Reading – 2001
"A letter doesn't communicate by words alone. A letter, just like a book, can be read by smelling it, touching it, fondling it. Thereby, intelligent folk will say, 'Go on then, read what the letter tells you!' whereas the dull-witted will say, 'Go on then, read what he's written!'
— Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red
A love affair with books
Jonathan Lethem, This Shape We're In
And there goes 2001!
Of all the writers I'm familiar with, Lethem is the best at looking beyond our normal use of words and phrases, finding hidden universes inscribed in nouns and verbs, and bringing those bizarre places to vivid, believable life.
McSweeney's, Brooklyn, 2001
Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red
An unusual mystery/love story set in the 1590s in Istanbul, and written—I guess—in the Ottoman style. I found it a bit tedious; yet at the same time I was attracted to it because the story is presented in such a different style.
To avoid disappointment in art, one mustn't treat it as a career. Despite whatever great artistic sense and talent a man might possess, he ought to seek money and power elsewhere to avoid forsaking his art when he fails to receive proper compensation for his gifts and efforts.
"Every cleric with any ambition who's met with some favor and whose head has swollen as a result will preach that religion is being ignored and disrespected. This is the most reliable way to ensure one's living."
Why did the awe that I'd felt wholeheartedly only a short time ago give way to hypocrisy as I voiced my feelings? For our praise of a man, whose talent and mastery genuinely astounds us, to be sincere, must he lose most of his authority and influence and become slightly pathetic?
Knopf, New York, 2001
Banana Yoshimoto, Asleep
This book could as well have been titled Awakening. In three thematically related novellas, Ms. Yoshimoto gently invites us to peer into the fog of supernatural melancholy that engulfs three women who have each experienced the death of someone close to her. It is an almost timeless space they experience, each in her own way. There is nothing to do but wait for the sun to finally burn the fog away, if it ever will.
She writes with a sure and tender voice, unencumbered by pretense, deeply in tune with the hearts and souls of her characters, playfully aware of the mystery of our world.
Grove, New York, 2001
Artyom Borovik, The Hidden War
I read quite a number of books each year; a few are bombs, many are okay, several are quite good, and then, if I'm lucky, once or twice a year I come across a book of this caliber.
Written by a courageous Soviet journalist, passionate to understand the war and reveal the truth of his experience of it, the book exposes the very individual and terrible cost of war in a way I've never come across before.
Afghanistan isn't a county. And half a year has gone by since it's been a war. For those who were there, Afghanistan is more like a prayer.
Not only a prayer to God, but to oneself.
Whisper this prayer before you go to sleep—once for every person who died there. Spit out the word faster than machine-gun fire. If you are lucky, when you get to fifteen thousand you may perceive its hidden meaning.
We got up and, without speaking, looked each other in the eye. I could hear my breath and his. Peresleni's mouth was as crooked as a snake.
"A third toast!" he said. (People in the Soviet Union traditionally drink the "third toast" without clinking their glasses, out of respect for those killed in battle.)
We drank for the fifteen thousand people who, like he and I, had been killed in Afghanistan.
I remember meeting a towheaded young soldier near the Jangalak plant, where the Soviet command was distributing free flour. His hair and eyebrows had turned white from the flour dust. "This is some kind of international duty," he said as he brushed the powder off his eyelashes with a sleeve of his bushlat. " You shoot them with one hand and put food in their mouths with the other."
Atlantic Press, New York, 1990
Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
A curious little book, somehow vivid with reality while dancing in the realms of fantasy.
Knopf, New York, 2001
Peter L. Bergen, Holy War, Inc.
A dry and dispassionate book of facts and figures. While it might be helpful to researchers, it is not going to help anyone who is trying to understand why.
Free Press, New York, 2001
Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days
"Then comes Bob's Return. … the second novel, recapitulating some of the first's themes, somehow lacking, emboldened by success he tries to tackle too much …."
Doubleday, New York, 2001
Charles Seife, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea
A science writer and mathematician explores the history and meaning of zero, which makes appearances in our ideas of nothingness, infinity, the birth of the universe, and its ultimate demise. Like all of these kinds of books I have read, there is value to be found in the way they prod us to think beyond our everyday existence, to look beyond our perceived horizon, to imagine beyond our dreams. In the end, though, we always come to face one certainty: we don't know. We guess, and we refine our guesses, but I think that as long as we identify ourselves as apart from the whole we are trying to understand, we won't be able to grasp it. And the moment we experience ourselves as the whole, nothing will be left to understand. In the meantime, perhaps the most important thing we can do is to chop wood and carry water from the well.
Viking, New York, 2000
Manuel Ramos, The Ballad of Rocky Ruiz
A few years ago, I read the second book Ramos wrote, "The Ballad of Gato Guerrero." I was impressed by its gritty spirit and local color (set mostly in Denver and Colorado's beautiful, 8000-foot-high San Luis valley). Recently, I came across it again on my bookshelf, and was inspired to search for this, his first book.
In the first chapter of this book, Ramos describes a visit by the main character, Chicano lawyer Luis Montez, to Lolly's Taco Shack on West Thirty-Second Avenue. "We munched away at menudo, enchiladas, and green chile, listening to a background of kitchen noises and the excited babble of culturally deprived white folks soaking up the color and smells of Denver's Little Mexico."
While I wouldn't describe myself as culturally deprived (indeed, my life has been rich with immersions into other cultures during my travels around the world), as I continue my journey these days through the books I read, I deeply appreciate writers who reveal a bit of another culture's soul to me through their stories. Manuel Ramos spins a good, soulful, culturally rich tale.
St. Martins Press, New York, 1993
Edwidge Danticat, The Farming of Bones
"His name is Sebastien Onius."
Anything I can say about this book will seem trivial and pale compared to the story itself. Lush, exotic, horrifying, sensuous, unflinchingly honest, wonderfully written.
Several years ago, I read a stunning novel, In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. It tells the story of three sisters from a well-to-do Dominican family who stood against the dictator Trujillo, a name that should cause us all to spit in disgust. The sisters were butchered by Trujillo's henchmen, but live on as symbols of courage.
The Farming of Bones tells a sister story, through the senses, heart, and imagination of a Haitian woman, Amabelle Désir, who works as a servant for a Dominican family, and is caught in Trujillo's atrocious web. Although beaten nearly to death, Amabelle manages to escape back to Haiti, unlike so many of her countrymen who were brutally murdered, and whose blood is forever on Trujillo's name. While Amabelle survives, her emotional scars are even deeper than her physical ones. Danticat reveals with great sensitivity how creatures like Trujillo can continue to destroy long after they are dead.
Sebastien Onius is Amabelle's love. An itinerant cane cutter, he is murdered in Trujillo's name. His name stands for all the "nameless and faceless" who Trujillo caused to be murdered. We should remember his name always.
"Freedom is a passing thing," a man said. "Someone can always come and snatch it away."
