Dan Schmidt's book diary: 1998

This is one of them cult novels, where you've never heard of it but then you hear from three different people that it's the best book they've ever read. Plus I'd seen his latest novel, Sewer, Gas, & Electric, compared to Pynchon. So I read it. It was fun. It wasn't the best book I've ever read.

My advice is to read it when you're 20 and still believe in true love and haven't quite grown out of fantasy novels yet. A decade later and you won't get the full effect. I did go and buy Sewer, Gas, & Electric; we'll see how that is.

I found out about Greg Egan on the web; some guy who liked the same authors I do also had Egan on his list. Egan's books are "hard SF" or "idea SF" or whatever you want to call it; they're based on exploring interesting ideas rather than characters, really. And he has really good ideas, and knows how to explore them in a way that makes sense. He's a scientist type himself, which helps.

I'm not really much of a science fiction fan but this book had good ideas, although it wrapped up a little uncovnincingly. I also picked up a book of his short stories, which are good so far.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Brothers Karamazov
Well, yeah. I can get a little spooked before picking up some heavy classic, but they're generally less difficult than the heavy contemporary novels. This has all your standard Massive Russian Novel elements: a brooding atmosphere, great characters, some sorta heavy-handed philosophy, and a surprisingly page-turning plot. Then it turns into a murder mystery and things really get going. If I have to pick just one MRN I'll take War and Peace, but this is a classic. What, did you need my recommendation before you went ahead and read it?
These are volumes 1 and 2 of what is currently an 18-book (!) series set in the English Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The books focus on two men: a captain, Jack Aubrey, and the surgeon on his ship, Stephen Maturin. O'Brian is all the rage these days, so despite being not that excited about the genre, I tried a taste.

Well, they're really good. The naval action is exciting, but the real interest comes from from the interaction between the two men. Master and Commander is pretty action-oriented, but Post Captain has a lot of interpersonal stuff going on on land a la Jane Austen, and I understand that that remains true for the other books in the series. Perhaps it's not Great Literature, but it is exceedingly well-written and exciting. Try the second one first, is my recommendation.

Steve Erickson
American Nomad
Steve Erickson is one of my favoritest authors. He writes with this sorta hallucinatory magic realism, where everything is somehow connected behind the scenes although you can't figure out how, and as in a dream, lots of things don't quite make sense but even so you feel that they are somehow true. Unfortunately, his last novel, Amnesiascope, was really bad.

This is the book he wrote after that. It's not a novel; it's non-fiction, about the 1996 presidential campaign. It's well-written and has a bunch of good scenes and well-reasoned arguments, but I liked his book about the 1988 campaign, Leap Year, better. The problem with the 1996 campaign is that it got less and less interesting as it went on, and that ends up being true of the book as well.

Patrick O'Brian
H.M.S. Surprise
Oh damn, this book is the best one of the series yet. So much for my reading list for the next year. This time Aubrey and Maturin venture to India. There's lots of naval and romantic intrigue, and guess what?, there's a setup for the next novel in the series. Sigh. This is bad news for my wallet and calendar. But it's too late for me, save yourselves!
Victor Pelevin
The Life of Insects
Weird and wonderful. The Life of Insects takes place in contemporary Russia, but all the characters are simultaneously people and insects; their descriptions and actions switch back and forth between human and insect with no explanation, yet the world remains oddly consistent. It's not just a gimmick; I found many of the interlinked stories very moving. Fabulous in every sense of the word.
A friend recommended Lethem last year, but I didn't try him out until I saw a rave review of his latest. Lethem is one of those writers who gets called "magic realist" so that people don't feel guilty that they're reading science fiction.

Anyway, this book is a lot of fun. I can't remember the last time I read through a book in one sitting. Funny and touching and thought-provoking. I will definitely search out more Lethem.

