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Reading 2002 - 2007

January 2002: For my first book of the year, I read the interesting-yet-disappointing  The Bureau and the Mole by David Vise. This true-life story of the most significant spy in FBI history is fraught with sex and spying and insight into the intelligence community. But it seems a bit like a Pop Psych explanation of the behavior of a man whom you never really get to know. Not a bad read, but.... not great. Then I read Jonathan Kellerman's Flesh and Blood. Like most of his work, this was an Alex Delaware mystery and if you don't already appreciate that particular genre, I'm afraid I cannot do it justice. My second non-fiction work was The Power of Babel by John McWhorter. This clever and scholarly text explains quite a bit about the origin, evolution and death of language. McWhorter's other work includes some provocative views on race relations and affirmative action. I'm impressed by his rhetoric, but I think he doesn't quite get it right, either.

February 2002: After seeing the film, I had to read A Beautiful Mind. Not only was Sylvia Nasar's book "better" than the movie, but it helped me understand more about math! The art of biography seldom demands an understanding of both higher mathematics and schizophrenia. A book that I picked up with NO expectations and was pretty amazed by is Dirty Havana Trilogy by the Cuban writer, Pedro Juan Gutierrez. This temporally confused but fascinating book describes life in Havana in the Castro years. It makes an interesting partner to Havana Bay (a Westerner's look) and Before Night Falls (an exile's look). I predict a huge tourist boon for Cuba the moment that Castro passes from the scene.

March 2002: Wow.. another weird book. Steve Dyer gave me Lee Siegel's Love in a Dead Language for Christmas. I still don't know what to make of it. It's both a post-modern novel, a satire, a parody and who-knows-what else. Fascinating but just a bit difficult to read. The combination of genres and deep jokes makes the non-linear structure challenging. But it's definitely worth it! I stumbled on Julian Barnes' England, England and bought it at a local bookshop when they did not have History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. England, England is a strange parody that pokes fun at many aspects of modern identity. But in a bizarre way, the strangely atavistic image of a future Britain is not terribly unappealing. And while the story is not "real", it does capture a modern louche-ness rather well.

April 2002: Traveling makes reading easy since time in the airport is longer than usual. I read a surprisingly good book by Jake Arnott called The Long Firm (this link is interesting but a bit harsh about the book). Arnott writes a pretty tough story about petty crime in England. And this book is entertaining from start to finish. The notion of a series of different narrators advancing a storyline isn't completely novel, but  in a way it works to illustrate the truth/non-truth of what happens. The truly surprising book of the year is The Shadow Boxer by Steven Heighton. A lyrical first novel that brings together the story of a poet and a pugilist.. and it's the same person! Another great "out of nowhere" book was Anthony Giardina's Recent History. This slim novel very artfully tells the story of a family burdened with superficial success and unresolved issues. Yes, it's another coming of age story (see The Shadow Boxer above), and it's not quite a gorgeously written as the Shadow Boxer. But it has a David Leavitt quality to it nevertheless. Although I started this book a couple of months ago, I just now finished Kim Stanley Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt. This ambitious historical fantasy imagines what might have happened if Europe never recovered from the bubonic plague in the 1300s and the Muslim and Chinese worlds filled in the vacuum. The writing is strong and the metaphysics are good. But there's some degree of work required to get through this long book. The narrative of the book can get long-winded, but it's worth pushing on. Robinson is not a shy storyteller even when he digresses from the  "meat" of the tale to make a technological or historical point.

May 2002: I saw Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point in a bookshop and purchased it on the basis of various articles that I had seen in the New Yorker. Gladwell is a fine non-fiction writer, and his thoughts about human behavior are quite interesting to read. I do not agree with everything in the book, but there are some interesting explanations for behaviors that I find puzzling (like smoking). After reading nothing but rave reviews of Ian McEwan's Atonement, I brought this book to London with me. I really did enjoy it, although it was one of those "universe in microcosm" kind of books. The "action" occurs in 3 segments (plus an epilogue) before and at the beginning of the Second World War. Small actions, misinterpretations and minor crises mirror the major changes happening in Britain in the late days of the Depression. The writing is masterly and moving. But was the book enjoyable? You might have to decide for yourself.

June 2002: Taking just a month away from updating and I have already forgotten some reading from June. I did buy and read Catherine Millet's The Sexual Life of Catherine M. It was a strange non-fiction reading experience. Slightly erotic and more than slightly irritating, the book was weird even in the post "Sex and the City" era. I don't recommend it, but I'm curious to hear what others thought about it.

July 2002: I started this month with a new experience: books on tape. The first one I heard (ever!) was Elmore Leonard's Tishimingo Blues (read excellently by Paul Rudd). The reading was an eye (ear?) opener for me. With a minimum of special effects and great voices, the book sprang to life in the car as I was driving to Canada. The story was good and the writing was commendable, but I was blown away by the "oral reading" experience. On the way home from Canada, I "read" Freedomland by Richard Price. It was read by Joe Morton and I have to say that it was just as good as the first book. While I still love the reading experience, this might be a good way to be exposed to books when a long drive is contemplated and the radio is an inconstant companion. Back to the printed page.... a very enjoyable book was True Enough by Stephen McCauley. This book that entwined the lives of two very different people coming together (ostensibly) over a minor project but finding a deeper connection was a real pleasure to read.

August 2002: To inaugurate my reading for August, I got a copy of Lives of a Biologist by John Tyler Bonner. Dr. Bonner was my college advisor and I was delighted to find this book reviewed in the New York Times earlier this summer. The book is delightful and chatty and insightful. A book that I started in July but just finished was The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy. This long book is set in the period from the assassination of JFK to the assassination of RFK  and every historical event is part of a complicated and cynical web of conspiracies. Ellroy's writing style is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe, but without Wolfe's warmth and personal affection [yes, that IS a joke]. While I almost stopped reading the book several times, I did work my way through it. My advice? If you're not enjoying it by page 100, put it down and read something else. But it might just appeal to you if you like reading about grisly murders and beatings.

September 2002: I had heard about Prague by Arthur Phillips, and since it was set in Budapest in the early 1990s, I wanted to read it. It was enjoyable in a number of ways. The notion of having American expatriates as the central characters was engaging since it showed Budapest as a business opportunity, a romantic destination and a central character. But the joke of the book is that Prague is "where it's at" for Eastern European destinations so the expats feel that Budapest is a consolation prize rather than a real destination with real people and problems. It's a pretty sad story in many ways, but cleverly presented.

