The Island at the Center of the World – Russell Shorto. In 1960 a New York State Library archivist discovered an overlooked cache of some 12,000 pages of documents from the Dutch colony on the American east coast. Handwritten in an obsolete script and in seventeenth-century Dutch, they presented some difficulty to most readers, but a scholar named Charles Gehring has made it his life’s work to decipher and translate them, starting with those of most immediate historical interest. Shorto has familiarized himself with this material as well as historical records from other sources and has woven a fascinating tale that paints what is now New York in a vastly different light from the established version. What a wonderful book with which to begin my year’s reading, full of shining heroes and perfidious rogues.
The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? – Jared Diamond. I saw this book at Costco and, being a major Diamond fan, snapped it up. Here he compares contemporary societies with state governments and what he calls “traditional” societies of hunter-gathers and subsistence agriculturalists, drawing especially on his decades of field work in New Guinea but including societies all over the globe. I didn’t find this book as compelling as Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, but the chapters on language and the treatment of children and elders were very interesting, and the chapter on religion was compelling.
Consider the Lobster – David Foster Wallace. I love Wallace’s writing so much that after his suicide i put off reading this book so i’d have a treat for later. Should have gone ahead and read it, as the essays are marvelous for their dizzying range as well as their insights. I mean, from an article covering the AVN awards (the porn equivalent of the Academy Awards) in Las Vegas that reveals the industry to be even worse than you’d imagined but which showed flashes of real sympathy for the performers, to a 65-page review of Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage so captivating that i’m going to read Garner from cover to cover, having previously only browsed in it, albeit for hours at a time.
A Dictionary of Modern American Usage – Bryan A. Garner. What was i thinking? I devoured Garner’s introduction, wiped the crumbs from the corners of my mouth, and, my appetite only whetted, gobbled into the interior. And was immediately reminded that it’s slow going in the interior what with the density of the material and all the entangling diversions. Reading this thing straight through is too much like reading a traditional dictionary straight through, requiring a level of language maven geekiness that even i cannot maintain. So having attained page 10, i’m thinking i’ll continue at two-page increments as a diversion while i gobble up something else, like my newest acquisition which just came in the mail from Ellecom, NL, see below.
BRUGGEN architectuurgids: Geillustreerd overzicht van brugtypen, constructiemethoden en materialen. Well, yes, Harm Jan and Mark sure know that bridges are dear to my heart, and they were the ones who took me to Rotterdam in 2011, primarily to see the Erasmusbrug. So they thoughtfully sent me this Bridges architectural guide, (an) illustrated overview of bridge types, construction methods, and materials. In Dutch. Hell, i didn’t know what a “bascule” was in English, so yes, there’s some vocabulary building involved, and i’m only going to be up to a few pages at a time of this one, too.
The Stories of John Cheever – John Cheever. I read Cheever’s two Wapshot novels as an undergraduate and loved them, and i’d read a number of his stories. This is a collection of his stories that Cheever gathered in 1978. Obviously well selected, since it won the Pulitzer Prize and stayed on the NYT bestseller list for six months. Many fine stories here, although i’m not sure there’s enough variety that i’d want to read that many of his stories in a row. But mainly i interleaved these stories with pages in Garner’s Dictionary, and for that purpose, they were a welcome distraction.
Fox Woman – Kij Johnson. I read her collection of short stories last fall and found them so marvelous that i read this novel, a vastly expanded version of one of the stories. It’s loosely based on a Japanese folkloric tale, and describes the love affair of a Japanese nobleman with a fox. A very seductive and magical fox. Marvelous magical realism and a fascinating tale with marvelous twists.
Mammy Pleasant – Helen Holdredge. My friend David lent me this out of his late father’s library, and i found it entertaining reading since i’d been only vaguely aware that a woman as colorful as Mrs. Pleasant had existed during San Francisco’s gold rush. Without having read anything else about the subject other than the Wikipedia entry (which i just edited, adding a note to correct a factual error written about this biography), i can say that the book is a badly written, apparently unedited hatchet job that seems to rely overwhelmingly on the diary written by one of Mrs. Pleasant’s associates. In the half century since it was published, other biographies have been written, and i want to read one of those to get a more balanced viewpoint on Mrs. Pleasant.
Between Us Girls – Joe Orton. I found Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane beyond entertaining, so i thought i’d give this novel, first published thirty years after his death, a try. There were certainly funny passages, but mainly the novel underscores the wisdom of Orton’s transition to writing plays.
