just to get a feel for the place, to try to understand what was going on. She left, of course, with more questions than answers, but her account of the visit is recorded in scintillating prose and manages to get across the fathomless depth of the problems faced there.

“This was one of those occasional windows that open onto the heart of El Salvador and then close, a glimpse of the impenetrable interior.”

Reading this book makes me want to go back and reread everything she wrote.

Brutal Journey – Paul Schneider (2007) This is a scholarly work, what with notes, bibliography, and index; but his prose style is so good that the book doesn’t read like scholarship. The subtitle gives it away: “Cabeza de Vaca and the Epic First Crossing of North America”.

He had me at “Cabeza de Vaca” because this man has fascinated me since I learned of him in high school Texas history class. Not to give everything away, but he was second in command of a force of 400 men led by Pánfilo de Navárez that landed on the coast of Florida near Tampa Bay in the spring of 1527. Owing to a combination of terrible luck and great ineptitude when they faced Indians who were bigger, stronger, hostile, and superb archers, their numbers dwindled rapidly and Navárez left Cabeza de Vaca in command of the remaining few dozen men. They managed to fight their way back to the coast and built a shallow barge with the intent of following the coast down to civilization in Mexico. Alas, they were shipwrecked (bargewrecked?) near Galveston Island, where the few survivors were enslaved by the Karankawas, a tribe so primitive that it had neither shelters nor clothing nor agriculture nor hunting, but subsisted on what could be picked up and eaten. After all but Cabeza and one other named Estebán (his slave) had died, he and Estebán made a break for it and escaped.

There they were, naked and barefoot on the Texas coast a thousand miles and tens of thousands of hostile Indians from the nearest Spanish outpost, so they started walking and kept it up for over a year until they’d reached the Gulf of California, turned south, and were finally repatriated.

So yes, I’ve given away the ending, but a gripping tale of how they crossed the continent remains.

Miami – Joan Didion (1983) Didion spent some months in early 1982 burrowing into the political and social scene in Miami, and from that she produced this splendid and insightful book. This is nonfiction, with copious notes and an index, but oh my goodness does it ever read like an entertaining crime novel, everything from the Bay of Pigs to Ollie North and the Contras.

Dead Man Walk – Larry McMurtry (1995) Let’s start by mentioning that, as popular as his fiction is, he also deserves credit for a good deal of nonfiction focused on Texas and the Southwest. This was what led me to read with great enjoyment Lonesome Dove in the late eighties shortly after it was published and then, with nearly as much enjoyment, the prequel Comanche Moon in the late nineties. Recently, a homeless man I’ve befriended in hopes of helping him get his act together and find housing had just finished Dead Man Walk and gave me his sorely bedraggled paperback. Glad he did because it’s the prequel to Comanche Moon and describes the adventures of Augustus McRae and Woodrow Call in their early twenties just starting out as Texas Rangers. It’s almost as good as the others, and I recommend starting with it and then reading Comanche Moon and Lonesome Dove in sequence.

Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry, 1100-1550 – Yuval Noah Harari (2007). I fell in love with Harari when I read Sapiens, so of course I read Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century as they were published. Recently I discovered that he’d published three history books before Sapiens. This was the cheapest.

It’s real scholarship, but he couches it in readable prose, so you don’t feel like you’re plodding through it in a dusty carrel.

A short definition of a special operation is a covert military undertaking with a small number of men who, by the use of surprise in a quick strike manage to achieve “significant strategic or political results disproportionate to the resources invested in it.” A classic example is the Trojan horse.

Harari covers entertainingly six special operations in the designated period. I never knew serious history could be so enjoyable.

Weather – Jenny Offill (2020) What a strange and wonderful little book this is. A short novel told in brief paragraphs depicting existential despair only partly alleviated with flickers of hope. Passages were gaspingly funny, and at three points I carried it over to the computer and typed out a paragraph to send to friends. Yes, I love her prose style.

Floating after the last page of text is a page containing only this link: https://obligatorynoteofhope.com/, which extends the book.

Redburn – Herman Mellville (1849) This was Melville’s fourth book. His first two, Marquesas Islands travel adventures, sold quite well; but his third, a novel titled Mardi was panned by the critics and did not sell. So he wrote Redburn, a novel based on his experience as a common sailor ten years earlier during which he sailed on a merchant ship to Liverpool and back.

Well, he called it a novel but it’s clear that the book is based on hard fact, and his descriptions of the hideous poverty in Liverpool are stunning and were especially shocking to Americans since at that time Americas did not let people starve in the streets.

