The Cyberiad – 3/5 Stars
This is a collection of short stories by the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem. Although it’s a collection, it’s more a series of linked stories almost in the form of a novel. If you’ve read a Stanislaw Lem novel, and I think this is my third, you’ll recognize a cognizant effort to question reality, but also the conventions of science fiction in general. Some of his novels like Solaris are highly metaphysical in nature, while authors, like Pirx the Pilot are more political satire. This one, then, is more of a conscious questioning of the tropes of science fiction in general. The tone of this book is much more close to that of a 1920s or 1930s Polish or Russian science fiction novel ala We or the works of Carel Kapek. But there’s also a large bit of Italo Calvino in this one.
The stories themselves explore mostly interesting but slightly goofy fable like topics like the machine that can produce anything that begins with “N” but can’t produce sodium because it’s in a different language. They inadvertently set it to producing “nothing” which is an issue.
The stories also mainly follow two rival inventors who compete with each other and act as both rivals and friends. And when they end up inventing mini-civilizations for which they appear as gods, the stories dip into those kingdoms a little as well. It’s funny and weird, but like I said before, feels oddly out of date for the mid-sixties. It’s a lot like a series of Futurama stories.
Guys and Dollas – 3/5 Stars
The goofy, tough talking, funny stories that inspired the film and musical Guys and Dolls which I just recently watched for the first time ever. These two stories are only the two that the film is based on, but you could imagine more of them would be about the same. The two stories here involve the crooked dice game in which the out of town mob boss wants to “play blind” as in pretend to throw and tell everyone what dice come up. This involves his cheating, and eventually getting confronted and removed from the situation.
The second story involves Sky Masterson and Sister Mary “falling in love”. What’s interesting about the stories, aside from the fact that they’re pretty good overall, is the film/musical does a really good job of creating a whole world not just from the two stories, but from the world-building of all the stories together. This is most apparent in the ways they talk, which is so recognizable, that I don’t even know it from these stories but from Bugs Bunny cartoons.
The movie, I think, is actually kind of weak. The good is that much of the original Broadway (Stubby Kaye for example) reprise their roles, and the bad is that they cut songs from it to put in, worse, other songs. Also I think Marlon Brando does a pretty good job throughout, even singing, but Frank Sinatra is bland and uninteresting, which is frustrating because he’s a good actor in movies like From Here to Eternity and The Manchurian Candidate, among others.
Wind/Pinball – 3/5 Stars
The first two Haruki Murakami novels that he wrote in the mid to late 1970s. These books have not been widely available in the US (although I think they have been more so in the UK) and while his work is almost entirely translated into English now, I recall that 20 years ago they were moving forward with his new works regularly and only slowly getting to the older works. These books were also packaged together, and this makes sense as they follow two of the same characters (and from what I understand these characters continue in The Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance).
So the novels, which in an introduction, Murakami refers to as his desk drawer novels are a lot like the early novels of young male writers: personal to the point of being near autobiographical, intimate and tender (almost precious), hyper focused on the listlessness of life and being 20, and of course self-pitying. But if your tolerance for those indulgences (and they are pretty indulgent) these are a worthy addition to your Murakami reading. I think it basically comes down to the fact that are about as Murakami as they get, minus some of the weirdness of the longer novels, and if you don’t like those, you probably shouldn’t waste your time here. The introduction to the novels are worth reading, as I think his nonfiction is a fascinating look into a culture I don’t know well, and finding out that there’s some connection and parallel to the ways I saw myself at the same age.
The Case of the Gilded Fly – 2/5 Stars
This is another one of those mystery novels that came out in the 1940s (but could be said of the 1930s or the 1920s) that has become entrenched in the “list of lists” of good mystery novels. It’s wry, and funny, and weird, but I couldn’t find myself liking it very much. So the way the book is framed within the published materials is that Edmund Crispin in the pseudonym for a 20 year old Oxford student and much of the book is a lampoon not only of mystery writing in general, but of Oxford. But I am reminded of course that much much much better satire of mystery is out and about (and kind of always has been) through writers like GK Chesterton and EC Bentley, and there’s already a tremendous campus mystery novel in Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers (and Oxford! no less), so I wasn’t nearly as impressed here as others seem to be.
My Search for Warren Harding – 2/5 Stars
This was a book I started really liking in the beginning, but it has a mean streak that I found so unsavory (and not as funny as the book seems to think it is) and while I’ve liked plenty of novels with really despicable characters I couldn’t quite take this one.
