Recent Reads

by F.

The Assassin’s Cloak. My mom gave me this book a few Christmases ago. I think she said it was on the bargain books table at the local state university’s bookstore. I didn’t read it immediately but held onto it, mainly because it’s a compilation of diary entries (inherently interesting, in my view) and because it had good blurbs. Here’s one way to use it: it’s organized by date, so go to the current date and read what someone else was doing, thinking, saying on the same day 50, 100, 200 years ago. You will be struck, I think, at how similar human beings are to one another. Example for today: “1920. Little doing. I went to the baths but found the water dirty and full of the most dreadful greasy-haired cads.” That’s Evelyn Waugh. Short biographies (of everyone from Eugene O’Neill to Brian Cox to Joseph Goebbels to Brian Eno) are in the back.

The Way Things Work. I finally bought this (used—I bought the older edition). It’s excellent, though sometimes the illustration get in the way of the explanations. Still, this is a wonderful book. Reminds me of my two favorite childhood books. (The Question and Answer Book of Everyday Science and The World We Live In, both ridiculously out of date, of course.)

A Collection of Essays. Orwell is so wonderful. Oddly, I found Shooting an Elephant and Politics and the English Language among my least favorite of the pieces collected here (maybe because I’d already read them). My favorite? Such, Such Were the Joys… It explains so much about Orwell’s views. His piece on Dickens is, to me, more insightful than 99.9% of literary criticism. Orwell is a wonderful antidote to ideological poisoning. Ideas, not ideology, I say.

The School Bag. This is a poetry anthology by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. By far the best poetry anthology around, at least for English poetry (including Scots Gaelic and many great Irish poems.) That’s not just my view; that seems to be the consensus among the “experts.” Prepare to be awed by the flow from one theme to another. There are no chapters, no sections, no divisions of any kind. And yet, you can read it cover to cover as the poems modulate through the thematic keys of life—birth, death, love, war, nature, and so on. Beautiful. And don’t worry about finishing it, because when you do, there’s a sequel: The Rattle Bag.

Another Day of Life. Starts well, but I didn’t finish. Kapuscinksi’s prose is too terse to hold my interest. Bits of it reminded me of Dispatches (which I think is a masterpiece), but then it sort of goes nowhere. Great stories, though, if you like squalid tales of the developing world (I imagine this is the sort of thing Conrad would have written in 1975—with far more style, of course). Overall impression: so little has changed in Africa. (Kapuscinski was in Angola in 1975. Compare his account with, say, Darfur or Somalia or Congo today. So sad.)

The Atlas of the Classical World. Nice book, targeted at grades 4-7. Nice illustrations. I’m enjoying it thoroughly.

The Great Atlas of Discovery. Another picture book. Excellent. Nice design. Seems to be out of print but used copies are everywhere. Kids books sure have improved since I was a kid.

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