The Library Basement
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Tag Neil Gaiman

Readings for April 2018

In April I went on a solo trip for work, which resulted in copious reading time in airports, on airplanes, in hotels, and in university common spaces.

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

S.A. Chakraborty found some fertile ground for new fantasy storytelling: the world of djinn, ifrit, and other Arabian mythologies. Chakraborty combines these with some new twists for a fairly fresh fantasy entry, The City of Brass. You heard that correctly: there are no dwarves, elves, nor halflings in this story.

While I greatly appreciated the novel world of The City of Brass, I cannot say that I was overly captivated by the story. It was an enjoyable read - I kept a fairly brisk pace, never stalling out. However I cannot say that I feel particularly motivated to pick up the upcoming sequel. That being said, if this sort of setting sounds captivating to you, definitely give it a shot.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Being a fairly short novel undertaken on a fairly long travel day, I had the rare pleasure of completing Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane in a single day. Gaiman's whimsical storytelling is (or should be!) well known, so it comes as no surprise that I put the book down only when required to do so by the TSA.

The novel has a nice, simple hook: a man travels to his childhood home and is met with a flood of memories. This is likely something that many have experienced. Now imagine that the memories flooding back are both unbelievable and disturbing - to the point where one must ask, "how could this ever have been forgotten?" That's the situation the protagonist finds himself in, and the weaving of the story around the premise is excellent. Recommended.

Fasting by Scot McKnight

Fasting is a part of a series of books on ancient practices in the Christian church. I was amazed by just how much I did not know about the history of fasting in the church. McKnight's exposition is skilled, and with it resonated the inspiration to explore fasting in action. Recommended.

The Root of War is Fear by Jim Forest

You may recognize Jim Forest as a Catholic Worker volunteer and Dorothy Day biographer. In this book his role as a correspondant of Thomas Merton's comes to the foreground. The subtitle "Thomas Merton's Advice to Peacemakers" seems apt, as this is not an biography of Merton, nor is it a systematic study of his writings per se. What we have is a reflection on Merton's writings (and private correspondance) on peace. Forest was of course active in various peace movements, so this is seen as rather directly applicable to real actions in Forest's life.

I learned a fair amount about Merton's life above what I had gleaned from A Seven Storey Mountain, and was enriched by seeing the private side of their correspondence. Anyone who knows much about my reading interests must correct assume that this book is heartily recommended.


  • Harper's December 2017
  • Tin House #63
  • Harper's February 2018

Readings for January 2017

The reports of the demise of this blog have been somewhat exaggerated.

The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

You know what? I like Neil Gaiman. I already loved his fiction, and with the collection The View from the Cheap Seats, I've come to find that I love his non-fiction as well. This is a collection of stuff. All kinds of stuff. Introductions, biographies, speeches, remembrances, etc.

I came away having learned quite a bit about Gaiman's early work in comics. I recommend it if you have a random urge to read a bunch of bits of interesting. Also, it could lead you to make new discoveries . . .

A Contract With God by Will Eisner

. . . like the art of Will Eisner.

As noted previously, I have recently developed an interest in comics. But it was not through this interest that I found Will Eisner. No, it was through Neil Gaiman's aforementioned non-fiction.

A Contract With God makes a bold claim: that it is the first graphic novel. I don't know how to judge that claim, but it is the first proper graphic novel that I have read. Really it is four short stories in a single volume. But they are each powerful stories.

What it is about the style of Will Eisner? It definitely is "cartoony", but in a way which serves his storytelling. Some seemingly simple line drawings can go a long way when illustrating a powerful story. I really enjoyed this and recommend it to anyone who wants to try out reading a graphic novel.

New York: Life in the Big City by Will Eisner

I liked my first taste of Eisner so much, I reserved a second volume from the library and went straight through it. Life in the Big City is a volume with four parts. There is some basic illustration of the city, some stories intertwined around a common setting ("The Building"), a series of vignettes about city people, and "Invisible People", another compilation of shorter stories.

I've been in New York City for a sum total of about 12 hours, so I cannot judge the authenticity of the work, but I can tell you that the quality and charm are outstanding. Need a second dose of Eisner? Recommended.


  • Harper's December 2016

Readings for August 2016

Summer reading, in force!

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

I'll begin by giving the Recommended tag. Stardust is a delightful little tale which shows Gaiman at his best. I may even read this one again one day.

