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2016, a year in reading, with two sentence reviews, more or less. 83 books, 12 from Folio Society, only 3 from Library of America. I kept up with the Indiespensable subscription and my Early Reviewer copies.  Fascinated by the rise of Bernie Sanders, I also sought out several books on the current state of Socialism/Marxism/whatever. It still isn’t as good a story as Ben Franklin or Daniel Boone, and if 2016 taught us nothing else, it is that the story, the narrative of a candidate, is more important to an election than 1000 policy papers left to die.

January

Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

Music and art in 1980 Big Apple. This was a fun novel, with several ‘whoa’ moments – another gem from Powell’s Indiespensable subscription. I never would have read this otherwise.

 

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

I kept waiting for the light to go off – and there are some great moments/sentences in this novel. I could never get over the creep factor – I simply can’t imagine feeling sympathy for HH as some reviewers have noted. The novel would have been much stronger, IMO, if the relationship were never consummated. THAT would have made me sympathetic to ol’ Humpy.

 

This book creeped me out so much that I sold my Folio version on ebay – I didn’t want it leering at me from the shelf.

 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Just before completing a neurosurgery residency and launching a promising career as scientist/surgeon, Paul Kalanithi is diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.

This is an amazing book. Imagine Hemingway as a Yale PhD, transitioning from Dr/expert to patient at the mercy of the merciless.

A few sentences, but really the entire work rings like a temple bell.

‘Humans are organisms, subject to physical laws, including, alas, the one that says entropy always increases. Diseases are molecules misbehaving; the basic requirement of life is metabolism, and death is its cessation.’

‘Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnoses, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.’

Describing his feelings, after years of distilling probabilities and odds to patients and families: ‘It occurred to me that my relationship with statistics changed as soon as I became one.’

The afterward, written by his wife describing his final days, is equally significant. His end was heroic. I can’t recommend this book enough.

 

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

“P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water.”

It took me a long time to understand why dad always had a can opener (the P-38 referenced above) on his key ring throughout my childhood. I especially appreciated this book for its iterative treatment of memory, that we keep revisiting the same moments, from different angles and perspectives, until we let them go or finally acknowledge their place and move on.

 

e: The Story of a Number by Eli Maor

I doubt this book appeals to readers with ‘modest background in mathematics’ as the cover promises. ‘e’ is the base of the natural logarithm. I vaguely recalled that e was the only number that was its own derivative. This book is at its best describing the discovery of ‘e’, and its historical import.

As a non-mathematician I had to skip the most complicated moments, but still appreciated the overall story.

 

This Moment Is Full of Wonders: The Zen Calligraphy… by Thich Nhat Hanh

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Injunctive zen. Breathe. Listen. Go as a river. Plain advice from Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese monk that immigrated to France after the American War. Sit. Listen. Be free where you are.

 

Funk & Soul Covers by Joaquim Paulo

Part of the Taschen Pop Culture series. This book is an amazing amount of fun. Should be read and browsed with a healthy helping of Youtube videos.

 

Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places by Gary Snyder

A series of interviews and letters between a South African scholar and Gary Snyder. The correspondence started when the scholar, as a MA student, sent Snyder a series of questions about his work. This is a great dialogue that helps fill the gaps in Snyder’s works.

 

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

I can’t recommend this book to anyone. I realize it was written in a different time and place, and it is James Bond, so I was expecting some degree of sexism. Right up towards the end, it went about as I suspected and was fine. But towards the close there is one line, one clause really, that is just beyond the pale and inexcusable. Even a couple of days later it still bothers me.

 

FEBRUARY

 

City on Fire: A novel by Garth Risk Hallberg

This was an amazing book, a kiss to 1977 NYC. There are several memorable characters developed, and despite weighing in at 900 pages I didn’t want it to end, and purposely slowed down when I was close to the finish. Despite its length, there were unresolved plot points that left one wanting more.

 

Losing My Mind: An Intimate Look at Life with Alzheimers      by Thomas DeBaggio

I was a young boy when my great-grandmother moved in with my grandparents, and was told she had Alzheimer’s. I remember being amused with her confusing the Saturday Night Live Weekend Updates with the news, and later still tickled when she would ask your name, inevitably remark ‘that is an easy name to remember’, and then five minute later have her ask your name again. It was less amusing when the same disease manifested in her son, my grandfather.

It took him too. Like many spouses, my grandmother acted as an absolute saint, keeping him home as long as she could. It is quite possible, possibly probable, that the same hidden bomb lurks in my mother, her siblings, and me. None so far have had early onset, and for that we can all be grateful.

I loved this memoir. I liked how it moved in and out of the present and past, recursively. I truly felt like Tom was sharing his stream of consciousness with us.

I knew how it ended before I picked up the book, and loved it the same.

 

MARCH

 

A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century by Jerome Charyn

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

The first half of this book is very strong, obviously the result of a life-long passion and devotion for the work of Emily Dickinson. The author urges us to engage the poet as she is, on her terms, as she engaged life.

The book then shifts from the poetry to the poet, and speculates (almost certainly erroneously,as we’ll certainly never know) on her bi-sexuality, rumored suitors, and presumed flames. He rejects the agoraphobic explanations of her solitude and presumes a jilted heart as the cause.

Charyn then takes us on another wide-ranging jaunt, introducing various 20th Century artists and their interpretations of ED – a found artist and his assemblages, a dancer friend, several poets. He casts a wide net to little affect.

I felt the best insights here were those that if she were born 150 years earlier, ED would likely have been tried as a witch. Born 150 years later, and she would likely be a lesbian adjunct, walking among us. I’d like to think regardless of the era, she would have found her self-same attic and worked on her live verses, and we wouldn’t be the wiser.

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

This was just a joy to read, and laugh out-loud funny. I definitely remember my grandfather getting an ‘arrow through his head’ for a gift, putting it on and giving us his best WELL EXCUUUUUUSE ME!

I sought this out after seeing Martin and Seinfeld together, getting coffee. The descriptions of his bits, and the thoughts that went into them, are fascinating.

 

Mister Skylight by Ed Skoog

Topeka native and Lunchbox podcast veteran with some well-ranged words.

 

APRIL

Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution        by Eric Foner

I can’t remember ever reading a book that made me so mad, over and over. I of course knew what to expect, and yet managed to be repeatedly horrified at our ancestors’ failures.

Political change is a grind it out, every day battle. Think Ho Chi Minh. There are no shortcuts. The Redeemers knew they weren’t going anywhere, and the North would eventually tire of the war they ‘won’, and thereby lose the peace. And so it was.

A timely reminder to the Bernie Bros – winning the election is the START of the battle, not the finish.

