The Circle – Dave Eggers (2013) Wow, what an entertaining read, and a cautionary fable for our times. Set in the very near future, it’s the story of how the world’s largest Internet company (a combination of the worst of Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter) rapidly metastasizes into a control system beyond Orwell’s wildest nightmares. Anyone who reads this will seriously consider withdrawing at least a bit from his iphone, Facebook, Twitter, and Google use. Bless you, Dave Eggers.
The Death of the Black-Haired Girl. Robert Stone (2013) Stone is one of those people i’ve been meaning to read for years without ever getting around to it. Well, now i have. This is a well-written novel with an interesting plot, yet somehow it failed to excite me. But i’ll give Stone another chance, and Dog Soldiers remains on my list. And hey, maybe i’m being too critical of Black Haired Girl. After all, i did stay up way past my bedtime finishing it, which speaks more eloquently than the above faint praise.
Battleborn. Claire Vaye Watkins (2012) Watkins writes short stories set mostly in the Nevada desert, and she has a voice rather like a trashy Annie Proulx. Several good stories in this collection and a couple of fine ones, all about characters who range from plain old good folks to sleazeballs, and she captures their voices precisely. I look forward to her next collection.
The Reason I Jump – Naoki Higashida, tr. K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell (2013) Mitchell (yes, that David Mitchell) and Yoshida have an autistic son and discovered this book in which Higashida, when he was thirteen and still could not speak very well, had learned how to write well enough to explain what it is like to be autistic. It’s a heart-rending book, and the Mitchells found it so helpful in understanding their son that they translated it into idiomatic English. I found it profoundly moving, perhaps especially because i’ve long been a fan of Temple Grandin and also because my Dutch friends Erik and Barbara have an autistic son. Since they both read English, i sent it to them.
Brown Dog – Jim Harrison (2013) Ta da. And now, in one 525 page volume Harrison has gathered all five of the previously published Brown Dog novellas and added a sixth, forming a fat picaresque novel and a marvelous treat for Brown Dog fans. Harrison writes beautifully, and Brown Dog delights with his ne’er-do-well habits, incorrigible womanizing, and heart of gold. All Brown Dog’s after is a few bucks from casual labor, a good meal, a few beers, and a thorough lay, not necessarily in that order.
Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City – Geert Mak, tr. Phillip Blom (1999) I first read this book in 2001 when my friend Chris gave it to me, but having read Russell Shorto’s history of Amsterdam last December, i decided i’d reread Mak to weigh it against Shorto, which isn’t really fair to Shorto since he’s focused on only Amsterdam’s role in the development of western liberal thought and is not trying to present a thorough history. Shorto’s book is perhaps more entertaining, but Mak’s is by far the better history even though the English translation is shot through with misspellings of Dutch words so egregious that even i noticed.
Consider the Fork – Bee Wilson (2012) This was an entertaining and informative book even though Wilson is British and thus can’t spell many common English words. It traces the history of cooking methods, devices, and utensils starting with roasting a chunk of meat on a stick and ending with sous vide cooking. And yes, the title is not misleading, as she also covers eating utensils.
The Men Who United the States – Simon Winchester (2013) I just loved Krakatoa and The Crack in the Edge of the World, and i keep putting off the long anticipated treat of reading The Professor and the Madman, but this one was a serious disappointment. Not that there was anything really wrong with it but rather that i learned so little from it. For anyone who’s read much American history, it’s a pleasant recap at best and frankly not as carefully written as Winchester’s other books i’ve read. Sigh. But by all means read Krakatoa.
The Hunger Winter: Occupied Holland 1944-1945 – Henri A. van der Zee (1998) Rina had told me about surviving on tulip bulbs when she was a little girl in the winter of ’44-45, but she’d spared me the details. And i knew that Edward’s father had pedaled a bicycle with wooden tires from Scheveningen all the way up to relatives in Friesland in order to get fifty kilograms of potatoes and then managed to sneak them back home on back trails at night to avoid the Germans who would have confiscated them. And yes, i knew that as the winter progressed the Amsterdammers had burned their furniture, chopped down every tree, and torn apart empty houses for wood in a desperate attempt to avoid freezing to death although many did anyhow. But still, i hadn’t know how bad it was. Van der Zee is an American historian who was born in the Netherlands and had his 11th birthday in Hilversum during de hongerwinter. He describes the events that led to the Hunger Winter, starting with failure of the allied forces to break through the German lines at Arnhem in September, which left the the great bulk of the Netherlands in German hands while the allied forces pushed east to Berlin, leaving the Dutch in the clutches of an increasingly desperate occupying force during a particularly cold winter with no electric power, no fuel for heat, and most importantly, dwindling food supplies. It got worse and worse until April, 1945, when allied planes started dropping parcels of food near the starving cities. Finally in the first week of May, 1945, the Germans capitulated and allied forces moved in, bringing food and medical supplies to survivors literally on the brink of death.
