So what did I read this year? Well, I'm all over the place. But I thought I'd take a moment to hit some of the highlights. These are in no particular order.
The best book I read this year is A Gentlemen in Moscow by Amor Towles. It's just a wonderful and wonderfully crafted book. I can't say enough great things about it. It has one of the most beautiful and perfect metaphors involving a wine cellar. I literally put the book down and cursed out loud. I couldn't believe how good it was. I thought about it for weeks.
But really that's a technical thing. The story is set in 1922. It's about Count Alexander Rostov, an Aristocrat who survives the Russian Revolution because he wrote a poem. Instead of being put against the wall and shot, is sentenced to house arrest, and ultimately labor, in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin.
This book does what great art should always do, expand your experience of being alive. I don't think I've read a better book in the last five years and I don't expect I will in the next five.
For after all, if attentiveness should be measured in minutes and discipline measured in hours, then indomitability must be measured in years.
But as they came to the bend in the road where the Count would normally give a snap of the reins to speed the horses home, Helena would place a hand on his arm to signal that he should slow the team—for midnight had just arrived, and a mile behind them the bells of Ascension had begun to swing, their chimes cascading over the frozen land in holy canticle. And in the pause between hymns, if one listened with care, above the pant of the horses, above the whistle of the wind, one could hear the bells of St. Michael’s ten miles away—and then the bells of St. Sofia’s even farther afield—calling one to another like flocks of geese across a pond at dusk. The bells of Ascension . . .
“I’ll tell you what is convenient,” he said after a moment. “To sleep until noon and have someone bring you your breakfast on a tray. To cancel an appointment at the very last minute. To keep a carriage waiting at the door of one party so that on a moment’s notice it can whisk you away to another. To sidestep marriage in your youth and put off having children altogether. These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka—and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.” Anna Urbanova took the cigarette from the Count’s fingers, dropped it in a water glass, and kissed him on the nose.
Since the day I was born, Sofia, there was only one time when Life needed me to be in a particular place at a particular time, and that was when your mother brought you to the lobby of the Metropol. And I would not accept the Tsarship of all the Russias in exchange for being in this hotel at that hour.”
To whipsaw things another great novel that I read was The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley. Here's the beginning:
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
I would say that Crumley is a guilty pleasure, but I don't feel guilty in the slightest. He's like Hunter S. Thompson and Raymond Chandler had a baby. After I finished that one, I plowed through two more of Crumley's books. No guilt. No regrets.
I read The Story of the Stone by Barry Hughart. It's the middle book of the Chronicles of Master Li and Number 10 Ox. These books aren't really like anything else. I have all three and didn't want to guzzle them. They're set in a mythical China that never was. They're wonderfully fantastic, very funny and surprisingly poignant in places.
They are also something of a cautionary tale, the book struggled to get traction because it's in a genre of its own. It is fantasy, but Ancient Imperial China as a setting rather than the Middle Ages.
Master Li is ancient and the smartest man in China. Number 10 Ox is the narrator and is played as the big, dumb strong guy, but there's a fair amount of unreliable narrator jazz.
Big fun and great writing. Here's a couple of sloppily random snags
“My surname is Li and my personal name is Kao, and there is a slight flaw in my character,” he said matter-of-factly. “You got a problem?”
Fable has strong shoulders that carry far more truth than fact can.
Master Li turned bright red while he scorched the air with the Sixty Sequential Sacrileges with which he had won the all-China Freestyle Blasphemy Competition in Hangchow three years in a row.
The abbot used to say that the emotional health of a village depended upon having a man whom everyone loved to hate, and Heaven had blessed us with two of them.
Reading this now. The book is an investigation into what is likely the oldest and most widespread religion -- centered around a funerary rite with hallucinogenic beer and later wine.
I pounced on this after listening to an author interview with Andrew Sullivan. It's an intellectual detective story, and quite good. The first thing that hooked me was that this was an explanation for the Eleusinian Mysteries, which was a ceremony that was a well-kept secret in the Greco-Roman world. People made a pilgrimage to Eleusis, fasted, drank the beer, had unbelievable visions, and raved about the experience. Saying things like it's what made civilization possible. And say it removed the fear of death. Which was described as "If you die before you die you will not die."
