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Books Read

Nothing seems more frivolous than listing the books that one reads. Yet keeping this page is a good reminder to me of what I have read, in what sequence and associated with which life event. Many of my favorite reading experiences are associated with a place and a time. Sitting in tropical splendor reading Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence or sitting in cool Seattle reading Plunket's Love Junkie alters both the perception of the book and the place. Paul Theroux, who is a modern master of travel writing, taught me that travel is not just finding the parrots and the monkeys you read about in the tourist guide. And reading a particular book should not be a way to impose your own world view on the author but rather a chance to sample the world through the writer's eye.

Another influence regarding books is the sequence in which they are read. They speak to each other in your mind and knowing one gives a different meaning to the next. I try to include some time points in this page to give a rough idea of how much reading I actually accomplish. The page starts in late 1999 and likely is missing more than a few books. Please feel free to comment in any way about my choices or my comments! If you really want to know even more about my reading habits, click on the old reading page.

I've been reading Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter. Banks is the author of The Sweet Hereafter, one of my favorite novellas and movies. Cloudsplitter is a fictional memoir of John Brown (yes, the abolitionist) and his family. It is told, somewhat elliptically, as a giant letter to a journalism student. Given the Brown's son is a bit peripheral to much of the action, it's a bit of a Rosencranz and Guildenstern start the Civil War. But it's beautifully woven through its nearly 800 pages. Not a "fast" read, but an edifying one.

In Costa Rica (February, 2000) I read Steve Martini's 2nd to the latest book, Critical Mass. I really hated it. I guess I'm critical of this mess. It was not only a dumb plot but very nihilistic and right wing in a boring way. His stuff doesn't usually track "national politics" and therefore is more amusing in a noir way. I also read a much more pleasant book, Stephen Jay Gould's Millennium. And yes, it has 2 l's and 2 n's (and for the record, 2 i's and 2 m's, but that causes no confusion). It's a quick read and in typical Gould style dances all over the place in a delightful way. I found a copy of The Age of Innocence at a small shop in Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. It was just about the perfect thing to read about 19th century formal upper-class life while living in the "lap of luxury" in the tropics. Hard to believe that those people had such comfortable lives without benefit of telephones, automobiles or even a bridge or tunnel to New Jersey! I really want to see the movie again.

Most recently I read Alex Garland's The Tesseract. It's an interesting novel that reads like a movie script. It's set in the Philippines and doesn't exactly make that country seem like a charming tourist destination. On a different note, I read the novel, Monster, by Jonathan Kellerman. It's another in the series of Alex Delaware novels. That was followed by Andy Tobias' The Best Little Boy in the World Grows Up. It's pleasant and uplifting... a quick read too.

In early 2000, I have a few new entries. I never tried Robert Parker, but I read Hugger Mugger. It was an interesting read, but not amazing. Also read a book by Jostein Gaarder called Sophie's World. I can't explain why I bought it or even why I read it. But it was something different. A disquisition on philosophical matters. Or a child's book about philosophy. Or a really dumb answer to the questions raised by Umberto Eco? A book that I enjoyed somewhat more was the dry and bittersweet The Page Turner by David Leavitt. Set in California, New York and Italy it tells a somewhat cool growing up/coming out experience in a very engaging way. And I read the newest (so far) David Sedaris book, Me Talk Pretty One Day. Sedaris keeps refining his technique and maintaining a backbone of humor underneath a sly set of observations about human nature. For reasons unknown to me, I read The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. I enjoyed the movie, and the book was different -- not better, not worse. It makes a good read and seeing the movie is no impediment to enjoying the book. The movie took some good liberties with the book to improve the dramatic impact and bring it more "up to date" even though it's a period piece from the mid-50s.

I found a copy of a story collection by Julian Barnes on the remainder rack. The book is called Cross Channel and is a series of stories about France and England. They are well written, but I did not find the book anywhere nearly as satisfying as History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. Hard to put a finger on it, but there's something lacking in these stories. And the connection is somewhat lost for me. I took on Ripley Under Water by Highsmith. It's the 3rd or 4th in the Ripley series and I found it a bit strange since it's much more "modern" in time placement but still oddly "50s" in flavor. A lot has changed since the Ripley series began and it's nice to have some perspective.

