I was getting embarrassed about not sending these out until March or April so I started writing them at Thanksgiving this year.
Stiff -- Mary Roach
A book about human corpses and what becomes of them, competently written and full of interesting detail. Turns out it's not as easy to donate your body to science as I would have thought; anatomists don't pay transport costs, and whatever institution you willed your body to only gets it if you happen to die reasonably close by. If you keel over while on vacation in the next state, the institution is out of luck. I was surprised and kind of repelled by the fact that Disney World actually has to have several employees whose full-time job is preventing people from dumping out their dead relatives' ashes on the rides.
Portrait of a Man Known As Il Condottiere -- Georges Perec (trans. David Bellos)
Perec's first book, a really good novel about forgery. It tells the story of a skilled artist named Gaspard working to create a fake painting on behalf of his employer, a petty criminal. As the novel begins, Gaspard has just murdered his employer, and he is dragging the body into the basement while wondering how he got himself into this. The rest of the story is told in flashback. Gaspard is trying to create a painting in the style of Antonello da Messina, a medieval Italian, whose famous portrait "Man Known as Il Condottiere" (it's in the Louvre) is a masterpiece, showing a man who exudes strength without cruelty. Perec undoubtedly picked this painting because of the ambiguity of the title -- why "known as"? Was he not actually a condottiere (a mercenary soldier) but just called that, or was he a real condottiere whose profession was so tied up with his identity that it usurped his name? The real-life painting also has a trompe l'oeil pun: the lower part of the painting shows a frame with a parchment note stuck on it, painted in such a way that you have to look twice to realize it's part of the painting and not an actual note. The note reads Antonellus me pinxit, "Antonello painted me", a double meaning. Gaspard, a man of real talent, sets out to create a new painting in da Messina's style -- he wants to create a perfect forgery that is, at the same time, an original work of art that's all his own. But he's undone by the paradox -- in order to make a great forgery he has to put himself into da Messina's shoes, and the more he does that the more he moves away from being really himself, which makes it impossible to put himself into his art. His failure preys on him and eventually unsettles his mind. It was well told.
How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia -- Mohsin Hamid
A very good novel following the career of a boy from a poor rural family in an unnamed Asian country, sort of a more realistic Horatio Alger story. The family moves to the city and the boy, quickly abandoning his studies under a drunken, illiterate schoolmaster, gets his start as a runner delivering pirated DVDs to people's homes. As he gets older he becomes a salesman for a shady businessman who buys up expired canned goods, fakes new dates on them, and resells them to grocers who don't ask too many questions. He learns from all this and sets up on his own, bottling boiled tap water and selling it as "spring water", boiling the water in his own lean-to with stolen propane and making the labels by hand. Over time this grows into a large concern, making him wealthy in the process. There's never a resting-point, though, since he constantly has to juggle back-scratching and bribes for politicians, rival businessmen, and gangs. I liked it a lot.
The Inimitable Jeeves -- P.G. Wodehouse
A sort-of novel made up of a collection of short episodes, all of which follow the same general pattern: Bertie's idiot friend Bingo meets a woman, falls madly in love at first sight, and implores Bertie for help winning her heart; Bertie, who can't say no, gets involved and somehow winds up in an embarrassing jam; he gets half-way out of it only to find that Bingo has fallen for someone else and utterly forgotten the first woman; Jeeves smoothly gets Bertie out of trouble; Bertie goes home vowing never to help Bingo again. Repeat. At the end of it Bingo meets a woman who's faster on the draw than the others and she marries him, not without leaving Bertie in the soup one last time. They were good but I did rather wish Bertie would punch Bingo in the nose every so often.
Dance Dance Dance -- Haruki Murakami
The aftermath of his earlier novel A Wild Sheep Chase, with the still-unnamed narrator returning to the north of Japan four years later to try to find the woman who'd accompanied him on his search the first time, and who apparently vanished without a trace after the narrator's encounter with the mysterious Sheep Man. The narrator is nonplussed to find that the crummy run-down Dolphin Hotel he and the woman stayed at has been replaced by a pretentious Western-style place called "l'Hotel Dauphin". This is a running theme in the novel -- a lot of the time only the names of the characters remind you the story is set in Japan, as the narrator eats at McDonald's, listens to the Talking Heads, and discusses Clint Eastwood movies. Asking about when the hotel changed hands, he gets stonewalled; a concierge later tells him, off the record, that there's something eerie about the place -- late at night, sometimes the elevator opens on a floor that isn't part of the hotel, a pitch-dark corridor that echoes with distant footsteps. He starts a relationship with the concierge and also befriends a precocious teenage girl named Yuki, whose globe-trotting parents sometimes absently leave her behind. Back in Tokyo he renews contact with a high-school friend, now a famous movie star who feels trapped by the teen-idol good looks that keep him in stereotyped roles, and through him befriends a good-natured prostitute named Mei. When Mei is murdered, the narrator sets out to look into her death, which leads him back to the Hotel Dauphin, where one night the elevator takes him to the strange floor, where he sets off to follow the sound of the footsteps. There's a lot more to it than that, but the novel doesn't feel crowded. I really liked it.
A Prefect's Uncle -- P.G. Wodehouse
His second or third book. He was only a year or so out of public school when he wrote it, and it shows. It's a pretty typical school-story, heavy on cricket, with the decent chaps showing the rotters what's what and the sixth-former bearing up manfully under public scorn rather than reveal someone else's shameful secret. The only thing that makes it feel like Wodehouse is the side-plot where one of the older students goes to meet an uncle at the train station, expecting a flying visit and maybe a handout from some unfamiliar relative, only to find that the uncle is younger than he is and is starting at the same school that term. He is of course appalled at the absurd position that puts him in, and it isn't made any better by the fact that this younger uncle is a bit of a supercilious snob. Overall it was kind of unmemorable.
The Black Jacobins -- C.L.R. James
An outstandingly good book about Toussaint l'Ouverture and the slave revolt in Haiti -- the only successful slave uprising in history, as the author points out. Toussaint and his party always wanted to remain associated with France, but in the end there simply couldn't be any coexistence with the white plantation owners and their investors in France, who couldn't get rich off their plantations without slave labor. (Not to mention all their slaves becoming free meant their net worth dropped.) The Revolutionary government abolished slavery in all French possessions, which was one reason the French merchants supported Napoleon, who reestablished it. Napoleon invited Toussaint to France and then had him seized and thrown into prison, where he died; but by that time the revolution had grown so strong that neither France nor Britain could force their way in, although both of them spent the next hundred years in undeclared economic warfare with Haiti, crushing it from among the richest to among the poorest nations in the world, all the while singing hymns to the awesome beneficence of their colonial policies. The bastards.
The Information -- James Gleick
A history of information theory, very thorough but kind of dry. Could have been better written.
My Korean Deli -- Ben Ryder Howe
An all-right autobiographical story about a period in the author's life when, under pressure from his wife, he agreed to help fund the purchase of a Brooklyn deli to be run by his mother-in-law. He also worked at the deli once it opened, to the detriment of his other job, as an editor at the Paris Review under George Plimpton. (I almost said "regular job", but there was nothing regular about anything Plimpton was involved with.) I didn't really like the author, since he was relentlessly critical of everyone -- his mother-in-law, whom he disliked; his wife, whom he portrays as demanding and unreasonable; even George Plimpton, one of the nicest people ever. The author thought Plimpton was too easy-going and didn't take work at the magazine seriously enough -- not that he has any room to kvetch, since he seems to have done very little work at the magazine even before spending half his time at the deli. (Probably the author didn't know that Plimpton didn't have to worry about the business end because the Paris Review was funded by the CIA, some of whose agents used jobs at the magazine as a cover; that didn't come out until after Plimpton died.) By far the best part of the book is the portrait of the employee they inherited with the store, a local reformed alcoholic named Dwayne, whom the author obviously genuinely liked despite his odd habits, such as loudly giving life advice to people while expertly making sandwiches, or letting his friends use the storeroom for card games, or carrying a gun while solemnly swearing to the author that he wasn't. I actually would have liked the book more if the author had left out all the parts about his family, which I didn't care about, and used the space for more about Dwayne.
I Am An Executioner -- Rajesh Parameshwaran
A very good collection of short stories about love gone terribly wrong. There's story told from the point of view of a tiger who's fallen in love with his handler and, in showing his affection, accidentally claws the handler to death; another about a laid-off worker who steals medical textbooks from a library and sets himself up as a doctor without a license, eventually horribly botching a surgery on his own wife in a desperate attempt to operate on her inoperable cervical cancer. They were well written and somehow less depressing than you'd think.
Inventing Niagara -- Ginger Strand
An entertaining book all about Niagara Falls and the culture of natural wonder that surrounds it, even though the entire thing is totally fake. The original Falls have been gone for a hundred fifty years; what's there now is a man-made sculpture created by dynamiting half the cliffs to make the flow better suited to powering electric turbines, so completely divorced from Nature that there's a bureaucrat's office that controls the water flow with a faucet (they turn the flow up for tourist season and down in the off months.) Nothing about the Falls is real -- it even has a fake history that promotes a fake myth of conservationism, when the truth is that the minute Europeans became aware of the Falls they fell all over themselves in the rush to exploit them for money. Even the islands above the Falls are man-made, imported dirt and stone covering up decades' worth of industrial slag and radioactive uranium waste. Good read.
Thank You, Jeeves -- P.G. Wodehouse
The first full-length Bertie Wooster novel. Bertie takes to playing the banjolele (I had to look it up -- it's a small instrument with a banjo body and a ukulele neck, designed for vaudeville performers who needed something that played as easily as a ukulele, but louder. Just the sort of thing Bertie would like.) When his near-deafened landlord boots him out of his apartment, Bertie resolves to settle in a cottage where he can practice in peace, which leads to Jeeves giving his notice. Bertie resolutely sticks to his plan and takes a cottage in a rural neighborhood, almost instantly followed by the serendipitous arrival of 1) a yacht carrying a vengeful American millionaire who suspects Bertie of trying to win his daughter away from her fiancé, who is also Jeeves' new employer; 2) a troupe of New Orleans jazz musicians who specialize in the banjolele; and 3) Bertie's old nemesis Sir Roderick Glossop, who is courting the neighborhood doyenne, who coincidentally is Jeeves' new employer's aunt. The tremendous complications that ensue wind up with Bertie and Sir Roderick, both in blackface for different reasons, fleeing the neighborhood under cover of darkness, pursued by Bertie's new valet, a Bolshevik who, having chosen that night to get good and drunk, has decided that the best way to bring about the millennium would be to set fire to Bertie's cottage and murder him with a carving knife. Jeeves settles everything in the end, of course. I laughed the whole way through it.
The Pattern On The Stone -- W. Daniel Hillis
A pretty good description of Boolean logic and how its implementation isn't necessarily tied to electromagnetic relays -- the same effect, though not as efficiently, can be produced with any mechanism that allows measuring of two distinct states with an excluded middle, such as rods and springs or hydraulic valves. Pretty readable.
The Unnamed -- Joshua Ferris
A bleak novel about a successful attorney who develops some kind of idiopathic disorder that causes him to walk compulsively until he collapses from exhaustion. It's a really good picture of the maddening frustration of dealing with a chronic illness no one can explain or treat, and the victim-blaming that inevitably ensues. The attorney loses his job, loses extremities to frostbite, and eventually loses his marriage, despite the enormous effort he and his wife expend to save it. He never recovers and never finds out what causes his condition, and the novel ends on a total downer with no hope or relief. I got pretty invested in the lead characters, which is what kept me reading, but the novel isn't at all enjoyable and I can't think it was even meant to be.
Mardi -- Herman Melville
An odd, wandering hodgepodge of a novel; Melville is obviously making it up as he goes along, and it mutates from a travelogue to a romance to a satire to a work of philosophy. It begins as a sea-story, with the hero deserting from a whaling-ship in the Pacific (as Melville himself had done) and setting out on a voyage of exploration in a small boat. Among other adventures he meets a group of Polynesian outriggers carrying a woman named Yillah; imagining the others are taking her to be sacrificed, he takes her away with him, killing a tribal elder in the process. Unusually, the hero recognizes that he has committed murder, and the guilt of his crime haunts him throughout the novel. Later, while he and his crew are visiting a Polynesian island, Yillah mysteriously vanishes; it's implied that the queen of a different island has stolen her away with magic. The king of the island rigs out a search party of several canoes, and the hero goes in search of Yillah, leaving his crew behind. They never find her, but in the course of the search they stop to visit and search many islands, which are thinly-veiled versions of the nations of Europe and the United States; Melville uses these visits to satirize European and American customs. After that the hero more or less fades out of the story and the main interest of the rest of the book is the philosophical conversations among the king and his wise men as they voyage across the sea. I couldn't decide if the novel's structure was a deliberate decision or if Melville just lost interest in the story and had to move it into a new course to keep himself going, and then that happened four more times. I wasn't really satisfied with it.
Right Ho, Jeeves -- P.G. Wodehouse
A hilarious novel, really well-paced, featuring some of Wodehouse's best episodes. Bertie tries to help his jellyfish-like friend Gussie talk to the girl he likes ("I can think of no better illustration of Gussie's character than that his nickname at school was 'Fat-Head', and this was in a class that included me") but through a misunderstanding becomes engaged to the girl himself; an appalling fate, since the girl, Madeline, is unbearably cutesy and believes in fairies. (I can sympathize here, as I once instantly lost interest in a girl when she told me that wearing glasses lets you see stars on a rainy night.) To try to put some backbone into Gussie he gets him loaded, which leads to Gussie taking the occasion at a town meeting to tell off half the town, to the delight of the other half. Jeeves saves the day, of course, at the expense of making Bertie take the fall for everything, a price he's glad to pay if it means getting shot of Madeline. What a great book.
Chilled -- Tom Jackson
A history of refrigeration, with a good picture of the old ice-harvesting days, when people had literal ice boxes -- a wooden cabinet with a metal container in the top for holding a block of ice. Mom remembers that one of her neighbors had an ice box when she was little and he would give the neighborhood kids chips of ice as a summer treat. The ice-shipping business was a lot like the bottled-water business now: the shippers mostly lied about where the ice came from. They made grand claims about treks to far Northern lakes and that sort of thing, but in fact the ice generally came from local ponds and was renewed by "flooding" -- after chopping out a layer of ice, the workmen would pour water from a hose over the surface of the pond to make more (so the ice would be full of their dirty footprints afterwards.) It's kind of sad that the person who invented Freon thought it would save the environment from overharvesting of ice. And in fact it was the same person who invented leaded gasoline, which he (and everyone else) also thought was good for the environment! I guess it's lucky for him he died before people found out those were both bad ideas.
The Code of the Woosters -- P.G. Wodehouse
A Bertie Wooster novel, featuring his hilarious send-up of British Fascism in the character of the would-be Dictator Roderick Spode and his followers the Black Shorts (a caricature of Oswald Mosley and his Black Shirts.) Mosley was later sent to prison for plotting against the Government, but I suspect that if he could have had the choice between getting out of prison and having "The Code of the Woosters" suppressed, he would have chosen the latter. It's a great attack on self-importance generally, and it's all the more satisfying that it's the mild and agreeable Bertie who gets to puncture the seven-foot Spode's image of himself: "The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone.... What the Voice of the People is saying is: 'Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags!'" I loved it.
Assassination Vacation -- Sarah Vowell
This is just what it sounds like: Vowell did a lot of traveling around to visit historical sites connected to three of the American Presidents who were assassinated. (She doesn't include Kennedy, probably because that's over-trodden ground.) It seems a big part of the impetus behind the trip was her own hatred of George W. Bush; she reminds herself that there were plenty of people who hated Lincoln, too. The tone of the book kind of seesaws a bit; the Garfield chapters are more light-hearted, and she clearly likes him -- hardly surprising since he took any excuse he could to slope off from being President to read books -- while the McKinley chapters concentrate on American imperialism, as a deliberate echo of our current geopolitics. I liked the story-telling; Vowell doesn't drive, so she had to sweet-talk her friends and relatives into taking vacation days with her ("Hey, who wants to spend the weekend finding the graveyard where Leon Czolgosz is buried?")
The Lady and the Panda -- Vicki Constantine Croke
A book about Ruth Harkness, an American eccentric who in the 1930s spent her inheritance to trek across China and Tibet to find a giant panda to bring back to the United States. Pandas live only in remote mountain forests where hardly anyone ever goes, plus China was in the middle of a civil war and a Japanese invasion, so it wasn't easy going, not to mention she was harassed and libeled by rival adventuring parties who couldn't stand competing with a woman. She did find one, an infant male that she mistook for a somewhat older female (no one knew very much about pandas then) and managed to keep it alive all the way to the Chicago Zoo, where it became the biggest gate attraction any zoo has ever had. She became very attached to the panda; when, on a later expedition to capture more, she heard that it had died in captivity, she had a change of heart about zoos and released the newer panda she'd caught back into the wild. It was pretty good.
The Powerhouse -- Steve LeVine
An excellent book on the structure of batteries and the industrial race that's been going on the last twenty years to find a new breakthrough. The car population in China is growing fast and there's heavy competition among Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and American companies to produce a battery that can last long enough, put out enough power, and cost little enough that it can become a genuine alternative to gasoline. A lot of battery engineers now have backgrounds in materials science, because one thing that's needed is to build an anode that can withstand thousands of charge-ups and charge-downs without degrading. You could do it with solid lithium, but lithium is too scarce to make that a useful approach, so everyone's trying to make a functional equivalent. The author spent a few years doing fly-on-the-wall coverage of a big battery breakthrough, but it turned out the results were faked and the company he was following went bust. Still a good story, though.
Townie -- Andre Dubus III
A pretty good memoir about violence and fear. The author grew up in the seventies in the old mill towns of Massachusetts, Lowell and Lawrence and Dunstable, raised in poverty by his mother, with a tenuous relationship with his distant father, the famous writer Andre Dubus, who walked out on them when the author was a boy. He goes into a lot of detail about the violence of his neighborhoods and the fights he was in; what struck me was how avoidable most of them were. He says his fear of being bullied drove him to bodybuilding and boxing, but when he grew into his strength it didn't make him calm. The fear remained, and it led him into looking for trouble, going out of his way to get into fights, something he wasn't able to grow out of until he was in his thirties. I liked the scene where he and his brother, both professional carpenters, roast their father for writing a story where the lead character builds a coffin, digs a grave, and fills it in, all within three hours (it would actually take days to do all that.) There was a striking callback to that later on, when he and his brother are building their father's coffin, and occasionally one of them pauses and says "Three hours, my ass." I liked it.
Young Men in Spats -- P.G. Wodehouse
An excellent collection of short stories about adventures of the members of the aptly-named Drones Club, generally told by one Drone to another about a third, although some are narrated by the garrulous Mr. Mulliner, whose astounding array of relations includes a few Drones. They're all funny, but by far the best is "Uncle Fred Flits By", for my money the funniest thing Wodehouse ever wrote, which features the first appearance of England's champion liar, Uncle Fred, and the tangled mess he causes and solves when he enters a stranger's house to get out of the rain and proceeds to impersonate a half-dozen different people, presenting a new identity in turn to every person who enters the house, blithely juggling all his stories at once and keeping everyone off balance with a stream of stupendous lies. I laughed till I cried.
Shallow Soil -- Knut Hamsun
One of his early novels, about petty one-upmanship among the artistic community in Christiana (now Oslo.) It's probably a roman a clef, but since the topical disagreements among Norwegian writers in the 1870s made no lasting impression on our cultural memory I can just read it as a straight novel. The story largely ignores the artists' work and instead criticizes their lax and dishonest lifestyle: they sponge off their working friends and sneer at them behind their backs. They maintain a pose of disdaining worldly things while sucking up to the newspapermen for favorable reviews and ruthlessly maneuvering to get themselves awarded government grants. The sour-grapes attitude they take when looking down on the artist who wins the grant they were all fighting for is pretty funny. They're also shown as fairly small-minded and insecure; they consider themselves the gatekeepers of an exclusive society, and they angrily unite to silence a visitor to the city who dares to offer opinions about art and politics that they haven't approved first. They're not at all attractive people, and it's hardly surprising that Hamsun decided he needed to leave Christiana for his art to grow. I liked it.
Quick Service -- P.G. Wodehouse
A comedy featuring the sort of dazzling web of cross-purposes that only Wodehouse could pull off. Sally, the heroine, lives with her snobby aunt Mabel, who has married an American prize fighter named Steptoe and is trying to bully him into becoming an English gentleman. To this end she has hired the young and suave Lord Hobelton to teach her husband manners; Sally has become engaged to Lord H but it has to be kept secret since they're both broke. Rounding out the ménage is Mabel's sister-in-law from her first marriage, Mrs. Chavender. Mrs. C was once engaged to James Duff, who by coincidence is the trustee of Lord H's estate, and by another coincidence also the employer of Joss, an artist who painted a portrait of Mrs. C, commissioned by Mabel in hopes of being named Mrs. C's heir. For various reasons several people want that portrait, and Joss, having fallen in love with Sally at first sight, volunteers to take a job as Steptoe's valet, in order to help Sally steal it. Joss's cheerful can-do attitude impresses Sally in contrast to Lord H's glum defeatism and want of enterprise, and after Lord H departs to find a household where there isn't quite so much art theft, Joss and Sally get engaged and everything ends happily. It was great.
