Dan Schmidt's book diary: 2000

With the new year usually comes a resolution to read more classics. I hadn't read any James before. It was quite a good read, though I imagine that if I knew beforehand what was going to happen I might have felt that it dragged on too much. The characters were all very well drawn, especially the heroine, Isabel Archer, who is quite the mixture of admirable and regrettable traits. I see lots of reader reviews that claim that she's stuck-up, and yeah, she is a little, and gets into trouble because of it, but overall I found her a sympathetic character. I found myself caring deeply about what happened to everyone, and that makes it a fine novel by my standards.
Kurt Vonnegut
I was sick as a dog for a while at the beginning of the year, and Vonnegut is great comfort food. It's a mix of synposes of short stories, bloody chunks ripped out from a supposed failed novel, and Vonnegut himself offering his trademark pithy cranky-old-man bon mots. If you're a Vonnegut fan, it'll be good comfort food for you too; if you're not, you'll hate it, and if you haven't read him at all, for God's sake start with something good like Cat's Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five.
Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs and Steel
It seems like once a week some friend would tell me about how they were reading this book, so I had to read it just to keep up. Diamond tries to explain the last thirteen thousand years of history by means of environmental factors. For example, the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs in part because of germs that they brought over that killed 95% of the native population; they had germs that they had become immune to from living with domesticated animals; the Indians didn't give them many germs back because all they had on the domesticated animal front was the llama; etc. I'm sure I've made some grievous error in that summary, but that's the idea.

It's a fascinating book, and convincing more often than not. Sometimes it bogs down for a little bit as he throws evidence at you to back up his point, but that's understandable. Just as interesting as his hypotheses are some more standard treatments of subjects that I just never really learned about, for example how plants and animals became domesticated in the first place.

A novel of the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and G. E. Moore, chiefly the former. It turned out to be much more about their lives than about their ideas, which was a little disappointing; I was hoping to learn something about Wittgenstein's philosophy. In one place he does start getting into technical topics (Russell's paradox) and manages to not really get it right. Oh well.

But as a novel of people, it's great. There's lots of great descriptive writing, and despite a style that tends to do a lot of telling rather than showing, my interest never flagged. Many of the scenes here will stay with me for a while.

Sort of a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, with apparently at least one more coming. It has everything: weird aliens, intrahuman conflicts, wacky science, neat ideas. The only real problem I had was that the villains were too evil; you think one of them might turn out to be decent despite being on the wrong side, but then he's the worst one of all.

The whole alien plot was well done. Early on it their description is oddly anthropomorphic, but the explanation of that turns out to be one of the coolest things in the book. It's considered the front-runner for the 1999 Hugo and Nebula awards, and I can see why.

Brooks Hansen
Perlman's Ordeal
An odd book about a hypnotherapist at the turn of the century who has an encounter with what may or may not be the supernatural. This is Hansen's second novel in a row in which a scientist tries to make sense of odd goings on (though in The Chess Garden, the protagonist himself was making up the odd goings on). It's unclear how much is actually resolved by the end of the book, making me wonder exactly what conclusions I'm supposed to draw from it -- just that Perlman should stop trying to understand everything?

One thing I did enjoy very much was a secondary plot about musical life around 1900, which was well researched and rang true, exploring some of the competing musical movements of the time. Overall, I did enjoy the book, but not as much as I thought I was going to halfway through.

I don't usually list specialized books here, but this one would be an excellent read for anyone interested in how composers compose. There are a couple dozen interviews with composers (edited so that they appear as monologues without leading questions) about how they work. The content is almost completely non-technical, making it suitable for a layman audience. I personally would have liked a little more nitty-gritty material, but even the less technical stuff here is very interesting. I'm very glad that a book like this exists; I think there was a real need for one.
This book turned out to be a bestseller and the subject of a lot of press, but I can claim to have beaten the buzz; I bought it on the day it was published, having heard about it from the David Foster Wallace email list. It is, indeed, really great, despite being (cringe) a memoir. Eggers does have interesting events to memoirize; his parents both died when he was 20, leaving him to care for his 7-year-old brother. But the real draw here is the writing style: both ironic and utterly sincere at the same time, nailing a generational voice that I have been looking to see nailed for a while. His attempt in the irony department to have his cake and eat it too, by constantly commenting on and preemptively exposing his postmodern tricks, could be intensely grating but turns out to be winning and charming instead. I don't know how he pulls it off, and probably not everyone would agree with me that he does, but damned if this book doesn't just about live up to its title.