Patrick O'Brian
The Mauritius Command
Actually, my least favorite of the series so far. The focus is mostly on naval combat and less on people, though the battles are pretty exciting and there are some interesting new characters.
The day to day life of a nine-year-old girl, told from her point of view. It's charming and all, but nothing really happens, and the pleasures of remembering what life at nine was like aren't enough to carry the book.
Nicholson Baker
The Mezzanine
So I had another go at this, one of my favorite books of all time, to remind me how good Baker can be. A short "novel" filled with nothing but crushingly accurate and beautiful observations on everyday life. If you're a fan of this kind of stuff, you should also try Alain de Botton's On Love.
Greg Egan
I was in short attention span mode for a little while, as I prepared to move, so I went through this collection of short stories (see my notes on Permutation City above). I think Egan is better as a short story writer; he can get his idea across without having to frill it up too much with character and plot. And the ideas are great, although he tends to mine the same territory, so I feel like I've read a dozen stories, not nineteen.
Banana Yoshimoto
A friend of mine is a big Banana Yoshimoto fan, so I got this when I saw it remaindered. It was good, but I was expecting more. The plot started out making me think it would be a neat postmodern mystery, but then nothing really happened. Which might have been okay if I had been prepared for that. Sometimes it is beautiful and thoughtful in an understated way, sometimes I just found it awkward. I agree with most of the reader reviews on the Amazon site, both positive and negative.
Sebastien Japrisot
A Very Long Engagement
I'll admit it, I cried. An beautiful book about love and war and mystery and history, set during and after World War I. And a total page-turner. Read it.
Thank goodness that's over. For four days I planned my life around reading this book; it's that addictive. Murder and political intrigue in 17th century England. The book isn't that great at giving a physical feel of the time and place, but it is great at giving an intellectual feel of it; people approach problems much differently from how they do now, and all ideas, scientific or otherwise, are as a matter of course inspected for how they relate to God and the teachings of the ancient philosophers. Meanwhile you've got four unreliable narrators whose accounts of the same event keep on contradicting each other and overturning what you think you know.You might be able to stay one step ahead of the plot, but the truth is usually a couple steps farther still. And did I mention that it's a suspenseful murder mystery? Read it, but don't expect to do much else for a few days.
Brooks Hansen
The Chess Garden
I've never read anything quite like this novel. Half a collection of fantastic children's stories, half a biography of the scientist-philosopher who wrote them. As the book proceeds, you begin to see how the stories are parables designed to teach the professor's religious philosophy. Touching and mind-expanding.
David Sedaris
Autobiographical essays, funny enough to make you cry and sad enough to make you laugh. David Sedaris is incredibly funny, which can be a little weird; you don't expect the darker stuff to show up in a humorous book like this, and then getting a viciously funny one-liner in the middle of a depressing episode seems incongruous. But that's how life works, I guess.
This is another book that is lots of people's favorite ever. Well, I did like it a lot. Owen is quite a character, though it took me a few hundred pages to stop finding him insufferable. The book is very touching, and makes you look at life differently for a while. I am getting tired of these Calvinist books in which everything is fated to happen as has been foretold in the days of yore; this is the third book like that I've read in the last year or so ( The Discovery of Heaven and Fool on the Hill were the others) with that theme, and to me it makes novels kind of pointless. But this book handled the theme well, I'll admit.

Other peeves: I didn't see the point of the 1987 material, especially the political rants. And his perception of rock music is rather embarrassing; it just rings really false. Don't get me wrong; it was a great book. But it doesn't get into my top ten.

Alain de Botton
On Love
I needed a little break from Proust, so I took a couple of days to reread this. It's sort of the Mezzanine of relationships. Some of his observations are indeed Proustian in their unexpected accuracy, as in his description of Marxism (Groucho, not Karl - "I wouldn't want to be in any club that would have me as a member" as applied to love). A few years later it still all rings true, although somewhat diminished by the fact that he's now written a couple more books very much like it. Now that I'm reading Proust I see where a lot of his writing sensibilities come from.
I really knew nothing at all of Korea before I read this, and it was fascinating. I actually found the older history more interesting, although that's mostly just there for background and the emphasis is on 20th century events. He's not afraid to criticize South Korea and respect North Korea; it feels like he's trying to counteract conventional wisdom about the evilness of North Korea, and since I didn't already have the conventional wisdom, his take seemed a bit imbalanced to me. But the book was certainly very informative and thought-provoking.
Yes, that Remembrance of Things Past. I can't believe I ate the whole thing. Because it's just stuck in the middle of this list, it looks like I got through it in a couple of weeks, but actually I spent six months reading it. It was worth it.

