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 straight through with a break 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 mostly of plutocrats and plunderers 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 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 had died, he and Estebán made a break for it and escaped.

There they were, naked and barefoot on the Texas coast over 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 especially shocking to an American since the poor in America were not starving 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 as a consumate 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 he’s 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.

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