The Guardian’s 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time

There is very little overlap been self’s reading list and the 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time by The Guardian.

Below, books on The Guardian’s list that self has read:

2. The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

5. Dreams From My Father, by Barack Obama

9. Dispatches, by Michael Herr

15. The Double Helix, by James D. Watson

20. Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson

23. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and EB White

33. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child-care, by Dr. Benjamin Spock

42. Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain (for a course on the Literature of World War I, taught by Prof. Albert Guerard at Stanford)

44. Goodbye to All That, by Robert Graves (for a course on the Literature of World War I, taught by Prof. Albert Guerard at Stanford)

65. Roget’s Thesaurus

83. A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon

92. The Diary of Samuel Pepys by Samuel Pepys, via Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography of Pepys’ life

FAMILY: by Anna Moi for Air France Magazine

Early 1960s. The “war” was the Vietnam War, which pitted the North, where Moi’s parents were from, against the South, to where they fled:

How long does it take for a mother to read Alone in the World and The Story of Perrine to her child? My mother read to me almost every evening, because my parents went out only three or four times a year, and never had guests. It was wartime, but that doesn’t explain it — war had only just begun and nobody imagined at the time that it would last some 15 years and that we’d face shortages of everything, especially freedom, the basic freedom to move around as we chose.

This sense of frugality was something my parents were born with, just as others live with a heart murmur or an irregular heartbeat. It was the region of their birth, the North, that had triggered this simmering anxiety.

At bedtime, my mother would decide on a number of pages, but I would beg her to carry on, and she was always happy to continue the story of Rémi the abandoned child or of Perrine Paindavoine, an orphan searching for her family . . .  From one episode to the next, in those days before TV series, I traveled from one family to another, and from town to town, in the comfort of knowing I would fall asleep sated with emotions.

If Self Had But World Enough and Time

She’d go here:

  • Antarctica, to follow in the foosteps of Ernest Shackleton
  • New Zealand, just because
  • Burma, because she’s always wanted to
  • Vietnam
  • the Nile River
  • Cuba
  • Varanasi
  • Patagonia
  • the Serengeti

It feels good to make a list, doesn’t it?

Stay tuned.

Reading This

“We are centralized. We have an iron structure. We are closed into a single fist that disappears up a sleeve when it has to. Our will is unshakable. The greatest colonialist armies can’t stand against it. We drove out the French, and we’ll drive out the Americans, and we’ll slaughter and bury their puppets. Do they claim victories? Let them. The invaders are fighting the ocean. No matter how many waves they beat down, the ocean of our resolve is always there.”

— p. 29, Denis Johnson’s novel of the Vietnam War circa 1963 – 1970, Tree of Smoke

The Reading List Advances — Finally!

Self bid adieu to Roberto Bolaño and 2666 this morning. That was after she spent over a week reading about all the different women who were buried in mass graves around a town named Santa Teresa. That was in Part II.

The writing was so beautiful, she hated to stop reading before getting all the way to the end, and she admires Bolaño for having the fortitude to Read the rest of this entry »

Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition, June 21-22, 2014

It is the 100th anniversary of the start of The Great War, as self was being constantly reminded when she was in the UK, a few weeks ago.

Those kinds of commemorations seem to get lost in the welter of American politics — Are we going back into Iraq?  What should/can we do about Putin?  — but the Review section of the June 21-22, 2014 Wall Street Journal is entirely devoted to articles about the Great War.  On p. C3, at the bottom right corner, is a tiny article by Amanda Foreman on “The Poets of Devastation.”

All the familiar names are there:  Rupert Brooke (gorgeous), Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon.

After a few mentions of these poets’ iconic works, Foreman delivers the meat and potatoes:

“. . .  the war poets’ greatest contribution wasn’t their rediscovery that war is truest hell, but their reinvention of poetry as a democratic mode of expression.”

She mentions the “broadening of the canon” with works like Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

“. . .  there is no other war in history,” Foreman writes, “. . . with the exception of the Trojan War, whose poetry has so shaped a nation.”

(Self thinks the Vietnam War definitely served a similar function for American literature.  Think Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War.  Think Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake.  Think Michael Herr’s Dispatches.  Think Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.  Think Robert Stone)

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

More Reading From the Personal Bookshelf: VOICES OF WAR, A Library of Congress Veterans History Project

Self bought this book for The Man last year, but ended up reading it herself.  It’s made up of a lot of little remembrances, interviews with various former members of the armed forces, some of whom enlisted for reasons ranging from “I was kicked out of school and didn’t know what to do with myself” to “I was the fourth generation to serve in the United States Army.”

Here’s a memoir from Rod Hirsch, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War:

I heard the strains of Reveille.  I was very dismayed to find out that it was recorded.  I had always thought there was some guy standing out in front of the barracks, blowing Reveille on a bugle.  And that made me very disappointed.

You’re eighteen years old, you just got out of high school, and you go into a situation where you’re going to be disciplined heavily.  There’s going to be a lot expected of you, and this is something that most of us had not experienced.  And so we’re all confused, we all feel stupid, we all feel like we have left feet, we don’t do anything right.  It’s a traumatic experience.

