Dan Schmidt's book diary: 1999

Nick Hornby
About a Boy
Nick Hornby's writing goes down very easy, so this is almost a guilty pleasure, but it really is very well written. He makes all of the characters sympathetic and understandable; the trick of two narrators works especially well. I identified particularly with Marcus, having once been an awkward twelve-year-old boy myself. It's nice that at the end it's acknowledged that Marcus has lost as well as gained something (and vice versa).

Unfortunately, I read a fairly significant portion of this book last year, as it was condensed and excerpted to create a story for the New Yorker. So I had an unfortunate sense of deja vu through much of it.

Yasunari Kawabata
The Master of Go
It's surprising I haven't read this ages ago, being the go fiend that I am. It's written in an understated way that seems typically Japanese, whether that's a fair stereotype or not. It's a slightly fictionalized account of an actual lengthy go match played between the reigning master and an up-and-coming challenger.

I enjoyed it, but I'm not sure how much someone who didn't know go would miss. The translator didn't seem to have a very good idea of how the game works. The score of the game itself is included; it's actually not a great game, by professional standards. But I suppose that isn't really the point.

I bought this when I read Ken Kalfus say that it was an inspiration for the baseball story in his collection, which I liked a lot. The idea is great: the story of a fictional baseball league, with lots of wacky anecdotes unburdened by reality. I'm really ambivalent about the execution. A lot of it is great; I laughed out loud a few times, which I rarely do. Lots of really stupidly funny literary references too.

But I don't know if it's just that it's the 90's or what, but the constant willful political-incorrectness made me wince over and over. I wasn't sure I would be able to get past the prologue, but I did okay afterwards. It was wildly overwritten too, but again, that calmed down after the beginning. I may try another Roth to see if he's always like this.

Here's an interesting book. It's the study of the development and failure (it was never deployed) of Aramis, a PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) system designed in France. It's presented in a semifictional format; the narrator is an intern to a sociologist trying to figure out what went wrong with the project. We follow its history along with excerpts from interviews and various documents.

Some of it was fascinating, and the conclusions at the end were interesting, but I have to admit that often my eyes glazed over at some of the sociological explanations of what was going on. I'd be interested to see what Latour's straight nonfiction is like.

Nicholas Tomalin
and Ron Hall
The Strange Last Voyage
of Donald Crowhurst
Wow, what a wacko book. This is the true story of a man who entered a 1968 competition to sail around the world, no stops, no companions. A few weeks in, he started faking his position and keeping a false logbook; eventually, he went mad. There was enough documentation that Tomalin and Hall can reconstruct pretty much exactly what happened. Watching him go from small lies to complete madness, as he attempts to keep up his ruse, is gripping stuff.
Paolo Maurensig
The Lüneburg Variation
Sort of a reverse mystery: at the beginning of the novel, a man dies, and you know (sort of) who's responsible, and then the rest of the book is devoted to the background of how it happened. I was interested in this book originally largely because chess is an element of the plot; indeed it is, and it's treated very well and faithfully. There aren't any stupidities like people suddenly finding out they've been checkmated. There's only one mistake on the chess front, and it's so egregious, given the rest of the book ('stalemate by repetition'), that I assume it's a translation issue.

Anyway, as far as the actual novel goes, it was short, exciting, and interesting, although a hackneyed concentration camp segment rang false; I felt like Maurensig was a bit over his head there. He has a new novel out, which is getting good reviews.

Po Bronson
Catch-22 set in the world of a financial institution. It's really obviously modeled on Catch-22; heck, look at the title, for starters. It was funny and enjoyable, but the fact that on every page I was aware that he was imitating a better book kind of took the wind out of its sails.
Mark Helprin
Winter's Tale
This was at the top of the list of books that people keep recommending to me based on the other books I like. It was honestly a bit of a letdown.

The story itself was an interesting genre of magical realism, and the plot was good, but the author kept annoying me. For one thing, I was constantly aware that he was Telling A Grand Story, which obviously was intentional, but rubbed me the wrong way; it made me feel like he thought I was twelve.

The more disturbing thing was the implicit politics. It's largely the good, smart, noble, moral, beautiful people vs. the evil, stupid, silly, ugly people. The second category of people (I'm thinking specifically of the editor of the rival newspaper; I can't remember names right now) were drawn as such caricatures that I felt sorry for them. I felt like I was reading a Wagner libretto.

Anyway, it was definitely well-written, and I got through the whole thing, but as a whole it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

(By the way, now that I've read this, the new #1 entry in the list of books that everyone who knows my tastes says I must read is The Name of the Rose.)