The Martian – Andy Weir (2014) Take Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, leap ahead 300 years, and set it on Mars for a spellbinding survival thriller. Crusoe’s ship broke up on the shore of a desert island, and he salvaged various tools and materials from the wreckage to build himself a habitat. Mark Watney’s fellow crew members thought he was killed during a wild sandstorm that that forced an emergency evacuation from their expedition to Mars, couldn’t find his body, and had to leave without it to save themselves. Turns out, Watney fell just right, his own congealing blood plugged the small hole in his flight space suit, the suit repressurized itself, and he regained consciousness to discover himself home alone … on Mars. Oh shit. OK, let’s calmly assess the situation. The departed crew left behind the module in which they’d been living on the surface. There’ll be another Mars expedition landing 3200 kilometers away in about four years, so all he has to do is figure out how to stretch the existing supplies of air, water, food, and fuel that were provided to last six people thirty days, of which only five were consumed before the abort. You do the math. And by the way the communication system got smashed in the sandstorm, so nobody even knows he’s alive, which means he’s also got to travel 3200 airless, foodless, heatless kilometers to get to the new expedition site. The good news is that 3200 kilometers is only about 2000 miles.
There is not a male on this planet who has even a little streak of the tinkerer in him and is the least bit knowledgeable about science who won’t be vicariously down there with Watney on the surface of Mars in a struggle for survival. Especially since the book is technically accurate and packed with vividly painted, wisecracking characters. Read it, guys. And hey, i know a lot of women who’ll like it, too.
Peeling the Onion – Günter Grass. (2006) Shortly before the publication of this memoir, Grass mentioned in an interview that the military unit into which he had been conscripted a month after his seventeenth birthday, was the 10th Waffen SS Panzer Division Frundsberg. A firestorm ensued over his failure to mention that he’d been in the SS during the previous sixty years since he’d been an active critic of the Nazi regime for all his literary career. Not, of course, that he’d ever lied about his service, but nobody had ever asked. Well, yes, that was a question that for obvious reasons didn’t get asked much in postwar Germany.
In Peeling the Onion Grass details his childhood in Danzig, including his mandatory induction into the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth), the Flakhelfer (Luftwaffe antiaircraft battery assistant), the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich labor service), and finally, in November 1944, the Waffen SS, in which he fought as a tank gunner against the Russian onslaught until he was wounded in April, 1945 and then captured by the Americans in the hospital shortly before the end of the war in May while he was still seventeen. He describes several events that in retrospect should have shaken his faith but freely confesses that until after the war was over he remained a patriotic true believer.
And at seventeen, so was i.
The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World – Greg Grandin (2014) What a fascinating work. Grandin uses the story of a slave rebellion in 1804 aboard the American ship Tryal in which the slaves successfully took control of the ship to illustrate the development and nature of the slave trade and its impact on the economies of the western world, especially as it burgeoned in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Tryal revolt became the source Melville used for his novella Benito Cereno, but Grandin goes much deeper into the story, tracing the path of the Africans on board the Tryal from their capture in West Africa where, at the mouth of the Niger and numbering 400 they were forced onto the Neptune, a Liverpool slaver bound for Barbados. A few miles offshore, the Neptune was captured by the Hope, a French pirate ship, that escorted it to Montevideo, a much longer journey for which the Neptune did not have adequate food or water, so only 130 emaciated slaves were still alive they they arrived in Montevideo.
And there the hardships began, but i don’t want to write a spoiler here, especially since the real purpose of the book is a detailed analysis of the slave trade, with fifty pages of end notes plus extensive notes about the sources.
What we have here is a scholarly tour de force combined with a fascinating tale of adventure on the high seas. Oh, and augmented by some details about the rapacity of the times outside the slave trade that make a modern environmentalist weep. The only reason those people failed to kill every wild animal on the planet is because they lacked the ability to do so. Those they could exterminate, they did.
Human Smoke – Nicholson Baker. (2008) I’ve long been a fan of Baker’s – his fiction as in Checkpoint, his literary criticism, as in U and I, and his nonfiction, as in his long essays on the nature of the modern library and his devastating depiction of the byzantine layers of duplicity and megalomania in the construction of the San Francisco Public Library’s new building.
So i was prepared for something tasty, but little did i dream that i’d get a 474 page, copiously footnoted account of WWII that focused entirely on the leadup to American entry into the war and ended on 31 December 1941. All told by excerpts from one sentence to a paragraph long, mostly quotations from figures like Roosevelt, Hitler, and Churchill. It reminds me of nothing more than Evan S. Connell’s mindblowing account of the crusades, Deus lo Volt.
