Featured

Reading List 2021

What I’ve read this year. I sample or skim some that aren’t included. Happily, I have lost the compulsion or sense of duty to finish every book I start.

February

The Mountains Wait by Theodor Broch; 1943 Michael Joseph Ltd. illustrated by Rockwell Kent
memoir of life in northern Norway and the coming of WWII by the Mayor of Narvik

WHY WE DRIVE, Toward a PHILOSOPHY of the OPEN ROAD by Matthew B. Crawford 2020 William Morrow
engaging stories illuminate his critique of the dangers of big tech and bureaucracy to personal freedom and creativity

Patrick Melrose by Edward St. Aubyn Picador edition 2015
being a cycle of five novels: Never Mind; Bad News; Some Hope; Mother’s Milk; At Last comic and terrible, heartbreaking and hopeful, the boyhood to adult middle age of an upper class Englishman; brilliant dialogue, wonderful prose

Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred c1954 Univ. of Nebraska edition 1983
vigorous vivid story of the mountain man Hugh Glass, who famously survived a mauling by a grizzly bear

The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliff c1957 Oxford Univ Press
one of the author’s engaging series of novels about Roman Britain

Tokyo Ueno Station by YU Miri c2014, translated by Morgan Giles Riverhead Books edition 2020
through the memories and reveries of a homeless man’s ghost we see something of the hardships of life for the poor in post-war Japan; poetic, dream-like prose

I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (c1933) translated by Ignat Ivesy 2013 Pushkin Press edition
terrifically entertaining thriller set in Vienna

Inferno by Dante Alighieri, A New Verse Translation by Michael Palma
W. W. Norton 2002

January

Journey to Britannia: From The Heart Of Rome To Hadrian’s Wall AD 130 by Bronwen Riley; 2015 Head of Zeus Ltd.
great armchair travel through time, landscape, and history

Three Graves Full by Jamie Mason; 2013 One (Pushkin Press)
comic mystery, bit overlong but entertaining – and there’s a great dog!

The Memory Police by OGAWA Yoko; translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder; (c1994) 2020 Vintage Books
mesmerizing speculation of a world in which first small, then intrinsic elements are “vanished” by a mysterious authority; what’s left when memories and stories are removed?

Soldiers Of Salamis by Javier Cercas; translated from the Spanish by Anne MacLean; (c2001) Vintage Books edition 2020
explores the boundaries of historical knowledge, the limits of memory and the unknowable human heart; wonderful novel of the Spanish Civil War and aftermath

The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal, translated from the Estonian by Matthew Hyde (c2012) Pushkin Press ed. 2017
very intriguing and enjoyable dark fantasy of science tangled with folklore and superstition in Renaissance Estonia

Three Rings: A Tale of Exiles, Narrative, and Fate by Daniel Mendelsohn; 2020 University of VA Press
an essay and example of the technique of ring composition in literature illustrated by the interconnections between the great story of exile, The Odyssey, and the stories of three authors living as exiles

Blessed McGill by Edwin Shrake (c1968) John M. Hardy Pub. 2007
one of “50 best books on Texas” and a richly entertaining story; memorable characters, adventure, humor, and irony in Reconstruction Texas

The Great Swindle by Pierre Lemaitre, translated from the French by Frank Wynne (c2013) English ed. 2015 Quercus
winner of the Prix Goncourt; France after the Great War, exhaustion, guilt, greed,and despair for those who survived; unforgettable characters, intricate plot is both thriller-compelling and emotionally rewarding

Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski translated from the Polish by William Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand (c1982) Vintage International Books edition 1992
the overthrow of the last Shah of Iran told with literary virtuosity and insight; a template and preview of the history of the past forty years

“doing” beats “disrupting” in WHY WE DRIVE: Toward a PHILOSOPHY of the OPEN ROAD by Matthew B. Crawford

Ripe seeds of invention everywhere abound, and it awaits only a certain combination of need, of circumstance and, above all, perhaps, of chance, to decide which shall germinate.
The High-Speed Internal-Combustion Engine by Harry Ricardo, 1923

