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.


Thanks for the pointer to the Morel novel. Also, thanks for your previous pointer to Yuri Herrera's novella "Signs preceding the end of the world". (As an aside, the translator's note at the end of the novella was very much worth reading too.)

'and it does not obsess over “the Vietnam War.”'

Well, that is good to know, seeing as how during the 20th century the Vietnamese resisted the French, then fought the Japanese, the French, the Americans, the Cambodians, and the Chinese. On the other hand, one does expect it does go into sufficient detail about Vietnam's numerous, and fairly continuous over decades, wars.

Why does the original post mention Penguin but the link shows the book's publisher is Basic Books? Or maybe I misread this somehow...

I bought a UK edition in London a while back but gave you the USA Amazon link...

Note the cavalier responses to Helen DeWitt's stalker story (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n16/helen-dewitt/diary) in the comments: the readers advocate using a gun or wasp spray to spray the stalker in the face. This is a typical low-IQ country folk remedy. Tactically it's effective but strategically it's useless, unless you want to live in a fortress or be watching your back 24/7. However, a lot of crazy or reckless, not-law-abiding folk who trespass on your property live in the country, even here in Greece (I have a family that just takes over property we have, including outdoor sheds, for their own use; their attitude is 'just sue us'), so the best solution is 'tactical' if you wish to live in the country, but you need a large family to back you up. Henry David Thoreau style living doesn't cut it anymore, sadly, as the countryside is infected with these type nut cases.

#3: postmodern fiction in Spanish, quite a surprise Prof. Cowen. Is there simmilarity among, Bioy, Borges and Strauss?

They are all overrated? Their works are all self-recommending? I pretend to care about them all? None of them came from a country that won five World Cups?

2. Not sure what everlasting (positive) impression the Americans made on the Vietnamese, but fortunately the French made an everlasting impression on the cuisine - made with delicate "soooses". Now that Vietnam is next in line of low cost countries to which American firms can shift production (now that China has become a competitor rather than a collaborator), we can expect to hear and read a lot more about our friends in Vietnam.

Not much tempted, except perhaps by the girl who can make Fourier funny. Is she sound on the FFT?

Happy to see you praise The Last Samurai. It is one of my favorite books.

"it is a book written for smart people"

It's a book that thinks of itself as written for smart people. In reality, it's unbearably frivolous.

" Here is one earlier and somewhat explicit profile of Dewitt, here is her response:"

I read that. She comes off sounding somewhat nutty. The post is rambling and she talks about killing herself.

"I've given a lot of interviews lately; this was the first where I made a serious attempt to get the interviewer to understand why there is a genuine risk of suicide if too much work is disrupted and destroyed."

"And if you have an actual living author sitting across the table from you in the Tik Tok diner, the chance that the body might have been at the bottom of a cliff in 2010 looks negligible.

But this is stupid. This is the behaviour of an addict. I should do a programming course and think of other things."

I agree. She doesn't seem quite right in the head. Her behavior in the stalking case is quite strange: why couldn't she write somewhere else? Why not sell the property? She makes the whole story about 'equality under the law', as if she has never heard of female stalkers of celebrities. The same types otherwise rave about our 'prison culture' and 'broken penal system', but when her own safety is at stake, she wants the guy locked up for as long as possible. Her stalking experience is not that horrible compared to other cases I've heard.

If you ever want to learn how NOT to behave in a stalking situation, you literally couldn't do better than the LRB piece shown here.

And after all those years, the guy finally gets arrested.... and she writes a sympathetic statement to the court that actually gets his sentence reduced. Unreal.

The Last Samurai: "a book written for smart people" << is there an age less appropriate? Is it as good for a high school student? College? Recent grad? Parent with young kids, parent with teens?

I feel I read some classics in Jr. High, and that was too young, but I don't quite want to go back and read them again. I have college sons -- would this be good for them?

Lightning Rods -- too semi-porno / unreal just on the premise (perhaps too close to some porno fantasies?).

Casares is great fun. The "next step" in that direction is Macedonio Fernandez: "The Museum of Eterna's Novel"

Michael Totten visited & wrote about Vietnam a couple years ago. They are likely to become strong American allies as China chooses to become more of an enemy, possibly continuing the Chines route of "crony-capitalist market Communism" that supports huge economic growth. Around 90 million, up from 40 million near 1970.

Will be a very interesting country for the next few decades.

I highly recommend reading that Observer profile. Who knew suicide could be so funny?

https://www.amazon.com/Black-Wind-White-Snow-Nationalism: Trolling the Russki fearers & Putin haters

RUS: a middling Euro backwater

..with nukes


->Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai

But did you finish it, reviewer?
If it's any good (and the first page certainly is) I will
finish it. But TC? What's a Bayesian to think?

And this, gentle souls, is data, that, along with that Lopez fellow up above tells you everything you need to know about the modern Republican. (Tyler Cowen is a Koch financed hard line Republican).

So I finished it today. It is raucously funny in exactly the same way that a certain dictionary review taught me the word "snoot". Which was also tremendously funny. If you have command enough of the English Language, American "style".

I wonder if Tyler Cowen understands why Ludo (gently) encourages his mother to commit suicide while deterring others.

Tyler is a superficial speed reader. It never occurred to him.

Funny how a Koch funded University Place Holder would misinterpret great works of literature. It's all about the photos folks!

Also admired by Robbe-Grillet (the Bioy CAsares novel)

The Bioy Casares is a great book despite its translation into English.

Some very curious choices and excisions have been found in the translation (by me!): http://anagrammatically.com/2011/09/18/the-invention-of-morel-redacted/

Scroll down a little to see specific examples of curious excisions.

Oh, and Tyler, you've misspelt Bioy Casares' name in your post.

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