Le comte de Monte-Cristo – Alexandre Dumas (père), 1844

I have a square fat two volume set of CMC which was a school prize–cheaply printed and bound, so not a physical object I’m deeply attached to, but I love the contents. Yay for Project Gutenberg epub on the Sony Reader! I read this very slowly, mostly on the elliptical trainer, and it’s transformative not to have to lug around a book that won’t stay open and gets in the way when you’re not reading it.

This must be the quintessential melodrama of revenge. As with Les Misérables, I read abridged versions in school and wasn’t missing much; moreover, with CMC the most interesting stuff is all in the first volume (Abbé Faria’s education of Dantès in prison, the escape, and the treasure island). I nonetheless enjoyed the full version (it had probably been a good 20 years since I last read it all the way through), especially the implausible but compelling intertwining of the lives of all Dantès’ enemies. Last time I think I picked up a little bit on the lesbian relationship between Eugénie Danglars and Louise d’Armilly; now it’s much more striking. Apparently this part of the story was glossed over in the English translation.

Although their relationship is considered scandalous, and Dumas mocks Eugénie’s lack of convention, ultimately I think one feels admiration and a certain sympathy for her. She is so strong-willed and independent; Albert would be miserable with her. When Benedetto, the con man to whom she was engaged, ends up in their room after all three of them have fled Paris–one of the few comic scenes in the whole book–the dissolution of her male disguise humiliates her, but she and Louise still make it to Brussels and move out of the book’s sphere. I guess that’s what I like about her: alone of all the characters, she resists Dumas’ Manichean narrative arc. She is her own person, neither fundamentally good nor bad.

Everyone else is pushed around the stage in a series of incredible coincidences, which makes the book feel like a hermetically-sealed environment, even though it spans multiple countries. Monte Cristo’s powers seem supernatural, so it was interesting to research the book’s references to Count Cagliostro and the Count of St-Germain.

Danglars wears a Breguet watch! How amazing–that product placement (or rather brand names used as a short cut to highlight a setting or a character) from 1844 still works. I was tempted to get an old cheap one on eBay, except there’s no such thing.

Not a great literary classic, but a great popular culture classic–very satisfying to me. I’m sure I’ll read it again someday.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J. K. Rowling, 2006

This is what I wrote just after finishing HP6:

I love the excitement and anticipation of a new Harry Potter book; I’ve gone to Barnes & Noble just for the midnight thrill (even though I buy my book through the library) for the last 3 volumes. Cracking a new one is like seeing old friends again. I sank into this one with pleasurable anticipation, which was mostly rewarded…but not entirely. As I’ve already seen some reviewers saying, Book 6 is so busy setting up for the finale that it’s weak on its own. One of Rowling’s strengths is normally the richness of the tapestry’s details; the minor characters, the specifics of spells the students are studying, the new creatures and methods…

That’s all I wrote back then, but I was basically going to say I found #6 too busy with narrative and not as enjoyable as the previous 5. Well, I’ve re-read it twice since it came out, and I think I was projecting my own headlong rush to gobble it down; it really holds up very well. I don’t think I wrote any notes on Deathly Hallows, but I loved it. What a satisfying end to the series. I’ll re-read them all in a year or two (unless I get sick enough to stay home for more than a day; the last time that happened, years ago, the pleasurable part was doing nothing but read Harry Potter for an extended period.)

A Treasure’s Trove: A Fairy Tale About Real Treasure for Parents and Children of All Ages – Michael Stadther, 2004

Low expectations can be good because it’s easy to exceed them. This book had so many strikes against it (self-published; gimmicky in the extreme; unclear on audience; badly drawn; full of grammatical mistakes) that I was surprised to find anything redeeming in it, but I did love the character Pook. He’s a doth (dog/moth), essentially the author’s cute white bulldog (visible in a photo) with blue and orange wings added. I think that’s why, although the other characters are wooden, Pook feels alive–Stadther is writing what he knows.

The most famous precursor to A Treasure’s Trove is Kit Williams’ Masquerade, which wasn’t a very good story either but at least had truly impressive illustrations. I like puzzles but this one felt very contrived, like it wasn’t following the classic rules. I used to fantasize about finding the Canadian Club whiskey cases that were hidden as part of a marketing campaign in the 70s–I was much too young to drink, but the search fascinated me (especially after seeing one that was hidden in Manhattan–more accessible than volcanoes and glaciers!) That yen for finding the hidden is still alive (hence the popularity of geocaching), but it’s got to feel possible. I’ve just been listening to the audio of Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, and his use of the distinction between puzzles and mysteries (originally by Gregory Treverton) comes to mind. Canadian Club was a puzzle; Treasure’s Trove was a mystery. Nonetheless all the gimcrack-looking jewels were found.

Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship

The title is so long that the author didn’t fit: it’s Christine Ann Lawson, 2000.