October 2002: Having read the reviews of The Rules of Attraction (the movie), I was moved to read the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. It was a funny book but a little jejune and not entirely satisfying. The concept of having multiple first person narrators is a bit jarring and a bit interesting. But is it just my imagination or does the book simply run out of steam and stop for no particular reason? My next book was He Kills Coppers which is another interesting ride on the Jake Arnott train of fascinating criminal pathology. Unlike Rules, Coppers is a multilayered look at self perception and circumstance. The fine line between inventing yourself and being invented by your circumstances is explored deftly. And this book does have a real ending.

November 2002: A slow month for reading. On the way back from England, I bought and read Ballard's Super Cannes. This dystopian novel about the future of office parks, gated communities and the pampered elite was provocative but not brilliant. Ballard's interests in violence and degradation do contrast with the pristine modern environment. But to set this book up as a mystery makes it hard to marry the concept of a strong plot driven story with that of a morality trail. I also read, for the first time, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. This 40 year old book still has a freshness about it. But it is also clear where some of the commonly used rhetoric of the environmental movement comes from. Worth reading! I finished the month with an incredible novel: Middlesex by Jeff Eugenides. The story line of a person with an unusual form of hermaphroditism is interesting in its own way. But the weaving in of the immigrant experience, life in the middle third of the 20th century and the subliminal connections among us is just amazing. The link above gives a series of reviews of the novel and perhaps tells us more about what is wrong with reviewing than the novel (though in fairness, most of the reviews are quite positive).  I am respectful of learned critics, but I am troubled by the "advice-giving" review ("he spent too much time doing x when he should have been doing y"). This is Eugenides' story. It moves the reader and poses interesting, thoughtful questions. It is smart and sassy and challenges us without making us feel impossibly slow and stupid. The books that would have flowed from the various reviews might have been interesting ones, but I wager they would not have topped this one!

December 2002

January 2003: I haven't read The Lovely Bones, but I did stumble across Lucky by the same author, Alice Sebold. While this telling of a rape and its aftermath would not seem like "enough" to fill a whole book, it was really quite captivating. Life in college is hard enough not to deal with a major crime, this book was more than just a "true life crime" story. And the ending is perhaps the most surprising part!

February 2003: Although I bought this book at the airport to kill some time on a flight, I really enjoyed Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir. This trilogy of novels published about 10 years ago was set in Germany just before and after the Second World War. Not only is it a great set of hard boiled private detective stories, it also captures the environment of Nazi Germany very effectively.

March 2003: A guilty pleasure was David Brock's Blinded by the Right, the tell-all tale of a gay man working deep inside the conservative right wing movement who finds the error of his ways and exposes some of the darkest secrets. Self-indulgent? Yes. But juicy gossip! A much more spare book: When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka tells the tale of a Japanese American family that underwent the degradation of internment during the Second World War. It's written in a spare style that is reminiscent of Japanese cuisine or rock gardens. But it's a powerful work even sixty years after the (in this case fictional) events took place. It gives pause in terms of the natural tendency to categorize and then stereotype people by virtue of easy external characteristics. While this book is not the usual kind that I refer to in this list, Breaking Out of Beginner's Spanish is more than just a primer on Spanish. Joseph Keenan has made the study of Spanish as a second language a nuanced and interesting experience. It sheds great light on why English can be so hard to master (even by people of great sophistication and subtlety).

April 2003: I picked up a book called Digital Fortress thinking that Owen might enjoy it. The author, Dan Brown, seemed to have stumbled on a book so "here and now" that it might go out of date by the time you finished reading it. While the general plot wasn't too bad, the romantic middle was much too gooey and pat for its own good. Then I read The Quiet American by Graham Greene. I know that a remake of the movie has recently been released and I was curious to read the novel first. I guess the brevity of the book surprised me for starters. Yet it was a hard read. I attribute this, in part, to Greene's style and in part to the passage of 50 years since its publication. It's at least a good book, but perhaps not a great book. I could not resist The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus which I found quite entertaining. Skewering the wealthy is always good sport, but in an insane way, I actually found myself feeling sympathy for the spoiled rich mother trying  to hang onto her little piece of security and reality. I heard a good review of The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown. I did not realize that this was the same author as Digital Fortress, and I must agree with the reviewer that it is a superior book. It has things in common with Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose although it is quite a bit easier to read. I would recommend it as a good page turner (I got through it in about 24 hours). On my trip to Florida, I also read Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat. This compelling book is a piece of modern historical fiction. Taking the events of the last year of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic as the basis for the novel, the author follows several paths from a woman (who was a teen-ager at the time) to the high-ranking members of the government to Trujillo himself and weaves an interesting story. I doubt that many North Americans remember anything about this era in D.R. history and this book would be a good introduction. It is timely in that "regime change" was the goal of the coup that resulted in Trujillo's assassination, but it is not clear how things would have worked out had nature taken its course.

May 2003: Amazingly Stephen Jay Gould published quite an impressive book post-humously. The title, The Hedgehog, The Fox and the Magister's Pox, doesn't give away the meaning. But it's an interesting disquisition about the relationship of science to the humanities. Gould's way of working this out is to explore the works of lesser known figures from the Renaissance through the present while explaining how science and religion/humanities have disputed and agreed about a reasonable epistemology. I have always enjoyed Jane Smiley's work and I heard good things about her newest novel Good Faith. This book is set in the 1980s and uses the big real estate boom as the background to a Jane Austen-like story of social mores. It was certainly a pleasant "read" but I must say that it seemed like less than the sum of its parts. Not bad, but not incredible.

June 2003: Was it fate or just a dumb accident that I stumbled on an old hard cover copy of Earthly Powers while I was looking for something completely different? I read this book when it first came along in 1980, and I distinctly remember the act of reading it.. curled in a chair when I was out sick from work. What I did not remember was the plot! This is a heavily plotted novel and I feel that it holds up just a touch less well since the plot says something about the 1970s (when the book was being written) although the story line covers the entire first 2/3 of the twentieth century. Anthony Burgess was a well regarded writer who became a superstar after the conversion of A Clockwork Orange to a Stanley Kubrick movie. But Earthly Powers is a better book and one that shows off the prodigious talent that he has as both a writer and a thinker. It's easy to describe the plot line as a series of events in the life of Kenneth Toomey. Toomey was a popular writer, playwright and celebrity even though a part of him ached to be considered a genius. Through his family, he became entangled in various parts of the art world and the world of religion (for which he had little enthusiasm) even though his brother-in-law became Pope. Toomey was a  homosexual (the word he would have used) in an era when that was not only dangerous but also foolhardy. In some ways he was a precursor to the Zelig character in Woody Allen's movie of the same name. And in some ways, he lived the life of Candide as a semi-innocent wandering the earth and dealing with more sorrow and suffering than he needs. But you don't feel sorry for Toomey since the world can, indeed, be a cruel place and he also has his share of success. The deeper conflict in the book is the battle between Pelagianism and Augustinianism -- is man born with original sin or does he choose it? This would seem to be a difficult theme to narrate, but read this book and see how entertaining it is. Almost everyone is "bad" in some major way. But there is also a fair amount of courage and devotion. On a whim, I picked up Lucky Jim at the airport bookstore while heading off to Houston. This book is roughly my age and was felt to be one of the most important comic novels of the 20th century. Its author, Kingsley Amis, was a well regarded post-war British writer. I liked the book. It alternated between feeling dated and very fresh. There was an "E. F. Benson" quality to the book, but also a more contemporary cynical flair.

