Two books I just finished

January 16, 2021 • 11:00 am

I’m back to reading a lot during the pandemic, as I’m simply tired of looking at the Internet as a distraction. And so I finished two books this week: one excellent and one so-so. Let’s start with the good one, which I read so long ago that it seemed new to me. Reading The Plague is especially apposite at the moment as it can be read the contest of the pandemic. Can it illuminate our current experience? The answer is yes and no.

And it was this old edition that I read (click to go to the Amazon site):

At about 280 small pages, those who shy away from big books will find this one doable. It’s one of the novels that won Camus the Nobel Prize in Literature, and deservedly so.  The Plague (La Peste in the original French) is considered an “existentialist” novel, and I suppose that’s because one could construe it as the fictional story of men laboring to fight a meaningless but fatal pestilence: a bubonic plague that struck the city of Oran in Algeria in the 1940s. The protagonist, Dr. Rieux, is an atheist, and realizes the senselessness of what is happening—despite the local priest’s attempt to find meaning in the epidemic—but still labors to exhaustion, seven days a week, to help the stricken. Rieux doesn’t do this because he sees it as the “moral” thing to do, but believes that relieving suffering is an aspect of human love, the only worthwhile thing he sees in our existence.

I won’t give away the plot or the spoiler (i.e., who the narrator is), but it’s worth rereading in light of the coronavirus pandemic. There are parallels (quarantines, lots of death), but also differences (no mask wearing, even though some of the plague is pneumonic, no lockdowns of businesses, and none of the peevishness that limns our behavior). But the big parallel is humanity being at the mercy of an invisible microbe, which takes lives randomly and senselessly. If that’s existentialism, so be it.

The novel rises to a climax with the narrator’s “analysis” at the end after the plague has lifted, which contains some of the book’s best writing. My favorite bit, which I’ve mentioned before, is the ending, which is wonderful even in translation. And it’s also about the futility of fighting the plague, which, though it can be temporarily conquered, will always return:

And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled.

He knew what those jubilant crowds did no know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Lots of nice alliteration there, and the last bit, “when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city,” is sheer genius. Bane and enlightening indeed!



I read this one on—as I recall—the recommendation of a reader here. But perhaps not. At any rate, I was drawn by the topic: Daum’s disillusionment with wokeness and her discovery of “IDW” members like John McWhorter, Glenn Loury, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Bret Weinstein. This is journey that many of us have taken, and I wanted to see what Daum had to say about it.

I didn’t find the book absorbing, but perhaps that’s because I already share Daum’s intellectual criticism of wokeness and had undergone the political changes that describes at length, embroidering them with details about her crumbling marriage and her disillusionment with feminism. In my view, Daum provided too little meat and tried way too hard to be clever, throwing in personal information that didn’t enhance her thesis—if she has a thesis. Daum is a big fan of Joan Didion’s writing, but doesn’t have the chops to emulate her, nor Didion’s ability to make the personal sufficiently impersonal to be interesting to the reader.

It’s a solipsistic book that I don’t think would enlighten many of us. Read it at your own peril.

What next? Below a book that came highly recommended from an expert: literary critic James Wood of the New Yorker. Having met James in Cambridge MA (he teaches at Harvard) and discussed with him the idea of whether literature was a “way of knowing” (I won’t divulge his take), I wrote him asking if I should read a copy of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch that I found in a free book box.

The Goldfinsh won the Pulitzer prize in 2014, and I was about to start it when Wood replied and said that he much preferred a wonderful 2006 novel, translated from the German by Anthea Bell in 2015, that he had extolled several years ago in The New YorkerAll for Nothing is clearly one of Wood’s favorite modern novels. He warned me not to read his review before I read the book, as he gave spoilers. So I haven’t, but will start this book today:

So that is my latest reading. Your turn: what books have you liked lately?

98 thoughts on “Two books I just finished

    1. I read The Plague many years ago, in English. Given the current situation I ordered the book in the original French and have been making my way through it (I have about 20 pages left). I’d forgotten how good a novel it is.