I read this book to better understand a situation in my own life, and although it was somewhat interesting, I didn’t find it particularly helpful. Perhaps the most useful bit was an explanation of why the women described can seem like normal parents to the vast majority of observers:

Emotional intensity, impulsivity, unpredictability, and fear of abandonment are symptoms observable primarily by those who have an intimate relationship with the borderline. Casual acquaintances, co-workers, or neighbors are less likely to witness the borderline’s sudden shifts in mood, self-destructive behavior, paranoid distortions, and obsessive ruminations.

Lawson categorizes women with borderline personality disorder into four categories: helpless waifs, frightened hermits, bossy queens, and vindictive witches. There’s a lot of
heavy-handed parallelism with Alice in Wonderland, and a mix between case histories and biographies (Charlotte Du Pont, Sylvia Plath, Mary Todd Lincoln).

That’s the extend of my notes (read in 2004, writing now in 2010)–but now there is a second situation where having more insight would be helpful, so I might try to borrow it again.

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman – Jon Krakauer, 2009

I love Krakauer and I’ll read anything he puts out; if this book hadn’t been by him I probably would have leafed through it, but not read every word. Although I preferred his other books as great narrative non-fiction, because Where Men Win Glory was easier to put down, I think it will linger longer in my mind (Under the Banner of Heaven does too, but for different reasons).

Of the many interesting people Krakauer has profiled, Pat Tillman is the first real hero. I didn’t know much about him before reading this book, and had made some fallacious assumptions based on the thumbnail description I’d read: NFL pro enlists after 9/11, is killed in Afghanistan, and the reason for his death is covered up. Krakauer promises that “the real Pat Tillman was much more remarkable, and considerably more complicated, than the fiction sold to the public,” and he delivers on that promise. Tillman was not flawless, but he was both admirable and grounded, traits Krakauer’s previous subjects haven’t had in combination.

Most people are content to “believe in” values or ideas without examining too closely whether they ought to take actions to live out those values or ideas. That wasn’t good enough for Tillman. I disagree with his conclusion that war can be necessary, and that Afghanistan after 9/11 was a place where it needed to be fought, but I respect his decision to act on what he believed–especially because he consistently challenged his own beliefs and those of others. I felt a kinship for Tillman growing as the book progressed; I would have loved to pick apart premises and implications with him, despite the macho side of his personality (his belief in honor reminded me of the Southern culture described in Gladwell’s Outliers). A friend of his (who later got him in touch with Noam Chomsky–they never got a chance to meet, alas) reports talking with him when he was deciding to join the army:

“Are you sure about this? Are you ready to serve under a president you don’t really support?” But he thought he owed it to the country to really do something after 9/11. I think he felt he could stay above the politics, somehow, and just do his duty as a patriot… With Pat, if his conscience told him he should do something, he did it, no excuses. He just made it happen as well as he possibly could.

Once enlisted, Tillman had serious doubts about the methods and goals of the military, but he felt committed to his decision. For the same reasons he’d abandoned a lucrative NFL contract and a comfortable life, he refused to participate in the propaganda machine. He knew his story would be catnip to the conservative movement, but he was not a part of it and did not want to give them fodder.

Krakauer goes into excruciating (to me, excessive) detail about the events leading to Tillman’s tragic death by friendly fire. There doesn’t appear to be anything nefarious about his demise–just a classic FUBAR situation of crossed signals, hasty decisions, pressure from supervisors to meet artificial benchmarks, and sheer bad luck. But the original cover-up was motivated by propaganda at the highest level, and as each investigation results in another cover-up, it becomes unbearably disgusting. If it were not for the dogged persistence of Pat’s mother, and the light his celebrity could bring to bear, the truth would never have come out.

On the form where soldiers discuss their funeral preferences before deploying, Tillman specifically said “I do not want the military to have any direct involvement with my funeral.” Despite the detailed picture Krakauer draws of his personality over hundreds of pages, it was a pleasant shock to discover near the end of the book that Tillman was a nonbeliever:

During his time on earth, he wrote in his journal while serving in Iraq, he wanted to “do good, influence lives, show truth and right.” He believed it was important to “have faith in oneself” and to aspire to “a general goodness free of religious pretensions…I think I understand that religious faith with makes the holy brave and strong; my strength is just somewhere else–it’s in myself…I do not fear what awaits me, though I’m equally confident that nothing awaits.”

Disbelief in an afterlife is so rare in the US that before Krakauer specifically discussed it, it wouldn’t have occured to me that Tillman and I shared that as well; an officer charged with one of the investigations, Lt. Colonel Kauzlarich, had the gall to say that the Tillmans would “never be satisfied” with the outcome because they were not Christians. Frequently I feel regret that someone can’t see how much people love them as demonstrated after they die (Alex Chilton most recently). But I’m glad Tillman cannot know the tragic way his life ended, and worse, be tormented by the way his convictions and motivations were betrayed by the unworthy institution for which he sacrificed himself. Rest in peace, Pat.

