What I’ve Been Reading

Quick takes on some books I’ve read recently:

1. Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie. An excellent novel that is at once a traditional thriller and an exploration of an area and culture of violence (Kashmir). Woven throughout this superbly written book are meditations on various topics (Los Angeles, for example, or marriage and the man/woman dynamic). In order to fully appreciate this novel, which starts in LA, moves to Kashmir, and then returns, some background on the Kashmir situation would be helpful. I already had a basic understanding (I’ve written about the conflict elsewhere) which proved good enough. Kashmir is a disputed area of land between India and Pakistan. It’s mainly Muslim and is officially part of mainly Hindu India. Mainly Muslim Pakistan says that Kashmir “runs in its blood” and so the two countries have fought over Kashmir ever since the 1947 separation of British India. In any event, I highly recommend this book, as well as Rushdie’s other writings.

2. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. It’s always difficult to express neutrality or negativity about a book written by a legend like Hemingway, so I’ll keep this short: this lesser-known novel of Hemingway didn’t move me. Pass.

3. Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. This is a wonderful non-fiction, first-person reflection from Steinbeck about his multi-month drive through America. Charley is his dog who sits in the passenger seat of his RV. Trying to understand America by driving through it is as old as de Toqueville, as new as Bernard-Henri Levy. And the thousands of young Americans who embark on a road trip of their own also contribute to this large corpus of “America-as-seen-through-the-windshield-and-local-diner” theories. Nearly all confess the impossibility of the task, the country proving too vast for even the most devoted driver, but nonetheless offer up generaliations and conclusions about their subject. Steinbeck partakes but to a lesser degree; ample energy is spent on personal reflection and reflection on his dog. With a wonderfully captivating style, I really enjoyed this memoir of sorts and am motivated to read Steinbeck’s more famous works.

4. Seven Levels of Intimacy by Mathew Kelly. I got one good thing out of this book which is a Lance Armstrong quote: “Pain is temporary, quitting lasts forever.” Everything else struck me as meaningless self-help garbage. I like aspects of the self-help genre but there no denying that the majority of the category is total crap. Someone recommended this book to me because I had been thinking about the concept of intimacy and how I can better foster it in my own life. Instead of really exploring this idea, Kelly literally repeats his core argument that everything you do should help you “be a better version of yourself” about 50 times.

5. The Progress Paradox by Gregg Easterbrook. If you’re an optimist or simply get frustrated at people who like to riff on the downtrodden state of the world, you must carry this book (or rather – its ideas) in your intellectual quiver. It’s chock full of fascinating statistics about how the world and human living has improved on virtually every measure from “the good ole’ days.” Whether it’s divorce rate or teenage pregnancies or the environment or war or health services or most anything — today is better than yesterday. Easterbrook, one of my favorite journalists, has “paradox” in the title to ask the question, “Why do people keep thinking the world is getting worse when it’s really getting better?”

6. America as an Idea by Anne Marie-Slaughter. Blah blah blah. If you know nothing about America or American history, some of the (random) nuggets scattered throughout might interest you, but in general I found this offering nothing new. Even the title — and main concept — that America is an idea — is tired by this point. Skip.

7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I liked but didn’t love this classic in American literature. I got invested in the characters but the writing style not as much.

8. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. My aunt sent this to me after seeing my positive review of Tim Egan’s Lasso the Wind which is fairly recent re-visiting of the West and its current hold in the American imagination. Stegner, the classic writer of the West, almost surely inspired Egan. Angle of Repose is Stegner’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel. I found it engrossing and layered with interesting commentary on old California.

9. Dictionary of the Future by Faith Popcorn. Usually I ignore futurists. But this book, a 2003 collection of lively predictions and new words that will enter our vocabulary, really entertained and provoked me. If you liked Mark Penn’s Microtrends you’ll like this. Thanks to Amy Batchelor for giving me this book almost two years ago.

10. All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen. I listened to this on audiobook which was a great choice because the voice on tape is fantastic and perfect for the subject matter. I saw Gessen, co-founder of the always-stimulating n+1 magazine, speak at Claremont, and was very impressed. This book is his debut novel and I found it consistently entertaining, funny, and spot-on in terms of capturing the mind and mannerisms of today’s 20-something brainy urban writers. I recommend it.

3 Responses to What I’ve Been Reading

  1. Ben, I always look forward to your “What I’ve Been Reading” posts because you’re not afraid to be honest about how good a book is (or isn’t). Your thoughts on “The Sun Also Rises” were tactful yet spot-on.

    I’ve always believed that a girl should WANT a guy who tells her when those pants do make her look fat, because it’s only then that she can trust the times he says she’s beautiful. I also feel this way about books, and it’s why I’ve never been disappointed after picking up a book you enjoyed.

  2. Shefaly says:

    Ben, apart from the ‘mainly Muslim/ ‘mainly Hindu’ bit, it is perhaps important to note that from a geopolitical point of view, Kashmir is of great strategic and militaristic importance to the safety of both countries. This is one of the main reasons why the fight continues in modern times with most of the battles fought at improbable heights (Kargil, where the last bloodiest battle happened, is nearly 18000 ft above sea level).

    BTW your reading lists added to my own are making big dents into my pocketbook :-)

  3. Marjory says:

    I just finished a book I think you would enjoy because of the chess theme, the vast history it covers and because it is difficult to put down.

    Check it out:

    The Eight by Katherine Neville. Here is a link to Amazon:

    link to amazon.com

    You have an impressive reading list and I always enjoy reading your summaries and thoughts about what you have read. I keep my own journal but not on a blog.

    Marjory

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