2008: Books Read

December

Bill Bryson: The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, 1989.
Overall, a pretty pointless book. Worthwhile for the incidental humor, which is pretty thick. But there isn’t much of a book there. However plenty of good touches, for instance a quick thorough paragraph debunking colonial Williamsburg. Or the magazine rack at a small bookstore, containing Machine Gun Collector, Obese Bride, Christian Woodworker, and Home Surgery Digest.
G. K. Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, 1908.
Very good. Just enough trap-doors to make it interesting, not too much. Gimmicky but not annoying. The end obviously taught C. S. Lewis how to do it.
Kurt Vonnegut: Cat’s Cradle, 1963.
More thoroughly real of a world than I expected. The tornadoes, the details of the presidential palace. The short chapter discussing book-indexing. Threads well-woven and everything together reinforcing the feeling of the overall book. Very satisfied.
Neil Gaiman: Stardust, 1999.
Has the same problem I run into everywhere in Neil Gaiman (a large place), he can’t make up his mind how far he’s just kidding. Gives me regular abrupt shocks, and I wind up just not trusting him to have his reader’s interest foremost. Certainly very talented but the backdrop is pasteboard.
Flannery O’Connor: Everything That Rises Must Converge, 1965.
I loved these stories in college but they’re unrecognizable now. My favorite one seems indelicate and revengeful and some I didn’t think much of are full of life and variety. And the ones I liked then and still like now are completely different. Have depth in different dimensions from what I thought they did. Painful to read, as well, being in a do-gooder kind of job. Not much, or maybe too much, sympathy.
Evelyn Waugh: Helena, 1950.
I didn’t know what to expect about this book, but I was wrong. Not good, exactly, but practical-minded and craftsmanly.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Brown Book, 1958 (1933-4).
Again, quite true that it’s a good introduction to Philosophical Investigations. Much that I didn’t realize I didn’t understand, the point of certain points, is explicit here.
Thomas Pynchon: Vineland, 1984.
You read Pynchon for the variety, of course, not the plot, but it was disappointing. Nearly as bad as Kill Bill, but also much better. Just so much well-controlled imagination. And completely recognizable America from my first decade. I felt it return. Would like to hear a recording of “Just Like William Powell”. I think I am ready to reread Gravity’s Rainbow, as I recall the plot was less mawkish, that’s really the only downside of this one.
Peter Balakian: Black Dog of Fate, 1997.
Was a ordinary boring eccentric family memoir then somehow halfway through exploded into world history in a way that made it completely different, for me. Very much liked it but I haven’t found anyone else to have had the same experience as me in reading it.
Zadie Smith: White Teeth, 2000.
I liked this book, but it seemed to be a little more about the author’s talent and a little less about the story. Okay for a first book, should find another and see how they changed. Anyway it was enjoyable.
Elmore Leonard: Killshot, 1989.
Professionally done. I like the irony and the characterization. Reassuring to think of criminals as basically stupid people who can’t see very far ahead.
Herman Hesse: Steppenwolf, 1929 (1927).
Didn’t like it. Disappointing, I wanted to. But there just isn’t all that much there. Too much conceptual, and weak on the conceptual.
Ferrol Sams: The Whisperer of the River, 1984.
Surprisingly good. Has a lot of range and gives a really full picture of the college education I missed while I was studying. A way of life painted showing all the sides. Would like to read more there apparently is a series.

