Reading – 1999
"That was the funny thing about beauty, thought Zoë. Look it up in the yellow pages, and you found a hundred entries, hostile with wit, cutesy with warning. But look up truth—ha! There was nothing at all."
— Lorrie Moore, Like Life
A love affair with books
Reading has been a primary focus of mine since I was a child, a key continuity in the flow of my life. When I launched this website in the latter part of 1999, I decided it would be interesting to record my reflections of the books I was reading. What follows is the result.
Jonathan Lethem, Amnesia Moon
Again, inventive and cleverly written, but it left me wondering where the last chapter was.
And there goes 1999!
Harcourt Brace, New York, 1995
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
After reading Motherless Brooklyn, in which Lethem makes several references to The Big Sleep, I couldn't resist picking this one up again after many, many years. Yeah, it still has the charm.
Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1939
Jonathan Lethem, Gun, with Occasional Music
Lethem's amusing, creative, inventive first book. Oh yes, and a bit raw. When I stumble across an author that impresses me, I like to go back and read all their past work. I enjoy seeing how they develop as artists.
Harcourt Brace, New York, 1994
Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn
One of the best books I read all year. Intense, insightful, funny, stylish, smooth. If ya don't wanna take my word for it, then put an egg in your shoe and beat it.
Doubleday, New York, 1999
Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely
The "huge black battleship of a car with chromium trimmings" as it glides along the twists and turns of the Los Angeles coast on a foggy dark evening?
The bad guy? "He was neither young nor old, neither fat nor thin. Spending a lot of time on or near the ocean had given him a good healthy complexion. His hair was nut-brown and waved naturally and waved still more at sea. His forehead was narrow and brainy and his eyes held a delicate menace. They were yellowish in color. He had nice hands, not babied to the point of insipidity, but well-kept. His dinner clothes were midnight blue, I judged, because they looked so black. I thought his pearl was a little too large, but that might have been jealousy."
Or the dame? "The third was the blonde. She was dressed to go out, in a pale greenish blue. I didn't pay much attention to her clothes. They were what the guy designed for her and she would go to the right man. The effect was to make her look very young and to make her lapis lazuli eyes look very blue. Her hair was of the gold of old paintings and had been fussed with just enough but not too much. She had a full set of curves which nobody had been able to improve on. The dress was rather plain except for a clasp of diamonds at the throat. Her hands were not small, but they had shape, and the nails were the usual jarring note—almost magenta. She was giving me one of her smiles. She looked as if she smiled easily, but her eyes had a still look, as if they thought slowly and carefully. And her mouth was sensual."
Nah, it's Chandler himself. What a writer.
The Franklin Library, Franklin Center, PA 1988 (original copyright 1940)
Jonathan Lethem, As She Climbed Across the Table
Now we know: Women never understand men, and leave us licking our wounds, tails between our legs, heads hanging, because they don't understand themselves!
Wrap that nugget of truth in a wildly inventive tale of mad physics experiments that create parallel universes, void yet full of personality, and you have one charming tale.
Doubleday, New York, 1997
Scott Turow, Personal Injuries
Presumed Innocent remains my favorite Turow novel, but this is my second favorite of his stories. Lively characters, a yarn I could believe, that sort of sad realism that LeCarre usually touches in his books. A good read.
Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 1999
Anthony McCarten, Spinners
A lively book about crazy, normal people (or is it, normally crazy people) in a small, rural town in New Zealand, trying to cope with the everyday challenges of life: boring jobs, unwanted and unrequited sexual attentions, nosy neighbors, violent parents, backstabbing friends, and—oh yes, I nearly forgot— spacemen. Although it sputters a bit into tranquility at the very end, it's a top notch read. McCarten has a playful command of the language:
That was three years ago and now her entire guest list consisted of neurotics who would be homeless but for her. Delia saw most of them on her first guided tour of the hotel: a clinically mad old woman knitting; a retard committing the solecism of mopping his own shoes.…
William Morrow, New York, 1999
JoAnn T. Hackos, Managing your Documentation Projects
This book is printed on acid-free paper. What a pity. This is the first time I include on this list a book I have not finished (and will not be finishing). I am not schooled in the theories of technical writing; however, having been involved with technical writing projects for nearly a decade, I have some strong opinions on what works and what doesn't. I think brevity is one of the most important elements of a well-written document. And here I hold in my hands a ponderous book of more than 600 pages that should have been no more than a couple hundred pages long. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah....
Despite this deadly boring wordiness, the book in not without merit. Skip the body and go directly to the appendices. They are succinct and capture the essence of her message.
I have another book on order, —Minimalism beyond the Nurnberg Funnel.— Curiously, Hackos is one of the contributors.
