With nights spent in the woods, days alone in the apartments of friends and my current domicile in the the Fortress of Solitude (Tom’s basement), I’ve had a chance to polish off a good number of books. This post may be boring but I wanted a list of what I’ve read so far and I figured a few people might be interested.
As you can see from the photos, the Fortress of Solitude keeps me well supplied with reading material. One of my first projects in New Orleans was gathering all the books in the house and building shelves for them. Then I organized them into the appropriate categories (fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, the cold war, WWII, philosophy and religious texts, tibet, nepal and the rest of asia). Each of these categories were sorted by author and labeled with a label maker. I loved this project.
Here’s some of the books I read here and earlier on the trip plus some movies from Turner, my new favorite station: Three by Flannery O’Connor (Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away and the story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find): I obviously should have started reading her a long time ago. My sister, Anna, has good taste in books and she loves Flannery so much that she’s contemplating a tattoo of one of her best lines. I love dark humor like Catch-22 and this is the humor is coal black. Sardonic and filled with fascinating characters like the salesman in the story Good Country People. Prolly the best thing I’ve read since I started this trip.
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan: Sam Spade set in San Francisco of the 26th century. An astounding first novel that combines the best of Raymond Chandler with a science fiction world where your mind can be downloaded into other bodies. Tom warned me not to start it that night because I had to get up early the next morning. I should have listened to him because I couldn’t put the damn thing down. My only criticism is that setting it in the 26th century was far too pessimistic. I would be surprised if we aren’t treating our brains like hard drives and transferring them between bodies before I have grandchildren. It’s quite possible that we will be the first generation to not die. Exciting.
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene: Wormold, an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman living in Cuba, needs more money so he accepts an offer to become a spy for the British. He creates fake sub-agents to draw more salary and sends in drawings about new equipment being moved into the mountains (actually models of vacuum cleaner parts). My first by Greene and I found myself thoroughly entertained. I laughed out loud at several spots and somehow wound up with a free beer from a cute bartender when I read her a passage.
Michael Herr’s Dispatches:
one of the most powerful pieces of war writing I have ever seen and the best from Vietnam. With the gonzo power of Hunter S. Thompson and an insightful soul, Herr created a book that gave me nightmares, helping me to understand just a little bit about the horror of our first televised war.
“He had one of those faces, I saw that face at least a thousand times at a hundred bases and camps, all the youth sucked out at the eyes, the color drawn back from the skin, cold white lips, you knew he wouldn’t wait for any of it to come back. Life had made him old , he’d live it out old.”
“The Soldier’s Prayer came in two versions: Standard, printed on a plastc-coated card by the Defense Department, and Standard Revised, impossible to convey because it got translated outside of language, into chaos – screams, begging, promises, threats, sobs, repitiions of holy names until their throats were cracked and dry, until some men had bitten through their collar points and rifle straps and even their dog-tag chains.”
Galactic Center series by Gregory Benford (I read the first two: In the Ocean of Night and Across the Sea of Suns): Wow. Benford immediately became one of my favorite science fiction authors and I’m a man who enjoys my SF (so does Tom and that’s why I have so many in this list, good collection to choose from). He’s a respected physicist who can write real characters with depth into a SF novel (a rare thing). Hell, he even won the UN’s prize for Literature. In this series, we follow Nigel Walmsley, an Englishman in NASA who explores an asteroid that turns out to be a wrecked space probe. I just deleted the summary that I wrote of the action. I’d hate to ruin it. If you like science fiction, I give my highest recommendation on this one. I’m getting the next book in the series before I leave town. Benford did a full rewrite of all the books and in the expanded introduction, he says, “The series is ultimately a question Walmsley asks toward the end, rather plaintively: What is the meaning of human action? In other words, can what we do really matter very much?”
Ham on Rye by Bukowski: His best novel in my opinion about his hard years growing up: a mean drunk father, covered in acne, antisocial and often fighting. He finally discovers alcohol, women and the LA public library’s collection of DH Lawrence. One of the great American voices. “It was good to read them all [books at the LA public library] though. It made you realize that thoughts and words could be fascinating, if finally useless.”
Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing: A gift from Sushil on his NOLA visit and another intense book from McCarthy about a 13 year old kid who captures a she-wolf and decides to cross the border into Mexico to take it home. “The wolf is a being of great order and it knows what men do not: that there is no order in the world save that which death has put there”
Leonard Mlodinow’s Feynman’s Rainbow: A postdoc physicist who worked with Feynman in his days CalTech Feynman on happiness: “My rule is, when you are unhappy, think about it. But when you’re happy, don’t. Why spoil it? You’re probably happy for some ridculous reason and you’d just spoil it to know.”
City by Clifford Simak: A long view on human evolution told as a series of folk tales from the intelligent dogs who now rule the earth. These old tales talk about the possibly mythical man who was here before the dogs. Terrible characterization but shining ideas.
The Fall by Camus: His last complete work of fiction, it’s a philosophical novel in a series of monologues by a self-proclaimed “judge-penitent.” In the tradition of the Underground Man, Jean-Baptiste Clamence challenges the reader to examine the way he has lived his own life and draw them to the conclusion that life is absurd. I’m chagrined by how much of the Clamence’s self-satisfaction I find in myself. His judge-penitent role worked on me. Sartre calls this “perhaps the most beautiful and the least understood” of Camus’ work. On modern man: “I sometimes think of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.” on forgetfulness and self-involvement: “Until then I had always been aded by an extraordinary ability to forget. I used to forget everything, beginning with my resolutions. … How can I express it? Everything slid off – yes, just rolled off me… From day to day women, from day to day virtue or vice, from day to day, like dogs – but every day myself secure at my post. Thus I progressed on the surface of life, in the realm of words as it were, never in reality. All those books barely read, those friends barely loved, those cities barely visited, those women barrel possessed! I went through the gestures out of boredom or absent-mindedness. Then came human beings; they wanted to cling, but there was nothing to cling to, and that was unfortunate – for them. As for me, I forgot. I never remembered anything but myself.”
All of these great books (and a collection of Hemingway’s journalism that I forgot to mention) get me fairly depressed about this whole writing thing which hasn’t been going well since I got to NOLA. I usually enjoy either the life-life characters or the eye for detail that good writers have and I realize I have neither. Well, I’ll keep slugging away at this blog anyway. Most likely, it’s main purpose will be giving my kids something to giggle about or use against me when I’m older.