Reading List 2008
- Tough Guys Don’t Dance by Norman Mailer (1989). An author I have heard about often though never read. This forceful mystery sees the main character addicted to bourbon, cigarettes, and blondes. Not a problem until a severed head shows up and his alcoholic blackout has left him trying to piece it all together. A bit convoluted but Mailer can certainly write.
- Alexandra David-Neel: Portait of an Adventurer by Ruth Middleton (1989). Alexandra David-Neel is an intriguing personality. A French woman who travelled to Tibet, Japan, and India as a scholar and religous seeker in a time when woman wore corsets and had manservants. She kept the servants and with force of character achieved popular literary success while her husband funded her as she went unseen for years and years. I certainly will be reading all her books I can ger a hold of, but this short biograpghy was a good one to start with. The author comes from a painting background and has great passion for Alexandra, but she is not an outstanding writer and the writting is just passable. Many things are glossed over and I feel the author is too praising in her evaluation, especially in her descritptions of the arrangement between husband and wife while wife disappears for 13 years. The final 44 years of her fascinating life are covered in about 5 pages.
- A Dog’s Heart by Mikhail Bulgakov(1925, published 1968). Right before I left for Japan, I did not have enough time to finish this Russian writer’s most famous work, The Master and Margarita. This shorter novella is a satire on the Russian Revolution and Socialism that was not received well in it’s day, in fact only years after has it been published. It’s a clever take on Frankenstein, as the doctor in the center of the story implants the pituitary gland and testicals from a man to dog. “The resulting half-man, half-beast is, as to be expected, a monstrosity, yet one that fits in remarkably well with Soviet society… ” (book cover).
- The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (1978). The author joins his naturalist friend GS into Nepal to observe sheep and visit Buddhist sites in remote settings. It’s a cliche: going into the mountains (Himalayas) to search for meaning after a tragic event (wife dies of cancer). The book is considered one of the best travel literature tales around though for good reason.
- The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk (1992). Another vividly written historical tale by the author of Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, this time delving into the period of time and place Kipling wrote about in Kim which was the first book I read at the start of my 6 month journey across Asia to India. Tsarist Russia and Victorian England, subtly and with force, stuggled to control Central Asia and all her riches for the Empire. The characters who undertake dangerous missions, often in disguise as a local, are straight out of fictional novels- but their deeds are fact. In modern day Pakistan, Afghanistan, British India, and China these two super powers vied for power that is certainly relevant today. It was great to actually be in Pakistan while reading this because I was in the villages and cities described. In fact, my great couchsurfing host Badar took me to Abbotabad, named after James Abbot, just as I was reading about it.
- No One Here Gets Out Alive by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman (19XX). Doors bio. Managed to find these both at the same used store in Islamabad, so thought I’d finally read this too. Davis should have hired someone who can write as Hopkins did here to help him. Great insight into poet-singer Jim Morrison.
- Hammer of the Gods by Stephen Davis (19XX). One I hadn’t gotten to about one of my favorite bands. Interesting read, but sophmorically mediocre in its writing. Author uses lame puns of the bands name (Lepocity?) and the added chapters read like my 5th grade book reports.
- My Dark Places by James Ellroy (1997). At 10 years old, the author’s mother is killed and sets events off that lead to a succesful career (wrote L.A. Confidential) penning gritty crime novels, almost hard-boiled. The author revisits this true life mystery that was never solved plus a few other short pieces.
- Footprint Pakistan Handbook by David Winter (1999). About 10 years old but I jumped at the chance not to use a Lonely Planet guide (traded LP China for it in Kashgar). Obviously a lot has happened since then that has changed many things, though most info remain relavent and the descriptions are accurate. I use guidebooks less and less for things like food and accomodation, so this has been a great guide with well written history pieces.
- Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco (1995). If this is Eco’s weakest as reviews say, his others must be good indeed.
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957). There it was, sitting in a cafe in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, so I read it again. One of my favorites.
- A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929). Surprisingly I’ve only ever read half of Old Man and the Sea, despite owning every a set of every Hemingway. I liked the ending. A lot.
