2121 Reading

Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh (1928) I read this book because II’d loved The Loved One, and I liked this one for its frequent delicious turns of phrase, but the satire on the British upper class fell flat.

Arguably:  Essays by Christopher Hitchens (2011) It took me a while to get through all 750 pages of this, but it was always enjoyable reading, and many of the essays were absolutely sterling. He leaves little unskewered.

Fantasyland:  How America Went Haywire – Kurt Andersen (2017) Oh my goodness. You want to know why so many Americans are so fucked up today and so susceptible to conspiracy theories? Read this book.

In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin (1977) I’d never heard of Chatwin until just a very few years ago when suddenly his name kept coming up again and again. This is his most well regarded book, and oh oh oh, how wonderful it is to sit here wallowing in his genius. I just loved this book.

Red Moon – Kim Stanley Robinson (2018) I’ve enjoyed other books of his, most particularly the Mars trilogy, and I enjoyed this one, too. This one is set in the not-too-distant future when both China and the US have colonies on the moon, us at the north pole and them at the south. The two countries are both undergoing crises marked by great groundswells of civil disobedience. The main character is Chen Qi, the renegade daughter of one of the Politburo’s major figures. She’s one of the leaders of the civil uprising, which of course makes her a target of her father’s enemies. Quite a complex plot but enlivened for me by Robinson’s depiction of life on the moon. You can imagine my disappointment when I neared the end, turned the page, and was met with blank space. Never did a novel demand more loudly a sequel.

Poison Penmanship – Jessica Mitford (2020) This is a collection of essays written from 1957 to 1979 to which she has appended notes on their writing and commentary on their subjects. She’s such a brilliant woman that she makes a wide variety of subjects absolutely spellbinding and explanations of how she wrote the essays fascinating.

Hotel de Dream – Edmund White (2007) This novel is a fine mashup of fact and fiction. First the facts: “Hotel de Dream” was the name of a bawdy house owned by Cora Taylor in Jacksonville, FL. Crane took up with her and they spent the last few years of his life together. Now the fiction: Crane had met a boy prostitute non-professionally and pitied him, and during the last few weeks of his life, he dictated to Cora a novel titled The Painted Boy. The book alternates between describing his last days with Cora and chapters of the novel. I enjoyed it. Not sure how many others would.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean – Joan Didion (2021) This is a collection of a dozen essays she’d not previously published in book form, so yes, we’re being served leftovers. But she’s Joan Didion, so even the leftovers are delicious. What this reminds me of is that I’ve not read any of her later collections of essays even though I’ve read plenty with great enjoyment in the periodical in which they were first published. Gotta check those collections out to pick up the ones I’d missed. Reading these essays made me want to reread her novels.

The City of Falling Angels – John Berendt (2005) Nothing, of course, could top Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but Berendt’s meticulous depiction of the rebuilding of the Fenice opera house in Venice after its total destruction by fire in 1996 is a good try. He covers the investigation into the cause of the fire and burrows into local society involved in fundraising for the reconstruction, their cliques and counter-cliques. Like Midnight, this is such a byzantine tale that it could well be fiction. I just looked to see what else he’d written and discovered that these two nonfiction books are it. Furthermore, he’s in his eighties, so more are highly unlikely. Read these two.

Riddley Walker – Russell Hoban (1980) Some time back I read about this book and put it down onto a note that got buried. When I found the note, I no longer remembered anything about the book, but put a hold on it at the library anyhow. Opening it was quite a shock since it’s written in a highly corrupted form of English, that spoken by the narrator over 3,000 years in the future. Hoban creates a believable future English that is rather slow reading because half the words are spelled differently, but it’s still intelligible. Quite an interesting tale of a society that has reverted to the Iron Age but is aware that its predecessors were much more advanced and had flying boats and other marvels. My one quibble is that the English spoken over 3,000 years in the future after a total collapse of society would have far more changes than Hoban describes. After all, it was only a bit over a millennium ago that English was Old English, which is utterly unintelligible to modern speakers.

Annihilation  – Jeff Vandermeer (2014) Wow. A psychological thriller that depicts a series of expeditions to a mysterious Area X where things go wrong in expedition after expedition. Sure kept my attention.