 

Granta 134 (The Magazine of New Writing) by Sigrid Rausing

Stories that stood out-

_Base Life_ Life in the Angola bush during the war, from a little girl’s perspective, and the catastrophic consequences of her misplacing her Coke Can transistor radio.

_The Ferryman_ Afghan ‘negotiator’ settling accounts and bodies between Taliban and Americans.

_Last Day on Earth_ Marriage ending, through eyes of a boy, and his father’s hunting dogs.

_Coventry_ Meaning and Silence in one extended family

 

The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild E… by Ben Lindbergh

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

The older I get, the better I am at finding books I like to read. So I can scan a review and go ‘yeah’ or ‘naw’ in a few lines. I knew I was going to like this book. It is even better than I had hoped.

Ben and Sam are baseball writers, both Editors-in-Chief (like Attorneys General) of Baseball Prospectus – Sam current, Ben emeritus, my go-to site for daily baseball browsing.

Through an unlikely series of events, they were able to ‘take-over’ an unaffiliated minor league team last summer, given mostly free-reign over decisions by the team’s GM and owner.

The authors showed up to spring training armed only with spreadsheets and baseball geek connections, and had to figure out how to make it all work over an 80 game season. They mostly succeed, with a few (foreseeable) difficulties integrating the data into the various humans affected.

BenandSam (run-on intentional) are also podcast hosts for the (mostly) daily Baseball Prospectus podcast. I hope they eventually – maybe next off-season – go into a lengthy, chapter-by-chapter out-take – because I have some questions. One is did they change names, because some of the portrayals are less than flattering. They may have burnt some ships.

Like life, the events last summer didn’t all work out as planned. At best, the existential gale quieted for a few innings here and there. But that is more than enough reward for the reader. This book is like your favorite sandwich at your favorite sandwich shop – you look forward to it, despite knowing what to expect, and devour it down every time, pickles and all. Five stars.

These Heroic, Happy Dead: Stories by Luke Mogelson

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Luke Mogelson went to Afghanistan on your behalf. In return, he has written you some stories. They are a scattered miscellany of tales, from here and there, now, and then. Flashbacks and afterwords.

More importantly for our selfish purposes, he can write.

“Without waiting to be invited, the woman squeezed into the both across from Jeanne, scooting toward the window with labored, seal-like thrusts of the torso.”

“In the den, Leo DeMint sat on the sofa and a big girl Mayeaux didn’t recognize sat beside him, one fish-netted hock draped on his knee, little flesh diamonds pushing through the webbing like a string-tied ham.”

“Diaz, in his uniform, with his limp, almost always met a woman. The limp was gold. As the woman watched Diaz hobble back to us with drinks, sloshing gin and tonic on the floor, I’d say, “Fucking Iraq.” She’d seldom ask me to elaborate. If she did, I wouldn’t tell her how, as a squad leader, Diaz contracted a bacterial infection while masturbating in a Port-a-John; how the infection spread up his urethra, into his testicles; how that made him lurch, causing a herniated disk, which resulted in sciatica. Instead, I’d say, ‘We lost a lot of good men over there.’ Which happened to be true.”

 

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt

What a weird book. Read it as part of my Indiespensable subscription. I was drawn along the long walk by the language and by sharing Cora’s bewilderment. The ending, and really entire novel was just too precious for me to ultimately enjoy.

 

MAY

Stomping the blues by Albert Murray

Fun, passionate read. I will be excited to see this in a Library of America volume soon, I hope they are able to reproduce all the priceless pictures along with Murray’s stomping text.

 

Fever at Dawn by Péter Gárdos

Quick little novel, a post-holocaust love story, based on contemporary letters, written by the resulting son. The story is blighted by ‘holocaust porn’, a page or two of no doubt true, but needless, descriptions by the son of what the parents must have experienced in the camps.

 

The Buffalo Hunters: The Story of the Hide Men by Mari Sandoz

Sweeping history of the destruction of the great bison herds in the post-Civil War American West. This is a type of book from the middle of last century that is no longer written, but despite that gives fair consideration to the fact that it amounted to genocide.

 

Granta 135: New Irish Writing (The Magazine of New… by Sigrid Rausing

Strong, if stifling, issue. I could have used a more general introduction explaining the various factions in play. The Traveller pieces stood out.

 

The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the… by Jeff Passan

Read with alternating periods of horror and fascination. The 13 year-old really likes to pitch, may need to look up DriveLine (not far away) once he gets a chance to read the book.

 

Rough Day by Ed Skoog

Like all good words, leaves me feeling a bit dirty, a bit blue, and voyeuristic.

 

The ABCs of Socialism by Bhaskar Sunkara

If anything, I didn’t think this was basic enough. The book should have started with a three or four page primer on what socialism _is_.

Lacking that, the book is well done. It purports to answer several pressing questions about socialism – ‘Socialism sounds good in theory, but doesn’t human nature make it impossible to realize?’ – ‘Will socialists take my Kenny Loggins records’ – ‘why do socialists talk so much about workers?’

I hope every Sanders supporter gets a copy and reads this. Forward!

 

A Doubter’s Almanac: A Novel by Ethan Canin

Solid arc of life through fathers, lovers, and sons. Yes it is the same damn thing all over again, lucky you. The mathematician forever haunted by the weak spot in his greatest proof pretty much sums it all up.

 

JUNE

 

Jazz Covers by Joaquim Paulo

Taschen Pop Culture. I can confidently predict hundreds of hours sorting through youtube uploads with this volume. A treasure.

 

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Amazingly prescient in affect, if not fact, for what the future held.

 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

I ended up liking this more than I thought I would, it is startling to realize that it was written more than 90 years ago. There were several moments that I laughed out loud. I need to re-watch one of the movies.

 

Norman Mailer: Moonfire, The Epic Journey of Apollo 11 by Norman Mailer

Extraordinary, I am so glad to have read this. Mailer’s use of the third person ‘Aquarius’ is awkward, but works once you get the hang of it. As someone that isn’t old enough to remember this (I was born during the last Apollo Mission, 17), this really brought home the experience, especially in dealing with the astronauts as men doing an incredibly tough job. Mailer, writing in 1970, also successfully anticipates the 70s: ‘Yet even this model of the future was too simple. For the society of the rational and the world of the irrational would be without boundaries… Sex would be a new form of currency in both worlds – on that you could count. The planner and the swinger were the necessary extremes of the computer city, and both would meet in the orgies of the suburbs.”

 

2001: a Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

You know what is going to happen, yet it is still fantastic. Makes explicit most of what was implicit in the film, and is a much better product or story as a result.

