a reader

an eudæmonistreading

2010

December

M.M. Postan. The Medieval Economy & Society. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975 (1972). [107]
This book was strangely soothing to me; that said, I cannot say I either enjoyed or understood it. Although geared to the undergraduate reader (and slightly patronizing at that), it nonetheless assumes a basic background in English history and geography that I do not possess. It would have been better if it had had maps; and if it didn’t sound like it is was translated from Russian (or Moldovan, as the case may be).
Francine Jay. The Joy of Less. Medford, NJ: Anja Press, 2010. [106]
Some useful advice for keeping house – most of it common sense, but it’s always nice to read some common sense now and again.
Edna Ferber. Half Portions. New York: Doubleday, 1920 (PG 2005) [105.d]
Short stories that were at first charming, but then overwhelmed with their bitter sameness and unhappiness.
Jane Austen. Persuasion. (PG 1994) [104.d]
Perhaps the first time I’ve read Austen with attention to grammar.
Jane Austen. Sense & Sensibility. London: Macmillan, 1902 (PG 2007) [103.d]
Rather better than I remembered it.
Jane Austen. Pride & Prejudice. (PG 1998) [102.d]
Words cannot express.
Peter Ackroyd. The Life of Thomas More. New York: Anchor, 1999. [101]
A serviceable popular biography of a man living in interesting times. ‘If the natural order might act as a visible token of an invisible sign, then the sacramental and the excremental can be seen in tacit partnership. We know from the babooneries in the margins of certain sacred manuscripts that a sense of ritual and a sense of ribaldry are not unrelated…’ (36)
Isabel Fonseca. Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey. New York: Vintage, 1995. [100]
About the Gypsies and their plight; also about nationalism, ethnicity, Eastern Europe, western hypocrisy, and borders.
Kurban Said (Essad Bey/Lev Naussimbaum). Ali and Nino. trans. Jenia Graman. London: Robin Clark, 1990 (1937). [99]
A sentimental romance about an Azeri boy who marries a Georgian girl in Baku right around the time of the first world war (and the Caucasian independence movements). It was enjoyable, a bit silly (as in light and insubstantial, rather than funny), and unpleasantly anti-Armenian.

November

Kathleen Flinn. The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry. New York: Viking, 2007. [98.d]
Woman’s memoir of losing her corporate job and signing up at the Cordon Bleu. Recommended to me by another PCV, and I’m not sure why – but it was enjoyable. A bit miss-ish and hand-wringing.
Matthew Davis. When Things Get Dark: A Mongolian Winter’s Tale. New York: St. Martin’s, 2010. [97.d]
Peace Corps memoir in Mongolia. Kids these days.
Edna Ferber. So Big. New York: HarperCollins, 2000 (1924). [96]
Cabbages as the key to character!
Graham Greene. Twenty-one Stories. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977 (1954). [95]
Creepy.
Nicolas Bouvier. The Way of the World. trans. Robyn Marsack. New York: NYRB Classics, 1992 (1985). [94]
Whimsical account of travels from Yugoslavia to Afghanistan. Dramatic changes in tone from beginning to end – in this sense a better travel narrative than those assuming a continuity of character from starting out to voyage’s end.
Edna Ferber. Giant. New York: Harper, 2000 (1952). [93]
A pleasant surprise.

