Reading Roundup: March 2022
I’m continuing my monthly series reflecting on my reading list throughout 2022. This entry for March 2022 will cover the reading I managed to accomplish after finishing Horizon: Forbidden West. If you’re interested in seeing my top ten books from last year, please see the following link:
Top Ten Books I Read in 2021
Early in the pandemic, around June 2020, after spending five weeks waiting for the world to end, I decided to make two…
A Word on Method
I average about two hours of reading per day. One hour I spend reading works from Martin Seymour-Smith’s The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written, beginning in 2022 near the middle of Philo’s complete works. Another hour is spent at night before bed, reading from a stack of books on my nightstand I replenish as needed. Each stack contains about fifteen regular authors I’m reading chronologically, and five other works from whatever I happened to find in used bookstores or thrift shops or has been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for a long time. As of the beginning of this year, I’m also working on an historical fiction work of indeterminate size, which will require re-reading a few classics, as time permits.
I’ve continued my studies in Philo during March with “The Special Laws”, “On the Virtues”, “On Rewards and Punishments”, “Every Good Man is Free”, “On the Contemplative Life”, “On the Eternity of the World”, and “Flaccus”.
“The Special Laws” was a very extensive work, covering all the rules and regulations in the Torah law books, which Philo ties to one (or all) of the ten commandments. It was as interesting as you would expect, mostly overviews of each major law, with either practical or philosophical reasons given for each within the context of the other laws. For Philo, and his attempt to fuse Middle Platonism philosophy with Jewish theology, the holy laws didn’t just need to be obeyed, but they also had to make rational or reasonable sense within society or the universe. Fields lay fallow and debts are cancelled for very practical reasons, in addition to being commands from God.
The next four works covered a variety of topics. “On the Virtues” looks at Philo’s definitions for courage, humanity, repentance, and nobility, which essentially boils down to understanding and obeying God’s laws. “On Rewards and Punishments” argues that piety provides the greatest rewards whereas impiety provides untold punishments. “Every Good Man is Free” considers the idea of freedom, from others in terms of slavery and from one’s self in terms of passions, presented with some dubious arguments about differences between slavery and servitude. “On the Contemplative Life” was quite fascinating, focusing on the community of the Essenes, a Jewish communal monastic group that existed throughout the Roman Empire, a group also documented by Josephus, and perhaps a spiritual basis for the Early Christian Church in the Acts of the Apostles.
“On the Eternity of the World” is Philo’s most metaphysical and/or cosmological book, in which he argues that the world (by which he means the universe) is created and that it is incorruptible (by which he means incapable of being destroyed). This treatise is also his most philosophical, referencing Aristotle’s elemental physics along with other theories, using those which agree as support, and undercutting those with logic and reason which dispute his hypothesis. Philo’s reasoning for his own hypotheses often boil down to one or more theological/spiritual reasons, but his arguments against his opponents also often use purely rational arguments from other philosophers to dismiss them.
The last work this month, “Flaccus”, was particularly gruesome. Philo presents the life of the Egyptian governor Flaccus, responsible for a series of escalating events resulting in the Alexandrian Riots of 38 CE, which became the world’s first recorded pogrom against the Jewish people. Philo documents the ghettoization, looting, ransom, public humiliation, and mass executions which happened within Alexandria and throughout Egypt. Flaccus does eventually see justice, but only after incalculable losses to the Jewish residents of Egypt. The treatise really drives home the fact that despite Alexandria being the intellectual center of the Empire, with nearly all the known world’s knowledge available for everyone to read or hear, that it is still capable of ignorance and violence based on tribalism and hierarchical power.
Next month I may close out my reading of Philo, with six works remaining, including two longer treatises and a collection of Philo’s fragments rescued throughout the ages. Fingers crossed!
Here are twelve other books I finished in March 2022.
Christopher Moore — Sacré Bleu (2012)
Moore’s thirteenth novel takes the reader to Paris in the late 19th century, beginning with Van Gogh being shot in the chest. One of his friends and fellow impressionist painter, Lucien Lessard, doesn’t believe the news that it was suicide. So with his libertine friend, the infamous Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, they seek to uncover the truth behind Van Gogh’s death and his obsession with the infamous “sacré blue”, a rare pigment made from oil and ground lapis lazuli. Sacré Bleu is fun, smart, and highly sexualized with Moore’s characteristically blunt prose. Recommended for fans of Moore or Impressionist art!
T.C. Boyle — Without a Hero and Other Stories (1994)
Boyle’s fourth anthology of short stories is also perhaps the most personally meaningful one for me, as it contains a short story I heard him read to a crowd, entitled “Back in the Eocene”, which perfectly sums up my feelings about the anti-drug efforts of the 80s/90s in the United States. This anthology also contains stories about the 100 Faces of Death video series, big game hunters finding trouble, and my favorite, a young man experiencing Christmas at Jack Kerouac’s mother’s house. Each story is really a master class on the short story form, creating and infusing characters with lots of backstory in a single paragraph, and moving the story along at just the right pace until the end, whatever pace that might be. Boyle is easily one of my favorite short story writers, and I would recommend this to anyone looking to experience his work.