The Divers’ Game – Jesse Ball (2019) A study in an alternate society, one that we developed into after difficulty in absorbing a large number of refugees. The solution was to accept refugees freely but deny them the rights of full citizens, called “pats”. All the rest were called “quads” and were identified by a red tattoo on the face. They enjoyed no rights whatsoever. They had no recourse if a pat assaulted or even killed them. They lived primarily in the “quad” where they were somewhat safer because pats rarely entered since by doing so they lost all their privileges and could be killed. Quads could leave the “quad” to take jobs in offered by the pats but they couldn’t stay out of the “quad”.

Now track some teenagers coming of age in this society. Fascinating study in sociology.

The Committed – Viet Thanh Nguyen (2021) I loved The Sympathizer so much that when I read that Nguyen had published another novel, with the same protagonist, I raced to Folio as fast as the Segway would go. This one is so good that I just wallowed in it. What fine writing! And how entertaining to read the adventures of the protagonist and narrator in Paris with bits of backstory in Vietnam and California. He’s pretty much penniless upon arrival, so he quickly finds a job cleaning in Vietnamese restaurant with utterly dreadful food because the restaurant is just a front for drug dealing. He quickly rises in the firm from cleaning to dealing, which turns out to be rather exciting.

I found this book delightful on a couple of levels and highly recommend it.

Selected Non-Fictions – Jorge Luis Borges, ed. Eliot Weinberger (1999) Over the years I’d read with enjoyment a number of Borges’ essays, but I have to say that 500 pages of them is a bit daunting. This is the sort of book that I can pick up, read a few essays, and put back down, taking a pleasant month to get through a tome strewn with delightful nuggets like his assessment of the Falklands war as being “two bald men fighting over a comb”.

Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro (2021) Klara is an Artificial Friend, an android designed to be a companion to a teenager. She’s put in poses in the department store to attract a buyer, and even though she’s a 2b and the 3’s have already been released, Josie talks her mother into buying Klara. And Klada and Josie become besties. Until, well, until…..things happen.

Uncollected Stories – Allan Gurganus (2021) I’ve been hoping for decades that Gurganis would write another novel because I so loved Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.  I’ve read two previous story collections, so I guess this is it. He still writes beautifully, so it’s a pity there probably won’t be more.

The Unvanquished – William Faulkner (1938) I’d been operating for decades under the delusion that I’d read all of Faulkner’s novels, but recently discovered that I’d missed some. This one features in Faulkner’s lush early prose the history of the Sartoris family during and immediately after the Civil War. Since I was born in the south, I cannot help feeling an emotional tie with the white characters even though intellectually I loathe them. Conservatives, especially the white supremacists, like to claim that the war was about states’ rights. You bet, the right to enslave other persons.

But once you get over that hurdle, the book is superb.

If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem – William Faulkner (1939) Ummm, this one failed to capture me, but that leaves all the rest, starting with Absalom, Absalom, which I rate as one of the very finest 20th-century novels.

The Hamlet – William Faulkner (1940) I had got only a page or two into this one before I realized that I’d read it as an undergraduate, but it’s so good I couldn’t stop reading. It’s the first of the three novels about the Snopes family and is set in and around Frenchman’s Bend as they move in and through shady dealings manage to outwit the locals. It also contains the bittersweet comic classic episode, the spotted horses auction.

The Letters of Thom Gunn – ed. Michael Nott, et. al. (2021) Last year I was contacted my Mr. Nott, who is writing a biography of Thom and wanted to interview me because he’d learned that we were good friends. The interview was great fun, and I like to think that I was able to provide some useful material about Thom’s life in San Francisco. Not the scholarly life but rather the sex-crazed leather fetishist life. It’ll take me a while to get through all 800 pages of this work since I’ll be nibbling a few letters, pausing, and nibbling more.

2034: A Novel of the Next World War – Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis (2021) This thing begins in October 2034 aboard an American destroyer, one of a small flotilla of American ships making a “freedom of passage patrol” through the Spratlys. We’d been doing this for decades, but this time turned out different. At the same time, one of our jet fighter skimming along the edge of Iranian air space in the Strait of Hormuz, and something unusual happened here also.

Subsequent events are tracked hour by hour at first, then at gradually increasing intervals as military strikes spread across the globe. When the dust has settled, the global balance of power has shifted, but I won’t give you spoilers.

Read this book. It’s well written and meticulously researched, so it’s terrifyingly plausible.


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