John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1994
Robyn Davidson, Tracks
A young Australian woman's camel caravan journey alone across the outback. It's one of those stories where someone pushes themselves to endure incredible hardships, so that when a day comes along that is only mildly unspeakably unbearable, it seems like paradise. I was left feeling that she had missed a great opportunity to let go a bit of Western society's goal-driven attitude and melt into the here now reality of the desert.
Butler & Tanner, London, 1980
Lorrie Moore, Like Life
Sometimes, I can read an entire book and—even if I thoroughly enjoy it—not come across a single golden phrase.
Oftentimes, I come across just a single golden phrase in a book. And I am joyful.
Like Life overflows with them, so many that I had to buy a block of stickies to keep track. Here are a few:
It was curious how people, when they stood still and you just looked, never really changed that much. No matter how the fashions swirled about a girl, the adult she became, with different fashions swirling about her, still contained the same girl. All of Bridey's ages—the child, the old woman—were there on her face. It was like an open bird feeder where every year of her, the past and the future, had come to feed.
(Particularly poignant for me because we are currently looking for a house):
She kept wandering in and out of the rooms, wondering where she had put things. She went downstairs into the basement for no reason at all except that it amused her to own a basement. It also amused her to own a tree. The day she moved in, she had tacked to her tree a small paper sign that said Zoë's Tree.
That was the funny thing about beauty, thought Zoë. Look it up in the yellow pages, and you found a hundred entries, hostile with wit, cutesy with warning. But look up truth—ha! There was nothing at all.
People talking were meant to look at a face, the disastrous cupcake of it, the hide-and-seek of the heart dashing across. With a phone, you said words, but you never watched them go in. You saw them off at the airport but never knew whether there was anyone there to greet them when they got off the plane.
Last year she had gone to a doctor, who had looked at her throat and a mole on her back, studying them like Rorschachs for whatever he might see in them. He removed the mole and put it floating in a pathologist's vial, a tiny marine animal. Peering in at her throat, he said, "Precancer"—like a secret or a zodiac sign." Precancer?" she had repeated quietly, for she was a quiet woman. "Isn't that . . . like life?
Faber and Faber, London, 1990
Adobe FrameMaker 5.5 - Classroom in a book
One of the better books I have come across to quickly get up and running with a heavy-hitting software program.
Adobe Press, San Jose, 1997
Anne Tyler, Ladder of Years
But then they crested the low, sandy rise, and there was the ocean, reminding them what they had come all this way for. Oh, every year it seemed Delia forgot. That vast, slaty, limitless sweep, that fertile, rotting, dog's-breath smell, that continual to-and-fro shushing that had been going on forever while she'd been elsewhere, stewing over trivia! She paused, letting her eyes take rest in the dapples of yellow sunlight that skated the water.…
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1995
Bob Woodward, Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate
It is dismaying how much we, the people of this country and this world, have been cheated because the last six presidents have so carelessly allowed themselves to be entangled in investigations that sucked their time and distracted their energies. Had any one of them truly put the welfare of their fellow citizens near the top of their agendas, above their own welfare, there is no guessing what more they might have been able to accomplish.
Simon & Schuster, New York, 1999
Anne Tyler, A Patchwork Planet
My favorite moment of the day comes before the sun is up, but conditions have to be right for it. I have to be awake then, for one thing. And the weather has to be clear, and the lights lit in my room, and the sky outside still dark. Then I switch the lights off. If I'm lucky, the sky will suddenly change to something else—a deep, transparent blue. There's almost a sound to it, a quiet sound like loom! as the blue swings into focus. But it lasts for only a second. And it doesn't happen that often
Books pass like seconds on the clock that is life. If I'm lucky, a book provides a deep, transparent glimpse into life. It doesn't happen that often, but does nearly every time I pick up an Anne Tyler book.
I said, 'Martine?' and she said, 'What,' and I said, 'Haply I think on thee.' 'Huh?' she said. But I could tell she knew what I meant.
For days, moments come when, haply, I think on that small scene.
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998
Sherman Alexie, Indian Killer
Writing that revels in rage and recalcitrant despair, and lacks even a single glimpse of the possibilities beyond the quagmire of racially-based hatreds. Powerful writing, disappointing message.
Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1996
Bailey White, Quite a Year for Plums
I have listened to Bailey White tell her stories, so as I read her voice in my ear, enhancing the experience of wandering through her delightful world.
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1998
Blake & Bly, The Elements of Technical Writing
Written in a human voice, it touches on fundamental principles, grammar, basic rules, and usage in a way that is complementary to existing handbooks.
Macmillian, New York, 1998
Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, Second Edition
While not exactly a Grisham, it did keep me up late for several nights!
A note nearly two years later: A great book that I turn to frequently.