The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen. (2001) I’ve devoured with relish Franzen’s essays on David Foster Wallace and found his take on Wallace’s hideous suicide a convincing explanation of an act that had seemed, in its disregard for the feelings of his wife, inexplicable. But i’d read not a word of his fiction other than excerpts here and there. Omigod! Just one sculpted sentence after another. I had to stop at page 12 and come running in here to start this entry. I don’t care where the plot goes, writing this fine can do without plot. Ummm, well….. Actually it’s less about plot than character development, and some rather badly broken characters they are. Still, an entertaining read and well worth your time.
House of Rain – Craig Childs. (2008) I was utterly blown away by Childs’ first book (or rather the first to reach the public eye) The Secret Knowledge of Water but somehow had not got around to reading more of his work. This one describes his exploration of the Anasazi culture that most of us think of as having mysteriously disappeared in the 13th century, presumably killed off by a great drought. Childs makes a convincing case that the people we think of as the Anasazi did not disappear but rather, as they had been doing all along, simply moved on, driven by a number of factors, including self-inflicted environmental collapse. A very interesting book, and even though i didn’t find it as breathtaking as The Secret Knowledge of Water, it awakens a great thirst for more of his writing.
Siegfried – Harry Mulisch. (2001) I thought Mulisch’s The Assault (1982) was excellent, and i found his Discovery of Heaven (1992) so fine that i’d love to reread it. I couldn’t finish The Procedure (1998), and Siegfried was basically a good short story puffed into a novel by the addition of way too much boring character analysis of Adolf Hitler. But read The Discovery of Heaven. At this point i’m doubting that anything written after Discovery will be any good, although i still have hope for the earlier novels.
The Orphanmaster – Jean Zimmerman. (2012) (I picked this thing up at Costco thinking of The Orphan Master’s Son, but then when i looked at the jacket blurb and saw it was a tale set in the colony of New Amsterdam decided to buy it anyway. It’s not all that well written, but it was nevertheless an interesting crime tale and adds a bit more to our knowledge of the colony.
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls – David Sedaris. (2013) OK, I’ve bought every book he’s written, so why stop now, i asked myself. And yes, he’s almost as good as ever. At points perhaps a little labored, but still many boffo lines from America’s finest humorist.
A Crack in the Edge of the World – Simon Winchester. (2006) I thoroughly enjoyed Winchester’s Krakatoa a good many years ago but somehow had never got around to reading anything else he’d written. Blundered onto this in the library and decided, yes, i can do one more account of the San Francisco earthquake. Glad i did, as the quake and its aftermath occupy only one of the eleven chapters, the rest of which being full of geological and historical background including tidbits i’d never read anywhere else. The book provides a good introduction to plate tectonics, especially that focused on the US west coast, and is entertainingly written.
Mission Street Food: Recipes and Ideas from an Improbable Restaurant – Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz. (2012) The title is a little misleading, as this book is actually a history of Anthony and Karen’s culinary adventure that started in October 2008 with four Thursday nights serving gourmet food out of a borrowed Guatamalan food truck, moved to sharing the kitchen at Lung Shan on Thursday nights and calling it Mission Street Food, added doing hamburgers with Danny Bowein at Duc Loi supermarket at lunch Fridays through Wednesdays, and shifted into sharing the Lung Shan kitchen lunch and dinner Thursdays through Tuesdays and calling it Mission Chinese Food. The latter was mainly Danny’s show, while Anthony opened Commonwealth two doors up the street. Whew. The last half of the book is recipes from the Mission Street Food period but including the recipe for their legendary hamburger. And oh, the recipes are almost all mindblowingly labor intensive, but i admit i’m thinking of trying a couple of ’em. Since the book was written, Danny has gone off to New York and Anthony has opened an additional place called Mission Bowling Club.
Ficciones – Jorge Luis Borges. (1962) I’d read several of Borges’ stories here and there but finally sat down and read a collection of them. I quite enjoyed them; hell, i wallowed in delight, but i cheerfully admit that they’d drive many of my friends batty. Incidentally, those in the second section of this book are strikingly reminiscent of the war stories of Ambrose Bierce, who was a sufficiently minor figure that it’s entirely possible that he was not an influence, as global as Borges’ reading was.
