From Books

Books 2019: #2 Dozen Really Matter?

For a variety of reasons, my reading has slowed to a crawl over the past six or seven months.

Just in the past couple of months, though, I have enjoyed three quite extraordinary books. Let me amend that: the two featured here I enjoyed, but it would be perverse to say I “enjoyed” the other. I will try someday soon to write about this most extraordinary book of the three–it is riveting, nauseating, shameful, and important rather than enjoyable–but today is not that day, and this is not that post.

Two standouts

Carlo Rovelli - Seven Brief Lessons on PhysicsCarlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (2014)
I learned of this book from The Guardian’s premature and click-baity “The 100 best books of the 21st century” piece.[1]

Rovelli’s 96-page book is aimed at a general audience, one not necessarily familiar with modern theoretical physics and its most mind-blowing implications. I myself have no training in physics, can’t follow the math behind its most interesting concepts, but have read enthusiastically on the subject of its most fantastical theories. So I can’t really know how appealing this book may be to those who might here engage for the first time with the science behind quantum weirdness, the holographic universe, the probability of a multiverse, and the concept of a timeless universe (as in, there is no “universal now”). But I’m certain it would be a great way for anyone to begin to glimpse the possibilities that a lucky few are investigating, and to develop an expanded sense of wonder about the universe(s) and our place in it (them?).

This book includes NO formulas, NO indecipherable math, and offers layman-friendly introductions to the fantastically exciting cutting-edge of this science. Along the way, Rovelli offers his own philosophical thoughts about it all. His musings on consciousness and on the nature of time are thought-provoking. In my view, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is an achievement on par with Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Read this!

Milan Kundera -  The Unbearable Lightness of BeingMilan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)
I first read this novel 28 years ago, almost half a lifetime ago. Though I was 31 and married with two children, I was too much of a kid, really, to fully appreciate it. And, I was given too much to a harsh black-and-white morality that could admit no shades of gray. The novel’s protagonist was a selfish, serial adulterer, and I didn’t like him much. Moreover, his cruel infidelity was what the novel was about.

Some of the above is conjecture. I was reading Solzhenitzen’s novels at this time and earlier, so I should have been attuned to what is more important in Kundera’s novel, which is life in the Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia of the late 1960s.[2] Almost certainly I was, in fact. But before this reread, I only remembered the selfishness of Tomas’s obsessive womanizing and how it hurt the piteous Tereza. I only vaguely recall seeing the film based on the book (starring Daniel Day-Lewis), but perhaps it too contributed to my badly-skewed recollection of the novel. I don’t really know.

At any rate, I had it badly mischaracterized. It is a powerful story of a man who refuses to bow to the conventions of time and place, and, especially, to the powers of a totalitarian state. A foreign one in this case, able to impose itself on the people of a state who are, by-and-large, not possessed with Tomas’s integrity and courage. In the end Tomas’s victory is a personal and equivocal one only. But it is a victory nonetheless.

Now, older but with a younger mind[3], I find a lot to love in the book. One is Kundera’s use of the opening bars of the final movement of Beethoven’s final quartet, the Opus 135 in F major. These incorporate and repeat a series of six notes that represent “Muss es sein? Es muss sein!” (“Must it be? It must be!”).

The novel’s opening paragraph asks a question related to time and being:

The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?

The “myth” that everything that happens has happened before and will happen again ad infinitum reminds me of the discussion of the unreality of time in Rovelli’s book. Unreality is too strong a word. That we sense the passing of time in a way that makes the past seem “gone” in a way that it really is not, makes me think it is unreal. Our experience of it, that is. This is not what Kundera (or Nietzsche) means by “endlessly recurring,” but I think it’s it’s quite close. Nietzsche describes this eternal recurrence as the “heaviest of burdens,” and Kundera makes its opposite, the one, unrehearsed life “ephemeral” and essentially, meaningless. The unbearable lightness of being, in fact. Tomas and Tereza, because of forces they cannot control, find themselves where they never intended to be, and where they couldn’t have anticipated experiencing happiness. Are they happy? Are their lives ultimately meaningless and unbearable?

