2015

71 Total, 14 Folio Society 3 LOA

JANUARY

Touching home : the story of the Kansas City…

Kansas City Star’s coverage of the 2014 playoff push. The only way it could have been better was if Salvy had delivered another big hit in the 9th inning of Game 7. Thanks guys. [Or they could win in 2015!]

 

The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death by Colson Whitehead

Tore through as a break from reading a longer work, would be a good road trip or flight book. Slacker (no doubt overplayed a bit) gets stacked to play WSOP. Hilarity and angst ensues. Reads like a more sober HST. Also, tough way to get booted from the WSOP – good process doesn’t always yield good results.

 

Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (Library of America) by Walt Whitman

Oh Walt. Finished during bus ride home. Warning – Leaves of Grass may leave you wanting to hug strangers on the bus – so many stories hurtling to the Park and Ride.

 

Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker by James McManus

Royal Flush.

 

Peggy of the Flint Hills by Zula Bennington Greene

A time capsule from what I imagine my great-grandmothers lives must have been, simpler, mostly self-sufficient, and heart-rending losses. So much to take for granted now. Snorted at the blurb from William Allen White – fella gets around pretty well for a dead guy.

 

The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s… by Tim Tzouliadis

The gulags devoured thousands of American lives. Restless spirits that answered ads in U. S. newspapers for work in Soviet Russia during the depths of the depression found themselves state-less and isolated once the purges started. Their total number is lost, but at the height of the migration (early 30s) more than 1000 Americans a week were arriving in Moscow, usually entire families. There were American schools, baseball leagues, and English newspapers in and around Moscow. Henry Ford sold an entire (obsolete and shutdown) factory to Stalin, who imported the Ford engineers and mechanics that were also soon abandoned to their sad fates.

A second wave of purges struck after the war, claiming most of the children and wives of those purged in the 30s. Thousands of Allied POWs found themselves under Soviet control in the aftermath of the war. A final wave of Americans arrived as Korean War POWs and shot down airmen, and likewise abandoned due to Cold War realpolitik.

In a book filled with terrible revelations, the worst to me is a an eyewitness account buried in a U. S. archive, of two shipwrecked WWII submarine crews that were picked up by Soviet tankers, and dispatched to the camps.

Much in the book comes from the memoirs of two Americans, both taken to Stalin’s Russia as children by parents desperate for work, that not only survived their ordeals, but were able to eventually (in the 60s and 70s) return home.

 

The narrow road to the deep north : a novel by Richard Flanagan

Brutal, hopeful, ugly, loving, humans. Usually all at once. A novel of the horror of the Burma Railway of Death.

 

FEBRUARY

 

Hearts Touched by Fire: The Best of Battles and… by Harold Holzer

A terrific monument to a terrible time. Eyewitness accounts, recorded in later decades, of the US Civil War.

 

The Real Work: Interviews & Talks, 1964-1979 by Gary Snyder

Mostly transcribed interviews. I am left trying to reconcile how a world with 10 billion humans, and the need for greatly increased urban density to make that work, squares with the back to the land movement Snyder champions (and lives). It can’t, of course – I wonder if the talks remain the same in 2015.

The real work is now hunter-gathering in Tokyo or Lagos.

 

Pliny: A Self Portrait in Letters by Pliny

Folio Society. Nearly 2000 year old musing of one of the Emperor’s best bureaucrats. An extraordinary record of the otherwise mundane.

 

MARCH

 

Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

A difficult book to place – Historical Murder Mystery, set in the dead of winter 18th Century Sweden. Mysticism, murder, and the incredible difficulty in living in an unforgiving, hostile environment. May we all pull through our Wolf Winters.

 

White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and… by Brenda Wineapple

Nice complement to the Sewall biography. Higginson is an amazing figure in his own right, even without the relationship with Dickinson. I especially loved the description of Emily’s funeral.

 

In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can… by John Marsh

Fascinating, quick jaunt that deserves a wide audience. Celebrating oneself remains a necessity. I am not nearly as dreary as the author regarding the future of America, and I think any reading of Whitman would reinforce that opinion – even lacking a Civil War to drive the point home.

 

Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Perhaps reading this series first as an adult colors my view, but I came away less than impressed. The collected chapters working through the work seemed more disjointed than coherent. I had trouble keeping up with the overall story, and by the end was ready for it to be over.

 

Symposium by Plato

Beautiful Folio Society edition. More interesting to me as a testament to Greek leisure culture than philosophy, and always with slaves present around the edges.

