Recent reading

Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these. And since I took the “currently reading” list off the sidebar I should really do them more often. One complication: I’ve had less time for reading since leaving DC, where I could do my online news reading as part of my job and enjoy books each way on my Metro commute. It’s been harder to work reading into my Portland lifestyle. The ideal solution would be to spend more time reading on planes while flying to exotic destinations, but unfortunately I can’t afford this. In any case, here are a few recommendations:

The Prestige, Christopher Priest — The best novel about magicians I’ve read recently. Also the only one, but still a very good book. If you’ve seen the movie then you already know the two major plot revelations, but this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment at all; in fact, it lets one appreciate writing in the early parts of the book that would otherwise be mysterious or confusing. The dueling magicians are less violent and much more sympathetic here than in Christopher Nolan’s take.

This Earth of Mankind, Pramoedya Ananta Toer — The best novel about the Dutch colonization of Indonesia I’ve read recently. And it’s not the only one, because I read the entire series of four, known as the Buru Quartet. This and its sequel are the most character-driven and accessible. The third is dense with history, while the fourth changes perspective to that of a native collaborator. All highly recommended. (Incidentally, the name for my Ontosoroh cocktail, which uses the Dutch-Indonesian spirit Batavia-Arrack, comes from this book.)

Pets in America, Katherine Grier — As with most people named Grier, no relation. A fascinating exploration of how American attitudes toward pets evolved, with numerous historical accounts and illuminating photos and illustrations.

The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross — My lack of familiarity with the music discussed didn’t prevent from enjoying and learning a great deal from this history of twentieth century composition.

Born Standing Up, Steve Martin — I’ll read just about anything from Steve Martin. This, his self-account of developing as a comedian, was particularly fascinating to me for the ways his early training in magic helped him pull off his ecstatic physicality. A bonus treat for Vanderbilt alumni is his description of how a performance at the university accidentally birthed an ending to his act that he used for years. (Though interestingly, my father was there for it and remembers the details differently. Highlight from his recollection: Martin telling security officers that his name was Carmichael Towers!)

Comments

  1. Maureen Ogle says:

    Thanks for these recommendations, especially the Toer (had never heard of him, so am glad to know about the quartet).

  2. Barzelay says:

    I loved Nolan’s movie version of The Prestige! I think it was my favorite film of that year. It didn’t quite hold up on repeated viewings, but it was one of the best theater experiences I’ve had.

    I would love it if you would elaborate on the Steve Martin Vanderbilt story for those of us unlikely ever to pick up the book. I’m not sure that’s a great argument, and I should probably just get the book, even if only for that story. I’d love to be able to pay Steven Martin $1 for that story alone. Since such an option is unavailable, can you recount the story?

  3. Jacob Grier says:

    @Barzelay: Sure. The short version is that he was performing for students and, given the weird nature of his act, couldn’t convince them that the show was over. And the room he was in didn’t have an exit. So he basically led them outside and just kept on improvising and taking the show outdoors. This became a frequent ending to his show, including getting him a key, early positive review when he did this in Florida.

  4. Jacob's Dad says:

    To further elaborate, Martin led the entire audience across West End Avenue to the Krystal. Since it was about 1:00 AM, the place was fairly empty when this maniac wearing a white suit and an arrow through his head entered the restaurant followed by 100+ rowdy students. Martin approached the woman at the counter and in typical silly fashion, ordered something like 138 hamburgers and 1 French fry. The woman threatened to call the cops, so Martin led us back across the street to the steps of Carmichael Towers where he led us in dumb songs and cheers. When VU security approached, he did identify himself as “Carmichael Towers” prompting the officers to get angry and move toward arresting him. Fortunately, a VU official stepped in to intervene. The cops then broke up the crowd and we dispersed toward our dorms.

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