Monday, January 02, 2006

New Year's Resolution

I have never been good at keeping resolutions, so I'll try to keep this list short. Mainly it will consist of the books that I want to read. It seems that my resolution failures can be grouped in two categories: fitness/weight loss and leisure time activities. Work and family have always taken care of themselves, for better or worse, but those things that I wanted to do with my leisure have always slipped through the cracks.

So here are my top ten must read books for 2006 (some of which I already own):

1. What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr.

2. Cryptonimicon by Neal Stephenson (finish reading).

3. Imperial Grunts : The American Military on the Ground by Robert Kaplan.

4. How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker.

5. The Blank Slate : The Denial of Human Nature and Modern Intellectual Life also by Steven Pinker.

6. The Civil War by Shelby Foote - part 1: from Ft. Sumter to Perryville.

7. Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer (finish reading).

8. The Reformation: A History by Diarmaid MacCulloch (finish reading).

9. Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter L. Bernstein.

10. The Roots of American Order by Russell Kirk.

As you can see, my list is highly skewed toward non-fiction. If I would add any other fiction title, it would probably be something by Tom Wolfe, otherwise I see most modern fiction as a wastleland.

Comments? Suggestions?


Blogger Oroborous said...

I see most modern fiction as a wasteland is probably an inaccurate assessment, but then again, I'm not really in a position to know.

From when I first learned to read, (quite early, thanks Mom), until my late 20s, I vastly preferred fiction.

However, over the past decade, I've read very little fiction, and now prefer non-fiction.
Maybe I just saw the more-or-less-same plots once too often; I've read literally a couple thousand novels.

In any case, I liked John Grisham's A Painted House very much.

It's not a crime, legal, or courtroom novel.
It's a story about a place and a time, more than about the characters, but they are compelling enough.

However, it's the kind of story that I would characterize as being very enjoyable to read, but also one that, if you don't get around to doing so, you needn't kick yourself.

One that I would strongly recommend is the lengthy The Laws of Our Fathers, by Scott Turow.

Some reviews:

"Scott Turow writes the best legal novels that I have ever read.

In The Laws of Our Fathers, he uses courtroom drama as a plot device to explore the nature of morality, truth, and human relationships. In every sense though, this is a profoundly philosophical novel parallel to Crime and Punishment in many ways. By constantly surprising the characters and the reader with hidden currents in a multigenerational story, Turow helps us to understand the weaknesses of human-directed attempts to create justice and make peace.

All of the parties in the case have ties to one another that go back into other times and other places, and these stories are told in flashback to provide perspective on the meaning of the events that have taken place."

"Turow once again proves that there is more substance in a single page of one of his novels than in the entire works of John Grisham or any other author in the legal thriller genre. In this latest, the mother of a probation officer is shot near a gang-infested housing project, provoking charges that her son orchestrated the killing. The ensuing trial reunites a group of affluent Sixties activists who knew each other in their student days. The courtroom scenes are energetic and intelligent, and Turow never resorts to playing good guys vs. bad guys.

His dialog is snappy and believable (aside from some awkwardly rendered sections featuring the leader of an urban street gang) and his insight into his characters' petty motivations and misplaced love is dead on. All public libraries should have a copy of this fine novel."

If you like sword & sorcery type fantasy, then I cannot recommend God Stalk, by P. C. Hodgell, any more highly.
It may be the best of the many hundreds of books in the genre that I've read, excepting the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, of course.

The reader reviews of God Stalk are wildly divergent, so it's not for everyone, but for me it was perfect.

As one put it:

"Jame belongs to a race reknowned for their fighting ability, but instead of fighting her way through her problems, she dances, mothers, & bargains her way towards a solution. In short, Jame finds feminine rather than masculine solutions to her problems which is great for female readers who like soap operas, but not quite satisfying for guys who like a lot of sword and sorcery."

Plenty of sorcery, but light on the swords. It was SMART, not just "here's a monster, stick a knife into it".

"The world is richly textured - with the religions, politics and subterfuges being both well done and central to a meandering plot. I have a fondness for fantasy cities and Tai-Tastigon is a real winner."

"I read "God Stalk" when it first came out. It hooked me in a big way, with vivid images and a highly memorable heroine. I craved more and every time I went into a bookstore for several years afterward, I would religiously look to see if Hodgell had come out with a sequel."

"I became totally engrossed in Hodgell's darkly colorful writing, her vivid characterizations, and found her wonderful heroine particularly appealing."

In the same genre, I very much enjoyed White Hart, by Nancy Springer.

January 02, 2006 1:50 PM  
Blogger Duck said...


Thanks for your recommendations. Undoubtedly there are some very good and worthwhile works of fiction out there, but finding them amongst the dross is the real trick. If there were people in the lit-crit community who took literature seriously rather than as an excuse for railing on about their pet grievances, then maybe literature would be in a better state.