- Doghouse Roses by Steve Early (2001). Entertaining short stories bu cult alt-country musician.
- Red Dust: A Path Through China by Ma Jian (2001). Communist dissident and vagrant traveler becomes fed up with The Party and tramps around China for 3 years in the 80’s. While I was collecting baseball cards, people in China were having forced vasectomies.
- Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk (1980). Fascinating telling of European and other foreign archaeologists rush to cart away loads of modern Western China’s Buddhist heritage in the form of manuscripts, statues, and wall fresco. Upon return to China, definitely planning on visiting some of these sites.
- Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond (2005). Powerful tome following environmental and societal issues among the Anastazi, Maya, Easter Islanders, Greenland Norse, and many others. Very relevant to our treatment of environmental issues today.
- Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Gavin Bell (2001). Average South Africa travelogue by an average author who uses average metaphors (including some form of ‘lock, stock and barrel’ several times). Incomplete glossary of Afrikaans words used, further confused by liberal and pretentious use of French phrases. Interesting history info if you can overlook that.
- Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. One of those books I probably wouldn’t ever pick up (too well known?), but reading material is a bit scare and expensive I’ve found when traveling. Glad I did. His train across the US takes him over Iowa, probably through my small hometown which was built around a railway junction.
- Lonely Planet Unpacked by various Lonely Planet authors. Series of very short travel disaster stories, most of which suck (stubbing your toe??). Extremely mediocre offering from a company that continues to disappoint me.
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This ranks among the best I’ve ever read. A very lucid and sometimes fantastical history of a small town in South America and the eccentric Buendia family.
- The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Just read it.
- Forgotten Kingdom by Peter Goullart (1957). I spent over a week in Yunnan Province, in and around the city of Lijiang where the author spent 8 years before fleeing the communist takeover. Quite vivid tale of some of the ethnic minorities in China and neighboring Tibet. Read it here. (I managed to snag a 1st edition from eBay since its out of print except in Yunnan!)
- Lost Horizon by James Hilton (1933). Interesting quick read of a crashed plane into an unknown valley of Shangri-la with a Buddhist monastery and lots of secrets. Zhongdian, China renamed itself due to similarities shared, which I had the pleasure of visiting. It’s great, but the author uses the term “what the deuce” more than Stewy on Family Guy.
- Kim by Rudyard Kipling. Quite surprised at how good this tale of Indian/Irish Kim’s foray into British Raj Politics and “the great game” of espionage.
- Lonely Planet China (2007). Thick guide to a big country. Acceptable quality… except the MAPS. Holy crap are the maps bad. It really set in when I spent over an hour trying to find a guest house at Tiger Leaping Gorge, which was about 10 minutes from where I started. Once I arrived, the owner allows guests to write on big swaths of canvas on the walls where I found “Lonely Planet China maps SUCK!”
- The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953). Really lucky to find this hardboiled classic and it didn’t disappoint. Great period murder mystery, though I found Eliott Gould’s movie version of Philip Marlowe fairly drab. Will be reading more of this author.
- The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda (1968). An anthropology student goes under the tutelage of a Mexican Indian sorcerer. Psychedelic drugs ensue. This was a pretty amazing book that launched some 14 more similar titles by Castaneda, who got these categorized and non-fiction. Turns out, there are a myriad of inconsistencies and in later life turned into a bonafide cult leader. Even so, this book rocked, especially the part about turning into a crow, and I’ll definitely read more.
- Big Sur by Jack Kerouac (1962). Kerouac, known here as Jack Duluoz, chronicles three trips to a canyon in Big Sur, California. The tone is melancholy and despair with Kerouac suffering from delirium tremens which cause great bouts of depression. His alcoholism is strong, but he writes evocatively and truthfully about what is happening.
- A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (2003). I generally avoid anything endorsed by Oprah and her Legion of Housewives © and this didn’t change my mind much. I liked it, but Frey’s fractured style (which could be said to represent the fractured life he leads) is sometimes annoying, especially at the start. Frey himself is pretentious and surrounded by scandal. The book is quite depressing and filled with misery and little redemption.
