What we’re reading during lockdown

April 24, 2020 • 10:15 am

Here’s a thread to acquaint us all with what we’re reading to pass the interminable hours of quarantine. Indeed, since I can’t go out, except for walks, my routine is to watch the evening news on NBC, make dinner (garnished with a decent glass or two of wine) and then become recumbent and read until I fall asleep.

Unfortunately, like several people I’ve heard from, it’s hard for me to concentrate, and I find my attention wandering, having to go back and reread what I’ve read before. It thus goes slowly. (Matthew just told me that this is very common in these parlous times, and he’s suffering from the same thing.)

But here are three books I’ve just read.

Black Boy by Richard Wright (1945; Amazon site here). This is one of his two most famous books, the other being Native Son (1940) which I recently finished. It was the latter, a book of fiction, that made me want to read the former, because Native Son was so eloquent and moving in expressing the oppression of blacks in the North (in this case, the South Side of Chicago), that I wanted to read about the author’s own life. Black Boy is an autobiography in two parts, the first (“Southern Night”) detailing Wright’s life in the South, mostly in Mississippi. His memory is remarkable: he remembers in detail things that happened starting at age four. (It’s possible he made all this up, but other biographers have verified many of the details.)

And it was a horrible life. Wright clearly stood out from his peers, both in thoughtfulness and desire to read, and it’s heartbreaking to hear how he and other blacks around World War I (Wright was born in 1908) had to constantly cower before and truckle to whites. If you want to see post-bellum American racism at its worst, read the first part of this book.

Realizing that he had no hope in the South, Wright fled to the North when he was nineteen. The book’s second part (“The Horror and the Glory”) takes him to Chicago, young adulthood, and his flirtation with Communism. Even in the North he found himself denigrated and unfulfilled, but began the writing that made him famous.

When Black Boy was issued by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1945, it made Wright famous, but they also omitted part 2 in the reissue. I can see why, for the second part is far less descriptive and far more cerebral, with long analyses, which now seem dated, of the relationship between black Americans and Communism.

Black Boy and Native Son make a good pair, for the attitudes expressed by Bigger Thomas in the novel clearly came from Wright’s experiences in both the South and North. And it explains why, in the novel, Thomas committed the crime he did. I’d recommend both of them highly, though you might want to skip the Chicago section of Black Boy (many editions omit it as well).  I’d read the novel first, as it’s a real experience to read Wright’s fictionalization of the black experience, and then follow it up with his own autobiography.

HIGHLY recommended (mostly the first bit in the South)


The second book  was recommended by my editor at Penguin Random House when I told her I was reading Francine Proses’s two books on how and what to read if you want to learn to write (I wasn’t reading it for that—I just wanted to see what books she liked). She hadn’t read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, but had heard it was the best of the “how to write” books.

In fact it wasn’t. I haven’t read anything by Stephen King, but you’d have to live under a rock to know that he writes horror/sci-fi/weird fiction about the numinous, and that genre simply doesn’t appeal to me. His book is a combination autobiography (written very informally and heavily larded with obscenities) and a discussion of how he creates a book. Because he’s not your usual writer, and has no pretentions to create great literature (he likes a good story, but one that is well crafted), his “advice” is of limited use to writers who aspire to more than creating something like Carrie. It’s not by any means useless, and his tips on editing (with an example at the end) are quite good. Further, there are plenty of anecdotes about his life, including his horrible accident when he was hit and smashed up by a distracted driver.

If you like Stephen King you might want to read this; otherwise I can’t really recommend it. If you want books about writing, I still like Strunk and White as well as Steve Pinker’s newer A Sense of Style.

No. Just no.

Okay, now please enlighten us with what you’re reading, and how you like it.

153 thoughts on “What we’re reading during lockdown

  1. Right at the moment:

    Mozart piano concerto no. 23 C-minor I. Allegro – about ~4 minutes in, has a great sequence. If I can get a few bars done I’ll be happy.

    I got my copy from imslp.org – the Petrucci Music Library.

      1. I can’t play it at speed, if at all, so playing along with a recording will be painful. But that’s the only possible option for me.

        But I only recently realized just because it’s a major work doesn’t mean small excerpts aren’t worth trying.

        BTW I understand my citing music as something I’m “reading” is not of the expected reading material – that is, perhaps humorous- but perhaps knowledge of the public domain music scores on the internet- especially in a time like this – might pique interest. But it is something I just started reading.

        1. “..doesn’t mean small excerpts aren’t worth trying”

          I’ve tried that too, even with late Beethoven piano snippets, but I’m just terrible. Entertain myself, irritate everybody else.

          As I’m sure you know, there’s a few Mozart sonatas more for people who need easier stuff, so entire movements can be played, if slowly, so that they’re at least recognizable.

  2. A good, and very funny, book about writing is Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence. He takes famous lines – ranging from Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles – and analyses what makes them so memorable.

