The Vietri Project


What a terrible disappointment. Gabriele, an interesting, traumatized young woman with dual U.S-Italian citizenship who works at a bookshop in Berkeley, California becomes powerfully intrigued by a customer named Giordano Vietri. Vietri orders from his apartment in Rome huge numbers of books on academic and mystical topics. Eventually, our protagonist feels compelled to track him down, leaving her boyfriend and aimless life in California to go to her mother’s homeland. She reconnects with family while she attempts to track down the mysterious Vietri.

He had been captured by the British in World War II, he had been the neighbor of a painter who was also a journalist and anti-fascist activist. What was he searching for in these books? Who was he?

We never know, because she decides it is less important than… I don’t know. I don’t feel I got a better answer than “I met a nice guy who is better and more mature than the young men I have been casually hooking up with.” I don’t really care who she sleeps with, though her attitude towards sex seems portrayed as being an expression of maternal trauma (her mother was schizophrenic).

I do care that this story is much less interesting than the tease of the mysterious Giordano Vietri, who is dropped as if the author got bored of writing the book looked for an excuse to end it.

The Time Of Contempt


The second novel of the Witcher series, it’s better than Blood of Elves, but not as good as Last Wish nor Sword of Destiny, which were a short story collections. If you’re watching the series, the second season diverges strongly from the books (the first season pulled heavily from the short stories), though viewers of both will pick up on something that was mentioned at the end of the second season and is clearly foreshadowed in the book (though I might not have guessed had I not seen the series).

One interesting thing is that the titular Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, is made smaller. He is badly injured by the end and is also portrayed as being relatively small compared to the power wielded by wizards (including his sometimes lover, Yennefer).

‘The Lost Cities Of Africa’ By Basil Davidson


This 1959 book is a reminder that even someone who was relatively forward thinking on racial issues can still come across as pretty cringey now. But I appreciated that Davidson frequently reiterated that the civilizations of ancient and medieval Africa were both uniquely African, i.e., not founded by Phoenician, Arabic, or Person settlers, and the equal or superior to other, contemporary world civilizations.

But, the options for a book on African civilization before the Europeans began conquering and generally messing stuff up were limited and I learned a lot.

I imagine many readers will already have had some awareness of Kush and perhaps the Mali empire and its literary center of Timbuktu, but learning more was a pleasure. What I most enjoyed was reading about the strange isolation of the southeastern kingdoms. They did not interact much with other African cultures, but instead looked east to their trade across the Indian Ocean with the empires and kingdoms of Indian and China.

Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction


I read this not so much because I wanted to learn about Alexis de Tocqueville (I read Democracy in America many years ago, but could stand to dip into it again), but because I wanted to read something by Harvey Mansfield and this was all the DC Public Library had. My YouTube blackhole led me to Bill Kristol’s channel (Conversations with William Kristol), specifically to an interview with Harvey Mansfield about Leo Strauss. I used to see Kristol all the time; he and I got our coffee at the same dinky coffee/bagel place on the ambiguous border between downtown and Dupont Circle, near the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle. It felt like a personal affront. But, he’s anti-Trump and I try to be relatively broad-minded, so I was feeling generous with my time (and also, I like to fall asleep to videos like that). Well, I can still say that Bill is a shallow and tendentious thinker, but he does sometimes like to talk to interesting people are not shallow and tendentious.

So books like these are not really great introductions to either the supposed topics or to the authors of these little things.

Did I learn anything about Harvey Mansfield? That he is not afraid how the ‘liberal’ has been perverted to use it in something closer to it’s traditional sense (though I don’t necessarily agree with his hints at a more comprehensive definition, which somehow fails to primarily be about more or less free markets, rule of law, and respect for civic institutions). That he wants Tocqueville to be respected as a political philosopher, even if the man himself was dismissive of ‘philosophers’ (a fair point by Mansfield). Where he lost me completely was calling France of the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s ‘socialist.’ If you’re going to call Louis-Napoleon president and later emperor or a socialist country, you can’t just drop that remark and move on. Back that thing up, please.

Dark Rising: Magic And Power In The Age of Trump


Does… does… does Gary Lachman believe in Chaos Magick? And, yes, that’s how he spells it. Because Aleister Crowley spelled it that way.

There is some fascinating stuff about how, similar to other fascist groups, the alt-right has developed connections to occult ideas and, yes, The Power of Positive Thinking is, when you think about it, simultaneously stupid and weird and vaguely occult (and cultish).

The stuff on Traditionalism is slightly different from what’s in The War for Eternity, though not sufficiently so to justify itself.

But, but, but… does he believe it’s real? I spent most of the book asking myself, I am reading the work of a crazy man?

‘The Cartographers’ By Peng Shepherd


Ever since I read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, I have been looking for it in other conspiratorial novels about learning and books. The closes I have come is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which I still recommend and now want to read again (which would be, probably, the fourth of fifth time).