      1. I bought my copy of The Plague from a second-hand bookshop some years ago. It had obviously belonged to an old-school typesetter, who couldn’t resist marking it up with a series of odd squiggles and symbols. I looked some of them up, and they are instructions to move letters closer to one another, and fixes for other such formatting issues.

  1. Reading the Martha Grimes Richard Jury/Melrose Plant mysteries in order and slowly (I am on the second) and looking up all the references I don’t recognize, such as Adams Brothers ceiling:

    1. Weird Earth: Debunking Strange Ideas About Our Planet by Donald Prothero.

      Just got it last week. Fitting read considering our nation’s recent conspiracy-driven coup attempt. Quiet enjoyable so far.

      1. His book Evolution: What the Fossils Say And Why It Matters is one of the five key books I’d give to someone to read who wants to understand evolution.

  2. Recently very much involved in ‘Wagnerism’ by Alex Ross. Both deep and wide in its history and analysis of the Wagner Phenomenon in the West, from the beginning of the composer’s work all the way through ‘Apocalypse Now’ and beyond. Ross is forthright about Wagner’s antisemitism.

    1. Interesting. I’m currently reading “The Twisted Muse: Musicians and Their Music in the Third Reich”
      by Michael Kater. Naturally Wagner plays a big role here.

    2. Ride of the Valkyries “really scares the hell out of the [Vietnamese villagers] and my boys love it.”

      — Lt. Col. “Bill” Kilgore

  3. I actually re-read _The_Plage_ a couple months ago, in English for the first time, as my French is no longer strong enough to read for pleasure, something I must address in the future.

    I also read _Desert_Solitaire_ by Edward Abbey over the holidays, and I highly recommend it

      1. The Plague…. I am a slooppy tyepst adn pore prufereeder…

        In the Nevil Shute realm, I am more a fan of Most_Secret or Requium_For_A_Wren than On_The_Beach…

  4. For reading enjoyment not enlightenment, I read murder mysteries; probably because I am a Forensic Biologist. In December I discovered a new author who is stunningly creative. Who would expect a theoretical physicist to be a mystery writer? Her biography: “Lexie Elliott was born in 1976 and grew up in Scotland, at the foot of the Highlands. Her first attempt at a book came in primary school, and featured a horse; sadly, that manuscript has been lost. She attended a local state high school, Dunblane High School, and spent much of her teenaged years reading and swimming. In 1994 she began a Physics degree at University College, Oxford, where she obtained a first; she subsequently obtained a doctorate in Theoretical Physics, also from Oxford University. A keen sportwoman, she represented Oxford University every one of her seven years there in either Swimming or WaterPolo, and usually both. However, she never lost her long held desire to become a writer and always had a drawer full of private scribblings.”

    Her first book was The French Girl and second book which I finished yesterday was “The Missing Years.” She has an ability to inter-twine time and place (perhaps her physics training showing through) but doesn’t distract from the reading. Both books involve the relationships of young professionals; lots of surprises you would never expect.

    I am looking forward to the book she is currently writing “How to Kill your Best Friend.” Check out her website:

    1. Thanks for the tip; I’ve just ordered The French Girl. Great to be able to support local talent. Might help me break out from trying to read all the Jack Reacher novels, in order.

    1. I recently read a complete collection of H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction. Supposedly horror, but I didn’t even shiver once (and I purposely read them right before going to bed!). Why not? Because of books like the one you mention. While I have not read it, I have read two others of its ilk, Kingdom Coming by Michelle Goldberg, and American Fascists by Chris Hedges. Easily the two most frightening books I’ve ever read. Religious gun nuts are scary; fictional monsters from beyond space and time, not so much.

  5. I’m in the middle of Corey Robin’s excellent book (a second, heavily revised edition), “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump.” And I’m nearly in the middle of Clive James’s “Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts.”