SOHO, New York, 1998
Idries Shah, Kara Kush
During his life, Idries Shah wrote more than 30 books on Sufi thought, Middle Eastern travel, Mulla Nasruddin, and even oriental magic. A son of Afghanistan, he was a highly regarded Sufi teacher, and successfully created a bridge of understanding about Sufism for the West. I have most of his books in my library, and have read many of them over the years. They sparkle with wisdom and wit.
This book was his first—and as far as I know, only—work of fiction. It tells stories of the way various Afghans fought against the overwhelming military might of the Russians. Written before the successful conclusion of the war, it is obviously tailored to a western audience, and it's difficult to gauge how much poetic license he has taken in fashioning his characters. I'm sure that he wrote the book to provoke sympathy in the West for the Afghan cause. However, the jacket clearly states that the story is based on fact. With that in mind, the book provides fascinating insight into this troubled country and her people.
Stein and Day, New York, 1986
Dennis Bock, The Ash Garden
An "almost" book. An interesting premise, a few lines and passages that sparkle with a passionate appreciation for life, wrapped up in a meandering and somewhat confused approach.
Names weren't worth dwelling on. Not when life, urgent and real, wanted to be lived.
… the world requires a certain payment from us all, pain and suffering, hunger, destitution, solitude, for the freedoms we enjoy. We have all paid. Or will.
That night there commenced a gradual fading, and when she awoke she knew immediately what this was. (More ≫)
Carol Devine Carson created a beautiful jacket for this book.
Knopf, New York, 2001
Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down
I decided to read this book because I wanted to understand better what the U.S. soldiers who have and will actually end up on the ground in Afghanistan will face. I have some understanding of what the people of Afghanistan face after having read (twice) a few years ago Idries Shah's amazing book, Kara Kush, which is the only novel ever written by a son of Afghanistan about their war against the Soviets. Bowden also includes in this book a few glimpses into what the Somalis felt during the engagement with the U.S. forces described in this book.
There is no doubt that the U.S. soldiers who fought in Mogadishu nine years ago were courageous and accomplished their mission. There is no doubt that they persevered in the midst of a horrendous situation. As I was reading their stories, imagining myself in their places, I felt gratitude and awe at their individual acts of heroism.
But I can only shake my head in despair when I think how misguided the political and military decisions were that lead them to be on that mission. I was devastated when I read about the helicopter missile attack of July 12 on the house of Abdi Hassan Awale, where 100 Habr Gidr clansmen—militia leaders, elders, and intellectuals—were meeting. The attack was a revengeful, and in my opinion, shameful slaughter. Sixteen missiles were fired into a room where people were discussing how to respond to a peace initiative put forth by the retired American admiral Jonathan Howe, who was leading the UN mission in Mogadishu.
Today, the U.S. government is like the church was in former times, sending its missionaries around the world with sacks of grain, but ready and even eager to bring down the wrath of god on the head of anyone who dares not be grateful for their half-filled bowls.
I pray for the well-being and safety of the U.S. men and women who have been sent to fight this questionable war in Afghanistan. I pray for the people of Afghanistan. I curse the shortsighted U.S. political leaders who have lead us as a nation to inflict so much harm on the peoples of the world in our greed for resources and obscene wealth. I curse Bin Laden and the Taleban who would extract their revenge on civilians. Bin Laden, in his fatwah urging a jihad against Americans, says "This is in addition to the words of Almighty God 'And why should ye not fight in the cause of God and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated and oppressed – women and children, whose cry is "Our Lord, rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will help!"' If he really feels this way, how can Bin Laden accept being a guest in the house of the Taleban, knowing full well how they treat the women of Afghanistan?
I simply cannot believe the insanity I am witnessing. The Bush administration has thrown the military might of the U.S. against the whole of Afghanistan, and then turns around and criticizes Israel for invading the West Bank after its minister was assassinated. Don't get me wrong, I fully codemn the assassination, just as I fully codemn Israel's assassinations, the suicide bombings, and the brutal occupation; all of it is terrorism. But how can Powell, who is certainly an intelligent man, stand before the world and speak so absurdly with so much conviction? How can the U.S. justify having spent billions to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait and to continue bombing them over the years, and at the same time refuse to return the Black Hills to the Sioux, to whom it belongs by virtue of a treaty the U.S. itself signed?
I am reluctant to publish these words on my website. I struggle against a strong desire to withdraw, to hide. But I am more afraid not to speak out, to leave the discourse on the future of our planet solely in the hands of people like Bush, Rumsfeld, Omar, and Bin Laden.
Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1999
Simon Reeve, The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama Bin Laden and the future of terrorism
A chilling and deeply disturbing book. Written after and about the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, some of the lines simply made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Even as smoke rose from the World Trade Center, covering southern Manhattan like a light shroud, a lone figure stood watching from the Jersey City waterfront. Ramzi Yousef, a young Kuwati-born man … had driven to a vantage point in New Jersey after leaving Manhattan. As tens of thousands of people in the twin towers choked on smoke and prayed for their lives, Yousef must have felt a stab of disappointment. The towers were still standing ….
Yousef had planned differently. In his reasoning, there was only one way of making America realize it was at 'war': the 'Great Satan' must suffer casualties similar to those inflicted on the Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His plan, stunning in scale, had been to topple one of the towers into the other, causing perhaps 250,000 fatalities ….
His plans were stymied by nothing more than a lack of available funds.
As it was Yousef's bomb came shockingly close to causing devastation. The carnage that would have resulted from one of the towers toppling into the other is barely imaginable ….
Would that it were still barely imaginable. In fact, even though it has come to pass, I find it barely imaginable. What is it in a person that makes them cross the line from someone passionately committed to a cause into someone who is a blindly fanatic murderer?
Why? That's the question, isn't it? Yousef's answer is in this book, his justification for becoming an indiscriminate killer. Yet, while he is able to articulate his reason, I can't help but wonder how a man who was tenderly cared for by paramedics when his car (that was carrying a test bomb) crashed, could turn around and try to kill people just like the ones who had cared for him. There is something there that seems insane in its absurdity.
Why? Why do we find ourselves in this horrid position? This book certainly provokes deep thinking about this, and the answer reveals itself when one question is asked: why are U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia?
Oil. Our desperate dependence on the massive amounts of oil we burn each minute of each day.
Another root reason is surely our country's willingness to spend billions dropping bombs and missiles around the world. And at the same time, our reluctance to spend much aiding people around the world who are desperately poor. Can you imagine what might happen in the world if we spent as much helping poor countries develop as we do on the bombs and missiles we drop on them?
Of course, understanding some of the core causes leaves us still far away from meaningful answers. Obviously, we must fight this war with Bin Laden and those who are allied with him with every strength we have. That he is a ruthless, blood-thirsty enemy there is no doubt. But I can't help but wish that, simultaneously, we could begin to move toward a different relationship with the rest of the world. Unfortunately, that would take world leaders with a vision that is beyond what most of the players currently on that stage seem to possess. Blair is probably the one who has the most intelligence and vision, the only leader who is talking about the mistakes the West has made in its approach to its relationship with Afghanistan and the Islamic world. But in terms of his power to influence this course of events, he holds a cap gun next to the laser-guided missiles that Bush has in his holsters. Poor Bush. He suffers from the same vision-thing handicap as his father, although I'm sure his handlers will carefully steer him away from ever having a chance to say that out loud the way his dad did.
