|The 2015 List
reverse chronological order
»Crime and Punishment
»The Harder They Come
»So We Read On
»Ride the Big Red Cars
»Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies
»Between the Woods and the Water
»Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
»The Light of Day
»Paris to the Moon
»The Girl on the Train
»The Holy Barbarians
»The Custom of the Country
»The Rest is Noise
»In the Heart of the Sea
»How to Be a Victorian
»The Pickwick Papers
»Blood Will Out
»Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
»An American Tragedy
»Our Mutual Friend
»A Time of Gifts
»Mason & Dixon
»The World According to Garp
»Alone on the Ice
The 2014 List
The 2013 List
The 2012 List
The 2011 List
The 2010 List
The 2009 List
The 2008 List
Franny & Zooey,
David Foster Wallace
Honorable mentions: Paul Auster, Rick Bass, Michael Chabon, Charles Dickens, Stephen Dobyns, Neil Gaiman, Thomas Hardy, Graham Swift, Tim Winton.
|The books of 2015|
1. A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor
2. Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon
3. Barbarian Days, William Finnegan
4. Lila, Marilynne Robinson
5. The Martian, Andy Weir
All 43 books
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (2015, William Finnegan)
Why I picked it: Liked the excerpt in the New Yorker, and I'm interested in surf culture.
What it's about: A memoir by the New Yorker political writer of his surfing, as a teen in 1960s Ventura and Hawaii, as a young vagabond in Indonesia, Australia and South Africa, and during his working years in San Francisco, New York and Madeira.
What I thought: I liked this one a lot. I always like reading about lifetime sports, and Finnegan is going on 50 years as a surfer. He's a clean, disciplined writer, able to explain the technical aspects of surfing and also upfront about emotions and personal relationships. I did wish I remembered more from my oceanography class about waves and swells and how they are created -- even tried to find a 'surfing for dummies' book, but they were all a little too dumb.
His section on his years surfing Ocean Beach gave me a new appreciation for that break. I was probably one of those onlookers he mentions who can look out at the ocean from the Great Highway and have no idea there are even surfers out there. I had definitely assumed that San Francisco is much inferior to the Santa Cruz breaks, and that, I now know, is not the case.
Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California (1991, John Arthur Maynard)
Why I picked it: I had started Lawrence Lipton's "Holy Barbarians" thinking it would be the definitive Venice Beat history, but it was way too much about Lipton's self-promotion, too full of his pompousness and manipulation. This seemed to me a more factual (if also more removed) version.
What it's about: I think this is Maynard's doctoral dissertation. It's pretty much what it sounds like: a history of the Beat movement in Los Angeles' Venice neighborhood, in the 1950s and 1960s.
What I thought: I guess I'm still glad I read Lipton's book, because it (and he) is an undercurrent through this one. But this is indeed more of what I wanted as a straight-up history.
Crime and Punishment (1866, Fyodor Dostoevsky)
Why I picked it: About time for another big Russian.
What it's about: A murder in St. Petersburg and how its aftermath affects the culprit, his social circle and the police.
What I thought: It was a lot more modern than I expected. 'Anna Karenina' to me had seemed solidly 19th-century, but this one, even though it was 10 years earlier, feels like it came later. Part of that is its crime-novel feel: The reader knows from the start who the killer is, but there's quite a bit of police procedural in the narrative (including a rather Columbo-like detective) and the suspense of 'will he get caught?' And part of it is that Raskolnikov is a modern antihero -- you don't want him to get caught, though he is a murderer and in many ways not a very likable person. It would have seemed truly modern if it ended without the epilogue, on the sudden action that signals Raskolnikov's transformation as a person.
What's next: When my rabbi asked his standard "whatcha reading these days?" and I told him C&P, he recommended 'The Brothers Karamazov.'
Independence Day (1995, Richard Ford)
Why I picked it: I wanted to reread the first two in Ford's Frank Bascombe series before taking on the last two.
What it's about: A divorced 40ish New Jersey real estate agent takes a road trip on a summer weekend in 1988 with his 15-year-old son, intending to give him some guidance after his arrest for shoplifting and an unintentional assault.
What I thought: Though I remembered much of the first book, "The Sportswriter," this one I had forgotten a lot about since my first reading 20 years ago. I didn't even remember that the boy, Paul, had turned into a troubled and pretty unsympathetic kid. This time around, Bascombe's role as a father interested me as much as his romantic relationships and his professional life.
This book fit into my idea that Frank is an update on, or cognate to, Updike's Harry Angstrom. The Rabbit books were 10 years apart and this one is 5 years past "The Sportswriter," but there are a lot of thematic similarities. Paul, actually, is a lot like Harry's son Nelson in his teenage years, and Frank has switched careers -- as Harry did -- to sales. Rabbit had four novels and a novella, and this series three novels and a novella (if, indeed, it has ended).
One thing I find off-putting about the Bascombe books is the introspective and formally worded conversations Frank has with his girlfriend, his ex-wife and, in this book, even the chef at the bed-and-breakfast and a truck driver he meets in a motel parking lot. I like reading realistic, vernacular dialogue, and this is definitely not that. Maybe I should just take it as the conversation filtered through Frank's brain, not the actual words said, but the feelings beneath them -- that when he and his girlfriend are talking about whether they have a future together, she doesn't actually call herself "a dark and pretty ruthless obstructor" and he doesn't actually say he "might be beyond affection's grasp."
What's next: Onto 'The Lay of the Land.'
The Harder They Come (2015, T.C. Boyle)
Why I picked it: Boyle's novels aren't the kind I fall in love with -- they tend to have a lot of anger and conflict and violence -- but they usually have good stories, and I like his California settings.
What it's about: A mentally disturbed young man who sees himself as an iconoclastic mountain man clashes with his parents and the law on the modern-day Mendocino County coast.
What I thought: The first part of this is about the young man's parents' ill-starred Costa Rica vacation. Once the narrative switched back to Fort Bragg, it quickly started sounding familiar. Though his parents and girlfriend are apparently completely fictional, the details of the main character Adam Stensen stick very close to the real-life Aaron Bassler, a fugitive who was big news on the North Coast in September 2011. Bassler was in his 30s, ten years older than Adam, but the crimes attributed to Adam are just about to the letter those committed by Bassler.
