Book Review

Books I Read in 2019

February 18, 2020

Books I read in 2019

In 2019, I learned that everyone falls in love with the daughter of the shoemaker, even if they fear her a bit, and that the technological advancement depends of a civilization on its ability to control microdimensions. I learned what automobiles the members of Pink Floyd drove and the English houses in which they lived, circa 1968.

Also, from the books I've read last year, I learned that people who bond in youth can stay friends in the ensuing decades of adulthood, even as they are driven apart; That music is shaped a great deal by where it is played; and that the Beastie Boys really were in the center of things during the birth of Hip-Hop in the early 1980s New York.

None of these books were actually published last year. I just read them last year. The nice thing about having one's own personal blog is that nothing is too old, or too obscure, to be newsworthy there.

"The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #1)"
by Liu Cixin (2008)
Despite this book's wide acclaim in China (evidently), "The Three-Body Problem" is a hot mess. Maybe it was the (author's self-)translation, but the overall structure is problematic as well. The first two-thirds of the book are given over to elaborate scenes that play only a marginal backstory in ensuing developments, while a middle section that gives up on dramatic recreation almost altogether, with the narrator just explaining what would take place in such a book as this one. Perhaps Lie should have started there,though, because the at least this approach is a lot clearer. So many of the mysteries "The Three-Body Problem" initially presents to the user are off-handedly explained away later on.

In "The Three-Body Problem," a supposedly superior alien species is on its way to take over the earth. Its own three-sun solar system has grown increasing inhabitable, due to the lack of a predictible schedule for when some, all, or none of suns would appear on any given day. This chaotic system could bring unbearable heat, or unlivable coldness, with only a moment's notice.

With all the backstory snippets finally out of the way, the action starts happening as those back on earth who are in the know (thanks in part to a planted computer game called "The Three-Body Problem") break into factions and quibble over the best way to greet these newcomers, knowing that they regard the puny humans as mere "bugs." By this point, the narrative is so jilted it's hard to care about any of the characters, or how they die. There's some nice speculation about how how things look in a varying number of dimensions. But you'll have to read in the following two volumes what happens when the alien creatures arrive, because I can't be bothered.

I love this quote though: "In the universe, an important mark of a civilization's technological advancement is its ability to control and make use of micro-dimensions."

"Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd"
by Mark Blake (2008)
Some interesting tidbits here on the dissolution of founder Syd Barrett -- who just wasn't cut out for the mundanity of pop star life -- but the true tragedy was how the growing ego of Roger Waters came to dominate, and then destroy, his band, aided by the growing disinterest of the other members, suffering from boredom just as they found a worldwide audience.

In the late 1970s, the band Pink Floyd kept its image amazingly pristine, releasing an album only every few years (giving regular listeners a chance to catch up on the last one, and to let the next one to sink in) and generally staying away from the spotlight. Out of step with the day's fashion, and yet ahead of its time, Floyd was the very definition of certain sort of laid back, almost anonymous, cool.

So reading this book, it as surprising how chaotic things were behind the scenes, with the band vacillating between boredom and an increasing apathy towards member Roger Waters' grand visions of what the next album would be. They eventually splintered into two sperate entities, with Rog going solo and the rest continuing under the Pink Floyd name, neither entity quite as enjoyable as what they did together previously, even as they were falling apart.

The best parts of this rockbio cover their early career in the late 1960s, back when the Floyd were hip enough to have their whereabouts, girlfriends, houses and even cars documented by the British tabloids. Roger Waters owned a Jaguar until his class guilt caught up to him and he traded it in for a more workman-like Austin Mini. Drummer Nick Mason, had no such qualms, and splurged for a handmade Lotus, one of several sports car parked out front of his Candem home.

"How Music Works"
by David Byrne (2017)
David Byrne, leader of the famous new wave band the Talking Heads, goes beyond the typical rock star autobiography and offers a surprisingly set of cogent thoughts about how music interacts with the culture around it. For Byrne, music is not an abstract entity built entirely on some platonic ideals of the beautiful. Instead it is a reflection of its surroundings. Quite literally in fact.

One of my favorite chapters is Byrne recounting how music is shaped by where its played. The symphony hall and the open field each have different audio dynamics and so each has brought about its own form of music. And if you listen closely enough, you can hear the music of the cosmos.

Byrne also demolishes the arbitrary division of what makes for high art versus what is not considered to be as valuable. "One is saying 'What I feel is more valuable than what you feel.' In assuming that high-art makes life worth living, there is an inherent arrogance toward the masses of people who don't partake of such forms, an assumption that their lives aren't worth as much."

"Beastie Boys Book"
by Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz, et al. (2018)
Just as fun, and chaotic, as I was hoping it would be. I listened to the audio version here, but the stories were exceptional and exciting, a first-hand glimpse into the New York music scene, just when punk music was sliding into hardcore and hip-hop was being born.

There were a couple of big surprises here for the casual appreciator of the Beastie Boys music. One was that they had actually started out as a hardcore band. But, as three kids living in New York City, they were drawn into the emergence of New York hip-hop. They were contemporaries, record label-mates and admirers of Run DMC, for instance. And they pulled off the remarkable feat of staying contemporary in the ever-changing world of rap for four decades, without chnaging their basic style of final boastful raps and tightly handing off lines to each each other. "Oh my God, just look at me / Grandpa been rappin' since '83."

"The Interestings"
by Meg Wolitzer (2013)
Speaking of New York, here is a pleasant-enough novel that follows a group of Manhattan teenagers (and one Brooklyn one, the narrator, Julie) who meet each other in summer camp, dub themselves, somewhat sarcastically, as "The Interestings," and remain as a group of friends, more or less, throughout the ensuing decades -- from Watergate to 9/11, both of which serve as mileposts. One gets rich through his talent, another comes out as gay. The broody guy runs off to hide in another country after raping the ballerina. Or allegedly raping her, as the novel never specifies, and the group is left to choose sides. Her story is believable, but he holds a troubling gravity with this bunch.

Meg Wolitzer is a good at drawing us into these personalities, you root for most of them, despite their flaws. Though as the novel drives to its conclusion, it starts to feel like one of those once-a-year holiday letters that try to catch family members up on far too many changes.

"My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)"
by Elena Ferrante (2014)
Everyone falls in love with the shoemaker's daughter, because she is so beautiful. Be she is smarter, much smarter, than all the boys, and men, in the Italian village were she is growing up.

Lila, in Elena Ferrante's "My Brilliant Friend," was so smart as to ration her abilities to suit those around her. Everyone knows someone like her, a friend who is impossibly smart but at the same time slightly ill-suited for the world around them. “I felt as if she had everything in her head ordered in such a way that the world around us would never be able to create disorder,” her young friend, Elena, the novel's voice, said admiringly, and perhaps a little resentfully, of Lila.

And there is also a darkness even in the depth of their friendship, one that cut both ways. “I looked at her and she, though kissing passionately, looked at me. I turned away.”

Like the "Three-Body Problem," this is another trilogy I probably won't finish, if only because life, and my patience, is too short, even, sadly enough, for books with such delicious lines as: "There was an odor of sautéing garlic. Maria, Don Achille’s wife, would put me in a pan of boiling oil, the children would eat me, he would suck my head, the way my father did with mullets.”