And poor us, the people living in this world, who must deal with the increasingly dire consequences of these vision-starved leaders. What a morass.
I highly recommend this book. We must begin to better understand the problem we confront if we are to have any chance at solving it.
Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1999
John Colapinto, About the Author
Clever! Lots of laughs wrapped up in this can't-put-it-down thriller of a story about a bumbling author-scoundrel who keeps digging himself into a deeper and deeper hole in his attempt to be loved. And you just can't help but love him and cheer for him all the way.
I enjoyed his description of what it takes to write a novel: "I'm talking about the megalomaniacal confidence, the sheer comic audacity, that permits a mortal to attempt the sacrilege of setting in motion a world."
Harper Collins, New York, 2001
Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea
Described on the front cover as a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable (what the heck does that really mean?), and reviewed by Kirkus Reviews on the back cover as "… lighthearted… clever… those delighting in wordplay will be duly rewarded…," this book caught me by surprise.
Yes, it is a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable. And yes, it is clever and full of delightful wordplay. But "lighthearted"? On the contrary, this is an at times brutal look at the menace of fascism, the quagmire of blind acceptance, and the wonder of quirky accidents that is life. Who would have thought that so much was buried in that strange phrase we've all seen, The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog?
I'm left wondering if the reviewer at Kirkus Reviews really read this book in its entirety. The word "lighthearted" really sticks in my craw. How could one use a word like that to describe a book that watches as a small nation descends into a peculiar madness that includes flogging (even of children), pillorying, forced expulsion of whole families, state appropriation of private property for the personal gain of those in power, and even the shooting to death of a professor whose only crime is to sneak back into the university that the government had closed in order to continue his pursuit of learning? Yes, the author does skillfully keep the story from descending into a dark bleakness, but that should hardly be described as lightheartedness. I can only hope that the publishers took the word way out of context when they designed the back cover.
MacAdam/Cage, San Francisco, 2001
Miyuki Miyabe, All She Was Worth
Perhaps due to the cultural differences, I felt a bit bemused and slightly bored during the first half of this mystery thriller that was named the best mystery and best novel of the year in Japan in the early nineties. The way the characters talk to each other is so very different than what you find in a similar book written by a U.S. author, simple, almost childlike. And at one point I felt I was reading a rather dry magazine article about the crisis of personal debt in Japan; although, at that level, I found it fascinating as I had never realized that the Japanese were also struggling with this issue that had seemed to me so typically American.
Eventually, the story hooked me deeply, as it exposed elements of life in Japan that we rarely hear about: people struggling with poverty and against organized crime; people living on the edges of society, skirting the rigid norms of Japanese social structure; people descending into the mire of heinous crime in an attempt to live a normal life.
The ending is magnificent and tantalizing. How courageous for the author to place the final period just at the point where a whole new storytelling universe was about to open. I haven't felt as respected as a reader in a long time. Yes, I do have a thoughtful imagination, and it is wonderful to be invited to play with it.
Kodansha, Tokyo, 1996
Susanna Jones, The Earthquake Bird
I often enjoy reading newly arrived writers, and that is certainly true in this case. Jones sets her novel in a place she knows well, having lived in Japan for several years as a teacher and editor. Her landscape is exceptionally colorful, and the mystery she paints on top of it is urgent. I finished this book last night (late). This evening, I find myself wishing the story wasn't over. That's about as much a compliment as I can pay a book.
Mysterious Press, New York, 2001
Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist
Quite unlike anything I've read before. Intriguing, provocative, and dancing superbly on the edge between reality and surrealism, keeping just enough on this side to make strong points about what it means to be black in America, what it means to be spiritual in a machine age, what it means to trust in intuition when catastrophic accidents just happen. I never would have guessed that anyone could have written a fascinating book based on the inner workings of elevators.
She had always considered herself an atheist, not realizing she had a religion. Anyone can start a religion. They just need the need of others.
"I remember when the first reviews came out .... He sits down right in the chair right there and starts reading it. I was in the kitchen cooking. I didn't hear anything for a long time, and then I hear him laughing. You see, James was a very serious man. He had a sense of humor, but it was his own sense of humor. We lived in the same house for years and I don't think there was one time when we both laughed at the same thing. That day I hear him laughing from the kitchen. Like I ain't never heard him laugh before—like it was the biggest, best joke he ever heard. I come running out and ask him what's so funny. And he just looks up at me and says, 'They believe it.'"
"He was making a joke of their entire way of life and they couldn't see. The joke wasn't funny to him anymore. Once he realized that—that it was a joke but they didn't see it like that, it wasn't a joke anymore."
Really nice cover art by Jane Yeomans and Calvin Chu.
Anchor, New York, 1999
David Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals
Fascinating. Halberstam brings excellent insights and perspective to life. I couldn't put it down, even though it was nearly 500 pages of dense text. My only criticism is that it could have been edited a bit more tightly; he tends to repeat himself when making some points.
One thing that truly amazed me is Halberstam's description of how difficult it was Bush the elder to understand the situation in the Balkans when he was president. I mean, here's a guy who was a U.S. congressman, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in China, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Vice President for eight years, and a president with a passion for foreign policy. Yet he struggles to understand the Balkans? That's frightening. Somehow I had always imagined that our national leaders were a bit sharper than that.
When Scowcroft briefed the president, he always felt Bush's sense of distance on this issue. The president would seem puzzled about the complexity of the Balkans, asking again and again which side was which, who were the Bosnians, who were the Bosnian Serbs, who were the Bosnian Muslims, who were the Kosovars, and who were the Croats and the Slovenians. To Bush, it was obviously an odd country, one where the forces that divided people were so much more powerful than the ones that united them. It clearly confused him, all these disparate places, strange names, and different ethnic groups who were supposed to be one country but clearly were not—Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, Albanians, Macedonians, Montenegrans.
There was a ritual to their briefings. Bush would be reading the foreign intelligence reports on Yugoslavia, look up, and ask Scowcroft, "Now, tell me again what this is all about." Then Scowcroft would go through the details of the conflict, describing the conflict, describing the different parties involved, why they hated each other, how deep those hatreds were, who was a threat to whom, and who had inflicted the latest outrage on which group. The more Scowcroft talked, the more the shadow of perplexity seemed to come over Bush's face.
Doubleday, New York, 1992
David Ambrose, The Man Who Turned into Himself
A clever novel based on the theory of many universes. If you found yourself inadvertently dumped into an alternative universe where everything was familiar but not exactly the same, how would you prove to a psychiatrist that you weren't in fact insane? Fascinating read.
Imagine, a whole universe hanging on a sneeze.
St. Martins Press, New York, 1993
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
One of my very favorite books. She tells the story of a family that travels at the behest of their fanatic husband/father to the Congo so that he can be a missionary in a small village. Told through the eyes of the mother and each of the four, very different daughters, the tale is as rich and varied as the jungle they find themselves within and overwhelmed by.
