I had a lot of fun listing the books i read last year, so much so that i’m doing it again and, like last year, trash and all.
My Life as a Nomad by Galang Ayu of the Borneo Rainforest. Volume I. Collected, edited, and translated by Ian Mackenzie. Ian gave me the manuscript of his first draft, and my intent was to repay his kindness by proofreading it. Alas, the damn thing is so interesting that the proofreading i accomplished was perfunctory at best. This first volume covers Galang’s childhood through the period when his band was Christianized and he went off to Malaysian public school at the age of 14, but it includes fascinating vignettes describing incidents that occurred long before Galang’s birth (in approximately 1958) such as when Japanese troops stationed on the coast fled inland from attacking white men (doubtless Americans, but to the Penans back then, we all looked alike), overran a Kelabit village upriver, and then, when they’d eaten all the food stored in the village, starved at the edge of a jungle brimming with a huge variety of plant and animal food while the nomadic Penans fed and sheltered the Kelabits a short distance away.
The Code of the Woosters – P.G. Wodehouse. I discovered Wodehouse when i was in the army and found a copy of Pigs Have Wings in the post library. I devoured it and went on to read several of the Jeeves novels with great pleasure. It came as a surprise, then, that somehow Wodehouse now seems formulaic and no longer supplies several guffaws per page. But wait, when i read those Jeeves novels in the sixties they were about twenty-five years old. Now they’re three-quarters of a century, and the foibles of the British idle rich back then have been more than adequately explored. At least for me.
Davy – Edgar Pangborn. I’d read mentions of this book for decades, but didn’t get serious about hunting it down until i read the Archdruid’s discussion of it. To his comments i’ll add that the book is such an entertaining read that i sat up late finishing it, which is a rare event nowadays. I’ll also add that almost every critic compares Davy with A Canticle for Leibowitz since both are captivating depictions of post-apocalyptic American society dominated by religion. In Davy the religion is the Holy Murcan Church, a repressive anti-technological force, while Canticle is set in a Roman Catholic monastery and is blatant Roman Catholic propaganda (the thing has a nihil obstat and imprimatur!). I read it as a youth before i knew very much about the hideous history of the Roman Catholic Church…or of its unrelenting campaign of hatred against me, and i’d probably have to stop frequently to vomit if i tried getting through it now. OK, and to be fair, it’s well written Roman Catholic propaganda and entertainingly plotted.
Campo Santo – W.G. Sebald. I was stunned by Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction when i read it several years ago mainly because i’d not really fully grasped that all German cities were reduced to rubble by allied firebombing during WWII in what was billed as an attempt to destroy the morale of the noncombatants and thus by extension of the soldiers. This was no more successful than the German attempt to destroy British morale by bombing London, so a more likely motivation for “Bomber Harris” was simply revenge. Certainly i knew about Dresden from reading Vonnegut, and i knew about Hamburg from having visited German friends there in 1988, and i knew about Munich from having gone there many times, first during the Oktoberfest in ’64, and i knew about Frankfurt from having lived there in ’64 and ’65. And i knew that the old part of Heidelberg was spared because it was tucked into the narrow Neckar valley and was both a difficult target and insignificant, as opposed to neighboring Mannheim, which was flattened. But somehow it just hadn’t clicked that the destruction had extended to every city in the country and that all left standing in most cases was a ring of suburbs around a devastated core. On the Natural History of Destruction brought this into sharp focus. Campo Santo is a collection of essays that includes “On the Literary Description of Total Destruction”, which discusses the tardiness of the treatment of firebombing in German literature. Other essays are also splendidly insightful and make me want to read his novels.
The Beautiful Room Is Empty – Edmund White. This is the second in his trilogy of autobiographical novels (the first and last being A Boy’s Own Story and The Farewell Symphony). Somehow i’d read the others, but not this one, which begins with White’s adolescence in the mid-fifties and ends on the first night of the Stonewall riots on June 28, 1969. My introduction to White was his States of Desire, which i read in the early eighties shortly after its publication. He astonished me with his spot-on descriptions of gay men and the gay scene in various cities across America. Since i was living at the time in San Francisco and had visited Houston and Los Angeles on numerous occasions, i could appreciate the wit and accuracy with which White skewered the residents of those cities, and i found the book delightful and honest. I recently ran across an incredibly nasty New York Times review of this book that damned it for focusing on gay men and for failing to “make an alien setting comprehensible”, it apparently being beyond the reviewer’s power to imagine that this might not have been White’s purpose. Actually, i think most straight folks would find White’s autobiographical novels rather disturbing, at least in part, but for older gay men they’re wonderful reading, reminding us of how awful things were when we were young and the astonishing advance in tolerance in recent years.
