Bedside Manner: Before the Fall
Browsing the stacks
By Nick Barbaro,
4:18PM, Mon. Mar. 28, 2011
I had a pretty bad bookslide last night. Nothing as dramatic as the Alexander McCall Smith collapse of '09 – when one too-casual discard brought down the entire Northern end of the pile – Mma Precious Ramotswe in Botswana knocking over Isabelle Dalhousie in Edinburgh, and 44 Scotland Street cascading into the Villa of Reduced Circumstances, and so on.
Nor has the little Scotsman slackened his pace. He's now turning out a book a year in each of four different series – literally writing them faster than I can read them – and that side of the pile continues to grow.
But no, instead the recent incident came from farther south, and the chronicler of a seamier side of Edinburgh: Ian Rankin, whose pile has been rising in the Southwest. Since Rankin retired his Edinburgh-based Detective Inspector John Rebus in Exit Music, the last of the 17 Rebus novels, I've been trolling through his other, non-Rebus books, vainly trying to recapture the magic. I'm not feeling it so far, but I'll keep trying. And so the Rankin pile keeps growing, too.
Meanwhile, the stacks in the middle had grown alarmingly themselves and turned out to be surprisingly unstable when the Rankin pile was (to use the passive voice) kicked into them accidentally.
Looking at these pictures, taken just hours before the bookslide, I'm struck by a few things:
• Tor Books SF/fantasy trade paperbacks, small yet relatively thick, make a very poor foundation for a tall stack of books, but I typically have a couple dozen of these at the bedside – very fast reads, and very hit-or-miss, typically exploring the boundaries between science fiction, socio-political thriller, and conspiracy theory; if you want to know more about how ancient Anasazi artifacts tie in with supercomputer research into artificial intelligence, the Viking probe, and shadowy Eastern European mafia ties to the religious right's fight against science education, Tor has it!
• I've been reading a lot of good books about Rome and Italy recently: Visible at the top of the tallest stack is Rubicon, Tom Holland's altogether modern history of the fall of the Roman Republic (buried somewhere near the bottom is Gibbons' seminal Fall of the Roman Empire, which I tried to reread recently, and found very slow going). That's not to be confused with Steven Saylor's Rubicon, one of the Austin-based writer's series of detective novels set in ancient Rome, featuring the detective Gordianus the Finder. A few books down is Saylor's Empire, which I've tried a couple of times to start in on, and haven't quite been able to commit to. It looks to be a Michener-esque saga about the rise of Rome, told through a single family through the generations. Something of a commitment to read, and in retrospect, probably too weighty a book to be so high in the stack. Visible elsewhere in the picture:
Tobias Jones' The Dark Heart of Italy, a loving yet scathing analysis in 12 chapters of Italians' compulsion to take every aspect of their lives (TV, soccer, crime, scandal, bureaucracy…) to its dramatic, operatic extreme.
Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists, an achingly funny, devastatingly sad novel about the misfits who put out an English-language paper in Rome. And Massimo Manfredi's The Ides of March, a novel about Julius Caesar's last days, by the author of The Last Legion, and one of several titles here from Europa Editions, which publishes low-cost paperback translations of recent European fiction.
• What I'm currently reading is Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand's biography of Louis Zamperini, who went from being a distance runner at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, to being a bombadier in WWII, surviving a plane wreck and being lost in the mid-Pacific. I wish Hillenbrand were more prolific; this is only her second book; Seabiscuit (2001) was set in about the same era, and she evokes it beautifully. Probably next up (hence at the top of a stack): The Necessity of Theater, by UT prof Paul Woodruff, whose history of ancient Athens, First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea, I loved.
• Strangely, the nightstand itself holds nothing I'm reading or planning to read, but only things I've read recently: Tiger Force, Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss' chilling true story of an Apocalypse Now-style guerrilla force operating in Vietnam, The World Is a Ball, Canadian culture critic John Doyle's charming travel journal covering the last several soccer World Cups and European Championships, plus recent issues of The New Yorker and Discover, plus a strange-looking Troma DVD release of a 1985 horror movie called Screamplay.
And lastly, a few other recent favorites, visible here:
• Physics for Dogs, by a team of scientists at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, includes some 80 lessons ("Get Food off the Counter," "Bring Down Your Enemies, Part 2: The Mailman") in practical physics, complete with mathematical formulas dogs use to formulate optimal strategies.
• James Howard Kunstler's World Made by Hand, which pictures a kinder, gentler post-apocalypse: a society largely intact, but with all its technology and infrastructure destroyed, pegged back to the Dark Ages within a generation.
• Soccernomics, in which an economics professor and the soccer writer for The Financial Times try with mixed success to bring the mathematics of economic theory to an analysis of soccer tactics and global sports trends. (Norway rules!)
• The Rivalry, John Taylor's riveting history of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the early, struggling years of the National Basketball Association.