Today, many Americans are asking, "Why do some people hate us so much?" I think this question is simplistic, as is so much of America's worldview. The terrorist attack we have experienced and are trying to understand goes way beyond simple hatred. People can hate without killing. This book certainly provides an insight as to why people might hate some of the actions of the U.S., even as they respect the ideals our country is founded on and deeply love some of the individual Americans they meet. As a country, there is much blood on our hands. My greatest hope for this moment is that we might pursue a new era of more enlightened international dealings with as much vigor as we are set to pursue retribution. I only wish I could trust that our political leaders had that much vision and wisdom.
Harper Flamingo, New York, 1998
E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News
This wonderful story has aged well. Gritty, lumpy. Damn good.
Sometimes I get caught up in a collector's fever. I find myself wishing all my favorites were 1st editions. Then I read a good book like this, and I remember that the gold is in the story that takes wing from the pages, not in the pages themselves. Ha! Foolish mind! Wise heart!
Scribners, New York, 1993
John Grisham, The Pelican Brief
I haven't read all of his books; this is my favorite of those I have read.
Doubleday, New York, 1992
Michael McGarrity, Serpent Gate
Ah well, to my taste he has lost it. A lot of reader/reviewers claim this book (his third) is the one where he truly hit his stride. But the thing I really enjoyed in his first couple of books was his background focus on the landscape and folks of rural New Mexico. In this story, he shifts to Santa Fe, focuses on the police work, and loses what little poetry there was woven into his first couple of books.
One good thing: I've always wondered about moving to New Mexico or Arizona someday. Still do. But in a few hours and a couple hundred pages, I now know that Santa Fe isn't one of the possibilities. I don't like what I see happening to much of the Southwest, and so quickly. I visited Prescott a dozen years or so ago. A relative of a friend lived there. There was something about the place that snagged at my heartstrings. Went back a couple years ago. Now it seems to be all four-lane highways, strip malls, and upper-middle-class retirement communities. When I first was there, I felt a sense of community. I had lunch in a little cafe where lots of folks knew each other, and I thought to myself, I would have to live here a few years before folks would stop considering me a passer-through. The next time I was there, I only got the sense of a disconnected community. Outside money buying privacy and views. I couldn't find the cafe I had lunched in before, just a lot of boutique cafes that were unappealing to me. I'm a very private person, somewhat shy even, and not much involved in the town I live in. But I do live here, this is my home. I even feel a bit fierce about it. One thing I love about the town is that it exists for the people who live here, not for tourists and not as a retirement destination.
Scribner, New York, 1998
Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent
An all-time favorite that I return to now and then. This time a short passage about a politician caught my eye, a perfect snapshot of current events taken a dozen years ago.
… I smile at Della Guardia—smirk, in fact—as we are parting, and begin buffeting my way toward the front of the chapel, where Raymond and I are supposed to sit as office representatives. But as I go, making restrained gestures of acknowledgement to the people that I know, the heat of all of Nico's forceful confidence is still upon me. It is like having come in out of the blazing sun: the skin tingles and remains tender to the touch. And it strikes me then abruptly, as I gain my first clear view of the pewter-colored casket, that Nico Della Guardia actually might win. The prophecy is announced by a small voice somewhere in my interior reaches, only loud enough, like some whining conscience, to tell me what I do not want to hear. Undeserving as Nico is, unqualified, pygmy in his soul, something may be propelling him toward triumph. Here, in this region of the dead, I cannot help but recognize the carnal appeal of his vitality and how far it is bound to take him.
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 1987
Molly Gloss, Jump-Off Creek
Molly Gloss is one damn-good story teller. And this is one damn good yarn. Lydia Bennett Sanderson, rid of a no-good husband and used to working hard on her parent's farm back East since she was a little girl, heads to Oregon with too little money, buys herself a bit of not-good-for-much-of-anything high desert, and with a determined stoicism, attempts to fashion a life for herself. Nothing all that exceptional happens in this story, yet Gloss makes a fascinating read out of the unexceptional, day-to-day struggle. Folks who have next to nothing to live for fight for life with every last bit of strength they have. Forget Sitting Bull and Custer, this is a more revealing story of how the West was changed than any story of battles and broken treaties. Faced with overwhelming loneliness, despairingly difficult work, and the ferociousness of nature, these folks didn't give in. It wasn't an inspiring or glorious victory, but they are the reason we find ourselves where we are today. Whether you think that is a good or bad outcome, it is what is, and this story suggests how this came to be.
Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1989
Michael McGarrity, Mexican Hat
There's something about this book.... As with his previous book, Tularosa, I didn't find this one to be exceptional. Yet I enjoyed it for it's tone: the low-key, western ex-sheriff main character; the setting in the small towns and desert of the southwest; the folks who people that landscape. It has the ring of authenticity. I recognize the feel of places I've been to or through and people I've come across since I've lived out here. McGarrity has obviously ridden or walked through the places he describes, and has tangled with or drank a couple with people not unlike those who make up his stories.
Norton, New York, 1997
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress
When I came across Fearless Jones listed on a book site recently, I quickly discovered that Mosley had first written Devil in a Blue Dress. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie adaptation of that book (starring Denziel Washington), so I thought I would give Mosley a read, and ordered both books. Fearless came first. I was so disappointed. I thought maybe Mosley didn't have the stuff, and that perhaps the movie is one of those rare flics that is better than the book it is based on. But Devil in a Blue Dress is one of those rare books. The characters are vivid, the story is urgent, and the language is exquisite. Forget Fearless, read Blue Dress.
Norton, New York, 1990
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
Oh, it has been a long time since I've read such a beautiful book.
Once upon a time, I lived in Seattle, through the long, long, dismal winter. After months of slow motion, bone-chilling, gray dampness, one day the sun reappeared. It sparkled off the Puget Sound to the West, Lake Union to the North, Lake Washington to the East; it glittered and danced on the snow covered peaks of Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood, and the Olympics; it reverberated in the sensuous green of every leaf, blade of grass, and weed. I vibrated from the wealth of it, and thought that the only way to experience such a richness was to have suffered through months of the contrasting poverty of light that is winter in Seattle. I was wrong.
Such is the wonder of Ann Patchett's writing that she brings us to these sensuous moments of heightened awareness with just a few lyrical words. I don't even have an appreciation of opera, but tears came to my eyes when Roxane Coss spoke the names of the operas to Manuel over the phone!
Such is her command of language that she demonstrates clearly that the warmth and passion of music is more powerful than the threat of violence and death from the cold metal weapons of war.
I could go on and on about this book … better you just read it. It is a book to be read slowly, to be savored. Make no mistake, this is a book rooted in a real story with a real ending, a story that took place in Peru a few years ago. Know that you are imaging what it might have been like to discover yourself in the most terrible of circumstances, and to find love.
For myself, I'm going to tuck away a few of my favorite passages:
If what a person wants is life, he tends to be quiet about wanting anything else. Once the life seems secure, one feels the freedom to complain.
