Thursday, April 07, 2016

Books I am Currently Reading

Or, in some cases, trying to read.

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami. This book is a monster, almost 1200 pages in its paperback edition, but I listened to the 48 hour audible edition. We picked it up for a long drive, but we didn't drive nearly that long. Murakami is clearly a master, probably the best modern novelist that I have read. He is a Japanese writer, writing in Japanese, but his characters would hardly be out of place in London or New York. Murakami knows English well, and has been a prolific translator of American novels into Japanese, and oversaw the translation into English. The genre is a sort of magical realism - a realistic world into which strange events start intruding.

Carver, Chandler, Salinger, and Theroux are just a small sample of the authors he has translated, and the influence of the detective yarn is strong in 1Q84. He claims to have been influenced by Shakespeare, Kafka and Stephen King.

I mentally compared Murakami with a couple of notably long books by recent American authors: Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and Wallace's Infinite Jest. Murakami and his characters have a similarly formidable erudition, but are far more carefully drawn. Wallace's characters never take much shape, and exist only as cardboard grotesques. Pynchon's have a ghostly incandescence but never quite emerge into reality. Murakami's assassin, weird detective, and eerily efficient bodyguard may have an improbable command of classical music, literature and Jung, but they remain firmly and realistically human.

A second work of fiction I'm reading for the first time is Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte is one scary lady - a very dark vision, indeed.

Oliver Twist is also a new one for me. I made a good start on it but then I started seeing a bit too far ahead. Poor Oliver. I suppose that I will eventually get back to him.

The Story of a New Name: Neapolitan Novels, Book Two by Elena Ferrante is the second book of Ferrante's Neapolitan quartet. if it's as good as the first, it will be great. A huge cast of characters, focused on two bright girls who grew up in the same neighborhood.

J P Mallory's In Search of the Indo-Europeans is non-fiction, and a lot denser than I anticipated. It is a 1991 book, so it is innocent of modern discoveries in ancient genomics, but the story he constructs based on archaeology and linguistics only looks more and more solid. The Indo-Europeans who invaded Europe around 3000 BC were chariot driving, cattle herding warriors originating north and east of the Black Sea. In Europe they largely displaced the remaining hunter-gatherers and the preceding wave of neolithic farmers. It is very likely that they also invaded Anatolia, India, and parts of China, but absolutely definitive evidence of their ultimate origin remains to uncovered. The Indo-Europeans were illiterate, so we only have evidence of their language when they came into contact with literate peoples, originally in the Middle East.

It would be a considerable exaggeration to say that I am reading Ocean Dynamics and the Carbon Cycle by Williams and Follows. I've read a bit here and there, but my enthusiasm for studying climate science sort of evaporated when I decided that the climate deniers I had been arguing with were too dense to follow a scientific argument. Or maybe it just reached its sell-by date.

I also seemed to have reached an impasse on the Astrophysics front. After plowing through a few chapters of Galaxies in the Universe: An Introduction, by Linda S. Sparke, John S. Gallagher III I ran out of enthusiasm. The problems were a bit boring.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer is a profoundly scary and deeply disheartening book, which is probably why I haven't finished it. There is only so much depression a person can take. I have long been deeply suspicious of the power and motives of the new American oligarchs, but I had underestimated how radically anti-democratic and anti-American they were, as well as how deeply they had penetrated chosen sectors of the press and academia. I like this line by a guy originally hired by the Kochs to write a history of the company:

Charles [Koch] “was not going to be satisfied with being the Engels or even the Marx of the libertarian revolution. He wanted to be the Lenin.”

Mayer, Jane (2016-01-19). Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Kindle Locations 1025-1026). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

There are also a number of math books I am wrestling with, but maybe I will write about them later.