An American Abroad

Books Read in 2014

For the last few years, I’ve kept a running list of every book I’ve read. I got a Kindle last summer, which has helped me get my book fix even when I’m far from an English-language bookstore. Here’s my list of books read in 2014, presented in the order they were read, with some commentary on each one.

A Week in December
Sebastian Faulks

This battered paperback was kicking around Shane English Yuxi while I was teaching there. I knew nothing about it going in and was delighted to find a portrait of contemporary London presented through a half-dozen vivid characters. The plot centers on two plots: one by a radical Muslim group that plans to blow up a hospital and one by a financier who plans to destroy a venerable British bank. The book implicitly asks which of these is the real terrorist.

Bangkok Tattoo
John Burdett

I started this series while I was in Bangkok last Christmas and found it to be a better introduction to the city than any travel guide.

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Geoncide
Gary J. Bass

I bought this book in Dhaka, Bangladesh at the Liberation War Museum. It tells the story of Archer Blood, the American Consul in Dhaka during Bangladesh’s war of liberation from Pakistan. At that time, Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, and the government in Islamabad sent the Pakistani army there to brutally suppress a nationalist uprising. Blood pleaded with his superiors in the State Department for America to put pressure on Pakistan to stop the killing. The State Department refused because, unknown to Blood, Pakistan’s president was the go-between for the secret communications between President Nixon and the People’s Republic of China, which eventually led to Nixon’s historic visit to China. The Pakistani army was given a free hand to slaughter tens of thousands of Bangladeshis so that Nixon and Kissinger could achieve their geopolitical objectives. Blood’s staff sent an historic telegram to State, bluntly describing what was happening as “genocide” and objecting as strongly as possible to American policy. This wound up torpedoing his career. The book is an infuriating and heart-wrenching account of how America armed, equipped, and encouraged Pakistan to make war on the people of Bangladesh.

The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper
John D. MacDonald

The Green Ripper
John D. MacDonald

I love John D. MacDonald and his greatest creation, Travis McGee. McGee calls himself a “salvage consultant”; he gets back things that have been taken from their rightful owners and keeps a contingent fee of 50% for himself. But what he really salvages are troubled women. Travis has soul. Travis has a code. The many hours I’ve passed with him are like time spent with an old and wonderful friend.

The Man Who Was Thursday
G.K. Chesterton

This 1908 book is startlingly contemporary in its structure and content. A policeman is assigned to infiltrate a terrorist organization, but it soon turns out that the police themselves are running the organization. The set-up is written for laughs for much of the book, but toward the end some serious questions about the relationship of society to terrorism are addressed. Chesterton’s writing reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s.

The Casual Vacancy
J.K. Rowling

Yes, that J.K. Rowling. This is an adult novel about the hatred and ugliness that lurk just beneath the surface of a small English town. Rowling’s voice is unmistakable, though it’s a bit of a jolt to hear that voice detailing sexual acts and drug use. What also comes through is her abiding sympathy for people who get the short end of the stick again and again.

King Solomon’s Mines
H. Rider Haggard

This 1885 adventure yarn feels cartoonish today, and its casual racism is infuriating. But it’s the sort of tale that inspired a lot of young boys to get out and explore the world, something that resonates with me.

Bangkok Haunts
John Burdett

More adventures of Bangkok Buddhist policeman Sonchai Jitpleecheep.

The Quiet American
Graham Greene

I read a lot of books by and about expats. That means I’ve read a lot of Greene. And I don’t think this is one of his best. Or maybe it’s just hard to enjoy a book in which all the main characters are so unlikable and uninteresting.

The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization
Bryan Ward-Perkins

I’ve visited several Roman ruins in Tunisia and Turkey, so I picked this up to educate myself about why the ruins are ruins. In the late-Roman historical debate between the Castrophists and the Transformationists, Ward-Perkins is definitely in the former school. His book is one long rebuttal to those historians who say that what happened to Rome in the fifth through eighth centuries really wasn’t all that bad or even all that dramatic.