Never in a lifetime would Gen have come to her on his own. Never would he find the courage to express this own sympathies and remorse, in the same way that Mr. Hosokawa would not have the courage to speak to her even if his English had been perfect. But together they moved through the world quite easily, two small halves of courage making up a brave whole.
Could it be possible that such happiness had existed in the world all along and he had never once heard mention of it?
Carmen leaned forward and kissed him. There was no time for kissing but she wanted him to know that in the future there would be. A kiss in so much loneliness was like a hand pulling you up out of the water, scooping you up from a place of drowning and into the reckless abundance of air. A kiss, another kiss. "Go," she whispered.
Harper Collins, New York, 2001
Walter Mosley, Fearless Jones
If a paint-by-numbers drawing is well designed and the colors are carefully applied with a light and steady hand, when you stand back from the finished product and perhaps squint just a bit, it can actually look … okay. Of course, all too often the "painter" is rushed, the hand is a bit heavy, the lines are carelessly crossed, small shadows are ignored, and single elements that look okay as single elements are replicated in the mistaken belief that more of a good thing is even better. The result is an uneven, flat, and overstated … paint-by-numbers painting.
The trouble with a book is you can't stand back and squint.
Little, Brown, New York, 2001
Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet
I rarely add to my reading list a book I don't actually finish, but after struggling through 150 dense pages of this one, I had to toss it aside, and I want to comment on why.
Rushdie is obviously a keenly intelligent and erudite man, but ooh-la-la, he employs such a tedious style in this book, and that's unforgivable in a book whose topic is unimportant. I read two of his previous books, a long time ago, and while he never counted among my favorite authors, I certainly don't remember struggling with them in this way. All I could think as I was reading is that he must really enjoy hearing his own voice, in that way that so many intellectuals seem to. I've never heard him speak, but if he speaks at all like he writes, I'll bet his voice drips with the accent of snobbery.
There's one thing I absolutely despise in a book, and this one is rich in it: when a writer lists a series of examples of some point he's making that runs on and on. What's the point? After a couple examples, I've got the picture, and if need be I can draw on my own imagination to color it in.
I did come across one line that nicely summed up as much of the book as I managed to get through: "We were language's magpies by nature, stealing whatever sounded bright and shiny." From what I saw of this book, it is a magpie's nest.
Jonathan Cape, London, 1999
Alice Randall, The Wind Done Gone
I vaguely remember reading Gone with the Wind when I was a teenager. I don't remember much of anything about the story (though I clearly remember feeling rather disappointed at the end, knowing that I had just spent a lot of time reading little more than a glorified soap opera).
So I approached this story with little background, and I'm glad of that, because I read this book simply for itself. I'm sure I missed a bit of the story by not recognizing the context, yet despite that—or perhaps because of that—I found it a rich and engaging read. Randall turns some beautiful phrases.
Today, I came up the back way and in the kitchen door. Beauty's unpowdered nose was inside a great big cup of coffee. I've seen folk go down to the river to get baptized and I've seen them get sprinkled. None ever seemed so washed as Beauty after her coffee. Each and every morning the old whore jumped fully into that big black cup of coffee, and when she stepped away from her morning meal, she was fully cleansed of the sins of the night.
There are no silent brown ghosts in this house—there's an eye for every hand and more ears than fingers 'round most houses. How the white people live surrounded by spies, I don't know. I can't do it. The slime of hatred on every sliver of soap, every sheet smoothed across every bed.
It's a pissed bed on a cold night to read words on paper saying your name and a price, to read the letters that say you are owned, or to read words that say this one or that one will pay so much money for you to be recaptured. It be better never to read than to read that page with your name on it. There are not that many people who can read who have read those kind of words written about themselves, so you won't know it, won't be known, if I don't tell it.
Sleeping on the train is like riding a horse. Except you don't feel the wind; you see it. Things pass you by so quickly, until you realize that things are not passing you by; you are passing by the things, the trees, the ponds, the people. The people don't pass you by; you pass them by, carried along by power you don't see, carried along on a track you didn't create, and there is no way of getting back to any one pretty piece of property. You are moving too quickly. And you are old enough to know that anything you have time enough to get back to, has time enough to change before you can get back to it.
Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2001
Harlan Coben, Tell No One
A great read! (Released June 2001, and already in its 3rd printing by the end of July.) Nicely fleshed-out characters, an urgent story line, twists and turns galore, solidly written. I could not put it down (good thing it's the weekend).
Delacorte Press, New York, 2001
Richard Russo, Empire Falls
For the most part, this is a captivating and wonderfully written story. Although this relatively long book (nearly 500 pages) is not a thriller but rather a book about folks trying to get by in a little town that has gone to seed, I found it difficult to put down. Toward the end, I found myself thinking that this book should be a very strong contender for a major award. And shortly after I thought that, I came across a stunning scene about something we sadly face all to often in our modern society, which was written with such immediacy that it simply took my breath away, leaving me with a rapidly beating heart and flushed with shock.
Then the book fizzled out in the last couple dozen pages with a weak and distracted ending. It left me thinking that the editor at Knopf must have said, "Sorry, your book can't go over 500 pages!" A bit of a letdown; still, it's an excellent read for the story that is told in the first 450 pages.
"… they were dreamers who felt no urgency about bringing their dreams to fruition."
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001
John Irving, The Fourth Hand
One night John Irving and his wife were watching the news before, Yawn!, going to bed, and saw a bit about the nation's first hand transplant. Mrs. Irving wondered aloud what might happen if the donor's widow demanded visitation rights. So John wrote this story. Might have been better if they had fallen asleep in front of the tube. The story is trivial and uninspired. It really puzzles me that the once passionate writer who brought us Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany has devolved into a storyteller who can't seem to get his nose out of his characters crotches. To tell the truth, I had decided not to read any more Irving after the seemingly never-ending A Widow for One Year. But Powells offered a two-for-one deal on this book and Empire Falls, so I got it. Ah well, at least it wasn't very long, and Russo's new book is beginning well.
Random House, New York, 2001
J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace
I think I'm a bit too plain-spoken and plain-listening to truly plumb the depths of a book like this. Set in South Africa, the story is written with a crisp command of language, and tells the story of a professor who is forced to leave his position because of an affair with a young woman who is his student. It travels with him as he tries to come to terms with his new circumstances and with the changes that are happening around him in South Africa. It's not just that he is no longer a prestigious professor, he's also no longer an important figure in his daughter's life, though he truly wants to be. And he no longer has any real control over the events that happen around him and to him. He even comes to realize that he's never going to be able to write a reasonably good opera, that it's just not within his grasp, although he had for a long time thought it was.
I would guess that the various characters who are introduced represent more than just themselves and their experiences, that this might actually be a story about the journey South Africa herself is traveling on right now. The book won the 1999 Booker (the second time Coetzee has won it), which especially makes me think there is more here that I might not be fully understanding. Certainly a thought-provoking read; I will be mulling over this story for some time.