I hadn't realized that the novel had a factual basis; it isn't stated anywhere on the jacket, and I hadn't run across it in a couple reviews I had read. But once I realized it was Bassler, I wasn't that surprised -- Boyle's novels frequently are based on real historical people (John Harvey Kellogg, Frank Lloyd Wright, a family of Channel Island pioneers). And once I realized it was Bassler, I knew how it was going to end. That was fine, though -- the best part of this book is the characters, North Coast archetypes. To anyone considering reading this (or anyone who read it and liked it), I would strongly recommend Denis Johnson's "Already Dead," accurately subtitled "A California Gothic." Same communities, but a weirder vibe, and maybe even darker than Boyle.
So We Read On: How 'The Great Gatsby' Came to Be and Why It Endures (2014, Maureen Corrigan)
Why I picked it: I like 'The Great Gatsby.'
What it's about: Pretty much what the subtitle says -- part background, part literary analysis, part examination of the book's late-arriving popularity.
What I thought: 'Gatsby' is the book I've read more times than any other except the even-shorter 'Franny and Zooey,' four times since 1975. From the start I was not Corrigan's stereotypical reader, as her contentions are that: a) most people don't like it on first reading, and b) they think of it as being not about class but about a love affair. Her examination of the theme of class was wasted on me, because I had been on that train from the start. I also knew enough of Fitzgerald's life that the biographical section was a quick flip through. The last part had more novelty, looking at how a book that was pretty much a dud in the author's lifetime became a mainstay of the high school curriculum.
Corrigan's style is a couple clicks too winky and cute for me (the title is in keeping with the tone), and the first-person section where she goes back to her old high school seemed mostly padding. 'Why Read Moby-Dick?,' the closest thing to this that I have read, was much shorter and meatier, and I liked it more. Maybe we can expect more of these: There's a recent popular monograph called 'My Life in Middlemarch.' Unlike with 'Gatsby,' I'd have to re-read 'Middlemarch' before I tried that one.
Ride the Big Red Cars (1962, Spencer Crump)
Why I picked it: A Los Angeles history book recommended in the bibliography of Banham's "Architecture of Four Ecologies."
What it's about: The Pacific Electric railway system, a major force in shaping Los Angeles in the first two decades of the 20th century.
What I thought: I knew something of Pacific Electric from Kevin Starr's books and Carey McWilliams. This one is an enthusiast's view, with excursions -- some fairly tangential -- into biography and history. The best part of it is the photographs, and they made it worth my time. Right after I finished this one I had a few hours to kill in Los Angeles, and I was inspired to take a run up Mount Lowe, destination of a very popular excursion train from 1893 into the 1930s.
Swann's Way (1913, Marcel Proust)
Why I picked it: Always trying to mix in some of the 19th- and 20th-century classics.
What it's about: The first of the seven volumes of 'In Search of Lost Time,' a first-person novel about a man coming into adulthood in the late 19th century in France.
What I thought: I liked the parts at the start and finish about the young narrator -- his family, his infatuation with the neighbor girl Gilberte. But the biggest part of this volume is the troubled romance between his family's erstwhile friend M. Swann and the courtesan Odette, and I got tired of that well before it ended. As I've mentioned, I have little patience with stories about men who are fascinated by silly women who treat them badly. The writing and the characters I liked enough that I might go on to the next volume and see how that goes.
Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971, Reyner Banham)
Why I picked it: I had seen it mentioned quite a while back, maybe in Kevin Starr's series, as a seminal work about L.A. When a new Culver City climbing gym was named Cliffs of Id in a nod to Banham's work, it reminded me I had never tracked it down.
What it's about: Banham, an Englishman who loved Los Angeles, writes about the city's architecture and its influences. (His four ecologies are Surfurbia, the Foothills, the Plains of Id and Autopia.)
What I thought: For a fairly scholarly book, this one is fun and easy to read. There are photos of just about every building mentioned, as well as some nice maps, and some Hockney and Ruscha reproductions. Banham's unalloyed affection for the city also makes me smile. I wish there was a follow-up to this one, but Banham (who was then teaching in Santa Cruz) died in 1988. I left Los Angeles before that, and my memories of the city mesh with what he describes as "that technologically resourceful innocence that is in the art of surfing ... and in practically everything else that is worth attention."
What's next: The bibliography mentions a novel I'd never heard of that sounds fascinating and that I may never find: "The Canyon" was written by the 18-year-old Peter Viertel, who went on to become a screenwriter and ultimate Hollywood insider. Amazon has one copy, a first edition for $400. But the library near my office has two of the other interesting citations: "Panorama: a picture-history of Southern California," and "Ride the Big Red Cars." Plus, having read this and Carey McWilliams, I really need to get to "City of Quartz."
Between the Woods and the Water (1986, Patrick Leigh Fermor)
Why I picked it: This is the second volume in the trilogy I started with "A Time of Gifts."
What it's about: The travel memoir (written decades after the fact) of an English teenager who walked from Rotterdam to Constantinople in 1934. This book covers Hungary and Romania.
What I thought: Both these books have made me wistful for the time when this trip was possible. One factor in the vanished circumstances was the waning generations of old aristocratic families who welcomed Leigh Fermor into their homes (which were sometimes castles, which were sometimes all that remained of an erstwhile fortune) and gave him a view into their lives and histories. And, of course, just a few years after his walk, the Iron Curtain went up (down?), and nobody was just traipsing through Hungary and Romania.
Leigh Fermor is the right protagonist for this trip. He's 18 when the trip starts and not terribly worldly, but he has some education, and more importantly, good manners, curiosity and an outgoing spirit. He falls in with gypsies and farmers as well as the tennis-and-horses set. He has enough knowledge of history and literature to shed light on the background and ethnic cultures of the areas he's visiting (or at least know the right questions to ask), and enough knowledge of languages to converse with a wide variety of people, even when he ends up resorting to Latin as the closest thing to a shared tongue.
I'm sure there are plenty of smart, gracious, adventurous teens in the world today, but it seems like now the world wants to keep them in sort of an arrested puppyhood. It's hard to imagine a 19-year-old hiker today who could bring a letter of introduction to a stranger's home and, in borrowed evening clothes, hold his own at a dinner party with people who speak another language. This volume includes one subtly drawn episode that epitomizes Leigh Fermor's combination of impetuous youth and grown-up sophistication: a romantic interlude in which he is traveling with someone else's wife, and she has to cut the trip short to race back to Budapest when she gets wind that her cover story is crumbling. It's kind of like Holden Caulfield, having his adolescent crisis while drinking cocktails in a nice suit in a Manhattan nightclub.