The Black Count -- Tom Reiss
A fantastic biography of Alexandre Dumas grand-père, the father of the novelist. Really gripping. Dumas-the-eldest was the son of a Haitian slave woman and a no-good younger son of an aristocratic French family named Antoine. Antoine left France in the mid-1700s to escape debts and lived in Haiti for thirty years until his relatives died, whereupon he sold his wife back into slavery, and their children along with her, except the oldest -- Alex, as he always called himself -- whom he brought along to Port-au-Prince, only to sell him as a slave there in order to pay his passage to France. Antoine did redeem Alex from the ship's captain once he scrounged some money in France, but Alex always used his mother's name, Dumas, after that. Slavery was illegal in France, and by law any slave setting foot on French soil became free, but the merchants got around that by building slave pens near the ports and having them declared extra-territorial. Alex joined the Army, and with his native talent and the open atmosphere of the Revolution eventually rose to become general-in-chief of an army, the first black man to do so and the last until the 1970s. He fought for the Revolutionary government and for the Consulate that succeeded it with amazing heroism -- he was the model for the military heroes in his son's novels -- but as both a die-hard republican and an opponent of slavery, he clashed with Napoleon throughout his career. When he was captured by the Neapolitan regime, he wasn't ransomed; and when he did get free and return to France, in poor health after eighteen months in a dungeon, he was not paid a pension and died in illness and poverty. There used to be a statue to him in Paris, but it was destroyed by the Nazis as part of their racial purification program and it was never replaced.
The Seville Communion -- Arturo Perez-Reverte
An anti-Catholic novel, whose plot is a vehicle for attacking the Church, which can make a good story when done well, which this wasn't. There are six Catholic priests in the story (one of whom is the protagonist) plus a nun; the priests are all revolting cynics and the nun is a murderer. The protagonist, who works as a sort of investigator and hatchet man for the Vatican, is an open atheist who believes his lack of faith makes him good at his job; his boss openly mocks Church ritual as pointless nonsense, sneeringly dismisses John Paul II as "the Pole", and regards the protagonist's violation of his vow of celibacy as unimportant and probably good for him; and the Cardinal they both report to has ordered the murders of liberation-theology priests in South America. It's no better in Seville, where the protagonist is sent to sort out what's going on with a medieval church where two men have died mysteriously; the local Cardinal is a caricature of bureaucratic malice, and the church's pastor is a barefoot fanatic straight out of the Dark Ages who will only celebrate the Mass in Latin (though it turns out that he too is an atheist and just considers the Mass more suited to comforting and soothing stupid people when it's in an incomprehensible language), while his assistant priest is a man whose first reaction to finding the protagonist snooping around is to punch him in the face. And then there's the nun, who it turns out has murdered three people in an attempt to keep the old church from being torn down (it doesn't make a lot of sense.) The protagonist figures it out but doesn't turn her in, mainly to spite the local Cardinal, who's pro-demolition. I didn't like it.
The Return of George Washington -- Edward J. Larson
An excellent book on Washington and the period between his retirement from the Army in 1783 and his return to public life in 1787. He spent a lot of it getting his estate back in order after eight years away (he was only home for three or four nights in the whole war.) He repaired his farms, unsuccessfully tried to sell his Western property to the squatters on it, and made plans for a navigation canal that was never built. During this time he maintained close contact with like-minded supporters of a strong federal government, but he deliberately kept quiet in public on political questions; he knew the value of his political capital and he wanted to get the most out of it by spending it all at once, on the Constitution, rather than weakening it by taking public stands on less important matters. A great deal of public acceptance of the Constitution came just from the fact that it was generally seen as Washington's program. In Philadelphia he made a point of attending Mass at a Catholic church, as a public signal that the new government would maintain freedom of worship.
Anecdotes of the Late Dr. Samuel Johnson, LL.D. -- Hester Thrale Piozzi
The Thrales were Johnson's best friends in the second half of his life; he spent a great deal of time with them over a period of twenty years or so. Mrs. Thrale didn't like James Boswell, and when Boswell was writing his mighty biography of Johnson she decided to publish this book on her own rather than help him. It's somewhat more negative than it might have been, since she was still hurt by Johnson's unreasonable anger over her remarriage (Johnson thought it would have been more seemly for her to remain a widow, plus her second husband was Catholic.) Still, although colored by later quarrels, the great admiration and powerful affection between Johnson and the Thrales is obvious, even though Johnson could be difficult and sometimes exasperating (for example, when he was in a peevish mood he had an annoying habit of contradicting anything anyone said.) Luckily Mrs. Thrale kept a diary, and so had a record of some of Johnson's best conversations. A good book.
Underground -- Haruki Murakami
A sobering and engrossing book about the gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in March 1995. There were four teams of attackers, each team consisting of a man assigned to release the gas and a getaway driver. They were all members of Aum Shinryko, a doomsday cult headed by a messianic lunatic called Asahara. The attackers and Asahara were all sentenced to death, but that's mainly symbolic since Japan has no procedure in place to execute anyone, so it's really imprisonment for life. Because of this Murakami was able to speak to most of the attackers (a couple were still on the run when he wrote the book, though they were caught afterwards.) It's a chilling picture of how a cult controls its members -- Aum used solitary confinement, electric shocks, and drugs. Even bearing in mind that the attackers were often trying to make excuses for themselves, it's frightening. Several told Murakami that they now recognized that what they did was wrong but they'd probably do it again.
Sejanus His Fall -- Ben Jonson
A verse play about Lucius Aelius Sejanus, the right-hand man of the Emperor Tiberius, who for years was the most feared man in Rome. In his mid-sixties Tiberius became disgusted with Rome and left permanently for Capri, no one knows why; he appointed Sejanus as consul and left the administration of the Empire up to him. Sejanus soon became a tyrant, ruling the Empire to suit himself and controlling the flow of information to Capri. The play deals mostly with Sejanus's last days, when his power and arrogance were at their height and he was laying plans to kill all the Caesars and make himself Emperor. But he'd underestimated Tiberius, who it turned out was a lot more aware of the real state of Rome than Sejanus had thought; Tiberius called him to appear before the Senate to be given a great reward, and when he got there he was arrested and horribly put to death. Jonson got in some trouble when the play came out, since most people took it as an allegory for the recent sudden fall of the former royal favorite, the Earl of Essex, which it probably was, actually.
Plum Pie -- P.G. Wodehouse
A terrific collection of short stories featuring all the usual suspects -- golf, Ukridge, Mr. Mulliner, the Drones Club. There's a great Blandings story where poor Lord Emsworth has to try to retrieve a stolen dog by breaking and entering, a job for which he may be the least suited person ever, and an outstanding Bertie Wooster story where a lowlife threatens Bertie with a false breach-of-promise lawsuit and Jeeves gets him out of it by convincing the lowlife that Bertie is actually broke and that he, Jeeves, is really a creditor's agent posing as a valet, keeping an eye on Bertie so he can't go on the lam. I loved it.
Bracebridge Hall -- Washington Irving
Sort of a continuation of his Sketch-Book, this book describes a gathering of friends and guests at Bracebridge Hall, a British estate based on one Irving visited in Birmingham, for the Christmas season. There's no plot, as such; Irving, in his persona of Geoffrey Crayon, is among the party, and he describes the house and guests in a series of sketches and stories, including a long novella. They were all well-written.
The Porcelain Thief -- Huan Hsu
A family memoir about being American-born Chinese. The writer is second-generation American; the book is his family story, told around the McGuffin of some valuable porcelain that belonged to his great-great-great-grandfather and was lost during the Japanese occupation. There's a great deal of interesting information about porcelain and how it was made in the old days, and the current thriving trade in faking antique porcelain that now occupies most of the craftspeople in the old porcelain-producing towns. The author goes to Taiwan and then China to meet and interview his older relatives, which is fairly difficult, first because his Mandarin is only so-so, second because of the generation gap and cultural gap, and thirdly because of a general reluctance to talk about some things. For instance, he eventually realizes that his great-aunt doesn't want to tell him where his great-great-grandfather is buried because she thinks that if people see a stranger visiting the grave they'll assume there's something valuable buried there and violate the grave to find it. He also faces bureaucratic hostility from people who fear, probably reasonably, that any inquiry from an outsider might upset their status quo. It doesn't help that his family Anglicizes their name as the Wade-Giles Hsu, rather than the pinyin Xu, which is itself a political statement. (Taiwan uses Wade-Giles while China uses pinyin, so just the act of using Wade-Giles amounts to a rejection of the official "One China" policy.) I liked it.
The Mating Season -- P.G. Wodehouse
A Bertie Wooster novel, set during the period when Bertie is in constant danger from the drama queen and general silly twit Madeline Basset, who wrongly imagines that Bertie is in love with her and dramatically resolves to marry him every time her own engagement runs into trouble. This time her fiancé (Gussie) gets arrested, and Bertie, to prevent the engagement from being broken off, has to take Gussie's place on a country visit. But Gussie's case is unexpectedly dismissed and he follows along immediately, leading to a very awkward situation where Bertie is pretending to be Gussie, Gussie is pretending to be Bertie, Jeeves is pretending to be Gussie's valet, and Bertie's friend Pirbright, just to round things out, is pretending to be Bertie's valet. There's a great scene when, having been roped into performing for a local benefit, they have to go on stage to do a vaudeville act, and since the depressed Gussie has lost interest and just stares indifferently straight ahead, Pirbright has to try to deliver both sides of a comedy routine by himself.
The Guts -- Roddy Doyle
A novel about the later life of Jimmy Rabbitte, who's appeared in several of Doyle's novels set in the Barrytown area of Dublin. After the Irish economic collapse, Jimmy and his wife have kept themselves solvent with a sort of nostalgia music business where they do where-are-they-now promotions for bands from thirty or forty years ago. Jimmy has abdominal cancer and spends the novel getting treatment and patching up some of his family relationships, and also reestablishing old friendships with other former members of his first band, The Commitments. It's got a good understated theme of finding things to enjoy even while life is punching you in the teeth. I liked it a lot, but for a while I had a sense of something missing; I finally realized that I was expecting explanations of how the Rabbitte family was coping with the enormous cost of cancer treatment, but then I remembered the book is set in Ireland where you don't have to sell your house to pay for chemotherapy.
The Mutiny of the Elsinore -- Jack London
Jack London's racism is often regarded merely as a product of his times, which I have a bit of a problem with since he so often goes out of his way to extol the white race, but this book, written late in his career, might as well have been commissioned by the KKK. It's an outright paean to white supremacy, whose narrator, a passenger on a sea-voyage, spends all his time thinking about how repulsive the non-white crew is, and dwelling on how right and proper it is that he, a white man, should sit with the white officers and watch the non-white crew slave away in their inferior way. That's almost a direct quote, by the way, I'm not parodying him. He himself does no work, but he glories in how the super-whiteness of his white ancestors gives him the right to order around the scum. After the ship's officers all die in the mutiny, the narrator takes command and dominates the crew through the sheer power of whiteness; they meekly return to duty and carry the ship to port for their own executions, helpless against the moral force of the narrator's conquering white ancestry. Usually it's London's nauseating love-scenes that make me want to throw up, but this time the whole book was puke-worthy. I kind of feel bad for having read it.
Emma -- Jane Austen
Austen is supposed to have said of this novel that "I have written a heroine that nobody but me will much like"; she's probably right. Emma is pretty annoying, a self-important twit who's convinced she's always right; worse than that, she's a dreadful snob, pushing a woman dependent on her into refusing a marriage proposal from a man she likes, purely because she considers the man's social standing too low. The only time I really liked her was after Mr. Knightley rebukes her for her rudeness to poor Miss Bates, and Emma feels genuinely sorry and ashamed. It was well-written, though.
Eggs, Beans, and Crumpets -- P.G. Wodehouse
Another collection of funny reminiscences from the Drones Club. The title comes from the Drones' habit of addressing each other as "old bean", "old egg", or "old crumpet"; this emphasizes their interchangeable lack of personality and also saves Wodehouse from having to come up with names for all of them. In one story, "A Bit of Luck for Mabel", the best joke is the last line, where, after sitting through the wastrel pest Ukridge's story of how he got engaged to a girl named Mabel by assuming a fake background and personality, only for her to accidentally discover the truth and ditch him, the narrator remarks that it would make a good magazine story; Ukridge says it needs a grand title, like "The Fall of Honest Worth" or the equivalent, and the narrator dryly says "I'll think of something."
Hedda Gabler -- Henrik Ibsen
A very depressing play from Ibsen's middle period. Hedda, the anti-heroine, is married to a man named Tesman, but Ibsen chose to emphasize her maiden name, I think as a way of telling us she never loved her husband. Tesman is a respected academic and in line for a well-paid professorship, so Hedda has married him for security. That security is threatened by the return to town of another scholar, a reformed alcoholic named Eilert who has astonished everyone by resurrecting his potential and writing a well-received book; suddenly he appears to be a rival for Tesman's presumptive professorship. We soon learn that Eilert was once Hedda's lover, and that he is now finishing his next book, a masterpiece. Fearing for her security, and jealous that Eilert has done something great without her inspiring him, Hedda tempts him to drink and steals the manuscript, leading him to think he has lost it. When he tells Hedda he has (as he thinks) lost his masterpiece through drunken carelessness, she gives him a pistol and tells him he can still do a magnificent thing by killing himself. When he leaves Hedda burns the manuscript. Seemingly she has settled everything, but soon she gets a triple shock: Eilert, instead of embracing the "cold, clean, brilliant" death she had romantically imagined, has in fact gotten drunk at a whorehouse and shot himself by accident; a doctor has recognized the pistol and he lets Hedda know he will be blackmailing her for sex; and Tesman, appalled at Hedda's behavior, has dedicated himself to re-creating Eilert's manuscript from his notes. Faced with all this, Hedda goes off stage and kills herself. There really seems to have been a sort of cult of the "magnificent death" in Scandinavia; Ibsen brings it up in several plays, his argument always being that suicide is neither romantic nor edifying and is rather an admission of failure than a grand rejection of societal norms. In European novels of about a hundred years ago, if an author wanted to suggest a character was immoral or unhampered by convention, the shorthand way of showing it was to have the character attend a performance of Hedda Gabler.
The Body Keeps the Score -- Bessel Van der Kolk
Van der Kolk is an iconoclast, with plenty of people willing to call him a quack. That's a word that gets thrown around a lot in psychiatry circles, though, since psychiatry is notoriously short on scientific rigor and the only axiom they all agree on is that every approach but their own is obviously foolish and wrong. Anyway Van der Kolk has a lot of experience and he argues that talk therapy by itself is less useful than when combined with some sort of physical therapy, since the effects of trauma are felt throughout the whole body rather than just in the mind. He therefore recommends that talk therapy should be complemented with things like yoga and other more esoteric therapies like eye-movement exercises. The effectiveness of these other therapies hasn't been rigorously tested in a laboratory environment, but that's really hard to do with psychiatric treatments, where finding a control group is usually difficult and might even be unethical. (You can't really give patients in danger of self-harm a placebo treatment.)
The Wild Duck -- Henrik Ibsen
A play about lies and idealism, and an argument where no one's right. A young man, Werle, returns from abroad to visit his poor friend Ekdal, who lives in a tenement with his wife, young daughter, and elderly father. Werle is consumed with guilt because his father (Werle senior) once framed the older Ekdal for his own financial crimes, leading to the family's disgrace and ruin. The Ekdals don't know this and survive on charity work given them by Werle senior. Old Ekdal has declined mentally and physically, and the younger Ekdal has constructed a sort of small nature preserve where his father can trap rabbits, to let him pretend he's still capable of hunting and so retain some dignity in his own eyes. Werle recognizes Mrs. Ekdal as a former servant of his own family, and eventually guesses that the Ekdals' child is really Werle senior's illegitimate daughter. Against Mrs. Ekdal's advice he frenziedly reveals everything to Ekdal, who is understandably upset; overhearing the commotion, the daughter thinks she's to blame and shoots herself with the old man's pistol. It's partly a warning against closing your eyes to deceits that may come back to haunt you, but it's mainly a condemnation of fanatical idealism, shown in the awful picture of Werle standing over Ekdal as he holds his dead daughter, exulting that it's wonderful that this has happened because it will inspire Ekdal to achieve great things.
A Few Quick Ones -- P.G. Wodehouse
An excellent collection of short stories from all over Wodehouseistan: Mulliner, golf, the Drones. There's a terrific Bertie Wooster story where Jeeves coolly saves the day by whacking Bertie on the head with a frying pan. It was great.
The Master Builder -- Henrik Ibsen
A strange play, that may be about madness or may not, I can't decide. The Master Builder, Solness, has achieved great commercial success by taking advantage of many strokes of fortune; most of these were lucky for him but unlucky for someone else, and he wavers between feeling guilty and feeling that he's marked by Destiny. He is building a church with a great steeple -- a job he didn't really want, but took anyway, to keep it out of the hands of his assistant, out of fear that his success is all luck and his assistant may be a better architect than he is. During construction a young woman named Hilda arrives in town and seeks Solness out, telling him that years before, when she was a young girl, she had met Solness at another job site and he had promised her a tower and a kingdom, and she claims to have taken these promises seriously. Solness -- who does not remember her -- wonders if she is mad or just calculating, and then wonders if she's actually confirmation of his idea that he only has to wish for something for it to happen. Although he is afraid of heights, Hilda convinces him to climb to the pinnacle of the steeple he has built; he loses his footing and falls to his death, which must be a challenge to stage.
Two More Pints -- Roddy Doyle
A collection of very good short dialogues, all between two Irish friends sitting in a pub and discussing the news. I was interested to see how positive they were about the President, adopting him as an honorary Dubliner named Barry O'Bama.
A Doll's House -- Henrik Ibsen
A play from Ibsen's "realistic" period. The heroine, Nora, is married to a banker named Torvald, whom she hero-worships. Torvald has recently fired one of his clerks, the pretext being some long-ago financial misdeeds, but the real reason is that the clerk has known Torvald from childhood and so can't reasonably be ordered to call him "sir", which rankles on Torvald's self-importance. As the story progresses we find that Nora, at a time when Torvald was seriously ill, saved his life by paying for his treatment with money from her father's estate. Torvald thinks she inherited the money, but in fact she leveraged her father's small estate to borrow the money without telling her husband. The fired clerk, who owns the debt, has discovered that Nora forged her father's signature after he died to get the loan; he threatens to expose her unless Torvald gives him his job back. At her wits' end, Nora is convinced that Torvald will insist on taking the blame for her crime to save her from disgrace, and to spare him she resolves on suicide. Before she can act, though, Torvald gets a letter from the clerk telling him everything; he storms at Nora, alternating between rage and self-pity, blaming her for destroying his career. When a second message arrives, telling them that the clerk has had second thoughts and decided not to publish after all, Torvald is overjoyed and "forgives" Nora, expecting that everything will return to normal. But the shock of having her image of her husband destroyed has changed Nora; she tells Torvald she now realizes that she has spent their whole marriage living as his toy doll, and in order to live as a real person she is leaving him. The play was denounced from every pulpit in Europe for depicting a woman leaving her husband. It's a very powerful last act.
Ugly Americans -- Ben Mezrich
An account of Americans trading in the Asian markets -- Osaka, Tokyo, Hong Kong -- in the nineties. The author buys in too much to the cowboy mythos, with the Americans roaring around Tokyo on Ducatis and throwing Roman-emperor parties, with gorgeous Asian women hanging all over them all the time; I felt like those scenes were written with a movie script in mind. It had a good picture of how arbitrage works: the McDonald's on 12th Street is selling hamburgers for a dollar, while the McDonald's on 15th Street is selling them for $1.10; the business of the arbitrageur is to buy burgers at 12th Street and then run over and sell them at 15th Street, without getting in a traffic accident on the way, and outrunning all the other guys doing the same thing. It was pretty good.
Nothing Serious -- P.G. Wodehouse
A collection of short stories, mostly about golf, with a couple of Drones adventures thrown in. I'm always amazed that Wodehouse can actually make golf, one of the most boring topics imaginable, interesting and funny. His characters take devotion to golf to absurd lengths. One of them sniffily dismisses a man who concedes a hole just because he didn't want to play his ball from where it had landed inside a hornets' nest; another, having sent a ball through a window into a stranger's house, insists on coming inside and playing the ball from where it lies on the dining room table. Very good reading.
Sartor Resartus -- Thomas Carlyle
An extraordinarily strange book, one of Dad's favorites. It's cast in the form of a dim-witted and crotchety Editor of an English magazine trying to make sense of a mystical German work on the philosophy of clothes, by one Teufelsdrockh ("Devil-Shit") whose grandiose German titles mean that he is a graduate of "Thwack-Ass Academy" and the Professor of "Things-In-General" at the University of "Don't-Know-Where". Through the double lens of Teufelsdrockh and the Editor, Carlyle lampoons German idealistic philosophy with his Observations on Clothes. In the second part of the book, trying to get some sense of Teufelsdrockh's life and ideas, the Editor looks through a collection of paper bags forwarded to him from Don't-Know-Where, holding a mishmash of papers by and about Teufelsdrockh in no sort of order. Carlyle skillfully constructs a farrago of nonsense that lets Teufelsdrockh's life illustrate Carlyle's own religious awakening, moving from the "Everlasting No" (denial of God and assertion that all faith is a conscious lie) to the "Centre of Indifference" (agnosticism) to the "Everlasting Yes" (faith in God and uncompromising rejection of evil.) Very entertaining.
