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July Reading Recap

Last month, despite a whirlwind trip, work on my dissertation, and preparations to move, I managed to read four books, which I am both pleased with and frustrated by.

My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk
Reviewed here. This is the fourth book (third novel) of Pamuk’s I’ve read and I rank it alongside Snow in terms of quality, though it is a very different book. The three-headed tale–the completion of a magnificent illuminated manuscript that blends Western and Eastern style, Black’s courtship of Shekure, and a murder investigation–explores the nature of art and reality, love and lust, perfection and value, violence and sacrilege.

The Raw and the Cooked – Jim Harrison
A collection of essays by screenwriter, poet, and food/travel writer Jim Harrison. They essays themselves were hit and miss, some better, some worse and, particularly, the mixture of the high prose and low, gross words (e.g. weenie) were unsuccessful in this context (great writers do this well, here it struck me more as immature or added for shock value). What I enjoyed most was the consistent message of “a life well fed is a life well led,” as well as a joy in good food and good ingredients. Harrison laments the quality of food in American truck-stops and muses on how many Americans eat and enjoy crummy food because they do not know good food. Compare: Orwell in one of his pieces (Road to Wigan Pier, I think) shares an anecdote wherein lower classes preferred tinned milk to real milk because that is all they knew. Overall, I was glad to have read these essays, but came away with a achievable goal of drinking more wine and an impossible one of eating and drinking my way across Europe.

Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon

Even more overwhelming was the discovery, borne in on them in the course of research, that the past had been not only brilliant but crazy.

Reviews of Stapledon’s works often complain that there are no characters. In a sense, this is true for Last and First Men since there are no named characters, rather an unnamed narrator from the distant future spinning a tale through an unnamed narrator in the contemporary period (perhaps Stapledon himself). I disagree, though. Humanity itself is a character. Stapledon weaves a tale about ten million years of human existence into the far future, through multiple collapses, eight distinctive types of “humans,” further subhuman species (one of which gets enslaved by monkeys), emigration to multiple planets in the solar system, and an invasion from Martians. He has a penchant for explaining and evaluating civilizations and natures, and has a clear vision of humanity: self-destructive and resilient, fragile and limited, but aspiring. The core of that humanity, in this vision, is the part that rises above base and bestial natures (expanded upon slightly here).

On a more academic level, a host of ideas in the atmosphere during the 1920s collide in this book. Stapledon is critical of capitalism, picks up on a long-view of history, accepts to a degree geographical determinism, concern (and uncertainty about) nuclear energy, racial characters, etc, etc. I preferred Starmaker, but loved Last and First Men, too.

Mort – Terry Pratchett

Mort is an ungainly fellow who doesn’t fit at the farm and isn’t selected for apprenticeship at the annual fair. That is, until Death arrives looking to bring him on. So Mort takes up the trade of making sure that people die when they are supposed to, which allows Death a chance to relax, take some time off, and try to learn why humans enjoy particular activities and have hobbies (his favorite is cooking, which he is quite good at). Hijinks ensue, and it becomes evident as to why anthropomorphic personifications do personification things and why humans do human things–and why mixing the two is a particularly bad idea.

It has been more than a decade since I was told I should read Terry Pratchett’s books. I picked one or two of the Discworld books up at points, but never made it more than a few pages in. Since then I read and adored Good Omens, but Mort is my first return to Discworld. I laughed and enjoyed the book overall, but very little about it made me think that I should go read more Terry Pratchett novels. The writing is clever–relentlessly so–but cleverness as its own end is something I prefer in conversation rather than in books. It would be fine, too, if the world itself drew me in, but it does not, perhaps because it also strikes me as a relentlessly clever mashup of earth ideas that distracts more than amuses me. Death as a character was the main attraction of this story.

In short: Amused, entertained, have plenty of books I’m looking forward to reading more than another Discworld book, but now it cannot be held over my head that I haven’t read any.

I had hoped to finish James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, but didn’t have a chance to read much the past week or so (for reasons noted above) and thus am only about halfway through it. I also just got a new batch of books in and am looking forward to reading either Orhan Pamuk’s The Naive and Sentimental Novelist or Rose MacCaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond next. Later this weekend or early next week I will also be posting a piece on why the relentless and random collateral damage in James Bond films bothers me less than in most random Hollywood hero films.