    As for novels, I’m in the mood to reread one of Thomas Berger’s comic novels: “The Feud” or maybe “Sneaky People.” “Being Invisible,” about a schlemiel who learns how to become invisible at will (but can’t seem to put his skill to any good or practical use), is also a contender.

    1. Hope you’re enjoying Cultural Amnesia–James is one of my favorites.
      I hope to explore more of Thomas Berger’s books. I enjoyed Little Big Man and loved Arthur Rex, his retelling of the legends.

      1. If you can believe it, I haven’t read those two Berger novels. “Killing Time” is another one I like. “The Feud,” by the way, was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. Anne Tyler calls it a “comic masterpiece.”

        James’s erudition is (was) terrifying.

      2. The great thing about Clive James’ memoirs is that you can hear his voice as you read them because they are written in the same style that he talked in.

  6. Best books I’ve read recently:

    _Stand Out of Our Light_ (James Williams)

    An analysis and criticism of the attention economy. In case anyone hasn’t followed the commentary from Tristan Harris or seen the 2020 documentary “The Social Dilemma”, this book is a great presentation of the material. I’d recommend this book to anyone, but I particularly hope that my fellow software development professionals will read it. We are literally creating a new society with the technology that we design, and we get to decide what kind of society we want it to be.

    _Spinning Silver_ (Naomi Novik)

    An impressive fantasy that I ended up enjoying more than I expected to. It’s not really a “fairytale retelling” but a creative story that draws from various eastern European mythological sources. The hard existence of the medieval have-nots and the experience of the Jews of that time comes across as authentic. And the message that resourceful women such as the protagonists might “work within the system” to improve their standing in the world is a good one, and one that’s sadly still valid in the real world, even if it shouldn’t be.

  7. In a pandemic mood I read Barry’s “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Plague in History”. I found it very enlightening, because a good part of the story is about the scientists trying to figure out what’s going on, a story of disappointments, grit, and the occasional success, and also because at times I forgot if I’m reading about now or then: much of the book reads like a script for what happened in 2020.

  8. Recently finished Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic, by Eric Eyre. Eyre was (recently retired) a reporter for the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail, one of the best newspapers of the Appalachian region. I am an Appalachian, in the hills of SE Ohio, and we have much the same issues here. Journalism at its best.

    Presently reading Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (pub. 1997) by Richard Rorty. He is no fan of what he called “victim studies”, now perhaps better known as “identity politics”.

    And for fiction, I am nearing the end of the final book of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, The Mirror & The Light. Not quite so good as the first two volumes, I think.

  9. La Peste is full of wonderful one-line sentences. On of my favorites:
    L’ habitude du désespoir est pire que le désespoir lui-même
    my translation
    Becoming used to despair is worse than the despair itself

    which I think is particularly applicable these days.

    1. Indeed. I found the following line very à propos during the lockdown here in Melbourne: “Mais si c’était l’exil dans la majorité des cas c’était l’exil chez soi” (‘But if this was exile, in most cases it was exile at home’).

  10. Haruki Murakami’s immense 1Q84. My suspicion is that the typical reader will either love it or hate it. I’m loving it; 1,158 pages (the Vintage three-volume paperback translation), and although I only started it the day after Christmas, I will finish it tomorrow. It’s definitely in the “if you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you’ll like” category. Hard to summarize what it’s about; my own impression is that it might best be categorized as slipstream, which I kind of sort of understand as “not quite weird enough to be surrealism.” Supposedly it’s a parallel-world 1984, but there are very limited references or allusions to Orwell’s book. One thing for sure–the reviewer who called it a “weirdly gripping page-turner” got it exactly right.

    For those interested in surrealism-related fiction, I also recently read Lisa Goldstein’s The Dream Years, in which a girl from revolutionary Paris in 1968 time travels back to 1924 and meets the surrealist French circle led by André Breton. Not even one-fourth as long as 1Q84!

