|Reading Fall 2003|
|11/20/03 -- For my birthday Cabell sent me a couple of books. This one, The Myth of Pope Joan, was on my wish list at Amazon. I'm liking it so far. It's translated from the French of author Alain Boureau, which may in part explain why I've already hit two new words in it (stercory and polysemy, which mean respectively shit and the phenomenon of words having multiple meanings). It's a historical examination of the persistent story of the female Pope, said by the author to be a 13th-century myth about ninth-century events. It was among the references used by the writer of the novel Pope Joan that I read in August.|
|11/19/03 -- After Paradise I read The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. This is a great book. It's gripping and readable, and at the same time it explores important ideas -- whether we are free, the nature of time, love, art . It makes you feel the pain and joy of spending time with those you love. This is science fiction of the best sort. Apparently it's a selection in the Today Show Book Club. I didn't know there was one.|
|11/ 17/03 -- Finished reading Paradise. It's a good book: I always like Toni Morrison, because of her language if nothing else. This is the sort of book that always appeals to me anyway. Morrison doesn't give you much exposition -- things just happen, and you find out about people and their history in a seemingly natural way, in the course of events. And a lot of things you never do really find out, which gives the feeling of depth and mystery. "They shoot the white girl first," reads the first line, but you never are sure which one was white. This book should make for a great discussion at book group.|
|11/12/03 -- Now I'm starting to re-read Paradise, by Toni Morrison. We're discussing it in book group pretty soon, so I thought I might as well brush up on it now. The first time I read it, a couple of years ago, I was pretty mystified, so maybe I'll get more from it this time.|
|11/11/03 -- After finishing Heart of Darkness I was looking for something light. This (Loitering with Intent, by Muriel Sparks) was on top of some books on a shelf and I'd skimmed the first page a couple of times before. What a delightful read -- Spark's dry English wit and the practical, frank mien of her heroine make this a really enjoyable story. The cover says that serious literary matters lurk under the surface -- the relationship of the author to her characters and the nature of the creative imagination, no doubt -- but I just found it a pleasure to read. Learned a new word, too. "Orgulous," which is an archaic term for proud or haughty.|
|11/ 8/03 -- Started reading Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. The edition I have also includes The Secret Sharer. Seemed reasonable to read the real thing, after reading Silverberg's potboiler. I finished it in a couple of days. It's only a novella. A really fine book, not about Africa in any serious way, but rather about the role that Africa plays in the imagination of Europeans. The central question is one that is always current: What would you be like if you were totally free? What is at the core of your self? Kurtz answers in his last breath, "The horror .. the horror."|
|11/5/03 -- Walt loaned me his copy of I'm Back for More Cash, by Tony Kornheiser. It's a collection of Kornheiser's syndicated newspaper columns from the period before he started the ESPN show Pardon the Interruption. Some of the columns are funny, but I like him better on TV. He self-deprecatingly compares himself to Dave Barry, and the comparison rings all too true. I read this and Lord of Darkness simultaneously, reading the latter mostly in bed, and this one at other odd moments.|
|11/4/03 -- Started reading Lord of Darkness by Robert Silverberg. I've read it before, but some years ago. I was just in the mood for a page-turner. Silverberg is known for his science fiction, but this is a historical novel loosely based on the actual life of Andrew Battell, a 16th century English ship pilot who was captured by the Portuguese off South America and shipped to Africa, where he was held for many years. The book is a picaresque novel, filled with battles and boinking. It's kind of like Shogun Goes to Africa, but with more sex. Entertaining.|
|10/29/03 -- Started reading Why God Won't Go Away by Newberg, D'aquili, and Rause. Two of the authors are neurophysiologists who have worked with the localization of brain activity associated with religious experience. The book is written in a rather clichéd, "ain't science wonderful" style, but the science is interesting.|
|10/23/03 -- Started reading Mirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked. I loved Wicked, liked Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, thought Lost was okay -- so I was a bit apprehensive about the trend. I think this one is perhaps second best of his, after Wicked. I particularly enjoyed the dwarves and their lair, all of whom become tamed by association with Snow White -- the dwarves, in fact, are rendered human by eating the apple from the garden of Eden. Maguire takes fairy tales and fills them in with neglected complexities -- this one is very well done, both readable and layered with allusions.|
|10/18/03 -- Well, I have to agree with Robin on this one -- I couldn't get through the Siege of Isfahan. It just didn't hold my interest. So, about two-thirds of the way through, I gave up on it. Instead, I read Death of a Stranger by Anne Perry. It's a Victorian murder mystery, one of an extensive series. I found it readable, but I thought some of the major scenes were completely unbelievable. Furthermore, there's too much revelation of the thoughts of the characters -- it comes off very didactic. I don't recommend this one.|
|10/16/03 -- So now I'm starting The Siege of Isfahan, by Jean-Christophe Rufin. I picked it up on the bargain table at Barnes & Noble. I liked The Abyssinian, by the same author, though Robin thought it was poorly written.|
10/16/03 -- Just finished
Excuses, by Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom. It's a study of the
educational disparity between Blacks and Hispanics vs. whites and Asians
in the U.S. The authors have impressive civil rights credentials,
but the research they have reviewed here is profoundly disturbing.