Robert E. Howard — The Hyborian Age (1936) / Cimmeria (1965)
I’ve begun reading The Complete Stories of Conan, which collects all the official Conan canon by Robert E. Howard, to better understand the pulp writing form, and to see if Conan is more than just a Frazetta painting come to life. Unfortunately, the first two entries in this omnibus provide mostly background for the world of Conan. “The Hyborian Age” is a written history which outlines human civilization prior to the Egyptians in great detail, involving a lot of lost continents like Lemuria and Atlantis, but also using a lot of the scientific racism of the early 1900s to explain why different people “evolved” in different regions of the world, which we now know to be painfully obvious racist garbage. Howard’s worldbuilding outside of this obsession with racial differences is as expansive historically and politically as the efforts of Tolkien and Martin for their respective epic universes, perhaps bigger than his stories could ever hope to fill. This written history has also become the source of many post-canon Conan tales that followed. “Cimmeria” is a short poem about the land of Conan’s birth, not really remarkable in any way.
Nikki Giovanni — Love Poems (1997)
I’ve been a fan of Nikki Giovanni for a long time, but mostly for her recorded work with musicians and at spoken word events, along with the odd poem I have read online or in another publication. Love Poems collects previous and new poems about love in all its forms, from the physical to the spiritual and back again. Two key poems in this anthology are worth highlighting: “All Eyez on U” for Tupac Shakur after his tragic murder, and “In All Seasons” written for Bill Clinton on his 80th birthday. Reading Giovanni is easier now that I’ve heard her voice, and the cadence of her poetry really comes out in this collection.
Neil Gaiman — Coraline (2002)
I can still remember reading Neverwhere, my first real introduction to Neil Gaiman, which taught me a lot about fantasy outside of the sword and sorcery of Howard or the epic fantasy of Tolkien and his many clones. That’s because Gaiman likes digging down into the folk tales and regional mythologies for his works, getting to their essence before reworking them into something new. Coraline is one of those rare instances where I saw the movie before the book, a matter of circumstance when it came out, and I never really got back to reading the book. Glad I did! While I greatly enjoyed the movie, Gaiman in his introduction to my tenth anniversary copy talks about how the book, movie, and play have all managed to give three different, but related renditions of the same story. And no surprise, I loved the book more than the movie, because my imagination can still do more than any stop-motion animation.
Jack Kerouac — Visions of Gerard (1958)
I know not many people dig Kerouac, mostly because they’ve read books like On The Road within the Duluoz Legend books. Not many people do Americana like Jack, because in addition to taking word jazz to a whole new level, he also exposed the seedy underbelly of America in his many adventures. Ultimately, his journey is one of self-discovery, which included a long-time interest in religion and spirituality, creating a mix of Catholic and Buddhist spirituality, bleeding through into his prose and poetry, often juxtaposed against things which would not be considered holy. Visions of Gerard is a tribute to Jack’s older brother, Gerard, who died when Kerouac was four or five, whom he infuses with all the holiness and spirituality of St. Thérèse de Lisieux, in a series of real and most likely some manufactured memories. Kerouac’s borderless prose also spins into other parts of his childhood, including another extensive reflection on his father, which makes Visions of Gerard a sort of companion to Dr. Sax. I would recommend this work for someone who wants another side of Kerouac… and those who don’t mind a little word jazz.
Kurt Vonnegut — Between Time and Timbuktu, or Prometheus-5 (1972)
As mentioned last month, I wasn’t aware of this script/picture book until reading William Rodney Allen’s Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut. I did know about the various adaptations of his work, including this network television special based loosely on his fiction, but to see it captured in paper format is a fun little piece of history. My severely beat-up copy ran me about $30, but great copies of this book go for much more, given its limited (and expensive) printing. It’s also a very early collaboration between Vonnegut and his second wife, Jill Krementz, who did all the photography for the book. Vonnegut came in late to this project, after giving the go-ahead for the production team’s efforts, helping to re-write and connect his characters into a fair-to-middling story. Harrison Bergeron, Kilgore Trout, and many other fan favorites return in this rapid-fire series of vignettes. Definitely for Vonnegut fans, but find the digital version to save yourself some scratch. Hopefully the photos are better!