November

Jhumpa Lahiri: Interpreter of Maladies, 1999.
This was an excellent book. It’s like getting to know a whole raft of people, and exchanging secrets and thoughts with them. Very inner while being very real and various. Efficient.
David Hume: Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748.
Not as good as the bigger book. Retains the skeletons of the arguments without all the lively examples and worldly-wise backdrop of the mind of the author that was there in the Treatise. Of course not bad, but weak as a follow-up. Somehow felt the author was just phoning it in.
Elie Wiesel: Night, 1960 (1958).
Minimal drama, is how I would characterize it. Vivid and real and important somehow. The picture of misery just somehow happening, nobody seems to be doing it, not even the people doing it, it all just happens somehow and is horrible.
Richard Hofstadter: The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made It, 1948.
Herbert Hoover, apparently, had had a couple very successful careers already as a businessman and a philanthropist (and a reasonable voice at the armistice negotiations) before he became president. Fascinating picture. Also WIlliam Jennings Bryan really ended as he began, as the voice of not very well-informed people without much of an idea of his own. Need to learn more about FDR, everyone seems to think there isn’t much there there with him, but he was amazing anyhow.
Margaret Wertheim: Pythagoras’ Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars, 1995.
I think it was good. Any overall history of this much time in any subject will have some parts that are questionable. The feminist angle, the physicist as male priest, it made me think. Also the large number of women mathematicians and physicists in history, I was not aware.
Carl Sagan: Contact, 1985.
Haven’t read any hard science fiction in years, but I really enjoyed this a lot. Like going back to pb&j on white or something. More like this, please.
Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy in America, 2003 (1835 & 1840).
The relation between political associations and other types of associations. The importance of the character of a people for its institutions to work – countries are different and people act differently in different countries, you can’t import things from abroad and expect them to work the way they do at home. The specificity of each case. So then what do you do to help another country, one that wants to change?
Chad Taylor: Departure Lounge, 2006.
Didn’t see the point of this one. Don’t think the author particularly cared for it either.
Philipp Frank: Einstein: His Life and Times, 1947.
The absurd way that politics enters into people’s lives. If it was a play, it would have had many pointless passages. I think the science was well-treated.
Heimito von Doderer: The Waterfalls of Slunj, 1966 (1964).
I expected it to be strange but it just meanders. Enjoyable, gives a sense of I could do that. On a human level, I suppose.

October

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Blue Book, 1958 (1933-34).
Less gripping than I found it in college but on the other hand I understand it a lot better. The problems seem less important but what he has to say about them seems more rational and is easier for me to follow and adapt for myself.
Robert Kaplan: The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero, 1999.
Finally, an explanation of the Mayan calendar that I understand. Some very interesting parts, some pretty boring. The tone sometimes matches, sometimes not.
Gabriel García Márquez: One Hundred Years of Solitutde, 1970 (1967).
No, I still like this one. Seems more light-hearted than last time, doesn’t give me shivers like before.
Robert D. Kaplan: Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military, from Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq and Beyond, 2005.
The best way for a policy-maker to get to know the area he is making policy for is to make long, boring, pointless journeys in it and waste a lot of time doing nothing with different people. Sounds like good advice to me.
Patricia Highsmith: Strangers on a Train, 1950.
Terrifying for me. Somehow gathers together strong insecurities. I can only wriggle when I’m reading it. The first five pages of it brought back the first memory of readig it so strongly I had to leave it for several days and tire myself out before I could get into it again, and only struggle out the other site.
Martin Heidegger: What Is Called Thinking?, 1968 (1954).
Coming to a better understanding of this book, many obscure passages seem clearer now with less effort than last time I read it, six years ago. But the last two chapters are still almost entirely obscure to me. And it’s still impossible to read more than a few pages at a sitting.
Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities, 1859.
Not his best. Could be longer, like he didn’t quite have room. Unlike the other later shorter books, still in the style of the longer but without the space. The political reality of the French Revolution and the Terror communicated very well, somehow thoroughly Dickensified and also at the same time reality itself.
Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn: The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation I-II, 1973.
Very, very different than I thought it would be. Much more style and humor, and such a wide array of anecdotes. Typifies a kind of genre: rambling, humorous, mixing history, contemporary and political, with sharp personal elements, autobiographical and stylistic. Factual, vivid.
John Kenneth Galbraith: Name-Dropping, From FDR On, 1999.
“The universal cause of poverty is a shortage of money among those experiencing it. The obvious – indeed, the only relevant – cure is money.” Not to mention the anecdotes, especially about Johnson.
Alexander McCall Smith: The Tears of the Giraffe, 2000.
Better, still cute. Some entertaining discussion of the fruitlessness of international aid work.
Ivan Illich: Shadow Work, 1981.
There is much that is interesting in the book, buried beneath specious analogies, pointless historical excursions and general blanket contempt for ordinary people, common sense, and other points of view. I’d like to find something else of his, since this one seems sort of thrown together: The Right to Useful Unemployment sounds like a good title.
Tim O’Brien: If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me up and Ship Me Home, 1975.
Better in many ways than The Things They Carried, doesn’t have the few vivid images that have stayed with me from that other one but seems realer, gives a better idea of the length of life in Vietnam, and isn’t so obnoxiously written.
Jonathon Franzen: The Corrections, 2001.
A novel, exactly like a novel. There are some rough patches and it’s not all of a piece. But I liked especially the broad range of knowledge of various areas of life, that you don’t normally see come together except in the context of your own life. And I’m more perplexed than ever, what exactly would someone who wrote that have against Oprah?