It is always pleasant when as I reader I wonder to myself, "how did the author come up with this?" Novelty, not in a jarring sense, but in a way which works within the terms of the story, is what I love about this tale. Like all good modern fairy tales, it reacts to and plays off of common tropes, but enhances them with a twist.

Do yourself a favor, read Stardust.

My Struggle: Book 5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Zadie Smith is quoted as saying:

KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD. MY STRUGGLE. It's unbelievable. I just read 200 pages of it and I need the next volume like crack.

I'm in the same boat, Zadie. And I got my fix this month, as the fifth volume of Knausgaard's My Struggle has arrived in English hardcover. As has become my custom I bought it immediately on discovering its availability, abandoned what I had been reading heretofore been reading, and devoured it.

Book 5 is worth it - I think it is my favorite since Book 1. Books 3 and 4 had gotten into a more pure narrative recollection of Knausgaard's childhood. While this was interesting reading, it lacked the interludes and flash-forwards of the first two volumes which I loved so much. This book launches the young author's writing career and fills in the history of his young adult life, which had been covered obliquely in the prior works. There's a number of "a ha!" moments and moments which add richer detail to already-covered anecdotes.

Then there is a fairly significant story near the end which I'll not spoil. It adds some poignancy to the author's departure from Bergen and the dissolution of his first marriage. It was heavy, and emotional for me as a reader. All of this makes good writing.

Heartily recommended, and I can't wait for the final volume!

The Telling by Ursula K. LeGuin

LeGuin: she's so great she can make you love the "anthropologists in space" premise. The Telling relates the tale of an outsider - Sutty from earth - who comes to the planet Aka to observe and catalog the practices of the locals. While she was in her long interstellar flight the planet had a cultural revolution, so much of what she came expecting to find has been forced underground.

Our heroine finds her way out of the officially-sanctioned, government approved activities to visit people in the back country who still practice their ancient cultural traditions undercover. This centers on "The Telling", which is some part wisdom tradition and perhaps another part religion, but it eludes Sutty's attempts at definition. The search for truth leads her deep into the mountains, but also enlists her hosts in danger of reprisal from the central government. It's a pretty good yarn.

LeGuin deploys a trick that I love which works so well in the context of this novel. In a secret meeting place Sutty is experiencing a ritual when she observes something impossible, something supernatural. Yet nobody else truly acknowledges it, and she is left wondering if it was not some trick of perception in the poorly-lit room. This episode is left mostly unresolved for the reader, so you are left to ponder just what the nature of "The Telling" is. Recommended.


  • Harper's July 2016

Readings for December 2015

In which our hero realizes that life changes have made reading more difficult by observing his end-of-year reading stats.

Basically I lost a long train commute which afforded a lot of reading time and on top of that had a baby. It was my lowest total since 2010, when I had my first son.

The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul

Considered by many to be Ellul's magnum opus, The Technological Society did not disappoint. It is the full exposition of the thinking of Ellul which I had only seen in small bits previously. Reading his account of technique will change how you perceive the world in a fundamental sense. Or at least it has for me.

I left many dog-ears in my copy, and I keep saying I'm going to a post expanding on my observations there. For the most part his observations are prescient and still relevant to this day. One fascinating angle in the work is that he wrote at the height of the Cold War, at a time when it was not clear how it would pan out.

This is a very dense work, so it takes commitment to complete. Recommended if you have the will to get through it. Perhaps warm up on some shorter articles or interviews to find out if you have the taste for Ellul.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Walker Percy has a boisterous following, and some thinkers I respect are among them. The Moviegoer won the National Book Award and therefore in some sense is a part of the American literary canon. Yet it is in a realist school which I find a bit tiresome. I felt as I did after reading The Sun Also Rises, that nothing important had really transpired in the course of the novel. Yeah, I probably didn't read closely enough, and missed the point. But this one did not inspire close reading for me.

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman's The Sleeper and the Spindle is a delightful short story which springboards from a certain well-known (but never explicitly named) fairy tale. The version I read was made even more delightful by the inclusion of fantastic illustrations by Chris Riddell. I got through it in a single sitting, and I do believe it has re-read value (once I get it back from a friend to whom I lent it). Recommended.