What was most fascinating to me about the novel was the character Harry Benton, a young Englishman who befriends Redburn in Liverpool and leads him on a visit to London. There, they visit a rather strange place that to a modern American gay man is rather obviously a gay bordello from which Redburn escapes unscathed with breathtaking naivete intact.

Just when we think we’ve seen the last of Benton, he enlists as a sailor on Redburn’s merchant ship back to the US and immediately after they’re out to sea is discovered to have been a consummate liar about his naval experience and worse yet, his inability to learn or even try to learn the craft. Again, a modern gay man doesn’t have to read between the lines to see more evidence that Benton is gay.

I read this novel feeling like a vice detective looking for evidence.

The Glass Hotel – Emily St. John Mandel (2020) I quite liked her previous novel, Station Eleven, and bought this one after reading favorable reviews. So yes, it’s a fine novel with some images burned into my memory like the passage in which Vincent has talked her brother Paul, also an artist, into posing for each other. Her portrait is brutally accurate since it ever so slightly emphasizes the tracks on his inner elbow from all the heroin he’s shot. Whew, baby sister tells it like it is. The book tells the story of the intertwined lives of these talented and somewhat crazy siblings. Quite liked it.

The Tangled Lands – Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell (2020? I was surprised to learn that the chapters in this book had been published starting in 2010 as short stories. I sure didn’t get that sense when I was reading it. So how was it?

Well, let’s just say that it ranks as my least favorite of all the Bacigalupi I’ve read. I liked the young adult novel Shipbreaker, and found both The Water Knife and The Wind-Up Girl superb. I keep hoping that he’ll write another like them, but this one wasn’t it. It was good enough that I read it through to the flimsy end. Look, I’m willing, perhaps even eager, to suspend disbelief, but this novel was just preposterous.

Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State – Barton Gellman (2020) It will be interesting to see how Snowden is viewed in the future, whether he will hold up as well as Ellsberg and be thought of as a great patriot who sacrificed his own wellbeing to save his country. As it is now seven years since his disclosures, he’s still a divisive figure with some of us lauding him as a hero while other consider him a traitor.

The Second Sleep – Robert Harris (2019) There was a wonderful moment when I got to page 22 and realized, oh no, things are not what they’d seemed. This brought back a memory of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, when, a number of pages in, you realize that Mary Catherine is quite mad and that her narrative must be taken with a grain of salt.

In the case of Harris’ novel, you discover that it’s set a thousand years in the future after some great worldwide disaster, civilization has been set back to well before the Industrial Revolution.

The plot revolves around a quest to uncover more information about the previous civilization, hampered of course by the church, which considers all the old knowledge heretical and those possessing it punishable by death.

Quite an entertaining read although the flimsy ending removed some of the joy.

The Golden : Notes on my Gentrification – Caille Millner (2007)   I’ve long enjoyed Caille Millner’s fine writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, so I finally broke down and got my bookstore to order her memoir for me.  The first sentence in the book sets the tone:  “Maybe it’s best to begin this story not when I learned I was black, but when I learned I wasn’t brown.”  Well, see, she’s light-skinned and grew up in a part of San Jose that was overwhelmingly Latinx.  The memoir traces her mother’s escape from creole Louisiana to California, where she and her husband took advantage of the relative tolerance of California to ratchet themselves into the upper middle class.

There were poignant parallels between her parents and me in how, as despised minorities, we fled the South for California.  Her father left Ohio because his color prevented him from rising above a carrier in the Post Office.  He aced the written tests but failed the interview when he walked in and they saw he was black.  At about the same time, I was a student at Texas Tech, and students outed as gay were expelled.  They just quietly disappeared.

Millner writes superbly, and the memoir is moving.


The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 – Lionel Shriver ( 2016)

The novel starts in 2029 with Florence Mandible running a household as best she can in an era of shortages of water and everything else.  The nation has recovered from the Stone Age, some kind of apocalypic disaster ended up leaving life just fine for the 1% but even worse for the rest, so bad that even what had been middle-class people were having great trouble finding menial jobs and making ends meet.

But then of course, everything gets worse over the next twenty years since this is, after all, a dystopia.

It is, above all, a brutal economics lesson, and I just loved it.


The Professor and the Madman – Simon Winchester (1998)  A number of years ago I read Winchester’s Krakatoa with great enjoyment.  Then I read reviews of The Professor and the Madman and knew I’d love this book even more.  Somehow never got around to it until now, but it was worth the wait.  OMG, a linguistic detective story!  What’s not to like?  In my misspent youth as a scholar, I of course worshipped the OED and bought that reduced print version with the magnifying glass.  And then in the first decade of this century I bought the downloadable version and have it on my PC. 

