The One and Only Recent Reading

05/27/2004 -- After sending e-mail to different folks about books I'd been reading, I decided to post a list somewhere I could access it easily. One good side effect is that others can do the same! Most of this initial list is "back reading" -- books from the few year or so. From then, I'll add books as I read them. Reviews will appear, as time permits.

Last update: 05/27/2004

The Joy of Pi, by David Blattner
This book presents a history of man's pursuit of this number, the most famous number not named 0 or 1. I learned a lot about the development of formulas for computing pi ever more completely. See the book's web site many cool links on pi.

Girl Walks into a Bar: A Memoir, by Strawberry Saroyan
I saw it in the new book section at the library. It looked small and light, which is what I was in the mood for, and it looked hip in the way I would like to be. So I read it. Or, more precisely, I read half of it. By that point, I think I had learned all I could from the book about the life of a 20-something seeking fame in magazine publishing in the '90s. The book was, not surprisingly, about a somewhat self-indulgent young woman. She wanted more, but too much of her life seemed to be about sex and being seen at the right parties. One review I saw got it just right: "Her story is one I'd rather have heard over cocktails than reading a whole book about--it's practically the poster child for the "yeah, but who cares?" syndrome of people writing memoirs who don't have much more to write about than anyone else."

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
I loved this book. One of my all-time favorites.

Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee

Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan

Nobody's Fool, by Richard Russo
Straight Man, by Richard Russo

Nice Work, by David Lodge
Small World: An Academic Romance, by David Lodge
Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses, by David Lodge
Thinks, by David Lodge
If you like academically-themed fiction, with a distinctly British sensibility, you'll like Lodge. I haven't written reviews of any of these yet, but you can get a feel of Lodge from this quote: "Literature is mostly about having sex, and not much about having babies; life is the other way round."

Blues for Hannah, by Tim Farrington
I found this book on a lark looking through the stacks in the library one day. Great luck for me, because I really enjoyed this tale of a man's longtime love for a girl he met in college, reminisced on the occasion of her death. Hannah is a Janis Joplin-like character, and the narrator fell in love with her quickly when he net her in college, was her lover briefly, and part of an unusual friendship with her for the rest of her life. She dies in a car crash in the middle of Nebraska -- a death she foretold lyrically in college -- and the narrator takes his son to identify the body and see to her burial.

I'm not old enough to know how authentic the story is about the 1960s, and I've never lived in Berkeley, but Farrington writes engaging prose and did a nice job developing characters while telling the story both in the present and in flashback.

Recommendation: Two thumbs way up. My favorite fiction in a long time.

Farrington published a new novel soon after I head this one, The Monk Downstairs", which I also enjoyed, but not as much as Hannah.

Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference, by Mark Edmundson
Edmundon tells the story of his senior year in a public high school outside Boston. He was a football player with no intellectual life and aspirations to having one, just floating along, until his English teacher, a strange little guy just out of Harvard named Frank Lears, helped him open his mind to the beauty of ideas and literature. This book recounts Edmundson's birth as a scholar, in the face of the expectations of his father and counselors, peer pressure, and teenage inertia. He feels bad about how he participated in the disrespect shown to Lears early in the year but good as he begins to engage Lears in the second semester.

Edmundson went on to earn a Ph.D. in literature and now teaches at the University of Virginia. His desire to write the book grew largely out of his realizing how much he had forgotten and then re-learned about teaching from his mentor Lears. He also gets to tell us a little about being a teenager in the late 1960s.

Recommendation: Two thumbs up.

My Losing Season, by Pat Conroy
I liked this book a lot. It tells the story of Conroy's final season as a basketball player at The Citadel, 1966-1967. He was a senior who had never started before but who expected to lead what he thought was the best team of his four years at El Cid to its best season in recent years. Instead, the team never gelled and went 8-17, with several players having unexpectedly unhappy years.