Ten Others (including a dropout)

Here I will give short shrift to the rest of this post’s titular dozen: two books of non-fiction and eight novels. I will write one sentence on each, which–if can manage to stick to that–is one sentence more than one of them merits. The colorful images of book covers are meant to distract from the essential nothingness of my microreports.

Elvis Costello - Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink Serhii Plokhy - Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe Sherwood Anderson - Wineburg, Ohio Thomas Bernhard - The Loser Sue Grafton - B is for Burglar
Elvis Costello, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink (2015) — A hefty, 688-page memoir that, halfway through it, reminded me of a snippet from the author’s song “My Science Fiction Twin” (they asked how in the world he does all these things and he answered, “Superbly”), though 344 pages later I felt unreasonably disappointed by its complete lack of “piss and vinegar”–it’s more Painted from Memory than it is This Year’s Model   Serhii Plokhy, Chernobyl: History of a Disaster (2018) — After watching HBO’s brilliant Chernobyl miniseries, I wanted more, and this account from an Ukrainian-born Harvard professor served me well (though I intend to read another recent account–it’s a compelling story).[4]

Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (1919)  92  — A collection of loosely-bound short stories that paint an engaging and melancholy portrait of the thinly-disguised hometown of the author.     Thomas Bernhard, The Loser (1983) — The story of three men who study at the Morzarteum in Salzburg: the unnamed narrator; a fictionalized, mostly off-stage Glenn Gould; and The Loser, who is tragically unable to bear the heat of Gould’s superhuman talent.     Sue Grafton, B is for Burglar (1984) — I’ve auditioned a handful of detectives over the past several years and am looking for an easy-reading one with an impressive caseload to follow. Kinsey Millhone is a worthy contender.[5]

Kent Haruf, Benediction (2013) — This is the third and final novel in Haruf’s trilogy (Plainsong and Eventide preceded this one), and my sister and I enjoyed “book clubbing” this set from an author who reminds me of Wallace Stegner.     Nick Hornby, Funny Girl (2014) — A wonderful portrait of British television in the 1960s, and especially of a young woman’s aspiration to become the British Lucille Ball at a time when women–mere “girls” and “eye candy”–weren’t really expected to have aspirations at all.     William Kent Krueger, Thunder Bay (2007) — Krueger has published 17 novels set in and around Minnesota and featuring his Irish-Ojibwe sleuth Cork O’Connor. This one was a joy the read, and I hope to read more of his work.

Jay Parnini, The Last Station (1990) — This “novel of Tolstoy’s final year” is fabulous, and anyone underwhelmed by the star-studded Hollywood adaptation of it should do themselves a favor and read the book.     Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story (2010) — It received critical praise, won awards, and though I loved the author’s two earlier novels (The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and the wacky Absurdistan), I just couldn’t finish this one. I’m sure a punchline was coming, but halfway in I just wasn’t feeling it–zero stars, Comrade Shteyngart.
Kent Haruf - Benediction Nick Hornby - Funny Girl William Kent Krueger - Thunder Bay Jay Parini - The Last StationGary Shteyngart - Super Sad True Love Story


  1. The Guardian’s list exists to sell books through its own bookstore, which I suppose is a relatively harmless way for a newspaper to make a pound or two in a very tough business these days. Click-bait or not, the list is useful to me. There are a handful of intriguing books on it that I may read. [^]
  2. In the “Soviet period” of my Russophile days. Solzhenitzen’s novels A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and the under-appreciated The First Circle and Cancer Ward were outstanding achievements. I wonder how they hold up now? [^]
  3. Garrison Keillor, if he should read this, would do well to consider this reverse-aging of the brain and have another go at the worst song ever written. [^]
  4. A New Yorker review of HBO’s dramatization is complimentary, but levels significant criticism at some aspects of its historiricity. It’s an essential read for anyone who saw the miniseries. [^]
  5. Among the detectives whose careers I have followed exhaustively are Lord Peter Wimsey, Martin Beck (see Wimsey and Beck), Erik Winter, Father Brown, and, of course, Sherlock Holmes. Millhone, Krueger’s Cork O’Connor, Crispin’s Gervase Fen, and Hillerman’s pair, Leaphorn and Chee, are others that I’d like to add to my “cases closed” list. [^]