Bright Orange for the Shroud
John D. MacDonald

More quality time with Travis McGee.

Zanzibar to Timbuktu: A Journey Across Africa
Theodore Dalrymple

This was my introduction to Dalrymple, the kind of enlightened social conservative I would love to have a beer with. The book tells the story of Dalrymple’s travels from Tanzania to Mali, all of which he accomplished using buses, trains, and taxis. Along the way he considers the many follies of well-intentioned westerners who seek to bring “development” to Africa and frequently wind up leaving things worse than when they found them. Two things separate Dalrymple from other social conservatives. One is his obvious sympathy for and personal knowledge of the people of Africa. The other is the sterling quality of his prose. Damn, that guy can write. And he’s funny, too.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson

Since Dalrymple (above) writes about some of the most impoverished countries in the world, this book seemed like a good way to answer the question why some countries are successful and others are not. Acemoglu and Robinson reject theories of geographical, climatological, or historical determinism and argue that countries develop (or not) at different rates because of specific policy choices made by their rulers.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Since I’m interested in applying for a grant under the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists & Writers Program, I began reading a lot about Antarctica. The author of this novel went to Antarctica under the same grant program and produced this fine book, which, unfortunately for me, covers a lot of the same themes I was thinking of: the idea of independent communities, the pressures of global climate change, the tension between preservationists and economic developers, the social conflicts between the scientists and the Antarctic support staff.

Don’t Die In Bed: The Brief, Intense Life of Richard Halliburton
John H. Alt

Richard Halliburton was a popular adventurer and writer of the early twentieth century. His first book, The Royal Road to Romance, was one of my travel inspirations. This biography has some annoying verbal tics, but is nonetheless a informative look at Halliburton’s life, travels, and work.

Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo
Vanessa Woods

I loved this book. It’s got many things I enjoy: travel, adventure, sex, science, and an exotic locale. The author subtly compares her and her boyfriend’s behavior to bonobo behavior, and it’s not always clear whose is better.

Escape from Freedom
Erich Fromm

This is a classic that somehow I never read before. Fromm’s theory is that modern man suffers from the loss of certainty about his place in the world, which is the flip side of freedom. Political extremists offer to restore the sense of belonging and the certainties, and are thus deeply attractive to people on a psychosocial level.

The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi

I read one sci-fi novel every year. This one I bought because I liked the cover, a scene of a post-apocalyptic Bangkok with a huge elephant, a blimp, and other steampunk trappings. The book was as good as the cover. In the post-“contraction” future, the planet has heated up, the seas have risen, and the world economy is dominated by “calorie companies.” Genetically modified plants and animals and terrifying diseases and blights are aspects of daily existence. The titular windup girl is a bioengineered human who is genetically disposed to compliance and service. She finds herself in the middle of a civil war between the Thai Ministry of Trade and the Ministry of the Environment for control of Thailand. Great story and characters, with more than a hint of allegory.

A Geography Of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist
Robert Levine

OK, people in different cultures treat the idea of time differently. This seems kind of obvious to me. And the author seems to conflate the idea of time with the idea of pace. I was not impressed.

Thomas Pynchon

I’ve read V. at least a dozen times and with each read I find something new. This is Pynchon’s first novel, and it confounds me that at age 25, he knew about ten times as much as I ever will. And while my earlier readings supported the oft-proclaimed view that Pynchon’s stories and characters are “chilly,” I find more and more warmth with each reading. One way to describe V. is to say that it’s about the trajectories of two men, one with no direction at all and the other who’s goal-obsessed, who eventually intersect on Malta in search of a mysterious woman who may or may not exist. But this would be to describe only the surface of an incredibly deep exploration of the meaning of the twentieth century.

