Reading – 2000

An appetizer:

"My faith is whatever makes me feel good about being alive.
If your religion doesn't make you feel good to be alive, what the hell is the point of it?"
— Tom Robbins, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates

A love affair with books

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Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style, Second Edition

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert BringhurstAnd there goes 2000! What an exceptional way to end the year. Mr. Bringhurst has created a book where poetry, craftsmanship, historical perspective, and an understanding of this moment dance gracefully together. Over the years, I have read some wonderful books on design, layout, and typography; this one opens at the very pinnacle.

Listen, if you will, to these two passages:

In a world rife with unsolicited messages, typography must often draw attention to itself before it will be read. Yet in order to be read, it must relinquish the attention it has drawn. Typography with anything to say therefore aspires to a kind of statuesque transparency.

Like Renaissance painting and music, Renaissance letterforms are full of sensuous and unhurried light and space.

Certainly the single most tragic failure of the Internet to date is that its engineers have failed to provide an elegant way to bring typography to this new means of communicating the written word. In the electronic rush of words set haphazardly in bland and uncontrolled faces, we have lost for the moment the gifts that a master typographer can bring to the message. Statuesque transparency. Sensuous and unhurried light and space. Pity the modern eye.

Hopefully, the engineers will soon give this new tool at least as much typographic sophistication as a sharpened stick, and our hands can soon again express themselves in this new medium.

Typographic style is founded not on any one technology of typesetting or printing, but on the primitive yet subtle craft of writing. Letters derive their form from the motions of the human hand, restrained and amplified by a tool. That tool may be as complex as a digitizing tablet or a specially programmed keyboard, or as simple as a sharpened stick. Meaning resides, in either case, in the firmness and grace of the gesture itself, not in the tool with which it is made.

A book is a flexible mirror of the mind and the body. Its overall size and proportions, the color and texture of the paper, the sound it makes as the pages turn, and the smell of the paper, adhesive and ink, all blend with the size and form and placement of the type to reveal a little about the world in which it was made. If the book appears to be only a paper machine, produced at their own convenience by other machines, only machines will want to read it.

Hartley & Marks, Vancouver, 1999

Ken Follett, Code to Zero

An intriguing premise, but told in a voice so emotionally detached that it robs the story of its credibility.

Dutton, New York, 2000

Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

After his novel was published, Turgenev was vigorously attacked by those whose views he sympathized with. He made his clearest defense of his aims some seven years after the book was published:

To be able to render the truth, the realities of life, accurately and strongly, is the greatest happiness for a writer, even if this truth does not coincide with his own sympathies.

Raduga, Moscow, 1988 (1862)

Caleb Carr, The Alienist

A richly detailed, though morbid detective story set in New York City in the late 1890's.

Random House, New York, 1994

Peter and Susan Pearce, Polyhedra Primer

Gripping tale of polyhedra and their ancestors, the polygons. A first-person account of their inherent strengths and weaknesses, and their battles and alliances in their race to occupy three-dimensional space. What can I say? I'm really interested in learning about polyhedra these days.

Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1978

Peter Høeg, Smilla's Sense of Snow

Back again, after nearly two years. Because I know the story line and the mystery so well, I can relax into savoring Høeg's detailed descriptions of snow and ice, of people and the small things in the interactions between people that we can sometimes take for granted, of the immeasurable pleasure to be found in a well made cup of coffee and the way a moment of fear can jolt us into states of heightened sensory awareness. One of my all time favorite novels.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1993

Keith Critchlow, Islamic Patterns

Islamic Patterns by Keith CritchlowI have been looking at the drawings in this book for several years now, before I became aware of polyhedra. It was interesting to finally read through it and realize that a few of the drawings and some of the discussion is about polyhedra.

The text left me with three distinct impressions. First, it was fun to feel the flow of time between people who have thought about these things previously and me.

Second, I'm always surprised when people attribute so much philosophical baggage to something that is, in its essence, so wonderfully simple: a circle, a triangle, a square, a pentagon, the golden mean. Sometimes I wonder whether people were forced to make their frame of reference a religious point of view in order to be able to study it. Maybe if they just saw a circle for a circle, they wouldn't have been allowed to pursue their studies of it, but if they were able to "discover" god and the divine in the circle, they were free to carry on?

Finally, while I can appreciate the great skill it took to create these patterns (and Critchlow's skill to decipher them), some of which are based on quite complex mathematical patterns, my personal taste runs to the much simpler patterns and designs.

I was also left with one nice discovery. Throughout the book, Critchlow discusses a pattern he likes very much and that can be repeated, a hexagon surrounded by squares and triangles with edges of equal length.

Repeating two-dimensional pattern made up of triangles, squares, and hexagons with edges of equal length

I realized that this much-appreciated two-dimensional arrangement can be turned into the beautiful three-dimensional Archimedean solid, the rhombicosidodecahedron, by changing the hexagon into a pentagon. I like it!

Thames and Hudson, London, 1976

Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

… Now I know that our world is no more permanent than a wave rising on the ocean. Whatever our struggles and triumphs, however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.

The flavor of this book reminds me of a book I read years ago and have never forgotten, Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa. That book of nearly a thousand pages held me in its spell and at the same time irritated me for its somewhat soap opera-like quality. Then I came to the last scene, the last page, the last lines, and those words reflected a depth that I could only understand for having taken the journey of a thousand pages. One line in particular has remained in my heart all of these years since then.

I suppose that is the way of our lives, if we pay careful enough attention. We wander through thousands of days, stumbling through so many trivial, irritating, wondrous, confusing, and awakening moments, and then arrive at a point where we might catch a glimpse of understanding of ourselves and this life. That brief extraordinary glimpse contains within it the distillation of the vastness of experience that is an ordinary life, and makes worthwhile every step we have taken.

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1997

Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan LethemBack again, after a year, to see if it still tastes as good. Yes!

