2021 Reading

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 Americans 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.

Well, what do you call a man who finally and definitely put the lie to the NSA’s stout denials that it was monitoring all Americans’ communications by simply turning over NSA communications about this.

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.

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