Joseph Anton -- Salman Rushdie
Rushdie's autobiography, of course spending the major part of it dealing with his death sentence. He was raised in India but went to school in England as a teenager and stayed. He remarks that the three worst crimes to commit in an English public school are "to be foreign, to be clever, to be bad at sports"; you can get by with only two, but if you're all three, well, good luck. He describes his development as an artist and a craftsman, going into great detail on all the threads in his life that wound up combining to produce The Satanic Verses. He does a really good job making you feel the indignation that the book took him five years of painstaking effort and yet people dismissed it in a moment without reading it, only on someone else's word (Khomeini never even saw a copy of the book before issuing his death sentence.) More maddening than that was the endless victim-blaming, which I remember was the main text of all the think pieces at the time; "He brought it on himself," everyone said, instead of "How is it that a modern-day national government ordered a man killed because of a novel, and everyone is just okay with that?" Rushdie contends, I think with justice, that the real problem was that he wasn't actually murdered. Had he been killed, the same people chastising him in the press would have lauded him as a martyr, and he could have safely become a saint instead of remaining an inconvenient presence. The book pushes over into self-aggrandizing a bit, though; Rushdie always shows himself getting the last word, delivering the unanswerable retort (easier to get away with since he tells the book in the second person.) He also draws amazingly unflattering portraits of all his ex-wives. The first, he says, starts demanding huge amounts of money after The Satanic Verses becomes a success. The second he describes as outright insane, a pathological liar and thief. It's with the third he's the most obviously dishonest, drawing their disagreements as perfectly understandable on his side and irrational on hers -- "She wanted more children, which he didn't want; he wanted to move to New York, which frightened her" (emphasis mine.) It sounds a lot like making excuses for dumping her in favor of his fourth wife, a woman half his age, whom he describes as selfish and bratty. It was an engrossing read.
Ghosts -- Henrik Ibsen
Probably his most open attack on conventional morality and the hypocrisy and suffering caused by subordinating personal well-being to public appearances. The heroine is a widow named Helene, who has used her inheritance to build an orphanage. She tells the local pastor that she intends to dedicate it to her late husband; he doesn't approve, because people might wonder why she would give her husband's name to such a low charity, associated with immorality and prostitutes. The pastor had always told Helene to put up with her husband's bad behavior so the town wouldn't learn that a leading citizen was an abuser and philanderer. The pastor is shocked to learn that not only did ignoring the man's sins fail to reform him, but that he gave his wife syphilis. She sent their son to a distant school to keep him away from his father, and in fact built the orphanage just to use up their money to make sure the son would inherit nothing from his father and so have a chance for a clean life. However, when the son comes home from school it becomes clear that he has syphilis (he was infected in the womb) and is slowly going mad. It only gets worse when Helene has to tell him to break his engagement because his fiancée is his illegitimate half-sister. The reviewers savaged the play, partly because Helene suffers disaster even though she always acted in line with strict conventional morality, and partly because of the character of the pastor, who shows no interest in helping or consoling anyone and is concerned with nothing but avoiding public scandal. It's a powerful play.
The Top of His Game -- W.C. Heinz
A collection of first-rate sports writing, covering the forties through the seventies. There's some excellent war reporting from when he was in Europe in WWII, which seems rather out of place here but is very good anyway. The articles concentrate on boxing, baseball, and horse racing, the only sports Heinz really cared about. His story "Death of a Race Horse" has as much feeling packed into nine hundred words as I can remember, maybe the best piece of on-deadline sports writing ever. My favorite one was "Brownsville Bum", with its right-between-the-eyes description of the life and death of Bummy Davis, a retired welterweight boxer who died fighting off four armed robbers with his fists. The later part of the book isn't as good, consisting of excerpts from a book Heinz wrote in the seventies when he was old and tired, a where-are-they-now book in which he interviewed retired athletes in order to write about how much better everything was when he was younger.
The Postman Always Rings Twice -- James M. Cain
A noir novel, about a drifter in the thirties who gets hired on as a mechanic and general man-of-all-work at a family-run gas station and restaurant, where he starts an affair with the proprietor's wife. The two of them plot to kill the husband, but the plan comes to nothing and the drifter takes off, only to return some months later and try again. No postman appears or is even mentioned in the whole book, which puzzled me, but maybe the title's a metaphor -- the postman may be death, or Fate. The characters are loathsome (they're supposed to be) so you don't really sympathize with anyone, but it was a good story.
An Enemy of the People -- Henrik Ibsen
A play about civic responsibility and integrity. "Jaws" was a very loose adaptation of it. The hero, Dr. Stockmann, lives in a town that derives a lot of revenue from its mineral springs and the bath houses and health spas built around them. Stockmann's investigations of local health problems reveal that the springs are heavily polluted by runoff from the tannery, the town's other big business. (Ibsen doesn't actually spell it out, but at that time leather was tanned by soaking it in urine, so the runoff was contaminating the spring water with human waste.) The mayor, not wanting to spend the money to clean up the problem and also fearing a loss of tourist money, orders Stockmann not to report his findings. When Stockmann persists, his supporters desert him out of fear of public anger. The newspaper refuses to print his report and instead runs editorials attacking him as a dangerous crackpot. At a town meeting he is not allowed to speak and the mayor declares him a public enemy; he loses his job, his children are expelled from school, and a mob destroys his house. At first disbelieving and then angrily despairing, by the end of the play Stockmann has become cheerfully defiant, publishing his report in outside news sources and refusing to leave town. It's an unusually upbeat ending for an Ibsen play.
Prolegomena To Any Future Metaphysics -- Immanuel Kant
A bit of a petulant book. Kant was unhappy with the reception of his magnum opus, Critique of Pure Reason, which even he admitted was "dry, obscure, and long-winded"; he wrote this book to protest that everyone should have treated it with more respect. He makes the usual complaints of all disappointed authors, condemning his critics as being too unintelligent to understand his work or too lazy to put in the necessary effort. He even includes an appendix in which he kvetches about a book review practically line by line, a sure way to make yourself look like a crank. For all that, Kant was no crank but a highly intelligent and methodical thinker, and in this book he explains the thinking behind his exceptionally thorough (and very, very German) approach to metaphysics. He notes that metaphysics, as a field of study, had in his time fallen from its position as a highly regarded field of scholarship, and that probably no one would thank you for calling them a "learned metaphysician" -- this has only become more true in the centuries since, which I think rather shows the failure of Kant's attempt to set metaphysics on solid grounds of reasoning so that it could be studied "like any other science". Certainly no one now would regard metaphysics as a branch of science. Kant draws a distinction between analytical reasoning, which explains a concept but does not add anything to it, and synthetical reasoning, which can extend a concept and give it extra dimensions. Unlike mathematics, he says, which can be grounded on pure reason -- in principle, a person who had spent all their life in a dark room could reason out all the axioms and theorems of mathematics from first principles -- metaphysics is synthetical. Kant thought that the idea that cause must follow from effect is knowledge that can only be gained by experience (modern neurobiologists now think that that knowledge is actually innate in humans) and therefore metaphysics cannot exist independent of experience. Here he differs strongly from the "idealists" of the 17th and 18th centuries, like Berkeley and David Hume. All agreed that a thing as it appears to our senses and the same thing as it really, essentially is -- the famous "thing-in-itself" -- are fundamentally different. The idealists argued that that meant that the world of the senses must be regarded as an illusion and only the "thing-in-itself" regarded as "real". If nothing can be based on the evidence of the senses, then all knowledge of reality must necessarily be derived purely from reason. Kant argued the opposite, and showed that no other branch of knowledge can be based on pure reason the way mathematics can, because mathematics is fundamentally different. In that, at least, I think he succeeded, since it's now generally accepted that nothing else can be "proved" in the same way that a mathematical theorem can be proved, demonstrating the absolute truth of a proposition for all time. An interesting book, but it could have stood to be less whiny.
Uneasy Money -- P.G. Wodehouse
A comic romance, wherein the hard-up Lord Dawlish discovers that an eccentric American millionaire he barely knew has died and left him a huge fortune, for no better reason than that Dawlish once helped him improve his golf swing. On finding out that the late millionaire had a niece named Elizabeth in Long Island who has been left with nothing, he writes to offer her half the money but is proudly rebuffed. So he goes to America to try to talk her into taking the money. Traveling under his family name he meets Elizabeth's worthless brother, and so gets invited to the farm she's renting, where they form an immediate friendship based on their mutual love of bee-keeping. You can see it's necessary to the plot that Dawlish and Elizabeth should fall in love and get married, but the roundabout way they take of getting there is very entertaining. Good book.
Mike and Psmith -- P.G. Wodehouse
A school story, with a bit of an odd history. The hero is a British schoolboy of the 1890s named Mike, but the original novel (simply called Mike) is kind of flat until the appearance, in the second half, of the new student Psmith ("The 'P' is silent"), a far more interesting character who steals the rest of the show. So the book was eventually re-published under this new title without the first half, rather as if they'd re-published The Pickwick Papers leaving out everything before Sam Weller shows up. This makes the story start off rather abruptly, but Psmith's inspired self-confident insolence makes up for it, and makes the usual school-story devices -- the putting in their place of overbearing school-masters, the drama of the big cricket-match -- more palatable. Wodehouse said that Psmith is the only one of all his characters who was modeled on a real person. I wonder what the original thought when he read the books.
South of the Border, West of the Sun -- Haruki Murakami
A story about a boy with the strange name Hajime ("Begin") who as an only child feels lonely and isolated. As often happens in Murakami stories, Hajime makes one friend, a girl named Shimamoto, also an only child, and they spend all their time together until her family moves away when Hajime is twelve. Though he sometimes thinks he sees her in the street, he does not meet her again until he is in his thirties and she comes into the jazz club he owns and manages. By this time he has married, and the two of them start a pattern of meeting and talking at his club in the late hours, though she will explain nothing about her strange life. Eventually she stops turning up and Hajime has to admit to himself that he has, emotionally, been having an affair, and now must decide whether to pursue Shimamoto and make the affair physical, or let it go and stay with his family. I thought it was pretty good.
The Lady From the Sea -- Henrik Ibsen
A tragedy about a woman named Ellida who was engaged to a sailor and promised to wait for him, but -- after the sailor murdered his captain and fled, never to be heard from again -- considered the engagement broken and married a doctor. The doctor has taken her to the seaside in hopes of improving her health and spirits after a stillbirth, but the sailor returns and demands she abandon her husband. The doctor, after some inward wrestling, tells Ellida that he will not oppose her choice, whatever it is, and she ultimately rejects the sailor. I really liked the scene where another vacationer, a would-be sculptor, proposes to the doctor's daughter, and says he will be a strong and sure husband because he has his art to live for; when the daughter asks him what his wife will live for, he says that she will live for his art too, of course, and patronizingly explains to her that that's what makes a woman fulfilled and happy. It's scenes like this, I think, that fuelled some of Ibsen's negative reviews; when you see a character say something on stage that you yourself take for granted, and see that it makes him sound like a self-satisfied ass, you either have to reconsider your own attitudes or else get angry. (I also think Ibsen meant us to understand that so conventional a person, whose first rule in life is worrying about what other people will say, can never really be an artist.)
Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit -- P.G. Wodehouse
A Bertie Wooster book, where Bertie goes down to his Aunt Dahlia's place; she's trying to sell off her money-hemorrhaging weekly paper to a pair of stuck-up bores and she needs Bertie's social skills to keep everyone in a good mood. Unfortunately, wherever Bertie goes he runs into trouble, and his arrival at his aunt's house is soon followed by the arrival of his ex-fiancée Florence (who despises Bertie for not letting her mold him into an intellectual giant), her current fiancé Cheesewright (who despises Bertie because he's convinced Bertie is trying to steal Florence away from him), and the would-be Dictator Spode (who despises Bertie on general principles). Naturally complications ensue. Jeeves has gotten Bertie out of innumerable jams, and it's always great, but the scene where he serenely tells Bertie that the best thing to do would be to cosh Spode when he isn't looking, and calmly produces a blackjack with a "You may want this, sir," may be the highlight of his career. It was fantastic.
John Gabriel Borkman -- Henrik Ibsen
A late melodrama, a winter's tale about the Borkman family, ruined and disgraced by the crimes of John Gabriel, head of the family, a banker who secretly used his clients' money to fund his own schemes and lost it all. The play takes place some years after Borkman's release from prison; we find that on his return home he moved up to the top floor and has not come down since. Most of the play involves dialogue between his estranged wife and his cousin (whom he loved as a young man but jilted to marry for money), the two of them arguing over Borkman in the past and Borkman's son in the present. It's appropriate that the play is set in midwinter, with the house frozen in a storm, since the characters are all frozen in the past, the women endlessly rehashing their old grievances while Borkman sits in unrepentant state above, waiting for the townspeople to come and apologize for not appreciating his genius. It's an unpleasant story.
The Alchemist -- Ben Jonson
Jonson's most successful play, a farce about a servant who, with his employer out of town, uses the man's fine house, and the help of a couple shills, to pose, in turn, as a doctor, a wealthy trader, and an alchemist, conning money out of several stupid and overly self-confident townspeople. It's pretty funny watching the three of them play on their marks' greed and overawe them with impressive-sounding nonsense. They trip themselves up in the end, of course. It was pretty good.
An American Tragedy -- Theodore Dreiser
God help us, what a slog. Dreiser had some fervent admirers in his day, but their praise of him was always very defensive, since his writing is undeniably clumsy and heavy-handed. My edition has an afterword where the editor -- defending him! -- admits that Dreiser "crushed the English language in a leaden embrace." That's pretty accurate. This is the story, dragged out over eight hundred turgid pages, of a boy named Clyde, raised by rigid, humorless, evangelical street preachers, whose idea of parenting is to drag their children around the streets making them sing hymns and take up collections after the sermon. Clyde has some intelligence and ability, but as he's raised with no education and no moral grounding -- since how could he do anything but despise his parents' fanatical unworldliness -- he's weak and spineless. He's never able to resist any temptation, and this gets him into several disasters, the last and worst coming when he comes East and gets a promising job, but can't resist secretly dating a woman who works under him, leaning on her to pressure her into a sexual relationship. After a few months, as he does well at his job and starts getting taken up into higher society, he falls hard for a teenage socialite and dreams of marrying her and so being translated into a life of wealth and ease; he decides to dump his factory-worker girlfriend, but just at that moment they find out she's pregnant. Clyde, faced with the prospect of marrying her and abandoning his dreams, spends months nerving himself up to murder her and eventually tries to stage a boating accident. When the moment comes to act he sits paralyzed by fear, and when the boat upsets anyway he treads water and lets her drown; he convinces himself that because of this he isn't really guilty. His plot is so clumsy he's caught instantly, and the last third of the book is his trial and execution, rather more interesting than the rest of it. The story is pretty memorable, but reading the prose is like dragging your feet through heavy snow. My copy has an Annie's Book Swap stamp in it, which means I bought it in the mid-80s at the latest; so it's been sitting on my shelf for about thirty years, but reading it seemed to take longer than that. I wouldn't recommend it.
This Census-Taker -- China Miéville
I can't really say what this novel was about, though I liked the prose. It shifts back and forth between first-person and third-person narration, although both narrators are apparently the same person. The book opens with the narrator, a young boy, running down into a town from the ramshackle house up on the mountain where he lives, terrified because he has just seen one of his parents murder the other -- although he's confused about which was the killer and which the victim. The leading citizens of the town either don't believe him or find it easiest to pretend they don't, so he's sent back home, where he has to live with his father, a silent, distant man who beats animals (and occasionally people) to death with stones and throws the bodies into a deep pit in a cave, for what may be religious reasons, I couldn't tell. Of course we see everything through the eyes of a young boy who doesn't understand adult motivations. The boy is eventually taken away by a government official, a census-taker, who seems to have come to town pursuing a runaway apprentice; it's implied that the census-taker kills the boy's father and throws him into his own pit, though that's not actually certain. It's strange that in a Miéville story the deliverer should be an agent of state power, but on the other hand a coded message from the runaway apprentice warns that the census-taker is "rogue". Whatever that means. I didn't really get it, I guess.
Brother of the More Famous Jack -- Barbara Trapido
A sort of Bohemian-academic novel, set in England in the sixties, about an English-lit grad student who becomes deeply involved with the family of her graduate advisor, who has the sort of convention-flouting home life where the children call the parents by their first names. The heroine is initially seduced by a bisexual colleague who seems to be doing it as a screw-you to the advisor; she later falls in love with first one and then another of the advisor's sons. The gushingly adulatory preface may have raised my expectations too high, but I disliked the characters intensely, especially the advisor, and I didn't like the book at all.
The Man With Two Left Feet -- P.G. Wodehouse
A collection of early short stories written in the teens for American magazines, and so heavier on the romance element than his later work. A couple of them have so much the feel of O. Henry stories that they must be deliberate imitations: in one, a young man falls for a woman whose mad father believes himself to be the King of England and won't consent to her marrying a commoner; with the Yankee can-do attitude that Wodehouse admired, the young man gets himself elected King of the Festival at Coney Island and asks for the woman's hand as a royal suitor. In another, a small-town girl pours out her troubles to a cynical dance-hall hostess, who turns out to be a runaway small-town girl herself and needing only this push to go back to her sweetheart. They were pretty good.
Between the Woods and the Water -- Patrick Leigh Fermor
The second volume of Fermor's retrospective of his walking-tour across Europe in the thirties. He ended the first volume at the border of Hungary; this one sees him across old Mitteleuropa, through the Balkans and names now vanished from the map: Moravia, Wallachia, Transylvania, Yugoslavia. The book ends at the great Iron Gate, a mountainous gorge on the lower Danube. (He was going to write a third book covering his final leg, all the way to Istanbul, but he died before finishing it.) The writing is excellent, and he makes everything sound immensely enjoyable. Also, either he got a lot more mature and self-confident between the autumn of 1933 and the summer of 1934, or else he stopped worrying about what his mother would think when she read it, because this second volume is a lot more frank and adventurous than the first. He not only has a long love affair with a married Romanian lady (whose name he discreetly disguises), he happily recounts a day when he and a devil-may-care landsknecht friend went out riding and swimming and met a couple of farm girls, who willingly knocked off work for a roll in the hay.
Dry Storeroom No. 1 -- Richard Fortey
A very good account of what it's like to work in London's Natural History Museum, which split off from the British Museum in the 1880s. The author isn't really in sympathy with the get-up-to-date drive of the current Board, and there's a lot of good-old-days nostalgia, understandable coming from someone who worked there all his adult life. Naturally a good deal of it is taken up with the histories of eccentric caretakers and their odd habits. I liked it a lot.
Fighter From Whitechapel -- Harold U. Ribalow
A so-so book about Daniel Mendoza, the "Fighting Jew", who was the bare-knuckle heavyweight champion in the 1790s. At 160 pounds he was really a middleweight, but he was so fast and had such good defensive technique that he could outlast heavier opponents. He wrote a book about the science of defense that remained the standard until the end of the bare-knuckle era. Fighters occupied an odd position in those days; prize-fighting was technically illegal, and participants were often arrested and fined; yet the fighters themselves were widely respected and welcomed in society, so much so that Mendoza appears to have been the only Jew who ever spoke with King George III. The story's interesting, but the book is written from a "look how this tough, rich, famous guy was still humble enough to be an observant Jew, make sure you be like him" angle, and it's pretty heavy-handed about it.
Eye of the Beholder -- Laura J. Snyder
A very good biography of Johannes Vermeer and Anton van Leeuwenhoek, who lived and worked on opposite sides of the same square in Delft, a couple hundred yards apart, for their whole lives. A lot of it deals with the advances in optical technology being made at the time, with Leeuwenhoek making the best microscopes in the world and Vermeer using the camera obscura for his perspectives. It wasn't a quiet time for the Dutch Republic, either; I was interested to find out that it was Dutch policy to employ artists as sharpshooters, on the theory that they had better-trained eyes than anyone else.
Psmith in the City -- P.G. Wodehouse
This follows the careers of Mike and Psmith after they graduate from school. Mike's father has suddenly gone broke, so Mike can't go to university and instead gets a job as a clerk in a London bank. He's pretty depressed about it, since his idea of the good life is to be a gentleman-farmer while playing cricket for the county; but the tedium of staying indoors all the time is lightened by the arrival of Psmith, whose eccentric father has decided he should get a job rather than go to Cambridge. The bank they work at is obviously modeled on the bank Wodehouse himself worked at for a couple years before leaving to go into show business; it's a sort of feeder institution, a place meant to school young men in the business before sending them off to work in overseas branches. Neither of our heroes take the work seriously, and the main tension of the story is Psmith's project to fill the time by exasperating the bank's manager as much as possible without getting fired. It wasn't bad.