From a historical viewpoint, I was struck by one big thing that separates the European experience from the American: the centuries of shifting boundaries and shifting rule over land shared (or inhabited serially) by different ethnic groups. The U.S. has seen demographic changes, but nothing like, say, being a Hungarian living in an area that for centuries has been part of Hungary, and then all of a sudden it's part of Romania. I guess this is obvious to anyone who paid attention to the Yugoslav Wars, but Leigh Fermor's excursions into the Austro-Hungarian empire opened my eyes to how many of these long-running conflicts have been played out.
What's next: I'm a little leery of reading "The Broken Road," because it was finished after Leigh Fermor's death. I imagine I'll get to it eventually.
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (2015, Sarah Vowell)
Why I picked it: U.S. and French history are high on my reading list; I've been looking for something specifically about Lafayette; and I've liked some of Sarah Vowell's other history books.
What it's about: The American Revolution, with an emphasis on the role of the Marquis de Lafayette.
What I thought: Vowell is not the most heavyweight of historians, but she's smart as well as entertaining. Though I'd read a few books on the American Revolution, I felt like this one had something to add. I got a better sense of the overall timeline and military strategy, as well as the involvement of France and other countries. It is icing on the factual cake that Vowell has an eye for the quirky details.
The Light of Day (2003, Graham Swift)
Why I picked it: Swift's "Waterland" is a memorable book, and, though I haven't found his other novels as engaging, that one was enough to keep me trying.
What it's about: Private detective George Webb narrates his travels and thoughts over the course of one day — the anniversary of the murder of a client's husband.
What I thought: I kept expecting more of a plot twist, largely because it had a crime-genre feel. But once you put together the pieces of the current day and the remembered day, there's really not much mystery. I finished it because it's short.
Purity (2015, Jonathan Franzen)
Why I picked it: I'm not a huge Franzen fan, but I figured I'd end up reading this because it's one of the big novels of the year. Then, a week after it came out, I saw it just sitting on the library shelf. (Which, oddly, also happened to me with Franzen's previous novel, "Freedom.") It was a 7-day loan, but that was long enough for me to decide to look for it later to finish the last two-thirds. Then, right after I returned the book, I saw the audiobook on the library shelf, so I checked it out and finished it.
What it's about: An impulsive young woman living in Oakland takes a job with a Wikileaks-type organization with the intention of finding her father, whose identity her mother refuses to reveal.
What I thought: It was interesting reading this right after Peter Carey's "Amnesia." They both start out following young women involved with politically motivated hackers, then broaden into big family stories with themes of betrayal and uncertain paternity. For a while, when this one was spending a long stretch in 1980s East Germany, I thought I might have the same criticism of it that I did with "Amnesia" -- undisciplined, meandering. But "Purity" started tightening the strands of the eponymous seeker, her parents and the Assange-like head of the Sunlight Project. I ended up liking this one much more than Carey's.
Amnesia (2015, Peter Carey)
Why I picked it: I'd read 10 of Carey's previous 12 novels. A couple of them are favorites of mine, and I liked most of the rest.
What it's about: An Australian journalist on the skids is hired to write the biography of a young woman arrested for a cybercrime, with the goal of swaying opinion against her extradition to the United States.
What I thought: This one, for me, is near the bottom of Carey's list. I knew going in, because I had read some reviews, that a major element was U.S.-Australian relations and covert operations in World War II and the later 20th century. That was fine with me. I like history, and Carey's Australianness is one of my favorite things about his books. So I knew there was going to be some diversion from the modern-day plotline. I didn't expect, though, that it would be so unstructured, so floppy. I liked the start, the introduction to protagonist Felix, and I was looking forward to reading about his subject, Gabrielle, and her motivation for the crime. Most of the book, though, is a kind of undisciplined wandering through three generations of the family. There were interesting episodes, but it didn't really hang together for me.
Paris to the Moon (2000, Adam Gopnik)
Why I picked it: Quick read by a writer I like.
What it's about: Essays by the New Yorker writer from the years during the 1990s that he and his wife and young son lived in Paris. What I thought: I had read Gopnik's collection of essays about life in New York, so I knew what to expect. This was kind of a cross between that book and David Sedaris' essays about life in Paris. Gopnik doesn't try to be as funny as Sedaris; he's more thoughtful, while still able to play out an amusing anecdote.
The Girl on the Train (2015, Paula Hawkins)
Why I picked it: After my unsatisfactory experience with "Gone Girl," I was not looking for another blockbuster-hit mystery novel about a missing and possibly dead young wife told by multiple unreliable narrators and having "girl" in the title. Then I read a blurb somewhere that said this book was interesting for its insights into alcoholism among young women, and for some reason that was enough to for me to say what the heck.
What it's about: Rachel has a feeling she saw something important concerning the disappearance of a young woman in a neighboring town, but she's a blackout drunk and remembers little of the night in question.
What I thought: Better than "Gone Girl." For one thing, the writing style did not make me cringe. Story and plotting not bad. I was a little disappointed in the outcome. I think mysteries should give you enough clues that, even if you don't figure out the culprit on your own, you can look back and connect the dots and say, aha, of course it was. This one throws out a few red herrings (which I'm fine with) and then it turns out that the baddie was the one nobody would have suspected because of this person's deeply rooted devious and manipulative nature. I think it should have let us see some cracks in this person's facade, even if they were fleeting and ambiguous, rather than just spring it on us at the end.
Walden (1854, Henry David Thoreau)
Why I picked it: Hadn't read it since high school, and I was in a simplifying mood.
What it's about: Thoreau's account of living for two years "alone in the woods" (actually not even two miles from the center of Concord, Mass.).
What I thought: Reading it reminded me of the kind of teenager I was — like many of my peers in the '70s, and probably teens in all eras, all about simple living and moral rigor. From an adult's perspective, Thoreau is kind of a self-righteous hippie curmudgeon. I liked the parts about the environment and the wildlife better than the parts where he is castigating his fellow man for such sins as reading novels and riding on trains.
