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:
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
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
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
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
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