Psmith, Journalist -- P.G. Wodehouse
Mike and Psmith have finished university and come to America; Mike is playing for the English cricket team, on an exhibition tour, and Psmith has come along to see the country. Wodehouse didn't have much for Mike to do, and so he spends most of the book off stage playing cricket. In the mean time Psmith, having befriended a young and ambitious reporter, uses his social position, money, and chutzpah to make himself editor-in chief of a milquetoast weekly paper -- a meek, inoffensive home-and-garden kind of thing -- and change it overnight into a fire-breathing, crusading social-reform platform, much to the surprise of its usual contributors. The paper tackles a slumlord, naming names and exposing bribes, and there's a very funny scene where Psmith and his reporter friend, besieged by gangsters, hold them off by getting through a trap door onto a roof and whacking anyone who comes up with a two-by-four, to shouts of praise and encouragement from entertained Irishmen in nearby buildings. I liked it.
Yours, Isaac Asimov -- Stanley Asimov, ed.
A posthumous collection of letters, edited by his younger brother. Asimov maintained a public persona of untroubled jovial bonhomie; the letters are more genuine and practical-minded. I was interested to see that he was aware that his later novels weren't very good; he hadn't written science fiction in thirty years because he enjoyed non-fiction so much more, but he matter-of-factly explained that he knew he wasn't going to live that much longer and fiction made more money, and he wanted to provide for his family. It was understandable that his first wife drops out of his letters entirely after their divorce, but I thought it was kind of weird that though he's always talking about his daughter he never mentions his son at all. In fact in his very last letters he mentions more than once how lucky he is to have a beloved wife and daughter -- you'd never know he even had a son. It kind of cries out for editorial explanation, but his brother just silently passes over it. I suppose there must have been a family quarrel.
Volpone -- Ben Jonson
I saw this on stage once, but it was heavily abridged -- I suppose the director thought a modern audience wouldn't get as much of a kick out of the self-important, social-climbing Sir Politic Would-Be as the Jacobeans did. It's a viciously funny story about an old miser named Volpone ("The Fox") who pretends to be chronically ill, while his oily and manipulative servant Mosca ("The Fly") buzzes around several greedy, gullible, wealthy townsmen, convincing each one to make huge presents to Volpone in return for being named his heir. Everyone involved behaves abominably, and they all trip themselves up in the end through their own greed, whereupon they're all horribly punished. It was great.
Memoirs of a Cavalier -- Daniel Defoe
A historical novel, purporting to be the memoir of an English soldier who fought on the side of Charles I against the Parliament in the seventeenth century. The fictional narrator begins his military career on the Continent, fighting now on one side, now another in the Thirty Years' War, and studying the methods of Gustavus Adolphus, before returning to England at the outbreak of the Civil Wars. He gives a pretty good picture of the course of the war, which was as much a war of nobles against commons as of Anglicans against Puritans, doing it well enough that I could quietly ignore the unlikelihood of one person having been in so many important battles and witnessing so many vital conversations. He actually does a pretty good job of spreading the blame around evenly, for the most part; of course, as a cavalier, he has to regard obedience to the King as paramount, but he does admit that the Parliament's grievances are legitimate. At times the whole thing seems to have been written as an exercise in damning the Scots, whom he curses up one side and down the other for faithlessness to the Stuarts. He describes the fortunes of the war convincingly enough that it's genuinely chilling when he remarks, soberly, "This was the first time I heard the name of Cromwell." I liked it.
The Inventor and the Tycoon -- Edward Ball
I wasn't that interested in this. It's mostly the story of the oddball photographer Eadweard Muybridge (he spelled his name various ways) who became notorious after murdering his wife's lover; because he did a lot of work for Leland Stanford the book presents them as an unlikely partnership, but I thought that was a stretch. Stanford hired Muybridge to settle a bet on the old question of whether all four of a horse's hoofs are off the ground at any one time when the horse is at a gallop; Muybridge proved that they are, inventing an early form of motion picture in the process. Stanford also hired him to photograph his family and giant mansion in San Francisco (the area became known as "Nob Hill" at that time because so many railroad tycoons built houses there, "nob" being an old word for a pushy rich asshole.) Ball presents Muybridge's murder case as if it were the crime of the century, although I don't see what's so especially appalling or even remarkable about it: Muybridge found out that his son was actually the child of his wife's lover, and went and shot the man to death. Surely that happened all the time. The jury seemed to find it understandable, since he was acquitted. The book does have some good sections on the naked greed and power-mongering of the California railroad men -- Stanford was governor of the state and president of the biggest railroad at the same time, and when any newspapers spoke out he just bought them and shut them down. Overall I thought it was kind of blah.
Full Moon -- P.G. Wodehouse
A Blandings novel, wherein Uncle Galahad sets a new record by bringing the same man to Blandings as an impostor three separate times, an achievement even for him. The triple impostor is Galahad's godson Bill, whose engagement to one of the family's endless crowd of nieces is being prevented by the draconian Aunt Constance. Bill is a bad actor and keeps giving himself away, but the undaunted Galahad keeps bringing him back, first as an artist hired to paint Lord Emsworth's prize pig, then (in a false beard) as an assistant gardener, and finally, in a triumph of chutzpah, as a *different* artist hired to paint the pig! That's only one of the three main plot lines, all of which resolve each other cleverly at the end. I loved it.
1Q84 -- Haruki Murakami
A very good, very interesting, very weird novel set in Japan. It tells the bizarre love story of Aomame and Tengo, who both had oppressive and abusive parents; they were students at the same elementary school, but never spoke. One day when Aomame was being mocked and bullied for her parents' religious fanaticism, Tengo held her hand for a moment. She left school soon after and they never met again, but ever since then both of them have known that they would never love anyone else. As the story begins, it is the summer of 1984 and Aomame, now in her twenties, is on her way to an important appointment when her taxi stops in a traffic jam and she gets out and climbs down from the expressway on a utility stair. She soon finds that everything around her has changed subtly -- the police are carrying guns, for example, which she has never seen before -- and she eventually decides that she has somehow crossed into an alternate version of 1984, which she thinks of as "1Q84" (an untranslatable pun, since the number 9 is pronounced kyu in Japanese.) The most visible change is that here in 1Q84 there was recently a pitched battle between the police and a heavily-armed compound of right-wing religious fanatics, made up of the same cult that Aomame's parents belonged to. Meanwhile Tengo, now a writer, is introduced by his agent to a teenage runaway from the same cult, and he helps her write her autobiographical attack on the cult as a ghost-writer; this leads agents from the cult to attack both of them, and they go into hiding. Soon afterwards, Aomame -- who works for a shelter for battered women and occasionally murders the women's abusers -- is asked by the head of the shelter to assassinate the leader of the cult, a serial rapist. (Was Aomame a killer in the real world, too, or is that something that changed when she came to 1Q84? That question never occurs to her, but it did to me.) Their run-ins with the cult bring Aomame and Tengo together again, which they both had always felt would happen, and they set out to escape from 1Q84 and take up a new life together. I thought it was great.
The Clicking of Cuthbert -- P.G. Wodehouse
His first collection of golf stories, in which he introduces the Oldest Member, a retired golfer who hangs around the local golf club and traps people into listening to his rambling stories. I don't know why his listeners are always so eager to get away, since the stories are really funny, often turning on the insane lengths his fanatical golfers go to in order to play the ball as it lies. I particularly liked the story about the young man snubbed by the snooty Society ladies who disapprove of his trying to meet a local young woman; the ladies arrange a highbrow dinner party to entertain a visiting Russian writer, only to find him gloomily dogmatic, domineering, and egomaniacal, and the party is in danger of subsiding into dispirited silence until the hero saves the day by talking to the writer about great British golfers.
Dreamers -- Knut Hamsun
A novel set in a fishing town on the coast of Norway. The town is essentially ruled by the merchant Mack, who holds a government license that gives him the exclusive right to buy and sell fish; he is jealous and watchful of those who are independent of his power, such as the priest and the telegraph operator. The plot revolves around a break-in and robbery at Mack's offices; to recover his prestige and show off how wealthy he is, he announces a reward of double the money that was stolen. This leads an ambitious local to confess (falsely) in order to get the reward, which causes some confusion. Unusually for Hamsun the novel ends reasonably happily. It wasn't bad.
My Man Jeeves -- P.G. Wodehouse
A collection of very early Jeeves stories, along with several stories about a young man-about-town named Reggie Pepper, who is sort of a proto-Bertie. All of them were later re-written into immensely superior versions, so reading this was a bit like looking over first drafts of better stories I've already read. Only of interest to completists.
The Life of Samuel Johnson -- Thomas, Baron Macaulay
A short admiring biography of Johnson. I thought Macaulay was unreasonably dismissive towards Mrs. Johnson, sniffily tut-tutting that marrying an inexperienced man so much younger than she was "did her no credit". Her later negative reputation is probably mostly due to David Garrick, who didn't like her and would often perform mean-spirited imitations of her at parties where Johnson wasn't present. But the Johnsons seem to have had a perfectly happy married life, and there's no question that Johnson was devastated when she died and he never remarried.
The Looming Tower -- Lawrence Wright
Very well researched. It's an in-depth look at the people and circumstances leading up to the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. The most widely spread background influence is a fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam founded in the 18th century by a desert ascetic named al-Wahhab. He formed an alliance with a sheikh whose descendants are now the royal family, and thanks to the money and influence of the House of Saud, which funds nearly every Islamic school not only in Saudi Arabia but throughout the world, Wahhabism has become hugely powerful, although the leaders of all the other sects of Islam oppose it. Since Wahhabism rejects civilization and education, many of its followers are illiterate and have no notion of what's in the Qur'an beyond what their leaders tell them. Most of the leading imams in the al-Qaeda organization have no training and no education, which is why they have no worries about issuing religious judgements that go directly against the Qur'an. The Saudi government contributed its share by ruthlessly crushing dissent, which meant that ordinary people protesting their legitimate grievances against the government were thrown into prison and tortured, turning them into anti-Saud fanatics. In fact al-Qaeda was and is primarily dedicated to destroying the Saudi government and is only concerned with America tangentially -- none of them ever gave a thought to America until after Desert Storm, when the American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia took too long to get recalled. It got worse when a terrorist group occupied a prominent Muslim temple and the Saudis called in American troops to clear them out (all the troops had to undergo a pro forma conversion to Islam so they'd be allowed to enter the temple, which further infuriated the fanatics.) I hadn't known that the al-Qaeda leaders never really expected the attack on the World Trade Center to succeed, and when it did they didn't really know what to do. It wasn't exactly an enjoyable book, but I'm glad to have read it.
Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself -- Yasunari Kawabata
This was Kawabata's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In it he relates the discipline of Zen Buddhism to artistic creation, saying that what they have in common is a devotion to simplicity, which he thought was the truest path to beauty.
Finding Zero -- Amir D. Aczel
An account of trying to find the earliest use of a written character for zero. Not very interesting. The author did stumble across a stone marker that has what is probably an early zero on it, but his exuberant belief that this is the very first one doesn't seem based on much besides him wanting it to be. He also devotes several pointless chapters to trying to debunk the usefulness of the law of the excluded middle, giving the phrase "not unkind" as an example of a statement that a thing both possesses and does not possess the same quality at the same time. He's wrong, though: "not unkind" is a litotes, where "unkind" doesn't mean "absence of kindness" but "the opposite of kindness." So describing someone as "not unkind" means that they're not kind and also not actively mean. On the kindness axis they're right at the origin.
No Hurry -- Michael Blumenthal
Contemporary poetry, with some very good imagery. Didn't grab me quite as much as his poetry from the early nineties.
Jeeves in the Offing -- P.G. Wodehouse
A Bertie Wooster novel, wherein Bertie, having seen Jeeves off on his annual fishing vacation, goes to visit his aunt in the country, expecting nothing more trying than helping to entertain a visiting American couple doing a business deal with Bertie's uncle. When he arrives, though, he's surprised to find his former nemesis Sir Roderick Glossop (now a friendly ally after Bertie helped him during the blackface incident) posing as the butler in order to observe the Americans' son, who has a reputation for bad behavior. Also visiting is the Reverend Aubrey Upjohn, Bertie's former schoolmaster and the terror of his childhood, as well as the usual pair of sweethearts in difficulties, in this case Bertie's ex-fiancée Bobby and her current fiancé Kipper, an old pal and schoolmate of Bertie's who's in trouble because he wrote a nasty article about their old school that a biased court might find libellous. Bertie's efforts to keep all parties happy land him in the soup, only to be saved by Jeeves's timely arrival. It was pretty good.
Criticisms and Appreciations of Charles Dickens -- G.K. Chesterton
Critical essays on all of Dickens's books, some of them good, some appalling. His general-overview chapter was so nasty the editor of my copy omitted it entirely, only noting that it wasn't useful; I had to go find another edition to see what the story was. It turns out Chesterton argued that in Our Mutual Friend, the Jewish character Abraham Riah (a gentle, friendly, honest old man) was too good a person to be a genuine Jew, and Dickens put him in as a blind, since the "real" Jews in the book are the villainous bankers and money-men. They're actually Anglicans, but Chesterton says we know they're "really" Jews because of their dark hair, their greedy, grasping character, and the natural repulsion we feel for them. I felt dirty after reading it, but I can't agree with the editor's decision to leave it out, since knowing how Chesterton thinks affects how you understand the rest of his criticism. I mean, if he's so conspiracy-minded that he thought Dickens hid secret anti-Semitism in his novels (as if anyone would have needed to use dog-whistle hate speech against Jews in 1860s England!) it gets harder to take any of his other insights seriously.
Coined -- Kabir Sehgal
A book not so much about money as about currency and the concept of trading. I thought the writing was a little dull, and although I was interested in the first part of the book where he talks about protein swapping in prehistoric bacteria, that being their only medium of "exchange", I found the rest of it unremarkable.
When We Dead Awaken -- Henrik Ibsen
Ibsen's last play, heavily depressing. Arnold and Maia are staying at a mountain spa; they are unhappy in their marriage and disappointed with life. Maia meets Ulfstein, a loud, brash, hard-drinking outdoorsman, very different from her husband; she becomes fascinated by his casually violent life and goes off into the mountains to watch him hunt for bear with his dogs. Soon after, Arnold recognizes another visitor to the spa: it is Irena, a model who posed for his best sculpture some years before. Irena is clearly not well and is shadowed at a distance by a nun, apparently in case she tries to hurt herself. They also go off into the mountains together. Irena tells Arnold that she is already dead, and has been ever since she posed for him, since, she says, he took out her soul and put it in his sculpture. He takes her to mean that she loved him and he refused to love her back, preferring his art; he admits this is true, saying that had their relationship been romantic the statue wouldn't have been as good. Irena tells him that she had been planning on murdering him but has now decided not to, since she can see he's as dead inside as herself. At the same time, Maia stonily refuses Ulfstein's sexual advances just before the four of them all meet. Arnold and Maia confront each other about their unhappiness and agree to part. Ulfstein senses a storm approaching and says everyone must return to the spa. The fastest way is to go down the mountainside, so he takes Maia down first and tells the others he will return for them. As they descend out of sight, Maia singing happily about freedom, Arnold and Irena agree to go higher up the mountain to find a spiritual reawakening; the storm hits and we see a landslide carry their dead bodies down the mountainside. Then the whole audience goes home and commits suicide, I guess.
Letter To His Father -- Franz Kafka
A very long letter, almost an essay, that Kafka wrote in his mid-thirties, in an attempt to stand up to his father's emotional abuse. It seems to have been prompted by the elder Kafka's opposition to his son's planned marriage (which wound up never happening.) The letter is written in a detached tone, almost clinical; it felt to me as though even as an adult Kafka didn't dare let his rage show openly. In fact he didn't even have the nerve to give the letter to his father; he gave it to his mother instead, but she didn't have the nerve either, so the elder Kafka never read it. I thought the most telling part was where Kafka takes his father to task for excusing his own cold, sneering behavior as a parent by saying "I can't lie as other fathers do," which is only (as Kafka points out) an implicit argument that no parents really love their children. It reminded me of how Nero was said to believe that all men were secretly as evil and corrupt as he was himself, but lacked the courage to show it. It was touching but depressing.
The Storm -- Daniel Defoe
A long and thorough piece of journalism on the hurricane of 1703, the heaviest and most damaging wind-storm ever to hit Britain, crossing England diagonally from southwest to northeast, wrecking ships, collapsing houses, felling trees, and causing tremendous destruction among fields and livestock. Defoe says it hit in late November, but he was reckoning by the Julian calendar, so we would now say it hit in early-to-mid-December. It's mostly straight reporting, but Defoe can't resist moralizing on the wrath of God; he's inclined to regard the storm as England's punishment for not fighting hard enough against the Spanish in their recent war. Kind of incongruously he also includes a defense of scientists against charges of atheism.
Hot Water -- P.G. Wodehouse
A funny novel that begins when the hero, Packy, a young American millionaire visiting England, answers his hotel's lobby phone and gets yelled at by another guest rudely demanding that the hotel barber be sent up to his room. In the spirit of fun, Packy goes up himself and starts cutting the guest's hair. The guest turns out to be Senator Opal, a die-hard Dry legislator and drunkard. The laugh Packy gets out of the Senator's explosive reaction to his amateur haircut is worth it by itself, but he also meets the Senator's daughter Jane and falls for her, eventually traveling to France hoping to see her again at her vacation resort. The resource and optimistic can-do spirit he shows in rescuing the Senator from being blackmailed with a letter he wrote to his bootlegger wins Jane's heart, and everything ends happily. I liked it.
The Castle of Crossed Destinies -- Italo Calvino
An interesting story about a group of medieval travelers who meet in a strange castle. Something about the place prevents any of them from speaking aloud, so they tell each other their stories by laying out cards from the Tarot, suggesting details about themselves and their histories with the characteristics of the cards and leaving the others to fill in the rest with their imaginations. No one reshuffles the cards; rather, each person builds their own story by branching off from the previous one, until finally the whole deck is laid out and all the travelers can trace their own stories across the pattern. It was pretty good. I liked the afterword, in which Calvino describes an abandoned plan of writing a modern-day equivalent, where a group of travelers meet at a deserted motel and mutely try to tell each other their stories using pages from newspaper comic strips.
The Adventures of Captain Bonneville -- Washington Irving
One of the "American" stories that Irving wrote upon his return from England, to prove that his time abroad hadn't Europeanized him. Bonneville was an Army captain who undertook a three-year mission of exploration across the Rockies and up and down the Pacific coast; Irving bought his journal and logs from him and turned them into this book. It's a very good picture of the American West in the 1830s. Bonneville could stand on a high ridge and see nothing but buffalo all the way to the horizon; he describes the tremendous mountains of buffalo skulls, higher than ten men, where the Indians had been piling them since time immemorial. He naturally rates the Indians according to how friendly to whites they are, but Irving is careful to draw our attention to the fact that every hostile incident Bonneville relates was in fact provoked by the whites; the trappers who acted as Bonneville's guides made it a practice, when they had a grudge against some tribe, simply to kill the next member of that tribe they met, regardless of circumstances. It's good reading.
The Letters of Samuel Johnson, Vol.1
The first volume of his collected correspondence. Naturally this one covers the longest period, because it wasn't until later in his life, after he became famous, that people started saving his letters. A lot of them are humdrum, things like thank-you letters and letters written trying to get various jobs when he was younger. A surprisingly large number are letters written on behalf of other people; Johnson was the softest touch ever, and all kinds of people roped him into using his influence and eloquence to get them jobs, or put forward their names as charity cases, or to have loans forgiven. Some of them are very sad reading, especially the devastated letter he wrote to his friend, the Reverend John Taylor, soon after his wife died. The book contains several photos of letters, and I was surprised to see how bad his handwriting was -- of course his eyesight was very weak, but trying to decipher his letters by candle-light must have been near impossible. I bet people saved his letters to read during daylight.
Geek Sublime -- Vikram Chandra
A book about geek culture, sort of, pretty uneven, but with some good sections. I liked the part where he slammed the Silicon Valley attitude that tries to paint techies as modern cowboys -- an embarrassingly pathetic attempt to pretend that writing code is macho and the geeks are really the cool kids. It's the same as the thinking behind programming scenes in movies, where the super-buff and edgily cool hero stares intently at the dozens of windows opening and closing on the screen, typing at manic speed as techno music blasts and the camera angle swoops around, when in fact the biggest component of programming is time spent just staring into space.
Uncle Dynamite -- P.G. Wodehouse
A novel about Uncle Fred, England's foremost liar, and his nephew Pongo. Fred is concerned to find that Pongo has had an argument with his longtime fiancée, the good-natured sculptor Sally, and gotten engaged on the rebound to the icy highbrow Hermione, daughter of the egomaniacal Sir Aylmer; Pongo has not endeared himself to Aylmer, having clumsily broken several of his curios, including an ugly bust. Uncle Fred, being a friend of Aylmer's nephew Bill, who is the actual owner of the estate but is too cowed by his authoritarian uncle to assert himself, borrows one of Sally's spare sculptures and gets Bill to introduce him into the household under the false identity of Major Plank, the African explorer, so he can replace the broken bust with no one the wiser. However, due to Sally's being distracted by the problems of her worthless younger brother Otis (who is being sued by Aylmer because Otis, when publishing Aylmer's memoirs, accidentally switched the text with a volume of erotica) Fred has borrowed the wrong bust, mistakenly taking one inside of which Sally has hidden a valuable necklace so a friend of hers can smuggle it through US customs. So, while at the estate posing as Major Plank, Uncle Fred needs to get the bust back, replace it with another so no one will notice, get Aylmer to drop his suit against Otis, get Hermione to dump Pongo, get Pongo to apologize to Sally, and get Bill to stand up for himself, while defending his false identity against the suspicious local constable and despite the unexpected appearance of the real Major Plank, all without losing his aplomb or letting any of his ridiculous lies trip up any of the others. It was great.
