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Recently read (Catching up edition)

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]


Posted on August 21, 2007
Tags: book_reviews

Gosh, it’s been a long time since I did this. I suppose I’ve been embarrassed at how few non-work books I read. But here are some recent and not-so-recent ones, with more to follow:

Arnaldo Momigliano. The Development of Greek Biography

When I read Momigliano’s The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography, I was so unfamiliar with most of the primary and secondary literature he was discussing that all I could really do was luxuriate in his prose and hope that he wasn’t bullshitting me. Fair enough for beach reading. The subject matter of The Development of Greek Biography is a bit more familiar, though again there were lots of places where it was hard for me to judge. But wherever Momigliano did touch on some subject I know a bit about — the Socratics and the development of Socratic literature, 4th Century biography, Peripatetics like Aristoxenus or Hermippus, Isocrates — I ended up admiring him more, rather than less. I was especially interested to read Momigliano on the literature generated by the Socratics on Socrates. Momigliano is quite out of step with a lot of the work done in this area since Vlastos, who basically framed the contemporary discussion of the issue. But since I’m entirely unsympathetic to Vlastos’ approach to the subject, I came away even happier with Mr. M than before.

I read this book twice in a row, which I do all the time for work-books, but which I’ve never done for any other book read for pleasure.

Philip Pullman. The His Dark Materials trilogy

A children’s fantasy trilogy that Nick recommended to me. I had sort of a mixed impression of this one: On the one hand, Pullman seems to have been determined to fit every idea he ever had into a single narrative. That meant all kinds of stuff about witches, and quantum mechanics, and theology, and a whole lot of other things all tangled up together. And call me fussy - go ahead, just do it - but it seems to me that there’s a difference between a richly imagined world and a mess of things that don’t fit together. On the other hand, the books were ambitious, especially in tackling some big questions about religion. There was also a lot more moral complexity than you find in most kids books, or even in most adult books. So I certainly don’t feel that I wasted my time.

Susanna Clarke. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

I loved this book from the first page. Clarke depicts a Napoleonic Era England with a twist: it’s an England alive with magic and magicians. Not my sort of thing, usually. But Clarke’s writing is so deft, and her characters so well drawn that she could write about anything and make it pleasing.

James C. Scott. Seeing like a State

In Seeing Like a State, Scott explores the various ways in which the modern state has transformed its subjects and their environments in order to render them more intelligible (and pliable) for its own purposes. To this end, Scott considers Tanzanian land reforms, planned cities such as Brazilia, the imaginary planned cities of Le Corbusier, and the 19th Century revolution in German forestry science, among many other examples. In each case, a scheme was forced from on high on hapless subjects, in ways cautioned against by local forms of knowledge, for reasons idealistic or bureaucratic or even aesthetic, with predictably detrimental results.

I found especially interesting his discussion of high modernism in urban planning as an aesthetic phenomenon.

Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities

This book had long been on my read-because-it’s-good-for-you list. It was only when I actually started reading it that I discovered that all along it should have been on my read-because-it’s-great-fun list. This one deserves a post of its own, which I’ll get to some day.

So . . . what have you been reading?

Comments


Author: Paul
Date: 2007-08-21

So . . . what have you been reading?

My wretched dissertation. B-Exam friday. After that, I’ll be Dr. Unk. And then, after that, I can read fun books. YAY!!



Author: Chris
Date: 2007-08-21

Nice! Congratulations.



Author: upyernoz
Date: 2007-08-21

“for whom the bell tolls”

i’m in a novel discussion group and so they’re making me read it. it really is a slog. i guess i’m not a hemingway kind of guy.

p.s. i hear it tolls for thee. i hope that didn’t ruin the ending for anyone out there.



Author: Chris
Date: 2007-08-21

I didn’t mind that one. The ending is justly famous.



Author: alif sikkiin
Date: 2007-08-22

i’m in a novel discussion group

Uh, dude, you snob, they’re called “book clubs.”



Author: upyernoz
Date: 2007-08-22

yeah that too.

it’s an unofficial rule in our group that everyone call the group something slightly different. “book club” was already taken.

(and it is more accurate to use the word “novel” and not “book”–our bylaws prohibit nonfiction. yes, we have bylaws. they made me write them because i’m the only lawyer)



Author: Anne
Date: 2007-08-22

Paul, we’re so having a day-long blog party for you Friday.



Author: DC
Date: 2007-08-23

Tony Judt’s “Postwar”. Very large, will be the biggest thing I’ve read when I’m finished. Judt’s book is a genuinely impressive and mammoth achievement, and very perceptive in places. But I don’t see it being as memorable as, say, the postwar section Eric Hobsbawm’s “Short Twentieth Century”, whose thematic and generalising style makes Judt seem a bit too comprehensive in places. Judt only sparkles in a really comparable way in the “intellectual history” bits, which I’ve enjoyed very much. Although the bit on Thatcherism (which I’ve just read0 is great too.

“Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” - Joyce did write beautifully, and hilarious in places.

I’ve also started “What’s the matter with America?” (changed, lamentably, from “Kansas” for the Euro-edition) by Thomas Frank. Fine so far, but perhaps a little dissappointing.



Author: Chris
Date: 2007-08-23

I was just mooning over Judt’s Postwar in the bookstore the other day. Huh.

Portrait is good, but all the time I put into Ulysses was wasted.

As for Frank, I never read the book, but it didn’t stop me from complaining about the reviews.



Author: DC
Date: 2007-08-23

There’s a great line in Ravelstein (Saul Bellow) where the narrator declares that while he cherished Ulysses he was holding off on Finnegan’s Wake - “I’m saving it for the nursing home.” Martin Amis described Finnegan’s Wake as a 500 word crossword puzzle the answer to which is “the”.

Judt’s book was surprisingly cheap over here - about €14. I’ve still got about 40% of it to go maybe I’ll let you know what I think when I finish. Did they throw you out of the book shop for mooning?



Author: DC
Date: 2007-08-23

I also read Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger which is pretty great. You’ll be interested to know that when he wasn’t hurling and dodging flying hunks of metal and fire Junger was reading Tristram Shandy.



Author: Chris
Date: 2007-08-23

Getting kicked out of bookstores for mooning is the story of my life.

I read a chapter of Ravelstein in the New Yorker when it first came out. It made me feel embarrassed for Bellow.