Six More

2666, Roberto Bolaño

I put this one on my list* because I read online somewhere (probably NYT, NYRB, or the New Yorker… for someone who’s never lived in New York I sure need to diversify my media consumption) that Bolaño is the best thing since sliced bread. Or maybe it was James Joyce. In any event, 2666 went on my list and it turns out my local library had it. Well, 2666 falls under the category “I read it so you don’t have to”; that is: skip it. It consists of five tangentially related books, each of which is about five times too long. I only enjoyed the last one, and that was probably because I was no longer reading a horribly depressing and repetitive recounting of feminicide in northern Mexico. I’m sure there’s lots of great symbolism and such about the decay of modern society in there, but unless you are an English major (or Spanish major, I guess) or have a companion book and a lot of time, just move on. I still have no idea what the number 2666 has to do with anything.

The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley

While also rather long, this one falls at the other end of the complexity spectrum of 2666. (Well, it’s not a children’s book, that is, but it is a fantasy novel.) Marion Zimmer Bradley first came to my attention years ago as one of Michael D.C. Drout’s “worthy successors to Tolkein”, and weeks ago it happened to be on display at my library. She provides a feminist (or at least female-centric) interpretation of the Arthurian cycle, and–despite my quip to Anna one night that it mostly consists of “women herb-ing each other left, right, and center”–it is definitely worth your time, if you are at all interested in King Arthur specifically or fantasy literature in general.

Look to Windward, Iain M. Banks

Another Iain M. Banks science fiction novel, this one tells the story of two war veterans, one of a “good war” (I think) that calls to mind the contemporary view of World War Two, and the other of a civil war caused by external influence, which seemed to me to be a sort of commentary on the (most recent) Iraq War. While I don’t think it’s the most insightful commentary on the experiences of the modern veteran (for more on that, see the next book report post), it does manage to comment well on the human condition. As an aside, this is the second time I’ve read this book, because I accidentally got it from the library, not realizing I’d read it before. I suppose that’s either a negative comment on the book’s memorability or a positive comment on its quality–probably both. In any event, I do recommend Iain M. Banks’ science fiction to all, starting with The Algebraist and moving on to the Culture series (of which this is a part).

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

The unquestionable winner of this round-up, Half of a Yellow Sun follows three characters through the Nigerian Civil War. You should go and read this book right now. It is, of course, something of a downer–there’s always a certain tragedy accompanying defeat in a civil war / war of independence (except for the American Civil War, don’t get me started), and this novel provides both that, and the tragedy common to civilians in all wars, in spades. Still, you should read this book, now. It was recommended to me by the same friend who recommended The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, last time’s winner, so maybe he’s onto something.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark

The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945, Rick Atkinson

These shouldn’t really be subject to a joint review, seeing as they cover different subjects, but they’re both military/political history and I read them sequentially** so this is as close of an opportunity as I’m ever going to get so here goes. The Sleepwalkers covers the political, military, economic, and diplomatic situation in Europe in the beginning of the 20th century leading up to the start of the First World War. I saw it recommended (again, somewhere online–no doubt as part of a 100-year retrospective) as a thorough exploration of the roots of the war; its thesis is that there is no single person, nation, or alliance accountable for the war but that the nations of Europe stumbled–or rather, sleepwalked–into it. I only got through about half of it before someone put a hold on it and I had to return it to the library, but it certainly seemed to do a pretty good job setting up that claim; incidentally, I now know more about the economy and politics of Serbia in 1910 than I really wanted to (it’s a rather academic book). I do intend to finish it, someday.

The Guns at Last Light, by contrast, is definitely a popular history. There’s a lot more of “…he must have thought, as he gazed out over the ____ [assembled troops, windswept plain, etc]” and general America-(and-Britain)-is-great-this-is-the-good-war kind of stuff. Nevertheless it does provide a view from the level of both the commanders (mostly Eisenhower, decent amount of Montgomery, and so on) and the common soldier. (It is also a much quicker read than The Sleepwalkers.) If you’re interested in military history–or think you might be–then definitely check out Rick Atkinson, starting with “An Army at Dawn”. (As an aside: Atkinson is much, much better than Stephen E. Ambrose–Ambrose might as well have titled his books “Hoo-rah”, so just watch HBO’s Band of Brothers (which I do recommend) instead.)

* “My list” is a bit of web software I put together for fun. The source is available here, though there’s probably a bit of work to do before others can easily set it up for themselves. (And something like Goodreads is probably better, though I prefer to keep my data to myself.)

** I did read them sequentially, but in parallel with the fiction on this list. Generally I have an “upstairs book” (fiction, bedside) and a “downstairs book” (nonfiction, morning/weekend) going simultaneously. More information than you wanted, but that’s what blogs are for, right? (My downstairs book will soon again be Bertrand Russell, for the amusement of those who follow me on twitter.)

Book Report Catch-up

I’ve been lax in reporting on the books I’ve read–heck, we’ve been lax in updating the blog at all–so you’re going to get them all at once (and I apologize for the brevity). I’m going to try to remember all that I’ve read since the H.P. Lovecraft review, but I’m sure I’ve forgotten some. Without further ado:

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

My copy of the book had a much less awesome cover.