On a more serious note, on Labor Day 2000, I finished reading Papal Sin by Garry Wills. This discussion of the role of the Pope in modern Catholicism is surprisingly interesting reading. It emboldens those who feel trapped by a clerical explanation of all matters of religion and yet it is a spiritual book that honors the inquisitive reader from any (or no) formal religious background. Maybe the best review comes from the Catholic Resource Education Center which in its typical "circling of the wagons" at the first sign of a possible slight says:

It is a sad phenomenon of modern America that too often self-identified Catholics display anti-Catholicism or anti-Catholic rhetoric in the public arena. Anti-Catholic statements from Catholics, or those with Catholic roots, may seem to be an oxymoron. But it exists and those Catholics that engage in such inflammatory rhetoric against their own faith rarely see it as bigotry. Influenced by the dominant secular culture, they see anti-Catholicism as a product of enlightened thought, rather than an inherited prejudice. Papal Sin reads and argues at varying times as if its author canít decide if he is a Bible-thumping fundamentalist, a secular agnostic or a bitter ex-Catholic. But for the most part, Wills comes across as a Catholic with such a heavy-handed agenda that reasonableness or any attempt to accurately portray Church teaching has long since been abandoned for ideological zealotry

For some good late summer reading, I took in Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country. This book is a love letter to Australia. You get the idea that Bryson would be practically the ideal traveling companion since he enjoys soaking up local culture but is willing to examine it with good humor at the same time.

The long-anticipated new novel by Armistad Maupin, The Night Listener, was just released. It's a decent read but there's something missing here. Not as engaging as the Tales of the City series and not as quirky as Maybe the Moon. Maybe I just didn't give it my full attention. If you think differently, please write and let me know. I did enjoy The World of Normal Boys by K.M. Soehnlein. It's a "coming of age" novel, but a little off-key in a charming way.

After Thanksgiving, I read two very interesting books. The first was A Vast Conspiracy by Jeffrey Toobin. No matter how you feel about l'affaire Lewinsky, this book is a fascinating "read" that makes sense (as best one can) of the mystifying events that led to our first Presidential impeachment. The second book was Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks. This author has more tones and more tricks that you'd ever expect. And the book is charming and pretty much "unputdownable". I read it in one long sitting! The blurbs compare it to Catcher in the Rye, but that is a fairly superficial perspective. I think of it more like a magical realism story written by Marquez crossed with Siddharta but very down to earth. There is an interesting religious tone in this novel that is largely spiritual. And despite some of the desperate circumstances described, the book has a comic and even uplifting angle throughout it.

Around the Christmas and New Year holidays I read Timeline by Michael Crichton. It was pretty decent.. as a sort of neo-pulp-geek fiction. Hard to put down but not much to it. Continuing my Banks series, I read Affliction. Wow.. what a great book. On the surface, this study of a dysfunctional family reads like the newspaper, but there's also a bit of a mystery behind it that is really maintained to the end. I'd like to see the film version.

January 2001: Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas was an interesting and poetic autobiography of a Cuban novelist who died in 1990. A Julian Schnabel film of this book was just released and before seeing the movie I was interested in reading the book. It's a very passionate (in several senses of the word) life tale. Dr. Death is the latest in the Alex Delaware series by Jonathan Kellerman. Not the best, but an OK read. The biggest problem with this book is the conflation of a Kervorkian theme with the even more amazing story of Michael Swango who was blamed for a series of murders in the US and Africa. Either story would have been enough, but the combination was a bit "heavy" for this novel.

February 2001: High Fidelity was the book that the great John Cusack movie was based on. I liked the book almost as much as the terrific movie. Nick Hornby is a fairly talented writer and the difference between London and Chicago is intriguing. Although I started Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune in February on the way to Chile, I didn't finish until March. It wasn't intentional, but I read the part set in Chile in Chile and the part set in the US in the US. This is not a "deep" book, but it's a rollicking plot drive grrrl power novel. It has done well commercially (it's part of Oprah's book club) but this is not undeserved. It is an entertaining read, and although it's fairly long, there's plenty of stuff to consider -- sometimes the connections seem fresh and interesting. Like so many books of historical fiction, it says much more about our time than the period covered. In that way, it's a rather creative and charming anachronism.

March 2001: Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen was an entertaining read. A combination of Tom Wolfe and John Grisham. A humorous send-up of politics, environmentalism and miscellaneous modern stuff.

April 2001: Helen Fielding's sequel to Bridget Jones' Diary, The Edge of Reason, was my main reading for this month. Yes, it was hysterically funny in places. But there was the mark of weakness too. Some parts of the plot-line were highly stretched. And the lack of growth of the character seems to be the basis of most of the humor. The movie of the first book is coming out soon. Might be interesting to see the cinematic realization. On my flight out to Vancouver I read Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith. It's a pretty good example of a modern spy thriller. Aside from its setting in oh-so-trendy modern Cuba, there is a nice change of perspective in the look at contemporary Cuban-Russian relations. Of course there are the requisite number of plot twists and confusing clues, and while it's not quite LeCarre, it's pretty satisfying nonetheless. On the way to Vancouver, I stopped at a nice bookshop in Mr. Vernon, Washington, where I bought Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. It's a non-fiction books that spans pretty much all of human civilization around the globe and tries to illustrate how the physical geography, climate and wildlife of a region influenced the possibilities of development that we are currently aware of. While it seems to be "politically correct" (how I hate that expression) in terms of not judging people by their racial and ethnic origins, it is also quite compelling. While it's a somewhat lengthy book, it's a fairly quick read since it is written at a level that is comfortable for a non-scientist.

