One of my favorite Culture books. That it never mentions the Culture might be elegant, or just a great big insider joke. Having the privilege of being...moreOne of my favorite Culture books. That it never mentions the Culture might be elegant, or just a great big insider joke. Having the privilege of being on the inside, though, I enjoy it terrifically.(less)
I've never really been a Best-Ever List sort of guy, but as of today, I think I've arrived at an accidental one: "Howard's End" joins "Lolita" on it....moreI've never really been a Best-Ever List sort of guy, but as of today, I think I've arrived at an accidental one: "Howard's End" joins "Lolita" on it. Now I guess I have to find eight more so good. Won't be easy.(less)
Back in graduate school, when our idea of a really good time was studying abstruse social theory, there was one or another -ism that purported to expl...moreBack in graduate school, when our idea of a really good time was studying abstruse social theory, there was one or another -ism that purported to explore the linkages between the large-scale forces of Big History and the local lived experience of individuals. I remember it as a very compelling piece of theorizing with gobs of intellectual merit, lacking only in any kind of applicability to empirical research. And so Big History and lived experience remained sadly disconnected, as least on my watch.
It turns out that we might have done better to just read "Bridge on the Drina." Apparently the best known novel to have been written in the Serbo-Croatian language, "Bridge" is the story of a bridge, and of the town by the bridge, and of the people who live in the town, all through dozens of generations of Balkan history. Always in the background are the intricate ethnic relations of Bosnia and the destinies of larger kingdoms, through the long decline of the Ottoman Empire, the apex of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the crises of the early 20th Century. Seldom discussed directly, the big political picture nevertheless underlies everything that happens in the lives of the peasants, merchants, tradesmen, students, and soldiers who populate the novel. Ivo Andric, whose day job was in the diplomatic corps of the late Yugoslavia, is masterful at showing how decisions from faraway capitals alter the tenor of life for the people who live near his bridge, and also how forces of local tradition and isolation, and not incidentally the force of accumulated local lore, render the town and the lives of its people idiosyncratic and unique.
It is, I discovered after I’d read most of the novel, a real bridge! And the town, Visegrad, is a real town! Yet despite that, and despite the highly specific local setting, Visegrad serves as a kind of everytown, and Balkan history to an extent a stand-in for any history. "Bridge on the Drina" has a real universal quality, in one sense “about” a certain time and place but equally “about” what it is like to be a human in a town that is shaped and shocked by events from the world beyond its outskirts.
The writing style – I read the translation by Lovett Edwards – has a formal, measured Central European solemnity to it. It is not a book to get through in one sitting, but it is also a highly compelling read which kept me up too late more than one night, trying to get through “just one more chapter.” Violence and sexuality are, as in real life, driving forces throughout, but are discussed and described with a great deal of dignity and discretion. However, I will also warn you of a lengthy and detailed description of a torture-execution early in the book that ranks among the most ghastly, horrifying passages I have ever read.
PLOT: A bridge is built. The centuries pass. Life goes on.
The narrative unfolds as a series of short stories and anecdotes. Most chapters include more than one distinct story within them, and many stories overlap the chapter breaks, yet the chapters provide a pacing and a rhythm that seem exactly right. Characters, families, buildings, large and small modifications of the bridge itself, and the enduring habits of the townspeople appear and reappear, weaving the book loosely together through time.
The book ends in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. The bridge itself, however, has continued its journey through history. It was the site of horrific events during the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Today, though, it is a World Heritage Site, and bookish people from all over apparently make the pilgrimage to integrate the bridge into their own life stories. Having read this book, I understand why they would. (less)
Wow. Not only did I learn a hell of a lot from this book, but it proposed answers to many questions that I had never thought of asking. I consider it...moreWow. Not only did I learn a hell of a lot from this book, but it proposed answers to many questions that I had never thought of asking. I consider it a personal favor for Mr. Judt to have shaken up my complacent acceptance of the nature of the world I was born into, and to have done it in such a genial, conversational way.