The average black high school senior scores on standardized tests at a
level equivalent to that of the average white 8th grader. Even
studies that use multivariate statistics to control for income level,
parents' level of education, etc., find that about 3/4 of this gap remains
unexplained. The Thernstroms argue that the difference is cultural,
and that the only successes in alleviating it have come from charter
schools. Excellent teaching, they claim, makes a difference, and
public schools, with their rigid pay scales and lack of autonomy, can't
attract or support the teachers needed.
I lack the background in this area to judge whether they have represented the research fairly or selectively, but if they have represented it fairly, it's a very strong case for charter schools and vouchers. My problem with this is mainly that vouchers where I live will simply amount to government support for religious schools. There are no private secular schools here, and I suspect this is the case in more places than voucher proponents are willing to admit. Perhaps if there were a voucher system, such schools would spring up, but I hate to think of chancing a system where the only choices for a parent like me would be sending my kids to a religious school or to a public school populated only by those students who had been tossed out of the private ones. Not that religious schools are necessarily poor; in many cases, I know, they are excellent. In this county, though, I'm pretty sure they're all teaching kids that the Earth is a few thousand years old and that they ain't kin to no monkeys.
|10/13/03 -- Finished reading The Affair of the Poisons. It's a fascinating story, but it palls after a while, mainly because the main characters are so uniformly unpleasant. Whether Madame de Montespan actually plotted to poison the King or not, she and all the rest of the courtiers were such a bunch of conniving, self-centered, superficial snots that you just wish they'd all poison each other. The most startling part of the book is the accounts of Black Masses, complete with sacrifice of infants, which were given by several different prisoners independently, with sufficient matching detail to persuade the chief police officer of Paris that they really had occurred. I'd always thought that such accounts sprung from the lurid imaginations of witch-hunters, but the evidence of these events suggests there really were people who performed such ceremonies. The author connects this with a persistent cult of witchcraft predating the Christianization of Europe, but I think the evidence is exceedingly thin for that interpretation. Rather, it seems more likely to me that these rituals were devised by the bored and debauched aristocrats based on what they'd read of witch trials from the preceding century -- life consciously imitating art. Scary stuff, in any case.|
|10/10/03 -- I finished A
Free Man of Color. I found the plot a little hard to follow in
spots, but I think largely because I was reading it late in the evening
when tired. The character of Benjamin January, educated in Paris as
a surgeon, a talented pianist, and, in his native New Orleans, at risk of
being sold as a slave if he were to lose his papers, is an appealing one.
Hambly's evocation of the complex caste system of 19th century Louisiana
is fascinating, and I'm looking forward to reading others of the series.
I've given up on Thomas Muentzer, A Destroyer of the Godless. It's just a bit heavy going to read for entertainment. I think the book is a fine reference for someone who'd like to popularize this story, or who is writing a dissertation on the times, but I don't have the background in the history and theology of the Reformation to follow the disputes between Muentzer and Luther.
