Twenty-One Stories, by S. Y. Agnon

Agnon was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. He was born in 1888 in Austria and experienced the birth of Zionism, and the rebuilding of Israel as the Jewish homeland. The date of composition of the stories in this volume spans his lifetime; correspondingly they reflect the variety of Jewish experiences from the old world to post-Holocaust Europe. Unsurprisingly, while the earlier stories are charming portraits of Jewish traditional life, the later stories are dark and sad, filled with unfulfilled longing and loss. Many of these narratives include some element of the supernatural or perhaps just are intended to invoke a dreaming state. The narrator is (usually) swept along by events he has no control over, items (and people) appear and disappear, and everything drips with symbolism.

Excellent work, but perhaps reading it all at once like I did was not a good idea. These stories deserve to be read, and savored, one at a time. Finishing it in one gulp gave me a bit of mental indigestion.

Alphabetical Africa, by Walter Abish

Alphabetical Africa uses a unique literary device to frame a story set in a mostly imaginary African continent. There are 52 chapters; the first consists solely of words beginning with the letter 'a'. The second consists of words beginning with 'a' and 'b'. And so on until every word of the lexicon is available in chapters 26 and 27, then contracting again back up the alphabet.

Needless to say this imparts a distinctive flavor to what for want of a better word I will call the narrative. Initially this gives the impression of a nursery rhyme with sex thrown in - gradually a story is revealed. The narrator (identified as author) is searching Africa for his lover Alva and her accomplices in the murder of a jeweler and the theft of his valuables. With which he was somehow involved. Or not. Nothing becomes really clear (as author declares, he is 'an unreliable reporter') and the story veers further and further into the bizarre. Invading ant armies. Countries painted orange. Etc.

The result was a trajectory from, 'hmmm, this is interesting, if a bit contrived,' to 'wow, there's really something going on here,' to 'this guy was definitely on crack'.

The writing is melodic and breaks down the prose/poetry barrier at many points - this would be a great book to read aloud. Short and sweet. I recommend it.

"Bit by bit I have assembled Africa"

Present at the Creation, by Dean Acheson

Present at the Creation is Dean Acheson's memoir of his years in the State department from 1941 until the end of Harry Truman's adminsitration in January 1953. It is a big chunk to digest, clocking in at over 700 pages of text (not including footnotes, notes, and index). In addition to its sheer length and the huge breadth of material covered, it's written at an extremely literate and challenging level. Most books published today are written at the reading level of high school graduates - Dean Acheson pulls no punches when it comes to sentence structure. He is much smarter than me. I'm ok with that - it's just not something I often get out of a book.

Due to the fact that reading it actually took concentration, it took me an unusually long time to finish it - I've renewed it twice already and I'm going to owe some fines when I take it back to the library tomorrow. But I never wanted to give up. The material is fascinating and Acheson is a really great narrator. He is consistently brilliant at communicating the drama of the events he helped unfold. There are lots of funny stories (any memoir that includes meetings with Winston Churchill is bound to have some) and as I noted earlier, unlike Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton he is NOT shy about slamming people or ideas. (Neat perspective reading this after The Education of Henry Adams - Adams describes Henry Cabot Lodge (senator from MA) often. Lodge's grandson, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., is Senator of MA through much of the volume.) He doesn't stick to diplomacy but also describes the political conflicts he engaged in. It was an education - of course I knew about McCarthyism, but I did NOT know that General MacArthur was basically fired from command of the Korean War for a) losing and b) mouthing off to the press. I knew what the Marshall Plan was but I didn't know who General Marshall was. I also didn't really know how delicate the balance was in the power struggle against Russia and Communist China so soon after World War II.

Acheson dedicates the book to Truman and it's clear that he loved and respected him. He's free with praise for many of the people he worked with in the State department and many of his counterparts. He also is frank about disliking many people in Washington and abroad. The jacket copy calls him 'savage in his criticism'. About halfway in I started bookmarking particularly juicy passages.

Here are some gems:

Senator McCarthy. "He read Hitler....fellow boarders in the boardinghouse McCarthy lived in and patrons of the same barbershop he used had reported that McCarthy would produce Mein Kampf and read from it, chuckling and saying, 'That's the way to do it'. But he was essentially a lazy, small-town bully...."

Senator Robert Taft: "a defect of Taft's otherwise excellent mind, which Justice Holmes found also in that of Justice John Marshall Harlan the elder. 'Harlan's mind," he said, "was like a vise, the jaws of which did not meet. It only held the larger objects.'"

"...the French Minister of Defense, Georges Bidault, was present. He was one of the most rattlebrained men I have ever tried to work with."

