January Reading (From the Books)

I’m going to try, in 2022, to write a monthly recap of the books (and other things) I read each month. I had a good reading month and am well on my way to meeting my annual goal of 52 books! I track this on Goodreads, and I feel no qualms in including graphic novels in my reading; a good graphic novel is its own challenge and reward because the art demands attention as much as the words. I will also admit that I’m trying to get ahead of my Goodreads challenge a bit because I have some long “doorstop” kinds of books that I’d like to read this year, and those can really get time-consuming. (We’re talking Brandon Sanderson-sized epic fantasies and space operas later this year.)

So here’s what I read in January (or, a few items I started in December but only finished in January):

::  The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything, Michio Kaku. I’ve become a big fan of Kaku’s science writing over the last few years. As a science fiction writer (even one who tends to play at the George Lucas end of the pool, rather than the Arthur C. Clarke end), I feel it important to read some science every year, and Kaku’s work always keeps the “sensawunda” flowing. He writes big-scale, wide-eyed books about the Really Big Questions, and this one is no exception. If you want the kind of optimistic science writing that gives you the kind of feeling you might have had as a kid when you emerged wide-eyed from the planetarium show, Michio Kaku is your writer. (I confess that at times in his books I really can’t quite understand the more esoteric details of the things he writes about.)

::  Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, by Samin Nosrat. This is the best kind of cookbook. Only about half of it is an actual collection of recipes; the rest is like a textbook in Cooking 101, in which Nosrat writes extensively about the how and why these four facets of cooking work the way they do to make food taste good. Reading this gave me much greater appreciation and insight into how to salt my food, why and when to add acid, what I can do with fat to enhance flavor, and the ways heat, applied in different ways, impacts flavor.

The book is richly illustrated, and it has fold-out charts that show how various ethnic cuisines around the world approach each individual element of cooking. Nosrat writes wonderfully, with a strong personal element in which she brings her personal experiences from working in the food world to bear. If you cook, you should check this book out.

::  For Small Creatures Such As We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World, by Sasha Sagan. Sagan is the daughter of Carl Sagan, who is one of my all-time heroes for many reasons: his scientific curiosity, his unyielding skepticism which was also bonded tightly to his unending ability to find wonder in what really is. Maybe some people were disappointed to learn that the surface of Mars is not segmented by great canals whisking water around the planet, but is instead rocky and thus far barren of liquid water and life; not Carl Sagan, who found the fact of the Martian surface even more wondrous than the dreamed-up version from the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels he read as a kid.

One common objection to atheism, especially the rigorously empirical version of atheism as endorsed by Carl Sagan, is the idea that absent any kind of spiritual force, our lives are directionless and meaningless. This is false for any number of reasons, but Sasha Sagan answers that objection in this book, and more than that, she endorses the embracing of rituals in our lives, even the ones that have religious origins, as a way of giving our lives meaning, direction, and purpose. Sasha Sagan is every bit as skeptical as her parents (her mother is Carl Sagan’s former wife, scientist and writer Ann Druyan) were as far as religion and spirituality go, but she writes refreshingly that skepticism need not mean a life devoid of ritual and the comfort that ritual provides.

Ms. Sagan writes with a lyricism that at times echoes Carl Sagan so strongly that it does feel, occasionally, like he is writing from “the beyond”. Of course, he isn’t…but his influence lives on, which is one of the points Ms. Sagan makes here.

A few quotes:

We all deserve holidays, celebrations, and traditions. We all need to mark time. We all need community. We all need to bid hello and goodbye to our loved ones. I do not believe that my lack of faith makes me immune to the desire to be part of the rhythm of life on this planet.

An old tradition is not intrinsically better than a new one. Especially when it is such a joy to make new ones up—ones that reflect exactly what you believe, ones that make sense of your life as you experience it, ones that bring the world a little closer to the way you wish it could be.

Gifts were exchanged, but the biggest gift was the idea that celebrations could be invented, that we could choose to honor what was most meaningful to us, that and the knowledge that spring was finally here.

