Of Human Bondage -- W. Somerset Maugham
This started out slow but I liked it better as it went on. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel, beginning with a young orphan, a boy named Philip with a club foot, who goes to be raised by distant relatives, an Anglican minister and his wife. Philip, to me, seems unreasonably resentful of his guardians, who admittedly are past middle age and not really temperamentally suited to children, but who after all took him in out of kindness and do try the best they can. I’m pretty sure that’s deliberate on the part of the author, since the first half of the book is a bildungs-roman showing Philip grow up from a kind of annoying, self-pitying boy to a reasonably decent man. The main story is Philip’s pursuit of his dream to be a painter, and although the book (which covers twenty years or so) has three different love interests, the real emotional climax comes in some very good scenes where Philip realizes his talent is mediocre, and he decides to give up painting rather than live a life of pretending to genius he doesn’t possess. I was kind of surprised that he managed to leave behind both his painting and his contentious relationship with his mistress and continue toward finding both a marriage where he can be happy and a profession where he can be genuinely good.
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore -- Robin Sloan
I picked this up for the title (naturally!) but kept reading for the story. A Bay Area programmer laid off from his collapsed dot-com gets a job as a clerk in a used book store, whose owner eccentrically keeps it open around the clock but doesn’t seem to care much how many books he sells. Clearly the real business of the store is catering to the regulars, an odd lot who come in at all hours to borrow books from the not-for-sale section and discuss abstruse mathematics. He eventually realizes that the owner belongs to an oddball mathematical society, and the regulars are novices engrossed in solving a mathematical puzzle laid out in the books as their test of entry. Our hero realizes that the information age has really left the society behind; he solves the novices’ test with a computer program, and then, with the help of his girlfriend, who works at Google, tackles the society’s greatest unsolved problems. This doesn’t go over well with a lot of the older members. It was well-written and funny; I liked it a lot.
All of an Instant -- Richard Garfinkle
A very original SF story, about people who have learned to place themselves outside of time and who war with each other to constantly remake the world’s history, each pursuing his own Utopia. Their wars rage forward and back throughout time, only limited by a self-imposed boundary at the earliest days of humanity: the warring tribes fear that any change in that part of history might unmake humanity itself, a change that might be irreversible. It was well told.
Gormenghast -- Mervyn Peake
A strange Gothic story dealing with murder and intrigue at the imaginary Castle Gormenghast. It covers the early life of the young Earl of Groan, Titus, as he grows from an infant to his late teens, and the patient decades-long struggle of the exiled chief servant Flay to free the Groan family from the maneuvering of the Machiavellian Steerpike, who manipulates the castle’s inhabitants to set them all against each other. When everything comes to a head, Flay vindicated and Steerpike overthrown, Titus decides to set out from Gormenghast on his own. The writing was very good; I liked it better than its predecessor.
Birdseye -- Mark Kurlansky
A biography of Clarence Birdseye, the first mass-producer of frozen vegetables. Birdseye sounds like he must have been a fun person to know, a real can-do sort of guy who did all sorts of things, from inventing a spear-gun for tagging migrating whales to collecting thousands of ticks off western coyotes as part of a team finding a cure for Rocky Mountain spotted fever. He trapped fur in the Canadian tundra for a few years, and used the time to experiment with freezing food. The problem wasn’t freezing the food per se; it was freezing it in such a way that it still tasted good and wasn’t mushy when you thawed it. (The trick is to freeze it really fast, which means using very low temperatures and soaking the food first so it freezes evenly.) Kurlansky includes some interesting digressions on the nature of innovation. I liked it.
All the Sad Young Men -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
I’ve been trying to find this book since high school, but for some reason I’ve never understood it was his only book that was out of print, and used copies cost hundreds of dollars. Someone finally brought out an edition last year. I liked the stories for their writing but they were all pretty depressing. They were written when Fitzgerald was largely broke and his wife was carrying on an affair with a French pilot. Unsurprisingly, most of the stories deal with feckless, talented men being jerked around by fascinating but heartless women. The best piece in the book is probably “The Rich Boy”, which includes his famous line “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”
The Little Tales of Smethers -- Lord Dunsany
A short-story collection featuring a half-dozen or so stories about a nebbishy door-to-door salesman named Smethers and his Holmesian flatmate, a gentleman detective who helps out the baffled police. They’re actually kind of so-so, but it’s all worth it for the first one, “Two Bottles of Relish”, one of the best short stories ever.
The Carpet People -- Terry Pratchett
A comedy adventure story featuring tribes of dust-mite-sized people who live in the vast jungles of a dining-room carpet. A war against an aggressive conquering tribe is interrupted by the long-foretold return of a legendary natural disaster (the vacuum cleaner.) It was very funny.
Orr -- Bobby Orr
This was actually pretty dull. I didn’t come away from it feeling like I knew anything more about him than I did before.
Bill Bryson's African Diary -- Bill Bryson
A short essay describing Bryson’s eight-day visit to Kenya in 2002 on behalf of CARE, an anti-poverty charity organization. It’s mostly a description of Kenya’s half-existent infrastructure – trains whose brakes fail as often as not, planes with no windshield wipers, pitted roads preyed on by bandits. Most of the organization’s work is done in places like Kibera, an “unofficial” shantytown on the edge of Nairobi where about a million people live in squalor. CARE isn’t allowed to do any real infrastructure work there, because the government doesn’t want it to become a nicer place to live and thus attract refugees. In fact the government doesn’t even officially admit that Kibera exists at all, even though the President of Kenya can see it from his window. It was pretty funny seeing Bryson’s horrified reaction to the list of dangers that Kenyans take for granted – bandits, dengue, malaria, bilharzia, random gunfire, yellow fever, and a pile of other horrors so common that people there barely think about them.
Ninety Percent of Everything -- Rose George
A very good, very interesting book about container shipping. I’m constantly amazed that these gigantic ships can get by with such tiny crews. The author spent some time with coast guards from various countries on anti-pirate cruises. There’s actually very little anyone can do about pirates – no jurisdiction wants them – so when the coast guards capture pirates, what they usually do is just destroy all their equipment and put them ashore.
The Pat Hobby Stories -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
A collection of anti-Hollywood stories, featuring a washed-up, alcoholic hack writer named Pat Hobby – probably a picture of what Fitzgerald, on his gloomier days, feared becoming if he stayed working for the movies. Hobby is pretty repellent, spending all his time mooching money off people and avoiding his creditors, always oiling around people he knows at the studios hoping for a few weeks’ work. He stays afloat because some of the older executives give him pity work for old times’ sake, but he’s not grateful. They’re well-written but unpleasant.
The Good News We Almost Forgot -- Kevin DeYoung
This was kind of appalling. It’s a new edition of a seventeenth-century Protestant catechism, edited and interpreted by a modern American Calvinist. I’m pretty broadly ecumenical, but honestly, Calvinism is just awful. Some years ago I was watching the Colbert Report and some fundamentalist was on talking about sound-bite preaching; he quoted John 3:16 (“whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life”) and then crowed “That’s all you need!” I remember thinking “Really? That’s all you need to know about Jesus? All the stuff about compassion and forgiveness isn’t important?” And I was really struck, reading this catechism, to realize that Calvinists and a lot of other fundamentalists really do believe that! In their minds, the important thing is believing, not acting; and the important thing about Jesus is not what he said, but what he was. Calvinists really believe that the lessons Jesus taught were of secondary importance, and the really important thing about being a Christian is believing in Christ’s divinity. Incidentally, that also sheds some light on why fundamentalists are usually so anti-Semitic; Jewish teaching is that what God demands of us is not beliefs but actions, which is the diametric opposite of fundamentalism.
Alif the Unseen -- G. Willow Wilson
This was pretty well-written, and I liked the concept – Alif is a late-teens hacker living in an unnamed contemporary Arabic city, who specializes in helping his clients trade information securely and avoid government censorship. He gets involved with a girl from a wealthier, higher-class family – an unwise thing to do in his sort of society – and this leads him into a lot of trouble when the girl is unwillingly betrothed to a powerful government official in charge of enforcing censorship. Alif ends up on the run, enlisting help from a few hacker friends and going for asylum to a powerful local gangster, who turns out to be a djinn. The rest of the story is a battle of archetypes – Alif and his more-or less honest friends, who consist of his childhood playmate, several djinni, a pious imam, and a well-meaning but clueless American who isn’t much help at all, against the government censors and their own allies among the djinni. The McGuffin is really interesting: it’s a copy of a book, The Thousand Days and One Day, which turns out to be the djinn equivalent of The Thousand Nights and One Night. The stories in it are bizarre and seem to make no sense, which is because they’re meant for the djinni, whose ideas about sense and nonsense are not like ours. It was well-paced and exciting, and I liked it, but unfortunately the author is quite bad at describing actual use of computers, which jarred me out of the story several times. It’s not so much that what the characters do with computers is impossible – that’s pretty much par for the course in most fiction – as that the scenes seem to be written by someone who has never used a computer and has no idea how they work. Saying a coder “sends armies of algorithms to assault digital fortresses” has no relation to programming in any way at all, and that sort of painfully dumb prose really made the book uneven.
When God Laughs -- Jack London
A collection of very good short stories, generally dealing with the futility of making plans when our outcomes are really determined by forces outside our control. The best was “Just Meat”, a psychological story about two thieves arguing over their loot, each knowing that the other plans to murder him. I also liked “A Piece of Steak”, an excellent boxing story about a fighter who, because of poverty, has to go into a prize fight having not eaten anything that day; it’s a wrenching picture of how even bottomless courage and will aren’t enough to succeed when you’re too poor to feed yourself.
Snow Country -- Yasunari Kawabata
A sad story about a middle-aged businessman from Tokyo who makes periodic visits to a spa in the mountains where he carries on an affair with a geisha. It’s understated, but it’s meant to be a story of contrasts – the salaryman in his business suit coming from Westernized Tokyo to an idyllic rural Japanese setting; the heavy snow of the mountains and the overwhelming visible presence of Nature as opposed to the sameness of the seasons in the city. Tellingly, though, the spa isn’t actually that idyllic; the “geisha” is really an ordinary prostitute who dreams of higher status. In a wider statement about the failing of Japanese tradition, the girl works as she does because she couldn’t find anyone to give her actual geisha training – she learned to play the samisen from listening to Western broadcasts on the radio.
As Always, Julia -- Joan Reardon, ed.
A collection of correspondence between Julia Child and her friend Avis DeVoto, which started in 1952 when Julia wrote a fan letter to Avis’ husband, the writer Bernard DeVoto, and continued until 1962, when the Childs moved to Boston, where Avis lived, and letters became unnecessary. Julia was unknown at the time, living in Europe with her husband, who worked for the State department, and trying to find an American publisher for the cook book she was writing with two French friends. (She was also spying for the CIA, but that doesn’t get brought up!) The initial reason for the correspondence was DeVoto’s magazine article complaining about the poor quality of American kitchen knives. This seems surprising considering America’s great manufacturing capability, but the fact was there was just no demand for really good kitchen knives in America at the time, and there wouldn’t be until serious home cooking became generally popular, which was largely caused by the popularity of Julia’s TV show. The letters are really interesting, covering all kinds of things – DeVoto’s extensive work on nature conservation, the Childs’ running afoul of McCarthyism at State, the ups and downs of living and working in Europe in the fifties. For someone usually so nice, I was kind of surprised how ruthlessly Julia worked at keeping most of the credit for her first cookbook for herself, constantly complaining that the other two writers weren’t helping enough. She finally teamed up with one of them to freeze out the third, and even tried to keep her name off the cookbook, but finally settled for giving her twelve percent (Julia bought her out later.) You can see how a lot of things have changed – when Julia sends Avis a recipe that involves shallots, she has to explain what shallots are, since they weren’t generally available in American markets then. Avis remarks that if she wants to serve wine at a party she has to order it some days in advance – there was so little demand for wine in America in the fifties that stores just didn’t carry any.
Tales of War -- Lord Dunsany
Short pieces of war journalism and war fiction written during World War One. Their power came more from the subject matter than from the prose style.
My Life in France -- Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme
An as-told-to autobiography dictated to her nephew, covering the same period covered in her letters to Avis DeVoto. The story is very similar (unsurprisingly, since those letters must have been the primary source material for this book) but I was even more surprised at Julia’s bitter grousing about how her original co-authors don’t really deserve credit and she really did all the work. I’m all for standing up for yourself, but Julia comes across as pretty selfish and ungrateful.
Love of Life -- Jack London
A collection of Yukon stories, all very well-written, generally on the theme of what London considered the impossibility of real understanding between the Alaskan Indians and the white colonists. The best is probably “The White Man’s Way”, about a man whose older son is killed when his canoe is run down by a company ship; when the man goes to the company to demand an indemnity, he is thrown in jail. So the younger son kills an employee of the company to square the account, whereupon he is arrested and executed. The lesson the man learns from this is that “The way of the white man is without understanding and never twice the same.”