Eggers also edits McSweeney's, a literary journal with an auxilliary web presence, both of which are well worth checking out.

Jonathan Lethem
Motherless Brooklyn
A story about a detective wannabe with Tourette's Syndrome, written in the first person, and it's great. Lethem makes Tourette's totally human; you can completely empathize with Lionel Essrog as he struggles to deal with his tics while investigating the death of his boss. I particularly like the way that Tourette's is not treated as some awful handicap that he must overcome, but as an integral part of who he is.

The detective story is pretty good too, but that's not so much the point. The only thing that grated a little was the romantic subplot, which felt a little tacked on, although it did illuminate some other consequences of Lionel's condition. I guess I get bugged when everyone falls in love in two days in order to fit the timescale of the rest of the plot.

Another more technical book; it's an overview of all the ways in which the way that people make decisions differs from the ideal theoretical model you would expect. For example, if you're in a debate, would you rather go first or second? This book tells you which, and why. I thought it was a really illuminating insight into the way the human mind works, and every chapter has at least one fascinating study result. One of the most interesting nonfiction books I've read in a while.
Donald Antrim
The Hundred Brothers
A surreal story of the evening meeting of yes, a hundred brothers, each of them grotesque in his own way. There's black humor on every page, as fraternal rivalries start out silly and then turn deadly. And the narrator (one of the brothers), whom you start out regarding as the one sane guy in the bunch, turns out to be not quite as normal as he first seemed... I enjoyed it immensely, but then I'm really into the whole verbally adroit black humor thing. I'll be reading more of Antrim, for certain.
What an odd set of books. They're nominally fantasy, though there's no magic in them; they're set in an immense castle full of Dickensian characters. "Gothic" seems to be the word that gets used to describe this sort of setting. The plot moves incredibly slowly, as most of the energy in the writing goes into grotesquely detailed descriptions of the setting and characters. I usually like more plot and less description, but Peake's writing is so good that I really got into it, although I flagged a bit near the end. There's actually a third book, Titus Alone, included in this omnibus edition; it's widely regarded as being of lesser quality, and I was ready to move on, so I gave it a miss.
An interesting fable of sorts about a race of dogs that made humanlike by a mad scientist. Things sort of fall apart apocalyptically at the end in a way that I didn't think was sufficiently set up. I really enjoyed the use of an opera libretto to provide some backstory; it was the perfect way to present the information, and was done expertly.

Warning, rant ahead, excerpted from recent email I wrote:

