What I’ve been reading

1. Charles Clover, Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism.  Lots of detail, not just the usual BS, scary too.  Too much detail, too scary, thus a good book.

2. Christopher Goscha, The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam.  The best general history of Vietnam I know, and it does not obsess over “the Vietnam War.”  Readable and instructive on pretty much every page.

3. Adolfo Bioy Cesares, La invención de Morel.  One of the better short Spanish-language novels, ever.  I’ve already started my reread.  Borges, Cortázar, Carpentier, and García Márquez all expressed their admiration for it.  Imagine a mysterious island that becomes more rather than less strange as the story develops, and characters start to wonder if they are living inside a simulation.

4. Samuel Arbesman, Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension.  I was very happy to blurb this book: “Why can’t we understand technology anymore? In this consistently entertaining and insightful book, Arbesman offers a necessary guide to where we are headed and why everything seems so strange along the way.”  Here are a variety of positive reviews.

5. Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai.  First published in 2000 to strong critical acclaim, the publisher ended up going bankrupt and this more or less fell off the map, until its recent reissue.  If I count it as a new edition, it is my favorite fiction book of the year so far.  I don’t think all parts of the novel work equally well, but the best parts are superb and most of all it is a book written for smart people.  Even before finishing, I went and ordered everything else she has done.  That is not a lot, but I hear through the grapevine she has a good deal of writing in the works.  Here is the lead Amazon review on Samurai:

This book is joyful and thrilling. The intimate and familiar story of a single mother struggling to raise a young son is made original and even epic by the sheer elasticity and power of author Helen DeWitt’s imagination. Mother and Son, Sybilla and Ludo, both possessed of gifted and versatile minds, are obsessed with the Kurosawa classic, The Seven Samurai (a film I always felt forced to appreciate until I read this book). Syb uses the film to provide the male role models the boy doesn’t have in his life, and Ludo uses it to develop his own version of a Samurai test with which he plans to find the best father possible for himself. Armed with the refrain that ‘a good samurai will parry the blow’ he sets out to test and win over men of samurai mettle who might recognize his merits. The true joy of reading the book comes in the fact that even though mother and son are both geniuses, multi lingual and well versed in history, literature, math and sciences, their pursuits in learning and discovery seem exciting and comprehensible. What at first description might sound intellectually intimidating (Ancient Greek, Old Norse, Ptolemaic Alexandria, Fourier Analysis and a blow by blow with variations on the theme of the Rosetta Stone) are made accessible and often hilarious by the dazzling ingenuity and finesse of the wonderful Dewitt. Reading it made me feel I had suddenly come across a vast unrealized potential in myself for the power of creative thought and the ability to comprehend complex ideas. All this disguised in a book of fabulous adventure and tremendous longing.

Here is her superb short LRB piece on being stalked.  Here is one earlier and somewhat explicit profile of Dewitt, here is her response: “If you don’t see the dead books, turning down a $525,000 deal looks strange.”  Here is a very good New York profile.


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