  3. Someone here on WEIT suggested the Rivers of London series as a nice distraction. I’ve been reading them. I’ll be reading Matthew Cobb’s The Idea of the Brain when it arrives for a more serious activity.

    1. Had not hear of Rivers of London. I am going to get that and read it before Netflix or someone buys it and ruins it.

      1. “Rivers of London” is the title of the first book in a series by Ben Aaronovitch that now runs to eight full-length novels and two novellas. It’s also the name given to the series as a whole.

        I did hear talk of turning them into a TV series, but nothing concrete yet.

        1. I just started book #5. I think it would be an interesting series to binge watch, assuming it was made.

  4. I have grown to like King more over thee years. His writing style in 11/22/63 annoyed me at times, but he does know how to write a story. Also, I like how he has stuck to his own craft and doesn’t much seem to care about literary recognition. I recently read It and thought that was actually very, very good. He gets those kids really, really well, and the boogey man isn’t just the monster but the other kids and bullies just as well if not more.

    I really like Pinker’s book and it has helped me write better proposals and papers.

    I read Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys and it is great. It is based on a real case of a Florida School for Boys where there was a lot of abuse and even murder. This is fictionalized and follows the main character Elwood, an African American boy, who ens up there because of sheer bad luck. The abuse is horrific and marks him for life. I think the book even if based on a real case can easily be read as a wider experience of growing up African American in the US. The ending has a real punch. Whitehead’s Underground Railroad was just as good.

    Skin by Roald Dahl. Stories for adults, on the grim side. The first two (Skin, and A Leg of Lamb) are terrific. Others are good, too, but sometimes end to abruptly. There is a “Champion of the World” that features adults but was later worked out into the great children’s book.

    Rusty Brown by Chris Ware, a graphic novel. Sad, and moving, en very engrossing. I think his Jimmy Corrigan is a bit better but they’re both interesting worlds to dive into, despite a lot of bleakness.

    Now reading: Hamburgers in Paradise by Louise O Fresco, about agriculture and food in general, food in times of both abundance and scarcity. Just started it but very fascinating.

    1. I downloaded a few Stephen King novels last year, guiltily. I’d never read anything by him before and I was psychologically in one of those funks when I just do not want to go near anything demanding or subtle or intelligent. And I read a few of them. IT…Pet Sematary…and one about the end of the world and psychic powers or something.

      I read them all in the same way you play Tetris: without thinking at any point, and without particularly enjoying it or getting anything from it.
      His stuff is so undemanding and vacuous it’s almost like having the radio on in the background. I think I could probably have read another book while I was reading his, so long as I had somewhere to perch it.

      I like low-brow stuff, I like guilty pleasures…but the stuff I read was just execrable. I still can’t really explain why I read two more books of his after the first one.

      1. For guilty pleasure I like Michael Connelly’s Bosch and Lincoln Lawyer detective novels. The guy’s got a brain and writes well. Probably what I should be reading these unfocused days. Amazon made a pretty good tv series of Bosch as well.

        1. The Michael Connelly books are great. I’m currently reading “The Drop”. Just finished “The Murder of Mary Russell” by Laurie R King who has written a number of books about Sherlock Holmes after he retiree to Sussex to raise bees and marries a young woman named Mary Russell.

          I generally don’t like the novels of Stephen King but I love some of his short stories.

        2. Yes, me too, and also Lee Child at the moment. About to start another Iain M Banks. Just finished re-reading The Once and Future King, by T H White, a fascinating modern take on the Arthurian legends, but a bit long-winded at times.

          I’ve just been given Stephen Hawking’s Brief Answers to the Big Questions for my birthday (shared with Roy Orbison’s birth and Shakespeare’s death), and quickly read “Is there a God” – short answer: no, but the way he comes to that conclusion is fascinating.

          1. I go back maybe 8-9 books with Lee Child. It is my impression that he is with each succeeding title making Reacher more vicious and the body count ever higher. What do you think?

            1. I’ve read maybe half a dozen Jack Reacher novels, in no particular order, so I can’t comment on the body count. I’m impressed that so far I can’t discern a pattern to the plots, other than the basic “Lone Ranger” set-up (I rather expect some character at the end to say, “Who was that masked man – I wanted to thank him”).

              My main problem is that I forget the titles, and have been known to buy one at the charity shop, only to discover I’ve already read it. Ah, well, at least the charity benefits, and they get it back to sell again.

              I have to say that Tom Cruise (5’7″) would not have been my first choice to play him in a movie.

          2. I’ve got to give Lee Childs a try. I hear he’s good. Once and Future King is one of my faves. I got kicked out of study hall (can’t remember where to) in 10th grade because I kept laughing out loud while reading it.

  5. I’m reading Caliban’s War, the second book in The Expanse series but I am slow reading as I’ve been just goofing around online after I finish work every day.

