Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

Midnight’s Children
Salman Rushdie

Can Rushdie write? Yes, he prose is beautiful, if too baroque at times for me. I read this over a decade ago, and there are scenes I can still remember clearly.

Can he craft a compelling story? Yes, as this story of the transformation of India, and those who lived there, as it moved from colony to nation state makes clear he can carve a complex story down into the parts that matter most.

How about his characters? Are they well drawn? Undoubtedly. Saleem, the center of the story, and a child born at midnight on the day India received its independence, is superbly rendered. I remember things about him to this day. His family and the others who populate this book of how one struggles and grows in a world of tumultuous change are also vivid.

So why didn’t I like it as much as I thought I would? Perhaps expectations were too high; perhaps I was expecting too much. Perhaps it was the tinges of magical realism that didn’t sit well with me. Perhaps it was something else. Undoubtedly, this is a brilliant book, but perhaps not a book for me. An important book, and a book well worth reading, but one that left me emotionally underwhelmed. Either way, in the end, I was left feeling like I’d read a book that I both admired and did not particularly enjoy. imagine your experience might be different.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

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Proulx’s The Shipping News

The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx

I read the Shipping News in 1997 when I was twenty-two years old. It is hard to articulate now the effect it had on me. It’s moving, its beautiful, and it’s the first time I self-consciously realized I was reading a literary novel.

I’d read other serious novels before, of course, but this was this was I think the first book where I began to understand the “literary” novel as a genre unto itself. Shipping News is a book where the language (gorgeous) and structure (complex) matter as much as the plot (haunting) and characters (pitch perfect). Much of the literary novel genre attempts to incorporate these elements, but end up being boring books about Brooklyn writers writing about writing. Not the Shipping News. There are thoughts on writing, yes, (our protagonist is a journalist who covers, of course, the shipping news in this port city in Newfoundland) but they lie in background, behind the lives of haunted characters. As it should be.

But it isn’t the plot I remember best. It’s the scenes in Newfoundland, the description of the loneliness of this port city, that resonated with me and sent me looking for others books with tasteful covers and authors with MFAs. Very few have been as good as the Shipping News, which you should read before you pick up that next book written by a Jonathan living in Brooklyn.


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Hamilton’s The Secret Race

The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France
Tyler Hamilton

This is one of the best book on the culture of pro-cycling. It’s also one of the best books on the mechanics of doping, especially, in endurance sports, and on the psychology and pressure that can lead a good kid far astray in pursuit of his ambitions.

Tyler Hamilton was one of the premier cycling stars of the late 90s and early 2000s coming up through the ranks to join Lance Armstrong and the all-powerful U.S. Postal team for its dominance of the Tour De France and the other big stage races. Hamilton started off, as all these guys did, as a talented rider. But in the pro-peloton of the 1990s, talent wasn’t enough. Not long after hitching his star to Armstrong, Hamilton began doping, first with EPO, the legendary performance enhancing drug which was rampant in endurance sports in the 90s, and then with blood doping – the practice of removing your own red blood cells and then reinjecting them to increase your red blood cell count.

For a while, Hamilton was seen as the next Lance Armstrong, a rising star in a sport of rising American popularity. Then he got caught. And while he denied his crimes (and cynically raised money from fans to fight the charges), he eventually confessed to years and years of systematic cheating and was banned from the sport.

I’ve followed pro-cycling for much of my life. From the time Greg LeMond won the tour, I’ve been hooked. I followed Hamilton’s career very closely and when he said he was clean, I believed him. How naïve.

After the revelations started to come out about Hamilton, and Armstrong, and Hincapie, and every major American cycling star of the era, I felt angry with the lot of them. But this book does a lot to humanize these men* and the pressures they were under. Right or wrong, they felt they needed to do it. They felt everyone else was doing the same thing. Of course, this is self-justification, but it’s also likely true. Was every rider in the peleton doping? No. But all of the riders with a shot at winning were.

That’s the ugly truth and one I’ve come to embrace as central to understanding the sport. To follow cycling serious is to follow cheating, and specifically doping, seriously. There has always been a secret race. And this book, more than any other I’ve read, gives you an insight into that aspect of the sport.

Recommended for the enthusiast.


*Except Armstrong, Armstrong is a socio-path who, this book makes clear, ruined people’s lives with little regret.

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Goodwin’s Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire

Lords of the Horizon: A History of the Ottoman Empire
Jason Goodwin

Jason Goodwin is perhaps best known as the author of a detective novel series set in Ottoman Istanbul and featuring eunuch detective named Yasim. I’ve read a couple of those books and enjoyed them enough to pick up his much more serious history of the Ottoman Empire. I read this when E and I were on vacation in Turkey and Greece, traveling from Istanbul, to Ephesus, to the beaches of southern turkey. I visited many an Ottoman palace and historic marker, and this was an excellent companion.

