What I’ve Been Reading Lately…

When I started this website and put a blog on it, I promised myself (and the readers) not to pester folks by blogging too often. About once a month, I said.

Well, I’ve been good on the first promise but remiss on the latter. Still, I really do want to stay in touch a bit more. And what better way than to talk a bit about books worth reading? So that’s what I’ll do this time around.

I routinely keep a list of books I’ve read, with a short comment on each. Looking at my list, I see that I’ve read 72 books since January 1 of this year. Yes, I do read a lot. But I promise to not tell you about all 72 books. And I won’t bother you with a list of the stinkers (and some were truly awful). Instead, I’ll mention some of those I enjoyed most.

On the fiction side, I particularly enjoyed reading through the novels of John le Carré, the nom de plume of British writer David John Moore Cornwell. I began with his first novel, Call for the Dead (1961) and worked my way forward through his body of work, 22 novels in all, the last being Our Kind of Traitor (2010). Many of his books have become well known movies and, in the UK, television series.

Le Carré’s breakthrough novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) was made into a movie starring Richard Burton in 1965, and le Carré has been on a roll ever since. He’s 80 years old and still writing, an encouraging thought to someone like me.

I especially enjoyed what’s called his Karla Trilogy (named after Russian spymaster Karla): Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley’s People. But many of his stand-alone novels are terrific reads, as well. I recommend A Perfect Spy, The Russia House, and The Night Manager, all outstanding. Some of his most recent books (The Constant Gardener, for example) have focused more on the corrupting power of multinational corporate interests.

Otherwise in fiction, I’ve bumped around a bit in the entertainment section, those mysteries and thrillers and suspense novels we read for the sheer fun of it. Among those I recommend:

Michael Dibdin’s Dead Lagoon and Ratking. Dibdin, born in England and raised in Ireland, sets both these mystery/crime novels in Italy. They feature Aurelio Zen, the anti-heroic protagonist and detective who appears in many of Dibdin’s books.

Josef Škvorecký’s The End of Lieutenant Boruvka. Set in Prague, Czech Republic, this novel gives the reader a taste of what life was like during the late 1960s and the heady days of the Prague Spring when, at least for a while, the oppressive communist regime loosened its grip. And then it hammered back down with a vengeance. The police sleuth Boruvka is a good man caught in the middle.

On the non-fiction side of reading, I spent a month involved with the life and philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, also known as Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677). Born in Amsterdam of Jewish parents, Spinoza is in my view one of the most important philosophers in western history, hands down. Perhaps more than any other single thinker, he laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment. Yet he lived out his short life earning a living as a lens grinder.

Steven Nadler’s biography of the philosopher (Spinoza, A Life) is a must read for anyone wanting to understand Spinoza. Jonathan Israel’s A Revolution of the Mind, Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origin of Modern Democracy, meanwhile, is important for understanding the historical and cultural background for Spinoza’s work. Another book by Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell, Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age, is a lively exposition on the courageous book by Spinoza that was banned and almost sent him to prison. And Matthew Stewart’s The Courtier and the Heretic is simply an adventure and a joy to read. This latter book will please anyone even remotely interested in Spinoza, philosophy, or the Enlightenment period. It is truly a lively and entertaining read (trust me).

Also in non-fiction, I recommend two books by the always enjoyable Bill Bryson: At Home and Shakespeare, The World as a Stage. Anyone who’s read anything by Bryson knows he can make any subject sing. At Home is a hard book to describe succinctly; suffice to say it uses the author’s own home, an old rectory in the English countryside, as a pivot to explore the history of human dwellings. Written with a hundred intriguing asides, the book is often wry and always amusing. As for the Shakespeare book, well, it’s a short biography. But short is good because we really don’t know that much about the playwright, do we? But Bryson makes what we do know (and why we don’t know more) a wonderful little Elizabethan voyage.

Finally, I want to mention two other non-fiction books that are extremely well done, and extremely sobering to read: Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, and Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, The History of the CIA. The Klein book will make you angry but you come away understanding why you’re angry, and why you were already angry anyhow at the way the powers-that-be use economics as a way to induce crises and exploit the rest of us. As for the Weiner book, it is informative in surprising ways. We are programmed by Hollywood to think of spies as larger-than-life characters. Who’d have guessed they are often such small and ugly creatures? Who’d have guessed that the CIA is more accomplished at failure than success, and actually at its best in promoting its own image? Well then, there you are. Read it and weep.

And on that note, I’ll mosey along and get some work done. Then maybe read a book. So many to read, so little time. Know what I mean?