    1. Funny…I’m reading that right now too; about half-way through it. I’m enjoying it, and at the same time, I find it interesting that the Amazon production is as good as the books (imo). It goes against the adage: the book is always better than the movie. Maybe because they are able to cover the books in great detail since there are upwards of 12 episodes per season.
      Season 5 is in production right now. It’s a good series during lock-down.

      1. Oh yes I noticed that too. The book and show is very close. They film in Toronto. And I especially am impressed that the actors are so close to the book characters. I also like how they get human nature so right. Cynically right.

        1. Yeah, while reading, the actors are the exact faces I use to visualize; can’t help it. I don’t mind when that happens though. They even got the scraggly Holden beard vs. the thick Amos beard…sheesh

    2. Hi Diana:

      I read the first book, Leviathan Wakes, but then stumbled into the audiobooks of the series, read by Jefferson Mays. He is an incredibly good reader, and of course, the books are amazing (I’m through book six, and they’ve continued uniformly excellent, though Caliban’s War is first among equals). If you’re into audiobooks, and have access (I check them out of the library, in my constant effort to piss off every libertarian within a hundred-mile radius), I highly recommend them.

      I walk *a lot*, so I need a very large supply of audiobooks.

      1. I do an audiobook kindle combo where I listen and read at the same time. It’s a feature of the kindle app when you buy them at the same time. It’s a pleasant experience and the audiobooks are really well acted.

  6. Matthew Cobb’s “The Idea of the Brain” which arrived yesterday, plus a few Economists and New York Review of Books. Haven’t yet started “The Cat: A Natural and Cultural History” by Sarah Brown and “The Way We Live Now” by Anthony Trollope.

    1. I’ve been reading a lot of the Economist as they have some great articles about the virus and various vaccine approaches, etc. I use my library card to go online and read the digital magazines. I’m really enjoying that!

  7. Just re-read Stephen Greenblatt’s ‘The Swerve;’ am reading Neal Stephenson’s ‘Quicksilver’ and William T. Vollmann’s ‘Argall.’

    1. The Swerve was excellent. I was less enamored of his book on Shakespeare. I agree with Jerry and Matthew that it’s harder to concentrate these days.

    1. Not a list. You’d have to say what you were interested in more specifically (evolution, natural history, etc.) and then I could suggest a few. But other readers could as well, so I urge them to respond to this comment, too.

      1. I generally read a fairly broad range of science topics (evolution, behavioral biology, cognitive science, chaos & complexity). My most recent reads were Dawkins’ Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (which I loved as it was such a diverse collection), Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back, and Robert Sapolsky’s Behave (another favorite). A friend recently recommended Horace Judson’s Eighth Day of Creation, which I was thinking of reading next.

    2. The Peregrine by I.A. Baker. A wonderful, glorious read without sentimentality about the majesty and brutality of life as a peregrine. I remember as I read it I had next to me a field guide to birds for it wasn’t just about the lives of peregrine falcons.

      1. Hear hear. It is very good. But it was written at a time when the UK population of peregrines appeared to be in terminal decline. Since then they have staged a remarkable and encouraging recovery. Which means that the book comes across as a bit more elegiac than it needs to be. But it is still very good!

  8. I re-read Camus’s The Plague, for the first time since I was in college in the Seventies, just because it seemed so timely.

    And I’m halfway through the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, a book I’ve had since it came out, but which I’ve been waiting to dive into for enough free time to immerse myself fully, as I did with the first three. I sure hope the old son-of-gun lives to finish his magnum opus.

    1. Thanks for the reminder about the LBJ books, Ken. I’m about halfway through vol 1. I put it down maybe 6 months ago, not out of boredom but because life interfered. Time to get back to it. Also to finally (split infinitive) finish Rebecca West’s magisterial Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Still very slowly, a few pages a night, slogging through the Proust (I’m maybe 1/3 of the way through vol 2). Such beautiful writing (en français). And the excellent but very long Behave, by Sapolsky. Recently read Elizabeth Strout’s first novel, Amy and Isabelle, she of Olive Kitteredge fame. Excellent writing! I plan to read all her others. Also just got Matthew’s latest on kindle, to read when my brain focuses better…

    2. I heard Caro interview on Conan O’Brien’s podcast and Conan was raving about his books. He kept recommending a particular book; about some little-known dude who built most of New York(?).
      I’m not a history buff but Caro gets a lot of praise from people I like and I’m tempted.

      1. The Power Broker about Robert Moses, one of the most politically powerful people in the history of New York, a man who accomplished great building projects, but at an incalculable cost to common working-class and poor New Yorkers.

        I read it during the long wait between volumes two and three of the LBJ biography (although Caro wrote it earlier, before he started the LBJ project). It’s another big, thick door-stopper of a tome. It’s also great, having won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

        1. The role of Robert Moses in shaping much of New York City is explained in detail in the Ric Burns/PBS documentary series on the history of NYC. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Robert Caro is the historian that Burns chose to talk about Moses.