Conroy bookends the story of this season with:

I liked the book in several ways. I enjoyed his telling the story of a basketball season. Conroy's story is essentially that of a mediocre college-level athlete coming to grips with the fact that he cannot excel at the thing he loves the most. This is a feeling I can appreciate.

I enjoyed his telling of the story of a Citadel cadet, from the perspective of someone who simultaneously loves the school, its traditions, its mission, and its methods and hates how some people use the traditions to hurt and degradeother people.

I enjoyed reading about the gyms and coaches and players of the Southern Conference during that era. I recognized pros from the day -- Randy Mahaffey, Len Chappel -- and learned about college greats I'd never heard of -- Johnny Moates of Richmond, for example.

I enjoyed his telling about his life and his father, and how he still battles the scars he received growing up. You can learn more about this part of Conroy's life from The Great Santini.

Conroy is prone to overwrought prose and to hyperbole, but he's a good story teller. The book read quickly and easily for me.

This is the first of Conroy's novels that I've read, though I've seen the movie adaptations of The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and The Prince of Tides. I would like to read The Great Santini sometime and then re-watch that movie, which I first saw as a freshman at Ball State in an honors culture/history class. I also saw Breaking Away and several other wonderful films in that course. I don't remember many details from either, but I remember their messages and how they affected me, a rather naive kid coming out of a family with not much exposure to the world.

Recommendation: Two thumbs up.

Ariel's Gift, by Erica Wagner
I stumbled across this book in a cool little private bookstore not far from Seattle's Seahawks Stadium, walking back from a meeting late one Saturday in November. It tells the story of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath through Hughes' "Birthday Letters", a book-length cycle of poems published in 1998, a couple of years before Hughes died. Plath's story is well known to many people, but before reading this book I knew only that she had been a poet, had been married to poet Ted Hughes, and had committed suicide young. This book taught me a lot. Hughes had remained largely silent about his life with Plath and her death in 1963 until publishing his intensely personal "Letters".

Wagner walks us through "Birthday Letters", interspersing fragments of Hughes' poems with her analysis and biographical information. She also uses fragments of poems written by Hughes and Plath during their life together to fill in details and to corroborate her analysis.

As a parallel biography, this book works well. I got a good feel for what it must have been like to be creative people at Oxford at the beginning of the 1960s, faced at the same time with the exigencies of real life. As critical discussion of poetry, this book works just as well. I don't think that I could enter into Plath's dark and sometimes grotesque poetry without some guide helping me to discern the symbolic landmarks that give meaning to her images.

Recommendation: Two thumbs up.

Sailing Alone Around the Room, by Billy Collins
A friend of mine mentioned a couple of poets in a discussion: Billy Collins and Jorie Graham. I've not read much poetry since college, and not much even then, but I felt like trying out these well-thought-of contemporary poets after following that discussion, hearing Richard Gabriel speak about poetry at two conferences last fall, and reading some of Gabriel's notes and recommended books. (I strongly recommend Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town, a set of essays on teaching and writing poetry!)

I started with Collins, the current poet laureate, because my friend described him as the more accessible.

I don't think I ever learned to read poetry properly, but I'm learning. Collins stuff was accessible and sometimes quite engaging. Most of it seemed to take to an extreme the idea that poets share their experiences with readers. The extreme was that Collin often puts very little distance between his immediate experience (say, opening a book) and his poems. He takes quite ordinary observations of the world and goes off on some tangent of imagination, some daydream. Often, his experiences are the experiences of sitting down to write poetry, which makes some of the references rather inward-looking. But many of the feelings his poems evoked resonated with me as someone who sits down to create.

Recommendation: If you like poetry, you may like this. If not, then I can't tell you that this will change your mind, but it is not the sort of poetry that will turn you off immediately, either.

I have Jorie Graham's "Swarm" on my shelf to be read soon. From taking a stab at her first few poems, I can see that they are less accessible, at least to a naif like me: odd layout on the page, mostly incomplete sentences or phrases with much parenthesizing, and very abstract.

