22 thoughts on “2019: What Are You Reading?

  1. I’m currently reading Elmore Leonard’s Road Dogs, and I just wanted to pop into say that Leonard’s prose, particularly his dialogue, is superb and a delight to read. He’s a terrific stylist and also one of the most efficient writers. There are no wasted words, and the pared down quality of the prose is palpable and impressive. This spare style is something I’m oddly enthusiastic about. There’s almost a magical quality about the way he does this, where less becomes more. One way this can be seen is in the sexiness of his female characters. Leonard has written about eschewing descriptive details when wanting female characters to smolder. And it works, at least when he does it. For his voice alone, I think Leonard should be considered one of the great American writers.

    On an entirely different note, I’m also working through Andrew Murray’s With Christ in the School of Prayer, a book that Richard Foster strongly recommends in his classic book on spiritual disciplines. This is an old book (written in the 19th century?), but it’s organized like a modern day devotional. Right now, I’m impressed by the degree to which I’m learning. It’s spiritually very meaty, and I find this very satisfying. At the same time, going through the book has been slow going; you could say it’s taking me a long time to digest it.

  2. Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

    My understanding is that this ranks among the best sci-fi novels of all time. My opinion on that? I’d say the book, written in the 50s, holds up fairly well. Bester is quite ambitious and is fairly successful in my view. I had little patience for some aspects of the novel, though, and I’ll try to get that later.

    Here’s a brief synopsis. The novel is basically a revenge story, involving a lone survivor of a space craft. In a way, the novel functions like a action-thriller, while throwing in some political commentary.

    It’s the latter that I had little patience for. Without being too specific, I have a very different view of people, especially the way they behave politically. To be more specific,

  3. Road Dogs by Elmore Leonard

    Road Dogs feels like a book conceived on the premise of bringing together some of Leonard’s favorite characters from his previous novels; or characters he wanted to write more about. There are three in this one–Jack Foley (from Out of Sight), Cundo Rey (from LaBrava, and Dawn Navarro (from Riding the Rap). (Karen Sisco, from Out of Sight, is mentioned several times, but doesn’t really make an appearance.) Generally, I’d be leery of a book like this, as right off the bat it seems contrived and might end feeling forced. But I don’t think that’s the case with this book. In a way, Leonard is someone that could pull something like this off, because his books are more about the characters and dialogue than the overall plot.

    The plot and story, which actually develop in a fairly satisfying way, though, involves Foley and Rey meeting in prison, where they develop a bond. Rey has a property out in California and he helps Foley, and they talk about doing something together when they get out. Rey is now married to Dawn, a sexy fortune teller. Anyway, a bunch of other characters get involved and the plot twists and turns with betrayals. Overall, I found the resolution pretty satisfying.

    One thing I’d like to comment on, and that is Leonard’s skill at creating a character that is cool–cool in the sense of the Fonz. John Travolta does a really good job of capturing what I mean in his performance of Chilli Palmer, who is another Leonard creation. In this novel, the cool character is Foley. There is a way this coolness comes out, particularly in tense moments. (Spoiler) For example, there’s a scene that builds to a physical confrontation, but Foley manages to prevent that by suggesting a game of one-on-one basketball. There’s one or two other scenes like this. Foley never seems to get too emotional; he never seems to reach the point of strong emotions like rage, hate, or even deep love. It creates a sense that he’s above it all, and it’s appealing the way Leonard expresses this in the character.

  4. The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

    This is a graphic novel about the author’s Vietnamese family’s journey to America (in the 70s). The story is a very familiar one, and I would guess many American families could relate to it. This is one reason I think this book is timely–I wish white Americans, especially those who have negative attitudes towards immigrants would read this, as I think they could see their families in this story. It’s also good to read the story and think about Syrian refugees or Central American immigrants. My guess is many of their stories would be similar to Bui’s.