May 2001: On the flight to St. Thomas I read Michael Crichton's Airframe. You might think this would be a bit scary on an airplane, but it was really entertaining and had nothing alarming in it. I guess that's why they sell it in airports. I also read the Nicholas Hornby edited collections of (mostly British) contemporary short stories entitled, Speaking with the Angel. It was a generally good read, and it was nice to see a collection of short stories by writers who are better known for their longer work.

June 2001: If you are looking for a funny and erudite book of essays, look no further than David Rakoff's Fraud. Rakoff is a contributor to various multimedia/Internet publications, but this book of essays really combines entertainment with a more serious and challenging sort of humor. Think of David Sedaris with a thesaurus and you're on the right track.

July 2001: I'm slogging my way through Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle. While it's quite an interesting book, it bears taking in small bites. In Puerto Rico I was desperate to find something a bit lighter for the beach and stumbled across E. Lynn Harris' Not a Day Goes By. Is it bad? Yeah.. pretty weak. But there's a curious element to it as well. The world of African-American middle class folks looks like just a mild variation on white values. In fact, the whiter the better. And the ambivalence about sexual variation is interesting. While continuing with Darwin, I'm also taking on Steven Jay Gould's The Lying Stones of Marrakech. Typical fascinating SJG stuff.

August 2001: Still working on Darwin. I managed to slip in James Ellroy's Clandestine. It's a pretty good page turner. Not unforgettable, but entertaining and sufficiently noir to sate the urge for a grim tale. His most famous work was LA Confidential and some of the concepts from that book at present in this one, too. His mother was murdered (he wrote a book about it in the book, My Dark Places), and that theme appears in Clandestine. Clandestine is an early work and Ellroy's growth as a writer is clear. There's a strong masculine esthetic in the book that was alternately creepy and interesting.

September 2001: Finally finished The Voyage of the Beagle. It was quite a fascinating book but a slow read. Darwin was not a great writer, but he told his story in a direct and clear way. The thing that got in the way was the smug Victorian attitude of the book. While Chuck was clearly a "liberal" for his era, his perceptions about different cultures and races seems positively Neanderthal to me. I guess this just makes me wonder how our perceptions will be considered in 160 years! The book was especially interesting to me since most of Darwin's travels were south of the equator. I have visited Chile and Australia -- both places that he described in some detail. He was quite an enthusiast for the tropics (which I have seen in Puerto Rico and Costa Rica). Perhaps the most surprising thing about the book is that Darwin was such an intrepid (and modest) soul. While the journey in the 90 foot long Beagle was no picnic, Darwin also spent considerable time ashore. During these excursions he climbed mountains, rode horses into the wilderness and trusted himself to places where there was no "civilization" to speak of. This trip was unbelievably dangerous, but you get little sense of fear in his book. Someday I hope to read Origin of the Species, but I think I need a long break from the 19th century! On a visit to my brother and sister-in-laws house, I read A Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. It was surprisingly interesting - partly as a period piece of women's essay work and partly as a gentle philosophical rumination. Like a very subdued Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. When I found the new Sara Paretsky book, Total Recall, I devoured it as I usually do. Somehow it struck me as being a notch below her best work although it was certainly entertaining. I also enjoyed (guiltily) Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks. I can let you try to figure this out, but let me assure you that it's a funny book even if you don't agree with the concepts.

October/November 2001: A short book (that could be even shorter) is The Map that Changed the World. It's by Simon Winchester who also wrote The Professor and the Madman. His books are on topics that are interesting, but Winchester himself has a maddening quality about him as he unfurls his story slowly, slowly. The Map is about William Smith who was something of a self taught genius. He had a number of practical skills, but his greatest contribution was the use of fossils for dating different strata. The map referred to in the title is a geologic map of England that is based on his finding of fossils of differing ages and reconstructing the time during which each part of England was lifted from the sea.

November 2001: I just finished Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. While it may be better known at the first book to spurn Oprah's book club, it really deserves to be known as a powerful and fascinating read. Franzen writes in a way that is somewhat elliptical but gripping. His use of the language is impressive, and he ties together lots of themes from the contemporary zeitgeist without sounding like flavor of the month.

December 2001: On the way back from England, I read  two fairly "light" books. The first was Candace Bushnell's 4 Blondes which is a sort of seque from Sex and the City. Not uninteresting, but good airport/airplane reading. The second was a bit disappointing. It was Stephen Fry's The Star's Tennis Balls which is an updated Count of Monte Cristo. And while it's long  it isn't very "filling".


As far as magazines are concerned, I read the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly on a regular basis. I occasionally pick up Harpers and a variety of computer publications. I have been enjoying the irreverent and witty Salon Magazine online.

Reading 2002


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