Sailing to Sarantium -- Guy Gavriel Kay
The Byzantine Empire seems to be a very popular subject for alternate-timeline story writers. This is a story about art and intrigue in the imaginary city of Sarantium, which is Justinian-era Byzantium with all the names changed. There’s a very small magic element, which isn’t really integral to the plot, and I feel like it was added just so the book could be sold as a “fantasy”. The hero, Crispin, is from Rome (I’m not going to try to remember all the fake names) and is summoned to Sarantium to work on the great temple being built there (Hagia Sophia in real life.) Crispin is a skilled mosaicist and he really only wants to work on the decoration of the mighty dome, but the situation is (appropriately) Byzantine. Crispin has been charged with a secret message from the Queen of Rome proposing that the Emperor (Justinian) divorce the Empress (Theodora), who has not given him an heir, and marry the Queen, thus reuniting the eastern and western empires without fighting and leaving the Emperor free to concentrate on war with the Sassanid Empire. Crispin gets in over his head in a gigantic web of intrigue, and he can’t even escape into his work, since of course the mosaic is religious and there’s a lot of argument among powerful people as to how it should represent the Father-Son relationship (the book’s version of the homoousian-homoiousian controversy.) There’s a lot of great background detail and a well-drawn subplot involving chariot races. I liked it.
The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold -- Evelyn Waugh
An interesting novel about a high-strung, nervous Englishman who goes on an ocean cruise to relax, but over the course of the voyage starts hearing voices. He becomes convinced that he can hear the captain and the ship’s officers from his cabin through a forgotten intercom link left over from the war, and becomes terrified as the officers’ conversations become increasingly insane and bloodthirsty. He starts planning on leading a takeover of the ship, but luckily he’s been sending telegrams telling his wife about the officers’ plot and the ship is met in port by a doctor. It’s apparently based on Waugh’s real-life breakdown (which was probably caused by delayed stress from the war.)
The Friends of Eddie Coyle -- George V. Higgins
An excellent noir crime story, revolving around a small-time crook named Eddie Coyle and his associates – the title is a dark joke, since Coyle doesn’t actually have any friends. Several different characters get involved in a potential arms deal, each of them wondering which one of the others is going to try to sell them all out. It was well-paced and exciting; I really liked it.
Lord of Emperors -- Guy Gavriel Kay
The conclusion of the Sarantium story, revolving around the plots of powerful families against the Emperor. I was surprised by the ending, since in real life the plots against Justinian ended differently. I was initially skeptical of the way all the powerful women the hero meets try to seduce him, but over the course of the story I realized that all of the seductions or attempted seductions were in fact moves in power politics, and didn’t really have much to do with real attraction. I was impressed with the way the dozen or so plot lines all resolved each other. I also liked the way the Emperor’s character determined his fate: a highly intelligent man, who had always prevailed through his intelligence, naturally he rated intelligence as the most important quality anyone could possess – which actually led to him underestimating dangerous enemies, since his plan for dealing with them was to put them in situations where their own interests would best be served by supporting him, and he didn’t understand that for some people the desire for revenge can be stronger than intelligent self-interest. A very good story.
Elliot Allagash -- Simon Rich
A sort of cynical Pygmalion story, about a nebbishy middle-school student named Seymour, who strikes up an acquaintance with the new kid, Elliot, who’s just started going to Seymour’s mid-tier Manhattan private school after being expelled from a dozen other places. Elliot’s family are billionaires, and since his divorced father is a work-and-alcoholic Elliot is left pretty much to himself. As an exercise in cynicism, and to fill the time, he picks out Seymour and devotes all his energy to making Seymour popular and successful. Seymour happily goes along, apparently not caring at all that Elliot’s ridiculously out-of-proportion schemes involve getting another student committed to a mental hospital so Seymour can win a class election. Elliot is really entertainingly awful. The story is one over-the-top excess after another – Elliot creates and funds an entire twelve-team children’s basketball league just so Seymour can get trained by ex-pros Elliot has hired, then creates an international charity (for a disease that doesn’t actually exist) so Seymour can volunteer for it. Things roll along without a hitch until Seymour, seventeen now and admitted to Harvard, finally gets a girlfriend, which annoys Elliot since it takes Seymour’s eyes off the prize, and eventually Elliot pulls the plug and everything goes to smash. I thought Seymour really got off too easily, considering he’d been cheerfully complicit in everything Elliot did, but the ending is a bit Frank Capra-ish, as Seymour, having learned what’s really important, walks off with his (strangely un-repelled) girlfriend and feels sorry for the lonely Mr.-Potter-like Elliot.
Titus Alone -- Mervyn Peake
This wasn’t that good. It’s the story of what happened to Titus Groan after he left Castle Gormenghast, a weird and surreal journey where he’s endlessly pursued by a pair of mysterious possibly-governmental agents right out of Kafka. The book was heavily edited before it was published, and then heavily re-edited after Peake died, so I don’t really know how much of the book is what the author intended. I didn’t like it.
Crimes in Southern Indiana -- Frank Bill
This was very good. It’s a collection of interconnected short stories dealing with small-time drug wars in rural America. They’re pretty squalid – really hard not to be, when you’re dealing with basement meth labs and human trafficking and thousand-dollar drug deals in crummy motels that get interrupted by rivals who consider a thousand dollars worth killing for. The writing was unexpectedly powerful for a first book.
Frankenstein -- Mary Shelley
Somehow I had never read this. It was well written, and I liked it, though a lot of the plot makes no sense on further reflection – when Dr. Frankenstein realizes he’s brought the monster to life, why does he run off and hide in his bed? And then why is he so surprised when the monster comes to see where he’d gone to? The monster is an interesting contradiction, alternating between a sympathetic creature unfairly ostracized from human contact – everyone who sees him is instantly repulsed, for some never-specified reason – and fits of appalling cruelty and rage, as when he kills Frankenstein’s family when the doctor refuses to make another like him to give him some company. Ultimately the monster, remorseful, decides to travel to the frozen North and live there in isolation until he dies; Frankenstein, looking for revenge, gives pursuit but dies of misery and cold before finding him. The last scene, where the monster boards the ship and mourns the doctor before continuing north, is very well crafted – the monster’s speech about how he deserves torment for his terrible wrongs is almost identical to the self-incriminating speech Frankenstein himself made before he died.
Work Done For Hire -- Joe Haldeman
This wasn’t bad. The hero is a writer who gets hired to write a movie tie-in novel; as he proceeds we get chapters that alternate between the novel he’s writing and his actual life. The novel goes well but the life doesn’t: a package containing a sniper rifle is delivered to his doorstep and he soon seems to be getting set up to take the fall for a murder. The nice plot twist comes when the hero – unusually for a thriller – stops to sit down and really think about what’s happening, and he realizes that what looks to him like a giant conspiracy could easily be replicated by one guy with money deliberately screwing with him. This is in fact what’s happening – the movie guy who hired him has been hiring people to set up a big fake-out as part of the movie publicity. It was all right; the drawback is that the hero never finishes writing his novel. This is deliberate – Haldeman is a big believer in ending stories very abruptly – but I would have liked to see how that story turned out.
Jimmy the Kid -- Donald E. Westlake
This wasn’t as good as I hoped. Westlake wrote comic mysteries about a born-loser sad sack named Dortmunder, but under a pen name he also wrote excellent noir crime novels about a hard-case criminal called Parker. In this book, Dortmunder and his idiot friends come across a Parker book, where Parker’s crew pulls off a kidnapping, and they decide to use it as a blueprint for a kidnapping of their own. I don’t really like Dortmunder stories and I read this because the Parker chapters in it aren’t part of a real Parker book and appear nowhere else. Unfortunately there are only about four Parker chapters and the Parker story is never finished, and the Dortmunder frame story is a bit of a pratfall. I didn’t like it that much.
An Outcast of the Islands -- Joseph Conrad
An unpleasant novel about a South Seas wharf rat named Willems who is taken on by a benevolent sea captain as a teenager, and under his tutelage grows up to be a capable sailor and businessman, but unfortunately does not learn any of the captain’s moral strength. When Willems is fired from his trading-post job for embezzling, the captain, feeling responsible, takes him aboard again; Willems abandons his family and goes along. The captain sets him up as a trade representative on a remote island, where he falls in love with the daughter of a prominent islander. He betrays the islanders and the captain, revealing their trade secrets to foreign sailors for money. Willems is a total moral wreck of a human being; dreading the captain’s return, and enraged at the pity he anticipates, he decides to murder the captain. The captain, escaping the plot, decides that killing Willems would be beneath him and so he leaves him behind on the island to live out his wretched life. Willems is appalled at the thought of the empty life stretching out before him and wishes for death. (T. S. Eliot quotes this section in “The Hollow Men”: Life is very long.)
A Son of the Middle Border -- Hamlin Garland
The first part of Garland’s autobiography, telling the story of his early life farming on the plains and his family’s hardscrabble poverty, and then his escape to the East, to Harvard and a career as a writer. He draws a good picture of his complicated frame of mind in his twenties, glad that he can make a living away from the back-breaking, unrewarding work he grew up doing, but also guilty because he doesn’t make enough to ease his mother’s life at the farm. It was pretty good.
The Sisters Brothers -- Patrick DeWitt
A dark Western novel about a pair of gunslinger brothers who work for a wealthy businessman who’s always sending them off to kill people who’ve stolen money from him. The younger of the brothers is the narrator, and he’s at a point in his career where he’s starting to wonder how many people there can really be stealing from this guy, when everyone knows that stealing from him will get them killed. He mentions to his brother that he was fine with gunning down crooked thieves, but if their boss is really just using them to kill people he doesn’t like, he wouldn’t mind finding another job. This leads to them deciding to team up with the man they’re currently hunting and turn on their boss, which doesn’t turn out all that well. The ending was pretty heavy, but I liked it.
Men and Cartoons -- Jonathan Lethem
A collection of short stories about off-putting people. The one I remember most is about a guy who goes to a neighbor’s party and, as part of an attempt to hook up with a girl there, decides to make everyone uncomfortable by bringing up embarrassing things the host did when they were children. Amazingly, his strategy doesn’t work.
The True-Born Englishman -- Daniel Defoe
A collection of Defoe’s political essays from the late seventeenth century, several of which got him into so much trouble he had to skip the country. He was eventually jailed for writing them (he published them anonymously, but his printer ratted him out) and only got out of jail as part of an amnesty when Queen Anne took the throne. Some of the subjects aren’t really interesting three hundred years later, but some are still applicable. I liked his essay on plans for improving the economy: he noted that Queen Elizabeth’s government had done a lot to alleviate poverty in rural England by funding the textile industry; the current ministry wanted to establish new textile mills in several parts of the country, but Defoe argued that that would only move the business from one part of the country to another, and if poverty decreased in one city it would only increase in another. Defoe argued, I think reasonably, that it would be far better to establish some new industry in areas that needed work, rather than just move industries around.
Mad Weekend -- Roddy Doyle
A good short novella about three Irish friends who go across to Liverpool to watch a football match. After a weekend of football, drinking, picked-up girls, and bar fights, two of the friends come to themselves and realize the third friend isn’t with them any more. They can’t find him, and they finally have to go back to Ireland without him, which goes over about as well with his family as you’d think. The story takes a brief detour into gloom and depression as the two friends have to live on not knowing, and then makes a return to comedy when they find out the bizarre answer to what happened. I thought it was really funny.
Faces of the Gone -- Brad Parks
A good murder mystery set in Baltimore. The hero is a newspaper reporter looking into a series of drug-related murders. There are some terrific scenes when he interviews a local gang and they insist he get high with them so they’ll trust him a little. (It turns out that that gang doesn’t deal drugs – they make their money selling bootleg DVDs, which have a wider customer base and also don’t get them involved in turf wars.) There are also very funny scenes later, when he runs into the paper’s editor-in-chief on his way back from the meeting, still high as a kite, and starts arguing with him about how Wonder Woman’s invisible jet would work. (And again later, when a source of his asks, “Did you really get high with [gang] and start lecturing them about offshore weather patterns?”) It was well-written and funny, and I liked that the hero freaks out after traumatic moments that would make a normal person freak out, and doesn’t just shrug them off with a wisecrack.
Shifu, You'll Do Anything For a Laugh -- Mo Yan
A collection of fairly depressing short stories about getting along in modern China. The title story is the best, about an elderly laid-off factory worker who gets himself out of financial trouble by turning an abandoned municipal building in the woods into a “love motel”, where couples pay for privacy by the hour. He’s very aware of how incongruous his position is; he’s also constantly nervous that some state official may turn up and want explanations. He eventually has a scare when a late-season couple lock themselves in and then take longer than expected, and he starts worrying that the man has killed the woman; he has panicked visions of the police finding her dead body and coming to interrogate him. He goes to find a younger friend to help him break in; when they get back there’s no one there and the friend suspects he made the whole thing up. I liked it.
