The Naked Lunch, by William Burroughs

This was the most disgusting thing I have ever heard. I can't remember the last time I read a book that actually made me blush.

I wish I could say that I appreciated the stream-of-consciousness narrative, the jagged emulation of a junkie's brain, the technique, and so on. It would make me feel better about myself. But I didn't. It started out as an interesting slice-of-drug-life raw narrative, and then slid completely over the edge into insanity. I guess that's impressive, but - whatever. I've got enough problems living in my own head. I don't need to have the dredges from anyone else's head shoved up my nose.

The audio version I listened to was read by the author, who was apparently drunk at the time. I had to rewind frequently in attempts to figure what the hell he was saying - he varied between slurring his words together and enunciatingly distinctly and precisely.

I do not recommend this book to anyone.

Pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca, by Richard Burton

Richard Burton is one of the vague historical figures who I knew was extremely cool, without knowing precisely why. Now I know! He's a real man's man, roaming all over the white spaces of the Victorian map, speaking dozens of languages like a native, cutlass in one hand and pistol in the other, sneaking into Muslim holy places and translating fascinating Arabic texts into English from the back of a camel. In fact his biography reminded me a bit of 'Fighting Round the World With Russell Crowe' (South Park reference....).

Pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca is the book that made him famous. It's his account of travelling in the guise of a native-born Muslim of various provenances to the holiest places of the Muslim faith. This was an exceedingly dangerous voyage. As well as the natural perils of travel through land infested with raiders and thieves, he had to maintain his disguise while constantly in the company of Persians, Arabs, and Bedouins would who have been happy to slaughter an unbeliever. He doesn't seem like the kind of person who would be comfortable to know in real life, but my, is he attractive on paper.

My only complaint was that I wanted more. With good reason - I didn't realize until the audiobook was over that I was listening to just 'excerpts'. The narration by Patrick Tull was flawed. Tull sounds like a gruff older man; Burton was in his early thirties when these events took place (and were published), so Tull just doesn't sound right.

I can't wait to read the whole thing.

A Man of the People, by Chinua Achebe

This is a political novel - is it satire? I don't know. It's not obviously humourous, but it is infused with a wry understanding of human foibles.

This is the story of the political disintegration of an unnamed African country that's really Nigeria. His main character, Odili, is an idealistic young man who becomes acquainted with his government representative Chief Nanga and decides to challenge him for office. Chief Nanga uses various pressure tactics to dissuade Odili and other members of his new political party. Meanwhile, corruption scandals cause governmental chaos and ends in a military coup (A Man of the People was published just before the 1966 military coup in Nigeria).

The key tension in the book is provided by Odili's expections - of himself, Chief Nanga, his father, his community - all of which are disappointed. He expects Nanga to ignore him, but he finds him charming, charismatic and helpful. He expects himself to be pure and selfless; but in reality he enjoys very much driving around his party car, and he originally turns against Nanga not because of his corruption, but because Nanga sleeps with his girlfriend. He expects his father to be hostile to his political ambitions; instead his father encourages him and refuses to bow to local pressure. He expects his community to object to the rampant government corruption; they don't. In the end I'm not sure whether the title refers to Chief Nanga's extreme popularity or Odili's unwillingly acknowledged similarities to the countrymen he finds so frustrating.

Reading Journal Entry: The Working Poor, by David Shipler

David Shipler won the Pulitzer Prize for Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. We have recently started working with him for lectures.

It was interesting to compare this treatment of American poverty to Nickel and Dimed, another take on America's poor by client Barbara Ehrenreich. Barbara limits herself primarily to her own experiences and leavens it with a lot of wry humour. Shipler's treatment is broader and more prescriptive. He provides a survey of the problems of the working poor in America through the medium of a series of personal portraits. He doesn't recite statistics - he tells stories. The struggling individuals he portrays exhibit a marked geographical, cultural, and even economic diversity. Shipler introduces us to poor New Englanders, southerners, city dwellers, farmers, people on their way up, and people on their way down.

The most difficult passages to read were about childhood malnutrition.