Virginia Woolf
Mrs. Dalloway
A wonderful book, quiet and moving. I hadn't read any Woolf before, and I was blown away; I'll have to try some others. The writing actually reminded me a little of Pynchon, when he starts describing things poetically and unmooring himself just a little from prose.

Every detail is beautifully set, and the whole adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. This is the kind of understated writing I would have liked to have seen in the Kawabata; you're left to sort out the epiphanies yourself, but each moment is full of meaning. Eh, I'm not making any sense at all. But reading this was just a very fulfilling experience.

Marukami seems to have been getting more personal and less fantastical. I enjoyed his most recent novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, very much (this was actually written earlier, but translated later), and this novel also concerns itself more with feelings than with crazy escapades.

A man is torn between two women, and tries to come to grips with his capacity for doing evil. The protagonist is drawn disturbingly sympathetically. I've seen a few people complain about the translation, but it seemed fine to me.

Michael Cunningham
The Hours
I had seen a good book review of this, and it's sort of based on Mrs. Dalloway, which I just read and loved, so I gave it a shot. It was excellent. (A couple months after I read it, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.) The style is informed by Woolf though not a direct imitation, and the ways in which plays off of Woolf's novel are really neat. I have an affection for works like this that refer to earlier works, whether it be music (e.g., Alfred Schnittke), art (e.g., Mark Tansey) or literature. The technique just resonates with me somehow.
Holy Moses, wow. This is the most amazing book I've read in ages. I don't know how to describe it. Think the Codex Seraphinianus translated into English. Or an encyclopedia badly translated into another language, eight times in a row. In a way, it's the anti-Finnegans Wake (not that I've read that all the way through); the language is just as screwed up, but it's by using simple words strangely, not by using strange words simply. It somehow manages to be weirdly affecting while it's at it. I can't wait to see what he's up to these days.
I liked this more than Fool on the Hill, which I read last year. It's a big goofy romp with a big goofy complicated plot that doesn't have much to it besides being entertaining, which is okay by me; I think it's good to have talented people who don't all feel the need to write the book of the century. I'll probably read his next one, too.
I had read Leviathan a few years back and enjoyed it, but this was even better. Three quasi-mystery novellas, each one deeply unsettling. They are narrated in a deadpan style that makes the consequent rupturing of reality even stranger. I was really weirded out by this book and spent the next week questioning the validity of concepts as basic as self-identity. In other words, it was great.
Bill Harkleroad, better known as Zoot Horn Rollo, was a guitarist in Captain Beefheart's legendary Magic Band. This is Harkleroad's reminscences of what it was like to play in that band. If you've heard Trout Mask Replica, you probably understand why it's so exciting to get a first-hand account of how that music was made; it's crazy music that has always been shrouded in mystery.

Harkleroad's no professional writer, but that's not really the point. Plenty of anecdotes, plenty of comments on individual songs. Highly recommended for all Beefheart fanatics.

More dark magic realism from Erickson. I like his novels a lot, but I'm still waiting for him to write the masterpiece of our time, which I'm starting to lose faith is going to happen. His novels have this hypnotic sense of unreality which is sometimes really compelling and sometimes just seems sort of pretentious. This one was good, but I never really got pulled in, and I already find it hard to remember it.
David Grand
Kafkaesque story of a man with no memory trapped in a giant building completely filled with an infathomable bureacracy. It was okay. I spent most of it thinking that Stanislaw Lem had done it better in Memoirs Found in a Bathtub.
Julian Dibbell
My Tiny Life
Nonfiction about Dibbell's experiences on a MOO, which is like a MUD. I was interested in it because I hang out on a MUD and I was curious to see what sort of commonality there was between the communities.

It was pretty interesting, and Dibbell didn't get much technical stuff wrong, which is a welcome relief. I felt he kind of overdid the sensationalistic aspects, but I suppose that's what you do when you write a book. Apparently most of the actual MOOers don't like it very much, which is probably not too surprising.

Neal Stephenson
I spent most of the Fourth of July weekend sitting in a chair, sweating and reading this. It was time well spent. It's a romp; lots of action, and nerd-friendly technology stuff, with a zillion intersecting plot lines. I particularly liked the way in which the present and past plots joined hands. It is kind of overstuffed and unedited, but that's life; if it had been pared down, it would have lost some of the over-the-top effusiveness that makes it so enjoyable.
J. R. R. Tolkien
The Silmarillion
I heard about this Lord Of The Rings series of movies that's being made, and it made me nostalgic for the books, which I hadn't read since college. But this time, I decided to read this 'prequel', which contains many of the myths of Middle-Earth, first.