Secker & Warburg, London, 1999
Molly Gloss, Wild Life
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I was a bit skeptical when I began reading it, but she totally won me over with her spirited main character (I wish Charlotte was my next door neighbor), her vivid descriptions of the time (early 1900s) and place (the logging towns and camps along the Columbia River and its tributaries as the great forests were being cut down), and her wonderful command of language and vocabulary (she uses some of my favorite words with ease and grace). When her story effortlessly made its transition into its more fantastic portion, it felt as real as the rain-drenched forests it took place in.
The book begins with a forward that is a quote of the main character. When I read this, I thought, ah, this might be good!
To write, I have decided, is to be insane. In ordinary life you look sane, act sane—just as sane as any mother of five children. But once you start to write, you are moonstruck, out of your senses. As you stare hard inward, following behind your eyes the images of invisible places, of people, of events, and listening hard inward to silent voices and unspoken conversations—as you are seeing the story, hearing it, feeling it—your very skin becomes permeable, not a boundary, and you enter the place of your writing and live inside the people who live there. You think and say incredible things. You even love other people—you don't love your children and husband at all. And here is the interesting thing to me: when this happens, you often learn something, understand something, that can transcend the words on the paper.
Molly Gloss certainly sees her story, hears it, feels it. A marvelous writer.
She wove in a couple quotes by Samuel Butler (the British writer?) that I loved:
In his latest article (Feb. 1892) Prof. Garner says that the chatter of monkeys in not meaningless, but that they are conveying ideas to one another. This seems to me hazardous. The monkeys might with equal justice conclude that in our magazine articles, or literary and artistic criticisms, we are not chattering idly but are conveying ideas to one another.
The greatest poets never write poetry. The Homers and Shakespeares are not the greatest—they are only the greatest that we can know. And so with Handel among musicians. For the highest poetry, whether in music or literature, in ineffable—it must be felt from one person to another, it cannot be articulated.
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000
Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire
An interesting book about the relationship between plants and us, presenting the possibility that the plants we have domesticated are as much in control of the relationship as we are (though he never made the argument convincingly, in my opinion). He explores four desires: sweetness (the apple), beauty (the tulip), intoxication (marijuana), and control (genetically modified potato).
His is a chit-chatty style, exploring the ideas, emotions, history, and imagination connected to each desire/plant. He really hit his stride in the last section, as he delved into the unknowing that surrounds our current experiment with genetics. The book suffers from the feeling that it was originally four separately written magazine articles that have been stitched together with too little editing. There are odd bits of repetition ("Okay, you already told me that twice, Michael.") Still, well worth reading.
Before driving out to have a look at his fields, Forsyth and I got onto the subject of organic agriculture, about which he had the usual things to say ("That's all fine on a small scale, but they don't have to feed the world") and a few things I never expected to hear from a conventional farmer. "I like to eat organic food, and in fact, I grow a lot of it at the house. The vegetables we buy at the market we just wash and wash and wash. I'm not sure I should be saying this, but I always plant a small area of potatoes without any chemicals. By the end of the season, my field potatoes are fine to eat, but any potatoes I pulled today are probably still full of systemics. I don't eat them."
Random House, New York, 2001
Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, The Cultural Creatives
The story of a new cultural group—called Cultural Creatives by the authors—that is emerging, walking a new path that is distinct from the majority Moderns; and the Traditionals. Numbering over 50 million people in the U.S. alone, this group has the potential to redefine our culture, if we only realize that we have that potential. What direction is this new group going? The authors quote poet Antonio Machado as saying, "The path they're on is made by walking." Yet key values emerge in the groups general and quite strong support for: striving toward ecological sustainability, womens' rights, social justice, alternative health care, and personal spirituality.
As Vijali Hamilton puts it, "A sacred space may be any space, not just the ones designated by our ancestors, not just some special power spot. We can create sacred spaces … by entering into the spirit of the place through simple actions performed in a reverent way."
This is not some starry-eyed feel good book, it is a tome, dense with the finding of surveys and people's stories, and taking a hard look at the challenges that we face and the pain we'll need to go through. It is well worth the time it takes to read it.
Harmony Books, New York, 2000
Michael McGarrity, Tularosa
A boilerplate ex-cop turns detective mystery, but set in New Mexico. I picked this up because I heard the author, an ex-cop turned writer, has a real knack for describing the Southwest, a region I deeply love. It's true, he creates an authentic sense of place. I could take or leave the background story, but it sure was nice to go horseback riding through the canyons and over the mesas.
Norton, New York, 1996
Connie Willis, Passage
Willis explores some fascinating ideas about the causes and effects of near-death experiences. There are several vividly drawn characters and a lot of honesty in the book, especially as she invites us to consider the moment of death. But the book is hundreds of pages too long. Still, a worthwhile read, you just have to skim through some of the repetitious or wordy passages.
A little while and I will be gone from you, whither I cannot tell. From nowhere we came, into nowhere we go. What is life? It is a flash of a firefly in the night.
— Last words of Crowfoot, Blackfoot Chief
Bantam, New York, 2001
Alan Furst, Kingdom of Shadows
A sleek, sultry swim in the shadows of pre-World War II Europe. Excellent.
Morath smiled regret.
The chalk-white man took off his hat and ran his hand over his head. Then said, in German, "Stop. He's moral."
"Is that it?" the art dealer said. "You don't want to take advantage of a man who's a fugitive?"
The driver laughed.
"Well, if you ever, God forbid, have to run for your life, then you'll understand. It's beyond value, by then. What you'll be saying is 'take the picture, give the money, thank you, good-bye.' Once you only plan to live till the afternoon, you'll understand."
Random House, New York, 2000
Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
How does she do it? She writes these stories about ordinary people living ordinary lives, and somehow they are spell binding! And she shows so clearly that, despite all the chaos and distractions we all live through, there can be moments when it becomes apparent that it is all really okay.
"Face it," I said. "There is no true life. Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be. You just do the best you can with what you've got."
Knopf, New York, 2001
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
Funny, I really wanted to like this book by a promising new writer who has caught the attention of some key critics, like Salman Rushdie. But I was disappointed. Her characters were brilliantly vivid, but the book ended up feeling like a long series of character sketches, really long. Reading it felt like work; when I finally reached the last page, I was so disappointed. All that effort to get to know this handful of characters and all their warts and blemishes, and then this rushed ending. I was left wondering whether an editor had finally said, "Enough! Cut the last hundred pages and wrap this thing up!"
All that said, this is a writer to watch.
Random House, New York, 2000
Steven Greenberg, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Digital Photography
What a strange book. How to best summarize it? Zero to 30 MPH in 350 pages, with potholes and some weird side streets along the way. The book begins with an unnecessarily lengthy photography history lesson (maybe in an appendix, but up front?), then meanders through the digital photography topics, giving some important ones all too little attention. On the other hand, at one point the book dives into a lengthy explanation of CIE LAB space and color calibration for monitors and printers (in a book for beginners?). The book feels rushed, with irritating little errors (on the backside of the cheat sheet, for example, the text and captions are tossed in amongst the illustrations in a manner that makes no sense whatsoever). This left me not quite trusting the book. When I came across another illustration later in the book that I didn't understand at first, I presumed it was incorrect. It took me a while to realize that it was correct, just a weak presentation of a concept. Finally, the humor felt forced, as if it were added as an afterthought to fit the format of this line of books. My suggestion: look for another book on the subject.