    I do think controlling the flow of immigrants is valid and important, and I can understand those who want to enforce immigration laws. Still, what I find disturbing is the lack of compassion for these immigrants. Many of them are fleeing countries in turmoil or poor economic conditions, and they’re taking courageous steps to make a better life for them and their children–just like many of the Americans whose families have been here for a while now. Bui’s book doesn’t tell a new story per se, but the book does so in a way that I found powerful. I non-Asian Americans would also react in a similar way.

  5. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou; illustrated by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna

    I got this graphic novel a while ago. I thought it was about Bertrand Russell, the great English philosopher/logician, and since I never read any of his work, I held off reading it. But I recently wanted a quick read, so I picked this up. The graphic novel isn’t really about Russell so much as the quest to for a logical basis for basic axioms of math. Early in Russell’s life, the fact that certain math axioms were merely accepted and not proved really bothered him–which made a lot of sense to me. The book chronicles his quest to find an answer to this, meeting up with other famous philosophers along the way. But the novel isn’t just made up of philosophical discussions. Indeed, half the novel seems focused on Russell’s personal life, and I think that makes the novel more interesting and engaging. Additionally, the creators choose to include a meta-quality of the story–where they become part of the novel, discussing themes and topics in the book. This approach can have pitfalls, but I think they do a good job of avoiding this.


    In this section, as a way to process the novel, I want to write about some random thoughts about the themes and ideas in the novel.

    1. Do the creators have a favorable, negative, or neural view of logic? Padamitriou has a favorable view, while Doxiadis is either neutral (i.e., just reporting the facts) or somewhat negative (cf. his interest in the connection between mental instability/insanity with the serious study of logic). In any event, the book will likely disappoint those who believe logic is the ultimate tool of mankind.

    2. Bringing up God would be beyond the scope of the book, but it make for an interesting part 2. What role does the belief or disbelief in God play in the quest for foundations of logic and math? My guess is that it would play quite a large role. I can’t help but feel the quest is partly driven by atheism, although I suspect theist logicians would also be interested in the quest as well.

    3. What was the larger meaning and significance of Athena and the Furies joining to oversee the Athenians. Athena represents wisdom, or do the creators see her as representing logic (which is something really different in my view) and the Furies representing elements that are not logic–e.g., intuition, emotion, etc.? In the real world, the book seems to suggest that people need to use logic and other tools in order to make the best decisions for the most difficult problems.

  6. Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievitch

    Since 2016, I’ve learned more about the Russian government, specifically their intelligence agency, the FSB. But I realize that I know almost nothing about the Russian people, particularly their political opinions and perceptions of their government. This book seemed like a good place to start, as it is an oral history of Russians (and Soviet people of different ethnicities) who experienced the fall of the Soviet Union in the 90s, as well as others who speak about Russia in the 2000s. Some of the anecdotes are about experiences that occur much earlier (e.g., World War II). Alexievitch has spoken to many different people and woven their stories into book. Reading it makes me feel as if I’ve traveled to Russia and other Eastern European countries, and stayed at in peoples’ homes and listened to their stories in the process.

    I should say that many, if not all, the stories are compelling and could rival those found in fiction, particularly tragic, horrific tales. Several of the stories involve romantic love within this context as well. (I’m not sure if or how Alexievich vetted these stories or if she just took them at face value. I wonder about the veracity of some of them.) In my view the anecdotes and characters have a kinship with those found in 19th century Russian literature.

    Some other questions and takeaways:

    • There was one question I had while reading the book–namely, to what degree are interviewees typical Soviets? Did Alexievich do anything to gauge that? I ask this partly because if these people’s lives are fairly typical, that’s quite astonishing. It would mean that it was typical to have a family taken by the government to some camp, never to be heard from for years, and sometimes this would occur because a neighbor (sometimes friendly) informed on that person. As far I recall, in many of the stories, these people were largely innocent of the government’s accusations.
    • The standard of living seemed(seems) pretty low. One illustration is the level of importance many of the interviewees place on access to salami. (Maybe they were referencing access to higher quality salami, but it didn’t seem like it.)
    • There are several stories of ethnic violence, relating to immigration–e.g., Armenians versus Azerbaijanis, Chechens versus Russians, etc. It reminded me of the anti-immigrant sentiments in the U.S. except these stories seem to involve greater brutality and violence.
    • Several of the interviewees seemed genuinely committed to the Communist ideal–where there were no real economic inequality, every citizen would be cared for. That is, they believed this could become a reality, and they were working hard toward it. It is similar to the way some Americans have a strong passion and commitment to our system of government (although nowadays I worry about how big those numbers are). The interviewees were really committed, and reminded me of devout religious people, especially the one of them volunteered to live and work in these tough conditions.