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
Chasing Rumi, by Roger Housden
Two little books (160 and 140 pages, respectively) in the Sufi tradition. The former is about a Spanish shepherd who follows his Personal Dream at great cost, meets an Alchemist, and in the end learns to speak the Language of the World. The latter is about a Greek icon painter in 1950s Florence who becomes captivated with a snippet of poetry by the Sufi Rumi and embarks on a journey to Rumi's tomb. Both were quite enjoyable.

Einstein's Dreams, by Alan Lightman
I found out about this book from a reference in e=mc2. It offers a couple of dozen short chapters, with a few fictional vignettes of Einstein's thinking and discussion with Hans Bethe as he reconceptualized time for his theory of relativity interspersed among twenty or so fictional Einstein dreams about worlds in which time behaves differently (for example, passes faster when one is at higher altitudes; occasionally gets stuck to a single place in time; moves backwards).

I found this book to be quite creative and wonderfully written.

The Most Beautiful House in the World, by Witold Rybczynski
I ran into this book at the intersection of software, patterns, (building) architecture, and beauty. At the time he wrote this book, Rybczynski was on the architecture faculty at McGill and had set out to build himself a shed to hold his boat. He was concerned that modern architecture would not allow that he could build a "beautiful" shed and set out to explore the concept of beauty in the built world. This book is a wandering wondering about many different topics, including art, games, and history. A good read.

Back in the World, by Tobias Wolff
I don't remember where I first heard of Wolff, probably in the pages of some book review. Again, I just stumbled upon his books while meandering in the stacks. When he wrote this book, Wolff was the writer-in-residence at Syracuse (hey to Steve); he has since moved to Stanford to direct its creative writing program. I don't read all that many short stories these days, and especially from popular fiction, but I found these to be different, enjoyable. Wolff seems to like to create real characters who are living in strange situations, and then see how they react. I liked these shorts enough that I have his book The Night in Question on my shelf.

The World Jones Made, by Philip K. Dick
After following a long thread on a mailing list of friends about the movie The Minority Report (based on a Dick short), what science fiction is, and Philip K. Dick, I wandered over to his place in the library. I'd have sworn that I had read some Dick novels as a teen, but from looking over the selections I'd have to say I must not have. I've certainly read many of his short stories!

This novel recounts the rise and fall of a post-nuclear messiah figure, set after a world war set in the 1990s. The world-wide response to the war is Relativism, a cultural relativism enforced by a world-wide government. This is typical Dick, with a strange spin on what is real and what faith in something otherworldly means.

The most interesting thoughts I've had since beginning the book are about how someone can see into the future without requiring that the future be predetermined. Jones "sees" the future by living it one year ahead of everyone else -- but at that moment, one year ahead, everyone is acting of their own free will. The result is that Jones is bored by the present that he also experiences with everyone else, because it's a year-old memory for him...

Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech
This small book, aimed at the young reader, is about how a young boy comes to appreciate poetry by writing his owns poems after the fashion of famous ones. I read the first 13 pages at my sister-in-law's house on vacation and went to my library as soon as I got home to read the rest of it. A book that respects the the reader as much as it respects poetry.

The Mind-Body Problem, by Rebecca Goldstein
I encountered this book by pure happenstance in the stacks of my public library, and my attention was first drawn by the title -- an odd one to find among the romance novels that fill the fiction shelves. The author took a Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton and then joined the faculty there for a while.

This book mixes some "real" philosophy about the mind-body problem into a story about a Jewish woman's experience at Princeton when she hits an intellectual "wall" and despairs of her value in academia. It's all about identity, gender, faith, and creative genius -- and especially what happens when the creative genius runs dry. It's also a romance novel, so it fits well on the shelves.

E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation, by David Bodanis
See David Bodanis's home page for information about this book.

Eugene Wallingford .....