   Context is everything. Dress me up and see. I'm a carnival barker, an auctioneer, a downtown performance artist, a speaker in tongues, a senator drunk on filibuster. I've got Tourette's. My mouth won't quit, though mostly I whisper or subvocalize like I'm reading aloud, my Adam's apple bobbing, jaw muscle beating like a miniature heart under my cheek, the noise suppressed, the words escaping silently, mere ghosts of themselves, husks empty of breath and tone. (If I were a Dick Tracy villain, I'd have to be Mumbles.) In this diminished form the words rush out of the cornucopia of my brain to course over the surface of the world, tickling reality like fingers on piano keys. Caressing, nudging. They're an invisible army on a peacekeeping mission, a peaceable horde. They mean no harm. They placate, interpret, massage. Everywhere they're smoothing down imperfections, putting hairs in place, putting ducks in a row, replacing divots. Counting and polishing the silver. Only—here's the rub—when they find too much perfection, when the surface is already buffed smooth, the ducks already orderly, the old ladies complacent, then my little army rebels, breaks into the stores. Reality needs a prick here and there, the carpet needs a flaw. My words begin plucking at threads nervously, seeking purchase, a weak point, a vulnerable ear. That's when it comes, the urge to shout in the church, the nursery, the crowded movie house. It's an itch at first. Inconsequential. But that itch is soon a torrent behind a straining dam. Noah's flood. That itch is my whole life. Here it comes now. Cover your ears. Build an ark.
   "Eat me! I scream."

Doubleday, New York, 1999

Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer

Prodigal Summer by Barbara KingsolverA wonderful, courageous writer. She pokes her finger in the soil of the human mind (fallow though it might be), and plants the blight-resistant seed of a species that teeters on the verge of extinction: the idea that we can look with respectful wonder on everything, find a way to live in harmony, and become richer for it.

Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits. But solitude is only a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot; every choice is a world made new for the chosen.

Harper Collins, New York, 2000

Caleb Carr, Killing Time

A couple of interesting ideas, but wrapped in far-fetched characters.

   There are no newspapers here, no televisions, and above all no computers, which means no damned Internet. Dugumbe forbids it all. His explanation is simple, though no less profound for its simplicity: information, he insists, is not knowledge.
   Our utter reliance on information technology had caused us all—even those who, like me, vainly fancied ourselves to be skeptical by nature—to accept the shocking new "facts" that those systems were delivering and to argue their details rather than their provenances;…

Random House, New York, 2000

Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions

Abbott attempts to provoke a curiosity and even an understanding of the fourth dimension (and higher dimensions) by explaining what the life of a two-dimensional creature might be like, and what a three-dimensional creature might do and say to introduce the two-dimensional creature to the three-dimensional realm. I was left feeling that I should understand the fourth dimension, should even be able to visualize it, but I can't. Not yet, anyway.

Buccanner Books, Cutchogue, 1976 (1876)

Xerox Publishing Standards: A Manual of Style and Design

Much of this book is excellent. And, like so many of the Watson-Guptil books from that time, it is a big, beautiful book. But I couldn't help but feel constrained by how heavy-handed their corporate design dictums were (are?). They simply left no wiggle room for creativity. By chance, I visited cluetrain⩘  yesterday evening (and finished this book over tea this morning):

15. In just a few more years, the current homogenized "voice" of business—the sound of mission statements and brochures—will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.

16. Already, companies that speak in the language of the pitch, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone.

53. There are two conversations going on. One inside the company. One with the market.

54. In most cases, neither conversation is going very well. Almost invariably, the cause of failure can be traced to obsolete notions of command and control.

Too bad Xerox didn't hear this ten years ago, when they were publishing this book.

Watson-Guptil, New York, 1988

John Sandford, The Devil's Code

Perhaps an authentic hacker would snicker and sneer at this story. Probably they wouldn't even bother to read it. I have no clue about the technology, but was mildly entertained by the story on a cold, cloudy weekend afternoon and evening. Unfortunately, as with so many books in this genre, parts of it were beyond belief (I often get the sense that the writer is writing for a hoped for movie). The mental chess game was what entertained me. Two groups, neither quite understanding what the other is up to, trying to figure each other out.

Putnam, New York, 2000

Ben Sherwood, The Man Who Ate the 747

The Man Who Ate the 747 by Ben SherwoodHow can you resist a book with a title like this? It begins: "This is the story of the greatest love, ever." And it ends: "I live in the middle of nowhere now, or the middle of everywhere. All depends on how you look at the map. This is where I belong, and I count my blessings that after wandering the world, I finally found my place."

Between those two sentences lies a lighthearted and enchanting story filled with the greatest, the best, the most, and a bit of the wackiest. The greatest, the best, and the most of what? you ask. Well, take an evening off from the nightly news on television and read this book written by the fellow who brings you that nightly news, and you'll know. And you know what? You won't miss anything; the news will be repeated tomorrow night.

Bantam, New York, 2000

Raymond Chandler, Playback

Chandler seems a little tired or bored in this book. Of course, even tired and bored he can still write circles around most of us. But it lacks the razor sharp quality of his early books.

Library of America, New York, 1995 (1958)

Robert Olen Butler, The Deep Green Sea

Butler explores a difficult subject with grace and passion. No one else that I am familiar with writes about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people and their interactions with individual Americans with the level of insight and understanding that he does. The entire time I was reading this story, I was picturing Harvey Keitel in Three Seasons.

Henry Holt, New York, 1997

Adobe Acrobat 4.0 Classroom in a Book

I use Acrobat frequently for my work, and I think it is a great program. However, based on the topics covered in this book, I guess Acrobat doesn't have much depth beyond what I already use. Strictly for beginning users.