Clarke successfully predicted the internet age, and its affects:

“There was plenty to occupy his time, even if he did nothing but sit and read. When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes he would plug his foolscap-sized newspad into the ships’s circuit and scan the latest reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world’s major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important one by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display unit’s short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him. Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen, and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.

… Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles per hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word ‘newspaper’, of course, was an anachronistic hang-over into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorb the ever-changing flow of information from the news satellites.

…There as another thought which a scanning of those tiny electronic headlines often invoked. the more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry or depressing its contents seemed to be.”

Yep.

 

Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky

Love and loss in occupied France, completed before the author was deported to Auschwitz. A treasure, amazing that it survived, and when combined with the author’s story this may be the most unforgettable book I’ve ever read.

 

Hurricane Street by Ron Kovic

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Unfortunately I can’t recommend this book. Unless you are specifically a disabled vet advocate, or Ron Kovic fan, this book won’t appeal to you at all. It is not well written, repetitive, and not at all comparable to the magnificent Born on the 4th of July.

 

Lenin and the Russian Revolution (Interlink… by Antonella Salomoni

This is probably the best attempt possible at describing the chaos of the Russian Revolution. There is too much to cover for a thin paperback, but given that this book is a noble attempt.

 

JULY

 

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

If the author didn’t become Orwell, this book would be forgotten.

 

Homegoing: A novel by Yaa Gyasi

This is an amazing book, very well done, effortless shifting between stories and generations. I’ve never read _Roots_ in large part because it should have been sold as a novel. Like this one.

 

26 Songs in 30 Days: Woody Guthrie’s Columbia River… by Greg Vandy

Quick history of Woody’s time in the Northwest. The illustrations set this work apart, many fantastic period posters and shots of Woody in the area.

 

The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American… by Albert Murray

The Ellington essay on the ‘representative anecdote’ and onomatopoeia with trains was unforgettable, as was the Hemingway essay. Very strong essaying as the blues ‘work’.

 

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers: A Novel by Max Porter

Almost a pamphlet. Very brief fable, heavily oversold. It was okay.

 

The Good Lieutenant: A Novel by Whitney Terrell

Unusual format, with the author working backward from the climax in the first chapter, It just felt like the author re-shuffled the deck to be cute. Which was annoying, because the story is good enough to stand on its own without resorting to cute.

This is the story of the futility of our invasion of Iraq, captured in one otherwise nondescript IED, a relationship in extremis, and some shackles.

 

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Revisited as an adult, mostly holds up to a re-reading. Funny to now identify with the ‘star sisters’, instead of the wayward children.

 

The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a… by Jonah Keri

Quick read of a solid baseball story. The work itself is somewhat repetitive, and of course the Rays have again fallen on hard times after Friedman, Maddon, and company have moved on. Keri’s Up, Up, and Away is a much better book.

 

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

I had some trouble joining Le Guin in Ged’s world, but the finishing climax made the effort worthwhile. Everyone has to wrestle with their shadow-demons.

 

AUGUST

 

How the Post Office Created America: A History by Winifred Gallagher

Purchased as gift for my former postmaster mother, 30+ year USPS employee. A solid history of the service, at times devolves into ‘here are some anecdotes’ for a few chapters, but forgivable. Narrative is hard.

 

Train Whistle Guitar: A Novel by Albert Murray

I am anxious to find out what Scooter is up to next. Solid Bildungsroman.

 

Granta 136: Legacies of Love (The Magazine of New… by Sigrid Rausing

Stories that stick out:
Potted Meat – down and out in WV
Interior Monkeyboy – adapting to adoption
The Tenant – itinerant woman settles down, slightly knocks the future off kilter with kindness to landlord’s son
A Syrian escape – just what it says

 

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Read as I revisit Conrad from front to back. This is the culmination of his early novels – many familiar threads from the works up to this one, right up to the long Marlowe monologue. Conrad’s ambivalence to race, especially compared to the time he was writing, stands out to the modern reader.

 

33 Days: A Memoir (Neversink) by Léon Werth

A memoir of chaos. Fits in well with reading [Suite Francaise] and visiting the World War I memorial in Kansas City last weekend.

 

Barkskins: A Novel by Annie Proulx

An epic, Micheneresque multi-generational tale of two families and the great boreal forests of North America. The ending felt forced and abrupt, but after 700 pages I’m sure it was difficult to figure out how to stop. The interview that came along with the Indiespensable version noted that she had to cut more than 200 pages from her final draft, and unfortunately that probably contributed to the so-so finish.

 

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Glad to be able to scratch this off the life-list. As a native Kansan, I was probably jaded against the ‘Capote amongst the rubes’ reputation. I am glad I finally read it, the book is simply magnificent.

 

Reporting World War II, Part 1: American Jo… by Library of America

Mostly excellent. There were a few selections that were more reporter-centric then I would have preferred, but then it is a book about reporting WW II.

Liebling, Pyle, and the Tarawa account stand out.

 

“Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People”: And… by Dennis A. Henigan

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Reasoned responses to the typical bumper-sticker arguments regarding our countries mass hysteria towards instruments for killing our neighbors. No one on the other side would be convinced, of course, because it isn’t about reason. Our gun mania will die out, slowly and painfully, the same way smoking and drunk driving did – through generational changing of mores, and increased financial liability. To put it a little more succinctly, gun owners today are where smokers and drunk drivers were in the 1970s. Remember smoker’s rights?

 

SEPTEMBER

 

Reporting World War II Part Two: American Journalism… by Samuel Hynes

Excellent. I especially appreciated the entirety of Bill Mauldin’s _Up Front_ and the long New Yorker piece on the Hiroshima survivors.

 

The White Earth by Andrew McGahan

Wonderful. A complicated Australian story across three generations, and the title ends up being a literal one. I especially enjoyed the reiterative ‘man on fire’ motif, and the complicated history of the station over time.

 

Cruel Shoes by Steve Martin

So the good news is it Steve Martin, and this particular copy is from my grandparents – I remember my grandfather re-enacting ‘well Ex-cuuuuuuuse me’ and being a a ‘wild and crazy guy’. I love Steve Martin now, saw him in concert a few years ago with the banjo. I wonder how well the act ages – written down, doesn’t seem to be much here. Which of course was the point, all along. It’s funny if you feel like laughing.

 

The name of the rose by Umberto Eco

Medieval monks arguing the finer points of papal intrigue, some murders at the abbey, and a phantasmal library – wonderfully done, and translated at that.

 

The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I… by Dominic Lieven

This is a thorough history of an insanely complicated period. I am trying to bone up on pre-revolutionary Russia, a blind-spot in my education to date. The book really slogs along until events start to pick-up in the months leading to the outbreak of war. Purchased from The Raven in Lawrence.