The Third Chimpanzee – Jared Diamond. As much as i loved Diamond’s two latest works – Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse – it surprises me that i had not gone back until now to read his first. Here Diamond details the development of the human race, starting with those characteristics that distinguished us from our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. Then he devotes chapters to the evolution of our uniquely human sexual traits, how we select our mates, and the profound importance of the role played by adultery. Next, he takes up the development of language and the mixed blessing of agriculture, the spread of the human race over the planet, and the concurrent extinction of many species, particularly large, tasty herbivores. He follows this with an entertaining discussion of how the horse played a major role in the dissemination of Indo-European languages and then gets into our unfortunate human tendencies to genocide and to over-exploitation of available resources until their exhaustion causes local collapses. At the end, he tosses a crumb of hope.
Subhuman Redneck Poems – Les Murray. Aussie and well reviewed, but too much religion for this old atheist. Still, i have to admit that he has some fine dark humor, as in “The Rollover”, a delicious depiction of a bunch of farmers watching the eviction of a broke banker while an ugly crowd of troublemaking minor bank employees gathers. And yes, some fine lines, as in “Corniche” where in his reflections on the travails of aging he mentions those who “killed themselves to stop dying”, a concept that makes increasing sense.
The Wild Things – Dave Eggers. I’m a generation, or maybe two, too late to have read Maurice Sendak’s acclaimed children’s story Where the Wild Things Are, and i’m not much of a moviegoer so of course i missed the movie released in 2009. But lucky me, in 2003 Spike Jonze asked Dave Eggers to collaborate with him on the screenplay for the movie, which he did. And then Sendak suggested to Eggers that a novel might be made from the screenplay, which he did. In Eggers’ version we quickly see that Max is a rather disturbed little boy, and the behavior that’s quite funny in the first few pages becomes less and less so until Max sails off to the land of the wild things, where he gradually comes to some understandings. I’ll say no more, as i found the book profoundly moving and want you to experience Max’s adventure for yourself.
Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov. I didn’t discover this novel until the late eighties, when i read it with great enjoyment. What i didn’t do is bother to look at any of the critical analysis that had sprung up around it, and then, in the mid-nineties i was discussing it at work and found my faith in my interpretation shaken by questions my friend Sharon raised regarding the difficulty in separating reality from fantasy in Kinbote’s narration. And that’s where it all sat until a couple of months ago when i read a mention of Brian Boyd’s Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery. So i bought a copy of Pale Fire and read it with as much delight as before although this time i found Kinbote’s megalomania no less funny but, well, a bit horrifying. Yes, the liaisons with his students are not pedophilia, but for me they’re too close for comfort. Late Note: Nabokov’s unsympathetic treatment of gays in all his novels may have had to do with his inability to accept that his younger brother Sergei was gay. In any case, Sergei was rejected by his family and remained in Europe when the rest of them escaped in the early days of WWII. He was rounded up in one of the gay purges and died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. You didn’t have to be Jewish, gay was enough.
Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery – Brian Boyd. Boyd’s analysis is longer than the text he’s explicating, so i have to give him credit for depth. I had wallowed in delight at Nabokov’s continual allusions to a huge range of literature, but good grief, Boyd showed me that i missed far more than i spotted. Granted, i was reading for pleasure, but still….. The first 150 pages of the analysis were, i thought, unexceptionable, and i read them in awe. And then Boyd got into the core of his explication and lost me entirely for the remaining couple hundred pages as he argued that the ghosts of Shade and his daughter, Hazel, returned from the grave and directed the composition of Shade’s poem and Kinbote’s commentary, “Hazel reflected and reversed her own experience…into Kinbote’s Zembla, and shaped Zembla in turn layer upon layer so as to inspire her father.” Certainly he writes convincingly of Nabokov’s belief expressed elsewhere in an afterlife, but i remain unconvinced that Nabokov’s intention was to describe Shade and, especially, Kinbote as motivated by spirits of the dead. Invoking Occam’s Razor, a far easier and more direct reading for me is Kinbote in his madness twisting beyond recognition a poem his neighbor had written about the suicide of his daughter. And for me the best way to filter the reality out of the fantasy is simply note whether Kinbote is describing others and situations in New Wye in the present or those from his fantasy past.
