‘Washington, D.C.’ By Gore Vidal


To my great joy, early in the book, a young man fantasizes that he is within the Barsoomian tales of Burroughs. Even more enjoyable, for me, at least, he name drops neither, just a character you’d only know from having read the books (or seen the movie).

This character grow into a sort of Vidal stand-in; an elite-born man who became a polemical political moralist, who also knew political Washington inside and outside.

Of course, the Washington of Washington, D.C. doesn’t exist anymore. Not in the least because you’ll rarely see Senators hanging around the city on weekends (they are back in the states they represent). But this book also realizes that. At one point, an aging, mostly moral, lion of the Senate muses that he almost lost re-election after being outspent and confesses some confusion over how television and radio ads changed things.

I gather he retroactively incorporated this into his ‘Narratives of Empire’ series, but it lakes the scope and sweep of the two I have read (Burr and Lincoln). It felt rather personal, not in the least because it covered a time when he was growing up in this older Washington.

That said, one can see in the aspiring politician Vidal’s critiques of Kennedy. In the leftist intellectual seduced by that rising star, Arthur Schlesinger (I don’t know what Vidal thought of him). But it’s not exact and more a nearby critique, than a direct one.

Lord help me, in many ways, it’s more Henry James than Gore Vidal, but the better for it. I had set aside my affections for him, but this reminded me that, actually, he’s a d—m fine novelist.

The Secret Talker


Fascinating, beautiful, intricate, but did not quite cohere.

The protagonist’s slow release is information and growing willingness to implicate herself and expose herself as more flawed and cruel than I would have guessed at the beginning. Also, her friend and sometimes confidante is deliciously wicked and rapacious!

Written in the early aughts (I hate that term), the technology is a little old fashioned sounding today. But the failure for me is that the final reveal left too many questions, including, how the heck did this person craft their identity, in a purely practical sense (you’ll have to read to understand what I mean).

‘Mortality’ By Christopher Hitchens


Of necessity, his last book (though I suppose a collection of miscellany could still, and perhaps already has, come out; but that wouldn’t have been written last).

Am amazing stylist and, equally or more important, a master of his craft. There are plenty of talented writers who never properly learned their craft and any decent reader can quickly discern the difference.

Mortality is not an example of Hitchens the craftsman.

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The Mysterious Affair At Styles


My second Agatha Christie book within recent memory (my mother had some many around the house, that I feel certain I read some growing up) and the first mystery she ever wrote.

The last one I read was all about motive. Her most famous creation, Hercule Poirot, spent much of the book criticizing a police detective who spent a lot of time examining physical evidence, while Poirot shrugged his shoulders, said, meh, who care, motive is everything.

In this one… well, motive was pretty obvious, in the end, and it was all about physical evidence (though, sometimes, also about the absence of something), with the mustachioed Belgian even sending some samples of cocoa away to be analyzed.

I am too lazy to look for it, but I read a very nice article about Christie that posited a unifying feature in her work: a great belief in the evil of mankind. And, well, you can really see it here.

A lot of disagreeable people, including a thin-skinned, self-righteous, and not very bright narrator (though, in his defense, Poirot seemed to constantly making fun of him and disagreeably and spitefully withholding information).

Ninefox Gambit


After reading this science fiction novel and then recommending it to a friend (I won’t say it was great writing, though perhaps it is better in the original, but it’s good writing and I just found it very fascinating), he immediately noted the en media res factor, with Lee tossing into a well thought out, but very outre science fiction universe and society. Mathematics based around calendars can, apparently, affect reality in some way that winds up wreaking havoc on technology based around other ‘calendrical’ systems. It’s like if the presence of a vinyl record player caused your all your iTunes songs to either blow up your phone or play nothing but ‘Baby Shark’ at ear splitting volume.

He also commented on how this society placed an emphasis on the wearing of gloves and how that was also part of the society of the Radch Empire in the amazing novel, Ancillary Justice.

This got me thinking and I eventually decided that Frank Herbert’s Dune was the forerunner of all this. The culture and the social and technological mores of that universe were detailed, well thought out, and completely alien to us. While Ninefox Gambit is no Dune, I can see the lineage.

Swords Of Mars


I was, at first, excited that Burroughs had returned to the original hero of the Mars (or Barsoom) stories: John Carter.

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Christmas With Yevtushenko


While unpacking Christmas ornaments, I found this receipt for a collection of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poetry, courtesy of Capitol Hill Books.

‘My Education’ By Susan Choi


I’m not sure why I decided to read this book. I’d read her much acclaimed Trust Exercise and had found it fascinating, well-written, yet finally unsatisfying.

I wonder if I feel the same way about this one?