October

Eric Hobsbawm. Nations and Nationalism since 1780. New York: CUP, 1992. [92]
Another good brief introduction, but with less analysis; the sort of book to assign to first year university students.
Christoph Zürcher. The Post-Soviet Wars. New York: 2007. [91]
Good brief introduction to the problem.
M.F.K. Fisher. An Alphabet for Gourmets. New York: Macmillan, 1990 (1949). [89]
Perhaps it would have been better to space these Fisher books out over a greater period of time – some few anecdotes are repeated (though usually in a different context, and to bring out different points), so it can be a bit overwhelming.
M.F.K. Fisher. The Gastronomical Me. New York: Macmillan, 1990 (1943). [88]
Biography, through food.
Aliza Marcus. Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence. New York: NYUP, 2007. [87]
A good introduction to the PKK and contemporary Kurdish issues in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Focuses primarily on the latter half of the 20th century.
M.F.K. Fisher. How to Cook a Wolf. New York: Macmillan, 1990 (1942, 1951). [86]
Amazing! As enjoyable a cookbook as I can remember reading in quite some time.
M.F.K. Fisher. Consider the Oyster. New York: Macmillan, 1990 (1941). [85]
Cute, but not quite as good as Serve it Forth – or maybe I just don’t care for oysters..
M.F.K. Fisher. Serve it Forth. New York: Macmillan, 1990 (1937). [84]
Rather better than I imagined.
Rory Stewart. The Prince of Marshes. New York: Harvest, 2007. [83]
In a way one could view this as a sequel to Stewart’s The Places In Between, in which he walks across Afghanistan – but if The Places In Between was an adventure narrative (with a healthy dose of personal growth), The Prince of Marshes is a tale of bureaucratic ineptitude, of woefully under-trained people doing the best they can do in the circumstances. It is an impressionistic and personal book, in which, strangely, the author does not seemed fully engaged, as though his publisher had sent him a memo that the reading public wanted an update on his life, but he had too much paperwork to fill in, and so no real chance to process his experiences. To me the most interesting element of the book were relationships and organizational structures that Stewart does not make fully explicit, foremost, the effect that his two different bosses had on his ability to work in the stressful situation of occupied Iraq.
Jiang Rong. Wolf Totem. trans. Howard Goldblatt. New York: Penguin, 2008 (2004). [82]
A rather didactic book about the importance of balance, and the natural order of things, which can be difficult to attain when trying to reach quotas set far away.
Eleanor Holgate Lattimore. Turkestan Reunion. New York: Kodansha, 1995 (1975). [81]
One of those travel books that make you want to pack you boxes, load up the ponies, and head out.
Owen Lattimore. Nomads and Commissars: Mongolia Revisited. New York: OUP, 1962. [80]
Lattimore visited the People’s Republic of Mongolia in 1961 and compares it with his experiences in Inner Mongolia in the early 1930s. Although he repeatedly assures readers that his interactions with the Mongolians are authentic (not least because he knows the language well enough to dispense with an interpreter), the stories he tells, and his observations on Mongolian development as a Soviet ‘satellite’ have the same stilted, always-look-on-the-bright side quality that make John Steinbeck’s A Russian Journal seem like a half-hearted propaganda piece. In addition to the unspoken bias and debatable neutrality of his sources, Lattimore spends rather too much time pontificating, and not enough time observing, for my taste, which makes the book rather duller than it needed to be.
Plutarch. In Consolation to His Wife. trans. Robin Waterfield. London: Penguin, 1992 (1st C). [79]
Calms the nerves.

