Hell In A Very Small Place by Bernard Fall

Hell In A Very Small Place by Bernard Fall is an account of the battle of Battle of Dien Bien Phu which if you want to read a metaphor for Ukraine in 2022, with all the attendant military, diplomatic, and political complexities, well, here it is. Including possibilities of nuclear weapons and escalation. The account is exhaustive: the kind of book you skim and read selective chapters or sections, rather than straight through.

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The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel

The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel was quite a disappointment after Station Eleven (which I realize I read almost two years ago). She is an excellent writer, but the whole novel my mind kept saying, “ok, ok, enough setup, when is the actual novel going to start…” And it never did. Characters were introduced, put through their paces in the context of the Madoff ponzi scheme, and then, well, that was it. There really was no denouement and the small mystery that may have been very important as was constantly hinted at throughout the novel turned out to not be very important.

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Short story: Arthur Krystal, What’s the Deal, Hummingbird?

The short story by Arthur Krystal, What’s the Deal, Hummingbird?, in The New Yorker, is a huge advance over the 1920s stream of consciousness modernist innovations, for the 2022 audience of people like me. it is perfectly done. Short. Resonant. Just the right ending. It might seem self-indulgent. But that’s what a self is, after all.

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The Hundred Wells of Salaga by Ayesha Harruna Attah

The Hundred Wells of Salaga, by Ayesha Harruna Attah, is a short novel of two young women in Ghana during the pre-colonial era, as slave-raiders and Europeans jockey for power with traditional chiefs and their kingdoms confronting new weapons and forms of social organisation. A bit too sexually explicit for younger readers (and probably that includes Ghanian secondary school?). I didn’t find anything super special about the novel. It is definitely a challenge to get the interior voice of young women in 1890 with low literacy (one of the women is a princess of a small zone, and is literate in Arabic)… what we have here is not Baba of Karo.

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After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh

I’ll confess sensitive and carefully written character studies of people stuck in near-future zombie dystopias is not really my genre, but McHugh is masterful at it. After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh. “Special Economics,” about production organization in a near-future (or alt-reality) China, just plausible enough, would be a good teaching short story. “Useless Thing,” is also a very sadly au courant short story about how ordinary people will likely handle social disruption.

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Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks

Unless you happen to be traveling to Oaxaca, I would avoid this light and self-indulgent book, Oaxaca Journal, by Oliver Sacks. Not much here other than travel diary with sketch portrayals of companions and very amateurish anthropological observations.

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“Once Removed” by Alexander MacLeod in The New Yorker, Feb 7 2022

Since lately I and a few other members of my very extended family have taken an interest in our ancestors’ hejira from Kaunas to Cardiff (or thereabouts), this story resonated. “Once Removed” by Alexander MacLeod in The New Yorker, Feb 7 2022 is about relations, life, the past, our identity, what is unsaid. Very nice rendering of the complex sentiment.

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The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George Higgins

I read The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George Higgins, for my neighborhood book club. Tremendous fun, although the white male default perspective is often alarming, and you can see why someone might decide they were just going to read Walter Moseley, Chester Himes, or Tana French if they wanted to read this genre. Higgins crafts the hardboiled crime novel by using a distinctive style, mostly dialogue, eschewing all help for the reader, who is presumed to know all the context for what they are reading. As a very avid reader of course one can really enjoy that. Empirically, I wonder if someone who was not fully accultured to American popular culture and history of the 1960s-70s would enjoy reading the novel, or whether it would require frequent, “Wait what is this?”

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, by Tom Stoppard

After watching Station 11, and reading Arcadia, I felt the need to do a little more Hamlet-Stoppard. This play would be fantastic to read and explore if I were going back to graduate school to get a PhD in literature or criticism. There are so many angles to pursue, and it is done masterfully. But for leisure reading… well, it is short.

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These Dreams of You, by Steve Erickson

The cover image is the young character wrapped in the American flag. The last word is “america.” The last paragraphs are a haunting hymn to the idea of America. Is my writing cliché?

I was drawn into the novel, with its cosmopolitan and literary sensibility. By the middle, though, I lost interest and started to be unable to escape thinking of it as a long whining story about two people making dozens, seemingly, of bad choices, wrapped in a vague ideological slant that somehow something has betrayed something. What? I found it incoherent, as I moved along. All on me though, because Erickson;s conceit is to fracture and loop, just like Joyce and Bowie?

A long digression on David Bowie and Iggy Pop in Berlin, as they are handled by a young woman who was a short-lived bestie of Robert Kennedy, was, however, tedious. Musings about being a white author with a Black character in his novel likewise popped up every so often, without going anywhere. Literary noodling about if you had a paperback version of Ulysses and went back in time, could you be famous like Joyce? A bit of forced coincidence and missed opportunities.