July 2003: Whenever I travel, I find that I have loads of time to read. This month was no exception. On trips to San Deigo and Alaska, I had so much time on planes and in airports that I got a huge amount of reading done. In no particular order, here are the books: The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart was a funny and mordant book written from the point of view of a Russian-Jewish emigre to the US. Everything was held up to his satirical viewpoint including the strange and narcissistic attraction of Americans to the former Eastern bloc. This makes a great bookend to Prague. I read a trio of books by Augusten Burroughs. The first one was Sellavision which was a slightly funny dig at television in general and the cult of direct sales via broadcasting in particular. It seemed to be somewhat "hit or miss" in many of the particulars. Much more impressive by the same author were two autobiographical stories. The first one, Running with Scissors, was the tale of his youth. He was raised in a very dysfunctional family. But as bad as that is, it gets worse when he is essentially "exported" to live with his mother's psychiatrist and his strange family. Any description of what happened would be much less impressive than reading this clever book. The "follow-up" book was Dry which details the life of a successful, gay alcoholic advertising worker. This book was even darker than Running, but it felt real and credible. I think it's a pretty good take on substance abuse and recovery. And it does not pull punches. I read two gay-themed novels. The better of the two was The Men from the Boys which was a successfully told narrative blending together the events of the summer and the winter from the same year. It was a year of change and yet the criss-crossing of the timelines was not confusing. I found the book emotionally satisfying if somewhat sad. It's a testament to the author, William J. Mann, to be able to make the narrator sympathetic yet flawed in a way that resonated well. The other book was a potboiler with the clever title, The Winter of our Discotheque. This book by Andrew Beierle was a seamy tale of an attractive but vacuous Greek-American lad from Florida who found great material success as a model but little emotional satisfaction. The hero is weak and flawed, but the story has a very "Inside Edition" quality as an overheated melodrama. I was entertained but not overwhelmed by Bill Bryson's book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. It's cute, but I'm not sure it's very good science writing. Perhaps it is more in the tradition of light satire such as written by David Barry.

August 2003: After last month's book orgy, I decided to slow down a bit. I read a short short, interesting non-fiction book called Talk of the Devil by Riccardo Orizio. It's a series of slightly strange essays/reports about a collection of real life villains. These people who range from Idi Amin to Baby Doc Duvalier. The most chilling aspect of these reports is the complete lack of acknowledgement that anything bad happened under their watch or that they were at all responsible. From the dictator's viewpoint, only the positive aspects of their rule were notable and any degree of suffering was unfortunately but unavoidable. Most of them lived lavishly but they felt it was their due (irrespective of the wealth of the average citizen). This attitude is incredibly reminiscent of CEOs who feel that they are entitled to any amount of money no matter how poor the company performance because other CEOs get just as much. Next, I tackled a pair of books by Michel Houellebecq -- Platform and The Elementary Particles. The books are fascinating to read since they are novels of ideas that also carry people along for a weird and unpredictable ride. I'm not sure that they are especially easy to read in the sense that they carry you along in a page turning plot. But if "nothing happening" could be considered enough to keep Seinfeld on the air for 7 years, I think it's more than enough for two books. Both novels contain characters that are hard to love and impossible to hate. They make no claims or amends, and they seem passionless even as they work their way through the few intimate relationships they can have. While Houellebecq' world is a vale of tears, it's an interesting vale worth at least a short visit: A Michelin 1 star vale at least. To close out August, I read Tony Horwitz' Blue Latitudes; a travelogue/series of essays on Captain James Cook and his nautical adventures in the Pacific Ocean and around Antarctica. I had not special affinity for Cook but I did find this book fascinating. Cook's journeys took place around the time of the American Revolution and reshaped the European image of the world. Was he a monster, a hero or neither? Probably an able seaman with some extraordinary talents, but much a man of his day.

September 2003: This was the month of the Pat Barker trilogy. These books (Regeneration, Eye in the Door, Ghost Road) were written in the 1990s and tell a series of stories that took place in World War I era Britain. Barker gets so much right in terms of understanding human psychology, and the tale is largely about people who are psychically wounded by the stress of war. There are 4 main characters that work their way through the books. The most prominent 2 are Billy Prior and Dr. William Rivers. Prior was hospitalized for serious shell shock and his treating physician was the psychiatrist Dr. Rivers. The two of them permeate all three books in the series. The other 2 main characters are Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. These characters are drawn from real people but Barker has dared to extend them into fully realized fictional characters. The books are sad but hard to put down. Very entertaining was Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. This sounds strident, but Franken's combination of humor and reporting is disarming. It doesn't hurt that I believe in his politics too.

October 2003: I had read some fairly middling reviews of David Leavitt's book, Martin Bauman. But in contrast to the tepid attitude of the reviewers, I loved it. Not only is the book beautifully written, it has a charming capacity to contrast surface with meaning. Leavitt draws on his personal experience as a "gay writer" who achieved a certain level of fame/notoriety early in life. But the characters spring from real people and become interesting, flawed, challenging literary figures. Most reviewers seized on the relationship of Bauman (the protagonist) to his literary mentor, Stanley Flint. Flint is a great character, but I was moved by the plight of Bauman who is clearly talented but dwarfed by the expectations that surround him. Whether it was the 80's, the disintegration of the nuclear family, the strange emergence of neo-conservatism, the book is like a "My Dinner with Andre" showing the friction between art and expectation. As a follow-up to his excellent Where the Boys Are, William J. Mann wrote The Men from the Boys. this book is OK, but not anywhere are good as the earlier one. First, it uses a different and less satisfying narrative approach. Second, it has a "Perils of Pauline" plot line running through it. Third, it tries to make the gay circuit party scene look both intolerable and fascinating at once. It's a bit like an after school special. On the other hand, it's a compelling read and worth the time invested. 