South: The Story of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Expedition
Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton

This is an account of the catastrophes which befell Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition and the resolute steps he took to save his men. The first half of the book is a rather dull explication of early twentieth century seamanship, but the second half is a remarkable study of leadership in the some of the most difficult situations imaginable.

At the Mountains of Madness
H.P. Lovecraft

Another Antarctic book. Lovecraft imagines the ruins of an ancient civilization in Antartica, one that may not be entirely dead. It’s less about the real continent of Antarctica and more about what Lovecraft imagined one might find in a mysterious and unexplored land.

Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex
Katherine Frank

Frank is a Duke University cultural anthropologist who has researched and written about monogamy, fidelity, and sex work. This book is a cross-cultural history of group sex (both consensual and nonconsensual) from Roman times to the present. More thought-provoking than titillating.

Ice Reich
William Dietrich

Nazis in Antarctica. Pretty pulpy.

Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses
Theodore Dalrymple

A collection of essays by the delightfully dyspeptic Dalrymple.

The Stoned Apocalypse
Marco Vassi

I read this book and the Dalrymple book (above) at the same time. They’re ideological opposites: Dalymple is a dyspeptic social conservative and Vassi is a hedonistic hippie. They’re both good writers, though, with a disdain for bullshit, however bullshit is variously defined.

The Tragedy of the Korosko
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This 1898 story is remarkably timely. A group of European and American travelers on a Nile riverboat is ambushed by a group of Islamic militants, who offer them the choice between conversion and death. Of course the Europeans triumph in the end, but not before sustaining serious losses.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America
George Packer

Without being didactic, Packer shows how America has been hollowed out — or “unwound” — in the last couple decades. He follows three ordinary Americans as they struggle in the new, grim economic environment. He intersperses brief biographies of entertainers, writers, businesspeople, and others. He never shoves the tragedy of economic dislocation in the readers’ faces or screams “how can we let this happen?” He doesn’t have to.

Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn

A nicely-done he-said, she-said thriller. Good observations about the dynamics of marriage. I was disappointed in the ending, which essentially leaves the reader with no one to root for.

Travis McGee & Me: Reflections on the Man from Slip F-18
D.R. Martin

I’ve followed Martin’s Travis McGee blog for some time and hoped to find something new here. However, this book is just a lightly-edited compilation of his blog entries. It’s essentially a collection of plot summaries of all the Travis McGee novels, which is fine as far as that goes. People looking for a more insightful analysis of McGee will have to look elsewhere.

An Antarctic Mystery
Jules Verne

In 1897, Jules Verne published this book, which is essentially a sequel to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. So little was known about Antarctica at that time that authors like Verne and Poe felt free to write their own imaginings on the tabula rasa of the white continent. This book reads like a love letter to Poe, whom Verne clearly holds in awe. As a book, though, it’s more revealing of how Antarctica was perceived in the artistic imagination of the 19th century than anything else.

Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period
Michelle Mercer

I became obsessed with Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album last summer when I was traveling from Asia to America to North Africa. Travel is the main theme of the album, especially the conflict between the urge to be with old friends and lovers and the urge to venture out into the new. This book explores how Mitchell came to write the songs on the album. Interesting, but not quite the in-depth textual analysis I had hoped for.

A Bullet For Cinderella
John D. MacDonald

This was one of the hard-boiled novels MacDonald turned out before he created Travis McGee. It’s interesting to hear his voice in this different context, but compared to the McGee series, it’s a journeyman effort.

Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel

For the first 80% of this novel, I was ready to name it as the best book I’d read all year. It seems like a response to all the apocalyptic zombie/plague movies and books this century has produced. In this book, a flu pandemic wipes out more than 99% of the human population. One band of survivors travels around the Great Lakes playing classical music and performing Shakespeare. On their caravan is printed “Because survival is not enough.” It’s a book about the urge to make art and to touch the sublime even in — or especially in — terrible times. Unfortunately, Mandel couldn’t sustain the wonder or the tension, and in the last 20% all narrative tension and even unique characterization seem to vanish.

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