Les Miserables -- Victor Hugo
This is a very long novel but it didn’t seem that way. It’s a fascinating story, really engrossing, and even though it has several long digressions about, for instance, the Battle of Waterloo or the Paris sewer system or the organization of nunneries in the eighteenth century, it still flies right along. The book has two protagonists, both admirable and flawed in different ways: Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, who both have aspects of saintliness – Javert in his selfless devotion to the letter of God’s law, Valjean in his selfless devotion to its spirit – and a really repulsive and unrepentant villain, the corpse-robber and thief Thenardier. It was written in the early 1860s, when the great renovation and rebuilding of Paris was going on, so Hugo often has to remind his readers that the story is set in the Paris of the 1830s, which didn’t exist any more. I thought Marius, the love interest of Valjean’s adopted daughter, was a bit of a self-righteous prig, but not so much that I couldn’t like the love story. It was a real accomplishment that Hugo could write a story of such colossal scope about a violent, bloody revolution that he and many of his readers had lived through and still make the battle of character between Valjean and Javert the main focus of the novel. I loved it.
Raising Steam -- Terry Pratchett
Probably the last Discworld novel, which makes me sad. This one tells the story of the steam engine and the railroad coming to Discworld, and talks about how once an idea’s time has come there’s almost no stopping it. The author was suffering from his final illness when he wrote it and I’m afraid it shows – the writing has flashes of his old brilliance but as a whole the book is kind of forgettable.
Railsea -- China Mieville
An adventure story set in a bizarre future world where almost the entire land surface of the Earth is covered in railroad tracks, and no one can walk on the ground because of the populations of terrifying, enormous, carnivorous burrowing creatures. People live on “islands” of outcroppings of solid rock, and make long train voyages for trade and to salvage advanced technology from old train wrecks. The commander of our hero’s train is obsessed with hunting down a giant killer mole, and we find this isn’t unusual – in fact she belongs to a sort of coffee club for train captains who dedicate their lives to chasing various land-monsters. As usual with Mieville, the main character is really the weird background, but I was also interested in the hero’s determination to find the legendary end of the railroad and find out how the world came to be the way it is. It was a good story.
Dance of the Reptiles -- Carl Hiaasen
A collection of Hiaasen’s very, very angry newspaper columns about the unbelievably corrupt state politics in Florida. They’re funny in a laugh-or-you’ll-cry kind of way.
Heart Songs -- Annie Proulx
A collection of hardscrabble-living stories set mostly in rural New Hampshire, about the weird juxtaposition of country people crushed by poverty living alongside wealthy doctors and lawyers from the big cities who have bought the locals’ land to build vacation homes. Unsurprisingly the stories are full of angry, bitter locals and aloof, resentful newcomers. They were well written.
Treatise on Law -- Saint Thomas Aquinas
A short excerpt from his major work, the Summa Theologica. The Summa is a work in three parts, cast as a series of questions about the Universe and Aquinas’ answers to them. This is a section from the second part; it covers Questions 90 through 97, where Aquinas considers the relationship of human law to divine law. It was really interesting, and surprisingly modern considering it was written in the thirteenth century; I was struck by his remark that since the human condition isn’t simple, no law can apply to all cases equally, so lawmakers should make laws that address the most common and likely things to happen, and judge edge cases as they arise.
Beauty and Sadness -- Yasunari Kawabata
Kawabata’s last novel, a story about being haunted by the past. The narrator, Oki, takes a holiday journey to visit a woman, Otoko, with whom he once had an affair. He has not seen her since their child died as an infant twenty years or so previously; since then both have become well-known public figures, he a writer, she a painter. It’s an open secret that his best-known novel was based on their relationship; this has been a constant reminder to Oki’s wife of his infidelity. He meets Otoko’s protégée Keiko, a talented young painter who is obsessively angry about Oki’s relationship with her teacher, though it happened before she was born. Keiko sets out to seduce Oki’s son and ruin his marriage as a kind of artistic revenge. It’s an almost Greek story – the procession of events is horrible but seems inevitable given the characters’ natures. It had a sad ending.
The Jesuit and the Skull -- Amir D. Aczel
The story of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit paleontologist and the first prominent Catholic academic to write in support of evolution, though most of his writings were suppressed by the Church until the fifties. After the Church ordered him to stop teaching, he spent years working on paleontological digs in China with the excavators who found the Peking Man fossils. Chardin contended, correctly, that they were fossils of a previously unknown Homo erectus variant, though many people at the time thought they were remnants of a deformed ape; but his main work was creating the first modern geological map of China. In his spare time he wrote about what he called the “Omega Point”: he thought that the universe and human consciousness are both gradually evolving to a state of maximum complexity and harmony. This is the exact opposite of the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the universe is proceeding towards maximum disorder, so Chardin has a better reputation among metaphysicians than among biologists. The Peking Man fossils were lost during World War II, but Chardin had made multiple excellent casts beforehand. I get the feeling I would have liked Chardin, the more so because Richard Dawkins, who’s a bit of a doctrinaire jerk, dislikes his writing.
The Wagon -- Martin Prieb
This was patchy. It’s a collection of autobiographical essay/stories by a Chicago writer who took a job as a policeman to support his writing. They’re good and bad; the actual descriptions of police work -- the give and take between two cops on their long, boring nighttime rides around the city, the logistical problems of gathering up dead bodies and getting them to the morgue – are really interesting, but the reflections on Being A Writer are not. I also had no sympathy at all for the author’s insistence that recording police activities is an unfair hardship on the police. Cry me a river, pal.
Maps and Legends -- Michael Chabon
A collection of essays, none of which have really stayed with me except an odd mixture of fact and fiction about the Golem legend, which wasn’t bad.
The Stranger and the Statesman -- Nina Burleigh
A very interesting book about James Smithson and his eccentric will, in which he left his vast fortune (about $560,000 in 1836 dollars) to the United States for the purpose of establishing an educational foundation in Washington DC, even though he had never been to the United States and from all appearances didn’t know much about it. Nobody really knows why he did it. He was the illegitimate son of a duke and is not known to have held Republican principles. It may be just that he wanted his name to endure, and thought that his institution would be a bigger fish in America than it would be in Europe. The United States government didn’t even find out about the bequest until six years after Smithson died, and even then there was a lot of arguing in Congress about it. The anti-federalists objected to the idea of a government-run institution and wanted the money split up among the states. Some of them even wanted to reject the money altogether as a middle finger to Europe generally. Ultimately it was John Quincy Adams, in his third career as a Congressman, who got the government to accept the money – which was shipped across the Atlantic in gold sovereigns and then melted down and re-struck as American double eagles! – and use it to create the Smithsonian we wound up with. Smithson was buried in Genoa, where he died, and when the promontory his tomb was on began to crumble, Alexander Graham Bell went over to bring the body back, tomb and all, to the Smithsonian.
Boomerang -- Michael Lewis
A wonderful book about the domino-like series of national financial disasters rolling around the world, that would be really funny if it weren’t so depressing. Lewis traveled to Iceland (“the only country that Americans can look at and say ‘At least we didn’t do that!’’), Greece (where successive governments spent years just trying to figure out how much money the government owed), Ireland (where the only rational economic forecasters were fired and threatened with prison for saying that the Irish economy was not a unique miracle that would never decline), and Germany (where the national sport is blaming everyone else for Europe’s lousy economic position and ignoring its own role.) Lewis has a gift for phrase (he mentions that the Germans are “gifted at creating difficulties with non-Germans”) and a great way of illustrating larger issues with small details: for example, when he was in Reykjavik he heard more explosions than you’d really expect in an ordinary city, and it turned out they were expensive cars blowing up. Many Icelanders, deciding that the krone would never stop rising, bought expensive cars by borrowing foreign currency and leveraging the great value of the krone to pay less interest; and then when the krone collapsed and the currency exchange rate reversed, they were left owing far more on the cars than they were worth. One strategy was to set fire to the car and use the insurance to pay off the loan. The government was too busy collapsing to look into insurance fraud, so….BOOM!
Still Life -- Louise Penny
A whodunit set in Quebec, where a Montreal inspector comes out to a little town to investigate the death of an older woman shot with a hunting arrow, possibly by accident. The town is surprisingly cosmopolitan for such a small, rural place; all the lead characters are prominent painters, poets, antique dealers, cooks, and psychologists, none native to the town, who have all independently moved to the middle of nowhere for no very clear reason. The inspector has to deal with an exasperating web of small-town feuds and uncooperative backwoods jerks, while hampered by an incompetent rookie assistant. It was all right. I read it because the climactic scene involves a snake and Mom couldn’t finish it, so she said I had to read it and tell her how it turned out. (Spoiler: there was no snake after all.)
Drinking in America -- Eric Bogosian
A collection of short one-act plays that are really monologues, all of them performed by the writer in early-eighties New York. They’re pretty good, kind of vibrant and manic and portraying characters who are generally wired on caffeine and lack of sleep.
Sex on the Moon -- Ben Mezrich
This was a well-written and infuriating true story. It was about a guy named Thad Roberts, who, after leaving his overbearingly strict religious family, went to college. Since he’d been brought up to become a missionary, he had no real idea what to do with his life; visiting the school’s career center, he was inspired to become an astronaut. Since he couldn’t qualify as a pilot, he decided to train to be a mission specialist, one of the astronauts who go along to do research in situ. He went about it the right way – he pursued degrees in biology, physics, and materials science (figuring the applications would be overloaded with engineers), founded a university stargazing club, did volunteer work on rock research at the local museum, and like that. It paid off when he got a highly-contested slot for students at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. I want to emphasize here that Roberts had a real, actual prospect of becoming a real, actual astronaut. But then he decided it would be fun to steal a moon rock to impress his girlfriend. (He blames the initial idea on a shady acquaintance of his, but that sounded like self-serving hindsight to me.) He had a grandiose plan for getting access to the vault where nearly all the moon rocks are kept (they have to be stored carefully to keep them sterile from Earth contamination, so they’ll stay useful for research) but, realizing he couldn’t pull it off, he decided instead to steal some non-sterile samples from a lab scientist who’d befriended him. Then, increasing the lunacy (ha ha) he tried to sell the stolen rocks to collectors. He spins all this to the author as an all-for-love kind of story, a way of bringing him and his girlfriend really close together, but again that kind of sounds like horseshit. Not having any connections to rich, eccentric criminal mineral collectors, he sent messages to all kinds of geologists’ and rock-hounds’ web sites. Naturally all of them knew that anyone selling moon rocks must have stolen them (the only moon rocks in private hands are a couple dozen presents from the US government to foreign statesmen) so most of them called the FBI, who set up a sting and sent Roberts to prison. Which came as a big surprise to him, apparently. The only use he got out of the moon rocks was to spread them on a motel bed so he and his girlfriend could have sex on them, which must have been uncomfortable. I don’t see how anyone could think that was cooler than becoming an astronaut, but it takes all kinds.
Last Essays -- Joseph Conrad
The title is a bit of a misnomer – in fact this is a posthumous collection of all the miscellaneous prose pieces the editor could find. I see by the receipt that I bought my copy at the Harvard Book Store in January 2004; I can’t remember, but I hope the place where a mouse chewed on the book cover was there when I bought it. They were on various subjects, but the ones I liked best were his reminiscences of Stephen Crane, who was a close friend of his; Conrad wrote several introductions to editions of Crane’s books, all of them admiring and insightful.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing -- M.T. Anderson
A dark story about a black slave boy raised by a group of eccentric savants in colonial America. The group’s research is funded by a wealthy British aristocrat, who like all purse-string holders demands that his think-tank arrive at the answers he wants. Since he’s concerned to prove that blacks are inherently brutal and stupid, Octavian’s teachers direct all their efforts at producing that result. It’s a very unpleasant story, and I’m not going to read the sequel.
Hyperbole And a Half -- Allie Brosh
These are less “cartoons” and more “illustrated essays”. They generally deal with the author’s depression and crushing self-hatred, in a really relatable way, and her sometimes weird coping mechanisms. I liked it a lot.
The Beast In Me -- James Thurber
A collection of Thurber’s animal cartoons and some stories about dogs. They were really good.
The Making of the King 1066 -- Alan Lloyd
A very good study of the lives and careers of the three men who between them determined the future of Europe in 1066: Harold Godwinson, Harald the Ruthless, and William of Normandy. A good picture of how the powerful men of those days spent enormous effort compiling genealogical lists to prove the legitimacy of one candidate or another, then cynically re-organized the lists as soon as they had reason to support someone else. “Legitimacy” was kind of vaguely defined anyway, and never anywhere near as important as pragmatism.