So, now I've started reading The Affair of the Poisons, by Frances Mossiker, a historical account of the events fictionalized in The Oracle Glass -- that is, of the swamp of hidden intrigue, political, sexual, and occult, that surrounded the court of the Sun King in 17th century France. No picture for this one -- it's out of print.
|10/7/03 -- In the meantime, Muentzer's a little demanding for reading in bed, so I read Carl Hiaasen's Basket Case. I always enjoy Hiaasen, but I didn't think this one was as good as some -- somehow it seemed a little restrained to me. I then started reading A Free Man of Color, by Barbara Hambly. I really like her fantasy works -- The Time of the Dark series was good, for instance -- and I read Those Who Hunt the Night, a historical vampire novel, and thought it was okay, if not great. A Free Man of Color is the first of a series of mysteries set in the 19th century, this one in Louisiana. The protagonist is an educated man of mixed race who has returned from Paris to New Orleans and finds himself mixed up in a murder.|
|10/2/03 -- Somewhere or other I stumbled onto a reference to Thomas Muentzer, a rival of Martin Luther who led an abortive peasant revolt during the Reformation. I got interested and Interlibrary Loaned a copy of Thomas Muentzer, a Destroyer of the Godless by Abraham Friesen. So far, it's a bit heavy going; my background in early Protestant theology is not as strong as it should be, I fear. Still, the events involved seem pretty exciting. I'll see how it goes.|
|9/28/03 -- I also started reading Mendoza in Hollywood, by Kage Baker. This is third in the same series as Sky Coyote, which I read earlier. It's entertaining so far, as have been her other books. I'm reading this one at night when I'm not in the mood for paleontology. 10/2 - And I finished it on the same day. It may be the best of the three, actually. As always, entertaining, and this time enlivened by both some California history of the 1860s and a bit of Hollywood twentieth-century lore.|
|9/28/03 - Now I'm reading When Life Nearly Died -- Michael Benton (loaned from Bill Eddleman). It's an account of the Permian extinction, or more properly a history of the understanding of mass extinctions by geologists and paleontologists. Very interesting and well written. 10/2/03 -- Well, I finished reading it. It was a surprisingly easy read for a geology book, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. The profiles of important paleontologists and their influence on the field were particularly lively. Basically, the story of this book is that geologists were mostly catastrophists up until the beginning of the 19th century, imagining that all the strata were deposited in cataclysmic events like worldwide floods, etc., unlike any processes operating today. Lyell dispelled this idea in the early 1800s, and it was replaced with uniformitarianism. This view held correctly that the physical laws governing the processes forming the earth are the same now as always, but also insisted with little evidence that the rates of these processes have always been constant. Only in the late 20th century has it become acceptable, as the result of very extensive evidence, to postulate that some events in Earth history have been larger in scale that we have seen since humans got here. Best known is the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs and about 50% of all living species at the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago. This book deals with the end-Permian extinction, around 248 million years ago, which caused the extinction of 95% of all life at the time, paving the way for the rise of dinosaurs in the Mesozoic. Benton explores the possible explanations and describes the evidence for the scenario thought most probable right now.|
|9/26/03 -- Finished Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott. This is another book I found in Sophie's loft. We've had several books by Lamott for some time -- I think I bought Bird by Bird for Robin some years ago after hearing Lamott interviewed on NPR. But I never read anything by her until this book, mainly because the others were essays or short stories, and I generally lean toward novels. The book is a sort of coming-of-age story about a just barely teenaged tennis player and her mother. Lamott has an extraordinarily keen eye for the nuances of relationships -- so much keener than my own that I'm probably missing a lot when I read this book. Her prose is just laser-like, never pretentious or unnatural, but inventive and precise. An excellent book, and now I'm thinking I should read more of her stuff.|
|9/24/03 -- Finished reading The Oracle Glass, by Judith M. Riley. I've been mining my daughter's room for books lately -- that's where I found the last two, as well as this one. She's away at college, and her loft is a veritable treasure house of books. I don't know where this one came from, though I could have given it to her. Anyway, it's about a young woman who can read the future in water, who is taken under the wing of Le Voisin, a notorious occultist and poisoner in 17th century Paris. This is historical fiction; Le Voisin and many of the characters were actual people, and there was an immense scandal under the Sun King that resulted in the execution of numerous alleged witches, Satanists, and poisoners. The book is entertaining, though unevenly written. The first couple of sentences contain some of the clumsiest exposition I've ever seen, but it got better. The main failing is in the love affairs of the heroine, which as usual read like bad romance novel prose. I guess it's tough to write well about love, and really easy to write about it in a sappy and turgid way.|
-- Finished reading
The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living, by Martin Clark. This is
another book I read sometime early this year and then forgot about -- a
lot of it came back to me on re-reading, but I still enjoyed it again.