Turns out Herbert Hoover was far more sensible about the war, and Churchill was a greater monster than i’d known, being the primary advocate and first practitioner of the concept of total war in which a fundamental objective was to bomb the enemy’s cities and kill as many of his civilians as possible instead of focusing on military targets. I already knew about Hitler evils, but at least he didn’t start bombing English cities until a good many months after Churchill had been firebombing German cities. And FDR, well yes, he had brought us the New Deal, but according to the evidence Baker assembles, he also shamelessly manipulated us into the war.
The title? That’s a reference to the smoke from the ovens at Auschwitz.
The Unreal and the Real, Selected Stories. Volume One, Where on Earth – Ursula LeGuin (2013) The stories in this first volume are all set on this planet and most in the twentieth century, but all but the last few have in them an element of what some might call magical realism with which LeGuin blurs the line between reality and something else. She is such a marvelous story teller and her prose at once so lushly and starkly descriptive that her stories depict human interrelationships so precisely that they seem utterly real even when elements in them are outside the experience of modern Americans. And no, that’s not doing justice to them, as they are suberb.
The Unreal and the Real, Selected Stories. Volume Two, Outer Space, Inner Lands – Ursula LeGuin (2013) The second volume consists of stories set on distant planets, to better serve as vehicles for LeGuin’s explorations of the potential varieties of social organization. These stories were so fine that i now want to read everything she’s written in hopes of finding another novel as fine as The Left Hand of Darkness or another novella as good as “The New Atlantis”.
Wash – Margaret Wrinkle (2013) What a fine debut novel! Set primarily in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, so it overlaps the Tryal revolt described by Greg Grandin in The Empire of Necessity, this book focuses not on the mechanics of the slave trade but rather on the lives of slaves on American plantations and how their lives become intertwined with those of their owners. While Grandin’s book is a workmanlike scholarly study of the slave trade focused on a group of slaves transported to the new world, Wrinkle’s novel has a profoundly greater impact since it depicts, in addition to the physical circumstances, the emotional lives of the slaves and their masters. I eagerly look forward to Wrinkle’s next book.
The Cool Gray City of Love – Gary Kamiya. (2013) I never tire of explorations of San Francisco, but this is one of the best. Here Kamiya in 49 essays examines little known aspects of some of San Francisco’s most famous sites as well as revealing fascinating information about some virtually unknown sites. I just loved this, and it inspires me to go on photographic expeditions to some of the less known sites. Stay tuned, but meanwhile, buy this book and wallow in it, as it’s full of insights.
For example, Kamiya writes, describing the 1848 gold rush,
What San Francisco offered, for those first few strange years before it came back down to earth, was unprecedented freedom – from family, from work, from church, from one’s own past. For most Americans, whose entire lives might be expected to play out literally within a few square miles and figuratively within an even smaller area, that freedom was a wind more exhilarating than an April breeze blowing in from Ocean Beach. Lawless, self-regulated, radically democratic, licentious, compassionate, lonely, and fearless, the city by the bay was a place apart. Above all, San Francisco was alive. The painter John David Borthwick said of it, “People lived more there in a week than they would in a year in most other places.”
By the time i got to the end of the above passage i’d forgot that he was talking about the gold rush because it so clearly described San Francisco’s blossoming as a gay Mecca in the early seventies when i joined tens of thousands of gay men swarming here to enjoy all that freedom for the first time in our lives.
Benito Cereno – Herman Melville (1856) I’ve read most of Melville, but had missed this novella. But having read Granville’s The Empire of Necessity, i wanted to go to the primary source. Not as fine as Billy Budd, but it focuses on the same conflict between good and evil. A fascinating tale, and i recommend reading it in preparation for Granville.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz (2007) I’d read with great pleasure Díaz’ stories in The New Yorker, so it was time i read one of his novels. This one was most enjoyable despite the grim lives of the characters, especially in the portions set in the Dominican Republic. Trujillo was far more awful than i’d realized because i’d fallen into the trap of comparing him with Papa Doc Duvalier, against whom anyone would look good.
Matter – Iain M. Banks (2008) Banks came to my attention several years ago, but this was the first work of his i’ve read. About half of his output is science fiction, and this book is an example, a galactic space opera with steampunk elements. That said, i quite thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to starting my exploration of his non-science fiction by reading The Wasp Factory, which has been widely acclaimed.
The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks. OK, i couldn’t wait. A fascinating little tale narrated by a very strange boy about his even stranger family…with an O’Henry twist at the end. A great read.
The Season of the Witch – David Talbot (2012) OK, some more San Francisco history/lore, this one focused on the sixties and the seventies, from the flowering of the Haight Ashbury to the AIDS epidemic. I missed the sixties but started spending time here in the early seventies and moved here for good in 1975, so this book covers ground i had trod, and it does so very well. Moreover, it fills in some gaps in my knowledge, including some juicy little tidbits. Frank Falzon, after Dan White’s assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, took from his old friend, White, the self-serving confession that played a significant role in White’s being convicted of mere manslaughter; but Falzon later admitted that when White was on parole after having served less than five years for the murders, he had confessed privately to Falzon that his master plan had been to kill not only Moscone and Milk but also Carol Ruth Silver and Willie Brown. Oh, and Talbot also revealed that when word of the assassination of Moscone and Milk had reached police headquarters there was widespread cheering. Stuff like that.