 

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche

Ah Nietzsche, you crazy old cat. Doesn’t hold up nearly as well to a re-reading in my 40s, compared to the impression it made upon me in my 20s. Folio Society.

 

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

So if you’re writing in 1950 why wouldn’t we colonize Mars by the mid 90s? I can’t imagine even in 1950 it was thought humans could just stroll around on the red planet, however. The idea of humans spreading our folly throughout the solar system must have seemed inevitable.

 

APRIL

 

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing

I don’t have anything to add. This is a wonderful tale, well told The author held it together better than I would with all those weeks on the road. I could close my eyes and see the sights from the observation car – every railroad town looks like the same, run down disaster from the tracks.

 

The Making Of A Poker Player by Matt Matros

Yale math turned MFA wins $700,000 during poker boom and writes book. Saw references in Colson Whitehead’s similar book.

 

Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in 12 Fish by Richard Flanagan

Re-read after reading Narrow Road to Deep North. Still brutal but brilliant.

 

MAY

 

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

I wanted to like this novel as part of the Indiespensable series, but instead found it predictable and boring with the plot being downright implausible.

 

Bull City Summer: A Season at the Ballpark by Howard Craft

Amazing testament to a minor league season. I especially liked the ‘old-timey’ tintypes.

 

In God We Trusted: Pioneer Stories from Kansas by Roy Bird

This is a terribly written/edited book. I couldn’t finish it.

 

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan

Funky, Burroughs-esque riff on 1961 America. Read over a nightshift. Explains much.

 

JUNE

 

Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and… by Marcus Rediker

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

This is a scholarly review of the lowlifes, commoners, and criminals at the heart of seafaring culture during the age of tall ships.
The first two chapters describe the average ‘Jack Tar’ as repositories of worldly knowledge for their fellow citizens, and the class-based system that the British Empire was dependent upon to supply nearly endless tars.
The next chapter builds on that ‘nearly’, and describes a nobleman’s descent into involuntary servitude in the Caribbean after acting as a doctor during a failed revolution against the English crown.
The fourth chapter is a complete mini-history of the age of pirates in the Atlantic in the early 18th Century.
The next chapter was my favorite, describing the motley crews of revolutionary American water fronts, and how the resistance to British press gangs underscored the discontent at the heart of the American Revolution.
The final two chapters cover slave ships and are haunting. They elucidate several methods of resistance undertaken by the poor souls being transported to the New World. They would refuse to eat, and suffer terrible consequences as the slavers tried to force the issue. They would plan for weeks at the chance of jumping overboard mid-ocean. Finally, on several occasions they successfully rose up and took control of the ship. These cases were often dependent upon children, who were free to roam about the ship during the day, and could smuggle tools and arms below decks.
One of the frozen images from this book in my mind is the steam that would billow up from below decks when the slave ships sailed in cold waters or weather.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of sailing ships, seafaring life, or slavery.

 

The New and Improved Romie Futch by Julia Elliott

Reviewer’s copy from Powell’s Indiespensables. Southern-Gothic Sci-Fi? This is fun novel that perfectly captures a certain streak of male loserdom that looms all too familiar. That it was apparently written by a youngish woman pictured holding a chicken on the back cover is extraordinary. Or else we are all too predictable.

Favorite (NSFW) quote: “For the hundredth time… I pictured the boy’s hairless Adonis ass dimpling as he plied my spread-eagled ex-wife.”

 

The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus

I was distracted by the year-to-year history of the empire by an amazing amount of wrist slitting. Read in series of warming up for Gibbon.

 

Almayer’s Folley and Tales of Unrest by Joseph Conrad

Almayer and the fools in Outpost of Progress haunt me still.

 

The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the… by Gordon S. Wood

This is a series of lecture notes that form a coherent whole, again describing the radicalism of the American idea.

 

Stoner (New York Review Books Classics) by John Williams

Finished at 0530 this morning, 5 minutes after I should have left for work. This book disturbed me greatly, I am the age Stoner started his affair… others have described it as a perfect novel. I can only agree.

 

JULY

 

Typhoon and Other Tales by Joseph Conrad

This was a re-read, tackled Typhoon and Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ while on the submarine. Both of those stories were familiar, with ‘Amy Foster’ and ‘Falk’ welcome additions. One can almost imagine Conrad flexing and stretching while writing these, with the best yet to come.

 

Axe Handles: Poems by Gary Snyder

Found hardcover, used, at Powell’s this week. I was delighted to find this copy to be ‘ex libris’ from McMinnville OR library.

