BOOKS: What I Read, June
From "Orwell: A Life," George Orwell, 1946, a few years before his death from tuberculosis at age 47. It's a cheery Friday photo!
Halfway through the year and my epic attempt to chronicle all the books I read. I made it through 7 books in June, making a total of 41 as of June 30. Can I break 100 for the year? Can I stop my eyeballs from falling out of my head? What if I decide to start watching "American Idol" instead? Stay tuned!
[And for the curious, here's the year to date posts: January, February, March, April and May.]
"Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America" by Dan Savage. America often combines a kind of public prudeness with a personal libertarianism that is one of our biggest contradictions. Sex columnist Dan Savage examines those who "give in" to their desires and the seven deadly sins in this American travelogue, which looks at greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, envy, pride and anger and how some people indulge in them, from Las Vegas casinos to gun clubs to "swingers." Despite Savage's pretty way-out newspaper sex columns, I found "Skipping" tamer and less shocking than I thought it might be, with the chapter on gluttony (and fat-enabling "feeders") probably the most gripping chapter. Unfortunately, his liberalism is kind of preaching to the converted with me, and most of his potential readers. It's an entertaining read, though, and a decent look at some of the hedonistic parts of society.
"Eisner/Miller" edited by Charles Bronwstein. It's a book-length conversation between two of the biggest masters of the comic art form, "Sin City" creator Frank Miller and the late, great Will Eisner. For extreme comic-book nuts, obviously, but utterly fascinating if you are, as the "old" and "younger" generations go back-and-forth on everything from censorship to publishing to creativity to proper uses of zipatone. It looks at how comics have changed since Eisner was one of the pioneers in the 1940s to where they're going, and makes great points on a variety of subjects. Packed with nice art, too. A must for any comic book fan's library.
"Orwell: The Life" by D.J. Taylor is a curious book, which I alternated between loving and hating while reading it. I'm a huge admirer of George Orwell, and I'd easily put his "1984" in my top 5 books of all time list. This is the first biography of the former Eric Blair I'd read, and the life is fascinating – undercover journalist, member of the Burma Police, aspiring socialist, volunteer in the Spanish Civil War and victim of crippling tuberculosis. Yet I felt like author Taylor was overly intrusive, borderline pretentious in his approach -- his labyrinthine prose is the opposite of Orwell's clean, cool efficiency. Taylor works mightily to humanize Orwell, to seek out details of his life, but too often he's speculative or trails off with "we'll never know" or some such. His Orwell is often seen as cold and forbidding, yet at the same time there's many nice details that illustrate a conflicted figure torn between a classic British boarding school upbringing and a deep sympathy for the poor and downtrodden. Ultimately, something central about Orwell seems to elude Taylor, keeping this book from great biography. The book also bogs down with name-dropping of long-forgotten literary figures and dull analyses of pre-World War II socialist organizational efforts. I wouldn't say I don't recommend the book - it's inspired me to read some of Orwell's work that I've missed - but I'm curious to find another Orwell biography sometime that isn't so much of a slog to get through.
"The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed" by John Vaillant. An amazing book that knits together Northwest history, Indian legend, logging ethics and more into something fascinating. I wrote a full review recently for the day job; check it out here.
“A Long Way Down,” by Nick Hornby. I do like Nick Hornby's novels, lighthearted, conversational and funny novels about interesting, quirky people trying to be better. But like 2001's so-so "How To Be Good," Hornby writes himself into a corner with this novel. It starts with a premise that grabs you, but is impossible to really follow up well -- four very different strangers meet on a roof on New Year's Eve, each intending to commit suicide. They don't, right away, obviously, but instead form a peculiar bond as they try to convince each other life is worth living -- or it isn't. Hornby gives it a go, and this is still witty, humane work, but it's hobbled from the start by its premise. I didn't feel for a minute that most of these people were really going to kill themselves, and with the exception of one of the four, a mother with a severely disabled son, none of their rather self-centered and egotistical problems felt all that crippling. Hornby spends the entire book trying to escape the trap his premise has put him in; while it's an entertaining, quick read, "A Long Way Down" never quite feels truthful to me.
"Created in Darkness By Troubled Americans: The Best Of McSweeney's Humor Category" by Dave Eggers, editor. Collecting all kinds of short humorous pieces from the good people at McSweeney's magazine and Web site. Humor is utterly subjective, of course, but if you like McSweeney's/Eggers-esque humor (i.e. their lists), you'll dig this; it's a quick read, but there were some gut-busting bits in here that will appeal to us geeks, including "Unused Audio Commentary by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, Recorded Summer 2002, for the Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring DVD (Platinum Series Extended Version), Part One," and "Journal of a New COBRA Recruit." Nothing that will change your life, but a fun beach read.
"Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side of Everything" by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I don't typically read economics books, but Levitt was on "The Daily Show" recently and the book, which takes an analytical look at a variety of subjects, sounded interesting. And it is, as economist Levitt argues that many apparent mysteries of everyday life don't need to be so mysterious: they could be illuminated and made even more fascinating by asking the right questions and drawing connections. This includes looks at drug-dealer economics, real estate agent tactics, the history of the Ku Klux Klan, what people's baby name choices mean, or perhaps the book's most controversial portion, considering how the legalization of abortion and a drop in crime are related. Thoughtful stuff, in accessible language, with lots of good anecdotes and material for chewing over. One flaw though, and the creators make no bones about it in their foreword and afterword, is that there's no central thesis or point being made. It makes for a rather scattered book thinly linked by a kind of "way of thinking," yet it's hard to pin down. That keeps it from being quite as essential as thematically similar books like "Guns, Gems And Steel" or "The Tipping Point." Nevertheless, worth a spin.