 

Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s: Fifty-Two… by Elmore Leonard

52 Pickup – Violent, quick and tightly written. No real protagonist, except maybe poor Barbara.

Swag – Still violent, funnier. The scantily-clad NHRA model getting the loot and heading to California is perfect.

Unknown Man – I thought there was going to be more to this scam, predictable. ‘Nicer’ than the previous two, still violent.

The Switch – The ending was both unexpected, and predictable. I laughed out loud.

I enjoyed these novels more than I thought I would, and am looking forward to the next Leonard volume.

 

OCTOBER

 

Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the… by Scott Shane

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

This is a well-sourced book exploring the rise of the drone as a weapon of war, and the evolution of the Obama administration in their use. Objective Troy was an American citizen, killed in Yemen after inciting numerous terror attacks on the United States. The author does a great job contrasting the American experiences of Barack Obama and Anwar al-Awlaki. This book whets the appetite for the inevitable Obama memoir. Five stars.

 

Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams

Some of these are very good, or laugh-out-loud funny. I’m a Powell’s Indiespensable subscriber, but not very interested in Joy Williams’s stories of God. Eh.

 

Here I Am: A Novel by Jonathan Safran Foer

Indiespensable volume. This may have been my least favorite one yet. First, I’m not religious, nor really interested in other’s religion, so hundreds of pages of religious angst is just lost on me. I didn’t care, and grew very tired and mostly wanting it to be over. Second, this book is just too… precious. There was a Phillip Roth meta-joke that was exactly right – if you like Roth, you’ll likely like this. I don’t, and didn’t. Finally, I also don’t really care for dogs, so yeah, just not much here for this reader.

 

Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Present Crisis… by Benjamin Kunkel

Six essays towards understanding the Great Recession, and what comes next, from a Marxist perspective. I thought the chapters on Brenner and Graeber stood out.

 

The Great Clod: Notes and Memoirs on Nature and… by Gary Snyder

The Old Master empties his notebooks. These brief chapters are snippets of a long-rumored work encompassing the natural history of China, its peoples, and the paintings they inspired. Too short to be anything but a merest appetizer of Snyder’s life-long feast.

 

John Reed and the Writing of Revolution by Daniel W. Lehman

Used book find from August visit to Dusty Bookshelf in Lawrence. This has an academic focus, but is still readable for the layperson. I only knew Reed from _10 Days That Shook_…, so was very interested in reading about his other work. I’ve ordered an out of print collection from Modern Library that includes ‘An Insurgent in Mexico’ and ‘The War in Eastern Europe’. This volume also reprints ‘In the German Trenches’ and ‘Back of Billy Sunday’, both excellent. I’m very happy I chanced across this volume.

 

NOVEMBER

 

Universal Harvester: A Novel by John Darnielle

Iowa slacker noir. A fascinating story of absence, and unwanted presence. I enjoyed this novel a great deal, and was continuously surprised by its turns.

 

The New Prophets of Capital (Jacobin) by Nicole Aschoff

Excellent summation why capitalism will never be tweaked from above. The author honestly approaches Sandberg (Lean In…), Oprah, Whole Foods CEO Mackey, and the Gates Foundation, and dismisses their ability to improve upon the system that brought them about. A great intro to modern Marxist thought.

 

The Eastern Front 1914-1917 by Norman Stone

Sought this out after many sources claimed it as the best general history of the Eastern Front. In many places it reads like a shopping list of divisions, casualties, number of railroad carriages, and the like. When the narrative takes hold Stone is excellent. There were unfortunately not enough of those instances for me to recommend this book for anyone else.

 

Hard Times: An Illustrated Oral History of the… by Studs Terkel

Oral history of the Great Depression. The ‘common ‘man’ interviews are the best, but Terkel interviewed many politicians and government officials as well. Contains the only interview I’ve ever read with Topekan Alfred Landon, 1936 GOP candidate. The vitriol aimed at Roosevelt by some reminds one that every election is terrible.

 

The Mothers: A Novel by Brit Bennett

This is a fine novel. I initially found the voice off-putting, but came to appreciate how the characters grew – and the author’s voice along with them. ‘The Mothers’ are a nice touch.

 

Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945 by Enzo Traverso

An absolutely sobering read as the US moves into the age of Trump. The discussion of fear and violence by Hobbes, interpreted by Schmidt, is chilling. All these years later, the song remains the same. Nothing is certain, every victory temporary.

 

The Analects by Confucius

There was much less here than I expected. The Folio volume is very nice.

 

DECEMBER

 

Suttree (Modern Library) by Cormac Mccarthy

Re-read. Laugh out loud funny when not crushingly tragic. G-d d–n, Cornelius.

 

Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through… by Dan Epstein

This was a fun one, sought at library after seeing a Rob Neyer tweet. These were my first baseball memories, Royals v Yankees, Brett vs Gossage.

My only complaint is that there was some glaring repetition between the ‘year’ chapters, and the ‘overview’ chapters.

 

Granta 137 (The Magazine of New Writing) by Sigrid Rausing

Highlights include a diary of a Gulag guard, Vladimir in love, Miriam Toews on Canadian Mennonites, and Julie’s life.

 

Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast by Carson Cistulli

Get yer red hot aphorisms here. I wish it were shorter.

 

Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (Jacobin) by Peter Frase

This was very good, and whoo boy do recent events seem to verify the ‘Mad Max’ version. Fight to the last because we fear the worst.

 

The Underground Railroad (National Book Award… by Colson Whitehead

A little Steam Punk, a little _The Man in the High Castle_ re: the American Civil War, and of course ceaseless violence to the enslaved. Whitehead brilliantly captures the past is prelude rut the US continues to roll in, of course including our last miserable election. May we all dodge the coming Regulators.

 

Run the Red Lights by Ed Skoog

I hope I live long enough to visit Ed Skoog park on a trip home to Topeka, in the shadows of the abandoned West Ridge Mall on the median of Wanamaker Road. In fact I may plant a sign there myself.

 

Life on the Dry Line: Working the Land, 1902-1944 by Harry Morgan Mason

This is an extraordinary memoir, and not just because he is describing ‘my’ people right down the road from where my great-grandparents toughed it out. One of my great-grandfathers also had an early auto service and dealership that was wrecked on the rocks of the Depression. Mason straightforwardly describes a lost world, familiar but distant.

 

The Miracle of Mindfulness, Gift Edition by Thich Nhat Hanh

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

This is a wonderful summation of Hanh’s thought, and Buddhism in general. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but very much appreciated his ‘living’ meditation – when you are doing the dishes, do the dishes. When you wake, wake. I hope to concentrate much more by not concentrating… breathe in… out. Walk, wash, and breathe. Cook, eat, clean, breathe.