Microsoft Press, Redmond, 1998
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman
This book by a Swedish husband and wife writing team was recommended to me as one of the best police mysteries. While I am unable to judge this assessment from personal experience, if it is really true then all I can think is that this is not a very well developed genre.
Pantheon, New York, 1970
Sherman Alexie, Reservation Blues
Alexie's words resonate with the truth behind his story and rise like liquid chords off the page.
Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1995
Martin Cruz Smith, Gorky Park
Still pondering my disappointment with Havana Bay, I grabbed this off the shelf, reread the first chapter, then put it back. The next evening, I found it back in my hands, and once again couldn't put it down. As I was reading, one word came to mind about the recently released Havana Bay: Lazy.
Random House, New York, 1981
Patrick Süskind, The Pigeon
A passionate novella about one ordinary man's slide into madness and subsequent climb out during one 24-hour period.
Walking soothes. There is a healing power in walking. The regular placement of one foot in front of the other while at the same time rowing rhythmically with the arms, the rising rate of respiration, the slight stimulation of the pulse, the actions required of eye and ear for determining direction and maintaining balance, the feeling of the passing air brushing against the skin—all these are events that mass about the body and mind in a quite irresistible fashion and allow the soul, be it ever so atrophied and bruised, to grow and expand.
Albert A. Knopf, New York, 1988
Martin Cruz Smith, Havana Bay
His writing is polished, but he seems to have lost the passion that was so evident in some of his previous books. More formula than mystery.
Random House, New York, 1999
Allan Gurganus, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
Just enough scattered passages of well turned prose to keep me reading. Just. But perhaps this is one of the best examples I have come across to highlight an observation by Borges: "It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages (in this case seven hundred) an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them."
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1989
Isak Dinesen, Shadows on the Grass
Superb. She had such a sensitivity to the people and environment surrounding her. After finishing this book last evening, I went for a long walk with Garima this morning and found that all I wanted to do was share these stories with her.
Random House, New York, 1961
Elizabeth Jolley, The Sugar Mother
I have a real soft spot in my heart for Australian novels. Because of the cultural differences that manifest in the rhythm of the language and idiomatic references, I find that I must relax into the flow of the story without the benefit of always clearly understanding what is taking place in the moment. Then, a sentence or two (or a paragraph or two, or a page or two) later, the picture clarifies and I feel I have taken another step or two into the heart and soul of Australia.
Harper & Row, New York, 1988
Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy: City of Glass; Ghosts; The Locked Room
A startling journey into human madness.
Penguin Books, New York, 1990
Banana Yoshimoto, Amrita
Like reading the intimate diary of a dear friend.
Grove Press, New York, 1997
William Kotzwinkle, The Exile
As always with Kotzwinkle, I am impressed by the nimbleness, creativity, and freshness of his approach to each book. A great read.
Dutton Lawrence, New York, 1987
Thea Astley, Hunting the Wild Pineapple
I thoroughly enjoy this wonderful Australian writer with her keen eye for the quirkiness that inhabits us all. Her language has a cadence unlike any other I have come across.
Putnam, New York, 1991
Robert Olen Butler, The Deuce
I've turned the last page, I've read the last word, now all that is left is to turn off the light, sit at the window, and look out into the night.
Henry Holt, New York, 1989
Maxim Gorky, Mother
It is a simple question: what happens when a person understands that the price of admission to bask in the sun of truth is the relinquishing of the comfortable blinkers of fear?
Citadel, New York, 1947
Peter Høeg, The Woman and the Ape
Although Høeg explores some interesting ideas in this book, I missed the immediacy I experienced in Smilla's Sense of Snow and Boderliners. When I read, I want to be taken into the mind, heart, and soul of the characters. Perhaps if this story had been told first person by the ape, it would have had that spark I yearn for.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1996
Martin Cruz Smith, Polar Star
Another book I return to from time to time and my favorite Arkady story.
I once lived in Seattle, plodding through months of just above freezing mist and rain and lumbering clouds to finally emerge on one finally sunny day resplendent with brilliant greens, flowers, mountains in every direction and surrounded by water alive with dancing gems. Perhaps that is why I can relate to the scene of Renko emerging after many months from the 'slime line' in the belly of the ship and feeling but not quite believing the tingle of renewed aliveness.
Random House, New York, 1989
Peter Høeg, Smilla's Sense of Snow
I return to this book from time to time. The pleasure, for me, is in the details, and each time I read it more slowly, dwelling on the nuances Høeg reveals through Smilla. It contains one of my favorite passages: "I feel the same way about solitude as some people feel about the blessings of the church. It's the light of grace for me. I never close my door behind me without the awareness that I am carrying out an act of mercy toward myself."