November 2003: A very quick (but cute read) was Alan Cumming's Tommy's Tale. Cumming is an actor and writer with a light touch. This book set in contemporary England highlights the experience of a young man coming to terms with adulthood and its complexities. A fairly light-hearted romp through modern gay life, but also a fair amount of reflection. The non-fiction work, Word Freak, delves deep into the world of competitive Scrabble. And what a world it is! Not a pretty one. Stefan Fatsis is a journalist who writes about the business of sports and his take on the weird landscape of competitive Scrabble is compelling. Whenever I find a Sara Paretsky book, I make a point of picking it up and reading it. Her latest, Blacklist is typical in that it uses events of today (and their ripples) to reflect on events of the past (and their more extensive ripples). The world of Paretsky's heroine, V. I. Warshawski, is as tough as that of any private investigator. And the availability of the Internet does not make life easier since information that is important is still garbled and hidden. Paretsky also makes clear her dislike of and distrust of the Patriot Act. Blacklist isn't Paretsky's best, but it's very much worth reading.

December 2003: Busy month, so not quite as much time for books. I reread Stranger in a Strange Land which I had first read in my teens. It seemed seminal and amazingly sophisticated at the time (copyright date, 1961). But it feels tired and preachy now. There's a Hugh Hefner quality to the world being described, and the influence of cultish religions is well anticipated. But the disappointing part is the preachy, pseudo-intellectual prattle that fills almost every page. The book is one huge deus ex machina. Heinlein's take on the state of sexual liberation is interesting since it predates most of the women's movement. In his future, cars can fly, but women really can't take big leadership roles (and they really do have to be pretty). One of the interesting moments in the book is when a character makes a reference to a famous assassination and uses the example of Huey Long. In some ways the assassination of JFK changed things in a way that probably precluded the whole story line of Stranger. And the reason I reread the book was to refresh myself on the meaning of the word "grok" which I think I understand less well now than before!

January 2004: I don't know how I avoided reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I found it at Barbara's Bookstore (at the airport) and read it on the way to England. It's a terrific book. Really a wonderful story of the "Jazz Age" but with a very 'now' type resonance. In some ways that's an unfair notion since much of 20th century American fiction derives from Gatsby -- the ultimate story of self-definition and self-deception. But I was engrossed. On the way back, I read The Great Pint Pulling Olympiad by Roger Boylan. This weird novel is set in Ireland and is written is an odd heavily foot-noted style by an American of Irish descent. It was entertaining but not my favorite book.

February 2004: OK, I have to admit that I have guilty pleasures in the book world and the Eszterhas book, Hollywood Animal is one of them. It's far from a great book.. in fact it's probably far from a good book. But it's a nasty stew of Hollywood insider stuff combined with macho bravado and topped off with a hearty dose of weepy sentimentalism. It probably should be illegal for a screenwriter to write an autobiography, but I'm glad he did. Because it's pretty interesting reading -- warts and all. A more cerebral book is Natural Born Cyborgs by Andy Clark. Clark has clearly thought about the connection with people and the environment and has an interesting thesis that we are a species that intrinsically is build for external connections. Not totally convincing in all its particulars, but I think Clark has time on his side. It took a while for Amazon to find a copy of Crum to ship to me. I had heard Lee Maynard interviewed on Fresh Air and I liked his style. The book -- a dark coming of age story in Appalachia in the 1950s -- was interesting and cute. It's brief but it is somewhat reminiscent of the magical realists of South and Central America.

March 2004: I always seem to enjoy reading most when I travel. So on my visit to Sarasota, I undertook a new venture: to read a full novel in Spanish. I picked up a book called No Se Lo Digas a Nadie which is written by a Peruvian writer named Jaime Bayly. The book was entertaining and I hadn't even realized that I saw the movie on which was based on it. It was a pretty quick go (considering the length) since it was breezy and conversational. And it was a good review of the some of the "dirty words" that I've been reading about. I also reread (for the umpteenth time) Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. This book is beginning to seem a bit dated although it has charm and energy to spare. What's most interesting is how many people stop and tell you how much they enjoyed reading the book. I have a renewed sense of the pain of Toole in writing this book and never seeing it published or hailed as the kind of modern picaresque classic that it has become. But I fear that it is beginning to look a bit long in the tooth as life passes by the "lovable losers" of New Orleans circa the 1960s. My boss gave me a great book from 1971: Darwin and the Beagle by Alan Moorehead. It's a heavily illustrated book of Darwin's life (with emphasis on his 5 years on the Beagle). Entertaining and attractive and a bit of a story about the mid-20th century as well!

April 2004: Something I find at the bookshop that looked intriging was Dancer by Colum McCann. This odd book is part biography and part fiction and it is based on the life of Rudolph Nureyev. While I am no expert on his life, the book seems to have captured his essence and spirit without being cloying. A pleasant surprise! The latest Jonathan Kellerman book, Therapy, was another decent Alex Delaware psychological yarn. I don't know why I enjoy this series, but I do. I wouldn't describe them as predictable since their essence is to be confusing until the denouement. But they are patterned in a way that approaches a blend of Oprah and a hard-bitten detective novel.

May 2004: A book that I had been meaning to get around to but finally read was Mapping Human History by Steve Olson. This entertaining book charts the connections among groups of people over time and space. Olson uses apparent racial differences, language groups and cultures to track the movement of Homo sapiens from their African origin to populate the world. Very friendly to the reader, but not at all dumb. On my trip to Switzerland I read several books. The first was A Ship Made of Paper by Scott Spencer. This novel set in contemporary New York state is a gripping read. It has elements of a love story, but it's also a social commentary (though not quite Jane Austen). I read Jonathan Franzen's book of essays, How to Be Alone. This collection of previously published works doesn't really cohere. But Franzen is a bright and thoughtful man and none of the essays is unpleasant. After hearing an interview with George Pelecanos, I bought his first novel, Right as Rain. This detective story is set in Washington, DC and involves a private investigator, Derek Strange. Strange is an African-American ex-cop and his perspective is interesting. Pelecanos is from DC and his familiarity with the city is a very important aspect of the book.

June 2004: Started June with another Pelecanos book: Hell to Pay. This is in the same Derek Strange series as the one from May. Not a bad series, but I'm not sure I'm going to read every single one. I also picked up David Sedaris' latest book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. This collection of stories has already been heard on NPR and is typical Sedaris.. funny, trenchant and moving. Oddly, I've heard enough of his readings to hear (in my mind) Sedaris reading this stories as I read them. Weird! Speaking of funny... I read a book entitled Seven Against Georgia by Eduardo Mendicutti. This Spanish book (translated into English) is absolutely hysterical as a send up regarding the Georgia sodomy case that went to the US Supreme Court. The notion is that the "Chief of Police" of Georgia would just have to hear about the pleasures of erotic homophilic bliss to understand why the anti-sodomy campaign in just plain wrong. Of course the style of story-telling has a lot to do with the humor since it's based on the Decameron with 7 ditzy guys relating their tales of connubial satisfaction.