Much Obliged, Jeeves -- P.G. Wodehouse
Written when Wodehouse was in his nineties, this has funny parts but it seems more like an outline than an actual novel. Bertie tries to help a pal get elected from a country borough and runs up against his nemesis Spode, who threatens Bertie in a desultory sort of way. The novel works on the sentence level, but apparently Wodehouse didn't have the energy to write great comic scenes any more so he just suggests them, and the important parts all happen off stage. We only get a rather lame second-hand report of what should have been the heart of the novel, a public meeting where Spode gets pelted with vegetables and Bertie's pal gets out of his unwanted engagement by publicly endorsing the other candidate. I found it really unsatisfying; Bertie spends the novel sitting around as people come in from off stage to tell him what's happened.
The Letters of Samuel Johnson, Vol.2
Letters of the 1760s and early 1770s. By this time Johnson was well known, and more importantly he'd lived in London long enough to acquire some social polish, so he had a wider circle of friends; in particular he'd met and befriended both James Boswell and Henry Thrale, who inspired him to write more often. He did conscientiously write every so often to old friends, but generally those letters consist of little more than an apology for not having written lately, and the excuse that as nothing ever happened to him he had nothing to write about. With Boswell and the Thrales -- Henry Thrale, Hester Thrale, and their oldest child, Hester Maria -- it was different, and his letters to them are cheerful, friendly, often self-mocking, and full of reflections and advice. They're also a picture of how hard his life was -- he was chronically ill, with problems that 18th-century medicine couldn't treat, and was nearly always in pain; many of the letters mention off-hand, as a matter of course, that he is writing in the middle of the night because his coughing prevents him from sleeping. With all this I was struck by the polite firmness of his letters to the Prime Minister, when the government voted him (Johnson) a merit-based pension, which would lift him out of poverty for the first time in his life; Johnson calmly wrote to say that he would only accept it if there were no conditions (he meant that he wasn't willing to become a paid apologist for the government.) A couple of the letters to Mrs. Thrale are in French -- probably because they deal with sensitive family issues, and Johnson didn't want the servants reading them -- and I was going to go find my French dictionary and translate them, but I was relieved to find that Dad had already done it and stuck the translation in the back of the book.
The Adventures of Sally -- P.G. Wodehouse
Half theater story, half love story. The theater half is much better. Our heroine Sally and her worthless brother have been making a living in New York vaudeville until, finally reaching legal age, they come into modest inheritances. The brother immediately becomes a stuck-up, self-satisfied jerk, only coming to the farewell party Sally's boarding house throws for her in order to feel superior, although he was living there himself only months before. Sally meets two men who both fall for her, an Englishman and his younger cousin. The younger cousin is the black sheep of his family because he has rebelled against the dictatorial rule of his older relatives and set out to make a living outside the family business. When Sally's idiot brother loses all his own money and all of hers as well, the older cousin loses interest and goes home, while the younger cousin does well with a dog-breeding business and Sally marries him. Kind of forgettable, but the theater scenes are well-drawn and funny.
The Valley of the Moon -- Jack London
I really disliked this, although it had interesting parts. It was written toward the end of London's life, when he had grown disenchanted with the Socialist movement and decided that the root of all human problems is living in cities, and he has his characters leave Oakland to wind up living on a ranch in the Sonoma Valley, near a wise neighbor who is obviously an idealized version of London himself. The heroine -- whose name, honest to God, is "Saxon" -- and her husband seem to do nothing apart from talk to each other about how incredibly perfect white people are, how the government owes them because their ancestors came across the plains, and how immoral and wrong it is that all the good land they see is farmed by Portuguese and Chinese. (Oh, and there's a long digression on how the Chinese are inferior because they do nothing but work all the time, unlike white people who know how to enjoy themselves in manly ways like riding and shooting.) It's possible that London's manic insistence on Anglo-Saxon superiority had its roots in him finding out that John London was not his father and that he was actually the bastard son of an Irish con man -- which he frantically denied all his life -- but that doesn't make it any more fun to read.
The Heart of a Goof -- P.G. Wodehouse
Another collection of the Oldest Member's golf stories, generally arguing that self-confidence in one area of life reinforces it in others, such as in the story of the duffer who, after playing unexpectedly well one day, decides that the garishly ugly golf pants he was wearing were what made the difference, and so improved his game by wearing them every day despite the objections of the other members, whose criticism had always previously cowed him but whom he now sets at defiance. A good book.
Light in August -- William Faulkner
A dark and terrible story about race and lynching, set in Mississippi in the 30s. It mostly concerns a foundling named Joe Christmas, who is watched obsessively at the orphanage by the janitor, clearly mad, who is convinced that the boy's father was black (we never learn if this is really true) and preaches at him insanely about it. At the age of five Christmas is taken away from the orphanage by a farmer, a brutal Methodist fanatic who beats him for not being able to memorize the Catechism without troubling to learn first whether he knows how to read. In his late teens Christmas finally turns on the farmer and kills him; he then sets out on his own, living mostly as a white man but occasionally "passing" in black communities. He makes a dark joke of having sex with white prostitutes and telling them afterwards he's really black, to laugh at their hysterics. (Conversely, when he wanders North and pulls the trick on a prostitute there, he's appalled in his turn to find out she doesn't care, and he beats her half to death.) He winds up in the fictional town of Jefferson, working at the saw mill and bootlegging whiskey on the side, in partnership with the worthless "Joe Brown" (an alias), who has abandoned a pregnant woman in Alabama. The two of them squat in a shack on the property of a middle-aged woman who has lived there as a hermit since the rest of her family, all abolitionists, were lynched by the townspeople decades before; Christmas secretly begins a sexual relationship with her. In late summer she's murdered and her house burned down; it's left unclear whether Christmas or Brown did it, but once Brown tells the police that Christmas is really black, the manhunt goes out for Christmas. He's arrested, but before the trial he's beaten, castrated, and murdered by the local commander of the National Guard. It was very well written but reading it was emotionally draining.
Schindler's Ark -- Thomas Keneally
An astonishing book. The thing I always come back to about Oskar Schindler is that everyone who knew him -- his wife, his friends, everyone -- agreed that he was a wholly ordinary man who never did anything remarkable in his life before the war or after it. He seems simply to have been lifted out of himself by the terrible need of the war, and used an entire lifetime's worth of courage and daring in just a few years. He made immense profits from the factory where he employed the Polish Jews, and used every last pfennig of it saving all his workers, spending vast amounts on bribes and on luxury goods to use as bribes. Somehow he even managed to buy weapons from the Czech underground and secretly arm the camp Jews with them, just in case. I was haunted by the scenes when Schindler moved all the workers from the factory in Poland to a safer one in Czechoslovakia, and by some mistake a train of about 300 of them was diverted to Auschwitz, and the people on the train -- grown women with every reason to be cynical -- calmly assured one another "Schindler will come for us." And he did! Imagine the crushing weight of making yourself responsible for so many people! Schindler faced down the SS with just unbelievable nerve, adamantly insisting on the release of every single person named on his list, even though the SS could simply have shot him with no consequences. When a camp guard objected that a nine-year-old girl could not possibly be a skilled munitions worker, Schindler invented, on the spot, the ridiculous lie that the girl was absolutely necessary because of her long fingers, so she could polish the insides of the shells, and the guard gave in. Maybe even more incredible was his clearing-out of his camp at the end of the war. Haunted by the fear that the camp guards might execute all the workers, Schindler spent large bribes to get the camp commander transferred to the Russian front; and then, when the surrender became official, Schindler assembled the SS guards and told them to put down their weapons and go home -- "It is time now to be men again" -- and they did! It's an appalling story, and I actually wept several times when reading it, but I'm glad to know as much as I can about Schindler. A worker in the camp literally ripped out his own dental work to make a gold ring for him, and had the camp rabbi inscribe a line from the Talmud on it: "Who saves one life, it is as if he saved the entire world." Baruch HaShem yom yom.
A Short Autobiography -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
A collection of autobiographical essays put together posthumously by an editor. I felt like they gave a better picture of Fitzgerald's public persona than they did of the man himself. He affected a pose of being bored by everything (seriously, "bore" seems to have been his favorite word) although what was so fascinating about his inner life that everything else was dull compared to it was something he never explained. In his private letters his voice is very different, so I suppose his air of ennui was something he cultivated, perhaps to keep an emotional distance between his public and private lives. The essays were sort of interesting but not that memorable.
Pigs Have Wings -- P.G. Wodehouse
A Blandings novel, wherein Lord Emsworth's neighbor Parsloe, sick and tired of always losing fair contests to Emsworth's prize pig, brings in a ringer pig from Scotland. Parsloe is forbidden to drink by his new fiancée, and since misery loves company he makes his pig-man go on the wagon as well. Over at Blandings, Uncle Galahad is helping yet another of the family's bottomless supply of nieces resist Aunt Constance's demand that she marry a wealthy socialite instead of her hard-working sweetheart. Parsloe's disgruntled pig-man heads to the Blandings kitchen to cadge a few drinks, which ultimately leads to Galahad and Parsloe kidnapping each other's pigs, while the sweetheart comes to Blandings under false pretences (by far the most popular way to arrive there) and gets engaged to the niece, while the socialite runs off with Parsloe's fiancée; he doesn't mind, though, since the private detective hired by Galahad turns out to be Parsloe's old flame, long estranged from him by a misunderstanding. Parsloe marries the detective and Galahad switches the pigs back when no one's looking, leading to another agricultural-fair triumph for Lord Emsworth, who is too absent-minded to have noticed anything happening. It was great.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman -- Haruki Murakami
I remember just about nothing of this book, which usually means I didn't like it. It's a collection of short stories, none of which have really stayed with me.
Song of Wrath -- J.E. Lendon
An examination of the origins of the Peloponnesian Wars (which lasted on and off for about forty years, with intervals of weary peace between) and specifically the events of the Ten Years' War of 431-421 BCE. Amazingly well researched -- the notes and sources run to over two hundred pages. Our main source for those events is the great historian Thucydides, whose reputation for objective accuracy has withstood centuries of academics looking for idols to topple. (He doesn't even pull punches when describing his own defeat by the general Brasidas at the siege of Amphipolis.) The author is concerned to show that Thucydides' description of the basic cause of the war -- Sparta's resentment of the growing power of Athens -- was meant to represent "power politics" as a true but regrettable explanation of the way things sometimes work, not as an immutable law of how things must always happen. In fact men and countries go to war for many reasons other than considerations of pure power; many of these reasons are sentimental and even irrational. One of the lessons Thucydides never loses a chance to drive home is that war makes people worse, and after years of war the most upright men casually commit atrocities from which in better days they would have recoiled in horror; both sides began by making excuses to prosecute unjust invasions, continued by breaking oaths and betraying allies, and ended by slaughtering whole cities. The book is full of great things I hadn't known -- for example, the word "trophy" comes from the Greek verb meaning "to turn"; a winning army would set up its trophy at the place where the losing army turned to run. People have studied hoplite tactics by watching films of Korean riot police, whose shields and poles are remarkably similar in size and shape to hoplite equipment. The Athenians were so proud of forcing a Spartan army to surrender at Sphacteria that they took all of the Spartans' shields and hung them up on the Acropolis -- a couple of them are still there. It was a really, really interesting book.
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States -- Sarah Vowell
A good book, mostly about Lafayette's tour of the US in the 1820s, where he was met by cheering crowds at every stop; Vowell thinks that at least part of his great popularity was due to the fact that he was one of the last living links to the Revolution, to which the Americans of the bitterly divided 1820s looked back as a mythical Age of Heroes -- an early example of our national propensity for glorifying the past, which is the source of so much acrimony in the current election cycle, as Vowell does not fail to note. I liked it.
Doctor Grimshawe's Secret -- Nathaniel Hawthorne
An unfinished novel, published posthumously. Hawthorne seems to have been about halfway through the third draft, in which he was working backwards from the ending but didn't make it to the beginning. Some characters' names change, some appear or disappear, and others have their functions in the story radically revised. It's more of interest as an artifact than a novel, although it has some very good Gothic horror scenes -- Doctor Grim's house full of spiders stays with me.
The Upright Thinkers -- Leonard Mlodinow
A good book on the evolution of cognition. I was really interested in his idea that towns and cities -- which I had always thought were made necessary by agriculture -- might actually have begun as places for tribes to meet, rather than to reside, since humans needed to meet in order to exchange learning and ideas. Tribes separated by distance, or by limits on how many people a given area could support, could meet up in towns to talk about things bigger than any one tribe. It could have started with something like "Okay, this season Bill's tribe will fish out of Red Rock Lake and Joe's tribe will fish out of Big Tree Lake. And nobody go north of the hill with the bare top, Jim's people saw a lion there." And then as long as people were together other things would probably come up, like "It turns out those crawly things are good to eat if you pull their shells off" or "Hey, I chewed the leaves from this plant and my headache went away." I liked it.
The Purloined Paperweight -- P.G. Wodehouse
A funny novel about a playwright who has, through unexpected family deaths, inherited an unsellable white elephant of a country house and is stuck with it. To raise money he wants to sell a valuable old French glass paperweight to a fanatical American collector, but since the paperweight is an heirloom of the estate he's not allowed to sell it, so he has to work out a plan to steal it from himself. Luckily in the process both he and his good-natured niece meet the loves of their lives, a retired vaudeville actress and a writer of crime thrillers, respectively. Judging from the blurbs and front matter, my edition seems to be a special printing aimed at paperweight collectors, which goes to show there's a niche for everything. I liked it a lot.
Selected Sermons -- John Henry Newman
Oh my God I hated these. Newman was originally an Anglican and later a Catholic, but in his teens he was an ardent evangelical and he never really left it behind. His sermons are heavy on wrath, emphasizing that a true Christian should regard God as an enemy and that you can never feel sufficiently worthless. The proper state of mind is, toward oneself, utter loathing; toward God, "holy fear". This is important because without a constant sense of the terror of God's anger and how much we deserve it, we might fall into the dreadful sin of doing the right thing only because it is the right thing, rather than because we fear the consequences of disobeying. He also disapproved of science and said that the proper attitude of humanity toward the universe is adoration rather than explanation. His Catholic sermons are just the same as his Anglican ones except they have some passages about the Virgin Mary, which kind of feel like they were just added as local color. I was also repelled by his constant reference to God's Elect, which he justified like this: religious opinions differ widely among nations and even among Christians; but there can be only one truth and all others are wrong; therefore only those who hold exactly the right beliefs, which must be a tiny number, are destined for Paradise, while everyone else will be punished eternally, which they totally deserve.
Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin -- P.G. Wodehouse
Wherein we finally meet Gertrude, the fiancée for whose sake Monty has spent years attempting to fulfill her father's condition that he get and keep a job for a whole calendar year; it turns out she wasn't worth it, since she's rather a selfish pain in the neck and her father is worse. Monty has kept up his end of the bargain by keeping a job in a Hollywood studio for a year; his fiancée’s father claims that job doesn't count, on the trivial grounds that Monty blackmailed his boss to get the job in the first place. Crushed, Monty still resolves to start all over again, but fortune favors him when Gertrude dumps him to marry a humorless goon. During a night club raid, Monty sees the superior qualities of his secretary when she sucker-punches the cop who's about to arrest him; the secretary is also in love with Monty, as it happens, so everything ends happily. I really liked the character of Ivor Llewellyn, the shrewd and tactless Hollywood mogul. It was very funny.
The Girl on the Boat -- P.G. Wodehouse
An early novel, I would guess adapted from a stage musical, not very good. I liked the subplot about the nebbishy man who falls for a big-game hunter when she shows him her elephant gun, but the main plot put me off -- it's all about a man who, infatuated with a woman he meets on a ship, fakes various dangers to make himself seem heroic to impress her. When everything is exposed, and she tells him off, instead of reforming he hijacks her car, kidnaps her, and tells her they're going to keep driving around until she agrees to marry him, which she eventually does, which Wodehouse apparently considered a happy ending. I thought the hero should be horsewhipped and then sent to jail, myself.
Children of Earth and Sky -- Guy Gavriel Kay
An action-intrigue story, set in an imaginary version of fifteenth-century Venice and Istanbul with the names changed. The prose was good but I didn't like the way the novel was constructed; there are six main plot lines about six main characters, but there's no protagonist and no core story. Also none of the main characters grows or changes in any real way so I had no real sense of anything happening. My usual rule is, if you can't complete the sentence "This is the story of how..." then the book isn't well plotted. I found it unsatisfying.
Paradise -- Donald Barthelme
An odd sort-of comedy about a middle-aged architect "with a tragic sense of brick" who after his divorce lives alone in an undecorated New York apartment too big for him, until he happens to meet a trio of gorgeous lingerie models in financial difficulties who invite themselves to move in with him. Every other chapter is a dialogue between the protagonist and an unnamed third party, who doesn't seem to be a therapist but I'm not sure what their relationship is. I got the idea that we weren't supposed to trust the protagonist's story, but I'm not sure to what extent -- did he imagine it all, or was it real and he just imagined the sex parts? Was the whole thing some sort of wish-fulfillment daydream about his roommates? I didn't really get it.
Jill the Reckless -- P.G. Wodehouse
A love story, about as serious as Wodehouse gets, meaning it's still a comedy but the plot isn't farcical, and there are parts that are meant to make the reader feel sad. A good deal longer than most of his books; I suppose it was sold to a magazine as a serial. It's a "woman gets dumped by a cad, realizes her pal is the guy she should marry anyway" story, set against a background of a stage musical touring the boonies while getting ready to open in New York; Wodehouse knew all about that and the story is pretty lively. The best part of the book is when the cad turns up again in New York and is forced to reveal to his hero-worshipping friend that he dumped the heroine because her family went broke; the subsequent telling-off is epic, a very satisfying take-down. I liked it.
With Burning Hearts -- Henri J.M. Nouwen
A beautiful short book about the journey to Emmaus. Nouwen compares the tired walk of the downcast disciples to our own journey through life, dispirited by all the troubles that befall us. He makes the point that Jesus didn't simply appear to the disciples; he walked beside them unrecognized, and the disciples invited him in. He says that life is full of loss, and we should not deny our grief but experience it fully, so that instead of resentment we can continue through life with gratitude. A moving book.
Indiscretions of Archie -- P.G. Wodehouse
I thought this was awful, a first for a Wodehouse book. It's the story of a wealthy hotelier whose daughter comes back from a trip to announce she's married, and the husband turns out to be a worthless layabout named Archie whose plan is to sponge off the family money. Archie, besides being lazy, is stupid, careless, greedy, and incompetent at everything except playing practical jokes on his father-in-law. The real reason I couldn't stand it is that the book presents Archie as the hero and the father-in-law as the buffoonish antagonist. I abandoned it halfway through, though I did skip to the end to see if Archie got any kind of comeuppance; he didn't.
Dante -- T.S. Eliot
A critical appreciation of Dante, whom Eliot considered one of the two best writers in European history (Shakespeare being the other.) Eliot learned Italian in order to read him. I hadn't known that Dante titled his work simply The Comedy; it was Boccaccio, a generation later, who called it "the divine Comedy ", and the nickname stuck. The book was written at a time when leading critics like Paul Valery taught that you should separate Dante's poetry from his teaching, rejecting the very idea of "philosophical poetry". Eliot is concerned to show that Dante's philosophy is integral to his poetry, so much so that the poetry cannot be appreciated separately from it, and that "philosophical poetry" is only as good or as bad as the poet. "We assume that what we do not like in our time was never good art, and that what appears to us good was always so." It was very interesting.
The Two Cultures -- C.P. Snow
A 1959 lecture on the unnecessarily antagonistic relationship between the sciences and the humanities. Snow, a physical chemist, recounts a story of a dinner party where, nettled by the arts faculty's contention that scientists are illiterate, he pointed out that none of the humanities people would be able to give an adequate explanation of even simple concepts like mass or acceleration, even though such a question would be the scientific equivalent of asking "Do you know how to read?" He blames over-specialization in education (he means British public education, but it has a wider application) which leaves each camp ignorant of the other's achievements and also fosters an unhealthy "team spirit" that doesn't allow for mutual cooperation, thus damaging everyone involved. Well argued.
Aunts Aren't Gentlemen -- P. G. Wodehouse
The last Bertie Wooster novel. Sent by his doctor to breathe the healthful air of the countryside, Bertie immediately runs afoul of a local squire when he stops to pet a cat. It turns out the cat is the best pal of the squire's race horse, and the squire is convinced that Bertie is a professional race-fixer who aims to nobble the horse by kidnapping the cat. Things don't get easier when Bertie's aunt, who has wagered more than she should have on the other horse, decides that kidnapping the cat is a pretty good idea and orders Bertie to get to it. This leads to a funny sequence, a vaudeville show writ large really, where the aunt keeps sending people to snatch the cat and Bertie keeps rounding the cat up and bringing it back, while the squire becomes ever more convinced that Bertie is the villain. Jeeves saves the day in the end, of course. I liked it.