“Ricardo’s “ripe seeds of invention”…begin to germinate around some settled platform…allowing a body of communal expertise to develop. The impatient optimizer may see such an inheritance as an obstacle, something to be swept away in the name of forward progress. Human beings are often bullheaded in their attachment to something suboptimal. Call it loyalty, call it perversity, or call it a cultural inheritance, this conservatism has at times been responsibe for amazing leaps forward, paradoxically enough…tradition can itself be an engine of progress. It organizes the transmission of knowledge. It also provides an idiom for some shared endeavor, and a set of historical benchmarks, such that one can imagine oneself outdoing particular human beings who came before, and who worked wthin the same basic limitations. Tradition thus provides a venue for rivalry in excellence, the kind that sometimes brings a whole community to new and unexpected places.

In this respect, I think it is fair to call hot-rodding an art form.”

This is, I’m certain, the most entertaining and engaging work of political philosophy that I will read all year. Crawford tells great stories about what we could call the “car culture’ to make serious arguments for defending the personal freedom integral to the act of driving, and the human virtues cultivated in making and doing stuff to cars. He attacks the particular threat of the autonomous car to critique the larger issues posed by the intrusion of ‘big data tech’ into our society.

Hot-rodding as an art form is a little tongue in cheek, but he’s not talking about street racing. He describes the ingenuity, creativity, and passionate pursuit of making something better, something imagined and created through a high level of craft. I’m never going to pick up a wrench let alone tear down an engine, but I can sincerely admire the skill and passion that the car enthusiast pours into realizing a personal vision.

His title is what caught my attention. Didn’t quite have me at “Drive” but he hooked me with “the Open Road”. I love to drive and I love a road trip above almost anything. The prospect of the so-called autonomous car fills me first with bafflement – who doesn’t want to be in control and enjoy the physical sensations of driving? – and then incredulity – who thinks these systems would be any more error free or secure than any other bug and hack riddled software that we know? – and then fear and outrage – are some “experts” going to force us to relinquish yet another piece of personal independence and active agency?

I feel more and more uncomfortable with what has been aptly named “surveillance capitalism” (Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism) and anxious about its relentless extension into our lives. I have no wish to be a passive engine of consumption, but it is harder and harder to defend privacy and avoid (or even recognize) the little nudges and gentle steerings that intrude into every activity.

“…the Blob that seeks to claim every nook and cranny of human experience as raw material to be datafied and turned to its own profit. What this amounts to is a concentration of wealth, a centralization of knowledge, and an atrophy of our native skills to do things for ourselves.

However one comes down on a contest such as that between…consumer convenience and a living wage, between waiting an extra five minutes to hail a cab versus spending an extra ten minutes in traffic because the streets are flooded with empty Ubers, shouldn’t these questions be decided by us, through democratic contest and market forces? That is not at all what is happening. It is more like colonial conquest, this new and very unilateral form of political economy.”

Definitely a bigger issue than keeping my car keys. That’s important too. I like to drive, I like to use the skills developed over many years and miles of driving, I like making the choice of route even if it’s not GPS “optimal”, and I enjoy (mostly) the interaction with fellow drivers as we share the community of the road.

“To drive is to exercise one’s skill at being free, and one can’t help but feel this when one gets behind the wheel. It seems a skill worth preserving.”

2020 in books

I try always to carry a book with me for those times when I anticipate or fear I might have to wait – the doctor’s office, obviously, but to smooth all those little gap times between the activities in a day, too.

“Waiting” is what this past year has been about and books have helped a lot. I read more, though not as much as I thought I would. Streaming K-Dramas helped a lot too, and going for walks. And of course, food must be prepared and the house cleaned even when largely housebound, so, all in all, more books were read but not an especially large total.

I read 77 books in 2020, 25 non-fiction and 52 fiction. 28 titles were works translated into English. The desire for escapist entertainment must account for the number of mysteries in the list, but the quality was generally quite high across all genres. It was a bit hard to pick only ten for the years’ “best” list. See the Post ‘Reading List 2020’ for more information on each book.