July 2004: I keep getting reminded about Catcher in the Rye, so I decided to reread this "classic." Salinger's novel from the early 1950s has a way of captivating audiences... especially young, disillusioned people. I could not believe how badly I had misremembered it. On the surface, it is the story of a young man who is falling into an emotional void. Like many other young people, his affective state is unstable and his behavior is puzzling. But Salinger dares to suggest that both the world is crazy as well as Holden. A quick and fun read is The Dumas Club by Arturo Perez-Reverte. This novel is a mystery and a puzzle that reminds one of the The Name of the Rose or Incidence of the Signpost. Not having read Dumas in a million years, I wasn't completely up to speed with the Three Musketeers analogy, but I found the book quite charming. As part of my Darwin "kick" I read The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. This excellent book is about 10 years old but it's one of the most engaging books on science that I have ever read. Highly recommended!

August 2004: There has been much talk about Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. This book had the reputation of a high end chick-lit read and its popularity would seem to go along with that. But it was truly interesting. And while I do not think of it as an authoritative account of events in Iran since the Islamic state was declared, there's no doubt that it shows the tribulations and privations of living in a sophisticated country that took a certain perverse pleasure in turning back the clock to punish some of its most accomplished and talented citizens for a religious orgy that became a totalitarian nightmare. My next book was very enjoyable.. one of the best novels I've read in a long while: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. This clever book is a first novel, but the author is a talented writer who uses a science fiction premise in a very literary way. The main characters are Clare (the title character) and her husband, Henry who has the ability/curse to travel back and forth through time with no control of where or when he goes. The way that people interact in real time can be studied in a setting where some of the characters bring knowledge of each other in places that would not ordinarily be available. But in another way, the book studies the impact and essence of memory and longing in a very creative way. And it looks at the ways the past impacts the present and the present, the future. My follow-up to this book was the contemporary fable, Troll, by Johanna Sinisalo. Troll is set in modern Finland and imagines that trolls are really a species of Nordic mammals with human like qualities but not from the primate lineage. The central relationships are among a group of gay men in a small Finnish city (and an odd Filipina), but the non-verbal troll has the really good part. There's a "heart of darkness" quality as the existence of the troll in the midst of urban Finland exposes more of people's desires than they would normally express. As an additional fillip, Sinisalo includes a variety of mythic material from a variety of sources as "in between chapter" stuff. A very quick read, but fun.

September 2004 I read Terry Gross' book, All I Did Was Ask. Terry Gross is one of my favorite journalists. Her pleasant and calm style bring out much from her subjects. I learn a lot from hearing her -- some of it is very useful professionally as a way of getting people to open up about things! I had heard about The Namesake on NPR and I was intrigued to read it. The author, Jhumpa Lahiri, is an Indian-American writer with a prize winning collection of short stories. This novel is set in contemporary times and follows the development of a family that emigrates from Bengal to the US. The lives of the characters are informed by their ethnic past, the influence of the US and the immigrant experience. In particular, the son (named Gogol for interesting reasons) has a journey that is touched by considerable heartache and pain. I loved the ending of the book -- not a sugar-coated story, but a touching and realistic tale still in progress.

October 2004 I started reading, against my better judgment, Rutherford's huge novel called and about, London. This 1000+ page story isn't great. But it's a pretty interesting page-turner as it follows some families through 2000 years of London's history. It seems well researched and it's hard to read in large chunks although it's something of a melodrama. While I read this book a few months ago, I cannot recall the exact date, so I'll mention it now: The Dante Club by Mathew Pearl. This "historical murder mystery" was quite a fascinating read. I don't know whether it was The Name of the Rose or some other book that led to a series of interesting speculations about the possible actions of historical characters in quotidian activities. But The Dante Club, set in the Boston of the 19th century, has Longfellow and a bunch of other poets and artists as detectives! Heaven help us. But it's a fun book.

November 2004 In the Reykjavik airport, Owen bought me a copy of Iceland's Bell, a novel by the 1955 Nobel Prize winning author, Halldor Laxness. Iceland's Bell is a historical novel set during a difficult time in Iceland's history -- when it was administered by Denmark. Starvation was the order of the day. What is somewhat surprising to contemporary readers is how important legal affairs were, even in this time of privation. The book traces a long legal case (echo of Les Miserables) that not only ruins several lives of people closely involved but brings into question some of the higher level people in the Icelandic and Danish governments. The book has an "old fashioned" literary style and is quite pleasant to read. My next book was referred to me from the reading list at The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Cretser is a novel set in 20th century Sri Lanka (at a time when it was Ceylon). The book is told in the form of a long flashback in the life of the main character, Sam Obeysekere, who is a lawyer and minor political figure at the time of the end of British rule. He's a somewhat humorless "play by the rules" kind of colonial -- not a very sympathetic soul. And yet there is something endearing about his pettiness and his dry disappointment with life that touches the reader. The Hamilton case refers to a minor criminal scandal that Sam managed to solve during his youth (or did he?) In many ways this entertaining novel with chapters that are really bite-sized is also a great tale of perils of living in colonial and post-colonial times. The Columnist is a novel by Jeffrey Frank that was recommended by David Sedaris at a reading that I attended earlier this month. The book is a brilliant morsel that is told as a fictional autobiography of a media pundit who has very limited talent except as a name-dropper and boor. He is, of course, lionized in Washington DC where almost everything he does turns to crap. He's just too self-involved to see it. It's a wicked and funny book. Some liken it to Thackeray, but I was thinking more of Patrick Dennis. I have been looking for Permanent Midnight for a while. I don't know why I'm attracted to "bad boy" nonfiction, but Jerry Stahl, the author of this autobiographical book is a very, very bad boy. He's a major drug user despite some very serious consequences. Although he is now clean and sober, his book lays out the highs and lows of poly-substance abuse in a very graphic way. And since he's a screenwriter as well as a novelist, the book is a page-turner. I have been a fan of James Wolcott's blog for some time, so I enjoyed reading Attack Poodles, his hilarious send-up of the poseurs who have dominated the news-entertainment part of our communal bandwidth. He is a funny guy and he can skewer with the best of them. While I'm not sure there's a lot more there than my favorite liberal stuff, the book is a hilarious read. I followed this book with Port Mungo a novel by Patrick McGrath. This book is an interesting read although it got very mixed reviews. It has a gothic quality although it's set in the 20th century (largely in sunny and/or busy places). Stylistically, it uses the "unreliable narrator" motif and has some very dark currents. I liked it quite a bit.