- Captain Alatriste by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (1996). This first in a series follows the titualr character in his sword wielding adventures in 17th Century Spain. Quick and enjoyable historical fiction.
- The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. I immediately snatched this one up when I saw it available to read. It seems a logical continuation of what the Beat Generation morphed into and has Neal Cassady, aka Dean Moriarty, as the sledge-hammer flipping driver of the bus the Ken Kessey and the Merry Pranksters take on some strange trips.
- The Great Railway Baazar by Paul Theroux (1975). This series of interesting vignettes follows the author on his journey mostly by rail from London to India, across Thailand and Singapore, around Japan, and across the USSR.
This book is a classic of the genre and Theroux’s humorous and cynical take is well worth a read. Its interesting to contrast his views in the 70’s to the countries today (I have visited lots of them). Vietnam was just emerging from years of war and Russia was ruled by Soviets.
- A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (1997). Funny tale intermixed with historical tidbits of Bryson and friend’s romp on the Appalachian Trial.
- Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja by Amit Gilboa (1998). I’m suspect of any book that claims “gonzo rant” culpability and this tale falls short of that claim in many ways. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it with the general lack of similar works.
The tales are interesting, choppy little tidbits of story. They often stop where you think there should be more story. The author includes his journal entries and notes as they are, which is a little annoying as a format at first bit you get used to it.
He does peak into this corrupt world of 90’s Cambodia (by now its a bit dated) but never fully enters himself, always reminding the reader how his morals and dignity are still intact unlike the host of characters around him. I for one would rather have read a tale where he really indulged or at least convinced the reader he did.
I’d rewrite the cover claim as “gonzo for pussies.” You’ll probably like the book if you’re considering it in the first place, but Dr. Thompson is rolling in his grave if this is gonzo.
- Hard Boiled by Frank Miller (story) and Geof Darrow (pencils). The hardboiled genre is one that has interested me lately and this comes highly regarded. It’s sparse on dialog, but the intricate artwork will leave you starring. Very mature and graphic, giving new meaning to graphic novel.
- Kafka on the Shore by Murakami Haruki (2005). I think I like Murakami’s sci-fi much better than his drama, though this one border’s both. This one is two separate tales that end up being related like some of his other work (see Hard Boiled Wonderland). It started strong but was just too long, random, and melodramatic.
Murakami has an amazing ability to create symbols in his work and many of them are archetypes right out of Jung’s play book. This can have one of three effects.
One: The author’s blatant flag-waving symbolism allows even the dimmest of readers to find the symbolic brilliance of the writing. Both the reader and the author are genius and you will tell everyone you meet about the wooooooonderful homage to existentialism you just read.
Two: You have realized the author’s blatant symbols from the get go, from the cover actually. Naming the main character after Franz Kafka? Pretentious!
Three: I fall somewhere in the middle. More towards two.
Cut about 200 pages of dramatic bullshit and I like it a whole lot more and the sex with your mother/sister theme is a bit disturbing.
But ok, its a decent story despite its length, melodrama, and random things you think could be very deep but end but are just… random.
- Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr (1969). Really I can’t believe I haven’t read this one before: Vonnegut’s pseudo-science fiction tale about Billy Pilgrim and the bombing of Dresden in WWII, which the author experienced firsthand. Deep yet easy to digest, Vonnegut delivers again.
- Mr. Nice by Howard Marks (1996). The candid tale of one of the most prolific dope smugglers ever. You see this book (usually photocopied versions) all over SEA and I finally gave in and picked it up. Marks held over 40 aliases as he hopped around the world before finally being nabbed by the US government. His sprawling list of names and places is surprising very easy and fun to read. He has a few more books out that I will try to pick up, including a sequel. Off his website you can even can get autographed copies!
- Cambodia by Lonely Planet. Bet you didn’t see this one coming… Since I just got back from 2 weeks there (as of this writing, Jan ’08) its usually a good bet I’d have the LP. I’m quite shocked that Pol Pot was never brought to justice and died of heart failure in 1998. This is actually also listed in last year’s list too.
The above photo can be found in this set.