      In any event, when the Soviet Union fell, to have this whole idea taken away must have been really devastating. Imagine if, as Americans, we experienced something that essentially invalidated our entire political system. By the way, when I read a description of this time from Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, specifically descriptions of Gorbachev, I had a really uneasy feeling. I got the impression that Gobachev thought he could just wipe all the Soviet Union, the ideal and the history, away, and then just start with a blank slate. That is, he never really had anything to replace it. If this was accurate, this seemed really irresponsible. My impression from Alexievich’s book (and other comments I’ve heard about Russians) is that they think of themselves as a great nation, maybe an empire, and the Communist ideal was a big justification for this belief. Moving on from communism was a good thing, but a leader would have to provide an idea and a narrative that could replace it–and for Russians both had to be commensurate with their pride and sense of being a great nation. If I had to guess, I think Russia is going to have a lot of problems and be a problem in the world until they find such narrative that can fill this and not be one that is antagonistic and destructive to other countries.

    • Many of the interviewees describe the time right after the fall as a time when gangsters and politicians (I think) basically stole…maybe resources of the country…and basically committed crimes to enrich themselves. I’ve heard of this from other sources as well. The interviewees talk about this hope of Democracy, and while they acknowledge more and better material goods, overall, their economic and political situation wasn’t very good. Many were steeped in communist ideology, and now they had to function in a capitalist democracy (without strong democratic institutions). It was a mess.
  7. Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: the Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev

    Where Secondhand Time features interviews of people who lived during and after the fall of the Soviet Union, Nothing is Real features profiles of individuals living in Russia now. (The book came out in 2014.) The former weaves interviews together, the latter is like an extra long 60 Minutes episode on Russiac. Pomerantsev, a Russian-British citizen, worked in Russia as a producer for TV documentaries and reality shows. His book reveals today’s Russia, the corruption and Kremlin controlled TV, through the people Pomerantsev profiled and his experiences working in Russian TV. He’s a good writer and the profiles and anecdotes have the type of sensationalistic and titillating quality you’d expect from reality TV, and because of both qualities, people not interested in contemporary Russia may find the book interesting.

    (Later, I’ll post some excerpts that stood out for me.)


    I didn’t read the article below, but it seems related to parts of the book.

  8. I finished the third George Smiley book, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. The previous two were more like detective fiction, but this one finally moves into a espionage/spy territory. I think I liked this better than the first two.

    I’m not reading the fourth book, The Looking-Glass War

    I’m also working through Ed Brubaker’s and Sean Phillips’s Criminal graphic novel series. I’m enjoying it so far. I’d describe it as a crime version of Winesburg, Ohio.

    1. The Looking Glass War by John le Carre

      I’m not sure how much I would have liked this if it weren’t for my interest in public administration and my experience working in government. The story involves the possibility that that Russians are building a missile site in East Germany (I think the story takes place in the 1960s.). One of the branches of a the military-intelligence attempts to send in an agent to investigate, although this capability seems to have atrophied over the years. Instead of turning to another agency (equivalent of the CIA?), or at least working closely with them, the unit attempts to work on this project independently.

      If you didn’t know anything about le Carre, you wouldn’t think he an acclaimed writer of popular spy fiction. I can’t help but feel it’s ultimately a critique, based on le Carre’s personal experience, of the turf wars in government bureaucracy.

      I finished up the Criminal series (or most of it, I think). It was entertaining.