          1. The 2019 film “Motherless Brooklyn” stars Alec Baldwin as a character based on Robert Moses [although he is renamed “Moses Randolph”]. Baldwin is good at playing dirt-bags.

        2. I each it was the vandal works of Robert Moses that prompted Jane Jacobs to write her wonderful ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’. I’ve read that but not recently.
          At present I’m finishing Bill Bryson’s lightweight ‘A Short History Of Nearly Everything’ and dipping in and out of Sapolsky’s ‘Behave’.

  9. Just finished the Regeneration series (Pat Barker) thanks to recommendations on this site. Excellent.

    Now I’m reading The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. I’m about 1/3 of the way through and am enjoying it more than I expected. I am a fan of Larson’s writing so I got the book despite my tepid interest in the subject of Winston Churchill and his personal life.

  10. I just finished Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata and have begun An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma.

  11. I’m reading “We Were the Mulvaneys” by Joyce Carol Oates. I don’t read much fiction but decided to try.
    I’m really involved with it.
    I love the description of the emotional life of the characters and the family dynamics. I can identify with all the characters, even though I have not had those experiences. It’s a very good description of their feelings.
    I can relate to each of them in some way.

    1. JCO is a goddam paper mill, writing books faster’n most of the rest of us can read ’em. Can’t think of anyone else off the top of my head who’s put out such quality so prolifically.

      IIRC, she and our host bonded over felines.

  12. I read King’s book on writing, and found it interesting, as I had read a lot of his books in my youth. I agree that it’s only useful if your aspiration is to write genre fiction a la King. For books on writing, I would recommend A Writer’s Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham. I’m currently reading Behave by Robert Sapolsky, about the neuroscience of human moral behavior. A fascinating read, but fairly challenging (at least for me), unless you already have a working familiarity with neuroscience. And I’m still working my way through The Big Picture, by Sean Carroll. Recently finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo Da Vinci, which was quite good. For fiction, I read The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s his first work of fiction, and while there were some stylistic aspects that bothered me, it’s a worthwhile read. I would also highly recommend H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s beautifully written account of her attempts to train a goshawk as a means of coping with her grief after the death of her father. She brilliantly blends her story with commentary on The Goshawk, T.H. White’s account of his own ultimately unsuccessful attempt to tame a goshawk. I read it a few years ago, but it’s some of the best writing I’ve read in recent years.

    1. Loved Hawk! Saw/heard her read at a smallish bookstore-sponsored dinner a few years ago. Charming, intelligent young woman.

    2. Sapolsky’s Harvard lectures covering the approach he details in Behave are, incidentally, on You Tube. I’d recommend those before the book, TBH. He’s a good writer, but a brilliant lecturer.

      1. Thanks. I will look for them. I’ve heard him lecture a couple of times at Stanford. His book is very dense but interspersed with great wit.

      2. I believe they are Stanford, not Harvard lectures, btw. Stanford is where he teaches, even though Harvard is known as the Stanford of the East🤓

            1. OMG — it wasn’t meant to be a quip… Apologies to anyone offended by it… (Praise for the doggie stands, though, with a friendly ear rub!)

              1. Not offended at all. Just ribbing ya.
                Speaking of the Pooch, I was on a Zoom call with former Vienna high school classmates yesterday and Lucy went nuts when a friend’s doorbell in Ottawa went off (I’m near Toronto) and then a friend in Burgundy’s dog chimed in. A veritable canine choir.

      3. I agree–his lectures are more accessible than his writing. And I’m not knocking the book–it’s great, filled with anecdotes and humor. But I feel like I’m taking a graduate level course in neuroscience. I have to read it for a while, then put it down and read something completely different before coming back to it.

        1. Yes — the book is excellent, and I hope the main approach doesn’t get lost in his thorough and extensive account of the research that supports it.

          A publisher would do well to challenge him to write a 250 page version. I don’t mean that as criticism either. This idea of examining human behaviour (or that of any other animal) by visiting each of the 8 influences/determining factors is a good antidote to the biases of any school of psychology or whatever other worldview.

  13. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow by Natasha Pulley, fantasy fiction, hasn’t really grabbed me yet, but I plan to give it some more chance. On deck is The Buying of Lot 37, part of the Night Vale series by Joseph Fink. This series has been wonderful so far, sort of Terry Pratchett meets Douglas Adams meets punk rock, or something.

    On a more serious note, just today I read Jenann Ismael’s 2019 paper “Determinism, Counterpredictive Devices, and the Impossibility of Laplacean Intelligences,” which is a perfect riposte to the second BBC free will video in that series Jerry posted about a while back. It’s like she knew in advance the mistakes Jim Al-Khalili would make about the “block universe” concept. Maybe there are Laplacean intelligences, and she’s one of them 😉

  14. Just finished “What Stars are Made of: The Life of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchin” by Donovan Moore. Excellent biography of the woman whose PHD thesis identified hydrogen and helium as the main constituents of stars. She fought amazing sexism in England, moved to Harvard Observatory and fought amazing sexism. Her thesis was so radical that she had to disavow its accuracy in order to have it accepted. Later, it was called “The most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy”. A very interesting read with lots of tidbits about everyday life and the physics and astronomy world of the early 1900s.