Unexpectedly, Milo -- Matthew Dicks
A very good novel about a man with severe OCD. His uncontrollable urges to do ridiculous things – unscrew the caps of jelly jars, constantly re-watch certain movies, empty and refill his car tires – fill him with unreasonable shame, and he keeps them secret from everyone, even his wife. This puts a great strain on his marriage, all the worse because his wife doesn’t know what’s causing it. It’s a really good picture of the stigma attached to mental illness, and about how keeping something like that secret can deepen your irrational shame and poison your life. As he’s in the process of separating from his wife, he finds a lost video camera in a park, and looking at the tape in it he finds it’s a video diary of a woman haunted by the memory of a school friend whom she helped run away from her abusive home; the friend was never heard from again and ever since then the diarist has had nightmares of her friend being kidnapped or murdered or something on the road. Milo sets out to find the friend, with the idea of telling her to get in touch with the diarist. This involves leaving the routine he’s set up for himself, and makes it much harder to satisfy his OCD, and also harder to conceal it; and it leads to a situation where he finally, for the first time, has to tell someone about it. I really liked it.
The Well-Beloved -- Thomas Hardy
A nineteenth-century novel about a man with a kind of awful theory of romance: he believes he has a soul mate, a “well-beloved”. This well-beloved is an abstract idea that takes up residence in real women, but always only temporarily; he’s therefore not to blame when he loses interest in women and abandons them. He falls in love, at twenty-year intervals, with three successive generations of the same family, although he never marries the first one, or her daughter, or her granddaughter, because the “well-beloved” spirit always leaves them after a time. I found the man and his ideas pretty repellent, but the writing was very good.
The Devil and Daniel Webster -- Stephen Vincent Benet
A good patriotic novella, in which a New Hampshire farmer who has sold his soul to the Devil comes to Daniel Webster for help in getting him out of it. Webster takes the case, and even though the Devil rigs the trial against him by bringing in a jury of the damned, presided over by the unrepentant judge of the Salem witch trials, Webster argues that the contract isn’t valid because no American citizen can take service under a foreign prince, and his eloquence wins the day.
In Pharaoh's Army -- Tobias Wolff
Wolff’s memoir of his service in Vietnam. He happened to be appointed as liaison to the South Vietnamese Army in an out-of-the-way part of the country (the appointment was apparently entirely random, as many things in the Army seem to be.) So he wound up serving most of his tour barracked with the South Vietnamese Army in the middle of nowhere, as part of a US detachment that consisted of one lieutenant (Wolff) and one sergeant. He had an odd relationship with the sergeant; he had to keep the respect due an officer, but couldn’t really try too hard without making himself ridiculous, considering there was only one enlisted man. It must have been hard work. Luckily the sergeant was just as invested in maintaining a working relationship, and they managed it. Although Wolff spoke Vietnamese, he never really understood the Vietnamese troops – the officers would be friendly one day and insulting the next, seemingly with no rhyme or reason. He also found himself somewhat in the middle with regards to the American troops – not really having much in common either with the soldiers who lived on bases or the soldiers who went forward of the lines. It sounded like a strange situation; the book is a pretty good picture of making the best of lousy circumstances.
Men, Women, and Dogs -- James Thurber
A collection of Thurber cartoons, mostly drawn before his sight started to fail so the lines are thinner and the general feel is less loose and wobbly. They’re pretty funny.
Close Range -- Annie Proulx
Her second short story collection. These all deal with the harsh and unrewarding lives of Wyoming ranchers, and make me never want to go there. Wyoming seems to exist in a more or less permanent drought, and whether that causes the inhabitants’ general air of always-just-boiling hostility, or whether that sort of person just can’t live anywhere but far away from urban crowds, I don’t know. It contains the famous story “Brokeback Mountain”, which she now says she wishes she’d never written, since even now, going on twenty years since it was published, she gets a constant stream of unsolicited fan-fiction from people trying to “fix” the unhappy ending.
Scoop -- Evelyn Waugh
A very good send-up of the news industry, where through a series of misunderstandings a rural Englishman who writes a weekly gardening column gets sent out to Africa as a war correspondent. There’s a lot of great scenes where he tries to get information from all the cynical old-hand correspondents, who know the score while he doesn’t. He causes a lot of trouble by trying to report what’s really happening, which doesn’t line up with the newspaper’s official line on what’s happening. It’s really funny.
John Dies at the End -- David Wong
A comedy horror story about a couple slacker-type guys in their mid-twenties who combat terrifying abominations in a blasé, world-weary kind of way. There were some good sections on school bullying and America’s worrying culture of violence. Overall it felt a little forced, and I thought it read more like a movie treatment than a novel. (Spoiler: John doesn’t die at the end.)
The House of the Dead -- Fyodor Dostoyevsky
An outstanding autobiographical novel about Dostoyevsky’s imprisonment in Siberia (he was arrested for belonging to a book club that got politicized.) He draws a fascinating picture of prison life and remarks that the worst people in the prison were the guards, whom he says were corrupted by power and got an almost sexual pleasure out of beating and clubbing the prisoners. Interestingly, the class system of the day survived even the circumstances of the prison; everyone could tell from the way he talked that Dostoevsky was upper class and educated, and although most people didn’t hold this against him, it still meant that he was excluded from real confidence, since as a member of the upper class his solidarity with the other prisoners couldn’t be relied on. In fact, when there was a general protest against the guards and the bad treatment, and Dostoevsky stood with the rebelling prisoners, one of the rebel leaders rounded him up along with some others of the upper class and made them go inside. An excellent book.
The Cruise of the "Snark" -- Jack London
A memoir of a sailing-boat journey that London took with his wife and a friend in the Pacific (they meant to go all the way across, but boat troubles made them turn back.) The opening section is pretty funny, describing London’s frustration as the expenses of building and re-building the boat get higher and higher. They do finally set sail, leaving from San Francisco Bay and cruising down to Hawaii, where London learned to surf, which became a great passion of his. The story ends a little abruptly – London was writing articles about the trip for a magazine to defray his expenses, but when they had to return to port in Hawaii and take a ship home, he stopped writing them. It wasn’t bad.
Turn My Mourning Into Dancing -- Henri J.M. Nouwen
A posthumous collection of some essays Nouwen wrote when he was a pastor at a home for the severely mentally handicapped. They’re mostly about endurance and dealing with loss and grief. The title is from the Thirtieth Psalm, which also says “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”
Un Lun Dun -- China Mieville
An interesting YA novel about a pair of London girls, twelve years old or so, who stumble across an entrance to a sort of surreal subterranean city, “Un Lun Dun”, the mirror-image of London. The plot involves the justifiable resentment of the inhabitants at the discovery that London has been solving its pollution problem by piping all its smog into the sub-city, but as usual with Mieville the plot is less interesting than the background and the really well-done cast of strange supporting characters. I liked it, though just once I’d like to see a story where the person our heroes naturally go to for help doesn’t turn out to be the bad guy.
The Twilight of the Idols -- Friedrich Nietzsche
One of Nietzsche’s last works, a sort of short primer to his ideas. He describes himself as an “immoralist”, arguing that morality is opposed to Nature and that its prevalence is nothing but an attempt to control people. He also argues against morality because he denies free will and so concludes that the concepts of virtue and punishment are worthless. This is one of his “Four Great Errors”, which also include Christianity and the belief in the “real world”, which he contends is only a fiction produced by general agreement, whereas a really wise man can sharpen his perceptions and comprehend greater truth. I could hardly disagree more with Nietzsche about pretty much everything, but unlike a lot of moral philosophers he had a very good prose style.
A Small Boy and Others -- Henry James
A recollection of James’ childhood in New York City and abroad during the 1850s and 60s. With all their travelling, the James children did not usually go to school, instead learning from tutors, which made the family a little insular. They all had a high opinion of their father, a very educated man. James describes himself as an inattentive student. I was struck by the matter-of-fact way in which he spoke of his brother William as the genius of the family; this does not at all come across as false modesty – James sincerely believed that William was much smarter, and a better writer, than he himself was.
Restaurant Man -- Joe Bastianich
A memoir of working in and then running restaurants in New York. It was pretty good, though I found the author’s habit of referring to himself in the third person as “Restaurant Man” kind of stupid and off-putting. A lot of it deals with the endless battle against getting ripped off by your suppliers – people who load up their packing boxes with extra ice so they can short you on the fish, for example, or people who always time their deliveries for the lunch rush so the most junior and inexperienced guy has to get sent down to check the order. (Food companies keep a list of restaurants that don’t have a scale on the loading dock – those places always get short weight.) The author owns his own vineyard, partly because he’s a gigantic snob and likes to boast about his wine expertise, but also partly because wine has gotten so expensive that supplying your own is the best way to maintain your restaurant’s profit margin.
The New New Thing -- Michael Lewis
A picture of Silicon Valley success and attitudes. Lewis spent some time hanging around with Jim Clark, the founder of Netscape, and later Silicon Graphics, and later still a company that eventually merged with WebMD. It’s an odd story; even though Clark is in the process of building his third billion-dollar business, he seems almost unengaged, only really interested in talking about a programmable, computer-piloted sailboat he’s having built. Clark has unusual foresight and determination, and he managed to reverse the usual relationship between entrepreneurs and venture capitalists (he made them come to him, and he set the terms of their investments.) What keeps this from being the usual fawning portrait-of-a-business-leader profile is that Lewis is uncomfortably aware that Clark has a lot of pretty off-putting qualities – he’s both arrogant and insecure; he’s one of the people that thinks Silicon Valley should become its own state, but he’s also really bothered when he finds out that someone in New Zealand has a boat whose mast is three feet taller than his. It’s also a good picture of the strange I’m-a-genius-but-don’t-look-too-close feel of the investors of the late nineties; the business Clark is working on is Healtheon, and it’s all based on a vague idea of simplifying the US health care system, and even though that’s pretty much all he has to say about it, he still gets all the investment capital he needs. (And in fact Healtheon never really did anything and wound up becoming part of WebMD, which doesn’t have anything to do with simplifying health care.)
The Sound of the Mountain -- Yasunari Kawabata
Like most of Kawabata’s novels, this is about getting old. The protagonist, Shingo, is the elderly head of his family, and has begun having lapses in memory. As he becomes more forgetful of the details of his life, he becomes more engaged with the immediate present: he is very aware of the blooming chrysanthemums on a fence he passes on his way to the bus, and the progress of the pine trees in his back yard. He also begins to hear a deep, slow rumbling sound that no one else hears; he perceives it as coming from the mountains and takes it as a sign of his impending death. This foreboding of death – he has also coughed blood, a sign of tuberculosis, though he does not always remember this – makes him anxious to assert order in his family, and he begins a quiet campaign to convince his son to stop philandering and stay at home more with his wife. Well-written but sad.
Appointment in Samarra -- John O'Hara
A good novel about a car salesman named Julian English, who is part of the country-club set in a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia. Over the course of the Christmas holidays, drunk nearly all the time, Julian impulsively starts committing self-destructive acts for no very clear reason. There’s a very good scene as he sits in the country club, listening to one of the club bores droning on, and fantasizes about throwing his drink in the bore’s face, just to shut him up, but knows he’ll never do anything so unconventional; but then the scene shifts to another room, and we learn by second-hand report that Julian has actually done it. I thought that was a really good piece of story structure. As the next few days unfold, we see the problems with Julian’s business, and his marriage, and his attitude towards life in general. He finally concludes that he’s made such a mess of his life that he needs to start all over again, and he just can’t make the effort, so he kills himself, as seemed inevitable from the start. Nobody really seems to care very much, which I think is a picture of a wasted life if anything is.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce
An outstanding novel about a British retiree who goes to visit a dying friend, a former co-worker he hasn’t seen in many years. He’s in the middle of a walk around his village when he decides to go, and for reasons he can’t really articulate he feels it’s necessary to walk there, even though that means walking almost the entire length of England, which would take months. He sets out without even going back to his house, and without even stopping to tell his wife, with whom he has lived in a state of silent estrangement since the suicide of their son some years before. I really liked it.
The City of Dreadful Night -- Rudyard Kipling
His first piece of travel writing, a book about Calcutta, written when he was nineteen. The title refers to the terrible heat of the summer nights, when the people lay gasping on the roofs of buildings, where it was very slightly cooler than the street. The writing oozes arrogance and self-righteousness; at this time Kipling’s talent had started to develop but his maturity had not. He says that all of Calcutta’s problems could be solved almost instantly if the British would simply push all the natives aside and fix everything (which he thinks would take little time and effort) and then let the natives come back, “and let them talk about high-handed oppression as much as they wish”. It’s extraordinarily unattractive and unintentionally self-revealing, and a good explanation by itself of why the Indians never stopped hating the British even after hundreds of years of occupation, and I’m not surprised Kipling didn’t include it in his collected works; even the elder Kipling, who remained a colonialist all his life, must have been embarrassed by it.