Both Flesh and Not – David Foster Wallace. (2012) After Wallace killed himself and it sank in that there would be no more of his electric prose, i put off reading the books that i’d not got around to. Wanted to space them with other reading so they’d last longer. This one is a collection of essays that are as thrilling as those in his previous essay collection, Consider the Lobster. Wallace’s forte was fiction, but he was certainly a fine stylist whatever he wrote. As an extra bonus, Flesh includes an essay on professional tennis, and Wallace’s take on tennis is superb since he knows the game so well, having been a competitive player in midwestern tournaments in high school. My great regret is that he did not write an essay about Marat Safin during Safin’s brief flowering.
The Bees – Laline Paull. (2014) Life and death in a beehive, through the perspective of a renegade bee. Talk about the hive mind! A thrilling tale of love and betrayal, this is fascinating anthropomorphism. I just love renegades, even when they’re bees.
Another Way of Seeing: Essays on Transforming Law, Politics and Culture – Peter Gabel. (2013) Gabel is a Noe Valley resident whom i met through his volunteering at the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market. Somehow i heard that he’d recently published a book, went to Folio to inquire about it, and found him there talking with Paula. Bought the book immediately, and he autographed it. That was the easy part, since the damn thing, as i shrilly complained to him subsequently at the market, made me work! The first half of the book, focused on the Critical Legal Studies movement in legal scholarship, was particularly difficult for me since my ignorance of the law is virtually complete…although i recognize that that’s no excuse.
In the first essays, he argues that we must, in the words of a reviewer, “forge a new politics grounded in a recognition of our longing for a genuinely loving and spiritual connection with each other”, but it took me weeks to get through these essays because i had to stop and think after every damn sentence, sometimes in the middle of sentences. You cannot imagine how i suffered.
The later essays are somewhat easier, at least partly because they do not deal with theoretical law but rather address such varied topics as the 2000 Presidential election, about which he makes a strong case that Gore’s actions during the period immediately after the election were to a great degree responsible for the case going to the Supreme Court and ultimately being decided there in favor of Bush. He also has splendid essays on gay marriage and one on the development of Sartre’s philosophy that makes me want to read some of Sartre’s later work.
No Place to Hide – Glenn Greenwald. (2014) I’ve been tracking NSA surveillance for years and thought i knew pretty much the whole story. Hardly. Greenwald’s book covers everything i knew and adds much more. Read this book before it’s declared illegal to own.
City Boy – Edmund White. (2009) I discovered White in the early eighties when i blundered onto his States of Desire, which i found to be spot on descriptions of the gay scene in a number of America’s major cities. Not sure how well it would hold up since the world (not just the gay scene) has changed so much since 1980, but it was certainly accurate at the time. I found the autobiographical novels that followed superb, and i’ve always loved his essays, so when i spotted in a sale book bin City Boy, his memoir of life in New York in the sixties and seventies, i snapped it up. Well, the parts describing the New York gay scene were very interesting, but his need to detail seemingly every damn meeting with famous or at least “important” writers and artists left me bored stiff. Instead of this, read his essay collections or the autobiographical novels A Boy’s Own Story (1982), The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988), The Farewell Symphony (1997) and The Married Man (2000).
The Pale King – David Foster Wallace. (2011) When Wallace killed himself in 2008, he was working on a long novel, his first since Infinite Jest. After his death, his widow turned the hundreds of pages of manuscript over to Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s editor at Little, Brown, who spent three years assembling a publishable version. Is it any good? Of course. Is it up to Wallace’s standard? Of course not. But it’s all we have, and dedicated fans will like it. Others, not. Especially since it’s set in an IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria and has an entire chapter devoted to boredom.
A Soldier of the Great War – Mark Helprin. (1991). I read this novel when it came out and found it both well written and a fascinating tale about an Italian soldier in WWI, full of gritty depictions of war interleaved with fantastical events that could not possibly have happened but are so well told that they seem almost plausible as you’re reading them. I’ve just reread it and still have the same opinion. It’s a marvelous novel, verging on great, and i highly recommend it.
Rendezvous With Rama – Arthur C. Clarke. (1973) I discovered Clarke when i fell in love with science fiction in the early 1950’s, and even as a teenager i somehow intuited that he was a master of the medium along with his contemporaries Heinlein and Asimov. Unlike Heinlein, whom he outlived by twenty years, his work did not degenerate into self parody as he aged, and this novel is highly entertaining.