I might have been predisposed against it by all the blurbs on the back that tickled one of my pet peeves, which is: there's this whole science fiction genre, some of which is pretty darn good, but when an SF novel ends up in the literature section due to the way the publisher is marketing it, the reviewers all get excited about how groundbreaking and weird it is, and compare it to other science fiction masquerading as "real literature", like, I dunno, Frankenstein, rather than its true peers over in the SF section. "This book is so audacious! Sentient dogs with human hands! What a groundbreaking work!" Well, if you ever bother to move over one aisle, buddy, you'll find plenty of other books with interesting premises.
Donald Antrim
The Verificationist
OK, I said I would be reading more Antrim, and here I am. It's more of the same, really; slightly crazy overintellectual guy narrates the his adventures over the course of a night. Half of it is his hallucinations, which makes it kind of fun. So: enjoyable, again, but I hope he starts branching out.
Neil Gaiman etc.
The Sandman
Yeah, all ten volumes. I'm a completist, sorry. The Sandman is perhaps the most acclaimed comic book series ever, throwing all sorts of myths and ancient through contemporary life into a postmodern stew. I liked it, obviously. Sometimes it gets kind of cheesy, and the art is often unexceptional (most people disagree with me here), but the ideas are great, the plots are interesting, and it can be very moving at times. What impresses me most is Gaiman's ability to set up a huge number of plots and characters and then make them intersect in interesting ways that enhance each other. Most people seem to recommend starting with volume two, The Doll's House, which is as reasonable a suggestion as any.
Dave McKean
Another graphic novel, as they say. McKean did all of the covers to The Sandman, and they're gorgeous. The art in this is much more restrained and largely monochromatic. The plot itself is pretty unprepossessing, but there are a lot of interesting games played with storytelling, and some subtle things going on that I didn't realize until I started looking stuff up on the web. It's a wonderful work, but be warned that it's out of print and kind of expensive.
David Bowman
Bunny Modern
A wacky novel of the near future in which, among other things, there's no electricity and almost no babies. The whole thing ended up feeling rather manic and cobbled together. I seem to have read somewhere that this is edited down from a book around twice its size, which would explain a bit why it feels kind of sloopy.
I had heard for years how great Robertson Davies' books, and this trilogy in particular, were. I enjoyed them, but they weren't as brain-meltingly good as I had been led to expect. The overall structure felt kind of loose to me, although in retrospect it all fits together well, and I might appreciate it more on a second reading. It was kind of unfortunate that I had already read A Prayer For Owen Meany, which ripped off a key plot element from Fifth Business (I think Irving has admitted to it); having encountered it before diminished its impact here.
George Saunders
Oh, I do love George Saunders. Hilariously dark tales of woe, often taking place in unlikely theme parks. I thought my sister would like him a lot, but she thought he was a little too dark, so that's another data point. He has a kids' book out now which, although it has some of the same qualities, is rather sweet.
I'm told that Birds of America is Moore's best work, but I'm not a real short story fan, so I choose this instead. It's an affecting novel of high school friendship between a pair of girls. Although I've never had that experience myself, obviously, I was drawn into the relationship and found it very believably bittersweet. It reminds me that I should read books by women more often.
Vikram Seth
An Equal Music
On the plus side, this is the best and most accurate picture of what it's like to be a classical musician that I've ever seen in fiction. Everything rings true. On the minus side, the classical music story becomes overshadowed by a syrupy love story, which I didn't find particularly convincing. So, a qualified recommendation, if you're interested in fiction depicting the classical music world.
More personal essays from David Sedaris, only the funniest writer there is. Around half the book is about his misadventures in France, which largely consist of his efforts learning the language, which some might find samey, but hey, I was laughing the whole time, so it's hard to complain.
An extended essay about the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a very odd museum that specializes in exhibits that are somewhere between believe-it-or-not actual oddities and don't-believe-it-or-do practical jokes. I found the description of the museum itself to be fascinating, but I started to skim a little when Weschler began to get more scholarly, demonstrating how this museum is quite akin to those of centuries ago, complete with lengthy endnotes, although I'm sure that someone else might find that the most fascinating part of the book.
Andrew Crumey
The find of the year. Andrew Crumey is a Scottish novelist following in the footsteps of writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. In this book, a prince has his subjects construct him an imaginary city, solely through documents: biographies, maps, etc. But people on the project have different agendas, which spill over into real life, and before you know it, the two worlds are starting to affect each other in dangerous ways. Crumey manages to tie everything together at the end instead of blowing things up, as so many authors seem to do. I've already forced around four people to read it, which tells you what I think of it.
Walter Tevis
A restrained future-where-things-have-gone-horribly wrong story. Like, no one knows how to read anymore. I found it very affecting, and I bet it would make a great movie.
Buster Keaton is a very intense man who has many unusual difficulties in his films. They would be funny if they were not so sad.
Yes, I really hadn't read this before. It was very enjoyable, although things got a little too crazy at the end, which I remember being a problem with Foucault's Pendulum too. This is the second book I've read in a year with a character obviously based on Jorge Luis Borges; what is it about that guy?
Jane Smiley
An academic comedy set at a rural college. The characters were all very well drawn, and the complicated plot that binds them all together works great. The characters all developed over the course of the novel, rather than just being excuses for the plot, which was nice.
More of the same sort of tricks from Andrew Crumey: stories within stories, digressions on the nature of fiction, references back to earlier novels. It's a little disjointed (it's in three only slightly related parts), but page to page it's a lot of fun.
Tibor Fischer
The Thought Gang
An over-the-top tale of a philosophy professor who becomes a bank robber. The, uh, 'exuberant wordplay' is what it usually gets called, works for the most part, although the continual use of words beginning with z got on my nerves. It is curious to me that some sorts of wordplay I think are great fun, while others (e.g., spelling things backwards) cause me to roll my eyes in disgust. Anyway, a fun book, but nothing that's going to stick in my brain.
I think I read this at the wrong time. It's a very spare and restrained story of an old man at the end of his life. At the time I didn't have the patience to give it the close reading I'm sure it deserves.
Yeah, it's one of those "I just found this great author and now I must devour everything he wrote" situations. This is his first novel, and has the same sorts of infuatuation with the nature of storytelling and authorship that the others do. I think Pfitz is still the one I'd recommend first, but all three are worth reading if you like this sort of stuff.
Tristan Egolf
Lord of the Barnyard
A strangely mesmerizing tale of a nutso white trash kid with a horrible life who flips out. That makes it sound really depressing, but the story is told so exuberantly that the whole thing becomes a sort of macabre celebration. And there's not a single line of dialogue in the whole novel. Not a book that I would have picked up if I knew just what I was getting into, but in the end I did enjoy it.
Scott McCloud
Reinventing Comics
Scott McCloud's previous book along these lines, Understanding Comics, is a brilliant exegesis of how comics work. Every couple pages you'll encounter something new that makes you shake your head in wonderment. So if you haven't read that, then that's what you've got to do, first of all.