Adobe Press, San Jose, 1999

Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries

But where's the meat? Okay, so Christianity borrowed some/much/most of its philosophy from earlier Pagan religions. As much as the authors express amazement at this (there is an exclamation point in about every other paragraph), this is hardly startling news. Perhaps they have documented it a bit better in one volume than it has been before, but that same focus on trying to provide proof for their premise makes for a deathly boring book. What really matters is the inner mystery they hint at. In my opinion, that is they only quest that is important in life. Given that, who cares what all these people who are hung up on the external levels fool themselves into believing?

There is one quote in the book that I really enjoyed:

To wish to teach all men the truth of the gods causes the foolish to despise, because they cannot learn, and the good to be slothful, whereas to conceal the truth by myths prevents the former from despising philosophy and compels the latter to study it.
—Sallustius

Harmony, New York, 1999

Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

A wonderful storyteller. I'm in love with a woman who is in her 90s and used to be our next door neighbor. She was in my mind the entire time I was reading this book. Maybe I understand the challenges she faces just a bit better now. I so much appreciate it when a book takes me places I have never been—whether it is somewhere on the other side of the world or somewhere deep inside of us.

Nana Talese, New York, 2000

Miles Harvey, The Island of the Lost Maps

A pondering about life that is centered around the story of that guy who ran around cutting maps out of rare books at libraries a few years ago. Although at times Harvey gets a little long winded with historical facts for my taste, his musing did provoke me to do some deep reflecting about my own obsessions with collecting things, particularly books.

Random House, New York, 2000

Wayne Johnson, Don't Think Twice

An interesting mystery, woven around a complex central character, and set against the vivid backdrop of the beautiful lakes of a Chippewa reservation in Northern Minnesota.

Harmony Books, New York, 1999

Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa LahiriI am simply immersed in truly wonderful books these days. With the kind of deftness that makes a most difficult thing appear to an observer to be surely the easiest and most simple of things to accomplish in the world, she gives voice to the souls of her characters. Pure delight.

In my son's eyes I see the ambition that had first hurled me across the world. In a few years he will graduate and pave his way, alone and unprotected. But I remind myself that he has a father who is living, a mother who is happy and strong. Whenever he is discouraged, I tell him that if I can survive on three continents, then there is no obstacle he cannot not conquer. While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.

Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1999

Beryl Markham, West with the Night

West with the night by Beryl MarkhamWhat a gift, to read these stories of an adventurous, articulate, poetic, and keenly observant woman who lived life to the fullest in Africa during the early part of this century.

But there are a hundred places to start for there are a hundred names—Mwanza, Serengetti, Nungwe, Molo, Nakuru. There are easily a hundred names, and I can begin best by choosing one of them—not because it is first nor of any importance in a wildly adventurous sense, but because here it happens to be, turned uppermost in my logbook. After all, I am no weaver. Weavers create. This is remembrance—revisitation; and names are keys that open corridors no longer fresh in the mind, but nonetheless familiar in the heart.

… I watched a group of these massive and powerful men gather round my plane, eyeing her trim lines with flattering curiosity. One of the largest of the lot, having stared at her with gaping mouth for a full minute, suddenly leaned back on his heels and roared with laughter that must have put the nearest hyena to shame if not to flight. When I asked him, in Swahili, to explain the joke, he looked profoundly hurt. There wasn't any joke, he said. It was just that the plane was so smooth and her wings so strong that it made him want to laugh!

She was a little like the eccentric genius who, after being asked by his host why he had rubbed the broccoli in his hair at dinner, apologized with a bow from the waist and said he had thought it was spinach.

There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstances, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo.

After that, work and hope. But never hope more than you work.

Voi presumed to be a town then, but was hardly more than a word under a tin roof.

You talk, but who listens? You listen, but who talks? Is it someone you know? And do the things he says explain the stars or give an answer to the quiet questions of a single sleepless bird? Think of these questions; fold your arms across your knees and stare at the firelight and at the embers waning on its margin. The questions are your questions too.

You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness. If you read a book, or shuffle a deck of cards, or care for a dog, you are avoiding yourself. The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all. If it were otherwise, men would never have bothered to make an alphabet, nor to have fashioned words out of what were only animal sounds, nor to have crossed continents—each man to see what the other looked like.

Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York, 1994 (1942)

Don DeLillo, White Noise

Wow, this guy is good.

The power of the dead is that we think they see us all the time. The dead have a presence. Is there a level of energy composed solely of the dead? They are also in the ground, of course, asleep and crumbling. Perhaps we are what they dream.—Jack Gladney

Make no mistake. I take these children seriously. It is not possible to see too much in them, to overindulge your casual gift for the study of character. It is all there, in full force, charged waves of identity and being. There are no amateurs in the world of children.—Jack Gladney

"… I think it's a mistake to lose one's sense of death, even one's fear of death. Isn't death the boundary we need? Doesn't it give a precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry of a final line, a border or limit."—Winnie Richards

"You could put your faith in technology. It got you here, it can get you out. This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature."—Murray Jay Siskind

Penguin, New York, 1985

JoAnn T. Hackos & Dawn M. Stevens, Standards for Online Communication

A well-rounded discussion, although a bit wordy and repetitive in places. Much, much better than her earlier book.

Wiley, New York, 1997

Elizabeth Stuckey-French, The first paper girl in Red Oak, Iowa

An entertainingly quirky look at some oddball residents of the ole Midwest.

Doubleday, New York, 2000

Linda K. Fetters, Handbook of Indexing Techniques: Second Ed.

Mostly a source of references. The Chicago Manual of Style's section on indexing is much more valuable and comprehensive.

FimCo, Corpus Christi, 1999

Michael Paterniti, Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain.

