2022 – Reading

Let Me Tell You What I Mean – Joan Didion (2021) This is a collection of her essays from 1968 to 2000 that had not previously been “gathered together”, whatever that means. Great essays.

Political Fictions – Joan Didion (2001) Eight essays from The New York Review of Books that analyze the American political situation from 1988 to 2000. Savage. I’d call this Didon at her best except that she’s always at her best.

Thin Air – Richard K. Morgan (2018) We’re on Mars in the not-too-distant future when ruthless corporations from Earth vie with locals struggling for independence. Hakan Veil is an ex-military enforcer outfitted with military-grade body tech, a superlative killing machine now working for the Mars government as a bodyguard for an investigator sent from Earth. The job escalates immediately, so what we end up with here is a detective story with lots of sex (the investigator is a beautiful young woman) and violence (not everybody wants the investigation). Delightful read made better by Morgan’s luscious prose. Now I’ll go back and read the first two novels in this trilogy.

Altered Carbon – Richard K. Morgan (2002) I enjoyed Thin Air so much that I read this earlier novel, itself the first in a trilogy featuring the violent detective and sexual athlete Takeshi Kovacs. It’s set mostly in a future San Francisco. It’s not called that although most of the named streets are those of SF. Kovacs occupies a body (“sleeve”) that’s undergone a great deal of enhancement. His assignment is to dig up the truth about the recent death? (perhaps suicide?) of a prominent Meth (several hundred years old but with seething sexual appetites) Many low-lifes on the sordid city streets to some degree held in abeyance by the local police chief.

Broken Angels – Richard K. Morgan (2003) The second in the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy. This novel is remarkably similar to its predecessor what with hideous violence and the most graphic sex. It was still entertaining, but not recommended.

Woken Furies – Richard K. Morgan (2007) The final Takeshi Kovacs tale. I can enjoy only so much gory violence interspersed with steaming sex.

The Hydrogen Sonata – Iain Banks (2012) ” Vyr Cossont is introduced as a former Lieutenant-Commander (reserve) of the Gzilt, who has set herself a life-task of playing T. C. Vilabier’s 26th String-Specific Sonata For An Instrument Yet To Be Invented, the eponymous Hydrogen Sonata, on the instrument subsequently invented for its performance: the Antagonistic Undecagonstring, or elevenstring. In order to do so, she has had to grow two additional arms. Both the instrument and the work are presented as unusually challenging. ” And from that start we follow Cossont across several solar systems on a diplomatic/military mission to thwart an invasion of aliens bent on evil. You have to suspend a lot of disbelief, but oh, what a thriller!

New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson (2017) Robinson is always entertaining, and this one, set in a largely flooded New York City kept my attention as a crew of delightful characters ran around snatching each other from dangerous situations.

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles (2016) Isn’t it wonderful when a friend mails you a book that turns out to be outstanding. Beautiful writing, rich plot, and studded with delightful allusions, what more can one ask? The book opens with the Currier Prime 10pt transcript of the minutes of the 21 June 1922 “Appearance of Count Alexander Ilych Rostov Before the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs” in which Rostov conducts himself with such breathtaking insolence that the committee sentences him to house arrest in his suite at the Hotel Metropol. He is then escorted to his suite, where he discovers that he’s being evicted and that his new quarters will be a single room in the garret, bathroom down the hall. He is allowed to select from his effects whatever he wants to stuff into his tiny new lodgings and he deals with the events with the utmost panache.

And then for 425 pages we get to see the count’s delightful adventures in thwarting authority until 1954, when he escapes from their clutches and is free…in the arms of the woman he loves.

It has been some time since I enjoyed a book so much.

The Lincoln Highway – Amor Towles (2021) My friend went ahead and put a second book in the box I got, and it vies with the other one. This one begins with Emmet Watson in his father’s Nebraska farmhouse in the brief period between the death of his father and the foreclosure by the bank. Actually it begins with Emmett in the warden’s car as he is being delivered back home after fifteen months on a juvenile work farm. Two other inmates have stowed away in the warden’s trunk and get out without being seen. The novel ends ten days later with Emmett and his little brother in the same place after a series of adventures with the stowaways. Five hundred pages of captivating adventures. This novel is not as good as the previous one, but I sure didn’t put it down much.