    I’m also accepting recommendations for good weird/surrealist/slipstream fiction (note that I’ve already read Perdido Street Station). Thanks in advance.

    1. I love most of Murakami, though only got about halfway through 1Q84 when itgot too magical-realist for my taste. Did like Wind-Up Bird a lot, though.

      1. My next Murakami will be Kafka on the Shore, for the simple reason that I actually own a copy of it! But Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is now definitely on my TBR pile.

        1. I think I have Kafka on the Shore, still unread. Too much good stuff to read! And I am soooo behind on my New Yorkers, Atlantics, and Harper’s (never know how to pluralize Harper’s…)

          1. FWIW, I greatly enjoyed Kafka on the Shore. Reading it, and imagining the characters and the settings was like watching a Miyazaki film in my head.

  11. Within Mr Camus’ Plague and inside any of its notes and study guides thereafter, where and how is it pointed out, correctly and justly, that the gargantuan numbers of households’ after households’ after Worldwide households’ cleanups and the healings of all of the human beings, their sores cleansed, salved and bandaged and their vomita and diarrheas and other slops were, by far and away and without a n y measure of lovely hygienic appliances and machines and the cleanest of waters, .n o t. cleared away by the medical doctors, nearly all men, of the 1800s and 1900s ? that these back – to – normalization and unguent – activities were, hourly month after month ad infinitum and nearly wholly, accomplished only by girls and women ? by these human beings ? as .a r e. the human beings’ ghastly maladies of before, of since and of today ? For centuries and millennia.

    This matter was researched. I do not see, within Mr Camus’ work nor its study guides, that it was pointed out. Let alone, expanded upon.


      1. In re … … ” one only wishes she could occasionally
        have exercised a little more restraint, ” I ask
        after Ms Donoghue’s writing, ” But W H Y ?
        Why restraint, Reviewer Peake – Tomkinson ? ”

        AFTER nigh unto 73 entire years’ worth
        of staying shut – th’ ‘ell – up, I am, f i n a l l y now,
        ALL about speaking up i) for fairness and
        ii) for effort. Women and girls have, for just ever,
        been shoved in ALL that they a r e, to only
        the back o’th’ bus. And, now I, within my 73rd year,
        will for myself, at the least and at last, END that.

        I, the World’s Slowest Reader Who Loves to Read
        So Reads Only Nonfiction … … usually, ‘ve already
        reserved this novel at my local public library.
        Thank you, Mr Dom, in re its recommendation.


  12. Try Kindred by Rebecca Wragg Sykes. A well-written review of Neandertals. I also just started Fossil Men by Kermit Pattison about the discovery and controversy surrounding the earliest hominins. Both keep your attention and are full of detail.

    1. Just got an email saying that there is a new Lincoln Lawyer tv series coming to Netflix! Loved the McConnaghey movie, but this will have a different Mickey Haller. Doesn’t seem to be in Canuckland yet but it’s apparently “coming soon”.

  13. I’ve had All for Nothing on top of my To Read Next pile for a while (we subscribe to the NYRB series.)
    Currently reading Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener and Shuggie Bain(latest Booker Prize winner) by Douglas Stuart.

  14. I reread The Plague back during the first month of the pandemic lockdown. What was that, March? Of what year? Seems like a decade ago.

    I just started a book of short fiction by Bruce Jay Friedman. I’ve read stories of his in magazines over the years, but this is the first time I’ve tucked into an entire collection.

    Your mention of Meghan Daum’s being a big Joan Didion fan made me recall this piece from a few years ago in The Atlantic by Caitlin Flanagan, about Ms. Didion and the outsized influence she’s had on women writers of the generations that followed.

  15. Just read Black Sun by Owen Williams – thriller set in Soviet Russia in 1961 after the murder of a scientist at a secret science city where they are working on a mega bomb. One character is loosely based on the nuclear scientist, Sakharov…

    Also just started Jim Al-Khalili’s The World According to Physics, a book I got in March 2019, the week before lockup, at a talk he gave in London. Got it signed. So miss going to talks… 😩

    Finally, also just started The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, a historical novel written in a sort of strange ‘old’ English –
    It is… interesting… in a good way!