Driving Mr. Albert by Michael PaternitiThis is probably going to be my favorite book of the year; the freshest voice I've come across since Jonathan Lethem. It's a strange, strange country we live in, peopled by weirdos who think of themselves as normal. Paterniti chronicles his journey from the east coast to the west coast with Einstein's brain in a Tupperware container in the lap of the old doctor, Harvey, who had taken it when he performed the autopsy many years before. And that's not the strange part! Paterniti speaks with humor, honesty, respect, and awareness. About the folks they meet and the places they visit. Our backyards.

   We looked at each other once, then I turned the ignition. The engine kicked to life. Harvey chuckled nervously, scratchily, cleared his throat, and uttered what would become his mantra, "Yessir...real good." He took the map in his hand and seemed to examine California closely as we backed past Cleora, who was airily waving good-bye, and down the driveway. And then we just started on our way. Yes, everything was already moving. All that would happen already had. We just gave ourselves up to it, and let ourselves slip in.

   If we've incorporated the theory of relativity into our scientific view of the universe, as well as our literature, art, music, and culture at large, it's the great scientist's attempt to devise a kind of personal religion—an intimate spiritual and political manifesto—that still stands in stark, almost sacred contrast to the Pecksniffian systems of salvation offered by modern society. Einstein's blending of twentieth-century skepticism with nineteenth-century romanticism offers a different kind of hope.
   "I am a deeply religious nonbeliever," he said. "This is a somewhat new kind of religion." Pushing further, he sought to marry science and religion by redefining their terms. "I am of the opinion that all the finer speculations in the realm of science spring from a deep religious feeling," he said. "I also believe that this kind of religiousness … is the only creative religious activity of our time."

   I think of Sara when I last saw her, saying good-bye at the bus. And I reconstruct that moment, particle by particle. The frigid snowfall. The gray sky. The chill of winter and the million frozen molecules between us. I had wanted to leave. I wanted my freedom, to be set loose in the world—unstrung, unburdened, and young. But, out in America, time bends and comes around on itself, the young become old, and the old young again. The farther we travel from each other, the closer we become. And suddenly on this stretch of California highway, I'm back at that Maine bus station with Sara bundled in wool, and our dog licking the ice between us on the curb. And this time I don't want to go.

Dial Press, New York, 2000

Stephen Mitchell & James Autry, Real Power: Business Lessons from the Tao Te Ching.

A truly wonderful, insightful, useful book, as valuable for those of us who are managers as it is for those of us who are working with managers. And really, the bottom line is that, on one level or another, we all manage ourselves. Stephen Mitchell's translations are beautiful.

   One of the Tao Te Ching's great contributions is to challenge our way of looking not only at the world but also at the words we use in describing what we see. For instance, the word contentment is often defined negatively as complacency. Of course, we don't want a workplace filled with people who are complacent, who have no passion for excellence, who are satisfied with the status quo. On the other hand, we don't want a workplace filled with upward-striving, self-serving, back-stabbing workers concerned only with their own ambitions.
   But in this chapter, "content" is equivalent to "in harmony" and means "happy, fulfilled, deeply accepting of things as they are."
   But you might ask, "What motivates people like this to go the extra mile when the company is really under pressure, when we need some special effort?" The answer lies in the phrase "who love their work." The people motivate themselves. They gain enormous energy from the group dynamic, from the workplace community itself.

Riverhead Books, New York, 1998

James Lee Burke, Purple Cane Road

A good keep-you-up-too-late-at-night-when-you-need-to-go-to-work-the-next-morning read.

Doubleday, New York, 2000

Isabelle Allende, Daughter of Fortune

As I read the final words of this book, "I am free," I found myself thinking, "So am I!" I've always appreciated Allende's writing for the way she immersed herself in the story she was telling, and especially in the main characters. In this book however, it felt like most of the time she was hovering somewhere above the story, aloof, talking about the story rather than telling it. Although the book was full of profound subjects, I found it extremely shallow and boring.

Curiously, this is Garima's favorite Allende book; she has already read it three times!

Harper Collins, New York, 1999

John Altman, A Gathering of Spies

First book. Nice command of English, but a flat story. I would guess the author just might harbor a fear and loathing of women (the female lead kills everyone she meets ruthlessly) and a disdain for men who love women (they all appear weak and ineffectual).

Putnam, New York, 2000

Ram Dass, Still Here

A worthwhile read, but I can't help wishing Ram Dass could—in addition to still being here now—just be himself. When he is the story, this book is a treasure. When he is the storyteller, it stutters. It was wonderful to hear him love his master: "In the years since he left his body, his palpable presence in my life has continued unabated." But it was fingernails on a chalkboard to hang out while he tried to wrap this mystery up in a tidy definition of "Soul love." By the way, that's 'Soul' with a capital 'S'; not to be confused with plain old ordinary 'soul' with a small 's,' I guess.

The cover is quite revealing, actually. In the book, he shares how much his stroke, which left him sitting in a wheelchair, is teaching him. "They told me that I should fight to walk again, but I don't know if I wanted to walk. I'm sitting—that's where I am. I'm peaceful like this and I'm grateful to the people who care for me.…I've grown to love my chair (I call it my swan boat) and being wheeled about by people who care." Yet on the cover of his book, there he sits...no chair in sight.

More than once in this book, Ram Dass talks about his role as the advance scout for living spiritually: "I'm the advance scout for the experience of aging.…" Not, "I see myself as...," but rather "I am.…" I guess that's a capital 'I,' as in 'Ego' with a capital 'E.'

Riverhead Books, New York, 2000

Tom Robbins, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates

Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates by Tom RobbinsTom Robbins … for anyone who knows him, that should be enough of a review. Mischievously searching out the interconnections between everything from the most insignificant of words to the messy universe of stuff and stufflessness they represent, Robbins expresses his wonderful reverence for the truth by irreverently ripping the asshole out of every prudishly held superstition in his path. Those who have been around the block with a Rajneesh bible in their back pocket will recognize the spark in these words destined to be loved by some and shunned by the walking dead: laughter, love of life, passion for the unknown and unknowable, and an inability to resist copping a peak into the knickers of the forbidden. A unique book, a feast of language, an orgy of ideas, and an entertaining romp in the bush to boot. Two toes up, two inches up! Read it! (Unless you're too busy waiting for the next Harry Potter to be bothered.)