Que, New York, 1999
Michael Crichton, Timeline
I enjoyed when he touched on ideas related to quantum physics, but the drama he wrapped it in was far fetched. I haven't thoroughly enjoyed a Crichton book since Rising Sun, and my all time favorite remains The Great Train Robbery.
Random House, New York, 1999
Jeffery Deaver, The Blue Nowhere
A technological thriller, of sorts. Some portions are interesting, but the story is very unevenly written. For example, in one chapter the detectives are intensely suspicious that there is a mole in their investigation (one that has caused one of their team to get killed), and they are almost certain it is the whiz kid who is helping them do the sleuthing in cyber space. The next chapter, with nothing really happened to have exonerated the kid, the detectives seem to just forget about their suspicions.
This is the first time I've read a book by Deaver. I was left feeling that he is one of these authors that cranks out a book a year, and doesn't take/have the time to go back and tighten up his story. So although the story has potential, his book stays on this side of the line between a so-so read and a really good read.
Knopf, New York, 2001
Louise Erdrich, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
Louise Erdrich is one of my most treasured writers. Such lyrical prose!
"What is time in Ojibwemowin?" asked Damien.
Nanapush misunderstood then, and did not give the word but deeply considered the nature of the thing he was asked to name. When he spoke his thoughts aloud, his voice was slow and contemplative.
"We see the seasons pass, the moons fatten and go dark, infants grow to old men, but this is not time. We see the water strike against the shore and with each wave we say a moment has passed, but this is not time. Inside, we feel our strength go from a baby's weakness to a youth's strength to a man's endurance to the weakness of a baby again, but this is not time, either, nor are your whiteman's clocks and bells, nor the sun rising and the sun going down. These things are not time."
"What is it then?" said Father Damien. "I want to know, myself."
"Time is a fish," said Nanapush slowly, "and all of us are living on the rib of its fin."
Damien stared at him in quizzical fascination and asked what type of fish.
"A moving fish that never stops. Sometimes in swimming through the weeds one or another of us will be shaken off time's fin."
"Into the water?" asked Damien.
"No," said Nanapush, "into something else called not time."
Father Damien waited for Nanapush to explain, but after he lighted his pipe and smoked for a while, he said only, "Let's find somthing to eat."
Harper Collins, New York, 2001
T. Jefferson Parker, Silent Joe
The best mystery I've read since Motherless Brooklyn. Vivid characters, deep plot, and realistic. I so much appreciate when a story doesn't devolve into a made-for-Hollywood extravaganza, but rather just flows naturally along. A good read.
I highly recommend it.
Hyperion, New York, 2001
G.I. Gurdjieff, Meetings with Remarkable Men
A remarkable book written by a remarkable man that I return to from time to time. He reminds me that life can be lived with a deeper purpose.
E.P. Dutton, New York, 1963
Chris Adrian, Gob's Grief
"What's grief if not a profound complaint?"
Adrian's first novel is a surrealistic study of the madness and grief that followed in the wake of the American Civil War (civil?). Although at times a wonderfully written story (actually the story of the same event told three times over by different participants), I found myself impatient with how slowly the stories unfolded, and didn't like the structure of one story following the other, rather than being intertwined, which caused them to feel artificially disconnected.
Broadway, New York, 2000
Alan Furst, Night Soldiers
A book about the years of World War II, told from the shadows across a huge landscape—Bulgaria, Russia, Spain, France, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania—through the voice of heartful, life-loving Bulgarian, seduced to become a Russian spy, sent to Spain, purged, escaped to Paris, betrayed into a life sentence in French prison, freed to become a anti-fascist partisan, and on and on. Fascinating read. I wanted to read this, one of Furst's earlier books, before I dove into his latest, highly acclaimed book.
Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1988
Fred Willard, Princess Naughty and the Voodoo Cadillac
Who can resist a title like that? But I can't possibly top the review that is on the back of the book's dust jacket. Here's an exerpt from Ruth Birmingham: "A quiet, elegiac meditation on loss, love, and family … might make for an okay book. But if you like that kind of crap, haul ass, sissy, because this book is not for you."
Longstreet Press, Atlanta, 2000
Sandee Cohen and Robin Williams, The Non-Designers Scan and Print Book
I wish I had been able to read this book eleven years ago, when I first began hacking around with DTP, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it now. Although it didn't introduce me to any new concepts, it put so much so niclely into perspective. Bravo! I must admit, though, that after reading this book, my opinion remains unchanged. Getting images into a computer, working or playing with them, and outputting them is much more an art and knack than a scientific skill. Let's go dancing!
Peachpit Press, Berkeley, 1999
Amy Tan, The Bonesetter's Daughter
Amy Tan has created yet another wonderful book, similar to her others in the way it blends glimpses into the lives and souls of two generations of her Chinese-American characters with the experiences that shaped the lives of the older generation in China, before they traveled to America. This one touches on themes of remembering and discovering, forgetting and forgiving. Her writing is a treasure.
Putnam, New York, 2001
Sandee Cohen, InDesign for MacIntosh & Windows 1.0/1.5
I've read a few of these Visual QuickStart Guides over the years. My favorite remains Castro's HTML 4, but this is one of the better. I've used three page layout programs over the years—I teethed on Quark XPress, moved to Serif PagePlus for personal work (I couldn't afford Quark for home use at that time), and finally to Adobe PageMaker when I grew tired of technical difficulities I continually had with PagePlus (and was able to pick up PageMaker at a special price through an offer to Photosphop owners). I used PageMaker for several years, during which it seemed to stagnate. So I was happy to hear about Adobe's ambitious creation of InDesign.
I've been stumbling around in it for several months now, not feeling very comfortable, but getting done the small jobs I wanted to do. When I faced creating a new catalog for Garima's Wild Sage natural herbal skin care products, I knew I needed to understand the program better. So Sandee Cohen had breakfast with me every morning for two weeks, and I spent the last two (long) days creating the catalog. Her book definitely got me running. And while InDesign is definitely a young program that cries out for a version 2 (where is the History palette?), I really like the approach it takes. The idea of having a small central engine with features plugged into it strikes me as an excellent approach, well proven by Photoshop.
I did have some serious difficulty printing to my aging LaserJet 4MP. Although it has 16 MB of RAM, it was choking in PCL mode, and I wasn't happy with the shading results I was seeing using Adobe's Postscript driver (4.4). (I had no problems printing to our EPSON Stylus Photo 875DCS inkjet). But then I tried exporting to PDF (built into InDesign!), and was able to produce great prints in PCL mode, and the print speed was blazing. Great technology, PDF. I use it at work to send our graphic-intensive FrameMaker manuals to our printer, and always get fine results.