    1. Black Sun was great on atmosphere & I learnt how important it was to contain the initial explosion, that even then very little uranium actually reacted. The casing of the bomb, had it been made if uranium, would have made the explosion even more massive. Some feared the atmosphere would catch fire. The Tsar Bomb…

      Above I meant March 2020!

  16. I’m about two-thirds of the way through Kim.Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, a climate change novel set in the very near future (the titular Ministry is created in 2024). It’s an interesting take on the things we could and should be doing right now, and the things that might be just around the corner.

    Every so often, the narrative is interrupted by short chapters presenting pieces of factual information (economic, scientific, historical, psychological) and discussions about them, sometimes ending with an invitation to the reader to think further about some aspect or other. (There are also digressions from the points of view of, say, migrants and African mine workers affected by the climate crisis, plus extremely short commentaries by inanimate objects such as a carbon atom.) As you’ll gather, it isn’t for everyone but it is certainly thought provoking and an interesting read so far.

  17. I’ve read All for Nothing, which I thought superb and shattering. I’m now reading Operation Shylock, the only Philip Roth novel I hadn’t read, as well as The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson’s book about Churchill and the Blitz. Also, as always when stressed, I turn to Wodehouse. It hardly matters which, since plot is secondary at best, but this time it’s rereading Lord Emsworth and Others.

        1. There are certainly post-modernist elements in both series of Zuckerman novels — the first starting in the late ’70s with the Zuckerman Bound trilogy and continuing through 1986’s The Counterlife; the second, beginning in the 1990s with American Pastoral and continuing through 2007’s Exit Ghost — as well in some of Roth’s other novels, but I’d consider Operation Shylock to be Roth’s only pure metafiction effort.

          Hell, Roth took the metafictionalist doppelgänger element of the “Philip Roth” character in Operation Shylock all the way to the point of giving an interview contemporaneous with the novel’s publication to The New York Times Book Section claiming that the entire story of his working with Mossad in Israel was true.

          Fiction doesn’t get much more meta than that. 🙂

  18. I just finished Gambling with Armageddon about the Cuban missile crises which I was riveted to. I grew up during that time but didn’t really understand what was going on. I just knew to be very anxious.
    The Red Pill I read but I wasn’t realize captivated by.
    I am currently reading Panics and Persecutions. Really good.
    Bag Man was great.
    I loved The Very Candid Autobiography of Baron de Rothschild. What a fascinating guy.
    I’m just reading full time pretty much here.

  19. Reading about the lovely final sentences of The Plague reminded me that The Stranger also finishes very deftly. I don’t have a copy to refer to, but I always liked the bit about Meursault opening himself up to the “benign indifference” of the universe.

    1. Here you go, uommibatto:

      And I too felt ready to live my life again. As if this great outburst of anger had purged all my ills, killed all my hopes, I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world. And finding it so much like myself, in fact so fraternal, I realized that I’d been happy, and that I was still happy. For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.

      (That’s from the Penguin edition translated by Joseph Laredo.)

  20. I’m about a quarter of the way through Matthew Cobb’s The Idea of the Brain, and so far it’s one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in some time.

    I recently finished rereading all the Jeeves and Wooster books, which are a nice distraction from the pandemic. Also finished rereading Doing Good Better, which is a great introduction to the effective altruism movement and how we can make a difference in the world.

  21. I have The Plague on my ready-to-read shelf. I just finished David Potter’s The Impending Crisis: 1848-1861, which I highly recommend. Now moving over to one of my Xmas presents, Paul Dickson’s The Rise of the G.I. Army, 1940-1941: The Forgotten Story of How America Forged a Powerful Army Before Pearl Harbor, which looks to be very good after two chapters.

