Herzog - Saul  Bellow, Phillip Roth I didn't realize it until about twenty pages from the end of the book, but Moses Herzog is one of the most endearing characters I have ever encountered in a novel. He probably shouldn't be. He's washed up, broken down, and quite possibly a little bit crazy, and spends a great deal of time mentally composing letters full of obscure philosophical references, addressing them variously to former colleagues, past lovers, or the dead philosophers themselves. All the while he is anguishing over the destruction of his second marriage, the distance between himself and his two children, the woman who may actually love him despite everything. As the wreckage of his actual life is slowly revealed, the pointlessness of the letters, even were they actually written down and sent, becomes increasingly, painfully apparent.

But then, somehow, that changes. Herzog's letters begin to seem more relevant, more significant, even with their persistent indecipherable academic jargon. Their abstract seriousness begins to seem like a front, a shield, and one that Herzog himself seems to see as increasingly flimsy and, more importantly, superfluous. As he divests himself of scholarly baggage, the meaningful parts of his life begin to reveal themselves, and suddenly, imperceptibly, Herzog the human being comes to light. (The unresolved question for me here is, did the letters themselves change, or did I change, and gradually come to recognize the truth hidden within them all along?)

For a considerable portion of this book, I admit I skimmed a lot of the letters, stuffed as they were with their hyperacademic maundering, thinking, as long as I got the gist, there was no need to bog myself down with the details. But when the book ended, so soon after I finally realized how fond of this shambling academic I had become, I began to regret my casual attitude. In a scaled down version of what we so often feel at the passing of a loved one, I wished I had paid better attention, had listened more carefully to what this earnest soul was trying to say before he was gone. He deserved that much. But now it was too late.

Gone with the Wind (Mass Market)

Gone with the Wind (Mass Market) - Margaret Mitchell I hardly know what to say. I expected fluff, and hoped it would at least be entertaining fluff, maybe even with a few redeeming literary qualities. What I got instead was one of the most engrossing and thought-provoking stories I have ever read. Certainly the writing has its flaws (chiefly its occasional repetitiveness), and I remain undecided on whether to call it a great book (the way Moby Dick or Madame Bovary are great books), but it is unquestionably a great story. Melodramatic at times, yes, but no more so than, say, East of Eden, and far less so than Moby Dick; but most importantly, no more so than life.

I loved and hated Scarlett and Rhett, was by turns shocked, frustrated, and saddened by them, and in the end could not help silently cheering them on, all the while sensing that they must be doomed. (I should mention here that I had no foreknowledge of how the story turns out, which I assume is not the case for many readers of the book these days.) I'm not sure what to make of those who, as a reason for disliking the book, cite Scarlett's silliness/bitchiness/childishness/what-have-you. This is the story of a silly, shallow, utterly self-absorbed woman forced to survive on her own merits in a world completely alien to the one she has known since birth. She is never likable, but what respect she earns from the reader is no less deserved for how grudgingly it is given. (And anyway, I found that whenever Scarlett was getting to be almost too much to take, Rhett would show up and take her down a notch, which was always fun to watch.)

So, should you read this book? That depends. Did you hate Madame Bovary because you didn't happen to like Emma as a person? Do you cringe or scoff when a character talks openly about love -- the kind of naked, shameless, naive love we older folks so naively and patronizingly associate with the teenage years? If you answered yes to either question, then you are unlikely to give Gone with the Wind a fair chance, so I wouldn't bother. (And I don't mean that as condescendingly as it sounds. I wouldn't have given it a fair chance myself if I hadn't read a particularly well-written and compelling essay on Margaret Mitchell that peaked my curiosity. It's contained in the book Passionate Minds, if you're interested.) But if you don't mind, or can overlook, these sorts of things, and you love ambitious, grand stories written passionately, then you are in for a tremendous literary treat. (And if you're at all curious about the South during Reconstruction, or race relations in America, then you'll get a significant bonus.)

In short, I absolutely loved it, and I have no doubt that I will read it again. I now understand why so many people are so devoted to this book, and I only hope I can convince more people to give it a try.

The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives - Roberto Bolaño, Natasha Wimmer There was a time when I would have loved this book. I actually did enjoy the part I read. But as soon as I became convinced -- around page 100 -- that nothing of note was actually going to happen, so to speak, I had to give it up. I hope to pick up another Bolano someday, as I hear this is not his best work -- and I need to know why John Banville, Susan Sontag, and Francine Prose all think he's the bomb.

Mc Graw Hill's Conquering Lsat Logic Games

Mc Graw Hill's Conquering Lsat Logic Games - Curvebreakers Provides a great deal of practice, and two or three very helpful tips. Unfortunately, there were at least half a dozen times that I knew with certainty that the answer key was wrong, which added a significant amount of frustration to an already frustrating endeavor.

Consider Phlebas

Consider Phlebas - Iain M. Banks On one level, I could tell that this was probably pretty well written hard sci-fi. On another, unfortunately, I just never got to the point where I cared, so I stopped reading after a hundred pages or so. This may have had more to do with me than with the book, but there you have it.