We begin with our narrator, one of the premier historians on the life and presidency of Warren G Harding telling us that he has a lead into the story of Harding’s illegitimate daughter. From what I know (and I wager it comes entirely from looking on Wikipedia while watching Boardwalk Empire) this involved an affair beginning before the presidency and lasting through it. So he travels from the East Coast to Los Angeles to the mansion of the living heir and asks to live in their pool house as a renter. There’s some back and forth and he succeeds. So far so good. From there, we get a couple of back and forth chapters as he tries to worm his way into their lives at the mansion while also learning more about the story of Harding’s mistress.
Then there’s a chapter that absolutely soured my experience and I never gave the book a chance to catch up. I won’t go into it, but once I lost faith a little in the reading, everything that’s meant to make me (not like, but) follow the narrator made me hate him and the book more.
Faceless Killers – 3/5 Stars
This is the first Kurt Wallander book, and I’ve never read any of these before. I only know anything about them from reading the previews from the various tv series, and while I thought the book was solid through and through, I also found it kind of bland and unremarkable.
To place it, it felt to me like the absolute middle ground between the Martin Beck series and the Harry Hole series. What I mean by this is that Martin Beck books tends to geared toward contemporary events (so the very 1960s/70s attempts for genre fiction to understand the zeitgeist) and while there’s lots of elements of Beck’s life, the focus is very much on the cases. With Harry Hole books (these do tend to be longer though) there’s a split between kind of looking at zeitgeist, but not really or at least not politically (but feeling a lot of things about contemporary culture) and the case, but there’s a ton of Harry Hole’s personal life, especially in the middle and late books. Here’s it’s both: we get a lot of thoughts and discussion on early 90s refugee movements and race in the country, and we get a lot of Wallander drinking too much and thinking about his divorce, and we get the case, which involve white supremacists.
But like I said, I felt to the book to almost feel like a transitional book rather than the start of a new series.
Blood of Elves – 4/5 Stars
This is the first proper novel of the Witcher, and after two collections of short stories (I’ve only read one so far) it feels like a book content with settling in. What this means here is that there’s a LOT of exposition and world-building in this book. We spend a good third of the book in the training camp of the Witchers learning about their ways, their potions, their transformation into Witchers, and their education. And we also learn that they are basically magic cops who get a lot of good preparation and training, but not very much education into their past and lore. We learn this through Triss, a wizard who is in love with Geralt of Rivia, but can’t be with him because he loves another. So the book slyly puts her in charge of things. She knows so much more about the world, so her understandings of the camp and its limits and failing help to frame our understanding.
So what’s happening: well Ciri, the daughter of a dead noble given to Geralt to watch over is going through Witcher training (when all you have in your toolbelt is Witchering, the whole world….) and Triss is pretty horrified because Witcher transformation can kill you, but also because it means Ciri is learning nothing about being a woman.
So in terms of plot — well don’t worry about that, but I think the series really lands on its feet well here and while the book is sometimes hard to follow because of all of the entrenched lore (and maybe I am missing some details from the story collection I haven’t read) I feel very motivated to keep going (and to restart my file in Witcher 3).
A Morbid Taste for Bones – 4/5 Stars
This is one of those books that has “haunted” me for ages. Not really as it’s a really interesting and playful and fun historical mystery novel, but it was listed on my 11th grade teacher’s “books you can read for credit” list in high school and for some reason (I loved her) it stuck with me as one of those books. It’s also a book that we almost watched the Derek Jacoby BBC show of because they had tapes of it at the library, but I never did.
It’s probably good that I didn’t read it in high school or earlier because I think I would have missed a lot of the subtlety. Because a lot of the character motivations in this book are guided by faith and religious doctrine (or reactions to faith and religious doctrine) I wouldn’t have had the tools to understand. In addition, the title of the book really wouldn’t have made much sense to me.
So we begin with Brother Cadfael, a Welsh monk, who is being sent away from his priory on a mission to collect the bones of a saint, to put in the priory’s sepulchre, as they are lacking otherwise. They get a lead about a small town’s local saint, and go seeking leave to take the bones back to their revered space. Upon arriving, they are met by Richard, the local leader who is quite devout. He’s willing to hear them out, but is offended when he interpret’s the prior offer as a bribe. In the ensuing days, Richard is willing to negotiate again, but one morning is found dead, slain by an arrow. Brother Cadfael is on the case!