On the scale of our human history, rituals like putting up Christmas trees, lighting menorahs, reading Hafiz, and baking rice dumplings are new. We humans have celebrated the earthly repercussions of our orbit longer than we’ve celebrated virtually anything. Before Christmas and Hanukkah, before monotheism or any other kind of theism, our ancestors were staring up at the stars, trying to gather clues about the changing of the seasons, the passing of time, and what the darkness might bring. The idea of marking the longest, coldest night with the knowledge that the warmth and light is not too far off, that is ancient. And no matter where we’re from, what religion we are, or to what ethnic group we belong, we can be sure that our ancestors, all of our ancestors, contemplated Earth’s place in the universe with awe. For them, it was sacred. And it still can be for us. Even more so because science has brought us a deeper understanding of the mystery and beauty of nature than our ancestors could have ever dreamed.

Sasha Sagan is not a scientist by trade, but she shows how you don’t have to be a scientist by trade to allow science and the rational approach to life govern you and guide you toward meaning that isn’t based on superstition or religion.

::  Eve’s Hollywood, by Eve Babitz. I read this on the strength of Sheila O’Malley’s paean to Babitz on the occasion of her passing last year. I really had no idea what I was getting into with this book, but after reading this by Sheila:

Let’s hear it for the outlaws of this world, particularly women outlaws. Let’s hear it for the swashbuckling romantics, the adventuresses dancing outside the perimeter of the picket fence, unprotected but free. Eve Babitz was their patron saint.

had to read something by Babitz.

I started this book, actually, on the plane to Hawaii, the last leg of that journey, which stared from LAX, so I think it fitting that I started Babitz’s memoir about growing up in LA while I was however-so-briefly in LA. My first hint that I was in for something very different was the dedication. There isn’t just one. Or two. Or three. Babitz dedicates her book to a cast of hundreds, in a dedication section that spans pages. Here is just one of her dedications:

And to the word, brouhaha.


I wouldn’t dream of trying to sum up what Babitz writes about here. All of it is personal remembrance of a woman whose parents were friends with Igor Stravinsky, among others. (That’s the part that kept catching my eye. My entire life, Stravinsky is a genius composer who helped classical music kick Romanticism to the curb and embrace Modernism, the composer whose ballet The Rite of Spring cause a riot when it was premiered, but for Eve Babitz, he was a guy whom Dad knew and who showed up at parties.) Babitz’s Los Angeles isn’t a glitzy Beverly Hills experience, but it’s not the gritty place of Jake Gittes, either. It’s an interesting combination of the two, along with other incarnations of the same place. I’ve certainly never had the sense of LA that this book gives me. As the introduction (by Holly Brubach) states:

With a father who was a baroque musicologist and violinist under contract to Twentieth Century-Fox, a mother who was an artist, and a godfather who was Igor Stravinsky, Babitz grew up surrounded by a circle of illustrious family friends that included Edward James, Joseph Szigeti, Eugene Berman, Marilyn Horne, Kenneth Rexroth, and Kenneth Patchett, with poetry readings in the living room and premieres of works by Arnold Schoenberg under the palms.

A few quotes:

Studio musicians and musicians in general, men who have grown up practicing minute things their whole lives, are special. The general rules accepted by the players are that violin players are all lovers of women to an extravagant extent, oboe players are crazy and French horn players are sexy. Everyone else is square as square can be as far as I’m concerned, and if you go to an L.A. Philharmonic rehearsal you’ll see a bunch of accountants sitting around in plaid shirts and you’ll realize that musicians are the most innocent benders to Art there are. Imagine binding yourself into the confines of an orchestra, under the stick of a conductor, having to play what someone has written 200 years ago!

Stravinsky himself was Stravinsky. He was tiny and happy and brilliant and drank. He used to slip glasses of scotch to me underneath the coffee table when my mother wasn’t looking when I was 13. At my 16th birthday party, I wore white (very low necked white, of course) and he slipped rose petals down my top when my mother wasn’t looking.

Of course, gym teachers being what they are, they couldn’t just let us alone, they had to tell us what to do so they used to have “dance contests” with processes of elimination and envy and all that other stuff they have. The idea was to applaud who you thought was best—judgment by your peers, it’s called—and the ones who got the loudest applause won. Only the gym teachers decided which applause was loudest and it was never for the Pachuco couple no matter how obvious it was. Because how could kids who weren’t white and who’d been sent to Le Conte because they’d been expelled from other schools win? So the runner-up always won.