There's no easy solution offered here; on the contrary, Shipler devotes a lot of energy to emphasizing the connections between the various problems he addresses, and the shared responsibilities for those problems. There are no rose-colored glasses here: he does not romanticize or whitewash his subjects, but portrays them in their full, flawed humanity.

I am very glad I read the paperback version. The epilogue with addition information on how some of his subjects fared in the months since the hardback release felt like a little bit of a happy ending.

As always when reading books of this kind I experience an aftertaste of guilt about my privileged position. I have it lucky. And I'm not doing enough. It's time to find somewhere to volunteer again.

Reading Journal Entry: Dragon Venom, by Lawrence Watt-Evans

The latest volume in The Obsidian Chronicles, by Lawrence Watt-Evans. WE is a veteran fantasy author with probably over a dozen books under his belt.

The three volumes stand on their own, and I thought this one was the best of three - he brought the themes and events of the previous two books to their natural conclusion, wrapped everything up neatly with a nice big cliffhanger left over.

Recommend for fans of fantasy. I got my signed, first-edition copy directly from the author:

Watt-Evans is also currently engaged in what he calls an experiment in alternative publishing. His is the author of several humourous fantasy novels set in Ethshar. The next book in the series is being written and posted on his website at the rate of a chapter a week as long as he gets continuing donations of $100 weekly. I'm glad to have the chance to read more about Ethshar, and sent in my $5.00 already.

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis

Jim Dixon is a morose lecturer at a rural British university who executes emotional acrobatics in dealing with his work, his idiotic department head, his quasi-psychotic quasi-girlfriend, his evil housemate, and other obstacles to happiness (or at least financial stability). This naturally requires imbibing large amounts of alcohol and self-humiliation.

Jim is very rude, and he is very, very lucky. He's so ill-behaved one must feel disapproving, but so endearingly desperate that you can't help sympathizing with him.

Amis has a genius for situation and metaphor that is truly unmatched. Here's a choice quote:
"Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad. "

The reader for this 'Books On Tape Special Library Edition', Richard Green, was just awful. He did the various British accents well enough, but his voice has a gravelly, mucousy feel to it that could make anything sound boring. It wasn't until a third of the way through that I realized that this was supposed to be funny and not soul-breakingly sad.

Stick to a print edition where you can properly savor the prose.

Non Book News

I am participating in the AIDS Walk New York on May 15th.

If you want to donate, please follow this link:

Reading Journal Entry: Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi

I can see why this one has become a best-seller. It's THE book for book lovers, and perfect for book groups. Azar Nafisi is a professor of English literature in Iran, educated in the US. The book is her memoir of her years in Iran after the revolution. As the culture became more oppressive, she built a refuge for herself and several other young women by holding a weekly literature class in her home. Lolita is the first work addressed, and now I must read Lolita... and Daisy Miller.

There are some wonderful insights in the first half; attention-grabbing, in-drawn breath moments of perception. As the book goes on, and Nafisi prepares to leave Iran, the text seems also less connected and connecting. She drifts away from her students as she separates herself from her native country, and the result is a gradual decline in quality in the second half of the book. But, oh, what a beginning and middle.

Lysistrata, by Aristophanes

LySIStrata, by the way. Not LYsisTRAta. Who knew?

The women of Greece decide to end war by withholding sex from their men until they make peace. Hilarity ensues. This is very bawdy. The British accents of the edition I listened to made for a delightful contrast.

But of course, women in Greece (especially Athens) didn't actually have any power, which makes for an uncomfortable subtext.

More book news

Lynn Smith has just released a book about her experience with ectsasy addiction, Rolling Away.

Lynn's blog

Reading Journal Entry: Destroyer, by C. J. Cherryh

This latest entry in the Foreigner series delivers more of the same: 'anthropological sci-fi' laced with fast-paced action crammed into a minute period of time. Diplomat Bren Cameron returns to his homeworld only to discover that things are not quite as he left them; adventures ensue. Dramatic flights, firefights, and risky landings are interlaced with pages of meditation about his relationships with his family and the unknowability of the alien mindset. Sometimes this bores me stiff - in this context it serves to provide a solid backdrop to what would otherwise be mere space opera.