It's my new favorite book about 20th century history! ...not that I had an old favorite, though.(less)
Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife. The Time Traveler’s Wife falls, consciously or not, in the great Science Fiction tradition of stories th...moreAudrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife. The Time Traveler’s Wife falls, consciously or not, in the great Science Fiction tradition of stories that sets up a simple counterfactual scenario -- in this case, what if there was this guy who sporadically travelled involuntarily back in time? -- and explores what the ramifications might be. In this case, we end up with a beautifully rendered story about the nature love, loss, and the passage of time. These are universal themes, of course, the same ones that are explored in much mainstream literature. But The Time Traveler’s Wife also serves as a good example of, how by imagining people in unprecedented and extreme situations, the Science Fiction author can provide fresh insights, or at least a fresh viewpoint, into human nature.
In addition to being good Literary Science Fiction, incidentally, this book offers a great romance, strongly drawn characters, and an intricate puzzle of twisted and overlapping timelines. The two primary characters experience events in different orders, often knowing what lies in store in the future of the other; as readers, events are revealed to us on yet a third timeline. It is an intricate puzzle of cause and effect, and Niffenegger has structured the book masterfully to keep us thoroughly engaged in what will happen next. Or what will have happened next. It is a wonderfully crafted text. (less)
My Goodreads list has been by far the most successful attempt I've ever made at tracking my reading. I still occasionally find brave beginnings of ear...moreMy Goodreads list has been by far the most successful attempt I've ever made at tracking my reading. I still occasionally find brave beginnings of earlier attempts, though. This book is one of five listed on the first page of a beautiful handmade journal in the fall of 2006. Page two is blank.(less)
This book is exactly what the title says it is, the memoirs of a primate – the human Robert Sapolsky – and his adventures over a couple of decades of...moreThis book is exactly what the title says it is, the memoirs of a primate – the human Robert Sapolsky – and his adventures over a couple of decades of baboon research in Kenya. It’s a collection of stories, many about the almost-human-but-not-quite goings on in the community of baboons that he studied, but many others about Sapolsky’s adventures within the human community, in Kenya and in other parts of Africa. He is a hell of a storyteller, and although there is a lot of sadness, corruption, fear, and unnecessary misery revealed in his stories, there is also much that is chortle-out-loud funny.
Sopolsky writes with gusto and humanity, and is careful to make sure we understand that his friends and heroes are not angels and that his worst villains have reasons for doing what they do. He mourns the passing of the “old Africa,” or at least the Africa of the early 1970s, while noting that the Africa of the early 1970s was in many ways a pretty miserable state of affairs. He regrets the fading of Massai cultural integrity, while acknowledging that a big part of Massai culture was the practice of making life nasty, brutish, and often rather short for their agriculturalist neighbors. Sopolsky seems to see more of the big picture than most of us, and he speaks with bracing fairness; he laughs in admiration at the skill or imperturbability of those who have taken advantage of him, and admits with regret the times that exigencies have forced him across his own moral frontiers.
Implicit in the weaving together of baboon tales and human tales is the notion that we primates are not so very different from each other. The baboons are individuals with complex relationships and behavior driven by need, avarice, and caprice; so are the humans. Sapolsky never makes the point directly, but he gives us signposts in the title and in the four sections of the book, in which periods of Sapolsky’s own life are described in the technical nomenclature for various stages of baboon development.
Hurray for the Reading List, as this is not a book that I would ever have thought to read on my own. I’m not much of one for non-fiction, and certainly not for natural history. But I found A Primate’s Memoir a delight, funny and educational and moving and wise. Recommended for primates with the capacity for written language.(less)
Novel? Collection of essays? Fictionalized non-fiction? Zippy biography? WHO KNOWS. This is some seriously genre-bending meta-fiction. I'm sorry it to...moreNovel? Collection of essays? Fictionalized non-fiction? Zippy biography? WHO KNOWS. This is some seriously genre-bending meta-fiction. I'm sorry it took me this long to get to it.(less)
Mike Doughty is one articulate dude. This book is an excellent corrective for all of us who sometimes wish we didn't pursue a rock and roll lifestyle....moreMike Doughty is one articulate dude. This book is an excellent corrective for all of us who sometimes wish we didn't pursue a rock and roll lifestyle. Fortunately, Doughty makes the awesome songs so we don't have to.(less)