Distrust That Particular Flavor – William Gibson. (2012) I should have realized that Gibson would write superb essays since i love his novels so. This is a collection of a couple dozen essays written between 1989 and 2010, and i found them all entertaining and thought provoking. In a bizarre coincidence, considering the previous book i read, one of the essays here was written as the preface to a new edition of Borges’ stories, titled Labyrinths and containing almost all of the stories in Ficciones (including the stunning “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” and “The Library of Babel”) and adding a dozen more. Gotta read more Borges. The rest of Gibson’s essays range widely, from a handful of autobiographical ones with fresh details about American society in the fifties and sixties like his observation that he first watched television “in the age of wooden television” sets and then, as i did, stopped pretty much cold in his late teens. There were a couple of essays on contemporary music; but the majority focus on sociology, as in his demonstration that the Japanese have been living in the future for generations. These are marvelous essays and would, i think, appeal to a much wider audience than Borges.
A Paradise Built in Hell – Rebecca Solnit. (2009) Well, yes. Been reading all those favorable mentions and good reviews of Solnit for years, but had read only her marvelous Infinite City, which i discussed here in 2011. This one deals with society’s response to natural disasters, and she demonstrates that the virtually universal response to disasters is not, as our government and our movies portray, wholesale panic, rioting, looting, and wild lawlessness that must be put down by strong police action augmented by military intervention, but rather a widespread rising to the occasion and displays of calm, mutual cooperation and generosity. Solnit examines several disasters, among them Katrina and our 1906 earthquake/fire and points out that in many instances, certainly in New Orleans and San Francisco, the forces of law and order actually did more harm than good and that the heroes were women feeding their neighbors and men fighting fires and helping injured from the ruins (in San Francisco) or rescuing folks from their flooded houses (in New Orleans).
I’ve never been in a serious disaster, but i was in San Francisco for the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, and what i saw then reinforces Solnit’s thesis. I was just a few blocks away from home on my way from work when the earthquake struck, and after i got home ran inside to check for damage, minimal, and sniff for gas, none, although the electricity was off and the phone was dead. Then i joined the neighbors on the sidewalk to rejoice in our, mostly, good fortune and ride out the aftershocks, but then remembered that i had an elderly friend living alone about a quarter way across town and was concerned enough about his well being that i decided to drive over to check on him. I emphasize that there was no hint of heroism involved since at this point word of the destructiveness of the earthquake had not spread and i was not picking my way on foot through flaming rubble but rather riding comfortably in my car. The only hardship was that owing to the lack of electricity, the traffic signals were not working. But i immediately noticed as i edged my way across town that at every intersection, drivers were behaving with an after-you-my-dear-Alfonsian courtesy and scrupulously taking turns to get across each backed-up intersection. On the entire trip, i saw one driver in a panic who didn’t wait her turn but tailgated through on the vehicle in front of her. And nobody even honked at her. Turned out my friend was not squashed under his refrigerator, so we had a drink and i drove back home through the same level of courtesy. Oh, and as i left his place i noticed the pall of smoke rising from the main fire in the Marina but didn’t know that the nearby water main was broken and that hundreds of neighborhood people had spontaneously organized a bucket brigade with kitchen pails several blocks to the bay. And that being blatantly ineffectual, they pitched in helping the fire department run a pipe to the bay, where a fireboat pumped sea water into the lines to fight the fires. Yeah. And yes, there was that evening a brief episode of looting on Market Street at the edge of the Tenderloin, but only three or four stores were entered and them by only a handful of looters. The overwhelming response was mutual aid and cooperation.
Read this book, as i’m not doing justice to it and it’s fabulous.
Count Zero – William Gibson. (1986) I read this when it first came out in ’86, but of course i’d largely forgot it, remembering only that it was one of my favorites from Gibson, right up there with Virtual Light. It deserves to be remembered, as i find if every bit as stunning as Neuromancer. If you haven’t read Gibson, start with Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Virtual Light. Rollicking tales and fine writing.
Moby Dick – Herman Melville. (1851) I read this when i was 19 under the tutelage of Dr. M.S. Carlock, and her guidance was sufficient that i could understand it. But i simply didn’t know enough to fully appreciate it. I’d been wanting to reread it for a number of years since my friend Thom told me he’d finally got around to reading it and had much enjoyed it. And now needing an escape from some problems, i’ve taken on 827 pages of monomania to distract me. I have to say, it’s helped, but what i find most fascinating about the book this time ’round is how much has changed in the world since it was written 170 years ago and since i read it 50 years ago. Starting with American English: vocabulary i hadn’t seen in decades, of course, and a rich use of subjunctive mood rather than the pitiful remnant remaining to us. But that’s trivia compared to the whole endeavor of hunting whales for their oil with the attitude that they were an inexhaustible resource. Melville brings up this subject only once, and then points out that man could no more exhaust the supply of whales than he could that of elephants, even though he was well aware that the American bison, by his time, had been rendered virtually extinct. And the waste! They killed the whales and boiled down the blubber for oil, but they had no use for the meat and left it to the sharks while saving only a small part of the bone for corsetry.