I liked it, though I usually don't go for this telling-not-showing mythological kind of exposition. It certainly made me even more impressed by Tolkien's creative abilities. The main problem was getting confused by all the names; people (and elves) who are related tend to have very similar names, and it became very difficult to keep track of who's who. Reading about the legends of the world definitely did increase my enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings when I read that next.

J. R. R. Tolkien
Lord of the Rings
This was just about as good as I remembered it. If you haven't read it, you really should, once. I found myself simlutaneously finding more characterization than I had remembered (e.g., Frodo and Sam in their final trek), and less (most of the other characters are fairly two-dimensional). The book definitely does instill a sense of wonder all over the place. It'll be very interesting to see how well the movie can live up to it.
Arturo Perez-Reverte
The Flanders Panel
Perez-Reverte has written a bunch of smart fun mysteries, of which this is the first I've read. I chose it because of the chess theme, which Perez-Reverte actually does a decent job with. It was fun, and there were enough clues that you could solve the mystery just ahead of the protagonists. The main fault I find with it is the characterization -- all the characters are pretty stereotypical, and one of them offensively so. I'm in no rush to pick up another one of his books, but it was a good read.
I read Midnight's Children a couple years ago and liked it, although I didn't know enough about Indian history to really appreciate it (the central conceit is that the narrator's personal history parallels the modern history of India). This book presupposed much less knowledge of India, which made things easier.

I had mixed feelings about the book. There were lots of wacky things going on but it had difficulty keeping me interested. It's set in a just-barely-parallel world, the point of which I didn't really see. Halfway through the book the style turns strange; for example, Rushdie abruptly stops using quote marks to delineate conversation.

The descriptions of the world of rock music never seemed quite right either. I guess all I'm doing is complaining about it, but it certainly wasn't bad. I think you have to be in a verbal-pyrotechnics kind of mood to read Rushdie, and I wasn't at the time, really.

Guy Gavriel Kay
After reading The Lord of the Rings I realized that I hadn't read any fantasy books in a long long time; I didn't even really read them in college. So I did a little research to look for promising books, and I came up with this one.

I liked it. It was a real page-turner, and the characters were interesting. In fact, that's the main problem many people seem to have with it. The 'good guys' have a lot of faults, and the main 'bad guy' is depicted very sympathetically, so by the end you don't know who to root for. By the end of the book, it's unclear whether Kay is aware of all of this and being really tricky about whether the ending is happy or sad, or whether he's just totally clueless and tacking on a genre-standard ending that ignores everything he set up earlier. I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, which you kind of have to do to make the ending literarily satisfying.

Colson Whitehead
The Intuitionist
Wow, just great. A sort of postmodern noir where everything is fraught with symbolism behind the scenes but it's not shoved in your face. The main conflict is between two different schools of elevator inspection: the coldly logical Empiricists versus the touchy-feely Intuitionists. Which also has a parallel racial white-vs-black thing going on. And then the elevators are sort of symbolic of climbing the social ladder too, I think. And there's a big mystery and lots of danger, and an elevator design that will change the world, and anyway, it's great. This is Whitehead's first novel, and I can't wait to see what he does next.
I was looking for more good fantasy books to read, and I kept hearing about this mammoth, extraordinarily literary, fantasy/science-fiction hybrid novel set millennia after the collapse of civilization. So I read it. And boy is it good.

The Book of the New Sun has already jumped into my top ten list, along with Tolstoy and Pynchon and Proust. It's that good. How do I describe it? I guess I just did, a little. The writing is magnificent; there are lots of little secrets buried between the lines, most of which you won't get until a second or third reading; there's an amazing sense of wonder; there's a timeless quality to the writing, as it often looks back to models such as Homer (there are many stories within stories, for example).

It takes a little while to get into. And you have to totally surrender to Wolfe's sense of plot-time. Often you go into a chapter thinking it's going to cover around one day, and then something happens, and then something happens within that, and this day you thought you were about to see the end of doesn't die until over a hundred pages later. Very Proustian that way, actually. You're 80% of the way through the book, as the narrator has reached the front of the big war and you're all prepared for a Big Climax, when everything is put aside for fifty pages so some people can engage in a story-telling contest. It's that kind of book.

But it all works, amazingly, and all the digressions you got annoyed at early on turn out to be totally relevant, in the same way that all your organs do something to keep you alive, even the weird-looking ones, and even your appendix somehow fits. Read it, please, and try not to bring too many expectations about how stories work, because it'll just bog you down until you get used to the style here.