We were hot, the sea was one long wave to be ridden in, our skins were dark, and time even stopped now and then and let things shimmer since time, too, is affected by beauty and will stop sometimes for a moment. We didn’t know, as kids in other schools seemed to, what we were supposed to be, but we knew that somehow we were being taught something about life and that it couldn’t get much better. And when the sun began to set and we’d gather our things and walk silently back to the cars, we only wondered how the waves would be tomorrow in baked, half-conscious curiosity.

I remember reading something George Carlin wrote once, in which he talked about how much he loved and adored the New York City of his home; he closed by saying something like, “So why do I live in Los Angeles, then? Because the sun sets across the street from my house!” That’s the kind of sense I get of LA from Eve Babitz, only she’s kicking over rocks to see what’s underneath, and honestly, what’s underneath those rocks is utterly fascinating. I loved this book and I savored reading it.

::  The 13 Clocks, by James Thurber. I’m an old fan of Thurber’s, though I confess I’ve not read him in a very long time. I found this hardcover…someplace. I don’t honestly recall where: maybe a used bookstore in Ithaca, maybe one of the library book sales, I’m not sure. The story is a fantasy fable about a Princess whose father is an evil wicked Duke who promises her hand to the Prince who can complete the impossible quest set by the Duke. The book abounds with Thurber’s wordplay, so much so that it reads like a prose poem or actual formal verse, complete with rhyme schemes, set in type to look like verse. It’s frankly a delightful read, and it might be a good gateway for younger readers to Thurber’s kind of urbane wit that bites a little bit harder than you realize. I loved it.

If you can find a copy with the illustrations, please do so. The text is available in the Library of America’s Thurber volume, but without the illustrations, alas. (Thurber was also an artist who famously illustrated his own works, but apparently by the time he wrote this his eyesight had deteriorated too far for him to be able to do it himself.) Here’s an example of the illustration (by Marc Simont) in The 13 Clocks:

::  The Starship and the Canoe, by Kenneth Brower. Billed on the cover as “In the spirit of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, this is an exploration of the lives of two men, astrophysicist Freeman Dyson and his son, George. The elder Dyson is transfixed by the idea of the Orion Project, a proposal from the 70s for an interplanetary (or even interstellar) spacecraft that would use nuclear bomb detonations for propulsion. Basically the ship would have a very large shielding plate on its back end, and every once in a while a nuclear bomb would be chucked behind the ship to explode, giving the ship a kick forward. There’s something about that idea that sounds a bit absurd, but it would actually work and was seriously studied (Carl Sagan himself noted its potential in Cosmos) before international treaties banned the detonation of nuclear bombs in space.

Orion is the “Starship” of the title; the “Canoe” is a project of George Dyson’s. The Younger Dyson lives in the Pacific Northwest, as something of a quasi-hermit who builds a treehouse and uses paddle-boats (canoes, kayaks) to get around the hundreds of islands and island communities off the coasts of Alaska and British Columbia. As Brower gets to know him, Dyson the Younger is building a large sea-canoe that will accommodate six adults; Brower follows Dyson on various journeys up and down that coast as he meets people and acquires raw materials for his project.

The Dysons were somewhat estranged for many years, while Brower traces their lives in parallel, highlighting the ways their respective journeys mirror each other even while seeming wildly divergent. I found myself enjoying the chapters focusing on George more, mainly because of Brower’s nature writing, but Brower also does a good job of highlighting the ways these two men are very much alike.

There is very much a kind of 1970s “Search for oneself” vibe here, the kind of thing that makes me think of John Denver songs (not disparagingly, either, I love John Denver), but nevertheless, I was surprised at how much I liked this one.

Not a day passed without whales. The sound of their blowing was always around us, like the respiration of gods. We were trespassing, but with indulgence, I felt. We were like small boys who have sneaked into Neptune’s room and hear him breathing in his sleep.