December 2004 Since I so enjoyed Lahiri's novel, I went back to read her Pulitzer Prize winning short story collection, The Interpreter of Maladies. This book of evocative tales also deals with the relationship of India and the US as told through a population of people with one foot in each culture. I also read a novel by Jerry Stahl, Plainclothes Naked. This implausible but entertaining book shows Stahl's affinity for the rough and drug-addled world of marginalized people. It is partly confessional and partly bawdy tale. A good read for an airplane journey.

January 2005 I found a trilogy by Richardson Davies that I had not yet read. The Salterton Trilogy is a post-WWII series of books about a modest size Ontario town and the denizens therein. Davies is great, but I got only as far as book 1, Tempest Tost which is about an amateur staging of The Tempest. Clever, yes. But frothier than the usual Davies. I read the new collection by Augusten Burroughs, Magical Thinking. This collection of essays was highly readable. Like David Sedaris, Burroughs is a gay writer with an interesting sensibility. Like Sedaris, he is in a long term stable relationship, and his work is informed by the sense that he has come along far in his life journey without losing the essence of what makes his voice interesting and unique. While many such essay collections have a somewhat "gripe about stuff" quality, Burroughs keeps things readable and lively. Not bad for this literary form. I had to read the Man Booker-prize winning A Line of Beauty by the stylish Alan Hollinghurst. This book is stylish and incredibly subtly written. In a superficial sense it can be read as a contemporary "drawing room story" or a comedy of manners (or perhaps manors). But there is tons of other stuff happening. It's a visit to another planet where the air is not healthy but the views so exquisite that we can suffer the discomfort. Hard to put down.

February 2005 I had been looking forward to Jared Diamond's most recent book, Collapse. It's a thick hard-cover tome that dances around the history of various human societies that have collapsed for one reason or the other (usually for multiple reasons) as well as a few that survived difficult odds. In addition to tickling my fascination with Easter Island, Diamond explores the Norse colonization of Greenland in the middle ages. This topic was exploited by Jane Smiley in her epic, The Greenlanders, so it seemed like familiar material. I like the book and its thoughtful adult approach. In the airport, I picked up the Jon Krakauer book, Under the Banner of Heaven. It got somewhat mixed reviews, but I found it mesmerizing and scary. It confirms my general sense about "organized religion" but at the same time it makes for an unsettling sympathy for the victims of religion.. even as they victimize others with their faith. In a casual stroll through Barnes and Noble, I found a remaindered copy of Patrick Gale's Rough Music. This book is a gem -- cleverly assembled, well written and emotionally moving. The trick of moving back and forth between 2 time lines is an old one. But I'm a sucker for it since it creates a powerful anticipation. The stories play with the pliability of memory, the nature of betrayal and attraction and the social roles we play (and often fight).

April 2005 Obviously March was not a good month for reading and April was hardly better. However, I found a quick read in Joseph Gangemi's Inamorata. This novel set in 1920s Philadelphia is quite a page turner. It's not quite a mystery, but it's about mysterious events that may or may not be paranormal. Good first novel for a young writer.

May 2005 I enjoyed reading Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos which tracks along with the PBS series shown recently. Greene is a colorful writer who is reminiscent of Steven Jay Gould -- but in the field of physics. There were moments where I got lost, but for the most part, it was a lucid and entertaining treatise on time, space the cosmos and everything. At Heathrow I picked up a translation of Leonardo Padura's Havana Red. I don't know why I enjoy reading books about contemporary Cuba so much, but this was an interesting mix of detective story and cultural analysis. A summary of the plot-line would not be helpful since it's a story that exists on several layers and the actual murder mystery at the core is much less important than in most mysteries.

June 2005 I had been looking forward to reading Ian McEwan's Saturday for a while. I really enjoyed it. In some large part it wove together some of the interplay between art and medicine without insulting either one. It also had a neurosurgeon as a reluctant hero and that was interesting in and of itself. And finally it touched up the problems we ar having trying to prioritize terrorism, personal security and freedom in the post 9/11 world.

July 2005 In one of those "pick it up on a whim" deals, I read an interesting Spanish book The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This interesting book was quite a best-seller in Europe and details parallel stories taking place in Barcelona in the 1930s and the 1950s. The central thread is a rare copy of a book by a talented but somewhat unheard of writer. And the book is a paean to books and book lovers everywhere. I also reread Listening to Prozac by Peter Kramer. This is a fascinating book that touches upon some of the significant points addressed by modern psychopharmacology. And it's a great read too.

August 2005 Generally this was a slow month for reading. I managed to get through Against Depression by Peter Kramer. It was nowhere near as interesting as the Prozac book. Kramer is clearly a smart man. But his arguments in this book are more tendentious and strained than in the previous book. Unlike Prozac where he was making original observations, this book feels heavy and yet slight at the same time. For no particular reason, I also read The Brain Museum by Brian Burrell. This book was a quick read and full of nuggets of interest. Burrell takes a page from the Stephen J. Gould approach and ties in the quirky history of brain dissection/interpretation with modern concerns and issues. A fun book!

September 2005 I started September with 1491 the fascinating book on pre-Columbian America by Charles Mann. Much of the material was familiar from prior readings, but the excellent writing style and the detail provided by Mann are fascinating. If only 1/2 of his hypotheses prove true, it will radically reshape how the "old world" thinks about the "new world." My boss gave me a book of short stories by John Murray called A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. This first book is quite beautiful and wistful. Most of the stories are sad and they are all well constructed. Murray's toolkit includes a lot of references to India and to abandonment. The stories are somewhat melancholy, but that does not make them hard to read. A very engaging and surprisingly funny piece of fluff is Cathy Crimmins' How the Homosexuals Saved Civilization. Under the humor though, there is a somewhat interesting and at least debatable theme. It took about 2 hours to read, but it was worth every minute.

October 2005 Lots of travel and lots of reading! My guiltiest pleasure was reading Graham Norton's So Me. Was it completely forgettable? Yeah.. but still a bit salacious. And it explains a lot about his television programs. Another British book was Tim Relf's Stag. This tale of debauch and drink set in Newcastle was.. well it was pretty discouraging. But it seemed to capture a bit of laddishness that doesn't seem completely unique to Britain although it thrives there. On the non-fiction side of things, there was Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, an amusing deconstruction of modern life. This sharp book of essays and thoughts resonates although I honestly think that Chuck speaks for a younger generation... but one that is pretty irrelevant to the hippest, i.e., youngest, adult generation around now. In The Great Influenza, John Barry tells a complex tale of politics, science, war and infection. His story isn't perfect, but I'll wager there's plenty of information new to readers.. even those with a good sense of history. I'm not sure I agree with everything, but I think this book also gives the clearest sense of the development of modern American medicine that I've ever read. For an effort to improve my Spanish in Ecuador, I read Isabel Allende's Mi Pais Inventado. This breezy story is a combination memoir, travelogue and history of Chile. Quite an entertaining book. In anticipation of watching the movie, I read Andre Dubus' House of Sand and Fog. I had no particular expectations, but it was a compelling read until the last 1/4. So I'd say worthwhile but depressing.

