What I’m Reading

Steven Soderbergh keeps a blog of what he reads and watches. I’ve decided to do the same for books, and may mention visual media. (When the kids were little I prohibited the discussion of TV and movies at dinner – a rule I now routinely violate).

All caps, bold: BOOK

April 2024

MASTER AND MARGARITA, By Mikhail Bulgakov (Michail Karpelson translation)

Satan lives! I wish I’d read the novel sooner. Although written between 1928 and 1940, it didn’t get published until Stalin’s corpse was worm-eaten (1967). To read it is to understand why. It is one of the great satires of totalitarian cultural vapidity, as unflattering a portrait of bumbling Soviet literary establishment stiff shirts (and their ilk everywhere they exist) as you’ll find. I didn’t immediately warm to the fallen archangel’s henchmen, particularly the talking cat, but was soon enough entranced. The Faustian parable of Margarita’s fall from grace — and lustful absorption in Luciferian debauchery — was a bit overdone. But there genius at work on multiple levels here. Bulgakov’s overwrought literary sensibility is out of fashion today. But it couldn’t have been more appropriate when he penned M&M. Life under Stalinism will do that. The Pontius Pilate story weaved into this otherwise phantasmagorical romp stands alone as a masterwork. My late father, a Yale Drama School grad who abandoned professional acting ambitions for the steady corporate wages that would sustain us, his family, was so taken with Bulgakov that he translated a Polish stage adaptation to English and invited the Polish theater director, Maciej Englert, to help him stage it at the New Rochelle YMHA after he retired in the 1980s. (Englert was the longtime director of Warsaw’s Teatr Wspolczesny). I somehow didn’t grasp Bulgakov’s vision from the play, which is bizarre and a reflection perhaps of intellectual immaturity. I’d just lived in a totalitarian state, Communist Poland, as Solidarity rose. It’s where I became a journalist. Of course compared to Stalin’s Soviet Union, what I experienced was totalitarian lite. (“Wspolczesny” means “contemporary.”)

HOW TO LIVE: OR A LIFE OF MONTAIGNE IN ONE QUESTION AND TWENTY ATTEMPTS AT AN ANSWER, By Sarah Bakewell

Steven Soderbergh raved about this biography of the 16th-century Frenchman universally heralded as the first true modern essayist and philosopher of, well, how to live. I was less impressed. The book is neither a replacement nor even a great synthesis of what Montaigne actually wrote in his “Essays” though it a rich enough portrait of a rather brutish time and place in history marked by a succession of rather ridiculous religious wars. Montaigne was fortunate and clever enough to avoid getting embroiled into those cruel, petty conflicts, fortunate to be born into wealth and able to resign public office in Bordeaux at an early age and devote himself chiefly to reading and reflection. He didn’t seem to care much for most people. And I’m not sure his observations — at least as conveyed in this volume — offer us any great insight about how to live today and how we should be obliged to loved ones, society or posterity, for that matter.

March 2024:

FROM SCARSDALE, By Dan O’Brien
“Why does everything you write have to be depressing?” O’Brien’s mother asks as he proves very good at writing growing up in Scarsdale. It’s O’Brien’s way of clawing out of the wreckage of his family life. O’Brien is an accomplished playwright now. This memoir is bracketed around an older brother’s odd attempt at suicide by upper-story window plunge. It’s a tale of gross parental inadequacy. Cheever also plied these suburbs. So did I. I grew up on the same street, just up the hill, a bit over a decade earlier. Childhoods like O’Brien’s can be cancer-inducing, it seems. And O’Brien writes piercingly about that trauma, too. He writes with such unforgiving honesty it’s no wonder his parents don’t talk to him anymore.