As with yourself, I once read more fiction, but find myself preferring non-fiction to fiction. It is an extroadinary writer who can match the strangeness, wonder and complexity of real life in a work of his own imagination. I find fiction worthwhile if it succeeds in one of two endeavours: in creating an imaginative world of strangeness and wonder, or in mirroring the profoundest aspects of real life. It is the rare writer who can accomplish both at once, as with JRR Tolkien.

Most modern fiction mirrors the culture, which is largely narcissistic. I have no desire to learn how Stella got her groove back, or what resentful demons haunt the psyche of the author.

I do want to read "I am Charlotte Simmons" by Tom Wolfe. Wolfe's non-fiction is first rate, and highly informative of the larger culture.

January 02, 2006 2:23 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I don't read much fiction, either, because there's so much I don't know about in the real world.

But two novels I liked, because they are witty but also thoughtful takes on current events, are the two that framed 'Bridget Jones' Diary.'

The first, so tepidly received that it was not published in the United States until after the success of Bridget, is 'Cause Celeb,' about guinea worm.

The second is 'Olivia Joules,' which turns out to be about the same part of the world as 'Cause.'

Helen Fielding is the closest thing going (that I've encountered) to a Twain, funny with a point.

As for non-fiction, a book I'm passing around is Peter Brown's 'Rise of Western Christendom' (make sure you get the 2nd edition, he made some big changes). This is a needful complement to Gress's 'From Plato to NATO.'

If you're going to understand 21st century politics, these 2 are essential. (Well, not only these 2; you can get the same interpretations from other historians, but not so easily.)

January 02, 2006 2:29 PM  
Blogger Brit said...


If you want some cracking literary fiction, you can't go wrong with Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series, which begins with Master and Commander.

If you're going to read Mayr, you may as well read Dawkins (if you haven't already). Whatever you think of his anti-religious stance, as an explainer of darwinism he's the bees knees. River out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable and The Blind Watchmaker are all brilliant.

Reading resolutions are generally a minefield, however. A friend of mine once spent a year at an astronomical research base in the Antarctic. All the guys working there took the books they always meant to read but never got round to, ie. plenty of Proust and Joyce and especially, War and Peace.

A year later, back they all went to civilisation, all with copies of Tolstoy's tome in the same pristine condition as when they arrived. Spent most of their long bleak house cultivating alcoholism.

January 03, 2006 3:00 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

As with everyone else here, I used to primarily read fiction, but over the last decade the tables have turned.

Duck: If you haven't read O'Brian's Aubry/Maturin series of novels, I highly recommend them. Once you come to terms with the period English and nautical terms, the books are amazingly engrossing.

Recent good non-fiction I have read:

"End of Faith" by Sam Harris. The last chapter is a bit overegged, but the rest is excellent.

"Freakonomics" An interesting alternate look at a lot of things, although nothing that Harry wouldn't say "well, duh" to.

"Love Poverty & War" by Christopher Hitchens. Agree with him or not, he is a brilliant writer.

January 03, 2006 3:09 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Oh yeah, forgot my resolution:

One post a week to TDD.

January 03, 2006 8:21 AM  
Blogger David said...

It's interesting that more or less the only contemporary fiction worth reading is genre fiction.

January 03, 2006 12:23 PM  
Blogger Duck said...


Can I hold you to that? I'll make your bonus dependent on it. ;-)

What are your favorite genres and writers?

January 03, 2006 1:32 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


As you can see, the experts agree: nothing beats O'Brian.

I have Master and Commander. If you like, I will mail you my copy.


Is there a companion reader for the Maturin/Aubrey series?

January 03, 2006 2:38 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

My son's father-in-law is a big Aubrey/Maturin fan, so I gave him a life of Lord Cochrane as a Christmas gift, the real figure that Aubrey is modeled on.

Only, Cochrane is way more unbelievable than any fictional character.

January 03, 2006 3:28 PM  
Blogger Brit said...


I've got one called A Sea of Words which is very useful for the jargon and also has some good essays.

This one looks good too.

There are various other companion books linked from that page.

Otherwise, like Harry says, any life of Cochrane or Nelson will be a good read.


There is still some great fiction out there.

Of recent British novels I've read, I'd recommend 'Cloud Atlas' by David Mitchell, 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time' by Mark Haddon, and Ian McEwan's 'Saturday'.

January 04, 2006 1:30 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


Those are links, but no doubt they're available from dotcom as well...

January 04, 2006 1:31 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Well thanks a whole bloody lot for that link to A Sea of Words.

Having made the purchase, now I am going to have to read it, and re-read the entire series.

You bastard.