  22. Remember that ‘The Plague’ was also an analogy of the fight (“résistance”) against that other non-bacterial plague: the Nazis. In that sense, the last words gain some extra depth – and rather than illuminating the current virus pandemic, may instead illuminate the current populism-with-rage wave spreading in many parts of the world (and that just gave us the Capitol invasion). Evil never goes away (it may be dormant) – and the only thing we can strive for is to love…

  23. I am in the middle of “The Holy State and the Profane State,” by Thomas Fuller, a 17th century English churchman and historian. After I finish it I will move on to his three-volume Church History of England, which I am slightly dreading. These are not the sort of books I usually read, but Fuller was an excellent stylist who crafted witty, aphoristic sentences that show off the richness of 17th century prose.

    Some quotes from the chapter of The Holy State I most recently finished, on Memory:

    “Overburden not thy memory to make so faithful a servant a slave. Remember, Atlas was weary. Have as much reason as a camel, — to rise when thou hast thy full load. Memory [is] like a purse, — if it be over-full that it cannot shut, all will drop out of it. Take heed of a gluttonous curiosity to feed on many things, lest the greediness of the appetite of thy memory spoil the digestion thereof. Beza’s case was peculiar and memorable: Being above four-score years of age, he perfectly could say by heart any Greek chapter in St. Paul’s epistles, or any thing else which he had learned long before, but forgot whatsoever was newly told him; his memory, like an inn, retaining old guests, but having no room to entertain new.”

    “Adventure not all thy learning in one bottom, but divide it betwixt thy memory and thy note-books, — He that, with Bias, carries all his learning about him in his head, will utterly be beggared and bankrupt, if a violent disease (a merciless thief !) should rob and strip him. I know, some have a common-place against common-place books, and yet, perchance, will privately make use of what publicly they declaim against. A common-place book contains many notions in garrison, whence the owner may draw out an army into the field on competent warning.”

    “…some proud people have been visited with such oblivion, that they have forgotten their own names. Staupitius, tutor to Luther, and a godly man, in a vain ostentation of his memory repeated Christ’s genealogy by heart in his sermon; but, being out about the captivity of Babylon, ‘I see,’ saith he, ‘God resisteth the proud;’ and so betook himself to his book. Abuse not thy memory to be sin’s register, nor make advantage thereof for wickedness.”

  24. My most serious reading adventure over the fall and winter of 2020-21 has been Michael Burlingame’s two volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. I’m about a quarter of the way into volume two. A monumental work, to say the least. If it were required reading for any American graduating from high school, I doubt you would see ignoramuses storming the seat of our government, some carrying the banner of the confederacy, shameful. Speaking of Lincoln, did you see that a Civil War Veteran’s widow died in December – yes of 2020 – check the latest issue of the Smithsonian magazine.

    1. Would you recommend the Lincoln book? I just read U S Grant’s memoirs which was so good and made me think I should read about Lincoln.

      1. The Lincoln biographies don’t stop coming. One of the latest is “Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times” by David S. Reynolds (2020 publication date). It has gotten good reviews. Reynolds’ approach is tell Lincoln’s story in the cultural context of his times.

      1. That’s true, but Helen Viola Jackson never collected. This is from the Smithsonian article dated January 7, 2021:

        Following her husband’s death in June 1939, Jackson kept their marriage a secret for decades. She never remarried or had children and, in an ironic twist of fate, declined to apply for the pension that had precipitated the marriage in the first place.Speaking with Clark, Jackson said that one of Bolin’s daughters threatened to ruin her reputation if she went through with the pension application.“All a woman had in 1939 was her reputation,” she explained. “I didn’t want them all to think that I was a young woman who had married an old man to take advantage of him.”

        When I read: “… in an ironic twist of fate, …” couldn’t help think of Bob Dylan’s song, A Simple Twist of Fate.