The British Museum is Falling Down -- David Lodge
A comedy about academia, one of Dad's favorite genres. The hero (Adam) spends a day at the Reading Room in the British Museum (now relocated to the ugly London Library, alas) attempting to work on his graduate thesis, but he can't get any work done because he's constantly distracted -- by fellow students who would rather gossip than study, by strange phone calls from mysterious Americans, and most of all by worries that his wife might be pregnant. Adam is Catholic and a lot of the book deals with the problems that the Church's ban on birth control causes for people without the money to raise children, and their consequent nervous reliance on "natural" family planning ("Vatican Roulette", as Adam bitterly calls it.) It was funny in that Kingsley Amis, life's-really-crap-so-you'd-better-laugh kind of way.
The Energies of Men -- William James
This is the essay where James coins the phrase "second wind" to describe the process of consciously overcoming fatigue, whether physical or mental. "On any given day there are energies slumbering in us which the incitements of that day do not call forth, but which we might display if these were greater." He expands this into an excellent description of clinical depression: "We feel as if a sort of cloud weighed upon us, keeping us below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding. Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked... In some persons this sense of being cut off from their rightful resources is extreme." James contends that only a constant habit of seeking out and embracing new and unfamiliar things can keep our lives from settling into a sort of unproductive trance. Beautifully written and extremely well argued.
The Gospel of Relaxation -- William James
A well-written essay from the turn of the last century on the necessity of not wasting mental and physical energy on trivial things, because we need it for important stuff. He argues that the mind is less independent of the body than 19th-century philosophers generally believed. For example, he says that when a man gets angry, then by acting on it -- say, striking a blow or something -- he feeds the emotion and just gets angrier. So by exercising restraint in our physical actions, which are under the control of the will, we can exert indirect influence on our emotions, which are not. Very well argued.
The Diary of a Superfluous Man -- Ivan Turgenev
A depressing novella, cast as the diary of the last two weeks of the life of a man named Tchulkaturin. In the first entry we learn that a doctor has just told Tchulkaturin that he does not have long to live, and he has decided to start a journal and write down the important events of his life...except that he realizes he has never done or experienced anything really important, and the most significant thing in his life was an unrequited love that led to a farcical and inconclusive duel. I think Turgenev was drawing a portrait of what he saw as the spiritual malaise of mid-century Russia, which he blamed on the practice of serfdom. A good story.
First Love -- Ivan Turgenev
A tragic novella that Turgenev called his most autobiographical work. It's the story of a sixteen-year-old named Pyotr, whose genteel rural life is disrupted when a new neighbor moves in, an elderly princess, who's both boorish and impoverished but whose rank makes it impossible not to socialize with her. The princess has a daughter, Zinaida, beautiful and witty, and Pyotr falls in love with her, but she's twenty-one and at that age five years is an unbridgeable gap. The princess wants to marry Zinaida to some rich suitor, and her parlor is crowded with eligible nobility, whom Zinaida heartlessly delights in setting against one another. Zinaida resists her mother's match-making, and at first Pyotr admires her independent spirit, until he realizes that she's actually in love with someone; she admits this when he presses her about it, but the shattering blow comes later, when Pyotr realizes that Zinaida's lover is his own father. We learn all this in retrospect, as a story that the grown Pyotr relates to his friends, so we also get to hear the outcome: Pyotr's father borrowed money from his wife to set Zinaida up with a husband in the city, where soon after she died during the stillbirth of her baby, presumably Pyotr's half-brother. A very Russian story; I read somewhere that the Tsar read it aloud to the Tsarina and they both loved it.
Culture and Anarchy -- Matthew Arnold
I picked this up years ago knowing nothing about Arnold (in his time he was a popular poet, considered a peer of Tennyson and Browning, though he's forgotten now) just because I read an essay by Paul Fussell in which he remarked that this was the book he most wishes he had written. I finally got around to reading it and my opinion of Fussell has been lessened. It's astonishingly condescending, even for a Victorian; this is the book that introduced the word "Philistine" in its modern sense, and it draws a self-adulatory picture of a small coterie of praise-worthy defenders of "culture" (which he defines, pretty well actually, as "the best of what has been thought and said") against the anarchy of the masses, stupid people who can't appreciate anything. It's the great tragedy of Arnold's life that he never heard the word "sheeple"; he was really born to be an Internet commenter. All the more so because he ends all of his arguments with statements like "...as will be perfectly clear to anyone willing to think rationally," a cheap way of awarding yourself the victory by just defining your own position as the only rational one. The whole book could be summed up in one sentence: "Oh my God I'm just so much smarter and better than other people!" I did not like it.
The Letters of Samuel Johnson, vol. 3
Letters of the mid-to-late 1770s and early 1780s. Johnson discussed the war in America fairly often in its early days, but when it became clear that the war was going badly for England he just lumped it in with what he thought was a general decline of British prestige since the 1740s. He was at an age where many of his early friends started dying, and he wrote kind and consolatory letters to their survivors, particularly to the Thrale family when his close friend Henry Thrale died. It's also the period when he wrote many letters (some of them under assumed names) as part of a campaign to commute the death sentence of Parson Dodd, who was condemned for commercial forgery. Dodd was guilty, and Johnson disliked him, but he thought it was irreligious to execute a clergyman in public, so he worked hard though unsuccessfully to have Dodd transported to the penal colony instead. He even wrote Dodd's final letters for him. The campaign having failed, Johnson wrote Dodd a final letter that's just a masterpiece of solemn consolation.
Mike at Wrykyn -- P.G. Wodehouse
The first half of the novel Mike, republished after the second half was taken out and published separately, not very interesting. Mike without Psmith is a foil without a principal, and the school-story formula -- cricket, contests of will with oppressive school-masters, lessons about school spirit -- is dull and predictable.
Quentin Durward -- Sir Walter Scott
An adventure novel, about a young Scots archer in the mid-1400s going to Europe to seek his fortune and ending up in France in the service of Louis the Prudent, fighting in the campaign against the rebellious Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy. Scott had a serious hate-on for Louis, structuring the whole story to praise the pig-headed Charles for his go-straight-at-'em approach to problem-solving, as opposed to what he considered Louis's disgusting and cowardly preference for diplomacy and overcoming his opponents by outsmarting them. I admit I was astonished when Scott sneered at Louis's policy of stopping a fight after he'd gotten what he wanted, rather than continuing on with war for its own sake. (Mark Twain hated Walter Scott, and considered him personally responsible for the development of duelling culture in the American South, and after reading this I can see why.) Scott also plays to his audience by holding up Louis's pious Catholicism as further evidence of his worthless character, while quietly glossing over the fact that his hero, as a fifteenth-century Scot, would of course have been a Catholic himself. The fight scenes are very good, but I didn't like the way he presents the Gypsies as inherently venal and treacherous.
Service With a Smile -- P.G. Wodehouse
A Blandings novel, terrifically funny, with poor Lord Emsworth beset by a group of boys camping nearby, who are supposed to be awed by the beauty of Nature but spend most of their time amusing themselves by playing stupid practical jokes, such as convincing him that one of their number is drowning in order to get him to jump into the lake with all his clothes on. He doesn't need the aggravation, especially since, as usual, several people are plotting to steal his prize pig. Luckily Uncle Fred pays a visit, bringing with him (under a false identity, of course) the fiancé of one of the infinite number of family nieces, every single one of whom is determined to marry someone other than whomever Aunt Constance has picked out for them. Constance herself wants to get married this time, but her lover is too intimidated to propose, which is certainly understandable. Fred, with his endearing disdain for the truth, gets everyone out of their difficulties with a deft mixture of lies and blackmail, and everything ends happily. I loved it.
Come Back, Dr. Caligari -- Donald Barthelme
A collection of absurdist short stories, most of them excellent. I read these thirty years ago, and I remember thinking they were funny, but the existential parts were over my head then. The author has a knack for phrases -- "that is not what I said but what I should have said, it would have been brilliant"; "For half a second there is half a smile". Good book.
The Fuck-Up -- Arthur Nersesian
A dark comedy about a directionless loser living in New York in the early eighties. I think the message of the book is that however low you fall, you can always fall farther. At the start of the book the hero loses his job as a movie-theater usher and gets kicked out of his girlfriend's apartment at the same time; he fakes references to get an under-the-table job as the night manager at a gay porn theater and wangles a house-sitting gig by pretending to be gay. He's hardly been on the job any time before he and the other manager join in on a scheme to skim the receipts, which gives you some idea of both the sort of person he is and his planning skills, considering the theater is owned by the kind of people who have leg-breakers on the payroll. After screwing up the job and the house gig, and also getting badly hurt several times -- the final time getting beaten almost to death by a group of middle-school kids -- he lives destitute and half-mad on the streets until being taken in by the woman his only friend killed himself over, and who hates him. It was well written but I didn't enjoy it, really.
Journal, 1803 -- Washington Irving
His earliest surviving diary, covering July and August of 1803, when he was twenty and working as a law clerk in New York City. He found the work dull and yearned to travel, so when his employer asked him to come along on a land-speculation journey to upstate New York, as far as the border of Canada, he leapt at the chance. He seems to have had a marvelous time, sailing up the river to Albany and then by ox-cart, on horseback, and on foot through Utica and all the way to Oswegatchie, which took most of the summer. He describes it all with endearing enthusiasm -- stretches when the horses were shoulder-deep in mud and the travelers had to cling to trees and tow the horses along; chasing deer for fun through the shallow part of the Black River; catching sight of the tattered red coats of British deserters in the forest. He even makes the group's headlong flight from a disturbed hornets' nest sound like a fun adventure. I got the impression I would have liked Irving a lot.
Black Sun Rising -- C.S. Friedman
A fantasy novel; it's set on another planet and there's some hand-waving to pretend all the magic is due to natural forces of the planet reacting to the human colonists' psychic emanations, but whatever, demons, spells, magic swords, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. The interest comes from the main characters: one is a priest of a local monotheistic religion (more like a druid, really -- his priesthood doesn't practice celibacy or pacifism) and the other is a fallen prophet of the same religion -- a man the hero was brought up to idolize, but has now become a monster of cruelty and sadism. Naturally the two of them end up having to work together. As is usually the way in these stories, they overcome their antagonist only to find a greater villain looming behind; of course that will be the plot of the sequel. It actually felt like the main point of this book was to set up the contrasting stories of the two leads: there's clearly a redemption arc for the one and a fall-from-grace arc for the other developing, and at some point they'll intersect. I thought it was pretty well done.
Herman Melville -- Elizabeth Hardwick
A critical appreciation of Melville. There is no really good biography of him, since even though he was not a secretive man we just don't know anything about his inner life. He kept a journal and was a prolific letter-writer, but he mainly kept to what he saw and whom he talked with, never really talking about himself. He had a lot to be bitter about -- chronic bad health, poverty constantly at hand, a son who committed suicide, a family that didn't believe in him, a public that didn't appreciate his best work -- but was he actually bitter? No one can say. Hardwick draws a picture of a man of immense poetic conceptions who had no one to share them with. For a while he was a neighbor of Hawthorne, whom he admired greatly, but Hawthorne was at a point in his life where he was more interested in his career and family than in having long talks about art with a younger writer, so that was no help. Later in life some people thought he was morose, but he may just have given up on finding someone to talk to and settled into the dull routine of customs work while writing only for himself at night. Good book.
Persian Poems -- Peter Washington, ed.
An excellent anthology of Sufi poets of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries: Omar, Attar, Sana'i, Rumi, Hafiz. Their works combine religious contemplation with appreciation of the good things of this world, laid out with beautiful imagery. Sana'i, for example, wrote on the theme that joylessly clinging to the letter of the Qur'an is sterile and a departure from true Islam, and that asceticism leads only to a malnourished body and soul: "The goat does not fatten on the call of the goat-herd." I really liked it.
Ukridge -- P.G. Wodehouse
A collection of short stories about the misadventures of Stanley F. Ukridge, a character Wodehouse clearly liked more than I do. Ukridge is a pest, making his friends' lives miserable as they have to rescue him from the collapse of one failed get-rich-quick scheme after another. He's never grateful, of course. He's also a sponge and a leech, constantly turning up at his friends' apartments and telling them he needs them to pay the taxi that just brought him there. The stories are narrated by his old school-mate Corky, who puts up with Ukridge in a sort of I-wonder-what-will-happen-next kind of way, although honestly if I were in Corky's position I'd just punch Ukridge in the face every time I saw him and hope he eventually took the hint.
Passages From the American Note-Books -- Nathaniel Hawthorne
About twenty-five years' worth of Hawthorne's diary, starting fairly soon after he graduated from Bowdoin and running until 1853, when he left America for a diplomatic post in England. It's a good look at Boston, Concord, and Salem in the first half of the century. It covers his period at the Brook Farm socialist experiment, as well as his reactions to public opinions of his writing. He got along well with his neighbors, finding Emerson very congenial. He was endlessly astonished by Thoreau -- he initially saw him as a mere dreamer, someone who wanted to live like an Indian while staying in the civilized world; but he couldn't reconcile that with the fact that Thoreau was the most practical man he knew, not just in the woods, where he seemed to find plants by instinct and managed canoes so well they seemed to be moving by themselves, but in the village as well, where he could repair anything, use any tool, do any job, manage any business affair, with apparently effortless ease. Hawthorne took several lengthy trips to western Massachusetts, visiting the colleges there and admiring the scenery, occasionally going on mountain walks with Melville. He was a good describer of nature; it's good reading.
The Truth According to Us -- Annie Barrows
A family-story novel -- is it a "saga" if it covers only two generations, or do you need more than that? Anyway it's set in small-town West Virginia during the Depression, and the main character is Willa Romeyn, thirteen or so, who is just now getting old enough to understand the reasons behind her family's fall from prominence in the town. At the center of it is her father, a man with the dangerous gift of being charming; he's faithless, unreliable, and a compulsive liar, and everyone knows it, but no one seems able to help themselves and they rely on him anyway, even though he lets them down every time. I actually liked the framing story better, the story of a senator's daughter who, disowned after refusing to marry a rich twit, gets a job with the Writer's Project, a division of the WPA that sent people all over America to write municipal histories; she boards at the Romeyns' house while writing the history of their town, and the clash of the demand from the pompous small-town luminaries for a fawning hagiography against her own determination to write a book that's both true and readable is pretty entertaining.
Sam the Sudden -- P.G. Wodehouse
The first appearance of Wodehouse's inept criminals, the housebreaker "Chimp" Twist and the con artist couple the Molloys. They learn that a certain house has the loot from a bank robbery in it, and they set out to get a hold of it, each planning to double-cross the other, of course. Unluckily for them the house has just been rented by the hero of the novel, Sam, an American who -- in a fit of impulsiveness remarkable even in Wodehouse -- has taken the house because of the girl who lives next door; he's never met her but he fell in love with her photograph in a magazine and is determined to marry her. Sam isn't particularly good at anything, being naturally something of an idler, but on the strength of his family connections he's gotten a job at the newspaper where the girl works. He makes rather an ass of himself both at work and at home, but the girl inexplicably falls for him anyway, and while Chimp and the Molloys are busy back-stabbing and getting in each other's way, Sam finds the loot and turns it in for a reward, enabling him to get married. It was very funny.
Biographical Writings -- Samuel Johnson
Just what it says on the tin: a collection of biographical articles written for magazines at various times. A good number of them are actually translations from the French, but Johnson was a very free translator and felt at liberty to rephrase or emphasize parts he thought were more important, and also to put in digressions where he thought the moral of the story could stand a little pointing up. Many of the articles, like the Life of Boerhaave, were about men he sincerely admired. It was good reading, but I thought the editor was a little overzealous; I didn't need a footnote every single time Johnson changed a word from the original.
The Piazza Tales -- Herman Melville
His only collection of short stories, including "Bartleby the Scrivener", one of the best American stories of the nineteenth century. It also includes "Benito Cereno", which I read in high school and remember vividly, a story about a slave-ship uprising and the dangers of being deceived by appearances. The canvas falling off the ship's figurehead to reveal the skeleton of the crucified slave-trader above the slogan "FOLLOW YOUR LEADER" is one of the most striking images I can remember. It also probably contributed to the decline of Melville's reputation, since Melville was an abolitionist and the nation didn't welcome a story that sympathized with black slaves rising up to kill white slavers. Maybe that's why he took the book's title from the story "The Piazza", which is kind of bland and forgettable.
Not George Washington -- P.G. Wodehouse and Herbert Westbrook
The only book I know of where Wodehouse worked with a collaborator; it's just as well, I didn't like it at all. It incorporates some autobiographical material, with the young protagonist coming to London and trying to break into the writing business; but the protagonist is pretty unsympathetic. He no longer loves his country fiancée but doesn't have the nerve to either marry her or break it off, so he starts publishing under various pen names and tells her he's unsuccessful and can't afford to get married. In the mean time he becomes engaged to the woman his only friend loves, without telling either the friend or his first fiancée. Losing the second fiancée due to sudden financial hardship, he falls back on the first fiancée, without her ever finding out about the second one. The title was appropriate, I guess, but it just wasn't funny.
Roderick Random -- Tobias Smollett
I didn't like this much, mainly because the hero was so annoying. This was both intentional and unintentional: intentional because Smollett was consciously writing a picaresque, Gil Blas sort of story, where the hero is meant to be partly a figure of fun and suffer comical setbacks that he brings on himself; unintentional because a picaresque hero should be likeable and charming enough, despite his flaws, that the reader is glad when he comes to prosperity in the end, and since Smollett was himself a mean, perpetually angry person he couldn't pull that off. He says that Roderick's character is "composed mainly of pride and resentment", much as his own was, and didn't see why that made it impossible for anyone to like Roderick. I bet he also wondered why he himself had no friends. Over the course of his adventures Roderick joins the Navy, deserts, crosses over Britain and Europe, and works variously as a surgeon, pharmacist, and house-servant, but his goal in life is to be independently wealthy, and to this end he sponges off his childhood friend Strap while posing as a moneyed gentleman and trying to marry for money, livening things up with petty quarrels and stupid practical jokes. He also signs on to a British slave ship as a surgeon, and after carrying hundreds of African slaves across the Atlantic and selling them in the West Indies, the only remark he has to make is that he's glad to be rid of the slaves since having them on board made too much work for him! The scumbag. I wouldn't recommend it.
Look At Me -- Jennifer Egan
A depressing novel, mostly about identity. The two main characters, whose lives intersect briefly but catastrophically, are a fashion model and a small-town school teacher with a secret. The model, after almost dying in a car crash, has to have her face surgically reconstructed, and faces the challenge of looking completely different after a life of defining herself entirely by her appearance. I liked how totally un-self-aware she was, clinging to a sort of trashy cynicism and feeling superior to the shallow people she's surrounded herself with; she attempts suicide halfway through the book but when the attempt fails her behavior doesn't change in any way. She only escapes by selling her public identity to a web site, a prescient forerunner of social media (the book was written in 2000) and moving on under a new name, hoping to leave her self-destructiveness behind with her celebrity. Speaking of prescience, the other main character, the school teacher, is a mole sent by a terrorist organization to live in New York and await instructions to kill and destroy. We learn that he's had several lives in several different countries before coming to America, and is something of a chameleon, expertly mimicking the habits and speech patterns of people around him. In a strange perversion of the "journey of self-discovery" trope, he steals the terrorist cell's treasury and sets off across America to find himself. It was well-constructed, but none of the characters are at all likeable (I'm sure that's deliberate) so I didn't enjoy it as much as I might have.
The Letters of Samuel Johnson, vol. 4
Letters from the last few years of his life. In these years he was nearly always ill, and his letters grew less frequent; he apologized to his correspondents for this, explaining that he thought it would be tiresome for them to get letters that just said "Well, still sick." He also ended his long correspondence with Hester Thrale after her remarriage to a Catholic; his more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger letter explaining that she was hurting herself, her family, and her country is surprising reading nowadays, as are his letters to her daughters assuring them they were doing the right thing by leaving their mother's house and refusing to speak to her. His handwriting got even worse at this period, especially following what seems to have been a small stroke in 1783. Even in his last illness he was constantly writing letters on behalf of other people, trying to promote their interest with booksellers, or get them government jobs or places in charity houses. Nearly every letter of these years includes a solemn instruction to think constantly of the next life.
When True Night Falls -- C.S. Friedman
The sequel to Black Sun Rising. Mostly an action-adventure story, with our heroes having to cross a long stretch of dangerous territory, fighting off predators and escaping rockfalls, earthquakes, and the desert, while also being pursued by deadly enemies, all so they can get to the villain's capital, except they're not actually sure what they're going to do when they get there. The action is interleaved with philosophical discussions on what degree of cooperation with a lesser evil is acceptable to destroy a greater evil, the nature of repentance, and just how little chance of achieving a goal there needs to be before you give it up. It certainly kept me reading, and although I guessed how the villain would be defeated -- because it's exactly the same problem and solution that was used in a Stephen R. Donaldson story ten years before this book came out -- I enjoyed it anyway. The two leads' character arcs aren't finished so it's not surprising that this stage two villain turns out to be only another plateau on the way to facing the Big Bad Guy.