The Siberian Dilemma – Martin Cruz Smith (2019) Forty years ago Smith introduced us to a Russian crime investigator named Arkady Renko in Gorky Park.  This is the tenth Renko novel since then, and it displays occasional sparks of the earlier ones. Go back and read the first four, and if you’re going to read just one, make it the second, Polar Star.

Democracy in America – Alexis de Tocqueville (1830) Oh my goodness. This has been coming up for me since I was an undergraduate, and I’ve kept putting it off since then. I finally checked it out of the library and am stunned. The damn thing is over a thousand pages, and from the first page I see that this is not escape fiction but rather a difficult intellectual tome. There is just no way at my age that I’ll read it straight through so I’m nibbling at it a chapter at a time. I started with the last chapter of Vol. I, Chapter XVIII which starts with the subchapter “The Present and Probable Future Condition of the Three Races Which Inhabit the Territory of the United States”. Well, he was pretty much spot on about the present condition of both Indians and Negroes as well as their history, but he didn’t think either could be civilized. He recognizes that the Indians are capable of civilization, citing the case of the Cherokees developing a written language, but thinks there are too many barriers facing them to allow success. Regarding the Negroes, he feels that slavery carries the seeds of its own destruction and contrasts the society it creates in the slave holders with that in the north. He makes a lot of sense, enough that it’s hard to grasp that he was writing in the late 1820’s. What a brilliant man he was!

Still, this is such slow reading that I’ll take it a chapter at a time interspersed between lighter fare.

Rules of Civility – Amor Towles ( (2011) This is Towles’ first novel and not nearly as good as the two (see above) that followed it.

The Breath of the Sun – Rachel Fellman (2018) Paula, my bookseller, recommended this; and she was right. People who write reviews seem (mostly) to compare this with Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, mainly because both revolve around harsh winter journeys but also because of the non-traditional sexual relationships in both. This was a very enjoyable read, but I failed to write about it until I’d almost entirely forgot it. I should that as a lesson.

Ministry for the Future – Kim Stanley Robinson ( 2020) I don’t recall ever failing to enjoy one of Robinson’s novels, and this is no exception. It’s a tale of climate change spurred by global warming, and it starts in 2025 when The Ministry of the Future was established in Zurich to deal with the existing global warming and try to reverse it. The head of this ministry is Mary Murphy, and the novel tracks her efforts and their effects over the the following decades. It’s technically fiction, but it sure is based on reality and was spellbinding for an old tree-hugger like me.

Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick, introduction and selection by Jonathan Lethem (2002) I started reading Dick’s novels in the late seventies and have enjoyed a number of them since, most particularly Doctor Bloodmoney, which was written in 1965 and takes place largely in a post-apocalyptic Bay Area of the mid-eighties after a nuclear exchange has set civilization back a few decades. I’ve long felt this was his best novel, but only very recently discovered that he also rated it at the top. I’d read few of his short stories, and this selection of 21 of them makes me want to find another collection. Fine stuff, at least for Dick fans.

Play It As It Lays – Joan Didion (1970) I thought I’d read all of Didion’s novels, but picked this one up just to make sure. Read it straight through and found nothing I recalled reading, which is just as well since the characters are so repellent and the plot so bleak that I found no enjoyment.

FKA USA – Reed King (2019) We like plots revolving around road trips, and this one, set in 2085 after the US has fragmented into separate, often hostile, sub-nations, was exciting. Part of the entertainment came from the cast of travelers that ranged from a young semi-literate factory worker to a talking goat who was the brains of the crew. So go ahead, put your disbelief on hold, and enjoy.

