Monday, January 02, 2006

Read Any Good Books Lately? 

Got a fave highculture author? Know a new theory-of-everything, or a memorable memoir? Act now: help me regain the literary mind!

Been surfing the "year's best" lists on the way to compiling a draftlist for my 52 Books in 52 Weeks quest, but it's going pretty slow. On the list so far:

  • Teacher Man, Frank McCourt
  • The Age Of Missing Information, Bill McKibben
  • The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Thomas L. Friedman*
  • Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell
  • Pretty much any book recommended at BoingBoing.

    To assist me in my quest, merely recommend a book in the comments below. If it looks like a good candidate, it'll join Assassination Vacation on my newly-created 52 Books amazon wishlist.** Serious fiction and non- only, please.

    *Thanks to Dad, who gave me the book, I did technically start TWiF in 2005 -- but I left the book at work, and have no time to read there. I'll begin again, recapture the flow, and plow through the bookmark like nobody's business.

    **My birthday is in 13 days. Hint, hint.

    posted by boyhowdy | 12:29 AM |

    I like The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney. It's long and complicated, but I thought it was pretty interesting.
    Oliver Wiswell - a classic by Kenneth Roberts

    In, but Not Of - Hugh Hewitt, excellent book about ambition

    It's My Party, Too - Gov. Christine Whitman, the title says it all

    1776 - David McCullough, excellent story of how 3 personalities meshed through war

    Heart of the Sea - Nathaniel Philbrick, story of the wreck of the whaleship Essex, basis for the novel Moby Dick

    Mary, Called Magdalene - Margaret George, joins her Memoirs of Cleopatara and Diary of Henry VIII as best historical fiction written

    Eminent Victorians - Lytton Strachey, his portrait of the Mahdi is newly relevant

    Quartered Safe Out Here - George McDonald Fraser, one of the best books on the lot of the common soldier in war ever written

    I COULD go on...
    Off the top of my head:

    Crawl Space by Edie Meidav (her first book, The Far Field is also good).

    Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

    Becoming a Novelist by John Gardener

    The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (this is part of a series on myths being published by Canongate. Everything I've read in the series so far has been great).

    Also, some really good books of short stories (to satisfy your 'plow through' needs):

    Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

    How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer

    Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
    "High Culture"? hmm. i have not yet (i'm 38) read any book touted as "Literature" or "High Culture" that i did not find a terrible misuse of compostable material.

    here are some books i have found well-written and intelligent which i think might meet your criteria:
    • Salinger's "For Esme, with love and squalor" collection
    • Zelazny's "Lord of Light"
    • Sladek's "TikTok" and/or "Roderick"
    • Richard Dawkins' anything
    • Albert Speers' "Inside the Third Reich"
    • Robert Harvey's "Cochrane: the life and exploits of a fighting captain"
    • Paul Watzlawick's "The situation is hopeless but not serious -- the pursuit of unhappiness"

    i confess myself bemused by your "serious" requirement -- i have found without exception that the most incisive insights come from those writing satires or comedies. machiavelli's "prince", anything by moliere, anything by pratchett -- if you can look past the "non-seriousness" of them, you will enter a world of genuinely unblinkered intelligences.
    Thanks for the great suggestions, all.

    As for Sal's critique: I agree, so perhgaps I was not so clear about what I'm looking for -- indeed, a conception that only makes sense in the previously-blogged context of what I'm engaging in this project FOR.

    While it is true that I learned much from, say, Heinlein (or indeed from Pratchett), genre fiction -- even the best and most hilarious -- tends to play it's thoughfullness on the surface. In "higher culture" texts (and here I would include satirical or comedic texts from the likes of Machiavelli, and Jonathan Swift, and even perhaps David Sedaris), the complexity of the writing and of the narrative framework includes more silence, deeper meanings to be found in that silence, and a scenario in which deep and often second- or third-time reading provides significant further illumination.

    I am not using "serious" here to reflect tonality, then, but as an indicator of such complexity of writing -- of "literature" in the snob sense, reflective of careful craft of silences, rather than the oft-heavy-handedness of more direct texts (and here again I'd include Pratchett, and Heinlein, and not as a denigration, merely as an indicator of type)...though certainly the better writers of any genre often bring us worlds of genuine intelligence, the intellgence isn't the goal here: the crafting of them, that they may enter and stew in the reader a certain way, is. Think "art for art's sake" that generally goes in a musem (no matter what type of museum) vs. "commercial design" (where the delivery/sales are prioritized over the subtleties of message and idea development, as a matter of craft) and you've got a similar distinction.

    Most of the texts you chose (perhaps all -- haven't checked them out) likely fall into the "high culture" category, then.

    Note, as well, that such a distinction is partially (and only partially) subjective -- I'm looking for books that cannot be read easily (and whose ideas cannot be best handled) in a single night of reading. Thus, while many books are universally accepted as being in one category (romance novels) or another (The Illiad), for some, a different skill-set or mindset, a different reading style or different pattern of text-access would pull books from one side of the line to another.

    Now that we've gotten rid of the straw man bemusement, perhaps we've both got a better sense of what we're getting at?
    yeah. thanks. (although i have a more than sneaking suspicion you're looking more at exercising your brain again than at any particular quality of writing ;)

    all the above books i listed stand, although you are well recommended to all of them in particular.
    i put pratchett in the same category as machiavelli for cynicism and observation; i put swift more in mere topical satire -- to get anything substantial from his books, you must have knowledge of his context, which i personally regard as a weakness.

    additions, on the basis of what you just wrote:
    * buy a number of the "Xenophobe's Guide to the ..." books, read them between other books, ideally read one about your own country, and note the growing kernel of similarities in the midst of all the disparities, including what they seek to bemoan and to praise and perhaps most importantly what they see the need to explain.
    * Charles Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle"
    * Disch & Sladek's "Black Alice"
    * Smollett's "The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker" --> fiction book number 2, ever, or something like that. note pre-cliche cliches and fascinating insights into english's class segregation as a language and to the levels of casual violence in the world's least violent country in the world before police
    * Dickens's "Stories by Boz", which has fascinating insights into daily life among the bulk of the population (the poor) and how big chunks of 19th century were recently settled by either balts or east-germanics, scrabbling for work ("werry good, sir")
    * Thackeray's "Vanity Fair"
    * Moliere - pretty much anything. consider him a razor-sharp untedious Shakespeare.

    i'm sure i've forgotten lots.

    but you should also consider on the frothier side (dig, refresh, dig, refresh...) any early work by Alfred Bester ("ten, sir, said the tensor", "ah, le pauvre petit") but especially his collected articles including his interviews with especially Nero, anything by Jack Vance but especially "Rhialto the Marvellous" and "Cugel's Saga", the "Red-Green-Blue Mars" trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, George Macdonald Fraser's beautifully researched "Flashman" series, Cordwainer Smith's Rediscovery of Man series (this chap was an anthropologist with a hideous number of languages who shortened the Korean War by an estimated 5 years and whose book "Psychological Warfare" is still standard issue for the US Army), Alan Clark's "Diaries", Philip K.Dick's "Confessions of a Crap Artist", Jim Carlton's "Apple", Ambrose Bierce's "(Enlarged) Devil's Dictionary", and Why's "Poignant Guide to Ruby -- with cartoon foxes!"
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