"General Eisenhower's attitude perplexed me.....He seemed embarrassed and reluctant to be with us - wary, withdrawn, and taciturn to the point of surliness."

And a comment appropriate for the times regarding Presidential power:

"The capacity for decision, however, does not produce, of itself, wise decisions."

Reading Journal Entry: Mother Aegypt, by Kage Baker

Kage Baker makes me laugh. It's not often you come across short stories this flat-out enjoyable. This is an excellent collection. Highly recommend.

Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

On the most obvious level, this is a story about the effect of British colonialism on the life of an African village. It's also a portayal of the brutality and beauty of that way of life; and most impressively, a successfully sympathetic portrayal of an angry, unlikeable man.

Okankwo is an ambitious and industrious man, driven by his feeling of shame about his lazy, unsuccessful father. When the book opens he's rich, respected, and the head of a thriving family, an important member of his community, a wealthy and proud village. When the book ends - well, to avoid spoiling the ending too much, I'll just say that he's not and neither is his community. The novel is the story of his descent from the peak of his success. He's not a very likeable man. He beats his wives and children. He is proud and cold. But Achebe does such a good job explaining the motivations behind his repulsive actions - his childhood shame, his worries that his son will be weak like his father, his secret fear of being thought cowardly and his secret love for his children - that it's impossible to do other than forgive him. Okankwo is a hard man, but he is the product of a hard life. Achebe dwells on the beauty of village life - moonlight plays, music, and rituals; but he doesn't turn away from the harsher aspects. Twins are 'thrown away' - abandoned in the forest to die. And the gods of Umuofia are bloodthirsty.

Okankwo commits a terrible action because of his fear, and his life starts to fall apart from that moment. The theme of colonialism isn't introduced until near the end of the story and the decay of the community is merely the cap to his spiritual losses.

The language is fantastic - simple, melodic, rythmic, full of character. The reader, Peter Francis James, was a joy to listen to. I highly recommend both the book and this particular audio recording.

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

This is (so far as I can tell) the only science fiction book to have made it onto The List.

I read and re-read the Hitchhiker series in high school (me and every other weird nerd - except, I got to read them in Italian as well as English). So for this go-round I checked out the BBC radio series everyone raves about.

The voice acting and adaptation is wonderful, but the production is sadly overproduced. Every alien or machine voice had to be gratingly modified to the point where it gaveme a headache or was simply difficult to understand. The sound effects were gratingly loud.

In sum, I don't think this is the best of all possible adapations and I will go to see the forthcoming movie with a clear mind and heart.

Reading Journal Entry: The Life of the World to Come, by Kage Baker


The Life of the World to Come was a big disappointment. It's the latest installment in Kage Baker's Company series, and it's clear that the good of the novel has been subverted to advancing the series plot in this instance.

In the The Garden of Iden was a perfect jewel. Mendoza in Hollywood was a little scattershot, but I trusted her to have a plan. Sky Coyote, The Graveyard Game and Black Projects, White Knights were all excellent.

The basic premise is this: Time travel is possible. It's just very, very expensive. So what do you do instead of sending back lots of agents to do your bidding? You start way, way back and grow them instead of importing them from the future. Mendoza and her pals are immortal cyborgs born in the WayBack, but culturally acclimatized to the early 21st century and speaking 'Cinema Standard'. Dr. Zeus, otherwise known as The Man, is not very benevolent father company. Their Preservers hide in the shadows of history, rescuing precious volumes and artwork and occasionally other high-profit items. Meanwhile Time Hurries On, and everyone is waiting and wondering what happens in the year 2355 - when the future falls silent.

She has a plan, all right, but I don't know what it is yet! There's no excuse for issuing this as a standalone novel. She should have sat on this anoter year and wrote the rest of the material. It's half a book and ends in a very awkward place.

Is it funny? Is it absorbing? Yes! And a good thing too or I'd be REALLY mad!

Reading Journal Entry: Lyonesse, by Jack Vance

Lyonesse was recommended to me as 'one of the best books I've ever read' (even though the cover does make it look like a romance novel).

Conclusion: not quite. Although had I read it about ten years ago I might have thought so.

It's a sweeping fantasy story set in the Elder Isles among battling kingdoms. Magicians, fairies, ogres, and sweet young things (male & female) figure heavily.

It's good. It's very good. The setting is great - very detailed. Lots of politics. The characters are likable (in appropriate measure) and realistic. The style is not my favorite - a sparse 'tell the tale' voice that's reminiscent of the Grimm fairy tales.

Vance does a spectacular job with the plot, which ranges far and wide and manages to startle the reader. It does take a good 10 pages to pick up speed, though.

I can tell that this book heavily influenced George R. R. Martin.