    2. AS I suspected. Upon reading in re such a woman.

      And not at all difficult to find evidence of such a ” use ”
      of a 15 – year – old human being who possessed a vagina:
      ” Lucy Marsden, who was married around 1900 when
      she was 15 and her husband,
      Captain William Marsden, was 50. ”

      A common but oft – angering s e t t l i n g for such
      the same human beings. To be clear.
      To be, ya’ know, f a i r. Then. And, Worldwide, … … now.


  25. I always read posts like this, including the comments, with some apprehension, as they inevitably throw up a number of titles that I ought to have read but haven’t, and a lot more that I’ve never heard of but look interesting. Still, I have actually read La Peste, although now I guess I should read it again…

    Because we do a lot of walking, at Christmas my better half gave me “The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs” by Tristan Gooley, which as the title suggests is all about using the information one can deduce from the natural world – land, sun, moon, stars, trees, plants, animals, sky and clouds – to work out which way is North, find the safest route down a mountain, or simply make one’s walk more interesting. I’m about two-thirds of the way through and enjoying it very much.

  26. Any number of short stories (almost mini-novels) by my fellow Canuck and Nobel literature laureate, Alice Munro. These are not that new, but I’d neglected a lot of it.

    Speaking of that other laureate, Camus, I can’t avoid thinking of “Le Blog de Jean Paul Sartre”, quite old, and I think very funny—maybe because I’m mostly annoyed by 20th century French philosophers (and a couple of mathematicians too!). But an entry with Camus:

    “Friday, 2 October, 1959: 5:55 A.M.
    My sleep continues to be troubled by odd dreams. Last night I dreamt that I was a beetle, clinging to the slick surface of a water-soaked log as it careened down a rain-swollen stream toward a waterfall. A figure appeared on the horizon, and as the log drew closer I could see that it was Camus. He held out a hand and I desperately reached for it with my tiny feeler. Just as the log drew abreast of Camus he suddenly withdrew his hand, swooped it through his hair, and sneered “Too slow,” adding superfluously, “Psych.”
    It is my belief that the log symbolizes the precariousness of Existence, while the tiny feeler represents Man’s essential powerlessness. And Camus represents Camus, that fatuous ninny.”

    Perhaps the best one has someone knocking, ‘Sartre’ mistakes for the Harbinger of Death–but {spoiler!) it turns out to be the UPS guy.

  27. M. Andrew Holowchak. “Thomas Jefferson: Moralist”. McFarland & Company, Inc..(March 22, 2017)

    A methodicaly deep and detailed accounting of Jefferson’s ethical views through study of his accounts of the moral sense, morality in general, and human flourishing from his own written legacy, contemporary and modern opinion, and analysis of and relevancy to his several recommended reading lists and personal library catalog. The only disappointing aspect of this book is the lack of coverage between Jefferson’s very high morals and his participation in the slave trade. I hear the author has treated this topic alone in another book that will take some time to save up for, “Rethinking Thomas Jeffersons Writings on Slavery and Race”, Cambridge Scholars Publishing; 1st edition (March 1, 2020).

    Next up: Holowchak, M. Andrew. “American Messiah: The Surprisingly Simple Religious Views of Thomas Jefferson:. Abilene Christian University Press.(November 10, 2020)

  28. I’m about 2/3 of the way through Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World”, a very readable history book which takes in a wide sweep of both time (500 BCE to the present) and geography.

    In fiction, I recently read “Call Me By Your Name” by Andre Aciman, after reading an interview with the author in the Guardian. It’s beautifully written and very evocative of the pains of youthful love.

    1. If you like history I’d recommend Wild Swans, which covers 20th century history of China but from a personal perspective. It’s more a family chronicle that a history book really, but it covers lots of history and it’s definitely sparked my interest to learn more.