The Dog Fighter – Marc Bojanowski. (2004) No, not a man who sets dogs to fight each other but rather a man who fights dogs. Hideous. And beautiful. A violent and fascinating Bildungsroman set mainly in Baja California in the late 1940’s and yes, deeply indebted to Cormac McCarthy. Not for the squeamish.
Freedom – Jonathan Franzen. (2010) Franzen has a knack for writing entertaining novels about badly broken people and their dysfunctional families, and here he works in a delicious level of contemporary social satire and a good deal of humor.
War is a Racket – Smedley D. Butler. (1935) This slim pamphlet is one of the finer anti-war screeds ever written. Butler was a Marine Brigadier General twice awarded the Medal of Honor who made the mistake in a 1931 speech of recounting how Benito Mussolini had expressed no guilt over running over a child in his car. Unfortunately, Italian fascism was at that point strongly supported by the American establishment, and Hoover had Butler arrested and court-martialed although the charges were later dropped. This episode so soured Butler that he retired from the military and devoted the remaining few years of his life to explaining that the beneficiaries of war were big businesses while the costs of war, in blood and money, were born by the citizens. Not much has changed.
War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy. (1869) I’ve spent the last fifty years living in terror that someone was going to ask me if i’d read this book, and i’ve had a paperback copy of it for the past thirty years. Finally got around to it and was as delighted as ever by Tolstoy’s incisive depiction of social mores/conventions that remain just as true of contemporary American society as they were of nineteenth-century Russia. What i had not expected was my delight in his depiction of military affairs, especially Napoleon’s catastrophic 1812-13 Russian campaign in which he lost 90% of his army. I’d known only the rough outlines of that campaign and had not realized that the moment the French army marched into a half-deserted Moscow there was a near complete breakdown of discipline that transformed the invaders into “a multitude of marauders”. And in the interests of full disclosure, i must admit that when i was reading the introduction, i discovered that i was reading an abridged version that had cut out hundreds of pages of Tolstoy’s theory of history and hundreds more of his history and practice of freemasonry. For me, just as well, as i’m neither a historian nor a mason.
Bullet Park – John Cheever. (1969) I’ve mentioned loving Cheever’s Wapshot novels when i read them as an undergraduate. Alas, he was too deeply enmired in alcoholism when he wrote this one although i think i’ll read his final novel, Falconer, written after he dried out.
Westward Tilt – Neil Morgan. (1962) Morgan was a San Diego journalist and indefatigable booster. It shows. And yet, i found his biases fascinating, from his belief that nuclear-powered desalination plants would provide the water needed to slake the thirst of continual economic expansion in Southern California, to his view of San Francisco as a backward slum compared to lovely San Jose.
Call It Sleep – Henry Roth. (1934) Through the eyes of a neurotic twelve-year-old boy, Roth captures the Jewish immigrant experience in New York in the decade prior to WWI. Hideous, psychopathic father and overprotective mother, no wonder he was neurotic, but Roth uses the character to explicate the immigrant experience for a child dropped into an utterly alien culture and trying to make sense of both it and his family. Actually, as i followed his fearful attempts to fit in, i was reminded of my own as a little, sickly, gay kid in west Texas oil camps.
The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy – Anthony Burgess (1964) Earthly Powers is one of my favorite modern novels, and this trilogy approaches that standard. Set in Malaysia in the year immediately before independence, it describes the end of colonialism with rich characters and brilliant description, all the more complicated by the racial strife among Malays, Indians, and Chinese…and their relationship with the British colonials. Highly recommended. I must read more Burgess.
The UnDutchables – Colin White and Laurie Boucke. (1989) I bought this book several years ago in Amsterdam and finally got around to reading it. The subtitle is an observation of the netherlands: its culture and its inhabitants; and yes, it does provide a fairly good analysis of Dutch (especially Amsterdam) culture, but it’s marred by a strong negative bias that reminds me too much of the attitude of all too many of my fellow American soldiers in Germany in the 1960’s – that different is bad. While i was marveling in delight at all the thousands of little differences like the use of door handles rather than knobs, which is actually an improvement, they found something wrong in every difference.