I didn’t have much interest in this period of history before traveling to Turkey. That was an oversight. Though largely relegated to cliches about harems and turbans today, the Ottomans were, for a very long time, one of the world’s super powers. How they got from semi-nomadic warriors, to a global super power, to irrelevant vestige of a antiquated world view is a fascinating story covering hundreds of years. Goodwin does it all in under 500 pages. Lords of the Horizon gave me a good overview of the tumultuous history of Ottoman rule, but still easy going enough to be read on the beach. History by a guy who knows how to tell the tale is my kind of history. If you’ve any interest in this time period (and you should as it helped shape the modern world) this is a great place to start.


Side note: I quickly checked Goodwin’s Wikipedia page while drafting this review and discovered his birth father is John Mitchell. Mitchell is a first rate British eccentric, into UFO’s “earth mysteries” and traditionalism. A lot of roads around here are pointing towards traditionalism lately, it’s kind of weird.

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Bolano’s Nazi Literature in the Americas


Nazi Literature of the Americas, Roberto Bolano

The first book I read by Bolano and it got me hooked. Ostensibly, a review of literature written by various Latin American fascists, it is, like much of work, occasionally funny, slightly surreal, and in the end disturbing and brilliant. One of these vignettes was expanded into the even better Distant Star.

Even in translation, it’s abundantly clear that his writing chops are among the best in the business. Clear, precise writing in the service of the impression, and horror, of life in Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere under dictatorial rule. The level of care in creating these set pieces is extraordinary, with each containing cleverly worked out details of the “artists” horrific oeuvres. I read it in a single sitting it was so good.

One fears that twenty years from now, some clever young person will be doing a version of this book about the United States featuring thinly veiled takes on Alex Jones and Steve Bannon.


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Raymond’s He Died With His Eyes Open

Dude, WTF did I read?

He Died With His Eyes Open (Factory 1), Derek Raymond

The first book in the Factory series of so called “exestensialist noir” following the nameless detective who works in the unsolved crimes division and sees the deepest underbelly of British society.

In this book, he’s on the case of a downtrodden alcoholic who was bludgeoned to death. No one should care, but our man does, for reasons that are never entirely clear.

The books starts violent and dark and just gets more intense from there. This isn’t Agatha Christie. It presents an unrelentingly dark vision of society and is on the edge of experimental. Something I get more weary of in my old age.

At times, reading this feels like a fever dream. I “enjoyed” it well enough, but haven’t returned yet to read the others in the series. Your milage my vary depending on how much tolerance you have for unrelenting doom.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

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Fishkoff’s The Rebbe’s Army

The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, Sue Fishkoff

“Excuse me sir, are you jewish?” If you live in New York and you look even remotely like an Ashkenazi jew, you’ve been asked this question. The people doing the asking are members Chabbad Lubavitcgh, the largest, most outwardly looking movement in Hasidic Judaism. This remains the best book in English on the movement.

That’s kind of unfortunate.

It isn’t that this is a bad book, it isn’t. It’s actually quite good. Fishkoff has the writing chops of the long time journalist. She interviews many of the important players (though, unfortunately, not the Rebbe himself) and she has a good grasp of the history of the movement (and of Hasidism in general). But she suffers a bit from the problem that effects many who write on social movements – she falls a bit in love with her subject.

At least she’s honest about this. Right from the start, she talks about how moved she was by the generosity of many she met in the Lubavitch movement. I appreciate that honesty. And I appreciate her acknowledgment of the scores of good deeds Chabbad does in reaching out to secular Jews across the world. Chabad does a lot of good, and the story of its growth, led by the fascinating, complicated, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is incredible. But in my opinion she downplays the darker side of this, the most vocal and well-known Hasidic dynasty. There isn’t enough here about the troubling messianic tendencies within the organization (especially in the part of it that lives near me, in Crown Heights Brooklyn) and there isn’t enough about the way secular education is often frowned upon, women put upon, and those who leave the fold ostracized. It isn’t that Fishkoff doesn’t acknowledge these issues, she’s too good a journalist for that, but I feel she doesn’t spend enough time exploring them.

Still, a book that is well worth your time if you’re interested in the Chabbad movement or if you’ve ever been asked on the street “excuse me sir, are you Jewish*?”

Recommended for the Enthusiast..

*A sidenote on this issue. As you may know if you read this site regularly, I’m a ger – someone who converted to Judaism. Chabad isn’t very pro-convert, they’d prefer Christians stay Christian, by and large. If I tell a Chabad-nick I’m a jew by choice, I usually get a number of questions about the way I was converted, who oversaw it, do I kept kosher, etc. Its all generally too much trouble. But I also do not want to say I’m not a Jew, because, well, I am. So my standard response is the non response “no thanks”.

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