Booknotes

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Today, I’ll just give a little here’s-what-I’m-reading-and-why-I-like-or-dislike-it-heretofore.

The End, by Hans Erich Nossack.

This book is about total loss. What does it mean to lose everything you own, your hometown, most of the people you know? Nossack was a citizen of Hamburg when it was obliterated by the Allies in WWII. And by obliterated, I mean it in the most literal since–there were few buildings left, people left dead all over the place. It is, I must confess, hard to feel sympathy for Nossack on some level, considering what the Germans were doing to the rest of Europe and to the Jews during WWII. (The ever present question of were there any good Germans during the holocaust keeps popping into my mind.) This is a short book. I’m only thirty pages in and am half-way through (I think it was originally an essay written in 1943 or 4, but has only now been translated into English and put in book form). Nossack, though, isn’t writing a political statement about war, which is maybe why this book is so moving. He is simply writing about the catastrophic losses of the citizens of Hamburg. And his point, so far, is that there comes a point when there is actually nothing to say that will make any of this make sense. The pain and loss are so complete, Nossack’s writing is somewhat surreal, for that’s the only way to describe what happened to them. One of my favorite paragraphs in the book so far:

“The moment we received the news [that he and his wife had lost everything they own], we became refugees. So it made no difference that chance had allowed us to escape a few days before the catastrophe [they’d gone on a vacation about ten miles out of the city]. Whether we wanted to or not, we were drawn to our kind and even felt shy with the others. The refugess, by the way, were all very simple people, but no one took notice of such things; our common fate made us equal. Nor did anyone talk about having lost more than another, at least not during the first days. We weren’t weighing and judging yet, the irreplaceable was at issue; for whatever can be expressed in numbers can be replaced. But a unique work of art or a faded photograph or an old doll from one’s childhood, what does all that have to do with numbers? These things have their life from us, because at some time we bestowed our affection on them; they absorbed our warmth and harbored it gratefully in order to enrich us with it again in meager hours. We were responsible for them; they could only die with us. And now they stood on the other side of the abyss in the fire and cried after us, begging: Don’t leave us!”

The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson.

I’m a book snob. I don’t buy paperbacks. I like to buy first printings of books when possible. I spend hours in used book stores looking for specific printings of books because no other edition will do. And for years, I didn’t read Science Fiction because I thought of it as “lesser” works of fiction, for whatever reason. Actually, I think it was the Harry Potter series that got me interested in works of fantasy, and I’ve slowly begun to read some Science Fiction and Fantasy books. A few weeks ago I read China Mielville’s Perdido Street Station and can’t wait to read another of his books. I was told by a friend in the Sci Fi world that Stephenson was kind of a cult hero, so I found a nice Hardback, first printing (perfect dust jacket, by the way) at a friends of the library sale and snatched it up for $2 US. I’m not very far into it. I’ll go ahead and admit that it’s not nearly as good as the Mielville book. There is a lot of dialogue that, frankly, is like listening to, well, no, it’s like listening to someone in their 30’s imitate teenagers smooth style of talking. That aside, this is interesting just because it takes such creativity to imagine the world in such a completely different way. This is futuristic but in the very near future. There are robots aplety and, of course, the world has rearranged itself into some different political structure that I haven’t quite grasped yet. It’s fun. It’s quick. I’ve been let down so far, but only because Stephenson was supposed to be the man in Sci Fi. This is one of his early books, so maybe it’s not a good sample of his work. I expect it will pick up once I get a little further into it and begin to understand the complexity of the world he’s trying to create.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson.

I’d never read the first word by Bryson until I picked up this book (discount bin at Books-a-Million, $4.99, 1st Edition, 1st Printing, perfect condition). Bryson takes on the world of science, and holy cow is he funny. The premise of the book is that Bryson knows nothing about science but wants to, so starts doing some research and asking scientist to please explain a few things, like carbon-dating and super-string theory, and then he distills it down in such a way to make it both entertaining and informative. I’m just about finished with it, and I would without hesitation urge you to go to your nearest book dealer and look in the discount bin for it.

9/11 Commission Report

This is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever read. The first chapter, well, I wasn’t prepared to read it. It gives a minute by minute account of the hijackings. It kept me awake. I’m half way through the book right now. It is very well written and I think is worth anyone’s time to read it. It’s longish, but worth it. It is definitely giving me insights into the world of intelligence, and a) how huge and difficult their job is, and b) how just a handful of selfish, putting-my-career-advancement-before-sharing-valuable-information-with-someone-else-who-might-get-credit-for-it. “The Commission” does a wonderful job of making this book very accessible for those who weren’t familiar with the interworkings of the intelligence world or terrorist groups. It is scarey to think of people like Bin Laden who hate America for whatever reasons, but it should also, in my dream world, make us all think about what we can do to make the world a better place for everyone. The last half of my sentence might seem a little wierd and as though it doesn’t go with the first half of the sentence, and maybe it doesn’t. But I think this book (or report, or whatever you want to call it) does call for some responsibility by Americans to understand the world around them much better than we do, to understand that not everyone thinks the same way we do, and that there may be something we can do (beyond just defending ourselves [which, I hope we do a much better job of in the future]) that can make the world a more peaceful place.

The End.

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7 Responses to “Booknotes”

  1. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Is there a review of Perdido Street Station in our future? I was looking forward to that one.

  2. Michael Lasley Says:

    Yes. I hope. I’ve started to review it a couple of times, but it’s one of those things I’m not sure where to start on. Plus, I want to finish reading that interview with him in “The Believer” to see if that’ll give me some insight into his writing.

    Mikey

  3. DeJon Redd Says:

    I’ve avoided the 9/11 report for fear of the typical political legalese. I opted for 102 Minutes. Written by to NYT’s reporters from the perspective of those inside the towers. A second-by-second replay of each moment from just before the first impact to the second collapse. The 365 people followed in the book could require a diagram, but isn’t as difficult as it sounds.

    I really appreciate the feedback on the commission’s report!

  4. tyra Says:

    far as i can tell, stephenson’s “the man” entirely because of his worldbuilding. i’ve read diamond age and maybe one other one, and remember little about the writing itself–meaning it certainly didn’t reach out and grab me–and not a lot about the plots of the story, which seemed sort of twisted sometimes into deliberate futility, but i remember a LOT about the richness of the world he constructed, so many layered possibilities that all contributed to the possibile-ness of one another.

    so maybe if that were what you were going in expecting, you’d be less disappointed?

    p.s. hi, mikey!!!

  5. Michael Lasley Says:

    Dejon, I just got to the part in the 9/11 report where they deal with what went on in the towers during the brief time they stood. It was more disturbing, emotionally, than the hijacking section. I’ve picked up 102 Minutes a couple of times in the bookstore but haven’t bought it yet. I’ll give it a more thorough thumbing through next time.

  6. DeJon Redd Says:

    Risking overload, I picked up the Report’s audio book for a road trip from Tucson to DC this week. Maybe I’ll be able to throw out a two cent comparison.

  7. Michael Lasley Says:

    I look forward to it, Dejon. I’d also be interested in hearing your take on the report, since you know a lot more about the intelligence community and the roles of the different agencies. That part was very informative to me, but I was almost completely ignorant of this stuff. And also the history of Bin Laden. I didn’t know any of that, to speak of, either. Anyway, I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Mikey

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