Anathem – Neal Stephenson. Stephenson’s a marvelous spinner of tales with an unfortunate tendency to bog himself down in long, tedious passages on arcana. Anathem would have been much better two or three hundred pages shorter without all that cosmology, but frankly the digressions on Philippine history and cryptography in Cryptonomicon were the same sort of thing but not as disruptive (although it may be just that i’m much more interested in Philippine history and cryptography than in the cosmology). Even Snow Crash went on quite a bit too long about the snow crash even though it was a rollicking tale with a couple of the most delightful protagonists in modern American literature. Anathem is set on a world in which the intellectuals live and work in separate communities comparable to our monastic system, and i found great enjoyment in the parallels. As in all his novels, there is a vein of delicious humor. In Anathem toward the end some of the characters are outfitted with one-man space vehicles, and as the vehicles are described to the astronauts, one exclaims, “What! I’ll be competing with a fuel cell for my oxygen?” He is reassured, “Let’s call it cooperating.”
Arts and Letters – Edmund White. A thoroughly enjoyable and informative collection of essays on (mostly gay) literary figures from George Eliot to Vladimir Nabokov and artists from Andy Warhol to Robert Mapplethorpe. These essays remind us that White is not just a novelist but has written biographies of Genet (a work usually described as ‘monumental’), Proust, and Rimbaud.
Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11 – Joan Didion. This is really just a pamphlet. It was originally published as an essay in the January 16, 2003 edition of The New York Review of Books as an analysis of the propaganda campaign for an invasion of Iraq that was launched as the wreckage of the twin towers still burned. It traces the inculcation of “fixed ideas” of American preeminence as seen in her quotation of Charles Krauthammer’s neocon idiocy, “We run a uniquely benign imperium. This is not mere self-congratulation; it is a fact manifest in the way others welcome our power.” Ah yes, and urge us to stay longer, longer.
Homecoming – Bernhard Schlink. We all read The Reader back in the ‘nineties, and most of us loved it or at least enjoyed it, which had something to do with its being an international best seller translated into 40 languages. And i read with enjoyment Flights of Love, his collection of stories that appeared in 2001, but then he fell off my map. But when i opened Homecoming i found myself immediately under his spell again as i read of the narrator’s summers with his grandparents and how his reading of a small portion of a manuscript of his grandfather’s led to a search for the full manuscript and then, gradually, into delving into his own parentage, which turned out to be far more complicated than he’d ever imagined. Small wonder, actually, that before Homecoming Schlink wrote three very popular detective stories that were not translated into English until more recently but which i am now eager to read.
Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce. Ed. Russel Duncan and David Klooster. I had howled over Bierce’s mock epitaph for his publisher, “Here lies Frank Pixley, as usual”, wallowed in his Devil’s Dictionary, and read with horrified pleasure a fat collection of his short stories that ran to the macabre, but i had somehow missed his exposition. This is excellent war writing, written by a man who fought, full of keen insights into the heart of the soldier and the nature of war. The material is arranged in order of composition, and by the end Bierce had assembled a complete picture. In the short piece “Modern Warfare”, he writes, “Men do not construct expensive machinery, taxing themselves poor to keep it in working order, without ultimately setting it going. The more of its income a nation has to spend in preparation for war, the more certainly it will go to war. Its means of defense are means of aggression, and the stronger it feels itself to strike for its altars and its fires, the more spirited becomes its desire to go across the borders to upset the altars and extinguish the fires of its neighbors.” He wrote that in 1899, while we were freeing the Philippines from the tyranny of Spain. And now, a century later, having freed the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein, the Afghans from the Taliban, and the Libyans from Gaddafi in order to usher in almost paradisiacal levels of freedom, prosperity and security in those countries, we’ve started freeing the Yemenis and are considering freeing the Iranians and Syrians.
If You Think That’s Bad – Jim Shepard. I discovered Shepard when i read the title story in Love and Hydrogen, which i still fondly recall as a superb story in a fine collection. His novel Project X was a profoundly horrifying narration of a disturbed teenager faced with continual bullying and led by his only friend into a Columbine-style school massacre. If You Think That’s Bad is another story collection, and Shepard just stuns me with the variety of his characters and settings, from black ops dudes in the Nevada desert to Dutch engineers trying to stave off a repetition of the 1953 flood to Japanese filmmakers and modelmakers creating the film that Americans knew as Godzilla to a team of Polish mountain climbers in the Himalayas in winter. Great entertainment for when your life has got a little too complicated and you need a break.