The Holy Barbarians (1959, Lawrence Lipton)
Why I picked it: The first I had heard of this book was a mention in the TV show "Gilmore Girls": Rory bribes Jess to do her a favor by letting him borrow her "cool book" about the Venice beat scene, by "the father of the guy that does those Actor's Studio interviews." I put it on my Los Angeles history reading list and finally found it at the library near my new office. (I think the whole thing can be found online, if you're OK with reading like that.)
What it's about: Poets, artists, dropouts and potheads in Venice Beach, California, in the 1950s.
What I thought: I went back and forth in my evaluation of the legitimacy of this book as a Beat chronicle and Lipton as a Beat personage. You could argue that it's a forerunner of Tom Wolfe and the other New Journalists in its use of long passages of (most likely largely re-created) monologue and the embedding of the writer in a culture. On the other hand, I got the impression that Lipton was attempting to aggressively shape and manipulate people's stories and that he was too old and too commercial to really be part of the Beat scene. I was kind of embarrassed for him, in a way -- this mystery novelist in his 60s putting himself out there as the hip patriarch of these kids. I ended up wanting a little more history and analysis and a little less character and atmosphere.
What's next: I'd like to read a more objective history of Venice in the '50s, and apparently John Maynard has written a good one.
Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs (2015, Sally Mann)
Why I chose it: Good reviews, and I thought it might be the same type of memoir as Patti Smith's "Just Kids," which I really liked.
What it's about: The family and work life of Sally Mann, best known for her controversial photographs of her children on the family's farm in Virginia.
What I thought: It is quite a bit like "Just Kids," in that both the memoirists are women in their 60s, iconoclastic artists not known as (prose) writers. From the reviews I had read, I expected it would be more about Mann's best-known work, collected as "Immediate Family," and the fallout over what some people saw as disturbing and exploitative images. She does talk about it, but it's obvious that the unexpected spotlight of publicity was not something she wanted and doesn't particularly want to relive. More of the book is about her youth and particularly her parents, and even her husband's parents get as much space as the controversial pictures. The chapter that I thought provided the most insight into Mann as an artist was about her photographs of "the body farm," a University of Tennessee facility where corpses are left out in the elements for research on decomposition.
Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss (1999, Frederick and Steven Barthelme)
Why I chose it: I ran across a mention of this after I read Frederick Barthelme's novel "There Must Be Some Mistake" last year, and it sounded like an interesting memoir.
What it's about: In the mid-90s, the Barthelme brothers — writers and university professors — started frequenting Mississippi casinos and ended up gambling away their inheritance, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and coming under federal indictment for alleged casino fraud.
What I thought: I can't imagine there's any better account of gambling addiction, because these are the rare guys who lived it and can actually write about it. (It's jointly written in the third person, not alternating accounts or anything.) It's not an extensively researched book. The Barthelmes' account is focused solely on their own case: their personalities, their feelings about playing and winning and losing, and particularly the role they think that their upbringing and family relationships played in the whole debacle. I'm not a gambler, so I don't know if their specific experience would resonate with most gamblers, but one thing makes me think it might: When they described a typical night at the blackjack table, I got a knot in my stomach just from reading about what it makes me nervous to watch in person. What's next: Frederick Barthelme wrote a novel in 1997 called "Bob the Gambler," about a professional man in Mississippi who loses a lot of money to his casino compulsion. I'm interested in how close it is to the psychology of the true story.
Main Street (1920, Sinclair Lewis)
Why I chose it: I read this in high school, and I was curious about how it would seem to me now.
What it's about: An idealistic young woman marries a doctor and goes to live in his small Minnesota prairie town before the first World War.
What I thought: I've seen this described as satire, but to me that implies more humor or exaggeration. It's a pretty straightforward story of a woman (rather self-impressed and not nearly as sophisticated as she thinks she is) who seeks beauty and excitement, and is thwarted by the busybodies and stick-in-the-muds of Gopher Prairie. My impression of it hadn't changed much over the decades: I didn't have a lot of sympathy for Carol, but I couldn't revel in her tribulations, either.
The Martian (2014, Andy Weir)
Why I chose it: My friend Anne recommended it, saying it was one of the rare audiobooks that her whole family liked. I had seen it creeping up the best-seller charts throughout the spring but the description hadn't struck me as anything special.
What it's about: Astronaut Mark Watney, thought to have died, is left behind on Mars when his crew must suddenly abandon the planet in a sandstorm. Nobody knows he's alive, and he has only a few months of supplies.
What I thought: Alex and I add our endorsement. We found out it reminded us both of "What If?" (another shared favorite) in its mix of crazy science and humor. It's best when the narrative is Watney's daily log; when the action switches to Earth, the writing gets a bit flat, with a little too much dialogue-as-explanation. The thing that pushes it past ordinary science fiction is Andy Weir's ability to explain the science of the string of perils and solutions that make up the action. The nerd audience pushed this story from Weir's blog in 2009 to a self-published Kindle offering in 2011 to a mass-market novel to a big Hollywood movie.
Movie? Yes, set to come out in October, Ridley Scott directing, with Matt Damon as Watney. I'm not a huge Damon fan, but I imagine Alex and I will see this one.
The Custom of the Country (1913, Edith Wharton)
Why I chose it: Though I've read a few of Wharton's books ("The House of Mirth" is my particular favorite), this one was not on my radar at all. And then twice in a month, I ran across references to its
What it's about: Undine, beautiful but shallow and materialistic, lands the New York heir she believes will provide her the life she has always wanted. Their marriage does not go well.
What I thought: This is kind of the flip side of "House of Mirth." Lily Bart can't bring herself to marry for money, and so her downfall begins. Undine has no problem marrying for money, but it doesn't make her happy for long, and the consequences of her unhappiness wreck several lives. It's an easy read, not too melodramatic, and I like Wharton's insiderish view of the turn-of-the-century high society set.
Movie? Scarlett Johanssen was reportedly set to produce/star in a TV version, but I haven't heard anything about it since last year.
The Whites (2015, Richard Price as Harry Brandt)
Why I chose it: I like Price's novels, and this one got good reviews.
What it's about: A police detective deals with disturbing developments on two fronts: Someone is apparently stalking his family, and several criminals whom his former squad wasn't able to bring to justice have turned up dead.