The surprise ending (should I give it away? I don’t know) didn’t tie things up the way it should have. Not that things should have been tied up with a proverbial neat little bow. Indeed not. Messiness was a sort of theme of the novel. But the surprise didn’t seem to ‘justify’ what preceded it. Or rather, the surprise diminished what came before.

This isn’t the surprise, but one nice twist to what begins as a campus novel is that the handsome, rakish professor with a reputation for sleeping with graduate students is not the love interest; it’s his wife.

And the affair between her (a professor in her right, I should add) and the protagonist, a young woman, is painfully and beautifully messy. The friction and the fights and the character flaws are oh so wonderfully and naturalistically conveyed. And when the novel, near the end, skips ahead more than a decade, Choi captures the cycles of life by pairing the protagonist with a husband who is, in his own, quiet way, as manipulative, demeaning, and controlling as was that earlier, dramatic and cruel lover.

Which is perhaps why I felt let down. After so perspicaciously depicting the relationship and its reverberations through the main character’s life, surely it deserved better (though I enjoyed the suggestion that she was, in the end, a secondary character in her own story)?

The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu


I enjoy a lot of early twentieth century pulp, but I have no illusions that many of them are… insensitive to certain issues. But nothing quite prepared me for this level of unbridled racism. I wasn’t surprised by the anti-Asian racism (though ‘Yellow League’ was a bit blunt), but it around thirty odd pages in when the protagonist announced his intention to disguise himself as a ‘dago seaman’ that I properly understood that this was some serious Citizens Council stuff.

And spelling ‘clue’ as ‘clew’ everywhere… sure by the second quarter of the twentieth century we’d more or less agreed on that particular spelling? Sure, apparently, we were all unreconstructed racists, but did the white race have no redeeming features? Mr. Sax Rohner, Esquire, suggests that no, no we did not. Way to throw me under bus, dude. Can you try not to be completely terrible? You’re making the Doc Savage book I read look like a joint project of W.E.B. Du Bois and Lao-Tze.

It could also be compared to Riddle of the Sands, which was written to warn England of the dangers posed by Germany ahead of the First World War. This book was similarly written to assure racist whites that their MAGA fever dreams Asian infiltration are not, as rational people believed, the unfortunate side effect of too much Fox News and having skipped their court mandated drug counseling sessions, but a real thing that is actually happening because only racists are smart enough to connect the dots and see that Hugo Chavez killed Kennedy to steal the election for Ho Chi Minh so that President Bernie could hand Fort Knox and the nuclear football over to the severed head of Karl Marx who had been living in a jar with Doris Day and controlling the world from Berkeley, California.

The titular insidious one was, apparently, creating a Pan-Asian power bloc to rival, if not overcome, western powers. Of course, the author missed the rising power of Japan in favor of a more generalized racism, despite the fact the novel’s 1913 publication took place less than a decade after the Japanese had soundly spanked Russian in a brief and decisive war.

The hero, a sort of polymathic super detective, rather like a leaner Doc Savage, has a distressing tendency to occasionally speak in all CAPS like the tweets of a teenage girl or a LOSER ex-president, which, granted, is less offensive than his frequent digressions into anti-Chinese diatribes. His sidekick is a more laid back type, speaking with normal capitalization and engaging in less active racism; more of an armchair bigot, if you will.

The episodic nature makes me suspect it was originally published in serial form in monthlies. It moves quickly, but then so do most adventures from this time. Also in common adventures from this time, a lot of deus ex machinas, which I wouldn’t have minded so much if it weren’t for, you know, the racism. That sort of makes everything feel more irritating.

Studying With Miss Bishop: Memoirs From A Young Writer’s Life


I am a fan of Gioia, but more as a figure than a poet (though his translation of Dante is superb and that, too, is poetry). I enjoyed his novella length essay on the Catholic writer in contemporary times and felt he was one of our best Poet Laureates in terms of actually promoting poetry (I love the poetry of Charles Wright, but he was marvelously disinterested as Poet Laureate). I was pleased to read that he was a young fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and got his start reading At the Earth’s Core (the first of his Pellucidar books).

Beyond our shared love, this is a lovely little book. I wish that he had delved more into his own experiences around class and race, but I also recognize that this is not that kind of book.

He examines how his interactions (mainly as a young poet) with five poets and writers affected him. While he notes a funny encounter with a drunk James Dickey (who resented a negative review that Gioia wrote), the reminiscences are by and large fond and positive.

My personal favorite was the chapter about the classicist, Robert Fitzgerald (I loved his translation of The Aeneid), but section on Ronald Perry, an apparently talented, but mostly unknown poet, is the most affecting. It is a beautiful meditation on mortality, in the end. Perry’s literary reputation was small and his memory limited, most likely, by the lifespan of those who knew him. Most writers will not be remembered.