Books I read 9/8/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

This Week I read:

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by Frederick Starr: Pretty much as the subtitle says – an intellectual history of Central Asia during that period when it was dominating the philosophical, mathematical, medical and scientific firmaemnt.. Always interesting to read about a part of the world of which I know only a little, of which Central Asia is at the top of the list. Really made me want to take off on my do-before-I-die trip through the 'stans. Somewhat dry, but that's to be expected given the nature of the work. It also gave a lot of pushback to the Mongols-as-civilization-builders meme which has gotten a lot of play in academic circles in recent years, though to be blunt I have absolutely no capacity to mediate in this particular dispute. Interesting if you have the time.

Were there swords: There were not a lot of swords, no.

Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima: Best known as this point in the West for the least successful coup attempt in the history of mankind (worth a Google, I promise), Mishima is still generally considered one of the great 20th century Japanese writers, and one can see why. This book is beautifully written, even in translation the prose sparkles. I admit that the story itself, which is sort of a lost-love story and sort of about Mishima's obsession with suicide/brevity/emotional purity/the transient nature of perfection, did not resonate in any particularly strong way with me. It reminded me a lot of the German romantics, so if Rilke etc. is your bag this might do it for you. Maybe if I'd read it 15 years ago the passion in the novel would have affected me more strongly, as it was I felt a little bit like, ugh, grow the fuck up kids. Anyway, just me.

Were there swords: No.


Doctor Frigo by Eric Ambler: Fucking Eric Ambler, man, fucking Eric Ambler. Best spy novelist ever, though the protagonists are never spies, just regular folk in over their heads. Very cleverly written, possessing a moral weight which more conventional novels in this genre can only dream of, never allwoing geopolitical concerns to outweigh the human element. Not his best (personally I would go with Judgment for Deltchev though there are lots of contenders) it's still pretty stellar, definitely worth a look.

Were there swords: Not really, but there's action of various sorts.

Right Now I Am Reading: As soon as I post this, I'm going to buy another beer and read Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, which should be fun. Update: Bought beer early. 



Books I read 4/14/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

This Week I Read:

Nothing, by no one. Not a damn thing. I read about 50 pages of one thing but 50 pages isn't a whole book. 50 pages isn't close to a book. Why? Laziness, essentially. Spring finally arrived in Brooklyn, green buds and smiling girls, and the sun returned also, you remember the sun, and also my brother and some friends came to visit, and I found I preferred to enjoy their collected company rather than keep my nose firmly into the terrifyingly grim if very well written Russian novel I'm am trying to read. So anyway, I didn't read anything. Were there sword fights: No, my life generally contains very few of these.

Right Now I Am Reading: I could tell you, but why would you trust me at this point?

Books I read 4/7/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

This Week I Read:

Last Call by Tim Powers – As a rule, I don't see the point in ever reviewing a book negatively. I'm not a professional reviewer, I don't have any obligation to anyone to try and present an impartial opinion, I'm obviously not playing any sort of role in a larger aesthetic and cultural discourse, and therefore saying anything bad about anyone else in a public forum just seems mean and cheap and nasty. Who cares? There are so many good books in the world, spend your time talking about them. At some point you start meeting these people and attaching the names on their books to hands you've shaken and smiling faces and people who seem altogether decent or who at least seem like people, trying to get through the day like all of us and why do you want to have done anything to even in some minor way add to their burdens? (I haven't ever met Tim Powers, I'm speaking abstractly at this point) But then again Tim Powers has sold about a million books and won every aware you can win, and will in all likelihood never see this review and so I don't feel quite as bad about it.

This is kind of a big build up especially because actually I pretty much liked Last Call, I just didn't like it to the degree that I thought I would given some of the other things he's written. Tim Powers is such an enormously imaginative writer, his stuff is always weird and clever in a way which the vast majority of the rest of us in the genre only distantly aspire to. And there's a lot of that on evidence in Last Call. The beginning is very mean and fierce, and the entire idea of stealing bodies and whatnot, the fortune teller, lots of fun bits. But not all the subplots work as well, and like a lot of these sort of things the early build up is more fun than the pay off. I dunno, endings are tough. It's not really fair because I went in comparing it to Declare which is just stunningly fucking cool, if you haven't read that stop reading this review and pick it up ASAP. And then after you're done that go ahead and read Last Call, because it's really quite good despite this damn-with-faint-praise thing I've been doing for about four hundred words now. The truth is that even one of Tim Power's lesser works is probably better than 90% of the rest of the stuff in the genre.

Unrelated to this, it's really weird that when you type 'Last Call' into goodreads the entire first page are for bodice rippers. Were There Sword Fights: No, but there was pretty much everything else. People get shot and there are magic fights and etc. So I think I'm going to count this one.