The book is funny and rich in a lot of ways, and so long as you can overlook how much the characters are definitely speaking in contemporary English, even while making a lot of reference to the Welsh and Anglo Saxon around them, it’s worthy.
Flatland – 2/5 Stars
A bland kind of Futurama meets the Republic meets 19th century social theory. This book is written as a diary, a kind of collective diary ala John Winthrop and Plymouth Plantation, by an elder inhabitant of “Flatland”. This world is a two dimension space in which social order, gender, rank, and knowledge is linked entirely to the number of lines that make up a citizen’s form. And I am already bored again. It’s short and it was on a bunch of “Books you need to read” lists so I went for it, but I didn’t really feel super up to the task of keeping myself engaged with it.
The Testament of Mary – 4/5 Stars
I kept avoiding this book (I owned a copy) because I had convinced myself I don’t like Colm Toibin novels. I won’t get into it but I also swear he died a few years ago! He didn’t, but I think I figured it out. I don’t really like William Trevor, and he did die a few years ago, and I think I had them confused in my head because a couple of their books have similar titles or covers.
Anyway, I remembered that I do like Colm Toibin novels, and liked this Colm Toibin novel!
So this novel is in the form of a testament or statement or diary and it’s from Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary is now quite a bit older and Jesus has long been crucified and “resurrected” and then disappeared again. Mary is furious about the whole thing, because she lost her son and is not being kept in a kind of prison by his late followers who are bent on turning his life and teachings into a sustained religion.
So the novel is a re-exploration of the life of Jesus from Mary’s perspective, and that perspective is an unwilling participant. From her view then Jesus is less a god like figure than at best a stooge, and at worse a charlatan or cult leader. She sees the “miracles” for the stagecraft that they were and even sees this movement gather energy and turn into something violent and dangerous.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle – 4/5 Stars
This is another of those it’s 1970 and we’re really worried about the state of the world kind of crime novels. There’s a bit of this in say, The Godfather, with the fears about drugs, and in here it’s more about the turn of political violence.
But we begin with Eddie Coyle, a truck driver who is arrested fro transporting stolen goods. He’s told by the US attorney to give over the names of his employers, and he refuses, so he’s facing criminal charges. Back at home, he thinks, well, what if I turn over someone else not connected in secret, would that work? So he tells the FBI about a gun sale about the go through. A Leftist group is trying to buy M16 machine guns from a local gun seller and Eddie gives up the details. While this is happening, there’s also a series of bank robberies happening. This comes up later.
So the novel then spins these various plates at the same time and we jump around from each little narrative pod — the gun seller, the bank robbers, the Leftist group, Eddie, and the investigators as all the little pieces slowly converge.
It’s very well structured and crafted novel, and there’s a kind of sad fatalism about the whole thing as we slowly begin to recognize how nihilistic the world of crime ultimately is, but also how nihilistic the world of criminal prosecution is too. It’s slightly less despairing version of No Country for Old Men in a lot of ways.
Laughing in the Hills – 3/5 Stars
A weird memoir from 1980 that began really strongly for me and despite it being relatively short, lost steam over time. The book begins with our narrator returning home to help care for his mother dying of cancer. While there, feeling some strong chaotic tendencies, he decides to go to the local off track betting parlor and place some bets. And he gets hooked. But this isn’t a book about addiction and spiraling (not really) but a book about the hook of horse racing (we even find out later that his mother also really enjoys betting and its a whole family affair). So the book turns on its heels a little and becomes a book about all aspects of the horse racing industry and art, but not one from a purely racing background or horse ownership or breeding or betting, but a little of each of all these things together in one book. It’s got a nice dilletantish air to the whole thing and involves a little history of Florentine horseracing and breeding dynasties, systems of gambling, and lots of other little things. The parts are more than the whole, though, and that’s often a limiting factor in books like these.
Bright Lights Big City – 4/5 Stars
I honestly thought this was an entirely different kind of book going in, to the point that I avoided it for years because it didn’t sound that interesting. I honestly blame Six Feet Under for this, because there’s an episode where the mom joins a book club and they read this book and she makes it sound very different.
So the book involves a copywriter and fact-checker for a vaunted New York magazine in the 1980s. He’s in his late 20s, recently married, but soon to be divorced, living a very jet-set New York lifestyle with drinking and drugs and parties and scenes. So the book in this way is similar to American Psycho, and has plenty of the same satire to it, but it’s not about the financial industry and obviously doesn’t involve murdering. Instead, it’s meant to be a little more earnest in its approach, and there’s really heartache and sadness in our protagonist’s life.