For my thoughts on it, you should mosey over to the Proustometer page, where you can see my various progress reports.

Christopher Priest
The Prestige
The story of two battling stage magicians at the turn of the century, each with lots of secrets; three generations later, their descendants try to figure out what really happened.

It was a bunch of fun, and a nice light read after Proust. Things take a turn toward the supernatural later on, which I was not too happy with at first, but he handles it well. I figured out one big secret around page 70 (it's not hard, especially since the narrator in that section spends lots of time going "I've got a secret! I've got a secret! You'll never guess what it is!"), and did spend some number of pages waiting for the characters to catch up. I read it in one sitting (I tend to do that sort of thing during the holidays), so it was obviously pretty gripping.

Robert Graves
I, Claudius
A few weeks ago, a friend had some people over to watch a couple episodes of the BBC miniseries of I, Claudius, and man, was it fun. So naturally I put the original book on my to-read list. The novel isn't quite as much fun as the miniseries (you don't get those great soap-opera moments like when Livia turns evilly to the camera and says, "Oh, yes, I care a great deal whether he lives or dies", referring to someone she's busy poisoning) but it's still quite the page-turner. It's surprising that there's anyone still left standing at the end. I hope I get a chance to see the rest of the miniseries.

I also should read the sequel, before I forget all the names and relations (and believe me, it's not easy: everyone's always marrying their cousin, having three kids, divorcing, marrying another cousin, having another three kids, and then getting assassinated), but for some reason it seems to be much less popular (e.g., there are no customer reviews at Amazon).

Ken Kalfus
I'm not generally a big fan of short stories, but this collection got some great reviews, so I gave it a shot, and I'm glad I did. They range from realistic to fanciful, and I liked the latter category the best, especially one with fake baseball anecdotes (e.g., a pitcher who threw 27 straight balls, a batter who fouled off 60 pitches). One nice thing about short story collections is that you can be exposed to a lot of varied situations and ideas in a short time, and that was certainly the case here.
Harold Pinter
The Proust Screenplay
Although I'm a bit Prousted out after spending six months with him, I want to do my related reading now, while the novel is still fresh in my mind.

This is a screenplay (of the entire 3300-page novel) written in the 70's; it's never been produced. After reading through it, I can see why. It's actually not that long; I bet it would be under two hours. But the way that it ping-pongs back and forth between all the stages of Marcel's life, briefly focusing on this and that anecdote or experience, each of which might be responsible for fifty pages of analysis in the original, makes it incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't read the book, I would bet. I thought it was extremely well done, and I'd absolutely love to see it; it's a masterful interpretation and condensation of the novel. But I bet that anyone coming to the movie without reading Proust first is just going to have no clue.

Pinter does get bonus points for including just about every single plot point of the novel except the madeleine.

I liked this a whole lot. De Botton presents a selection of the things we can learn from Proust (his books and his life). I was afraid that after actually reading Remembrance of Things Past, this would be sort of redundant, but it's a nice companion to the novel; he doesn't do much recapitulation of the plot, and anyway, half of the book is about Proust the man.

The reviews on Amazon are mixed, but what I like about it is exactly the thing that turns some people off: its informal style. Granted, it's no doctoral thesis, but there are many penetrating insights. In any case, I wish there were more books like this; you get the feeling that your smart, knowledgable, and funny friend is talking to you about an interesting topic. It's the kind of style I try to write in in these pages as well, although I'm sure many people perceive these mini-reviews as excessively shallow. There's a place for academic treatises (and I read those too), but there's a place for these books as well.

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Last updated 4 January 1999