What I thought: I've uncovered in myself a liking for genre fiction, but this one was maybe a couple ticks too far toward the airport-paperback crime thriller for my taste. I'm supposing that's why Price wrote under a pseudonym — it doesn't have the depth and the societal analysis of something like "Lush Life" or "Clockers." It still has the good Price bones, though, particularly the legendary aptitude for dialogue, and it's thoughtful on the topics of blame and regret and the settling of old scores.
What's next: After I read this, I remembered I had grabbed "Freedomland" from a library free pile. I started reading, but I've since put it aside and I'm not sure when I'll get back into it. It's a big book, and it was kind of slow getting past the setup.
Hard Times (1854, Charles Dickens)
Why I chose it: I'm thinking I have the appetite for a couple more Dickenses, and something I read — some scholar, I can't remember who — praised this one highly. (Although I have also heard it dismissed as a lesser piece of the canon.)
What it's about: Two middle-aged men — a school administrator and a factory owner — in a Northern England milltown, and the children and employees affected by their hyperrational philosophies.
What I thought: I understand now why it's such a polarizing book. If you like the big-name Dickens novels, the involved epics with casts of dozens of Londoners, this one is going to seem narrow and humorless. But if you think his novels would benefit from a little dryness, a little more satire and political commentary, this is the one for you. I get impatient with the sentimentality in some of his novels, and I like a historical/social angle, but I still don't know if I would have finished this one if it weren't so short. Maybe even more so than "Our Mutual Friend," there wasn't a really likeable main character to latch onto.
What's next: Last one left on my Dickens list is "Dombey and Son."
The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007, Alex Ross)
Why I chose it: Music is a big hole in my cultural education, and, judging from Ross' New Yorker articles, I figured this was a good way to fill in some of that gap.
What it's about: Composers of the 20th century, from Mahler and Strauss to Philip Glass and John Adams.
What I thought: I went with the audiobook of this because I was hoping there would be clips of the music. There aren't. Like I said, I'm not well schooled in this topic. Many of the composers, I couldn't have recognized their important works, and as far as music theory goes, I can barely tell minor from major, let alone recognize a perfect fifth. So at the start, I got some CDs of the first guys Ross was talking about. But then I realized it would take forever, and I decided to see what I could get out of the book without listening to all the pieces mentioned. And it worked. A lot of this book is about the historical and social context of the music, and that I could understand fine. The works that sounded particularly interesting I wrote down and found later on YouTube. ("It's Gonna Rain," by Steve Reich. Check it out.) The website for the book has links to excerpts, and I'll take a listen at those, too.
Even without the audio files, I liked this one a lot. I think I have a much better grasp on contemporary music now, and I also liked hearing about these guys.
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000, Nathaniel Philbrick)
Why I chose it: I've had it on my list for at least five years, but when I read "Moby-Dick" it moved up.
What it's about: The 1820 disaster in which the Essex was destroyed by a sperm whale and its crew members consigned to three small boats in the emptiest quadrant of the Pacific. The episode is said to be the inspiration for "Moby-Dick."
What I thought: I had read Philbrick's "Why Read Moby-Dick?" and part of "Bunker Hill," so I knew he had a grounding in both literature and American history, and it turns out he also has sailing expertise. The result is a book that's very well researched and knowledgeable and also has a sense of the drama of the episode, particularly of how the personalities of the crew members played into the tragedy. Captain George Pollard Jr. is drawn as a sensitive man perhaps too democratic to make a good master. First mate Owen Chase is impulsive and opinionated, more cut for a captain's job — but the one time he hesitated in action had dire consequences. Starting with the original accounts (most likely ghost-written) by Chase and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, Philbrick wraps in more scholarly works and original research and conjecture. (I liked his theory that the hammering of Chase repairing a whaleboat aboard the Essex mimicked the half-second intervals of a whale's clicking and thus attracted the beast that took the ship apart.)
Last year I read books about the doomed voyages of the Endurance (Antarctic) and the Jeannette (Arctic). This one was different enough, not only because the unfortunates were on the sea at the equator rather than icebound but also because the missteps of the Essex's leaders are in stark counterpoint to the sure hand (and, undeniably, the good luck) of the Endurance's Shackleton. I have in hand "Alone on the Ice," about the 1913 Mawson Antarctic disaster. I've been wanting to read that one, but I'm debating whether I should mix it up a little more.
Movie? I was well into this before I found out, by way of a poster in the movie theater, that Ron Howard is making this into a big-budget Chris Hemsworth movie, to come out at Christmas. That's probably why there was a hold on my library copy when I went to renew it. It could also be why there exists this following book:
Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex (1821/2015, Owen Chase)
When I was halfway through "In the Heart of the Sea," I chanced across this one on the library display shelves. It's first mate Chase's original account, packaged in a coffee table "illustrated edition" with dozens of short essays and excerpts on various facets of the disaster, other shipwrecks and whaling in general. Much of the ancillary material — for instance, on the wrecked ship Ann Alexander, Gericault's "Raft of the Medusa," Melville, Richard Henry Dana, Nantucket life — was covered in Philbrick's book. In fact, a lot of the little facts and locutions seem drawn directly from "In the Heart of the Sea." It's kind of a jumble of a cut-and-paste. Some of the photos and illustrations are a little ridiculous in their genericness. ("This boat hatchet was made for a whaling ship around 1870.") The one thing I would have really wanted — a comprehensive map — was lacking. I browsed through it, not deeply enough to count it as a book read.
How to Be a Victorian (2013, Ruth Goodman)
Why I chose it: In addition to my interest in 19th-century history, I thought it would be useful in my reading of Dickens and his contemporaries.
What it's about: The details of the everyday lives of people in Victorian England: dressing, hygiene, eating, leisure, and so on.
What I thought: I expected a little more scholarly approach, mixing the daily routine with the sociological underpinning and historical backdrop, but it was pretty much just the day-to-day. Goodman doesn't even mention the dates of Victoria's reign (FYI, 1837 to 1901). It turns out Goodman is kind of a self-taught re-enactor rather than a university historian -- she apparently does a lot of work for the BBC and with "historical village"-type museums. She knows a lot about what it's like to, for instance, wear a corset, or go for weeks without an actual bath. So it was a little more lightweight than I might have wanted, but I still learned quite a bit, or maybe more importantly confirmed things that I had inferred from Dickens et cie. (e.g., people, even kids, drank beer at breakfast).
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club ("The Pickwick Papers") (1836, Charles Dickens)
Why I chose it: More Dickens.