The Briar King

The Briar King  - Greg Keyes I am not a fantasy fiction aficionado. Compared to a lot of people, I'm not even particularly well read in the genre. (Notably, I have yet to pick up George Martin, Terry Brooks, or Terry Goodkind). But I am someone who used to read fantasy regularly and eventually gave up on all but a few authors due to an ever decreasing ability to buy (figuratively or literally) what they were writing.

Greg Keyes is one of the few I kept reading. Now that I've finished book four of this series, I am relieved to say it's been worth it. The plot lines and characterizations are every bit as interesting and compelling as, say, those in Robert Jordan, but without the apparent inability to convey them in fewer than 10,000 pages. Keyes just writes a good story, time and time again.

I also recommend [book: Waterborn] and [book: Blackgod], and especially his Age of Unreason series, beginning with [book: Newton's Cannon].

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education - Michael Pollan The more I read Michael Pollan, the more I like him. I imagine anyone with an interest in the earth, ecology, gardening, or nature would love this book, and I can certainly recommend it to anyone who, like me, is just discovering an interest in the life of plants, and how we interact with them. The perspective Pollan offers on the dichotomy of civilization vs. wilderness -- and the destructive tendencies of that distinction -- is especially important as we all grapple with just what the hell it means to be "green," anyway, and how to be involved with nature without feeling the need to extricate ourselves entirely from the modern world in order to do so.

Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert, Francis Steegmuller Yet another book that was so good I hardly know what to say about it. I was enthralled from start to finish. I've never read anything that so skillfully and completely entwines the tragic and the banal in all our lives. Emma is fascinating, obviously, but almost every other character at least hints at a complete, complex, and unique psychology worthy of rumination. And the way the sheer monotonous inexorability of Emma's world actually almost seems at times to justify her behavior is simply incredible.

That's about all I can manage. You need to read this book. That's all there is to it.

The U.S. Constitution: And Fascinating Facts About It

The U.S. Constitution: And Fascinating Facts About It - Terry L. Jordan The Constitution bit was pretty sweet, but the Facts, for the most part, weren't particularly fascinating -- though I did enjoy the fact that there was once a proposed amendment to the Constitution to rename our country "The United States of the Earth." It failed in 1893, but nowadays, it might just have a shot.

The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness

The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death, and Happiness - Mark Rowlands I'm vacillating between two and three stars on this one, but I think I'll end up with two. There were times, especially in the first half of the book, when Rowland's philosophical musings seemed insightful and original, and his anecdotes about his wolf were interesting and seemed to have a point. But the further along I got, the less focused the book felt. More importantly, I quickly tired of hearing about how crappy "simians" (apes and people) are compared to wolves. Rowland makes valid points, but avoids -- more and more conspicuously -- taking note of almost anything good about humanity. Later in the book, he admits to being a "misanthrope," so I guess that explains the antipathy, but it also explains what is wrong with the book: all of his thinking boils down to a distaste for people, coupled (sometimes rather awkwardly) with an almost blind adoration for wolves (and a sort of condescending indulgence of dogs). That's his prerogative, but a book can only be so good when that's all it has to go on. By the end of this one, it seems pretty clear that Rowland has realized he doesn't have much of a point to make, and the writing gets more and more repetitive as he attempts to delay the ending long enough to find one.

So, for people who love wolves and/or dislike humans, it probably serves well as a sort of affirmation of the reader's feelings. For anyone interested in the "Philosopher" part of the title, I think you are bound for disappointment.

A Naked Singularity (Paper)

A Naked Singularity (Paper) - Sergio  de la Pava I just don't know what to say about this book. I think maybe it is truly great. I don't think I can review it any more than I could review Moby Dick or Madame Bovary (or perhaps more appropriately, Wittgenstein's Mistress; or maybe Terra Nostra or other similarly big, messy, ambitious works). Anything I could say is beside the point -- except, perhaps, "Read this."

The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality

The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality - Andre Comte-Sponville The title of this one pretty much sums it up: it's an argument for the possibility of spirituality without the involvement of a god. And it's little.

I appreciated this book largely due to the ways in which it differs from much of the recent atheist literature out there. The author's intention was to present and argue for a position, rather than merely to attack someone else's. He is well acquainted with the history and philosophy of religion, Eastern and Western, and therefore less often ends up sounding naive or confused. He is genuinely sympathetic to the religious impulse, despite his disagreements with, and dismay at, many of its manifestations. He comes across as a normal person, who has felt a longing most of us have felt, who has thought a lot about these things, and who would like to present his conclusions. Those conclusions aren't exactly startling, especially to anyone who's read anything on Taoism or Zen Buddhism, but they are sincere. It is this sincerity, more than anything else, that makes Andre Comte-Sponville's book worth reading.

Currently reading

Season of Migration to the North
Denys Johnson-Davies, Ṭayyib Ṣāliḥ, Laila Lalami
The Broken Kingdoms
N.K. Jemisin
Ramona the Brave
Jacqueline Rogers, Beverly Cleary