The Cartographers doesn’t really come close, but it’s still pretty good. The villain’s motivation never really seems that evil (or, if it is, then the protagonists couldn’t have known about the really evil part, which is an underdeveloped criticism of a certain breed of technofetishism/technoutopianism) and their identity is rather crudely telegraphed about one hundred pages out.

But, listen, it’s still good. Not being as good as Eco or as good as one of my favorite novels published in the last twenty years can’t be the criteria here. I enjoyed and I’m glad I read it. I learned something about map making and the premise, which is held secret for long enough in the book that I don’t want to give it away here, is pretty clear. The primary protagonist is a pleasantly flawed, obsessive, and intelligent woman, even if the rest of the cast can feel a little thin.

‘Disorientation’ By Elaine Hsieh Chou


A funny, terrifying, and ultimately, honestly depressing book.

Ingrid Yang, the protagonist, is an unreliable narrator in her lack of self-awareness, which is part of the comedy and horror. She clearly hates her work as a PhD student working on the oeuvre of a Chinese-American poet that she really doesn’t care for and her bland fiancé is clearly a manipulative douche (Hong’s recent Minor Feelings identified his type, as the sort of middling white guy who has found that racism enables him to find an Asian partner who is much more attractive than he could otherwise ensnare). However, she only barely recognizes any of this.

The novel, which I feel is secretly a horror story, is about her understanding that her whole existence has been gaslit by white men.

It was inspired by a white poet named Michael Derrick Hudson submitting a poem under the name of an Asian woman: Yi-Fen Chou. Chou, in addition to being author’s name, is also the name of the Chinese-American poet in the novel, who turns out to be a white guy who actually indulged is ‘yellowface’ disguise to teach at her university for years.

The whole thing gets worse and worse, with her sinophilic (white) advisor having actually known and conspired in the deception, before turning into a demented Tucker Carlson-esque figure with his own MAGA style movement (DOFO – Defense of Freedom Organization) to protect the feelings of white people.

Chou (the author of this novel) stays true to the story’s movement in that it doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s not unhappy, but essentially, the bad guys win, which feels kind of unhappy.

The publishers also did this thing where you had to flip to book around, relative to the orientation of its cover, in order to read it. I get the metaphor (‘disorientation’) but really could have done without that. The book is good enough on its own.

Spellbound By Marcel: Duchamp, Love, And Art


For a relatively short book, ostensibly about a groundbreaking artist and his web of relationships, it is quite unfocused.

A good portion of the book is about an interesting and likely overlooked artist, Beatrice Woods, who was in love with Duchamp and was briefly the lover of his friend, Roche (who may also have been Duchamp’s lover; certainly, the book is clear that the two men were involved in threesomes together).

Not that there wasn’t some interesting stuff here, but Duchamp remains a cipher and barely a player in the book. Why not just right a biography of Ms. Woods? Maybe the publisher said they needed to include someone better known to make it sell.

‘The Second Shooter’ By Nick Mamatas


I can’t remember where I read about this novel. I think it was a Washington Post piece by one of their book reviewers, in a round-up piece. But I was inspired to put it on hold at the library and here we are.

Did I like it?

No.

Did I dislike it?

No.

Did I think it devolved towards the end into a poorly explained morass of occultism under a rationalistic veneer?

Yes.

The most interesting part was point of view character (the novel was written in third person limited) of Michael Karras, a writer of leftist and usually conspiratorial books for a small, left wing press. He had a bit of the air of a journalist about him and you are inclined to think of him as being a reasonably smart guy. And he was. But somewhere along the line, you are reminded that he’s also a conspiracy theorist kind of guy and you think back and wonder if you missed things because he’s far less reliable than you initially assume. Oh, and he kills himself at the end after taking an uzi from a guy in an invisibility cloak in hopes, one assumes, that by doing so, his semi-mystical status will make the world better, which, in the epilogue, doesn’t seem to have worked.

The Social Life Of Books: Reading Together In The Eighteenth-Century Home


As a scholarly work, it is more a series of thematic anecdotes than the explication of a sustained thesis, but it shows an admirable amount of archival research into the clues left behind by middle-class households in the 18th and early 19th century. It does a strong job of arguing that 18th century England (and this book is almost exclusively about England) was more literate than perhaps we give it credit for, though, as always, we should remember that the plural of anecdote is not data.

I enjoyed those glimpses into these lives and homes and learning about the way in which people read. Which also leads to the most interesting, if only cursorily examined, idea which she tosses out there in the chapter about novels: the rise of of the novel is directly linked to the decline of poetry as a subject of popular reading.

Much reading, she says, was done aloud. It was done by families in the evening, but also at social gatherings. And publications were designed for that purpose, which means not too long and easy to put down and pick up at a later time. If your neighbor came over and stayed while you read to your family, it wouldn’t do for him to hear just the middle of a dense novel, but something like poetry was perfect.

The novel, by its very nature, encouraged solitary reading and this led to the decline of certain shorter forms that were also strongly linked to oral traditions, i.e., poetry.