Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Hey, it's March, and once again, time for that timeless tradition I started just last month, Books I Read. Here's what I read in February, and what I thought of 'em. Not the biggest month for me, but two of the books topped 600 pages, so whaddaya gonna do?

“Bluebeard” by Kurt Vonnegut, one of the few novels of his I hadn't read. An interesting book about a painter recalling his life, it's not Vonnegut's best, but as usual offers some great insights into life, the universe and everything. A bit strange in that it didn't include any fantasy elements, as most of his work usually does.

“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” by Susannah Clarke. An 800-page monster of a novel about two magicians' friendship, battles and falling out in 19th-century Victorian England, I really enjoyed this one. Kind of like a cross between Charles Dickens, Neil Gaiman and "Harry Potter," set in a world where magic is real but dormant. Some really compelling scenes of magic and mystery, and a great imaginary history, it gets borderline pretentious in parts (full of footnotes, and Clarke insists on using odd archaic spellings throughout, which doesn't quite work) but overall, a good yarn. I'd read a sequel, if one materializes.

“Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” by Malcolm Gladwell, about the power of intuitive thinking. Gladwell writes some fascinating reporting for "The New Yorker" and did the great "The Tipping Point" a few years back. "Blink" is compelling reading as well, but not quite as cohesive as "The Tipping Point." It feels more episodic and the central thesis is made and explained in the first few pages, so anything after that is just repeating the point. Yet Gladwell layers on tons of interesting factoids and trivia, touching on everything from Warren Harding to "New Coke" and art history in showing how split-second decisions and first impressions matter.

"The Final Solution: A Story of Detection" by Michael Chabon didn't really impress me too much. A short novella about the 87-year-old Sherlock Holmes (never named, but that's clearly who it's meant to be) and his final case, in World War II England, it was inconclusive and the mystery hard to follow. Beautiful writing, as with all of Chabon's books, and a nice tone poem, but really not much "there" there on this one.

"Gilgamesh: A New English Version" by Stephen Mitchell. I don't go in for ancient poetry much, but this library book intrigued me, and is a really interesting new translation of the ancient Assyrian poem with a good essay about it beforehand. My sole exposure to "Gilgamesh" was in English class and Jim Starlin's underrated comic-book sci-fi adaptation "Gilgamesh II" a while back, but this did a nice job of bringing this dusty old tale to life.

"Strange Fascination: David Bowie - The Definitive Story" by David Buckley. I'm a frickin' gigantic David Bowie fan, with more than 50 CDs and bootlegs in my collection, but had yet to find a truly well-written biography of the man. Those I've read were either too sleazy and gossipy or absymally out-of-date. Enter "Strange Fascination," a remarkably good look at the man's legendary career up to the year 2000. Buckley focuses on the music rather than sex and drugs (although there's plenty of that here), showing Bowie's development as an artist and the legions of musicians influenced by him. Extraordinarily good, critical and thorough at nearly 700 pages, and the first book about Bowie to join Nicholas Pegg's mammoth "The Complete David Bowie" as "essential" in my library for Bowiephiles.

"Hard News: The Scandals At The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media" by Seth Mnookin. Yeah, I'm sick of hearing about serial liar Jayson Blair too, but this book, which calls the Blair affair a "journalistic suicide bomb" in the heart of The New York Times newsroom, is fascinating stuff, delving deep into the culture of the Times and showing Blair as a symptom of a more general disfunction created by editor Howell Raines. Full of meaty gossip (and boy, Raines comes off as everything I try not to emulate in my own job as an editor here), behind-the-scenes newsroom information on how the Times works and the realization that every paper, from the humble dailies like mine to the giants of the industry, have the same problems with ego, incompetence and fatigue.

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