2021 – Reading

Decline and Fall – Evelyn Waugh (1928) I read this book because I’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, especially A Book of Common Prayer.

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 have been ravaged by time, 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 Klara is a 2b and the 3’s have already been released, Josie talks her mother into buying Klara. And Klara 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 classic bittersweet comic episode, the spotted horses auction.

The Letters of Thom Gunn – ed. Michael Nott, et. al. (2021) Last year I was contacted by 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 took me a while to get through all 800 pages of this work since I’d nibble a few letters, pause, and nibble 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 fighters was 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.

The Town – William Faulkner (1957) The Hamlet was set in Frenchman’s Bend, this next Snopes novel is set in nearby Jefferson, the county seat, and it tracks the rise of Flem Snopes from sharecropper to the most powerful man in town.

The Mansion – William Faulkner (1959) This final Snopes novel begins with the trial of Mink Snopes for the murder of his neighbor in a dispute over a strayed cow. Mink sits through the trial knowing that Flem will come to his rescue with testimony in his favor. Flem doesn’t show, and Mink then devotes his twenty-year sentence to plotting revenge on Flem. Alas, after a dozen years or so Flem tricks him by engineering an escape attempt that’s doomed to failure and gets Mink a second twenty years, which he bears patiently until he is finally released and can take his revenge. The Snopes trilogy is one of Faulkner’s finest achievements.

Moby Duck – Donovan Hahn (2011).  On January 10, 1992, in a terrible storm 5oo miles south of the end of the Aleutians, the Evergreen EverLoyal container ship lost twelve of the containers overboard.  One contained 28,000 plastic toys, of which 7,000 were yellow ducks.  After their cardboard boxes yielded to the Pacific, the ducks were set free and over the next few years started turning up on beaches on the American west coast with a handful making it through the Northwest Passage to Greenland, Iceland, and points on our east coast as far south as Massachusetts.  Mr.Hahn found one and decided to investigate.  Thus this highly entertaining book.

Orientalism – Edward Said (1979) My edition includes an Afterward added in 1994 and a new Preface from 2003 When George W. Bush had invaded Iraq trumpeting an immediate victory only to be thwarted so well that even as I write this, we still have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book traces European involvement in the Middle east after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when the British and the French carved the area up into the map that we know today. Then in 1948 Israel was created from a sliver of western Palestine without consulting the Palestinians. Since then, the Israelis have taken over more and more of Palestinian land with the military support of the United States. This book was a splendid history lesson for me. Highly recommended.

2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson (2012) I really loved reading this even though it’s a space opera and was like eating an entire box of candy. Robinson is far from a great writer, but he sure is entertaining.

Blue Desert – Charles Bowden (1986) Bowden came to my attention with The Red Caddy, where he writes about Edward Abbey. This one is a series of vignettes set in Bowden’s stomping grounds, the Sonora desert. What fine writing!

Homeland – Cory Doctorow (2013) I was just blown away by Little Brother even though it is classified as “YA” Young Adult, so when I discovered this sequel, I jumped on it even though it’s also “YA”. And yes, it’s almost as good as Little Brother . I’m trying to figure out what criteria are used in labeling a book “YA”. Well, other than the main characters being in the age range from fifteen to nineteen and somehow not having sex. But hey, they can still be highly entertaining examples of the Bildungsroman, as both of these novels are.

August – Callan Wink (2020) Speaking of the Bildungsroman, here’s another. It’s set in the midwest and Montana and covers August’s adolescence from twelve to nineteen and is most definitely not YA. Wink is a fine writer, and I enjoyed this novel so much that I put a hold on his previous book, a collection of short stories.

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness – Claire Vaye Watkins. (2021) Paula at Folio Books gave me this advance uncorrected proof copy of the novel, set in the Mojave Desert and populated by edgy characters just barely getting by, on and over the edge of poverty. I quite enjoyed it although not as much as I did Gold Fame Citrus.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John Le Carré (1974) My goodness, is Le Carré ever entertaining. Every time I run across one of his spy novels I read it with great delight, and this one is no exception.

New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson (2017) By 2140 sea level rise has turned Manhattan’s streets to canals and its skyscrapers to islands. Also two major financial crashes called “Pauses” have disrupted society as we know it so that it’s only the resourceful who remain residents, almost all at a much lower standard of living than we experience now. Robinson spins an entertaining tale out of this situation. It’s good escape fiction.

Hail Mary – Andy Weir ( 2021) The moment I read that Weir had published another book I called up Folio to order it. Of course they had it in stock and put one back for me. And oh, can this guy ever spin a yarn. This one starts when he wakes up. Slowly until he finally remembers his name and why he’s in a space ship as one of the three crew members, the other two lying still in their bunks. Umm, as he gathers the strength to detach the tubes and wires and get to his feet, he discovers that the other two crew members are in a very advanced state of decomposition, nothing left but bones. How he figures out where he is and what he’s doing there is a fascinating tale in itself, but for Weir it’s just the starting point of an adventure that runs for over 400 pages until it hits an absolutely boffo last sentence. I loved this book.

Hainish Novels & Stories, Volume One – Ursula LeGuin (2017) This thousand pager gathers Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile,  City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, andseveral stories.  I’d read the last two novels and had long thought Left Hand was a masterpiece, so it was a great joy to read the entire volume straight through.

