Hey, y’all read books? I usually choose to read things on a combination of personal interest and trusted recommendations, and every once in a while I like to pay it forward with some recommendations of my own. So here goes:

  • The Custom Of The Country, Edith Wharton. (Free here on Kindle!) I would not recommend this as a first Wharton experience–The House of Mirth is the book you want for that. But if you’re familiar with her most famous works and like her oeuvre, this book really throws a wrench into them in the best way. Rather than her usual winsome, highly likable but highly flawed female protagonists, Wharton here presents a repellent antiheroine in Undine Spragg. Undine is monumentally selfish, manipulative, coarse, ignorant and almost comically disloyal. The book follows her as she hops from place to place and husband to husband, barely aware of the tragedy she leaves in her wake (she’s certainly unbothered with it). Wharton initially presents Undine as the consequence of an America where women have no role in public life, and that her desire for endless creature comforts and baroque appearances isn’t crazy given the context of American society–accumulating more stuff and looking pretty are the only ambitions open to her, so why shouldn’t she pursue them? But the satire exists alongside some very interesting, detailed writing about life in America and France during the pre-WWI days, and a killer ending. It’s a great, underrated book by one of the masters of American letters, and heaven help us when the cable networks realize it exists.
  • 1920: The Year Of The Six Presidents, David Pietruza. I read this author’s book about Truman’s campaign, which I thought was good. This is even better, partly because of how unfamiliar the subject matter is, but also partly because of how important it wound up being. On the surface, it should be a boring tale: one self-professed mediocre, boring white guy beats another mediocre, boring white guy in a race that heralded a colorful decade which was characterized by boring white guy politicians and little government action. But the story beneath those facts is much more interesting. It’s really a story about the tail end of Wilsonian idealism, a demise of which Wilson himself was responsible to a large extent. Harding was a dark horse candidate who benefited by the frontrunners destroying themselves, a man without much vision or energy for a time where that was just what the public wanted. It’s fascinating to read about things changing to their current forms as the campaign goes on: Republicans shifting from progressivism to conservatism as their house philosophy, Franklin Roosevelt becoming a prominent public figure as a veep candidate despite still being a callow young lad. But the best part of the book was how Pietruza carefully makes you feel the collapse of the first wave of progressivism, done in by Wilson’s arrogance and stupidity, public weariness, and people having just had enough. It would live to come back later. That’s the lesson.
  • The Last Battle, Cornelius Ryan. The pitfall of most military history is that it reduces conflicts to movements, tactics, numbers and dates. This is an exception, a thorough exploration of the Battle of Berlin that centers mostly around character, and not just “great men” types either. Sure, there’s plenty of time spent with Zhukov, Eisenhower, Churchill and the rest, but just as much if not more time is spent with lesser-known but fascinating figures. I kind of loved Gotthart Heinrici, the German General put in charge of defending Berlin, who winds up being the hero of the piece, preventing vindictive Nazis from scorching the earth before losing and disobeying direct orders to keep his troops from getting slaughtered. The book also does a marvelous job of giving a feel for how life was in Berlin at the time by including the perspectives of a lot of civilian survivors of the conflict, how people kept going about their jobs and routines in a broken, doomed city. Reads more like a novel than a textbook.
  • Chasm City, Alastair Reynolds. The past ten years have been a pretty good time for hard science fiction. Reynolds has a dozen or so books to his name, and I confess I have not read them all, and I’ve loved some but not all the ones I’ve read. But Chasm City is cool from the beginning. The protagonist is a PTSD-suffering former soldier trying to track down the bad guys who attacked his employer, and within the first fifty pages he survives an orbital tether crash, gets infected with a memory virus by a religious cult that forces him to relive their savior’s memories, and then follows a lead to a planet where a plague has wiped out human and technology alike. There are a lot of nifty surprises and setpieces in the book, and it would probably make for a great film too. But the setpieces and the thoughtful stuff are balanced just the way they should be in a book like this.
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  1. Metavirus says:

    i really like alastair reynolds. i read chasm city and the rest of the books in the revelation space series. very original stuff. my first book of his was “Pushing Ice” -- also amazingly original : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pushing_Ice

  2. Metavirus says:

    i also recommend the shadowmarch series by tad williams http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tad_Williams . it’s fantasy rather than sci fi -- but also very original.

    • Matmos says:

      I quite enjoyed most of the Otherland series by Tad Williams. I seem to recall being slightly disappointed by the end, but otherwise liked it.

      If you’re into Space Opera, try the 3 books in The Adventures of Hobart Floyt and Alacrity Fitzhugh by Brian Daley, which is an oldie but a goodie. He called smart phones 20 years early, and it’s the only scifi series I can remember that mentions even in passing interior decorating styles.

      Also, alien aardvarks playing the dozens. ‘Nuff said.

    • Lev says:

      Thanks for the recommendation. I’m always on the lookout for interesting new things to check out!

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