November 2005 A busy month at work.. no travel.. not much reading. Inspired by the movie, Capote, I read In Cold Blood. I don't know whether I read this book a long time ago, but I don't think so. It was so influential in its day, I may have avoided it when I came "of age" to read such a book simply because of over-exposure. Now the book reads like.. well it's strange because it's simultaneously incredibly modern and dated. Like a ranch house that's been decorated in Danish modern furniture.. timeless but constrained by its time. Nevertheless, an important book that set the scene for so much that followed. Not just "true crime" stories, but the weaving of fact into fiction through its manipulation and clever presentation. An extreme argument could be made that reality television could not exist without In Cold Blood showing the way to take dry facts and weave them into major art!

December 2005 Lots of running around related to the holidays, but not too much reading. I really enjoyed Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. The reviews were good to excellent, but the book was really such an interesting read in the era of a presidency and body politic that look much more like the fictional America Roth presents than anyone would have dared imagine half a decade ago.

January 2006 The only book that I read in its entirety this month was a rather diabolically bad Fingering the Family Jewels by Greg Lilly. The title does not lead on to expect much, and still, there is disappointment. The book is a limp visitation of the modern south by a gay man who managed to escape Charlotte for the "greener pastures" of San Francisco. In an odd way, it's a bit of a paean to Charlotte, and that is an uncomfortable notion to come from the word processor of a gay man. However this Charlotte might be one that Armistad Maupin could describe as the easternmost suburb of San Francisco. Yes, there's homophobia, but aren't the buttermilk biscuits divine? 

February 2006 The new Julian Barnes novel, Arthur and George, got great reviews. Since I'm a big Barnes fan, I picked it up. It took me a while to "get into" the book as the beginning was choppy (intentionally so). But as the story progressed, it took on a life of its own. There was more comment about the world of today than would seem possible for a book set at the beginning of the 20th century when the world was "modern" but in many ways quite distinct from our own world. The small town was a meaningful unit then.. not just a bit of suburb or a quaint farm preserved mostly for show. And the subjectivity of human experience and interpretation has not changed. Nor has the intransigence of the larger world (whether government, mores, etc.). Although I had heard about Philip Pullman's Dark Materials Trilogy, I never got around to reading it. But... it's great. At least the first book, The Golden Compass is a marvelous story that is appropriate for adolescents but charming for adults. I'm looking forward to the next two books.

March 2006 This is the month when I finished the Pullman trilogy. The second (The Subtle Knife) and third (The Amber Spyglass) take the material in new directions. But the totality of the books is very satisfying. They affirm the possibilities of spirituality without formal religion. In the books, the various groups of people have radically different belief systems, but the successful ones can incorporate and appreciate diversity. The failures are the ones locked into a hegemony that constrains growth and leads to a miserable zero-sum game. I also read a crazy picture book by Erika Lopez, Flaming Iguanas. It doesn't sound too promising to read a description, but it's funny and clever. Trust me.

April 2006 First books can be hit or miss.. especially personal stories (fictionalized, of course) by young writers. But I can give a pretty strong "thumbs up" to Josh Kilmer-Purcell's I'm Not Myself These Days. While the genre of alcohol/drug-fueled coming of age in New York City books by young writers is now an established and respected one, Kilmer-Purcell does seem to kick it up another notch. More particularly, it is in the tradition that true creativity (applied to advertising and drag) probably flourishes in a shabby demi-monde. I'm not one to argue with that. Following this book was the extremely well-written Stephen MacCauley's Alternatives to Sex. This crisp 300 page book has a lot to say about the role of sex in contemporary American life. But it has even more to say about self-image, the masks that we wear and place on others and the conflicts between our public and private selves. While this book is not and does not aspire to be autobiographical, it does hit many of the same notes as other books by the same author. So these are themes/truths that he feels comfortable in developing. I recommend it. Since I'm an addict of the Alex Delaware stories of Jonathan Kellerman, I had to read the latest installment, Gone. It's ok, but not top drawer. The trouble here is that the "B" story (Delaware's personal life) is somewhat limp and predictable. 

May 2006 A tiny coda to Pullman's trilogy is a weird book called Lyra in Oxford. It would make no sense without having read pretty much the entire trilogy. And even so... is it a short story or a parable or just a fragment of a larger piece? Hmmm.... Because there was travel, there was reading. A blockbuster of a book came to me almost by chance: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. This fascinating book is actually 6 books in one. Each book has its unique voice and style.. but they all interdigitate and add up to more than the sum of the parts. Outstanding. On a more minor note, a British book called Brown Boys in Chocolate that almost defies description. Paul Southern has written a dark and cynical novel in which almost all the characters come to a bad ending (in relatively little time). This kind of book is practically a British specialty though others have done it better. A book that started out well and fizzled toward the last third was One Big Damn Puzzler by John Harding. This messy book tells the story of an unspoiled Polynesian island that.. well, gets spoiled.. by the best of intentions. It's pretty predictable and a bit over the top. To finish off the month, I read a surprisingly good book by Ben Elton, The First Casualty. This WWI story is interesting as a revisionist historical drama and pretty much of a page turner (though more highbrow that other airport books).

June 2006 Speaking of airport books.. one of the oddest that I purchased was in the Houston airport on the way back from Honduras. Entitled In the Wake of The Plague by Norman Cantor, this book is partly medical history and mostly social history. The specifics of the Black Death have been reviewed in many books. But the changes that followed this pandemic (and the various other things that accompanied it like climate change) shaped European and world history in fascinating ways. One is never sure if part of the story is exaggerated or "spun" to favor the author's thesis. But it's a compelling and short read. Since I am a total Sara Paretsky fan, I had to read her latest book, Fire Sale. I think this is one of the best offerings in a consistent and entertaining series. I am almost embarrassed to admit that I read Center Square by Steve Wilson and Joe Florenski. Yes, it's a poorly written biography of a forgettable celebrity, but... it just seems so appropriate and deserving.