 

The Communist Postscript (Pocket Communism) by Boris Groys

I was interested in a communist philosopher’s take on post-communism. I hope this isn’t the best attempt. Some gems:

‘The struggle between these positions [marking left and right of party] determined the life of the country for a considerable period until the general line, represented by Stalin, won out at the beginning of the 1930s, whereupon left and right deviationists were liquidated over the course of the decade. ‘

‘were liquidated’, like a mattress you don’t want.

‘Thus Stalinist communism proves finally to be a revival of the Platonic dream of the kingdom of the philosphers, those who operate by means of language alone. In the Platonic state, the language of the philosophers is converted into direct violence by the class of guardians. This violence holds the state together. The Stalinist state was no different. It was the state apparatuses that translated the language of the philosopher into action – and, as is common knowledge, this translation was exceedingly brutal, incessantly brutal. Nevertheless, this remains a case of rule by language, for the sole means by which the philosopher could compel these apparatuses to listen to him and act in the name of the whole were those of language.’

I’m not sure who that passage shortchanges more, the Greeks, Chekists, or Gulag guards. We all cower to the middle of the night knock of a philosopher’s language. Guffaw.

‘On the one hand, sub-atomic particles are primary because all matter is made up of them. But in relation to finance they are secondary, because the greater the acceleration that releases the sub-atomic particles are discovered – and the size of the particle accelerator depends entirely upon its finance.’

Yes, the existence of quarks and muons in stars billions of miles away billions of years ago are completely dependent upon human government finance. Idiot.

 

The Communist Manifesto / The April Theses by Karl Marx

This dual book is a solid concept. The manifesto seems less lively than I remember, perhaps this is a different translation. The introductions are solid, and it was interesting to read Lenin’s Finland station address. Someone is going to write a tremendous book on the election of Trump, linking it to the centenary of 1917.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Close to the order read. Complete with two sentence reviews.  Titles in italics because wordpress makes underlining difficult.

Plowing the Dark – Richard Powers –  This is the first book I’ve read that was published >2000 that felt dated.  A typical Powers efforts that incorporates Seattle, virtual reality, and a hostage in Beirut.  Doesn’t quite work.

Zero – Charles Seife –  Do they still have bookclubs? This was part of a set of books on numbers: pi, i, ln 2, golden ratio that was an introductory offer in the early aughts. The book starts with paleolithic counting sticks and ends up in string theory. I could mostly follow along, only giving up on Riemann spheres and the different sized infinities of real and imaginary numbers – there are apparently infinitely more imaginary numbers than the infinite set of real numbers. Um, okay math, I’ll take your word for it.

Intuition Pumps – Daniel Dennett – Daniel Dennett has been churning out amazing books and arguments for decades, but this is his best and most accessible to the lay person. Dennett _does_ philosophy, right there on the page in front of you, and explains it in jargon-free prose that any undergraduate could understand. This a book outlining how to best think like a human.

“Thinking is hard. Thinking about some problems is so hard it can make your head ache just thinking about thinking about them.”

Dennett then gives us dozens of tools to use, tricks to try, and false flags to be wary of before ending up at his favorite hard problems – free will and consciousness. These arguments have been made before in _Consciousness Explained_ and _Freedom Evolves_, but this time they come with a prep course on working through the arguments.

“‘It’s inconceivable.’ That’s what some people declare when they confront the ‘mystery’ of consciousness, or the claim that life arouse on this planet more than three billion years ago without any helping hand from an Intelligent Designer, for instance. When I hear this, I am always tempted to say ‘Well of course its inconceivable _to you_. You left your thinking tools behind and you’re hardly trying.

This is a readable approach on how to try.

American Pastimes – Red Smith – I had never heard of Red Smith when I started this, but bought it to help fill the dreaded baseball off-season. This is a collection of his (daily) columns on all things sport – first hand accounts of Dizzy Dean’s World Series, Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, the passing of legends such as Wagner and Big Train Johnson, Bobby Thompson, all the way through Curt Flood and Reggie Jackson.

There are also mentions of the Olympics, Tour de France, football, basketball and other unimportant sports. Seriously, Smith was especially enamored with the horses and boxing and his contemporary accounts of Secretariat, Ali, and Marciano are still fresh.

Trading Bases – Joe Peta –  I picked this up last spring, and am very glad I finally got around to it. The author was a Wall Street stock trader who devised a betting system for baseball games while recuperating from getting hit by an ambulance in a crosswalk. There was much more about finance and especially the collapse of Lehman Brothers that Peta experienced first hand then I had expected, but it is tied nicely together into a discussion of risk management and gambling. I was under the impression that the business-MBA world was spreading through baseball – see Jonah Keri’s _The Extra Two Percent_ but this book makes the surprising argument that the Moneyball phenomenon could still have a huge positive influence in the trading world of The Street.

Bomber Country – Daniel Swift –  The author’s grandfather, his father’s father, was shot down as a bomber pilot in WWII when his son was four. The grandson sets out with his dad to find out more about the missing man. They know he was shot down over the Channel, and that his body washed up on a Dutch beach.

The process is ingenious, through archives, logs, letters, and eventually war poetry. He visits RAF reunions and cemeteries, target city libraries, taxis in a Lancaster bomber, and walks the beach (where dozens of airmen ended up) to tell a tale. The ending is superb, bringing together Auden and Icarus in an obvious move that I wouldn’t have imagined.

‘I don’t know who Icarus is for you. but for me he is Acting Squadron Leader James Eric Swift of 83 Squadron, Bomber Command, who fell to the sea of the coast of Holland on the morning of 12 June 1943. He was returning from bombing Munster. His given name was James, but everybody called him Eric. But that is not quite true: for really, nobody calls him anything. When I was beginning to write this book, my father and I spoke of how we might refer to him, for he did not yet have a name. Names imply a role in the ever-shifting arrangements of a family – Daddy can become Grandpa, and titles like ‘your aunt’ or ‘my brother-in-law’ make sense only at certain times – and this man’s family role ended on a summer day sixty-five years ago. As Ovid reminds us: Daedalus, ‘the unhappy father’, was at that moment ‘no longer a father.’

An earlier observation, on his grandfather crashing just before his unit took part in the firebombing of Dresden, and guilt, quoting from Orwell: ‘Now no one in his senses regards bombing, or any other operation of war, with anything but disgust… [but] there is something very distasteful in accepting war as an instrument and at the same time wanting to dodge responsibility for its more obviously barbarous features. War is by its nature barbarous, it is better to admit that. If we see ourselves as the savage we are some improvement is possible, or at least thinkable.’

Failing improvement, we owe our falling boys honesty.