Best guess is the beer was brewed with ergotized wheat. But nobody knows for sure. But two things are interesting about this. One, we can actually test old vessels and figure out what was in these beverages right now.
And modern medical research is showing that a single dose, if you will, of psychedelic mushrooms, cures depression and PTSD and takes away the fear of death in hospice patients. Essentially inducing a religious experience with chemicals. Johns Hopkins is doing this research, not some unwashed hippy with a YouTube channel.
There are real questions about the early Christian Eucharist: was hallucinogenic? Was it an extension of the Eleusian and Dionysian mysteries.
But for me, the craziest thing in the book to wrap my head around has been Goebleki Tepe the oldest known temple, dated from 10,000 B.C. Which appears to have been a sacred brewery for hallucinogenic beer. And, honestly, the hallucinogenic part is the least crazy part of that last statement. The 10,000 b.c. is nuts. That's 6000 years before settled agriculture. And the temple is constructed from gigantic slabs of stone, in a way that we didn't think people could build back then. Insert Ancient Aliens nonsense if you must, but the crazy part is that it reverses what I thought the causality of civilization.
It was always thought that first came agriculture, then came beer. But it seems that beer -- as a sacrament -- predates civilization by thousands of years.
The other crazy thing about his book is that the brewing of sacred potions was exclusively the realm of women. Old women. Which appears to be the origin of our archetype of witches. Boil toil and trouble anyone? And that this was stamped out as the underground Christ cult grew into the state religion of Rome.
There's a lot going on in this book. And if anything I've just mentioned pique your curiosity, you should definitely check it out.
After watching the musical on Disney +, which scarcely needs praise from me, but is unbelievably fantastic. And amazing accomplishment on many levels -- I dipped into Ron Chernow's biography, it's also great.
Here's a gem that seems uniquely appropriate to the current moment.
> “This misfortune affects me less than others,” he told Eliza Schuyler, “because it is not in my temper to repine at evils that are past but to endeavor to draw good out of them, and because I think our safety depends on a total change of system. And this change of system will only be produced by misfortune.”
The Bobiverse Series -- Dennis E. Taylor
This series starts with "We Are Legion (We Are Bob)" I listened to a bunch of these, so I don't have a bunch of quotes. Just read them all. They are just lovely, humane, funny speculative fiction.
A guy is turned into a Von Neumann probe, A self-replicating device to explore the universe. And as he goes, he replicates himself, fights off aliens, struggles help save humanity -- it's tremendously positive without being trite or stupid. Really, really great. And the audiobooks are some of the best I've heard.
In fact, if I had to rank the best audiobooks I've ever heard this currently comes in third Best performance is Stephen Fry reading the complete works of Sherlock Holmes. Of course, the stories are great, but Fry is a great actor who loves Holmes and puts everything he's got into the performance. I can't overstate how good this audio is.
Number 2 and Best ensemble performance is 'World War Z'
And third place is Ray Porter reading Dennis Taylor's Bobiverse books.
I dipped back into this one. Westlake -- Stark was Donald Westlake's pen name -- always said this was the worst book of the series, but there's a moment in this one that's just shockingly powerful. I won't ruin it, but Westlake is master for a host of reasons. Here's a bit of his description
Freedman led the way to his office. He was short and barrel-shaped and walked as though he’d do better if he rolled instead. His face was made of Silly Putty, plus hornrimmed glasses.
This book is really a compilation of short biographies of people of great character and how they developed themselves. It is quite good. I dug into it as research on virtues. And the book paid for itself in the introduction here's an excerpt:
I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like and how other people have trodden it. The Plan The plan of this book is simple. In the next chapter I will describe an older moral ecology. It was a cultural and intellectual tradition, the “crooked timber” tradition, that emphasized our own brokenness. It was a tradition that demanded humility in the face of our own limitations. But it was also a tradition that held that each of us has the power to confront our own weaknesses, tackle our own sins, and that in the course of this confrontation with ourselves we build character.
My general belief is that we’ve accidentally left this moral tradition behind. Over the last several decades, we’ve lost this language, this way of organizing life. We’re not bad. But we are morally inarticulate. We’re not more selfish or venal than people in other times, but we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built.