September

Robert S. McNamara: In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, 1996 (1995).
There is much I don’t know about history, especially American history, especially after 1945. I don’t think I had an opinion about McNamara beforehand, but reading his book I went through many different opinions of him, good and bad. And now I feel like I know him somewhat, and I should look for other views of the period covered in the book to compare others’ opinions. Also a good book to think about organizational culture, and how to get things done that need to be done by large numbers of people.
Jack Kerouac: The Dharma Bums, 1958.
I liked it when I was reading it, but somehow it didn’t hang together. And every time I would come back to it, I would get this cringe of cliquey feeling. Not pleasant. But it definitely has its strengths, and if it was really done all in one draft, I am very impressed, amazed.
Alexander McCall Smith: The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, 1998.
Very good of its kind. I might say it’s like Cannery Row, Banana Yoshimoto’s first book and Mulliner Nights, only without the distinguishing features or special strengths of any of them, if that wasn’t completely meaningless.
Nick Hornby: High Fidelity, 1995.
Perfect in it own way. Also not any different, not any worse, rereading it. More like an old friend who hasn’t changed and makes you feel that you haven’t.
Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace, 1978 (1957, 1869).
I think this is the fourth time I’ve read it. I feel like I have spent the week and a half just spacing out and remembering my own life instead of reading someone else’s imaginary story. I remember being irritated by what I thought of as authorial intrusions the first time I read it but now I see them as entirely part of the whole experience. The museum with the curator. Or more like the town with the local gossip, it’s just not the same without it and he’s another part of it, as well.
Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha, 1951 (1922).
I expected something like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for Buddhism, but instead I got an interesting book. Reading it slowly made it taste better. Also found it comforting: the thought that it’s just the way some people are, to go from role to role, and not achieve anything that is left behind. It takes all kinds to make up a world, including the kind that comes and goes and you never knew they were there or who they were.
Gabriel García Márquez: The Autumn of the Patriarch, 1976 (1975).
Not sure I understand what he was after. But a fun ride.
David Hume: A Treatise of Human Nature, 1978 (1888, 1739-1740).
Didn’t read it this time how I remember reading it: the reasoning and conclusions are less interesting to me now (though I can see in an abstract way that they ought to be interesting), what I paid more attention to are his examples and exceptions, the specifics used to draw out the reasoning. People are affectionate to a rich and powerful man not because they can get something from them, but because it’s easier to feel the power of riches when you are near a rich person, and that feeling of power is pleasant.
Rory Stewart: The Places in Between, 2006 (2004).
Of course I am grateful that he took the journey, and for the skill with which he wrote about it, and for his knowledge and attentiveness. But I couldn’t help thinking: he doesn’t show much respect for the people who love him; there was nothing larger than himself he would have been sacrificed for, nothing he would have left them with, but his stupid dirty death if he had died, or permanently damaged himself. Not cute. You have to hope, for them at least if not for him, he figures out what his problem is, and solves it.
John Steinbeck: East of Eden, 1952.
It’s not that the ending is unsatisfactory, because it’s like other transitional periods in the book. As if: he wanted to make something that was all at once transition from one story to another, appropriate and complete ending to a story, a simple realistic ceasing to tell the story, and something else. But the book is larger than I thought it would be, and the pace is appropriate to the grand scale without making the figures indistinct, in front of the landscape.
Albert Hourani: A History of the Arab Peoples, 1991.
Good, I think. Not familiar with this type of book, and it does seem a type: particular rhythm of the events and aspects of ages; the one-sentence canned biographies of cultural figures; and the huge span of time covered with seeming indifference. Would like to know more about: the Saudi royal family, Ottoman governance (many different aspects); Mauritania and Morocco; and in general the politics of the Arab states since their independence. Which is exactly what this type of book should be for, isn’t it.
John Updike: Rabbit, Run, 1960.
Nothing like what I remember from 16 years old. Also not at all what I expected. So much enjoyment in the writing, fine embroidery-work wherever there is a space for it; but the story cut in such square slabs.
Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner, 2003.
The parts set in Afghanistan read like a historical novel. Chunks of research and anachronistic impressions from travel. But the American part in the middle was much more lively, and the characters from it are human-shaped. And then back to Afghanistan and once again ridiculousness, however retainning some of the humanity of the middle part.