Gilgamesh -- John Gardner and John Maier
A line-by-line and word-by-word exegesis of the six double-sided stone tablets that contain the Sumerian source of the story of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and his friend Enkil. The authors gave the book the title “Gilgamesh” to distinguish it from the version of the story usually published in English translation, which is called “The Epic of Gilgamesh” and is a hybrid of the details from the Sumerian tablets (which are broken and incomplete) with other sources to create a complete story. This translation ignores the other sources and concentrates only on the Sumerian tablets. It was very interesting.
The Anti-Christ -- Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche’s essential work against Christianity. He despised the central ethic of Christianity, since he believed that pity was a weakness and it leads to “preserving what should be destroyed”. Nietzsche also believed that human nature is wholly mechanistic and, since there is no distinction between humans and animals, any human divergence from the “law of nature” – that strength and power are the only good – is wrong and evil. It’s the sort of philosophy that appeals to people who regard themselves as separate from and superior to the rest of humanity; in fact Nietzsche prefaces the book by saying that very few readers will understand it and the rest are despicable pigs. I hadn’t actually read this before, but I read excerpts from it in my freshman philosophy class, which I think was about its level.
American Notes -- Rudyard Kipling
These are memoirs of Kipling’s first visit to America in the 1890s, which he spent mostly in California. America really seems to have gotten his back up; he constantly complains about the insufficient servility of storekeepers, for example. Of course he was spoiled by his long experience as a white man in British India, where servants literally knelt at his feet. He’s constantly angry that lower-class people don’t get out of his way. It’s really ludicrous to watch him lash into the store clerks – he expected them to drop other customers and serve him immediately because he was obviously a gentleman. And months later he was still fuming that they didn’t walk him to the door and bow him out when he was done. Speaking of ludicrous, he spends a good deal of time in the later part of the book daydreaming about Britain conquering America, which he is sure the British fleet could do without breaking a sweat – he considers the Americans’ self-confidence proof of their general idiocy.
Knuckler -- Tony Massarotti
A decent book about Tim Wakefield and the knuckleball. It’s more a recap of his career than a biography. One thing that got mentioned a lot was that since very few people know how to throw the knuckler, he always had to go outside his baseball teams for help. He said that when pitching coaches came to talk to him on the mound during a game, the best they could do, usually, was to say “Good luck.”
Arrow of God -- Chinua Achebe
A well-written, sad story about Ibo villagers living in central Nigeria and the slow destruction of their customs and way of life under the British occupation. The parts about the congregation of new Christian converts who compete with each other over who can be most disrespectful to the old ways are depressingly realistic.
Erewhon -- Samuel Butler
A satirical novel describing a visit to the imaginary paradise of “Erewhon”, which is really a parody of Victorian England. The inhabitants live all their lives under the watchful eye of the arbitrary and incomprehensible goddess Ygdrun, an anagram of Mrs Grundy, the archetypical nosy neighbor of England. Butler uses the starnge habits of the Erewhonians to attack Victorian society. There’s a long section in the middle explaining why Erewhon has no machines – the Erewhonian machines had developed consciousness through natural selection (Butler had just read Darwin before writing this book) and the Erewhonians, fearing an uprising, had destroyed them all. It was pretty good.
The Double -- Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A surreal short novel about a Russian bureaucrat named Golyadkin whose life is invaded by a doppelganger who looks exactly like him but is much better at everything. The double is funny, charming, and self-confident, and he pushes his way into Golyadkin’s life – Golyadkin arrives at social functions and is refused admittance because his double is there before him, and the double shows up at Golyadkin’s office and does his work better than he does. The double may not exist at all, since Golyadkin is prone to seeing things, and his doctor warns him of overwork. Eventually Golyadkin starts seeing doubles of himself everywhere and is institutionalized. It’s not clear to me what the point of the story is – Nabokov called it a parody of Gogol, but maybe I’d have to be able to read Russian to see that. Not my favorite of his.
Gun Machine -- Warren Ellis
An action story involving a New York reporter tracking down a psychotic killer who’s been used as a career-advancing assassin by a trio of powerful New Yorkers for twenty years. It wasn’t bad. The action scenes were pretty well-done, although I took issue with the scene where the killer breaks into an abandoned hardware store and pulls copper pipe out of the wall to make a spear – there’s no way any abandoned store in Manhattan would still have any copper in it, inside the walls or not; scavengers would have taken it all. I also had a problem with the ending, where the reporter visits the captured killer in the hospital, and the killer – despite having had serious untreated mental derangement, including hallucinations and imaginary voices, for twenty years -- is able to have a rational, coherent conversation after five days on anti-psychotics. I’d give it a B.
On Liberty -- John Stuart Mill
A long essay in which Mill defines his three essential freedoms: freedom of thought (which includes the freedom to act on one’s thoughts), freedom of personal preferences (excluding only harm to others), and freedom to combine with others. He argues strongly that the only legitimate reason to abridge someone’s freedom is to prevent harm to others; emphasizing that preventing someone from harming himself is not a sufficient reason. It’s extremely forceful and eloquent, but it all crumbles to the ground when he argues that liberty is a utilitarian principle – that is, that it can be ignored when it’s useful to do so. This lets him conclude that there’s nothing at all wrong with oppressing people and taking away their liberty as long as you regard them as barbarians or children. So really he could have saved himself the trouble and just written “It’s ethically sound for powerful people to do whatever they want to less powerful people.”
Basket Case -- Carl Hiaasen
I read this about ten years ago, but it was still good the second time. It’s my favorite of Hiaasen’s books, with the most likeable of his oddball protagonists: Jack, a crusading reporter who’s been reassigned permanently to the obituaries department to keep him away from real news. He’s constantly working to get around the profit-driven rules of the paper’s owner in order to report real news, but since he takes newspaper work seriously he feels obligated to do a conscientious job on the obituaries, which makes him somewhat morbid. When a formerly famous rock star dies, Jack uses his obituary research as a cover for investigating the circumstances of the star’s death; as he starts to uncover the dark and bizarre truth behind the public story, he has to enlist an inexperienced junior editor and an intern to help him get the story published. It’s a good read.
The Lotus Caves -- John Christopher
A science fiction YA novel about a pair of teenagers living in a Moon base who take out a Moon rover for a joyride and discover a lunar cave inhabited by a massive intelligent alien plant. The food and atmosphere provided by the plant lull the kids and they start to become docile, but before it’s too late they realize that the plant is slowly imprisoning them, to prevent them from bringing others that might damage it. They gather their will power and set out to escape. I liked it.
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared -- Jonas Jonasson
I loved this book. It’s a classic tall tale, the story of a youthful-at-heart Swedish centenarian named Allan who decides he doesn’t feel like attending his 100th birthday party, so he climbs out a window of the old-age home and walks down to the bus depot, where a rude and angry man asks him to watch his suitcase while he uses the bathroom; Allan takes the suitcase and gets on the bus. When he gets off later at a random stop he finds the suitcase is packed full of money, and meeting a petty criminal with whom he realizes he has a lot in common, he goes on the lam. They take a hand-pumped railroad car (it’s that kind of story) and cheerfully roll away to ever stranger adventures, rescuing runaway elephants, befriending Harry Truman, bluffing through a conference with Stalin, and running a con game on the young Kim Jong-Il. It had a happy ending, too, as tall tales should. Terrific book.
A Wanted Man -- Lee Child
Mom lent me this; it’s a thriller story about a homeless guy named Jack Reacher, a former Army MP, who hitches a ride with a car full of middle-management business people who turn out to be murderous terrorists in disguise (although it further turns out that two of them are undercover FBI agents.) Reacher, who’s a bit of a superman, sees through not only the terrorists’ disguise but also through the FBI’s disguise, and the whole thing ends up with Reacher making a lone assault on a terrorist stronghold in middle America, personally killing no fewer than twenty-two terrorists (I counted.) The finale was laid out a lot like a video game, with Reacher walking into rooms and shooting their occupants, with no one outside the rooms ever noticing or reacting. At the end of it all the FBI is content to let him walk off into the sunset to hitch another ride. It was ludicrous, but mildly entertaining.
The Book of the City of Ladies -- Christine de Pizan
This is a rebuttal to writers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, particularly Jean de Meung, and their stated position that women were inherently sinful, deceitful, licentious, and inconstant. The author is visited in a dream by the three Virtues – Reason, Rectitude, and Justice (all female) – who give her the task of defending the good name of women against the slanders of men; she does this by constructing an imaginary “city” (her book) inhabited by the virtuous women of history; populating the city gives her a reason to set out the lives of historical women famous for chastity, steadfastness, constancy, and general uprightness. It gets a little tedious after a while – the lives are pretty repetitive – but it’s a pretty good case for the defense.
Utilitarianism -- John Stuart Mill
This is Mill’s attempt to answer Kant’s criticism of the Utility principle, which Mill also calls the “Greatest-Happiness Principle”, particularly Kant’s contention that judging actions solely by their consequences, ignoring intent, is incompatible with the idea of a universal justice. Like all of Mill’s ideas, they sound fine until you look more closely: Mill argues that “greatest happiness” means the greatest good for the greatest number, and therefore an individual should work towards the happiness of as many people as possible in order to increase the general sum total of human happiness. Okay, great. But he also judges actions only by their absolute outcomes – so, for example, he would say that the extermination of the American Indians was the right thing to do, because it led to large numbers of European-descended people living prosperous lives. I’m not parodying his view, either: since to him the Indians were barbarians, their lives were inherently worth less than the lives of what he thought of as civilized people, and large numbers of people living civilized lives are preferable to smaller numbers of people living barbarian lives. Mill would say that the action of genocide is morally neutral and can only be judged by its outcome; Kant would say that genocide is inherently wrong, and the outcome has nothing to do with it. I agree with Kant, myself.
Killing Floor -- Lee Child (Jack Reacher Body Count [JRBC] : 11)
This is the first Reacher book. It’s about 1997 or so and he’s in his early thirties; he’s just gotten out of the Army and decided to bum around America for a while. Getting off a bus in the South to visit the home town of an old-time blues musician he likes, he is immediately arrested for a murder that happened nearby that night. At the station he meets the obvious bad-guy cop and the obvious good-guy cop. He wows the good-guy cop with his military-police observational skills and also demonstrates he has an ironclad alibi. The good-guy cop, who doesn’t seem to see any problem with letting an out-of-town hobo help him solve a murder case, gives him all the details, and it turns out that the murdered guy is Reacher’s brother, whom he hasn’t seen in years. The brother was a Treasury agent, and the whole thing leads to Reacher solving a giant counterfeiting case, killing eleven people, including the bad-guy cop, along the way. Naturally the cops, the FBI, the Treasury, and all the other agencies have no problem letting the key actor, witness, and cop-killer just wander off afterwards.
Die Trying -- Lee Child (JRBC : 17)
The second Reacher book. In this one Reacher happens to be walking down a street and passes by just as a high-ranking FBI agent is kidnapped; the kidnappers take him along as well. They turn out to be from a crazy backwoods militia based in Montana, and they’ve taken the FBI agent because she’s both the daughter of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the god-daughter of the President. Since the kidnapping was caught on a street camera the FBI thinks Reacher is in on the plot. Reacher ultimately rescues the kidnapped agent and clears himself, killing a lot of people in the process, and also figures out that the whole plot was a smokescreen intended to distract everyone from the group’s real goal, which is blowing up a big chunk of San Francisco for banking-related reasons that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Reacher foils this plot too, by blowing up the truck carrying the explosives by shooting it with a rocket launcher from a helicopter. (Yes, really.)
Tripwire -- Lee Child (JRBC : 3 )
The third Reacher book. Reacher’s old commanding officer dies, leaving him a message to try to finish a project the CO was working on: clearing the name of a soldier who died in Vietnam, whose name isn’t on the monument in DC because of military crimes the Army won’t specify. After visiting the soldier’s kindly old parents and talking to his friends and Army buddies, Reacher concludes the soldier must have been innocent, but also finds out he’s now living in New York and is a career criminal. For some reason it takes Reacher and the military guys he consults almost the entire book to come to the incredibly obvious conclusion that the guy in New York switched identities with the innocent guy after a copter crash in Vietnam. But the crook can intimidate people all over the place to keep him up to date on anyone investigating him – I’m not sure how, since his whole criminal organization seems to consist of two dimwitted goons – and he kidnaps Reacher’s current girlfriend, which leads to Reacher storming his office, killing the bad guys, rescuing the girlfriend and a couple other victims, and clearing the soldier’s name. He also gets shot point-blank right in the chest, but doesn’t die because he’s so incredibly tough that his chest muscles stop the bullet.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers -- Tom Rachman
This was a depressing novel about a woman named Tooly, who runs a used book store in Wales. It’s a sort of funhouse-mirror story, where we learn all the strange details of Tooly’s odd life, which, I realized as I went along, Tooly didn’t understand any more than I did. Eventually we (and Tooly) learn one final thing that turns everything on its head and also makes Tooly’s life make perfect sense in retrospect. It’s a really uncomfortable scene, where Tooly has to learn an important lesson in the most painful way possible. I liked that Tooly managed to pick herself up and go on with her life afterwards, but I still found the novel kind of unpleasant.
