‘True at First Light’ by Ernest Hemingway
Not really a classic but the last novel by a classic writer. I picked this one up second hand years ago and had it sitting around. He did not finish it entirely in his lifetime, but was edited and published by his son (I think). Set in Africa around Kilimanjaro, it covers some pretty typical Hem territory: hunting, women, swilling gin. Him and his wife are hunting a big lion.
Easily readable and managed to hold my interest but like much of his writing, suffers from undeveloped characters and not much going on beyond the plot. It’s more like a fictionalized safari journal. Which isn’t surprising, given much of it really was gleaned from his journals.
‘The Plague’ by Albert Camus
A plague strikes a small town in North Africa. The novel explores the warning signs, the isolation of quarentine, the madness and suffering, existential and humanist themes of compassion and choice. Easily readable, interesting themes and plot development but not great.
‘Redburn’ by Herman Melville
Melville’s canonized ‘Moby Dick’ is a masterpiece novel, so I’ll try pretty much anything else he wrote. This book was interesting in a ‘boys tale’ sort of way. Set in New York, Liverpool and the Atlantic ocean, this story follows a young sailor on his first trip across the Atlantic.
A good sea-faring yarn and the descriptions of his time in Liverpool are interesting from a historical angle. The story hinges on plot alone and is basically devoid of theme or character development. Entertaining for Melville fanactics or if you’re into sea-voyaging adventure tales.
‘A Farewell to Arms’ by Ernest Hemingway
An American soldier fighting for the Italians during WWI starts a relationship with a British nurse. The depictions of the chaos and comradeship on the front lines, especially the madness of the retreat, are interesting points. But the ‘love story’ is, in typical Hemingway fashion, one-dimensional. The criticism that he doesn’t write women well is valid. It’s pretty much a war/adventure story with a lousy attempt at romance thrown in.
‘I, Claudius’ 7/10 &
‘Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina’ 6/10 by Robert Graves
Both books are set in Imperial Rome. The first book is highly regarded as a classic and is definitely the better of the two. Graves draws on factual historical accounts to create a lively novel detailing the life of Claudius. It is full of scandal and intrigue, detailing poisonings, assinations, double-crossing, corruption, wanton decadence and general power plots within the ruling family. Claudius is a gripping character and Graves does well in revealing the difference between his public persona (prior to his rule) and his actual personality, a difference which allowed him to become what had seemed an unlikely ruler.
The second novel follows on with his actual rule as Emperor of Rome. The style of writing remains much the same with good plot continuity, but I found this book not as interesting as the first one and can’t put my finger on why. It just wasn’t as good.
‘Post Office’ by Charles Bukowski
Based on his own life, the book is a first-person account from a nonchalant postal worker about the mundane days spent working in an L.A. post office and his alcoholic after-hours activities.
There are some funny scenes around the absurdity of routine work and lifeless power-tripping supervisors, but the book drones on into repitition of such devices and doesn’t progress much in plot, characters or theme. It’s very easy reading though and entertaining enough to be an enjoyable read.
‘The Cruise of the Snark’ by Jack London
Memoirs about how Jack London built a boat and sailed it across the pacific. He designed and built the boat himself and was beset by many budget and construction problems that would rear their heads on the journey.
I particularly enjoyed the chapters where he stopped in Hawaii and Tahiti, and the difficult ocean journey between the two. An interesting account of Polynesia before major colonization and tourist corruption. Some riotous tales in the Solomon Islands. A good read if you’re interested in adventure / sea-faring stories. Found myself getting slightly bored with it towards the end, e.g. the medical details of life in the tropics.
‘A Memory of Light’ by Brandon Sanderson
The final installment of the truly epic ‘Wheel of Time’ series. I started reading the series at around 14 years old and began tiring of it in the later books, but Brandon Sanderson did a good job of wrapping it up and finishing it off. The final book finishes the epic in truly epic style – with an epic final battle, ‘the Last Battle’ that the whole series had been gravitating towards. Fantasy pulp but good fantasy pulp.
‘Why We Write’ by Meredith Maran
20 ‘acclaimed’ (i.e. best-selling) authors discuss the why and how of their writing. Some good bits of info and plenty of conflicting ideas. Worth a read if you’re interested in writing for a hobby or profession.
‘All Things Shining’ by Dreyfus & Hubert
This book popped up in a Melville journal. (Yes, there’s a Melville-studies journal, and yes, I’m enough of a Melville fanatic to read it). So I mostly picked up this book because it has a chapter called ‘Melville’s Dark Art’. I ended up reading the whole book.
It’s written by two philosophy professors who draw on the canon of Western Lit. – from Homer to Dante to David Foster Wallace – to make a crappy argument about how to counter modern nihilism and form a new spirituality, which turns out to be more like rehashing age-old spiritualities. I found the parts where the authors make their own arguments pretentious and confusing in a way only philosophers know how.
However, I really enjoyed the chapters that drew on and elaborated themes from literature, particularly DFW’s nihilism (I think they totally misunderstood him and failed to see his deep humanity and compassion), Melville’s Dark Art and the one on Homer’s gods. Worth a read if you’re into classic literature or using literary themes to create and/or find meaning in modern life.