Sixth Extinction – Elizabeth Kolbert –  This is not a cheery book, but then these are not cheery times for the vast majority of Earth’s biota. As you would expect by an author that is a staff writer for The New Yorker, the subject is well delivered. It happens that this is the second book on the same subject I’ve read, both sharing the same title. The other was by Richard Leakey from 1995. Things haven’t improved.

Both detail a natural history of extinction, with the earlier book paying more attention to the previous extinction events. The book by Kolbert spends more time documenting the present crises. Both touch on Brazilian experiments with varying sizes of forest reserves, and the Simon/Ehrlich debates. The newer version includes chapters on the vanishing amphibians and bats of the Americas, which hadn’t emerged in 1995.

There are three main arguments for preserving natural variety – ecological, economic, and moral. The ecological arguments boil down that humanity is dooming itself by depleting the natural reserves of the Earth, and that through some biological mechanism we’ll all end up living out McCarthy’s The Road or King’s The Stand as the human population crashes.

The economic argument is more pragmatic – with thousands of species disappearing annually, we are throwing away potential medicines or green power sources that it would be to our great benefit to sort out and find before they are lost.

The moral argument is at the center of every WWF fundraising letter with pictures of various doomed megafauna – those pesky shoulds and oughts. The moral argument seems selfless but is essentially selfish – a wish to preserve, conservatively, the status quo.

We are indisputably living during the Earth’s sixth extinction event, and causing it. Of course as a supremely comfortable first world inhabitant my best course of action is to buy less junk, burn less fuel, and all those always pertinent bromides. In the end though, I think the biological ending is unavoidable. We are living in a flat ecological world, as long as the planes keep flying. After our end, life will continue on without us, and speciation will recur once we pass, leaving our own KT boundary of plastic and monoculture pollen as a bleak monument.

Company K – William March – Great War fiction, published in 1933.  The author was a U. S. Marine, and was awarded both the Distinguished Service Cross and Navy Cross, a feat that cannot have repeated many times. The novel is episodic, with each member of Company K receiving a few lines or at most a few pages, like a modern day oral history. The vignettes cover boyhood though death in old age, all tied to their time in the trenches but of course most take place in 1918 France.  Deserters are shot, cowards survive, officers fragged, prisoners executed, Marines are gassed, a pet goat stewed, and we share it all through their individual voices.  Powerful.

Henry Thoreau, Life of the Mind – Robert Richardson – This is a much more melancholy Thoreau than appears in his work.  I was especially interested in his various fall outs with Emerson, his seemingly innate contrariness – which does come through his work, and how much he was involved in his family’s business.  One day I’ll acquire a Thoreau Pencil.  Until then I’ll mull ‘… Indian… Moose…’

Orfeo – Richard Powers – Lovely Indiespensable copy.  The usual genius at work, I am afraid most of the music is lost on me as I’ve never had an ear for it.  The plot borders on silly, which doesn’t leave much for me to enjoy.

The Course of Empire – Bernard DeVoto – A sweeping narrative history of the European discovery of North America, leading to the eventual Manifest Destiny of the United States.  I thought it held up well despite its age (1952).

Wave – Sonali Deraniyagala – A memoir of terrible loss. The author quickly describes the event in the opening pages – while spending Christmas vacation at her life-long favorite beach resort in her native Sri Lanka, an earthquake they do not feel sends a wall of water. She spots the ocean frothing higher than normal, asks her son to latch the glass door to the veranda, and shortly calls for her husband. He gives her an ‘in a minute’, she insists, he takes a look and they wordlessly grab their sons and run down their hall. They don’t stop to knock on the door of her parents room. They attempt to flee and fail, overcome in a stranger’s jeep on the road outside the resort.

Only the author survives, losing her husband, parents, and two young sons. Later she notes the wave was at least 30 feet high at the resort and went two miles inland. She passes through every stage of grief, self-loathing, alcoholism, denial. and eventually writes about it all. Unforgettable.

Brothers K – David James Duncan – A hundred pages in, I nearly chucked this one on the donate pile. I managed to stick with it but am ambivalent about the result.

This sprawling book covers the emergence of a large family in rural Washington, with most of the action occurring in the 60s and 70s. The father is a minor league baseball pitcher, mother a 7th Day Adventist, and the kiddos finding their footing. Some allusions to the other K brothers – Karamazov. Large sections of this book feel very writerly – long school assignments detailing family history, the obvious Karamazov bits. I was interested enough to finish it, but barely.

Baseball Founders – Peter Morris – received as a review copy from LibraryThing.  Was OK, breakdown of early baseball clubs in post civil war NY and NJ.  Donated.

I Was Right on Time – Buck O’Neil – Purchased at Negro League Museum on last trip to Kansas City.  Read on drive to Montana to retrieve boys from in-laws.  This is a familiar story, having read Posnanski’s _Soul of Baseball_, but wonderful all the same.  Buck’s story and the Negro Leagues are fully ensconced in the consciousness of his country, thanks to his efforts.  I was especially struck by his quick mentions of his time in the segregated US Navy in WWII.

Up, Up, and Away – Jonah Keri –  I was trying to save this for the off-season but didn’t quite make it. The history of the Montreal Expos presented by one of my favorite baseball writers, writing from a long-suffering fan’s perspective. In retrospect what the team’s management accomplished is even more impressive. It is also sad to realize that if they could of only held on a few more years the new mlb.tv revenue (which is evenly shared among the teams) would have ensured their survival.

On a personal note, I will always remember a 2002 trip to Montreal to see a series between the Royals and Expos. Of course the (terrible) Royals were swept. My wife charmed the bullpen catcher out of a ball. And we figured out ‘we’ were pregnant with our oldest – quite an eventful time!

The Ploughmen – Kim Zupan – As luck would have it I read this book on a trip to western Montana, including Missoula. The novel is set around Missoula, and the landscape becomes almost a character in its own right. This novel is amazing, tracking the interaction between a sheriff and killer. The murderer especially crackles off the page, the most haunting character I’ve read since Anton Chigurh in McCarthy’s _No Country for Old Men_.

The sheriff’s introspection as the relationship between the two men develops is especially well done. I couldn’t stop reading, finishing after midnight, regretting it all the while as the pages remaining dwindled. I didn’t want this book to end.

The Spanish Civil War – Hugh Thomas – The definitive, two-volume history.  Just sad how quickly neighbor turns on neighbor, given the chance, and how much a warm-up for Germany and Italy this turned out to be.

The Civil War, the Final Year – Library of America – Fourth volume of series of first-hand accounts, letters, diary entries, and the like. The good guys win.  Lincoln is shot.