August

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross: On Death and Dying, 1969.
Lewis Thomas: The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher,1974.
Madeline L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time, 1962.
Sarah Chayes: The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Taliban, 2006.
Armistead Maupin: The Night Listener, 2000.
Taner Akçam: A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility, 2006.
Paulo Coelho: The Zahir, 2006 (2005).
Kenzaburo Oë: A Personal Matter, 1969 (1964).
Ryunosuke Akutagawa: Rashomon and 17 Other Stories, 2006 (1915-1927).
Thomas Merton: Mystics and Zen Masters, 1967 (1961-1967).
Bill Bryson: A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, 1999.
Michael J. Arlen: Passage to Ararat, 1975.
Vladimir Nabokov: The Defense, 1964 (1930).

July

Robert D. Kaplan: Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, 2000.
Charles Dickens: Bleak House, 1853.
Isak Dinesen: Seven Gothic Tales, 1934.
Edmund Wilson: Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, 1962.
Ronald Grigor Suny: The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1993.
Dave Eggers: What is the What, 2006.
Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried, 1990.
Iris Murdoch: The Time of the Angels, 1966.
Rudyard Kipling: Captains Courageous, 1897.
John Le Carré: Smiley’s People, 1980.
Stefano Benni: Timeskipper, 2008.
Yukio Mishima: The Sound of Waves, 1956 (1954).
Spider Robinson: Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, 1999 (1977).
Michael Lewis: Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage of Wall Street, 1989.
Jill Ker Conway: The Road to Corrain, 1989.

June

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations, 1944 (circa 170).
Ernest Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises, 1926.
Iris Murdoch: The Sandcastle, 1957.
Raymond Chandler: Farewell, My Lovely, 1940.
John Le Carré: The Looking-Glass War, 1965.
H. Rider Haggard: King Solomon’s Mines, 1885.
Daniel Defoe: Moll Flanders, 1722.
Vladimir Nabokov: Pnin, 1957.
J. M. Coetzee: The Master of Petersburg, 1994.
Evelyn Waugh: Vile Bodies, 1930.

May

Iris Murdoch: The Green Knight, 1993.
Sirapie Der Nersessian: The Armenians, 1969.
Karen Connelly: Dream of a Thousand Lives: A Sojourn in Thailand (Touch the Dragon: A Thai Journal), 2001 (1993).
William Saroyan: The Human Comedy, 1943.
James M. Cain: Double Indemnity, 1943 (1936).
Razmik Panossian: The Armenians: From Kings and Priests to Merchants and Commissars, 2006.
Fumiko Enchi: The Waiting Years, 1971 (1957).
Anthony Powell: At Lady Molly’s, 1957.
Jack Womack: Let’s Put the Future Behind Us, 1996.

April

Wes D. Gehring: Screwball Comedy: A Genre of Madcap Romance, 1986.
Iris Murdoch: A Severed Head, 1961.
Taner Akçam: From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide, 2004.
Oliver Sacks: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, 1985 (1970-1984).
Michael Chabon: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, 1988.
William Gibson: Neuromancer, 1984.
Mikhail Bulgakov: A Dead Man’s Memoir (A Theatrical Novel), 2007 (1965, 1936-7).
Harold Bierman, Jr.:The Causes of the 1929 Stock Market Crash: A Speculative Orgy or a New Era?, 1998.
Ronald Grigor Suny: Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History, 1993 (1979-1989).
Leo Tolstoy: Resurrection, 1994 (1916, 1899).
J. Otto Pohl: Ethnic Cleansing in the USSR, 1937-1949, 1999.
Thomas de Waal: Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War, 2003.
Yukiko Tanaka, ed: Unmapped Territories: New Women’s Fiction from Japan, 1991 (various).
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: The Evolving Self: A Psychology For the Third Millennium, 1993.
Friedrich Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and No One, 1961 (1884-1892).
Hwang Sun-Won: The Book of Masks, 1989 (1980, 1976).
W. G. Sebald: The Rings of Saturn, 1998 (1995).
Norbert Ehrenfreund: The Nuremberg Legacy: How the Nazi War Crimes Trials Changed the Course of History, 2007.
Jonah Lehrer: Proust Was a Neuroscientist, 2007.
Ishmael Beah: A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, 2007.
Anthony Powell: The Acceptance World, 1955.