But it did occur to me that there was perhaps a strain of humility that was more common then than now, that there was a moral ecology, stretching back centuries but less prominent now, encouraging people to be more skeptical of their desires, more aware of their own weaknesses, more intent on combatting the flaws in their own natures and turning weakness into strength. People in this tradition, I thought, are less likely to feel that every thought, feeling, and achievement should be immediately shared with the world at large.
This is the way humility leads to wisdom. Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.
And in it I found this great quote from St. Augustine
“How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws and kings can cause or cure.”
I first read Aristotle's Ethics in college for a class on Classical Political Philosophy. And I jumped back in, as research for thinking about virtue
There is an idea that reading old books is pretentious or stuffy or dull. And that's not been my experience at all. The reason to read books like this, even when they get a little hard is because they are incredibly useful. The Greeks and Aristotle, in particular, laid the foundation stones of civilization -- or drew up the attack plan for what G.K. Chesterton calls "the whole courageous raid which we call civilization." I like that metaphor, because it suggests heroism, fragility and glory in what reveals itself to the not-so-simple work of civilizing one's self and others.
This gem came from the commentary to Aristotle's Politics.
Aristotle's attention is here directed chiefly towards the phenomena of "Incontinence," weakness of will or imperfect self-control. This condition was to the Greeks a matter of only too frequent experience, but it appeared to them peculiarly difficult to understand. How can a man know what is good or best for him, and yet chronically fail to act upon his knowledge? Socrates was driven to the paradox of denying the possibility, but the facts are too strong for him. Knowledge of the right rule may be present, nay the rightfulness of its authority may be acknowledged, and yet time after time it may be disobeyed; the will may be good and yet overmastered by the force of desire, so that the act done is contrary to the agent's will.
It underscores a naïveté of classical political thought -- and this is not to say that the ancients were generally naive -- this is just a mistake. Because, I think I could make a really good case that wrestling with yourself about doing what you know to be good is the defining human problem here at the beginning of the 21st century.
I have loved the Horatio Hornblower novels since I was, maybe 12. When I saw a preview of the movie Greyhound, I became aware that C.S. Forester had written this book about a commander of a convoy to Britain in the early days of WWII. Tom Hanks got this movie made, wrote the screenplay, starred in it. And that's a clue for you. Not that the movie -- it might be, I haven't seen it -- is good, but that the source material is excellent. Because somebody expended career capital to get it made.
This is a tremendous book. The psychological tension and strain of command in combat is represented here in a way that I've never read before. I don't know how you could render this in film. And by that, I'm saying this book does what only books can do, very, very well. It's well-crafted and relentless in a way that doesn't lend itself to punchy quotes, but it made a huge impression on me.
I just finished this one and I need more time to think about it. I read it primarily because another writer I greatly admire is giving a lecture on it, so I wanted to be adequately armed for the lecture. A lot of the book is concerned with what happens when you don't believe anything -- if it's even possible not to believe anything.
For me, Russian novels manage to be profoundly psychological and spiritual and I can't ingest them quickly. But in it, I found this gem of a line. "Death's an old joke, but it comes fresh to every one."
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
I have read embarrassingly little Vonnegut. I read Harrison Bergeron in school -- and it's prescience has terrified me ever since.
Vonnegut is amazing. And I'm going to work my way through many more of his books. This was my start. Here's a taste.
Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.
And so it goes…
The biggest problem with not reading and not being familiar with history is that you can be easily fooled into thinking that the way things are now is the way that they have always been. Even highly educated and intelligent people can fall into this trap and become provincial in time.
The book is a study of how the individual became the unit of social organization in the West. It's fascinating.
For in the eyes of Islamic fundamentalists, and indeed in the eyes of not a few in the West, liberalism has come to stand for ‘non-belief’ – for indifference and permissiveness, if not for decadence. Why is that? And is the charge justified?
This book is an attempt to find out. Its argument rests on two assumptions. The first is that if we are to understand the relationship between beliefs and social institutions – that is, to understand ourselves – then we have to take a very long view. Deep moral changes, changes in belief, can take centuries to begin to modify social institutions. It is folly to expect popular habits and attitudes to change overnight.
