Reading list

reading list

As of this writing, I’m still pretty bouncy: I’m working, and living a normal life, and walking to work, and eating relatively normally. In a month or two, however, I will be pretty house-bound: the radiation and chemotherapy will make me tired and achy, and there are dozens of other unpleasant side effects which may manifest also.

I will need distraction.

So I am pulling together a stack of books to read as the year darkens and as I become less active.

I pre-ordered Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge” from Amazon, and got it a few weeks ago. I’ve read a few pages, but Pynchon’s a difficult read, so he’ll be good for a dark November day.

Also a book of stories called “Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts,” recommended to me by my Internet friend Flora Gardener in Ilwaco, Washington. The author, Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire, is an acquaintance of hers, and the stories are part of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, so I’m looking forward to them.

Also Rick Riordan’s latest “Heroes of Olympus” installment, “The House of Hades,” which arrived in the mail only the other day. Okay, it’s young-adult, but who cares? Riordan writes very well, and it’s an entertaining story. I had a hard time putting it down after I unwrapped it; I made it through the first twenty pages, just enough to see that it’s good, and sighed, and put it down.

Also a pre-calculus book given to me by my student employee Ralph, who listened to me complaining that my Coursera calculus course was too difficult for me, and realized immediately that what I needed was pre-calculus. When I’m sick of fiction, I can relax with some numbers and formulae.

Also: “The Power of Now,” by Eckhart Tolle. My friend Joanne sent it to me, and I’ve browsed it, and it’s not bad. If it teaches me to live in the moment and relax a bit, then I will have really learned something.

Also it’s probably time (as Flora reminded me a few days ago) to reread E. F. Benson’s “Lucia” books. I first read them in college, and fell desperately in love with them. I haven’t reread them for years. I’m long overdue.

Also: I can listen all the music I’ve collected over the years. And I can finally watch all the pre-Code movies I have on the DVR. And . . .

I’m not saying this will be fun.

But I think I’m looking forward to some downtime, and some serious (and not so serious) reading.

Things that might happen in world politics

things that might happen

In Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Gravity’s Rainbow,” there is a character who is writing a book called “Things That Might Happen In European Politics.” He writes very comprehensively about a particular thing that might happen, but – invariably – before he’s done – the thing happens. And he has to discard what he’s written, and start writing his book all over again.

It’s Zeno’s Paradox, in a sense: you can never reach the end of your journey, because it keeps moving farther away, faster and faster, before you can get there.

It is for this peculiar reason that I like reading outdated history and political-science books.

I prowl the second floor of the Providence Public Library looking for them. I can tell them by their old leathery bindings and their stamped printing and their quaint titles. I have read WILL CHINA SURVIVE? (1936). And STALIN MUST HAVE PEACE! (1946). And AN AMERICAN IN THE RIF (1921). And many others.

A few observations:

–         Yes, China will survive. The 1936 book was written at a time when China was riven between Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime (which later went to Taiwan), and the Communists, and the Japanese (who had taken a big chunk of the north). The author was prescient enough to see that, if China survived the Japanese occupation (which it did), it would almost certainly go Communist. Ten points for accuracy!

–         Stalin had peace, but not for the reasons the author (the famous journalist Edgar Snow) assumed. His premise (which he maintained for 200 pages) was that the Second World War left Stalin too weak to struggle against the USA and Europe, and that Stalin would be no threat to anyone for at least five to ten years. He underestimated Stalin’s paranoia and power. The USSR had the atomic bomb by 1949, almost exactly four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oh, well. Zero points.

–         An older book about Morocco, written in the 1920s, was fascinating. Abdelkrim, the Napoleon of North Africa, the founder of the Rif Republic, who led a rebellion against Spain, was described as “passionate, but not a genius.” And so he proved to be; his Rif Republic collapsed soon after. The author also met Raisuli, the pirate king of Asilah, who captured the American diplomat Perdicaris at the turn of the century. The author described Raisuli (I paraphrase) as a “swollen hulk” near the end of his life, being carried around in a litter, palsied, dropsical, unable to speak, looking sadly and angrily at everyone around him.

It’s difficult to predict the future accurately. And even if you succeed, you seldom live to see yourself vindicated.

But it doesn’t stop anyone from trying.

Reading list


I have a confession. I don’t read novels much anymore.


If my thirty-year-old self could hear me saying that, he’d kill himself. Novels, up until recently, were a vital part of my reading diet. I actually learned things from them. The really good ones are well-written too; you can actually read a sentence aloud without embarrassment. (All together now: “It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .”)


But novels tire me now. One more saga of failed marriage, one more Bildungsroman, one more academic mocking Academia. And they go on, and on, and on.


I’m talking about Novel Novels, you understand: the things they review in the New York Times, the big chunky things you talk about with your friends at the Explorer’s Club. I still feed on a steady diet of Other Stuff, as do we all: for me, it’s biography (especially autobiography and letters), diaries, popular science, spirituality (go ahead, mock me!), history, and cultural stuff. And young-adult fiction, which for me fills the need that some people fill with crime novels or science-fiction novels. As Alice noted very astutely, books should have pictures and conversations.


But we’re talking about Novel Novels.


Here’s what I’ve read over the couple of months:


English, August. Upamanyu Chatterjee. Okay, this wasn’t bad. It’s set in modern India, about a guy taking a civil-service job in a city he hates. It’s funny, and the depiction of Indian life is interesting. But he repeats himself too much: too many trips back and forth from the office to the hotel, too many long digressions. I know it’s supposed to depict the main character’s boredom, but all it did was stimulate my own boredom. I put it down about two-thirds of the way through, but I still remember a couple of the scenes vividly, so I’ll probably go back and finish it one of these days.


The Towers of Trebizond. Rose Macauley. A reread. A laugh and cry book. “All camels are insane, but this one is more insane than most.” I think, when I die, I want a copy of this book in the coffin with me.


Against the Day and Inherent Vice. Thomas Pynchon. I feel about Thomas Pynchon the way you feel about someone who saved your life. I love him, and I will buy every book he writes, and I will tote it around with me, even if (like “Against the Day”) it weighs eighty pounds. But I will never finish “Against the Day.” It’s too scattered, and I’m not sure what he’s getting at (I even tried annotating it, as if it were “Finnegans Wake,” to no avail). “Inherent Vice,” on the other hand, had some good stuff in it, and a little hint of “Crying of Lot 49,” and one of those almost-happy endings that Pynchon does very well. (Most of his endings are pretty dark; when he ends something on a positive note, it’s a good day.)


The Violent Bear It Away. Flannery O’Connor. Another reread. Vicious, evil, funny. I picked it up, and I had to finish it, I couldn’t stop. Can you think of a better name for a character than “Tarwater”?


What’s For Dinner? James Schuyler. I’d never heard of it. I took a chance on it, and it paid off. Funny, dry, unsentimental, and unexpected. Worth reading.


The Western Lands. William Burroughs. I wish I were William Burroughs. I have a copy of his last diaries; he cried for days when his cats died. His books are dark and self-consciously perverse, but I love them anyway, because he was a good writer, dammit.


The Summer Before the Dark. Doris Lessing. She throws words at you like lawn darts, and her sentences are long and clumsy. But her books are amazing. The plots don’t matter; people come and go, things generally go downhill, oh well, that’s life. But the people – ah. Remember what I said about actually learning things from novels? I learned something from this one. I coudn’t tell you what it was, but I did. Haunting.


Okay. So maybe Novel Novels are okay after all. I just get a sinking feeling sometimes when I walk through the Fiction section in the bookstore, that I’m letting the team down. But I guess we’re okay for now.


And what have you been reading lately?




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