And by the way, a last note comparing InDesign to FrameMaker for long docs. Frame rules! I just saw an Adobe press release yesterday saying that Frame is alive and well. That's good news, let's just hope they add some of InDesign's graphic capabilities to it in the next release, and freshen up the interface a bit more; some of it still seems stuck in the old 8.3 DOS world. InDesign could learn some lessons from Frame about paragraph and character styles, in particular updating them from and applying them to selected text with existing overrides. Like I said, InDesign cries out for a version 2, but that shouldn't stop anyone from embracing the already solid version 1.5.
Peachpit Press, Berkeley, 2000
Francine Mathews, Cutout
A bleak and implausible espionage thriller.
Bantam, New York, 2001
Italo Calvino, Cosmicomics
A few years ago, a friend of mine who is originally from Italy made me a present of this book. At that time, I was primarily reading novels and didn't much care for short stories. I quickly read through the book, and pretty much dismissed it from my mind. But over the years, I found myself remembering odd bits of these stories from time to time. So I now realize that they have had quite an impact on me. The other night I was watching a video, Bringing out the Dead. At one point, the camera pans the apartment of the main character, played by Nicolas Cage, and I noticed a book by Italo Calvino among his handful of books, which brought me back to searching for this book in my library. Today, I'm much more appreciative of short stories, so rereading this book has been a pleasurable experience.
Each story begins with a short passage from some scientific theory about the universe. And then he introduces us to a first-hand account of the unfolding of that theory, as told by his characters (such as the old rascal, Qfwfq) who were present when the universe was a single point or as the dust of the universe coalesced into solid matter, the planets and suns we know today. Delightful stuff.
Harcourt Brace, New York, English Translation 1968 (1965)
Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams
A novel about the days leading up to Einstein's discovery of his special theory of relativity. In brief interludes, we see the young scientist through the eyes of a friend. The rest of the book is a series of thirty vignettes that try to imagine what Einstein might have dreamt about as he explores different possible natures of time.
The book has earned stunning reviews. But to tell the truth, except for the interludes, I found myself somewhat bored by it, perhaps because the dreams explore the theories that didn't manage to correctly explain the nature of time. I enjoyed much more a book about Einstein that I read last year, Driving Mr. Albert by Michael Paterniti.
Warner, New York, 1993
Robert Wilson, A Small Death in Lisbon
Two enthralling stories are woven together across the years until they meet in modern-day Lisbon. One is a tale that begins in Germany in the early 1940s, and follows the career and life of an accidental SS officer as he is dispatched to Portugal to secure supplies of wolfram that the Nazi war machine desperately needs, and then later as he and other characters he is entangled with live out their lives in Portugal. The other story follows several intense days of investigation by a Portuguese cop/detective sometime in the 1990s as he tries to untangle the mystery of a murdered teenage girl while trying to understand his own deeply passionate emotions as he deals with his own teenage daughter.
The storytelling is rich and intense. The book is split into two parts, and as I finished the first part, I remember feeling awed at how much story had already been told. Often times entire books don't come close to the kind of fullness that just half of this book reveals.
Harcourt, New York, 1999
Brendan DuBois, Resurrection Day
A sometimes fast-paced, sometimes stumbling story of a reporter's investigation into the murder of a seeming nobody. What makes it an interesting read is the basic premise: the Cuban missle crisis spiraled out of control into a full nuclear war with the Soviet Union, destroying Russia and leaving the U.S. a weakened and heavily damaged—physically and emotionally—country. Washington D.C. and several other cities are gone, New York and several other cities are severely damaged and supposedly uninhabitable. Ten years later the remains of the country struggles back from terrible economic chaos and food and energy shortages. Censorship muzzles the press, and England, now the world's leading power, sends annual care packages to help the U.S. struggle through the winters.
How close we came.
Putnam, New York, 1999
Paul Eddy, Flint
A taut British thriller, much in the style of Le Carré, but with a somewhat grittier edge. The protagonist, the amazing Grace Flint, is an interesting character with enticing psychological depth.
Putnam, New York, 2000
Edward R. Tufte, Visual Explanations
Tufte rightly calls the subject of his third book, "the poetry of visual information."
Graphics Press, Cheshire, 1997
Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog
This story caused my gut to churn and my heart to chill as few have. The first time Kathy took a sip of wine, I was filled with dread for what was to … and did come. Powerfully written.
For our excess we lost everything.
Norton, New York, 1999
John Dunning, Two O'Clock, Eastern Wartime
Mr. Dunning really hit his stride with this story, a thrilling, though not overdone, mystery set in set on the coast of New Jersey in the early 40's, and full of the passion of radio before television cast its moronic shadow over everything. The story and its characters are rich, deep, and believable.
Scribner, New York, 2001
Kazuo Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans
A strange book—beautifully written, but I don't really know quite what to make of it. At times I felt as though I were inside a fantasy or daydream of an adult who, although he has learned the ways of the world, hasn't quite grown up and is trying to come to grips with the tragedy of his life by re-imagining a childhood game of sleuth. Two passages stood out for me:
The colonel nodded. "Our childhood seems so far away now. All this"—he gestured out of the vehicle—"so much suffering. One of our Japanese poets, a court lady many years ago, wrote of how sad this was. She wrote of how our childhood becomes like a foreign land once we have grown."
"Well, Colonel, it's hardly a foreign land to me. In many ways, it's where I've continued to live all my life. It's only now I've started to make my journey from it."
But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.
Knopf, New York, 2000
John le Carré, The Constant Gardener
Le Carré always writes good books, and sometimes he writes brilliant books. This is his stellar best since The Russia House and the Smiley novels.
The wonderfully detailed backdrop is Kenya, but the focus is on the wanton testing by the giant pharmaceutical companies of unproven and sometimes utterly dangerous drugs on unprotected people in the third world in preparation for lucrative sales to the West. It is a terrifying story. Le Carré says, in the author's note at the end of the book: "… with luck I shall not be spending the rest of my life in the law courts or worse. But I can tell you this. As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard."
In preparation for reading this novel, I read an excellent article from the online edition of The Washington Post, which, when printed out, was over fifty pages long: As Drug Testing Spreads, Profits and Lives Hang in Balance by Joe Stephens. The alleged abuse that is being committed by some pharmaceutical companies and their agents made my hair stand on end.
Scribner, New York, 2001
John Dunning, Booked to Die
I was in a used bookstore the other day, and the owner and I got around to chatting about our favorite books, and books in general. As I was leaving, he gave me this book to read. It is a typical cop mystery story, with one interesting twist: the cop is a book lover/collector and becomes a used bookstore owner during the course of the story. So this passion/illness of book collecting provides the backdrop. In the book and speaking through his characters, the author derides the hyper-inflation of some of the modern books. It is ironic that the first edition of this book, only a few years old, is now selling for many hundreds of dollars.
Avon, New York, 1993
Dashiell Hammett, Nightmare Town
It was interesting to read this collection of short stories, listening to Hammett test his ideas and explore new characters. But the gold, in my opinion, is in his full-length works.
Knopf, New York, 1999
Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
Lorrie Moore is a wonderful writer. She captures authentic emotions in a manner that makes it seem effortless.
Knopf, New York, 1994
Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
This is my touchstone book; I return to it every few years to listen to the river laughing.
New Directions, New York, 1951