Hainish Novels & Stories, Volume I – Ursula LeGuin (2017) I’ve been a LeGuin fan for many years and have cherished The Left Hand of Darkness as one of my favorite novels. What I’d not done was to take a look at LeGuin’s work to see what I’d missed. This book is one of the Library of America’s publications in which they gather a number of an author’s novels and stories into one volume by dint of small type and thin paper. This book, including the notes, runs to 1095 pages and comprises Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, four stories, introductions to four of the novels, a couple of essays, and an alternate version of one of the stories.

I read it straight through with great enjoyment. I’m eager to tackle Vol II.

Transition – Iain Banks (2009) Banks is one of those writers who never fail me. This one is about people who have the ability to transition from their current body into someone else’s. A number of ’em have banded together into a group called The Concern that works to do good. It is set in a world bounded by the dismantling of the Wall and the destruction of the Twin Towers with excursions to Victorian London and Contemporary Venice. But of course there’d be no story without bad guys, and thwarting them gets rather gory…but fun gore.

Three Cups of Deceit – Jon Krakauer (2011) The title is a play on Greg Mortensen’s best selling Three Cups of Tea, and yes, Krakauer shows us that Mortensen is a colossal fraud who didn’t go to the places he supposedly went nor do the things he claimed to have done. Not to mention keeping rather loose track of how he spent the millions he raised. What makes it all the sadder is that Mortensen apparently started with good intentions but somehow got so full of himself that he could no longer tell the truth.

Where Men Win Glory – Jon Krakauer (2009) Here we have the story of Pat Tillman, the football star who walked away from a $2.5 million NFL contract and enlisted in the Army to fight terrorism. Krakauer examines how Tillman grew up and became a star but after 9/11 felt an overwhelming need to serve his country. Alas, from the moment of his enlistment the Bush administration saw that they could use him as a propaganda tool despite his fervent efforts to avoid this. And then, from the moment of his death, the Army, at the insistence of Cheney, clamped a lid on objective coverage that would reveal that he’d succumbed to friendly fire. His family, led by his mother, would have none of this and worked tirelessly to get the truth out. What a sorry episode.

Ice – Vladimir Sorokin (2007) Sorokin is a leading Russian satirist who uses fantasy as a weapon. The plot here revolves around the 1908 Tunguska meteorite having left buried in Siberia a mysterious ice isotope that left people exposed to it in a certain way with superhuman powers. Oh dear lord, it’s way too complicated for me to describe, but I have to admit enjoying the novel.

Spirits of San Francisco – Gary Kamiya (text) and Paul Madonna (drawings). Madonna’s fine drawings appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle for a dozen years, and Kamiya’s explorations of the city appear monthly. No surprise that two men of such talent would meet and agree to cooperate on a book. Oh wow. They cover neighborhoods all over the city and present their history glowingly. Buy it. Or at least check it out of the library.

Consider Phlebas – Iain Banks (1987) I read this space opera with a good deal of pleasure and returned it a couple of hours ago before I started this comment. I had to go online to find the publication date, and when I did so I found this summary, which I’ll just quote. “The war raged across the galaxy. Billions had died, billions more were doomed. Moons, planets, the very stars themselves, faced destruction, cold-blooded, brutal, and worse, random. The Idirans fought for their Faith; the Culture for its moral right to exist. Principles were at stake. There could be no surrender.

“Within the cosmic conflict, an individual crusade. Deep within a fabled labyrinth on a barren world, a Planet of the Dead proscribed to mortals, lay a fugitive Mind. Both the Culture and the Idirans sought it. It was the fate of Horza, the Changer, and his motley crew of unpredictable mercenaries, human and machine, actually to find it, and with it their own destruction.”

The Queue – Vladimir Sorokin (1987) I found Ice, my first taste of Sorokin so interesting that I checked out this, his first novel. I tried, tried to get into the spell here as he composes a novel consisting of words and even whole sentences overheard in the subway. I might have been able to get into it fifty years ago. But not now.