March

Arthur O. Lovejoy: The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, 1936 (1933).
Iris Murdoch: The Sea, the Sea, 1978.
Richard H. Armstrong: A Compulsion for Antiquity: Freud and the Ancient World, 2005.
Anthony Powell: A Buyer’s Market, 1952.
Gert Ledig: Payback, 2003 (1999, 1956).
Patrick Hamilton: Hangover Square: A Story of Darkest Earl’s Court, 1941.
Theodor W. Adorno: Philosophy of Modern Music, 1973 (1958, 1948, 1941/8).
Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May: Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, 1986.
Natsume Soseki: Kusamakura (The Grass Pillow / The Three-Cornered World), 2008 (1906).
Richard Yancey: Confessions of a Tax Collector: One Man’s Tour of Duty Inside the IRS, 2004.
Chuck Klosterman: Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story, 2005.
Norman Sherry: Conrad’s Western World, 1971.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, 1990.
William Faulkner: Absalom, Absalom!, 1936.
Georges Simenon: The Strangers in the House, 2006 (1951, 1940).
W. G. Sebald: Vertigo, 1999 (1990).
Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1969 (1962).
Friedrich Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, 1998 (1886).
Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, eds: Wayfarer: New Fiction by Korean Women, 1997 (various).

February

Robert Alter: Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel, 2005.
Ira Glass, ed: The New Kings of Nonfiction, 2007 (various).
Friedrich Nietzsche: The Gay Science, 1974 (1887, 1882).
David Rakoff: Don’t Get Too Comfortable, 2005.
Henry Roth: Call It Sleep, 1934.
Andrew Bowie: Music, Philosophy and Modernity, 2007.
Dezső Kosztolanyi: Anna Édes, 1991 (1926).
Susan Oyama: Evolution’s Eye: A Systems View of the Biology-Culture Divide, 2000.
Georges Simenon: Tropic Moon, 2005 (1933).
Anthony Powell: A Question of Upbringing, 1951.
Eric Hobsbawm: The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848, 1961.
Natsume Soseki: And Then, 1978 (1909).
Graham Greene: Stamboul Train, 1934.
William Gibson: Mona Lisa Overdrive, 1988.
Richard E. Neustadt: Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership; With Reflections on Johnson and Nixon, 1976 (1968, 1960).
W. G. Beasley: Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945, 1987.
Junichi Saga: Confessions of a Yakuza: A Life in Japan’s Underworld (The Gambler’s Tale), 1991 (1989).
Franz Kafka: The Trial, 1998 (1990, 1925).

January

Daniel Goffman: The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe, 2002.
Oliver Sacks: Awakenings, 1990 (1973).
E. J. Hobsbawm: Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, 1992 (1990).
Hannah Arendt: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1964 (1963).
Christoph Zürcher: The Post-Soviet Wars: Rebellion, Ethnic Conflict, and Nationhood in the Caucasus, 2007.
James Baldwin: Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, 1968.
Benedict Anderson: Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 1991 (1983).
Robert Alter: The Art of Biblical Narrative, 1981 (1975-1980).
G. B. Edwards: The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, 1981 (? – 1976).
Iris Murdoch: An Accidental Man, 1971.
Natsume Soseki: Grass on the Wayside, 1969 (1915).
Erez Manela: The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism, 2007.
Umberto Eco: Baudolino, 2002 (2000).
Roland Grigor Suny: The Making of the Georgian Nation, 1994 (1988).
Natsume Soseki: The Gate, 1972 (1910).
Alan Weisman: The World Without Us, 2007.
David Rakoff: Fraud, 2001.
Charles Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844.