A.D. 69 -- Gwyn Morgan
A good history of the Year of Four Emperors, the period immediately following the death of Nero, when four generals – Otho, Galba, Vitellius, and Vespasian – successively killed each other and took the throne. Nero was the last member of Caesar’s family; after his death, every aristocrat in the Empire considered he had as good a claim as anybody else. In practice the worth of your claim depended on how many of the legions you could get to follow you. The claimants failed for various reasons: Otho was old, Galba didn’t command respect, Vitellius was miserly. Vespasian, who when the year began was far away from Rome laying siege to Jerusalem, prudently kept quiet about whom he’d support until he saw who was winning; when he realized no one was really going to manage a solid victory, he decided he was better qualified and raised his own standard. He killed Vitellius and took the throne, becoming the fourth Emperor in less than a year, but he was much smarter and better organized than the others and also knew when to spend money, so he held the throne the rest of his life and also established a more or less orderly succession of Emperors that lasted over a hundred years – the last really stable period in Rome’s history. Dad told me once that coins from that year are very hard to find – there weren’t that many Galba coins struck, for example, because he was only Emperor for a couple months. It was good reading.
Damiano -- R.A. MacAvoy
A medieval adventure story, about a youngish musician and magician in his twenties named Damiano, who lives in central Italy during the fifteenth century, the warring-states period. Through some means never exactly explained, he’s managed to get lessons in playing the lute from the Archangel Raphael. When the endless territorial wars come to his town, he runs afoul of the occupying general and has to flee, joining a group of other refugees who aren’t that thrilled to have him, even less so when he saves all their lives by using his magic to kill fifty or so soldiers coming after them. The rest of the story involves his plans for revenge and the restoration of his home city. It wasn’t bad.
Damiano's Lute -- R.A. MacAvoy
This is the sequel, where Damiano finds a young apprentice and teaches him to play the “new” music on the lute (at that time, music using the pentatonic scale was starting to replace the antiphonal music that had been in fashion for a long time.) The apprentice thinks he’s crazy, what with him having conversations with the Archangel Raphael and all (no one else can see the archangel, naturally.) Thanks to his friendship with Raphael he encounters the Devil, who offers to restore his home city and make it powerful and prosperous, as part of a disguised plot against Raphael. I really wasn’t expecting the ending.
Raphael -- R.A. MacAvoy
The concluding book, where Raphael, thanks to the Devil’s manipulation of his mortal friends, has fallen out of divine favor, and, in mortal form, is sold to a slave dealer in North Africa. This one turns the previous story around, as Raphael’s mortal friends work to release him from the clutches of the Devil. It was pretty good.
Running Blind -- Lee Child (JRBC : 1, plus 6 indirectly)
The fourth Reacher book. In this one Reacher gets rousted by an FBI team working on a serial killer case; the FBI profiler has decided that Reacher fits their profile for the killer exactly. Reacher demonstrates he can’t be the killer and then joins in the hunt, pointing up the dumb inefficiency of the FBI as compared with Reacher’s swift intelligence (we eventually find out that he figured out who the killer was almost immediately.) Kind of ludicrously, when the FBI are investigating him no one says anything like “Hey, aren’t you the same guy that broke the biggest counterfeiting case in American history? And also rescued the President’s god-daughter and a high-ranking FBI agent from a lunatic domestic terrorist group, wiping out the group and saving San Francisco in the process? By the way, we might want to talk to you about the thirty-one people you’ve killed in the last two years, including five policemen and two FBI agents.” There are some entertaining scenes where Reacher demonstrates the uselessness of criminal profiling. Surprisingly, Reacher only kills one person in this one (the villain, of course) although he does deliberately provoke a gang war that kills six more.
The Complete Stories -- Evelyn Waugh
A collection of short stories, novellas, and a half-finished novel. I’m sorry he didn’t finish the novel, I would have liked to see how it turned out. I thought the editors kind of went overboard – they included every single thing they could find that Waugh ever wrote, including school assignments from when he was seven years old, which are really only of interest to biographers. The best part was that the collection included the original ending to the novel “A Handful of Dust”, which was worth it right there. I hated the published ending -- for some reason Waugh discarded his original ending and replaced it with an earlier story of his with the names changed, a decision I’ve never understood. It was jarringly out of place; the original ending, which I’m glad to have read, would have been much better.
Echo Burning -- Lee Child
This is where I gave up on the Jack Reacher books. Reacher gets in a fight in a small-town Texas bar and beats up a guy who turns out to be a local cop. To get away Reacher hitches a ride with a woman who’s in dire straits, she says, because her abusive husband, whom she ratted out to the police a couple years ago and got sent to prison on embezzling charges to keep him away from their daughter, has used his rich-guy connections to get out early and is on his way home. She has no recourse, what with him being rich and tight with the local law, not to mention he’s white and she’s Mexican. So she tries to hire Reacher – who she just met, remember – to kill her husband. Reacher very sensibly walks away, but when circumstances cause him to go back into the situation, I decided I was tired of the story and of Reacher, so I stopped reading. (He hadn’t killed anyone yet by the time I quit.)
The Return of the Native -- Thomas Hardy
I read this in high school but I appreciated it a lot more this time. It’s a tragedy about unhappy marriages; Eustacia Vye marries Clym Yeobright, even though each of them is fully aware that the other wants something totally different out of the marriage and out of life. Eustacia wants to move abroad and live in high society in Paris; Clym wants to stay in rural Wessex and live an ascetic life improving the lives and characters of the locals. Each blithely assumes that the other’s desires are only a passing fancy and can be ignored. Naturally this leads to an extremely unhappy relationship. This is mirrored by the unhappy marriage of Clym’s cousin Tamsin to the fickle Wildeve, who loves Eustacia and married Tamsin out of spite. There’s an excellent subplot, pleasantly eerie as a contrast to the main plot’s naturalism, concerning Diggory Venn, a reddleman – he mines and sells a red-earth mineral called reddle, which farmers used back then to mark their sheep; the dust leaves him permanently red from head to foot, which in the lamplight makes him look weird and frightening. After a year of marriage, Eustacia, coldly separated from Clym, gives in to Wildeve’s repeated pleas to run away with him; but in the dark she falls in the river, or maybe throws herself in, and she drowns, and Wildeve drowns trying to save her; Clym survives to become an itinerant preacher. (That should have been the end of the story, a classical five-act tragedy, but to make readers happy Hardy added a sixth chapter where Diggory gives up the reddle business and marries Tamsin so there can be a happy ending.) It was really good.
The Fault in Our Stars -- John Green
A touching YA novel about a girl and a boy who meet at a group therapy session for teenagers with cancer. Both have terminal cases and probably not long to live, and they begin a romance. It sounds like it could be shallow – love in the shadow of death, you know – but it’s really well-written and moving and full of gallows humor. I liked it.
Dear Committee Members -- Julie Schumacher
An excellent epistolary novel, by turns funny and sad, consisting of letters of recommendation written by a college writing teacher on behalf of various students. We only see his side of the correspondence, so we have to fill in the responses in our minds. Most of them are funny, but there’s a dark thread running through them following the teacher’s constant efforts to find a grant or position for a promising favorite student of his. Since he keeps writing them, we can deduce that he doesn’t succeed, and eventually there’s an aside in one letter letting us know that that student eventually died in poverty. It was well-told, and I really liked it.
Beyond a Boundary -- C.L.R. James
I know almost nothing about cricket and have never seen a game, but I still appreciated this. James grew up in the West Indies before independence, and, like most of his friends, became obsessed with cricket. He notes that the complicated class and color lines among the cricket clubs prepared him well for a life in politics. In his later life it seemed to him that the most important thing about cricket is that it does not have rules specifically to prevent foul play, since the whole point of cricket, as he sees it, is that it teaches you to be a person who doesn’t need rules like that. Extraordinarily good book.
Fakers -- Paul Maliszewski
A book about people who perpetrate hoaxes and what motivates them. I liked the beginning, where he describes how, while bored working at a trade journal, he kept himself entertained by writing fake letters to the editor under several different names. I bought the book on the strength of that part, but the rest of it wasn’t as interesting.
The Prisoner of Zenda -- Anthony Hope
A splendid nineteenth-century action-adventure novel. A Victorian gentleman named Rassendyll travels to the Continent and visits the obscure country of Ruritania, from whose royal family, the story goes, his own family is illegitimately descended. By coincidence Rassendyll runs into the soon-to-be-crowned King, Rudolf, on a hunting trip, and the two are astonished to find they are practically identical twins. They find each other congenial company and spend a day or two in good-fellowship. Rudolf, however, could stand to be less intemperate and more paranoid, since he trustingly drinks a whole bottle of wine sent to him by his half-brother Michael; the wine is drugged, and Rudolf cannot be revived in time for the coronation, which means he will forfeit the crown to his half-brother. Rudolf’s right-hand man, Colonel Zapt, proposes to Rassendyll that he take Rudolf’s place; out of fellow-feeling and a spirit of adventure, Rassendyll agrees. So begins a battle of wits between Zapt and Rassendyll, on one side, and Michael and his villainous henchman Rupert of Hentzau on the other; Michael, holding the real Rudolf prisoner, knows that Rassendyll is a fake, but cannot expose him without revealing how he knows, while Zapt and Rassendyll know that Rudolf is a prisoner in Michael’s castle of Zenda, but cannot risk a rescue attempt for fear of Rudolf’s being killed. While all this is going on, Rassendyll has to persuade a popular noblewoman to marry the King, while falling in love with her himself. Finally Zapt and Rassendyll spy out Zenda and launch a secret assault to rescue Rudolf and reinstate him without anyone being the wiser. It’s fast-paced, exciting, full of spirit, everything you’d want in an adventure story. I loved it.
Martin Eden -- Jack London
A sort of anti-bildungs-roman. Martin is an uneducated sailor and ruffian from Oakland; when he happens to save a wealthy San Francisco college boy from a beating, the boy invites him to dinner, half out of gratitude and half out of a desire to show off his working-class brute friend like a performing monkey for the amusement of his family. (Martin isn’t socially aware enough to catch this second part.) At the dinner he meets the college boy’s sister, Ruth, and falls in love; he sets out to improve himself and become educated, with the idea of making his living as a writer. There’s no clear reason why Martin should fall for Ruth, who’s a dull nonentity, but romance was always London’s weakest area. The love scenes are dreadful – Martin is “exalted” by Ruth’s “penetrative virginity” (sorry, I just threw up a little.) They’re only relieved by the excellent scenes describing Martin’s rough younger life and an epic do-or-die fist fight that he wins by being the one more willing to take punishment without quitting. Martin takes to modern philosophy with the zealous fanaticism of the self-taught. It’s London’s purpose to show how he goes wrong: as he studies and writes, Martin’s ego becomes gigantic, and he comes to view nearly everyone with disgusted intellectual contempt. With his temperament it’s almost inevitable that he should be drawn to Nietzsche, the patron saint of the loser – I’d sum up his philosophy by saying that Nietzsche found, all his life, that he couldn’t get along with people and no one liked him, so he constructed a philosophy that showed that everyone else was wrong about everything, and whose principles described a perfect man based on Nietzsche himself; the contemptible masses all loathed and opposed this perfect over-man because they knew he was superior. (Or, to put it even more briefly: “They’re all jealous because I’m so pretty!”) London’s own point of view is represented by the Oakland intellectuals Martin argues with; Martin scornfully dismisses democracy as “slave morality”, and, like college sophomores and Ayn Rand devotees everywhere, bemoans how his intellectual superiority sets him apart from everyone else, leaving him in lonely isolation. He eventually does get published and achieves success as a writer, but it doesn’t satisfy him, and he eventually comes to the only logical end for a nihilist, suicide. It had some excellent scenes in it – London’s story-telling powers were immense – but overall I didn’t like it that much.