Apocalyptic Planet – Craig Childs (2012). The Secret Knowledge of Water, basically revealing that there’s far more water in the American desert than you’d dreamed possible, was absolutely breathtaking and The House of Rain, a detailed analysis of the fall of the Anasazi civilization, excellent. Little surprise that i’d enjoy a book with nine chapters describing Childs’ explorations in the Sonoran desert, a northern Patagonian glacier, the Bering Sea, Phoenix, the west Greenland ice cap, an Iowa cornfield, a northeastern Tibet canyon, a Hawai’ian lava flow, and the Chilean Atacama desert – all breathtakingly inhospitable places, most definitely including the cornfield.
Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself – David Lipsky (2010) The subtitle is A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace. Lipsky was working for Rolling Stone and accompanied Wallace on a promotional tour through the midwest immediately after the publication of Infinite Jest, recording conversations and taking notes for an interview that never got published. Then, after Wallace killed himself, Lipsky resurrected the tapes and notes and built this book from them. Are there longueurs? Yes, but the book is an enjoyable read for Wallace fans, and it provides a wealth of insights into Wallace and his work. And yes, i’d recently promised myself that i’d stop rereading favorite novels, but this “interview” sure does make me want to reread Infinite Jest.
Chronic City – Jonathan Lethem (2009) My late introduction to Lethem occurred when i read his short story “Pending Vegan” in the April 7, 2014 issue of The New Yorker and was utterly enthralled by his prose style, so much so that i put that copy aside and reread the story a couple of times…and then went to the library to get one of his books. Is the writing in this novel as tightly wound as that in “Pending Vegan”? Of course not, it’s a novel. But it’s very well written and highly entertaining. It’s set in Manhattan in what appears to be the current world, but it incorporates a number of fantastical elements that, while within the range of possibility, do not currently exist, and it was so enjoyable that i’m eager to read more Lethem, most particularly one of his short story collections.
Physics of the Impossible – Michio Kaku (2008) A great book for science-fiction fans by an acclaimed theoretical physicist. He discusses the history of scientific advancements proving the existence of things once thought to be impossible and discusses the likelihood of the eventual reality of standard science-fiction fare like force field, phasers, teleportation, space elevators, etc.
The Man Who Japed – Philip K. Dick (1956) Can’t believe i reached this age having read only three or four of Dick’s novels, but this spring i ran across a pile of his reissued novels at such a good price that i bought a stack of them. This one was very good since even by 1956 Dick had settled on his central theme of alienation, and oh my goodness did he ever write entertaining plots. Sometimes it helps to be crazy.
Overnight to Many Distant Cities – Donald Barthelme (1983) I’d read a number of Barthelme’s stories with pleasure but had never read through one of his collections. Glad i did. He echoes Borges to some degree and at the end of this collection almost prefigures Ben Marcus. Strange stuff and very entertaining.
Wool – Hugh Howey (2012) Anticipating Armageddon, mid twenty first-century Americans had built an enormous underground biosphere as a stronghold in which they could live in a world too toxic for outside survival. A century later, their underground world had become a highly stratified society in which most inhabitants rarely ventured many levels above or below those devoted to their roles – the engineers who ran and maintained the systems, the farmers who grew the food, and the IT crew. A rigid set of rules had become something like a religion, but as with all religions, there were dissenters. Which is where the security apparatus came into play. A fascinating tale about a self-contained world facing an increasingly fascinating set of problems. Well, fascinating to us, a matter of life and death to them.
Shift – Hugh Howey (2013 e-book) I was so entertained by Wool that i immediately went online and downloaded a pdf version of this prequel, which provides background for the events described in Wool and which i found just as entertaining. Alas, i couldn’t find the third volume in this series, Dust, in pdf format and ended up with an e-book that i don’t have the software to read. Gotta get on that, as there are plenty of loose ends left to tie up.
Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons (1940) In 1932 Stella Gibbons published her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, a hilarious and ruthless parody of rural melodramas and their purple prose. I found it utterly delightful when i discovered it in the mid-seventies and i recommend it highly. Alas, nothing else she wrote achieved anywhere near the critical acclaim or the sales of that one novel, but i ran across this short story collection and decided i’d give it a try. I did. Don’t.
The World Jones Made – Philip K. Dick (1956) Another from my new stack of early Dick novels, and oh wow, what a visionary he was, a deeply troubled man, but one whose reputation as a great science fiction writer has continued to grow in the years since his death. Don’t wait until you’re as old as i am to read Dick.
The New Military Humanism – Noam Chomsky (1999) Good grief. Every time i read Chomsky i discover that the situation is worse than i’d imagined, and this book is no exception. The subtitle is Lessons from Kosovo, and he uses the NATO bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo crisis as an exemplar. Before i read this, i’d felt such loathing for the Serbs (not that the Croatians are all that much better) that i’d been a mindless supporter of our Kosovo intervention. No more. Chomsky hardly paints the Serbs as white knights or glosses over Serbian atrocities, but focuses on his thesis that our bombing of Serbia was part and parcel of our “new military humanism”, an oxymoron that really means “imperial violence” and furthermore routinely triggers the violence that it supposedly is intended to stop.