The second assumption is that beliefs are nonetheless of primary importance, an assumption once far more widely held than it is today. In the nineteenth century there was a prolonged contest between ‘idealist’ and ‘materialist’ views of historical change, with the latter holding that social order rests not so much on shared beliefs but on technology, economic interdependence and an advanced social division of labour. Even the declining appeal of Marxism in the later twentieth century did not discredit that view. Rather, in a strange afterlife, Marxism infiltrated liberal thinking, creating a further temptation to downgrade the role of beliefs. That temptation became all the greater because of the unprecedented prosperity enjoyed by the West after the Second World War. We have come to worship at the shrine of economic growth.
The Peloponnesian War by Robert Kagan and Thucydides Commentary
Okay, every time I say Peloponnesian War - I've got this stupid line in my head. "Pelop's Ponesian War" Like a guy name Pelops decided to put on a war for entertainment. No idea why this is the case. But this seems to happen with Greek words.
I have a joke about Sophocles as well.
Big Guido -- "Mikey, why you always writing like that? You should be out playing ball."
Micheal -- "I've got a paper due on Sophocles."
Big Guido -- "Sophocles? How about you try Sophocles" (Grabs crotch)
I've read Thucydides before. Hard, but worth it. Kagan wrote a four-volume masterwork on the history of the War for scholars then distilled it down into this book.
I read these, partially because Thucydides is great. And partially as research for a project for something I can't really talk about while it's in the works.
The Peloponnesian War was effectively the first “World War” Athenians v Spartans, all the other Greek city states picked a team. It’s got Vietnam baked in (the disastrous Athenian campaign in Syracuse), earthquakes, plagues and some of the defining speeches of Western Culture.
I liked it. It's gorgeously written, but it didn't have the impact on me that Dr. Strange and Mr. Norell did. I loved that book. Which is a kind of alternate history presupposing disused magic existed in the Napoleonic era.
This is is my favorite part
“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange.
Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.”
I've only read half of this book. It's a Christmas book about a magical toystore in the Heart of London before WWI. In the spring, I started reading it on the recommendation of a friend and I decided to save it for the week of Christmas. It's marvelous magical realism. If you want a Christmas book -- this is the one.
This is the blurb for the book:
"A siege is approaching, and the city has little time to prepare. The people have no food and no weapons, and the enemy has sworn to slaughter them all.
To save the city will take a miracle, but what it has is Orhan. A colonel of engineers, Orhan has far more experience with bridge-building than battles, is a cheat and a liar, and has a serious problem with authority. He is, in other words, perfect for the job."
What nothing on the outside of the book will tell you is that this is a book about the tensions of civilization, racism, oppression and ideology. Orhan is part of a downtrodden minority in the book. Yet it falls to him to save the city and the empire -- the same empire that crushes everybody who's not the empire beneath it's cruel sandaled heel. There's a lot in this book.
Orhan is also a magnificent narrator. And this book is funny, insightful, profound, here's a few clips.
“A wise man once said, the difference between luck and a wheelbarrow is, luck doesn’t work if you push it.”
“Beautiful people, though, I struggle with. Unless you keep your eyes shut or look the other way, you can’t help but have the awful fact ground into you, like the wheel of a heavy wagon running over your neck, that here is someone divided from you by a vast, unbridgeable gap, and they’ve done absolutely nothing to deserve it. Ogus’s wife – her name was Sichelgaita – was that level of beauty. I won’t even try to describe her, because they don’t make words that could take the strain. You felt ashamed to look at her.”
“The way I see it, the truth is just barren moorland, all useless bog and heather. It’s only when you break it up and turn it over with the ploughshare of the Good Lie that you can screw a livelihood out of it. Isn’t that what humans do? They take a dead landscape and reshape it into what they need, and want, and can use. I’ve never hesitated to adapt the world to suit me, when I can get away with it.”
“That’s how the world changes. It’s either so quick that we never know what hit us, or so gradual that we don’t notice. It’s only later, when books are written and scholars decide what mattered and what didn’t, that red lines are drawn – before this point, the world was this way, after this point, everything was different. You could be there and not have a clue. You could be asleep, or looking the other way, having a quiet shit or screwing in an alley, and an unseen pen draws a line. Here the Empire ended. Here the Dark Ages began.”