Emporium – Adam Johnson. I bought this collection of stories after reading “Teen Sniper” in Harper’s and being blown away by the narrator’s deadpan discussion of his work, “One of the perks of being a police sniper in Palo Alto, aside from the satisfaction you get from serving the public, is the serious commitment these software companies show toward floral displays, toward making the world a more beautiful place.” Now that i’ve read in quick succession two short story collections by young American writers, it’s hard not to compare them. Johnson is focused entirely on modern American characters and situations (except for “The Canadanaut”, which is full of quite funny mock science like the narrator noting that it was quite cold, “must have been minus fifty Kelvin out”). More importantly, Johnson mixes into his realism delicious absurdities like the Palo Alto police using a fifteen-year-old expert marksman as a sniper when hostage negotiations break down. In all, Johnson’s deadpan satire and black humor win me over.
Parasites Like Us – Adam Johnson. Yes, i was so impressed with Johnson’s short stories that i read his first novel. As in his stories, Johnson gives us vivid characters, dark humor, fine satire, and wild absurdity, but somehow the end result is not a very satisfying novel. The characters somehow fail to coalesce into a believable plot, or even one that’s all that interesting. Johnson’s second novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, has just been published to mixed reviews, but the worst of them damn him with faint praise, so i’ll put this one on my list. That said, i have so far much preferred his short stories.
Quitting Science by Cunliffe Merriwether – Dan Bern. Several years ago i read a review touting Dan Bern’s forthcoming appearance at Twelve Galaxies in the Mission District, and on the spur of the moment, went. I enjoyed him so much that i went to his site and bought the eponymous album. Loved that so much i bought four more. He’s a wonderfully entertaining songwriter/singer. And that said, his book is unreadable. Hell, his book is unskimmable. But give his music a try.
Good Calories, Bad Calories – Gary Taubes. I read this at the recommendation of a friend, and have very mixed feelings about it. Taubes argues that we’ve been the victims of a vast conspiracy of government health advisers and the medical industry that has pushed fallacious dietary advice on us for the past half century, convincing us all that for a healthy life we should reduce the amount of fats we eat and replace them with moderate amounts of lean meat and complex carbohydrates as found in fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. He argues that this diet is what has driven the American obesity epidemic and that it has not improved our heart attack rate or any other indicator of good health. Instead, he says, we should be eating a diet very low in carbohydrates but with all the meat and fat we want. Actually, he makes a fairly convincing case, but i found his argumentative approach distasteful, and i couldn’t bear his need to demonize everyone advocating the diet that our government currently advises. It’s rather ironic that Taubes so bashes American doctors and yet my own doctor has for several years been suggesting, increasingly strongly, that i need to dramatically reduce my carbohydrate intake.
Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in 12 Fish – Richard Flanagan. First American Edition, printed in Australia in 2001, and i bought it back then. It is the best bound book i still own. The dimensions, 404 pages at 14 x 24 cm., fit finely in the hand, the gatherings are tightly sewn, the end papers are marbled, the title and author on the dust jacket are embossed. My ignorance of paper is virtually complete, but even i can tell that this is of better quality than usual. Hell, each chapter is printed in a different shade of ink, representing the watercolors that the convict artist narrator clandestinely makes from ordinary materials at hand. So why have i waited eleven years to read it? Well, the book was received with daunting critical acclaim. I wasn’t thinking very clearly back then and feared i’d forget everything more than twenty pages back. Probably best that i waited a bit since it is quite cumulative and is best read without too many interruptions. Still, i found it wonderfully entertaining and full of the droll humor one might expect in the fantastical memoir of a prisoner in a Tasmanian penal colony in the early 19th century. With layers upon layers of lies and duplicity woven by men desperate for survival, there is much here that accurately reflects the horrible history of the British penal colonies, and yet many boffo moments of sheer surreal hilarity. Fine magical realism.
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I’m not sure why i waited until Hitchens had gone to his eternal reward before i read this, but i sure did enjoy it. I read it marveling at how i could have honestly thought of myself as an agnostic for fifty some-odd years until reading Paul Monette in the nineties forced me to admit to myself that the Christian church was source of the homophobia that i faced in my youth and that didn’t start diminishing until i had escaped to San Francisco in the seventies. And that the Christian church continues to the present day to be the source, not only of anti-gay hatred but also a readiness to force everyone in the country to follow their insane policies governing heterosexual sexuality. Even so, it took me years after reading Monette to finally get off my lazy butt and start fighting back actively. I can’t really say that i learned all that much about the hideous history of Christian oppression and bigotry although i did learn that Islam was even worse than i’d realized, which is saying a lot, and that Buddhism hardly gets a free pass considering the role it played in Japanese aggression in the mid twentieth century.