What it's about: Comic episodes about the travels in England of Mr. Pickwick and three of his friends.
What I thought: Far from my favorite. Some of the episodes are funny, and some of the characters, too, particularly Sam Weller, but it's choppy and fairly lightweight reading.
Blood Will Out (2014, Walter Kirn)
Why I chose it: I liked Kirn's condensed account of this story in the New Yorker, and the book-length version got good reviews.
What it's about: The relationship of Kirn and an eccentric man he knows as Clark Rockefeller, who turns out to be a murderer.
What I thought: I read almost all of this in one sitting. As a novelist and a long-form magazine writer, Kirn knows how to structure a story, how to keep the narrative momentum going while weaving in other threads from his life. And this book is as much about the writer as it is about the criminal. Kirn, who grew up on the fringes of respectability, admits to having his head turned by a man he believed to be from America's premier old-money family, and much of the latter part of the book examines how 'Rockefeller' was able to coast on his charade through so many people's lives.
What's next: Maybe "Lost in the Meritocracy," Kirn's memoir of his flukey and bewildering transition from middle-class Minnesota to Princeton.
Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (2001, Jan Morris)
Why I chose it: I grabbed it almost 15 years ago from the free table, and every time I did a book cull, I saved it. I've always been intrigued by Trieste, that odd bit of Italy almost surrounded by Slovenia. What finally got it off the shelf was my reading of "A Time of Gifts," which made me more curious about the Austro-Hungarian empire.
What it's about: A travel book about the Italian city, but of the Morris type: history, culture, geography, and, in this case, ruminations on exiles and expatriates, nationalism, and nowhere.
What I thought: I'm glad I finally got to this. It's not a big book, only 200 pages, but by the time I was done I felt like I had a sense of this place. And once again, I am glad to live in the era of Streetview. As good as Morris is, I still got a lot out of dropping the yellow guy on the map and looking around. I could even see the little Istrian towns of Hum and Draguc, the latter with streets so narrow you have to leave your car outside the village. (Are those loaves of bread in the road? Oh, cats.) This book was a good reminder to me that, even on my limited travels, it's good to try to get away from the beaten path. My bookmark was the menu from Bishop Burger Barn, and I'm glad to say my morning runs in Bishop have taken me along probably 90 percent of that town's residential blocks.
Morris, who is now 89, said this was going to be her last book, that she was going to close out her career with the place that, except for her native Wales, haunts her the most. She has pretty much stuck to that. There have been a couple of books under her name since then, but they are compilations from previously published work.
What's next: I'd like to read "Manhattan '45," and maybe "Oxford" and one of Morris' Venice books.
The Stranger (1942, Albert Camus)
Why I chose it: I hadn't read it since high school, and then I saw it was going to be Tobias Wolff's last public lecture before he retires from Stanford.
What it's about: An office worker in Algeria is tried for the shooting death of an Arab.
What I thought: I wouldn't say it's a really enjoyable book, but it's interesting, and, even with my limited reading from this time frame, I'd say it's a key work in postmodernism and existentialism. It's been long enough that I didn't have much memory of this one; it turns out that a couple key pieces of what I thought I remembered were instead from Camus' short story "The Guest." And even if I had remembered more, this would have been a little new, because it's Matthew Ward's translation. I'd still like to go to that lecture, but it looks like I'll be stuck on the night shift.
Flaubert's Parrot (1984, Julian Barnes)
Why I chose it: After I read Barnes' "The Sense of an Ending" a couple years ago, I thought I'd try one more, and this is (besides that one) his most critically acclaimed.
What it's about: This one is a famously odd animal. It's considered a novel, but most of it is biography/criticism/essay about Gustave Flaubert. The narrator is a 60ish widower, a retired physician and amateur Flaubert scholar from England.
What I thought: I wouldn't have knowingly signed on to a Flaubert biography, but I did enjoy it. On the other hand, it hasn't inspired me to put any more Flaubert on my list; "Bovary," I have to say, was one of my least satisfying reads of last year. I had thought that was my one foray into Flaubert, but "Parrot" reminded me that I read his story "Un Coeur Simple" in high school.
This one wove in, tying together the biography and the fiction, themes of betrayal, the personal lives of artists, and the impossibility of knowing the past. Behind the straightforward presentation, it was very subtly, even slyly, put together. It made me think I had missed something in "The Sense of an Ending," which I thought ended in a rather, what, artless way. It did get a lot of critical praise, so quite possibly I was not reading deeply enough.
The Room (2015, Jonas Karlsson)
Why I chose it: It was on display in the library, and the blurb suggested it was a comic novel whose hero transcends stultifying office life. And it's short, so a good breather after An American Tragedy.
What it's about: A Swedish office worker's obsession with a secret room at his workplace puts him at odds with his co-workers.
What I thought: It's the opposite of what I thought it would be. If it is indeed supposed to be funny, it's in a strange satirical Swedish way. The protagonist is the office weirdo, kind of Dwight Schrute but many magnitudes more odious — narcissistic, defensive, humorless, lacking social intelligence and ultimately bullying. As to the "mystery" of the room, even with the unreliable narrator the empirical evidence makes the situation clear.
An American Tragedy (1925, Theodore Dreiser)
Why I chose it: It seemed like a missing piece in my early 20th-century reading. I had liked Dreiser's "Sister Carrie."
What it's about: After years of incremental progress toward a foothold in middle-class society, a young man from a poor Midwestern family is bedazzled by the sudden possibility of marrying a beautiful heiress.
What I thought: This is really long. I didn't realize it going in, but it is longer than "Moby-Dick" and just a few pages shorter than "Anna Karenina." The span of the action is only about seven years; what makes the book long is its meticulous examination of the thoughts and motivations of Clyde (and occasionally other characters). Somewhere I lost track of the downloading and iPodding of the files, and as I started the last one, I thought, hm, the action must condense quite a bit in the last chapters. And then I got to the end and realized that I had downloaded only 15 of the 30 files, that I was only halfway through.
I didn't go back and try to pin this down, but I have a suspicion Dreiser kind of lost track of time. It seems like Clyde is 20 years old for about two years. And there's definitely some time warp going on with the pregnancy of one of the characters: The narrative puts her at 6 months along, yet even when seen soaking wet -- and this is a woman described as notably petite, less than 100 pounds -- nobody realizes she's pregnant. I knew vaguely what the pivotal action was going to be, but even if I hadn't, Clyde rolls it around in his head for so long that when it happened I just felt relief that we had gotten that out of the way and could move on.
