I put up a monthly bookpost on my LJ. Maybe the best way to introduce myself here might be to share those. So over the next few days, unless there's a reason not to, I'll put up my bookposts from January through August for your inspection and comments. Here's January:
Quotes and my thoughts on each book below the cut text.
The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, by Anatole France:
“Hamilcar”, I said to [my cat], as I stretched my legs—“Hamilcar, somnolent Prince of the City of Books—thou Guardian Nocturnal! Like that Divine Cat who combated the imious in Heliopolis—in the night of the great combat—thou dost defend from vile nibblers those books which the old savant acquired at the cost of his slender savings and indefatigable zeal. Sleep, Hamilcar, softly as a sultana, in this library that shelters thy military virtues; for verily in thy person are united the formidable aspect of a Tartar warrior and the slumbrous grace of a woman of the Orient. Sleep, thou heroic and virtuous Hamilcar, while awaiting that moonlight hour in which the mice will come forth to dance before the Acta Sanctorum of the learned Bollandists!”
At which point, the cat looks up and says, “Hey, asssssshole...are you gonna shut up already and let me get some sleep here, or aren’t you?”
I tried. This was a book my father used to like and wanted me to read, and I never got around to it by now. The main character is the same kind of lovable old tweedy, wordy intellectual my dad was and that I won’t mind being when I’m older, but Christopher Morley did the same character much better in The Haunted Bookshop. Bonnard does too much talking just to hear himself talk, and not enough because he has something worth saying. And I was misled by the title into expecting a crime story, maybe the one where France wrote his famous line about the law forbidding the rich as well as the poor from sleeping under bridges and begging, but that line must have been in something else. While there is an episode in which Bonnard does something that breaks the law, the book is no more centrally about that act than a Harry Potter book is about the quidditch match v. Ravenclaw.
The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler:
At other times, he would have [his heirs] in for the fun of shaking his will at them. He would in his imagination cut them all out one after another and would leave his money to found almshouses, till at last he was obliged to put them back, so that he might have the pleasure of cutting them out again the next time he was in a passion.
Good God! Where has this book been all my life! Answer: it was on the bookshelf in my parents’ living room, where I ignored it, assuming from the title that it would be all flowery and esoteric and not my thing at all. I was wrong. Butler’s masterpiece has some of the most biting satire this side of Twain and Shaw, and may have been almost single handedly responsible for the fall of the stultifying traditional family moral system of Victorian England (until now, I had thought that Agatha Christie had been responsible for that, by writing about what happens to miserly old coots who shake their wills at their heirs in English country houses, but evidently I was wrong there, too).
The story first concerns Theobald Pontifex, who is steered into a career and a marriage that he doesn’t want, with predictable results. Attention then turns to Theobald’s son Ernest, who is forced by Theobald well along the same road, until he finally breaks free and becomes his own person, to the shocked horror of all morally upright, uptight people. Along the way, the author interjects brilliantly scathing commentaries on just about everything to do with the society of the day. Very highest recommendations.
Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon:
Mad-houses are large and only too numerous; yet surely it is strange they are not larger, when we think of how many helpless wretches must beat their brains against this hopeless persistency of the orderly outward world, as compared with the storm and tempest, the riot and confusion within.
Chock full of gothic horror goodness! And never mind that the deep dark “secret” is guessable by chapter two and pretty much shouted from the rooftops by chapter eight. It’s the process of uncovering it that makes Braddon’s 19th century “sensation novel” a delightful romp—or at least, as rompish as gothic mysteries tend to get. It’s not often that an author attempts to both chase with the hounds and run with the hare, but here we get to feel sympathy for both the amateur detective and his quarry.
Vathek, by William Beckford:
Such was, and such should be, the punishment of unrestrained passions and atrocious deeds!
This one was just strange, a cross between the Arabian Nights and Candide, with an acid trip to the underworld involved. It’s one of those Arabian stories where the Prince has six different palaces: one full of culinary delicacies; one with every kind of perfume; one entirely full of musicians, and so on. And then this strange man shows up, wanting to sell merchandise, but when the Prince wants to discuss philosophy with him, he refuses to speak, so the Prince becomes enraged and smites off his head, only it isn’t really his head, it’s the seven sacred serpents of Hagthral, and suddenly the Prince realizes he’s wearing nothing but his underwear and is embarrassed so he tries to run away, but everything’s happening in slow motion, dude, and then this white figure appears astride a giant bird, and it’s the Prince’s barber, and he falls to his knees overcome with remorse!