  • Harper's October 2015
  • Harper's November 2015
  • Harper's December 2015

Year-end stats

In 2015 I read:

  • 14 magazines
  • 18 books
  • 7,874 pages
  • or about 22 pages per day

Much less than last year, as discussed above.

Readings for August 2011

August was a rather prodigious month of reading for me. At the beginning of the month I was on a leisurely vacation, which always helps. I got through a lot, but there are always more books.

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

If you want to read some straight-ahead sci-fi, Old Man's War is for you. Scalzi does an excellent job of mixing classical sci-fi elements with some unique contributions of his own. The novel is an engaging read, perfect for summer.

I did have some slightly different expectations about the significance of age in this story. Yes, the element of old age is integrated into the plot, but not into the theme in the way that I would have thought. But that is a problem with my expectations rather than with the book, so it is nonetheless Recommended.

All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day by Jim Forest

[][]In my readings surrounding Christian pacifism and anarchism I have heard much about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. So when I saw that this revised and expanded biography was being published, I asked for it for my birthday, and was happily rewarded. I fully noted the irony of me reading about the life of someone who had taken a vow of poverty while spending a week relaxing on a houseboat.

The biography does a good job focusing on Dorothy up until the founding of the Catholic Worker. After that point her life and that of the movement become so entwined that it would be difficult to tell the story of one without the other. Still Forest is able to continue with enough personal insight into his subject's life in between the developments in the Catholic Worker.

The story is inspirational and challenging. Of tangential interest to me was just how alive and well socialism was as a political movement in the earlier parts of the 20th century in the United States. But Dorothy was about the practicality of helping the poor and resisting state power rather than promoting ideology. This is, I think, why she is being considered for canonization. Recommended.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I had not read Good Omens until now. Luckily my vacation made this an easy mistake to rectify. The book is downright hilarious. Christian friends: grow a thick skin and learn to laugh, and you'll love it. Recommended.


I finished the August 2011 issues of Scientific American and Harper's this month. The most striking article came in the 9/11 remembrance genre: an account of the distortions of the justice system which have occurred in the wake of the attacks. If you care about American political ideals, Petra Bartosiewicz' article will make you mad.

Sharing Possessions by Luke T. Johnson

I knew I would be in for a treat when I found that renowned Bible scholar Luke Timothy Johnson had released a revision of his work of Christian ethics. It is a good thing for scholars to cross disciplines and bring their discoveries to bear on other concerns. Johnson I think does a splendid job in weakening the myth that the Bible teaches a normative posture toward possessions. Neither the Jerusalem commune of Acts nor the wealthy patrons of Corinth are the only way.

The author recommends the giving of alms as the go-to practice for Christians. Probably my biggest take-away from the book comes in how Johnson attacks state socialism not from political-ideological grounds, but from the standpoint of ideology: to measure equality qua possessions is to give possessions too great a place in determining the worth of people. If your idea of a just society is one in which every person has the exact same amount of stuff, you are unwittingly materialistic, as Johnson argues. Recommended.

Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky

[][]On September 20th, 2006, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addressed the United Nations and commended to the nations a Noam Chomsky. This makes Hegemony or Survival very intriguing by default, and lead to big sales of the book.

I have yet to read a thorough criticism of a Chomsky book. I am sure they are out there somewhere. It could be useful since I sometimes get the feeling that Chomsky is pulling one over on his reader. The reliance on end notes and dismissing opponents objections with a casual wave of "does not deserve comment" seems like the tactics of a manipulator. Yet I have never found Chomsky's arguments nor evidence lacking, and he is compelling. My desire to doubt his work probably comes from the fact that his attestations and their implications make American patriotism incredibly uncomfortable.

This book is a bit hard to follow in its general scope, though it is quite understandable (if not dry) in the particulars. The basic theme is that the US is trying to dominate the world, and that for elite powers democracy (that is, the will of the people) is something which must be crushed when in opposition to official positions. I cannot really recommend this one Chomsky book over any other, but I think every American should read at least one of his books.

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Once again Sanderson delivers. Mistborn happens to be the first in a trilogy, and I am lucky enough to have the next two volumes on my shelf. And a fourth in the Mistborn universe is coming out this winter. Oh yes, and there's The Way of Kings. Good time to be a fantasy fan.

Do yourself a favor and read Mistborn. It's not particularly sophisticated literature, but it is a good story and a really fun read. Recommended.

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