100% A+++. This book was, in a word, awesome. I could call it a story of a nerdy Dominican boy and his attempt to get laid, but that makes it sound more like a bro comedy and less like the actually wonderful, literary, and, yes, heartfelt novel that it is. This was recommended to me years ago, and I should have taken that recommendation immediately, as should you.

Excession, Iain M. Banks

I never actually got a good idea of what all these space ships actually looked like. I don’t think it was like that, though.

Excession is somewhere in the middle of Banks’ Culture series of novels, which tell of the doings of a benevolent post-scarcity society of humans administered by machines (i.e. robocommunism). I don’t read as much science fiction as I used to, but the late Iain M. Banks is definitely my favorite sci-fi author at the moment. I think my favorite is still the non-Culture book The Algebraist, but that could be because I’ve been reading the Culture novels out of order. Though his novels usually have a few too many plot twists and hidden agendas for me, and are occasionally too clever for their own good, I’m never disappointed. Recommended for anyone who thinks she may like science fiction.

Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon

Despite the appearance, it is not, in fact a record.

Having grown up around Telegraph Avenue itself, I noticed the few bits of artistic license Chabon takes with Oakland geography, but I can’t fault the novel as a whole. At first it took me a while to get into the whole stream-of-consciousness-from-a-parrot interlude in the middle of the book, but by the third page I was digging it. Definitely recommended for Oakland natives, and really anyone who likes a good book.

The Far Pavilions, M. M. Kaye

I think a proper movie of it would be at least PG-13.

Apparently this is a classic of British India historical fiction, a subgenre with which I am tragically unfamiliar. Though the book was altogether too long, I was still sad to see it come to an end. I think I’d recommend it for airport reading if you have to fly from the west coast to central Europe on three planes, say. (Also, every story or novel I read set in India only mentions the caste system for the sake of mentioning it, as in “Oh yeah, there’s this caste system here.” What’s up with that?)

The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton

There are a wide variety of covers for this one, understandably.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of this. It starts off strong, drags a bit in the middle, then really picks up before going off the deep end on a 2001-like bender. Wikipedia says it is “sometimes referred to as a metaphysical thriller.” Well, just about everything I’ve read to do with metaphysics is bunk, but I still liked this book. I think I’d recommend this one when you’re stuck in a waiting room somewhere, so the bored and slightly anxious frame of mind engendered by the absurdity of modern society will be fresh in your mind, encouraging you to distract yourself by trying to puzzle out what the heck Chesterton was getting at with all this Christian imagery (I suspect the message isn’t really that profound anyway).

Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon

Apparently this is also the name of a Mumford and Sons album. Go figure.

This far too short book hails from another area of historical fiction I am tragically unfamiliar with, that of the Khazar Kingdom, the only (?) Jewish state of the middle ages. (Though I assume I am unfamiliar with other such works because this is the only one.) It tells of the adventures of an unusual pair of vagabonds as they seek to etc. etc. This was surprisingly lighthearted given its my-family-was-horribly-murdered brand of realism, and actually had me laughing at some points, something I rarely do when reading. Highly recommended, to all. Especially if you yourself are on the road, in which case you can read it back-to-back with On the Road and compare and contrast (mostly contrast).

The Widower’s Tale, Julia Glass

This one probably wins for cover-least-successful-at-getting-across-the-point-of-the-book.

I read and thoroughly enjoyed Three Junes (also by Julia Glass) a few years back, and I think The Widower’s Tale is better. This is also quite a funny novel at times–enough so that we’ll be reading in bed and Anna (reading it on my recommendation) will suddenly burst out laughing (and jerk me awake in the process). Recommended for a lazy Sunday, or as a good bedtime novel (depending on your likelihood of laughter).

The Light of Evening, Edna O’Brien

See, don’t you really get a better idea what this one is about? (There are quite a few handwritten letters in it, for example.)

A novel about an Irish woman’s relationship with her mother, and her mother’s relationship with her mother, and various travels back and forth from America. Those of you who know my taste in literature will be surprised to hear that I liked it, though I thought it could have been a bit shorter. Recommended for those who want Amy Tan, but from Ireland.

When The Killing’s Done, T. C. Boyle

They probably did well for this cover by staying away from pictures of dead pigs.

I got about halfway through Boyle’s Tortilla Curtain before it got too depressing and I put it down. When The Killing’s Done is about the less depressing subject of the eradication of pigs from the Channel Islands off of Santa Barbara. While it certainly got bonus points for being local (I recognized the description of the Home Depot in one scene), it was a legitimately good book as well. I even ended up liking the character the reader is set up to hate. Recommended for those in a southern California frame of mind, or even those just wanting a brush with sunny Santa Barbara (though there was more rain in the novel than I am personally familiar with, having lived here for several years now).

Far Too Much of a (Mostly) Good Thing: H. P. Lovecraft

I recently finished the Library of America collection of H. P. Lovecraft, titled “Tales“. As a collection it is quite good; a compact volume covering a wide range of his career, with helpful notes to the texts as well. (Did you know that Cthulhu is intended to be pronounced “Khlûl’hloo”? Here I was going “Kah-too-loo” the whole time!) As for the texts themselves, well, let’s just say that Lovecraft was nothing if not thorough. And repetitive. And repetitive.