This Land That I Love -- John Shaw
A very good book about the Depression and American music. I had not known that Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a kind of screw-you to Irving Berlin – it was Guthrie’s answer to Berlin’s “God Bless America”, which Guthrie thought was shallow and only really appealed to the property-owning class. In fact Guthrie’s song was originally called “God Blessed America”, with the implicit question “For whom?” It’s also a very good picture of the life and times of both Berlin and Guthrie. Did you know Berlin had number-one hits more than fifty years apart? No one else has even come close to that. I remember that when I saw Arlo Guthrie in concert, he sang “This Land Is Your Land”, and he mentioned that he made a point of singing it at every show because he wanted people to hear the Socialist verses that get left out when you learn the song in elementary school. Woody’s own version – which he deliberately released from copyright so it would enter the public domain – is a good deal angrier than the watered-down version I was taught in 1976. One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple/ By the Relief Office, I saw my people/ As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if/ This land was made for you and me.
The Money Culture -- Michael Lewis
An excellent collection of essays, both funny and angry, about Wall Street in the late eighties and early nineties. It’s depressingly foreshadowing when Lewis talks about the growing cost of the S&L bailout and says “It seems as if the WSJ is just making up ever bigger numbers to keep the readers interested.” It tells you a lot about the culture that the mortgage-backed security – which everyone was pushing on their customers, and which ended up causing the depression of 2008 – had its own private name among the traders: “toxic waste”. Lewis also says that, when Tom Wolfe wrote Bonfire of the Vanities, a savage satire of Wall Street, everyone got the joke except the people it was aimed at – the bond traders found the book flattering and had no idea they were being made fun of.
The Incrementalists -- Steven Brust and Skyler White
An SF novel about a group of people who have learned to reincarnate serially, making them effectively immortal. Their master plan, in so far as they have one, is to make incremental improvements in human progress, since that will benefit all of them. They’ve gotten really good at manipulating people. Naturally there’s a rotten apple, who’s been up to no good behind the others’ backs. I liked the conceit, but I thought the execution was kind of flat. I got to the end and thought, “Okay, but so what?”
Eleven Kinds of Loneliness -- Richard Yates
A collection of unpleasant short stories about awful people being awful. The writing was very good but I didn’t like them much.
The House of Pride -- Jack London
A collection of short stories set in Hawaii. Several of them dealt with the injustice and harsh treatment of the leper colonies. I liked the title story best, an excellent example of dramatic irony: the story is told from the viewpoint of a missionary, a revoltingly self-righteous hypocrite who is totally blind to his own bad behavior. Good book.
52 Loaves -- William Alexander
A pretty good memoir of a guy who spent a year trying to make the perfect loaf of bread. He really went all out – not just brewing his own yeast and making his own sourdough starters, but actually building his own wood-fired oven out of bricks and clay in his back yard. It was told with winning enthusiasm. The guy suffered from the usual problem of enthusiasts: no one else really cares as much about your project as you do. He was frustrated that his family, while supportive, just wasn’t as interested in bread as he was and were just as happy with bread from the supermarket.
Roxana -- Daniel Defoe
A proto-feminist novel about an English woman whose husband, through loose living, loses all their money and abandons her. None of his relations will help her, so she manages to trick an in-law into taking in her children so they won’t be left “on the parish” (which meant being worked to death and starved) and goes away to fend for herself. Her only real asset is her good looks, so she becomes the kept woman of a jewel merchant; she reproaches herself for her sinful behavior, but the merchant treats her well and things go all right until the merchant, on a journey, is killed by robbers. Roxana, hearing the news, secures his inventory and tells people that he was carrying it all when he was killed; to avoid inquiries she goes to France, where she becomes the mistress of various wealthy men, including, eventually, a German prince. The plot is a little slapdash, since the real purpose of the book is to show the unfair position of women in eighteenth-century society. Defoe makes it clear that he thinks the best life for a woman is that of a wife to a decent husband, but points out that a woman, once married, has no means of compelling her husband to be decent, no recourse against him for failing to live up to the marriage agreement, and no legal means of escaping him. The lesson is well taken, although I think a more coherent plot would have helped it along.
Elizabeth is Missing -- Emma Healey
This was kind of depressing. It’s a novel, told from the viewpoint of an elderly English woman with Alzheimer’s disease, who’s angry because her best friend (Elizabeth) seems to have gone missing and no one will take her worry seriously or help look for her. Her anxiety for Elizabeth, we discover, is tied up with the fact that her older sister disappeared during the war and was never found. Her attempts to investigate Elizabeth’s disappearance eventually bring to light what happened to her older sister, and we find out that the reason no one will help her look for Elizabeth is that Elizabeth has died, which she’s been told many times but can’t remember. I found it pretty painful that she doesn’t get any closure or relief from finding out what happened to her sister, since she doesn’t understand or remember, and at the end she’s still frustrated and trying to find Elizabeth. It was a real downer.
Villains of All Nations -- Marcus Rediker
An overview of the Atlantic pirates – a subject I never tire of, for some reason – concentrating mainly on the conditions that produced piracy. I liked the story of William Fly, hanged in Boston in 1726: Cotton Mather, who harangued the condemned as they stood at the gallows, always exhorted them to show repentance. Some did, probably hoping that cooperation would lead the hangman to make sure they died more quickly, but most didn’t, including Fly, who – after re-tying his own noose, to the embarrassment of the hangman – used his last words to warn the assembled captains to treat their men better, and stop robbing them of their wages and starving them of their food, or they’d face the same fate as Fly’s captain, whose crew killed him for his tyranny. A good read.
Twixt Land and Sea -- Joseph Conrad
A collection of three novellas, all sea stories; two of them I didn’t really like – “A Smile of Fortune”, the story of a captain who brings his ship to ruin through sheer carelessness, and “Freya of the Seven Isles”, a downer of a story where the bad guy wins and the frustrated lovers both die miserably; but I really liked the third, “The Secret Sharer”, about a newly-appointed captain – a stranger on his own ship – who, while alone on the deck one night, is surprised by the arrival of a fugitive, whom he impulsively hides in his cabin. The man is fleeing another ship where he’s soon to be tried for murder, although according to his own version it was more accidental manslaughter during self-defense. Still, the captain is legally obligated to turn him in, and takes an enormous risk by concealing him, for no very clear reason other than sympathy for a fellow outsider. He keeps the man hidden, both from visitors to the ship and from his own crew, for several days of increasing psychological strain, and finally arranges his escape by night. Since no one in the story interacts with the fugitive other than the captain, it occurred to me to wonder if the man existed at all, or if he was some manifestation of the captain’s alienation. The story would work either way.
The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night (Vols 1-3) -- translated by Richard Burton
As far as I know this is still the only full, unexpurgated translation in English. It takes up ten large volumes (and there are six more volumes of additional material that Burton considered to be later additions – including, I was surprised to find, the story of Aladdin and the story of Ali Baba.) The stories vary in interest – some of them are hugely entertaining, some are unbelievably tedious. The conceit, as everyone knows, is that Scheherazade tells the stories to the Caliph, always breaking off at a high point to make sure the Caliph will leave her alive to finish the story the next night. Sometimes the cut-off points are understandable, such as suspenseful moments of action , but sometimes they’re weird – Scheherazade spends large sections of some stories having, for instance, young women recite lessons to show how well educated they are in Islamic knowledge, and she’ll break off the story there, just as if hearing a nameless minor character recite the five virtues of good housekeeping were a cliffhanger. Burton’s voluminous footnotes also vary in quality – many of them are full of deeply interesting arcana of Arabic history and literature, but many others are boring lectures on the superiority of Eastern ways to English, delivered in the arrogant know-it-all manner of the true Oxfordian.
Thousand Cranes -- Yasunari Kawabata
Generally thought of as his best novel, and probably the main reason he won the Nobel. It’s an unhappy love story, revolving around the tea ceremony; the hero, Kikuji, is a young man whose neighbors are nosily trying to marry him off, since his parents, who would ordinarily have arranged his marriage, are dead. His father’s mistress comes to perform the tea ceremony at his family’s tea pavilion, which he has neglected, leaving it to mildew and decay. He becomes attracted to the mistress’s daughter, but she avoids him because she is ashamed of the relationship between their families, and goes away from him permanently; she may even commit suicide at the end, it’s left unclear. A sad story.
What If? -- Randall Munroe
Excellent, excellent book by the guy who does the webcomic xkcd. It’s a collection of bizarre questions his readers sent him (how much space would a mole of moles take up? What would happen if you threw a baseball at the speed of light? If you opened a hole in the bottom of the Mariana Trench, how long would it take for the oceans to empty out?) which he answers completely seriously with the help of hilarious stick-figure cartoons. It’s amazing the lengths he goes to, to cite all his research – I was delighted to find out that there’s actually a real research paper called “How Many Birds Are There?” I loved it.
Think Like a Freak -- Steven D. Levitt & Steven J. Dubner
Their third book, an exploration of some questions answered by economic incentives – for example, drivers in China who hit pedestrians often don’t try to help them, because the fine for causing an accidental death is much, much less than the responsibility of paying for long-term care. Unfortunately it’s not as interestingly organized as their other books. Probably because these days they make a lot of money doing speaking tours, this book is laid out more as a self-help course – less “Here’s some interesting stuff” and more “Here’s how YOU can use these lessons to improve your life!” So I didn’t like it as much as the first two.
Flash Boys -- Michael Lewis
A good book about high-frequency trading, and more generally about arbitrage, the phenomenon of people whose business plan is to insert themselves into trades that could have happened without them, this increasing the frequency of trades and accumulating fees – making the process more expensive for all parties without providing any value. Lewis makes no bones about his position that financial markets are deliberately kept opaque and inefficient for the benefit of small numbers of people – that, in effect, the market is rigged. He also shows how every market abuse usually succeeds by taking advantage of a regulation that was intended to prevent the previous market abuse – which in turn was enabled by a regulation intended to prevent the abuse before that, and so on, all the way back to the founding of Lloyd’s of London, probably. It was engrossing.
Exile and the Kingdom -- Albert Camus
A collection of short stories, generally absurdist stories about people faced with situations where there is no right decision. “The Renegade” is a powerful horror story, about a young missionary who, untrained and against instructions, makes a long journey to a salt-mining city in northern Mali, where he is imprisoned and tortured. The picture of his awful thirst and pain as he lies in the salt flats under the terrible sun is really gripping. The one I liked best was “The Silent Men”, a story about a group of factory workers who return to their jobs after a failed strike. The manager thinks he can return to his previous friendly relations with the men, but learns his mistake when, returning from visiting the hospital after his daughter falls suddenly ill, the men all keep their backs to him and no one offers any sympathy.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage -- Haruki Murakami
A bleak novel about an engineer named Tsukuru who designs railway stations for Japanese cities. (The railroad is the primary means of transport in Japan so this is an important job.) He’s kind of insular and has a hard time connecting to people; we find, by way of flashbacks, that this is a result of his childhood: he grew up a part of a gang of five close friends. Each of these friends, except him, had elements in their names that meant colors (it’s hard to translate from Japanese, but it’s as if they had names like “Redding” or “Greenville”.) This is why he thinks of himself as “colorless”. Tsukuru went to college in another city, while the others all stayed in their home town, and one day in his sophomore year, out of the blue, the four others cut him off completely, telling him that none of them wanted to see or speak to him ever again, with no explanation at all. This sent him into a near-suicidal depression, but by the time of the novel’s action he’s about thirty and trying to establish a genuine relationship with a woman he’s met; at her suggestion he returns to his home town to try to find out why the others banished him, something he’s been too emotionally hurt to try before. It was very well written but I found it kind of depressing.
Hawk -- Steven Brust
This is part of a long-running series, and in it the author has the hero come up with a kind of silly plan, made up of a whole bunch of plot elements never mentioned before, to get himself out of a complex problem that he’s been dealing with for years. Leaving aside the out-of-nowhere props (“Hey, psychic friend, I need this important artifact that’s never been mentioned in this series that’s been running since 1987, and which I have never given the readers any reason to think I might even know about. Oh, you happen to know where it is and can get it for me? Great!”) it’s also a bad mixture of story approaches – the story has a drama setup but an action solution. (Rather like one of the worse episodes of the new “Star Trek”, where the crew is faced with some sociological issue with deep moral implications, and ends the episode by pulling out some kind of technology we’ve never heard of before and will never hear of again to create a magical solution that pleases everyone.) I didn’t like it much.
Losers -- Michael Lewis
A book about the candidates who didn’t get nominated in the 1996 Presidential election. He seemed uncertain about the direction of the book at first – there’s even a foreword where he kind of apologizes for the topic – but he got into it as he went along, largely by concentrating on the fringe. He found that the less chance of getting the nomination a candidate had, the more accessible to reporters he was. The no-hopers were more honest, too, which isn’t that surprising – people with a real chance of getting the nomination had to be careful what they said, while the others didn’t. His favorite candidate was a Western businessman named Morris, who was running a self-financed vanity campaign on the Republican side, and who didn’t mind at all what he said or who was listening. He was pretty entertaining.