The Wealth of Nature – John Michael Greer. The Archdruid strikes again, and this time he tackles economics. In this This book follows his previous work The Long Decline but focuses on the economic causes of the “long decline” in which we’re now at the beginning. Greer bases his economics on the views of E.F. Schumacher, and he proposes that we think of the world economy in three categories: “The primary economy is the natural world, which produces around 3/4ths of all economic value used by human beings. The secondary economy is the production of goods and services from natural resources by human labor. The tertiary economy is the production and exchange of money – a term that has value only because it can be exchanged for the products of the primary and secondary economies.” Greer points out that this includes all financial instruments, from dollar bills to “the most vaporous products of today’s financial engineering”. Greer describes how our titans of industry and finance have gradually shifted our economy from secondary to tertiary form as they offshored our manufacturing and outsourced our jobs overseas because there was more short term profit for them in tossing financial instruments back and forth, skimming a layer off at each throw. So now we have financial institutions too big to fail poised to drag the country down with them as the next bubble pops. Fun read.
Fuzzy Nation – John Scalzi. After the Greer, i needed a rip-roaring, rollicking adventure with justly punished villains and heroes dirtied enough to be believable, and that’s what Scalzi dishes up. He describes this book as a “reboot” of H. Beam Piper’s classic Little Fuzzy, but i can certainly see some significant indebtedness to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest. Meanwhile, Scalzi was so entertaining that i’ll try one of his earlier novels, and for that matter, i see he has a new one out.
Little Fuzzy – H. Beam Piper. Actually Scalzi’s reboot was so entertaining that i went burrowing and discovered that Piper’s original version was available online. The original was great fun, and at least partly because of all the advances since 1962 that Piper failed to anticipate. For one, many of the characters smoke tobacco, and i howled over a character asking whether there’d been time to develop the film in a camera.
Golden Gate – Kevin Starr. I’d read the first two volumes of Starr’s Americans and the California Dream, which brought me up through the first two decades of the 20th Century, and i thought i’d celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge by postponing the next six volumes and reading the slim volume on the bridge Starr cranked out for the occasion. The book was an entertaining history of the bridge after he got the purple prose of the first chapter out of his system. And hey, i cheerfully acknowledge that my own prose gets downright mauve, but i’m doing that on purpose.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin – Erik Larson. Scrupulously documented and based partly on the diaries kept by William E. Dodd and his daughter after he was appointed American ambassador to Germany in 1933, this work reads like a novel despite the documentation. Great insight into Hitler’s transformation of Germany into a totalitarian state and certainly timely as we watch the progression of our own country toward increasing authoritarianism.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power – Robert A. Caro. This is the fourth in what Caro is now projecting to be a five volume biography of Johnson although he does keep upping the volume count. I read the first two volumes when they came out in ’82 and ’90, and they brought me up to Johnson’s Senate victory in 1948. I’d heard tales all my life about how some of the citizens of Duval County had wanted to vote for Lyndon so badly that they had risen from the dead and lined up in alphabetical order to do so. Caro did enough digging to substantiate this charge. Volume 3 deals with Johnson’s Senate career, and i could skip that one easily, but volume 4 covers 1958 through mid-1964, Johnson’s failed bid for the Democratic nomination for the 1960 election through his miserable years as Kennedy’s vice president and then his astonishing rise to the occasion after he was catapulted into the presidency by Kennedy’s assassination in November of 1963. This is Johnson warts and all, hideous warts contrasted with the ability, because he understood the Senate, to accomplish civil rights victories that Kennedy would never have been able to pull off. I would never have believed that i’d find six hundred pages of political maneuvering so thrilling.
Dorian – Will Self. An update one fin de siècle later of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, this delightful novel transports the original to the period between 1981 and the late 1990’s, mostly in the gay subculture. The painter Basil Hallward now goes by “Baz”, and his portrait of Dorian is now a piece of conceptual art playing simultaneously on nine video monitors. Lord Henry Wotton is still a corrupted hedonist, but in Self’s version he’s a major recreational drug user whose excesses the new Dorian happily exceeds. There is enormous pleasure in reading this novel and tracing the parallels with the original, but Self doesn’t stop there. Oh no. The ending includes new spins on Wilde’s plot that left me gasping with delight.
