Bedside books

The Shorter Science and Civilization of China: 1 by Ronan and Needham: This is the condensed version of Needham’s classic history of China, starting at the beginning and focusing on the foundations of China’s developing religions.

Joseph Needham

Needham is a story in himself. Wikipedia says: “Under the Royal Society‘s direction, Needham was the director of the Sino-British Science Co-operation Office in Chongqing from 1942 to 1946. During this time he made several long journeys through war-torn China and many smaller ones, visiting scientific and educational establishments and obtaining for them much needed supplies. His longest trip ended in far west in Xinjiang at the caves in Dunhuang at the end of the Great Wall where the first printed copy of the Diamond Sutra was found. The other long trip reached Fuzhou on the east coast, returning across the Xiang River just two days before the Japanese blew up the bridge at Hengyang and cut off that part of China. In 1944 he visited Yunnan in an attempt to reach the Burmese border. Everywhere he went he purchased and was given old historical and scientific books, which he shipped back to England through diplomatic channels and were to form the foundation of his later research. He got to know Zhou Enlai and met numerous Chinese scholars, including the painter Wu Zuoren, and the meteorologist Zhu Kezhen who later sent crates of books to him in Cambridge, including the 2,000 volumes of the Gujin Tushu Jicheng encyclopedia, a comprehensive record of China’s past.” The personal side: he remained married to his wife but had a Chinese “second wife” who lived on the same road in Cambridge as his wife for decades, with her knowledge, and whom he married after the death of his wife.

The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder: I’m now a dedicated Thornton Wilder fan. This historical novel is an imaginative recreation of the period before Caesar’s assassination told through the eyes of Caesar, his rivals, Cleopatra, Catullus, Cicero, conniving aristocratic women, famous actresses, Anthony and others. Wilder was a lifelong student of Classical Rome, and he inhabits the voices of his characters, weaving their stories, letters, diary entries and experiences together to recreate the life of Rome as effectively as we’re ever likely to experience it. I ordered his two other novels of the period, The Cabbala, and The Woman of Andros, plus his selected letters. A nice side story: Wilder spent a year and half in Douglas, Arizona, living anonymously, savoring the life of the local people, especially the nightlife and bar crowd that would cross the border to Agua Prieta at closing hour to continue the fun. It was a roisterous version of Our Town.

Douglas, Arizona, circa the period of Wilder’s sojourn

The Rum Diary by Hunter Thompson: His first novel, written at age 22, but delayed publication until not long before his suicide, is a revealing look at the well-spring of his talent. The novel is a solid piece of work and depending on the extent of later revision, a mystery as to why it wasn’t published earlier. Had it been published earlier, it might have done what he predicted at the time in a letter to a friend: it would, “in a twisted way,” do for the Caribbean what The Sun Also Rises did for Europe. Paul Kemp, age 35, is a vagabond journalist looking for a place to settle in, who sees the odd assortment of journalist has beens at the Puerto Rican newspaper that’s hired him sight unseen as what he secretly feared: a near crazy house mirroring the pretense, posing and fakery in the island’s culture at large. But, he can do his own good work anywhere, and he finds the odd misfits help keep his interests alive. A love triangle is handled realistically. The writing shows off his exuberant, tabloid-comic book adjectives, and his later trademark joy in exaggeration, satire and humor leavened by sharply outlined characters and scenes with a relentless pace.

The Longest Silence by Thomas McGuane: This is vintage McGuane essays on fishing, while framing his well-known descriptive talents. His personal and family life slowly unfold as the essays pile up, revealing a man at a slight remove from his children, who see his obsessions to know and to master his various interests with risible disinterest. If McGuane has a religion, it’s fishing and horses. He invests his fishing quest (South America, Iceland, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, Michigan, Montana and other locales) with all the hyper-sensory mystery surrounding Nature and the self, especially the mandatory attainment of accepting the outcome – win, lose or draw. It’s fishing as a source of the sublime, the unexpected, the inability to know anything concrete or take away anything that gives anyone an edge during the next roll of the dice. Nothing to take away to use again, except the relish to continue the quest and savor the experience. That’s a lot.

Some Horses by Thomas McGuane: I followed up with more essays by McGuane on his other passion: horses and competitive quarter horse roping. He says some years he won more prize money at roping competitions than he earned through his novels. His essay on Buster Welch, a West Texas quarter horse trainer, is worth the price of admission. The kernel of McGuane’s talent has always rested on his untouchable American traits.

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis: This is the best description of old age I’ve ever read. It could as well be called The Old Friends. Really brilliant. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Martin Amis’s father. Wonderful dialogue and roguishness, with women characters fully the equal of his men characters. In fact, compared to the women, the men remain rather vague, except for Alun Weaver, an ex-TV celebrity who’s retired and become a professional Welshman eager to rejoin a group of old chums soaked in afternoon cocktails and sodden binges. His wife, Rhiannon, is the strongest – and most mysterious – character in the book. Death hangs over it all. Kingsley understands how to let the mask of humor slip to reveal desperate pathos, but life goes on thanks to the guise of British manners. The book celebrates the wear and the endurance that long friendships demand, and as death encircles everyone, why a momentary solace  counts for all.

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