2011 – Reading

Never before have i made a list of the books i’ve been reading, but i’m doing it this year, trash and all.

The Geography of Nowhere – James Kunstler. This is Kunstler’s eminently sensible take on urban planning and the importance of creating neighborhoods that are not dependent on the automobile, written before he became the chief tom-tom beater for Peak Oil.

Infinite City – Rebecca Solnit. What a fine book this is. I’m lending it to my friends, and in between lendings, taking it out with me on forays into the city visiting sites on all her fanciful and informative maps of San Francisco and the Bay Area. Henry Reed famously wrote, “Maps are of time, not place,” but Solnit’s celebrate both.

Climate Wars – Gwynne Dyer. The subtitle is The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats, which pretty much says it all.

The Procedure – Harry Mulisch. I discovered Mulisch when the English translation of The Discovery of Heaven became a best-seller in the mid-nineties. Discovery is a marvelous book, but alas, it’s also his magnum opus, so everything else is downhill.

White People – Allan Gurganus. I was lent Gurganus’ massive Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All while it was a best seller and plowed through it with the growing conviction that it would be considerably better abridged. When i finally reached the end i realized that no, i could not think of a single episode that could profitably be omitted, and now, over twenty years later, some of those episodes (foremost, the interminable dirge) are still sharply engraved on my brain. I bought White People when it was published in 1990 but was so stunned by the first story about the awful childhood of a gay boy that i could read no further back then. Turns out some of the others are equally powerful. Gurganus is an American treasure.

Mink River – Brian Doyle. Set in a coastal Oregon town and maybe a little too spiritual for this old atheist, but i loved it anyhow, as i would any novel with a rich cast of vivid small town characters including a talking crow (with something worthwhile to say) and a doctor who smokes 12 cigarettes a day more or less at the canonical hours – each named for, and having the characteristics of, an apostle.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 – Clemens worked on an autobiography sporadically for decades, but the great majority of it was dictated during the last three years of his life after he had decided to stipulate that it not be published until a hundred years after his death, when all the people he discussed would be dead. This, he felt, would allow him to write honestly about them. That said, he was doubtful that he could write a truly honest autobiography since he had done many things of which he was so ashamed that he simply couldn’t bear telling everyone about them. My friend Sharon is one of the editors of this book, and i love Twain’s wit, so buying it was a no-brainer. Not the sort of thing most of us could sit down and read straight through, but i found it very enjoyable taken a few episodes at a time. And no, since i was reading this for the pleasure of Twain’s writing rather than as a scholar, i did not dig through all 200 pages of notes at the end.

The Practical Heart – Allan Gurganus. Four novellas, at least three of which are stunning. And i am now “caught up” on Gurganus, as he is still working on his sequel to Oldest Widow.

The World in 2050 – Laurence C. Smith examines how four forces will shape the northern portions of the northern hemisphere in the coming decades: growing population, growing demand for natural resources, climate change, and globalization. I hadn’t really thought about globalization in this context, but yes, just as nations export and import goods and materials, so also we export and import problems and solutions.

Zero History – William Gibson. OK, I’ll gobble up anything Gibson writes, so i’m hardly the fussiest critic. That said, i thoroughly enjoyed this, at least partly because i find entertaining Gibson’s tendency to use characters from previous works, in this case, from Pattern Recognition and Spook Country.. I also found every few pages delightful metaphors, imagery, and turns of phrase. Like the previous two, this one is set right now, and everything is entirely within the realm of the possible. If you like Gibson, you’ll like his latest. If you haven’t read Gibson, start with Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Virtual Light.