OK, I admit it, somewhere in there I lost the thread of the story and started channeling my last too-much-pizza dream instead, but the real version is closer than you think. This is the one I read in the waiting room during my jury duty day.
Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, by Carlo Guzman:
In vain the judges tried to induce the old man to admit that he had made a pact with the devil. Theiss obstinately continued to repeat that the worst enemies of the devil and the sorcerers were werewolves like himself: after death, they would go to paradise.
This is a sometimes fascinating, sometimes academically dry look at alleged rustic bacchanals and witchcraft in and around the middle ages, with an emphasis on covens that went into battle under the influence of induced berzerk rages, sometimes after transforming into animals. It’s nice reading, but I have trouble accepting it as history. For one thing, changing into animals strains credibility. For another thing, even if you interpret the “changing into animals” part as metaphor, with the participants wearing masks and the like, well, most of Guzman’s evidence comes from testimony extracted under torture from the victims of witch trials, who may well have been at the point of “confessing” to whatever the witch-smellers wanted to hear in order to stop the pain. At least, that’s the only excuse I can find for the multitude of statements confessing that the rituals involved desecrating Christian holy relics, defecating on crosses, etc. That’s a Christian fantasy, not a pagan one. Most Earth-centered religions that don’t recognize Jesus Christ as central to God ignore the other religion’s relics as being spiritually insignificant, concentrating instead on worshipping nature. It’s the ones who consider their own church to have mystical theological significance who feel the need to picture their enemies as hating and fearing that church, and deriving dark powers from acting against it.
Cold Service, by Robert B. Parker:
Hawk grinned at me.
“Which be the justice,” he said. “Which be the thief?”
“I think Shakespeare used is,” I said. “Which is the justice.”
“Shakespeare wasn’t no brother,” Hawk said.
“I knew that,” I said.
This one was just head candy. I like private eye novels, and the Spenser series is among the best. I like his dialogues with Hawk. I like his dialogues with Susan. I like the way some tough guy always clomps into Spenser’s office and says, “You better stay offa this case if you knows what’s good for ya”, and Spenser says something like, “I know this is my cue to have my eyes roll back in my head while I faint in terror, but it’s just not happening. Maybe if I feel your biceps?” I like how, every time he uses a five dollar vocabulary word, he explains that he’s dating a Ph.D.
This time around, Hawk narrowly survives a mob hit, and then the two of them destroy an entire organized crime ring in revenge, wisecracking all the way. But then, the plot is just details.
Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, by Jon Lee Anderson:
He had very beautiful eyes. Magnificent eyes, so deep, so generous, so honest, a stare that was so honest that somehow, one could not help but feel it...and he spoke very well, he became inwardly excited, and his speech was like that, with all of this impetus, as if his words were squeezing you.
Sometimes I read a book that makes people stare at me. They stared when I read Rush Limbaugh’s book. They stared when I read Atheism: The Case Against God, which had the title in huge letters, and which The Redhead asked that I keep out of sight when company was coming. Whenever I get that reaction, I feel like I’m doing something right, reading the things the masses don’t want read. Che Guevara, the cover of which was dominated by a blazing red image of “that poster’, was one of those. One time a stranger wanted to know if I was a commie or something. I told him, no, but I wanted to know why this guy became a legend, and Irving Milch did not. “Irving who?”, said the guy. “Exactly.”, I said.
Actually, I read this because I had learned most of what I knew about Che Guevara from the musical Evita, which was sorta fuzzy on what Che actually did. I knew he was vaguely connected with Argentina, and Cuba, and Bolivia, but he never actually ruled anywhere. And as it turns out, he never really met the Perons.