IN WARTIME, STORIES FROM UKRAINE, By Tim Judah
A lot of this was published in the The New York Review of Books and its blog, the NYR Daily, in 2013 and 2014 after the ouster of Kremlin lackey Viktor Yanukovych for scuttling Ukrainians’ bid to join the EU. Judah has a knack for finding precisely the right people to tell the story of this very complicated, troubled piece of Europe that’s been a hornet’s nest of competing political and ethnic loyalties for generations. The war has mostly drowned out discussion of Ukraine’s recent past, making this book especially valuable. The chapter “Lemberg to Lviv” should be required reading for anyone who desires a quick toe dip into Ukraine’s past in order to better understand its present.

MEANS OF CONTROL, By Byron Tau
The author, while a Wall Street Journal reporter in Washington, D.C., had a bunch of important scoops while endeavoring to trace and expose the lucrative, privacy-stealing marriage of surveillance capitalism and military and intelligence agencies. Sen. Ron Wyden’s been at this for years and has had great synergy with Tau and other reporters. Wyden’s tech advisor, Chris Soghoian, helped me years ago when I was researching Colombia-related privacy abuses involving U.S. supplied equipment. He was at the ACLU at the time. My review of the Tau book for the AP.

February 2024:

ISTANBUL: MEMORIES AND THE CITY, By Orhan Pamuk
This Nobel Literature Prize laureate takes a lot of heat for his constant references to his city’s melancholy, or “hüzün” in Turkish, in this meandering memoir published in 2006. But melancholy isn’t gloomy for Pamuk. I wouldn’t recommend this book as either a history or contemporary portrait of this remarkable maritime intersection of East and West. It does give one a remarkable feel, though, for a world gone by and packs in some terrific texture on the artists and writers who nourished the author as a young man. If you’re a Pamuk fan — I’ve only read “Snow” of his novels — you’ll likely love it. I found it atmospheric and endearing even if it is a rather Pamuk family-centric bildungsroman at essence.

THE HEAVEN AND EARTH GROCERY STORE, By James McBride
Chona Ludlow, the compassionate heart of this novel, is partly fashioned after the author’s maternal grandmother, a Polish Jew whose joyless marriage to an imperious, money-grubbing failed rabbi left McBride’s mother, Ruth, emotionally scarred. They ran a grocery in rural Virginia. In this rollicking tale of race relations in Pottstown, Pennsylvania in the 1920s and 30s, McBride gets to rewrite history a bit. Chona’s marriage is good. What’s more, the community’s Jews and the Blacks, sharing outcast status, come to get along thanks in large part to her. She runs the grocery story — at a big-hearted loss. McBride imagines unforgettable characters, pickles the novel with sly humor and delivers poetic justice.

January 2024:

THE COLOR OF WATER, By James McBride
My second McBride read after THE GOOD LORD BIRD. A love letter to the writer’s remarkable mother — a Polish-born Jew who fell in love with a Black man (a preacher) in Harlem, lost him early to cancer (after James was conceived but before he was born) then remarried only to become twice a widower. The testament to Ruth McBride Jordan’s character, fearlessness and fortitude are her 12 children. All are immensely accomplished. I love how James coaxed Ruth’s life story out of her. It took more than a decade. Also incredible: James’ description of food’s nonexistent shelf life in the McBride-Jordan home.

NOTES ON A FOREIGN COUNTRY, AN AMERICAN ABROAD IN A POST-AMERICAN WORLD
By Suzy Hansen
I discovered Hansen after reading her New York Review meditation on American imperial adventure in the age of outsourced war the new U.S. Spartan class shoulders — ostensibly a review of Phil Klay’s “Uncommon Ground” but like all the best writing in this genre much deeper. She finds the superpower of her youth drained of purpose, kicking off hatred-inducing sparks like a reckless flywheel. I missed the book when it was published in 2017 probably because I, too, had just returned to the homeland after years abroad. Hansen’s soul-wrenching, bitter Obama-era awakening — from apostle of American exceptionalism raise in white New Jersey to world-weary foreign correspondent witnessing Turkey’s turmoil — seems almost a cliche. But Hansen’s telling is electric and honest. She learned quickly, and embarrassed herself. She also made me want to visit Istanbul. Which I will. This book is so much more than a story of one woman’s cultural awakening. There’s a great James Baldwin component.