I am sure you could get your yarn, pushpins, corkboard, single-light-bulb room and make one of those connect the dots montages with the novel. Maybe someday I’ll change and think, “Wow isn’t that cool, that this character moving through time said this thing to that person.” But probably I’ll be more like, “So people say Low is a masterpiece and super revolutionary in terms of a narrow genre of pop music that a certain class of hipster listens to and we never would have had Gary Numan without Low? But honestly… I never really thought much of it.”

So if you really like literary novels, DeLillo/Pynchon style I guess, maybe this is for you. It wasn’t for me.

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Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

I always enjoy reading Dickens, and Hard Times was a treat, partly because it was relatively short. (He can go on and on sometimes.) Lots of insight into local economic, political, and personal lives of industrializing Britain in 1854. It is curious that there is so much social science interest over interpreting the 1850s period, a crucial period of industrialization, and here was this amazingly insightful observer writing thousands of pages of basically direct testimony of the lived experience.

The plotting is sentimental and melodramatic, but the “blowhard” Bounderby is memorable, and Louisa is quite a complex character in some ways, anticipating the notions of “alienation” and “demystification.” And what supporter of reading cannot but love the ending with Louisa perhaps dedicating her lives to fostering the “imaginative graces and delights.”.

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Visite au Centre de lecture et d’animation culturelle de Boromo #Burkina

Dans le cadre de la coopération entre les bibliothèques appuyées par Amis des Bibliothèques de Villages du Burkina Faso et le centre national de lecture d’animation culturelle/CENALAC, le coordonnateur de ABVBF Sanou Dounko, a visité le 19 janvier 2022 le centre de lecture et d’animation culturelle de Boromo dans la province des Balées. Accueilli par Mr Ouédraoga Arouna et Bico, ils ont échangé sur les fréquentations. Selon les animateurs du centre, les élèves lisent moins actuellement à cause des tactiles et les réseaux sociaux. Ils ont également apprécié les copies de livres CMH et les bulletins d’informations de ABVBF dénommés écho des bibliothèques que le coordonnateur leur a remis. Pour eux les livres CMH répondent et sont adaptés aux besoins des jeunes lecteurs.

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Dr. Eleven theme from Dan Romer…

I had guessed it was Iron & Wine…. excellent Americana.

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The Actual Star, by Monica Byrne

An ambitious three time period story (1012, 2012, and 3012) revolving around Maya cosmology. More mysticism and dystopia than science-fiction (the 3012 Earth has greatly reduced population but amazing technology but nobody seems to study science or engineering so….?). I started with interest, and about half-way through started skimming. The plot was plodding, with long digressions on cultural practices (what is often admired as “world-building” but which sometimes comes across as high-school sociology, as was the case here in my estimation.) A central premise of the novel, that blood-letting was (actually) a way to connect to the other side, bizarre. Meditation, sure. Dance movement, sure. Choir singing, sure (like Anathem, by Stephenson, which was quite similar to this and which I also ended up skimming through). Mushroom micro-dosing, sure. We could think these physical activities generate some kind of quantum brain response through their pattern-making or chemical disruption of neurons. But blood-letting and ritual cutting done by an individual alone? The choice is just a bad premise.

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The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

Our book group read and discussed The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, last week. I had read it before, but honestly remembered very little, which isn’t a good sign. Enjoyed it second time around. Excellent writing, interesting context (the Vietnam War), and great war-weary philosophizing in that Hemingway-Camus empty heavens existential tone that so many writers of those generations had. But the book suffers from terrible characterization of Phuong, and the ridiculous romanticisation of the exotic foreign country as backdrop.

I found the ending very interesting the more I though about it. I found a PDF version, and here is the ending (with a few lines cut out).

You haven’t opened your telegram,” Phuong said. “No, I’d forgotten that too. I don’t
want to think about work tonight. And it’s too late to file anything now. Tell me more
about the film.”
“Well, her lover tried to rescue her from prison. He smuggled in boy’s clothes and a man’s
cap like the one the gaoler wore, but just as she was passing the gate all her hair fell down
and they called out ‘Une aristocrate, une aristocrate.’ I think that was a mistake in the
story. They ought to have let her escape. Then they would both have made a lot of money
with his song and they would have gone abroad to America-or England,” she added with
what she thought was cunning.
“I’d better read the telegram,” I said. “I hope to God I don’t have to go north tomorrow. I
want to be quiet with you.”
She loosed the envelope from among the pots of cream and gave it to me. I opened it and
read: “Have thought over your letter again stop am acting irrationally as you hoped stop
have told my lawyer start divorce proceedings grounds desertion stop God bless you
affectionately Helen.”
“Do you have to go?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t have to go. I’ll read it to you. Here’s your happy ending.”
She jumped from the bed.
“But it is wonderful. I must go and tell my sister. She’ll be so
pleased. I will say to her, ‘Do you know who I am? I am the second Mrs. Fowlaire.’ “

Opposite me in the bookcase The Role of the West stood out like a cabinet portrait of a
young man with a crew-cut and a black dog at his heels. He could harm no one any more.
I said to Phuong, “Do you miss him much?”
Strange how even now, even to her, it was impossible to use his first name.