  15. Oh also I have a copy of that T. E. Lawrence book recommended a while back – might be able to check some of it out.

  16. I heard that Stephen King announced recently that he is sorry that everyone is currently living in a Stephen King novel!

  17. Working my way through a stack of books from my birthday and Christmas. I am in the middle of Clay Risen’s The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century, which is good. Just finished Holzer’s Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861, which I would recommend. I think after this I will read Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics.

  18. Just finishing “The Fate of Rome” by Kyle Harper which links in the historical decline and fall of the Roman Empire with climate change and three massive pandemics, culminating with the Justinian Plague which was, quite possibly as a percentage of the population who died, the worst disaster ever to hit mankind. A clearly written book by a historian who has taken on-board a lot of heavy duty science. Highly recommended.

  19. I’m reading David Hackett’s That Religion in Which All Men Agree, a religious studies history of (mostly American) Freemasonry. I was led to it by reading Benjamin Park’s Kingdom of Nauvoo, which noted the influence of Freemasonry on the early Mormon movement.

  20. Re-reading Jim Holt’s ‘Why Does The World Exist?’ and Bede Rundle’s ‘Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing’, two books which take opposing views of the same subject.

    Also Rick Wilson’s ‘Everything Trump Touches Dies’. For light relief.

    I got Douglas Murray’s ‘The Madness Of Crowds’ for Christmas but haven’t managed to get that far before getting irritated by his one-eyed view of the world and blindspot w/r/t right-wing populism.

  21. I believe I mentioned this in a previous thread, but if so, so be it: I’m re-reading the complete Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian. I’m a sailor, so I must do this. Re-watched the movie, too–Master & Commander.

    1. Master and Commander – one of the few movie adaptations I’ve ever seen which captured the flavor and sense of the book(s) it was covering; really fine.

  22. Reread Prim Levi _Survival_in_Auschwitz_ and _the_Periodic_table_

    read Max Gergel’s _Excuse_Me_Sir_Would_you_Like_to_Buy_a_Kilo_of_Isopropyl_Bromide_ I highly recommend it

    Reread _On_the_Beach_, and followed up with a couple other Nevil Shute that I hadn’t read before. I enjoyed most of his work, but it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and are quite dated, though still interesting. Some have wooden, at best, characters, but a few are quite fine.

    Because I am of a certain age and still have them from my youth: when I was playing with the cat and he fell asleep on my lap, at hand on the low shelf were _A_Space_child’s_Mother_Goose_ and _The_Dot_and_the_Line_

    1. Well, I’ve never heard of the book, but I’ve got to say that the …Isopropyl Bromide is certainly one of the most unusual book titles I’ve ever seen!

  23. Just finishing Andrew Roberts’ “Churchill”. I have really enjoyed it and it took the edge off the first several weeks of isolation. I had read his biography of Napoleon last year and really enjoyed it also.

    Next will be Anne Applebaum: “Gulag” and “Iron Curtain”.

    Just about to order Matthew Cobb’s new book. His two books on the French Resistance were fantastic.

    And now I want to read “What Stars Are Made Of”, mentioned by a reader above. Will order that too. Thanks for the recommendation Steve Ring!

    1. Holy cow, I’d totally forgotten about Ginger Campbell’s great podcast Brain Science. She does terrific interviews. Perfect for this time. Lots of thoughtful and in depth stuff. I’m on this, thanks.

  24. “it’s hard for me to concentrate, and I find my attention wandering, having to go back and reread what I’ve read before.”

    This is pretty normal for me, it takes me forever to read a book, I have about 12 incomplete books on my coffee table – very frustrating. As a result, I’ve been trying Audible recently. It isn’t the same but at least I’m able to get through a book much faster.

    I’m still able to work from home so I don’t have as much spare time as many, however I have taken some time for these two books.

    Last two books:
    Artemis: by Andy Weir (Author of the Martian). It’s a decent book, not as good as the Martian though.

    Something Deeply Hidden: Sean Carroll, I’m deeply skeptical of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics but it isn’t my field so I figured I’d try to learn more about this perspective.

    1. I too take forever to read anything for the most part. Partly this is because I fall a sleep when I read so I limit my reading to bed time. But let me recommend something I found very immersive….if you have Kindle on a tablet or phone and you buy the audible book at the same time as the Kindle book (you have to select the “add audible book” (probably not exact phrasing) option) you can listen to the audible at the same time as you follow along and the app will highlight the words as they are spoken on the audible. It’s a feature within the Kindle app. I have found this a really pleasurable way to read.