The Pumphouse Gang – Tom Wolfe. I didn’t discover Wolfe until the publication of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test but quickly went back and devoured his early essay collections and, much later, Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full. But i missed the 1968 essay collection The Pumphouse Gang. What a delight to read this thing and be catapulted back into the late sixties, marveling at how precisely Wolfe skewered that era. Boffo reading, as when he writes of Marshal McCluhan, “He preferred Socratic dialogues, with six to ten people in attendance. A Socratic dialog, like a Pentecostal sermon, is a monologue punctuated by worshipful interruptions.”
The Ecotechnic Future – John Michael Greer. This is the archdruid’s depiction of what a relatively advanced sustainable future society might look like and the phases that we’ll go through over the next century or two to get there. It’s hopeful, of course, to understand that it would be possible for human life to exist on a sustainable level in a post-peak-oil future in which energy is increasingly expensive, all the easy sources of metals and minerals have already been exploited, and today’s nation-states no longer exist in their current form. It’s rather less hopeful when you realize that one of the givens is that the population that the planet can sustainably support is about a billion people, so something like six billion of us need to die. No no, not all at once. Just naturally over the next couple of centuries by God’s traditional means of population control: war, plague, and famine.
Quicksilver – Neal Stephenson. This is the first volume in Stephenson’s massive Baroque Cycle trilogy. When i was on page 262 (of 927) i asked myself, “Am i enjoying this or just reading it?” And realized immediately that it was a rhetorical question. Look, i read Anathem with pleasure, i thoroughly enjoyed Cryptonomicon, i quite liked The Victorian Age, and i just loved Snow Crash, which vies IMHO with Gibson’s Neuromancer for honors as Best Modern SF Novel. But here, Stephenson loses me, perhaps because i don’t fully appreciate the quasi-historical genre, which is saddening because i know in my heart that if i were younger and still had some brainpower and more patience, i’d have got pleasure out of these novels. The good news is that i have a young friend who i know read this trilogy with pleasure and who would just love to have a set of first editions in perfect condition.
Self’s Punishment – Bernhard Schlink. OK, i couldn’t wait. Set in the eighties, this is the first of Schlink’s three novels featuring the detective Gerhardt Self, a semi retired private investigator who in his youth had been a state prosecutor under the National Socialists and who is now under no illusions about the criminality of the Nazi regime but who had made no attempt to paint himself as rehabilitated after the war and work for the new government. Herr Self is the German Arkady Renko, and the book is as well written as Martin Cruz Smith’s. Schlink is a master at peeling the onion, and i devoured this one as fast as i could…well, OK, stopping occasionally to dry my eyes. The great news is that the remaining two in this series have now been translated into English.
The Blank Slate – Steven Pinker. Oh, my goodness. Why did i wait ten years to open this astonishing work? He utterly demolishes the widely held theory that our minds are at birth a blank slate upon which experience writes to form the adult. It’s the richest book i’ve read in ages, and it has forced me to rethink quite a lot of what i thought i knew about the mind. The down side is that the damn thing is so rich and thought provoking that reading it has been rather a slog since it has forced me to think harder than i’m accustomed. Not that there haven’t been many wondrous moments of utter delight, as in his discussion in the penultimate chapter of the role played by the arts.
“Artistic virtuosity he [the psychologist Geoffrey Miller] notes, is unevenly distributed, neurally demanding, hard to fake, and widely prized. Artists, in other words, are sexy.” Miller goes on to discuss the bowerbirds of Australia, writing:
“If you could interview a male Satin Bowerbird for Artforum magazine, he might say something like: ‘I find this implacable urge for self-expression, for playing with color and form for their own sake, quite inexplicable. I cannot remember when i first developed this raging thirst to present richly saturated color-fields within a monumental yet minimalist stage-set, but I feel connected to something beyond myself when I indulge these passions. When I see a beautiful orchid high in a tree, I simply must have it for my own. When I see a single shell out of place in my creation, I must put it right…. It is a happy coincidence that females sometimes come to my gallery openings and appreciate my work, but it would be an insult to suggest that I create in order to procreate.’ Fortunately bowerbirds cannot talk, so we are free to use sexual selection to explain their work, without them begging to differ.”
The Dog Stars – Peter Heller. After overtaxing my brain on The Blank Slate i needed something light, so i turned to an old favorite genre, the dystopian novel. After all, some dystopias are more dys than others, and some are almost utopias. The Dog Stars is sure not a utopia, but it’s nowhere near as bleak as McCarthy’s The Road, and the grim situation is leavened by some actual humor and entertaining characters. This is a good read for the fans of post disaster futurist fiction.