Here, have a picture of the guy.

The man loved his adjectives. Hardly a tome wasn’t dreaded, a secret not eldritch, an odor not noxious, a city not Cyclopean, or a moon not fungoid (!!). He also loved repeating his adjectives. And his descriptions of people, places, and events. I think part of it may have been that many of his stories were published serially, and thus the repetition served to remind readers of the previous chapters. Reading an entire story sequentially, though, became a bit tiring. Especially because it was virtually guaranteed to end with a revelation that had already been telegraphed to the reader, but was in italics nonetheless!

An Elder Thing

Aren’t Elder Things just so cute?

That’s not to say that the stories weren’t good. Many of them were great. His imagination and descriptive skill are fantastic. He also had a great ability to tie together his fictional entities across stories, introducing a new creature or race in a place seemingly consistent with his other creations in some barely-remembered way. (Uh oh, that last phrase sounds like something Lovecraft would have written. He’s getting to me.)

The Great Race of Yith

Somehow, when I was reading about them, I pictured the Great Race of Yith as being somewhat… greater.

Everyone should definitely read some Lovecraft at some point in their lives. Since I’ve gone to the trouble of reading a whole collection, I’ll just list for you the highlights, so you can skip the rest. In descending order of quality:

  • At the Mountains of Madness (the canonical example)
  • The Case of Charles Dexter Ward
  • The Music of Erich Zann (short and sweet)
  • The Whisperer in Darkness
  • The Shadow Out of Time
  • The Colour Out of Space
  • The Shadow Over Innsmouth

That should about cover it; to see the ones you should skip, look at the contents of this collection in the link I provided earlier, and subtract the list I just gave.

One more warning: H. P. Lovecraft was one racist motherfucker. Just so you know.

A Shoggoth

I couldn’t let you leave without a shoggoth, now could I?

In Progress

Garden in Copenhagen

I have what you might call a problem finishing books.  It isn’t that I don’t enjoy reading, since I probably read about a book per week at a minimum.  The issue is more one of over-enthusiasm. I catch myself browsing our book collection looking for my next reading hit while still in the middle of the last one.  It’s gotten so bad that I’ve run out of conventional bookmarks and have started using the postcards Peter’s parents send him on a regular basis (and with a large collection of postcards from the past few years there’s nothing stopping me).  Here is an abbreviated list (not including any of the half-finished books from the library, which are, thank goodness, no longer around to haunt me):

  1. Anna Karenina (by Tolstoy): this book just never dies.  At some point I forgot the beginning of the story and then I forgot the half-dozen names for each character, at which point things started not making sense.  I think the only way to read this book is to glom it, start to finish, a practice I reserve for Harry Potter.
  2. Emma (by Jane Austen): the mistake I made with this one was reading the literary spiel at the beginning.  By the time I started the actual story I was too intimidated to enjoy it, so instead I watched the BBC version.  Perhaps now I should start reading it again…
  3. The Table Comes First (by Adam Gopnik): this is the book Peter gave me for Christmas as wrapping paper for a gift card to the amazing Stonemountain and Daughter fabric store in Berkeley.  Unfortunately I have treated it as such, reading the first couple of chapters before I decided that the history of restaurants is rather dull.  Given the great reviews I’ve seen of this book, I really need to get over myself and get to what I imagine is a good part.  Somewhere.
  4. The Hours (by Michael Cunningham): I thought I could handle reading this book after seeing the movie version, but it’s just so hard to read about sad things.  A part of me also loved the movie so much that I don’t want the book to ruin it.  Now that is sad.
  5. Everything is Illuminated (by Jonathan Safran Foer): This was my morning reading book during the “winter”, when I would wake up and be so chilly that I would stand in front of the heater for 15 minutes every morning until I could bear it (being tired, cold, and awake).  It was glorious.  Now it’s spring time and I’ve moved on.
  6. The Light of Evening (by Edna O’Brien): my current upstairs book (both Peter and I have upstairs and downstairs books to read, because who can be bothered to walk up a flight of stairs?).  I like it because it’s about people in Ireland and what life was like a hundred years ago (although it goes up to the present later on, I’m told).  There’s all this jargon that I don’t understand and can’t be bothered to look up because I’m reading in bed, which just adds to the mystery.  I was experimenting with reading a book without a bookmark (quite successfully, I might add) until Peter’s parents sent us a postcard and took me out of my misery.
  7. The Seed Underground — A Growing Revolution to Save Food (by Janisse Ray): a library book about saving seeds and my current downstairs book.  I wasn’t expecting it to be political, so I was caught off-guard by some scary facts that I choose to half-ignore so I don’t have to run away from home and join a secret seed activist sect.  It does help to put the history of agriculture in perspective though, and has encouraged me to start saving more seeds… which I suppose is the book’s ultimate agenda.  Got me.

In case you aren’t interested in books, here is a photo of a chocolate medallion Peter and I ate in Naples.  You’re welcome!

Chocolate medallion