 

AUGUST

 

Above the Waterfall: A Novel by Ron Rash

The best retiring sheriff’s lament since _No Country For Old Men_. Uncorrected proof copy from Powell’s Indiespensibles. Well worth the time, if at times a bit overwrought. An example:

“I sit on ground cooling, soon dew-damp. Near me a moldboard plow long left. Honeysuckle vines twine green cords, white flowers attached like Christmas lights. I touch a handle slick from wrist shifts and sweaty grips. Memory of my grandfather’s hands, calluses round and smooth as worn coins.”

This book shifts between several characters, all written in first person. Several times I had to re-read (short) chapters to figure out who ‘I’ was.

 

The Back Country by Gary Snyder

Bought used at Powell’s. Correctly smells of damp and patchouli. Good poems too.

Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Johnjoe McFadden

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

This is an interesting book, obtained as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer. The authors delve into several seemingly unrelated biological topics, and show that a quantum physics explanation is necessary to understand them. The topics include basic functions of enzymes, photosynthesis, bird migration, scent receptors, and gene transcription.
They also propose a solution to one of the greatest ‘how did that ever happen’ questions in the origin of life – the numerous steps necessary to end up with functioning RNA as a precursor to DNA. This is necessary to answer astronomer Fred Hoyle’s ‘tornado in a junkyard creating a functioning 747’ argument, a strong argument for some sort of design from a primordial soup on earth.
The problem:
“Chemists are able to synthesize the RNA bases from simple chemicals by going through a very complex series of carefully controlled reactions in which each desired product from one reaction is isolated and purified before taking it on to the next reaction. The Scottish chemist Graham Cairns-Smith estimated that there are about 140 steps necessary for the synthesis of an RNA base from simple organic compounds likely to have been present in the primordial soup. For each step there is a minimum of about six alternative reactions that need to be avoided. This makes the chemical synthesis easy to visualize, for you can conceive of each molecule as a kind of molecular die, with each step corresponding to a throw where the number six represents generating the correct product and any other number indicates that the wrong product has been made. So, the odds of any starting molecule eventually being converted into RNA is equivalent to throwing a six 140 times in a row.”
These odds are vanishingly small, of course, and might as well be zero. Yet we are here, nonetheless.
The answer, according to the authors, as far as I can understand, is that on the quantum level all particles are in all possible states at once, continuously, and once some sort of prebiotic life was viable the quantum ‘wave’ collapsed into the world of classical physics we are all more comfortable with. A world-wide experiment of the wave-particle duality around four billion years old!
Other interesting conclusions are that many migratory species, such as birds, can see the earth’s magnetic field. Enzymes (substances that allow chemical reactions to occur at lower energy levels than they otherwise would) work via quantum effects. The photosynthesis process is nearly 100% efficient at the cellular level, again due to quantum effects. Finally, almost as an aside, the author’s allow that quantum computing may prove impossible, as it may be too difficult to avoid the ‘observer’s effect’ on wave/particle duality.

 

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, and… by Edgar Allen Poe

This is an amazing novel, and it is baffling that it isn’t better known. I still can’t believe Poe wrote it in 1838, as it would have seemed current in the 1950s Scifi era. The ending is rushed, and I wonder if Poe simply ran out of ideas.

 

Left Out in the Rain: Poems by Gary Snyder

Finished during road trip to the redwoods. Big trees, big poems.

 

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty: A Novel by Vendela Vida

This was an odd novel, and it just… ends. You might get sick of reading a book when the narrator isn’t very reliable, and lets out her story in drips and drabs, and in the end just bails on the story altogether. Not worth the time.

 

Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Read during trip home to Kansas. Hard to judge after being imprinted by such an iconic movie. The novel has some interesting differences, most notably the ruby/silver slippers, and also the flying monkeys charm.

 

Butcher’s Crossing (New York Review Books Classics) by John Williams

The best book I’ve read that I hadn’t heard of prior to this year. Spare, unblinking portrayal of the end of the buffalo hunts. My only complaint was that I was surprised the ‘snowed-in’ portion of the novel – which was close to eight months in duration – was completely glossed over in a few pages. They had no fuel or food prepared for winter. That would have not been able to be glossed over in reality.

 

SEPTEMBER

 

The Nearest Thing to Life (The Mandel Lectures in… by James Wood

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Four short essays from James Wood, author of _How Fiction Works_, a treasure.