It's a peculiar story of a sort of seedy judge and his much seedier
brother, who become involved in a complicated plot and some possibly
supernatural events -- very entertaining. Clark's writing is
absolutely great. This is one of those books that hooked me with a
really stellar first couple of pages. I tend to read the first page
or two in the bookstore, and if it's great, I buy it. Why not?
Sure, authors put their best work in those first few pages, but if it's
really good, how bad can the rest of the book be? Clark starts out
talking about Herman Stovall, a gas station attendant in Winston-Salem,
North Carolina. Herman didn't believe that astronauts landed on the moon,
or that gorillas existed.
How can you resist that paragraph?
|9/18/03 -- Okay, I'm guessing at the dates here. I haven't caught up on this list for almost two weeks, and it's a bit hard to remember. But Robert Crais doesn't take that long to read, so two days sounds about right. It did turn out that I had read the book, but it was back at the beginning of the year right after my father died, and I think I was a bit out of it. I still enjoyed it, as I really had forgotten a lot about it. Nothing too deep, but a good read.|
9/16/03 -- I think I'll
read Indigo Slam by Robert Crais. I'm not actually sure if I read
this one before. Probably, because how could it have hung around the
house for any length of time without my reading it? But I don't
remember it, so it's just about as good as new.
9/15/03 -- Finished Death
in Paradise. Parker is always a joy to read, and the new Jesse Stone
series is every bit as good as the Spenser books, though by now I've seen
all of Parker's tough-guy philosophy several times. Still, the
stories are entertaining, and nobody does dialogue as well as Parker.
Started Poe's Cat, but I wasn't in the mood. It's written in a prose that is so self-consciously lapidary that it seems to get in the way of the book. Maybe I'd like it another time, but right now I seem to have a craving for easy reading -- crime fiction is calling to me.
9/14/03 -- Finished
re-reading Shogun by James Clavell. I enjoyed it again; I think I
last read it when it came out in paperback, in 1976. It gives a very
compelling picture of 17th century Japanese culture, and its sharp
contrasts with the culture of 17th century European "barbarians." I
don't know how accurate it is, but the world of the book is very fully
developed. The writing is workmanlike, and the plot moves the book
along very quickly. Clavell does have an annoying technique of
letting the omnipotent narrator into various people's inner thoughts or
not as the whim takes him -- I think it's a sort of cheating to do this,
but it didn't keep me from enjoying the story.
Started Death in Paradise by Robert B. Parker.
|9/7/03 -- Finished Dersu the Trapper, started re-reading Shogun. Dersu was an interesting work. The writer was a big fan of James Fenimore Cooper, though his accounts of natives and the wilderness are much more knowledgeable than Cooper's (read Mark Twain on Cooper if you haven't). The book is refreshing in a way because it doesn't adhere to the conventions of modern writing so much. He'll be telling a story about some danger overcome in the taiga, and stop along the way to describe the plants in some valley replete with scientific names. This gives the book a feeling of verisimilitude -- as if you'd found this journal in an attic somewhere and discovered it was full of amazing adventures, interspersed in the careful records of a surveyor and naturalist.|
9/2/03 -- Now I'm about to start Dersu the Trapper by V.K. Arseniev, the inspiration for the Kurosawa film Dersu Uzala. A true story, with a few stretchers, written around 1910.
|9/2/03 -- Finished Legally Blonde, by Amanda Brown. Actually, I started Bloodsucking Fiends sometime on the 31st, then finished it the next day, and started Legally Blonde on the 1st, and finished it this evening. I enjoyed the story, and there's a certain appeal to having a beautiful sorority girl placed in the position of being unpopular in dweeby Standford Law School, then triumphing over adversity. The problem is the writing, which is at the teen-fiction-bludgeon-the-reader level throughout. There is never an implied idea in this book. But, hey, I read it, so it wasn't as bad as some.|
9/1/03 -- Read Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story by Christopher Moore. Another great read by Moore. The guy is an absolute artist. I just love his language. The only thing I have against his books is that they move so fast for me that they're over too soon. The only thing to do is go back and re-read them, I guess.
|Reading Summer 2003|