So the twist, which you might already know, is that this book is written entirely in second person. And it’s a little gimmicky at times, but worse, it’s mostly kind of invisible. I so quickly stopped thinking about this being about “me” in that way that it might as well have been written in third person with a nameless character for all the effect that had. My impressions of Jay McInerney in general have been that he’s a jackass (he gave an interview one time and he said he was the first real New York writer who wrote about New York, to which the interviewer was like ummmm Edith Wharton), but his writing is solid here, and I liked the novel a lot more than I thought I would.
The Prince – No Rating
It’s the Prince! The famous book no one really reads anymore. And well, I read it. I don’t have much to say about it other than that the book is mostly a treatise on how a prince should be, but it’s almost impossible to read in a straightforward way. The counter readings I found of it that think it’s being purposely subversive (giving away the game as opposed to defining the game) and ironic make a lot more sense. It’s also more fun that way. I think everyone should at least read about “being feared” in the book as it’s couched in a lot more qualifying statements than is usually quoted:
Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.
Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. Besides, pretexts for taking away the property are never wanting; for he who has once begun to live by robbery will always find pretexts for seizing what belongs to others; but reasons for taking life, on the contrary, are more difficult to find and sooner lapse. But when a prince is with his army, and has under control a multitude of soldiers, then it is quite necessary for him to disregard the reputation of cruelty, for without it he would never hold his army united or disposed to its duties.”
Dear America – 3/5 Stars
This is kind of a memoir, but more a long essay introducing us back the journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. It’s kind of genre that is happening right now especially when someone becomes even an unofficial spokesperson for a political movement, and while it’s interesting, and I agree with most everything it says, it’s a relatively limited book published out of a sense of expediency more than depth of analysis.
Jose Antonio Vargas was born in Philippines and immigrated at very young age to the US. Like many in his situation (and as he indicates in the book this is the most common way for someone to become “undocumented”) his family overstays their visa and he ends up growing up in the US, going to high school and graduating, and navigating the process of applying to college without papers that show legal residence in the US. So a fraught situation you can imagine. From there he talks about growing up in his 20s and now in his 30s (he’s 39 today), and how he much try to decide to how to proceed with his options. This includes going back to Philippines (he speaks Tagalog, but with an American accent), trying to continue to navigate the US immigration system, which is a lie (it’s not a system, there’s no line etc), or looking elsewhere, like maybe Canada. An addition consideration is that as bad as the US is, the Philippines has a decidedly murderous dictator right now, and Vargas is Queer, and this might amount to a death sentence for him. The choice is not easy, and not really made here. So in part he becomes a spokesperson for DACA, but in an imperfect way.
Like I said, the book is good, and powerful, but limited in its scope ultimately.
The Three Paradoxes – 4/5 Stars
This is a short graphic novel with a twisting series of art styles and narrative that circulate around an emotional entangling with Zeno’s three paradoxes. Our storylines involves a man in his late twenties having a night time stroll with his father discussing his past and their memories of being younger and this is drawn in a realistic contemporary graphic novel style, a childhood set of memories about “bullying” but more so about the complicated nature of rival bullying drawn in a kind of comic strip style of the 1940s or 50s, and then a kind of How-To or explainer narrative about Zeno and the paradoxes drawn in the style of a “Introducing: _____” education graphic novel.
It spends some time thinking about the ethical, emotional, and moral praxis of the paradoxes in real world situations, but in entirely subtle and abstract ways, so it’s not a primer. And instead, like the paradoxes themselves, we find out that there are no easy answers actually. The book almost acts as a kind of koan then, but then, that might a different book altogether.
How to Pronounce Knife – 3/5 Stars
A small collection of stories about a Laotian immigrant family in the US, this book by the poet Souvankham Thammavongsa doesn’t quite work as a collection, but more so like a novel in stories, if we assume (I think correctly) that all the stories are linked in familial terms. And I think that’s the way to approach this, because otherwise, I would almost feel like the touch is too light in any one of the stories to feel complete. But working together, we learn about the specifics of this family’s quirks and experiences, and the world they inhabit in the Laos of their past and the US of their present and future. Structurally then, this is similar to The House on Mango Street, in terms of the ways in which vignettes becomes a fuller picture the more we get of them.