    2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre

      Of all the le Carre books I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed this the most so far. One thing I don’t think I’ve mentioned is the way the British vernacular, plus the technical terms relating to espionage, can be confusing to read. It’s not a big deal, but something that has to be worked through.

      The basic storyline in this one: There’s a Russian mole in the upper levels of the Circus (MI6). George Smiley is brought on to ferret out the mole.

      1. The jargon thing was pretty evident in the movie. I found it best just to go along with it and not stress about the meanings too much.

      2. Yeah same. Still, at times, I feel like I’m reading in a fog, if you know what I mean. Actually, the bigger issue to do with British vernacular, not the spy terms. (There’s some online resources that provided definitions of these terms.)

    3. The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre

      You know how an unknown director makes a successful low-budget movie and then gets a much bigger budget on their next film, making a movie that is too long and bloated? This novel gave me that impression. Le Carre really uses a lot more ink on describing scenes, both the physical setting and characters. His prose also had the whiff of someone self-consciously wanting to be a real writer versus a popular novelist, if that makes sense. Honestly, I would have preferred more of the latter, and I grew a bit impatient with the prose and the novel itself. (It took me several tries to finish this.)

      The novel was also very labyrinthine. The plot is somewhat simple: Smiley suspect that the Russians (Karla) are funding a prominent Hong Kong businessman. The reason is unclear, but Smiley and the Circus are worried. The details of this arrangement and the way Smiley and his crew gather the information is painstaking and complex. I can see some readers liking this. On some level the complexity makes the novel seem more realistic, and usually the opposite is the case. I was rather uninterested in this for some reason, and I just wanted to get to the end.

  9. I finally finished Holes with my kids, which they enjoyed for the most part. I think we all would have enjoyed it a lot more had there not been large lapses (several weeks) between readings.

    I also re-read The Giver.

    1. I’m disappointed by its merely being “enjoyed for the most part.” It’s really an amazing novel, in its plot construction and themes.

    2. Because there were long gaps between readings, I’m pretty sure we missed or forgot a lot of details that would have helped us appreciate the novel a lot more

  10. I’m not reading any novels by Mick Herron, but this Atlantic write-up piqued my interest, especially the introduction:

    Are you a good reader, reader? Patient, curious, broadly cultured, and so on? I’m not—not anymore. Decades of email-checking have splintered my concentration; more recently and speedily, I’ve rotted out my attention span with Netflix and end-of-the-republic updates. Of the new mind, the prodigious and fluently networking postdigital mind, I am not in possession; I have only the perishing old mind, bleaching in chunks like the Great Barrier Reef. To sit in a chair, in a pool of educated light, and turn the pages of a novel … No chance. I twitch, I bounce. I start reaching for things. Then I get groggy.

    So when somebody writes a book that grips and settles me, that makes a reader out of me again, I become quite helpless with gratitude. I feel this way about Mick Herron.

    Also, this:

    Herron has written 13 novels—six in the Slough House series—but he began his literary career as a poet. These are the opening lines of Joe Country:

    “The owl flew screaming from the barn, its wingtips bright with flame. For a moment, silhouetted against the blank sky, it was a dying angel, scorched by its own divinity, and then it was just a sooty husk, dropping like an anvil into the nearby trees.”

    1. This is a heck of an intro. I’m in the same place, not just with reading novels but watching films. My ideal film length is under 90 minutes now, and my ideal album length is under 40 minutes. I can’t read for extended times if I’m not also drinking coffee (and even then, my attention often expires before my latte) or having a meal at the same time.

  11. Harriet the Spy (1963)
    Louise Fitzhugh

    When I was in fourth grade, a fifth-grade girl my mom used to babysit after school gave me Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy for my birthday. She didn’t know anything about it, and neither did I, but the synopsis on the back cover was promising even if the paperback looked impossibly long.

    It was one of my favorite books. I read it once or twice a month until I was in middle school, no exaggeration, sometimes finishing the last chapter and starting right back at the beginning without hitting pause. I think I last read it sometime in high school, so I’ve been overdue for a reread.