10+3 Favorites for 2020

Non-Fiction

A House in the Mountains by Caroline Moorhead
Black Count by Tom Reiss
Enemy of All Mankind by Steven Johnson
The Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas

Fiction

The Return by Hisham Matar
Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb (transl. Hungarian)
Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin (transl. German)
Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa (transl. Arabic)
Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler (transl. German)
Measuring The World by Daniel Kehlmann (transl. German)

I reread The Lord of the Rings trilogy and must put it in the “always a favorite” category.

Special recognition in the ‘just plain fun’ category for The Glorious Hussar by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Best new-to-me mystery discovery is Death On Demand by Paul Thomas. The earlier titles in the short series aren’t readily available here. I liked this so much I sent to a bookseller in New Zealand for copies of the other four novels featuring Maori Detective Ihaka. The internet is good for some things!


Reading List 2020

What I’ve read this year. I sample or skim some that aren’t included. Happily, I have lost the compulsion or sense of duty to finish every book I start.

December

A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life by Andrew Krivak 2008 Farrar, Straus, & Giroux

Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown 2017 4th Estate the 20th century refracted through her life; insightful on celebrity culture; imaginative technique and structure

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (c2006) 2007 The Dial Press a sad, delicate novel of a boy whose family and world are caught up in political terror

Continue reading “Reading List 2020”

wounds of melancholy

( in medieval Estonia, a student hopes to make a fresh start at a new University)

Laurentius sighed in exasperation, closed his eyes, and started making a serious effort to get to sleep. The carriage shook monotonously, the wheels engaging the furrows in the weathered road surface with a regular measured rhythm, like the swinging of a clock’s pendulum. He imagined that the carriage was a large golem made by Rabbi Eliyah, with people stuffed into its stomach like strips of paper, each one with the name of the Lord written on it. But how does that strip of paper feel inside the mchine’s stomach? Does it have its own place there, or is it just passing through, whiling the time away in boredom? What is it like inside a human? Where does the soul come from, and where does it go? What about inside his parakeet?

Laurentius shook his head and looked around uneasily. He didn’t want to get bogged down in those kinds of thoughts – he had to make sure he stayed rational. But he couldn’t help himself. Fragments of thoughts, individual sentences and memories permeated the edge of his consciousness like blood soaking into a bandage. This was the wound of his consciousness, which he dressed and treated, but to no avail. Laurentius had tried to immerse himself in learning, literature, theatre, other people’s company, anything to soothe this wound and help it heal. But it festered; the same thoughts kept recurring and the bad blood kept rising to the surface.

from The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal

a truly novel laundry idea

One of the delights of browsing among old books is the possibility, the expectation even, that something curious and interesting will turn up. I recently picked up an attractive vintage book at my library book sale which both picqued my curiosity and was full of odd and interesting information

More than I actually want to know about the opportunities, challenges, hazards, and rewards of operating a commercial laundry business but fascinating to browse. My favorite entry describes the unusual technique for bleaching linen devised by a clever Frenchman who must have reaped a great return in advertising value whether or not his method was effective.

OZONIZED LINEN

An enterprising Parisian laundry company bleaches linen by balloon. A few hundred feet up the air is nearly as pure as in the open country, and it is in this ozonized air that the linen is dried by the aid of a captive balloon. The linen is attached to bamboo frames, and being rough-dried while taking its aerial voyage, a considerable quantity is taken at each ascension. There are about six ascents during the day, and an extra charge of from five to fify centimes is made for each article thus treated.

books, a refuge

To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life. — W. Somersat Maugham, Books and You

The walls of books around him, dense with the past, formed a kind of insulation against the present world and its disasters. Ross Macdonald

I really like the image of my library as a mighty fortress in this quotation. It is included in many collections of quotations but none included the text source. One site hinted at The Underground Man where I found something similar.

The walls were lined with books, many of them in foreign languages, like insulation against the immediate present.

Perhaps he liked the image well enough to polish and reuse in another novel. Possibly it’s an example of a quotation being modified as it’s passed around. I am happy to have a bit of literary research to justify a binge reading of Macdonald’s work.