It’s time to take a look at the books our Scrogues have stacked on their nightstands. Get ready to thumb through books on monopoly capitalism, a history of thought and invention, the adventures of a boy and his stuffed tiger, biographies of the number zero and of Josef Stalin (plus a metaphor of Stalin-as-farm-animal), a case for God, some Gonzo journalism, a couple good old-fashion pot-boiler thrillers, and more!
The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin and Hobbes remains to this day one of the smartest daily comic strips to grace newspapers. And while I owned many of the original books, I didn’t own all of them, so a great many of the comics in the three-volume set are new to me. For those times when your life is so crazy that it’s all you can do to steal away 30 seconds to read a couple of comic strips, you could do much, much worse than slowly working your way through a decade of Calvin and Hobbes.
I’m currently reading The Historian on the recommendation of family. It’s OK. I keep hoping it will pick up (It’s good enough to stick with).
I just finished Population: 485 by Michael Perry. It’s actually the book that precedes Truck : A Love Story and Coop. I love his writing. The genre would be memoir, I suppose. He writes about being a writer, bachelor, family member, new husband, new father, farmer. Population: 485 is mostly about being a volunteer fireman and EMT in a small town in Wisconsin. It’s subtitled, “Meeting Your Neighbor One Siren at a Time.” For all of its familiarity and lack of explosions (for the most part), I find his books to be more engaging than most I have read lately.
Before Michael Perry, I read Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull. Talk about a really disturbing nightstand book! It’s about the Quiverfull movement, families who do not practice birth control on the belief that children are gifts from a god who will provide for all of them. The girls are raised to become submissive wives and mothers, the boys are raised to be family heads. Think Duggars (there is a lot of theology that does not make it into the TV show).
The Dragon Factory by Jonathan Mayberry: A good action-adventure tale about a secret government agency that combats threats spawned by science–in this case, a series of genetically engineered worldwide pandemics. There are clones and genetically engineered monsters thrown in, to boot. And Joseph Mengele.
Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife: A fascinating–and readable–history of the number zero. “The clashes over zero were the battles that shook the foundations of philosophy, of science, of mathematics, and of religion,” Seife says, and then goes on to offer plenty of stories to show just how dangerous and confounding zero has been.
Gonzo by Hunter S. Thompson: A “visual biography” consisting mostly of quotes and photos…not writing excerpts or anything like that…but still an interesting snapshot of Thompson. So strange, though, to see such a savage guy glossed over into a prestige lit format w/slick design.
The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan D. Spence
No Way to Treat a First Lady by Christopher Buckley
The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street by Justin Fox
The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson
So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government by Robert G. Kaiser
House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street by William D. Cohan
Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of ‘Energy Independence’ by Robert Bryce
I’ve been struggling, off an on, with Ideas: A history of thought and invention, from fire to Freud by Peter Watson…but it’s been more off than on. Can’t say how i feel about, but i’m not sure that “Europe” counts as an “idea.”
There has been some nightstand browsing of Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening as a part of my early spring training regime. But it’s not a cover-to-cover sort of book.
I did just re-read Animal Farm, one of my all time favorites. There’s no more enjoyable, concise history of post-revolution Soviet evolution than Orwell’s. But the end had a far different effect on my thinking than it has other times through the book.
Pretty much the only thing I have time to read these days are my dog-eared Gonzo books and the occasional graphic novel. For instance, I’m currently reading The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson and enjoying Tony Parker’s artwork in the first book of the graphic novelization series of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
I just finished reading Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy by Dmitri Volkogonov, a top Russian general who was the director of the Soviet Army’s Institute of Military History. More importantly he was the chairman of the Russian Archive Declassifying Commission. In other words, he was the first to gain access to the records of all the millions of his own people that Stalin imprisoned and killed. Especially strange was his purge of military officers before World War II, which contributed to the almost unimaginable losses that Russia suffered at the start of the war.
While Stalin was even worse than you can imagine, he wasn’t a sadist and drew no enjoyment from torturing and killing those he deemed enemies. He just wanted them out of the way because of his insecurities. While this book offers little psychological insight into Stalin, it has the ring of authenticity because of the author’s position. Of course, his rule became a kind of template for future dictators like Saddam Hussein.
So much happened during Stalin’s reign, that every chapter could be a book unto itself. Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy is an outstanding place to start with Russian history after the revolution.
I recently finished Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which one site pegged as one of the top 20 sf books of the last decade. In truth, it’s more fantasy/speculative fiction, though. The premise is that magic once actually existed, but had fallen out of use in the Enlightenment. The two title characters are the men who, in the early 1800s, bring practical magic back to England.
This is a marvelously conceived and brilliantly written work. Clarke stunningly mimics the language of Romantic and Victorian Brit prose, a tactic that situates the reader in a decidedly 19th century context. Now, this is both strength and challenge. If you hated reading 19th C lit in school, finding the language stilted and tedious, then this novel may give you the shakes. If you have the discipline to sit through it, though, you’ll be rewarded.