What I’d not known was the crucial role a madman played in the development of the dictionary.  Reminds me of that old joke about the guy who has a flat tire on the road that runs alongside of an insane asylum fence.  An inmate comes up to the fence and silently watches him change the tire and, when ready to put the spare onto the axle, fumble the hubcap holding the five nuts and watch them roll into a drainage grid.  Gone forever.  He stands there bewailing his fate, and the inmate tells him that all he has to do it take one nut off the other three wheels and use that to drive slowly into town to buy the others.  Our hero is shocked that a lunatic could come up with such an elegant solution and says this to the lunatic who replies, “I’m crazy, not stupid.”

So yes, a crazy man provided invaluable assistance in the first years of the writing of the dictionary, assistance of such quality and quantity that the publication of the dictionary would have been delayed for decades had he not contributed.

What a wonderful read. 


Valentine – Elizabeth Wetmore (2020) – My old friend from Odessa Wesley Ann liked this book so much that she sent it to me.  It’s set in Odessa (TX) in 1976, but could just as well have been set decades earlier.  That’s part of the horror, that west Texas has has progressed so very little since I was hunting lizards in the oil camps in the late forties/early fifties. 

It starts with Glori Ramírez hoping that the man passed out beside her, who had raped and brutally beaten her, would die a slow and painful death as soon as possible.  She manages in a superhuman effort to drag herself to a farmhouse some distance away where the woman there protects her until the sheriff arrives.

A page turner that kept me fascinated to the end, but fascinated in a sick way because the novel explores the vicious racial prejudice of the local Anglos against the local Latinos.  It’s still as bad there as it was when I was a kid seventy years ago.


Utopia Avenue – David Mitchell (2020)  I fell in love with Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten and have read all of his novels ever since.  Always with great pleasure although Ghostwritten sure was a hard act to follow.  Utopia Avenue opens in London in 1967 with a down-and-not-quite-out rock musician is cleverly robbed of the money with which he was about to pay his rent.  So a few minutes later, his landlady refuses to wait until Monday when his payday check is due and summarily evicts him.  He couch surfs for a few days and runs into some people who are looking for a good bassist. He clicks with them and the band Utopia Avenue is off to a start.

It’s rocky going at first, but they get better and better, rise in the charts, and finally do an American tour when events conspire.

A fascinating complex plot that traces the lives of all four members of the band.  I found it especially entertaining because it was at that time that I was getting interested in rock music and listening to the real bands that were mentioned.

Up to Mitchell’s standard and totally recommended.


The Wild Truth – Corine McCandless (2014)  I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild when it came out in 1996 and was just completely fascinated with the last couple of years of Christopher McCandless’ life, so much so that I’m a bit surprised that I didn’t go to the movie.

Recently, when a friend offered to lend me the book Chris’ sister had written about their lives, I snapped at the opportunity because even though Krakauer had left me with the impression that Chris was disturbed by his family life, most particularly his father’s bigamy, I wanted to learn more.   

On the cover, the book teases us with phrases like “the whole truth” and “constant misconceptions about my brother”, and yes, she paints a picture of her father, Walt, as a total sociopath and physical abuser of both his wife and his children, a man who was still married to his first wife Marcia when he got Billie pregnant with Chris and married her.   Until Marcia finally divorced him, he split his time between the households.

Carine’s book describes in horrific detail the incredible levels of emotional abuse inflicted upon her and Christopher by their parents.  It’s really quite shocking that such ogres exist.

Still, I almost feel like I was tricked into reading this book by its promise to tell the whole truth.  Not that I’d otherwise have know about the abuse, but rather that the book is ostensibly about Christopher but is really about Carine.  I plowed through all four of her marriages hoping and failing to learn more about Christopher.

The best thing about the book, actually, was that it sent me digging around, and I found a splendid article published in 2016 by Jon Krakauer that provides the final answer to the much vexed question of what caused Christopher’s death.


Fatherland – Robert Harris (1992)  I read this novel with great pleasure when it came out and snapped up a copy in a garage sale the other day.  I reread it with pleasure.  It’s alternative history in which the US never declares war on Germany, so Germany takes over most of Europe. 

The protagonist is a Kripo detective in Berlin who gets too interested in a case the higher ups keep steering him away from, the murder of a prominent Nazi.  What’s fascinating about this book is Harris’ interweaving of historical fact (the older figures are all real Nazis) in a purely speculative but quite plausible Germany of the late fifties, when the novel is set.