September

E.J. Hobsbawm. Industry and Empire. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968. [78]
Volume 3 of the Pelican Economic History of Britain; an overview of the industrial revolution and then the decline of Britain as the world economic capitol.
Julia Child & Alex Prud’homme. My Life in France. New York: Knopf, 2006 [77.d]
Charming (auto)biographical excursion.
Richard Hughes. A High Wind in Jamaica. New York: Signet, 1956 (1928). [76]
A strange, strange book.
Dorothy L. Sayers. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. New York: HarperCollins, 1995 (1928). [75]
Also amusing.
Dorothy L. Sayers. Whose Body?. New York: Avon, 1961 (1923). [74]
Amusing.
Wallace Stegner. Crossing to Safety. New York: Penguin, 1987. [75]
Simple and pleasant.
Agatha Christie. Sleeping Murder. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1976. [72]
Eerie story of an almost haunted house.
Agatha Christie. The Labours of Hercules. London: Fontana, 1991 (1961). [71]
Cute little detective stories.
Agatha Christie. Miss Marple: the Complete Short Stories. New York: Berkley, 1985. [70]
Alters my verdict on Miss Marple.
Agatha Christie. Funerals Are Fatal. New York: Harper, 1981 (1953). [69]
One rather gets tired of folks being poisoned with arsenic.
Agatha Christie. Murder with Mirrors. New York: Harper, 1980 (1952). [68]
Not really a fan of Miss Marple – she’s a bit of a blank, character-wise.
Agatha Christie. Peril at End House. New York: Pocket Books, 1957 (1931). [67]
I was going to say, since I’m making my notes about these mysteries all at once, that I prefer the Poirot stories, and they’re just better, but Funerals Are Fatal really wasn’t, so I think I just like the earlier books better, when the plot devices are twenty years less rickety.
David Mazzucchelli. Asterios Polyp. New York: Pantheon, 2009. [66]
Graphic novel about an arrogant architect and his relationships with others in his life, including his dead twin. Includes Cocteau, Orpheus, Aristophanes, and a hint of Middlesex.
Marcel Proust. Time Regained. In Search of Lost Time, vol. 6. trans. Terence Kilmartin. rev. D.J. Enright. New York: Modern Library, 1999. [65]
In need of a revision that never happened, but a splendid conclusion.
Marcel Proust. The Captive & The Fugitive. In Search of Lost Time, vol. 5. trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin. rev. D.J. Enright. New York: Modern Library, 1999. [64]
Stronger, and apparently (which is to say, regarding appearances) more sincere.

August

Iris Murdoch. The Unicorn 1963. [63]
Odd story, timeless, out of place – irritating when Murdoch uses interesting characters as puppets for her views, forcing them to say things there would be no reason to say (i.e. when they are talking to a person who would have a certain amount of background knowledge as though he were a general reader). Apparently it took place in Ireland, but it seemed more like an imaginary place, very new world-y.
Aimee Bender. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. New York: Doubleday, 2010. [62]
About gifts and curses.
Marcel Proust. Pleasures and Days. trans. Andrew Brown. London: Hesperus, 2004 (1896). [61]
Youthful stories and essays and prose ramblings. I guess prose ramblings would really be the best way to describe it.
Marcel Proust. Sodom and Gomorrah. In Search of Lost Time, vol. 4. trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin. rev. D.J. Enright. New York: Modern Library, 1999. [60]
Our narrator becomes a nauseating twerp.

July

George Packer. The Village of Waiting. New York: FSG, 2001 (1984, 1987, 1988). [59]
Memoir of his time serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo in the early 1980s.
Patrick White. The Aunt’s Story. London: Penguin, 1976 (1948). [58]
Maiden aunt explores the world after the death of her mother, winds up in a strange hotel, and finally in America.
Vladimir Nabokov. Bend Sinister. London: Penguin, 2010. (1947). [57]
Robert Louis Stevenson. Defense of Idlers. London: Penguin. [56]
George Orwell. Decline of the English Murder. London: Penguin. [55]
Anaïs Nin. Under a Glass Bell. New York: Penguin, 1978 (1938, 1941, 1944; collected 1948). [54]
Pretty display pieces. One could look into them more deeply, but why bother on vacation?
Elizabeth Hardwick. Sleepless Nights. New York: NYRB Classics, 2001 (1979). [53]
Not reading this at the right time. It seems fussy and frivolous, but as though it might be better if approached in a different mood.
Rose Macaulay. Non-Combatants and Others. London: Capuchin Classics, 2010 (1916). [52]
Disillusionment with war and its horrors and destructiveness – typical of the sort of stuff published after the war (e.g. Good-bye to all that) but astonishing coming so early.
A.S. Byatt. The Children’s Book. London: Vintage, 2010 (2009). [51]
Hopes and dreams and puppets and parents and children and potters and war.
Orhan Pamuk. My Name is Red. trans. Erdağ Göknar. New York: Vintage, 2001 (1998). [50.2]
It is one of those books that exist more strenuously and significantly in the imagination than on the page.