Reinventing Comics, on the other hand, is more about the business model of comics, and in particular, how it is affected by computers and the internet. It's not earthshaking like the first book, but it is quite interesting, and McCloud is a really smart guy who I'd be happy to read pontificating on about any subject.

Thomas Pynchon
Mason & Dixon (reread)
Often when I buy a new CD from a favorite band, I don't like it on first listen, as I'm expecting something slightly different from what I'm hearing, and every minute brings fresh disappointments. Then, on repeat hearings, I listen to it on its own terms, without the wrong expectations, and I see why it's great.

Mason & Dixon was like that for me. When it was published, I was incredibly jazzed that the new Great Pynchon Novel was finally arriving (Vineland was a little bit of a letdown), and warmed up for it by reading Gravity's Rainbow again, which in retrospect was a mistake; 700 pages of Pynchon in a row is enough. So I picked up M&D, and it takes them forever to get to America, and then when they do, the plot doesn't move any faster, and everything just seems to be scattered all over the place. I ran out of steam 500 pages in.

Four years later, I knew what I was getting into, and didn't expect it to all tie together neatly (not like I should have in the first place -- this is Pynchon, after all). I enjoyed it much more this time, and had no problem seeing it through to the end. It's too bad that the amount of time required to read a book makes it more difficult to give them second chances than records.

I still haven't read any Harry Potter books, but all the excitement surrounding them brought back memories of these, some of my favorite childhood books, so I spent a nice weekend going through them for the first time in 20 years. They hold up pretty well, except for what I now perceive as heavy-handedness both of characterization (every chapter has to contain one instance of Fflewddur Fflam telling tall tales, or Ellidyr being haughty, lest the reader forget) and moralization, but that comes with the territory, I suppose. And I still have a crush on Eilonwy.
The second book of the three-volume Book of the Short Sun. More narrative tricks, stories within stories, narration going forward and back in time, the narrator keeping secrets from the reader -- you know, the usual Wolfe stuff. As usual, he spends lots of time on things you didn't think you cared about and glosses over everything you urgently wanted to know, which is frustrating on first reading but makes more sense afterwards. It'll be interesting to see how he wraps things up.
Books one through three of a six-book series in progress, nominally fantasy although I really dislike that term. Machiavellian intrigue with a cast of thousands. It came recommended really highly, and I can see why. One neat thing about it is that Martin is completely unafraid to kill anyone off, including very major characters, so you're always on edge, knowing that anyone might bite it at any moment. Another is that the characters, unlike most in this genre, are not black and white at all; all of the good guys have faults and almost all of the bad guys have virtues. And they're characterized extremely well, so that you understand everyone's motivations, and when they go and do something surprising, you understand why in retrospect. It's a big investment, but if that sounds good, give it a whirl.
Malcolm Gladwell
The Tipping Point
This book was being referenced by everyone this year, so I had to read it to feel part of the intellectual community. The basic idea is that any trend (as I write this, six months later, I'm thinking of as a perfect example) can be compared to an virus in the way that it spreads, and from a statistical (and practical) standpoint, there's a point where things 'turn the corner' and you have an epidemic, which can either be beneficial or, as in the case of "All your base are belong to us", tragic. Various interesting examples are given, although sometimes things get a little hand-wavy. It's an interesting way of looking at such things, and made me perceive trends a bit differently.
P. G. Wodehouse
Right Ho, Jeeves
Yes indeed, more Bertie & Jeeves fun from P. G. Wodehouse. I have no useful information to contribute that I haven't already said before. These books are a scream. Read them.

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Last updated 5 April 2001