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. I read this when it first came out in 2004 and loved it. In the past month i’ve been reading reviews of the movie that’s now starting to play and realized that 1) i needed to get off my ass and make a rare appearance in a movie theater for this one and 2) reread the novel so i’d be able to understand the movie since it preserves the complexity of the novel. So i am, and i’m loving it again. I’m senile enough that i’d forgot all the details, so it’s almost like reading it for the first time, sorting out the intricacies. It begins as the journal of an American notary sailing from the Chatham Islands to San Francisco in the early 1850’s, jumps to a series of letters written in 1931 by an opportunistic, vigorously bisexual musician living in Belgium, and flashes forward to the adventures of a young investigative journalist who in about 1975 gets in over her head as she tries to ferret out the secrets of a corrupt corporation in Southern California. Then Mitchell jumps to a quite bleak England in about 2000 where a minor publisher is tricked into a nightmarish captivity by an evil brother, to a neocorporate state gone berserk in a South Korea about two centuries in the future, and finally to a post-apocalyptic Iron Age settlement on the island of Hawaii. Then back sequentially through all the layers to the notary’s journal. What a wonderful ride it is. I’ve been a Mitchell fan since his first novel, Ghostwritten, and i highly recommend his work, especially Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
Forest of My Father – Volume II of Galang Ayu’s memoir. Collected, edited, and translated by Ian Mackenzie. I enjoyed Volume I so much that i’m getting to preview Volume II a couple of chapters at a time. This first part covers his being sent off to school to learn English. Fascinating and horrifying, since he describes from memory his first sight of a clock and learning the concept behind it, the sink-or-swim environment in which he and the other Penan children were sent to live with Kelabit families whose language they did not know and who (with a handful of exceptions) spoke no Penan. And from there daily into a one-room schoolhouse with a Malay teacher who knew no Penan and thus spoke to them only in Kelabit while teaching them English. Whew. And you thought Mrs. Collins in the third grade was a hard ass.
The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green – Joshua Braff. In my youth i thought my fellow Protestants had a monopoly on poisonous guilt mongering. Then i met some Catholics who talked about being ridden with “Catholic guilt” and i thought, bullshit, it couldn’t be any worse that what i saw as a Protestant youth. Then i met some Jews and discovered they thought they’d cornered the guilt market. Then i read this book, narrated by an adolescent Jewish boy describing his controlling father and realized that well, the highly observant Jews could be right up there with the fundamentalist Protestants as manipulating guilt heapers. And besides, it was, after all, the Jews who originated the world’s Great Monotheistic Religions, so i suppose the guilt started with them, too. Most of the reviews described the characterization as “hilarious”, but i felt too sorry for the kid to do much laughing.
The Post-American World – Fareed Zakaria. In spite of the title and an even handed analysis of the problems facing this country, Zakaria paints a rosy picture of our future. The best parts of the book are his analysis of the decline and fall of the British Empire and his splendid examinations of the future of China and India. With the glaring exception of global warming, peak oil, and the threat posed by multinational corporations and the international financial giants, he mentions every problem we face and then describes how these problems can be solved. I hope he’s right although it seems to me that the problems that he ignores are themselves quite enough to do us in.
The Song of the Earth – Hugh Nissenson. I’m a great fan of futurist fiction, but here we have one of the weirder novels i’ve read in recent years, which is saying a lot. It’s presented as a biography of John Firth Baker, the world’s first genetically engineered visual artist, published in the year of his death, 2057. Since there’s little background on his parentage, the novel basically begins with his mother’s arrangements a couple of years before his birth in 2037 and the social and political events that influenced his life, particularly the discord among Gaian, Gynarchist, and Mormon-led paternalist forces in the US society of those days. I’m not sure i’ve ever felt quite so normal after finishing a novel. Am i turning into an old prude or something?
The Better Angels of Our Nature – Stephen Pinker. Something serious again, and better yet, upbeat. In 696 pages and a couple thousand footnotes, Pinker meticulously documents the hideously bloodthirsty and violent history of the human race and demonstrates that our rate of violence has followed a continually downward trajectory, despite all the alarmist news we’ve been hearing all our lives about how things are getting worse. I found especially entertaining Pinker’s accounts of the enormous death toll as the Roman Catholic Church did its best to slaughter every disbeliever within reach only to be followed after the Protestant Reformation by Protestants discovering that the Catholic tradition of burning dissenters at the stake was a joy too fine to be abandoned. Turns out that morality not based on religion is far less violent.