The Great Sea by David Abulafia– Do you have--(you might, what do I know, you're reading this blog post)--some interest in writing a work of high fantasy? Then this is exactly the sort of book you need to be reading. A sweeping history of human activity in the Mediterranean, going back to pre-history and extending up to the modern day, thoughtful in its conclusions and evocative in its language. Here is Leonidas at Hot Gates, here the bastard Don Juan saves the West at Lepanto, here Napoleon's hopes for an Egyptian empire go down in a hail of shot and splinter. Here false-Converso Jews scuttle through the trading ports of the levant, here the Ragusans plot and scheme against the Doges of Venice, here is the interplay of nations and cultures and languages on a vast scale. This is just absolutely enthralling stuff, a magisterial history, the sort of thing which one might look at in the moment before dying, nod their head, and drift off happily. Kudos to David Abulafia—this is worth every moment of the time it will take you to finish it. The best work of non fiction I've read in a long time. Were There Sword Fights: Not described in vivid detail, I guess, but there's a lot of battles.

Right Now I'm Reading: Yeah, nothing actually. I gotta pick something up tomorrow. Rjurik Davidson and I both promised we would read the others book ( after having already reviewed it) but I kind of suspect in the end we'll both prove to be liars. I'm insanely busy all of a sudden with work and moving out of my apartment and going back to being a vagabond again, and also finishing up Those Below, and don't have quite as much energy to throw into my studies. Which is not an excuse. Maybe I'll read the Mahabharata. I dunno.

Books I read 3/31/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

Last Week I Read:

Stoner by John Williams: First of all, can we talk about the goddamned New York Review of Books Classics? Can we please talk about the goddamned New York Review of Books Classics? We can? Great. These things are just fantastic, whomever is in charge of putting this collection together has done an immense good service to the reading public. I've been basically just buying any one of these that crosses my path in the last six months or so and they've all been great, virtually across the board, lesser known writers who's lack of fame is in no way related to the excellence of their works. God bless those guys/gals. Good stuff.

Right, where were we? Our eponymous hero, Stoner, is the son of Missouri dirt farmers who becomes a professor of English and then dies. Spoiler Alert. It's not exactly action packed, but it's beautiful and erudite and terribly sad, sad because the world is often kind of a sad place, even for people for whom nothing very bad happens, the quiet weight of day to day existence is often a heavy one and the book is a rare celebration of the strength required of all of us to carry it. I thought it was really lovely and I'd recommend it broadly. Were there sword fights: No. Not a lot really happens, like I said. But maybe still don't let that discourage you.

The Duke of Wellington's Military Dispatches by Arthur Wellesley collected by Charles Esdaile: I really have no idea what possessed me to read this, it was just entirely beyond my ken. I also have no idea how to review it—this is indeed the collected dispatches of Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, detailing various aspects of his Penninsular campaigns and Waterloo. It is of essentially no interest to anyone not a narrow specialist in the field, like very narrow, like which division went where on what day, which I am not at all. So, it was kind of a slog, and also for some reason I refused to stop reading it, and so most of my week reading-wise was eaten up by this. That's not it's fault though, really. Anyhow. Were there sword fights: God, I would have killed for a sword fight just to break up the monotony. But no, there were not really any sword fights.

Call for the Dead by John le Carré: After the last two books I really needed to read a book in which something happens. Of course the joke with le Carré is that lots of things tend to happen but always in the grayest sort of ways. I really enjoy le Carré, although sometimes he gets a bit too 'it was a rainy day in London and the sky was gray and there was mud everywhere and people's clothes were very drab and the steak was burnt and the tea was weak...' But then again any distinct voice carries the capacity for self-parody. Anyhow this is really burying the lede, I quite liked it, Smiley's first appearance though in a slightly different form than he would appear in the better developed Karla series. It's John le Carré's first book and you can definitely tell that, the theme's haven't quite asserted itself, there is some physical combat (which there virtually never is in the later stuff although I admit I enjoyed it, especially after the last two books I'd read) and it's all not quite as tight as some of the later stuff, but it's also a fiercely-paced 150 pages and a ton of fun. Strong recommendation. Were there sword fights: No but there are shootings and bludgeonings and generally action and that was enough.

Right Now I Am Reading:

Last Call by Tim Powers: And it's great.


Books I read 3/24/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

Last Week I Read:

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, translation by Donald Rayfield: A classic work of world literature I no longer need to lie about having read! Dead Souls is the story of Chichikov, a double-dealing antihero who travels through the provinces in an effort to purchase ownership recently deceased serfs, a MacGuffin which allows Gogol ample opportunity to skewer the foibles, pretensions, and general awfulness of the backwater nobility, Russia, and humanity generally speaking. The language is nuanced and rich and tons of fun, and by the standards of canonical Russian literature it's really quite breezy (admittedly, damning with faint praise). Of course, only part one was ever completed (supposedly Gogol destroyed the rest of what he had written shortly before his death) and whatever grand point he might have been building towards never really gets made— But still, really very laugh out loud funny, and although an informed reader will understand, in a broad way at least, what the plot behind the purchasing of all of these 'dead souls', still you have to appreciate the quite modern-seeming brilliance of not telling the reader what the hell is going on for more than two-hundred pages. Were there sword fights: No, the only sparring is verbal.