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1993
Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From
Very skillful writer with keen insights into the human condition. Or, at least some of it, for his stories dwell on the down side of life. The last story is my favorite: In Errand, Carver explores Chekhov's illness and death. In a particularly poignant scene, Dr. Schwöhrer (his attending physician at the Badenweiler Spa in Switzerland), realizing that Chekhov is minutes away from death and that nothing more can be done, orders a bottle of champagne and three glasses. The great writer, his wife, and the doctor drink a last glass together. Moments later Chekhov gently dies.
Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1998
Alice Munro, The Moons of Jupiter
I must have had my head stuck in the mud to have missed this wonderful writer for so many years. Well, that's not entirely true. It is only recently that I have begun to enjoy and search out short stories. Also, over the past couple of years I have focused my attention on Canadian writers. In a few breaths, this storyteller is able to invite her readers into the depths of her characters' emotional experiences of life.
Macmillian, Toronto, 1982
Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa
The baroness looks at Africa and sees. One of the most beautifully written books I have come across in my life. This is the part of Africa not unlike the one I visited; the story has provoked a reawakening of my memories, especially those of the senses:
There were low thorn trees regularly spread over the plain, and long deep valleys with dry riverbeds of big flat stones, where you had to find a deer-path here and there to take you across. After a little while you became aware of how still it was out here. Now, looking back on my life in Africa, I feel that it might altogether be described as the experience of a person who had come from a rushed and noisy world, into a still country.
Modern Library, New York, 1983
Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Andrew Hurley), Collected Fictions
As I slowly wandered through this collection of stories I found myself being taken to places I had not thought about before. At times, in the half dozen pages (at most) of a story Borges was able to shake up my thinking, challenge my assumptions, shatter my reality. Certainly one of the most amazing books I have read.
My favorite series is The Book of Sand, and it was in this series that I came across the story that touched me the most deeply, A Weary Man's Utopia.
"What about the great adventure of my times—space travel?"
"It's been hundreds of years since we have done any of that traveling about—though it was undoubtedly admirable. We found we could never escape the here and now."
Then, with a smile he added: "And besides, every journey is a journey through space. Going from one planet to another is much like going to the farm across the way. When you stepped into this room, you were engaging in space travel."
Viking, New York, 1998
Nikolai Aleksandrov, Two Leaps Across a Chasm
A Russian mystery based on an actual scandal. Although Aleksandrov's first novel is a bit stiff at times, there is something about the flavor of Russian writing that I love. Perhaps one of the most telling lines is in the author's bio: "In addition to writing, Aleksandrov enjoys working with his hands and used to cultivate flowers before circumstances made him switch to growing potatoes."
Ah, if there were only a way that we could all quit spending so much of the world's resources on missiles and guns and instead focus on growing flowers and toasting each other with cold glasses of Russian vodka.
Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1992
Tim Flannery, Throwim Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums, and Penis Gourds; On the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea
This guy is nuts. The circumstances he endures in pursuit of his science nearly defy belief. But he is a wonderful writer.
Flatness trains the Australian eye not to stray far above the horizon, so while I stood in the dawn light at the airport, I missed the massif at first. The jagged, dark green peaks of Owen Stanley Range receded away to the north, their summits becoming increasingly obscured in dawn-tinged cloud. Through a trick of the atmosphere, a pale blue band of sky appeared to rise over the mist. For some reason my eye made an effort to search above this point--and met with a seemingly impossible illusion. There, as if floating, detached above all, were two further peaks. Not dark green these, but golden and purple from the frigid grassland and jagged rock crowning their summit. I fancied that a lost ice age, a new world, beckoned to me from those two islands in the sky. The furthest, Mt Albert Edward, was my destination.
Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1998
Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, The Golden Caravan
Described as "The Afghan Sage," this is a collection of stories reflecting his fifty years of travel and adventure throughout the East.
I read the last two stories the other evening. There is something about the Middle Eastern way of telling a story that enchants me. One never knows until the last few lines of the story just how the protagonist will fare. Fate seems to hang on a thread, and just maybe that is how life really is.
Octagon Press, 1983
Barbara Gowdy, The White Bone
I finished this book several days ago, but I still don't quite know what to say about it…. When I think of it, I see images, feel sensations, imagine smells … but words?
My favorite passage: "… but if it is true that she shelters an exotic's memories, then perhaps her memories have entered the body of some strange, doomed creature who, like her, is enthralled by the scenes unfolding in its mind."
Yes, I think we could easily be described as strange, doomed creatures.
A wonderful book with which to begin this book review list in this early spring of 1999. I think I will get a kick out of looking back after a bit of time has passed to read my thoughts, especially about some of the books I enjoy the most. And perhaps I can turn you onto some good reads as well as help you avoid some others. Enjoy!
Harper Flamingo Canada, Toronto, 1998