And then this is the sequel. More of the same, resolving some mysteries, adding some new ones. It's of the same quality as the original series, in my opinion, though a bit more cosmic in scope. It's kind of pointless for me to make a recommendation; either you'll have loved the original series, and will gobble this up, or you won't have, and won't. I did, and did.
David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite contemporary writers; I think that his novel Infinite Jest is the best book of the 1990's. Since that book he's published A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (a selection of essays), and now this, a weird collection of largely experimental short fiction. Most of the stories eschew character names entirely, giving the whole book a weirdly disinterested feeling. There's lots of relationships and sex, with most of it, as you might guess from the title, not particularly flattering to the participants. Well, anyway, I was impressed by some of it, while some of it found me counting the pages until I could get to the next story. You gotta give him credit for trying, at least. The best introduction to Wallace remains A Supposedly Fun Thing.
Bleak stories full of deadpan humor, most set in a near future. I thought they were just great. If you dig David Sedaris, you'll love these; the sense of humorous pathos is very similar. The stories get a little samey after a while, but it's a pretty thin book, so they don't outstay their welcome.
Another series (really one long four-part novel) from Wolfe, set (just barely) in the same universe as The Book of the New Sun, but written in a rather different style. The narration is third person, rather than first person, and less overtly cryptic, though there are still plenty of mysteries and buried secrets. I didn't think it was quite as brilliant as the other series, though that's partly because I was a little fooled by the simpler surface and missed out on some of the mysteries until the end of the book. The first two books are out of print as I write this, but I hear they're coming back in trade paperback editions in early 2000.
Gene Wolfe
On Blue's Waters
Pardon me for going on such a Gene Wolfe spree, but I had to race through the Long Sun books so I could get to this just-published book, the first volume of the sequel series, The Book of the Short Sun.

We're back to mysterious first-person narration, so much so that it's not even clear that the narrator is really the same person as the protagonist. The book alternates between the present (from the narrator's viewpoint) and the past, explaining just enough to make you think that maybe you can figure it out on your own. The next two volumes are both due out next year; I can't wait.

P. G. Wodehouse
The Code of the Woosters
A few friends who have similar tastes to mine had recommended Wodehouse, and this book was mentioned as a good start. Well, it was totally great. You probably already know the basic premise: Bertram Wooster is an agreeably bumbling fool of a gentleman who keeps getting into fixes, and his unflappable servant Jeeves keeps saving the day. Apparently all the Jeeves books follow this basic plot, but why mess with a good thing? The fact that the stories are told in the first person by Bertie, with many a 'what ho' and 'pip pip', as he struggles to understand how he got into such a bind, just adds to the fun.

It's all good fun in a British comedy-of-manners style -- I was reminded of The Importance Of Being Earnest a lot -- and both the plot and the characterizations are top-notch. Extremely enjoyable, don't you know.

P. G. Wodehouse
Carry On, Jeeves
So naturally I started reading through the rest of the Jeeves books in chronological order. This is a collection of stories, not a novel, which doesn't work quite as well, to my mind; what I loved about The Code Of The Woosters was the way that calamity piled upon calamity, while here each story tends to have only two crises (the general structure is: a) Bertie gets in a jam, b) Jeeves comes up with a solution, c) something unexpectedly goes wrong with Jeeves' plan, and d) Jeeves finds a way to save the day anyhow).

So, fun, but I think I'm going to go with another novel next, and I'll take a bit of a break from Wodehouse to avoid overdosing.

Vernor Vinge
A Fire Upon
The Deep
This is my year of starting to read science fiction again, I guess. When I try out a new genre or author, I generally do lots of research to find out what books I'll like. (That's probably one reason that most of my little reviews here are positive.) This book kept coming up, plus its 1999 prequel was supposed to be great. It's a good save-the-galaxy read, with cool aliens and big ideas. What more could you ask for? There were a bunch of touches I really enjoyed -- the pack-mind aliens, the Usenet analogue, the structure of the galaxy. I'll read the next one too.
Neal Stephenson
Snow Crash
Another SF classic that I had never gotten around to. I like Stephenson's writing style a lot; he has a chatty way of explaining technological concepts that I really enjoy, like your older brother telling you the highlights of the science classes you haven't gotten to take yet. Things get all complicated and breathless, but he never takes himself too seriously. My favorite part of the book was actually a huge digression in the middle where he infodumps lots of Sumerian history at you and relates it to computer viruses and such, which probably most readers found rather boring. Anyway, much fun, and historically important in the cyberpunk genre.
Alan Moore and
Dave Gibbons
As if it weren't bad enough that half my reading list this year is science fiction, here am I reading comic books! Well, they call them graphic novels these days. Exciting story, good characters, morally ambiguous, effective playing with superhero conventions. This is a famous work in the genre, and from what I can tell it deserves to be. Though I am getting a little tired of the 'superheros as disturbed vigilantes who may be doing good but aren't completely right in the head' theme, most typically illustrated by the modern Batman.
Charles Palliser
The Unburied
One of my favorite books is Palliser's The Quincunx, a massive faux-Dickens novel filled with colorful writing and intricate plotting, much of which is actually hidden so that you have to figure it out yourself. I really enjoy 'puzzle books' like that. His Betrayals was a weird collection of interrelated short stories, also in the same you-have-to-figure-it-yourself vein. So I picked this up as soon as it came out; it's a period murder mystery, with ghosts and stuff.