      A good book covering the Middle East is Black Wave, which centers around the pivotal year of 1979, which saw the siege of Mecca, the Iranian revolution, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

  29. I should have added to my recommendation that one needs a strong stomach when reading the accounts of the cultural context of the mid 19th century. I’m speaking of ugly racist attitudes that prevailed throughout white America. Nevertheless, if one wants to understand events of our own time, its necessary to hold your nose and look at our roots. Whether its Jim Crow laws, Nixon’s southern strategy, Trump’s wall or the confederate flag being carried into the halls of Congress the culture of that time needs to be examined and understood. As I am reading the book, I keep remembering Shelby Foote’s elequant admonition. And, as the news of the recent death of the final widow indicates, the Civil War is not ancient history.

  30. I certainly intend to read more books about Lincoln and the mid-19th century. I’ll put Reynolds book on my list. I think however that Burlingame lays a firm foundation on which to build. In the book section of my local Sunday newspaper, there is a brief review of a book by James Oakes entitled Crooked Path to Abolition, Abraham Lincoln and the Antislavery Constitution.

  31. I am a Brit who is trying to understand modern America which includes the most traumatic event in the US’s history – the Civil War. I have just completed the outstanding “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era” by James M. McPherson. It has put the Civil War into context and how it has shaped modern America.

  32. I just flew through Wild Swans by Jung Chang, which was apparently a bestseller in the 90’s (I think it was even an Oprah book). This may be the first Oprah book I’ve ever read. Anyway… it’s about 3 generations of Chinese women, and goes through the history of 20th century China from their perspective (ends around 1980), starting with the grand mother who was married to a warlord and had her feet bound as a child. I found it compulsively readable. It was, unsurprisingly, a harrowing tale, though ultimately it was inspiring in depicting just how resilient the human spirit is.

  33. Ubravka Ugresic’s “The Age of Skin” is the kind of nonfiction that only those who have lived through Stalinism and today’s neoStalinism in eastern Europe can understand and express. In keeping with other eastern European social critics, her lack of sentiment, brevity, sense of irony and detachment from ideology actually confer authority on her writings. Here she interviews
    Russians today, most of whom long nostalgically for the days of Stalin when
    life was hard but certain, or who hate the inheritance of the worst of western culture and its materialist aspirations. One must conclude that the only sane Russians long ago deserted their country, leaving behind those with short memories and no particular desire for freedom or democracy. This is a
    true life diary, no philosophical or moral dissertations, just a hard look at the hard life of a people who have neither illusions nor happiness.

  34. Nothing intellectual in my little list:
    1. Turn the ship around
    2. Rebel Ideas
    3. An utterly impartial history of Britain (2000 years of upper-class idiots in charge)
    Number 1 is by an American submarine commander and relates to ways of raising engagement; two is about the value of increasing cognitive diversity in teams; and three is a funny scamper through British history.
    Not intellectual, but I found that all three changed how I thought.
    Late addition: for Christmas, I gave two copies of ‘Flashman’ to friends who claimed to dislike novels. Both finished the book within days and ordered the next book in the series.

  35. A small correction from Lorna Salzman: the Ugresic book looks at eastern European (primarily Bosnia and Serbia) countries’ post Stalin politics and cultural life, not at those of Russia. My apologies for this error. However, an equally if not more disturbing look at present Russian attitudes is in Svetlana Alexievich’s book “Secondhand Time:The Last of the Soviets”. Both books should be read to get the fuller picture.

  36. If you want have a bit of fun, read Boswell’s,” Journals”. Start from 1762. This plucky young Scotsman knew how to write and yet better to entertain. His brilliant masterpiece, “Life of Johnson”, set the standard in biography, ofcourse, but his memoirs carry the day. Engaging and hilarious from start to finish.

  37. I haven’t, but I know a bit about post WWI middle east after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. I seem to remember a Sykes-Picot agreement or something to that effect. Black Wave has filled in a gap for me regarding middle east history post WWII. I may have to check that book out though.. work backward in time.

  38. All for nothing sounded interesting (blurbed by Jenny Erpenbeck, no less) and since I have lots of time lately I read it last week. What a gut punch.

Leave a Reply