    Harriet attends an exclusive private high school where the sixth grade class has something like ten students, almost all of whose parents socialize in the same wealthy circles. Harriet’s family has a maid and a cook, and Harriet has been raised mostly by a nurse named Ole Golly.

    She calls herself a spy because after school, she puts on her spy clothes and attacks her spy route, a sequence of private residences with windows she can peek into and dumbwaiters she can sneak into. An middle-aged bachelor with an apartment full of cats, a Mexican family running a grocery, and a boring couple who only come to life when showing off their apartment are among the people she observes, their private conversations and activities recorded and commented on in Harriet’s composition book.

    The notebook is Harriet’s constant companion, a place for her thoughts on the weather, her parents’ conversations, and her schoolmates. So of course, when her classmates get ahold of the notebook, they declare war on the suddenly friendless sixth-grade spy.

    Everyone who loved this book as a child should read it as a grown-up. It’s not at all the story I thought it was. Rather, it’s about an introverted girl dealing with sudden separation from her nanny at an age when life becomes all complicated, inconsistent and lonely. People have asked me why I love teaching ninth-graders as much as I do, and Harriet the Spy is a great illustration of an answer.

    Middle-schoolers are mutating, and they’re doing while their worlds are mutating, too. Suddenly racism, classism, hypocrisy, and privilege are all around them, and people aren’t as good as they always seemed, while some people aren’t as bad as they always seemed. And Harriet believes she’s going through all this mutation alone.

    A bit of dialogue I’m sharing without comment except to say I never noticed it in any of my past readings:

    Harriet’s mother: “Look, dear, at the moment you’re in school, so your work is school. Just like your father works at the office, you work at school. School work is your work.”

    Harriet: “What do you do?”

    Harriet’s mother: “A lot of unseen, unappreciated things. That’s not the point.”

    A few things don’t hold up all these decades later, but if the reader can accept them as relics of a less enlightened era, Harriet the Spy is nearly as good for this middle-aged man as it was when he was ten.

  12. Sarah, Plain and Tall (1985)
    by Patricia MacLachlan

    “Dear Jacob: I will come by train. I will wear a yellow bonnet. I am plain and tall. Sarah.”

    I got a little choked up just typing this short letter. If you know why, you’ve read Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall and you get it, so come sit by me.*

    Anna’s widowed father seeks a mail-order bride. Life on a Midwestern farm with two children, one who remembers their mother and one who doesn’t, is taking its toll in loneliness.

    Sarah lives in Maine, where she can see the ocean from her front porch. Except now her brother is married, and it’s not really her front porch anymore. She agrees to visit Anna’s family for a month to see how things might work.

    Everyone loves Sarah immediately, even before she steps off the train, but she’s new to farm living, and she often looks over the wheat fields and misses the sea.

    It’s a simple story written simply, but oh my goodness, it is startlingly beautiful. I mentioned this fifty-seven-page novel to a colleague who asked about progress on my master’s thesis, and she nodded as I tried uselessly to describe the author’s style.

    “The narrative voice is just like the character,” she said. Yes. And it’s like the setting as well. The writer does more with twenty words than most award-winning authors of grown-up literature do with fifty. Her style is spare, and spacious, and heartbreaking, and lovely.

    The cows watched, their eyes sad in their dinner-plate faces. And I slept, dreaming a perfect dream. The fields had turned to a sea that gleamed like sun on glass. And Sarah was happy.

    I’m a writer. It says so in my job title at a Hawaii nonprofit. Yet when I read this book, I think the only honest thing to do is cross out the title on my business cards and replace it with “pretender,” because if MacLachlan is a writer, I’m a fraud.

    I read Sarah, Plain and Tall for work on my master’s thesis a decade ago and loved it. It is one of several recipients of the Newbery Medal I didn’t have time to savor that year but swore I’d come back to someday.

    * also: if you’re middle-aged, single, and female, what are you doing Friday night?

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