Then I shifted gears and re-read William Gibson’s Neiromancer. This remains one of the most important novels of our generation not just because Gibson foresaw so many elements in our disintigrating postmodern corporate culture, but because he inspired the development of our electronic infrastructure. The people who built the Web had all these pictures and concepts in their heads because Neuromancer put them there.
Not only that, there’s that marvelous style of Gibson’s. It’s not enough to call him a master of prose style. It’s also important to note that every few pages he cranks off a line or a passage that just stops you dead in your tracks. Or at least, I think that’s the effect he has on us writers. And between Clarke and Gibson (and Stephenson, whose Anathem I read a couple months back) I guess I’m in a mood for the writerly.
I’m now into the second installment of the cyberspace trilogy, Count Zero.
I have recently delved in to Karen Armstrong’s latest, The Case for God, a masterful history of the human religious impulse and a compelling apologetic for a divine dimension to the human experience. Armstrong writes amid a spate of recent books by atheists critiquing religious belief (Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion; Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great). But Armstrong, in her reliably rich engagement with the complexity of religion, does not try to make a 21st-century case for an invisible bearded being, but rather an understanding of God that resonates with contemporary consciousness, and in so doing, calls people in our own age to discover the earliest conceptions of God which were, perhaps ironically, much more abstract and multi-faceted that perceptions that have become entrenched in the past couple of centuries. It is the attempt to rationalize God in an age of Reason that Armstrong takes issue with, suggesting that “belief” was never the hallmark of earlier religious practice — and indeed, it has traditionally been just that — practice, not dogma. When we try to fit religion into the sphere of ‘logos,’ to force it provide answers that are not within its purview, we end up evacuating it of its power and proper place in making sense of our lives, in meaning-making, and are left with a choice between either fundamentalism at one pole, or cold materialism at the other.
The book jacket liner has this to say: “Moving from the Paleolithic age to the present, Karen Armstrong details the great lengths to which humankind has gone in order to experience a sacred reality that it calls by many names, such as God, Brahman, Nirvana, Allah, or Dao… Armstrong examines the diminished impulse toward religion in our own time, when a significant number of people either want nothing to do with God or question the efficacy of faith. Why has God become unbelievable? Why is it that atheists and theists alike now think and speak about God in a way that veers so profoundly from the thinking of our ancestors?” Even if one is not a person of faith, any reader who appreciates the history of ideas will find this book a powerful and fascinating intellectual journey.
The book has captivated me so far, not just as an ardent analyst of intellectual and cultural history, but because, as the jacket text continues, Armstrong “makes a powerful, convincing argument for drawing on the insights of the past in order to build a faith that speaks to the needs of our dangerously polarized age.” Faith that speaks to us today can be avenue toward a “compassionate lifestyle that enables us to break out of the prism of selfhood,” writes Armstrong. I am excited to keep going in this substantial, impressively researched and eminently readable book, to see what she lays out for postmodern seekers.
We just got (at tremendous expense) the first of the 4 big collected hardcovers of the Neil Gaiman Sandman series. It’s nominally about an emo Sandman who “haunts” our dreams and is responsible for maintaining the order of sleep. And, actually, it’s extremely good. Features Gaiman’s usual mix of updated legends and fusion-myths.
In the middle of a couple of things, which is normal. Right now I’m plowing through Iain Pears’ Stones’s Fall. Pears got famous for The Instance of the Fingerpost about ten years ago or so, and that was a great page-turner, as is this. He also has written a charming mystery series (which have to be read in order) about an English art appraiser and an Italian fraud policewoman, through which you can learn all sorts of interesting things about art. He also wrote one of the best novels I’ve read this past dcade, The Dream of Scipio. Highly recommended,
Less so for Drood, Dan Simmons’ most recent in-dire-need-of-an-editor opus, which is a slog. I have liked Simmons in the past–both the Hyperion and the Endymion series, and particularly Ilium and Olympus. And he’s written some crackling mysteries. But his last book, The Terror, about the doomed Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage, was a good story, but entirely too long–it should have been cut by at least a third. Drood, in which Wilkie Collins is the narrator, Charles Dickens the protagonist, and Edwin Drood a monster, should at least be interesting, but it’s a struggle. I may give up.
On the more-relevant-to-my-work side, I’ve started Barry Lynn’s new book, Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism, which is a good successor to End of the Line, which came out several years ago, and which is still the best book I can think of for why America’s economic model–not the financial one–is in trouble, and why the globalized economic model is vulnerable to the kind of shocks we’ve been seeing recently. Sort of the reverse of the stupid Tom Friedman books on the glories of globalization. Not a cheerful prospect, but there it is. It’s not inevitable, of course, but the trend towards monopoly capitalism in America more or less insures that the American economy is in dire straights, and will conitnue to weaken. You can’t undersand the financial crisis of the past three years without understanding how the American economy itself has changed of the past several decades, and Lynn’s books are some of the best in this regard.
And of course The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third volume of Stieg Laarsson’s millenium series, which was originally going to be ten volumes, but is likely to only be three because of his untimely death. Genuinely good page-turners. This volume won’t be available in the US until May, but that still gives you time to catch up by reading the first two. One of the most engaging female charaters in modern fiction.