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt (2013) I picked this up because it seems to have permanently roosted on the San Francisco best seller list, and everybody i know seems to have read and enjoyed it. Now i know why, as Tartt sure can weave a compelling plot and develop fascinating characters. Marvelously enjoyable reading, and as i closed it i noted that she’d left enough loose strings that i wanted a sequel.
Gun, With Occasional Music – Jonathan Lethem (1994) One thing for sure, Lethem’s versatile. This was his first novel, and in it he seems to be simultaneously channeling Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick. Or maybe it’s parodying them. At any rate, what we have here is a noir private detective thriller set in a rather nasty mid-twenty-first-century police state. Lots of thrills and great humor. What’s not to like about a murderous kangaroo with human intelligence?
Common To This Country: Botanical Discoveries of Lewis and Clark – Susan Munger, illustrations by Charlotte Staub Thomas (2003) Twenty-six of the plants Lewis and Clark brought back from their expedition. Beautifully illustrated and with descriptions that build on the explorers’ notes, with enough material on the journey to put it all in context.
California – Edan Lepucki (2014) We do know how i love dystopias, most especially those set in California in the middle of this century, so i snapped this book up the moment it hit the shelves at Folio. It’s hard for me not to enjoy a dystopia, so of course i read this one eagerly, following Cal and Frieda as they fled an increasingly dysfunctional Los Angeles to live by themselves in the hills. There are passages of fine description and some well drawn characters although it sure would have helped if Freida had been a more sympathetic character rather than an impulsive twit. Besides that, i found the book unsatisfying even as i read with as few stops as possible to the end, eager to see how the plot would develop. The novel would have worked a lot better for me if Lepucki had provided a more convincing portrayal of the causes of the deterioration of American civilization rather than attribute the fall mainly to marginally described climate/weather disasters with help from economic deterioration that she glosses over. And the ending? Hell, she didn’t end the novel but rather jerked it to a stop in a dozen pages. All that said, it was not really a bad book. Perhaps i’m being too harsh because i’d expected more from it than it could have delivered, and the bottom line is that i could hardly put it down.
Beowulf – anon (ca. 800) tr. Seamus Heaney (2000) Yes, that Beowulf. When i was in graduate school i thought i’d wait until i’d got familiar with Old English before i read this. But now that i’m getting senile i figured i’d better go ahead and read it in translation while i still could read modern English. And what better translation than Heaney’s, which got a great deal of critical acclaim when it was published and also has the advantage of displaying the original text on facing pages. It’s not a line by line translation, but his intent was to produce a translation that was both poetic and accurate. He does not strictly follow the metrical requirements of Old English verse, but he does use a great deal of balanced alliteration and a line of four stressed syllables. And after a few pages, you get into the swing of it. I found the book quite enjoyable even though (or perhaps because) i did not read every line of the Old English but rather sampled around in it. There are still enough cognates in modern English, Dutch, and German that i was pleasantly surprised at how many words i could understand in the original.
The Corpse on the Dike – Janwillem van de Wetering (1976) Originally published in Dutch as Glaarsde Kater which is Dutch for the Mother Goose tale “Puss in Boots”. This is the third in a series of novels by Van de Wetering about the Amsterdam detectives Grijpstra and De Gier, and i found it so entertaining that i’ll read more of them even though i’m not a big fan of detective novels. A reviewer commented that “what makes this series so engaging is that the policemen are as quirky and complicated as the criminals.” I’ll say. Great entertainment.
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold – John Le Carré (1963) Even though Le Carré published this one while i was an undergraduate, i didn’t get around to reading any of his novels until the 1980’s, and somehow i missed this one. Shouldn’t have, as it’s excellent.
Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education – Michael Dirda (2005) Oh. My. Goodness! The subtitle says it all. I made notes on the back flyleaf and by the end had nearly fifty books for my must-read list, ranging from a few things that were already there like Crime and Punishment (and yeah, yeah, i should have read this fifty years ago but somehow haven’t got around to it) to works by modern authors i’d barely heard of…..OK, and some i hadn’t heard of.
Indonesia Etc. – Elizabeth Pisani (2014) Pisani backpacked thru Java and Bali in 1983, was a stringer in Jakarta from ’88 to ’91 for Reuters, worked as an epidemologist for the Indonesian Ministry of Health from 2001 to 2005, and traveled all over the country during 2011 and 2012 writing this book. A marvelous introduction to Indonesia, its history, and its people that’s full of profound insights and boffo moments.