June

A.S. Byatt. Possession. London: Verso, 1990. [49.2]
Better the second time through, but less juicy.
Antonia White. Frost in May. London: Virago, 1980 (1933). [48]
Young Catholic convert goes to a convent school and meets girls from old Catholic families and is forced to learn a very odd sort of humility.
Julie Powell. Julie & Julia. New York: Little, Brown, 2005. [47]
Cute memoir about cooking and turning one’s life around.
Gavin de Becker. The Gift of Fear. New York: Dell, 1997. [46]
About the necessity of trusting your instincts, but not worrying about the improbable.
James Morier. The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan. Oxford: OUP, 1959 (1824). [45]
Picaresque. Charming and orientalist.
Boris Akunin. The Death of Achilles. trans. Andrew Bromfield. New York: Random House, 2006 (1998). [44]
Another silly historical detective novel. Amusing look at prejudices against people from the Caucasus.
Arundhati Roy. The Chequebook and the Cruise-Missile. London: Harper, 2004. [43]
A series of conversations between Roy and David Barsamian, mostly about activism, and the injustices taking place around the world during this period of American imperialism.
Randy O. Frost & Gail Steketee. Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2010. [42.d]
Interesting overview of hoarding behavior, its causes and effects.
Kevin Fanning. Let’s All Find Awesome Jobs. Cold God Press: 2010. [41.d]

May

David Morgan. The Mongols. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990. [40]
Although it is strange that a book about the Mongols has been included in a series called ‘The Peoples of Europe’, Dr. Morgan has done an excellent job both in providing an introduction to Mongolian history and a justification for the book’s inclusion in the series. Presents a synchronic account of Mongolian culture and government, along with a diachronic view of Mongols through history. Due to the paucity of evidence, and the immense number of disparate languages required to study Mongolian history (Chinese, Mongolian, Persian, Syriac, Russian, Arabic, and Turkish being the main ones), this survey is quite impressive, and not surprisingly is stronger on the thirteenth century than on anything after – this history of ‘Mongolia’ in the twentieth century, for instance, is limited to the final two paragraphs of the book (though admittedly the influence of Mongols on Europe at that point was relatively small). A great introduction to the subject, with a useful bibliography.
Evelio Rosero. The Armies. trans. Anne McLean. New York: New Directions, 2009 (2007). [39]
Was in the wrong mood for this book; not as grabby or inspiring as one of those other Colombian books, One Hundred Years of Solitude (though that is of course a lot to ask from any book). The very helpful blurb on the back cover observes that: ‘this war is every war; these victims all victims; these armies every jittery pack of frightened kids ever handed a rifle’ – which is true enough, because I kept thinking of the Armenians throughout this book, and of Vonnegut’s Bluebeard or Eugenides’s Middlesex or even Unsworth’s The Rage of the Vulture, which I didn’t read, but merely skimmed.
Daniele Mastrogiacamo. Days of Fear: A Firsthand Account of Captivity under the New Taliban. trans. Michael Reynolds. New York: Europa, 2010 (2009). [38]
A striking counterpoint to the much more optimistic The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban and Didn’t Ask to Be Born.
David Bornstein. The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank. New York: OUP, 2005 (1996). [35]
As it sounds – with interviews of Grameen borrowers over a span of several years; interesting facts include that Grameen members’ children were in stage one malnutrition, while the children of their coevals who did not join Grameen were in stage two malnutrition (which is worse, obviously).
Bruce Chatwin. In Patagonia. New York: Penguin, 1988 (1977). [34]
I’ve been avoiding this book since the mid-nineties, for reasons that seem obscure now. It was much better than I imagined it could be, the sort of discursive, allusive, meaning-oriented travel writing that I most enjoy. Certainly I would not enjoy meeting or talking to Mr. Chatwin, but the book was an education in a certain sort of character.