      1. Sadly, I have the opposite problem. If I start reading a book that grips me, I have a hard time stopping. All of a sudden it 3 AM and I have to get up for work at 5:30. Ooops.

        I happened last month with “A House for Mr Biswas” (V.S. Naipaul).

        1. I’ve had that happen to me sometimes. Happened a lot of the Xmas break but that was okay as I wasn’t working.

      2. “Partly this is because I fall a sleep when I read so I limit my reading to bed time”

        Wait… isn’t this a self-fulfilling prophesy?

        1. No, it’s really just a way to:

          1) Ensure that I fall asleep.
          2) Get some reading in at a time that is appropriate to fall asleep (vs. during the middle of the day).

  25. I am near the end of Jill Lepore’s wonderful overview of U.S. history, These Truths, and I highly recommend it. I also recommend listening to the interview Preet Bharara did with her on his podcast “Stay Tuned” from a few months back. I’m also reading Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roper, which is a memoir about her life within the Westboro Baptist Church and her leaving the church. I learned about this book from Sam Harris’ interview with her a while back on his podcast. Again, book and podcast are well worth your time. I’m also reading quite a few mysteries during this time, including ones written by Ruth Rendell and Peter Lovesey, who are both excellent writers for those who like crime fiction. I’ve enjoyed reading about the books you’re all reading, and I’m getting good ideas about future reads. Richard Wright is definitely on the short list. Thanks all.

    1. I am reading Lepore’s These Truths as well. It is a good read, but the non-historian needs to keep several things in mind. The first is that although it covers all of American history, it is not a text book. Rather, she focuses on several topics that interest her, such as race, but largely ignores others, such as Native Americans. I do not have a problem with this because an historian writing a history of a country, no matter how long the book may be, cannot cover all topics. Still, the non-historian should realize that the history of a country, any country, can be approached from several different directions. The second thing to note is that as one of America’s most renowned historians and columnist, she made several truly shocking factual errors. These are errors of fact, not interpretation. I probably missed some of the errors. Most of those I detected were of a minor nature, but do reflect sloppiness in her research.

      Here is one of her more egregious errors. On page 293, she writes “by June of 1861, the Confederacy comprised fifteen states…” No, it comprised eleven states. How could she not have known this? I have read at least half a dozen reviews of the book, and I have not seen one reviewer point out the errors. As you probably have noticed, these errors annoy me. It reflects shoddy or lazy research and her apparent lack of a good fact checker. So, I recommend the book but it must be read with caution.

      1. The page 293 error is corrected in the paperback I’m reading. That’s very unfortunate that error appeared in the edition you read, but I think I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. I think it’s a terrific book. I certainly don’t think she’s a shoddy or lazy researcher, but I’ve been wrong before.

  26. try Talk Across Water by Merrill Gilfillan.
    A book of short stories about the West with some memorable characters.

    The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart is also a great, easy read.

  27. I keep playing the Simon’s Cat games on my iPad instead of readying as well which is terrible for sleeping & also since my brain is a bit OCD, I tend to see and think about the game too much.

  28. I think I mentioned this novel before: Governor of the Northern Province by Sri-Lankan Canadian Randy Boyagoda. Refugee ex-African warlord meets small-town, politically ambitious, Ontario girl. The Ottawa Citizen said “Boyagoda’s humour is astoundingly politically incorrect. With his irreverence the author crosses lines mist would dare not even approach.”

  29. I’m reading Citizens of London by Lynne Olson. It covers the activities of John Winant, Edward R. Murrow and Averill Harriman in London during WWII. It’s wonderful and bitterwseet to realize that there was a time when progressive, principled, and idealistic people like Winant and Murrow actually existed in positions where they could influence world events.

  30. Almost finished reading Sean Carroll’s “Something Deeply Hidden.” I have read numerous lay level books on quantum physics, but it is still a challenge to understand the non intuitive nature of the quantum world, but Sean Carroll does a good job of explaining the Many Worlds theory.
    I have just started reading Marlene Winell’s “Leaving the Fold”, a book that details the psychological damage caused by fundamentalist religion and how to recover from that harm once you have left religion. I left evangelical Christianity about seven years ago, so this book speaks to my experiences.

    1. Yeah, I like the way Sean Carroll explains quantum physics. Not that I remember a lot of the things I learn about it or I feel like I haven’t retained them but sometimes I somehow have. It’s like that when you learn complicated things, I suppose.

      1. Richard Feynman is often quoted as saying that anyone who thinks they understand quantum mechanics, doesn’t really understand quantum mechanics. Of course, Feynman’s sense of humour was very quirky, so even if he actually said it, it was probably tongue-in-cheek.

        1. I think he meant it in the sense that we understand it enough to make predictions with it and know it Wesen we see it but we don’t understand all the answers of how or why.

    2. There will be many worlds where the covid19 plague will never happen in the horrible way we’re getting afflicted.

      But hard to make that into a very cheerful thing.