The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard – J. G. Ballard (2009). Yep, complete, as in 1200 closely printed pages. The critic who compared Ballard at his best to Saki and John Collier was right even though Ballard should be read only two or three stories at a sitting. And still, there were longeurs, as in a few too many stories about Vermillion Sands, an imaginary dytopian drying up desert resort town. On the other hand, there were many excellent stories and a few that i found superb, among them “The Killing Ground” and “Theatre of War” both set during a civil war in England in which the beleaguered government forces are aided by American “advisors”. And my favorite, “The Ultimate City” in which a young man sneaks off to an abandoned city and leads the resurrection of much of its derelict technology….not that he ultimately gets what he wants, of course.
The Table Comes First – Adam Gopnik (2011). Oh wow. In 300 pages Gopnik gives us a history of restaurants, food writing, taste, and food trends – the replacement of the classic French cooking with nouvelle cuisine with the molecular constructions of Ferran Adrià. All in a writing style rich in allusion and wit. I loved this book, and yes, it’s far more philosophical than any book on cooking i’ve ever read.
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell (2014). The latest in David Mitchell’s canon of superb novels. The central thread in this complex novel is the life of Holly Sykes from a teenager in 1984 to an old woman near death in 2043 in a dystopian Ireland being taken over by gangs and a resurgent Roman Catholic Church as the government fails. Perhaps not quite as good as the tours de force of Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, but still, a fascinating entertainment that just got better and better and better notwithstanding James Wood’s poisonous review in the September 8, 2014 The New Yorker. Wood is a brilliant critic, and his takedown of Barbara Kingsolver about ten years ago in The New Republic was trenchant and so hilarious that i nearly wet myself over his parody of her, but his review of Mitchell seemed largely off base although i do agree with him in finding the interwoven war between two races of immortals a bit much. Still, ignore him, listen to me, and read this book.
Outsider in Amsterdam – Janwillen Van de Wetering (1975). I loved my introduction to Van de Wetering, The Corpse on the Dike, so much that i found a cheap copy of this one, and only afterwards discovered that i’d blundered onto the first in the series. Better yet, the San Francisco Public Library has most of the novels, so i’ll be able to gobble my way through them for months. The two detectives, Grijpstra and de Gier, make a delightful pair, and since Van de Wetering is a native Amsterdammer and was a member of the Amsterdam police force, the book is utterly realistic. Not to mention a fascinating detective story.
The Dawn of Innovation: The First American Industrial Revolution – Charles R. Morris (2012). What a fascinating book! Morris traces the rise of this country to economic preeminence during the nineteenth century, and in doing so explains how this was made possible by our being a nation of middle-class strivers unencumbered by a stultifying aristocracy. Although he ignores the tremendous advantage we had in starting out along the eastern seaboard of a resource-rich continent peopled only by Indians that we could easily push aside, he makes a thrilling tale of how we displaced Great Britain to become the world’s leading power and the leading creditor nation by the end of WWI. A final chapter discusses China’s similar rapid rise but suggests that it is on the brink of serious problems that will slow, if not end, its rise.
Telegraph Avenue – Michael Chabon (2012). OK, i just loved his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay back in 2000 but somehow never got around to reading the novels since then. No excuse, Sir. But i’d read enough favorable reviews of Telegraph Avenue to fix it in my mind so that when i saw a remaindered copy, i snatched it up. And loved it from the first page. Fine prose style and a fascinating plot. Read this book.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (2013). Fanangan’s Gould’s Book of Fish is one of the great novels of the the century, so it should come as no surprise that his latest novel is spellbinding. Its primary focus is the life of Dorrigo Evans, most especially the horrific three years he spent as an Australian POW slave laborer on the infamous Thai-Burma railway immortalized in The Bridge over the River Kwai. During his captivity, Evans realizes, “rather than leading [the men under him] by example, they were leading him by adulation.” What elevates the book to the highest level is Flanagan’s tracking the lives of a number of people associated with Evans, including the two women he loved, his fellow prisoners, and several of the Japanese guards. In them we see a marvelous mixture of nobility, brutality, kindness, and cruelty – with most characters exhibiting all those traits. Not only is the book an examination of human nature both sad and uplifting, but also it’s packed with Australian slang that sent me running to the dictionary, so i strongly recommend it. Oh, and it’s also a love story, sort of.
Lock In – John Scalzi (2014). Well, yes. Take a near future United States in which a significant chunk of the population is physically paralyzed owing to the aftereffects of a global virus but interacts with society by means of individual androids they control, and then make one of these locked-in people an FBI agent investigating a bizarre murder involving a physically intact human who possesses a very useful aftereffect of the same virus. Thriller? You betcha. Short, and it reads like candy.
Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood (2014). I snap up anything of Atwood’s, and gobbled my way through these nine tales with delight. She’s a marvellous storyteller, and her short fiction is as good – and as deliciously bizarre – as her novels. That said, i’m trying to organize pickets to ever-so-gently harass her until she coughs up a sequel to Madaddam. A trilogy is not enough.
Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel (2014). Oh, do we love our dystopias or what? This one’s set in the immediate future, the first 25 years after an especially virulent flu epidemic has killed the vast majority of the human race, leaving only scattered small settlements of survivors eking out an existence by hunting and by scavenging in the abandoned buildings as the infrastructure crumbles around them. And in one case by banding together as a troupe of musicians and thespians wandering from settlement to settlement putting on concerts and Shakespearean plays. To keep it exciting, there are perils, most especially new religious groups that deal quite traditionally with heretics and disbelievers. To flesh the book out, there are flashbacks tracking the main characters from twenty years before the epidemic. I gobbled this thing up.
Ruby – Cynthia Bond (2014). Set largely in a little black town in East Texas in the fifties through the seventies, it depicts the the racism of the white community surrounding the characters, but the most horrible people in it are blacks who exploit and brutalize their fellows. All the horror is leavened only slightly by traces of redeeming love, but they are dangled in such small p0rtions that even though there’s a crumb of hope at the end, it wasn’t enough, at least for me. That said, Bond has a fine prose style, and found a good deal of humor in her depiction of the church ladies. Even there, though, it was hard to find much humor in a novel in which almost all the characters are villains…or at least ruthless manipulators.
Riddley Walker – Russell Hoban (1980). What i can’t understand is how this thing completely slipped through my radar and it was left to dear Martha at Folio Books to recommend it last month. Easy read? No. It’s written in the English of a semi-literate England a couple of thousand years after a global holocaust has sent the world back to a stone age from which it has only very partially recovered. It’s a Bildungsroman and covers about two weeks in the life of a boy on the cusp of manhood since he’s twelve and life is short. It gets easier to read after a few pages when you’ve grown accustomed to the strange spellings and have learned to sound the words out, but it’s still slow going. And that said, it’s worth it.
The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage – Caroline M. Grant and Lisa Catherine Harper, eds. (2013). One of my favorite folks is Liz Crane, manager of the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market and long time friend, so when i heard the words “book” and “Elizabeth Crane” in the same sentence, i immediately bought the book. Only to discover that it was an essay collection to which Liz had contributed. Oh well. Still, it was an interesting foodie book even though my favorite essay in it by far was the one by Liz.
Twilight’s Last Gleaming – John Michael Greer (2014). I’ve been an avid reader of Greer’s Archdruid Report since a few months after its inception several years ago, so of course i snapped this book up the moment it became available from the English publisher, Karnac. It’s set in 2025 and tracks the progress of a US invasion of Tanzania immediately after the discovery of immense oil deposits off its shore. Don’t want to get into a spoiler here, but let’s just say that things start going bad very quickly.
Greer’s depiction of the events was so eminently plausible that i was spellbound, but not enough to avoid jumping around in excitement and sending an ill advised email or two recommending the book when i was about halfway through it. Unfortunately, Greer’s treatment of the aftermath of the invasion, while certainly possible and sufficiently entertaining to keep me reading to the end, became increasingly less plausible, and the book did not so much reach a satisfactory conclusion as just flutter to a stop.
On his blog, Greer writes eloquently and convincingly of his theory of the imminent catabolic collapse this nation faces, but his attempt to couch his theory in novel form is much less successful. Not that i won’t keep reading the blog….and for that matter, future novels.
The Peripherals – William Gibson (2014). I’ve adored William Gibson’s writing since his first novel and found his near future Sprawl Trilogy, especially Neuromancer and Count Zero, magnificent, as i did his near future Bridge Trilogy, especially Virtual Light. His next three novels, all set in the present, i found good but less delightful. Well, he’s back to form with a new novel set in both the near future and some seventy years after that. I just now finished it, and it’s one of those novels so rich and complicated that it demands an immediate second reading at a slower pace, the better to tighten my grasp of the relationships between some of the characters as well as to enjoy his turns of phrase. See, in the first pass i was just gobbling it up for the plot.
Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (2013). Who says women can’t write science fiction? Well, women other than Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler. This book won Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards in 2014, but i learned about it only when i read a review of its sequel in October, 2014. It’s all about a soldier named Breq who was formerly the artificial intelligence running an interstellar warship linking thousands of human and ancillary soldiers but as the novel opens is reduced to one human body. All she has to do is defeat the malign forces that have begun taking over control of the galaxy. A space opera? Yes, but the fat lady is singing, and her first aria is marvelous.
Mother Night – Kurt Vonnegut (1961). I read this when i discovered Vonnegut after the publication of Slaughterhouse Five at the end of the sixties, and at that time i thought it was even finer than Slaughterhouse Five. Saw a tattered paperback of Mother Night in a box of free books, reread it, and can now reverse my earlier opinion. It’s merely nearly as good, but still well worth reading.
Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie (2014). Still entertaining? Yes. And should i have been the tiniest bit suspicious of a second fat space opera published only a year after the author’s previous work? Also yes. Still, so many twists in a complex and imaginative plot that i could read it with pleasure. Just don’t get your hopes too high as Leckie is not the new LeGuin.