I thought of the first day and Pyle sitting beside me at the Continental, with his eye on the
soda-fountain across the way. Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but
how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.

I noticed how literary this is: Phuong suggests an ending for the film, and Greene then has his character Fowler decide that he too has to end the novel, by reading the telegram. The contents are the analogue of Phuong’s rewrite of the tragic chopping off of the head… Fowler gets his divorce, and he and Phuong will live happily and travel the world and see the sights. When I first read it, and we talked about it in the book club, we remarked how odd this ending seemed. Was anyone under the illusion there was going to be a happy ending with Fowler and Phuong? More careful reading suggests Greene couldn’t resist being quite explicit about how this ending is a literary ending: the happy telegram is not the ending; the ending is the author deciding to end the novel. The content of the ending is irrelevant, he seems to be saying, to understanding the novel. He may as well have ended by Fowler holding the telegram and musing to himself, “I wonder what Graham Greene will have the telegram say?”

The “portrait of the young man” bit, in the context of the “bookcase” works quite deliberately in communicating this final message of Greene’s I suppose. And one could read “He could harm no one any more” as “The novel ended, this happy telegram ending has nothing to do with it any more.”

A last, unrelated thought. In the book, it is Fowler who calls Pyle a quiet American, and then Vigot replies that he is “a very quiet American” with the implication that Pyle is dead. But then in subsequent pages, narrator Fowler twice remarks that Vigot called Pyle a quiet American. mistake by Greene? Or deliberate unreliable narrator tip-off?

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The Anomaly, by Hervé Le Tellier

The Anomaly, by Hervé Le Tellier. Everything about this novel is familiar: as you read you are thinking, “Is this not a TV series?” (It is not Manifest.). “Is this not already a novel?” (It is not The Leftovers.) “Didn’t I see this in a 1970s disaster movie?” (It is not Airplane!) But you think, it seems sooo familiar! Kudos I guess to Le Tellier for distilling several generations of pop culture familiarity with the conceit, and writing a clever and clear and quickly paced novel that nicely captures “characters caught in a bigger sci-fi picture.” The novel doesn’t condescend, and the characters are intelligent and reflexive. Oh wait, it’s The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham? Not giving anything away by saying it is about the ambiguity of the sci-fi “are we in a simulation” idea.

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The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, by Edmund de Waal

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, by Edmund de Waal, is an interesting somewhat fictionalized family memoir. De Waal basically researches the background of his great-grandparents’ generation, the out-of-Odessa fabulously wealthy Ephrussi family of Jewish bankers. Based in Vienna, the family is basically expropriated by the Nazis after the Anschluss in 1938. It is a breezy overview of the 1870-1940 period, with an interesting opening and coda as one of the family ends up living in Japan after the occupation.

Since I have been re-connecting with relatives in Wales, product of the same wave of Jewish emigration out of Kaunas, Lithuania area during the 1870s, the book was quite interesting. Just as some de Waal’s went to South Africa, so apparently did some of my great-grandparents’ generation, though we have lost touch with them.

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Elder Race, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Elder Race, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is a delightful short blend of sci-fi and magic-fantasy, where the truism that advanced tech might as well be magic is nicely illustrated. A la Connecticut Yankee, I suppose. But Tchaikovsky goes one step better, paralleling that with how the linguistics of science as magic would make communication difficult. We use metaphors to explain to a six year old how electromagnetism works, or to explain to our present day co-citizens (the vast majority of us) how quantum mechanics works. The metaphors are intuitive to the listener, but they don’t really imply “understanding.” I guess the sense of “not understanding” is that the listener cannot formulate an experiment and measurement that would make sense… the definition of understanding is: “able to formulate an experiment and measure an outcome that logically relates to a set of thoughts about the matter.” So the novel is nicely philosophical (in philosophy of science sense) without that ever being explicit.

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Landfalls, by Naomi Williams


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Le cousin Harki, by Farid Boudjellal

I enjoyed this BD, even though it seemed to wander lots of places. And the idea of a Zappa-loving young person interacting with a former Harki in a convalescent hospital in Nice seemed, well, rather odd, but I guess in France there was more social mixing of this sort. The shaggy dog stories snap into sad focus at the end. The panels devoted to French withdrawal from Algeria especially poignant as the world just lived through a similar withdrawal as U.S. forces left Afghanistan.

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