      The Mass Murderer Donald will in some of them have already exceeded the monster we have here by blundering into a thermonuclear war.

  31. “Who we are and how we got here”, by David Reich. Human population genetics and biogeography based on ancient genomes sequenced from DNA in bones. It’s a little bit technical in parts, but the history is incredibly rich and detailed.

    1. Reich book terrific!
      I find I’m spending way too much time on WEIT and email instead of hunkering down and reading. Later gators.

    2. I’ve read it twice already. That kind of stuff, DNA, ancient or otherwise, I find difficult to absorb properly.

      But it sure is extraordinary how they can buttress, or shoot down, less well evidenced theories from the anthropologists.

      It’s always “shoot down” when from the theological nitwits.

  32. I’m reading Programming — Principles and Practice Using C++ by Stroustrup, I’ve started reading Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay.

    1. I tried to master C++ from Stroustrup’s earlier book, but gave up and learned Java instead. I’ve never regretted the decision.

  33. When the lockdown came in, I took down from my shelf ‘Reading Joyce’, by an academic called David Pierce, which I’d been meaning to get into for some time. That led me to re-read Frank Budgen’s ‘James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses’, which I hadn’t read for years and which I’d forgotten was so good.

    Now I seem to have mentally crowbarred myself into re-reading JJ from the start, even if this involves taking ‘Exiles’ seriously. Who knows, I might even finish ‘Finnegans Wake’. Let’s see, about this time in 2022.

  34. For these times, I find gentle, bucolic reads the most satisfying. There’s time for science (Brian Greene’s Until the End of Time), but here I’d recommend recent reads like The Singing Wilderness—Sigurd Olson, Goodbye to a River—John Graves, and Never Curse the Rain—Jerry Apps. Enjoy!

  35. Two books I recently finished are: White Bodies, by my friend Jane Robbins – a quiet thriller, with excellent characters. The second is Maoism, A Global History, by Julia Lovell, a truly superb view of how Maoism has influenced the world.

  36. My fiction reading is rare, getting more so unfortunately.

    Accumulating a pretty big library on Arctic/Antarctic/Inuit/exploration ski tours.
    In the recent 6 weeks I’ve read Nansen’s 700 page ‘diary’ about getting much closer than anyone earlier to the North Pole around 1895, and Huntford’s bios of Shackleton and of Nansen (halfway through the latter 666 pages).

    Nansen was first to lead an expedition, including two Sami, AKA Lapps in those days, across Greenland, as well. And, 15 years later, see just below, is claimed to have canoodled with the man’s wife while (unknown to them) Scott was dying with the remaining two of the other four he led, in a tent on the Ross Ice Shelf. So the reading’s not only all struggles with freezing appendages. Nansen’s were all five still working fine apparently at the age of about 50, if you don’t mind me saying.

    Huntford’s famous “The Last Place on Earth”, read many years ago, is a joint bio of Amundsen and Scott, much on the ‘race’ to the South Pole. Very negative about Scott, and I mostly agree. It made me somewhat dubious at times in the threads on Jerry’s recent trip with Hurtigruten.

    Now that I think of it, I also read in 2020 a couple of accounts of Aussie named Mawson’s heroic trip in the worst part of the Antarctic’s coast, just one year later than Amundsen’s successful Pole trip, around 1912. Too lazy to look up on Amazon, but easy to find. Mawson had been the one non-Norwegian hero of mine in these matters. Still is, but all this stuff about claiming land, building mines etc. down there, which never happened, is a bit off-putting. Mawson was a famous academic geologist who lived into the 1950s IIRC. An Aussie can correct me on that if needed; he’s a national hero there and less well known elsewhere than he should be. In general, such people helped with what turned out to be good evidence later for continental drift.

    The Inuit, then Norwegians, understood dog teams, and diet, and avoiding scurvy, far better than the Anglophones and their mostly disastrous trips to a climate much less familiar to them; and skiing for the Norwegians; Inuit never had skis AFAIK.

    1. “Mawson’s Will” by Bickel was the one I read. As I recall, Mawson almost died of Vitamin A poisoning from eating too many sled dogs, seals, or similar beasts.

      Thanks for the Shackleton reminder – I’ll have to go dig out my late father’s copy of ‘South’.

      1. Kabloona, but not the other, yet.

        I have been aware of Steffanson’s sojourn. His name, not ending ‘..sen’ sounds more Icelandic than Norwegian, but I seem to recall he was inspired by Amundsen’s ‘conquering’ the Northwest passage. I should check that.

        1. Icelandic name yes. But I’d forgotten, or maybe never knew, how interesting. Born in Canada to ‘new’ immigrants he was one of those ‘hybrid’ Canuck/USian, and not uncontroversial in his activities. I’ll look for an inexpensive copy.

