Books, February 2010

* Thomas Mann – Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories

The title story is about an old man, renowned all over for his writing blah blah blah who goes to Venice, falls in love with a 14-year-old boy, and [spoiler alert] dies. I didn’t like it that much. The second story starts with one 14-year-old boy in love with another. I didn’t feel that interested and gave the whole thing up.

I spent the rest of the month on a Dickens novel I didn’t finish until March.

Books, January 2010

** Georgette Heyer – Envious Casca
*** David Wingrove – Chung Kuo: The Middle Kingdom
*** Soseki Natsume- Botchan

As I understand it, the modern American detective novel arose in part in reaction to all those British puzzle-mysteries (by Conan Doyle, Christie, etc), in which the murder was done in some ingenious way not revealed until the very end, when we learn that it was a rare poisonous snake, a trained rat sent down a convenient drainpipe, or the butler. How Dashiell Hammett would have hated Envious Casca then, in which the murder is not only a locked-room mystery but takes place at an English country manor, peopled by an eccentric cast of etc etc. The writing is good and the characters are fairly interesting, but the mystery is partly predictable (it’s not that hard to figure out, though the character twist is satisfying) and partly gimmicky (the way it’s done is kind of silly, and the clue that gives it away is frankly lame). The book whiled away the time but I probably could have found a better way to occupy myself.

Chung Kuo is an epic science fiction novel, set about 200 years in the future, when the Chinese rule an earth spanned by a single massive city, in which 40 billion people live stacked many levels deep. The rulers hope to prevent change and progress, but a dissatisfied faction agitates for change and starts a rebellion. I love a good epic, and luckily there are seven more books after this one. It took a while to get into the book, and to start being able to remember all the different characters and the bits and pieces of mandarin thrown in, but once I got into it I enjoyed the rest of the book and all the different story threads. One compelling thing about the book is that neither side is unambiguously good or bad. The rebels represent freedom and progress, but also violence and cruelty, while the rulers represent oppression and stasis, as well as culture and philosophy. In temperament, I side with the rulers, but then I remind myself that they basically want to control what everyone does and says and stifle all innovation. So that keeps it interesting.

Apparently Botchan is a popular favorite in Japan, about the misadventures of a somewhat self-centered young man who becomes a teacher at a country school. At first I thought he was just a thoughtless oaf, but he turns out to have good basic principles, and he sticks to them admirably. The story is small and light and the book passes quickly, but it’s a good time with some good values thrown in. I can see why it’s popular.

Books, December 09

** Karen Tei Yamashita – Brazil-Maru
**** Patrick O’Brian – The Mauritius Command
*** Rafael Sabatini – Scaramouche
*** Robert E. Howard – Cormac Mac Art

I’ve read a little bit before about the large Japanese community in Brazil, and I was really looking forward to learning more about it from Yamashita’s book. Some of that aspect of the book was very interesting, but I ended up feeling like the story was specific to a particular community, a sort of utopian commune sort of group — which is fine, but I didn’t end up finding those specific people as interesting. The story didn’t stay interesting for me, and the characters didn’t really feel real.

More great O’Brian, I’ve given up on saying much beyond that about his books.

Scaramouche was a great adventure novel, very entertaining.

I’ve been meaning to reread some Howard, particularly the Conan books. I found this one used, but no Conan. It was okay; much of the problem was that some of what’s in the book was actually written by David Drake (who I’ve gotten tired of), and some of what’s left was unfinished (and the book doesn’t really make this clear). That said, I enjoyed the Howard bits and look forward to reading more.

Books, November 09

** Yasunari Kawabata – Snow Country
**** Patrick O’Brian – HMS Surprise

Snow Country was less a story or even a character study as much as a snapshot or piece of a mood. Kind of a haiku, but taking a lot longer to read. It describes a woman who’s basically a geisha at a winter village, where people come for skiing and other winter activities, and a man who visits her three times, seems to promise to take care of her, and then doesn’t. It was kind of absurd to me that so much emotional weight is supposedly placed on what seemed to be a very brief, shallow connection; there didn’t seem any compelling reason for either to care deeply about the other, or for the woman to think the man was serious or to become so attached to him. I enjoyed a lot of the moments but overall found it uncompelling.

HMS Surprise is #4 of the Aubrey/Maturin series and one that introduces maybe the most beloved supporting character of all: Jack’s once and future ship, the HMS Surprise. Plus there’s Sophie and Diana and all the usual crew.

Books – October 09

*** Oswald Wynd – The Ginger Tree

I really like the basic story (in 1903, Scottish girl goes to China to gets married, has affair, ends up alone to make her own way in Japan) and the central character (initially naive, somewhat conservative, slowly overcoming her upbringing and dealing with prejudices of race, class, and sex), but they’re not realized as well as I’d like in this book. Mary reads too much sometimes as the wish fulfillment of a person in the 70s (the book was written in 77) thinking about a young woman in 1903 — Mary’s evolution from naive girl to proto-feminist is a little too pat, and her insights benefit a little too much from 70s hindsight (or, in some cases, that hindsight is used to make an ironic joke, as when Mary inveighs against the horrible sound of the gramophone and wonders how any true music lover could want one). However, as the book goes on and Mary matures it’s as though the author matures with her — she becomes a more solid and real-feeling character and less of a cardboard cutout. By the end, she’s become interesting and unusual enough to miss her when she’s gone.