Toni Morrison — The Bluest Eye (1970)
My second Toni Morrison book, after reading Song of Solomon earlier this year. The Bluest Eye was Morrison’s first published novel, a look both inside and outside of a black family in a fictional Ohio city set primarily in the 1940s but dipping back in time as needed to explore the history and influences on each character. Like Song of Solomon Morrison explores the role of generational trauma in the black experience, from dealing with white aggression and poverty externally, to the growth of black communities in Northern cities, mainly by Southern black immigrants looking for work and/or safety. Morrison pulls no punches, dealing with abuse, assault, rape, incest, alcoholism, and other difficult topics, all while dismantling the notions of childhood found in the classic Dick and Jane books, a very sanitized, very white childhood experience for learning wholly inadequate to the black experience. This copy contained an afterword with Morrison reflecting on what she liked and what she learned from The Bluest Eye, providing a lot of insight into her process.
James Baldwin — The Fire Next Time (1962)
James Baldwin was a man ahead of his time in many ways. I have come to appreciate both his fiction and his non-fiction essays, and The Fire Next Time is no exception. Baldwin puts together two essays for this collection, a very short essay on the 100th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, penned as a letter to his nephew in a style that must have been a heavy influence on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. The piece looks at how far they’ve come, and of course, just how much farther they still have to go. One part that resonated with me is that integration is largely an effort by white people to learn to accept themselves (and our history), because that’s the only way we’ll learn to accept others. The second, much longer piece, is a larger reflection on the role of religion in the black community. Baldwin addresses the role of the Christian Church, much of which was shown rather than told in Go Tell It On The Mountain and The Amen Corner, but this extensive essay includes material on Baldwin’s visit with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. Baldwin’s visit becomes an important touchpoint on why the promises of the Nation of Islam were so appealing, to black and white people who wanted segregation over integration. So many quotes in both pieces are still highly relevant today, given the frighteningly little progress in social justice we’ve made in sixty years.
Octavia E. Butler — Dawn (1987)
Ever since I heard an interview with Octavia Butler on KCRW’s Bookworm, I have made it a goal in my life to read her entire output. The pandemic gave me that opportunity, and this will be my sixth (and seventh, and eighth) novel of hers. Dawn is the first book in the Xenogenesis trilogy, which imagines a genetically inclined species, the Oankali, rescuing the humans remaining after a nuclear war but with a biological inclination to preserve, and integrate, with the entirety of the human species. The story centers on Lillith, a black woman chosen for her unique genetic profile, to bring the other rescued humans out of stasis and to prepare them for their new lives and shared genetic future with the Oankali. The book touches on so many great topics with its framing, including biological determinism, interracial identity, polyamory, genetic meaning, genetic memory, and when diseases are also cures and vice versa. Butler’s prose, as always, contains an inevitability to the events that take place, a refreshing change of pace from the usual hero journey science-fiction from white, male authors.
Octavia E. Butler — Adulthood Rites (1988)
The second book of Xenogensis follows Lillith’s son, Akin, one of the first Human-Oankali construct children, who finds himself drawn to understanding the Humans resisting integration with the Oankali after he is kidnapped by a resister community and held for a year. The events begin an internal struggle in his life with the two sides of his nature, and with how each community views him as an individual. I cannot think of a more perfect literary metaphor for an interracial individual, who must socially exist within multiple circles and being pressured on all sides on how to interpret their lives. Akin’s story is also an opportunity to explore the biology of constructs, especially how they metamorphize into their final forms. The book also reveals how the Oankali travel the stars, and their ultimate endgame for the Earth before their departure, which leads to a surprising if problematic resolution between the Human and Oankali populations that I didn’t see coming.
Octavia E. Butler — Imago (1989)
The final book in the Xenogenesis trilogy follows Jodahs, Lillith’s first Human-Oankali construct who metamorphizes as ooloi, the third gender within the Oankali responsible for the combination of genetic material between the Humans and Oankali within their polyamorous family units. Jodahs’ manifestation creates a quandary within the Human-Oankali community, resulting in Jodahs and their extended family leaving the community in exile to seek human mates for Jodahs. They discover a remote group of humans who have found a way to produce children, but with hideous genetic deformities, and Jodahs is compelled to save them, and in the process, save his sibling who is also manifesting ooloi. Butler does science-fiction right in this trilogy, ending with the best of all possible stories, and much like Le Guin’s The Left-Hand of Darkness, this book provides a great framing to help cis-gendered individuals understand transgender and nonbinary individuals with the story of Jodahs.
I’m hoping to finish my trek through Philo’s complete works, along with works from William S. Burroughs, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf, The Subutai Corporation, Irvine Welsh, Bucky Sinister, Malcolm Gladwell, Philip K. Dick, and maybe a few more. I have a lot of mass transit coming up this month, which means a lot of time to catch up on some reading!
Here are links to my previous entries for 2022:
Reading Roundup: January 2022
Rounding up books read during January 2022, along with accompanying writing pieces when appropriate.