It's basically all plot; there are three different mysteries going on, all at different time periods, and it's confusing trying to keep track of all of them. Unfortunately for me, sort of, I was reading so carefully (because I knew I'd have to) that I figured out all the details of the main murder as soon as it occurred, and then spent the rest of the book rolling my eyes as the protagonist kept trying false hypothesis after false hypothesis. Then at the end you get told the real solution anyway, so I didn't even get the satisfaction of saying "I know the real answer and all these other readers don't." Interestingly, I've seen some reviews that said the solution totally came out of thin air and wasn't set up at all, so go figure. It was good, but The Quincunx is his masterpiece, so that's the one you should read if you haven't read any Palliser.

W. G. Sebald
The Emigrants
This book, a collection of four slightly-fictionalized stories of Jews who emigrated from Germany, got tons of ecstatic reviews by writers I admire, so I just had to read it. And -- it didn't really do that much for me. Why's that?

I've been thinking about what kind of writing I like. I like action, but not so much the action of people doing things as much as the action of people talking, or thinking. I tend to read kind of fast, so I skim over descriptions; when I read books with a big action sequence at the end, I often find myself losing the thread of exactly what's going on where. When there's lots of descriptive text, my eyes have to slow way down to catch everything, and I lose my reading rhythm. This also happens when I encounter long lists of things.

The writing in The Emigrants is excellent, but it's description-heavy; I'd turn the page and see another two pages of descriptive-text and sigh a little. So I finished my vegetables, and they were good for me, but it wasn't my thing.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby
This book showed up on my radar again because of the John Harbison opera that just premiered, and it was embarrassing that I had never read it, so I did. Next comes The Catcher In The Rye, I guess.

It was an excellent book, no surprise. I particularly liked the way that the narrator of the story isn't really the protagonist; he's observing all these goings-on and trying to make sense of them. The way that past history is gradually revealed is very effective as well. Things get a little melodramatic, but that's literature for you.

So this review has the highest ratio of book quality to review quality yet. Sorry about that. C'mon, it's The Great Gatsby. You don't need my recommendation.

Patrick O'Brian
Desolation Island
Number five in the Aubrey-Maturin series, which will forever number 20, as O'Brian passed away recently. Better than number four, which had too much battling and not enough character plot. Fifteen to go...
Steven Pinker
Words and Rules
See, this is just the kind of book I dig. Pinker tries to deduce things about the way that the brain processes language by looking at regularities and irregularities in language, mostly irregular verbs. I was actually more interested in the rules and exceptions of the language itself than in his hypotheses of the brain's representation of them.

The Language Instinct suffered a little (for me) from being just a bit too informal and nontechnical. This book was pitched at just the right level for me.

Yeah, yet another Wolfe book, sorry. This is a collection of three novellas that all interrelate; from reading subsequent ones you figure out what really happened in earlier ones. I had heard it was absolutely incredible, so I was a little disappointed. It's still quite good, though. The central theme is that of personal identity and its potential loss, whether that be through cloning or shape-shifting or what have you. There are indeed puzzles to figure out, but they weren't as earth-shattering as I had been led to believe. And the middle novella, which is told in a fable-like style, really didn't do anything for me until the very end.

Still, it was well written and I'd like to read it again to pick up on some of the more esoteric connections. But I don't think I'd recommend it as an introduction to Wolfe, as some have.

Zelazny wrote two series of five books each set in the fantasy world of Amber; all ten novels have now come out in a single omnibus volume.

The first series is great fun, perfect holiday reading. It's narrated in a very hard-boiled style, as opposed to the high-falutin' grand adventure with elves and faeries you may fear when you open a fantasy book. Nine brothers fight to rule the land that their father abandoned, and there's tons of secret plots and backstabbing and people who are not what they seem and so on; at least one huge surprise every book.

I enjoyed it a great deal, but I hear that the second series isn't nearly as good, so I may never get around to reading the other half of the book.

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Last updated 13 February 2000