Monthly Archives: April 2006

Difficult books

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I FINALLY finished The Historian today. 642 pages, and man were they dense. That was a difficult read. Good, but difficult. A lot happened in that book. Dracula is not my favorite topic, but this book was impressive.

So, what am I reading now? Reading Lolita in Tehran. Gee, it’s a good thing I went to something lighter, huh? Oh wait, except this one is not only dense and difficult, it’s true. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fascinating book, but we are talking about a serious scholar who is discussing 20th century fiction while placing it in the context of revolutionary Iran, and commenting intelligently and passionately on both topics. Azar Nafisi is a brave woman, and this is most obvious when she discusses the great fear and helplessness that she felt during her time teaching in Tehran. This is a very scary book, but also a hopeful one–showing how people can still grab for beauty and truth in even the most oppressive environments. I am glad that I picked this up from my shelf, where it has been waiting for me for a few months now.

Competing goals

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I was realizing today that the two things I would really like to do more of in my life–get more exercise and read more–are definitely in competition. It’s pretty hard to exercise and read at the same time. I have, on a few occasions, paced around my apartment while reading, but that is pretty boring. It can also be difficult if I am reading a big hardcover book, but maybe that is a good thing, building muscle.

I did combine these two goals in a manner of speaking the other night–I walked to the bookstore with a friend. I have been doing a lot better about buying books lately; I have read nine books and most of a tenth since the last time I bought books. And, I only bought 5 books this time, so I am still ahead. However, I still have 54 books on my list of books-to-be-read, and I am sure there are still books on my shelf that are not on the list that I have not read. It’s almost enough to make me want to become a hermit and spend all my time reading to catch up. Next time Mandy asks me to go to the bookstore, I am going to say no!

Yeah, right.

My current book is The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, and it is taking me forever. I have been reading this book for about 2 weeks; my normal pace is 2 books per week! Part of the problem is that it is a very long book (642 pages), and I am kind of in a reading lull at the moment. Also, it is about Dracula, which is not my favorite subject. And a LOT happens in this book. It is going back and forth to about three different (relatively modern) time periods, plus all the stuff they are learning about in the 15th century. I hope to finish this today.

Before this, I read The Russia House, by John Le Carre. What a great book! My friend Michael said that he was surprised that I was reading a spy thriller, and I told him that while I do like spy thrillers in general, I think it is a mistake to think of John Le Carre as just a writer of spy thrillers. He is a great author who happens to write spy thrillers. His prose is almost lyrical and just a joy to read. The story is good, too, but you can’t help but notice that his writing skills are definitely a cut above the general run of successful authors–which is already a pretty high level.

Some specifics

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My last post contained a lot of generalities about what I am reading; this one will contain observations about specific books. I’ve read 22 books since the last one I mentioned by name (Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood), and it is just about bedtime, so I won’t get to them all, but I can at least make a start.

  • I am not liking the Martha Grimes books as much as I used to. They seem to be getting a bit sloppy now that she has written a gazillion of them or so (well, okay, 19). The last one, The Winds of Change is about pedophilia and a kidnapped child, but unlike The Lamorna Wink, which dealt with similar issues, I found myself more annoyed with the flimsy plot than moved by it. Maybe I didn’t read it closely enough, but when it got to the end and Inspector Jury explained how he figured it out (“It was the cross on the tree that led me in the right direction.”–I’m paraphrasing, but that’s about it), I just thought, but HOW did that tell you what you wanted to know? Plus, I am having trouble believing in the main character’s gorgeous good looks these days. Doing the math, he has to be over 60, yet he has women falling at his feet everywhere he goes, and he talks of settling down and having children when he finds the right woman (despite a history with women that is nothing short of disastrous–off the top of my head, two women he gets involved with die soon after, and one is accused of murder). He seems a bit old to be so hopeful at this point. And he is getting rather broody, which gets annoying. And on top of all that, Ms. Grimes has developed a nasty habit of starting the next book at the end of the one you are reading, or leaving a cliff hanger, presumably to make you rush out and by the next one, which seems a bit manipulative to me. Still, I like the characters, especially the supporting cast, so I will probably buy the latest and read it–but not until it comes out in paperback.
  • In a slightly strange development, I read Albert Camus’ The Stranger, which I had been meaning to read for years, ever since The Cure came out with the song Killing an Arab. When I say I have been meaning to read it all this time (some 20 years or so–my God, how did I get old enough to type that?), what I really mean is, I thought about every once in a while without making any real effort to do so. But earlier this year someone had a fundraiser at work where a bunch of people donate old books for a sale, and I came across it and decided to buy it. Actually, it may have been last year, now that I think about it, and it just sat on the far corner of the desk on the side of my cubicle at work, until one day in February when I finished my book and didn’t have a backup, so I decided to go ahead and read The Stranger. It was a good book, very odd and compelling, but the really strange part is that about a week later, I picked up The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty Second Annual Collection. There was a story in there that dealt with an alternate world with Camus as a major character. The story was largely drawn from The Stranger, and if I hadn’t read it, it wouldn’t have made much sense at all. What a weird coincidence.
  • Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner is a really cool book. In my new fantasy life of what I would do if I didn’t need that pesky job of mine, I would move to Chicago, and try to get a PhD in economics with Steven Levitt as my faculty sponsor (is that the right term?). Fascinating stuff, including the economics of drug gangs (Chapter title: Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?), whether parenting matters (answer: not much, if you are measuring by test scores, but quite a lot if you are measuring other success factors, like the likelihood to attend college, get a well-paying job and avoid teen marriage), and information on cheating in the teaching profession and sumo wrestling (and, incidentally, in life in general). Obviously, this guy has a different way of looking at the world than a lot of people. He also uses creative methods to get data, or to use data that exists for another purpose (including data on test scores to measure teacher cheating, and business records of a bagel salesman to study corporate cheating). I was afraid this book was going to be one of those pop science books where people pose interesting questions and then make guesses about the answers without any real evidence to back them up, but this guy obviously put a lot of work into his conclusions.

I am hitting a hard stop at bedtime here. Actually, I passed that by awhile back, but I can no longer ignore it. I’ll have to look at the rest of my list again soon; I know there are other books on there I want to talk about. That is the cool thing about having a list, though–I don’t have to do it now, the list will be there to remind me what I have been reading later.