And speaking of differences, the book is full of British spellings and idioms, outing Colin as a Brit as if the name alone didn’t. Apparently he and Boucke are entrepreneurs who fled Amsterdam for Colorado, where they established a small publishing company that prints primarily their own books, one of which is titled Califobia and apparently trashes Los Angeles in the same way The UnDutchables took on Amsterdam, not that i’ve read the former. Oh please. People, people, can’t we have an objective look at differences without all the negativity? And maybe learn American English if you’re publishing books in Colorado.
Ecstasy Club – Douglas Rushkoff. (1997) Set in Oakland and San Francisco in the early ’90s, the novel tracks the exploits of a group of young semi-cultists who take over an abandoned piano factory in west Oakland and turn it into a 24/7, drug-sotted rave. In their spare time, they search for a method of time travel. William Gibson has a blurb on the back cover and writes “a very funny, very knowing trip through the neo-psychedelic substrate of the wired world”. I found the book very entertaining although i’m probably the only person my age on the planet who would do so.
Burden of Ashes – Justin Chin (2002) A collection of essays that form a loose memoir of the author’s childhood in Malaysia and Singapore and touch on his first visits to this country in Hawaii and San Francisco. Interesting reading, but he could use an editor.
River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West – Rebecca Solnit (2003) I’d been interested in Muybridge for many years and snapped this book up when i discovered it in the library. An in-depth analysis of Muybridge’s work that puts it in context with the development of the American west. I knew Muybridge was really the father of the motion picture, but i’d not understood how revolutionary he was in landscape photograpy before he moved on to capturing motion. Solnit is a fine writer and mixes a wealth of historical detail with some fascinating speculation to build a marvelous portrait of a very complex and gifted man.
MaddAddam – Margaret Atwood (2013). The concluding volume in the trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and continued with The Year of the Flood. All three novels will stand by themselves, but i highly recommend reading them in order and in quick succession so that you’ll be able to enjoy how each builds on the previous works. I love these books so much that i’m hoping she’ll go ahead and write a fourth in the series.
The Buccaneers of America – Alexander O. Exquemelin (a 1969 translation of the 1678 De Amerikaensche Zee-Roovers) About Exquemelin little is known other than that he appears to have been a Frenchman who for a number of years served as a barber-surgeon on buccaneering vessels and then unlike the typical buccaneer, saved his money and retired to the Netherlands, where he continued to practice medicine, learned Dutch, and wrote this detailed account of the buccaneers. Either that or his name was really Oexmelin and he enlisted the aid of fellow physicians in the Netherlands in writing the book and used the pseudonym so as not to alarm his Dutch patients. In any case, the book was a best seller when it was published and remains an interesting account of a little known aspect of American history.
Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon (2013) What a marvelous treat! Set in 2001, it’s a sort of historical romance of the Internet in New York starring a fraud investigator named Maxine who follows a trail that leads her into byzantine web of computer (and other) corruption. It’s packed with computer references that i’d think the average American would not catch, so many that i fear i missed some myself. If you know anything about the development of the computer industry in the past twenty years, read this exciting tale.
Tatiana – Martin Cruz Smith (2013) Arkady’s back! Yes, Smith has published an eighth Arkady Renko detective novel, and even though i devoured it nonstop, i have to admit that it’s not up to the standard set by the earlier novels. The first three were stunning, numbers four through seven were very good, but this one not only lacked the polish of the earlier ones, but also was rather formulaic. That the formula is one i like is all that saved this novel.
Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City – Russel Shorto. And no, it was purely by accident that i ended the year with a book by Shorto, having begun the year with his Island at the Center of the World. A more significant parallel is that ten years ago i read with equal pleasure Geert Mak’s Amsterdam, A Brief History, and the two histories of Amsterdam are complementary. Mak’s is the purer history, but Shorto’s focuses on Amsterdam’s seminal position in the development of liberal thought in western culture. And besides, it filled in a number of gaps in my knowledge of Dutch history. After all, all i really knew of Willem of Orange was that he led the Dutch revolution against their Catholic Spanish rulers, and i’d forgot, if i ever knew, that his grandson invaded England and established himself as King of England.