Pacific Rift -- Michael Lewis
A short book written in 1990 or so about the Japanese/Chinese economic boom, which collapsed soon after the book came out and invalidated the whole thing. Actually what I remember most about it was that the book had full-page ads scattered through it, like a magazine, which I haven’t seen in any other books except cheap genre paperbacks printed in the fifties.
Drood -- Dan Simmons
I didn’t get very far in this. It seems to be a crime/horror story, narrated in the first person by Wilkie Collins, who lets us know that he is going to dish out a lot of dirt on Charles Dickens, whom he apparently secretly hated. I couldn’t stomach fake-Collins’ indignant bloviating on the harsh way Dickens treated his wife (pretty rich coming from a bigamist who treated both his families like dirt) and when he started in on the “If you only knew what I know” stuff I gave up.
The Martian -- Andy Weir
My favorite book of the year. It’s a really, really good adventure story about a near-future manned mission to Mars. The mission has to be aborted when a windstorm threatens the return vehicle, and in the chaos of the storm our hero, Mark, gets swept away by the collapsing communications dish and is left for dead by the rest of the crew. Some time later he’s awakened by his suit’s oxygen alarm, and after orienting himself he realizes he’s wounded and stranded on Mars with no way of communicating with Earth. He has to get himself sewn up and figure out a way to survive, all on his own, until the next mission arrives in four years. The writing is excellent, and the picture of resourceful intelligence is well drawn. With many survival stories there’s the problem that the protagonist needs to be both a world-class problem solver and a near-savant level genius, which strains belief a little, but in this case it makes sense, because the protagonist is not only an astronaut, he’s one that’s been chosen for a mission to Mars, so naturally he’s on the far end of the bell curve. I really liked the scenes where Mark makes more water by draining hydrazine from the lander’s fuel tank to make hydrogen, and then sets fire to the hydrogen to make water. Hard enough, says you, but then remember everything he has available has been specifically designed by NASA not to burn! What a great book. I loved it.
The Monuments Men -- Robert M. Edsel
A very interesting book about what must have been the most civilized military unit ever, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section, which was created during World War II to rescue and preserve works of art throughout Europe. I really wouldn’t have thought any book could make me detest the Nazis even more, but this one pulled it off. It includes a lot of correspondence among high Nazi officials, who were all art collectors, mostly out of fawning imitation of Goring – few knew anything about art. The thing that really made my skin crawl was reading the Nazis blithely talking about “ownerless property” – by which they meant anything owned by Jews, since under Nazi law Jews couldn’t own things. They discussed it as though the Rothschilds’ art collection had just fallen out of the sky somehow and was lying around without an owner, so the Nazis were doing the world a favor by picking it up. Huge numbers of paintings, statues, carvings, all kinds of things – thousands and thousands and thousands of works of art – were stored up in bunkers for “safety”. Several of these bunkers were abandoned salt mines, which are terrible places to store works of art – restoration from the damage caused by salt corrosion is still going on, and won’t be finished for another hundred years. Not only that, as part of the Nero Decree (Hitler’s instructions to destroy absolutely everything in Germany – every building, every railway line, every automobile, everything – as a punishment to Germany for betraying him by surrendering) all the bunkers were mined, and a big part of the MFAA’s job was to find them before they blew up. The largest one, in fact, was only saved because the local miners defused the bombs and then set their own charges to blow up the bunker’s entrance, telling the Nazis that the explosions were the bunker being destroyed. It was really engrossing.
Silver Linings Playbook -- Matthew Quick
I didn’t really care for this. It’s the first-person story of a mental patient named Pat, whose mother gets him released into family custody. I was put off right from the beginning, because I can’t see why the institution agreed to release Pat, since he’s both delusional and violent and his family just lets him wander around unsupervised. We’re meant to be opposed to his father, who wants him returned to the institution, but I actually side with the father, the more so after Pat half-kills his mother after she wakes him from a nightmare. Well-meaning friends set him up with an emotionally troubled woman, and we’re supposed to believe a romance can form there, but I was never engaged at all – Pat has brain damage, his problems have physical causes that can’t be fixed, and he isn’t ever going to get better. I did like the tailgating scenes and the picture of how football can bring a community together, but overall I didn’t like it.
The Long Season -- Jim Brosnan
Brosnan was a pitcher, and this is his diary of the 1959 baseball season. He was traded from the Cardinals to the Reds halfway through the season, largely to his relief since he didn’t like the St. Louis manager and he always thought Harry Caray (who was the Cardinals’ announcer for years before switching to the Cubs) had it in for him. It’s a pretty interesting look at what major-league life was like in the fifties. Teams still played in segregated cities back then, and Brosnan mentions – without seeming to feel bad about it – that it was a feature of all Southern interviews that he would always have to tell the reporters that Willie Mays wasn’t really that good, because that was what they wanted to hear.
The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man -- W. Bruce Cameron
A good suspense/mystery story about a small-town former college football star, now working as a repo man for a collections agency, who suddenly starts hearing a voice in his head, the voice of a local businessman murdered ten years before. Since there’s no connection at all between the two of them the repo man can’t figure out why the voice should haunt him particularly, and he’s got his hands full enough as it is dealing with his mean-spirited sister and the pub their father left them without having a middle-aged real estate agent in his head calling for vengeance and also criticizing his poor housekeeping. I liked it.
Elephant Company -- Vicki Constantine Croke
Hard to go wrong with a book about elephants. This is a biography of Billy Williams, a forest manager for an English teak company in Burma, who spent World War II leading elephants out of Burma and into India to keep them safe from the Japanese invaders. As the war went on he crossed enemy lines to find captive elephants and get them away. Williams worked with elephants in Burma for twenty years before the war, establishing elephant schools and elephant hospitals as well as schools for elephant trainers. Because of this he was familiar with almost every working elephant in northern Burma, and he knew many of the wild elephants by sight; this is how he was able to get the elephants away from the Japanese – most of the elephants knew and trusted him and would follow him without concern. The author does a good job of conveying the staggering power and determination of the Burmese elephants, drawing an unforgettable picture of a mature bull named Bandoola fording a flooded river during the rainy season, shielding the other elephants and the humans from the onrush with his body. It was really good.
Pennant Race -- Jim Brosnan
Another baseball diary, covering the 1961 season, which Brosnan spent with the Cincinnati Reds. They won the pennant that year but lost the Series to the Yankees. Brosnan doesn’t seem that invested in baseball – he was a relief pitcher, and what he mainly seems to want is not to be used in games. He always does his best to get out of doing any pregame workouts or practicing, and his main comment in the bullpen is always “Ah, let someone else warm up.” I felt he had some ambivalence about baseball, not really feeling like it was a respectable profession but staying with it because the pay was good.
Next – Michael Lewis
A bit of a dated book about how the Internet changes the traditional relationship between people who control access to things and people who have found they can go around them. It’s interesting, but it’s got a wave-of-the-future optimism to it that kind of got doused when the Internet bubble collapsed about five minutes after the book came out.
Whatever Happened to the Metric System? – John Bemelmans Marciano
A good question! When I was a kid there was a big push to convert to metric – I remember the dual-number signs, and a series of kids’ cartoons featuring Meter Man and Liter Leader to get people used to it; in fact when I’m converting in my head I still hear the song: “A liter is a little more than a quart…” In 1975 Gerald Ford created the Metric Conversion Board, whose mandate was to get the USA converted to metric within ten years – and it wasn’t as if there was a lot of resistance, either. Mostly everyone agreed that the change was inevitable. But then came the 1980 election, and the “Make America Great Again” slogan that stirred up a lot of anti-foreign sentiment, and when Reagan eliminated the Metric Conversion Board in 1982 no one really objected, and the whole thing got swept under the rug. It seems to be less of an issue now because all US agencies that deal with international partners (such as NASA) use metric measurements anyway; and no one feels any urgency any more because anybody can convert Imperial to metric on their phone, so who cares? It was a pretty good read.
Double Cross -- Ben Macintyre
A terrific book about the Double Cross system, the enormous counter-intelligence effort by the British to deliver unsuspected false information to the German Abwehr throughout the war, all leading up to the great deception of convincing the Nazis that the D-Day invasion was coming later in the year and at a different landing place than it really was. It was gripping and full of detail, but what I most remember from it is the heroic story of Johann Jeppsen, who deserves to be better known. An anti-fascist German, he passed real intelligence to the British from within the Abwehr, and passed fake intelligence back the other way. The greatest risk to the Normandy landings came when Jeppsen was arrested by the SS only weeks before D-Day – and Jeppsen knew about the Double Cross system, so if he had told the Nazis anything at all about his dealings with the British, they would have had enough information to realize that the picture they were getting from their intelligence was a carefully crafted British fake, which would have told them that the landings were not coming at the place and time they thought. Under torture by the SS, Jeppsen said nothing, and the scheme was saved, sparing the Allies an unthinkable cost in lives and delay. Jeppsen disappeared before Germany fell, almost certainly murdered at the concentration camp he was taken to, so he never got the hero’s recognition he deserved. I’m glad I learned about him.
A Very Private Gentleman -- Martin Booth
A novel about a highly specialized criminal, a gunsmith who makes one-off weapons for assassins. He’s not an admirable person. He spends a great deal of the book justifying himself and arguing that what he does isn’t morally wrong, but I get the feeling he’s not really convinced. He’s working on one last job (naturally) in an out-of-the-way town in Italy, which is described beautifully, and as he progresses he realizes there’s a stranger in the town who must be looking for him. This turns into a cat and mouse game that I would have cared more about had I liked the narrator more. It was well written but I didn’t really enjoy it.
Northanger Abbey -- Jane Austen
This was both Austen’s first and last novel – a publisher bought it but never published it, and some years later she bought it back from him and revised it, and then it was published posthumously. It’s a pleasant story of a young woman on her first trip away from home; she goes to Bath with some friendly elderly neighbors. She makes friends her own age and excitedly discusses contemporary thrillers with them, which gives Austen a chance to insert an excellent and impassioned defense of the novel as an art form. She meets some entertainingly awful people, but has the good sense to fall for the funny, intelligent one. The awful people try to make trouble, but the funny one easily overcomes them and everything ends happily. I liked it a lot.
The Keeper of Lost Causes -- Jussi Adler-Olsen
Hated it. It’s a divorced-cop-with-drinking-problem-lands-nasty-case-with-political-connections-that-no-one-else-will-touch story, and the cop is a big jerk who hates everyone, and I got to page thirty or so before I thought “I’m done” and threw it away.
Bad Monkey -- Carl Hiaasen
A surreal murder-or-was-it story, starring a Florida cop who’s been suspended for assaulting his ex-wife’s boyfriend with a vacuum cleaner and who gets assigned to Health Inspector duty as a punishment. He mostly ignores his Health Department responsibilities and instead looks into the mysterious death-or-disappearance of a rich guy whose severed arm was found by a fishing boat. The search leads him to Bahama and a crowd of crooked real-estate developers, dim-witted thugs, voodoo queens, and an alcoholic hairless monkey. I liked the writing, though I couldn’t really get into the book because we’re supposed to sympathize with the hero, and I can’t really get behind a guy who brutally assaulted a defenseless victim while hiding behind his police badge.
Main-Travelled Roads -- Hamlin Garland
Garland’s first book, a collection of short stories about the hard lives of middle American farmers in the late nineteenth century. They were sad but well-written.
Sous Chef -- Michael Gibney
I never get tired of memoirs of working in professional kitchens. Partly it’s a nostalgic reminder of my own years as a professional cook, and partly it’s that it’s always interesting to watch someone, in a serious and methodical way, strive for genuine mastery. The author has just about the most difficult job in a kitchen; he’s the sous-chef, or “under-boss”, which means he’s in charge of all the day-to-day work of the kitchen, which includes supervising the other cooks and the dishwashers, as well as maintaining the always-uneasy relationship with the wait staff. On top of that he has to help the chef with his menus and study everything he does; the other cooks work for the restaurant, but the sous-chef really works for the chef. (That’s why when a chef leaves a job, the sous-chef almost always leaves with him.) This was a one-day-in-the-life story, a typical day in a busy New York restaurant, getting in early to get everything going; the chef deliberately putting together a nightmarishly complicated menu (as a message that he needs to be more on top of things); diving into the prep before the dinner hour; making mistakes and recovering from them; having to fill in on the grill when one of the line cooks, who came in hung over, starts puking in the trash can. It’s a very good picture of the combination of pride in his competence and insecurity in the knowledge that the chef is always watching. I was surprised to see that someone serious enough about being a chef to have come that far still smokes; no real high-end chef smokes – you can’t afford the time breaks, for one thing, and for another smoking dulls your senses of smell and taste, which a chef needs to be as sharp as possible. Maybe it was his way of asserting a little independence from the chef. It was really good.