::  The Sea of Trolls, by Nancy Farmer. I read this aloud to The Daughter years ago, and I remember enjoying it greatly. In fact, it might be the last book I ever read aloud to her, before she declared that she wanted to read herself at night–a wish I granted, though it made me sad to do so!–and we never finished reading the trilogy of which this is Book One. I found all three books on the Used Books section at Savers a while back (I always find something of value in the Used Books at Savers!), so I snapped up all three, and I’m reading the entire trilogy this year. It’s a Young Adult fantasy about a boy named Jack in Dark Ages Britain, who is learning from the local mystic when the Vikings come raiding. Jack and his little sister Lucy are abducted by the Vikings and proceed to have adventures and quests.

The Sea of Trolls is an exciting book, full of violence and magic and ghastly creatures and evil Queens and trolls and magic wells and enemies who become allies and allies who become enemies. It’s a complex tale full of memorable characters, and Farmer doesn’t sugarcoat things while also maintaining a sense of youthful fun. It reads like a more violent, slightly-more-adult Lloyd Alexander novel. I’m looking forward to the next two books.

::  Sergei Rachmaninov: An Essential Guide to His Life and Works, by Julian Haylock. I read this as part of my perparation for this coming April, during which I plan to do a bit of a “deep dive” into the music of Rachmaninov. This book is a short (under 100 pages) bio of the composer, well written but obviously not terribly deep. It’s a good starting point for exploring Rachmaninov’s life and world. (The book carries a label reading “Classic FM Lifelines”, so I assume there’s a whole series of these for various classical composers, to fill the need for bios longer than a single chapter in, say, The Lives of the Great Composers but shorter than long-form biographies.)

::  Firefly graphic novels: Watch How I Soar and The Unification War, vols 1 and 2. I love and adore the Firefly universe, and I’ve long had the sense that if further teevee or film tales from that universe are not forthcoming (and at this point, short of a straight reboot, the moment has probably passed), comics were the ideal medium for further storytelling in The ‘Verse. And lo, that’s exactly what’s happened! After some fits-and-starts, there has been a steady stream of Firefly comics tales over the last couple of years, which I’ve started exploring.

Watch How I Soar is a story, or rather a collection of vignettes, involving our beloved pilot Hoban Washburn (or “Wash”), as his life flashes before his eyes in the moments before…what happens to him toward the end of the movie Serenity takes place. This one might not be rewarding for anyone who isn’t already a fan of this universe.

The Unification War is the kind of tale Firefly did best: a story in which our heroes, who are just trying to keep on flying in the present, find their past deeds still coming back to haunt them. The story alternates between the present day and flashbacks to the “Unification War”, the big conflict that took place a decade or so before our “present day” in which the overbearing Alliance secured victory over the freedom-loving “Browncoats”. (I admit that as much as I love Firefly and its universe and characters, sometimes the whole thing feels like Star Trek for libertarians.)

Part of the delight of The Unification War is in the way the story keeps getting more and more complicated as things progress. Writer Greg Pak splits the crew up, sending each person into various perils that spin more and more out of control, until…well, there’s my problem. I thought that The Unification War was a two-part story. Turns out…it’s three. And I don’t have the third volume yet.


::  Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot. I can barely describe this book. It’s billed on the cover as “An Entertainment”, and it certainly is that: a lone reveler wanders into a seemingly abandoned theater, whereupon he is present with a one-man show that incorporates a literary history of Alice in Wonderland, a biography of Lewis Carroll, a travelogue of Sunderland (a city in the UK), a meditation on stories and storytelling, and an exploration of history and meaning and the intersection of art and life. Alice in Sunderland is a staggering work where you never have any idea what’s around the next page turn: a tale about the ghosts that haunt old theaters? a tour of a tavern that’s a couple hundred years old? the life tale of an industrial robber-baron whose fingerprints are still on the landscape of this old city? a comics creator’s ruminations on the famous illustrations of John Tenniel? Who knows!

Talbot writes an immersive and dizzying work here, and the art–comprising traditional comics art, photographic collage, and other styles–is first-rate. I hold Alice in Sunderland as a masterpiece of the graphic novel form and a stunning example of the very best possibilities of the format.

Here is one spread from the book:

(Go here to embiggen.)

That’s all for January for me. What have you been reading?



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