Looking at this in the sequence of novels I've read, it seems to have more in common with those of 1900-1919 (The Octopus, The House of Mirth, Sons and Lovers, The Magnificent Ambersons) than those of the 1920s (Ulysses, To The Lighthouse, The Sound and the Fury) -- more of a straightforward story with overtones of social commentary rather than the artistic experimentation that was going on around the same time. In fact, it seems more of a melodrama than the earlier novels because it dwells less on social/economic issues. Dreiser includes no years, no real incidents or people. (If he was aiming at making it timeless, he probably shouldn't have set it in a shirt collar factory.) The one 'modern' element is the occasional reference to Freudian psychology, and from this perspective that makes it seem even more dated. I guess "Tragedy" could be seen as kind of a bridge between the two groups, combining traditional narrative form with an emphasis on the inner life. I'm sure there have been plenty of dissertations doing the compare/contrast of this novel and "The Great Gatsby," published the same year and also starring a son of the working class who comes to ruin in high society.
I will say it's very intricately put together, with the foreshadowing and the parallels and nothing told sketchily, everything filled out with maximum shading and nuance. I think I would have liked it better if it had more of a historical context, but I'm not sorry I read it.
Movie? "A Place in the Sun" (1951) with Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters. I've never watched it — always sounded a little too melodramatic — but I think I will now.
Our Mutual Friend (1865, Charles Dickens)
Why I chose it: Working my way through Dickens.
What it's about: A man found dead in the Thames is declared to be the heir to a fortune, setting in motion a web of moneygrubbing and machinations among a circle of Londoners.
What I thought: This is the last of Dickens' novels published while he was alive, and it has the reputation of being one of the most socially insightful. I'd rank it a middling-to-low in the oeuvre. I liked the start, which is kind of bleak and dark, and there's some mystery. Then it started following some characters who seemed only tangentially related to the main action. And the end was just way too sappy and sentimental. As for social insight, it was a fairly pedestrian look at avarice and the politics of marriage.
I was initially optimistic that heroine Bella was a more fully formed character than most of Dickens' women, but that didn't last too long. Dickens still thought it was fine for her husband to treat her like a child in need of correction, or perhaps a hobby along the line of a model railway or a hothouse orchid.
There are some funny bits and the witty dialogue Dickens is so good at. My favorite was when Mr. Boffin has to suddenly hide in a taxidermy shop: 'Get behind the young alligator in the corner, Mr Boffin; Wegg's well acquainted with the alligator, and he won't take particular notice of him. ... Get your head well behind his smile, Mr Boffin, you'll find plenty of room behind his smile. He's a little dusty, but he's very like you in tone.'
What's next: As far as the novels are concerned, I'm down to the earlys and fairly minors. I think I'll keep on my list Hard Times, The Pickwick Papers, maybe Dombey and Son, and take the rest if I feel inclined.
A Time of Gifts (1977, Patrick Leigh Fermor)
Why I chose it: I first heard of this book two years ago when the last book of the trilogy was published posthumously. It sounded like a pretty amazing story.
What it's about: Expelled from school in 1933, Leigh Fermor, then 18, decided to walk from Rotterdam to Constantinople. This book gets him to the brink of Budapest.
What I thought: I realize now I was unthinkingly expecting an American-style walk-across-the-continent memoir: physical hardship, solitude, transcendent beauty, revelations about oneself. This, actually, was much better, even if the only reason had been that I had read so much of the other. Leigh Fermor's territory is Germany and Austria, with villages every 10 miles, and boats and buses when he needed (though he did have certain rules about alternative transportation). His memoir is mostly about his encounters with other people on his journey and about the connections he made between the literature and art he was familiar with and the geography he was just encountering. I guess the book that I've read that it's most like is Orwell's "Down and Out in Paris and London" (one of my favorites), but that one is much darker in tone.
"A Time of Gifts" was written decades after the fact, which makes me wonder how much of the young Patrick's feelings and insights were influenced by old Patrick's experience, but I give him the benefit of the doubt as to authenticity. (He kept detailed notebooks, though he does mention that one key volume was lost when his rucksack was stolen.) He comes across as an educated and intelligent teen, though with the callowness of his age. Sometimes he seems unnaturally grown-up, and sometimes he's just a partying teenager. What sophistication he has is in the areas of art and literature rather than politics; his growing awareness of the effect and ramifications of the Nazi party is an eye-opener to him.
Before I read this, Germany would have been low on the list of countries I would want to visit, and I probably could not have correctly placed on the map any major German city except Berlin and Hannover. Now my geographical knowledge is much improved, and Germany has moved up several notches on the list. The Czech Republic took a big leap. (The paperback version I read had no map! I'm not asking for a glossy foldout but, sheesh, even a sketch. Luckily I have a map or two.)
What's next: I'll definitely read the second volume (Between the Woods and the Water) and see how I feel then about the third, which was unfinished at Leigh Fermor's death. As I was reading A Time of Gifts, I remembered (though Leigh Fermor didn't go to Italy) that I had a copy of Jan Morris' "Trieste" that I had been meaning to get at. I put it on the top of my pile.
Gravity's Rainbow (1973, Thomas Pynchon)
Why I chose it: Working my way through Pynchon. Plus, I read "Ulysses" last fall, so it was time for this.
What it's about: A U.S. intelligence officer in Europe at the end of World War II tries to track down a rocket containing a mysterious device. Although it's about that in the same way as 'In Search of Lost Time' is about a man eating a cookie.
What I thought: After 'Ulysses' and 'Mason & Dixon,' I was maybe a little cocky. This one required a lot more work. I wish I'd had a good study guide, something beyond just the lists of allusions I found online. In the end I just went with a diagram of the characters' relationships and tried to stay on the narrative path, although sometimes it was more entertaining to wander into the underbrush of Pynchon's wordplay and shtick.
What's next: I'm not mustering much enthusiasm for my one unread Pynchon, "Against the Day." It does have a historical setting I like, but it's possibly more daunting than Rainbow: 1,000 pages long and at least 100 characters. I think before I tackle that, I'll re-read "Vineland," which I read 25 years ago and remember fondly.