  37. Sam Bourne’s To Kill the Truth is a pretty good thriller about topical (but not coronavirus!). Bourne is the pen name of journalist Jonathan Freedman. It contains a monologue about why liberals don’t understand tRump’s base, which seemed pretty plausible, too.

  38. I read Prof Cobb’s excellent new book recently, partly on PCC(E)’s recommendation here.

    In the past month, I also read:

    – “The Pandemic Century” by Mark Honigsbaum, a fascinating history of pandemics from the 1918 Spanish flu to the recent SARS and MERS outbreaks;

    – “Doughnut Economics” by Kate Raworth, a thought-provoking proposal for an alternative economic model for the world;

    – “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Matsuo Basho, a travel diary by a 17th-century Japanese poet;

    and I am currently reading “Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca, the 1st-century CE Roman philosopher. His advice is as fresh and relevant today as when he wrote it.

    1. When it comes to Seneca, our extremely stoical cat Marcus Clawrelius (pretentious? moi?) is in full agreement. (The use of “pretentious? moi?” after Marcus’s full name seems to be obligatory, a bit like “peace be upon him” when you-know-who is mentioned.)

    1. Like John Kennedy Toole’s brilliant A Confederacy of Dunces, it was only published posthumously thanks to the persistence of a relative following the author’s death. Nolan finished The Third Policeman in 1940, but it wasn’t released until 1966, and only then thanks to the efforts of his widow. And yes, it is definitely somewhat on the strange side!

    2. My dad passed it down to me and it’s now one of my favourite books of all-time. Deeply, deeply dreamlike and strange, as well as obviously funny. It must’ve been even more strange and original back when it was released.

      I remember enjoying it all the way through, but then really having my mind blown as it came to an end.

      I’d be…intrigued…if anyone ever dared to make a film version. Maybe the Coen Brothers. Or one of the McDonagh brothers. There are hints of Flann O’Brien in In Bruges for sure.

    3. And what is your opinion of the three-speed gear?

      If you like Flann O’Brien and other odd Irish tales, you might enjoy ‘Graveyard Clay’ by Mairtin O’Cadhain. The entire book consists of bickering conversations between recent arrivals in a cemetery in the Irish-speaking part of Ireland (actually, not far from where I lived for a little while – maybe that’s why I enjoyed it).

    1. I got past the first few books, but have never reached the end. But War and Peace is a relative breeze to read, and Tolstoy’s asides on the “great man” theory of history are interesting. Both the Proust and Tolstoy are available for free from Project Gutenberg, so anyone can try them risk-free.

  39. A couple weeks ago, I finished Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan Lents. It was a light read for a science book and well written. I knew a lot of the human glitches he mentions, but it was a good refresher of the myriad problems our species suffer from. I did learn a lot as well; humans have a lot of problems that don’t afflict other mammals.

  40. “Alice and Bob meet the wall of fire” by Thomas Lin, foreword by Sean Carroll – Latest efforts to solve mysteries in physics and biology. Very nice.

  41. I’ve read a dozen books in the past few months but these stand out: War of Two, by John Sedgwick (Hamilton/Burr duel plus wonderful look at the politics and personalities of the era);
    Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power, young Irish girl makes good…works with Obama, UN ambassador and much more…amazing woman!); Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham, best true crime story ever!;
    Redmond O-Hanlon:In Trouble Again and Through the Wilds of Borneo: wonderful combo of travel, culture, biology, great writing and entertainment from start to finish; Through the Brazilian Wilderness, Teddy Roosevelt memoir of his trip with Candido Rondon on the “River of Doubt”, heart-stopping thriller of this amazing expedition on what Rondon then named Rio Roosevelt.

      1. Yes, indeed. I believe it came out about five years ago. The author probably relied heavily on Roosevelt’s own memoir (Through the Brazilian Wilderness), which of course is spellbinding, especially its description of the murder that took place and its aftermath. I imagine it would also be fascinating to read about Rondon. Not sure if he wrote a memoir of that trip. But he was a fascinating character who was respectful of indigenous people and their cultures (he was half indigenous).

  42. I’m reading ‘Empires of the Word: a Language History of the World’ by Nicholas Ostler – interesting but heavy going at times.

    And I dip into the Decameron for a story or two – seems appropriate reading while I try to ignore the outside world.

  43. The latest: Susan Sontag, *Regarding the Pain of Others*. Beautiful prose, and thought-provoking.

    A recommendation [head and shoulders above Strunk & White, which is more about copy editing than about composition and its relationship to thought]: Francis-Noel Thomas & Mark Turner, *Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose.* Princeton UP, 1994.

  44. For writing how-to, I want to plug William Zinnser’s On Writing Well, which I think is excellent. (I also like Strunk and White.)

    I am re-re-reading the Aubrey / Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. It is very distracting, which I need these days!

  45. Reading by John Hardwood an intelligent, smart and mesmerizing ghost story called The Ghost Writer with cold, atmospheric rain dripping outside and wind moaning eerily! His book The Seance also good!

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