In each essay Wood touches on an event and goes on to explore it through fiction. A funeral of a man dying not yet old, a Chekhov story that at heart is about telling an inadequate story, the uses of a lifetime of literary criticism, and the 21st Century ennui of being from everywhere, and nowhere, simultaneously.

Wood seamlessly weaves his thinking on the page, and successfully assays the essays.

 

All The Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace… by David Gessner

This wasn’t the book I thought it was going to be, more memoir than a study of Abbey, Stegner, and the American West. Perhaps as a result, I had a hard time trusting, or even really liking the author. Guy that chose to settle in North Carolina road trips a couple of weeks, and looks up people that knew Abbey or Stegner. Hmm. In the end it works out… okay, mainly due the visits. Peacock especially comes off as kind and helpful to a nosy stranger, so perhaps we should follow his lead.

On the other hand, he had never spent time alone with his nine-year old daughter??? That is just mind-boggling to this dad, who took his then 1 and 3 year old sons on multi-day (solo) road trips. Nor could I imagine decamping from Colorado to North Carolina, and again having a nine-year old that hand’t seen the Rockies???

There is a great germ of an idea here, and I hope to eventually find it fulfilled.

 

The Trident Deception by Rick Campbell

I agree with the blurb, this is the best ‘submarine action’ book since Clancy – small genre, perhaps but genuine. The technical difficulties… exist, but don’t really detract from the story overall. A gift out of the blue from my Aunt in Georgia.

 

At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends by Dwight D. Eisenhower

I found this pitch-perfect, and am now interested in his other memoirs. The parts from his soldiering life rival US Grant’s terrific memoir.

 

Our Souls at Night: A novel by Kent Haruf

I wish I could give it six stars. I hope this work encourages thousands? hundreds? Maybe dozens… of folks to cross the street at twilight to hold hands into the night.

 

Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle by Murray Morgan

Sweeping history of the first century of Seattle, ending at the World’s Fair in 1962. Wobblies & Teamsters on the original Skid Road – Yesler Way. Bought World’s Fair reissue paperback at The Globe Bookstore, downtown Seattle. In great shape for more than 50 years old.

 

The Boy Who Went Away by Eli Gottlieb

Indiespensable autographed paperback reissue.

Excellent novel, chronicling the summer the narrator’s older brother was institutionalized with what we now recognize as autism. Only four stars due to the child narrator, to which I can never properly adjust.

Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and… by James McManus

Story of the 2001 WSOP, with a little murder/S&M, and a side of history of the game. The unlikely writer makes the final table. Great story.

 

Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind by Colin Renfrew

Disappointing. More of a history of archaeology then the story of the making of human mind.

 

A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red… by Vasily Grossman

Worth it for the description of Treblinka alone. As difficult as it was to read, I can’t even imagine the interviews and first-hand reporting that went into writing that piece. The eastern fronts have always been neglected, hopefully this will help to rectify that state of affairs.

 

Myths and Texts by Gary Snyder

Used book from Powell’s, smells vaguely of clove cigarettes. Poems for logging, hunting, burning.

 

Danger on Peaks: Poems by Gary Snyder

Later Snyder is even better, especially powerful writing after the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

 

Two years eight months and twenty-eight nights : a… by Salman Rushdie

More magic than realism, but well told. I imagine this was fun to write. It turned out too ‘mythic’ for my taste, but I did appreciate the effort.

 

This Present Moment: New Poems by Gary Snyder

Finished while working at Eagle Lake, above the North Fork of the Green River, Cascadia. Go Now may be the most powerful thing I’ve ever read.

 

Kansas City jazz : from ragtime to bebop : a history by Frank Driggs

The narrative at times falls away into recitations of set lists and musician swaps. Obviously a long-labored project of love.

 

Eventide by Kent Haruf

Spare, haunting, unresolved, apt. Like the best of us.

 

OCTOBER

 

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

Strange historical novel, major characters unnamed except their relation (sister, brother, etc), sprinkled with historical figures from 1912 or so. Story just sort of rolls around, interspersing historical figures in with the family, and just ends finis, without any sort of denouement.

 

Regarding wave by Gary Snyder

Not his best, almost filthy. I love the family picture on the back of my 45 year old paperback copy.

 

Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

Mesmerizing, does a great job laying out the actual numbers behind the camps. I was struck by the parallels between the destruction of the zeks families, compared to the American prison complex. As more and more police misconduct comes to light, the more delusional the contrast between the two systems.

 

Best Boy: A Novel by Eli Gottlieb

This was amazing, even better than Gottlieb’s [The Boy Who Went Away]. I fell for Todd.