Misspent Youth – Peter F. Hamilton. I agonized over whether to admit i’d read this book and then realized that i owed it to my readers to warn them. This thing probably got onto my list of books to read because it’s set in 2040, and i have a great weakness for futurist fiction. Alas, just a few pages into it i realized that since Hamilton writes so badly, the only thing that could possibly save this stinker would be a brilliant depiction of society in the not-too-distant future. That didn’t happen. Instead he focuses on leering depictions of his characters’ sexual activity. Two thumbs down and toes fully clenched.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – David Mitchell. Jacob is a young clerk in the Dutch East Indies Company who is posted to the company’s outpost in Nagasaki harbor at the turn of the nineteenth century and is immediately plunged into a world of business and political intrigue complicated further by his obsession with a Japanese woman with whom he can have only the most fleeting contact. An excellent addition to the Mitchell canon. If you haven’t read Mitchell, start with my favorite, his first novel, Ghostwritten, which is in the form of a series of vivid chapters focused on different characters linked to each other in sometimes deliciously subtle ways. Mitchell also uses the technique of linked chapters in Cloud Atlas, my second favorite.

Collapse – Jared Diamond. I read this several years ago when it first appeared, but bought a copy to pass on to a friend and grabbed the chance to reread it. It had somehow got even better. Diamond describes five characteristics that tend to cause societies to collapse and then examines how they apply in several societies, ancient and modern, including ours. In the last chapter, he tosses out a crumb of hope. And no, this is not a reasonable summary of this superb book, but i cannot recommend it too highly for anyone who has some concern about where the world is headed. I should mention that, unlike many writers on environmental issues Diamond bends over backward to point out instances in which big business has not been anti-environmental. Don’t worry, though, as he also provides a litany of outrages perpetrated by the extractive industries.

Winter in Wartime – Jan Terlouw. I bought this book after i’d enjoyed the movie, which was a smash hit in the Netherlands in 2008 as Oorlogswinter but was first released in this country in 2011 in an English version (but with a good bit of subtitled Dutch and German). On the first page of this 160 page novel i realized that i should have got the Dutch version, as Terlouw had previously written only books for children and this one seems aimed at young adults. The movie, frankly, was better.

Patience and Fortitude – Nicholas A. Basbanes. This volume is beautifully bound, perfectly proportioned, and feels fine in the hand. Which it should, since it focuses on the history of books, the bookstores and libraries in which they are housed, and the people who sell, collect, and store them. Of special interest to San Franciscans is an entire luscious chapter devoted to the breathtaking fiasco represented by our New Main library with part of a later chapter devoted to the new French National Library in Tolbiac, which opened in 1997, the year after San Francisco’s New Main and with strikingly similar problems.

A Dictionary of Maqiao – Han Shaogong, tr. Julia Lovell. This is one of those books in which you just know you’re missing a lot simply because you don’t really know enough about mainland Chinese culture. In my case, thanks to a handful of Chinese friends i’ve known over the years and to my Chinese students when i was teaching ESL at City College, i understand the shock Chinese would feel at seeing someone who had eaten so much rich food that his face was greasy, but this just reminds me that i must have missed a thousand other little things like that one. The novel is in the form of dictionary entries for the Maqiao dialect, but through these entries the author tells the story of an Educated Youth exiled to the countryside and the rich cast of characters he encounters there.

The Slynx – Tatiana Tolstoya, tr. Jamey Gambrell. Another dystopian novel, this one set in Russia several centuries in the future after The Blast has largely destroyed civilization. I bought this book a number of years ago before i’d read the reviews, which make it clear that that Tolstoya is a political historian and uses this dystopia as a vehicle for satire so specific that even though the residents of St. Petersburg doubtless rolled on the floor laughing things off, you have to be Russian to appreciate it.

Dutch: A Comprehensive Grammar – Bruce Donaldson. In anticipation of my trip to Amsterdam, i’ve put down everything else and am reading nothing but this grammar. Well, until even my eyes glaze over after reading sentences like “Note that the contracted conditional perfect forms had(den) kunnen doen and had(den) moeten doen are identical to the pluperfect (as a result of the double infinitive rule, see 11.8.2), but context always makes the meaning clear”, and i am driven to seek relief in something like the following.