The book is divided into three parts. The first is about his pre-revolutionary youth, and, other than a few seminal moments when his gorge rises as he witnesses the United Fruit Company grinding the faces of the poor, is fairly slow going, as is the case with many biographies of great people before we get to what it is that makes them great. The third part is just depressing. It begins right after the Cuban Revolution, and shows how, as usual, the Revolutionary Utopian, once he wins the war and gets some real power, turns out to be as oppressive as the dictator he just overthrew. Guevara, who was Castro’s right hand man in the early 1960s, was one of few leftists who was NOT tempted into corruption by newly available luxuries, and did NOT revise his manifesto to declare that “some are more equal than others.” However, he was too much in love with that same manifesto, to the point of shooting loyal subordinates for minor violations. Plus I got to read about JFK and LBJ, two Presidents I admire, during their less-than-finest hours. And then, Guevara leaves Cuba and goes on to disastrous efforts to rally the peasants in the Congo and Bolivia, which would be comical but for the real suffering that ensues.
But the second part—Guevara and Castro fighting the evil Batista regime in the jungles of Cuba—now, THAT is the good part. That part made me—just for a while—want to grab my assault rifle and head for the Barrayar Forest to take up arms against the evil Bush regime and kick ass. In fact, at least once, I think the neighbors might have been surprised to see me charging in that direction halfway down Dewdrop Lane, stopping in mid-pirate yell, looking down at my assault rifle with a slightly puzzled look on my face, and then turning and trudging slowly back home.
The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football, by Mariah Burton Nelson:
[Female athletes] play for camaraderie or excellence or the sheer joy of gliding one’s body through water, space or air....Manly sports are a battle against women.
A book for people ready to explore the shocking, revolutionary new ideas that it is OK for women to be strong, and that college and professional sports are sometimes--gasp--sexist! I had to look at the copyright page to check when the book was written—it was 1994, but felt like it was from 1960 or thereabouts. It’s easy to read and often pretty funny, but I couldn’t get past the double-standard barrier—how women who do sports are all about health and energy and promise and empowerment and fun, while men who do sports are virilent, abusive pigs who leave trails of oily hair as they drag their knuckles along the ground. My reasons for working out seem to me to be a lot closer to the descriptions of women, up to and including the desire to find my voice in a world that has made me feel like I’m presumptuous and out of line for speaking out and taking up space. But then, I guess I’m not the typical male. I’ve always figured the natural spectator sport for men to enjoy would be buff women playing beach volleyball in swimsuits. Football bores me to death.
The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein:
Chicago School Economics does seem particularly conducive to corruption. Once you accept that profit and greed as practiced on a mass scale create the greatest possible benefits for any society, pretty much any act of personal enrichment can be justified as a contribution to the great creative cauldron of capitalism, generating wealth and spurring economic growth—even if it’s only for yourself and your colleagues.
A book for people ready for the shocking, revolutionary idea that neocons are just plain evil. Never mind the Bilderbergers, the trilateralists and the freemasons—the real group that controls everything is Milton Friedman’s Chicago School of Economics, the World Trade Organization and the IMF. This book has been discussed extensively on Daily Kos.
I had always suspected that capitalist libertarian revolutionaries had a lot more in common with Che Guevara and other left wing revolutionaries than their “free market, reason-valuing, no force or fraud” posturing would lead you to believe, and that once in power, their quest for Utopia would be continued with death squads and torture just like the communist Utopias. This has been hard to prove, because no society has ever voluntarily accepted libertarian capitalism. The resulting unemployed, starving masses would immediately vote it out or rise in armed revolt. But, according to Klein, the Chicago School has tried its best, over and over again. Their first attempt resulted in Pinochet’s Chile, followed by other parts of Latin America, Poland, Russia, South Africa, post-9/11 America and Iraq, all of which resulted in massive poverty, political upheaval, and police state crackdowns to enforce the free and fair piratizations of public works, elimination of social safety nets, deregulation of businesses, and the imposition of crippling debts to force new reformist governments to pay for the crimes committed by the oppressive dictatorships they had just overthrown. And of course, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld are at the heart of it: after reading the book, I am convinced that this Administration’s nonresponse to the New Orleans flood was not incompetence at all, but an example of a deliberate policy of allowing, encouraging and even causing the destruction of civilized societies so that they may be replaced with laissez-faire corporate piracies subject to no law. High recommendations, but don’t read it just before bed.