Under the Banner of Heaven – Jon Krakauer (2003) On July 24, 1984 Brenda Allen and her infant daughter Erika were murdered in their home in American Fork, Utah, by two brothers who believed they were ordered by God to commit the crime. Krakauer examines their history and how the fundamentalist Mormon Church inculcated such a mind set. He explores the history of the church and its development under the leadership of Brigham Young after Joseph Smith was killed by a mob. Most particularly he examines the history of polygamy in the church after Smith’s revelation that it was not just permitted but rather required. He even included a chapter on the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre. I learned as much about Mormons here as I did from all my previous reading.

Massacre at Mountain Meadows – Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Glen M Leonard (2008) The authors are Mormon historians, and I was triggered in the first few pages by what sure looked like they were out to present the Mormon side of the story. The first of the three authors is described as “independent while the latter two hold positions in the Mormon church. So expecting the book to be a coverup, I put it down while I read the next one cited below by Will Bagley. When I took it up later I was relieved to see that the coverage of the events was scrupulous, with sources carefully cited, and details Mormon attempts at a coverup.

Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows – Will Bagley , a newspaperman described on the back cover as an “independent historian”, by which we understand that he is not under the thumb of the Mormon church. (2002) I’d seen references to this book that described it as exhaustive and even handed, and that’s the feeling I got as I read it. It’s copiously endnoted, citing sources for major points, and includes appendix listing the victims and their ages as well as the seventeen surviving small children.

Sea of Tranquility – Emily St. John Mandel (2022) This entertaining novel covers a time and location span from Victorian England to a moon colony 500 years later with a pandemic in between. She’s good. Very good.

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick (1962) I read nearly to the end of this novel before it triggered a memory that I’d already read it at some point a few years ago. Good the second time, too. It’s set mainly in California in the early sixties and describes a nation that had lost WWII and, twenty years later was divided between German and Japanese occupation forces. It stars a man who sold to the Japanese authentic memorabilia from the American past. Well, except that he was a gifted forger and produced such fine fakes that they passed muster. Usually. Perhaps the best aspect of this novel is Dick’s portrayal of American, Japanese, and to a lesser degree, German, cultural biases

The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas of Ursula K LeGuin (2016) Collected here are: “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow”, “Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come Out Tonight”, “Hernes”, “The Matter of Seggri”, “Another Story of a Fisherman on the Inland Sea”, ” Forgiveness Day”, “A Man of the People”, ” A Woman’s Liberation”, Old Music and the Slave Women”, “The Finder”, “On the High Marsh”, “Dragonfly”, and “Paradises Lost”. Fine reading here. I read straight through and was surprised at how few of them I remembered reading. And how much better than Dick’s work they are.

Fitzcarraldo – Werner Herzog (1982) I’d been thinking about the movie herzog made and found a link to watch it online. I also found this, the original story he’d written, so now I’ve done my homework and can watch the video.

Loosed Upon the World – (2011) This is a collection of science fiction stories about climate change, and many of them are fine. Not too surprisingly since the list of authors runs from Margaret Atwood and Paolo Bacigalupi to Kim Stanley Robinson.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America – ed. Andrew F Smith (2013) I read about this monstrous word when the second edition was published and, having more money than sense at the time, rushed out and bought it. The three volumes (ca. 2500 pp.) have been holding their end of the bookcase down since then, but since I don’t have the energy for all my previous activities, I now have more time to read. So I started at page 1. Yep, it’s an encyclopedia, so they cast a wide net and tell me more than I want to know about, for example, the history of Baskin Robbins ice cream. And then they barely mention to me more important things. That said, I found it pleasant going for the first volume and will pick off the next two between novel. And of course I’ll want to give it to someone when I’ve finished reading vol. 3. Let me know if you want it.

When I Fell from the Sky – Julienne Koepcke (2011) On Christmas Eve in 1972, the plane in which Julienne was flying with her mother disintegrated in mid air and she fell, in her seat, to the Amazon jungle 10,000 feet below. She woke up with a concussion, some cuts, and a broken collarbone wearing only light summer attire and one shoe. No knife or other tool. She struggled downhill for nine days until she spotted the first sign of civilization, a small boat pulled up onto the shore of the river she was following and waited for two days until the boat’s owner showed up and took her to the nearest medical aid.

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