January 04, 2006 8:36 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

But at least you'll be able to smoke the difference between a stuns'l and a foretopgallant this time around, and will no longer feel like a proper flat.

You should be saying 'thankee'.

January 04, 2006 8:55 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

A friend I exchange books with has given me 'Cloud Atlas,' with the suggestion that it's the best novel in years. But I haven't begun to read it yet.

January 04, 2006 12:07 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

By the way, as long as we're talking about novels, I'd like to put in a word for two forgotten Americans.

First, Harry Leon Wilson, whom you may perhaps have heard of in the context of a famous silent film, 'Ruggles of Red Gap.'

He wrote about three dozen novels, many of them, especially after 1915, frank potboilers. Yet there is something more to them than that.

He is magnificent in his unlabored descriptions of the American landscape, especially the Great West (he was the first oral historian, back in the 1880s, with early settlers his survey group).

His first novel was a serious affair exposing the fake history of Mormonism, 'Lions of the Lord.'

After that he turned to humor. 'The Spenders' is his masterpiece, but 'The Wrong Twin,' 'Two Black Sheep' and the Ma Pettingill stories are all worth reading.

Second, Julia Peterkin, totally forgotten although she won the Pulitzer in 1928 for 'Scarlet Sister Mary,' which was the first novel ever written with all black characters.

She wrote only 3 novels and some stories. 'Green Thursday,' the first collection of stories, is in some ways her best work; and 'Black April' is better than 'Scarlet,' which had the advantage of being salacious and thus selling better.

I find these on eBay, though a big city library might have a few items that it has not discarded yet.

January 04, 2006 12:17 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Thanks for the tips - I've not heard of either.

Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas' is really six linked novellas, laid out in an unusual way: imagine six cover-less books laid on top of each other, then the whole thing folded in the middle.

Each section is in a completely different genre, so some are better than others and one doesn't really work at all, but it's entertaining throughout and the range of his writing ability is extraordinary.

January 04, 2006 1:15 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Red Sky at Morning, a coming of age story set in the US during WWII is a singularly enjoyable read.

January 04, 2006 4:47 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Thanks for all the suggestions, everyone. Also if you have suggestions for good non-fiction books, I'd welcome them.

My wasteland remark is not so much to say that there is not good fiction out there, but that the output of bad or mediocre fiction is so large as to dilute the average concentration of goodness. About 10 years ago I bought a novel at the prompting of an NPR "Boolclub of the Air" program, to see what qualifies as good fiction at that time. The book's title and author escape me for the moment. But the story was so incredibly turgid and depressing that I found it impossible to force myself to continue to the end.

A lot of non-genre fiction is about interiority, or the fellings, senses and thoughts of the protagonist as he/she experiences life. I get a feeling of extreme claustrophobia reading them. I prefer stories that take a more exterior view of its characters.

I enjoyed E. Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News", and Saul Bellow's "Herzog". I'm not sure that I can characterize what I liked about those novels, other than the quality of the writing, the pace and the storytelling.

January 05, 2006 3:11 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

That's been going on for a long time. Way back in 1969 or '70, a woman I thought a lot of -- in every way -- steered me to a novel by J.R. Salamanca, now deservedly forgotten, I think, which was apparently considered the bee's knees among the literarily au courant. It was, as you say, interior.

It is just possible, if the writer has great style, to write that kind of novel and make it readable. Another woman I liked a lot steered me to a bunch of stories and a novel, 'Chilly Scenes of Winter,' by a writer whose name I have forgotten -- Ann Something. Couldn't put them down, but neither, six hours later, could I have remembered anything about the characters. But she was a hell of a writer.

I am looking forward to starting 'Parascript,' which ought to be up Skipper's alley, by Brooks and Lannon.

It appears to be about why there are more species of parasites than of independent living animals. I expect it to provide the theoretical underpinning for my campaign to persuade everybody that god is really a Big Tapeworm and we are just here to nourish more worshippers for him.

Professor P.Z. Myers is very high on Sean Carroll's 'Endless Forms Most Beautiful,' which I gave myself for Christmas. Not as elegantly written as I could wish, but a good summary of evo-devo by a leader in the field.

E.H. Gombrich, who must be about 120 by now, has written a one-volume history of the world, which I have not seen. But I want to compare it with the (unfortunately long out of print) one-volume by Hugh Thomas, which came out in various titles. I think one was 'A Short History of the World.'

It was worth reading 700 pages of Thomas if only for this one line (quoting from memory): 'No general theory of human behavior based on conditions in Manchester in the 1840s can have any validity.' There was lots of other good stuff, but that alone was worth the price of admission.

January 05, 2006 3:29 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Well, I have no excuses for running out of reading material any time soon.

I also like "The Shipping News." And, like you, Duck, I can't say precisely why.

January 06, 2006 4:54 PM  

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