Infinite Detail – Tim Maughan (2019)  An act of cyberterrorism destroys the Internet.  Here’s the events that led up to it and the repercussions.  Think about how much in modern society depends on the Internet and what life would be like without it.  Wow.  A thriller.


Love Thy Neighbor:  A Story of War – Peter Maas (1996) The author was a war correspondent in Bosnia in 1992-3, and he describes the war on Bosnia by the Serbs and his coverage of it.  I already knew what I thought was far too much about poor Bosnia, but Maas took my understanding to a new level.  A hideous and marvelous book describing in excruciating detail how the US and the UN totally botched it and left Serbia almost completely free to rape and murder Bosnians with wild abandon.


The Unpunished Vice – Edmund White (2018)  Hint:  the vice in question is reading.  Here, for 223 pages he talks about who he reads and why as well as who he knows and why.  I read it with some pleasure, but it’s way too gay to be recommended to straight people.


The Red Caddy – Charles Bowden (2018)  I’ve never read a book by Edward Abbey, but for the past thirty years I’ve been coming across works that reference him.  I’ve not read Bowden either, but a quick glance at his works tells me that I’ve certainly read a lot about the things he wrote about.  The work in question is a memoir on Abbey, who was a good friend, and it makes me want to read at least a couple of Abbey’s works.

Oh, and Bowden writes well, very well.


Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (1878)  I’ve always been a contrarian, and proof can be found in that I didn’t start reading the great 19th century Russian novels until about five years ago.  After this one, all that will be left is The Brothers Karamazov.  What can I add to a century and a half of glowing reviews?  Not much except that I enjoyed it despite its great length.


Siberian Dilemma – Martin Cruz Smith (2019)  This is probably the last of Smith’s Arkady Renko series since I’ve read that he’s having health issues.  The first five were marvelous, but the quality’s been falling off.   Even so, this was still an entertaining read.  Do read the first few and if nothing else Polar Star, the second.


Desert Solitaire – Edward Abbey (1968)  I’d read so many mentions of this book over the decades that I sorta felt like I’d read it.  And then wondered and checked it out of the library.  I hadn’t.  And shoulda.  What a marvelous polemic it is, and his prose that over and over made me breathlessly reread sentences.  For example:

“My second sensation is one of guilt.  Newcomb. [his somewhat lame companion he’d left behind on his ardous hike to the Rainbow Bridge] Why did I not insist on his coming?  Why did I not grab him by the long strands of his savage beard and haul him up the trail, bearing him when necessary like Christopher across the stream, stumbling from stone to stone, and dump him finally under the bridge, leaving him to rot or to crawl back to the river if he could.  No man could have asked for a lovelier defenestration.  Through God’s window into eternity.” 

Of course I now have to read everything he wrote.


Perihelion Summer – Greg Egan (2019) I read this book by accident.  See, our splendid public library has done an end run around COVID restrictions by permitting members to place a hold on a book online and then pick the book up at the side door to the library.  I’ve been taking advantage of this, and raced down there yesterday when they sent me an email saying my book was ready to be picked up.  When they handed it over, the title didn’t seem familiar, but I figured I just forgot ordering it.  Got it home and saw that I was not the person who’d ordered it.

Read it anyhow since it was dystopian fiction and short.

It was pretty good, actually.  Egan writes what’s called “hard” science fiction, that is, grounded in science.  It’s set in the immediate future in Australia and the South Atlantic Ocean after a speeding black hole has passed by our planet not close enough to cause tidal waves but near enough to very slightly alter our orbit.  And that turns out to be increasingly catastrophic because it tips the global climate toward much hotter summers.  This rapidly makes much of the southern hemisphere too hot to sustain human life, and the book describes how a group of Australians assembles a flotilla to sail to the welcoming beaches of Antarctica.  An entertaining adventure.

Good enough that I’ll try another of his novels.


The Monkey Wrench Gang – Edward Abbey (1975)  What a rollicking adventure this was and a highly entertaining read for all the ecoterrorists, not to mention those of us who hate to see our southwestern environment destroyed by greed and shortsightedness but are not quite ready to start blowing up bridges and dams.  The main planned project of our band of ecoterrorists is the destruction of Glen Canyon Dam, but as warmups they take out bridges and sabotage the bulldozers and other large machines used to construct them.  That they are staying one step ahead of the increasingly enraged law provides drama through suspense.

This thing sure did bring out my rebellious teenager, and it whetted my appetite for another of Abbey’s works.


Dog Soldiers – Robert Stone












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