‘Philosophy: 100 Essential Thinkers’ edited by Phillip Stoke
Rapid-fire overview of 100 thinkers. Not all classify strictly as philosophers. Easy to read and progressive, linear ordering lends itself to reading as a book. Being general and brief, it’s pretty basic coverage of each thinker. Generally a good ‘snap-shot’ but also think some of them were off-the-mark of the person’s main thoughts/ideas (e.g. Hegel).
‘Starting with Wittgenstein’ by Chon Tejedor
Hard to rate as nearly any text on Wittgenstein is going to be heavy going. Dense and very involved reading, certainly not something for lazy pleasure. However, Tejedor does well at breaking notoriously complicated philosophy into (semi)understandable language. Very clearly and systematically lays out Wittgenstein’s central thoughts (as far as I understand them, i.e. not a lot). Would only recommend to anyone who already has an interest in his work.
‘Introducing Wittgenstein’ by John Heaton
Illustrated comic-book style overview of his life and thoughts. Also does well at breaking his thoughts down into even simpler (than Tejedor’s) chunks. Good synthesis of Wittgenstein’s life and thought, as the two are surprisingly and almost necessarily related. The book does well at pointing out the spiritual nature of much of his work, which others seem to overlook, mistakenly seeing him as a purely materialist logician (which I think Tejedor does to some extent).
(See Ray Monk’s bio “Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius” for a thorough coverage of his life & work… if you’re mad enough.)
‘Maori Sovereignty’ by Donna Awatere
A history of the Māori protest movement with background on Māori culture and the effects of colonization. Definitely pulls no punches when pointing out the wrongs inflicted on Māori by the colonizing forces and Western culture. Strong argument for why the Treaty has not only been dishonoured but a sham in the first place. Many people (especially Pākehā) may be offended by this book. I found it a fascinating and insightful window into a view that is often silent in mainstream media or society.
‘The Old, Weird America’ by Greil Marcus
The whole book is centred around Bob Dylan and the Band’s esoteric ‘Basement Tapes’, put into the context of old-time mountain music and American vaudeville. It goes into detail of some mountain musicians such as Doc Boggs and more generally Harry Smith’s ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’. I think some of the connections are stretched a bit thin, but interesting and a must read for any Dylan/Band obsessives. Or even old, weird American Folk fans.
‘This Wheel’s on Fire’ by Levon Helm
A mixture of Helm’s biography and that of the Band itself. I really enjoyed the opening chapters describing his childhood and early life down on the farm. The story of the band is interesting in places, especially some of the material on Richard Manuel and the hi-jinks they all got up to on the road. Unfortunately, it’s drawn out in places and often gets swept up in being little more than a ‘we did this, and then we went there, and then we did this’ kind of recounting of events and places. Less would have been more here. The parts involving Bob Dylan portray him as a mystical figure shrouded in secrecy. Levon really rips on Robbie Robertson towards the end, very bitter about the break-up of the band and Robbie’s involvement in it all. Generally has a folksy, down-home vibe to the narrative style which makes it easily readable but a gets kitschy.
‘The Continual Condition’ by Charles Bukowski
Definitely readable and enjoyable but far from his best poetry. Bordering on unremarkable. (Check out ‘Pleasures of the Damned’ or ‘Betting on the Muse’ for some of his better collections).
‘Doubtless’ by Sam Hunt
A mixed bag, some great poems and some real snorers in here. His style and content gets repetitive at times.
‘The Story of a Nobody’ by Anton Chekhov
Set in nineteenth century Russia. Very short (around 100 pages) novella, bordering on short-story. A wealthy bureaucrat acting as a spy, takes a job as a servant in another bureaucrat’s household. His observations form a scathing satire and attack on his own class.
‘Dead Souls’ by Nikolai Gogol
Also set in nineteenth century Russia, this bizarre story involves a stranger turning up in the provinces who goes around buying up the deeds to the souls of dead serfs. It’s apparently some kind of spoof. I found it entertaining and funny at times, but mostly odd and often difficult to follow. Possibly due to translation and the difference in time & culture.
Spirituality / Buddha / Psychology
‘An Introduction to Zen Buddhism’ by D. T. Suzuki
Great introduction and background to Zen Buddhism. It builds slowly at the beginning but got more interesting as it went along, applying the earlier material to Zen practice. Zen obviously isn’t conducive to writing about, but this manages to give a good synopsis. I was highly entertained by some of the masters’ teachings, reactions and instructions to their pupils.
‘Dhammapada: Annotated & Explained’ by Jack Maguire
The actual sayings of the Buddha are great, but probably better without the annotations. They are absurdly simple and repetitive in places, to the point of being distracting, redundant filler material.
‘Man and His Symbols’ by Carl Jung
At times heavy going. A text on symbolism and the unconscious. Fascinating in places, particularly some of the ‘case studies’ describing the dreams of patients and explanations of the perceived symbolism. In other places I thought it seemed like an elaborate joke, like the whole section devoted to the historical symbolism of rocks. Yes, rocks!