The Book Thread - September 2005

Well it’s that time of the month again…

You know what, I don’t think I have any new books. I did read The Burma Road by Donovan Webster, a more popular (rather than military) account of essentially the CBI theater in World War II. Webster seems to side with Stilwell and doesn’t seem to approve of Chennault much, but the storytelling is generally very good of some of the most unimagineable fighting in the worst conditions possible.

— Alan

I’m just about finished with Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin and the End of Revolution. I’ve been a russophile for a long time so as soon as I heard about this book I picked it up. It’s well-written and engaging; interspersed with the detailed accounts of Kremlin politics are stories of regular Russian citizens that the authors interacted with while they lived in Russia and how they’ve been affected by the changes from Gorbachev to Yeltsin to Putin.

The authors’ premise is that Putin, as a former KGB man, is systematically setting back democratic reforms in an effort to consolidate power once again in the state. But it goes beyond mere policies and discusses the underhanded and under-the-table maneuvers that put Putin in office and have shut out every one of his opponents in the last election.

The politics aren’t very surprising, of course; not only is this Russia, where nearly everything in both common and political life is done on the sly and with common bribery, but it’s not that dissimilar to what those in the US say is going on in our own political system. The fascination with this book lies in just how tumultuous both the Russian political system and the life of the average Russian has been in such a short span of time, and how democracy attempts to work in a country like Russia.

Finally getting around to reading Sealey’s history of the Greek City States, which I recommended in another thread based solely on reputation and table of contents.

Boy, is it a hard slog. The history is so dry that I almost forgot that I loved ancient history. The conflicts and debates he is engaging with are intrinsically interesting, but Sealey just can’t seem to reach me.

Next up is the J.J. Norwich history of Byzantium, which Brett suggested to me. Three volumes should keep going for a while.


I’m coming to the end of Kafka On The Shore, by Huruki Murakami, it’s an absorbing yarn. I recently read The House On Garibaldi Street, by Isser Harel, which is about the Mossad tracking and capturing Adolf Eichmann, it is outstanding. Next on deck is The Conversations: Walter Murch And The Art Of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje, I’ve been saving it as a special treat. :)

Reading the first book of Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders series. I’m 140 pages in and it’s gotten me out of my non-reading slump.

Reading His Dark Materials

I just finished Lunar Park, the new novel from Bret Easton Ellis. I’m among the tiny but vocal minority that appreciates Ellis as a postmodern American Flaubert. As per his usual M.O., Lunar Park adopts for its narrator the void-dwelling mannerisms of the cultural obsession du jour – in this case, the celebrity memoir. (And, in a joke that keeps on giving, he casts “Ellis” himself as the celebrity memoirist.)

Much as I liked it, though, it’s not in the category of his “holy trinity”…I’m not sure how anyone can teach the literature of the 80s and 90s without Less Than Zero, American Psycho, or Glamorama, each a fearless experimental novel that indicts the era’s money/status/image obsession in a manner worthy of Balzac and Fitzgerald.

Just finished Kavalier andn Clay and 1776. Really enjoyed both of them. Now almost done with The Last True Story I Ever Tell.

Great books I’ve read this summer…

Rat Scabies And The Holy Grail
Candy Freak
A Cook’s Tour

Currently reading The Scarlet Fig.

The drummer for The Damned remakes Monty Python?

Just 8 books this month. :)

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
I finished this one at the beginning of August, but I think I actually talked about it in last month’s thread. All you need to know is that it’s fantastic and the best nonfiction book I’ve read in quite a while.

Various Philip K. Dick Books
I went on a bit of a, er… Dick bender. I read The Man in the High Castle, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Minority Report Other Stories, and Galactic Pot Healer. Some of the stuff was fun, and I particularly like the book of short stories. Based on what I’ve seen that’s where Dick does his best work. Galactic Pot Healer was singularly bad, like the literary equivalent of a doodle that he stretched out into a full novel in order to meet a quota.

Personalty Psychology in the Workplace by Brent Roberts and Robert Hogan (Editors)
This was my professional development book for the month, but I didn’t get much out of it. Mainly because it’s just a bunch of papers that are barely related and don’t build on each other at all. Basically, an outlet for the authors to increase their publication counts. I’m going to keep to more textbook approaches or books written by one or two people.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I’m pretty sure that, like most other kids in my generation and my part of the world, I read this book as part of a high school English class. I remember liking it, but surprisingly I recalled very little of it. Upon reading it again now I enjoyed it quite a bit. Lee’s portrayal of the perfectly and practically infallible noble Southern family (and the father in particular) is kind of annoying and pretentious at times, but in general she portrays a very charming and amazingly authentic (well, to me) picture of small-town life in the 1930s South. Likewise, the novel’s narrator doesn’t really sound like the 9-year old girl she’s supposed to be, but she and the other characters around her are engaging and memorable nonetheless.

Doloris Claiborne by Stephen King
Here’s another example of King trying to stretch his literary muscles and do something different, as there’s only a smattering of the supernatural and horrific in this book. It’s also a great example of how King can get away with hanging a bunch of pointless prose on the too-thin skeleton of a plot. There are huge chunks of this book that serve no purpose and should have been cut. But on the other hand, the title character of Doloris Claiborne is a great piece of work. She’s genuinely complex and faced with a set of terrible choices that drastically affect her personality and her future. She’s some of King’s best work in the realm of character building.

Yeah, Galactic Pot Healer is a piece of crap. That’s the problem with Dick: poor quality control. Mind you, the speed probably didn’t help.

While I’m a great fan of Dick’s short stories, I don’t think that was nessesarily where he did his best work. Often he would use a short story as a dry run for an idea that would later be worked into a novel, with mixed results. But his late-period novels - Flow My Tears The Policeman Said, A Scanner Darkly, VALIS, Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration Of Timothy Archer and the posthumous Radio Free Albermuth - are what I consider to be his most satisfying.

Paging Tim Elhajj. Paging Tim Elhajj.

Morris- Ellis may or may not be a great writer, but Jesus H. Christ is that linked column shit. “Even individual words behave as accomplices: They are plainclothes words, apparently harmless, even innocent. But their colloquial slouch is a disguise, or rather a trick of voice.”? I hope no one was paid actual currency for delivering that to an editor.

Bryson’s a fantastic author, he’s written some of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I couldn’t stop laughing during “A Walk In The Woods”. I reccomend any of his books. On a related note his son is in the same grade as me and went to my school until recently (moved back to England).

Morris- Ellis may or may not be a great writer, but Jesus H. Christ is that linked column shit. “Even individual words behave as accomplices: They are plainclothes words, apparently harmless, even innocent. But their colloquial slouch is a disguise, or rather a trick of voice.”? I hope no one was paid actual currency for delivering that to an editor.

That’s fair enough…I included the link mainly as proof that there is at least one other person who thinks extremely highly of Ellis. It’s a Salon essay, and thus prone to stating things as laughably as possible. I mostly just like the up-yours illustration of Ellis sporting a laurel crown.

Then you might be happy to know that Robert Redford and Paul Newman are talking about making a movie of it.

I can back that up, A Walk in the Woods was my first Bryson book and it was extremely funny, especially the part about bears.

— Alan

That’s pretty sweet, if it turns out good of course. Though with all of that material I can’t see how it wouldn’t.