A Place in Space – Gary Snyder – Mostly positive.  I admire the poet but am left wanting to engage the author over the apparent hypocrisy between his decrying our human manipulation of the earth and all the consequences of that, with everyone living on 100 acres bordering a National Forest.  We can’t all live the way he chooses.  Urban density is the only possible answer to 7 or 8 or 10 billion humans, and a functioning natural world.

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexual – Patricia Lockwood – Lawrence poet, breaking through.  Good on twitter.

We Are Not Ourselves – Matthew Thomas – I really warmed to this novel as I read it – though it took a while.  Reminds me very much of _Revolutionary Road_, but with a larger, generational scope.  I was left especially effected by how many loose ends were left – the angst, the decaying father, the financial woes- that were never resolved but only muddled through.  This is not a comforting story, but an honest one.

Beyond the Revolution – William Goetzmann – This is a sort of intellectual biography of the United States.  It reads very much like the collected lecture notes of an old professor – which of course, it is.  I was hoping for a little more in-depth approach, instead of a quick sweeping survey hitting the high points.  Ideas and concepts are mentioned but not fully developed.

Poets on the Peaks – John Suiter – This is a fantastic book, I am very glad I found a copy.  Much of the material will be familiar to readers of Snyder and Kerouac, but Suiter adds his first hand experiences in the same locations.  The photographs really add to the history.  It is heartbreaking, in retrospect, to read Kerouac in his (last) sober reflections, as he came down from the Desolation fire lookout to fame, and his unwanted transition to icon or token.

The Blazing World – Siri Hustvedt – This was my second installment of an Indiespensable subscription from Powell’s.  I couldn’t be happier with that. I never would have read this book otherwise, and found it a delight.  The novel itself was almost a ‘who-dunnit’, set in the nearly present-day New York art world.  I eventually came to enjoy the supposed philosophical asides, complete with footnotes that were equally likely to be completely fictional as real.  I would recommend the book to any serious reader with the wherewithal to be on the lookout for fake footnotes.

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr – Indiespensable.  This is a wonderful novel, beautifully written.  Taking place in war time Germany and France, shifting between interwoven lives eventually thrown together.  My only quibble are some certain plot twists that defy (my) belief.

Redcoats and Rebels – Christopher Hibbert – This is a readable history of the American Revolution from the British perspective. It delves into the various personalities in British politicians and generals in the fight, and how often they viewed it as a dead-end proposition.  There were perhaps no military encounters, outside guerrilla skirmishes, that the rebels could claim as victories, yet the British eventually retired from the conflict.  This book helps explain why.

Empathy Exams – Leslie Jamison – Received as part of Indiespensable subscription.  I never would had read this book, otherwise.  I am very glad I did, never having really thought about the possibilities of guilt and pain laid bare here.

The Great Glass Sea – Josh Weil – This is if nothing else a beautiful story, it almost seems as if the fantastic past/future-esque setting detracts from the real issues and feelings brought up.  Twin brothers in an indeterminate Russian past both end up working on a futuristic greenhouse project requiring projecting sunlight reflected from space via giant mirrors.  One brother embraces this future and the other utterly rejects it.  I had to resort to Google to look up The Caspian Sea Monster – ekranoplan – and was surprised to find that was historical.  Go ahead and look it up and be amazed.

All the Land to Hold Us – Rick Bass – I have long admired Rick Bass, but missed this when it was first published. It then languished on my ‘to read’ shelf. I loved this book, the deep history of the story, rising to the surface like prehistoric water. The oilman, the salt lake, the elephant, and the elementary school class.

Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems – Gary Snyder – 50th anniversary edition from the last of the Beats.  Ordered new from Powell’s, this version comes with an audio CD of Snyder reading from the work today, and 50 years ago.

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy – Long romance novel, closes with heavy-handed philosophizing. Mostly glad it is over.

A Life of the Buddha – Michael Edwardes – Old Folio Society version, Oddly formal translation, simple pen and ink drawings. If you want ‘thous’ and ‘thees’ in the mouth of your buddha you should look this version up.

Citizens – Simon Schama – Extremely readable narrative history.  This has to be the definitive, ‘entry-level’ take on the French Revolution.  I personally would have preferred more explicit references – footnotes, etc – on the areas I was especially interested in.  I thought the ending of the book felt rather thrown together, but after 800+ pages I’m sure the author and reader should agree to a truce.  I don’t know enough about French history to suggest a better ‘end point’.  The launch of Napoleon might have been a good spot, but this book didn’t go that far.

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell – In a word, weird.  I don’t know that I could describe this novel to anyone else, but in the end I was delighted by it, and the reiterative takes on the main story.  Very enjoyable sci/fantasy fiction, and usually I am not a fan.

Earth House Hold – Gary Snyder – Oh that we could have collectively listened.

Foundation – Isaac Asimov – First time reading, interested enough to finish the trilogy.

Lila – Marilynne Robinson – Easily my favorite of the Gilead Trilogy.  Lila must be reckoned with.

All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews – A hard subject, well told, the tone just struck me as a bit… off.

Loitering – Charles D’Ambrosio – D’Ambrosio loiters a bit in the pity, pushing self-awareness for all it is worth. I was constantly amused by the referral to Seattle as some sort of intellectual backwater to be escaped, as I had to work very hard to escape TO Seattle from my own backwater.

To Have and Have Not – Ernest Hemingway – Hard to read past the cheap racist descriptions, hasn’t aged well, which is a shame, as the gritty noir story is a good one.

I’m pretty happy with this list, and extra time on the bus in only going to help 2015.  My top two reads were Bomber Country and Wave for non-fiction. I really liked Lila, but am not sure how it would stand on its own without having read Gilead or Home. Of the Indiespensable books, The Blazing World was probably the most enjoyable, as I know I would have never otherwise considered reading it.

For several years I have been cataloging my books on a website called librarything.  Somewhat like goodreads, but more focused on the volumes themselves.

My nose has always been in the books.  As a kid I know I read every WWII history volume in my grade school library (Gage Elementary, Topeka, KS, RIP) – 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, PT-109, Convoy PQ 17. Once I had the means, I shifted into acquiring them.  I joined Science Fiction and History Book Clubs by the time I was 16 and was working as a bus boy.  Before the end of high school I started a lifelong relationship with The Folio Society – illustrated higher end fine editions of great books.

Folio Conrad

While in the Navy I subscribed to The Library of America, adding classic American fiction and collected letters and papers of luminaries.

LOA

 

Thanks to Librarything I know that I currently have 137 Folio volumes and 131 LOA out of my first 1000 books, give or take – after the big move and storage etc I haven’t yet tried to conduct an inventory and I just recently included a ‘donated’ tag to my collection.  But the coolest bit of librarything is this, the 300 some odd folks hanging out in my shelves.  Lots of dead white guys.