The Sportswriter (1986, Richard Ford)
Why I chose it: I read this when it came out, and then again about 10 years later, but not since. After I read Ford's "Canada" last year, I thought I'd go back and re-read this and its sequel "Independence Day" and then finish the Frank Bascombe series with "The Lay of the Land" and "Let Me Be Frank With You."
What it's about: Three days in the life of Frank Bascombe — 38-year-old divorced father, magazine sportswriter, and New Jersey suburbanite — as he engages with his ex-wife, his new girlfriend, fellow members of the Divorced Men's Club and a paraplegic former NFL player.
What I thought: These days I read a lot of pre-WW2 stuff and a fair amount of genre, but when I was newly out of college I read almost exclusively contemporary realism of this sort. I guess I must have liked it then, or wanted to like it; today it seems a little too cool and damped-down. Bascombe is a decent guy, and not unlikeable, but it's hard to get into his head. 'Canada' had much the same tone but more of a story, and I liked it more than this. Still, I'll keep the rest of the series on my list, because I did like 'Canada' so much, and because Bascombe looks like a good companion piece to the Rabbit books which took up so much of my reading hours recently. Even if I never love this series, it could be an important piece in making connections about modern fiction.
Mason & Dixon (1997, Thomas Pynchon)
Why I chose it: I'm making my way through Pynchon, and I liked that this one was set in 18th-century America. And maps!
What it's about: Very fictionalized adventures of the surveyors who mapped the eponymous line up the Delmarva Peninsula and along the south border of Pennsylvania in the 1760s.
What I thought: Yes, it's the 18-month book. My vacation partners of July 2013 might recognize this as the 800-page volume that accompanied me to the beach. I later bought it for my iPad — the only digital book I've paid for, and worth it because: 1) I didn't have to keep renewing, returning and reborrowing library copies as the months rolled by; 2) it weighed a lot less than the paper version; and 3) it had the built-in dictionary, always a good thing with Pynchon. (Among the words I flagged: pirogue, elutriate, bombazine, janissary, pinchbeck, quaquaversally, plafond, stichomythia, nidor, pinguid, esculent.)
There were a lot of gaps in the 18 months. This is a better book for vacations, plane trips and other times when I have at least an hour at a time for print reading rather than my usual 20-minute blocks. It takes a little time to get into the flow: On top of the usual Pynchonian wordplay, it's written in 18th-century-type prose, with apparently random nouns capitalized, and the thees and thous of the Quaker Jeremiah Dixon. Luckily, because it is a trip narrative, covering one major journey and a few smaller ones in the lives of Mason and Dixon, I could pick up after a few months and just jump into the current episode without having to remember every detail of what came before. A few secondary characters made reappearances — most notably the automaton duck pursuing the chef with whom it is in love — but for the most part it's fairly episodic, the stories changing as the pair travels west.
This is my favorite Pynchon book so far, holding a slight edge over "Inherent Vice." The characters are great, and it's a very funny book (though the end is almost heartbreakingly poignant). I liked the historical elements and the scientific ones; I'm glad I started it after I observed a Transit of Venus, and I'm glad I finished it before the next Transit.
What's next: I am making a serious stab at "Gravity's Rainbow." If I finish it, I'll still be lacking "Against the Day." Before I tackle that, I might go back and reread "Vineland," my first Pynchon.
The World According to Garp (1978, John Irving)
Why I chose it: I remembered it fondly and I hadn't read it since high school.
What it's about: The family and writing of a novelist in contemporary New England.
What I thought: It holds up well. I remembered most of the characters, some of the major incidents and the general arc of the story, but it was fresh in this re-reading. Besides having great characters and being funny, it's really well put together. I could see the roots of the inside-the-writer's-mind and story-within-a-story elements that worked well in "Last Night in Twisted River" 30 years later. I wonder if Irving ever thought he was jinxing things: As a writer with three well-received but modest-selling novels, he wrote about a writer with two well-received but modest-selling novels who had a huge hit with the third. In his case, I guess tempting fate worked.
Movie: Haven't seen it since it came out. George Roy Hill directs Robin Williams, Mary Beth Hurt, Glenn Close, John Lithgow. I looked for it in the library recently, but it was soon after Williams' death and all the copies were out.
What's next: Of Irving's 13 novels, I'm lacking three: "Until I Find You," "The Fourth Hand" and "In One Body."
Lila (2014, Marilynne Robinson)
Why I chose it: Robinson's "Housekeeping" is one of my all-time favorites, and I read and liked her two previous novels set in Gilead, Iowa.
What it's about: Lila Dahl, a woman on the fringes of society who becomes the unlikely late-life wife of an Iowa preacher in the 1940s.
What I thought: This was a good one. Lila was in the background of "Home" and "Gilead," and I didn't wonder a lot about her, but now I'd rank her with Jack Boughton as the most interesting person in the three Gilead books. Lila is a more extreme version of one of my favorite characters, Sylvie in "Housekeeping." They're rootless women with a distrust of attachment, presented without pity but still sympathetic characters. I think at some point I'll re-read "Home" so I can fit in the pieces of what I know from this book.
My Mistake (2013, Daniel Menaker)
Why I chose it: My quick read of a New York Times review left me with the mistaken impression that it hinged on Menaker's role in the death of his brother, and that sounded interesting to me.
What it's about: Memoir of an editor who worked at the New Yorker and Random House.
What I thought: Menaker's life has some interesting episodes — childhood in New York leftist circles, rising through the ranks at William Shawn's New Yorker, life-threatening cancer — but it never really grabbed me. The brother's death is neither as dramatic nor as influential as I expected. The 'Inside the New Yorker' stuff is by now fairly well-known, and I have no particular interest in New York publishing. I stuck with this book because it's short, but by the end I was pretty much speed-reading.
Alone on the Ice: The Greatest Survival Story in the History of Exploration (2013, David Roberts)
Why I picked it: I've enjoyed a couple books about polar explorations, and I was fascinated by a National Geographic story last year about the Mawson expedition.
What it's about: Australian explorer Douglas Mawson's ill-fated 1912 Antarctic expedition.
Why I gave it up: Maybe I've read too much icy doom lately. I was also a little put off by the structure, which starts out on a nightmarish day of the trek, and then does several years of backtracking to explain the background. For whatever reason, I couldn't get into it. I might try again another time.