 

NOVEMBER

 

Francis Parkman : The Oregon Trail / The Conspiracy… by Francis Parkman

The OT: Parkman is an excellent guide and observer, reporting on the big wild at the beginning of the end.

Conspiracy: Compares poorly to the former. It seems when writing ‘history’, Parkman was at pains to be more formal, but this only makes the result more stilted.

Judged individually, I’d give the Oregon Trail four stars and Pontiac two.

I’m still trying to determine the best way to review these LOA compilations, but for now three stars overall.

 

Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

Another Indiespensable win. The circling narrative, shown in small bits through multiple characters eyes, was brilliant. I was reminded of moths circling a flame – all too apt for this sad story.

 

Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed

Disappointing. I know it is a contemporary account, but I was hoping for more… this is a disjointed, uneven effort that at times seems to be just copies of revolutionary broadsides. A reader is left with no idea who these people are, and no insight into why they are doing what they are doing – which is what I was after.

 

DECEMBER

 

Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of The 1960s / The Man… by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle – Exhilarating premise, but unfortunately the rest of the novel fails to live up to it. ***

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – I thought this started a little slow, but finished strong. By the end I was having trouble keeping up with everything that was going on – but that was because there were several layers of meaning involved. ****

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – This was the strongest yet in the volume. A long day in a terrible alternate world. May need to re-watch Bladerunner. The writing was uneven at best. ****

UBIK – Matrix-y time travel, decades earlier. Predictable at the finish, but enjoyed regardless. ****

 

 

Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder

More good advice. Unfortunately things have not improved since 1990. Needed more than ever. Inscribed copy, purchased used at Powell’s.

 

Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators… by Sergio Luzzatto

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Primo Levi was one of the earliest witnesses to the Holocaust, writing two memoirs [[If This is a Man]] and [[The Truce]], the first describing the circles of hell of Auschwitz, the second his long walk home following liberation.

A later memoir [[The Periodic Table]] ingeniously integrates his life and chemistry.

Sergio Luzzatto latches onto a few lines from the latter, and investigates Levi’s time in the resistance. It is amazing how many concrete facts he finds at this late date, even including interviews with now greatly aged survivors. In Levi’s own words, they were amateurs, and set out to ‘invent a resistance’. The setting is in northern Italy after the fall of Mussolini, after Germany has invaded its former ally. Rumors of terrible things happening to Jews reached Levi’s family, and they fled to the mountains. During the days young Primo stayed at a resort hotel, and at night worked on that invention with a few other outcasts on the run. The group is quickly infiltrated and broken up, but not before an event that haunted Levi for the rest of his days.

Two partisans from the south, juvenile delinquents, seemingly – have reached the area and are big talkers. They make vague threats the evening after arriving, and are unceremoniously shot in the back from a few yards away. The exact details are now forever lost, but Luzzatto does find the names of the two killed and even interviews some of their decedents. One of those killed, shot in the back by fellow partisans for general banditry, now has two schools and the plaza in his home town named for him, as a martyr for Italy’s resistance. Luzzatto even visits one of the schools, where students walk under a portrait of the school’s namesake every morning. History is complicated.

Just days after the shooting, Levi and some of his group were arrested by the local Fascist collaborator. At the time he thought himself lucky that he was detained as a Jew and not a partisan. However, that was enough to be deported to Auschwitz. Ironically, one of his collaborators was arrested to be tried as a partisan, but ended up freed after 18 months in prison, and was giving piano lessons to the warden’s daughter by the end of the war.

The final chapters are an exploration into the recriminations in post-war Italy, at the time influenced by a hope for the new republic, and Italy’s role in the (then) new Cold War. ‘Democratic Italy was baptized as Fascist Italy was crucified.’ – Sergio Luzzatto

 

Crowned by Staff of Kansas City Star

They did it! This is a review of the playoffs and regular season that led up to the 2015 World Champs! Includes stats and recaps of every playoff game.

 

Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of… by Michael Witwer

More a choppy series of vignettes than a biography, this is a great story desperately in need of a narrative voice. The invented internal dialogues are a distraction. Despite these shortcomings, this was a welcome visit to an old friend. I loved hearing more about the (of course) somewhat troubled man behind the legend.

 

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

Picked up as premium on Folio Society order instead of ‘Autumn’ offering. Later saw a preview for new CGI Jungle Book Disney movie, so a refresher read seemed timely.

I enjoyed all the stories, most especially ‘Toomai of the Elephants’ that I had never before encountered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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