Books – September 09

**** Patrick O’Brian – Master and Commander
**** Patrick O’Brian – Post Captain
*** David Foster Wallace – Girl with Curious Hair

Yes, I’ve started rereading the Aubrey books. They’re just as good the second time, plus the additional pleasure of seeing previews of future people and events (oh look! it’s Pullings! etc).

Girl with Curious Hair is an interesting read for the DFWophile. There’s a lot of good stuff in there, but I feel like it’s still a little unformed. I consider his peak to be “A Supposedly Fun Thing…” and “Infinite Jest” and you can see him here playing with some of the things that would appear in those (e.g. reader annoyance, his very particular ways of rendering dialogue, certain obsessions with media, consumption, etc) but not doing it quite as well. The book’s novella “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” is a particular example of this. It is very DFWian in its way, but ultimately doesn’t really work (for me anyway) — it gets to seem a bit boring and annoying and pointless and sometimes tediously metafictional. In my opinion, DFW mastered these kinds of things in his best writing, but he was always in danger of falling into one or another of these traps, even later on. In Girl with Curious Hair, you see him working out some of his techniques, and you get a flavor of his later mastery, but with a lot of fail.

The book did however lead me to come across this enlightening insight into DFW, found here:

It wasn’t until Marshall Boswell’s Understanding David Foster Wallace was released did any critical work begin to focus upon the importance of Westward to DFW’s direction. On pages 16 and 17 of his publication, Boswell revealed that DFW had used the phrase ‘cynicism and naivete’ in Westward, in his essay E Unibus Pluram, and in Infinite Jest. Boswell wrote that Wallace ‘does not merely join cynicism and naivete: rather, he employs cynicism – here figured as sophisticated self-reflexive irony – to recover a learned form of heartfelt naivete, his work’s ultimate mode and what the work “really means,” a mode that Wallace equates with the “really human.” ‘

that rings true. There were some other good links there and here.

Books – August 09

The only thing I read in August was Infinite Jest and, as usual (this was my 5th or 6th reading), I am full of things to say about it about halfway through and then have nothing when I’m done. The problem is the book is too big for even any aspect of it to be summarized with some kind of blog post. My thinking always gets away from me until I’m left with a bunch of half-formed ideas that tail off into various tangents. I have about 3/4 of an essay around here somewhere about it from this time, which I will try to get into shape. But so anyway, I love IJ, I loved it as much this time as I do every time I read it.

Books – July 09

*** Matthew Amster-Burton – Hungry Monkey
***** David Foster Wallace – Infinite Jest

All I really read in July was Infinite Jest (Hungry Monkey was mostly June). Half-written blog posts about it abound. But I’ve been pacing myself and am still working on it.

Hungry Monkey is subtitled “a food-loving father’s quest to raise an adventurous eater” which pretty much sums it up. It’s funny in places, the daughter, Iris, is certainly cute, and some of the recipes and food tips sound pretty good. But the book is, by the end, insufferably twee, and it’s not very well written. M.A-B. is going for a sort of jokey informality which often comes off forced. And, of course, much of the book is undermined by the fact that Iris is, like most kids, not, in fact, an adventurous eater. The last couple of chapters involve M.A-B. making lobster and then sushi, neither of which Iris actually eats. So what we get is some stories about him making food interspersed with cute things Iris said. MFK Fisher meets Dr. Spock this is not. Still, the book’s mode of thinking is helpful for parents who want to share cooking with their kids. We will probably try some of M.A-B.’s tips and recipes with Nora.


Anathem was a birthday present last year, and it made the perfect jury duty book. I hauled that thing (1000 or so pages) to the courthouse every day for three days, and sat in that (very nice, airy, light-filled) room with it until it was done. I like big books and even finished all three of Stephenson’s baroque cycle, so I was looking forward to this one. On the other hand, I’ve had my issues with Stephenson, so, you know.

Anyway, the book is pretty much “The Name of the Rose” meets “Idiocracy” meets “The Urth of the New Sun”. It’s got the first’s (more or less) monastery setting and rambling philoso-religious dialogues (which are an excuse for the author, whether Eco or Stephenson, to show off lots of library time), the second’s humorously stupid future (some 3000 years in the future and the masses still walk around wearing sports jerseys and drinking “sugared beverages” from gigantic plastic cups), and the third’s assault of words you don’t understand (in Stephenson’s case, because he made them up; in Wolfe’s, because they are archaic dictionary words no one actually uses any more).
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