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Here’s the link, where you can mouse over link names to faces: http://www.librarything.com/authorgallery/kcshankd

Here’s my tag cloud, subjects of my librarything: http://www.librarything.com/tagcloud/kcshankd

 

My most common tags: Fiction (264), Folio Society (137), Library of America (131), Philosophy (90), Essay(81), U. S. History (51), Kansas (45), Memoir (37), Political Philosophy (33), Poetry(31)

Now I’ll go catalog my new books, ruining my round number…

Brains are weird.  There is a local chain up here called Taco Time.  It is completely PacificNW: everything is locally sourced, the ‘plastic’ sporks are made out of corn, they don’t have trashcans but compost bins, etc.  They also have a really tasty white chili.    They are everywhere, I drive by a Taco Time on my way to work.  It doesn’t happen each time I pass by, but if I notice the sign inevitably this happens:

http://youtu.be/XaZ4Su1QJ18

My head has already assigned a two syllable word that starts with a T – followed by ‘time’ space, apparently it is full.  Prior to moving up here I doubt I’d heard that song since it was live on the radio when I was a kid.  Now a couple times a week I am living on Taco Time.  Never mind the fact that Tacoma time, or Topeka time, would make much more sense.  One too many syllables.  They don’t need me in the movies. Boom slide clank clank Living on Taco Time.  Please help.

Side note: Eric freakin Clapton covered this in 1978.  Let’s go ahead and skip from Blind Faith to Unplugged shall we?

http://youtu.be/l86AYxdYoUo

Due to a longstanding terrible work schedule, it still feels like a rare moment when I have an evening at home with my sons.  Last week I had such a moment, and since it is getting darker sooner and sooner, dinner was done by 6.  I suggested a movie, but am always at a loss as to which – Netflix helpfully suggested Aeon Flux and I was floored.  I said ‘wow’ and they said ‘what’?

How to explain Aeon Flux to 21st Century boys?  ‘It was a weird short cartoon on late at night on MTV, before I joined the Navy’.  ‘What’s MTV?’, of course. What the hell is MTV, or was?  ‘It was a channel on cable, before the internet, and was an outlet for new music and weird shows’ (thinking of The Young Ones, a game show that had contestants sitting on couches, and Liquid Television).  How to explain Money for Nothing or Take.On.Me to kids that watch Youtube videos on their IPods?  Or odder still, I remember seeing Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs on SNL and having no idea who they were and being blown away while their friends will just send them a link to cool stuff.

The movie was fine, with several ‘a-ha’ moments (rim-shot) as I still remember being mostly bewildered by the random 3 minute shorts.  Also, I forgot that she mainly ran around naked.

But I was really struck by trying to explain MTV to my sons, and recursively trying to crack that nut.  They will never relate to the boon of what basic cable was to the world that previously contained channels 11, 13, 27, 41 if the weather was clear and at some point the ‘new’ channel 49.

So of course I thought of Emily Dickinson.  I’ve been thinking of Emily a lot, and am now finishing a two-volume biography that has brought me no closer to understanding, really, what the hell.  It is so hard to grapple with ED on her terms.  We have words, some letters, but no answers.  At times who wouldn’t want to retire upstairs, put on a white homespun dress, and deal with the world through a door, slightly ajar?  Trying to engage with the genius more than 100 years after her death and fame, I am faced with a similar chasm of what the world was like, then, to understand, now, in the now.

She made these choices, which we have to respect and abide, as we keep poking and rearranging the dull shards we are left, hoping one or two more letters may yet emerge.  So would a ‘Northampton Social Group for Writers’  Meetup group http://www.meetup.com/Northampton-Social-Group-for-Writers/ keep Emily out of the attic?  Would we still get fluttering – and dashing—and well, randomly, this:

There is a finished feeling

Experienced at Graves –

A leisure of the Future –

A Wilderness of Size.

By Death’s bold Exhibition

Preciser what we are

And the Eternal function

Enabled to infer.

I don’t know, I have to strive mightily to not feel sorry for our alabaster recluse.  But the movie was pretty good, and like the rest of human history before 2005 or so my boys will simply have to learn some history and empathize with us sorry kids that grew up in the olden days with static and test signals and the National Anthem signifying the show was over and it was time for bed.  Poor kids.

‘Wow’

‘Insert some sort of random dad quote on women, and bodies, and art, and illusions of perfection’

‘Yeah, plus she’s hot dad’

‘Yeah’

Occasionally in the course of my rounds I travel to the lake intake at the water treatment plant where I work.   The treatment plant is supplied from either water pumped out of a lake, or fed from gravity flow directly out of a river rushing down from the Cascades. 

The intake structure is a concrete anchored, safety yellowed mass, with see-through steel grating that fosters the illusion of floating over the water’s surface.  The lake is entirely surrounded by pine forest, which gives voice to every breeze that happens along.

 

This particular day, the last time I went, was sunny and warm, but a polite warm not the mean heat of high Midwestern summer that I’ve come to expect in August.  I paused and listened to the pines, looking south toward Rainier but it was mostly obscured by low lying clouds, with only portions of its snowy base showing.  The gentle lap of friendly lake waves suddenly caught my memory and took me back to a different sunny day, time immemorial and youth and a skinny kid at Blaisdell pool, the first (and only) three meter board I dared.  I remember jumping from that tall spot, no form or style just gravity assisted towards the bottom, and my shorts coming mostly off and my struggling to put them back on underwater and the youthful panic of embarrassment and shame passing through my head as I repantsed, then the struggle for breath until I came up and swam blindly for the side, reddened and gasping, realizing no one had noticed, and then instantly feeling that was worse, accompanied by the gentle lapping waves at the side of the pool.

 

All rushed through my brain mash out there on the lake, again, thirty years later seemingly from no-where, circuits must have been full trying to remember new little wave lapping sounds.

Absorbing the moment, I stopped and drifted a little further, still in Gage Park but now to a terrific Flintstone Park of wooden cars and a giant roller slide of rough-timbered logs.  It was huge, to a boy, and retrospectively crazy – we rode that thing?! But kids might get pinched/slivered/crushed/boned.  Nary a helmet, either, in memory, except the kid in the neighborhood that had to wear one outside, and his mom put a giant orange flag eleventy feet high on the back of his bike.  He was ‘different’, don’t know how, now, but we sure saw him coming.

The Shawnee County Parks Legal Dept. must have scrubbed the interweb of all evidence, all google could find was this innocent picture.  No doubt there are maimed folks now entering their forties, with splintered eyes and smooshed arms, legions of lawyers scouring the web for a deposition next week.

Image

 Terrified Hostages

 

 

 

 

And then I turned around, walked to the truck, and took my samples back for analysis.