The Syndic -- Cyril M. Kornbluth
A science fiction story that's more a philosophical discussion of models of government than a novel. The setting is a near-future North America whose eastern and western sections are run by libertarian-fantasy regimes that grew out of organized crime. The hero works for the eastern group, "The Syndic", whose longtime friendly rivalry with the western group ("The Mob") is deteriorating since the Mob has started dealing with the remnants of the old Federal Government, now a stateless oligarchy based in Iceland. (The rest of the world appears to have degenerated into depopulated barbarism, for some unexplained reason.) The hero sings the praises of the laissez-faire meritocracy of the Syndic, although the Syndic is actually a feudal aristocracy whose leadership is explicitly closed to anyone outside of the right family, and the hero knows that, but it doesn't seem to register. The actual action of the plot is kind of stupid, and overall I didn't think it was that interesting.
The Letters of Samuel Johnson, vol. 5
A short volume of appendices, including letters whose date or addressee can't be determined, and some of doubtful authenticity -- a lot of his letters are a bit mutilated, since people would cut off the signature as a keepsake, and sometimes the addressee's name would be on the other side of the paper from the signature. It also includes translations of the letters he wrote to his doctor, which were all in Latin.
Kafka On the Shore -- Haruki Murakami
This was a puzzling book. It's a strange retelling of the Oedipus myth, and appropriately the whole book is a series of riddles, although in this case it's the reader who has to solve them. The Oedipus figure is a boy from Tokyo, whose abusive father (a sculptor) has harangued him all his life that he is cursed. On his fifteenth birthday the boy runs away from home, renaming himself "Kafka" after the sympathy he feels with the spirit of Kafka's writing. He appears to have an imaginary friend, "the boy named Crow", who provides him emotional support -- "kafka" is Czech for "crow" -- but it's also possible the boy named Crow is a time-displaced version of himself. The plot revolves thematically around blood and the separation of the body and the soul, as Kafka befriends a Tiresias figure, a transgendered person who is also a hemophiliac, and who tells Kafka the Greek story about how Zeus once split all humans in two, and now everyone goes through life seeking the other half of themselves. Two of the main characters are bodies that have lost their souls (this is why they cast fainter shadows than other people.) There are scenes where the perspective changes from first-person to third-person to second-person; if I followed it right, this seems to indicate that Kafka's soul leaves his body several times in the course of the book (a feat made possible by the McGuffin, an "entrance stone") and in the course of these journeys Kafka's soul kills his father while his body has sex with his mother. There's more to it than that, but I know I didn't really get it all. I'll have to read it again.
The Small Bachelor -- P.G. Wodehouse
An early novel, set in Greenwich village and poking fun at the universal experts popular at the time, who sold pamphlets on everything from correct posture to learning to sing. The hero is George (he lives in a "small bachelor apartment", ergo he must be a small bachelor) who though shy and awkward is still smart enough to ignore the endless advice streaming from his universal-expert friend and get himself introduced to a woman he met by chance in the street ("That's not how my pamphlet on Finding a Wife says to do it!") It was pretty funny.
The Last Light of the Sun -- Guy Gavriel Kay
A historical novel, set in an imaginary version of Wales and England during the reign of Alfred the Great. It's primarily a coming-of-age story, as the main character is a chief's son from one of the three counties of Wales (I'm not going to try to remember the fake names) as he goes through the canonical steps to manhood: first real loss, first real heartbreak, first night with a woman, first killing. This is set against the broader background of the long years of fighting off the Viking invasions on the eastern and western coasts of Britain. The title comes from the general sense that the British islands are the very ends of the earth, the last place touched by the light of the sun (and metaphorically by the light of civilization, shining in those days from Constantinople.) I thought it was very good; the character and dialogue are excellent, and I liked the way the characters had a dim sense of a larger significance to their actions, the more important task of settling civilization itself lying behind their quotidian battles. Good reading.
The Nature of the Beast -- Louise Penny
The latest in a mystery series Mom likes, starring a retired Surete inspector who lives in an out-of-the-way village in Quebec. Although his obscure little village has a murder nearly every other week, it's never gotten involved with wider politics until now, when several people are killed because it turns out there's a superweapon hidden in the woods nearby. The plot assumes that Gerald Bull -- a real-life weapons designer who was assassinated in 1990, probably by Mossad -- had partners who continued his work, eventually building a colossal Howitzer, standing 300 feet tall with a barrel over a yard wide and more than 1600 feet long, so powerful it could throw a projectile into low Earth orbit. (Saddam Hussein commissioned Bull to build this, though in real life it was never completed.) They then abandoned it in the woods in Quebec, for stupid plot-contrivance reasons, and no one noticed them assembling it or ever stumbled across it even though it was built on a spot so close to town that a small boy can get there on his bicycle in the space of an afternoon. I liked the book for the good description of the relations between the characters -- the retired Chief Inspector, the man he trained as his successor, and the younger woman who actually succeeded him -- but the plot is just ludicrous. It would require the resources of a government to build that thing. And when the murderer gave himself away by stealing the firing mechanism, what was he planning to do with it? Did he think he could haul a three-thousand-ton Howitzer away behind his pickup truck? And who would buy it anyway? It was already obsolete by the early nineties; any buyer would be better off spending their money on SCUD missiles. The author has also decided the hero needs a super-genius serial killer nemesis, so we've been introduced to a Hannibal Lecter clone that the hero put away years ago, and who apparently constantly preys on his mind although we've never heard of him before, so we can have a Red Dragon scene where the hero has to match wits with the imprisoned killer to solve another crisis on a time limit, and also clearly to set up a sequel where the killer escapes and hunts down the hero, and I'm too bored to even finish this sentence. It wasn't very good.
The French Revolution -- Thomas Carlyle
I knew this would happen going in, but I was both very much in and very much out of sympathy with this. On the one hand, Carlyle was a compassionate man who felt deeply the justified sorrow and rage of the French lower classes, and expresses it well. On the other hand, Carlyle was also a committed believer in aristocracy and he views the Revolution and its aftermath as the result of the individual will and actions of a small number of extraordinary men, whereas I consider it a mass movement that would have unfolded largely the same way regardless of what leaders arose. Carlyle laments that if only Mirabeau had lived longer everything would have been different; I think that Mirabeau was a leader only because he was expressing what the masses wanted, and if he had tried to lead things in a different direction he would have lost influence quickly. The people were hungry, and lectures from the government weren't going to fill their stomachs. Also it repels me that although Carlye was genuinely empathetic to the French, he clearly finds the death of Louis more tragic than the deaths among the peasantry. Carlyle also thinks the chaotic upheavals in the French leadership in 1793 and 1794 are proof that people can't govern themselves, while I would say that a country that's being invaded by land and sea by seven different countries from the north, south, east, and west, all at the same time, can't be expected to behave normally.
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics -- Carlo Rovelli
A collection of a series of newspaper articles, each explaining some principle of science for the general reader. I thought they were pretty well written.
The Last Days of New Paris -- China Miéville
A new record: I never even made it past the epigraph. Judging from the book jacket, this seems to be a story about post-WWII refugees escaping from their Nazi-controlled Europe into the history we know by means of mid-century Surrealist art; but the epigraph, a quote to the effect that criticism of Surrealist art can be summed up as "What does Papa say I may think and feel about this?" is so arrogant and self-worshipping, and made me so angry before I even got to page one, that I just couldn't bring myself to read the book. Of course choosing just that quote for the epigraph is a way of insulating yourself against criticism by implying that critics are too inane and frightened to understand the challenging reality of your work. Fuck you, China Miéville, and you too, whatever head-up-your-ass artist was the source of that quote in the first place.
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu -- Joshua Hammer
An excellent book. Timbuktu has been a capital of scholarship at many different periods across its long history, and its climate is ideal for preserving manuscripts, so books of incalculable value still survive there: ninth-century hand-written Korans, medical textbooks from the 1100s, manuals on conflict mediation from the 1300s. Unfortunately Timbuktu has also been a target for various marauding armies across its history, so ancient manuscripts were kept within families --stored behind false walls, hidden beneath floors, even locked in metal chests and buried in the desert. The book is mainly about a man named Abdel Haidara, scion of a scholarly family, who starting in the late sixties spent forty years travelling around Mali finding books, some of which had been buried since the Middle Ages, by convincing their guardians that the books were in danger from termites and that they needed to be restored and copied in libraries in Timbuktu. By the 2000s Timbuktu had several climate-controlled libraries holding in all about 490,000 manuscripts; Haidara got international organizations to fund much of the work by promising to digitize the manuscripts and make them available to everyone. (They used high-resolution digital cameras, since generally the manuscripts were too fragile to be scanned.) Everything was going great, in fact, until Timbuktu fell under attack again, this time from a combination of Tuareg separatists and the Mali branch of al-Qaeda, which took the city in mid-2012 and held it until they were driven out by a French expedition in 2013. The al-Qaeda leader announced that he would destroy all the manuscripts, but they didn't get around to it right away, so Haidara and his family and friends spent months secretly smuggling all the manuscripts out, taking them by Jeep, mule, and raft to Bamako, six hundred miles away. It was a fearful risk, and they would have been tortured and killed if caught, but they succeeded in rescuing nearly everything. Only a couple thousand manuscripts on public display were too noticeable to remove, and Haidara had to hope that al-Qaeda would be too busy bulldozing cemeteries and cutting people's hands off to remember about the books, but just about the last thing they did before the French drove them out was to pile up all the books they could find and burn them. The bastards. The book had several pictures of the manuscripts, amazingly beautiful works of art with gorgeous illustrations and calligraphy, many of them with very wide margins, which were included on purpose so that scholars could add annotations, which they often did; there are many manuscripts that have scholarly conversations in the margins that run for centuries. In fact one reason Haidara wants to digitize all the manuscripts is to provide everyone with proof that the 19th-century belief that Africa was a savage wilderness until the Europeans arrived -- which many people believe even now -- is totally false. I loved it.
Crime Partners -- Donald Goines
An action novel, set in New York around 1970, featuring a black militant who calls himself Kenyatta, whose organization targets drug dealers and racist cops and kills them. The book is nominally the story of the pair of NYPD detectives -- one black, one white -- on his trail, but it's obvious the author's sympathy is with Kenyatta. The plot involves a pair of career criminals (the "crime partners") who ally themselves with Kenyatta in order to pull off a big robbery; Kenyatta needs the proceeds to pay off someone who can provide him with a list of the higher-ups in the New York drug business. One of the partners is cynically going along with Kenyatta's rhetoric in order to steal the money, but the other is drawn in to the black-power mentality, which threatens their relationship. Realistically, everything goes to hell and most of the characters get killed in a messy shootout. The writing is more robust than skillful, but it certainly kept me turning the pages.
Death List -- Donald Goines
This is the sequel, in which Kenyatta finally obtains the list of high-up drug dealers and sets out to wipe them out, while predictably getting double-crossed by the white guy who sold him the list. The detectives pick up on the trail of the two robbers from the last book and track down Kenyatta's offices in the city; he finds out about this and realizes it can't be long before the cops find his headquarters, a farm outside the city. In a conscienceless move, Kenyatta rounds up nine or ten of his most loyal followers, packs up the treasury, and flees the farm without warning any of the others, leaving the remaining forty or so to be surprised by the police. The last part of the book is a colossal gun battle in which nearly everyone at the farm is killed while Kenyatta and his crew get away. I thought it really undermined Kenyatta's us-against-them rhetoric that he just split and left all his friends to die.
Kenyatta's Escape -- Donald Goines
While his abandoned followers fight off the police, Kenyatta and his crew hijack a plane from LaGuardia. They kill several of the crew and order the pilot to take them to Algeria, or any other mostly-black country he can reach. The pilot tells them he'll have to land to refuel in order to make an international flight, so they decide to go along. Unfortunately one of the passengers is a white air marshal, who thinks the blacks will cower and drop their weapons as soon as he confronts them; in the shootout that follows the pilot is mortally wounded, and he crash-lands the plane in the desert in Nevada. A bunch of hippies from a nearby commune come by on motorcycles to investigate, and Kenyatta's crew kill several of them and take their bikes, riding them to the commune, where they take the group's cars and drive out of the desert towards LA.
Sabbatical Journey -- Henri J.M. Nouwen
Nouwen spent ten years as the pastor at Daybreak, a center for the mentally disabled. In 1995 the Daybreak committee essentially ordered Nouwen to take a sabbatical, since they were afraid he was working himself to death (they were right.) This is the journal he kept during his year away from his pastoral duties, and also his last book, since he died only a few days after his return. What struck me most was that although he had been sent on the sabbatical to rest -- and he agreed that his work was wearing him down and he needed rest badly -- he didn't rest at all; during the entire year I don't think he spent more than three or four days in the same place. He was travelling constantly, all over the US and Europe, visiting relatives, speaking at symposia, meeting with his publishers, and conducting weddings, funerals, and baptisms for his friends, all while writing two different books, on top of keeping a journal. The journal is full of optimism, looking forward to a future of renewed energy and faith, which on the one hand made me sad because I knew he died almost immediately after finishing it, but on the other hand made me glad that he was able to maintain a hopeful attitude despite his depression and loneliness. He had a powerful need for affection and approval, and tended to be downcast when he felt neglected, which I sympathize with, and he used his journal to make himself feel better. It's also full of the sort of reflections that occur to a prayerful man who needs to write sermons; my favorite was his musing on the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, and remarking that maybe the real miracle was that Jesus trusted the people not to hog the food and to have faith that there was enough for everyone.
Fist Stick Knife Gun -- Geoffrey Canada
A memoir of growing up in the South Bronx and the violence that went hand in hand with poverty. He tells the story of how his older brother, at age six, came home without his jacket because a bigger boy knocked him down and took it away, and their mother ordered him to go back out and fight for it -- adding that if he came back without it she'd beat him worse than the other boy did. With a community ethos like that it's hardly surprising that violence only got more intense as the children got older, progressing from kids fighting with their fists to high school students carrying and using knives. Canada recalls the arrival of handguns in the neighborhood in the sixties, which probably had more to do with cheaper methods of making guns than anything else -- just how once one carpenter gets a power saw, every carpenter has to get a power saw, once one guy in the neighborhood has a gun, everybody has to get a gun. After going to college at Bowdoin, and living for the first time in a place where violence was not a constant presence, he was shocked at returning to New York, like a Northeasterner returning to the winter after years in California. He started a foundation in Harlem whose goal was to give children somewhere to go and things to do in order to keep them off the streets and in school. The writing was journeyman-quality, but the subject matter was interesting.
Kenyatta's Last Hit -- Donald Goines
The end of Kenyatta's story. The author seems to regret making Kenyatta abandon his followers so he retroactively makes everyone okay with it -- the few escapees we last saw fleeing the farm and swearing vengeance on Kenyatta are now working for him again with no signs of hard feelings. Set a year later in LA, this book finds Kenyatta having set up a new militant organization with the same aim of killing the white drug lords who profit off pushing their drugs in black communities. His group locates the local drug kingpin and launches an all-out assault, with two teams of a couple dozen men each attacking his office building from different approaches. In a surprising anticlimax, both teams are immediately trapped by the kingpin's far better prepared men, and the assault is a total failure; every one of the crew, including Kenyatta, is killed and their bodies dumped for the NYPD detectives, still on the trail, to find in the desert. Only one guy, Kenyatta's closest disciple (who was injured and couldn't go on the raid) survives to continue the fight. I think it's likely that for Goines, Kenyatta represented his resistance to his own addiction to drugs, and the ending of the story represents Goines' hopeless despair at his failure to escape heroin. Goines was shot to death right after this book came out (the murder was never solved) so we'll never find out what happened with the escaped disciple. It was a real downer.
Love Among the Chickens -- P.G. Wodehouse
In which the perennial pest Ukridge gets married, to an overly angelic woman whose total blindness to Ukridge's selfish uselessness I found more annoying than endearing. Ukridge attempts to start a chicken farm, of all things, and enlists his old school friend Garnet for moral support; Garnet goes along, more out of a morbid curiosity as to just how everything will inevitably go to smash than out of any illusions about Ukridge's business sense. Naturally Ukridge's chicken farm is a model of self-important idiocy, and Garnet keeps out of the way by working on his latest novel and trying to win over his fiancee's father, who lives nearby. It's not at all surprising when a crowd of unpaid creditors descend on the farm and seize everything, and I think we're supposed to be ruefully admiring of Ukridge's undiminished self-confidence when he immediately starts making plans to start a duck farm instead, but in fact I couldn't help thinking how much better off every single person in the book would be if only Ukridge were to drop dead.
The Cape Cod Mystery -- Phoebe Atwood Taylor
The first novel by Dad's favorite mystery writer. In his records I found three separate sets of annotations dated years apart, the earliest of which referred to other notes even earlier; he must have read it at least six times. It's set in Wellfleet on the Cape in 1931. As a mystery it's a little weak -- logistically it's obvious there's only one character who could have committed the murder, but the motive is something the reader couldn't possibly have known about and it's only explained in the murderer's post-suicide confession. On the other hand, it's both interesting and funny, and a good picture of life on the Cape during the Depression. Some of the characters go to a silent movie (Dad notes that "talkies" didn't make it to the Cape for years afterward) and when asked how it was, sum it up as "the reel broke four times and the pianist fell asleep." The hero is Asey Mayo, a man-of-all-work who sets out to solve the crime because his boss is the suspect. (Dad notes that the boss is "a bit of a bumpkin for a Harvard man -- but his family was wealthy.") Asey, a retired sailor, is about sixty and has been all over the world and met all kinds of people, and is full of folksy wisdom ("They can call fried flounder fillay of sole, but it's fried flounder all the samey.") I liked it.
Billy Budd, Foretopman -- Herman Melville
A classic sea story, really well-written. It was his last book, written just for himself, since he wrote it in the early 1890s when he had long stopped publishing. I read this in high school but its central conflict escaped me then. Billy is an 18th-century sailor who gets pressed out of his merchant ship into a British man-of-war. He's oppressed, for no reason, by the ship's master-at-arms, Claggart, who shows a friendly face to Billy but at the same time causes his underlings to make Billy's life difficult. Eventually Claggart falsely charges Billy with mutiny, and the astonished and enraged Billy loses his temper and hits Claggart, killing him instantly, for which the Captain reluctantly hangs him. Much is made of the unknown cause of Claggart's hatred, and the impossibility of ever learning the truth since Claggart is dead, and when I was seventeen I thought the point of the story was that sometimes people do things for no reason. Reading it again, I now think it couldn't be more obvious that Claggart was sexually attracted to Billy, and hated him because of that, and his attempt to have Billy put to death was really an attempt to remove a temptation (and also to punish Billy for awakening desire in Claggart.) I think the Captain realized that, too.
My edition uses the original text from the posthumous printing of 1920-something; there's been a scholarly edition since then, which makes a number of changes, but honestly I think that when, say, Editor Smith makes changes based on "this is what Melville really meant", the real goal is to have a standard text called "The Smith Edition". How the hell do you know what Melville "really" meant? No one else does. As a general thing I prefer to use whatever edition of a book the author printed originally. I don't even feel like reading later editions by the authors themselves, since at best that's an uneven collaboration between two mismatched people -- the author and the author thirty years older -- and at worst it's a case of "my original editor wisely removed these three shitty chapters but I'm so rich and influential now that I can insist on putting them back in", which has never produced a good result ever.
The Perfection of the Paper Clip -- James Ward
A book about stationery, which in England is a more generic term than it is here -- they use it to mean any kind of desktop stuff, like pens, staplers, notebooks, and so on. It's really a hobbyist's affectionate appreciation of his hobby -- the sort of book that only works if the author really loves the subject, which Ward clearly does. I laughed at his description of the sense of betrayal he feels when he pushes down on the stapler and only gets and empty impression on the paper because it's run out of staples. I particularly liked the chapter on the development of the high-lighter pen; apparently its unusual shape is the result of a designer pounding his fist on a rejected clay model in frustration. Well worth reading.
Mansfield Park -- Jane Austen
Her third novel, very well written, but I found the heroine uninteresting; she didn't have the pluck of Elizabeth Bennett or the intelligence of Elinor Dashwood. She spends the whole novel constantly worrying whether she's being conventional enough. I mean, the story is meant to be driven by the plot questions of "Will I be able to avoid marrying the cad my family likes, will my cousin see through our neighbor's false front before getting engaged to her?" But the heroine is much more concerned with "Am I self-effacing enough, am I sufficiently subservient to my aunts, am I as repelled by any hint of worldliness as perfect rectitude requires?" And what was up with 19th-century English people marrying their first cousins all the time? You'd think the C of E would have had something to say about that.
Bachelors Anonymous -- P.G. Wodehouse
An excellent late novel featuring the shrewd, blustery movie magnate Ivor Llewellyn, divorced from his fifth wife and wary of anyone trying to become the sixth. His attorney Trout, as it happens, belongs to a small group called Bachelors Anonymous; whenever a member starts to feel like getting married, he calls the group for help and someone comes to provide moral support until he can conquer the fatal urge. The hero of the story is Joe, a playwright who falls in love at first sight with Sally, a reporter who comes to interview him about his first produced play; Joe has come to work as a writer for Llewellyn's studio. Since Llewellyn has to travel to England, Trout recommends he take along a chaperon, lest he should come home married again. Joe goes along, but he neglects his fiancee-repelling duties to pursue Sally, who has inherited a lot of money from a former employer on the condition that she quit smoking. The private detective assigned to make sure Sally stays off cigarettes is engaged to a deadbeat nobleman, a louse who was once engaged to Sally, and who tries to break things up between Sally and Joe so he can win her back and get the money. Annoyed that Joe has been so negligent as to let Llewellyn agree to a dinner date, Trout himself comes to London to keep everyone on the straight and narrow, so the story winds up with all the right people married and unmarried, respectively. I thought it was great.
Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War -- Herman Melville
Melville's last published book, a collection of poetry and essays about the Civil War. (He wrote a couple more volumes of poetry after this, but they were privately printed editions of only a dozen copies or so.) Reviews at the time were mixed, determined more or less by which side the reviewer supported. I am of course wholly in sympathy with Melville's pro-Union abolitionist stance, so the Atlanta Journal wouldn't call my opinion reliable, but I thought it was a good book. The poetry is robust, powerful, and wearily sad, with very striking imagery. It conveys a strong feeling of just how tired and heartsick everyone was by the end of the war. The essays' arguments for graceful submission by the losers and graceful reconciliation by the winners are commonplace but well expressed.
The Dream of a Queer Fellow -- Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A strange novella about a man who has resolved to commit suicide. He sits at his table with a revolver but is bothered by thoughts of the unkindness he showed earlier that day, when a little girl approached him in the street to ask for help with something but he only waved her away. Brooding on this he falls asleep in his chair and has a strange dream where he shoots himself and is buried, but is then lifted out of the grave by a mysterious presence who whisks him across space to another planet, which he finds is a Utopia, like an Eden where the people never fell. They astonish him, but he finds that his mere presence corrupts them; they soon learn to lie, and not long afterward they begin to murder and fight wars. Appalled, he tries to persuade them to return to their former state, but they refuse, and he awakens at his table. Shaken, he decides that the dream was a message to remind him of humanity's potential for goodness, and he resolves to continue living in order to persuade people to turn away from evil and embrace goodness, beginning by going out to find the girl who'd spoken to him and get her the help she needs. The editor of my edition thought the story was meant as a statement of what Dostoyevsky hoped to accomplish with his writing.
Playing the Numbers -- Shane White, Stephen Garton, Stephen Robertson, and Graham White
A very good book about the old racket of "the numbers", which I had heard about in many gangster movies but never really understood. It was a kind of lottery, whose attraction for poor people was the low fee and high reward -- you could wager as little as one or two cents, and the standard payoff was six hundred to one. (Since the odds of winning were a thousand to one, this was a great deal for the people running the game.) The hook was the method used to make sure the lottery wasn't rigged: it was understood that the winning daily number would be made up of a combination of specified digits of three different figures having to do with interest on the national debt, which were posted at the New York Currency Exchange every day at ten AM. To prevent raids there were no betting parlors, and bets were placed with local "numbers runners" in each neighborhood. The game started in Harlem and was run by a cluster of numbers bosses who came and went, sometimes skipping town to avoid paying if too many people hit the right number on a given day. It was a mixture of old and new -- the numbers bosses had modern staffs and invented new accounting methods to run their businesses, but they were generally known as "Kings" or "Queens", an old-style voodoo tradition, possibly because several of the early bosses came from the Caribbean. It was almost entirely a black business until the mobster Dutch Schultz started muscling in to take the business for himself; the Kings and Queens wouldn't go without a fight, though, and some of them held Schultz off until he was assassinated for unrelated Mob reasons. The numbers game mostly died out when the legal lotteries came in. It was well told.
The Heat's On -- Chester Himes
A hard-boiled cop novel, about two black New York detectives in the sixties investigating the disappearance of a guy who may or may not have been murdered, no one's sure. The writing was good and the story was exciting and suspenseful; the solution was something the reader couldn't have guessed, but then it was a thriller rather than a mystery. What struck me most was the way the black characters switched context -- they behaved naturally among themselves, but when white people were on the scene they subtly changed, putting on a show of good-natured slow-mindedness, masking their real intelligence behind a non-threatening facade. It wasn't even really acting so much as encouraging the white people to see what they expected to see. Good book.
Galahad at Blandings -- P.G. Wodehouse
Lord Emsworth is finally free of his bossy sister Constance, who has not only remarried but moved to America. Returning from the wedding, however, he's appalled to find that another sister (he has four, each more unpleasant than the last) has ensconced herself at Blandings, and even worse has brought along a friend whom she's determined to make Lord Emsworth marry. Luckily for Lord Emsworth, his brother Galahad is always on his side against their sisters, and he cheerfully adds getting rid of the sister and her friend to his to-do list, which already includes reconciling two different pairs of estranged lovers, as well as getting a young friend out of trouble for impulsively socking the local constable in the eye and stealing his bicycle. He eggs on the sister's friend's appalling young son into pestering the estate's prize pig, the one subject on which Lord Emsworth reliably springs up from being a doormat to stand up for himself, and the resulting blow-up rids the estate of sister, sister's friend, loutish boy, and all; and while the dust settles Galahad deftly manages his other business and everything ends happily. It was great.
Secret Lives -- Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Short stories from the sixties, mostly set in and around Limuru in Kenya just before and just after independence. They're very good, very evocative of the characters' feelings about the British, about the Mau Mau Uprising, about the conflict between the cities and the rural areas. One excellent story was set in a bar, with an older man telling the life story of another man, recently dead, whom he had known from childhood. Their lives had taken different paths due to random chance: the narrator went to a government-run elementary school while the other went to a local school. During the Uprising the British troops shot the local teacher and burned the school down (they did this to many non-government schools, suspecting they taught anti-British sentiment) so the narrator's friend never got an education and lived a life of menial poverty. It was a melancholy story but very well written.
Ascending Peculiarity -- Edward Gorey (Karen Wilkin, ed.)
A posthumous collection of interviews, which he affected a pose of disliking even though he gave them all the time. He was, unsurprisingly, a bit of an eccentric person, although he says his childhood was wholly normal. He called himself "undersexed" and didn't consider himself either gay or straight; he adopted the word "asexual" when that term became popular in the eighties. He was fascinated with dance and for decades attended every single performance of the New York City Ballet; he maintained that the best, most natural performance he ever saw was Diana Adams rehearsing "Swan Lake" while wearing sweats and chewing gum. Either he genuinely had nothing to say about how he did his work and what his writing process was like, or else he was stonewalling, because he never answered questions about how he worked with anything other than "Oh, I don't know." He did say that his public persona was about half real and half put on, but he wasn't sure which half was which. A big part of every interview is just him evading questions, so the book was interesting but a little frustrating.
Friends and Enemies -- Adlai Stevenson
A collection of articles Stevenson wrote during his trip to the Soviet Union in 1959. I was very struck with the way he energetically defended the Republican administration against criticism by the Russian officials he met with, despite the fact that he had run against Eisenhower twice. (I don't think I need to draw a parallel with today, right?) He had the feeling that the Russians were secretly impressed that he -- a defeated leader of the opposition -- was allowed to visit other countries and speak to foreign ministers. The writing is clear and articulate, and funny in an understated midwestern way; he dryly describes how Kremlin functionaries came unannounced to his hotel room and informed him that he was about to pay a call on Khrushchev to express his admiration of the USSR and his gratitude for being allowed to visit. His conclusion from speaking with Khrushchev was that the Soviets were reluctant to start a war because it would retard their economic progress, which they thought was the key to world domination. The book was written before Mao split with Moscow, and the threat of a joint Sino-Russian economic juggernaut was what really concerned Stevenson. Very interesting reading.
Crown of Shadows -- C.S. Friedman
The end of the story begun in Black Sun Rising, wherein our heroes finally confront the big boss bad guy. I wasn't expecting the way the villain is finally defeated, and I really liked the way the decisions the heroes make that lead to that defeat also satisfyingly complete their character arcs. One thing struck me as a little jarring: during the post-climax denouement, one of the two main characters (Vryce), whose essential characteristic is a never-say-die refusal to give up, finds himself in a room with the other main character (Tarrant) and a third party who confronts Tarrant, intending to kill him. Vryce gets between them and can prevent it, but Tarrant tells him "Get out, there's nothing you can do" and he just leaves. It was a classic example of someone acting wholly out of character just because the plot requires it. That aside, I thought the whole story was pretty good.
Death Lights a Candle -- Phoebe Atwood Taylor
Her second book. This one is a murderer-among-us story, as a motley group of people is snowed in during a spring blizzard on the Cape and one of them gets poisoned. (Because I've read Dumas -- and Pratchett -- the title tipped me off that the poison was administered by means of arsenic-soaked candle wicks.) As Dad remarks in his notes, it's obvious that Taylor didn't decide who the murderer was until the last minute, as she spends most of the book making sure everyone in the house can be suspected. This rather backfires -- when considering whether the narrator's friend Rowena might have done it, Asey Mayo (now the chief of police) points out how odd it is that Rowena insisted the narrator come with her to the Cape, ostensibly to paint her house, in March of all times; but when Rowena doesn't turn out to be the killer, that just gets forgotten and no explanation is ever given. In the end Asey simply announces that he has discovered that one of the guests has been borrowing heavily from the victim and was about to be cut off (which the reader couldn't have known) and aha, there's your motive, so-and-so is the killer. He immediately admits it and mwah-ha-has about how he'll escape and get away with it all, except that in his master plan he didn't consider that the police chief might carry a gun. So as a mystery it fell flat as your hat, but I liked it anyway.
The Haunted Pool -- George Sand
A 19th-century rural novel, about a Provence widower in his twenties whose father-in-law (who also owns the farm where he works) essentially orders him to remarry. It's a business decision, really; with the rest of the family having more children, they will have to bring in someone to take care of the hero's three small children. The farmer lays out the criteria: better an older woman, preferably a plain one, someone who has little enough chance of ever marrying that she'll be grateful even for a marriage that means raising someone else's children. The plot, such as it is, involves the hero setting out to make a business offer to one woman but deciding on his own to marry another; that takes up about half of the book, and the second half is just a long description of what country weddings were like when the author was young. It wasn't bad.
Little Green -- Walter Mosely
A novel about a private detective -- more of a "fixer", really, since he doesn't seem to have a license and is very much a don't-involve-the-cops kind of guy -- named Ezekiel ("Easy") Rawlins, set in southern California in the late sixties. It's part of a series but I haven't read the earlier books. Rawlins has one of those noir-story relationships where his best friend is a conscienceless stone-cold killer who is devoted to him for some reason. The friend hires him to find a young man who seems to have been given LSD unawares at a party and wandered off. This is Rawlins's first encounter with hippie culture and he's surprisingly sympathetic to it considering he's a black veteran in his late forties. Rawlins finds the young man easily enough, but he's come down from his acid trip covered in blood and in the possession of a big bag of cash, also covered in blood, and nothing but hazy memories of drug hallucinations. Rawlins spends the book finding out what happened and dealing with the aftermath, while wondering if the counterculture portends any change in race relations and having conversations about Chester Himes novels. I thought it was very good.
Death in the Pot -- Morton Satin
A book about food poisoning throughout history. The parts about the actual mechanism of food poisoning were interesting, but I didn't think much of the rest of the book, which, as the author admits right at the beginning, is necessarily all speculation. There's no way to know if historical outbreaks of disease were caused by food poisoning or not; the symptoms described in historical records could be made to fit any number of disease vectors. So most of the book is just an extended game of what-if.
The Mystery of the Cape Cod Players -- Phoebe Atwood Taylor
Her third mystery, narrated by a wealthy Boston spinster in her fifties, exactly like the narrator of the first two in everything but name. The narrator is sent by her family to stay on the Cape so the healthy sea air can help her recover from pneumonia. On her first night there a troupe of entertainers, lost in the fog, seeks shelter at her place; Dad notes that there were a lot of such troupes during the Depression, especially early on as people who'd lost their jobs had to find something to do. In the morning the troupe's magician is found shot dead outside the house, and Asey Mayo turns up to figure out what's what. This one is better constructed than the last, since it's possible for the reader to solve the mystery, or it would be if the first sentence of the book didn't make it clear who the killer was. Dad's main comment on the book was that he couldn't see how a person who would tear a living animal in pieces with his bare hands could pass for normal in ordinary life.
If I Were You -- P.G. Wodehouse
A very funny how-the-other-half-lives story, wherein a young earl (Tony) finds out that his nanny switched her own son for the earl when they were babies, and so the loutish working-class Socialist barber (Syd) whom the whole family dislikes is the real earl. Having fallen in love at first sight with the barber-shop assistant, Tony willingly makes the switch, and most of the novel is taken up with their misfit lives: the family decides to reduce Syd to despair by telling him he can't possibly be an earl without learning correct behavior, which they straight-facedly tell him means spending all his time going to improving lectures and classical concerts, when he's not riding and shooting; while Tony's customers at the barber shop are reduced to terror by his incompetence with the shaving razor but are too British to complain. Syd and Tony become friends when Syd escapes from constantly falling off his horse to find refuge in the barber shop and lecture Tony on the right way to shave. It all ends happily, of course. I thought it was great.
Vile Bodies -- Evelyn Waugh
His second novel, a satire on the self-consciously Bohemian life of the well-off partiers of London in the twenties, known collectively as the "Bright Young Things", of which Waugh himself was one. It's mostly an anti-romantic comedy, with the protagonist, Adam, constantly trying to scrape together enough money to marry his girlfriend Nina, set against the backdrop of endless drinking at elaborate parties that no one really seems to enjoy. Eventually Nina marries someone else, a wealthy friend who bluffly expects Adam to be happy for them, though we later see Adam and Nina agreeing in the most cynical way to let the husband believe the children are his. The novel takes a bizarre turn at the end, as the last chapter suddenly finds Adam on a battlefield of a titanic global war against an unspecified enemy, soldiers killing each other with heat rays and leprosy bombs. Waugh's marriage was breaking up right then, so I can see he'd be making strange decisions, but I wonder why his editor didn't take that part out.
Lingo -- Gaston Dorren
A very interesting book about European languages. It's really a collection of linguistic trivia, but done well -- a book touching on sixty different languages can't have the depth needed for a thematic argument. I was most struck by the author's contention that Slovenian, Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian, Bulgarian, and Montenegrin are all the same language, and their speakers only maintain a pose of not understanding each other out of mutual dislike -- much the same way as a Colombian and a Puerto Rican may pretend not to be able to understand each other, though anyone who speaks Spanish has no trouble understanding either one. Good read.
Down and Out in Purgatory -- Tim Powers
A novella about a man who has spent years hunting a man he hates in order to kill him, but finds out the man has died quietly of natural causes. Unsatisfied, he arranges his own death in order to follow his enemy into the afterlife and try to destroy his ghost there. Terrific concept, I thought, and the story has a go at confronting how the man's obsession with revenge has literally destroyed his own life, but it kind of deals with that perfunctorily because the author is more interested in the mechanics of how the afterlife works. I still liked it, though.
Out of Solitude -- Henri J.M. Nouwen
Three sermons about the difference between solitude and loneliness. Nouwen notes that in the Gospels Jesus often leaves the people he's with and goes off by himself to pray; many stories about Jesus begin with the Apostles having to go out to find him. Nouwen contends that it's a necessary part of a spiritually healthy life to have moments where you temporarily set the world aside and consider only yourself and God.
The Pugilist at Rest -- Thom Jones
A collection of depressing but very well-written short stories about Vietnam, boxing, growing up poor, and living with brain damage. (The author was serious about "write what you know", I guess.) Nearly all of his characters spend a lot of time reading philosophy and are generally heavily influenced by Schopenhauer's pessimism. I really liked it.
The Mystery of the Cape Cod Tavern -- Phoebe Atwood Taylor
Realizing that she's used up Wellfleet's quota of murders for a hundred years, Taylor moves the action to the fictional town of Wessit, apparently a haunt of rich celebrities and rum-runners (Prohibition hadn't been repealed yet when this was written.) The victim this time is the proprietress of a fashionable summer hotel; the corrupt local cops pin the blame on the first person they see, and Asey Mayo has to set things right, in the company of yet another wealthy Boston spinster in her fifties. I liked it mostly for its picture of the Cape in the thirties: the crucial distinction between "summer people" (acceptable) and "tourists" (loathed), Asey's cynical recognition of his role in providing "local color" to the newspapers. As a mystery it was silly; every single person at the hotel and in the neighborhood turns out to have a good reason to hate the murder victim, and most of the story is Asey sorting through motives until Taylor gets around to deciding who the killer is. I was annoyed at the way Asey confides every thought he has to the narrator until he figures it all out, whereupon he suddenly gets all cagey, "Oooh, I can't say till I'm sure," for no reason at all. Also three different people admit to Asey that they've actually attempted (but failed) to murder the victim before, and Asey essentially just says "Oh well, boys will be boys" and lets it go. I agree with Dad that it wasn't very good.
The Gilded Bat -- Edward Gorey
A bleak illustrated book about a young girl who works hard to become a prima ballerina, and although successful in her career never achieves either financial stability or a sense of satisfaction. Then she dies. Good art though.
The Humorless Ladies of Border Control -- Franz Nicolay
A travelogue of a touring hipster-punk duo through eastern Europe, the Ukraine, Sibera, and Mongolia in 2012, and then the Balkans in 2013. It was pretty interesting. The author says that thanks to the Internet there's thriving punk scenes in all kinds of out-of-the-way places; none of them bought his CDs since they got all his music off torrent sites, but he always sold out of T-shirts and LPs, both of which are hard to find in that part of the world. He thinks punk is popular in Siberia and the Balkans because of the general disgust and nihilism.
Absolutely On Music -- Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa
A record of long conversations about classical music Murakami had with Ozawa in 2010 and 2011, when Ozawa had a lot of free time because he was recovering from cancer treatment and couldn't work. I hadn't quite realized how much of a wunderkind Ozawa was -- he was already conducting high-prestige performances in his early twenties, and was given important work at an unusually young age by maestri like Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan. (Bernstein used to gripe because the music critic of the New York Times, who hated Bernstein and roasted everything he did, wrote laudatory reviews of Ozawa from the start.) I was interested to find that Ozawa's main interaction with music is reading scores, which he does far more than actually listening to music. When he was young it was his only way of experiencing Mahler, for example -- at that time Mahler was rarely performed, and there were almost no recordings, and in any case Ozawa didn't own a record player and couldn't have afforded to buy recordings anyway. It's full of fascinating stuff about the mechanics of conducting and the interrelations among the members of an orchestra. He explains, for example, that Brahms's scores include staggered breath marks for the wind instruments, so that (say) two horn players never pause for breath at the same time, so a note can continue longer than one person could carry it. It was really interesting.
Sandbar Sinister -- Phoebe Atwood Taylor
Another of Taylor's endless supply of fiftyish spinsters from Boston visits the Cape in 1934 to stay with a friend, only to find that -- now that she works in a department store, having lost her money when her bank failed -- the "friend" treats her like a poor relation, expecting her to do the laundry and make sandwiches for everyone. She's getting ready to leave when a dead hobo turns up in the boat house and her friend's unpleasant brother vanishes, only to be found shot to death on a sand dune. Asey Mayo sets out to figure out what happened, taking the narrator along to help him, since apparently he can see the "NARRATOR OF THE STORY" light flashing above her head and so knows she's not the killer. Logistically the murder was solvable, though the motive was something the reader couldn't have known. It was better as a picture of the times -- I liked the narrator's delighted glee when the whole town, including the police chief, gets stinking drunk when a few hundred bottles of bootleg booze get thrown overboard from a smuggler and wash up on the beach, and the way the locals complain about this fad of rich people with their own small planes is scaring the cows. I also liked the way the local drunk confesses to the murder and everyone just ignores him because they're used to the way he confesses to everything, which they blame on the fact that he goes to every revivalist show that comes to town (Dad says these shows were everywhere during the Depression -- he even mentions "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" in his notes.)
And The Band Stopped Playing -- Thomas Wolf and Nancy Glaze
A post-mortem of the collapse of the San Jose Symphony, which went out of business in 2002 after operating for a hundred and twenty-five years. About half the book is good, talking about the problems of operating a cultural nonprofit in an area with heavy income inequality. The Symphony's 89 full-time musicians made an average salary of about $25,000 -- that's the mean, elevated by the higher salaries paid to the premier musicians and the concertmaster; the median was only about $18,000, barely a living wage anywhere in the country and negligible in San Jose. At the same time, even though there are so many of them, Silicon Valley rich people are far less likely to donate money than rich people in other parts of America. The rest of the book is less interesting. It was written by a consultant brought in by the Symphony's major donor (who also paid for the book to be published) and is basically an I-told-you-so meant to establish that everything would have been fine if the Symphony had only followed the author's advice. It's also dishonest, since the book is contstantly saying things like "a close observer of the proceedings thought... A symposium convened at such a date concluded... A standard work on nonprofits says..." and it takes some digging in the (very small print) end-notes to find out that the observer, the convener of the symposium, and the writer of the standard work were all the same person, this book's author. The book also barely mentions the San Jose Symphony's successor organization, Symphony Silicon Valley, which was started independently by the San Jose Ballet and has become very successful despite following none of the principles laid out in this book.