Whoo!  What a lot of posts self has written on just one day!  She’s enjoyed herself thoroughly.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Dien Bien Phu, May 1954

Self is tackling her back issues of The Economist with great gusto.  Today, she got through three.

The 12 October 2013 issue has an obituary of General Nguyen Giap, the man who won the battle of Dien Bien Phu, a great watershed which marked the end of French colonial rule in Vietnam.  The general died Oct. 4.  He was 102.

There was a war movie made of this battle, starring Mel Gibson (Self finally remembered the name of the movie:  “We Are Soldiers.”)  In that movie, self remembers the warren of tunnels the Vietnamese had built, and a small man who seemed to be a general (though his uniform was just as plain as that of an ordinary soldier) telling his men:  “We will grab the enemy by the belt buckle, and pull him close.”  (This line was delivered in Vietnamese, with subtitles.  Which added greatly to the power of the scene. Self remembers being so stunned by that line that she never forgot it.  Even though, at the time she saw the movie, she knew very little about the battle itself.)

The Economist describes the battle strategy thus:

This victory had been a long time in the making.  The French had fortified the valley, in northwest Tonkin on the border with Laos, so he had taken his troops into the mountains that encircled it.  The French thought the hills impassable:  craggy, forested, foggy, riddled with caves.  General Giap recalled the words of his hero Bonaparte, whose battle plans he was sketching out with chalk when he was still at the Lycée in Hue:  “If a goat can get through, so can a man; if a man can get through, so can a battalion.”  Slowly, stealthily, in single file, 55,000 men took up positions there, supplied by 260,000 coolies with baskets, 20,000 bicycles and 11,800 bamboo rafts.  Artillery was carried up in sections.  From this eyrie, trenches and tunnels were dug down until they almost touched the French.  The enemy never stood a chance.

General Giap’s heroes were Bonaparte (audace, surprise), Lawrence of Arabia, and Mao Zedong, especially Mao’s “three-stage doctrine of warfare (guerrilla tactics, stalemate, offensive warfare).”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

THE QUIET AMERICAN, by Graham Greene, p. 29 (Penguin Classics Edition, Intro by Robert Stone)

Cover Detail, The Quiet American (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

Cover Detail, The Quiet American (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

The narrator, a British journalist, and his Vietnamese girlfriend, Phuong, have just made the acquaintance of a young American named Pyle.  The setting is Vietnam in the last days of French colonial rule (sometime 1950s).

Self adores the writing.  Especially after the flighty, swoony prose of The Great Gatsby, which had her gritting her teeth with annoyance (She did read to the very end, though — which means Fitzgerald did exert some kind of hold on her imagination)

But let’s quit with the digressions and get to the excerpt from Greene:

This was a land of rebellious barons.  It was like Europe in the Middle Ages.  But what were the Americans doing here?  Columbus had not yet discovered their country.  I said to Phuong, “I like that fellow, Pyle.”

“He’s quiet,” she said, and the adjective which she was the first to use stuck like a schoolboy name, till I heard even Vigot use it, sitting there with his green eye-shade, telling me of Pyle’s death.

I stopped our trishaw outside the Chalet and said to Phuong, “Go in and find a table.  I had better look after Pyle.”  That was my first instinct — to protect him.  It never occurred to me that there was greater need to protect myself.  Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it:  innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

Swoon, swoon, swoon.

Stay tuned.

The New York Review of Books (7 March 2013)

Below are the books self is interested in reading after perusing the 7 March 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books.  Her choices are nothing if not idiosyncratic:

Former People:  The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, by Douglas Smith:  reviewed by Michael Scammell (Self admires the title of this book tremendously; she, too, has felt, many times, like a “former people.”)

Now All Roads Lead to France:  A Life of Edward Thomas, by Matthew Hollis:  reviewed by Helen Vendler.  In a nutshell:  “Thomas meets Frost in London in 1913, begins (for the first time since Oxford) to write poetry, feels guilty (in complex ways, including the fear of cowardice) about watching others die while he remains at home, decides to enlist, trains as an officer (in part for the higher pay), volunteers for the front, and courts death.  When the death arrives (from a bomb blast in Arras) it is both shocking and unsurprising.” Tragic.

Several books about General David Petraeus, reviewed by Thomas Powers:

  • The Insurgents:  David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, by Fred Kaplan
  • The Fourth Star:  Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army, by David Cloud and Greg Jaffe

In the course of the review, Powers cites three other fascinating books:

  • The Centurions, a novel by Jean Lartéguy, about the lessons learned by French army officers captured by the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu (“You’ve got to have people on your side . . . if you want to win a war.”)
  • Street Without Joy, a “history of the long French failure in Vietnam,” by the French writer Bernard B. Fall
  • Hell in a Very Small Place, also by Bernard B. Fall, about “a set-piece battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.”

And now, self must get going if she wants to catch the Menlo Park Farmers Market.

Arrivederci, dear ones.

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