   He'd tried to shame himself into logging some gym time, but any way you sliced it, working out was maintenance and maintenance was a bore.

   A couple of mango trees had been planted in the center, and though they were probably still too young to bear fruit, they produced enough foliage to shade the girl, who sat on an upturned crate, shelling beans into a blue enamel basin balanced on her lap. Her faded cotton dress was pushed up as far as the basin, affording a vista of custard thigh and, if he was not mistaken, a pink wink of panty. He sighed.
   Tennessee Williams once wrote, "We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it." In a certain sense the playwright was correct. Yes, but oh! What a view from the upstairs window!
   What Tennessee failed to mention was that if we look out of that window with an itchy curiosity and a passionate eye; with a generous spirit and a capacity for delight; and, yes, the language with which to support and enrich the things we see, then it DOESN'T MATTER that the house is burning down around us. It doesn't matter. Let the motherfucker blaze!

   Given a choice between a folly and a sacrament, one should always choose the folly—because we know a sacrament will not bring us closer to God and there's always a chance that a folly will. —Erasmus

   Like some beggar or street performer, he would dock the wheelchair beneath the aged arcades of the labyrinthine Pike Place Market, and there, in the grotto light, protected from the rains that pounded the cobblestones and hissed beneath the tires of delivery trucks, he'd turn a keen eye on whiskered parsnip and hairless apple, and bathe himself in the multitudes.
   The old market, worn half away be dampness and fingerprints, sweat drops and shoe heels, pigeon claws and vegetable crates; soiled by butcher seepage, sequined with salmon scales, smelling of roses, raw prawns, and urine; blessedly freed for the winter from the demanding entertain-me-for-nothing! gawkings of out-of-town tourists, the market bustled now with fishmongers and Vietnamese farmers, florists and fruit vendors, famous chefs and food-smart housewives, gourmets and runaways, flunkies and junkies, coffee brewers and balloon benders, office workers and shopgirls and winos of all races.…

   The oasis didn't seem to be getting any closer. For a moment, he seriously considered that it might be a mirage, a faux tableau created by too much heat rising from too much sand into too much sky. True, the nomads had seen it, as well, but to Bedouins a mirage would have its own tangibility. Could it have been a shared hallucination, like the Virgin Mary's dancing fireball at Fatima?

   Silence is a mirror. So faithful, and yet so unexpected, is the reflection it can throw back at men that they will go to almost any length to avoid seeing themselves in it, and if ever its duplicating surface is temporarily wiped clean of modern life's ubiquitous hubbub, they will hasten to fog it over with such desperate personal noise devices as polite conversation, humming, whistling, imaginary dialogue, schizophrenic babble, or, should it come to that, the clandestine cannonry of their own farting. Only in sleep is silence tolerated, and even there, most dreams have soundtracks. Since meditation is a deliberate descent into deep internal hush, a mute stare into the ultimate looking glass, it is regarded with suspicion by the nattering masses; with hostility by business interests (people sitting in silent serenity are seldom consuming goods); and with spite by a clergy whose windy authority it is seen to undermine and whose bombastic livelihood it is perceived to threaten.

   "My faith is whatever makes me feel good about being alive. If your religion doesn't make you feel good to be alive, what the hell is the point of it?"

Bantam, New York, 2000

H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness

I suppose there are really three kinds of people. I've heard of enlightened ones who see the unknowable with clarity and an unbiased acceptance. We are surrounded by the closed-minded, who refuse to acknowledge the possibility of the unknowable. And then there seems to be a few half-awakened souls, who have had a glimpse of the mysterious or can imagine it. Here, there seems to be two responses: the pulsing of awe and the trembling of fear. I suppose both are equally false, but I find myself instinctively turning away from those who savor terror, as is the case here.

Arkham House, Sauk City, WI, 1964 (1931)

Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

Chandler - Later NovelsMy favorite Chandler to date.

I carried some coffee into the living room and he parked himself and sipped it. He lit one of my cigarettes and puffed at it for a minute or two, then put it out. "Getting so I don't care for the stuff," he said. "Maybe it's the TV commercials. They make you hate everything they try to sell. God, they must think the public is halfwit. Every time some jerk in a white coat with a stethoscope hanging around his neck holds up some toothpaste or a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of beer or a mouthwash or a jar of shampoo or a little box of something that makes a fat wrestler smell like mountain lilac I always make a note never to buy any. Hell, I wouldn't buy the product even if I liked it."

Library of America, New York, 1995 (1953)

Patrick Lynch, The Policy, Omega, Carriers

These books caught my eye because they were apparently written by two people using the name Lynch as a pseudonym, and they were remaindered, so a cheap risk.

And risk is what The Policy is all about; the main character is an actuary at a conservative life insurance company in Providence, Rhode Island. Of course, the company turns out to corrupt, using genetic testing to screen out risky applicants.

Omega ponders what might happen when bacteria finally become resistant to all of our overused antibiotics.

Carrier is a story of filovirus like Ebola that is triggered by experiments in genetic engineering.

I can't judge the scientific realism of these possibilities, though I am sure that we are in a time of genetic experimentation that is made careless by profit pressures. Casual summer reads all, fairly tightly written considering the two author slant, but nothing exceptional. The story lines should have made these books relentlessly gripping, but there was a flat undercurrent. Are they too smooth because of a blending the two authors attempted?