East of the Sun: The Epic Conquest and Tragic History of Siberia by Benson Bobrick: A grand an entertaining history of Russia's conquest and colonization of Siberia, from Ivan the Great to Stalin (chronologically if not morally distant). I learned some things I didn't know, I got some ideas for a sort of magical western novel that I might someday write, after I write about five other books and assuming I don't get hit by a car crossing the street this afternoon. A worthwhile read, all around. Were there sword fights: I mean, there aren't any literal descriptions of anyone going at it, but there's a fair bit of violence in the conquest of Siberia, as you might imagine, and the book doesn't stint. Speaking strictly, though, no, there weren't any sword fights.

Right Now I Am Reading: Stoner by John Williams, because I'm a glutton for punishment.

Books I read 3/17/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

Last Week I Read:

War and Gold: A 500-Year History of Empires, Adventures, and Debt by Kwasi Kwarteng: a perfectly acceptable history of 20th century finance, breezily written, coherent to a reasonably attentive reader without much prior knowledge of economics. In and of itself an admirable, if not particularly ambitious work. Lamentably, this is not at all how the book is marketed or presents itself. The first four hundred years alluded to in the subtitle are dispensed with in about fifty pages, and it really could not be said to deal with war to any particular degree, nor finance as an aspect of war. Still, I learned some things I didn't know before hand. Were there sword fights? No, it was not that sort of book.


Conquered City by Victor Serge: holy shit, this was a book. Victor Serge was the child of Anarchist revolutionaries who fought with the Reds in the Russian Civil War before breaking with Stalin and dying penniless and basically forgotten in Mexico. This story of the attempt of the Red Army to fend off the White in St. Petersburg in 1919 is fabulously good. With blistering if difficult prose he describes the thought processes of a menagerie of different characters on both sides of the struggle, die-hard Soviet Partisans and White Army hold-outs, peasants and prostitutes and bandits, all well-realized and clearly drawn from the author's own experience in the conflict. Excellent, all around. Were there sword fights? No, but there was a brief knife fight which I thought was done well.


The Caucasus: An Introduction by Thomas de Waal: as the title says. A good primer on a region of the world I am visiting in a month and half but didn't know much about. It seemed admirably even-handed given the complexity and diversity of the region, not that I'm really qualified to comment on that. On the other hand, often times you can read when a guy has an act to grind and if de Waal does I couldn't pick it up. Recommended. Were there sword fights: No, no sword fights.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett: so I guess probably you've heard of this guy. My first Pratchett, and I appreciate why people love him. Sort of a PG Wodehouse with dragons, which I mean entirely as a compliment. De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Were there sword fights: Yeah, pretty much. I mean actually there weren't any sword fights that I can recall, but there were a lot of other swords of fights (bar brawls, dragon attacks, etc.) that I think we can put a check in the sword fight column.

Right Now I Am Reading:

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol: because it seems like the kind of thing a person should read before they die.



Books I read 3/10/2015

A person gains attention on the internet mainly by talking about themselves. To that end: here are the books I read this week, and how I feel about them. Why would you be interested in this? I have absolutely no idea.

Last Week I Read:

The Tale of Heike, author unknown, Royall Tyler translator: I bought it as as being the Japanese Iliad and it lived up to that billing in terms of being the artistic expression of a highly militarized society of great physical violence and also a profound sense of poetry. The Iliad is fascinatingly the product of a civilization at a fairly early stage, in so far as literacy and the complexity of the polity and so forth go, while Heike is from a much more advanced society. Anyway, the style is completely foreign although sometimes quite beautiful (I am completely unequipped to determine if the translator has done an admirable job, though to judge by its reception the answer seems to be yes) and anyone with any narrative sense can appreciate the very long build up of violence which explodes furiously close to the end of the book. It's hard to recommend this sort of thing blindly since it is about 700 pages and sometimes sort of impossible to understand but on the other hand you can't go wrong with reading the foundation text of a major human society which by all account this is. Infinitely more readable then The Tale of Genji, which really is on a different level altogether. Were there sword fights: Yes, people fought with swords.

The Old Devils, Kingsley Amis: I've been on an Amis kick lately but this probably broke me of the habit. Not because it's not good—it's very good. It is written with the same style and excellence which everything that I've read by Amis at this point has been, and the subject matter—which is simply put, the social, romantic, and national friction caused by the return of an aging 2nd rate intellectual to his hometown in rural Wales—is admirable in putting a serious focus on a period of life which receives short shrift in literature. Digression: why are there so few good novels dealing with aging? Is it simply because many great writers with their tendencies towards self-destruction don't make it that far? That having reached that stage, few have the energy to dedicate towards their last stage of life, or they would rather think about earlier times, or that no one has a creative peak (especially not writers) that lasts from the beginning to the end of a career? What was the best novel by a writer in his/her dotage? End of digression. Anyway, it's clever and well-written but maybe a little bit dry. It was also my 5th Kingsley Amis in like a month, which probably had some effect on my not liking it to the degree it might deserve. Were there sword fights: No, there were absolutely not any sword fights.

Right Now I Am Reading:

War and Gold: A Five-Hundred-Year History of Empires, Adventures, and Debt by Kwasi Kwarteng. I mean, hell, what's not to get excited about on this one?