Conn Iggulden is one of the authors of the Dangerous Book for Boys. But he also writes historical fiction. And, for my money, he makes Bernard Cornwall look like a chump. And Cornwall is excellent.
This year I read the Emperor Series about Julius Ceasar. Last year I read his Genghis Khan series. Both excellent. Both in a page-turning, thrilling, gore and violence, arrrgh adventure! Way and as writing. Especially the first two books of the Ceasar series. Some very powerful human moments. And he write women very well. He's tremendously talented. And very diligent with this history.
I also read The Falcon of Sparta which is his retelling to Xenophon's Anabasis. The story is one of the greatest adventure stories of all time. Xenophon goes with a 10,000 Hoplite Mercenaries to fight for Cyrus the Younger who attempted to steal the Throne of Persia, but gets killed and his army is defeated.
All except the 10,000 greek mercenaries. See they were on the other side of the hill from Cyrus's army, so they are busy routing the rest of the Persian army. And when they find out Cyrus is dead, they have a huge problem. It's the story about how they fought their way back home to Greece.
Or Coney Island. Because, not only is this a true story, but it's also the inspiration and plot of Walter Hill's classic 1977 film The Warriors.
If you need some historical fiction, pick up some Iggulden. He's a master. And it's seriously fun to say his last name.
I'm reading this bit by bit. My sense is the biography has lasted better than anything Johnson wrote when he was alive. Which is a bit crazy because, except for his Biography of Johnson, it seems that Boswell might have been an annoying drunken hanger-on of a jackass who never did anything else right in his life.
Samuel Johnson came from crushing poverty and hardship -- and pretty much single-handedly compiled the first Dictionary of the English Language.
In the preface of which he wrote:
It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward.
Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius, who press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress. Every other authour may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few.
He was also a prodigiously fast writer and reader.
Boswell says this of him.
'Johnson knew more books than any man alive.' He had a peculiar facility in seizing at once what was valuable in any book, without submitting to the labour of perusing it from beginning to end. He had, from the irritability of his constitution, at all times, an impatience and hurry when he either read or wrote.
Which makes me feel better about the way I sometimes raid nonfiction books rather than read them. Or maybe the way I render them, like one boils scraps of meat to render the useful fats out of them.
I'm not going to take the time to find the precise metaphor. Whatever it is, it isn't pretty -- it's messy and nothing I'd want my children to watch. I just try to rip the guts right out of the book. And that fact that Johnson did it too makes me feel a little better.
Good, but honestly, not his best. I would suggest The Power of the Dog -- the first book in the trilogy. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but reading The Power of the Dog and The Cartel was an experience like I've never had before.
Winslow knows the sordid ins and outs of the Drug War like few others and he gets so much out of it as an author.
I am personally against the prohibition of drugs on moral grounds. In addition to being electrifying thrillers, these books help make the human cost of our price supports for drugs real. If cocaine wasn't expensive in the U.S. people wouldn't kill themselves for it in Juarez and Colombia. Pablo Escobar blew up an airliner and bombed the Colombian Supreme Court. That's on him. But it's also on us.
But don't let my speechifying put you off. The books are great thrillers. If you liked Narcos, you'll love these.
Here's the Amazon blurb:
Set against the backdrop of China's Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.
This is a triple winner of a great book.
1) It's great hard sci-fi.
2) It's is great psychological fiction. Not only is the science good, but the insights into people and society are great as well.
3) It's Chinese science fiction, so you get a glimpse into another culture.
Having been to a few conventions and having met a number of sci fi and fantasy authors, it is a little dismal how conventional many of them are. There is a groupthink in what they call "The Field" of writing speculative fiction. And, of course, a lot of internal strife. Who's the good guys, who's the bad guys? I don't pretend to know, but you can get a lot of sameness in fiction when they have the same worldview and they've spend a lot of the same time in the same rooms talking about the same things in the same way.
This book wasn't like that at all for me. It was brilliant and refreshing.
Plus Others, but...
That's for this post. Throw in some scattered reading in the Bible, Shakespeare, Economics and Poetry and it's a year well-spent. Of course, I wish I had a chance to read more, but, you know there was real life to be lived as well.
If anybody has a suggestion of something I should read next year, put it in the comments. I have a bit of an addiction with buying books, so please enable me.