Points for a Compass Rose – Evan S. Connell, Jr(1973). My friend Jim gave me this first edition when it was first published, and I was so daunted by it that I just pecked around in it over the years but never sat down and read it systematically in spite of the fact that I quite liked the rather similar Deus lo Volt and the much more accessible Son of the Morning Star. I got through it this time and enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as Deus.

The Heretics of Dune – Frank Herbert (1984) This bills itself as the fifth book in the Dune chronicle, one that Herbert had basically finished. I thought I’d give it a try since I’d enjoyed the others. Looking a little closer, I learned that Frank’s son Brian had taken his father’s “first draft” of the novel, cut it down from 200,000 words to 165,000, and rushed it off to the publisher.

Got to page 5, read “Let Sleeping Worms Lie”, and was too sensitive to go farther.

The End of All Things – John Scalzi (2015) His 2011 Fuzzy Nation was such a hoot that I picked this one up at the Bernal Heights library. Hmmm, it was perfectly readable, but it left me unexcited.

The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood (2005) I was passing Atwood’s shelf in the library, and snapped this one up. Rating: Not bad, but the least enjoyable of her books that I’ve read. Maybe she’s too true to her sources here.

Cloud Cuckoo Land – Anthony Doerr (2021I read All the light We  Cannot See with great pleasure when it came out, so I grabbed this one eagerly. Doerr opens with a vignette featuring Konstanz, who’s aboard an interstellar ship having a dialog with an electronic nanny. Drop back many years to the Lakeport (Idaho) Public Library on February 20, 2020 4:30 P.M. where he introduces Zeno, a very bright kid who’s teaching himself Greek. We move a block away and meet Seymour, who’s seventeen and sitting in an old Pontiac Grand Am along with a couple of pressure-cooker bombs he’s made, waiting for the library to empty so he can sneak in and implant his bombs. The next vignette has us meeting seven-year-old Anna, who lives in desperate poverty in Constantinople in 1439. The novel is assembled of vignettes like the above, and the characters are vivid since most of them are barely scraping by. Doerr revisits the earlier characters as he adds new ones.

I read this book with unabated pleasure.

Austerlitz – W. G. Sebald (2001) I was just blown away by Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction in which he describes in hideous detail the allied bombing of German cities during WWII. Oh yes, we know about the firebombing of Dresden, but what we, or at least I, didn’t know was that virtually every German city got the same treatment.in the belief that this would also destroy the morale of the entire German population, particularly women and children since the men were all off fighting Russia to the east and the rest of Europe to the west. Of course the bombing of German cities was no more effective at destroying German morale than the German bombing of London at destroying English morale.

That put Sebald on my radar, so I decided to read one of his novels. This one. It’s fine literature and there’s a fine line between that and excellent writing. Over the past few decades I’ve realized that for me now, Philistine that I’ve become, fine literature is quite often less entertaining than excellent writing. I guess what I’m trying not to say here is that I found Austerlitz less entertaining than  Cloud Cuckoo Land. Worse yet, the reason is that I did not give Austerlitz the tightly-focused critical examination that it demanded is because hitting eighty has made me a very lazy old sod who’s squeezing every last bit of pleasure out of his remaining time. And is well past working hard at anything.

Autonomous – Annalee Newitz (2021) I’m too senile to remember who at Folio Books handed me this book as a suggestion, but I clearly remember glancing at the front cover and seeing praise from William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. No way I’d leave the store without it. Then I read it and loved it, but how to describe it? Well, it’s set in 2144 when Jack (short for Judith) is a Pharm Pirate who creates copies of overpriced drugs.

Orwell’s Roses – Rebecca Solnit (2021) Solnit is a jewel in San Francisco’s crown for all of her works that involve the city, but she also widens her horizons. This book is to some degree a biography of Orwell in the period of the second, third, and fourth decade of the 2oth century. It’s also a rebuttal of fascism, of which there was plenty to rebut during that period. Such a fine book deserves rereading.

Termination Shock – Neal Stephenson (2021) “We open on the queen of the Netherlands crash-landing a private jet on a runway in Waco, Texas, immediately precipitating a massacre of feral pigs.” from a review by Omar Akkad

Great North Road – Peter F. Hamilton (2012) This thousand-page thriller is get alternatingly a century from now in Newcastle, England and on St. Libra, a planet orbiting Sirius and now populated with colonists from Earth.

Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson (2015) I’ve much enjoyed a number of Robinson’s SF novels in the past, particularly Red Mars, Green Mars,and Blue Mars  so I had high hopes for this one. It’s set on a large space ship traveling on a centuries-long voyage to the planet Aurora which orbits the star Tau Ceti and has been determined to be a hospitable location for human colonization. The first half of the book is very interesting, but then the ship reaches its destination and There Are Problems. Alas, the book is unable to surmount the problems and grew less and less interesting to me as it progressed.

Red Moon – Kim Stanley Robinson (2018) This one is set largely on the moon with parts in China. It’s a convoluted espionage thriller that revolves around Xi Chan, the 18 year old daughter of one of the leading Chinese political powers who has run to the moon to escape the turmoil in China, Fred Fredricks, a middleaged computer software expert called to the moon to fix a software issue, and Ta Shu, Chinese poet, traveloger, and feng shui specialist. All three of ’em are in way over their heads, but then, it wouldn’t be much of a novel if they weren’t highly resourceful.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel until I turned the last page and discovered that it was the last page and that the novel had ended. I can only assume that Robinson plans a sequel as he did with Red Mars.

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