Dutton, New York, 1998; Dutton, New York, 1997; Villard, New York, 1995

Robert Crais, L.A. Requiem

L.A. RequiemWhen I read Demolition Angel a few days ago, I felt it was too much a formula book written with the movie rights in mind. Still, I sensed a good writer behind the words. On the back cover, there were quite a few quotes about his previous book, this one. I jumped online and saw some additional favorable comments by booksellers, along the lines of "his best book." Because I was intrigued with his writing skills, I decided to give it a try, but because I was somewhat disappointed by Demolition Angel, I decided to buy a really inexpensive copy. Too bad, because now I'm going to have to buy another, nicer copy for my library.

I'm currently in the middle of another Chandler, The Long Goodbye, and I couldn't help feel a kinship between the two writers. Chandler is a bit more real: Marlowe gets beaten up pretty bad, and recovers. Whereas Crais stretches: Joe Pike gets shot twice in the torso with a .357 magnum, becomes a fugitive, bleeds out in his getaway car, and still manages to recover. Which is believable?

Still, Crais tells a good story here, one I will enjoy reading again someday (hence, the copy for my library). He makes one glaring mistake (I have yet to come across this kind of mistake in any of Chandler's stories): He has a Robbery-Homicide Division detective send a couple of sheriffs to secure a home where a woman and her daughter live from a known killer, and they walk in apparently without a description of the murderer in mind, who greets them at the door (what's a man doing there? why aren't they suspicious?), invites them in and lets them past (in such a situation, would they really turn their backs on an unknown man?), and then shoots them in the back. C'mon. Other than that and his stretch with Pike, it is a good read.

His main character, Cole, is human, and you can feel the energy of L.A. coursing through the story. I guess if Crais didn't have movie rights in the back of his mind, he might write as well, to my taste, as Chandler. I think movies cause a pressure for bigger than life twists and stretches that diminish novels.

Doubleday, New York, 1999

Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister

My least favorite Chandler story. I never felt like I quite understood what was going on. I also saw a movie version of it, a 1980's adaptation, and felt the same way about the movie. Oh well.

Library of America, New York, 1995 (1949)

Horace McCoy, The Shoot Horses, Don't They?

Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s & 40s

If you have ever wondered what might motivate someone to dance in a marathon, here is your answer. A glimpse into the hope and hopelessness, numbness and despair, perversion and greed of the early 30s in L.A. The death sentence imposed on one of the characters, which is loudly screamed out of the book, didn't scare me nearly as much as the life sentence the characters imposed on themselves.

Library of America, New York, 1997 (1935)

Michael Palmer, The Patient

Well, as long as you are not concerned about believable characters, plausible character interactions, and a realistic plot, this is a good book. Nah, not even.

Bantam, New York, 2000

James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice

Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s & 40sCrime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s & 40s

The quirky dance of chance and fate: what we live for, what we die for; the quickly tarnished lustre of sex and money; the always alluring gleam of guilt; the care—less hunger for power. Wrap some flesh around these, and glimpse the characters in Cain's story.

Library of America, New York, 1997 (1934)

Robert Crais, Demolition Angel

Crais writes like Chrichton—very pedestrian and with the movie rights in mind. All the tricks are here to make it a page turner. Like sex in the suburbs, three climaxes, all of them faked, and thank god there is a Lexus in the driveway. Sometimes I just love to tramp in a trashy novel, and that's the mood I'm in these days.

Doubleday, New York, 2000

Robert Olen Butler, They Whisper

What the jacket says: "The result is a compelling, profound, and timely examination of human sexuality and, not incidentally, one of the most rapturously erotic books of our time."

What I say: "Yawn". This is the first book by Butler that I couldn't finish. Last evening, I found myself one page shy of half-way through the book, and I shut it. There were glimpses of the writing I appreciate in his books, but only when he was speaking about Vietnam and Vietnamese characters. There were simply too few of those passages to warrant plowing through the rest of the book.

Henry Holt, New York, 1994

Ian Frazier, On the Rez

On the Rez by Ian FrazierFrazier is a good storyteller who knows how to listen, observe, and research. In this book, he talks about what he saw, felt, and learned about the Oglala Sioux and himself during a prolonged series of visits to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Unlike the sorry-assed producers of television specials, who pick a theme, and then fit their story to the theme (such as NBC's Tragedy at Pine Ridge), Frazier discusses the whole range: the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, the sacred, the profane, the despair, the hope, the failures, the accomplishments.

Imagine for a moment the integrity of these people. In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the Black Hills had been stolen from the Oglala Sioux by the U.S., and awarded the Sioux over $100 million in compensation. Despite living on a reservation that has been classified as one of the poorest places in the country, the Sioux refused the compensation. They continue to demand that the stolen land be returned to them, and refuse to touch the compensation money, which is now over $500 million.

Perhaps the poorest place in the U.S. is also one of the richest.

But mostly, this is a story about people: Le War Lance, SuAnne Big Crow, Florence Cross Dog, Germaine, Floyd John, Aurelia Two Crow, Leatrice "Chick" Big Crow. These are people worth getting to know.

Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2000

Michael Ondaatje, Anil's Ghost

   "I'll tell you a thing I saw.…" Sarath was speaking in the empty offices, but he looked around.
   "I was in the south.… It was almost evening, the markets closed. Two men, insurgents I suppose, had caught a man. I don't know what he had done. Maybe he had betrayed them, maybe he had killed someone, or disobeyed an order, or not agreed quickly enough. In those days the justice of death came in at any level. I don't know if he was to be executed, or harassed and lectured at, or in the most unlikely scenario, forgiven. He was wearing a sarong, a white shirt, the long sleeves rolled up. His shirt hung outside the sarong. He had no shoes on. And he was blindfolded. They propped him up, made him sit awkwardly on the crossbar of a bicycle. One of the captors sat on the saddle, the one with the rifle stood by his side. When I saw them they were about to leave. The man could see nothing that was going on around him or where he would be going.
   "When they took off, the blindfolded man had to somehow hang on. One hand on the handlebars, but the other he had to put around the neck of his captor. It was this necessary intimacy that was disturbing. They wobbled off, the man with the rifle following on another bike.
   "It would have been easier if they had all walked. But this felt in an odd way ceremonial. Perhaps a bike was a form of status for them and they wished to use it. Why transport a blindfolded victim on a bicycle? It made all life seem precarious. It made all of them more equal. Like drunk university students. The blind-folded man had to balance his body in tune with his possible killer. They cycled off and at the far end of the street, beyond the market buildings, they turned and disappeared. Of course the reason they did it that way was so none of us would forget it."
   "What did you do?"
   "Nothing."