April

Tayeb Salih. Season of Migration to the North. trans. Denys Johnson-Davies. New York: NYRB, 2009 (1969). [33]
A sinister novel; put me in mind of Jean Rhys – the contrast between colonist and colonized, between hot and cold, desert and field. Unnerving and dark.
Dino Buzzati. Poem Strip, Including an Explanation of the Afterlife. trans. Marina Harss. New York: NYRB, 2009 (1969). [32]
A graphic novel about Orpheus reborn as an Italian rock star in Milan. Creepy. Wouldn’t have imagined that Buzzati would have written a graphic novel.
Herta Müller. The Passport. trans. Martin Chalmers. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2009 (1989). [31]
Post WWII Euro-lit, all disillusionment, disenfranchisement, & discontent.
Marchette Chute. An Introduction to Shakespeare. New York: Scholastic, 1979. [30]
A clear, brief introduction to Shakespeare and Elizabethan theatre, aimed mostly at late middle-school to early high-school students.
Antonia Fraser. The Weaker Vessel: Women in 17th-Century England. New York: Knopf, 1984. [29]
A lucid introduction to the ups and downs of women’s life during the turbulent 17th century in England. Synchronic views of women in different walks of life, from heiresses to actresses, and widows to midwives. Left me, however, longing for a more narrowly-focused and detail-oriented series of studies.
Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn. Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. New York: Knopf, 2009. [28]
Case studies of women in development and grassroots women’s rights organizations in the developing world.
Claire Tomalin. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Vintage, 1999. [27.d]
Chatty and personable biography of Jane Austen.
Jane Austen. Mansfield Park. [26.d]
An old favorite.
Peter Hessler. Country Driving. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. [25.d]
About driving in China, from 2001 – 2007; seems built out of New Yorker pieces, which isn’t a bad thing. First book read using an e-reader.

March

Marcel Proust. The Guermantes Way. In Search of Lost Time, vol. 3. trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin. rev. D.J. Enright. New York: Modern Library, 1998. [24]
Our narrator becomes interested in the politics of polite society.
Haruki Murakami. After Dark. trans. Jay Rubin. New York: Knopf, 2007 (2004). [23]
Cinematic; focus on camera angles and obscured POVs rather than narrative clarity.
Marcel Proust. Within a Budding Grove. In Search of Lost Time, vol. 2. trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin. rev. D.J. Enright. New York: Modern Library, 1998. [22]
Getting into the swing of things.
Haruki Murakami. Dance Dance Dance. trans. Alfred Birnbaum. New York: Vintage, 1995 (1994). [21]
Sequal to A Wild Sheep Chase, strange and unnerving.
David Remnick. Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. New York: Vintage, 1994. [20]
Journalistic account of the 1980s and early 1990s in the USSR/Russian Federation. Cogent exploration of the reasons the USSR fell apart.