Absolute Friends – John Le Carré. I blundered onto Call for the Dead decades ago and just loved it but somehow have not got around to reading many of Le Carré’s subsequent novels. After sitting up late to finish this one, i know i have to go back and read everything in between. The bonus here is, well, don’t want to spoil things for you but let’s just say that this one confirms Le Carré as anti-American, especially the contemporary American corporate state.
Facing the Music – Larry Brown. Grim short stories about southerners either terribly wounded or totally rotten. Brown writes so well that one volume is utterly depressing and i don’t need another. I have known people almost this awful. Whew.
The Bridge – Geert Mak. tr. Sam Garrett. Since the sixth century C.E., there has been some kind of bridge over the Golden Horn, connecting the newer and older parts of Istanbul on opposite sides of their harbor. The lower deck of the Galata bridge is populated in the daytime by tourists, fishermen, restaurants, and vendors selling almost everything portable. Vehicular traffic is on the upper deck. Mak gets to know the local vendors and fishermen and interweaves their lives and fortunes into a brief history of Istanbul and an examination of its belief system. A marvelous little book by my favorite Dutch author.
After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum World – ed. John Michael Greer. Last winter the Archdruid asked for submissions for an anthology of futurist fiction and he’s now published eleven of his favorites along with one of his own. Frankly, his is excellent and may be the best although another that i found quite interesting is the first story in English by a Dutch author from Nijmegen named Thijs Goverde.
The Stuff of Thought – Stephen Pinker. Pinker’s previous books were about either language (The Language Instinct and Words and Rules) or human nature (How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate). Here Pinker writes with his usual clarity and wit about how our nature influences our language.
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith – Jon Krakauer. Several years ago i read Krakauer’s Into the Wild with great pleasure, fascinated by his account of what drove Christopher McCandless to turn his back on civilization and ultimately starve in the Alaska wilderness. In Under the Banner Krakauer takes on the Mormon Church, using as a framework for his explication of Mormon religious extremism a particularly hideous double homicide by two brothers who were ordered by God to kill, following a long tradition of religious extremists, and not just Mormons, similarly killing at God’s behest. The best part of the book is the two chapters devoted to the Mountain Meadows Massacre and its aftermath, by far the fullest account of this atrocity i’ve seen. The bottom line, folks, is that the Mormons are far worse than i’d imagined. It’s not just silly stuff like the magic underwear.
The Art of Eating – M. F. K. Fisher. This fat compendium includes five of Fisher’s books: Serve It Forth (1937), Consider the Oyster (1941), How to Cook a Wolf (1942), The Gastronomic Me (1943), and An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949). I’d previously enjoyed reading How To Cook a Wolf, and it holds up well, especially for those of us who fear that Americans will be facing more hardship in the future than most of us alive now have experienced. Still, by far the best of these books is The Gastronomic Me, in which Fisher’s prose style as well as her insights into both the culinary world and human nature shine brightly and poignantly since the book is focused mainly on the period leading up to WWII. She includes a good many recipes that are of interest although i question how well some of the earlier ones would turn out.
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Vol I: My Father Bleeds History and Vol II: And Here My Troubles Began – Art Spiegelman. Oh my goodness. Two volumes of Spiegelman’s attempts to come to grips with his father’s neuroses while depicting in comic book form in Vol I his father’s life as a young man in Nazi Germany as the vise of Nazi antisemitism tightened and in Vol 2, his father’s life in Auschwitz. Hideous and moving. The qualities that enabled his father to survive the Holocaust made him a very difficult man to get along with, but Spiegelman makes it clear that many others who survived did not exhibit his father’s neuroses.
At the Mouth of the River of Bees – Kij Johnson. Stunning short stories, rich and varied, a blend of magical realism and science fiction with many stories focused on animal/human interaction. But don’t take my word for it, as Ursula LeGuin wrote a glowing review. Read these stories.
Wealth and Democracy – Kevin Phillips. Phillips was a major Republican strategist, author of The Emerging Republican Majority, and one of the authors of the Southern Strategy that put Nixon in office, but then he grew disillusioned with the GOP during the Reagan administration and has since then published several books, starting with Wealth and Democracy, profoundly critical of his former party. W&D traces cycles of boom and bust in 18th-century Netherlands, 19th-century England, and 20th-century America, demonstrating the common features with special emphasis on increasing levels of wealth disparity. What kept bringing me up short is that he completed writing this book in 2001, so the last bust he covers is the dot-com bust of that year. So we read him knowing that an even greater bust – and another leap in wealth inequity – would occur in 2008.