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000

Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me

Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s

One of the most chilling stories I have ever read. Looking out at "Ah, gosh" small town America of the 1940s, an extremely violent , premeditative killer calmly observes himself, his victims, and the fools around him who want to believe he is just another good ole boy.

The Library of America, New York, 1997 (1952)

Ian Frazier, Great Plains

Great Plains by Ian FrazierA wonderful, meandering journey through the Great Plains, both in space and time. Frazier has a sharp eye, an attentive ear, and a witty pen. From Crazy Horse to wind-crazed settlers to insane MX missiles systems, he takes us down a long, flat, straight road, and reveals its myriad twists.

Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 1989

Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake

I'm addicted. "I smelled of gin. Not just casually, as if I had taken four or five drinks of a winter morning to get out of bed on, but as if the Pacific Ocean was pure gin and I had nose-dived off the boat deck."

Library of America, New York, 1995 (1943)

Jonathan Lethem, The wall of the sky, the wall of the eye

The wall of the sky, the wall of the eye by Jonathan LethemI like to put a book of short stories in my car, so that I have something to read at lunch time. Problem with this one is that the stories are so good, so inventive, so engaging, so challenging that I found myself taking longer and longer lunch periods, because I just couldn't put the book down! For example, what happens when you wrap a story around the literal meaning of the term "hardened criminal?"

Harcourt Brace, New York, 1996

Raymond Chandler, The High Window

Chandler - Early NovelsChandler...what more could I possibly say?

   In and around the old houses there are flyblown restaurants and Italian fruit stands and cheap apartment houses and little candy stores where you can buy even nastier things than their candy. And there are ratty hotels where nobody except people named Smith and Jones sign the register and where the night clerk is half watchdog and half pander.
   Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it, and once in a while even men that actually go to work. But they come out early, when the wide cracked sidewalks are empty and still have dew on them.

Library of America, New York, 1995 (1942)

Robert Olen Butler, Mr. Spaceman

Another wonderful and creative book from Butler. A cross between Tabloid Dreams, which contains the short story that is the genesis of this book, and A Good Scent for a Strange Mountain. I would guess that in this book, Butler reveals a little bit about himself as a listener and storyteller: "Sitting before me is the tiny, elderly form of Viola Stackhouse. And though she cannot place the things that are inside her directly inside me, we do speak as one, we shape these words as one."

Grove Press, New York, 2000

Jakob Nielsen, Designing Web Usability

The core message of simplicity is right on. But, a lot of words (400 pages) for only a bit of content. I'm relatively new to the world of Web publishing, so I'm left surprised at how few new or challenging ideas I came across. If he had combined this book's "what" with his planned next book's "how" into one book of this length, that might have been a great book.

New Riders, Indianapolis, IN, 2000

Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison

Witty, granted, but not gritty in the way I so relish in a good Hammett or Chandler tale.

World Publishing, Cleveland, OH, 1945 (1930)

Kahn, Allen, and Jones, The Septic System Owner's Manual: Subterranean Mysteries Revealed

The Septic System Owner's Manual by Kahn, Allen, and JonesAt last! A real page turner! With awesome pen and ink drawings, in the style of one of my all time favorite books, How to keep your Honda alive: a manual of step by step procedures for the compleat idiot.

The third night we were in our new house (a few months ago), the warning light on the septic tank in our yard went on. It is a very bright light. I had no idea what was going on, except that I could see by lifting an incredibly heavy concrete cover just below the light that a creepy, somewhat smelly chamber down there was full, very full. I hung our wheelbarrow over the light to keep from waking up the whole neighborhood, and we stopped peeing. The next morning, we called the guy who installed the new drain field a few months prior to us moving in. He had a shitty attitude: "It's all in my report. Read the report." His report was full of mysterious, unintelligible drawings, and lots of engineering sounding phrases. All I understood was that I was canoeing up a shit creek without a paddle. So we called Sweet William's Septic Service. Turned out to be a burnt-out pump in our lift station, whatever that was.

The whole episode left me yearning to understand this mysterious system.

With a bunch of great sketches and some funny, down-to-earth prose, this book has given me a reasonable understanding of the whole thing, which is actually a pretty marvelous setup, taking full advantage of natural purification processes. The book is now circulating amongst our neighbors (thar's a whole lot of shittin' going on in them thar hills!).

Shelter, Bolinas, CA, 2000

Kenzaburo Oe, A quiet life

A very boring book from the winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature.

A footnote (several months later): The other evening, I was driving home from work, and unexpectedly found myself thinking about the characters in this book. Obviously, it has had a stronger affect on me than I had thought.

Grove Press, New York, 1990 (Translation, 1996)

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

21st printing! Hmmmm. Zzzzzz.

Arthur A. Levine, New York, 1998

Kabir, The Bijak of Kabir

Translated by Linda Hess and Shukdev Singh.