Kook ook Holland – one of a series published by Kookook Culinaire Centrum, an outfit so sleazy that the writers, chained to their workbenches and flogged to the deadlines, labor unnamed. Still, an interesting little cookbook and a rich source of cooking vocabulary, for which i thank my friend Danny.

Point to Point Navigation – Gore Vidal. When Palimpsest was published back in ’95, i bought it at Thom Gunn’s recommendation and loved it. I was visiting Carol the other day and saw this memoir, published in 2006 and taking up where Palimpsest left off. She lent it to me. Alas, Vidal went down a lot in the eleven years between these memoirs. So did his prose.

An Island in Time – Geert Mak. This fine book was originally published in 1996 as Hoe God verdween uit Jorwerd and translated into English in 2000 as Jorwerd, the Death of the Village in Late Twentieth-Century Europe. I read this first English version with great delight, realizing that some of the same forces that so transformed Jorwert (in the official Dutch spelling as opposed to the Frisian of the title) had also caused the small towns all across the American heartland to shrivel up and die (or nearly so) during my lifetime. I found this new 2010 version (same translation of the text but with an added preface and afterword by the author) in Amsterdam in August and grabbed it to distract me during my eleven hour flight home in steerage. It worked.

The Assault – Harry Mulisch. Dutch friends reassured me that Mulisch wrote several excellent novels in addition to his spectacular The Discovery of Heaven, so i was willing to give him another chance after barely being able to get through The Procedure. Good thing i did, as i found The Assault a riveting tale focused on the question of war guilt. In Biedermann und die Brandstifter Max Frisch wrote that everybody shared some guilt. (Fading memory has him writing, “Alle Burger sind strafbar.”) Here, Mulisch depicts a man who discovers bit by bit over the course of the novel that the murder of his parents by the Nazis when he was twelve involved a tangled interaction with the neighbors that would take most of his life to unravel…and that once he has done so he understands that the assignment of guilt is fraught with complications and that those he had thought most guilty, weren’t.

The Space Magicians – edited by Alden H. Norton and Sam Moskowitz. I saw this tattered paperback in Mark’s antiquariaat in Amsterdam, and my eye immediately alit on the names of the contributors – Asimov, Kuttner, Wyndham, Simak, Russell, Bloch, and Chambers. All star cast. Since i needed something to read on the flight home, i bought it. And then i noticed in fine print on the cover “First time in book form” and feared, correctly, that the reason the authors never got these collected in a book was that they were very early stories that simply weren’t good enough. That said, a couple of the stories were fairly good, and perhaps the best was written by Isaac Asimov when he was 19.

Hegemony or Survival – Noam Chomsky. I was going to describe Chomsky as America’s most maligned radical and then realized that the vast majority of Americans have never heard of him since trenchant critics of our foreign policy are almost never mentioned in the mainstream media, and when they are, only in passing. So actually, it’s only lefties like me who read Chomsky, and i suspect that for many of the others, as it is for me, reading him is confirmation that that our government is even more mendacious and corrupt than we had previously understood. Chomsky puts the pieces together. Rather depressing to have it thrown once again in my face that the people who are running this country are mostly far more concerned with short term hegemony than with long term survival. Thus his title.

The Fall into Eden: Landscape and Imagination in California – David Wyatt. I bought this book a number of years ago when i read that it examined “the mythology of California as it is reflected in the literature of the region.” Well, it does, although it’s a scholarly textual study of the sort i hadn’t seen in decades and is full of sentences like this one discussing Frémont: “Where the encounter with landscape previously encouraged a complex and liberating dialectic between spectatorship and abandonment, now he imposed on it the designs of an imperial self.” Nowadays, my own imperial self cannot bear very much of that sort of prose. And to be fair, slogging and skimming through this thing has made me renew my vow to read some of the works of John Muir and Clarence King…and more of Steinbeck, Jeffers, and even Raymond Chandler.

Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 – Nan Alamilla Boyd. The reviews were spot on. A scrupulously researched and exquisitely detailed history of how we wriggled out from under religious and political persecution thanks to the combined forces of the homophile movement and gay bars. And OK, through clenched, anti-clerical teeth i’ll admit that after the police raid on California Hall on New Year’s Day, 1965 that pretty much marked the end of major police harassment in San Francisco, a group of protestant ministers stood up for us and issued a joint statement to the press that gave the lie to police claims against gays. Did i mention they were all protestant? Not a fucking priest in sight. Roman Catholic priests persecute gays when they’re not too busy sexually abusing children. No Christian denomination has been a more vicious, unrelenting enemy of gays than the Roman Catholic. They would still be burning us at the stake if they had the power.  [Goodness, i reread this review in 2016 and am a bit shocked at how vociferously anti-Catholic i was back in 2011.  Shoulda pointed out that by and large, the protestants were just as bad as the catholics and that the ones who bravely stood up for us in 1965 were the exception.

How to Succeed at Globalization – El Fisgón. tr. Mark Fried. Chomsky lite, copiously illustrated and with a sense of humor.

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order – Samuel P. Huntington. This book, published in 1997, has left me stunned. He devotes the first eleven eminently sensible and objective chapters to breaking the world into nine civilizations, defining them, and explicating how they have interacted. The civilizations are: Western (the English-speaking countries plus Western Europe to its borders with the Orthodox branch of Christianity), Latin American (from Mexico through the Caribbean and South America), African (sub-saharan Africa at its boundary with Islam), Islamic (all Islamic countries), Sinic (China, Korea, and Vietnam), Hindu (India), Orthodox – (all Orthodox Christian countries), Buddhist (Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, and Japanese. He recognizes that the United States (and Western culture) have peaked and are now declining in power. And then, in his last chapter he takes a hard right turn, mounts an attack on “multiculturalism”, and argues that to defend ourselves from the increasing power of the rest of the world we need to establish tighter alliances with Western Europe and revert to American core values, which for him are exemplified by WASPS, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. On the other hand, at least he acknowledges that we must “….recognize that Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multicivilizational world.” Sure do wish the neocons had read this before they took power in 2000 and led us into two disastrous wars.

Alice, Let’s Eat – Calvin Trilling. I’d been enjoying Trilling’s delightful essays on his gourmandizing and gluttony for many years as i ran across them in various periodicals, but my friend Dick last year sent me this collection of them. Only problem is that i can read only a few pages before i have to fix myself a snack.

The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age – John Michael Greer, better known as the Archdruid. Most of the contents of this fine book appeared at some point since 2006 in the highly recommended linked blog above, but it sure is easier to read in the book format. His central argument is that because of resource depletion and burgeoning population our civilization is no longer sustainable and like all previous civilizations is falling into a long decline that will take several centuries to play out through alternating periods of decline and stabilization. Greer is not one of those doomers warning folks to start laying in supplies of nonperishable food and plenty of ammunition to protect it from the ravening hordes that will be soon be swarming over the countryside On the other hand, he thinks it’ll be a real good thing to learn how to grow and preserve food and work with hand tools, not to mention teaching these skills to your children, because those who learn how to get by with less now will be in much better shape as it becomes more necessary to do so.

The World According to Garp – John Irving. This thing was a runaway best seller in the late seventies and got enough favorable mentions that it ended up on my list of books to read. Well, the byzantine plot made it entertaining enough to finish. Enough said.

Apocalypse Not – John Michael Greer. In this slim volume Greer traces the apocalypse meme back to Zarathustra and tracks its incorporation into Judaism, from which it infected Christianity and Islam. He then describes the popularity of apocalyptic predictions in Western culture and details their failure to come to pass. All aimed at uncovering the ludicrousness of the current craze for thinking the Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world on 21 December 2012…and for believing this prediction even if it had actually been made.

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