July 2006 With travel comes reading. In no particular order: The Romanian by Bruce Benderson. This odd and interesting semi-autobiographical book was compelling and a bit scary. It's a difficult book to describe.. on the face of it, it tells the story of an obsession of an American gay man for a straight, Romanian hustler. But it's really more than that. It's like the biography of an obsession. In a more disappointing vein, Chuck Klosterman's follow-up book to Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs was kind of a high concept auto-biographical essay called Killing Yourself to Live. The premise of the book was that Klosterman was sent on a mission to explore the places where seminal rock figures died. Yeah, that's right. Just the places. And on the way he has epiphanies about himself, the world, etc. There are some very smart and interesting passages, but overall it's a bit dull. Another book with great potential was Jon Fasman's The Geographer's Library. This novel was oddly structured with chapters alternating in the present and a historical review of past events. The theme tying together the 2 parts of the book was the idea of a collection of ancient objects with special importance. The objects play a role in the "present" but were of varied provenance, and that's what the flash-back part is about. Frankly, as clever as it was, it seemed to run out of steam frequently with the interruptions in the "present" story. But it was generally a page turner and a pleasant read. Switching back to non-fiction, I stumbled across Euclid in the Rainforest by Joseph Mazur. This treatise on mathematics and probability was a surprisingly fun book. It's good, now and again, to tackle something different and Mazur's book was fairly "bite size" in its approach to mathematics, logic and probability.

August 2006 I always enjoy reading Julian Barnes, and for some reason I ordered an older book, Talking it Over. It's not a great book. And one has the feeling that it's been "done" before and since. But the overlapping viewpoints are done effectively. The characters are a bit "stiff" but that doesn't detract much from the fun of bringing them together and having them tell their flawed stories. I suppose that this was much fresher 15 years ago when the book was first published. As a follow-up to his Dante Club, Matthew Pearl wrote The Poe Shadow. This interesting fictional book tackles some odd elements related to the death of Edgar Poe. I found the book to have a very slow beginning, but it picked up steam about half-way through and was quite a good yarn by the end.

September 2006 I opened the month with a fascinating biography of my hero, Charles Darwin. David Quammen's The Reluctant Mr. Darwin falls short of hagiography and seems to get the essential details right. Of course Darwin has been written about so much, Quammen's task was as much to stay succinct as it was to get the ideas across. And he was highly successful in both ventures. As a follow-up to last months' Talking it Over, I read Love, etc. which is literally a follow-up novel in the same style. It advances the story line. Does it give closure? About as much as the topic deserves. Perhaps, more importantly, it gives balance. And oddly enough, it's a more hopeful book. On my trip to Holland, I picked up the first two books of John Updike's Rabbit series: Rabbit Run and Rabbit Redux. Fantastic. They were written 10 years apart and I can't wait to read the next two books (also written 10 years apart!). On a whole other note, I read James St. James Disco Bloodbath (now retitled Party Monster after the not-very-popular movie of the same name). It's a breezy account of drug addiction, mayhem and murder. No, really! Not a bad read, but I think I must be getting old and jaded because these stories don't do as much for me as they used to. And to put a book-end onto September, I read Michael Shermer's Why Darwin Matters. Shermer is a psychologist who came to believe in Darwin after starting off from a creationist, evangelical place. Interesting, but a bit argumentative (by nature).

October 2006 I started the month with an old Dorothy Sayres book, The Nine Tailors. This elegant tale of murder in the church's bell tower is not a "fast read" like much detective fiction. It's an observation of English country life between the wars. Quite a fun book despite the excess of change ringing elements. Then it's back to Updike. Book 3 in the Rabbit series, Rabbit is Rich, is a continuation of the chronicle of the fictional Harry Angstrom and the good folks of the Reading, PA, area. Like the predecessors, it's a powerful book that seemingly touches upon routine aspects of life but also tells a story as deep as King Lear's. And now Rabbit is at Rest. The final complete book in the Rabbit series takes place just before 1990 and shows the family in its usual state of dysfunction. But this is the most elegiac of the series and perhaps the most hopeful (oddly!).

November 2006 I spoke too soon about the end of Rabbit. There is one more Rabbit book: Rabbit Remembered also by Updike. This novella follows the series and takes place about 10 years after the death of Rabbit. Without the central character, it's not quite as compelling as the earlier books. But it does shed light on "what happened" to the rest of the crew. And Updike's vision is as flinty after Rabbit's death as it was during life. For a total change of pace, I then went on to Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. Yes, this is the same man who wrote the brief biography of Darwin that I read in September. This much longer book represents a detailed but popular and accessible analysis of island biodiversity, population genetics and plain old-fashioned adventure nature writing. It's not the easiest book to read (partly because it's so sweeping). But it is inspiring.

December 2006 There's no better way to get into the spirit of the holiday season than to start with David Rakoff. His finely tuned sense of humor and comfortable prose are the perfect antidote to the treacle that comes our way in preparation for the winter holidays. Go read Don't Get Too Comfortable. I need say no more! A book that somehow escaped my attention when it first came out, Borrowed Time by Paul Monette, holds up despite the years of the AIDS epidemic. In fact, it reads like history and is the more chilling for it. It is impossible to read this book without thinking that the author who chronicles the death of his lover from AIDS would be dead in a few years, himself. To finish out the year, I read The God Delusion by Dawkins. This is a "muscular" book on atheism that pulls no punches. A good read!

January 2007  Another year! This year's One City, One Book silliness in Philadelphia reflects on a book by Carlos N. Eire Dreaming of Snow in Havana. This title is a bit ridiculous since there is little sense of the wistfulness for northern climates. But there is an odd childhood memoir locked into a screed against Castro (so far so good) but also against lots of other things. The grace of letting go would be a nice addition to this recollection of vignettes from 40 years earlier. In fairness, the author doesn't cramps from self congratulation, but he is so opinionated, it's hard to say what satisfies him. I almost left out the Richard Ford book, Independence Day. Don't ask why I started this trilogy in the middle, but this is Ford's version of the Rabbit series -- updated and extremely well written. Unlike the Updike books that unveil events over a period of months (separated by a decade each), the Ford books confine themselves to a memorable long weekend. It is a good instrument for "taking the temperature" of a time and place.

February 2007 The natural follow-up to Independence Day is The Sportswriter. The first in the (now) trilogy by Richard Ford, it's quite a different book written in a different voice. Like the Updike Rabbit books, it follows characters over time, but as the author changes. The Sportswriter was a bit less confident and a bit less well written the ID, but still a pleasure. I like the idea of reading them in this sequence although I'm sure I am in the minority there.

March 2007 The book, Talk, Talk by TC Boyle had gotten good reviews. I found it incredibly hard to read since it touched up very sensitive issues related to identity theft and "personhood". It's weird that that topic would be more personal that abuse, murder, etc. but I think we are all at risk constantly from identity theft, and there's no telling how deep one will be pulled into it.

April 2007 For reasons that elude me now, I decided to read Faggots by Larry Kramer (again). I read this book when it came out in the late 1970s and I confess that I forgot everything about it. While I can't say that it was enjoyable or even comfortable, it is a true cri de coeur!


Prior readings, 2000-2001

Old readings (prior to 2000)