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual – Michael Pollan, 2009

I normally frown on short essays published as overpriced books, and $11 is a little steep for what could easily have been a complete New York Times Magazine story (instead of the extract they ran). But the format might really make more people take these rules seriously—and that could improve, even save, countless lives. The 64 rules are mostly common sense, expressed in a sticky way (#19: “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”) I didn’t learn anything new, but I enjoyed it, and felt motivated to continue on the path I’ve been trying to walk for a few years (for example, avoiding anything with HFCs). As with self-help books, reading something I know again, especially if it’s expressed in a pithy or novel way, can be tremendously helpful. I especially liked #39, “Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself,” which is an idea I’d sort of stumbled on. The book is a nice size, attractively designed, and not at all intimidating; may it be a huge success!

Grumbles from the Grave – Robert Heinlein (ed. by Virginia Heinlein), 1989.

Heinlein is one of my perennial re-reads, in the “I know some of his writing has huge flaws but I still love his books” category—along with Dornford Yates and Frances Hodgson Burnett. I have everything he wrote and recently went on a Heinlein juvenile kick, but after reading this collection of letters and miscellanea for only the second time, I’m going to get rid of it. There are a few interesting insights, but mostly his letters are dull and Ginny’s additions are not well-written (the grammar is fine, but there’s no felicity to the sentences, and the sequence and emphasis seem strange). Most revelatory to me was that Heinlein’s method of work was to write until he could hear the characters talking, and then he would just let them unfold the tale. This partially explains to me why his later books are so terrible: the characters tend to all sound the same, exactly like him, so of course they have no new places to take him. That’s not entirely true—Job: A Comedy of Justice was something of a departure—but it does explain The Number of the Beast, in which what is really a good story is bogged down by the pill-ish, wooden quartet of Bob/Ginny clones, of whose company one quickly becomes heartily sick.

Drunkard: A Hard-Drinking Life, Neil Steinberg – 2009

I picked this up, based the title, from new books coming through processing at the library. I was shocked to see Steinberg’s name on the cover. I know him as the author of my favorite humorous essay book of all time, Complete and Utter Failure, and of others I enjoyed: If At All Possible, Involve a Cow and Don’t Give Up the Ship. In my inner world, he’s a friend and a peer, and discovering his alcoholism gave me a pang. I was misled by one of the blurbs on the back, which says “‘Hysterically funny.’ – New York Post” (adjectives in the other blurbs include wistful, clear-eyed, and elegant)—that must have been a description of Steinberg’s writing as a whole, not this book. It’s not funny at all, even though it ends well. Steinberg has recovered, and not only does his marriage to Edie survive, but his struggle with the concept of a higher power in AA resolves when he realizes that she, Edie, is his Higher Power. But the compelling way in which Steinberg shares his compulsion with the reader is deeply sad.

Why am I, like many others, so drawn to memoirs of addiction? Partly because we can tell ourselves “I may feel bad about things I do or leave undone, but it could be much much worse.” Partly because it’s inspiring to see human beings survive and resurrect themselves from such dark abysses. Partly because the struggles depicted are the common lot of humanity, writ larger. When I surf the web instead of writing, I wonder why I make that choice; does Steinberg’s inability to stop drinking once he’d started come from the same source? I think perhaps it does.

When facing the prospect of stopping, Steinberg worried that drinking was part of his smart-alecky, cynical observer personality, and that he’d become less funny and interesting. That personality, which came through strongly in his earlier books, is certainly compatible with drinking, but it’s not a causal relationship. Steinberg also built his identity as a hard-drinking writer (led on by his role models at the Chicago Tribune), but believing that fallacy doesn’t feel congruent with the ironic distance of his writing persona. In today’s world, when I hear about writers who think drinking is an important part of creativity, I’m astonished that they swallowed that particular idea (I feel the same way about intelligent young people who smoke). How could Steinberg mock the received wisdom of his middle-class upbringing, and simultaneously rush to adopt the received wisdom of the Fitzgerald/Hemingway school?

I love the final paragraph:

In the final analysis, I don’t drink because I don’t want to be compelled to think about drinking all the time. That’s no way to live. I persuaded myself that I was tired of it, that it was boring, and the world too varied and rich to remain obsessed with as narrow a thing as alcohol. You can’t imagine the delight of having the urge fade—the absence itself is a powerful motivation not to drink. To not have the obsession hit you in the face each morning when you open your eyes. To have other things occupy your mind. A joy. What madman would wake the beast by pouring booze on it again? No me. Not today.

Good for you, Neil, and thanks for the thought-provoking book.