February

Richard Wirick. One Hundred Siberian Postcards. London: Telegram, 2006. [19]
When we first got this book we opened it with excitement thinking that it would, in fact, be 100 postcards from Siberia, in the tradition of 100 boring postcards or some such. In this we were disappointed, as the only illustrations have been taken from a Soviet primer. However, the short essays and stories in this collection have the charming disparity of postcards and give an odd and amusing picture of Siberia and Russia as a whole.
Félix Fénéon. Novels in Three Lines. trans. Luc Sante. New York: NYRB, 2007 (1906). [18]
Would not have picked up this book if it hadn’t been steeply discounted at Powell’s (or maybe at the library, if I’d been doing a search for NYRB classics). It’s a collection of over a thousand very short stories, the local color pieces in a newspaper in 1906. Some of them are very good and some of them are not. An interesting experiment in the drama of scale.
Miranda Vickers. The Albanians: A Modern History. New York: I.B. Tauris, 1999. [17]
Concise history of Albania from the Ottoman occupation to the present.
Frances E. Willard. How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle. Sunnyvale, CA: Fair Oaks, 1991, 1895. [16]
Charming account of the bicycle and its contribution to feminism.
Fazil Iskander. The Gospel According to Chegem. trans. Susan Brownsberger. New York: Vintage, 1984 (1979, 1981). [15]
Short stories about Abkhazia. Not as good, overall, as the first volume, but the last two stories were almost good enough to make up for it.
Sheila Fitzpatrick. The Russian Revolution: 1917–1932. New York: OUP, 1982. [14]
Short introduction to the creation of the Soviet state.
Rohinton Mistry. A Fine Balance. New York: Vintage, 1997 (1995). [13]
Not sure when they started describing everything with more than one plot line and a relatively clear prose style as ‘recalling the work of Charles Dickens’. It makes sense in a way, because A Fine Balance focuses on massive social injustice through a series of more or less likable characters, but the whole is both darker and more surreal than one would find even in Dickens’ bleakest novel.
Bill Bryson. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way. New York: Perennial, 1990. [12]
Droll account of the development of the English language – from Anglo-Saxon to international English. It is the sort of thing I would like to share with some of my classes, but as much of the humor is dependent on a strong grasp of the English language and a fondness for wordplay and puns, I think it will have to return to the library unquoted.
David Byrne. Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking, 2009. [11]
A collection of thoughts and meditations that sprang out of bicycling in different cities around the world. Although he mentions Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn as a kind of starting place for the book (and it does include pictures!) it lacks something of the esoteric poetry of that work.
Christina Lamb. The Sewing Circles of Herat. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. [10]
Personal account of visiting Afghanistan as a journalist during the 1980s and again in November 2001. Somewhat depressing in the light of all that has(n’t) happened since then.

January

Terri Shea. Selbuvotter: Biography of a Knitting Tradition. Seattle, WA: Spinningwheel, 2007. [9]
A short history and selection of patterns related to the distinctive knitwear of Selbu, Norway.
Wendell Steavenson. Stories I Stole. New York: Grove Press, 2002. [8.2]
This book has grown on me with re-reading. Maybe it’s spending more time in the Caucasus, but her descriptions have gone from seeming a little overdone and absurd to startlingly familiar. The culture of Georgia that she describes is so like what we’ve been experiencing in Armenia that, well, I’m not sure what to conclude.
Peter Hessler. Oracle Bones. New York: Harper 2007 (2006). [7]
Making sense of time and people in China. Interesting bits about Uighers.
Ismail Kadare. Chronicle in Stone. trans. Arshi Pipa. New York: Canongate, 2007 (1971). [6]
A novel of mood and place. Eerie.
Nicholson Baker. Human Smoke: the Beginnings of World War Two and the End of Civilization. New York: Pocket Books, 2008. [5]
Not one page was not chilling and unsettling. Not one person in a position of any sort of power between 1929 and 1941 comes off looking good, and the only people who try to speak up were ignored & brushed aside. So it’s about ‘the war on terror’, too.
Eric-Emanuell Schmitt. The Most Beautiful Book in the World. trans. Alison Anderson. New York: Europa, 2009 (2006). [4]
Stories about people who (often unexpectedly) give something of value – or who have some kind of greater understanding of the world/human nature, despite themselves.
Dino Buzzati. The Tartar Steppe. trans. Stuart C. Hood. Boston: Verba Mundi, 2005 (1952). [3]
Dava Sobel. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. New York: Penguin, 1995. [2]
History of Science Lite. Amusing. Concept of time.
Peter Hopkirk. Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia. New York: Kodansha Globe, 1995 (1984). [1]
Discussed at greater length elsewhere.

(last revised: 27 November 2014)

ego hoc feci mm–MMXVIII · cc 2000–2018 M.F.C.