I usually only include books on this list that I have read in their entirety. I haven't read this book, and I probably never will; it is an addition to a reference library I'm building. But there is such a wonderful story in the introduction that I couldn't resist tucking it in here. The story is a page long, so I'm going to put it on a linked page: Numbskull, you've missed the point! >

Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1983

John M Carroll, The Nurnberg Funnel: Designing Minimalist Instruction for Practical Computer Skill

This is an easy book to summarize: Blah blah blah Gold Nugget blah blah blah blah blah blah Gold Nugget blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Gold Nugget blah blah blah.…

How could a book about minimalism be so boringly wordy? And while there really are some wonderful gems tucked away in the book, I was astonished at how coolly the author regarded the users, as if they are merely a commodity to be turned into statistics.

The only manuals I have ever read that were of any value to me were those that spoke to me as a warm-blooded human being, as if the author were sitting next to me, "Okay, let's have a little chat about this feature of the software: why you need to use it, and how you can best use it."

I suppose this is my allergy toward things academic kicking in.

MIT Press, Cambridge, 1990

Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man

My liver hurt the whole time I was reading this story!

   "Did you know her?"
   "Yes. How about a drop of something to cut the phlegm?"
   "What was she like?"
   "Not bad," I said. "She wasn't bad-looking and she had a lot of sense and a lot of nerve—and it took both to live with that guy."
   "She lived with him?"
   "Yes. I want a drink, please. That is, it was like that when I knew them."
   "Why don't you have some breakfast first? Was she in love with him or was it just business?"
   "I don't know. It's too early for breakfast."

I stayed up quite late a couple nights reading it, so I enjoyed Hammett's cynical wit all the more so:

   Nora could not sleep that night. She read Chaliapin's memoirs until I began to doze and then woke me up by asking: "Are you asleep?"
   I said I was.
   She lit a cigarette for me, one for herself.…
   "Dorothy's coming up. I think she's tight."
   "That's great." I picked up my bathrobe. "I was afraid I was going to have to go to sleep."

But mostly, I just really enjoyed his keen insight into the human condition, and how he weaves it into his story:

   He pursed his lips, wrinkled his forehead, said judicially: "It's hard to say exactly. Mamma's good at hiding things sometimes, but she's never much good at making them up. It's a funny thing—I suppose you've noticed it—the people who lie the most are nearly always the clumsiest at it, and they're easier to fool with lies than most people, too. You'd think they'd be on the look-out for lies, but they seem to be the very ones that will believe almost anything at all. I suppose you've noticed that, haven't you?"

Library of America, New York, 1999 (1934)

Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key

Hammett must have been locked into some bleak and lonely spaces. His character, Ned, is a man of full integrity, but no joy. Chilling integrity. When I finished The Maltese Falcon, I thought, how can Hammett top this? He did so by striking off in a fresh direction.

Library of America, New York, 1999 (1933)

Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

As far as I recall, this is the first time I read this story. The night I finished it, I rented the video with Bogart. First time I watched it, too. As I closed the book, I thought, this is definitely a peak example of this kind of story. Then I read some opinion about the movie, how true the dialog was to the original book, blah, blah. Yes, the movie is also a peak in its genre. In my opinion, though, it doesn't touch the book, doesn't dare confront the inner spaces that the book explores.

   Her voice was queer as the expression on her face. "You did that, Sam, to her?"
   He nodded. "Your Sam's a detective."

Library of America, New York, 1999 (1930)

Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse

Hammett - Complete NovelsI picked up this book of the collected works of Hammett expecting to read the first, set it aside, and then return to it every now and then—perhaps once a year, as I do with the books of many writers. But here it is, still in my hands. And that says it all, doesn't it!

   She sat down of the side of the bed close to me, elbows on knees, tortured white face between hands. "I've not ever been able to think clearly, as other people do, even the simplest thoughts. Everything is always so confused in my mind. No matter what I try to think about, there's a fog that gets between me and it, and other thoughts get between us, so I barely catch a glimpse of the thought I want before I lose it again, and have to hunt through the fog, and at last find it, only to have the same thing happen again and again and again. Can you understand how horrible that can become: going through life like that—year after year—knowing you will always be like that—or worse?"
   "I can't," I said. "It sounds normal as hell to me. Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking's a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That's why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they're arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane, and self-evident.

Library of America, New York, 1999 (1929)

Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

Chapter 1. A woman in green and a man in gray.

"What's the rumpus?" I asked him. He looked at me carefully before he replied, as if he wanted to be sure that the information was going into safe hands. His eyes were gray as his clothes, but not so soft.

A couple words, and the world is painted. Hammett makes sentences that are a joy to read. And the Library of America is making books that are a joy to hold. Bravo!

Library of America, New York, 1999 (1928)

Sayed Idries Shah, Destination Mecca

Destination Mecca by Sayed Idries ShahShah leaves the comforts of his club in London to take a pilgrimage to Mecca, and a trek through Arabia. First a stint running contraband out of Tangiers to raise some funds, then on to Alexandria, Cairo, Jeddah, Mecca, Riyadh, Sudan, the mines of Solomon, Lebanon, Jordan, the wondrous Petra, Jerusalem, Kabul. Meetings with sultans, crown princes, kings, scoundrels, warriors, sorcerers, and fakirs. My only disappointment is with Shah's preoccupation with taking photos of places where photography was forbidden.

I'm glad my copy of the book is not illustrated. I prefer to experience the cities, deserts, holy places, and forsaken lands through his words.

Octagon, London, 1969

Ross Macdonald, Archer at Large: Three Great Lew Archer Novels of Suspense

The Galton Case, The Chill, and Black Money. The bad guys are good guys, the good guys are bad guys, nobody is innocent, more twists and turns than a road in the mountains.

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1970

Jonathan Lethem, Girl in Landscape

Girl in Landscape by Jonathan LethemA very talented writer. His skill leaves me inspired, which is a very nice state-of-mind to begin the new year in. A coming-of-age story set slightly in the future, in a colony on another planet, and in the mind of a young girl who has the capacity to see on a couple different dimensions.

Doubleday, New York, 1998

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